ONE FORTY ONE
I blinked. And there was Murac with water dripping off the end of his nose. I’d imagined all that, hadn’t I? The castle and the banner and the . . . Lady? Wearing Glosinda and greeting me by name? My hand wanted to touch Glosinda on my arm, but both hands were occupied: one holding my blanket closed and the other forcing my bad leg straight.
Just as I’d imagined all that about a black tower and a company of riders and a hovering kestrel. Right? Maybe the Spirits of the Black Lagoon had some hallucinatory qualities—aside from the non-specific impression that your brain has just exploded if you drink any. Maybe there were magic mushrooms growing in my leg after it having been topically applied there. And that had been the same Lady I’d seen when I’d been imagining all those other things? Hadn’t it? I’d been too dazzled by her dress—her gown—to remember much past the dazzle—deep jewel colors, lace, long sweeping skirts, blue?, red?, something that went well with a golden sighthound—and never mind the Lady’s clean combed shining hair and bright clear eyes not red and puffy from exhaustion and weeping. And total lack of visible bruises.
If a psychiatrist were assessing me for entry into the locked ward of the local laughing academy would my consistency of hallucination be in my favor or against me? Although how was I defining ‘against’ here? If they could guarantee that I’d find life genuinely humorous from inside the rubber room I’d go quietly.
I felt even smaller and shabbier and more beat up, trying to remember anything specific about the Lady. Maybe it was just sensory overload. After you’ve been fighting off the enemy with your enchanted sword while wearing a dirty pink cotton nightgown and you are suddenly presented with a graceful vision in radiant velvet your neurons rebel. I couldn’t remember her face—I couldn’t remember what color her eyes were—blue? Hazel?—or all that flawless hair—blonde? Grey? —Green? Purple? No, I’d probably remember green or purple.
Funny though. I could remember her pen. The feather was reddish-brown, russet or chestnut, and barred with dark brown or black. I couldn’t remember ever having seen a quill pen that wasn’t white or dyed, not that quill pens were a much of an item in twenty-first-century America, but I went to fantasy cons where they sometimes were. This particular feather looked like it had come straight off the bird. My knowledge of birds big enough to produce quills for pens was limited. Domestic geese came in spots and stripes as well as white, didn’t they? I couldn’t remember any tawny-red ones though. What else was there? Great Auburn Vulture? I wasn’t in a good position to borrow my mother’s Raptors of the World book to check the colored plates.
“ . . . We knew,” Murac said, “New Defender coming.”
I tried to focus on what Murac was saying. They had known they had a new Defender coming. How did they know? And did they know in advance that their new Defender was a useless mare? If I had to characterise those first minutes in Murac’s world I would have said they were not expecting, um, me. They’d have decided the terrified non-babe in the big metal box with wheels was part of Borcaithna’s hand slipping and nothing to do with the Defender they had wanted a look at. In that case how did they know I was who they were expecting?
I was not going to ask. Asking questions was always a mistake here. Furthermore with Tulamaro behind me rumbling like a surly volcano I wanted to keep the provocation level low.
I didn’t want to think I already knew that answer. That it might have been where I had come from. From not being killed by the black thing. Supposing there was a ‘where’ about the black thing. When a scuzzy old bounty hunter rides in from the north, it’s good news. When a handsome young lieutenant rides in from the south, it’s bad news. Unfortunately the good news comes with the team member you don’t want.
When—when—I saw Watermelon Shoulders again he so had explaining to do. He was responsible for Silverheart and Glosinda. Okay, they had saved my life with the black thing—but if I’d just been recently-divorced middle-aged genre-writer Kes Macfarquhar I bet the black thing wouldn’t have noticed me. I wouldn’t have been dropped into that STAR TREK reject plot in the first place. Never mind all the introductory flimflam at Rose Manor. . . .
Watermelon Shoulders was responsible for parting me from my dog. He’d better be taking excellent care of her. No, I wasn’t going to start leaking tears again, just because I was wet and hungry and cold and the only warm part of me was my throbbing leg. And possibly my overheating brain. I wondered if the black thing and the black tower had anything to do with each other.
Murac wiped his hand across his face and dripping hair and dropped what looked like a good handful of water onto the ground. It went splat anyway.
“Hey,” I said suddenly, before I could stop myself—my question-asking compulsion, foiled of asking anything important, was at least going to ask something stupid or break itself trying—“who—or what—threw all that water? And why?”
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