ONE THIRTY THREE
I sucked in a vast rough breath that felt like swallowing gravel, or possibly the shards of a broken sword. I was going to shriek I am not your bloody goddam Defender, and then I was going to have my strangely thus far deferred nervous breakdown. Or I was going to pull Silverheart from her sheath and cut Murac’s stupid tactless head off to relieve my feelings. Or both. Although if Silverheart let me do my own chopping it would probably be my head that rolled. But she seemed to be part of the ‘Tha’s Defender’ team and would probably decline to behead either of us. And maybe Murac would laugh so hard at the woman he had memorably described as a useless mare tugging hopelessly at the sword refusing to slide out of its sheath that he’d fall off his own horse and break his neck.
But whatever I might have done was rudely forestalled by someone grabbing my wounded leg.
I would have levitated right up off Monster’s back except that, of course, someone was holding my leg. I was so shocked I didn’t scream—I made a sort of guttural moan, like a dying frog, and my vision briefly went red and funny. But I didn’t scream.
A voice I knew I hadn’t liked the first time I heard it said, through the roaring in my ears, “Her needs sewing up. I’ll fetch kit. Droko is mending half the company. Tha,” said Torpedo Shoulders fiercely, letting go of my (throbbing) leg and straightening up to glare at me, “next time, tha stay with tha company.”
There was that phrase again. Next time.
“Most of uz are common soldiers, fathom it, zo? We have no horses that can run like fire, we have no swords that know where to cut, we have no —” and he raised his (enormous) left arm and snapped it round in front of him in a gesture I instantly recognised from watching old Xena reruns. I didn’t remember that Xena’s forearm guards were magical, particularly, but I tended to use Xena as a sleep aid so I might have missed something. However I doubted I looked nearly as impressive as either Torpedo Shoulders or Xena when Glosinda was zapping my arm around.
Had tended to use Xena as a sleep aid, in that old life I was finding increasingly hard to remember, although maybe that was just the result of blood loss or a kind of bruisingly extreme disbelief, as if my brain had been used as a basketball in the national playoffs and returned to owner frayed and deflated. I doubted this world contained on-line reruns . . . or anything else that my world would describe as this decade’s technology. Unless you counted forging enchanted metal into self-motivated swords and arm guards, which was a useful trick, certainly, but I preferred dishwashers and email.
Wait a minute. What had he said? Sewing up? I doubted present technology included anesthetic either.
But Tulamaro wasn’t finished scolding me: “Tha’s Defender! If tha wants to live to defend Gate, tha must begin by defending tha company!”
My mouth wanted to say “Yes, sir” like a kid in the principal’s office. I clamped my jaws against the impulse and tried to glare back. I didn’t want to live to defend Gate, I wanted to live to get out of here. And while we were discussing such matters, what kind of a cheesy company didn’t shower their unexpected Defender in leather and chain mail to alleviate the shortcomings of her costume? I might have tried to say some of this aloud (throb throb went my bare, ungreaved leg) but I didn’t think the dying frog in my throat would let me.
My glare needed work. Tulamaro didn’t curl up at the edges and start smoking or anything. He just went on glaring at me. At the point I wasn’t going to be able to keep it going another moment (I did have a goblins-with-hammers headache), he dropped his own eyes and turned away.
“Get her off horse,” he added, striding away.
Murac swung down from his horse as easily as if the last—hour, had he said?—had been a nice little trail ride where the scariest thing was your horse spooking absent-mindedly at a squirrel. “Can leg take tha weight?” he said.
I stood in my stirrups. Throb throb THROB went my leg. I nodded.
“I’ll hold horse,” he said, his own reins looped over one arm, and took hold gently of Monster’s.
Which at least left me two hands to cope with the exigencies of dismounting in a nightgown. Eff eff eff eff eff eff eff. I managed it, I think, one eye, when I could spare it, on Murac—but he kept his eyes fixed on the ground. Murac the gentleman. I had no idea.
My leg didn’t much like being stood on however. I was just thinking about this when Tulamaro came back with a skinny, no-nonsense-looking man with him, carrying an ominous-looking box in his arms.
Sewing up, I thought, and the dying frog in my throat got larger.
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