ONE THIRTY TWO
It occurred to me—WHANG THWANG THUD CRUNCH WHACK SMASH GLURP—that I was getting tired. Tireder. Even with Silverheart and Glosinda doing all the work it was harder and harder to stay in the saddle. My thighs wobbled and smacked against the saddle flaps like underdone pancakes hitting the plate. Splat. This was desirable in pancakes. Not in legs. Also . . . finally a reason to be glad of the divorce. After half an eon grinding around on a saddle wearing nothing but a cotton nightgown I wasn’t sure the usually-acknowledged-as-crucial love-making body parts were ever going to work again. Ow. Blisters. Ow. I was pretty certain the twisted strap under my knee had gouged a sufficient hole that that was blood I felt running down that leg. So it matched the other leg which one of my enemies had had a chop at. But scar tissue on a knee or a calf was a little less, um, disabling than scar tissue, um. . . .
Enemies. I had enemies.
Well, I’d always had enemies—My first-grade teacher because I could already kind of read, and thought her books were boring and stupid. Pansy Doncaster, who made my life a misery in junior high. I hoped her husband had left her for someone younger with a bigger bank balance too. I might even wish her some inconveniently placed blisters. I definitely wished the regular SF&F reviewer for Bookitydoodah an entire suppurating rash of inconveniently placed blisters. . . .
Thud . . . squish.
Monster was tired too. It wasn’t only that I was turning to vichyssoise that made it harder to stay on him. He wasn’t bounding and arcing any more, he was lurching and careening.
Did enchanted weaponry ever tire? I was barely keeping my hand closed around Silverheart’s hilt; on one of her savage parries soon I was going to drop her. Would she fly on without me? Or did her magic require contact with human skin to activate? Glosinda was pulling my arm as a dead weight; the hand sticking out the far end flopped like a doll’s. Both my shoulders hurt like I was being drawn and quartered; my head hurt even worse.
Ssssssssssslsh . . .
It took me a moment to process the information that there seemed to be a lull—and the moment wasn’t over yet when something slammed into us from one side. Silverheart darted upward instead of whizzing toward the slammer—which both prevented me from toppling forward on Monster’s neck and turned me slightly in that direction. I lost a stirrup and had to grab Monster’s mane (again); fortunately the lull meant that Glosinda let me. I straightened up wearily and looked over at . . .
Murac. Of course. It would be Murac. But he wasn’t trying to kill me which in the circumstances made him my best friend. I couldn’t read his expression. I didn’t want to try. I rubbed the hand that wasn’t holding a sword over my forehead. It felt damp and slimy . . . blood. I looked at my hand dispassionately. I didn’t think it was mine. The blood, I mean. I hoped I recognised the hand. Then, trying to hold onto dispassionate, I looked back at Murac.
“Next time,” he said—
“. . . donna outpace tha company.”
“Next time?” I spat. I hope I spat. I hope I didn’t whine. “What do you mean, next time!” It wasn’t a question. I was not asking a question. “There is no next time about—about —” I hope I was shouting. I hope it wasn’t a loud whine. I still didn’t know how to end the question I wasn’t asking.
“Molovaron is our finest. Defender’s horse. Kept tha alive, this hour: tha should not be ’live, even with Silverheart in tha fist. Next time, donna ask him to take tha awa’ from tha company, because he will: he runs like a race-horse, not a war-horse.”
My mouth dropped open. I hoped my face was too dirty for Murac to see the tears slipping down my cheeks. Surreptitiously—Murac was on my Silverheart side, not my Glosinda side—I gave Monster’s unhurt shoulder a rub. Monster sighed, and stretched his neck down—down—till his nose briefly touched the bloody ground. He raised his head and gave himself a massive shake. I grabbed his mane (again) and lost a stirrup (again).
When I looked up, Murac was holding what my genre-fantasy-honed mind thought it recognised as a waterskin. “Drink,” said Murac. I awkwardly wiped Silverheart on the already-stiff-with-nameless-substances skirt of my shabby nightgown and slid her into her scabbard. I took the waterskin. I braced that foot hard against that stirrup to take the weight: unenchanted waterskins weigh a lot more than enchanted swords. My arms were like old disintegrating elastic, but I got the mouth of the thing to my mouth. The water tasted better than Gelasio’s champagne.
“I’ll teach tha, give Molovaron water from saddle,” Murac said. One of the foot soldiers had brought a leather bucket for Monster, who was drinking greedily. “Part of his training, drink from waterskin.”
I lowered the waterskin and said firmly, “No. No next time.”
Murac was silent so long I had to look up. He gave his head a tiny shake as he met my eyes. “Tha’s Defender,” he said.
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.