War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 09

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 ShÄ«gÅ« had perverted the Kingdom of the Sothōii’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 ShÄ«gÅ« 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 ShÄ«gÅ« 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.