ONE HUNDRED SEVENTEEN
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. This was just as well since the likeliest prospect was that I would burst into hysterical laughter. The kind that once you start you can’t stop.
Thug #1 dropped my arm—the one whose hand had Silverheart’s hilt in it. Flowerhair would have swung round, impaled Thug #2 and disappeared into the darkness. I managed—just—not to bury Silverheart’s tip in the ground again. What do you do with your sword when you’re not hacking and hewing? She’d—er—arrived without a scabbard. And I wasn’t wearing a belt I could thrust her jauntily through. Preferably without eviscerating myself. But I was so rubbery with pain and shock it was just as well I didn’t have a belt to risk trying it with.
Thug #1 was running the stirrups down—well, that was something. There were stirrups. Two of my all-time favorite fantasy novels featured a cavalry that rode without either bridle or stirrups. I’d adored this when I was nine and ten but the reality of both the likely development of my horse skills and the horses I was likely to meet had moved the concept into the realm of serious fantasy with the wizards, the dragons and the enchanted swords by the time I was going to summer riding camp in my teens. Sigh and all that. The world looks different when you’re ten. Barring the bruises my ten-year-old self would be eating present circumstances with a spoon: infinitely more delicious than a hot fudge sundae. As you get older you get kind of reliant on your perception of reality: like that your kitchen will not unexpectedly fill up with guys with swords (and guy-like things with swords and/or large teeth) and mayhem on their minds. I didn’t even know how to describe what had happened since then.
Monster Horse shifted his enormous feet and stretched his neck out toward me. Instinctively I went to reach back with the hand that wasn’t holding a sword. Thug #2 let go of that arm and I laid my hand on Monster’s long Roman nose. My brain caught up with this and I turned my head to look in surprise at Thug #2. Astur smiled at me. Of course. It would be Astur. His smile in this fever-dream was no pleasanter than it had been the last time Flowerhair had met him on the pages of FLOWERHAIR THE . . . something or other. My memory was as sore as the rest of me.
“Defender,” he said. It sounded like a title the way he said it. But he said it the way a grunt might refer to an incompetent sergeant-major.
“Erk,” I said.
“Stay tha ’live long enough to take us out of here, eh?” he said.
I wanted to say “Where is here?” but I doubted I would find any answer illuminating. The same went for “Where do you want to get to, exactly?” Also “What do I have to do with it?”, but I wasn’t even tempted to ask that one.
I looked back at Monster. One of my pet peeves about historical movies was the tack on the horses, which had usually come fresh from the Everything for the Horseperson warehouse just before filming started. I didn’t know where I was or what century, or whether it was a century that had happened in the same timeline that I’d lived my life in up until recently, but Monster was not wearing a stainless-steel Pelham and a pony-club browband, which was obscurely cheering. It shouldn’t have been: if he were it might have meant that normal reality, despite all appearances to the contrary, was right around the corner. If I could find the right corner.
The feeling of warm horsehair under my hand nearly undid me. I wasn’t going to cry. I’d cried enough lately—like I’d almost but not quite burst into hysterical laughter too much lately—I would quite like to stay alive long enough to get us out of here too.
“I’ll loft tha up,” said Thug #1, which is to say Murac. The draggled-leather-and-beat-up-chain-mail person had disappeared back into the gloom; Astur took hold of Monster’s reins. Both of them turned to look at me. Monster put his ears forward. Despite his size he had fine small ears that pointed toward each other as he pricked them.
Reluctantly I looked back at Murac and Astur. Murac was staring at me with what might be described as digusted dismay; Astur was openly sneering. Okay, I’m tallish and thinnish and a 34C. Not impressive. Even less impressive in a torn and dirty pink cotton nightgown decorated with rosebuds. Extremely unimpressive in fact. But . . . I had a brief moment of sheer ugly fear but I more or less successfully banished it. If they’d wanted to rape me, they’d have done it by now, and if they really thought I was this Defender person presumably they wanted to keep me undamaged. Well, un-further-damaged. I still tried not to shuffle my feet, and to find a more plausible-looking grip on poor Silverheart.
Murac made a not-bad attempt to blank out his expression, turned back toward Monster, bent, and cupped his hands. He—reluctantly—glanced at me. “Come tha on then,” he said.
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