War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 32

The time compression of combat never ceased to astonish Bahzell, even after all these years. The fight had seemed to last at least an hour, yet the whole thing had taken mere minutes. But they’d been bloody minutes, and his jaw tightened and his ears flattened as he came out of the trees and saw the carnage.

Eight or nine of Tellian’s armsmen were down on the roadway where the initial volleys of arrows had slashed into them, but men were smaller targets than horses. At least a dozen of their mounts had been hit by arrows intended for their riders, and equine screams of pain tore at his ears with that special heart-rendering intensity of wounded horses without the ability to understand why they’d been hurt. Battle hardened or not, Bahzell had never been able to listen to those screams without hearing the beasts’ pleas for someone to explain, someone to make it go away. Here and there armsmen had already cut the throats of mortally wounded horses. It was second nature to any Sothōii — their duty to the horses who served them so loyally — and not one of Tellian Bowmaster’s armsmen would have even considered seeing to his own hurts until he’d seen to those of his mount. Nor would he flinch from doing his responsibility to end that uncomprehending agony when he must. It was one of the things Bahzell most liked about them, and —

< Quickly, Brother! >

Bahzell’s head snapped up at Walsharno’s mental cry. The unbreakable link between them would have told him if the courser had been wounded, and he and Walsharno had learned not to distract one another on those occasions when one or both of them had to enter battle without the other. But now the raw, burning urgency of Walsharno’s summons burned through him and he turned quickly, then froze.

Dathgar was down. The huge bay had been hit by at least four arrows, and there were limits to even a courser’s vitality. His coat was saturated with blood, his sides heaved weakly, and bloody froth blew at his nostrils. He tried to raise his head feebly, eyes glazed, and Tellian lay half under him, unconscious, with two snapped-off arrow shafts standing out of his chest. His right leg was twisted, obviously broken where Dathgar’s weight had smashed down on it, and Hathan was on his knees beside him, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding, while two more of Tellian’s armsmen knelt over Tarith.

“Do you be taking Dathgar!” Bahzell said sharply to Walsharno. The stallion nodded, and Bahzell looked over his shoulder. “Brandark –”

“I’ll keep an eye on these bastards,” Brandark promised him, brown eyes grim as he glared at the prisoners. “Go!”

It was Bahzell’s turn to nod, and Hathan looked up with desperate eyes as the enormous Horse Stealer went down on one knee beside him.

“I can’t stop the bleeding!” the wind rider said.

“Aye, I can be seeing that,” Bahzell said grimly. Behind him, he sensed Vaijon heading for Tarith, but all of his own attention was focused on the dying man pinned under the dying courser. “Leave him to me,” he told Hathan. “You be drawing those arrows out of Dathgar for Walsharno!”

“But –” Hathan began, then chopped himself off. “Of course,” he said instead, his voice harsh, and Bahzell touched the shaft of the arrow which had driven into Tellian no more than an inch or two from his heart.

I’m thinking if ever I needed you, I’m needing you now, he thought, his eyes closing briefly as he reached out to that inner link which glowed between him and the god he served like some glittering golden chain or an inextinguishable torch blazing against the dark. This is a good man—a friend.

There were no words from Tomanāk this time, only that comforting sense of the god’s presence, that feel of two huge hands settling on Bahzell’s shoulders. Warmth spread into him out of them, warmth he needed badly as he saw the damage, heard the wet, weak wheeze of the baron’s breathing while blood bubbled from his nostrils, and realized Tellian was no more than half a breath, possibly two, from slipping away to Isvaria’s table.

But that was as far as he was going, Bahzell told himself with all the grim, iron purpose which had made him a champion of the god of war, and felt Tomanāk’s strength fill him as he opened himself once more to the power of his deity.

His eyes opened again, focused and clear with purpose, and blue light crackled around his hands. He laid the palm of his left hand flat on Tellian’s feebly moving chest, and that blue light flowed out from it, flooding across the baron like a layer of azure ice. It flickered and glowed, burning more brilliantly than the afternoon sunlight, lighting Bahzell’s face from below, embracing Tellian like a shield, and Bahzell reached out with it. He felt Tellian’s flickering life force try to sink away from him, and he refused to let it. He locked the grip of his own will upon it, drawing on Tomanāk’s power to forbid its extinction, and his right hand gripped that broken arrow shaft and pulled.

The broad headed arrow ripped out of Tellian’s chest with a wet, ghastly sound, making the terrible wound still worse. Blood pumped from rent and torn flesh, and Bahzell reached for the other arrow. This one had driven into the baron’s ribs, and bone and cartilage crunched and tore as he wrenched it out of that dying body. He threw it away and his sword reappeared in his bloody hand — reversed, this time — as he summoned it back to him once more. He closed his eyes again, leaning his forehead against the sword’s quillons, left hand still pressing against Tellian’s almost motionless chest, and reached out to the brilliant presence of his god.

Bahzell Bahnakson had healed many times in the years since he’d first become Tomanāk’s champion. He’d faced the challenge of torn flesh, of poison, even of the touch of Krahana herself, and he recognized the smile of hollow-eyed death when he saw it. He recognized it…and he threw his own bared-teeth challenge in its face.

The blue light wrapped around his left hand swept up his arm, enveloped his torso, blazed up about him like a forest fire, and he knelt at its heart, eyes closed, emptying himself of everything except the power of Tomanāk and his own fierce, stubborn refusal to let the enemy who had become his friend go. He closed his mind to the picture of Tellian’s broken, bloody body. He closed his ears to the baron’s failing, gasping effort to breathe. Those things were no longer real, no longer mattered. Instead, he filled himself with the image of Tellian as he should be. Of Tellian laughing as they discussed Brandark’s music. Tellian frowning thoughtfully as he leaned forward across a map, discussing strategy. Tellian smiling across the breakfast table at Baroness Hanatha, looking up with his heart in his eyes as his disgraced war maid daughter returned to Hill Guard Castle for her first visit. Tellian sipping whiskey on the first visit any Sothōii baron had ever paid to a hradani warlord as Prince Bahnak welcomed him to Hurgrum. Of Tellian strong and determined and whole once more.

Bahzell forged that image from memories, from hopes, from friendship…from love. He made it be, demanded it, rejected any other possibility, and when it had filled him, when there was no room in him for anything else, he gave himself to it. He poured everything he was, everything that made him who he was, into that reality, and the levin of Tomanāk’s cleansing, healing power ripped through him like a hurricane. It exploded down his arm, erupted around the hand on Tellian’s chest, swept outward down that tree-lined high road like a thunderbolt. For an instant — one, fleeting moment — Bahzell Bahnakson and Tomanāk were truly one, fused into that eruption of purpose, power, and determination.

It didn’t last. It couldn’t last for longer than one heartbeat, or perhaps two. Yet it lasted long enough, and Bahzell felt Tellian’s chest heave convulsively under his palm. The baron sucked in a deep, wracking breath, then coughed convulsively. His faltering, flickering heart surged within his chest, and his eyelids fluttered. Then they rose, gray eyes unfocused, the blood from his nostrils clotting his mustache.

“Dathgar,” he whispered, and Bahzell sagged back on his heels, every muscle drained, filled with the joyous, wondering exhaustion of being allowed to be a bearer of life, not death.

Something snorted beside him, and he looked down, then smiled as Dathgar’s ears shifted, pricking forward. The hradani looked up, saw the same joyful exhaustion in Walsharno’s eyes, and let the hand Walsharno didn’t have rest on Dathgar’s neck.

“There, now,” he told the courser. “Don’t you be doing anything hasty. It’s work enough Tomanāk and I had putting him back together, so just you bide a bit. Let’s not be breaking him all over again getting off of him!”