ONE THIRTY EIGHT
Dreamily I watched the kestrel—if it was a kestrel. It hovered, wings going like a hummingbird’s, dropped, a yard or a league, and then stopped, still midair, with some dramatic flapping and tail wagging. Hovered again—then stretched its wings and soared to where it had been when it began—side slipped a little—began hovering again.
It was curiously hypnotic. As I watched I seemed to relax, whatever that meant in the circumstances. . . .
My leg was on fire on fire onfireonfireonfireonfire
I had to take my teeth out of Murac’s shoulder to gasp. I hauled some air into my lungs . . . and conked out again.
There was a group of people on horseback in a little clearing at what might have been the front of the Black Tower—how did you tell? Great big square-foundation tall black thing. Sort of the architectural version of the black thing with the sword that had tried to turn me into human sashimi. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Black Tower didn’t have a door the way the sword-wielding black thing didn’t have a face.
I was used to estimating audience size but the horses would throw my guessing out. Very few horses attend SF&F panels at your local Ramada Inn conference center. More’s the pity. Maybe fifty riders here, I thought. I could probably just have counted them, one two three four five sixty-seven, but there’s a limit to the amount of arithmetic you’re up to while you’re hallucinating, especially when counting human bodies in a multi-media convention audience is about the top of your range when you’re awake and sober.
At a guess it was a military company; I could see weapons and chain mail. Three of the riders were in a little group to one side; the officers, perhaps? The rider in the center threw out one hand and shouted—by the sound of the voice, a woman. I seemed to be hearing the words but I couldn’t understand what she said—although I thought I heard the word ‘falcon’.
I looked up for the kestrel. It had disappeared, but in my looking away from the mounted company I was staring again into the room where a woman sat writing with a sighthound at her feet. She sucked in a breath sharply as if she had heard the rider’s words and understood them. If she had, it wasn’t good news. She bent lower over her desk and wrote faster, the nib of her pen rasping frantically across the page; she dipped for ink too hastily and drops flew, glinting in sun- and lamplight. I couldn’t read what she wrote any more than I could understand what the rider had shouted, but I could see the black scrawl of words, which was reassuring. The shining droplets might have been blood.
I could hear the wind in the leaves of the tired trees and as it blew the sound it made altered, as if the weather had changed or the trees had straightened up and shaken off their lethargy. I was watching the group of riders again; little bits of conversation blew my way, but they were talking only loud enough for the group to hear and I could pick out no words. Several of the horses had turned skittish, apparently in the wake of the colonel’s shout; my eye was caught by a red bay, a mare, I thought, although I couldn’t be sure, near the back of the company. (I had a vague idea that colonels usually commanded larger troops, but I wanted to call her the colonel, so I was going to, just as I was going to assume she was the head of the company). The red bay moved as if she might leap into one of Monster’s airs above the ground at any moment (had someone thought to look at Monster’s neck and loosen his girth) and her rider sat her as easily as . . . I might sit in my desk chair with my hands on my computer keyboard. The rider was a slight figure among larger ones, so she might be a woman. I performed the hallucinatory version of a sigh. The red bay and her rider looked a lot like a six-to-sixteen-year-old horse-crazy girl’s idea of real riding: sort of Alec Ramsey and The Black, only better, especially if it was a mare and a woman.
I had let myself be sentimentally distracted but the sound of the wind changed again, to a high, whining keen. I looked toward the top of the tower; its outline seemed to shiver as if with heat haze, but you don’t get heat haze in a heavy low overcast, and the riders were wearing thick tunics under the chain mail that looked like warmth, not protection. Now I was hallucinating from inside my hallucination, because the tower seemed to bend forward and its shadow widened, as if it were spreading gigantic wings. . . .
And the woman leaped to her feet, shaking little sparkling bits of ink-blotting sand from her page and shouted one word: Yarrah!
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