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.