War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 40

“Oh! That was a clean hit!” Tellian congratulated, and Vaijon nodded in acknowledgment with a suitably modest expression.

“Aye, so it was,” Bahzell agreed, glancing at the younger champion.

Vaijon grinned at him, and the hradani shook his head. His human friend had reverted — partly, at least — to the Vaijon he’d first met in Belhadan. He was never going to attain such heights of magnificence again, thank Tomanāk, but he’d definitely turned his regular attire up a notch for the occasion. The plain woolen surcoat he’d adopted for normal wear had been replaced with one of green silk, glittering with genuine gold bullion, and the spurs on the glistening black boots stretched out before him as he lounged inelegantly on the base of his spine in the comfortable (and expensive) chair gleamed with silver inlay.

“Of course,” Bahzell continued, “while I’ve no choice but to admit it’s true as death hradani can be a mite slow noticing as how someone’s trying to get through to them, I’m thinking someone as lives in a glass house might be a mite careful how he lobs cobblestones about. It’s in my mind as how I recall a young Axeman popinjay as was a bit behind hand himself when it came time to be listening to others.”

“Ouch!” Tellian’s smile turned into a huge grin, and he shook his head wryly. “I’d say you’re playing with fire today, Vaijon!”

“If I were minded to be bringing up people who deliberately did their dead level best to shove their fingers into their long, hairy ears to avoid hearing someone rather than simply being…too preoccupied to notice someone trying to get their attention, I would undoubtedly respond in kind,” Vaijon observed, then sighed. “That would be conduct unbecoming a champion of Tomanāk, however. Besides, it would be taking unfair advantage of someone whose more ancient — uh, excuse me, I meant more senior — mental processes have reduced him to bringing up something that happened seven years ago in an effort to divert attention from the sad decay of his own acuity in his declining years.”

“Oh ho!” Bahzell laughed. “That’s cost you an ally or two, I’m thinking!” He twitched his ears impudently in Tellian’s direction, and Vaijon glanced at the baron, who was regarding him with a distinctly beady eye.

“‘Declining years’?” Tellian repeated. “Are you sure that’s the way you want to describe someone all of three months older than I am? And a hradani, to boot? Unless I’m mistaken, Bahzell is actually considerably younger for his people than you are for ours.”

“Perhaps I should re-think that particular, possibly unfortunate choice of words,” Vaijon replied. “It does seem to imply I was ascribing Bahzell’s less than blindingly fast thought processes to the inevitable deterioration of age, which couldn’t have been farther from my intent. After all, it would have been disrespectful for someone as youthful as myself to make such an…indelicate observation about one of my elders. Either of my elders.”

“If you grab his shoulders, I’ll grab his ankles, and I’m sure between the two of us doddering old wrecks, we can toss him off the balcony,” Tellian said.

“Tempting as the thought might be, I’m thinking as how it’s a nasty mess we’d make in Sir Jerhas’ courtyard,” Bahzell replied. “Come to that, there’s no need. It’s a long journey back to Hill Guard, and no knowing what sort of mischief might be befalling a fellow out on the high road and all. Indeed, we’ve but to ask, and it’s certain I am Dathgar and Walsharno betwixt them could manage to tread on him just a bit.”

“I’m sure they could,” Tellian said, but his smile had faded. His expression was much more sober as he gazed at both the champions, and Bahzell grimaced slightly.

“It may be as how my brain is slowing a mite,” he rumbled. “I’d no mind to recall such as that to you, Tellian.”

“I know.” Tellian shook his head quickly, one hand just brushing his chest where the arrowheads had driven into him. “And I should have listened to the two of you — Tomanāk! The four of you! — and gone ahead and worn the damned armor.”

< Eight, actually, but who’s counting? > Walsharno observed, loudly enough Bahzell knew he was making certain Dathgar could hear him and relay to Tellian. < I make it you, me, Brandark, Vaijon, Hathan, Gayrhalan, Dathgar, and — especially! — Baroness Hanatha. Did I leave anyone out, Brother? >

“No, you didn’t,” Tellian said before Bahzell could respond. “And I’m not looking forward to what Hanatha’s going to have to say to me when I get home.”

His shudder, Bahzell thought, wasn’t entirely feigned, and the hradani didn’t blame him. Tellian had written his wife the evening immediately after the attack…and her reply letter had arrived via a courier whose lathered horse spoke eloquently of the urgency with which she’d dispatched it. Bahzell didn’t doubt for a moment that she intended to rehash her initial reaction to how close Tellian had come to death the instant she got her hands on him once again. Well, not the very first instant; she’d be too busy hugging him until his ribs needed healing all over again before she got around to bashing his head for him the way he deserved. But she’d get around to it in time, and take the time to do it properly when she did.

And a good thing it will be, too, the hradani thought, looking at the man who’d become one of his closest friends. For a man as is one of the canniest, hardest headed fellows I’ve yet to meet, that was about as addlepated a decision as ever I’ve seen.

He knew he was being at least a little unfair to Tellian, but he didn’t really care. Some people were less entitled than others to take chances with their own safety when they knew they had enemies who would vastly prefer to see them dead.

And then there’s the little matter of that cough of his, the hradani thought grimly, glancing at Vaijon. None of the three champions had shared Tomanāk’s confirmation about that with the baron yet, but it was going to have to be addressed eventually. On the other hand, if Wencit of RÅ«m ran true to form, they ought to be seeing him in Hill Guard sometime in the next two or three months. If dark wizardry was indeed to blame for the baron’s “illness,” it might be best to have the world’s last white wizard available for any discussion of how a repeat performance could be avoided.

“I got another letter from her yesterday, you know,” Tellian said after a moment, and rolled his eyes.

“Did you now? And should we be taking it she’s still a mite put out with you?” Bahzell inquired genially

“You could put it that way, I suppose. Although, to be fair,” Tellian’s tone was judicious, “that would be a little like saying the Ice Sisters are a ‘mite’ chilly. In mid-winter.”

Both his companions chuckled at that one, since the Ice Sister Lakes spent three months out of the year under frozen sheets of ice several feet thick. Tellian joined their laughter, but then his expression sobered and he sighed.

“What?” Vaijon asked, and the baron shrugged.

“Hanatha got a letter from Leanna. She’s coming home for a visit for her birthday.”

“A visit, is it?” Bahzell’s ears twitched.

“Yes, and I’m going to be stuck here in Sothōfalas!” Tellian’s frustration was plain. “I hardly ever get to see her, and now this!”

He glowered, and Bahzell smiled sympathetically as he heard a father’s unhappiness. He had no children of his own — as Tellian had just suggested, he was actually on the young side, by his own people’s standards, to even have been thinking about that yet, and champions seldom had the time to even consider parenthood — but he had nieces and nephews in plenty. Some fathers — too many of them, in fact, in Bahzell’s opinion — would be less than devastated by missing a visit from a war maid daughter, but Tellian wasn’t one of them, and Bahzell understood the baron’s disappointment only too well. In fact…

“And did your lady write how long she’ll be visiting?” he asked, and Tellian snorted.

“Not long enough, I’m afraid. Or not for me, anyway, if I end up stuck here as long as I’m afraid I’m going to. You should at least have a chance to see her on your way through to Hurgrum, though.”