ONE FORTY FIVE
I didn’t see who led Monster up to me this time because I was busy panicking. Yes, I had survived my introduction to up-close-and-personal, the-bad-guys-really-will-kill-you-if-they-can battle, and I’d survived it wearing nothing but a nightgown, but I’d gone into it having absolutely no clue what I was getting into. Oh, sure, I’d written any number of tumultuous battle scenes, with blood and swords flying and dazzling feats of heroism and villainy on all sides, and if you’re going to do this well . . . never mind literary merit, let’s say evocatively or in a way to make your reader buy the next in the series you do need to engage with it, sitting in your comfortable apartment with the central heating and the air con and the well-stocked refrigerator, and Joe the Doorman downstairs stopping anything remotely resembling a bad guy before he (or she) has come three steps across the threshold.
However—big duh moment here—it’s different when it’s you having the interesting time amid the whirling havoc. Also, I’m like this about first attempts, although I’d never been through such a spectacular example before: I’ll dare all kinds of things that first time, before my over-vivid imagination has a chance to catch up with the rest of me. Once it does, look for me under the bed. You can figure out which bed by following the whimpering noises. My riding career was studded with these moments: first time off the lunge rein, trotting free around the ring I was thrilled, and I did it pretty well too. Second time I was a nervous wreck and upset not only my horse but my riding instructor. First time jumping over something bigger than a pole on the ground? Best moment of my life thus far, except I didn’t sleep at all that night and almost gave up riding forever.
Just as well I hadn’t, I thought fatalistically, as Monster stopped in front of me and Murac moved beside me, ready to throw me into the saddle again. I’d weigh more this time, with the chain mail, maybe flying through the air would be a little less like being shot out of a cannon, a little less alarming. I’d be grateful for something being less alarming the second time. Maybe he’d forget to allow for the mail and toss me like a skinny broad in a nightgown, I’d hit my head on Monster’s saddle and knock myself out. And then I wouldn’t have to ride back into battle with all these morons yelling Defender at me.
Putting off the inevitable a moment longer, I put my hand on Monster’s shoulder. All the whinnying stuff you get in movies is Hollywood, it’s not horses. Horses are mostly pretty quiet. It’s a big deal if your horse whinnies at you, and it’s probably because he’s hungry and hoping for food. But Monster turned his head—whoever was leading him was hidden on his far side, I could just see an arm through a loop of rein—and while he didn’t whinny, he put his ears forward and his nostrils flickered in an almost-whinny. Defender and Defender’s horse having a bonding moment. Monster clearly didn’t know that he outclassed his rider by about half a gazillion parsecs.
My hand still on Monster’s shoulder I turned, desperately, to Murac. He was standing way too close because he was waiting to toss me up. Way too close. His hair was still wet. His eyes were too steady on mine. “I—don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. I was conscious of the weight of the mail across my shoulders, draped several inches down my arms. It was heavy enough it would slow my own paltry strength, dull what physical instincts I had. Well it was Silverheart’s—and Glosinda’s—game anyway. They’d know how to adapt. Or this gang were going to need a new Defender really soon.
“I know,” said Murac, and stooped for my leg. My good leg, fortunately. He grabbed and heaved. I shot up into the air again but to the perfect height this time—the perfect height for managing to clear my bad leg before I came down with a thump. Monster stood like a rock, of course, his ears now tipped back toward me, although presumably war horses were trained to put up with being mounted from either side, in expectation of certain of the unpredictable exigencies of warfare. One of Flowerhair’s more exciting escapes had been dependent on her horse staying steady as she came blasting out of the shadows and dived for the saddle—from the wrong side. He did, but she didn’t wait to be fully astride—she seized a handful of mane and yelled Go! and he went. Circus pony stuff, with her dangling from his off side. But she and the Gentleman had been together a long time.
It wasn’t exactly news that Murac knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. It shouldn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt.
I rubbed a hand down Monster’s neck, feeling for the cut. There it was . . . it hadn’t been sewn, it had been glued together somehow. I sniffed my fingers: there was a strong green smell, like plant sap. Why couldn’t they have done that with my leg?
I was finally ready to look back at Murac who was waiting, apparently, for me to look at him. “We follow tha anyway,” he said.
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