ONE THIRTY ONE
The vision faded; the clouds were just clouds again. You wondered if you’d imagined the horses, the riders, the bare-legged woman; but you and everyone around you were on their feet, all staring in the same direction, beginning to move from stiff, amazed attention, but as if still caught in a dream. Several people frowned down at whatever was in their hands as if they couldn’t remember why they were holding it.
You looked around, wondering who had shouted Defender! Old Lamos was still motionless, staring up at what were now only wind-restless clouds, but with an expression of such defenceless, heartsick longing that you had to look away. There was a half-darned sock in your hands; you shifted one hand tentatively and were promptly stabbed by the invisible needle. You hissed through your teeth—just like Dumain—but it gave you an excuse for the fact that your hands were shaking.
The colonel was suddenly there, standing by the fire, weaving her hair into a thick plait and tucking it down her collar—you were sure her hands never trembled. “We’re riding out,” she said. “Get your kit together and do it fast.” The firelight stained her face and hair an ominous, flickering red, struck red glints off her chainmail and laid dark stripes that might have been fresh blood across the leather undercoat. She could have been some warrior goddess who would protect and save them all without their having to move from the fireside.
But she wasn’t. She was their colonel, tough and loyal and quick-witted, but only human like the rest of the company.
Everyone began dragging—or, in some cases, fumbling—their things together, their mending, their dice and knucklebones, their whittling, while everyone’s heads filled involuntarily with all the stories they’d ever heard about the Black Tower. The stories slowed them down, made them clumsy, even the old soldiers, maybe particularly the old soldiers, because they knew the most stories. Lamos was finally moving, his expression fading to something resembling ordinary weariness, or the ordinary oppression of spirits everyone felt at the Black Tower. Barolan, who had been with the colonel for nearly as long as you’ve been alive, looked worried and grim. When the colonel turned her head you could see the scar of the wound that had almost killed her: it was Barolan who’d carried her out of the battle that day and (so the story went) held the edges of the wound together till there was a surgeon free to stitch it up. She’d’ve bled to death in a few minutes else.
Barolan’s hands never shook either. But he wasn’t at ease tonight.
“No-ow?” quavered a voice.
“No, yesterday!” said the colonel briskly, but she could have snapped or given the owner of the voice marks for extra duty—you thought it might be Yoza’s voice, Yoza, who had very bad dreams at the Black Tower—but she didn’t. Even the colonel, whose hands never shook, understood about the Black Tower, although she did tend to close down the story-telling sessions when they got morbid.
You were remembering some of the morbid ones as you rolled up your darning (having carefully secured the capricious needle) and stuffed it into the saddlebag at your feet. The story that said the black giant as tall as the sky never spoke because he had no mouth—no throat, no voice—but that the whistling of his sword was as loud as a storm wind, and because he moved as silently as if he had no feet as he had no voice, sometimes you thought it was only the wind—and then you were dead.
There was wind tonight, although it wasn’t storm wind. But it was probably enough to disguise the approach of a silent lethal giant.
There was another story that the grey almost-nothingness that surrounded the Black Tower (which you had to ride through to get to it, and on that ride there was always something behind you even if you were last in the column, and you and all your friends were trying not to be last in the column, and the horses were all twitchy and skittery and if there was a wind you were expecting to die without warning) was the black giant’s battlefield wasteland. That he killed so savagely that the blows of his great sword weakened the walls of the world. That here, where the empty broken land stood testament to his ferocity, there were open wounds in reality’s skin, and their world might bleed to death; that it was this, in some manner, that their duty patrols were to prevent, although exactly how you had no idea.
Everyone was ready in a surprisingly short time, fetching the rest of their gear, tacking up their horses and leading them to the forming-up area in front of the Black Tower. The horses should have been drowsing and unwilling to go to work at this hour, but they were awake and alert and eager to leave their stalls, although the stabling was better at the Black Tower than most of their other regular billets.
When you arrived on the meeting ground, the colonel and Barolin and Lamos were already there, staring again at the sky. The clouds piled up higher and higher and then broke and spilled away from each other in a very un-cloud-like manner: which way was the wind blowing? Was it blowing from another world through a rent in the skin of this one?
The rest of the company gathered and stood in silence for a moment—silence except for the wind. But the wind wasn’t so loud that you couldn’t hear Barolin clear his throat and say, “Where to?”
You thought Lamos muttered something, but you weren’t sure. The clouds were roiling, twisting together once more, but this time, when they splintered and scattered you saw the bare-legged woman on her horse again, but they weren’t standing at the head of a company, but alone, terrifyingly alone, and surrounded by enemies. You watched in astonishment and admiration—no, reverence: you’d never seen anyone fight as this woman fought, her sword slicing through those who would stand against her like a scythe through standing corn, her left forearm moving so quickly that the wide shining bracelet she wore deflected any blow the might have reached her. She and her horse clearly knew each other very well; he was instantly responsive to her legs and seat, the reins loose on his neck as she cut and parried, and he reared and struck, swerved, kicked, and bounded into the air, lashing out with his hind legs.
But she was all alone. Where were her companions? Both she and her horse were wet with sweat and blood—not, you thought, all of it their enemies’—even a war-goddess and her war-horse would tire eventually.
“There,” said the colonel calmly. “The Defender needs us.”
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