ONE HUNDRED SIXTEEN
I didn’t know ‘azogging’. But I could guess that it wasn’t flattering.
Someone screamed—way too close by—and then one of the shouting voices said something that made whoever it was holding me up turn away, dropping his hands as he did so. I staggered, bowing over the hilt of poor Silverheart—I wondered if they made swords whose tips split like a three legged cane. That would hamper the stabbing aspect but maybe it could be an open-shut thing like an umbrella? Or one of those spider-catching wands with the plastic fingers at the end?
Yes, I was raving. But whatever the shout had been that had made my yanker drop me had seemed to include the syllables ‘Murac’.
I didn’t have time either to worry or rejoice at being left alone. I had only just managed to straighten up and start to look around me—more confusion and more darkness: but then being able to see the black thing coming hadn’t done me much good—when I was seized from both sides and hustled along. You wouldn’t have thought you could hustle someone carrying a sword, but my that-side hustler grabbed me under the arm and (painfully) by the wrist, and wrenched Silverheart up out of the dirt. I could have dropped her but I didn’t: indeed my hand seemed to have developed an instinct to hang on.
There were a lot of people around us, scuttling through the dark on errands I couldn’t imagine, or anyway didn’t want to, and the occasional flash of light on metal was not reassuring since the metal was often unmistakably long, edged and pointy-ended. There were duller flashes that I thought might be shields and mail, but I had no idea what any of this looked like outside a museum: I didn’t even belong to SCA and did almost all my research (heaven help me) on the page, either paper or virtual. Nothing here looked like it did in a story: in the first place because I couldn’t see much, and the first rule of storytelling is that there is a story to tell. Unless you were making an issue of, say, darkness and confusion for a purpose, like that your mercenary-soldier heroine is creeping up on her latest lot of bad guys, you probably wanted some interesting background to describe, briefly but thrillingly, while you got her from point A to point B. I couldn’t tell if the darker looms I caught glimpses of were trees, boulders, a ruined city, ranks of enemy soldiers or sleeping dragons.
I also, just by the way, didn’t feel the slightest eager or excited. I felt tired, so sore I half thought I might melt from the throbbing heat of my bruises, and frightened out of my tiny over-imaginative mind. My nose was telling me that the hygiene in the immediate vicinity was not exemplary, and my bare feet were stumbling through and occasionally squishing over ground hazards I didn’t want to think about. The natives in generic medieval high fantasy tended to be implausibly clean and well-fed. Mine were. I wasn’t going to torture entire civilisations, even imaginary ones, with cholera, gruesome parasites and malnutrition for no reason.
The two men—since by their hands, voices and size they were men—impelling me along seemed to be shouting at each other over my head. I only caught a few phrases.
. . . Even more useless than last one. . . .
. . . If our heads are forfeit anyway, might as well . . .
. . . How they chose that dolduraging innocent on gate . . .
I doubted ‘dolduraging’ was flattering either.
. . . Who’d take it. Would tha? . . .
There was a laugh. It was not a nice, welcoming or friendly laugh. And at this less than comforting moment my companions jerked me to a halt.
There was a new, a moving loom in the darkness. New and moving in our direction. I tried for fatalistic. Neither running away nor collapsing in a heap was going to do me any good with Big Thugs #1 and 2 holding onto me. Aside from the perilous impracticality of either running or collapsing while holding a sword.
The loom got closer and closer. My eyes weren’t much use but both my ears and my nose were suggesting possibilities. I thought I was hearing an erratic thud clop over the messy ground. And there was a nice clean animal smell. There was also a kind of pale churning at ankle level.
A dark dappled brown-bay horse with four white socks and a white star coalesced out of the gloom. He was wearing a bridle and saddle; someone in a draggled leather tunic and a short vest of much-mended chain mail was leading him.
He was the biggest horse I’d ever seen. Possibly with the exception of the regiment of behemoths that had passed Sid and Merry and me . . . last century.
I looked up at him. He lowered his nose and looked at me.
“Can tha ride?” said Thug #1.
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