War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 15

Chapter Four

“Careful, lummox! That’s my head you’re dumping crap all over!”

The hradani stopped, parked the wheelbarrow carefully, and then leaned sideways, looking over the edge of the excavation.

“And would you be telling me what in Fiendark’s name you’re doing down there right this very minute?” he inquired testily.

“My job,” the dwarf standing in the bottom of the steep-walled cut replied in an even testier voice.

He took off his battered, well-used safety helmet to examine its top carefully, then rubbed a finger across the fresh patch of dust (and dent) the falling piece of rock had left in the steel and looked up accusingly. The hradani hadn’t actually “dumped” it on him — his wheelbarrow had simply dislodged a small stone in passing and knocked it over the edge — but the result had been the same.

“If I hadn’t been wearing this, you’d have splattered my brains all over the cut!” he said.

“Now that I wouldn’t have,” the hradani replied virtuously. “They’d not have covered more than a handspan of dirt at most, and likely less, come to think on it. And you’ve still not told me what it was you thought you were after doing down there when it was yourself told us to start pouring in the ballast.”

“Checking the form, if you must know,” the dwarf growled. “No one signed the check sheet.” He waved a clipboard irritably. “Somebody has to do a walkthrough before the voids get filled in!”

“Well, you’ll not be doing any ‘walkthroughs’ so very much longer if you don’t get your sawed-off arse out of the way.”

“‘Sawed-off arse,’ is it?” the dwarf demanded. He stumped over to the ladder fixed to the face of the massive, freestanding wooden form and started swarming up it. “For about one copper kormak I’ll use you for ballast!”

“Ah? And how would you be doing that?” The hradani propped his hands on his hips and looked down at the dwarf from his towering inches. “I’m thinking a wee little fellow like you’s likely to strain himself moving someone who’s properly grown!”

The dwarf made it to the top of the ladder and across the wooden plank between the form and the solid ground beyond the cut, and stalked towards the enormous hradani. He was barely four feet tall, which made him less than two thirds the hradani’s height, and he looked even smaller beside a massive, hradani-scaled “wheelbarrow” larger than most pony carts. But his beard seemed to bristle and he jabbed an index finger like a sword as he halted in the wheelbarrow’s shadow and glared up at the hradani.

“It’s a pity all a hradani’s growth goes into his height instead of his brain,” he observed acidly. “Not that I should be too surprised, I suppose. After all, when a skull’s that thick, there can’t be all that much room for brains inside it!”

“Sure and I’m thinking such envy must be a hard thing to bear,” the hradani replied. “Still and all,” he gripped the wheelbarrow’s handles again, “such as me, being full grown and all, would look right strange creeping about in those squinchy little tunnels your folk favor.”

He lifted, straightening his spine with a slight grunt of effort, and the heavy wooden handles — well over six inches in diameter — flexed visibly as the wheelbarrow’s massive load of gravel went thundering down into the excavation. A plume of dust rose, blowing on the hot afternoon breeze, and he glanced down with satisfaction.

“Which isn’t to say such as you wouldn’t be looking right strange pushing around wheelbarrows as are all grown up, either, now I think on it, now is it?”

The dwarf shook his head with a disgusted expression, but his lips twitched slightly, and the hradani smiled benignly down upon him.

“You’re like to do yourself a mischief venting all that spleen, Gorsan, and a sad thing that would be,” he said. “Well, sadder for some than for others, now I think on it.”

“Somebody’s going to suffer a mischief, at any rate,” Gorsandahknarthas zoi’Felahkandarnas growled back.

“And so I have already, I’m thinking,” the hradani sighed. “Why, I might be off lounging around on guard duty somewhere — or at least mucking out a stable — and instead, here I am, wheeling around loads of gravel to fill a hole I had the digging of my own self in the first place, and all of it with a wee little runt no higher than my knee yammering and whining the time.” He shook his head dolefully. “It’s enough to make a man tear up like a babe in arms, it is, and I’m after wondering just what it was I had the doing of that got me on Prince Bahnak’s bad side and landed me here.”

“You really don’t want me to answer that one,” the dwarf told him with a chuckle. “Or maybe you do. Listing all the reasons he doesn’t want to trust you doing something hard would take long enough to keep both of us standing here till the end of the shift after yours, wouldn’t it?”

The hradani grinned, conceding Gorsan the last word, and trundled back off for another load of fill. Gorsan watched him go, then stepped back out of the way as another hradani wheeled another massive wheelbarrow down the pathway of wooden planks which had been laid across the muddy ground. The newcomer had clearly heard most of the exchange, and he shook his head, foxlike ears cocked in amusement, as he dumped his own load of gravel into the gap between the form and the side of the excavation.

Gorsan shot him the expected grumpy look, but the dwarf’s brown eyes twinkled when he did. The truth was that he got along extraordinarily well — indeed, far better than he’d expected — with the hradani laboring on the Derm Canal. The canal was the longest and (in most ways) most vital portion of the massive construction project conceived by Kilthandahknarthas of Silver Cavern, Bahnak of Hurgrum, and Tellian of Balthar six years earlier, and it had been an enormous professional compliment when Gorsan was named its chief engineer. It had been inevitable that it would go to someone from Clan Felahkandarnas, given that Felahkandarnas stood second to Clan Harkanath in Silver Cavern by only the slimmest of margins and that not even Harkanath had been in a position to finance something like this solely out of its own resources. All of Silver Cavern was deeply invested in it, and the other clans had a right to nominate their own fair share of its supervisors. There’d still been at least a dozen possible candidates for the assignment, however, and Kilthandahknarthas and Thersahkdahknarthas dinha’Felahkandarnas had made the choice based on proven ability. On the other hand, that ability had been demonstrated working with other dwarves, and although Gorsan would never have admitted it to a soul, he’d approached the notion of supervising a mixed crew of hradani, dwarves, and humans with pronounced trepidation.

Actually, he conceded, watching another outsized wheelbarrow approach, it hadn’t been the humans who’d concerned him. The hradani’s reputation as the most dangerous of the Races of Man had been well earned over the twelve hundred years since the fall of Kontovar. Their tendency to erupt in berserk, homicidal fury when struck by the Rage — the inherited madness of their race — was enough to make anyone nervous, especially people who’d lived in the same vicinity as them for the past several centuries, and the old adage about burned hands teaching best had come forcibly to mind when he first contemplated his assignment.

In theory that had all changed now, and Gorsan admitted that he’d seen no episodes of the Rage during the five and a half years he’d supervised the canal’s construction. Despite that, he still wasn’t certain he believed all the stories he’d heard about how the Rage had changed, even if they were vouched for by Wencit of RÅ«m and a champion of Tomanāk. For that matter, he still had a few problems wrapping his mind around the concept of a hradani champion at all!

But whatever might be true about the Rage, he’d discovered there were definite advantages to a work force whose laborers had the size, strength, and sheer stamina of hradani. They took workloads in stride which would have made even a dwarf blanch, and for the first time in Gorsan’s experience, a job actually looked like it was going to come in ahead of schedule, even with the miserable weather of northern Norfressa to slow things up!

And there was no question that Prince Bahnak of Hurgrum was a far cry from the stereotypical barbarian brigand most people thought of when anyone said the word “hradani” to them, either. Gorsan had met the prince and most of his almost equally formidable offspring, and he suspected the rumor that Bahnak had suggested the project to Kilthan rather than the other way around might well be true. The dwarves of Dwarvenhame were far more accustomed to interacting with the other Races of Man than any of the ancestral clans had been back in Kontovar, and Kilthandahknarthas was even more accustomed to it than most, but the sheer boldness and scale of the Derm Canal — and its implications for all of Norfressa — were staggering.