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.”
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.
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.
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.”
ONE FORTY TWO
Ah-eee-eh, said Murac, and the insta-translate didn’t have to bother telling me that this was a kind of ‘yo, douchebag’ exclamation. I could feel it groping anxiously for an acceptable casual usage for ‘unpleasant person whom the speaker scorns’. It’s okay, I said to it. I get it.
Sah, said Murac, a short, sharp syllable, and this was a spitting noise. —And you will tell Defender (he continued) that the water initiated her into our company and the acceptance and assent of the Lady? Then you have bound me to her more closely still, as close as the sword in a warrior’s hand.
My insta-translate had been really embarrassingly well brought up. I heard this more along the lines of ‘as close as the manky hair grows on your ass’.
I will tell her what Defender needs to know, said Tulamaro, and then I will cut your lying tongue out of your ugly head.
The insta-translate let this pass, with relief, I thought, but I also thought that Tulamaro hadn’t stopped with Murac’s tongue.
I am still commander here, said Tulamaro, and you are a common soldier promoted past your merits and your paltry skills.
Or, I rule a troop of overweight geldings of whom you are the hindmost. And tying a red ribbon around your missing balls changes nothing.
I thought I heard the insta-translate weeping. Honey, it’s okay, I said. You were trained for tea parties and got sent to war. I’d’ve chosen the tea parties myself. Cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, I thought. Scones. Bread and butter and treacle. Dormouse tea. Food. I was so hungry I was imagining . . . But at that moment I did the stiffening like a sighthound sighting a rabbit thing because I wasn’t imagining it—I smelled food (oh, Sid, is anyone remembering to feed you? How long have I been gone?) and (nearly) everything else (except Sid) spilled out of my brain like pouring last night’s flat champagne down the drain—a disheartening and melancholy process in a life where such things occasionally happened. Oh for a life where the most disheartening and melancholy activity is pouring flat champagne down a drain. I was dizzy and my leg hurt, and sequential reasoning has never been a strong point. Ask my high school algebra teacher, who I believe had a midlife career change to stunt driving after my class graduated. Furthermore it wasn’t alarming enough that I had an insta-translate with a vocabulary like a Victorian governess who had read more Sir Walter Scott than was good for her, I could hear it weeping.
A small scruffy androgynous and possibly familiar person in leather and chain mail, who might have been the same one who had led Monster through the murk toward our first meeting, appeared in front of me, holding a bowl. Food. At this urgently desired but unexpected felicity my synapses all fired simultaneously and in the ensuing dazzle I went paralytic. I had no idea what to do nor how to do it, beginning with which hand to release to make a grab for this desideratum. Maybe I could just tip forward and slurp it up like a dog. . . . I stood there motionless for a second or two, my mouth having dropped open disguising my chattering teeth—and then snapping shut again to swallow all the drool—
And to my horror the small scruffy androgynous and possibly familiar person dropped to one knee, bowed its head and held the bowl up to me to the full reach of its arms.
“Oh, no,” I said, and unwisely let go both hands to snatch the bowl and yank the person back to its feet. If I’d had two working legs and/or wasn’t half dead with cold and hunger and battle fatigue and recent surgery this might have worked. I could remember in times past doing two different things with two hands: I could remember not that long ago feeding bits of muffin or sandwich or whatever was on offer to both myself and my dog simultaneously. . . .
As it was, I fell over. Mostly this was just me falling over, but I also got rather tangled up in my blanket. I had just time enough to think—don’t let me knock the bowl over, and dump the food on the ground—even I’m not that hungry—I don’t think—
When my arnehgh caught me. Fire and water and earth, I thought. Whatever. Maybe the stones chose him for his great reflexes.
I hung in his arms, too demoralised even to protest. What was there to protest? I was this feeble.
There was a growl, presumably from Tulamaro, and I thought faintly, oh, stow it, you thumping great lout—but there was a low reverberant thud just behind me and then Murac was easing me down on something like a box—a big wooden box—something I could sit on. The small person with the bowl was standing to one side, and as I sat down, came forward again, and placed the bowl gently on my lap. He—or she—bent low enough that he (or she) could look up into my face. And smiled.
It was a nice smile. I still couldn’t tell if it was a man’s smile or a woman’s. “Defender,” said the small smiling person. “We greet thee. We are glad of thee. Please now eat.”