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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Two
Last updated: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 19:38 EDT
“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 Sothoii 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 Sothoii 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 Sothoii 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 Sothoii 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.
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 Shigu had perverted the Kingdom of the Sothoii’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 Shigu 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 Shigu 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.
Garlahna nodded and touched the gelding’s sides with her heels, heading back towards the wagons in Erlis’ wake as the three hundred looped her reins around the stump of her left arm, pressing them in against her side, and walked up to the edge of the pothole to survey the problem. The rest of the escort had already dismounted, as well, and the six of them were uncoiling their saddle ropes as they prepared to add their own horses’ efforts to disinterring the wagon. Garlahna knew all about leading by example, but she’d already done that three times today, and her boots and trousers were caked with dried mud to the knee to prove it. “Follow me!” was all very well when it came time to lead her people into actual combat, but this time, she decided, she was perfectly prepared to let the members of her detachment wade out into the mud while she confined herself to a proper supervisory role. She knew she was going to have to climb down out of the saddle and help out eventually — the hole was so deep it was undoubtedly going to take all of them to wrestle the wagons across it — but there was no point doing it until somebody else had gotten thoroughly muddy this time around, and she drew up beside Erlis on the lip of the swamp.
“That really is a deep hole,” she commented, swatting irritably at a horsefly as two of the other war maids kicked off their boots and started wading towards the wagon. Erlis looked up at her, smiling faintly as she found Garlahna still in the saddle, and the younger woman shook her head. “The wagons were even more heavily loaded on the way to Thalar. Thank Lillinara we didn’t put one of them into this mess then!”
“Absolutely,” Erlis agreed fervently. She looked back at the mudhole stretching almost all the way across the road. “That would have been the perfect way to start this little expedition, wouldn’t it?”
Garlahna nodded, but then she frowned as another thought struck her. Why hadn’t they encountered the pothole on the way out? As wide as it was, it should have been impossible to avoid. It was possible one of the spring thunderstorms could have dumped enough rain on this stretch of the road to make the hole worse without having rained on them in Thalar, but it wasn’t all that likely. Besides, enough fresh rain to have created this morass should have generated even more mud along the road’s shoulders, shouldn’t it? But that meant –
“I think –” she began sharply, but it was already too late.
A chalk-covered beanbag came flying out of the grass on the south side of the lane and smacked Erlis right between the shoulder blades in a puff of colored dust. The three hundred jerked, then whirled around with an oath born of twenty-plus years’ service as a professional soldier just as three more beanbags thudded into the trio of war maids standing in the mud on the north side of the road. An instant later, more of them smacked into two of the three on the south side of the road, as well, and the single dismounted war maid who hadn’t already been hit ducked under the wagon in a geyser of muddy water, snatching out her short sword with one hand and reaching for her bandolier of throwing stars with the other. Despite her own surprise, Garlahna knew better than to try to stand and fight. Instead, she reined her gelding’s head around and slapped her heels in — hard — trying to break free of the ambush before one of those infernal beanbags found her. If she could circle back around to counterattack –
It was a good idea, but before the horse had even moved, a very tall, redhaired young woman bounded out of a stretch of grass Garlahna would have sworn couldn’t have hidden a rabbit. The newcomer took three strides, tucked a bare foot into the front of Garlahna’s offside stirrup, pinning her own foot in place, grabbed the saddle horn with her right hand, and pivoted on the stirrup, swinging her left leg over the horse’s croup and dropping to sit neatly behind the saddle. It happened too quickly for Garlahna to react, and the newcomer’s hands settled on her shoulders and gripped tightly.
“You’re turning blue, Garlahna!” the redhaired war maid announced cheerfully. “Too bad, I really liked you.”
“Very funny, Leeana,” Garlahna growled, looking over her shoulder with a disgusted expression as the last war maid of the escort, despite the protection of the wagon, was hit by three different beanbags flying in from three different directions.
“You’re dead, too, Saltha!” another voice crowed from the grass.
“Oh, yeah?” Saltha Mahrlafressa, the war maid under the wagon, sounded as disgusted as Garlahna felt. “Well, I’m mucky enough already, Raythas,” she retorted, raking a glob of mud out of her graying hair and looking at it distastefully. “If you think I’m going to die dramatically and bellyflop into this mudhole, you’ve got another think coming!”
Raythas Talafressa emerged from the grass with a grin, followed by two more, equally delighted young women in traditional war maid garb. They’d added leather leg guards to protect their otherwise bare legs from the prairie grass, but aside from that they looked revoltingly cool and comfortable, Garlahna thought from inside her sweaty trousers and shirt. They also looked revoltingly pleased with themselves.
“Nicely done,” Erlis acknowledged, shaking her head as she looked at their attackers. “Not that we didn’t help you by acting like drooling idiots who shouldn’t be let out without a keeper.” She grimaced. “What a convenient mudhole you just happened to find to stop us for you.”
“Yes, it was, wasn’t it?” Leeana agreed. She slid down from the back of Garlahna’s horse and grinned impudently up at her friend as her left hand twirled the garrotte she hadn’t wrapped around Garlahna’s neck. “It only took us four or five hours to get it dug. The biggest problem was hauling in the water to fill it after we got it properly excavated.” She looked back at Erlis. “We were only an hour or two behind you on the way out, so the mud had plenty of time to cure.”
“So I see.”
Erlis stretched out her hand to help Saltha out of the mudhole while she considered the victors. The three hundred didn’t like losing, but she had to admire Leeana’s tactics. The manufactured pothole had been a masterstroke, an obstacle which was certain to stop the wagons but which hadn’t set off any mental alarms because they’d already had to deal with so many mudholes. And as she looked further into the grass on either side of the road, she saw the blinds Leeana and her three companions had painstakingly constructed to conceal them until they struck.
It’s a good thing they weren’t really trying to kill us, she reflected with more than a little chagrin. All eight members of the escort — except Garlahna — bore large, bright splotches of chalk dust from the beanbags which had been substituted for the far more lethal throwing stars (or knives) which would have come their way if Leeana had been serious. I must be getting old to let the young hellion get away with it this way!
Yet even as she thought that, she knew that wasn’t the true reason. Yes, she really should have been more suspicious — or alert, at least — but that wouldn’t have mattered in the end, given how carefully Leeana had organized things. The girl had come a long way in the six and a half years since she’d fled to the war maids. She was still not quite twenty-two years old, yet she was already a commander of seventy-five, and whether she realized it or not, Erlis and Balcartha Evahnalfressa, the commander of five hundred who commanded the City Guard, were quietly grooming her for far higher rank. Indeed, Erlis was beginning to wonder if Kalatha would be allowed to keep her. The war maids were legally obligated to provide troops in the Crown’s service in return for the royal charter which had created them in the first place, and any field commander in his (or her) right mind was going to want an officer of Leanna Hanathafressa’s caliber. No matter what challenge Erlis and Balcartha threw at her, she took it in stride, and she was so cheerful even old sweats like Saltha couldn’t seem to take offense when she effortlessly ran rings around them.
Or got promoted past them, for that matter.
“All right,” she said finally. “You won; we lost. So you get the bathhouse first tonight and you get the three-day passes.”
Leeana and the other members of her team looked at one another with broad grins, and Erlis let them have their moment before she gave them a rather nasty smile of her own.
“And now that you’ve won, why don’t the four of you just wade out into that marvelous mudhole of yours and help us get this wagon out of it?”
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