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War Maid's Choice: Chapter One
Last updated: Monday, April 2, 2012 04:38 EDT
“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 Sothoii, 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 Tomanak Orfressa. The notion of a hradani champion of Tomanak 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 Sothoii did, it had to be a Sothoii 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.
As it happened, Bahzell did possess a similar talent. He had no ability to taste or shape stone, but he was a champion of Tomana-k, 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 Ru-m (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.
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.
“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?”
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