Topic Actions

Topic Search

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets

This is the place where we will be posting snippets of soon-to-be published works!
STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by Duckk   » Tue Mar 13, 2012 2:14 pm

Duckk
Site Admin

Posts: 4021
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2009 5:29 pm

Reserved for official War Maid's Choice snippets.
-------------------------
Shields at 50%, taunting at 100%! - Tom Pope
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 18, 2012 8:53 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 01

War Maid's Choice
By David Weber

Prologue

Cables of blue-white lightning, tangled with knots of livid green, streaked down the ebon heavens, crashing to earth in a coruscating circle around the stupendous, many-turreted structure. The shortest of those turrets towered hundreds of feet above the endless, smooth pavement stretching away in every direction as far as any mortal eye might have seen, and the glare of lightning danced and glittered from the mirror smooth obsidian of which the enormous palace had been built. Or formed, perhaps. There were no tool marks, no lines between blocks of masonry, on that titanic façade, and the light -- such as it was -- that glowed from its narrow window slits was a pestilential green, less brilliant than the corruption of that lightning yet more sullen, more…poisonous.

Fresh lightning hammered down, replenishing the glaring circle, feeding it, keeping it alive while thunder echoed and rolled and bellowed. Each braided strand lit the purple-bellied clouds from within, momentarily etching their swirling depths upon the eye, and strange, unclean shapes flew in those briefly illuminated deeps. One of those shapes plummeted from the clouds, sweeping lower, riding through the chinks of darkness between the lightning's pickets. Larger it grew, and larger, insectlike head armed with brutal pincers, enormous bat wings and mighty talons throwing back the glare of lightning until it seemed gilded in the eye-tearing fury of the seething heavens.

At the very last moment it flared its wings and settled upon the balcony of the very highest turret, a thousand feet and more above the lightning-crowned pavement. The size of that obsidian palace dwarfed even its stature, and a rider stepped from its back to the balcony and disappeared within.

More lightning sizzled and howled out of the darkness, smashing into the earth with redoubled ferocity, bolt following bolt, driving that circle of fury higher and brighter as if that flying shape's arrival had been a signal, and perhaps it had.

* * *

The throne room was impossibly vast.

It couldn't possibly have been as large as it seemed, and yet it was. In some way no mortal could have described, it was vaster than whole worlds and yet small enough the purple-cloaked figure which swept into it could cross it in no more than a dozen strides, and a strange perfume -- sweet and seductive, yet undergird by the scent of something long dead -- drifted on its air. The newcomer ignored the six others who had been gathered there, awaiting his arrival. He stalked past them, ascending the high throne against the huge chamber's rear wall and seated himself, and the wan, green radiance which had filled the room flared abruptly higher and brighter as he sat. A nimbus of deadly green fire hissed above his hooded head, and balls of the same lurid radiance crackled into existence high overhead, dancing and swirling beneath the soaring, vaulted ceiling like lost galaxies trapped in the throne room's miasma of incense.

Like the palace itself, the throne was a single, seamlessly extruded outcropping of obsidian, but this obsidian was veined with gold, and its surface glittered with diamonds, emeralds, and precious gems. The arms ended in carven demon's faces, each encrusted with more gold, more gems, and each held a mangled, dismembered body in its fangs. Rubies dripped from their jaws in glittering, lovingly detailed streams of blood, and a huge, haughty face looked down from the wall above the throne, etched across the stone in bas-relief and glittering with still more gold. As the figure seated upon the throne threw back the hood of his cloak, the face which was revealed matched that upon the wall.

Phrobus Orfro, once the seventh son of Orr All-Father and Kontifrio, gazed down upon his chosen mate and their children, and his expression was not a happy one.

"I wonder, sometimes, which of you is the least competent," he said abruptly. "The competition is so fierce I can't make up my mind between you."

His voice was deep, beautifully modulated, yet something seemed to scream somewhere inside those resonant, perfectly articulated tones, and only one of the six beings gathered before him returned his glare levelly. Krashnark Phrofro stood with square shoulders, arms crossed, refusing to cringe, and Phrobus' eyes glittered. Yet he let the defiance -- if such it was -- pass. Krashnark was the strongest of his children, the only one who might have openly challenged his own position, but there was scant fear of that. Not from Krashnark. There was no lack of ambition or surfeit of mercy in his second son, and he was the most powerful of all of Phrobus children. Yet that strength was hobbled by his perverse, inner code of honor. He neither gave nor asked quarter, but his oath was unbreakable, which was why Phrobus felt no fear of Krashnark's rebellion, for he had sworn fealty to his father. It was unthinkable that he might raise his hand against Phrobus after swearing that oath…and none of the others, not even -- or perhaps especially -- Shīgū would ever have dared.

"All of you know the stakes for which we play," he continued, "yet none of you seems capable of accomplishing even the simplest task."

"In fairness, Father," one of his other children said, raising her head and using one hand to draw glorious red hair back from her face to reveal pupil-less eyes as black as his throne's obsidian, "that isn't precisely correct. Things have gone…poorly in several universes. That's unfortunately true, but we've succeeded in others."

Her voice was calm, respectful, yet pointed, and Phrobus gritted his teeth. Carnadosa was his youngest child, and although she'd been careful not to say it, many of those other successes had been her doing -- a point she obviously wasn't above making by not making it. Yet not even a god or a goddess could deal with all the possible alternative realities of every potential universe. There had to be some division of labor, and in all too many of those realities which Carnadosa -- and Krashnark -- had not overseen, Phrobus' plans had failed catastrophically. He could feel his other children's, and his wife's, hatred seething like the lightning outside his palace as they glared at Carnadosa for underlining their failures, yet they dared not speak.

"Yes," he said after a moment. "We have succeeded in some, but we've failed in far too many others. We can afford no more losses, especially in those where victory had seemed within our grasp. Too much hangs on what happens there, which is the reason your accursed uncle is striving hard to snatch them back from us, yet none of you seem capable of stopping him. I've looked into the future, Carnadosa. If we fail to stop this slide of events in the Light's favor, if Tomanāk's successes continue, our power -- the power of all of us -- may suffer catastrophic damage."

He paused, letting the implications sink into all of his listeners. It wasn't as if they shouldn't have been able to figure out for themselves just how dire their situation might become, but sometimes they needed to be shaken by the scruff of their collective necks before they could step back from their plotting and mutual betrayals long enough to really think about the nature of their struggle with the Gods of Light.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 20, 2012 9:03 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 02

He leaned back in his throne, glaring down at them, his own thoughts running back over the ages since his failed rebellion against his own father. It was his brother's fault, he told himself once more, thunder rolling outside the palace in echo of his inner rage. It had been Tomanāk who'd rallied the others after the devastating surprise of Phrobus' initial attack. Tomanāk who'd personally struck Phrobus down, taken his original name from him and given him the one he bore now. "Truth Bender," that was what his name meant, and in the depth of his defeat, he'd been unable to reject it when his brother fastened it upon him forever. Not even he now remembered what his name had once been, and he thought perhaps he hated Tomanāk most of all for that.

Yet much as he hated -- and feared -- Tomanāk, he hated the myriad worlds of mortals even more.

His attempt to seize Orr's power as his own had very nearly succeeded, but in the moment in which Tomanāk ripped it back out of his grasp, that power had fractured, broken into more pieces than even a god could count. Worse, each of those pieces had taken on its own life, its own existence, and when that happened, the fates of all the gods had become captive to those insignificant, puny mites crawling about all of the worlds upon worlds which had spilled from the riven, shattered power he'd hungered to make his own. A new concept had come into existence in that moment -- the concept of time. The concept of a future…and an end. And not even the gods themselves were immune to it, able to ignore the endless, steady trickle of years sliding one after another into the maw of eternity. Yet worse still, far worse, was the intolerable discovery that those ephemeral mortals held his fate in their hands.

In many ways, only the fragmenting of Orr's power had preserved Phrobus' own life, for there was no doubt what Tomanāk would have done with him if only he could. But all of them were entrapped in the uncertain fate Phrobus had unwittingly, unintentionally, created. Orr himself had been diminished, weakened, stripped of his ability to command the tides of fate and left as captive to those capricious mortals as Phrobus himself. The restoration of his power was beyond his own reach, and neither the remaining Gods of Light nor Phrobus could repair it for him. It must heal itself in the fullness of that mortal creation -- time.

But how would it heal itself? It had taken Phrobus centuries to realize the question could even be asked, for no one had ever considered the possibility that Orr's power could be shattered, and so no one had ever considered what might happen if it was. He knew how frustrated Tomanāk was that the cataclysmic collision of so many potential alternate futures had prevented him from slaying him for his treachery, yet Tomanāk had no choice. The death of a god, any god, would have released far too much additional power, poured far too much additional uncertainty into the shattered present and chaotic future of Orr's realm. And so Tomanāk had been forced to let him live, let him leave the home from which he'd been cast for his crimes, let him carve out his own realm in the broken confusion of too many realities.

And as he'd paced the confines of that lesser realm, contemplating the far vaster one he'd held so tantalizingly within his fingers, it had come to him.

The entire universe -- the original, un-shattered universe, his father's great creation -- had broken with Orr's power. It was as if a glass had been dropped upon a stone floor, and the shattered bits and pieces had flown in every direction. It had been impossible for anyone, even a god, to predict where any of them might land, far less where all of them might end their bouncing journeys across the stone. Now they lay scattered, tumbled into confused windrows without rhyme or reason, separated from one another and yet longing on some deep, fundamental level to become whole once more. To become one once again. And as they lay, they could be gathered back up by the proper set of hands. They could be…reassembled, put back together, and the hands which put them back together would control what they became on the day that they were one once more.

If he could reclaim them, gather enough of them together in the pattern of his choosing, he could remake them not as a reflection and restoration of Orr's power, but of his own.

Of course, that infernal busybody Semkirk had reasoned it out before him, and his accursed brothers and sisters -- even that flighty fool Hirahim and that pathetic simpleton Sorbus -- had set themselves to restoring the broken bits and pieces themselves. But there was a catch. Those bits and pieces had minds of their own. They were…malleable. They could be shaped, convinced, seduced, even taken, but only from within. In the end, they would choose their own fates on the basis of their own decisions, and those choices -- and only those choices -- would decide whose hands they came into in the fullness of time.

It was a race between him and his brothers and sisters, and so he'd taken to himself a wife and begotten children of his own to aid him in the struggle. Even with them, he was badly outnumbered, but not all of the Gods of Light were equally suited to the nature of the struggle between them. And the most ironic thing of all was that individual strength was of secondary importance, at best. They were forced to contend for each reality separately, individually, and the nature of the contest leveled the difference between their abilities. Any god could have destroyed any single fragment of that broken power, yet none of them knew how many fragments could be destroyed before the whole failed, and so none of them dared to destroy any of them. They must confront one another within the limits and constraints each individual mortal reality could endure, until that reality reached its tipping point and fell as the possession of the Light…or of the Dark.

And in the fullness of time, enough of those individual realities would fall to one side to give that side possession of them all. Which meant, that despite his failure all those ages ago, Phrobus might yet win all he'd sought.

But that could happen only if those mortals he loathed with all his being -- loathed because they ultimately held his fate in their hands -- gave him that victory. Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of them realized the prize for which the gods truly contended, and their puny lifespans made most of them shortsighted and easily duped. Many of them could scarcely wait to give themselves to him and to his children, and his hatred for them only made the taste of their souls still sweeter.

Yet not all of them were blind, not all were easily seduced. Their resistance to the Dark ran through their realities like ribs of steel, and some of them…oh, yes, some of them were far more dangerous than others.

"All of you know how much Tomanāk has poured into Orfressa," he said now. "All of you know how many possible outcomes run through that single cable of universes."
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 22, 2012 9:08 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 03

His eyes burned even hotter as he glared at them, his anger smoking in the air as he contemplated how close they'd come to victory, to seeing that reality -- all the facets of that reality -- safely locked into their possession twelve hundred of the mortals' years ago, only to have it slip through their fingers at the last moment. It lay now like a strand of fire wrapped in shadow, its central core surrounded by the penumbra of all its potentialities, not quite within his grasp, not quite beyond it, and the long wait to determine the side to which it must ultimately fall burned in his bones like slow poison. To be sure, centuries were but the blinks of an eye to one such as himself. Or they should have been, at least…had he been one bit less aware of the galling chains the mortal concept of "time" had set upon him.

"Father, the advantage is still ours," another voice said. "No one in all of Norfressa -- except, perhaps, Wencit -- even imagines what's preparing in Kontovar. Surely --"

"Don't speak to me of 'surely,' Fiendark!" Phrobus snapped, turning the full power of his glare upon his eldest son. "There was a time when Orr's power was 'surely' mine! And I tell you that I've looked long and hard into the future of this reality and all those spinning from it, and I see confusion. I see uncertainty. And I see threads of Tomanāk's weaving that lead to places I cannot see. Places where this reality -- all of these realities, and all the myriad others which might spring from them yet -- fall from our hands into his unless we cut those threads of his, and do it quickly."

"But how, Father?" Carnadosa asked. "As Fiendark says, the advantage is still clearly ours, and Tomanāk can no more act openly in Orfressa than we can. So how can those threads of his snatch it away from us now?"

"The answer to that lies in those places beyond my vision."

Phrobus growled his reply, and Carnadosa frowned as the thunder outside the palace rolled darker and louder. Her father was stronger than any of them, and his ability to see the strands of future and past was greater. Yet there were limits even for him, for no one could predict what future any given reality would experience. There were too many variables, too many uncertainties, and until an event actually occurred, all possible outcomes of that event were equally valid, equally possible. Some were more likely than others, and outcomes became increasingly more likely -- or unlikely -- as a reality approached that particular event. Yet that uncertainty meant no one could predict precisely what would happen, or exactly how it would come about, and that, too, was the fault of those maddening, unpredictable mortals.

Still…

"But it continues to depend upon Bahzell, doesn't it?" she asked. Her father glared at her, and she bent her head slightly. "I ask because that's my own reading of this reality, Father. If yours is different…?"

She let her voice trail off on a questioning note, fading into the rolling peals of distant thunder, and her father glared at her. Yet the question lingered, requiring answer.

"Yes," Phrobus replied after a fulminating moment. "Bahzell is the key, but perhaps not precisely as you think. It revolves about Bahzell; yet there are so many elements in play, and Tomanāk has worked so skillfully to confuse the possibilities, that I truly can't say it depends upon him. Still, certain aspects are clear enough, aren't they? The Hradani are supposed to be our tools, not Tomanāk's. They and the Sothōii are supposed to be at one another's throats, not allies, and these accursed 'war maids' are an entirely new ingredient. Whatever else may be happening, Tomanāk and his meddling 'champions' are in the process of creating a fundamental realignment which threatens all our future plans for that reality, and Bahzell is the catalyst that brought all of them together."

"I would never question your analysis, Father," Fiendark said, his voice an alloy of obsequiousness and arrogance, "yet it seems unlikely to me that anything Tomanāk might accomplish where the Hradani and Sothōii are concerned could truly threaten our ultimate plans."

"You think not?" Phrobus returned his attention to Fiendark.

For better or worse, Fiendark was his senior deputy, yet there were times when his son's delight in destruction for destruction's sake got in the way of more…constructive approaches to a problem. He was too likely sometimes to think in terms of simply destroying an opponent to look for more subtle opportunities…or threats.

"I admit what I have seen shows it could be highly inconvenient," Fiendark replied now. "Their efforts might make our task more difficult, yet what if it does? In the end, the destruction will only grow greater and even more complete as their resistance delays their final defeat, and that can only serve our own ends."

"That might seem reasonable enough," Phrobus conceded after a moment. "But Tomanāk's invested too much in the effort for me to simply assume it to be true, and I don't like those threads I can't see. No. We will assume nothing, and we will bring this Bahzell Bahnakson and all those other threads which revolve about him to nothing. Am I understood?"

Heads nodded around the throne as fresh thunder exploded outside the palace to underscore his question.

"Good," he said with a thin smile. But his smile was only fleeting, and a frown replaced it as he gazed at Carnadosa thoughtfully.

Of all his children, she was the most subtle. Indeed, there were times when even he sometimes wondered exactly what game she might be playing. And, whether he chose to admit it or not, she was the one who most worried him. Not because he thought she was actively plotting to supplant him, but because if she ever did decide to overthrow him as he'd attempted to overthrow his own father, she was the one most likely to succeed. She was unimpressed with the taste for cruelty which infused Sharnā, just as she disdained Krahana's hunger and Fiendark's lust for destruction. But neither did she have any use for Krashnark's perverse sense of honor. Pragmatism was all that mattered to her, and she was a past mistress of the indirect approach. Very few of her victims ever even suspected her presence until she pounced from the shadows.

Yet she was also capable of direct -- very direct -- action when it seemed called for, and her status as the patron of dark wizardry and knowledge made her followers a force to be reckoned with in any mortal reality. It was possible -- indeed, probable, given the outcome -- he should have given her primary responsibility for the last attempt to disrupt Tomanāk's plans for this Bahzell Bahnakson, whatever those plans might be. He'd chosen not to because it had seemed a case in which wizardry couldn't be openly utilized -- not yet, at least. And, he admitted, because Shīgū had been so insistent on doing it her way.

But now his options were limited. Sharnā and Shīgū had both been badly damaged in their recent confrontations with Tomanāk and his accursed champions, and it would be mortal decades yet before even Krahana fully recovered.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Mar 25, 2012 8:30 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 04

There were times Phrobus was forced to admit there were at least some advantages to the fashion in which Tomanāk and the other Gods of Light interacted with mortals. Their insistence that their "champions" had to give their allegiance knowingly, aware of the implications of their choices, made it far more difficult for them to enlist followers, and their refusal to simply enter into those champions and turn them into avatars limited their freedom of action. Seduction and corruption made recruitment far simpler for the Dark Gods, especially for mortals too foolish to suspect what their ultimate fate would be, and far more could be accomplished by turning those strong enough to bear the touch of godhood without being instantly destroyed into mere appendages. Not every mortal was strong enough, by any means, to be turned into an avatar, but those who were became conduits and anchors -- doorways (so long as they lasted), through which their masters and mistresses could reach directly into the reality of mortals at will.

But Tomanāk and his fellows' refusal to suborn the wills of mortals meant they could act in the mortal world only when they were allowed to -- when they were invited to -- by those who'd chosen to serve them. And their refusal to burn out their servants limited the total amount of their own power and presence with which they could invest them. No mortal could long survive the direct embrace of godhood, even when the god in question sought to protect him, and so the Gods of Light treated their champions with silk gloves. They gave only so much of their power as their servants could channel, and in the process they surrendered control of what their champions did with that power.

No Dark God would give up that control, nor would one of them worry himself unduly over the fate of one of his servants. Avatars existed to be used, after all, even if they tended to be…consumed quickly. Replacing them could be inconvenient, yet that was acceptable, because while they lasted, they gave their masters direct access to their own reality, and there were always others who could be recruited to replace them afterward.

Yet there was a disadvantage to that, as well, as Sharnā and Shīgū had both discovered. It was one thing for a god to decide to withdraw his power from an avatar in an orderly fashion; it was quite another when that avatar was destroyed before he could withdraw. When that happened, the power, the fragment of his own essence, which had been poured into his mortal tool was lost with the avatar. Worse, it left him temporarily maimed, unable to reach back into that particular reality until the strength he'd lost regenerated itself once more, and that was precisely what had happened to Sharnā and Shīgū.

Sharnā had largely recovered from the damage he'd taken when Bahzell slew Harnak Churnazhson, but he'd been foolish enough to invest even more of his essence in the sword with which he'd armed Harnak. He'd seen that as a way to ensure Harnak's victory and avoid his avatar's destruction, but it hadn't worked out that way, and the sword touched by his essence now lay at the bottom of the sea. It would be centuries before he recovered from that, and until he did -- or until the sword could be recovered from Korthrala's keeping and returned to him -- he had no personal access to that reality.

Phrobus knew his son well enough to feel confident Sharnā was far from brokenhearted by the knowledge that he couldn't have faced Bahzell and Tomanāk in personal combat once more even if he'd wanted to…which he most definitely did not.

Shīgū had managed not to leave any of her being lying around in cursed weapons, but she'd never been noted for her rationality, and she'd poured herself wildly and recklessly into her avatar when she confronted Dame Kaeritha Seldansdaughter. Indeed, she would have emptied even more of herself into her tool, even at the risk of completely destroying that reality, had Tomanāk not blocked her. Given the possible consequences of any universe's destruction, it was as well Tomanāk had, but that same block had prevented her from withdrawing any of the power she'd invested, and her avatar's destruction had cost her even more dearly than Prince Harnak's death had cost Sharnā.

Krahana -- wiser than her brother and saner than her mother -- had committed her most powerful servants to the attack on Bahzell Bahnakson, but she'd declined to face him directly through an avatar of her own. As a result, she continued to have access to Bahzell's reality, but her resources there had been seriously curtailed. Until she could recruit or breed new servants powerful enough to replace those she'd lost, her capabilities would be only a shadow of what they had been.

And Fiendark had too many other responsibilities elsewhere (and was too fond of sheer destruction to be trusted with this task, anyway), which left only Carnadosa…and perhaps Krashnark.

"I think this has become a task for you, Carnadosa," he said finally.

Her expression never changed, but her obsidian eyes glittered as she contemplated the possibilities. She'd been involved only peripherally in the last attempt, as the coordinator and link between Shīgū and Krahana, and her mortal servants had been wise enough to remain safely in the shadows rather than confront Tomanāk's champions directly. More than that, she was unique among the Dark Gods in that she practically never used avatars of her own. Her wizard followers were usually quite powerful enough for her ends, and she had no desire at all to see her power diminished if a confrontation with one of the Light's champions went poorly. Giving her primary responsibility in this instance would increase the odds that she would be forced to confront Tomanāk or one of the others openly, whether she wished to or not, and it would definitely raise the probability that sorcery would be used openly sooner than Phrobus could have wished. She was too canny and too well informed not to recognize at least some of the potential consequences of reintroducing the arcane into the long, simmering conflict between Norfressa and Kontovar too soon, yet if she succeeded where Sharnā, Shīgū, and Krahana had all failed, that entire reality would become her personal possession, and all the power generated by every mortal living in it would be added to her own.

"Obviously, our original strategy failed miserably," he continued. "You have a free hand to formulate your own approach to the problem, although I want nothing done without my approval. We've failed twice already; I refuse to fail a third time. And because I refuse to fail yet again, Krashnark will assist you."

A flicker of disappointment showed in her eyes as she contemplated being forced to share the spoils of victory with her brother, but she was too wise to protest. And too wise not to recognize what a powerful ally Krashnark could be, as well.

"I understand, Father," she said, bending her head.

"I'm sure you do."

Phrobus sat back in his throne once more, listening to the crash and bellow of the thunder, and his eyes were hard.

"I'm sure you do," he repeated.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Mar 27, 2012 9:49 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 05

Chapter One

"I always love watching this part," Brandark Brandarkson, of the Bloody Sword hradani, murmured from behind his hand.

He and Bahzell Bahnakson stood in an enormous lantern-lit tunnel, surrounded by what anyone would have had to call "an unlikely crowd." He and Bahzell were its only hradani members, and Bahzell was a Horse Stealer of Clan Iron Axe, which had been the Bloody Swords' fiercest rival for generations. In fact, he wasn't just "a" Horse Stealer; he was the youngest son of Prince Bahnak Karathson, ruler of the Northern Confederation of Hradani…who'd conquered the Bloody Sword little more than six years ago. As if that pairing weren't bad enough, there were the dozen or so dwarves, a matching number of humans, and the huge roan stallion behind Bahzell. Up until a very few years ago, the possibility of that eclectic blend being gathered in one place without swordplay, bloodshed, and mayhem would have been ridiculous. And the fact that all of the humans in question were Sothōii, the bitter traditional enemies of all hradani, Horse Stealers and Bloody Swords alike, would only have made it even more unlikely.

Of course, Brandark was a pretty unlikely sight all by himself. Very few Norfressans would have been prepared to behold a six-foot, two-inch hradani dressed in the very height of foppish fashion, from his embroidered silken doublet to his brilliantly shined riding boots -- black, with tasteful silver tassels -- and the long feather adorning the soft cloth cap adjusted to the perfect rakish angle on his head. The balalaika slung across his back would only have completed their stupefaction.

His towering companion, who was well over a foot and a half taller than he, was an almost equally unlikely sight, although in a very different way. Bahzell wore finely wrought chain mail and a polished steel breastplate, and instead of a balalaika, he carried a two-handed sword with a five-foot blade across his back. Aside from his size (which was enormous, even for a Horse Stealer) and the high quality of his gear, his martial appearance would have suited the stereotype of a hradani far better than Brandark's sartorial splendor…if not for his green surcoat, badged with the crossed mace and sword of Tomanāk Orfressa. The notion of a hradani champion of Tomanāk wasn't something the average Norfressan could be expected to wrap his mind around easily, and the roan courser watching alertly over his shoulder made it even worse. After all, if there was one being in all of Norfressa who could be counted upon to hate hradani even more than two-legged Sothōii did, it had to be a Sothōii courser.

"Shhhhh!" one of the dwarves scolded, turning to glare at Brandark. "If you distract her now, I'm going to have Walsharno step on you!"

"You don't scare me," Brandark retorted (albeit in an even softer tone), grinning down at him. Sermandahknarthas zoi'Harkanath was three times Brandark's age and the senior engineer on what had been dubbed the Gullet Tunnel, but he was also barely two thirds as tall as the Bloody Sword and his head barely topped Bahzell's belt buckle. "Walsharno likes me. He won't step on me without a lot better reason than your petty irritation!"

The colossal stallion -- he stood over eight feet tall at the shoulder -- tilted his head, ears cocked thoughtfully. Then he reached out and shoved Brandark between the shoulder blades with his nose. Despite his dandified appearance, the hradani was a solid, thick-boned plug of muscle and gristle, with shoulders so broad he looked almost squat, in spite of his height. He easily weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, none of it fat, and no one would have called him an easily brushed aside lightweight. But the stallion weighed over two tons, and Brandark staggered forward under the "gentle" push. He turned to look over his shoulder, his expression betrayed, and Bahzell laughed.

"Walsharno says as how he'll always have a 'better reason' when it comes to stepping on such as you, little man," he rumbled in an earthquake bass. "Mind, I think he's after exaggerating a wee bit…but not so much as all that."

"Will the both of you please be quiet?" Serman demanded. "This is a very ticklish moment and --"

"Yes, it is," a female voice agreed tartly. "And I would be grateful if all three of you could manage to keep your mouths shut for fifteen seconds at a time! Unless you'd like the next section of this tunnel to go straight down…and begin directly underneath you!"

Serman closed his mouth with an almost audible click, and Bahzell chuckled softly. It was a very soft chuckle, however. He didn't really think Chanharsadahknarthi zoihan'Harkanath would suddenly open a yawning pit under his feet, but he was in no tearing hurry to test the theory. Besides, she had a point.

Brandark contented himself with one last glower at Walsharno -- who only curled his lips to show his teeth and shook his head in very horselike, mane-flipping amusement -- then crossed his arms and concentrated on looking martyred. It wasn't a very convincing performance, especially given his obvious interest in what was about to happen, and Bahzell smiled and patted Walsharno's shoulder as he watched his friend's long nose almost quiver in fascination.

Quiet fell. It wasn't really a silence, for the shouts and sounds of construction gangs came up the steadily climbing tunnel from behind them, but those noises were distant. In a way, they only made the quiet even more profound, and Chanharsa closed her eyes once more. Her hands were outstretched, palms pressed flat against the smooth, vertical wall at the end of the tunnel, and she leaned forward, resting her forehead between them. She stood that way for several minutes, her posture relaxed, yet the others could literally feel the concentration pouring off of her.

It wasn't the first time Bahzell had watched this same scene, but the dwarvish art of sarthnaiskarmanthar was seldom seen outside the dwarves' subterranean cities, and like Brandark, he found it endlessly fascinating. Sarthnaiskarmanthar was the talent which truly set dwarves off from the other Races of Man and allowed them to undertake their monumental engineering projects, and they guarded their sarthnaisks (the word translated roughly as "stone herds" or "stone shepherds") like the priceless treasures they were.

There'd been occasions, especially during the dark and dreadful days of the Fall of Kontovar, when enslaved sarthnaisks had been valued by their captors above almost all other prisoners…and all too often driven until their talent consumed them. The dwarves had sworn that would never happen again, and any sarthnaisk was always accompanied by his personal armsman on any trip beyond the safe caverns of his -- or, in this case, her -- home city. Chanharsa, on the other hand, was accompanied by eight armsmen, and another sixteen waited at the tunnel's entrance for her return. It was an impressive display of security, but Chanharsadahknarthi zoihan'Harkanath wasn't just "any" sarthnaisk. According to Serman, the tunnel's chief engineer, she was the strongest sarthnaisk Dwarvenhame had seen in at least two generations (which Bahzell, having seen her work, readily believed), not to mention a blood kinswoman of Kilthandahknarthas dihna'Harkanath, the head of Clan Harkanath. It would be…unfortunate if anything were to happen to Lady Chanharsa.

At the moment, the diminutive sarthnaisk (she was well under four feet in height) didn't really look all that impressive. In fact, she didn't look as if she was doing anything more than simply leaning against the rock, but Bahzell knew how hard she was actually concentrating as she extended her senses, using her talent to run immaterial fingers through the solid stone in front of her. She was feeling fault lines, sampling quartz and rock, tasting the elusive flavor of minerals, metal ores, and water. He also understood exactly why sarthnaiskarmanthar fascinated the keenly inquiring scholar who lived inside Brandark, but unlike his Bloody Sword friend, Bahzell understood what Chanharsa was doing, just as he understood why she could never truly explain it to Brandark or anyone who didn't possess the same talent. Or one very like it, at any rate.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Mar 29, 2012 8:17 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 06

As it happened, Bahzell did possess a similar talent. He had no ability to taste or shape stone, but he was a champion of Tomanāk, and the war god gifted his champions with the ability to heal. Yet not all of them were equally skilled as healers, for it was an ability which depended on the clarity with which the individual champion could open his mind to an injury or illness and truly believe he could do anything about it. It depended upon his ability to understand that damage, to accept it in all its often ghastly reality, and then to not only overlay his mental "map" of that damage with a vision of health but actually impose that vision upon the injury. To open himself as a channel or conduit between his deity and the mortal world and use that conduit -- or allow it to use him, perhaps -- to make that internal, personal image of restored well-being and vitality the reality. It all sounded simple enough, yet words could describe only the what, not the how of accomplishing it, and it was extraordinarily difficult to actually do.

Sarthnaiskarmanthar functioned in a similar fashion, although according to Wencit of Rūm (who certainly ought to know) a sarthnaisk's work was at least a little simpler because living creatures were in a constant state of change as blood pumped through their veins and oxygen flowed in and out of their lungs. Stone was in a constant state of change, as well, but it was a far slower and more gradual change, a process of ages and eons, not minute-to-minute or even second-to-second transformations. It didn't clamor and try to distract the way living bone and tissue did as the sarthnaisk formed the detailed mental image of what he intended to impose upon the stone's reality. Of course, stone was also more resistant to change, but that was where his training came in. Like a skilled mishuk martial artist, the sarthnaisk used balance and precision and focus against the monolithic resistance of stone and earth. He found the points within the existing matrix where a tiny push, a slight shift, began the process of change and put all the weight of the stone itself behind it, like deep mountain snow sliding down to drive boulders and shattered trees before it.

The trick was to stay in control, to shape the avalanche, to fit that instant of total plasticity to the sarthnaisk's vision, and steering an avalanche was always a…challenging proposition.

He smiled at the thought, and then his eyes narrowed and his foxlike ears folded back slightly as Chanharsa drew a deep, deep breath. Her shoulders rose as she filled her lungs, and then the stone changed.

Bahzell had seen her do this over a dozen times now, yet he still couldn't quite force what he saw to make sense. It wasn't that it happened too quickly for the eye to see, although that was what he'd thought the first time he'd watched it. No, the problem was that the eye wasn't intended to see it. Or perhaps that the mind hadn't been designed to understand it…or accept it. The smooth, flat wall of stone flowed like smoke under Chanharsa's palms, yet it was a solid smoke, a surface which continued to support her weight as she leaned even harder against it. A glow streamed out from her hands, spreading across the entire face of stone in a bright web of light, pulsing in time with her heartbeat, and that glow -- that web -- flowed away from her, sinking deeper and deeper into the smoky rock. In some way Bahzell would never be able to explain, he could see the glow stretching away from them, probing out through hundreds of cubic yards of stone and earth. He couldn't estimate how far into the rock he could "see," but the glow grew dimmer as it moved farther and farther away from him.

A minute slipped past. Then another. Three of them. And then --

Chanharsadahknarthi zoihan'Harkanath staggered ever so slightly as the stone under her hands vanished, and an abrupt, cool fist of breeze flowed over them from behind as air rushed up the tunnel to fill the suddenly created cavity before her. Her shoulders sagged, and one of her armsmen stepped forward quickly, taking her elbow and supporting her until she could regain her balance. She leaned against him for a moment, then inhaled again and shook her head, pushing herself back upright, and Bahzell heard a mutter of awe from the spectators…most of whom had seen her do exactly the same thing at least as often as he had.

On the other hand, it wasn't something a man got used to seeing.

The tunnel had suddenly grown at least sixty yards longer. The tunnel roof was thirty feet above its floor, and the tunnel walls were sixty-five feet apart, wide enough for three heavy freight wagons to pass abreast. Its sloped floor was ballroom smooth yet textured to give feet or hooves solid traction, and two square-cut channels -- six feet deep and two feet wide -- ran the tunnel's full length, fifteen feet out from each wall. Every angle and surface was perfectly, precisely cut and shaped…and glossy smooth, gleaming as if they'd been hand polished, without a single tool mark anywhere. The new tunnel section had freed a sizable spring on its southern wall and water foamed and rushed from it like a fountain, but Chanharsa had allowed for that. Another, shorter channel had been cut across the tunnel floor, crossing the first two at right angles, this one deep enough that none of the newborn stream's water escaped into the first two as it flooded into its new bed and sent a wave front flowing across the tunnel to plunge gurgling and rushing into an opening in the northern wall. Two broad, gently arched bridges crossed the sudden musical chuckle of water -- not built, but simply formed, as strong and immovably solid as the rock around them -- and sunlight probed down from above through the air shaft piercing the tunnel roof. That shaft was two feet in diameter and over eighty feet deep, and patterns of reflected sunlight from the stream danced across the smooth stone walls.

"Well, I see I managed to get it mostly right despite all that distracting chatter going on behind me," Chanharsa observed, turning to give the hradani her best glare.

It was, Bahzell admitted, quite a good glare, considering that it was coming from someone less than half his own height. It wasn't remotely as potent as the one Kilthan could have produced, but she was twenty-five years younger than Serman, which made her less than half Kilthan's age. In another fifty years or so, possibly even as little as thirty or forty, he was sure she'd be able to match the panache Kilthan could put into the same expression.

"And it's not surprised I am, at all," he assured her with a broad smile. "For such a wee, tiny thing you've quite a way with rock."

"Which means I ought to have 'quite a way' with hradani brains, doesn't it?" she observed affably, and his smile turned into a laugh.

"You've a way to go still before you match old Kilthan, but I see you've the talent for it," he said. "I'm thinking it needs a bit more curl to the upper lip and the eyes a mite narrower, though, wouldn't you say, Brandark?"

"No, I most definitely wouldn't say," the Bloody Sword told him promptly. "I'm in enough trouble with her already."

Several people laughed, although at least one of Chanharsa's armsmen looked less than amused by the hradani's levity. Chanharsa only grinned. Despite the many differences between them, hradani and dwarves were very much alike in at least one respect. Their womenfolk enjoyed a far higher degree of freedom and equality -- license, some might have called it -- than those of the other Races of Man. Besides, Bahzell and Brandark were friends of the family.

"Uncle Kilthan always said you were smarter than you looked, Brandark," she said now. "Of course, being smarter than you look isn't that much of an accomplishment, is it?" She smiled sweetly.

"Why is it that he's the one who insulted your ability to glare properly and I'm the one who's getting whacked?" The Bloody Sword's tone was aggrieved and he did his level best to look hurt.

"Because the world is full of injustice," she told him.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Sun Apr 01, 2012 8:05 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 07

The sarthnaisk gave her armsman's shoulder a pat, then walked to the edge of the bridged channel and gazed down into the rushing water. Despite the tartness of her exchange with the two hradani, a curiously serene sense of joy seemed to fill the air about her, and Bahzell stepped up beside her. He understood that serenity; he felt something very like it every time he was privileged to heal, and he let one enormous hand rest very gently on her shoulder as he inhaled the damp, fresh breath of moisture rising from the boistrous stream.

"It's a fine piece of work you've done," he told her. "And it's grateful I am for your help. And for Kilthan's, of course."

"I suppose it's a bit undutiful of me to point out that Uncle Kilthan -- and the rest of Silver Cavern -- is going to be minting money when this little project is completed," she replied dryly, but her hand rose to touch his gently as she spoke.

"Aye," he acknowledged. "And so are my folk and Tellian's. Which isn't to say as how I'm any less grateful for it."

"Well, I imagine you've accomplished the odd little job or two to deserve it. That's what Uncle Kilthan said when he proposed this whole notion to the clan elders, anyway. Along with pointing out the fact that the clan was going to make fairly obscene amounts of profit, even by our standards, in the long haul, of course." She shook her head. "It's amazing how successful that second argument usually is with our folk."

She looked up at him, and the topaz eyes she shared with her uncle gleamed wickedly in the sunlight pouring through the air shaft. Of course, Kilthan wasn't actually her uncle, Bahzell reminded himself. Only a dwarf could possibly keep all of the intricacies of their family structures and clan relationships straight. Serman really was Kilthan's nephew, the son of his younger sister, but the exact nature of Chanharsa's relationship with Clan Harkanath's head was rather more complicated than that. In fact, Bahzell didn't have a clue what it truly was, although the fact that she was "dahknarthi" rather than "alknarthi" indicated that it was a blood relationship, rather than solely one by marriage, as did those eyes. And dwarves understood that proper explanations of consanguinity, collateral family lines, and connections by marriage quickly caused the eyes of the other Races of Man to glaze over, which made "uncle" or "aunt" -- or the even more splendidly ambiguous "kinsman" -- perfectly acceptable (if scandalously imprecise) substitutes.

"Aye, and money's not so bad an argument where my folk are concerned, come to that," he acknowledged. "Not that there's not those amongst us as would still prefer to be plundering those trade caravans like good, honest hradani! Still and all, I'm thinking my Da's in a fair way to convincing them to change their ways."

"True," Brandark said, stepping up on Chanharsa's other side. "I find it sad, somehow, to see so many good, unwashed barbarian Horse Stealers succumbing to the sweet sound of kormaks falling into their purses." He heaved a huge sigh. "Such decadence. Why, the next thing I know, they're all going to be taking baths!"

"Just you be keeping it up, little man," Bahzell rumbled. "I've no need to ask Walsharno to be stepping on you, and I'm thinking as how you'd be getting a bath of your own -- aye, and making a fine dam -- if I was after shoving your head into that drain hole yonder."

"Speaking of drains," the Bloody Sword said brightly, pointedly not glancing at Bahzell as he looked down at Chanharsa, "where does that one come out?"

"Into the Gullet, like the others." She shrugged. "By the time we're done, we'll probably have a river, or at least a fairly substantial stream, flowing back down it again. Year-round, I mean, not just whenever the snow melts up on the Wind Plain."

Brandark nodded, but his expression was thoughtful. They'd gotten farther and farther away from the narrow chasm which twisted down the towering height of the Escarpment from Glanharrow to the hradani city state of Hurgrum. The Balthar River had once flowed through that channel, before a massive earthquake had diverted it, long, long ago. That diversion had created The Bogs, as the vast, swampy area along the West Riding's border with the South Riding were called, when it pushed the diminished Balthar to the north and cut it off from the tributary which had drained them into the Hangnysti, below the Escarpment. The Gullet remained, however, still snaking its own broken-back way to the Hangnysti, which made it a natural place to dispose of any water that turned up in the course of boring the tunnel through the Escarpment. By now, though, the head of the tunnel was the better part of a mile from the Gullet, and he rubbed the tip of his truncated left ear as he cocked an eyebrow at her.

"I thought you could only do this sort of thing" -- he waved at the newly created length of tunnel -- "a few dozen yards at a time," he observed.

"Most sarthnaisks could only do 'this sort of thing' a few dozen feet at a time," she corrected him tartly. She gave him a sharp look for good measure, then shrugged. "Still, I take your point. But cutting a drainage channel is a lot simpler and more straightforward than cutting the tunnel itself. Each section of the tunnel is new and unique, and that requires a lot of concentration and focus, but I've made scores -- probably even hundreds -- of simple culverts and drainage systems. By now, it's almost more reflex than thought to throw one in whenever I need it, and it's even simpler than usual in this case. It's mostly just a matter of visualizing a straight line with the proper downslope, and I just…tell it which direction to go and what to do when it gets there." She shrugged again. "I'm sorry, Brandark. I know you're still trying to figure out how I do it, and I wish I could explain it better, but there it is."

"Unsatisfied curiosity is my lot in life," he told her with a smile. "Well, that and following Bahzell around from one scrape to another." He shook his head. "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Hirahim only knows what would happen to him if I weren't there to pull him out again!"

"A fine dam, I'm thinking," Bahzell murmured, and Chanharsa laughed.

"You two deserve each other," she declared. "I, on the other hand, deserve a glass of good wine and a hot bath for my labors."

"And so you do," Bahzell agreed as Walsharno came over to join them.

Coursers, by and large, were only mildly curious about how the Races of Man, with the clever hands they themselves had been denied, accomplished all the things they seemed to find with which to occupy themselves. Those of them who bonded with human -- or, in one highly unusual case, with hradani -- riders tended to be more curious than others, but even Walsharno was more interested in results than processes. He looked down into the flowing water for a moment, then turned his head to Bahzell. The Horse Stealer looked back at him, listening to a voice only he could hear, then nodded.

"Walsharno's a suggestion," he told Chanharsa.

"He does?"

"Aye," Bahzell said simply, and then he picked her up like an infant and set her neatly on Walsharno's saddle.

The sarthnaisk gave a little squeak of astonishment and clutched at the saddle horn as she suddenly found herself perched more than twice her own height above the tunnel floor. A saddle sized for someone of Bahzell's dimensions was a very substantial seat for someone her size, however. In fact, it was almost large enough to serve her as a sofa as she sat sidesaddle on the courser's back.

The armsman who'd frowned at her exchange with the hradani took a quick step towards them, then stopped as Chanharsa relaxed and her face blossomed into a huge smile. However happy she might have been, he obviously wasn't at all pleased about having his charge on the back of such a monstrously tall mount. Even a small horse was huge for a dwarf, and a courser was anything but small. On the other hand, very few people were foolish enough to argue with a courser…and the coursers honored even fewer people by agreeing to bear them.

"I'd not be fretting about it too much," Bahzell told the armsman with a sympathetic smile. "Walsharno's not one for letting folk fall off his back. Why, look at what he's put up with from me! And your lady's the right of it; she is after deserving that hot bath of hers, so what say we be getting her to it?"
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Tue Apr 03, 2012 9:20 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 08

Chapter Two

"Nobody better get between me and the hot tub tonight. That's all I've got to say." Garlahna Lorhanalfressa wiped sweat from her forehead with one muddy hand and glowered up at the sun. "Or the cold tub, either."

"Oh?" Erlis Rahnafressa glanced across at her. "And just what makes you think you get priority over me? I believe the phrase is 'Rank hath its privileges.'"

The commander of three hundred was a tough, sturdy looking woman, almost twice Garlahana's age. Her fair hair was lightly streaked with gray, and she possessed an interesting collection of scars and only one arm. She was also the second in command of the Kalatha City Guard, and her brown eyes missed very little, even when they gleamed with amusement.

"Besides," she continued, "my bones, not to mention other portions of my anatomy, are older than yours. They're going to need longer to soak, and you uppity youngsters have to learn to respect your elders."

"Goddess!" Garlahna shook her head. "I can't believe you're actually going to stand there -- well, sit there, I suppose -- and pile two platitudes on me at a time!"

"That's 'two platitudes at a time, Ma'am,'" Erlis said. Military duty was the only place war maids used that particular form of address with one another, and the three hundred's smile grew broader as Garlahana rolled her eyes. "And we only get to argue about it if we win. Not that there's going to be any argument, of course."

"Tyrant," Garlahna muttered. "War maids are supposed to be free of this sort of petty oppression. It says so right in our charter."

"That's free of petty male oppression," Erlis pointed out. "Now watch your flank. I don't think Leeana's going to give up just because she missed us back at Thalar, do you?"

Garlahna stuck out her tongue, but she also turned her attention obediently back to the left flank of the small column making its way across the rolling grasslands of the Wardenship of Lorham towards the free town of Kalatha.

It didn't occur to her to think about the fact that that sort of exchange between a lowly commander of twenty and a commander of three hundred -- the equivalent of a very junior lieutenant or a very senior noncom and a major in the Empire of the Axe -- would never have been tolerated in most military organizations. She was aware that other armies put far more emphasis on things like saluting and standing at attention and titles of rank, but the awareness was purely intellectual and such antics left her with a sense of bemused semi-tolerance rather than any desire to emulate them, for war maids had little use for the sort of formality which infused those other armies. Most of them regarded the aristocratic, birth-based power structure of their own birth society with outright contempt, and the spit and polish of standing armies like those of the Empire of the Axe and the Empire of the Spear filled them with amusement. Their own warriors were trained to operate as light infantry -- scouts, skirmishers, and guerillas -- and they valued initiative and ingenuity far more than unthinking obedience to orders. War maid officers came in all flavors and varieties, of course, but martinets were few and far between. Discipline was always maintained, yet that discipline rested upon an esprit de corps which didn't require formality, which had led more than one of their adversaries into underestimating them…with fatal consequences.

Unfortunately, there'd been quite a few of those adversaries over the years, given the disapproval with which Sothōii society regarded them, and there were those who wouldn't have hesitated for a moment to rob them. Some of those people would actually have felt a sense of virtuous justification at punishing such an uppity and unnatural bunch of women, if they could only figure out how to get away with it, which was the main reason Garlahan and her six-woman detachment were out here sweltering in the heat. Erlis, on the other hand, was just a bit senior for this sort of nonsense. The three hundred would normally have let Garlahana get on with her routine task without looking over her shoulder this way, but she'd had business of her own in Thalar, so she'd decided to come along and turn the trip into a training exercise.

Not that anyone was taking the trip lightly. "Routine" was quite a different thing from "unimportant," and the two large wagons at the heart of the formation were piled high with supplies and raw materials for Kalatha's craftswomen, especially for Theretha, the town glassblower. Garlahana didn't know exactly how much their contents were worth, but the weight of the purse Erlis had turned over to their agent in Thalar had been impressive, and the wagons were heavily laden enough to be an unmitigated pain in the arse. That would probably have been true under any circumstances, but the condition of the road didn't help a bit.

The muddy track (even Sothōii notions of a "highway" would have made an Axeman engineer cringe, and this ribbon of muck was little better than a country lane) ran between tall walls of prairie grass. The good news was that it was still early enough in the summer that the grass hadn't had time to turn into the sort of sun-dried tinder which all too often flared into rolling walls of flame later in the year. The bad news was that there was absolutely no wind today and the rains of spring, while nourishing the grass quite nicely, had not only turned the road into a quagmire which seemed bottomless in spots but stoked a humidity that turned the grass-hemmed roadbed into a steam bath.

The entire escort, including Erlis, had just finished helping the drivers and their assistants wrestle both wagons out of yet another knee-deep pothole full of soupy mud, and Garlahna had not been amused. Nor had her horse, when he'd found himself hitched to the lead wagon to add his own weight to the effort. The gelding was no prize example of the Sothōii warhorses which were the pride of the Kingdom, but he'd obviously found the role of dray horse far beneath his dignity…as he'd demonstrated with an indignant crow hop or two when she'd climbed back into the saddle.

Garlahna wasn't the horsewoman her friend Leeana was. Most war maids were infantry, more comfortable on their feet than in a saddle under the best of conditions, and she'd been born to a family of yeomen, not in the house of a great noble. For her, horses were simply a means of transportation -- a way to get from one place to another without using her own feet -- and while Leeana would undoubtedly have taken the gelding's misbehavior in stride and actually enjoyed it, Garlahna was just relieved she hadn't parted company with her saddle. Well, by that and the fact that her spine seemed not to have collapsed after all.

She chuckled at the thought and wiped another stripe of mud across her forehead as she blotted fresh sweat and thought longingly of her chari and yathu. The short, kilt-like chari was definitely not the most comfortable garment for a lengthy horseback ride, however. Trousers were a far better idea for that (another reason to prefer feet to saddles, she thought darkly). They were at least a little less offensive to traditional Sothōii patriarchs than the short, revealing, comfortable chari (and even more scandalous yathu!), too, and unlike some of her sister war maids, Garlahana didn't have a problem being unconfrontational for trips to non-war maid towns, at least when it could be done without appearing weak. Outside such towns, the traditionalists could like it or lump it as far as she was concerned, and if she'd been traveling on foot, she'd have worn chari and yathu this time, as well, and let the townsfolk think whatever they liked. The war maids weren't about to kowtow to anyone's prejudices after their long, bitter fight for equality. Yet she had to admit that, as towns went, Thalar was more accustomed to and comfortable with war maids than most. Now, at least. Garlahna wasn't going to object if the trousers she'd donned for utilitarian reasons soothed any potential ruffled feathers someplace like Thalar -- she wasn't that enamored of making a statement everywhere she went -- but that didn't mean she liked the wet, sticky misery her present attire helped create in this kind of humid heat.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top
Re: STICKY: War Maid's Choice Snippets
Post by DrakBibliophile   » Thu Apr 05, 2012 9:02 pm

DrakBibliophile
Admiral

Posts: 2113
Joined: Sun Sep 06, 2009 3:54 pm
Location: East Central Illinois

War Maid's Choice - Snippet 09

At least her horseback perch put her high enough to see across the green sea of grass baking under the windless sun. That was fortunate, given what she was pretty sure was out there somewhere doing its best to sneak up on them, and she shaded her eyes with one hand, making a slow, conscientious sweep of her own area of responsibility. So far, so good, with no sign of trouble, and she nodded in satisfaction, then glanced back at those muddy, creaking wagons with mixed feelings. She would far rather have spent the last couple of days in one of the Kalatha Guard's nice, shady barracks, but she did have a proprietary interest in the larger of the two vehicles, since it carried (among a host of other things) a dozen bolts of fabric in rich colors and textures destined for Tomarah Felisfressa. Tomarah and her freemate Selistra were the best seamstresses and dressmakers in Kalatha, and Garlahna had paid the better part of two months of income for the length of amber-colored silk that was going to turn into her new gathering gown. At, she reflected, the expense of another week or so of her income for Tomarah…whose skilled fingers and flair for design would be worth every copper kormak.

Of course, my income would be a little better if it wasn't my year for Guard service, Garlahna reflected wryly. Still, even with little jaunts like today's, serving in the Guard isn't that bad. Aside from Erlis' and Ravlahn's idea of "restful" morning calisthenics, that is!

Unlike certain others of Kalatha's younger citizens, she didn't really object to serving her stint in the City Guard. It was inconvenient, and it interfered with her thriving business as a tinker, yet she'd never even considered hiring a substitute, as quite a few Kalathans did. Partly because it would have cost at least half of her earnings, but also because she was young enough it was no physical hardship…and because it was important for the town to maintain a reserve of trained and experienced war maids to back up the standing Guard just in case. It wasn't all that many years since Kalatha had come entirely too close to finding itself under attack, after all, even if the town hadn't known anything about it until it was all over.

Garlahna's good humor dimmed at the memory, and she grimaced and reached down to adjust the short sword at her hip. No one in Kalatha liked to think about how close the Dark Gods had come to setting the town and Trisu of Lorham at one another's throats. And Garlahna suspected very few in Kalatha liked to think about the fact that Trisu had been in the right during their bitter dispute over land and water rights, either. There was no love lost between Kalatha and Trisu even now, but any fair-minded war maid would have been forced to acknowledge that he'd actually shown remarkable restraint under the circumstances. Not that all war maids were precisely fair-minded, of course. In fact, some of them seemed to prefer to go on blaming Trisu rather than accept that Shīgū had perverted the Kingdom of the Sothōii's most sacred temple of Lillinara and affected the minds of quite a few Kalathans along the way. If it hadn't been for Dame Kaeritha Seldansdaughter…

Garlahna decided -- again -- not to think about where it all could have ended. War maids were accustomed to being less than popular, especially with hard-core traditionalists like Trisu Pickaxe, but it was frightening to think how close Shīgū had come to provoking an open, violent confrontation between them and the rest of the Kingdom. If the Twisted One had succeeded, the consequences would have been catastrophic. Indeed, she might have achieved her goal of destroying the war maids once and for all.

That hadn't happened, and it wasn't going to, either, but it had come frighteningly close to reality, and relations with Thalar had become strained and overtly hostile as a result. They'd recovered their normal, even tenor once the townsfolk realized what had happened, though…which was actually quite generous of them, given the way Jolhanna Evahlafressa, Kalatha's previous agent in Thalar had acted. Jolhanna was one of the war maids who'd gone completely over to the Dark, and she'd done her very best to completely destroy Kalatha's relations with the largest town in the Wardenship of Lorham. Thalar's willingness to accept Dame Kaeritha's explanation of what had led to her actions -- and that they'd been her actions, not Kalatha's -- was one reason Garlahana didn't mind making at least a few concessions to the town's sensibilities where things like attire were concerned.

The war maids had taken the lesson to heart, however, and no one was ready to assume Shīgū and the other Dark Gods had simply given up on the project, either. That was the reason the Kalatha City Guard was half again the size it had been and why the tradition of requiring war maids between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight to contribute one year in four to militia service had been revived. There'd been a few changes to the militia requirements, too. One new profession -- that of glassblower -- had been added to the exempted trades list, and the town charter had been amended to allow people to discharge their entire Guard obligation in a single five-year stint, if that was their preference, rather than breaking it up into five separate terms of service. Garlahna was seriously considering combining at least two years of her own service into a single term, but she hadn't made up her mind yet. There were arguments in favor of either decision, but the biggest one against it was Barlahn.

He didn't have any objection to her discharging her militia responsibility; it only made the logistics complicated because she had to be on-post every night, except when she could get leave. It wasn't too bad during the winter months, when he was able to share her assigned quarters in town at least three or four nights a week, but that wasn't very practical once he could get his crops into the ground again. She'd grown up around farmers, and she knew all about the hours they worked. It would have been silly for him to be hiking the six miles in and out of town every morning and every evening, especially when he was already worn out from his labors, and she knew it. None of which made her any happier about the currently empty state of her bed. It would be nice to get her present year of service out of the way and get settled back in with him, but then again if she discharged two of her remaining three years of obligation back to back, she'd have six years, not just three, in which to do that settling. That would be nice. Time enough for a couple of children, perhaps, and to help get them past the toddler stage before Mommy had to report for duty again.…

One of the wagon drivers swore wearily, and Garlahna turned in the saddle to look back over her shoulder as the front wheels of the woman's wagon splashed down into a puddle which was obviously even deeper and muckier than usual. Garlahna's gelding had automatically made his way around the pothole's lip on one side while Erlis circled it on the other, but the wagons didn't have that option, and the hole was the next best thing to wheel hub-deep. The lead wagon came to an abrupt halt, the mules whuffing against their collars in surprise, and Erlis shook her head as she drew rein.

"Mother, this one's deeper than the last one!" the three hundred said sourly.

"Looks like it," Garlahna agreed even more sourly. "I hate paying Trisu the road toll, but I have to admit he keeps the main roads in a lot better shape than this! Maybe we should start charging tolls?"

"Who'd pay them?" Erlis snorted. "We're the only ones who use this miserable excuse for a road. And in case you've forgotten, we only use it because the shortcut lets us stay off his stupid toll road. Not that our 'shortcut' seems to be saving us all that much time today, does it?"

"Not so you'd notice. But it's the principle that counts, isn't it? Well, that and the kormaks, I suppose. And at least this damned swamp isn't as wide as the last one. It's only big enough to eat one wagon at a time."

"And this is supposed to make me feel better because -- ?" Erlis inquired, turning her mount and trotting back towards the mired wagon.

"Give me a few minutes and I'll think of a reason," Garlahna promised from behind her, and Erlis chuckled. But then she shook her head and swung down from the saddle in a creak of stirrup leather.

"Best be getting on with it, I guess," she sighed.
*
Paul Howard (Alias Drak Bibliophile)
*
Sometimes The Dragon Wins! [Polite Dragon Smile]
*
Top

Return to Snippets