War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 29

Chapter Eight

< Do you think that if I asked Dathgar to just sort of nudge his horse — you know, just hard enough to knock him out of the saddle — he’d stop that racket? > Walsharno asked rather wistfully in the back of Bahzell’s mind.

“Now isn’t that a dreadful thing to be asking?” Bahzell replied, quietly enough not even another hradani could have overheard him. “And him doing all he can to wile away the leagues and all!”

< You do realize coursers’ ears are even more sensitive than yours, don’t you? > The mental voice was considerably more tart this time, and Bahzell chuckled, glancing ahead to where Brandark rode easily in the saddle, strumming his balalaika.

The musical tastes of individual coursers, he had discovered, varied at least as widely as those of the individual members of the Races of Man, and Walsharno’s ran more to stately measures which relied heavily on woodwinds, viols, and cellos. He was not a fan of balalaika music, and he had even less taste for the dwarves’ latest musical invention. They called it a “banjo,” and Brandark was already showing what Walsharno considered a most unhealthy interest in the infernal new device. If he was going to be honest, Bahzell shared his courser brother’s reservations where Brandark’s new attraction was concerned, but the Bloody Sword’s current selection didn’t bother him anywhere nearly as badly as it obviously bothered Walsharno. At least he wasn’t playing the “Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand.” That was something, Bahzell reflected. And he wasn’t singing, either, which was even better. In fact, taking everything together, and considering how much worse it could always get, Walsharno shouldn’t be complaining at all.

< I wouldn’t dream of “complaining.” I’m only thinking about helping him have a little accident. >

“Oh, and isn’t that ever so much better? I’m not so sure at all, at all, as how a champion of Tomanāk should be thinking such things.”

< And you don’t? >

“Ah, but it’s only mortal I am, when all’s said,” Bahzell replied mournfully. “And I never said as how I’d never the slightest temptation of my own, come to that. The spirit’s willing enough, but somehow…”

He shrugged, and Walsharno snorted in amusement. Baron Tellian heard that snort and turned his head, raising one eyebrow quizzically. No wind rider could hear another courser’s voice, but all of them got quite adept at reading courser body language.

“Brandark?” the baron asked, gray eyes gleaming appreciatively.

“I’m sure I’ve no idea at all what it might be you’re referring to, Milord,” Bahzell replied innocently.

“I thought I’d heard somewhere that champions of Tomanāk weren’t supposed to lie,” Tellian observed to no one in particular, and Walsharno snorted again, louder than ever. He also tossed his head in an unmistakable nod.

“Traitor,” Bahzell said wryly.

< Nonsense. Is it my fault I recognize the truth when I hear it? >

“It’s not really all that bad,” Tellian said thoughtfully. “And at least he’s not singing. That’s something.”

< Two minds with but a single thought, > Walsharno said, and Bahzell chuckled.

“Truth to tell, though I’d not like to be admitting it to him, you understand, the little man’s not so bad as all that when he plays. In fact, he’s better than most, if it comes down to it.”

“Agreed. It just seems…wrong, somehow. Or perhaps the word I really want is frivolous.”

Tellian gazed up at the brilliant blue sky and the white drifts of cloud blowing about its polished dome. The day, for a change, was both dry and not too oppressively hot, with a breeze that was just short of brisk blowing out of the north behind them as they headed south along the Balthar-Sothōfalas high road. It was over two hundred leagues from Balthar to King Markhos’ capital as the bird might have flown — just under two hundred and sixty for road bound mortals — and they were roughly halfway to their destination. This particular stretch of road was better maintained than many of the Kingdom’s highways, largely because it lay in the West Riding and both Tellian and his father had made a point of seeing to the proper upkeep of the high roads passing through their riding, but it was still intended for horses and coursers, not heavy foot traffic or freight wagons. Instead of the broad, paved stone of the Empire of the Axe, it had a surface of river gravel, theoretically rolled level and bordered with wide shoulders of firm, hoof-friendly turf. Even in Balthar, the gravel surface left quite a bit to be desired, especially where the ravages of winter had not yet been repaired, but it was wide enough, and Tellian’s escort had stretched out a bit, moving towards its western edge to take advantage of the band of shade projected by the trees along that side of the road as the sun moved towards afternoon.

All Sothōii high roads, like most of those in the Empire of the Axe, for that matter, were bordered by carefully planted rows of trees intended to provide windbreaks, shelter, and firewood for travelers forced to bivouac along the way. The penalties for casually felling those trees were stiff, but fallen limbs and branches were another matter, and the road crews thinned and tended them every year when they repaired the ravages of winter. The trees they took down were sawn into convenient lengths, with the thicker logs split, and stacked in neat wood piles at semiregular intervals for travelers’ convenience. Combined with natural deadfalls, that was enough to keep most travelers from poaching on the living wood for fuel, and over the centuries, the neat rows of saplings had turned into gradually wider and wider belts of towering trees. Some of them were as much as three feet in diameter at the base, and Bahzell could hear the songs of birds and the rapid, drilling tattoo of a woodpecker through the rippling notes of Brandark’s balalaika.

Tellian Bowmaster was far less self-important than many a man in his position might have been. In fact, left to his own preferences, he would have made this trip without fanfare, preferably accompanied by only Hathan Shieldarm, his wind brother, and Bahzell, Brandark, and Vaijon. That, unfortunately, was out of the question for one of the Kingdom’s four great barons, especially now, and so he was accompanied instead by no less than thirty armsmen and ten pack horses loaded with the camping gear, provisions, and other paraphernalia for a party that size. (An Axeman noble probably would have used wagons; a Sothōii nobleman, painfully familiar with the Kingdom’s roads, knew better than to try any such thing.) The armsmen in question wore the boiled leather armor and cuirasses of typical Sothōii light cavalry, and however unassuming Tellian might have preferred to be, the men of his personal guard hadn’t been selected at random. They rode easily and comfortably, relaxed in their saddles, but their eyes were busy and alert, watching for any threat even here.

“It makes me feel like a troupe of traveling actors,” Tellian grumbled now. “I mean, he’s playing drinking songs! When he isn’t playing something better suited to a brothel, that is. I mean, did he have to treat us to ‘The Madam’s Cross-Eyed Daughter,’ of all things? Couldn’t he at least play something serious?”

“Fair’s fair, Milord,” Vaijon put in with a grin. “I’d say your armsmen are enjoying the music. Of course, I could always get one of them to ask him for something more serious. Like, oh,” he glanced at Bahzell, blue eyes dancing, “what was the name of that song…It’s on the tip of my tongue. Something Bloody Hand, wasn’t it?”

“And if you were to be so foolish as to put any such notion into his head, it’s in my mind you’d likely come to a nasty end, my lad.”

“It might be an improvement after all, though, Bahzell,” Tellian said helpfully.

“That it wouldn’t be,” Bahzell informed him firmly. “Besides, I know it’s been a while, but I’m not so sure as how your lads are really all that happy even yet with that verse of his about the ‘Battle of the Gullet.’ It might just be that if he was after starting in on that one they’d be having a thing or three to say to him about it.”

“That was the entire idea, Bahzell,” Vaijon explained.

< And a good one, too, > Walsharno said helpfully.

“I heard that!” Brandark called, never turning his head as he rode along in front of them. “And I’ve been working on another little piece, Vaijon. It’s about a human who ends up running a chapter of the Order of Tomanāk full of hradani.”

“Oh, it is, is it?” Vaijon grinned. “Go ahead — I’d love to hear it! But if you do, then next time I set out on a trip with you, I’m bringing along the dancing girls and the troupe of acrobats to help you entertain.”

“I’ve a feeling the lads wouldn’t be all that happy about the acrobats, Sir Vaijon,” Tarith Shieldarm, the commander of Tellian’s escort, said. “But the dancing girls, now — they might not be so very bad an idea.”