ONE FORTY THREE
I gave one thought—one very very brief thought—to Persephone and pomegranate seeds, and nearly dove into the bowl on my lap. Except that unless your spine is made out of rubber or Jello or Silly Putty this is not actually possible. My trembling hands discovered a perfectly recognisable spoon thrust into the—ahem—gloop in the bowl. I think I may have made small whimpering noises like a starving puppy. I had no idea what the gloop was—presumably boiled field rations; as I doubted this was an era that featured tin cans, maybe some kind of jerky. It was certainly salty enough to burn my tongue. This may have been a blessing in disguise since it meant I had no idea what the original meat was. But it was undoubtedly meat, it was protein and it was calories, and it was hot—it was also lumpy and gristly, but never mind. That it was hot had a further benefit beyond helping disguise its origins: it made me feel that while I might be lost in a hostile universe at least I was lost in a hostile universe among a well-organised company. Someone must have hit the floor running to have hot food this soon after we stopped the hacking and hewing thing. Supposing it was soon. Supposing that the time I’d been out was no longer than it took for someone to put a few stitches in a leg.
There were tiny white lumps in the (rapidly decreasing) brown-grey sludge in my bowl. Maggots, I thought, don’t think about it, fresh protein is good, keep chewing. And then I realised they were tiny bits of dried apple. A world that grew apples couldn’t be all bad. Unless they were called mrgfllmf here and if you ate too many of them you grew extra legs and a chitinous overcoat, which might be very popular among the soldiery but I’d rather pass, thanks. There were also long stringy things like trying to chew rope that were clearly vegetables by the bitter-green taste of them. Oh good. Even out here somewhere in a hostile universe my five a day were being catered for. It all tasted, surprisingly, pretty good. Although I was so hungry I would probably have eaten ball bearings and pencil stubs and old socks without complaint. Or maybe it was just I was relieved about the maggots.
I could feel a kind of personal dawn breaking over body and mind as the reality of food sank in and various enzymes and whatevers got going on digestion. My hands stopped trembling. It was possible to imagine putting up with the pain in my leg till it healed—because it was going to heal. The platelets were spinning their sticky webs. The white blood cells were rampaging around sucking up evil opportunists and abseiling invaders (briefly I wondered which side the Spirits of the Black Lagoon were on). The doohickeys—fibroblasts—were bulging themselves up like itty-bitty Stay-Puft Marshmellow Men to fill the gaps in my flesh. There might even be an interesting scar. Although if there was one it was going to be a little hard to explain. Oh yes, that was when I led a cavalry charge wearing only a nightgown, a sword and Merlin’s impenetrable shield, which was pretending to be a bracelet at the time . . . I looked up.
Murac was sitting cross-legged on the ground (on the ground—ewww) addressing his own bowl with profound concentration, and Tulamaro, sitting on something that might have been a pile of tack, was also eating. All around us was a churn and seethe of people and horses; the small smiling person had disappeared, to bring hope and nourishment to some other wounded veteran perhaps; or to sit down and eat something him/herself. Where was Monster? What did this cavalry feed its horses under battlefield conditions? I knew taking them for a graze round the perimeter wasn’t practical. Maybe I could learn something I could use for FLOWERHAIR THE DEMENTED.
I stared at Tulamaro who, with his guard down, looked grim and sad and determined. I wondered where the other guy—Golgotha or Gorgonzola or whoever—the other company leader Murac had mentioned was, and why I should prefer Tulamaro. If Gorgonzola didn’t throw cold water over me I might like him better.
I was aware that someone carrying a miscellaneous armful was approaching—it wasn’t food and I was sure enough it wasn’t a transporter that could beam me home I didn’t pay a lot of attention. But the someone stopped, said, “Defender,” knelt with bowed head—stop with the kneeling, you guys, you’re freaking me out—and laid the miscellaneous armful at my feet. My eyes focussed. Clothing. Some stuff that looked like maybe linen. Something or somethings that was clearly leather—and slithering out from under the linen shirt or smock or whatever it was something that was even more clearly chain mail.
“For Defender,” said Murac, whose (presumably empty) bowl had been taken away, as had mine (definitely empty).
I lifted the chain mail—which, just by the way, weighed. “Now?” I said in disbelief. “You let me go into battle effectively naked, and since that didn’t kill me, now you’re going to let me have some protective gear?”
Murac nodded. The lines in his face deepened, the scar in his cheek pulling down the corner of his eye in that dangerous-creepy-rogue look, but he didn’t quite smile. “We couldna before. But tha has shed blood on our earth and eaten our food. Tha belongs to us now. We claim tha, Defender.”
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.