War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 30

“Yes, they would be a bad idea, Tarith,” Tellian told him. “Especially when Baroness Hanatha heard about them!”

Tarith laughed, and Bahzell was glad to hear it. Tarith was a first cousin of Hathan Shieldarm, Tellian’s wind brother. He and Hathan had both been armsmen in the baron’s service when Hathan bonded with Gayrhalan, and Tarith had taken over Tellian’s personal guard when Sir Charyn Sabrehand, who’d commanded it for over ten years, finally retired. Before that, though, he’d been Leeana Bowmaster’s personal armsman, and he’d taken Leeana’s flight to the war maids hard. He and Hathan were both naturally and intensely conservative by inclination, and Tarith had always been one of those Sothōii who thought war maids were “unnatural.” He’d been stubbornly unwilling to accept that the young woman he’d watched over literally from her birth — the young woman he loved as if she’d been his own daughter — could have done such a thing. It had turned him dark and bitter for entirely too long, and for years he’d blamed Dame Kaeritha for not stopping Leeana before she could ruin her own and her parents’ lives that way.

His expression the first time he’d seen Leeana in chari and yathu on a visit to Hill Guard had been almost physically painful to watch, and he’d quickly turned and disappeared into the barracks. Bahzell had seen the hurt in Leeana’s eyes as she’d watched him vanish, but he’d scarcely been the only inhabitant of Balthar to react that way. Still, he did seem to have come to terms with it, by and large, over the last couple of years, and it might just be that some of his prejudices against the “unnatural” war maid way of life had faded in the process. He still seemed acutely uncomfortable around her on her fleeting visits, as if all the habits of fourteen or fifteen years of watching over her remained steadfastly at war with what she had become. And, like someone else Bahzell could have mentioned (although for rather different reasons), he managed persistently to find reasons he had to be somewhere else during those visits. Yet the wounded look had disappeared from his eyes, and taking over Tellian’s personal guard had helped.

He’d even learned to admit that he still loved Leeana, no matter what she’d done with her life, Bahzell thought.

< And about damned time, too, > Walsharno agreed. < You two-foots spend an awful lot of time worrying about other two-foots’ “mistakes”! Think how much wear and tear you could avoid if you only let them do what they want with their lives. >

The courser had a point, Bahzell reflected. Of course, it was different for the coursers with their herd sense. Each courser was an individual, but all of them shared a sort of corporate awareness that left far less room for misunderstandings and hurt feelings than the Races of Man seemed to manage so effortlessly. Not that one courser couldn’t develop a lively dislike, even hatred, for another one, but no courser would have questioned Leeana’s right to do whatever she chose with her own life.

< No, we wouldn’t have, > Walsharno agreed. < And we wouldn’t waste so many years of our lives denying our love for someone, either, > he added rather more pointedly. < No matter who they were or what they’d done. >

Bahzell looked down at the back of the courser’s head for a moment, but Walsharno didn’t turn to look back at him. Not even his ears moved as he continued calmly along, and Bahzell turned his attention back to Tellian.

“Surely you’re not thinking as how one of your very own personal armsmen would be after running off to the Baroness to be telling her such as that, are you, Milord?” he asked out loud.

“If they wouldn’t, Dathgar would,” Tellian retorted. “Yes, and she’d bribe the traitor with as many apples as he could eat, too!”

Dathgar snorted loudly and shook his head hard enough to set every bell on his ornamental halter chiming, and Bahzell heard Walsharno’s mental laugh.

< Dathgar says he’d hold out for at least a feed bag full of sugar, > he explained, and Bahzell chuckled as Tellian shook his head in smiling disgust at his companion’s treason.

< I’m glad he finally let you do something about that cough of his, > Walsharno said more seriously as he and his rider watched Tellian. < I still don’t like the way it was hanging on. >

I wasn’t so very happy about it myself, Bahzell replied silently.

< No, and you thought the same thing I thought about it. >

The courser’s mental voice was sharp, and Bahzell shrugged without replying. Neither he nor Walsharno could quite shake the suspicion that Tellian’s “cough” had been entirely too persistent. Bahzell had chosen not to make an issue of it, but he’d also conducted his own quiet yet very thorough investigation. If anyone had been responsible for…helping that cough along, however, he’d failed to find any trace of it among Hill Guard’s inhabitants. That wasn’t the sort of thing it was easy to hide from a champion of Tomanāk, either, which ought to have put their suspicions to rest.

Ought to.

< It certainly would be convenient for a great many people if something permanent were to happen to him, > Walsharno pointed out, and Bahzell had to agree. On the other hand, they couldn’t blame everything that happened on Tellian’s enemies. There were such things as a genuine accident or coincidence, after all.

< Of course there are. I’m sure that’s the reason you and Vaijon — oh, and the Baroness — gave him so much trouble about that armor he decided not to wear, too. >

The irony in Walsharno’s mental voice should have withered half the Wind Plain, and Bahzell’s ears flicked in acknowledgment. They had tried to convince Tellian to take the precaution of wearing his own armor for the trip, only to have him decline. His argument that the extra weight would have been a needless burden for Dathgar had been specious, to say the least, given any courser’s strength and stamina…not to mention the fact that Dathgar had agreed with the others, not him. His fallback argument that it was hot, sweaty, and damnably uncomfortable had at least a modicum of plausibility about it, but the real reason was pride.

Now that’s being a mite unfair of you, my lad, Bahzell told himself sternly. Aye, he’s prideful enough, and of no mind to look like a man as jumps at shadows, too. But he’s a point or three about keeping those as wish him ill from thinking as how they’ve frightened him, and it may be as how he’s wishful to keep his own men from thinking so. Which is even dafter than worrying his head about its weight! There’s not a man amongst ’em but knows he’s guts enough for four or five. Aye, and wishes he had the sense to go with ’em, as well!

“– still think the ‘Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand’ would be the best choice,” Vaijon was saying. “He wouldn’t have to sing, you know. I’m sure your armsmen all know the words by heart by now, Milord! They could avoid any little verses they didn’t care for, and a few rousing choruses as we ride along would have to make the journey seem shorter.”

“Aye, that it would,” Bahzell agreed genially. “And a mite shorter for some than for others, though we’d not all be reaching the same destination.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so sensitive about it, Bahzell,” Vaijon teased. “It’s not every man whose noble deeds are known to every wandering minstrel in half of Norfressa!”

“Only half?” Brandark turned to look back at them, shaking his head. “I see I really have to get back out on the road!”

“You just go on laughing, the lot of you,” Bahzell said. “There’s a saying amongst my folk — that as goes around, comes around, and it’s in my mind I’ll have my day soon enough. Aye, and it’s looking forward to it, I am.”

The others only grinned at him, and he shook his head, then glanced up towards the westering sun. It would be sliding towards the horizon in another three or four hours, he estimated, but the last milestone they’d passed indicated a sizable village or small town lay no more than ten or twelve miles ahead. Personally, he actually preferred making camp on the road, since inn beds tended to be more than a little cramped for someone his height. Sothōii averaged considerably taller than most humans, but they still weren’t Horse Stealer hradani, and their furniture simply wasn’t sized to fit someone like him. For the others, though —

His thoughts paused, and he felt his ears flattening. For a moment, he wasn’t sure what had caught his attention, but then it came to him. The woodpecker had stopped its tattoo…and the birds who’d been singing among the trees had stopped. No, they hadn’t all stopped, only the ones along the eastern side of the road.