Uff da. Okay, I would just like to say that I was NOT crying at a scene I wrote myself; Christy's House of Bishounen Torment was really dusty that day. Yeah. Dust. Gets in the eyes. :P
Also, please read the warnings for this chapter if you don't usually.
AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, Pillaging Onnas Incorporated
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU... Flashbacks ahoy! **References to abuse and rape**
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: We do not own ‘Gundam Wing’ and the ‘Oath of Swords’ series, or their characters. If we win the lottery we’ll look into buying the rights, n’kay? ;)
FEEDBACK: The more, the merrier!
APOLOGY: We’re traumatising Brandark again, sorry!
CHRISTY: It seems... quiet.
MEL: That would be because the pilots aren’t back yet.
CHRISTY: Oh yeah! They’re still on that search and rescue mission.
MEL: We sent them to catch Bleach characters for us to drool at. How is that in any way a ‘rescue’?
CHRISTY: Rescuing them from boredom?
MEL: Try again.
CHRISTY: Uh... rescuing us from boredom?
MEL: Yeah, let’s go with that.
MEL: What are we going to do in the meantime?
CHRISTY: Write, maybe?
MEL: Let me rephrase that. Who are we going to drool at in the meantime?
CHRISTY: Ooh, good point. Hm. I’m going to go find where Fluffy-sama and Schuldig are hiding.
MEL: Sweet, let me know when they turn up. I’m going to go perv on Ardeth.
CHRISTY: No you’re not! One of us has to be writing!
Demon of Justice
The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-hand
“What has happened to my son?”
Brandark worked his jaw to drive a little moisture back into his mouth, then took a deep breath and lifted his eyes to meet Bahnak’s. His voice was low but clear, falling automatically into formal patterns as he spoke, and his heart ached as he heard the resemblance to the slightly old-fashioned dialect Bahzell had always been most comfortable with. “It’s sorry I am to have to tell you this, Prince Bahnak, and it grieves my heart no less than yours... but my friend Prince Bahzell, your son, is dead.”
It seemed as if every hradani in the room drew in breath at once, and Evark Pitchallow shifted his weight next to Brandark, glancing around warily. The whole conversation had been held in the hradani language, not the Spearman they’d been using on the voyage or the Axeman their escort up the hill had spoken, and he couldn’t understand a word beyond the occasional name -- but a deaf man could have seen that now was a dangerous moment, as expressions darkened and hands closed on weapon hilts all around the room.
They’d known already, of course, or at least suspected what he’d come to tell... but knowing what must have happened and actually being told were two different things. They’d had hope until he opened his mouth and crushed it, and Brandark flinched away from the sudden pain in Bahnak’s eyes.
“Well.” The older hradani’s voice was rough, and he scrubbed briefly at his face with one hand before composing himself again. “I thank you for the news, though I won’t deny I’d rather you brought better word.”
“I wish I did,” Brandark choked out, feeling his own eyes sting with threatening tears. “I--”
“I’m wondering what a damn Bloody Sword thinks he’s going to gain here,” a deep voice rumbled, and a barrel-chested hradani pushed forward to the front of the crowd. He was short for a Horse Stealer, not quite seven feet tall, but far bulkier than even they usually ran to. His ears were flat as he glared hotly at Brandark, and his hand was clamped tight to his swordhilt. “Coming in to tell us one of our own is dead, when for all we know he stuck the knife in himself!”
“Gharnal--” Bahnak started, and the younger hradani bared his teeth at his Prince.
“I have a right!” he snarled. “Bahzell was my foster-brother!”
“And you’re dreaming if you think that gives you more of a right to avenge him than his own father!” Bahnak bellowed, starting up out of his throne, fists clenched. “I fostered you when your father was killed, I--”
“By Navahkians!” Gharnal roared back. “By Raven Talons!”
“--raised you to use your head, same as my own sons, not to challenge the one and only messenger we’ve got to tell us what happened, damn you for a Rage-blinded fool!”
“And who’s to say he’ll tell us anything close to the truth?!”
“And how are we to find out if you don’t let him speak?!”
Another hradani, a few inches taller than Gharnal and just as broad, stepped forward to lay what was probably meant to be a calming hand on the shorter hradani’s shoulder, and Gharnal snapped. Ears pinned back flat to his head, he jerked free and ripped his sword out of its sheath, voice scaling up into a high, wavering howl as he lunged at Brandark--
--and fell flat on his face at the Bloody Sword’s feet as the nearest halfling curled into a ball and rolled into his legs, tripping him. Holderman stepped forward and kicked one flailing arm, hitting the wrist and sending his sword skittering loose across the flagstones, and Evark delivered a precise two-handed blow to the back of his head as he scrambled to rise. Gharnal collapsed back to the floor, barely conscious, eyes wide and dazed but no longer holding the blank fury of the Rage.
Brandark hadn’t moved. None of the halflings had drawn a weapon, though swords and axes were half-drawn all around the room, and Evark sniffed, straightened his cuffs, and carefully twirled his waxed moustache back into order before turning back to Bahnak. The hand not grooming his whiskers unobtrusively slipped a slightly less than fist-sized lump of lead back into his belt pouch -- something that might have started out as part of a load of ballast, exactly the right size and shape to weight a halfling’s hand for a punch solid enough to fell a hradani.
“I didn't bring Longshanks all the way here to get him killed,” he said in clear Axeman, chin jutting out imperiously as he stared up at the massively larger hradani. “This one got off lightly, but if there’s a next time we’ll be using steel, if it’s all the same to you.”
Not all the watching hradani could understand, but a ripple of amusement went around the room as those who could speak Axeman translated. The tension broke, half-hidden grins flashing white as weapons were settled back into place. Bahnak eyed Evark for a moment, breathing hard, then nodded and sat back.
“Aye, I’m thinking that’s fair enough,” he agreed in the same language. The quiet laughter started up again, and he pounded one fist on the arm of his throne. “And I’m thinking that anyone who’s fool enough to take that as a joke deserves to find out how wrong he is!” he half-shouted, glaring around until silence fell again. “I’ll not be demanding blood price for anyone who lifts a hand against these men, Bloody Sword or Marfanger, while they’re under my roof and my protection! Which they are! You, Hurthang, get Gharnal a drink and sit on him until he cools his head! Pour some water on him and check his skull while you’re at it. You who were laughing, you saw a lone halfling knock the Rage out of him with one blow and you still think they’re to be laughed at?!”
Once Gharnal had been hauled off to the side by calmer friends, Bahnak grunted approval and nodded towards Brandark. “Well, then. Somebody get the lad a chair. And don’t you be trying to tell me you don’t need it!” he added, cutting off any objection before Brandark could do more than open his mouth. “We’ve waited long enough to hear your tale, and I’ll not have it cut short by your wounds. By the look of you, a chair’s less than I should be offering, at that.”
“What’s he saying now?” Holderman asked under his breath, jabbing one elbow into the thigh of their closest escort.
“Himself’s after telling your friend to sit down before he falls over,” the hradani muttered back, interpreting Bahnak’s intent more than his words, and Chihar snorted.
“I hope the damn rock-headed fool will listen to your prince, because it’s certain sure he’s never listened to me! And he says you lot are stubborn!”
“Aye, well, we are,” their massive escort agreed, grinning down at the tiny ship’s surgeon. The top of Chihar’s head didn’t even reach the level of his hip, curved ivory horns and all, but there was nothing in the halfling’s expression to indicate that he felt outmatched. “It’s a thing all hradani share, but y’might say we Horse Stealers have an extra helping.”
“To go with your extra helpings of everything else?” Holderman suggested, looking the bulk of him up and down.
“If you two are quite done distracting the audience?” Evark said dryly, and they hushed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It had started as a whim.
Thinking about it later, Brandark couldn’t honestly put a better face on it. He’d gone after Bahzell on impulse. Oh, certainly it was the right thing to do; he didn’t fit in at Churnazh’s court, to put it mildly, and although his father’s status as the most respected (and well-armed) of the remaining ‘old’ lords offered him a certain protection, it was only a matter of time before he wrote the wrong song, slandered the wrong courtier, or cut too close to the bone in something aimed not-quite-subtly-enough at Churnazh himself. Sooner or later, Brandark’s razor tongue and temper would combine to make him no longer an acceptable annoyance, and his father and brothers would suffer along with him. He needed to leave to keep himself and his family safe.
Making friends with a prince of Hurgrum -- Navahk’s bitter enemies, who’d recently trounced the Bloody Sword city and their allies on the battlefield with embarrassing speed despite being outnumbered five to one -- didn’t help. Leaving with said prince, after Bahzell had caught the crown prince of Navahk in the act of raping and trying to murder a servant girl and broken his hostage bond by beating the rapist nearly to death, hadn’t exactly been the best way to stay safe, either. Brandark had managed a hasty cover-up, ‘stealing’ several of his father’s best horses, and the old man had taken the hint and ‘disinherited’ him, which at least kept Churnazh from doing anything too obvious in revenge. Judging by what little he’d heard since, his relatives had kept their heads down well enough, and from the outside it probably looked like he’d planned it all from the start.
He hadn’t, though. He never explained, even to Bahzell, and he was fairly sure the enormous Horse Stealer prince hadn’t worked it out.
Bahzell was his only friend. It was as simple as that.
He’d had other friends, of course, but their number had dwindled quickly after Churnazh took the throne in a coup that was messy even by hradani standards. Those who couldn’t keep their objections to the Black Prince’s reign quiet died; those who took the safer route and supported their new ruler drifted away. None managed to walk the tightrope of opposition and pseudo-bardic immunity with him. He’d been alone and angry for years, composing more and more venomous barbs to plant in Churnazh’s hide, knowing he was coming closer and closer to the edge but not caring enough to stop.
Then an immense, uncultured hradani who spoke with a yokelish accent, wore rough homespun, and stared in bewilderment at Brandark’s lace cuffs and embroidered jerkins, had come right out and flatly asked him why he did it. He’d listened, and understood... probably more than Brandark had been able to put into words. He’d also told him that he was a bloody fool, and the laugh it had startled out of Brandark was the first genuine amusement he’d felt in years. Their friendship had developed quickly from there, and it hadn’t been long before Brandark felt he could trust the Horse Stealer with anything.
When Bahzell had knocked out half of Harnak’s teeth and put a dent in his head before escaping Navahk, taking the girl the crown prince had raped and an elderly slave woman with him, Brandark’s first thought had been Damn you, Bahzell, why couldn’t you take me too?!
The second thought, following hard on the heels of the first, sent him after Bahzell without even a moment of indecision. If Bahzell hadn’t thought to take him -- probably out of misplaced concern for the half-bard Bloody Sword, who could have told him that Churnazh hated him more than enough even without the extra provocation -- then Brandark would take himself.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bahzell had sent Tala and Farmah off to Hurgrum to live under his father’s protection, but that wasn’t an option for him and Brandark. Whether Harnak lived or died, Churnazh was certain to declare that Bahzell had broken his hostage bond and his life was forfeit. If he was living openly in Hurgrum and his father refused to hand him over to be executed, there would be war, and many city-states that would otherwise ally with Hurgrum would come in on Navahk’s side. Although another war between Hurgrum and Navahk was inevitable as long as Black Churnazh held the throne, that didn’t mean that Prince Bahnak wanted it to happen just yet or under those conditions.
They’d needed to get out of Churnazh’s reach, which in practice meant leaving the northern hradani lands completely... but hradani weren’t welcome in human lands. Some town sergeants were polite, willing to admit that two stray hradani hadn’t done anything wrong -- yet -- but even they indicated that Bahzell and Brandark needed to move along before something happened. Before the town bully challenged one of them; before less-friendly guards tried force instead of persuasion; before the mayor or a group of ‘concerned citizens’ ordered them to take a harder line.
Things had improved, slightly, when they’d reached the Duchy of Esgan and hired on as caravan guards with a dwarven merchant that Brandark’s father had occasionally dealt with. Clan Harkanath had a policy of not rejecting trade just because it came from someone who was a different size or shape, and their employment practices were similarly broad-minded. Once they were wearing Kilthandahknarthas’s livery, few people from outside his organisation would risk offending him by insulting his employees... but that didn’t mean everyone inside his organisation was happy with the situation. Things turned sour after a bandit attack that the other guards were only too happy to blame on ‘traitors’ in their midst, and although Kilthan regretted letting them go, it was that or see half of his human guards walk away. Bahzell and Brandark found themselves on their own again.
And then there had been the assassins.
The first attack had come in the elven capital Saramfal after they’d worked their way further west and south with other, smaller caravans, getting little pay and less respect. The two hradani had nearly been arrested, despite their protests that the half-dozen men and dwarves had attacked them on no provocation; taken by surprise, they’d fallen into the Rage and defended their lives a little too well, leaving pieces of their opponents strewn across an alleyway and the gutters running with blood. The accidental discovery of a scarlet scorpion tattooed on one body’s shoulderblade led to a closer search, finding similar tattoos or pendants on all six, proving their identity as Sharna’s dog brothers. The Trade Quarter guards quickly declared Bahzell and Brandark innocent of any wrong, and equally quickly evicted them from the city, to take their trouble with them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I’m after thinking it has to be Harnak,” Bahzell muttered, glaring back at the soaring white walls of Saramfal with a frustrated expression and both ears at half-cock. “Him or Churnazh himself. As long as I’m alive, I’m a scold and an embarrassment to them both.”
“An embarrassment, perhaps,” Brandark scoffed, straightening his cuffs fastidiously before starting to rearrange their pack horse’s load. The guards had hustled them out of town with barely enough time to grab all their possessions, let alone pack neatly, and he frowned as he carefully rescued his balalaika from underneath another bundle. “I prefer to think of myself as the scold.”
“Aye, well, there’s merit in that thought,” Bahzell said mildly, still preoccupied with his thoughts. “Being as how you’re forever after writing tunes that stick in a man’s mind while the words stab him in the back.”
“Is that a reference to the song I’ve been writing about your heroic exploits? Because I was just thinking of a new verse--”
“You’d best not be giving me a reason to drop a saddle on that little fiddle of yours, accidental done a-purpose, like.”
“That’s hardly an appropriate response to a song in honour of your towering nobility,” Brandark sniffed. “Besides, I have to finish it now.”
The taller hradani turned to eye him warily. “...And how is it that you’ve come to that idea?”
“Two reasons. First, the more the full story of what happened between you and Harnak gets spread around, the less good killing us will do them. Damage already done, so to speak.”
Bahzell scratched his chin thoughtfully, ears shifting back and forth as he mulled that over. “A man could argue that it’ll have the opposite effect,” he pointed out. “The more it spreads, the more reason they have to want to wipe out both the man doing the spreading and the man the tale is about, d’you see, relying on our deaths to make the story old news and not such an interesting tale to tell.”
Brandark considered his point for a moment, then nodded. “True. Still, the more we call their attention onto us, the less likely they are to go after Farmah and Tala,” he said grimly. “Safe as they might be against normal attack in Hurgrum, it’s another matter if the bastards are hiring dog brothers. Our deaths might make the story fade, but if we’re alive and well and retelling the truth, and the women die, whether from an obvious cause or a mysterious fall or the like, tongues will wag and fingers will point. If we tiptoe around quietly and let things calm down, Harnak and his father are likely to think that a little subtle assassination of two such inconvenient witnesses might go unnoticed.”
“I’m not liking your logic at all, at all,” Bahzell growled, ears flattening again.
“Oh? And where do you think it goes wrong?”
“I didn’t say I thought it was wrong, little man. I’d like it better if I did.” He sighed heavily, then glanced back at his friend, almost against his will. “And what was your second reason after being?
“I’ve thought of a name for the song! I’ll call it The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-hand, seeing as how you seem to skin your knuckles every time you get into a righteous fight. What do you think of that?” Brandark grinned.
“I think it’s reason enough to kill you myself!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They’d kept moving south after that, at first only because it was vaguely away from Navahk, then with greater purpose as incident after incident made it plain that nobody was inclined to let a couple of ‘filthy, murdering’ hradani pass by without comment or objection. They couldn’t stay long in human-dominated countries, but equally couldn’t go back; Horse Stealer lands were closed to them, as were all of the Bloody Sword territories, since even Bloody Sword princes who weren’t directly allied with Churnazh would be likely to turn them over out of solidarity. The Broken Bone hradani lived too close to the others, close enough for their presence to be a direct taunt and insult to Harnak and his sire, close enough for Churnazh to threaten with reprisal if they weren’t handed over to his ‘justice’.
The Wild Wash, though... now there was a possibility. They lived almost as far south as you could go without falling into the sea, as far away from Churnazh’s reach as a hradani could get and still be among kin. Far enough away that although a little news could and did flow back and forth, providing a way for two fugitives to keep their story alive -- keep Tala and Farmah alive by ensuring that their deaths would be seen as suspicious, no matter how good the cover-up -- the law didn’t cross over.
They could have headed for the coast and bought passage on a ship with the last of their dwindling funds, or tried to work their way as they’d done before, as guards or even unskilled labour, but the attack in Saramfal had been only the first of many. Towns gave the assassins cover, contained innocents who could be caught up in the violence, and were guarded by men who reacted similarly to the Saramfal Trade Quarter’s patrollers, too eager to blame the obvious scapegoats. After the fifth attack, they escaped arrest (and probably execution) only because the owner of the tavern they’d been eating in recognised the dog brothers for what they were and hated them more than he feared hradani, speaking up on their behalf and insisting on their innocence.
They’d ended up on the road outside town, packs strewn messily around their feet, banished yet again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Here we go again,” Brandark sighed, surveying their scattered possessions gloomily. “At least the bartender insisted on helping us collect our gear, hey?”
Bahzell kicked at a stone, breath hissing angrily through his nose as he glared back towards the town gates -- closed now, though they probably hadn’t been shut in years if the rust on the hinges and the horrendous screeching noise they’d made as they were swung into place was any evidence. One of the helmeted heads peering down at them from the walkway on top of the wall ducked down behind the parapet to avoid his gaze.
“Enough,” he growled, voice a deep and ominous rumble. “Enough, and more than enough!”
“Enough what?” Brandark asked carefully, surveying his friend over the pack horse’s back as he tightened its girth. He didn’t like the dark glitter in Bahzell’s eyes, but the Horse Stealer seemed to have himself under control.
“I’ve had enough of all -- all this,” Bahzell replied, gesturing comprehensively at the town, the surrounding farms, possibly even the darkening twilight sky above. “Enough of being scorned. Enough of being looked at as though I’m some strange mix of worm and poisonous snake. Enough of being driven out by men who blame us for others’ actions. Enough of being driven out by men who acknowledge we’ve done nowt that’s wrong!” he finished, half-shouting that last sentence towards the gate. Two more helmeted silhouettes flinched, retreating downwards, and he turned away with a frustrated snarl and spat into the dust of the road. “Enough of bringing others into a fight that’s nowt of theirs, too,” he added, voice almost too low to be heard.
“I have to admit,” Brandark said in a carefully mild voice, “I did feel a certain qualm after Talamar told the guard captain exactly what that little dart was. How many people did it ricochet past after it missed you, I wonder?”
“Too many,” Bahzell said grimly. “Children and women, too, in that crowd.”
Brandark snorted. “Come to see the ‘tame hradani’, most of them,” he pointed out, grinning wryly. “Guilty of nothing worse than curiosity, even so.”
Bahzell stooped to pick up their scattered packs, stuffing loose articles back and securing flaps as he helped Brandark re-order their gear. “Aye, and I’m not minded to bring danger to any more such.”
“...You’re going to suggest we head off cross-country, aren’t you,” Brandark said glumly, more a statement than a question. “Avoid towns. Sleep rough.”
“And have you any better plans, Longnose?” Bahzell quirked one eyebrow at him, mood visibly improving as he settled on a course of action.
“No,” Brandark sighed. “I wish I did. I’m a city boy, Bahzell, you know that!”
“Aye, so you’ve been telling me all along! You Bloody Swords have gone soft, lad!” Bahzell clapped him heartily on one shoulder, staggering him slightly. “Besides, it’s not as if I’m inviting you to take a stroll up on the Wind Plain, tiptoeing past the Sothoii and their coursers!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Brandark’s voice was hoarse, roughened by overuse and emotion, as he came near the end of his tale. The watching Horse Stealers had stopped talking among themselves long ago, leaning forward to listen intently, and an old hradani with a harp case slung on his back was silently mouthing key phrases and names as he memorised the story, fingers twitching as if he was already trying out chords, putting it to music.
“For a while, it seemed we’d made the right choice,” Brandark said, looking up at Bahnak as if he’d only now remembered he had an audience. “Either the dog brothers had been called off, or they couldn’t find us after we left the roads. We spent as much time circling around to avoid people as we did moving forward, at first, but then the towns thinned out and we could go for days without seeing any sign of civilisation. Once we reached the Shipwood, it looked like we were free and clear; we just had to evade the Purple Lords’ patrols a little longer, and most of their attention is on the coast. Bahzell knew more than enough about dodging notice, and by then he’d taught me the basics.”
He paused, swallowing hard, and looked down at his hands for a long moment. No-one else moved or spoke as they waited for him to continue, though Chihar shot a worried look at his right leg before returning to his careful study of his patient’s pale face. There was an ominous dark stain beginning to seep through the rough fabric of Brandark’s trousers.
When Brandark looked up again, his eyes were dark with memory. “That was when Harnak found us.”
It wasn’t just Bahnak who’d asked the startled question. All around the room, hradani shifted and looked at each other, echoing the name, until Bahnak impatiently waved them down to silence.
“Harnak chased the two of you all the way down south to the Shipwood?” the prince asked incredulously. “We knew he’d left Navahk, but all the rumours said he’d just gone to ground somewhere nearby. Keeping his head down until people forgot the story and the shame, maybe, though it seemed a fool’s idea. His brother -- his next younger brother Chalghaz, that is, not the Bastard or Chalak Tallow Brain -- has been taking the opportunity to expand his own power among the Guard and his father’s courtiers, and if Harnak stays gone much longer he’ll come back to find himself no longer the heir. That is,” he went on slowly, eyeing the bitter smile spreading over Brandark’s face, “if Harnak’s coming home again at all, at all?”
“Oh, no,” the Bloody Sword drawled, eyes glittering. “Chalghaz Churnazhson can feel secure -- well, as secure as any man can feel with Chalak as a brother, though his plots are as idiotic as they are enthusiastic. His dear brother Harnak is dead, too, I’m glad to say.”
The sound that filled the room was something between a hiss and a growl, pulled from dozens of throats as ears flattened and teeth bared, and Evark put one hand to his belt pouch before he recognised the satisfaction in it.
“Go on,” Bahnak said, deep voice grim but carrying a trace of that same satisfaction.
Brandark hesitated for a moment. “Harnak... knew where we were before we had any sign of him,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “We heard them coming. Most of them were in the Rage, howling, and I think that’s all that gave us a chance, because they were fighting hard but not smart. They’d worn their horses out and gotten separated, with some falling behind and others riding ahead, so they came at us two and three at a time instead of all at once. We could fight two or three at once, for a while at least.”
“Harnak wasn’t in the Rage,” Brandark began, then broke off as his voice cracked. He coughed, clearing his throat, and looked up at Bahzell’s father with pain-filled eyes.
“Lord Prince, please don’t blame all of Navahk for Harnak and his kin,” he begged, voice cracking again. “Don’t-- don’t think we’re all like them. I swear on my soul, what I have to tell you now is truth, but most Navahkians, most Raven Talons, most Bloody Swords would react the same as you and yours. For all I know, Black Churnazh himself would damn his son’s name if he were here to hear this. This is Harnak’s crime, and I beg you not to take vengeance on my people for it!
“He wasn’t in the Rage. He was howling as loud as his bodyguards, but he was howling Sharna’s name, and his sword was burning with green fire.”
The faint murmur that had continued since those assembled heard of Harnak’s death cut off into an abrupt, ringing silence.
“...Brandark, son of Brandark,” Bahnak said slowly into the hush. “You know what it is you’re accusing this man of?”
“I know,” Brandark replied hoarsely.
“Be you sure of this? By your words, the man -- your own city’s crown prince, whether you acknowledge him as worthy or no -- is dead and cannot speak in his own defence. Be you sure?!”
“I saw the Scorpion riding him.” Brandark’s hands were shaking, and he gripped the armrest of the oversized chair he’d been given to sit in. “I heard the name from his own lips. I felt it, like something rancid brushing up against me in the dark, and I wanted to run or be sick or-- I don’t know. It was foul,” he said, shuddering at the memory, “and I am sure of what I say. I swear it. Harnak was a willing servant of Sharna Phrofro, and carried the god’s sword when he came to hunt your son down.”
There was another long, silent pause before Bahnak spoke again, face grim. “And was it Harnak who killed him?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Harnak had reached them first, driving his staggering horse on until the poor beast was coughing bloody foam. It broke through the last scant fringe of undergrowth into the clearing where Bahzell and Brandark had made camp, and he spurred it viciously, sending it lunging towards Bahzell in an attempt to ride the larger hradani down. His sword dripped green fire like burning oil, spattering across Bahzell’s shoulder as the Horse Stealer leapt aside and parried.
Brandark gagged as a wisp of the green light clinging to Harnak like greasy smoke flicked across his face, leaving him with a taste like rotten meat on the back of his tongue. He hesitated for a moment, torn between the urge to run and the desire to help his friend, and lost the chance to choose as the first of Harnak’s bodyguards crashed into view. He soon found himself driven to the other side of the clearing, fighting off three enemies at once, unable to follow Bahzell’s fight except in snatched glances.
His opponents were in the Rage, striking with enhanced strength and barely noticing injuries that would normally have them out of the fight, but paradoxically that was what saved him. They fought with no consideration for each other, no teamwork, getting in each other’s way and ignoring openings that would have required subtlety to exploit. One lunged at Brandark, missed, and stabbed his own ally; they turned on each other, leaving him able to finish off the third barely in time to set himself to parry a strike from a newcomer. The Rage was pulling at him, too, a black tide waiting to suck him down, rising in response to his enemies’ snarls and the sickening taint of Sharna’s power.
If I give in I’ll die. He backpedalled frantically past the campfire as another of Harnak’s bodyguards charged him from the side, turning so that the newcomer couldn’t slip behind him. I have to be able to think, have to be able to fight smart -- there’s too many to face without my wits about me--
Something crunched and twanged underfoot, and he looked down in horror as he realised he’d stamped on the bag holding his balalaika. Oh, no--!
He paid for that moment’s distraction with the tip of his right ear, pain blooming as the sword skimmed past his head, and forgot the instrument in the desperate fight to stay alive.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“The next thing I knew, Harnak was down and Bahzell was charging in from the side to save my neck,” Brandark told Bahnak, reaching up to rub at his cropped ear. “The fire on his sword and the feel of Sharna died with him, blown out like a candle, and it seemed like the rest of Harnak’s men were stunned for a moment; that bought us time to put our backs against a tree. I think some of them just ran, then. I’m not sure if he brought his whole personal guard with him, but there weren’t enough bodies afterwards to be all of them if he did.”
He looked down at his hands, the whole right hand and the crippled left, missing the last two fingers and with raw scarring across the palm; the tendons were ruined, leaving his two remaining fingers stiffly extended, only the thumb still usable. “It looked like we were going to make it,” he said softly, almost to himself. “It really did. There was only four of them left. Then... I fumbled a parry, and got this,” he went on, holding up the maimed hand. “The next stroke took me in the leg, and I went down. And Bahzell...”
A tear ran down his cheek, dripping onto the growing stain on his trouser leg. “Bahzell saved me. He lunged across and blocked the swords coming down, took the arm off one man and stabbed the second through the heart. But that left him wide open, and the others-- they--”
He was weeping openly now. “They stabbed him. Right through.” His good hand pressed against his chest, low on the left side, then to the right of centre. “Then they ran. I suppose they thought we were both done for, if not dead already. And he died... he died under my hands. I tried, tried to bandage the wounds, but it was no good. He told me--” Brandark looked up at Bahnak. “He told me to get here. Tell you what had happened. Tell you Harnak was dead, so Churnazh wouldn’t have reason to keep after Farmah and Tala. Tell you about that sword he was carrying, for though I stand by what I said about his sins being his own, there’s no way he was the only one walking that path, and you need to know. And he wanted me to tell you to make sure--” His voice cracked again, and he wiped uselessly at the tears on his face. “To make sure he didn’t die for nothing.”
Bahnak settled back into his throne -- nothing more than a large wooden chair, really -- and rubbed his own stinging eyes for a moment before clearing his throat. “It’s thanking you I am, Lord Brandark, for bringing us word of my son,” he said, ignoring the faint huskiness in his own voice. “And I thank you, too, for bringing him this long way,” he went on, shifting into Axeman and nodding to the halfling captain. “I’m wishful to see you properly rewarded, and I’m thinking there’s a lot of things you can be telling me about just how you got here, so I’d take it kindly if you’d stop a while, Captain-- ah, Pitchallow, was it?”
One of the captain’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he bowed flamboyantly, one hand smoothing his moustache in what was already a familiar motion. “Delighted, Your Highness,” he said breezily. “I’m looking forward to making your acquaintance.” Behind his shoulder, his second-in-command rolled his eyes and muttered something about trade deals.
Before Bahnak could go on, one of the few halflings not sporting facial hair of any kind pushed forwards, glaring as though the prince had personally offended him somehow. “That’s all very well and good, but if you want this lad around much longer you’ll cut this short now and get him to a bed,” he snapped, jerking one thumb towards Brandark. “And call whatever healers you have here! I’ve done what I can, barring things he won’t listen to on account of being the stubbornest wood-headed lout I’ve ever had the misfortune of doctoring, but he needs someone who knows how to treat hradani and he needs rest.”
Bahnak could feel his left ear slanting backwards and twitching quizzically, but he kept his face straight and nodded again. “Aye, I’m thinking you have the right of it,” he said gravely.
“I’m all right,” Brandark muttered, wiping his face on his sleeve one more time and then grabbing for his crutches. His face paled as he levered himself up out of the chair, and he swayed dangerously, but the moment passed and he collected himself, half-bowing awkwardly.
“Off with you, and never mind the formalities,” Bahnak said, cutting him off before he could speak again. “We’ve guest rooms aplenty, Captain Pitchallow, so you and yours are welcome to stay here or aboard your ship as you please. I’ll be speaking to you both again when you’ve had a chance to rest.”
The halflings bowed again, accepting the clear dismissal, and he watched silently until they were gone, still flanking the wounded Bloody Sword and keeping to his halting pace.
“Yes, Your Highness?”
Bahnak waved one hand at his elderly chamberlain, rubbing the bridge of his nose with the other. “I’ll have word to send to the various embassies and so on, once I’ve had a chance to meet with Marglyth and the rest of the clan council. See to it that the scribes are ready to copy it, and call up messengers... and see that nobody gives them the word before then. There’ll be rumours, of course, but I want the true word out there first.”
Jahnkah shifted the cut-down halberd he used instead of a more traditional chamberlain’s staff and eyed the room full of armed warriors with a jaundiced expression. “Begging your pardon, but I’ll not be able to hold this lot for long.”
“Can you give us half a candlemark? I’m not thinking we’ll need long.”
The old man looked sideways at him, and smiled grimly. “Aye, I can do that.”
“I thank you,” Bahnak said punctiliously, then rose from his chair and walked to the side of the room. A large decorated screen there served the dual purpose of hiding several chairs from the rest of the room and shielding them from drafts, and his wife stood up from her place next to the fire and walked into his arms.
* * * * *
“Ms. Dorlian-Peacecraft? You have a visitor.”
Relena looked up from her paperwork and blinked at her secretary, a little confused. “My goodness. Is it eleven already?”
“Ah, no, miss. It’s Lady Une. She doesn’t have an appointment, but she said it’s important, so--”
“Of course, of course! Send her in!” Relena shuffled her papers together and slid them back into their folder, looking up as Lady Une appeared in the doorway. “Lady Une, it’s good to see you again. How are the preparations to start up the Preventers going?”
“Quite well, Minister, thank you.” Une walked up to Relena’s desk and shook hands stiffly, sitting down in the nearest visitor’s chair and pulling a datapad out of her attaché case. “I appreciate you being willing to see me without an appointment.”
“I trust you not to ask without good reason.” She smiled, folding her hands on her blotter. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes,” Une said, a little slowly, fingers stroking the deactivated datapad in her lap. “The countries and territories the Preventers are going to be operating in have vastly different regulations and licensing requirements for the weapons and equipment we anticipate using. We’re working on getting all the necessary authorisations, and of course as the system moves towards unification the various legislations will be unified as well, but in the meantime it occurred to me that it would be useful -- indeed, necessary -- to have some sort of ‘hot pursuit’ clause in the Preventers’ charter.”
Relena tilted her head slightly to one side, thinking that through. “So that if a Preventers agent who is licensed to, say, operate a mobile suit in one jurisdiction doesn’t have to let a criminal escape if they cross a border into a jurisdiction where she isn’t licensed?”
“Well, that certainly sounds useful,” Relena agreed. And it also sounds like something that you would normally put into your weekly report, instead of requesting a face-to-face meeting without any notice. Why are you here? she thought, keeping the pleasant smile on her face but letting the question show in her eyes. Une met her gaze, and the corner of her mouth quirked up slightly.
“I have a rough draft of the clause here; I was hoping you could take a moment to glance over it and let me know if you think it’s missing anything,” she said, clicking the datapad’s display on and holding it out.
“Of course,” Relena murmured, taking the datapad and glancing at the screen.
[YOUR OFFICE IS BUGGED. I believe it to be audio surveillance only but am not certain. Your computer network has also been compromised.]
Relena stiffened for a moment, long practice holding her expression steady and stifling the exclamation in her throat. She blinked, glanced up at Une -- watching her blank-faced -- and looked back at the datapad as she scrolled down.
[Elements within the conservative faction have been attempting to locate the Gundam pilots, intending to conscript or suborn them for political and military advantage. They believe you know where they are, and are investigating your recent purchases etc.]
“The wording of this paragraph is a little ambiguous, but that’s something that can be cleaned up easily enough. The basic framework you’re trying to establish is clear,” Relena murmured, keeping up the act for the benefit of whoever was listening. How dare they! she seethed internally. Can’t they just leave the poor boys alone?! Oh, Milliardo, you were right...
[I have emplaced security teams to prevent any attempt to kidnap or coerce other known associates and relatives of the pilots. If you have a COMPLETELY secure channel with which to contact them, I recommend you warn them and then break contact.]
“My experience leans towards writing regulations, not legislation,” Une told her, watching closely. “I’m afraid it shows. Do you think you have time to help with this? I don’t want to impose.”
Relena nodded, deleting the text file as she looked up. “Oh, I don’t think there’ll be any problem. If you leave this with me, I should have it taken care of soon. Do you have a deadline?”
Une glanced at the datapad and smiled as she saw the ‘Secure Deletion Complete’ message on the screen. “As I said, I don’t wish to impose, but the rest of the charter is nearly ready for the first approvals, so...”
“As soon as possible?” Relena smiled. “I should be able to send you my edits this afternoon.”
“That would be excellent.” Une stood again, passing her a small memory card in exchange for the datapad. “There’s a copy on here, as well as links and documents regarding the more problematic legislations we’re dealing with, in case some background is necessary.”
“I appreciate it,” Relena said, sliding the memory card into her computer and opening the first document. She wasn’t surprised to see the clause they’d been discussing as cover pop up on her screen; Une would never use an alibi that couldn’t be confirmed. A minute later, after exchanging the usual goodbyes, Une left without looking back.
Relena worked on the clause for half an hour, reading the background documentation and tweaking the wording into something that should slide by most of the delegates who’d need to approve it without causing alarm, then closed the document and turned back to the paperwork she’d been reading before. She welcomed her eleven o’clock appointment on time, flattering and persuading until the stiff-backed elderly woman melted and agreed to support one particular committee in exchange for some concessions, and all the while she felt as if something was fizzing behind her breastbone.
Have I taken enough time to avoid anyone drawing a connection between Une’s visit and what I’m about to do next? she wondered, walking her visitor out and exchanging social pleasantries with a calm smile. Or have I taken too much time? Is the warning going to reach them soon enough? I’m sure Lady Une wouldn’t consider what I’m about to do a ‘secure’ channel, but she wouldn’t have come to me if she didn’t trust my judgement...
I’m not sure I trust my judgement. I’ve never met these people. I’ve only heard Duo and Quatre talk about them.
I don’t think I have any other choice, though.
“Catriona, could you send Pargan up?” she asked aloud, smiling at her personal secretary as she turned away from the door. “I have an errand I’d like him to take care of for me.”
When Pargan arrived a couple of minutes later, Relena was just finishing a note, written on her personal stationery.
“You sent for me, Miss Relena?”
“Yes, Pargan, thank you,” she said. Her voice seemed abruptly too loud in her own ears, strained, and her hand shook a little as she signed the note and folded it into an envelope. “One of the research staff is very ill--” (True, a piece of bad luck that had been providentially timed) “--and I’ve been meaning to send her flowers, but I won’t have time to go choose them myself. Would you please select a nice arrangement and have them delivered to the hospital? You know my usual florist.”
“Certainly, Miss Relena.”
“This is the note to go with them, and this--” She handed him a piece of paper torn from a notebook. “--is the address. Thank you.”
As he took the paper from her hand, the second page tucked behind the first slid askew, showing several hastily written lines. Without turning a hair, he folded the two pages together and slipped them into his breast pocket, bowed slightly, and walked out.
After he was gone, Relena tore the next few pages out of her notebook and slid them into her pocket. That afternoon, when she left the office to go to another appointment, she’d drop them into the shredder as she passed, just in case someone might check the impressions left and find a legible sentence.
Downstairs in the secure parking garage, Pargan hesitated for a moment, reaching towards his pocket, then turned the gesture into a brushing motion as if he were dusting off a speck of lint as a security guard looked towards him. Nodding towards the guard, he took Relena’s pink limousine out and drove sedately to the exclusive (and expensive) florist she preferred. As he parked, a dark blue car that had been three spots behind him the whole way slowed down briefly before driving off.
He checked to make sure nobody was close enough to see what he was doing before he pulled the papers out and looked at them. The first was just an address, giving a name, ward number and bed number, and then the delivery address for a nearby hospital. The second was addressed to him.
Pargan, this is important. When you send the flowers to Marjorie, send another arrangement to the address below. Pay cash. Seal the note in an envelope and write ‘Please hand this to the boys across the road’ on it, then put that in a second envelope and include it with the delivery.
Also, be careful. The office is BUGGED!!! I’m so angry!!!
An address followed, then a few more sentences in Relena’s clear handwriting. Pargan read them, raised one grey eyebrow, then carefully tore that section of the page off and slipped it back into his pocket, entering the florist with the sealed note and first address prominently in his hands. Behind him, a dark blue car cruised slowly back along the road.
“I need to send two deliveries,” he told the young man behind the counter. “Separate transactions, please; one is personal, and I need a receipt for the second one, as that’s work-related.”
“Certainly, sir!” the florist said, happy to help someone he knew as one of his best customers. “What sort of arrangement were you thinking of?”
“A small arrangement of orchids first, I think,” Pargan said, picking up a notecard and envelope from the counter. “It’s for a distant relative’s birthday. Do you have red-- yes, those are lovely,” he said, nodding as the young man held up a spray of flowers for him to inspect. “Perfect. She has excellent taste, and-- oh dear! I’m afraid I’ve spoiled this envelope. Might I have another?”
By the time the florist turned back from assembling and wrapping a small, tasteful bunch of orchids and greenery, the note was safely double-sealed and tucked away in an innocent-seeming envelope. Pargan paid cash, politely refused a receipt, and started to discuss requirements for the arrangement his employer wanted to send.
When the dark blue car came back and parked, the orchid arrangement had already been whisked away to await delivery and Pargan was completing negotiations for a large, showy, expensive table arrangement with included vase. The middle-aged man who got out of the blue car peered in the window for a minute, then came inside for a closer look at the various flowers on offer, circling the room aimlessly until he came to the counter. He peered at Pargan’s arrangement, grunted, fingered a leaf, and glanced at the attached envelope before walking out.
Pargan sniffed, readjusted the leaf, paid for the arrangement with his Departmental credit card, took the receipt and left after thanking the florist again. He paused just outside the door to carefully tuck receipt and card away in his wallet, glanced at the dark blue car without appearing to notice the man inside, then strode back to the pink limousine and drove away.
As he waited at the entrance to the parking lot for a break in traffic, he glanced in the rear-view mirror as the dark blue car also pulled out of its spot and drew up behind him, looked back at the road, then took a more careful look in the mirror as something occurred to him. As he pulled out onto the road, he reached over and hit a preset button on the car phone.
< < You’ve reached the police non-emergency line, what is your call regarding? > >
“Good morning,” Pargan said politely, still watching the blue car in the mirror. “I understand there is currently a, ah, ‘blitz’ attempting to deter drivers from using non-handsfree phones while driving?”
< < That is correct. > >
“Very good. I am currently driving north-west on Patterson Avenue, and there is a person in a dark blue Ford talking on a mobile phone-- oh dear. He’s not steering very well, he just nearly sideswiped a car in the next lane.”
< < We appreciate you letting us know, sir. Can you see the car’s registration? > >
Pargan carefully dictated the Ford’s licence plate number, gave his own details, and could hear fast typing in the background as the dispatcher thanked him. A few minutes later, flashing blue and red lights appeared behind him, and he drove on serenely as the Ford pulled over.
End chapter 41
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