War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 10
Garlahna nodded and touched the gelding’s sides with her heels, heading back towards the wagons in Erlis’ wake as the three hundred looped her reins around the stump of her left arm, pressing them in against her side, and walked up to the edge of the pothole to survey the problem. The rest of the escort had already dismounted, as well, and the six of them were uncoiling their saddle ropes as they prepared to add their own horses’ efforts to disinterring the wagon. Garlahna knew all about leading by example, but she’d already done that three times today, and her boots and trousers were caked with dried mud to the knee to prove it. “Follow me!” was all very well when it came time to lead her people into actual combat, but this time, she decided, she was perfectly prepared to let the members of her detachment wade out into the mud while she confined herself to a proper supervisory role. She knew she was going to have to climb down out of the saddle and help out eventually — the hole was so deep it was undoubtedly going to take all of them to wrestle the wagons across it — but there was no point doing it until somebody else had gotten thoroughly muddy this time around, and she drew up beside Erlis on the lip of the swamp.
“That really is a deep hole,” she commented, swatting irritably at a horsefly as two of the other war maids kicked off their boots and started wading towards the wagon. Erlis looked up at her, smiling faintly as she found Garlahna still in the saddle, and the younger woman shook her head. “The wagons were even more heavily loaded on the way to Thalar. Thank Lillinara we didn’t put one of them into this mess then!”
“Absolutely,” Erlis agreed fervently. She looked back at the mudhole stretching almost all the way across the road. “That would have been the perfect way to start this little expedition, wouldn’t it?”
Garlahna nodded, but then she frowned as another thought struck her. Why hadn’t they encountered the pothole on the way out? As wide as it was, it should have been impossible to avoid. It was possible one of the spring thunderstorms could have dumped enough rain on this stretch of the road to make the hole worse without having rained on them in Thalar, but it wasn’t all that likely. Besides, enough fresh rain to have created this morass should have generated even more mud along the road’s shoulders, shouldn’t it? But that meant —
“I think –” she began sharply, but it was already too late.
A chalk-covered beanbag came flying out of the grass on the south side of the lane and smacked Erlis right between the shoulder blades in a puff of colored dust. The three hundred jerked, then whirled around with an oath born of twenty-plus years’ service as a professional soldier…just as three more beanbags thudded into the trio of war maids standing in the mud on the north side of the road. An instant later, more of them smacked into two of the three on the south side of the road, as well, and the single dismounted war maid who hadn’t already been hit ducked under the wagon in a geyser of muddy water, snatching out her short sword with one hand and reaching for her bandolier of throwing stars with the other. Despite her own surprise, Garlahna knew better than to try to stand and fight. Instead, she reined her gelding’s head around and slapped her heels in — hard — trying to break free of the ambush before one of those infernal beanbags found her. If she could circle back around to counterattack —
It was a good idea, but before the horse had even moved, a very tall, redhaired young woman bounded out of a stretch of grass Garlahna would have sworn couldn’t have hidden a rabbit. The newcomer took three strides, tucked a bare foot into the front of Garlahna’s offside stirrup, pinning her own foot in place, grabbed the saddle horn with her right hand, and pivoted on the stirrup, swinging her left leg over the horse’s croup and dropping to sit neatly behind the saddle. It happened too quickly for Garlahna to react, and the newcomer’s hands settled on her shoulders and gripped tightly.
“You’re turning blue, Garlahna!” the redhaired war maid announced cheerfully. “Too bad, I really liked you.”
“Very funny, Leeana,” Garlahna growled, looking over her shoulder with a disgusted expression as the last war maid of the escort, despite the protection of the wagon, was hit by three different beanbags flying in from three different directions.
“You’re dead, too, Saltha!” another voice crowed from the grass.
“Oh, yeah?” Saltha Mahrlafressa, the war maid under the wagon, sounded as disgusted as Garlahna felt. “Well, I’m mucky enough already, Raythas,” she retorted, raking a glob of mud out of her graying hair and looking at it distastefully. “If you think I’m going to die dramatically and bellyflop into this mudhole, you’ve got another think coming!”
Raythas Talafressa emerged from the grass with a grin, followed by two more, equally delighted young women in traditional war maid garb. They’d added leather leg guards to protect their otherwise bare legs from the prairie grass, but aside from that they looked revoltingly cool and comfortable, Garlahna thought from inside her sweaty trousers and shirt. They also looked revoltingly pleased with themselves.
“Nicely done,” Erlis acknowledged, shaking her head as she looked at their attackers. “Not that we didn’t help you by acting like drooling idiots who shouldn’t be let out without a keeper.” She grimaced. “What a convenient mudhole you just happened to find to stop us for you.”
“Yes, it was, wasn’t it?” Leeana agreed. She slid down from the back of Garlahna’s horse and grinned impudently up at her friend as her left hand twirled the garrotte she hadn’t wrapped around Garlahna’s neck. “It only took us four or five hours to get it dug. The biggest problem was hauling in the water to fill it after we got it properly excavated.” She looked back at Erlis. “We were only an hour or two behind you on the way out, so the mud had plenty of time to cure.”
“So I see.”
Erlis stretched out her hand to help Saltha out of the mudhole while she considered the victors. The three hundred didn’t like losing, but she had to admire Leeana’s tactics. The manufactured pothole had been a masterstroke, an obstacle which was certain to stop the wagons but which hadn’t set off any mental alarms because they’d already had to deal with so many mudholes. And as she looked further into the grass on either side of the road, she saw the blinds Leeana and her three companions had painstakingly constructed to conceal them until they struck.
It’s a good thing they weren’t really trying to kill us, she reflected with more than a little chagrin. All eight members of the escort — except Garlahna — bore large, bright splotches of chalk dust from the beanbags which had been substituted for the far more lethal throwing stars (or knives) which would have come their way if Leeana had been serious. I must be getting old to let the young hellion get away with it this way!
Yet even as she thought that, she knew that wasn’t the true reason. Yes, she really should have been more suspicious — or alert, at least — but that wouldn’t have mattered in the end, given how carefully Leeana had organized things. The girl had come a long way in the six and a half years since she’d fled to the war maids. She was still not quite twenty-two years old, yet she was already a commander of seventy-five, and whether she realized it or not, Erlis and Balcartha Evahnalfressa, the commander of five hundred who commanded the City Guard, were quietly grooming her for far higher rank. Indeed, Erlis was beginning to wonder if Kalatha would be allowed to keep her. The war maids were legally obligated to provide troops in the Crown’s service in return for the royal charter which had created them in the first place, and any field commander in his (or her) right mind was going to want an officer of Leanna Hanathafressa’s caliber. No matter what challenge Erlis and Balcartha threw at her, she took it in stride, and she was so cheerful even old sweats like Saltha couldn’t seem to take offense when she effortlessly ran rings around them.
Or got promoted past them, for that matter.
“All right,” she said finally. “You won; we lost. So you get the bathhouse first tonight and you get the three-day passes.”
Leeana and the other members of her team looked at one another with broad grins, and Erlis let them have their moment before she gave them a rather nasty smile of her own.
“And now that you’ve won, why don’t the four of you just wade out into that marvelous mudhole of yours and help us get this wagon out of it?”