ONE FORTY FOUR
Claim me! What the—what the—claim me! I was going home! They were going to get me to the—the multiplicitous Gate and I was going through it to where Sid was waiting. And I wasn’t coming back here for six months out of every year either, whatever happened to Persephone.
(All right, multiplicitous isn’t a word. But it should be.)
I surged to my feet, thus discovering I could. It was a somewhat wavery surge as my wounded leg attempted to do its fifty percent of the bipedal situation leg thing and almost managed it while my brain clattered to a halt when my blood stayed sitting down as the rest of me lurched upward. But my mouth was already moving and my brain would have to catch up when it could. “Claim me!” I said, or possibly howled. “What the rancid effing scrambled bulltweeting horseradish has the last—the last—has all this been about!” and I threw my arms out to include the blood and the dirt and the horses and the people and everything else, most of it undesirable, in our immediate vicinity. Especially the blood. (Throb throb said my leg.) “If you haven’t blistering claimed me yet! What’s my bonus then! Do I get a free toaster and ten percent off my next order!”
Murac looked started. I thought perhaps his insta-translate was having trouble with ‘bulltweeting horseradish’. Pustular, offered mine delightedly. Feculence. “So you hadn’t got round to claiming me yet! Do you pick up random confused strangers regularly to lead you into battle? If you wanted blood, couldn’t you have just pricked a finger? And I’ve been hungry since—since—” I had no idea how long I had been wherever it was that I was. Long enough to work up an appetite. Pitched battle will do that to you, even when your sword is doing all the heavy work.
Maybe he was looking startled because my grand gesture had made me drop my blanket. Pustular feculence. I bent (carefully) and picked it up (ow ow ow ow ow said my leg) and wrapped it around me again with as much of a flourish as I could manage. Think Greta Garbo throwing the end of a cape over one shoulder. No, don’t. Bela Lugosi maybe. On a bad day. But it was hard to be flashy with an old horse blanket (going by the smell. And the hair. I wasn’t complaining. An extra embedded layer of hair is warm.)
“And fuuuurthermore,” I said, sneezing horsehair, “you can’t claim me, you—um—” It occurred to me it would not be in my best interests to alienate Murac, appalling as this awareness was. “You can’t claim me, you said so yourself. I’m on the wrong side of Ga—of the Gate, and you want me on the right side. I want me on the right side. I never dog-eared-and-red-tailed wanted to be your flaming Defender,” I said, starting to lose my don’t-alienate-Murac focus again, and then I was going to start crying, I was not going to start crying. I was not going to start crying. I sneezed again. Violently. If my tear ducts exploded that would neutralise certain weak places in my self-control.
“Defender is stronger, tied to Gate by blood and bread.” I muttered something about there not having been any bread on show recently but I’d been ready to eat maggots and pencil stubs, I might not have noticed mere bread. “Tha’ll not forget us, now. Tha’ll not leave us behind.”
“Oh yes I will,” I said grimly, shivering in spite of the warm hairy blanket. “I’m moving to California. Tomorrow.” Northern California. Sid was too furry for the south.
“Gate’ll come with tha,” said Murac. “Wherever tha go. And if we call, tha’ll hear us, and come.”
I may have moaned. My blood was circulating comprehensively enough again for my brain to produce a few flailing thoughts: which was the decision I had made that was the wrong one, that if I’d made some other one I’d be sitting in front of my computer with a hot cup of tea right now, finishing FLOWERHAIR THE UNHINGED on time? But if I went back as far as not poking a pin in my old paper atlas, Sid would still be sleeping rough . . .
There was a shout. The Falcons. The Falcons can hold alone no longer. The Falcons’ line is breaking. . . .
Murac took two long strides forward, picked up the heap of clothing at my feet and shook it out. I let my blanket fall, blank-brained and numb again, and he dropped the linen shift over my head. Leather followed. There were linen trousers too, with a drawstring to keep them up, and leather britches over. Long stockings pulled up above the knee—a pad Murac produced from nowhere over the sewed-up slash on my leg—boots on immediately and laced in place. The boots were a surprisingly good fit. Throb, went my leg, but it seemed a long way away.
The chain mail went clank, and weighed a ton.
Defender, went the shout. The Falcons call for Defender.
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