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"I'm thinking as how something new's after being added to the pot," Bahzell Bahnakson said to his horse.

Except, of course, that the magnificent roan stallion under his saddle wasn't a horse. In point of fact, Walsharno, son of Mathygan and Yorthandro, was a Sothùoii courser, far larger than any mere "horse," and as intelligent as any of the Races of Man. And, like the fox-eared hradani in his saddle, a champion of the war god, Tomanāk.

<And to just what sudden stroke of genius do we owe that particular observation?> a mellow voice asked deep inside Bahzell's brain.

"The fact that we're after seeing another entire batch of hoof prints joining up with them," he replied, waving one hand at the trail of trampled grass leading steadily southeast from the slight rise upon which they had halted. A second trail had just joined it, angling in from the west.

<Oh, that.>

"Aye, that," Bahzell agreed sardonically.

<Well, maybe there'll be enough of them that they'll get in each other's way,> Walsharno suggested.

"And if you're after believing that, I've some bottomland on the Ghoul Moor I could be letting you have cheap."

<I never said I thought it would happen that way. I merely pointed out that it could.>

"Aye, so you did. And so far as wishful thinking is going, it's in my mind it's not so very much less likely than the King Emperor deciding as how he should be after adopting me as his heir."

Walsharno blew through his nostrils, shaking his head in equine amusement, and Bahzell chuckled. Not that either of them truly found the situation all that humorous. Champions of Tomanāk were seldom handed easy challenges, but this one was turning steadily more nasty as they went along, and Bahzell eased himself in the saddle as he contemplated how simple it had all seemed in the beginning.

It had started as little more than an unidentified raiding party, attacking herds and small villages along the southern frontier of the Kingdom of the Sothùoii. Everyone's first assumption had been that the raiders who ruled the Kingdom of the River Brigands at the head of the Lake of Storms were responsible. But they had protested their innocence, and—in this case—they'd actually been telling the truth. Tomanāk was the god of justice, as well as the god of war, and no one could lie successfully when one of his champions directly invoked his power.

Had it in fact been the River Brigands, the situation would have been straightforward and relatively simple. The Brigands knew hradani only too well, and, like everyone else in northwestern Norfressa, they were sufficiently familiar with Bahzell's reputation to have listened very closely when he suggested that their current activities might be . . .  unwise. Unfortunately, it hadn't been them after all, which had raised the interesting question of just who was responsible, and why.

Raiding the Sothùoii was always a high-risk proposition, even when there wasn't a champion of Tomanāk handy. The Sothùoii cavalry was the most deadly light horse force in Norfressa, and the wind riders—mounted on coursers like Walsharno—were the most terrifying heavy cavalry the world had ever seen. The raiders had shown uncanny skill in picking their moments and targets, then vanishing before even Sothùoii cavalry could respond, but no one could keep that up forever. Sooner or later, they would be unlucky, and people who were unlucky against Sothùoii cavalry were very unlucky, indeed.

Even leaving that aside, there was the question of exactly what the raiders were doing with their booty in the first place. If the River Brigands weren't involved, then who was paying them for their plunder, and where were they disposing of it? The vast, rolling expanse of Norfressa east of the Kingdom of the Sothùoii and of the Empire of the Spear was still only imperfectly explored. The Spearmen's borders were advancing slowly but steadily eastward, but the hundreds of leagues of grassland and forest were still all but uninhabited. A few hardy bands of homesteaders had carved towns and villages, a scattering of independent baronies and vest-pocket kingdoms, out of the wilderness, but that was all, and none of them were likely to be able to pay for stolen goods. For that matter, the neighborhoods in which they lived were dangerous enough already. None of them were likely to be stupid enough to make things still worse by arousing the Sothùoii's ire by dealing with anyone who had attacked them.

But if the raiders weren't shipping their plunder south through the Brigand river ports of Krelik and Palan, and if they weren't selling it to one of those eastern settlements, then what were they doing with it?

"I'm not liking this one little bit," Bahzell said aloud, and Walsharno tossed his head again, and not in amusement this time.

<There've been too many jabs like this over the last few years,> the stallion agreed grimly. <And there's the stink of the Dark about this.>

"Aye, that there is." Bahzell's tone was every bit as grim as his companion's. "I'm thinking himself wasn't after sending no fewer than four of his champions off to the Wind Plain for no reason at all."

<He didn't "send" all of us,> Walsharno pointed out. <Some of us were born on the Wind Plain.>

"And so you were," Bahzell acknowledged. "Still and all, it's not so very happy in my own mind I am about how much interest the Dark is after showing in the Sothùoii and my own folk. Come to that, himself's not so happy about it, either. And if the number of champions he's been after sending out this way is anything to be judging by, I've the nagging suspicion there's worse to come."

<It does seem the Dark Gods are especially exercised over the relationship your father's been working out with the Sothùoii,> Walsharno said. <And my folk, too, for that matter.>

"And why might that be, d'you think?" Bahzell asked ironically.

<I'm sure I don't know.>

"And himself's not about to be telling us, either, is he now?"

This time, Walsharno simply snorted, and Bahzell chuckled harshly. For the most part, he both understood and agreed with Tomanāk's reasons for not simply leading his champions by the hand. Still, there were times a man might have appreciated at least a few hints about what the Dark Gods had in mind.

Part of it was easy enough to understand. Bahzell's father, Prince Bahnak of the Horse Stealer Hradani, who'd finally brought the warring northern clans together under a single crown and a single banner, was no friend of the Dark. Worse, he was working steadily with Baron Tellian and some of the other senior Sothùoii nobles to bring an end to the thousand years of hostility, hatred, and open warfare between them and his own people. His cordial relationship with the city states of Dwarvenhame was something else the Dark Gods couldn't approve of, as his people became steadily richer, better educated, and prosperous.

The Dark didn't like any of that, for obvious reasons, which would have been fully sufficient to explain its constant interference with Bahnak's progress. Yet Bahzell was convinced there was more to it. The Dark's efforts had been too specifically targeted, and the Dark Gods themselves had interfered too openly, for him to believe otherwise. And, as Walsharno had just observed, there was the stink of the Dark about this, as well.

"Are you after thinking what I am?" he asked after a moment.

<Probably,> Walsharno replied glumly. <It does appear to be our area of specialization, after all. The question that occurs to me is whether or not the other side counted on that. I'm getting rather tired of enjoying so much of the Dark Gods' personal attention.>

Bahzell's laugh was full of gravel. He'd been developing a more and more specific feel for what they were pursuing, and that feel was growing increasingly familiar. As Walsharno said, both he and his companion appeared to have a special affinity for dealing with Sharnùùa 's followers and the demons who served them. There were, he conceded, safer "specializations" a man might have taken up.

"At least it's a job we've managed to be doing so far," he pointed out.

<And it's also the sort of job you only get to fail at once,> Walsharno countered as if he'd read Bahzell's previous thought. Which he probably had, after all.

"Here now! That's no way for a champion of Tomanāk to be thinking! It's the challenge of it you should be pondering on."

<Oh, I am. I am! Can't you tell?>

Bahzell chuckled again. Then Walsharno started forward once more, following the tracks which had led them so far, and Bahzell glanced up at the sky. Another couple of hours, he thought. They'd have to be thinking about making camp, soon, but they could cover a few more miles before sunset. It wasn't as if they hadn't already covered quite a few of them. In fact, they were well into the Empire of the Spear, less than a week or so from Alfroma, even for a horse, much less a courser, and his expression softened slightly at the thought. Zarantha of Jashân's mage academy was located at Sherhan, just outside Alfroma. He'd been contemplating a visit to her for some time, although he hadn't had anything quite like this in mind. Still, it would be good to see her again . . .  always assuming, of course, that he and Walsharno survived this little journey.


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