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?”