War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 41

“Will I, now? That’s good to be hearing.” Tellian raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m thinking as how by that time she and your lady will have had time enough and to spare to agree with one another about those as don’t wear armor when they ought,” Bahzell explained with a smile. “Indeed, it’s in my mind as how if I’m truly lucky, they’ll’ve worn themselves down to a nub without the strength to be starting in on me for having let you be doing something so daft as that. Mind, I’m none too optimistic about it, though. Like as not they’ll see me as naught but a setting up exercise for Hanatha once she’s after getting you home again and safely into arm’s reach.”

“Um,” Tellian considered that for a moment, then grimaced. “I’m afraid you may be onto something there. But I’m going to expect you to protect me from her if you are, you know.”

“Ah? And would it happen you could explain just why I might be daft enough to do anything of the sort?”

“It’s an ancient WakÅ«o tradition,” Tellian assured him.

“WakÅ«o, is it?” Bahzell cocked his ears and arched one eyebrow, wondering where Tellian was headed. The fierce nomads who dominated the vast, rolling wastelands beyond the Spearmen’s Great Eastern Forest had more traditions, customs, and practices (not to mention rituals, ceremonies, and taboos) than even the dwarves. No one — not even the WakÅ«o themselves, he suspected — could possibly keep all of them straight.

“Of course! If a WakÅ«o warrior saves someone’s life, he’s responsible for that person for the rest of his own life. And if you don’t protect me from Hanatha, you’ll be derelict in your duties!”

Vaijon laughed out loud, and Bahzell shook his head as Tellian looked at him guilelessly.

“If it happened as how I was WakÅ«o — or even as how you were WakÅ«o, come to that — I might be thinking as how you had a point. But as I’m not, and no more are you, and seeing as it happens I’m more than a mite in agreement with her, I’m afraid as how I’ll be otherwise occupied at the moment. Probably counting the knotholes in Walsharno’s stall. Or something nigh as important as that, leastwise.”


< Prudent! > Walsharno countered with a silent equine laugh. < A lot more prudent than I ever would have expected out of you, as a matter of fact, Brother! >

“Now, that’s no way for a Sothōii baron to be carrying on,” Bahzell chided. “In fact –”

He broke off as the chamber door opened to admit the two men for whom they’d been waiting.

Sir Jerhas Macebearer, Lord Warden of Amber Grass, was in his mid-sixties, white-haired, blue-eyed, and richly dressed, with a luxurious mustache that drooped almost to his chin. He’d never been of more than average height for a Sothōii, and he’d grown slightly stooped with age, but his stride was still firm and powerful, despite the polished ebony cane in his right hand. His shirt was of the finest, snow-white linen, with its full sleeves gathered into embroidered wristbands; his tabard-like tunic was even more richly embroidered, as befitted the Kingdom of the Sothōii’s Prime Councilor; and the intricately worked golden chain of his office flickered with brilliant reflections about his neck. The plain leather scabbard of the businesslike dagger sheathed at his left hip should have struck a jarring note, but instead, it simply looked inevitable.

Prince Yurokhas Silveraxe was over four inches taller than Sir Jerhas, with the same red hair and blue eyes as his older brother, the King. He was five years older than Vaijon, and two inches shorter, yet the two men bore a decided resemblance to one another. Partly, that was because Prince Yurokhas’s court tunic was neither the deep blue of royalty nor marked with the simple silver ax of his house. Instead, it was exactly the same shade as Vaijon and Bahzell’s surcoats and emblazoned with the crossed swords and mace of Tomanāk. Almost more even than that, though, was the fact that Yurokhas, despite his princely rank, believed in keeping himself in training. He was broad-shouldered, powerfully built, and sinewy, and he even moved like Vaijon, with an unconscious, almost feline grace.

“Your Highness,” Tellian said, rising quickly from his chair and dropping to one knee before Yurokhas.

“Oh, get up, Tellian!” the prince said testily. “We both have better things to do than to waste time with you crawling around on the floor. Besides, I’ve heard about that little adventure you got yourself into on the way here!” Blue eyes scrutinized Tellian closely as the baron rose obediently. “Hanatha’s going to have your hide, and my only regret is that I won’t be there to watch her take it. What in Fiendark’s Furies did you think you were doing?”

“Always so tactful, so diplomatic,” Tellian murmured, and Yurokhas cracked a laugh.

“I’ll give you ‘diplomatic’ if you ever let anything like that happen again!” The prince reached out, resting one hand on each of Tellian’s shoulders, and looked deep into his eyes. “There’s too damned much going on for you to let people go poking arrows into you, damn it! And that doesn’t even consider how I’ll feel if you let something like that happen to you again.”

His voice softened on the final sentence, and he gave Tellian a gentle shake. The baron smiled crookedly and shrugged.

“Nobody seems to believe this,” he said a bit plaintively, “but I genuinely didn’t expect anyone to go ‘poking arrows’ into me. I suppose the event demonstrates that I should have, but I didn’t actively set out to help…parties unknown finish me off, you know. That could have happened to anyone.”

Yurokhas snorted with panache.

“You were doing pretty well there, until that last sentence,” he told the older man. “You aren’t just ‘anyone,’ and things like that aren’t supposed to happen to one of the Kingdom’s barons. Especially not when it’s one of the other barons who’s behind it!”

“Your Highness.” Sir Jerhas spoke quietly, but his tone carried an edge of admonition, and he shook an index finger at the prince when Yurokhas looked at him.

“I’ll dissemble all you want me to in public, Jerhas,” Yurokhas replied unrepentantly. “In private, though, I’m not going to pretend we don’t all know who was really behind this. Or that his holdings don’t lie somewhere roughly, oh, south of here!”

“As for that, Your Highness,” Bahzell rumbled, “while I’ll not say as how he didn’t have a finger in the pie somewhere, there’s not a one of the fellows as surrendered to us who’d a word to say at all, at all, about Duke Cassan.”

Sir Jerhas rolled his eyes and puffed his mustache disapprovingly as Bahzell mentioned Cassan’s name, although he didn’t waste his time denying that the Baron of Frahmahn could possibly have been involved in the assault on his fellow baron. Yurokhas, on the other hand, didn’t even try to disguise his skepticism.

“I’m not one to question one of His champions in the normal order of things, Prince Bahzell,” he said, reaching out to clasp forearms with Bahzell. “Especially not when the champion in question’s accomplished all you have. But I find it very difficult to believe anything like this could have happened to Tellian without Cassan being involved in it somewhere.”

“Aye, and so he may’ve been,” Bahzell acknowledged. “And I’ll not deny I’d find more than a mite of pleasure in seeing him take the tumble he’s more than earned. But for all that, it’s a rare man as is willing to try to lie to one of Himself’s champions, and I’ve yet to meet the one as can actually do it! So if it were to happen as you called me to testify, it’s no choice I’d have but to swear under oath as not one of them so much as mentioned Cassan by name. In fact, it’s in my mind as how whoever did buy their swords for this was never a Sothōii at all.”

“What?” Yurokhas’ skepticism was clearer than ever, and even Sir Jerhas’ eyes widened at Bahzell’s assertion.