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Oath of Swords
By David Weber
Baen BooksCopyright © 1995 David Weber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe shouldn't have taken the shortcut.
Bahzell Bahnakson realized that the instant he heard the sounds drifting down the inky-dark cross corridor. He'd had to keep to the back ways used only by the palace servants-and far more numerous slaves-if he wanted to visit Brandark without the Guard's knowledge, for he was too visible to come and go openly without being seen. But he shouldn't have risked the shortcut just to avoid the more treacherous passages of the old keep.
He stood in an ill-lit hall heavy with the stink of its sparse torches (the expensive oil lamps were saved for Churnazh and his "courtiers"), and his mobile, foxlike ears strained at the faint noises. Then they flattened in recognition, and he cursed. Such sounds were none of his business, he told himself, and keeping clear of trouble was. Besides, they were far from the first screams he'd heard in Navahk... and there'd been nothing a prince of rival Hurgrum could do about the others, either.
He squeezed his dagger hilt, and his jaw clenched with the anger he dared not show his "hosts." Bahzell had never considered himself squeamish, even for a hradani, but that was before his father sent him here as an envoy. As a hostage, really, Bahzell admitted grimly. Prince Bahnak's army had crushed Navahk and its allies, yet Hurgrum was only a single city-state. She lacked the manpower to occupy her enemies' territories, though many a hradani chieftain would have let his own realm go to ruin by trying to add the others to it.
But Bahnak was no ordinary chieftain. He knew there could be no lasting peace while Churnazh lived, yet he was wise enough to know what would happen if he dispersed his strength in piecemeal garrisons, each too weak to stand alone. He could defeat Navahk and its allies in battle; to conquer them he needed time to bind the allies his present victories had attracted to him, and he'd bought that time by tying Churnazh and his cronies up in a tangle of treaty promises, mutual defense clauses, and contingencies a Purple Lord would have been hard put to unravel. Half a dozen mutually suspicious hradani warlords found the task all but impossible, and to make certain they kept trying rather than resorting to more direct (and traditional) means of resolution, Bahnak had insisted on an exchange of hostages. It was simply Bahzell's ill fortune that Navahk, as the most powerful of Hurgrum's opponents, was entitled to a hostage from Hurgrum's royal family.
Bahzell understood, but he wished, just this once, that he could have avoided the consequences of being Bahnak's son. Bad enough that he was a Horse Stealer, towering head and shoulders above the tallest of the Bloody Sword tribes and instantly identifiable as an outsider. Worse that Hurgrum's crushing victories had humiliated Navahk, which made him an instantly hated outsider. Yet both of those things were only to be expected, and Bahzell could have lived with them, if only Navahk weren't ruled by Prince Churnazh, who not only hated Prince Bahnak (and his son), but despised them as degenerate, over-civilized weaklings, as well. His cronies and hangers-on aped their prince's attitude and, predictably, each vied with the other to prove his contempt was deeper than any of his fellows'.
So far, Bahzell's hostage status had kept daggers out of his back and his own sword sheathed, but no hradani was truly suited to the role of diplomat, and Bahzell had come to suspect he was even less suited than most. It might have been different somewhere else, but holding himself in check when Bloody Swords tossed out insults that would have cost a fellow Horse Stealer blood had worn his temper thin. He wondered, sometimes, if Churnazh secretly wanted him to lose control, wanted to drive Bahzell into succumbing to the Rage in order to free himself from the humiliating treaties? Or was it possible Churnazh truly believed his sneer that the Rage had gone out of Hurgrum, leaving her warriors gutless as water? It was hard to be sure of anything where the Navahkan was concerned, but two things were certain as death. He hated and despised Prince Bahnak, and his contempt for the changes Bahnak had wrought in Hurgrum was boundless.
That Bahzell understood, after a fashion, for he, too, was hradani. He understood the craving for battle, the terrible hot hunger of the Rage, and he shared his people's disdain for weakness. But he had no use for blind stupidity, either, and what he couldn't understand was how Churnazh could continue to think Bahnak a fool. Churnazh might sneer at Hurgrum as a city of shopkeepers who'd forgotten how to be warriors, but surely even he didn't think it had been pure luck that Hurgrum had won every battle!
Of course, as a lad Bahzell himself had questioned some of his father's more peculiar notions. What need did a warrior have of reading and writing or arithmetic? Why worry about tradesmen and artisans or silly things like laws governing money-lending or property rights? Where was the honor in learning to hold formation instead of charging forward to carve your own glory from the enemy's ranks? And-despite himself, Bahzell smiled a little in memory, even now-surely bathing every single week would ruin a man's constitution!
But he questioned no more. Hurgrum's army hadn't simply defeated five times its own numbers; it had slaughtered them and driven their survivors from the field in a rabble, and it had done so because it fought as a disciplined unit. Because its maps were accurate and the commanders of its fast-marching contingents, or at least their aides, could read the orders their prince sent them and close in upon their enemies in coordinated attacks. And because it was uniformly trained, because its warriors did keep formation and were equipped with weapons of its own city's manufacture from the hands and forges of the "shopkeepers" Churnazh despised.
That was a lesson even other Horse Stealers could appreciate, which explained the new allies Hurgrum was gathering in, but since seeing Navahk, Bahzell had come to recognize an even more enduring side of his father's accomplishments. Prince Bahnak's native city had been bad enough before he came to power, yet Navahk was worse than Hurgrum had ever been. Far worse. It was a place of noisome streets cluttered with garbage, night soil, and small dead animals, heavy with the stench of unwashed people and waiting pestilence, all presided over by swaggering bullies in the colors of the prince who was supposed to rule his people, not plunder them himself!
But, then, Churnazh had been a common brigand before he joined the Navahkan army, rose through the ranks, and seized the throne, and he was proud of the brute strength that proved his right to rule. Strength Bahzell could appreciate; weakness was beneath contempt, and he knew his father couldn't have held his own throne if his warriors thought for one moment that he was a weakling. But in Churnazh's eyes, "strength" rested upon terror. His endless wars had made Navahk the most feared of all the Bloody Sword cities, yet Navahk herself was terrified of him... and his five sons were even worse than he.
All of which explained why the last thing a hostage from Hurgrum had any business doing was standing in this hall listening to screams and even considering intervening. Besides, whoever was screaming was only another Bloody Sword, and, with the noteworthy exception of Brandark, there wasn't a Bloody Sword worth the time to send him to Phrobus, much less risk his own life for.
Bahzell told himself that with all the hardheaded pragmatism he could summon... then swore vilely and started down the unlit corridor.
Crown Prince Harnak grinned as he smashed his fist into Farmah's face yet again. Her gagged scream was weaker and less satisfying than it had been, but his metal-reinforced gauntlet cut fresh, bleeding gashes, and he felt a sensual thrill of power even greater than he'd felt when he raped her.
He let her slip to the floor, let her try to crawl away with her arms bound behind her, then kicked her in the ribs. The shredded chemise wadded into her mouth muffled her gurgling shriek as his boot smashed her into the stone wall, and he laughed. The bitch. Thought she was too good for a prince of the blood, did she? Well, she'd learned better now, hadn't she?
He watched her curl in a beaten ball and savored her hopeless terror. Rape was the one crime that might turn even his father's men against him, but no one would ever know who'd had this slut. When they found her body and saw all the things he'd done-and still looked forward to doing-they'd assume exactly what he wanted: that someone taken by the Rage's blood frenzy had slaughtered her like a sow, and-
An abrupt explosion of rending wood shattered his hungry anticipation and snatched him around in shock. The long abandoned sleeping chamber's locked door was thick, as stout and well built as any door in Navahk was likely to be, but its latch simply disappeared in a cloud of splinters, and the door itself slammed back against the wall so hard one iron hinge snapped. Harnak jumped back in instant panic, mind already racing for a way to bribe or threaten his way out of the consequences of discovery, but then his eyes widened as he saw who stood in the opening.
That towering figure could not be mistaken for anyone else, but it was alone, and Harnak snarled in contemptuous relief as the intruder glanced at the naked, battered girl huddled against the wall. Big he might be, but Bahzell of Hurgrum was no threat. The puling, puking coward had hidden behind his "hostage" status for over two years, swallowing insults no warrior would let pass... and he was armed only with a dagger, while Harnak's sword lay ready on the rotting bed. Bahzell would never raise his hand to the heir to Navahk's throne-especially if it meant matching eighteen inches of steel against forty!-and even if he carried the tale to others, no one in Navahk would dare take his word over that of a prince of the blood. Particularly if Harnak saw to it that Farmah had vanished before the Horse Stealer could get back with help. He straightened his back with an automatic, arrogant snarl, gathering his scattered wits to order the intruder out, but the words died unspoken as Bahzell's eyes moved back to him. There was something in them Harnak had never seen before... and Bahzell wasn't stopping in the doorway.
A ball of ice froze in Harnak's belly. He had time to feel one sudden stab of terror, to abandon his swaggering posture and leap desperately for his sword, and then an iron clamp seized him by the throat. Shouting for help would have done him no good-he'd chosen this spot so no one would hear his victim's screams-but he never got the chance to try, for his cry died in a wheezing gurgle as the clamp lifted his toes from the floor. He writhed and choked, beating at Bahzell's wrist with his gauntleted hands, and then another hand-not a clamp, this one, but a spiked mace-crashed into his belly.
Harnak screamed as three ribs snapped. The sound was faint and strangled... and dwarfed by the sound he made when a knee like a tree trunk smashed up between his legs.
His world vanished in agony so great he hardly noticed the mace crashing into his belly again. And then again and again and again. But he retained enough awareness to realize what was happening as Bahzell released his throat at last. The choking hand clasped the nape of his neck instead. Another hand caught his belt, and Crown Prince Harnak of Navahk screamed in terror... until he smashed face-first into the dirty little chamber's wall and the impact cut his shriek off like a knife.
He oozed down the stone, smearing it with red, and Bahzell snarled and started forward to finish the job. The Horse Stealer's muscles quivered as fury snapped and sputtered through them, but sanity still flickered, and he made himself stop. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, fighting back the red haze. It wasn't easy, but the killing madness ebbed without quite passing over into the Rage, and he shook himself. He opened his eyes once more and looked down, grimacing at the knuckles he'd split on his enemy's metal-studded leather jerkin, then turned to Harnak's latest victim.
She writhed away in terror, too battered and beaten to realize he wasn't Harnak, but then she felt the gentleness of his touch and whimpered.
"There, lass. There," he murmured, bitterly aware of how useless the soothing sounds were yet making them anyway, and her frantic struggles eased. One eye opened, staring fearfully up at him, but the other was swollen shut, and the cheek below it was clearly broken.
He touched her hair gently, and disgust filled him as he recognized her cut and bloody face. Farmah. Who but Harnak-or his brothers-would rape a mere girl supposedly under his own father's protection?
He lifted her, and bleak hate filled his eyes at her pain sound when broken ribs shifted. Her hands were bound behind her, and fresh contempt snarled through him as he recalled Harnak's swaggering bluster about courage and hardihood. Courage, it seemed, required a "warrior" to bind a teenaged girl half his size to be certain she was helpless before he raped her and beat her bloody!
He eased her into a sitting position on a battered old chest against the wall. It was filthy, but the only other furnishing was the bed Harnak had raped her upon. She shuddered in terror and pain, yet she leaned forward to help as he cut the cord that had flayed her wrists raw and plucked the wad of cloth from her mouth. Returning intelligence flickered in her good eye. "Thank you, M'lord," she whispered. "Thank you!"
Her hand rose and squeezed his wrist with surprising strength. Or perhaps not so surprising, for she, too, was hradani, however slim and delicate she might be compared to Bahzell.
"Hush, girl. Don't be thanking me," Bahzell rumbled, and looked away from her nakedness in sudden embarrassment. He spied Harnak's discarded cloak and scooped it up, averting his eyes as he held it out to her, and her sound as she took it was trapped between a sob of pain and shame and a strange, twisted ghost of a laugh.
It snarled deep inside Bahzell, that sound, striking fresh sparks of fury. He bought a few moments to reassert control by ripping a length of cloth from Harnak's none too clean shirt and wrapping it around his bleeding knuckles, but the delay was little help, and his hand itched for his dagger once more as he glared down at Harnak. Rape. The one crime not even the Rage could excuse, even in Navahk.
Excerpted from Oath of Swords by David Weber Copyright © 1995 by David Weber. Excerpted by permission.
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