War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 25

“You’ll do fine. And you’ll have Vaijon along to help out, once we get back from Sothōfalas.”

“Isn’t that about like saying the tinder will have a spark along to help it out, Milord?” Brandark inquired.

“You’re welcome to come along yourself, Brandark,” Vaijon invited, but the Bloody Sword shook his head quickly.

“I appreciate the invitation — really, I do — but I’m afraid I don’t remember having lost anything on the Ghoul Moor.”

The others laughed, although the notion of the upcoming summer’s campaign wasn’t an especially humorous topic. The Sothōii had been forced to launch periodic campaigns into the Ghoul Moor for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, generations of young Sothōii warriors — like Trianal (and Tellian himself, if it came to that) — had been blooded there. Yet those had all been little more than spoiling attacks, designed to drive the ghouls back from the foot of the Escarpment and remind them to stay clear of the Sothōii’s horse herds on the far side of the Hangnysti River. With the approaching completion of the Derm Canal, something more permanent was required.

No one was foolish enough to believe the ghouls could actually be exterminated, although that would have been the preferred solution for anyone who’d ever had the misfortune to meet one of them. But if the entire canal project was to succeed, something had to be done to protect barge traffic on the Hangnysti. Ghouls, unfortunately, were excellent swimmers, and they had objectionable dining habits. It might be just a little difficult to convince bargemen to sail down the river knowing the ghouls — who regarded them as tasty snacks which were tastiest of all while they were still alive — were waiting to greet them.

That was the reason for the joint campaigns Tellian and Bahnak had mounted in the Ghoul Moor over the last two summers. The ghouls’ territory stretched over seven hundred miles along the Hangnysti, and there was no hope that anyone could possibly actually control that vast an area. But what they could do was to secure the strip along the riverbank itself with a series of blockhouses and forts connected by mounted patrols. Maintaining those blockhouses and garrisons — and especially the patrols — wouldn’t come cheap, but the projected earnings of the new trade route would more than cover the expense…assuming King Markhos wasn’t convinced by the anti-hradani faction in Sothōfalas to forbid Sothōii participation.

At the moment, there seemed little probability their opponents would be able to persuade him to do anything of the sort, but the possibility couldn’t be ruled out. And, in the meantime, the thought of Sothōii cavalry voluntarily cooperating with hradani infantry on any endeavor was enough to reduce those opponents to frothing fury. Even many of those who were tentatively in support of the new trade route were…uncomfortable with the notion. After a thousand years of merciless hostility, the concept of an army which combined hradani and Sothōii into a single, unified force was a profoundly unnatural one.

In fact, the first campaign season had gone less than smoothly. The armsmen of the West Riding were deeply loyal to their baron, yet his decision to fight side-by-side with hradani had come hard for many of them. Even those who’d accepted that Bahzell truly was a champion of Tomanāk and a wind rider had found it difficult to extend that same acceptance to hradani in general after so many centuries of bloodletting and mutual atrocities. There’d been a great deal of grumbling and more than a little resistance, not all of it from anti-hradani bigots, and Tellian had been forced to lead them himself that first year. And, of course, there were anti-Sothōii bigots in plenty on the hradani side, just to make the situation still better. Given the obstinacy quotient of Sothōii and hradani, the situation had been rife with potential disasters, and even with Tellian there in person, and with Bahnak’s heir, Bahzell’s oldest brother Barodahn, personally commanding the hradani contingent (and cracking heads where necessary), things had almost spiraled out of control on more than one occasion.

In the end, it had been the Order of Tomanāk more than anything else which had held things together. The Hurgrum Chapter had earned a high reputation among the Sothōii in the bloody battle to avenge the desecration of the Warm Springs courser herd, and its destruction of Sharnā’s influence in Navahk had won it an equally high reputation among the hradani. The respect it enjoyed from human and hradani alike had allowed it to serve as both a unifying force and a buffer between the two factions when tempers flared. It had also led the way once battle was joined, and whatever they might think of one another, the Sothōii and Prince Bahnak’s hradani were all fighting men. Where the Order led, they followed, and in the following they learned to respect one another, as well.

There were still occasional troublemakers from both sides, of course, although their fellows tended to quash them even more effectively than their officers might have. And the Order of Tomanāk remained a unifying force, as well as the point of the spear. By now, however, the West Riding by and large had at least accepted the concept that fighting with hradani rather than against them was a possibility. The fact that the Hurgrum Chapter was headed by a human, despite its exclusively hradani membership, hadn’t been lost on Tellian’s armsmen that first summer, either. In fact, the Hurgrum Chapter now boasted almost a dozen human members besides Vaijon, although any Sothōii would have flatly denied the possibility of such an arrangement before Tellian had “surrendered” to Bahzell in the Gullet.

Once this summer’s campaign began, Vaijon would be personally leading the Order, and over the last half dozen years, he’d turned into a seasoned and skillful field commander. That was a transition not all knights, even of the Order of Tomanāk, made, and Bahzell was proud of the younger man.

“So you’ve made up your mind as how Trianal will be after commanding your armsmen this time?” he asked Tellian now, and the baron nodded.

“I’ve got a feeling you and I are going to be spending more time than either of us might like in Sothōfalas this year, Bahzell,” he replied. “Especially me.” He grimaced. “Besides, Trianal’s more than up to the challenge, and he’s senior enough — and old enough now — that I can delegate the job to him without worrying that any of my officers might feel they have to test the limits of his authority.” He grinned at his nephew. “And he’s still young enough I can downplay just how ticklish the situation in the Ghoul Moor is if I have to in Sothōfalas. After all, if it were really important, or if our alliance with your father was truly shaky, then surely I’d be there myself, wouldn’t I?”

“And who was Father thinking about from his side, Vaijon?” Bahzell asked. “Barodahn? Thankhar?”

“Actually, no,” Vaijon said. “He’s sending Barodahn off to Silver Cavern for a conference with Kilthan and the other clan elders, and Thankhar’s busy acting as his eyes and ears with Serman and the Derm Canal work crews. So he’s picked someone else — Yurgazh.”

Bahzell blinked, ears flattening briefly in surprise, but then his eyes narrowed and he began to nod. Slowly, at first, then faster and more enthusiastically.

Prince Arsham Churnazhson had inherited the throne of Navahk following the death of his father. Despite his own illegitimacy, he’d always been popular with the Navahkan Army, and he’d fought well and hard against Hurgrum and her allies. In the end, he’d surrendered honorably, and while he was unlikely ever to be especially fond of Prince Bahnak or his sons, he’d also never had time for the perversions and cruelty of Churnazh’s legitimate sons. Besides that, he was smarter than they’d been, able to recognize the advantages the unification of the northern hradani had brought to all of them. Navahk had gone from starving misery to something which actually approached prosperity; that had done wonders to consolidate the legitimacy of his rule, if not his parentage, in Navahkan eyes, and the completion of the canals and the tunnel was bound to bring his city state even greater prosperity.

Yurgazh Charkson was cut from much the same cloth as Arsham, and he’d become the Navahkan prince’s senior general following the war. In addition, he and Bahzell had formed a wary semi-friendship during Bahzell’s days as a political hostage in Navahk, which hadn’t hurt his acceptability among Horse Stealers. Yet, like Arsham, he’d distinguished himself in both wars against Hurgrum, as well, which meant he was both popular with the Navahkans and respected by Bahnak’s Horse Stealer officers. He had the moral authority to command the allegiance of both, and putting a Bloody Sword in command of the Northern Confederation’s half of the Ghoul Moor expedition would constitute another major step in Bahnak’s ongoing campaign to truly unify the northern hradani.

And letting deputies, however senior, represent both Tellian and Bahnak in the field would go far to suggest that human and hradani cooperation was becoming routine enough it no longer required heads to be knocked together on a wholesale basis.

“He’s a canny one, my Da,” Bahzell said with a smile. “Almost as canny as someone else as comes to mind.” He twitched his ears at Tellian, who snorted.

“It’s not canniness on my part, if that’s what you mean, Bahzell; it’s laziness. That’s why the gods gave us youngsters to send out and do the hard work while we lie about drinking wine and belching.”