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.