November 23, 2014

KES, 146

ONE FORTY SIX

 

“But we need her!” cried the big man with the bloody sword.  “I—we—cannot hold without her!”  The tall, scruffy, scrawny black dog beside him sat down, pointed her nose at the ceiling and howled.  “Indeed we are not holding!” continued the man.  He rubbed his hand over his face;  the palm came away wet.  Dispassionately he looked at the smears of blood and sweat.  He scraped his hand down his filthy leather cuisse.  He was so tired he could barely raise his sword;  he who had held the way single-handed against the enemy at Dree for near to two hours. “This is not my world and I am weak here;  perilously weak.  Were it not for my two doughty companions this portal would be broken ere now;  broken past even your mending, Lady, till she could not come back.”

“You are not to such an awful pass yet,” said the Lady, not without sympathy;  but he thought she sounded grim and tired.  But all sounds grim and tired to me at this ill time, for grim and tired are what I myself am.

The dog beside him lifted her head again and howled.

I wish to howl too, he thought, but I may not, for it is not seemly.  Aloud he said:  “No, Lady, we are not, or ye and I could not thus speak.  But we who stand before ye”—and he was aware of a splintering, bobbing shadow somewhere behind him and the dog, making gestures, he guessed, not respectful of the Lady.  A little louder he went on:  “We do not hold;  we only deflect—a little.  There are things that should not be here, that have slipped by me—us—because there are too many of them and too few of us.”  And because the air in this place lies like lead upon my chest, and my eyes blur and tear, and my thoughts move slowly, and my arm slower yet.  “I fail, Lady.  I am failing thee.”

The Lady’s laughter was harsh and startling.  “You are nothing like failing, you great dolt.  Your strength and courage amaze me still, for all that I have known you so long.  No one else could hold this way;  I did not know if you could either—or if I were signing your death warrant by giving you charge to try.  I would send you aid if I could—I would send you her if I could—but I cannot.  I know that by cause of our strait there are things let loose in this world that should not be here;  we must hope that they will not thrive, like a water snake in a desert, or a bird of the tropics in a blizzard.”

She stood up, away from her desk, still holding the pen she had been writing with, restlessly drawing its speckled feather through her fingers.  The long elegant dog sleeping at her feet had been hidden by her skirts;  it looked up as she moved away.  The black dog at his side stiffened.  He looked down in surprise;  he would not have expected a dog of this world to be able to see into the Lady’s.  The seeing was hard enough for him, and he’d been trained to it, as he had been trained to ride and to use his sword.  “Tis only Topaz,” he said to the slender black head.  Topaz, as the Lady’s sighthound, could see anywhere the Lady saw;  she glanced at him at the sound of her name and her gaze was immediately caught by the bony, bedraggled sighthound beside him.  The two exchanged a long enigmatic look as the Lady turned back to him.

“We have had a few pieces of good fortune in this dire turmoil.  Murac is not the disaster I expected;  I could not believe the stones when they chose him—or,” she added drily, “that he did not run away when the fire and water and earth were brought to him.  But he did not.  And he now serves her voluntarily;  and unfortunately I think we have need of his—acumen.”

Guile, he thought, scowling.  Murac!  Deceit.  Dishonesty.  Dishonor. 

“And when she took her necessary wound, twas the Falcons at the Tower.”

He looked up at that, distracted from thoughts of the vile Murac.  “The Falcons?” he said, and he heard the unexpected hope in his voice.

“Indeed,” said the Lady.

“Is—” he began, not sure how to continue.

“She is,” said the Lady.  “But she believes no one has recognised her—recognised what she is.  Her colonel certainly has her eye on her, but only because she is a superb soldier, and rides that mad little mare of hers like a centaur.”

He found himself smiling.  The Lady smiled back.  “This moment is soon over,” she said.  “But our situation is desperate—not hopeless.  And your hob is welcome to be as rude to me as he wishes, so long as he stands by you and the path you guard.  He shall have a bowl of dragon milk at the end, if he desires, if I am still Lady at the completion of this affair, and can ask so hazardous a favour.

“And Sid . . .” she paused.  “Sid, my dear love, my darling, we are counting on you.  Our victory—or our defeat—depends, finally, on you.”

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