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STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu May 24, 2012 8:53 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 30

"Yes, they would be a bad idea, Tarith," Tellian told him. "Especially when Baroness Hanatha heard about them!"

Tarith laughed, and Bahzell was glad to hear it. Tarith was a first cousin of Hathan Shieldarm, Tellian's wind brother. He and Hathan had both been armsmen in the baron's service when Hathan bonded with Gayrhalan, and Tarith had taken over Tellian's personal guard when Sir Charyn Sabrehand, who'd commanded it for over ten years, finally retired. Before that, though, he'd been Leeana Bowmaster's personal armsman, and he'd taken Leeana's flight to the war maids hard. He and Hathan were both naturally and intensely conservative by inclination, and Tarith had always been one of those Sothōii who thought war maids were "unnatural." He'd been stubbornly unwilling to accept that the young woman he'd watched over literally from her birth -- the young woman he loved as if she'd been his own daughter -- could have done such a thing. It had turned him dark and bitter for entirely too long, and for years he'd blamed Dame Kaeritha for not stopping Leeana before she could ruin her own and her parents' lives that way.

His expression the first time he'd seen Leeana in chari and yathu on a visit to Hill Guard had been almost physically painful to watch, and he'd quickly turned and disappeared into the barracks. Bahzell had seen the hurt in Leeana's eyes as she'd watched him vanish, but he'd scarcely been the only inhabitant of Balthar to react that way. Still, he did seem to have come to terms with it, by and large, over the last couple of years, and it might just be that some of his prejudices against the "unnatural" war maid way of life had faded in the process. He still seemed acutely uncomfortable around her on her fleeting visits, as if all the habits of fourteen or fifteen years of watching over her remained steadfastly at war with what she had become. And, like someone else Bahzell could have mentioned (although for rather different reasons), he managed persistently to find reasons he had to be somewhere else during those visits. Yet the wounded look had disappeared from his eyes, and taking over Tellian's personal guard had helped.

He'd even learned to admit that he still loved Leeana, no matter what she'd done with her life, Bahzell thought.

< And about damned time, too, > Walsharno agreed. < You two-foots spend an awful lot of time worrying about other two-foots' "mistakes"! Think how much wear and tear you could avoid if you only let them do what they want with their lives. >

The courser had a point, Bahzell reflected. Of course, it was different for the coursers with their herd sense. Each courser was an individual, but all of them shared a sort of corporate awareness that left far less room for misunderstandings and hurt feelings than the Races of Man seemed to manage so effortlessly. Not that one courser couldn't develop a lively dislike, even hatred, for another one, but no courser would have questioned Leeana's right to do whatever she chose with her own life.

< No, we wouldn't have, > Walsharno agreed. < And we wouldn't waste so many years of our lives denying our love for someone, either, > he added rather more pointedly. < No matter who they were or what they'd done. >

Bahzell looked down at the back of the courser's head for a moment, but Walsharno didn't turn to look back at him. Not even his ears moved as he continued calmly along, and Bahzell turned his attention back to Tellian.

"Surely you're not thinking as how one of your very own personal armsmen would be after running off to the Baroness to be telling her such as that, are you, Milord?" he asked out loud.

"If they wouldn't, Dathgar would," Tellian retorted. "Yes, and she'd bribe the traitor with as many apples as he could eat, too!"

Dathgar snorted loudly and shook his head hard enough to set every bell on his ornamental halter chiming, and Bahzell heard Walsharno's mental laugh.

< Dathgar says he'd hold out for at least a feed bag full of sugar, > he explained, and Bahzell chuckled as Tellian shook his head in smiling disgust at his companion's treason.

< I'm glad he finally let you do something about that cough of his, > Walsharno said more seriously as he and his rider watched Tellian. < I still don't like the way it was hanging on. >

I wasn't so very happy about it myself, Bahzell replied silently.

< No, and you thought the same thing I thought about it. >

The courser's mental voice was sharp, and Bahzell shrugged without replying. Neither he nor Walsharno could quite shake the suspicion that Tellian's "cough" had been entirely too persistent. Bahzell had chosen not to make an issue of it, but he'd also conducted his own quiet yet very thorough investigation. If anyone had been responsible for…helping that cough along, however, he'd failed to find any trace of it among Hill Guard's inhabitants. That wasn't the sort of thing it was easy to hide from a champion of Tomanāk, either, which ought to have put their suspicions to rest.

Ought to.

< It certainly would be convenient for a great many people if something permanent were to happen to him, > Walsharno pointed out, and Bahzell had to agree. On the other hand, they couldn't blame everything that happened on Tellian's enemies. There were such things as a genuine accident or coincidence, after all.

< Of course there are. I'm sure that's the reason you and Vaijon -- oh, and the Baroness -- gave him so much trouble about that armor he decided not to wear, too. >

The irony in Walsharno's mental voice should have withered half the Wind Plain, and Bahzell's ears flicked in acknowledgment. They had tried to convince Tellian to take the precaution of wearing his own armor for the trip, only to have him decline. His argument that the extra weight would have been a needless burden for Dathgar had been specious, to say the least, given any courser's strength and stamina…not to mention the fact that Dathgar had agreed with the others, not him. His fallback argument that it was hot, sweaty, and damnably uncomfortable had at least a modicum of plausibility about it, but the real reason was pride.

Now that's being a mite unfair of you, my lad, Bahzell told himself sternly. Aye, he's prideful enough, and of no mind to look like a man as jumps at shadows, too. But he's a point or three about keeping those as wish him ill from thinking as how they've frightened him, and it may be as how he's wishful to keep his own men from thinking so. Which is even dafter than worrying his head about its weight! There's not a man amongst 'em but knows he's guts enough for four or five. Aye, and wishes he had the sense to go with 'em, as well!

"-- still think the 'Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand' would be the best choice," Vaijon was saying. "He wouldn't have to sing, you know. I'm sure your armsmen all know the words by heart by now, Milord! They could avoid any little verses they didn't care for, and a few rousing choruses as we ride along would have to make the journey seem shorter."

"Aye, that it would," Bahzell agreed genially. "And a mite shorter for some than for others, though we'd not all be reaching the same destination."

"I don't understand why you're so sensitive about it, Bahzell," Vaijon teased. "It's not every man whose noble deeds are known to every wandering minstrel in half of Norfressa!"

"Only half?" Brandark turned to look back at them, shaking his head. "I see I really have to get back out on the road!"

"You just go on laughing, the lot of you," Bahzell said. "There's a saying amongst my folk -- that as goes around, comes around, and it's in my mind I'll have my day soon enough. Aye, and it's looking forward to it, I am."

The others only grinned at him, and he shook his head, then glanced up towards the westering sun. It would be sliding towards the horizon in another three or four hours, he estimated, but the last milestone they'd passed indicated a sizable village or small town lay no more than ten or twelve miles ahead. Personally, he actually preferred making camp on the road, since inn beds tended to be more than a little cramped for someone his height. Sothōii averaged considerably taller than most humans, but they still weren't Horse Stealer hradani, and their furniture simply wasn't sized to fit someone like him. For the others, though --

His thoughts paused, and he felt his ears flattening. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had caught his attention, but then it came to him. The woodpecker had stopped its tattoo…and the birds who'd been singing among the trees had stopped. No, they hadn't all stopped, only the ones along the eastern side of the road.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun May 27, 2012 8:25 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 31

< Brother -- ! > he heard Walsharno begin in the depths of his brain, and the courser's head was swinging to the right, as well.

"Ware right!" he shouted, and Walsharno was surging forward, swinging to face that silent sweep of trees, moving between them and Tellian as the first venomous arrow shafts came sizzling out from under them.

Something buzzed viciously past Bahzell's ear. Something else struck his breastplate like a mallet and bounced away, ripping the green surcoat of the Order of Tomanāk and scoring a bright line across the polished steel. He heard shouts of alarm, screams, the bark of almost -- almost -- instant commands from Tarith, and he flung himself from the saddle. He hit the ground already running, followed by Walsharno's bitter, wordless protest, but the courser knew better than to voice his complaint, for whoever had chosen the ambush site had chosen well. Those trees were simply too dense for something Walsharno's size, even with a courser's impossible agility. There were too many places under their branches where a man with a blade could get close enough to use it, and there was no place at all where Walsharno could have made use of his speed and size.

"Come!" Bahzell cried, and a five-foot blade answered his summons, materializing in his right hand even as he charged towards that impenetrable wall of trees. His fingers closed on the familiar, wire-wound hilt, and his left hand found the basket-hilted dagger at his belt.

"Tomanāk!" he heard Vaijon's shout and knew the other champion was no more than a stride or two behind him. More arrows whizzed past him and a human voice cried out -- in agonized denial, not pain, this time -- but he had no time for that. The shade of the trees reached out to him, and he saw the muted gleam of steel as someone rose out of the shadows before him.

"Tomanāk!"

The warcry bellowed out of his own thick throat, and the sword in his hand -- a massive, two-handed weapon for any merely human arm -- lashed out in a lightning thrust that ended in a gurgling shriek as a foot and more of glory blade drove clean through his victim's chest.

The spasming weight slid off his sword, but another assailant came at him from the left. He engaged the newcomer's saber with his dagger, twisting his wrist, locking the blades together. He drove the human's sword out and to the side as he recovered his main weapon, and more steel rang and clashed beside him as another unfortunate assassin found himself face-to-face with Vaijon of Almerhas.

There were more of them than he'd thought, Bahzell realized, and slammed a knee into his opponent's crotch. The other man saw it coming and twisted, managing to block with his thigh, but he was a foot and a half shorter than Bahzell. The brutal force of the blow lifted him off the ground and knocked him back several feet, and Bahzell saw his face twist in horror as he realized the hradani had gained enough space for his swordarm. He threw his own left arm up in a futile blocking gesture…just in time for that enormous blade to come down, sheer through his forearm, and half sever his head in a fountain of blood.

Bow strings were still twanging, but not as many of them, and at least a half dozen more men were coming at Bahzell and Vaijon. Most of them seemed to be armed with the normal Sothōii saber, but others carried shorter, heavier blades, and he saw at least one battleaxe among them. He gave back a step, falling into place with Vaijon on his left, and his own sword came thundering down in a brutal, overhead stroke that split a man's head from crown to chin. He kicked the body aside as two more attackers split up, trying to come at him from both flanks at once, but then the one on his right turned with a panicky expression as Brandark came hurtling into the fight. Unlike Vaijon and Bahzell, the Bloody Sword was unarmored, yet that made him no less deadly, and the man who'd turned to face him went down with a high, wailing scream as Brandark opened his belly.

Steel clanged and belled, grunts of effort turned into screams of anguish, and a dozen of Tellian's armsmen surged into the woods on Brandark's heels. No Sothōii would fight on foot if he had any choice at all, and no one would ever confuse them with properly trained infantry when they did. For all their mounted discipline, individualism was the order of the day when they simply had to fight on foot. But these Sothōii had profited from exposure to Bahnak of Hurgrum's infantry, and they'd taken the lesson to heart. They hit the woods as an organized unit, driving in under the branches, and they'd brought their light shields with them.

"Tellian! Tellian!"

There was something hard and dangerous about the way they shouted their warcries, something with more than the usual Sothōii ferocity behind it, and the sounds of combat were ugly as they slammed into the ambushers. There were no more bows firing now; there was only the desperate clash of steel, screams, and somewhere on the other side of the trees the thunder of hooves as at least some of the attackers got to their horses.

"Tomanāk!"

He cut down another opponent. Then another, and they were no longer coming at him. Instead, they were trying desperately to get away, and he felt the Rage, the bloodlust of his people, rising within him. But the Rage had become his servant, not his master, over the years, and he controlled it with the ease of long practice as he, Vaijon, and Brandark hammered forward on their enemies' heels.

Someone on the other side was shouting orders. Bahzell took down yet another of the attackers and chanced a look in the direction of all the noise, and his eyes narrowed as he saw a small knot of archers who still retained their bows. They were clustered around the one doing all the shouting, and the loud fellow was pointing urgently in the direction of the road. The archers raised their bows, taking careful aim at whoever he was pointing out, and Bahzell threw his dagger in a flat, vicious arc.

It was a long throw, especially left handed, even for Bahzell Bahnakson, but the blade flickered in sunlight and shadow as it flashed straight to its mark. It went home with a grisly, meaty thud, driving quillon-deep in his target's collarbone. Over two inches of bloody steel projected from the man's back, his commands died in a gurgling crimson spray, and the sheer force of the dagger's impact lifted him from his feet and hurled him into two of the archers who'd been listening to him.

That was enough for all those archers. Whatever force of will their leader had used to hold them together vanished with his death. They scattered, most of them discarding their bows so they could run faster, and Bahzell smiled in satisfaction through the cold, icy focus of the Rage. An assassin who'd been coming at him saw that smile and tried frantically to brake, but he was too late. Before he could stop, he ran into a steel whirlwind that crashed through his feeble attempt to parry and split his skull.

"Oath to Tomanāk!" someone shouted. "Oath to Tomanāk!"

"Damn it!" Brandark grated. "I hate it when they do that!"

Bahzell grunted a harsh, unamused laugh, but the Bloody Sword only snarled.

"You think they'd show the least damned bit of interest in letting us surrender if we were the ones shouting it?" he demanded as the man he'd been about to skewer threw away his sword and raised his hands.

"Likely not," Bahzell conceded. Another of the ambushers went to his knees, and the Horse Stealer grunted again -- this time in disgust -- as the gripped the man by the nape of the neck and lifted him back to his feet. His unfortunate captive squealed in pain as he was hauled onto his toes and Bahzell half-threw and half-shoved him back towards the high road.

"I'm thinking you'd best not do one damned thing I could be taking as breaking your oath," he told the would-be assassin, and the man nodded desperately. Another one of the attackers tried to fade into the shadows, only to freeze as Bahzell cocked his head at him.

"You just go on running," the hradani encouraged coldly. "Those as don't come quiet when they've given oath to Tomanāk, why, they're not protected by it, now are they?"

The human stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, then nodded even more violently than Bahzell's first prisoner and started stumbling back towards the high road himself. Vaijon had rounded up a prisoner of his own, and Brandark sent the man who'd surrendered to him hurrying after the others with the Bloody Sword's sword tip prodding him to encourage more speed.
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Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue May 29, 2012 8:09 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 32

The time compression of combat never ceased to astonish Bahzell, even after all these years. The fight had seemed to last at least an hour, yet the whole thing had taken mere minutes. But they'd been bloody minutes, and his jaw tightened and his ears flattened as he came out of the trees and saw the carnage.

Eight or nine of Tellian's armsmen were down on the roadway where the initial volleys of arrows had slashed into them, but men were smaller targets than horses. At least a dozen of their mounts had been hit by arrows intended for their riders, and equine screams of pain tore at his ears with that special heart-rendering intensity of wounded horses without the ability to understand why they'd been hurt. Battle hardened or not, Bahzell had never been able to listen to those screams without hearing the beasts' pleas for someone to explain, someone to make it go away. Here and there armsmen had already cut the throats of mortally wounded horses. It was second nature to any Sothōii -- their duty to the horses who served them so loyally -- and not one of Tellian Bowmaster's armsmen would have even considered seeing to his own hurts until he'd seen to those of his mount. Nor would he flinch from doing his responsibility to end that uncomprehending agony when he must. It was one of the things Bahzell most liked about them, and --

< Quickly, Brother! >

Bahzell's head snapped up at Walsharno's mental cry. The unbreakable link between them would have told him if the courser had been wounded, and he and Walsharno had learned not to distract one another on those occasions when one or both of them had to enter battle without the other. But now the raw, burning urgency of Walsharno's summons burned through him and he turned quickly, then froze.

Dathgar was down. The huge bay had been hit by at least four arrows, and there were limits to even a courser's vitality. His coat was saturated with blood, his sides heaved weakly, and bloody froth blew at his nostrils. He tried to raise his head feebly, eyes glazed, and Tellian lay half under him, unconscious, with two snapped-off arrow shafts standing out of his chest. His right leg was twisted, obviously broken where Dathgar's weight had smashed down on it, and Hathan was on his knees beside him, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding, while two more of Tellian's armsmen knelt over Tarith.

"Do you be taking Dathgar!" Bahzell said sharply to Walsharno. The stallion nodded, and Bahzell looked over his shoulder. "Brandark --"

"I'll keep an eye on these bastards," Brandark promised him, brown eyes grim as he glared at the prisoners. "Go!"

It was Bahzell's turn to nod, and Hathan looked up with desperate eyes as the enormous Horse Stealer went down on one knee beside him.

"I can't stop the bleeding!" the wind rider said.

"Aye, I can be seeing that," Bahzell said grimly. Behind him, he sensed Vaijon heading for Tarith, but all of his own attention was focused on the dying man pinned under the dying courser. "Leave him to me," he told Hathan. "You be drawing those arrows out of Dathgar for Walsharno!"

"But --" Hathan began, then chopped himself off. "Of course," he said instead, his voice harsh, and Bahzell touched the shaft of the arrow which had driven into Tellian no more than an inch or two from his heart.

I'm thinking if ever I needed you, I'm needing you now, he thought, his eyes closing briefly as he reached out to that inner link which glowed between him and the god he served like some glittering golden chain or an inextinguishable torch blazing against the dark. This is a good man -- a friend.

There were no words from Tomanāk this time, only that comforting sense of the god's presence, that feel of two huge hands settling on Bahzell's shoulders. Warmth spread into him out of them, warmth he needed badly as he saw the damage, heard the wet, weak wheeze of the baron's breathing while blood bubbled from his nostrils, and realized Tellian was no more than half a breath, possibly two, from slipping away to Isvaria's table.

But that was as far as he was going, Bahzell told himself with all the grim, iron purpose which had made him a champion of the god of war, and felt Tomanāk's strength fill him as he opened himself once more to the power of his deity.

His eyes opened again, focused and clear with purpose, and blue light crackled around his hands. He laid the palm of his left hand flat on Tellian's feebly moving chest, and that blue light flowed out from it, flooding across the baron like a layer of azure ice. It flickered and glowed, burning more brilliantly than the afternoon sunlight, lighting Bahzell's face from below, embracing Tellian like a shield, and Bahzell reached out with it. He felt Tellian's flickering life force try to sink away from him, and he refused to let it. He locked the grip of his own will upon it, drawing on Tomanāk's power to forbid its extinction, and his right hand gripped that broken arrow shaft and pulled.

The broad headed arrow ripped out of Tellian's chest with a wet, ghastly sound, making the terrible wound still worse. Blood pumped from rent and torn flesh, and Bahzell reached for the other arrow. This one had driven into the baron's ribs, and bone and cartilage crunched and tore as he wrenched it out of that dying body. He threw it away and his sword reappeared in his bloody hand -- reversed, this time -- as he summoned it back to him once more. He closed his eyes again, leaning his forehead against the sword's quillons, left hand still pressing against Tellian's almost motionless chest, and reached out to the brilliant presence of his god.

Bahzell Bahnakson had healed many times in the years since he'd first become Tomanāk's champion. He'd faced the challenge of torn flesh, of poison, even of the touch of Krahana herself, and he recognized the smile of hollow-eyed death when he saw it. He recognized it…and he threw his own bared-teeth challenge in its face.

The blue light wrapped around his left hand swept up his arm, enveloped his torso, blazed up about him like a forest fire, and he knelt at its heart, eyes closed, emptying himself of everything except the power of Tomanāk and his own fierce, stubborn refusal to let the enemy who had become his friend go. He closed his mind to the picture of Tellian's broken, bloody body. He closed his ears to the baron's failing, gasping effort to breathe. Those things were no longer real, no longer mattered. Instead, he filled himself with the image of Tellian as he should be. Of Tellian laughing as they discussed Brandark's music. Tellian frowning thoughtfully as he leaned forward across a map, discussing strategy. Tellian smiling across the breakfast table at Baroness Hanatha, looking up with his heart in his eyes as his disgraced war maid daughter returned to Hill Guard Castle for her first visit. Tellian sipping whiskey on the first visit any Sothōii baron had ever paid to a hradani warlord as Prince Bahnak welcomed him to Hurgrum. Of Tellian strong and determined and whole once more.

Bahzell forged that image from memories, from hopes, from friendship…from love. He made it be, demanded it, rejected any other possibility, and when it had filled him, when there was no room in him for anything else, he gave himself to it. He poured everything he was, everything that made him who he was, into that reality, and the levin of Tomanāk's cleansing, healing power ripped through him like a hurricane. It exploded down his arm, erupted around the hand on Tellian's chest, swept outward down that tree-lined high road like a thunderbolt. For an instant -- one, fleeting moment -- Bahzell Bahnakson and Tomanāk were truly one, fused into that eruption of purpose, power, and determination.

It didn't last. It couldn't last for longer than one heartbeat, or perhaps two. Yet it lasted long enough, and Bahzell felt Tellian's chest heave convulsively under his palm. The baron sucked in a deep, wracking breath, then coughed convulsively. His faltering, flickering heart surged within his chest, and his eyelids fluttered. Then they rose, gray eyes unfocused, the blood from his nostrils clotting his mustache.

"Dathgar," he whispered, and Bahzell sagged back on his heels, every muscle drained, filled with the joyous, wondering exhaustion of being allowed to be a bearer of life, not death.

Something snorted beside him, and he looked down, then smiled as Dathgar's ears shifted, pricking forward. The hradani looked up, saw the same joyful exhaustion in Walsharno's eyes, and let the hand Walsharno didn't have rest on Dathgar's neck.

"There, now," he told the courser. "Don't you be doing anything hasty. It's work enough Tomanāk and I had putting him back together, so just you bide a bit. Let's not be breaking him all over again getting off of him!"
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu May 31, 2012 9:02 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 33

Chapter Nine

Well, that's disappointing, and in more ways than one, Master Varnaythus thought glumly, gazing into his gramerhain as a huge, bloodstained bay courser rolled very, very cautiously off of Tellian Bowmaster.

The courser took three tries to make it back to his feet, and two more coursers moved in on either side, leaning their shoulders against him to help him stay there. It was obvious he needed the help, but he stood there stubbornly, refusing to move until Tellian had been helped back to his feet, as well. The baron was pale, clearly at least as shaky as his courser and just as soaked with blood, but he leaned on Bahzell Bahnakson's arm and reached up to caress the courser's ears.

Dathgar lowered his head, resting his nose gently, gently on his rider's shoulder, and Tellian threw both arms around his neck, leaning into him. It was all very touching, Varnaythus thought with a sour expression, but it would have been ever so much more satisfactory if at least one of them had been standing disconsolately over the other's dead body.

And we came so close to getting both of them, that's what really pisses me off. He shook his head. I'd almost rather have missed them completely than to have come that close and fallen short! Damn it, I thought Salgahn was better than that!

He wasn't really being fair, and he knew it. He also didn't care. He sat back, arms folded, glowering at the gramerhain as Bahzell left Tellian to Dathgar while he joined Vaijon in seeing to the other wounded. Without Salgahn, Arthnar Fire Oar's assassins would never have come as near to successes they had, and he knew it. For that matter, he hadn't really expected he and the dog brother would be able to talk the River Brigands' warlord into even making the attempt! It had been worth suggesting to both him and Cassan, though, and no doubt the sizable bag of gold which had passed from the South Riding to Krelik had quite a bit to do with the fact that Arthnar had been willing to run the risk.

Well, that and the fact that he'd been able to hire his killers without their ever realizing who was actually paying them.

That was deft of him, Varnaythus acknowledged grudgingly. And he thought of that part without even any prompting from Salgahn. Of course, Cassan may not think it was all that clever once Bahzell gets around to interrogating his prisoners.

The wizard had presented Salgahn to Fire Oar as a Sothōii renegade who'd been sufficiently familiar with Tellian's movements and habits to provide the sort of inside information that might make a successful assassination possible. As he'd hoped, that had inspired Arthnar to use Salgahn to organize the attempt itself, but he hadn't expected the twist Arthnar had come up with. Arthnar himself had retained his anonymity as their ultimate employer, since it would have struck any interrogator as highly suspicious, in the unfortunately probable event that any of the assassins were taken alive, if the assassins' ultimate paymaster hadn't concealed his identity. But he'd instructed Salgahn to emphasize his Sothōii accent when he recruited them…and to casually "let fall" the fact that he was in the service of an undisclosed Sothōii noble. Salgahn had never actually said he was working for Cassan or Yeraghor, of course, but assuming Tellian followed up on what the surviving would-be assassins could tell him, there wasn't much question who he was going to end up blaming for it. And Cassan could hardly argue that it had been Fire Oar, not him, without facing the embarrassing question of just how he knew it had been Fire Oar.

Not too shabby, Varnaythus admitted. Get paid by someone to be his deniable assassin, then avoid drawing suspicion yourself by arranging things so that the fellow who paid you is the one people are most likely to suspect! I think I may have to revise my estimate of Arthnar's capabilities upward. And however pissed off I am, I also have to admit he came closer to getting Tellian than anyone else has! Of course, a lot of that was due to Salgahn. Too bad he won't be around to make any other attempts. He shook his head. I'm beginning to understand why the dog brothers are so reluctant to go after Bahzell, given how uniformly fatal their failures have been so far. Who would have thought even Bahzell could throw a dagger that far and that accurately with his off hand? But, damn it, I really thought this time he was going to pull it off!

The truth was, the wizard thought, blanking his gramerhain with an impatient wave, that if it hadn't been for the presence of not simply one, but no less than three champions of Tomanāk, either Tellian or Dathgar would definitely be dead. And if one of Salgahn's men had managed to get an arrow or two into Bahzell or Vaijon -- or even Bahzell's Phrobus-damned courser! -- Varnaythus would have counted the operation a resounding success, despite the dog brother's spectacular demise.

But they hadn't, and it wasn't, which turned the attempt into an equally resounding failure. Although, now that he thought about it, increasing Tellian's suspicions of Cassan would probably be worthwhile in its own right. After all, it wasn't that the Dark Gods actually needed Cassan to win; they only needed him to destroy the Kingdom's cohesion trying to win. In fact, it would actually suit them even better to see the entire Kingdom dissolve into something like that interminable bloodletting in Ferenmoss. Twenty or thirty years of civil war, preferably with enough attention diverted to break up Prince Bahnak's experiment in hradani unity, would be just about perfect from his Lady's perspective.

Well, since you never expected them to succeed in the first place, at least the fact that they didn't hasn't dislocated any of your own plans, he told himself as philosophically as he could. And you should probably make sure Cassan finds out about this as soon as you can do it without raising any suspicions about just how you learned about Arthnar's failure that quickly. Not that a little delay couldn't be useful. He smiled unpleasantly. After all, it'll give you more time to decide exactly how you want to let Cassan know about Arthnar's …misdirection. It never hurts to add a bit of salt to the wound when it comes to sowing dissension, now does it?

* * *

< So there you are…at last, > Walsharno said as Bahzell Bahnakson stepped out of the village inn's back door. A cool, still dawn drifted under the towering oak which shaded the inn, and the hradani stretched hugely, foxlike ears half-flattened while he yawned, as the courser ambled over to greet him.

"And a good morning to you, too," Bahzell said, recovering from his yawn and reaching out to rub Walsharno's nose. "I'm hoping you had a restful evening?"

< It's a hard, hard life, > Walsharno said mournfully, raising his head to lip playfully at the hradani's ears. < Some people get nice, snug roofs overhead, and other people get left out in the freezing cold all night long. >

"Freezing is it, now?"

Sunlight was already slanting golden shafts through the leaves overhead, promising plenty of warmth to come, and Bahzell chuckled and patted the side of Walsharno's neck.

< Well, it could have been. In fact, it could have been raining or snowing for all you'd know about it, and if it had, I still would've been outside in it! > Walsharno returned with spirit. < It's not like I would've fitted into that wretched little stable, at any rate! >

"And no more did I fit into that 'wretched little' bed," Bahzell pointed out. "It's a hard floor that bedchamber has!"

He reached back to knead the small of his back, and someone laughed behind him. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder, and smiled as Hathan Shieldarm joined him and Walsharno.
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jun 03, 2012 8:35 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 34

"Making you feel guilty, is he?" Hathan asked.

"Oh, not so much as all that," Bahzell demurred with a grin.

"But not for lack of trying. Is that what you mean?"

< Tell him a champion of Tomanāk doesn't resort to trickery to get what he wants, > Walsharno said.

"Now that I won't." Bahzell shook his head with a laugh. "First, because it's a fearful lie it would be, and, second, because he'd not believe a word of it."

Walsharno snorted and shoved hard enough with his nose to stagger even the massive hradani, and Hathan laughed. He obviously didn't need to actually hear what Walsharno had said to make a pretty shrewd guess about its content. He started to say something else, then paused and turned his head, shading his eyes with one hand as another courser -- this one an iron gray, smaller (though no courser would ever actually be called "small") than Walsharno and obviously at least a few years older -- came drifting over.

"Good morning, Gayrhalan," Bahzell said courteously, and the newcomer snorted with a very horselike head shake before he nodded to the hradani.

There'd been a time when Bahzell Bahnakson had not been Gayrhalan's favorite person in the world. Those days were long gone, but Hathan's courser had been well named. "Storm Souled" -- that was what Gayrhalan meant -- and the gray's temper was as stormy as his name suggested.

Despite which, he whinnied like a child's pony in delight as Hathan reached into his belt pouch and extracted a large lump of maple sugar.

"Greedy!" the Sothōii said as Gayrhalan lipped the sugar delicately from his palm. The courser ignored the charge with lordly hauteur…and crunched the sugar loudly.

< It's nice to see that some wind riders actually appreciate their brothers, > Walsharno observed.

"Ha!" Bahzell shook his head. "'Appreciate,' is it, now? More a matter of who's after being under whose hoof, I'm thinking!"

"That sort of honest evaluation isn't going to make you any friends, Milord Champion," Hathan said.

"Aye," Bahzell sighed and shook his head again, his expression mournful. "It's a hard lot, this being an honest man. There's never an end to the trouble it can be landing a fellow in! If I'd the least notion then where it would be taking me, I'd not have fallen so easy for Himself's little invitation. I mean, when it comes to the sticking point, what's one wee little demon one way or the other compared to a man's spending his whole life long speaking naught but the truth? And me a hradani, to boot."

Hathan laughed. But then he gave Gayrhalan's neck one last pat and turned to face Bahzell fully, and his expression was far more serious than it had been.

"Gayrhalan says Dathgar's strength is coming back nicely. Has Walsharno spoken with him this morning?"

< Yes, I have, > Walsharno replied, and from the strength of his mental voice Bahzell knew he was speaking simultaneously to Gayrhalan, as well. < I think he's almost fully recovered, although I'm none too enthusiastic about putting that to the test just yet. > He shook his mane and blew heavily. < He's not so young as he used to be, and I don't think it would hurt a thing for him to have another day or so of rest before we head on to Sothōfalas. >

Hathan's eyes had narrowed as he listened to Gayrhalan relaying Walsharno's comments. Now he smiled and nodded his head vigorously, but his expression was quizzical.

"I don't know that I'd like to be the one suggesting to Dathgar that he might be getting a bit past it," he said, regarding Walsharno with a raised eyebrow. "In fact, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't, even if I were a somewhat younger fellow than him and a champion of Tomanāk. Having said that, though, I agree there's no need to rush getting back on the road. And not just for Dathgar's sake, either."

"Well, I'll not deny it's easier I'd be in my own mind if it so happened we could convince Tellian of the same thing," Bahzell acknowledged. "Mind, champion of Tomanāk or no, I've no mind to be suggesting to him as how he's 'getting a bit past it, either,' if it's all the same to you."

"I think that would be an excellent thing to avoid doing," Hathan agreed fervently. "In fact, I can't think of anything you could possibly say that would be more likely to inspire him to insist on leaving before breakfast!"

< There's no need to do anything of the sort. > Walsharno flipped his ears in the courser equivalent of a shrug when Bahzell and Hathan looked at him. < We'll just suggest to Dathgar that it would be better for Tellian to rest for another day or two -- and, of course, that we don't want anyone telling Tellian that, given how stubborn he is. And then we'll suggest exactly the same thing to Tellian about Dathgar. > He flipped his ears again. < They'll both jump for it the same way Gayrhalan jumps for sugar. >

"Sure, and a sad thing it is to see such deceitfulness so early in the morning," Bahzell sighed.

< Oh? > Walsharno cocked his head, examining his wind brother with one skeptical eye. < And do you have a better idea? >

"That I don't," the hradani conceded cheerfully. "And it's no quarrel I have with deceitfulness so long as it's after working, when all's said."

"From your lips to Tomanāk's ears," Hathan said feelingly. "And if convincing the two of them to go easy on each other doesn't work, we can always add Tarith. For that matter, I'm pretty sure we could convince him to hobble around for a day or two -- with a properly stoic expression, you understand -- to convince Tellian he needs the rest!"

"No doubt," Bahzell agreed.

"Good."

Hathan reached up to rub Gayrhalan's nose again for several seconds, then looked back at Bahzell and Walsharno, and his expression was far more serious than it had been.

"Things were a bit hectic yesterday," he said. "I'm not sure I got around to thanking the two of you for saving Tellian's and Dathgar's lives. If I didn't, I should have." His eyes darkened with emotion. "I knew they were both gone, and all I could think of was telling Hanatha. I think it would have killed her, too, you know."

"I'm thinking she's a stronger woman than that," Bahzell disagreed. "Still and all, it's happier I am we've no need to find out one way or the other."

"The gods know I agree with you there!" Hathan said. "When you pulled those arrows out of his chest, Bahzell…I was afraid you were going to finish him off on the spot!" He shook his head. "Of course, I knew even then that we were going to lose him anyway if you couldn't heal him, but still --!"

"I'll not deny it gave me a twinge or two," Bahzell admitted. "Yet I couldn't be leaving them where they were, and there was no time at all, at all, for being gentle about it."

"No, and I knew it at the time. For that matter, I had to do the same thing with Dathgar!"

< And a good thing he did, too, > Walsharno said, looking at Gayrhalan. < Tell him he was my hands, Gayrhalan. Without him, we'd have lost Dathgar for certain. >

Hathan cocked his head as he listened to the other courser relaying that to him. Then he nodded to Walsharno with a courteous formality.

"It was my honor," he said quietly. "But we were all lucky to have the two of you and Vaijon along! Toragan only knows how many we would've lost without you." His mouth tightened. "For that matter, it was bad enough with all the three of you could do."

"That it was."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jun 05, 2012 8:52 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 35

Bahzell's ears flattened and his eyes darkened. Not even a champion of Tomanāk could recall someone who'd already crossed the wall between life and death, and seven of Tellian's armsmen had made that journey before he or Vaijon could summon them back. Walsharno had helped with that effort as much as he could, but one thing he and Bahzell had learned over the years since he'd become the very first courser champion of Tomanāk was that there were differences in their healing abilities.

Bahzell wasn't entirely certain why that was so, but they'd discovered that Walsharno's ability to heal coursers or horses was far stronger than Bahzell's…and that Bahzell's ability to heal the Races of Man was greater than Walsharno's. They'd discussed the difference often, and they'd come to the conclusion that the difference lay in who -- and what -- they were. The degree to which any champion of Tomanāk could succeed in a healing depended in large part upon how completely and deeply he could visualize his patient's restoration…and how deeply into that patient's soul and innermost being he could reach. Coursers and the Races of Man were simply different from one another in some deep and fundamental ways, and that affected how deeply and intimately they could fuse with those they sought to heal, become the essential bridge between the hurt and dying and Tomanāk.

Whatever the reason, Walsharno was plainly better than Bahzell at healing coursers or their smaller equine cousins while Bahzell was better at healing fellow hradani and humans. That was why Bahzell had concentrated on saving Tellian and entrusted Dathgar to Walsharno. It was also why Walsharno had lent his strength to Bahzell and Vaijon, putting all his driving will behind them as they'd plucked as many of the wounded back from death as they could. They'd done all any man could do, and without Walsharno's aid they would have lost still more of them. Bahzell and his wind brother both knew that, and so did Vaijon, yet the hradani also knew it would be a long time before any of them fully forgave themselves for having lost so many.

< Don't be silly, > a deep, rumbling voice said in the back of his brain. < You did well -- all of you. But there are limits to what even my Swords can accomplish. >

And I'd've done still better if I'd spent less time making bad jokes and more seeing what it was the lot of us were riding into, Bahzell thought grimly.

< Or if I'd taken you by the hand and warned you about it. Or if Tellian had been wearing armor the way he ought to have been. Or if it had been raining, instead of sunny, and their bow strings had stretched in the wet. Or if an earthquake had swallowed them up or they'd been nibbled to death by tree frogs. > The voice of Tomanāk Orfro took on a decidedly testy edge, and Bahzell had a mental image of his deity standing there with his hands on his hips and a stern light in his eyes. < Oh, and while we're on the subject of "if," if Walsharno had been able to maneuver under those trees and if the both of you had had wings. Have I left anything out? Or do the two of you have something else to feel guilty about? >

Bahzell started to reply, then stopped himself.

< Better, > Tomanāk snorted in the spaces of his mind, and the god's voice turned a bit gentler, though its edge didn't disappear entirely. < Done is done, my Sword. All I've ever asked of you is that you do your best -- which you always have -- and not even I can undo the past. You know why that is, and I think you might bear that in mind when you consider your own actions and their consequences. I have nothing against remorse when it's merited, Bahzell, but there's something a little childish about blaming yourself for being merely mortal, and that's what you're doing when you go borrowing guilt for things not even a god can change. >

Bahzell felt a twinge of resentment at being called "childish," but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. After all, Tomanāk was the God of Truth. Which was undoubtedly the very reason the word had stung.

I'll try to be bearing that in mind, he thought a bit tartly. In the meantime, though, would it be as how you've any more to be telling us?

< No, > Tomanāk replied. < Too many threads are flowing together here, with far too many possible outcomes. Even if I were tempted to give you more detail, it would be too likely to simply confuse the issue for you -- possibly even make you hesitate at a critical moment. I can tell you this, though: you were right about Tellian's cough. I know you never found who was poisoning him, Bahzell, but that's because you couldn't look in the right place. >

Bahzell frowned for a moment. Then his eyes widened, and he sensed Tomanāk's nod.

< That was the first sign that the Dark Gods have decided to take an active hand again, > he confirmed. < And if the truth be known, Carnadosa's a much shrewder adversary than Sharnā or Krahana, and far closer to sane than Shīgū's ever been. Nor is she so arrogant as to confront us without careful planning and all the support she can muster. Watch yourselves, Bahzell, Walsharno. You can't begin to reckon how dearly Phrobus and all his children would love to see the two of you dead. >

< Could you tell us why they've waited this long to try again? > Walsharno asked.

< I can't tell you all the reasons, > Tomanāk replied after a moment. < I will tell you, though, that between the two of you, Kaeritha, and Vaijon, you've done more damage to the Dark Gods' access to this universe than you can imagine. > Walsharno and Bahzell sensed his fierce satisfaction, his pride in them. < I suspect none of them would be willing to admit it, especially not to themselves, but they're actually afraid of you. That's one of the reasons they've waited, and if they had a choice, they wouldn't cross swords with you -- or me -- again even now. But they don't have a choice. Those threads I mentioned aren't just flowing together any longer; they're becoming a cascade, gathering power like snowmelt in the East Walls, the sort of flood that washes away mountains, and it could turn in any of dozens of directions. Be warned, My Swords -- there are few limits to what they will do to control that direction if they can. >

And here they've been so shy and hesitant about all they've been doing so far, Bahzell thought in a wondering tone, and Tomanāk chuckled.

< Fair enough, Bahzell, > he conceded. < Fair enough. But rejoice in what you've accomplished so far, the two of you, and rest here until Dathgar and Tellian and Tarith and the others are ready to travel once more. It will take more than a day or two for most of those who wish you ill to discover just how badly yesterday's ambush failed. >

Bahzell looked at Walsharno as he felt a huge, immaterial hand rest on his shoulder for just an instant. Then it was gone, and as he drew a deep breath he realized the entire conversation had taken place between one heartbeat and the next, without Hathan or Gayrhalan sensing a thing about it.

"Aye, Hathan," he said, resuming the conversation the other wind rider had no idea had ever been interrupted, "it's lucky we were to lose so few. And speaking of luck," he straightened, smiling wickedly, "what say the lot of us go have a word or three with those lads as were giving oath to Tomanāk yesterday? I've the oddest feeling as how it might just be they'll find it in their hearts to be telling us what it is we'd like to know."
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jun 07, 2012 8:44 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 36

Chapter Ten

"Leeana is here, Five Hundred."

Commander of Five Hundred Balcartha Evahnalfressa looked up from the paperwork on her desk, one eyebrow raised as she regarded the youthful war maid currently detailed as her aide. It was a rotating assignment which was usually shared by the newest and most junior members of the Kalatha City Guard…much to their trepidation. Most of them thought that things were arranged that way to be sure they were suitably terrified by the Guard's commander before they were released to the general population. In fact, it was so that they got an inside look at how the Guard ran as early in their careers as possible…and so that Balcartha had the opportunity to personally evaluate each of them. The Guard wasn't all that enormous, after all. Certainly, it wasn't so big that she couldn't actually know each of her war maids, yet new recruits had a pronounced tendency to hide from their commanding officer in the underbrush, at least until they got their feet under them. Balcartha understood that. She even sympathized with them. Yet she had no intention of allowing them to get away with it, either.

"Leeana, Taraiys?" the five hundred asked in a musing tone, and the girl -- she couldn't have been a day over seventeen -- blushed rosily. It was a fascinating shade of deep red, Balcartha noted, and Taraiys' blond hair, blue eyes, and very fair complexion made it even more spectacular.

"I beg your pardon, Five Hundred," she said stiffly. "I meant to say that Seventy-Five Leeana is here. She says she has an appointment."

"Ah -- that Leeana," Balcartha murmured, and watched Taraiys' blush turn even darker. For a moment, the five hundred wondered if smoke was actually going to curl up off of the girl's skin. But she didn't quite burst into spontaneous flames, and after a moment, the Guard commander relented and smiled slightly. "As a matter of fact, I've been expecting the Seventy-Five. Please ask her to step into my lair."

"Yes, Five Hundred!" Taraiys actually came to attention and touched her chest with a raised fist in salute, and Balcartha managed not to crack a smile as she solemnly returned it. Then she leaned comfortably back in her swivel chair, legs crossed, propped her elbows on the chair arms, and steepled her fingers under her chin.

"Seventy-Five Leeana, Five Hundred!" Taraiys announced with sharp formality a moment later, opening the door and ushering the considerably taller Leeana through it. Her head barely topped the older war maid's shoulder, and Leanna's jade-green eyes danced with devilish delight as they met the Five Hundred's over Taraiys head. Her lips quivered with her womanfully struggle to restrain the smile obviously dancing right behind those eyes, but somehow she managed to maintain a suitably solemn demeanor when Balcartha gave her a warning glance.

"Thank you, Taraiys," the Five Hundred said solemnly. "That will be all, I think."

"Yes, Five Hundred!" Taraiys saluted again and disappeared through the office door with the air of a rabbit escaping down its hole, perhaps half a leap in front of the fox. The door closed behind her, and something suspiciously like a giggle spurted out of Leeana.

"That will be quite enough of that, Seventy-Five Leeana," Balcartha said primly.

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Five Hundred Balcartha!" Leeana said earnestly. "Mother! She was so red when you sent her back out I thought you'd set her on fire!" The tall, redhaired young woman shook her head. "What did you say to her?"

"That's between her and me." Balcartha smiled and shook her own head. "She does color up spectacularly though, doesn't she?"

"Oh, I think you could certainly say that," Leeana agreed. Then she smiled a bit penitently. "I really shouldn't make fun of her for it though, I suppose. I can produce a pretty spectacular blush of my own, can't I?"

"On the rare occasions when anyone can manage to embarrass you, yes," Balcartha agreed.

"Are you implying that such a low person as myself no longer has the delicacy to feel embarrassment?" Leeana asked innocently, and Balcartha chuckled.

"Something like that…these days, at least," she agreed, and Leeana threw up her right hand as if she were acknowledging a touch in a training match.

"I deserved that," she acknowledged. "But she really is awfully young, isn't she?"

"This from the broken down old grandmother in front of me?" Balcartha raised both eyebrows. "I seem to remember a fourteen-year-old who didn't know which end of the dagger to hold when Erlis and Ravlahn first evaluated her. Now, let me see, let me see…what was her name?"

She gazed up at the ceiling, lips pursed in obvious thought, and Leeana laughed.

"You really are training with live blades today, aren't you, Five Hundred Balcartha?"

"Only against some," Balcartha replied with a twinkle.

As the commander of the Kalatha Guard, she wasn't supposed to have favorites, and she never allowed favoritism to govern her actions, but there was no point pretending she didn't have a special place in her heart for Leeana Hanathafressa. She did remember -- vividly -- the pampered fourteen-year-old noblewoman who'd fled to Kalatha almost seven years before. Not that Leanna had realized she'd been pampered, and by the standards of her birth rank, she hadn't been. Which hadn't changed the fact that, as Balcartha had just pointed out, she'd been totally unequipped with the skills her new life was going to require of her. Her embarrassment at finding herself clad -- more or less -- in the traditional chari and yathu had been only too apparent to someone with Balcartha's experience, and unlike most war maids, Leanna hadn't fled to Kalatha to escape an intolerable, all too often abusive family situation. Indeed, she'd escaped to Kalatha no more than hours in front of her pursuing father because of how much she'd loved her parents, and she'd been miserably homesick and unhappy at leaving them, however bravely she'd tried to hide it.

Looking at her now, Balcartha could still see that fourteen-year-old inside the poised, confident, athletic young woman who had replaced her. Not the misery or the uncertainty, but the dauntless, uncomplaining spirit which had risen to meet the demands of a life so utterly different from the one to which she had been raised.

Now Leeana smiled at her, and Balcartha unsteepled her fingers to point at the empty chair in front of her desk.

"Sit."

"Yes, Ma'am," Leeana said meekly and settled obediently into the indicated chair. She also folded her hands neatly in her lap, planted her feet very close together, and sat very straight with a demure, earnestly attentive expression.

"You do realize you're about to draw two extra weeks of patrol duty for being such a smartass, don't you?" Balcartha inquired.

"Oh, I suppose something like that might happen in some other city guard," Leeana replied. "My five hundred is far too broad-minded and much too far above the sort of petty mindedness which would permit that sort of mean-spirited retaliation…Ma'am."

"You just go right on believing that until you see the patrol roster," Balcartha advised her. Then she shook her head. "Although truth be told, and given how much you actually seem to enjoy running around out in the grasslands, I suppose I'd better come up with some other way to demonstrate my petty mindedness. Maybe I should convince the mayor to send you back for another conversation with Lord Warden Trisu."

"Mother forbid!" Leeana leaned back and raised both hands in a gesture of surrender, the dismay in her expression only half-feigned. "I'll be good. I promise I'll be good!"

"That bad, was it?" Balcartha swung her chair slowly from side to side. "Didn't Arm Shahana's visit give you any cover? I thought he was on his best behavior when she comes to call on him."

"I suppose he is, really." Leeana cocked her head, and her tone was more serious. "I'd say he's at least trying, anyway. Unfortunately -- as you and Mayor Yalith are both perfectly well aware -- Trisu can't quite seem to forget who my father is." She grimaced. "He's not very good at hiding his conviction that becoming a war maid is about the most disgraceful thing a properly reared young noblewoman could possibly have done. I'm pretty sure he doesn't try very hard, really."

"What do you mean?" Balcartha's chair stopped swinging and her eyes narrowed.

"Oh, I'm not saying he goes out of his way to offer me insults, Balcartha," Leeana said quickly. "On the other hand, you know he doesn't believe in operating under false pretenses, and becoming a war maid isn't some sort of minor faux pas like getting myself caught sleeping with someone else's husband or producing a child whose father I can't name. It's a seriously reprehensible thing for anyone to do!"

There was a genuine bite under the humor in her tone, Balcartha noted, continuing to gaze at her intently, and the younger woman shrugged.

"Whatever he may have thought or felt, he was perfectly polite in the way he addressed me, Balcartha. And let's face it, we both know Mayor Yalith chooses me as her envoy to make a specific point to him. I understand that. That doesn't mean I don't get a little tired sometimes of being used as the mayor's hammer, but I understand it." She shrugged again. "If putting up with the occasional visit to Trisu is the worst thing the war maids ever ask of me, I'll figure I've been a lot luckier than I deserve."

"I see." Balcartha considered her for another few seconds, then tipped back in her chair once more. "Should I take it, then, that you accomplished whatever it was Yalith sent you there to deal with?"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Jun 10, 2012 8:28 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 37

"I think so." Leeana nodded, but she did not (Balcartha noted) tell her exactly what it was Yalith had sent her to Thalar Keep to do. The younger woman's reticence didn't offend the five hundred. In fact, she approved of it -- strongly -- and the fact that Leeana wasn't the sort to gossip about any diplomatic missions upon which she might be sent was one of the reasons she tended to get sent on them.

Well, that and the fact that she's smart as a whip, not to mention better educated than at least three quarters of our war maids, and better informed on the Kingdom's politics than Yalith and me combined. And equipped with a confidence in her ability to handle even people like Trisu that most war maids twice her age could only envy. The really funny thing is that as smart as she is, I don't think she fully understands even now just how unusual that confidence of hers is.

Part of it, the five hundred knew, was simply who and what she'd been born. It would have been ridiculous to expect someone like her friend Garlahna, who'd been raised on a farm, to have the same confidence and poise as the only daughter of one of the Kingdom's four most powerful nobles. There was reason in everything, after all. Yet birth alone couldn't explain Leeana Hanathafressa, and neither could the young woman's knife-edged intelligence.

The truth, Balcartha admitted to herself just a bit more grimly, was that the majority of war maids had been damaged -- or at least scarred -- by whatever it was which had driven them to revolt against all the rules and expectations of "proper conduct" which had been trained into them. Not all of them, of course. There would always be those who simply discovered they wanted something more out of their lives. That they wanted to step beyond the mold and the restrictions, and thank Lillinara for them! But there was no point trying to deny that the war maid community was a refuge -- a place to heal, or even hide -- for the majority of women who sought it out.

In a sense, that was true for Leeana, as well, but what she'd come to hide from was the proposal of an arranged marriage she'd known her father's political enemies had contrived as a weapon against him. And if she'd had the inevitable regrets, shed the inevitable tears at giving up her family, there'd been nothing damaged or scarred about her. There'd been only that deep, abiding, astounding strength, and over the years, Balcartha had come to have an equally deep and abiding respect for the parents who'd given it to her.

"And did Lord Trisu's grooms offer to take care of Boots for you?" the five hundred asked out loud, her eyes gleaming faintly, and Leeana snorted.

"Lillinara, no!" She shook her head. "How can you even ask such a thing? Any properly bred Sothōii male offer to care for a war maid's horse? They were far too busy undressing Garlahna and me with their eyes!"

"Alas, that doesn't seem to happen to me anymore," Balcartha said mournfully, running one hand over her gray hair.

"Trust me, I wish it didn't happen to me, either!" Leeana said vehemently.

"Oh, hush, child!" Balcartha stopped running her hand over her hair to shake an index finger at the younger woman. "Trust me, the day men don't look at you, you'll notice! I know what you'd really like to do is wring their necks, and I'd pay good kormaks to see you do it. For that matter, I'd offer to help if I thought you'd need it! But you're only as young and good-looking as you are once, so go ahead and rub their noses in it. In a properly ladylike way, of course."

"Oh, of course," Leeana agreed, but a faint echo of Taraiys' fiery blush seemed to touch her cheekbones, and Balcartha frowned mentally.

Quite a few war maids, especially the ones who'd fled to the free-towns like Kalatha rather than being born there, took full advantage of the sexual freedom their new lives offered. Some of them took too much advantage of it, in Balcartha's opinion, and the behavior of certain war maids she could call to mind didn't help the bigoted stereotype which viewed all war maids as perhaps a half-step above common harlots. Or below them, perhaps. Of course, it was hard to blame them, after what many of them had endured, and whoever any individual war maid might choose to bed was her concern and hers alone. Whatever else might be true, war maids belonged to themselves, not anyone else, in all ways. They'd given up far too much of the rest of their lives to compromise on that, however much their "licentious ways" offended the society they'd rejected, and they were perfectly prepared to make their defiance of that society's rules abundantly, one might even have said flagrantly, clear.

Expecting anything else would have been not merely foolish but wrong, and as a general rule Balcartha didn't make it her business to worry about what any of her war maids did whenever they were off duty. Still, she'd become aware Leeana wasn't one of the ones who took advantage of that particular aspect of her freedom. Or if she did, she was incredibly discreet about it, at any rate. Bacartha had thought for a while that she and Gharlana might decide to pair up, but that obviously wasn't the case…especially now that Barlahn Ironsmith had come on the scene! And it wasn't as if someone with Leeana's looks and warm, open personality hadn't attracted plenty of attention, male and female alike, especially over the last few years. But she'd rebuffed all of them -- with a smile or a laughing, wicked joke that made it abundantly obvious she was no prude, whatever else might be true, far more often than not. And she clearly had a healthy appreciation for her own attractiveness. Aside from an occasional flash of resentment like her comment about Traisu's armsmen -- and the gods knew Balcartha understood that well enough! -- she never seemed the least…repressed, or unhappy, but still…

"But still" it isn't any of your business, old woman! the five hundred scolded herself. It's up to her who she does -- or doesn't -- sleep with, so just you let her worry about it!

"Well," she said out loud, "I'm glad to hear your mission was a success and you didn't leave any bruised or broken armsmen in your wake."

"Not this time, anyway." Leeana grimaced. "I can't guarantee that won't happen another time, though!"

"Just make sure there's a witness who can honestly testify that he made the first move, and you've got my blessing." Balcartha's tone was light, but there was a genuine note of warning in it, as well, and she waited to continue until Leeana nodded back.

"And now that I've issued my stern injunction, what was it you wanted to see me about?" she asked then.

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about a furlough," Leeana said, and Balcartha's mental ears pricked.

The younger woman looked as relaxed and comfortable as she'd been from the moment she entered the office, yet there was some subtle change. Some tiny shift in her body language, or perhaps something in her eyes. Balcartha couldn't put a finger on what that "something" was, but that didn't prevent her from knowing it was there.

"A furlough?" she repeated.

"Yes." Leeana shrugged. "It turns out I've been running up unused leave time for quite a while now. In fact, according to Erlis, I've got over three months of it on the books. With your permission, I'd like to use some of that up now."

"Over three months?" Balcartha blinked. To have accrued that much unused leave time, Leeana must have pretty much not taken any leave at all for the last couple of years, and the five hundred rebuked herself for not having noticed. Attention to duty and hard work were always praiseworthy qualities and much to be encouraged, but it was important for anyone to save a little time for herself, as well. In fact, it was as important as attention to duty, and if she'd realized Leeana was shorting herself on leave to that extent…

"Yes, Ma'am." Leeana made a small, almost apologetic gesture. "It just sort of…piled up."

Those mental ears of Balcartha's twitched again as Leeana's tone registered.

Now why don't I believe it just "piled up"? And if it didn't, why has she been saving it up on purpose?

"I suppose that happens sometimes," she said after a moment, "if not usually to quite that extent. And if it has, then by all means let's get some of it used up. Unless you're planning on letting it go on 'piling up' until you can retire a year or two early!"

"That's not what I had in mind." Leeana grinned and shook her head. "In fact, if the Guard can spare me, I'd like to go ahead and take a month or two of it, starting next month."

"I'm sure we can survive without you for a few weeks," Balcartha said dryly. "May I ask exactly what it is you have in mind to do with all that time?"

"Well…" Leeana shrugged. "Next month is my birthday, and I'd like to go home -- to Hill Guard, I mean -- for it."

Balcartha's eyes narrowed in sudden understanding.

"That's right. You'll be twenty-one this year, won't you?" she said.

"Yes, I will," Leeana replied, meeting her gaze levelly, and Balcartha nodded slowly.
*
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Jun 12, 2012 9:10 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 38

Twenty-one was the year of majority, the official beginning of adulthood, for a Sothōii noblewoman. For noblemen, it came two years earlier than that -- just another of those little natural advantages which accrued to someone who'd had the good sense to be born male. Among those scandalous war maids, of course, the rules were somewhat different, and unlike Leeana Bowmaster, Leeana Hanathafressa had been legally an adult from the moment she completed her probationary period.

Several questions followed one another through Balcartha's mind as she and the younger woman gazed at one another. But the only one who had the right to ask Leeana those questions was Leeana herself, and so --

"I don't see any problem about arranging a couple of months of leave for you," the five hundred said. "You'll have to discuss it with Erlis, of course -- make sure she's covered while you're away -- but I feel confident we'll manage in your absence somehow."

* * *

"Leeana! Over here!"

Garlahna's shout cut through the friendly, noisy, dimly lit din of The Green Maiden's common room, and Leeana turned her head, peering through the rather smoky air until she spotted her friend at a corner table. Unlike her, Garlahna had exchanged her chari and yathu for a gown for the evening, and its amber silk clung to her like a second skin. It was interesting, Leeana thought, how the gown actually emphasized Garlahna's undeniably curvaceous figure so much more…emphatically than the far more "revealing" traditional war maid attire did. It was a point she'd been paying more attention to of late herself, and she admired the embroidery on her friend's deeply plunging bodice.

Of course, some people had more curves to emphasize in the first place, she reflected, although she had to admit she was less challenged in that area herself than she'd once expected to be. It was simply that Garlahna could have challenged anyone in that particular competition.

She smiled at the familiar thought as Garlahna waved, beckoning her over. Then she waved back and started working her way through the crowd.

The Green Maiden was always crowded, especially on the evenings like this one, when fresh rain clouds had come swelling up along the western horizon as the sun settled towards evening. It didn't feel like it was going to be one of the Wind Plain's tumultuous thunderstorms, but unless Leeana missed her guess, they were in for a long, steady soaking. In fact, the first drops had already begun to fall, although no one could possibly hear them pattering on the The Green Maiden's roof through the chattering voices, the clatter of tableware, the calls for refilled mugs and glasses, and the preliminary tootling of the three musicians setting up for the evening's entertainment on the tiny stage beside the huge fireplace.

Leeana reached the table Garlahna had snagged and paused to use both hands to slick beads of rainwater off of her bare shoulders and upper arms before she hooked a toe under the unoccupied chair on her side and pulled it out.

"Didn't think you were going to make it before the floodgates opened," Garlahna observed.

"I didn't -- quite," Leeana pointed out wryly. "And I've got gate duty tonight. Third watch, in fact." She grimaced. "It ought to be coming down nicely by then."

"And Barlahn and I will be thinking of you with the deepest sympathy as we listen to the rain drumming on the roof and gurgling in the gutters," Garlahna assured her, leaning comfortably against Barlahn Ironsmith's shoulder. It was a well muscled shoulder, connected to powerful arms and calloused, capable hands, one of which was draped possessively around Garlahna at that very moment. "Assuming we can spare any of our attention from more…pressing matters, that is," Garlahna added with a smile.

"Knowing you?" Leeana snorted. "Somehow I don't think I'd better be counting on you to come make sure I haven't come down with pneumonia."

"Are you suggesting anything could possibly distract me from my deep and burning concern about my very best friend's well-being on a dark and stormy night like this?"

"I'm suggesting it would take Chemalka's own thunderbolt to get any 'spare attention' out of the two of you!"

"Well, that's only because we're going to be enjoying a few thunderbolts of our own," Garlahna replied, arching her spine ever so slightly to round her bosom provocatively, then batted her eyes in Barlahn's direction.

"Shameless hussy," he remarked comfortably, smiling down at her, and she laughed and patted him on the thigh.

"Yep, and you love it," she told him. "Don't try to pretend differently to me!"

"Happen I'm not so likely to be doing that. 'S long as you don't take t' taking me for granted, anywise."

"Trust me, that's not going to happen," she purred, raising her head far enough to plant a kiss on the side of his neck.

"Good." He smiled again, then looked across the table at Leeana. "And a good evening to you, too, Leeana," he said blandly.

"Why don't the two of you just go ahead and get a room here at the inn?" Leeana asked sweetly. "It would save so much time. And I'd be happy to wait to order until you got back."

"I tried, but they were all already taken," Garlahna said mournfully. "Still," she brightened, "I understand Raythas told Shallys she'd only need her room for an hour or so." She smiled wickedly at Leeana. "I'm sure Barlahn and I could get it when she's done…if you'd care to join us before you go on watch, that is."

"Garlahna, if I thought you were really willing to share Barlahn for even one moment, you might actually manage to embarrass me," Leeana told her with a smile of her own. "Since I know perfectly well what a greedy bitch you are where he's concerned, I'm not really worried."

"Spoilsport!" Garlahna laughed, then looked up as one of The Green Maiden's servers appeared at the edge of the table. Like quite a few of the other war maids scattered around the common room, the woman had a pipe clasped between her teeth, and smoke curled up from its bowl to join the haze drifting overhead as she cocked an eyebrow at the three of them.

"So are you finally ready to order, Garlahna? Or do you and Barlahn want to sit over here in each other's laps for another hour or so, first? Oh, and hi, Leeana."

"Hi, Barthyma." Leeana shook her head and jabbed a thumb in Garlahna's direction. "You know the two of them are lowering the tone of your entire establishment, don't you?"

"I keep telling them to get a room," Barthyma Darhanfressa replied, and raised both eyebrows as Garlahna went into a fit of giggles. "I said something especially funny?" she asked.

"Only to someone like Garlahna," Leeana assured her. "And since I've got the duty in another couple of hours, I'll go ahead and order a beer now, if you don't mind. And is that venison I smell?"

"Shallys' special recipe," Barthyma confirmed.

"Then I'll have that, too. With the buttered potatoes and lima beans. Oh, and don't forget the cornbread! And --"

"And make sure it's a generous portion," Barthyma finished for her with a smile, and shook her head. "Girl, it's a good thing you're as fanatical as you are about those morning runs of yours!"

"I'm just making sure I get to go on enjoying the good things in life," Leeana replied with a smile.

"Some of them, at least," Garlahna said. "Personally, I prefer to burn off the pounds without running around barefoot in the misty morn."

Leeana shook her head fondly. Garlahna might miss the occasional morning, but the two of them ran together at least four days a week.

"So, are you two going to order?" Barthyma asked the dark-haired war maid, and Barlahn laughed.

"O' course she is. In fact," he smiled down at Garlahna, "I'm thinking you'd best fetch her an extra portion, too." He looked up at Barthyma and winked. "Happen she'll need her strength tonight."

"Mother, take me now!" Barthyma rolled her eyes, and looked back at Leeana. "If it gets any deeper back here, you're going to drown before you have to go out in the rain, Leeana. You're always welcome at the bar if you need to escape."

"Thanks," Leeana said wryly, "but I think I'll just stay here and take notes."

"Take notes?" Garlahna sat up a little straighter, brown eyes narrowing slightly. "And the cause of this sudden curiosity of yours would be --?"

"Who said anything about 'curiosity'?" Leeana retorted. "I'm just looking for blackmail material."

"Blackmail material?" Garhlahna laughed. "You've got to be kidding! I was a farm girl, not a 'noblewoman' like someone I could mention, before I ran off to the war maids!"

"Oh, I know it wouldn't have any effect on you," Leanna shot back. "But Barlahn was a respectable fellow before he took up with you. He may still have a reputation to worry about, you know!"

She grinned at her friend, green eyes dancing, but Garlahna gazed back at her with that same speculative air for a heartbeat or two. There was something about Leeana's tone, she thought. And was that the slightest edge of a blush along the other war maid's cheekbones?

Their eyes met for just a moment, and then Garlahna snorted.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said, snuggling comfortably back down beside her freemate. "If Barlahn was going to worry about his 'reputation,' he never would've 'taken up' with me in the first place!"
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Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Jun 14, 2012 10:30 pm

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War Maid's Choice - Snippet 39

Chapter Eleven

Bahzell leaned one shoulder against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, and whistled tunelessly as he gazed out from the balcony across the roofs and busy streets of Sothōfalas. They were worth gazing at, although they couldn't hold a candle to Belhadan or Axe Hallow. On the other hand, those were Axeman cities, with dwarvish engineering readily available and located in a far more densely populated land.

Sothōfalas was substantially smaller than Axe Hallow, although it actually covered a greater area than Belhadan, he estimated. But the dwarven sarthnaisks who'd contributed to Belhadan's construction had buried at least half of that city's housing, shops, and warehouses in the solid stone of its mountainous terrain. Sothōfalas sprawled out in every direction from the towering battlements of King Markhos' great fortress of Sothōkarnas, and beyond the rib of granite which had broken the Wind Plain's surface like a broaching whale to serve as Sothōkarnas' foundation, the terrain was flat as a griddle on either side of the Pardahn River.

The Pardahn, yet another of the mighty Spear River's countless tributaries, wasn't all that much of a river, but it did offer the Sothōii capital a reliable source of water. And it was deep enough for barge traffic, he thought, watching a horse-drawn barge creeping towards the city. Hradani eyes were much better than human ones, and Bahzell could easily make out the crossed battleaxe and warhammer of Frahmahn flying from the stumpy flagstaff on the vessel's stern. It was a lengthy haul from Nachfalas to Sothōfalas, but he didn't doubt Cassan was going to show a tidy profit on the barge's cargo.

For now, at least, he told himself with grim satisfaction, and let his eyes sweep back across the steeply pitched, brightly colored roofs of Sothōfalas. They built in stone or brick, the Sothōii, and they burned coal in winter. There wasn't that much wood here on the Wind Plain, and what there was of it was far too precious to be used as a mere building material or fuel. In that respect, they really did have quite a bit in common with the subterranean cities of Dwarvenhame, he reflected. And, even more than his own people, they built thick walls, too, fit to stand the blasts of the far northern winter even at the Wind Plain's altitude and thick enough to shed the sometimes fierce heat of the brief northern summer, as well. There were few exterior windows, however, and all of the larger, more prosperous homes clustered around his present vantage point had obviously been designed with an eye towards defense, even here in the very heart of the Kingdom's capital. It was a reminder that feuds between the great Sothōii clans could be just as bloody as among Bahzell's own people, but it was more than that, as well. Without handy terrain features, the Sothōii had deliberately constructed defensive strong points within their city. At least two thirds of Sothōfalas' present area lay beyond the old city walls, which had last been extended more than two generations ago…and whose maintenance was scarcely the first charge on the Exchequer. That faintly offended Bahzell's sense of the way things ought to be, but stone walls had never been the Sothōii idea of a proper defense, and the capital was far from unguarded. Indeed, if a hostile army ever managed to reach it at all -- an almost insuperable challenge, given what Sothōii light cavalry and wind riders would do to any invader here on their home ground -- those fortified villas would make Sothōfalas a tougher nut to crack than it might expect, he thought.

Not that the city was any sort of grim, gray fortress. Its streets were as clean and well kept as any Axeman town might boast, and streamers, pennants, and wind-tube banners flew from the towers of Sothōkarnas. The great royal standard which indicated the King was in residence snapped and cracked above its central keep, and every manor in the city appeared to sport the brave banners of whatever noble house had built them, as well. Nor was that the city's only color. The Sothōii didn't favor the bas relief sculptures and intricate mosaics Axeman architects incorporated into their public buildings, but the walls of Sothōfalas' buildings were bright with painted frescoes and murals. Those on more public buildings tended to reflect each structure's function, but the competition between private homes was often fierce, and mural painters were both highly prized and lucratively paid. From where he stood, he could see artisans touching up at a dozen or so of those murals, apparently repairing the last of the winter's ravages. And the streets themselves were full of pedestrians, carts, and -- inevitably -- mounted riders. The clatter of hooves, the rattle of cart wheels, the buzz of conversation, the cries of vendors and shouts of children…all the vibrant, living noises of the city came to his ears like the music of life.

He'd considered stepping out onto the balcony proper, the better to enjoy its bustling life, but he'd decided against it. He wasn't the hardest person in the Kingdom for people to recognize, and he and his fellow hradani remained less than fully welcome in the eyes of all too many Sothōii. There was no point calling unnecessary attention to his presence here in the city…and especially not to the fact that he was an honored guest in this particular house. That was why he'd been careful to remain well back, where -- hopefully -- none of those who continued to cherish less than warm and welcoming thoughts might spy him.

He'd been careful when he first opened the balcony's glass doors and propped himself here, as well, since the diamond-paned panels looked suspiciously fragile, and he'd had entirely too much experience with furnishings -- and buildings -- which hadn't really been intended for a hradani who stood nine inches over seven feet to go about leaning on them. He'd tested the strength of the frame with a thoughtful expression before satisfying himself it was truly up to his weight, studiously ignoring the obvious amusement of his two companions while he did so.

< They're only jealous of your noble stature, > Walsharno assured him in the back of his brain, speaking from the enormous, spotless stable appended to the mansion. < We coursers get that sort of thing from the lesser cousins all the time. And, of course, I understand that some of us actually get it from our…less well grown fellow coursers upon occasion, as well. >

< Do they now? > Bahzell responded silently, continuing to whistle. < And who might it be as hears such a thing from such as, say, Gayrhalan? >

< I'm sure I wouldn't know, > Walsharno replied primly, and Bahzell chuckled.

"Dathgar says you and Walsharno are being full of yourselves again," Tellian Bowmaster remarked from behind him. Bahzell stopped whistling and glanced over his shoulder at the baron, ears cocked interrogatively, and Tellian chuckled. "Walsharno's mind voice is a little stronger than other coursers', you know. And, ah, Dathgar's been around longer than he has and developed a bit better 'hearing.' If you two really don't want him eavesdropping, Walsharno's going to have to learn not to shout when the two of you aren't nose-to-nose."

< Shout, is it? > Walsharno demanded indignantly. < It's no more than a…firmly voiced discussion! > There was a brief pause. Then: < And I don't recall asking for your opinion, either, Dathgar! >

Tellian's eyes twinkled, and he shook his head.

"Dathgar just suggested that perhaps Walsharno thinks it's only a 'firmly voiced discussion' because of the volume you two normally need to get through one another's thick skulls."

"I'm thinking you and your four-footed friend need to be finding yourselves another insult," Bahzell said genially. "Mind, I'll not say as how either of us are after having the very thinnest skulls in the whole wide world, but it's in my mind as how someone who's of a truly inventive turn of phrase could be coming up with something a mite fresher."

"We can only do our humble best in Brandark's absence," Tellian replied with an apologetic air.

"Besides," Vaijon put in, looking up from his book in the chair he'd tilted back against one of the handsomely decorated chamber's walls, "we've found the simplest insults are best. You seem to miss the more complicated ones every so often."
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