ONE THIRTY EIGHT
Dreamily I watched the kestrel—if it was a kestrel. It hovered, wings going like a hummingbird’s, dropped, a yard or a league, and then stopped, still midair, with some dramatic flapping and tail wagging. Hovered again—then stretched its wings and soared to where it had been when it began—side slipped a little—began hovering again.
It was curiously hypnotic. As I watched I seemed to relax, whatever that meant in the circumstances. . . .
My leg was on fire on fire onfireonfireonfireonfire
I had to take my teeth out of Murac’s shoulder to gasp. I hauled some air into my lungs . . . and conked out again.
There was a group of people on horseback in a little clearing at what might have been the front of the Black Tower—how did you tell? Great big square-foundation tall black thing. Sort of the architectural version of the black thing with the sword that had tried to turn me into human sashimi. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Black Tower didn’t have a door the way the sword-wielding black thing didn’t have a face.
I was used to estimating audience size but the horses would throw my guessing out. Very few horses attend SF&F panels at your local Ramada Inn conference center. More’s the pity. Maybe fifty riders here, I thought. I could probably just have counted them, one two three four five sixty-seven, but there’s a limit to the amount of arithmetic you’re up to while you’re hallucinating, especially when counting human bodies in a multi-media convention audience is about the top of your range when you’re awake and sober.
At a guess it was a military company; I could see weapons and chain mail. Three of the riders were in a little group to one side; the officers, perhaps? The rider in the center threw out one hand and shouted—by the sound of the voice, a woman. I seemed to be hearing the words but I couldn’t understand what she said—although I thought I heard the word ‘falcon’.
I looked up for the kestrel. It had disappeared, but in my looking away from the mounted company I was staring again into the room where a woman sat writing with a sighthound at her feet. She sucked in a breath sharply as if she had heard the rider’s words and understood them. If she had, it wasn’t good news. She bent lower over her desk and wrote faster, the nib of her pen rasping frantically across the page; she dipped for ink too hastily and drops flew, glinting in sun- and lamplight. I couldn’t read what she wrote any more than I could understand what the rider had shouted, but I could see the black scrawl of words, which was reassuring. The shining droplets might have been blood.
I could hear the wind in the leaves of the tired trees and as it blew the sound it made altered, as if the weather had changed or the trees had straightened up and shaken off their lethargy. I was watching the group of riders again; little bits of conversation blew my way, but they were talking only loud enough for the group to hear and I could pick out no words. Several of the horses had turned skittish, apparently in the wake of the colonel’s shout; my eye was caught by a red bay, a mare, I thought, although I couldn’t be sure, near the back of the company. (I had a vague idea that colonels usually commanded larger troops, but I wanted to call her the colonel, so I was going to, just as I was going to assume she was the head of the company). The red bay moved as if she might leap into one of Monster’s airs above the ground at any moment (had someone thought to look at Monster’s neck and loosen his girth) and her rider sat her as easily as . . . I might sit in my desk chair with my hands on my computer keyboard. The rider was a slight figure among larger ones, so she might be a woman. I performed the hallucinatory version of a sigh. The red bay and her rider looked a lot like a six-to-sixteen-year-old horse-crazy girl’s idea of real riding: sort of Alec Ramsey and The Black, only better, especially if it was a mare and a woman.
I had let myself be sentimentally distracted but the sound of the wind changed again, to a high, whining keen. I looked toward the top of the tower; its outline seemed to shiver as if with heat haze, but you don’t get heat haze in a heavy low overcast, and the riders were wearing thick tunics under the chain mail that looked like warmth, not protection. Now I was hallucinating from inside my hallucination, because the tower seemed to bend forward and its shadow widened, as if it were spreading gigantic wings. . . .
And the woman leaped to her feet, shaking little sparkling bits of ink-blotting sand from her page and shouted one word: Yarrah!
. . . forever? Bad me. House move, worrying about husband’s health and well-being, Samaritan training, hellhounds giving up eating etc . . . are NO EXCUSE. And now it’s been so long I can’t find/remember where I left off. ARRRGH. Well, if I miss/repeat anything . . . I’LL BLAME YOU.* YOU SHOULD HAVE SAID, HEY, YOU HAVEN’T DONE A KES COMMENT ROUND UP IN TOO LONG.
Random thoughts: I like Watermelon Shoulders much better than Torpedo Shoulders.
I would guess so do we all. I do anyway. I will say that Torpedo Shoulders will prove to be a little more okay than you think. Like Murac, drat him. I had no intention of Murac becoming anything like either an important character or almost a hero sort of person. Or, you know, attractive, other than in a ramshackle sort of way that would appeal to deranged 11-to-15-year-olds. Arrrrrrgh. You see here an author hoist by her own petard. This happens regularly—right, EMoon?—in my case pretty much every frelling story about something or someone**, but it doesn’t usually happen in public. By the time the story hits print I’m kind of over my crisis about it/him/her/them and can pretend, or at least pretend to pretend or make a good story out of it, that this was the plan all along.***
I’m very glad we had so much time to get to know Kes in the ordinary, everyday world before she got tossed into the Defender role. It’s not that her personality doesn’t come through in the battle & just-before-or-after-battle sequences, but I like knowing that she likes muffins & is fairly good at making friends with good ordinary people. (I’m not sure I’m expressing myself well here.)
Well, you’re expressing well enough for me to agree with you and to say I’m glad that this is how you’re reading what I’m writing. Yes. It depends on the story, of course, but in this case Kes needed to be really clearly and emphatically a more or less normal modern woman—okay, a New Yorker and a fantasy writer, not absolutely normal†—for the high fantasy stuff to work the way I wanted it to work. It’s not like what I’m doing is original—LEST DARKNESS FALL is the book that pops first into my head, and probably a lot of other people’s heads for modern people dropped in ye olde time††, and you could go back another generation or two to THE TIME MACHINE if you wanted to, and there have been gazillions since—and Kes isn’t trying to invent a printing press or alter any courses of history††† or make sweeping political statements in allegorical form‡ she’s just having an adventure. But for the adventure to go ping whap YIPE in the way I hoped the two worlds have to be vividly incompatible.
At least Flowerhair was still alive. Yes. I was keeping her alive. What—or who—was keeping me alive? Hello?
::giggle:: And suddenly the story gets a bit meta.
This is me having some fun. There’s a lot in KES, starting with Kes herself as a fantasy writer, that I would NEVER EVER have put in a book that started life as something I was expecting a publisher to pay me for.
. . . SOMEWHERE someone asked me if the colonel of the Falcons might by any chance be Flowerhair. Have I answered this? I can’t remember/find answering this. If I did, this is what I would already have said: What a great idea. No. Rats. The thing is, Flowerhair has stayed alive partly by keeping a low profile. I’ve told you, haven’t I, that I’m going to give you the first chapter of the first FLOWERHAIR book, one of these days? I know what happens‡‡ and I know how she got started on this mercenary thing, and why, and also why she distrusts the formal military. She’d also hate being in command although privately, as her author’s author, I think she’d be good at it. She’s put temporary gangs together occasionally to bring off some feat she couldn’t pull alone. Eh. Maybe while Kes is resting up after Part One finally comes to an end I’ll mess with Flowerhair a little more.‡‡‡
I’m glad Silverheart seems to be determined to help Kes out both with being Defender & convincing other people that Kes has some small right to inhabit her heroic role.
Well . . . this is also just McKinley’s preoccupation with ordinary people rising to extraordinary occasions. Kes is a bit more tongue in cheek than, say, Harry, but it’s the same story arc, from MEEEEEEEP, to . . . Oh, well, if I have to. . . .
Eowyn had never been a satisfactory heroine because of that whole seeking-death-because-of-unrequited-love thing to which I had had a strong ‘spare me’ reaction
But Eowyn faced the ring wraith lord when all around her had fallen and for that I loved her. Besides, there was really only her and Galadriel who could possibly be role models for a 10 year old girl reading LOTR, and Galadriel did a lot of standing around looking stately while doing not a lot, which had no appeal at all. Get out there and DO something woman!
I agree, except for the fact that it’s not enough. I went through the tortures of the damned as only an introverted book-mad ten, or, in my case, eleven-year-old girl who WANTS HER OWN ADVENTURES can go through if she’s of a Previous Generation and when she was eleven years old LOTR was what there was, full stop. Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Moon, Patricia McKillip, Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane, Patricia Wrede etc hadn’t been invented yet. Eowyn does beg to accompany Aragorn into battle because she’s a shield maiden not a wet nurse, and in fact that scene rings very true to me and it interests me that Tolkien—manifestly not a bloke who gets it about women—could write it. But he then, as if horrified at his own ability to understand a woman’s desire for action, undermines the flapdoodle out of her for that famous scene with the Nazgul captain: she doesn’t kill him. Merry does. Which is probably why, when my eleven-year-old mind had to have a GIRL in there somewhere, decided that Merry was a girl really.
And Galadriel is a wet. Just by the way. The most interesting thing about her is that she’s a bigger deal than her husband, which is another of those oopsies from Tolkien the Bloke. Hey, pack her off to the Grey Havens before she spreads. And for utter iconic girlie uselessness I give you Galadriel’s granddaughter . . . Arwen.§
* * *
* Readers are great. I love my readers.^
^ Mostly. Except the ones who think they and I are twin souls and/or want me to collaborate with them on their great novel.
** NOOO. NOOOOOOOOOO. —Author.
Oh, do shut up and write. —Story.
*** ::muffled gurgling noises::
† All my New York friends are going HEY!
†† Anyone wants to suggest there’s no magic in LEST DARKNESS FALL . . . um. No overt magic. But one dorky little guy TOTALLY TOTALLY TOTALLY CHANGES HISTORY I MEAN TOTALLY? Uh huh. De Camp just decided not to mention the magic wand.
††† And since 1939 when LEST came out they’ve kind of decided the Dark Ages weren’t all that dark after all.
‡ Uggh. The Story Council sends me one of those and after I set fire to it I’ll start lobbing plastic bags of dog crap through their windows.
‡‡ I think I know what happens.^
^ Murac. Grrrrrrrrrrr.
‡‡‡ Mainly I have to get on with PEG II a little more briskly.^
^ Although, speaking of messing around, I’d like to know a little more about Aldetruda. And Kes, in a bit of wish fulfilment, writes a lot faster than I do and has at least one other serial heroine and some one offs lurking, any of which might make an interesting digression or digressions.
§ And no, I cut Peter Jackson no slack for trying to jazz her up a little.
ONE THIRTY SEVEN
If you google ‘fainting’ you’ll get a lot of stuff about blood pressure and dehydration and low blood sugar. Nobody seems interested in whether your visual-pathway neurons are still firing or not, or, if they are, what your brain thinks it’s seeing, even if your eyes have rolled up in your head and your body is doing an excellent wet-cardboard imitation. I haven’t fainted often, but the few times have been memorable. My cerebral cortex apparently says, Hey! We’re free of stupid reality! Let’s party!
There was a scrubby grey wilderness and a little hissing wind. This wasn’t the uncanny desert of the black thing and its behemothic sword; there were trees, and a path through the trees, but the trees were grey and tired and the path looked like it was kept open only because it was being regularly used; it was rough and crooked as if whoever had first knocked a hole in the undergrowth had been stumbling in the dark and nobody following had had the time or the concentration to make better choices. It wasn’t a path or a landscape that anyone would be on or in if they didn’t have to be.
Your POV when you’ve fainted and your parietal lobe is doing the hokey pokey with your cerebellum and your Brodmann areas is kind of peculiar. Or mine is anyway. It’s not wholly unlike the mind frame I get in when I’m deep in a story, and I’m wherever the story wants me to be, which may be several places at once: Character A is avoiding getting hacked to death on the battlefield (very funny my mind producing that image just now ha ha ha), Character B is frantically trying to come up with a bribe that will make the evil magician release his sweetheart, the evil magician isn’t terribly interested in any bribes Character B is likely to have on offer because he’s preoccupied with how the battle is going and the sweetheart is gnawing through her manacles having first sung the guard dragon to sleep, because the poor helpless fragile little virgin thing is all an act, and Character B may have a shock coming. This is rather more than the standard 360-degree view, trust me. And if the story drops you in it and you’re not absolutely on form, writing your way out of all the flap and fluster may get a little ragtag. This is why rewrites were invented.
I could see the trees and the path, and I could feel that they were out in the middle of nowhere although I had a sense of farms and towns over . . . there, somewhere. And as the farms and towns drew closer together, and the towns grew larger and larger till a few enterprising businesspersons discovered it was worth their while to start haulage companies, there was a castle. And in a room high in a tower at one end of the castle there was a gorgeously-dressed woman sitting at a desk, writing. At her feet was a silky golden sighthound. She was writing as if her life depended on it. I hoped she was on form.
I was not sorry not to be writing whatever story was causing her such anxiety and apprehension, but if it had meant I could sit at a desk instead of being passed out in the arms of a middle-aged mercenary of dubious reliability while some torturer repeatedly sank a dagger-sized needle in my leg, I’d have a go. Although the goose quill and inkwell were outside my skill set.
Her castle looked like it might have been designed by the same architect who had designed the tower in the middle of the tired grey forest, although if it was the same architect, he or she hadn’t been getting enough sleep and had been hitting the illegal substances a little too hard while the tower had been on the drafting table. There was something ever so slightly wrong about its proportions, although that might have been the oppressive effect of the dull sooty-black stone it was made of, a dullness so determinedly nonreflective that the tower gave the impression that it was sucking up the light around it; as if it was the tower’s fault that the landscape was grey, that the trees were grey rather than green and brown, that where the crooked path had worn deep into the ground the exposed tree-roots and shoulders of stone and bare earth were grey.
The black tower was huge. Why had it been built out here in a wilderness? The narrow bumpy path that led to it now would never have taken carts big enough to carry the stones it was made out of, so unless there was some grisly yoked slave transport involved, or a four-lane highway on the far side that I’d missed, the tower was old enough for some pretty serious trees to have grown up to crowd in on the path.
I did something that if I’d been in my body would have counted as squinting. There was a bird flying—no, soaring—no, hovering—over the black tower. It had that raptor look to it.
And if it was hovering it might be a kestrel.
ONE THIRTY SIX: The Black Tower III
Then the wind blew the clouds in again, dark and heavy and low, and the wild-haired half-naked war goddess on her huge powerful horse disappeared behind them. There was a murmur of dismay from more throats than yours and you wondered how many of your companions had the same brief, mad desire that you had, to raise your sword and stab it upward, as if the clouds were a curtain you could cut apart, and see the Defender again, and go to her.
“All here, Colonel,” said Barolin. “All present and ready for your orders.” And he cast his usual glare over everyone, daring anyone not to be ready, but you thought it wasn’t his usual glare at all, and that he was worried, more worried than you’d ever seen him, Barolin, who was as tough and clever and fearless as the colonel.
The colonel nodded, and then raised her hand and shouted out suddenly: Canaluma nur frimeh-lec sen falconi dlin tuloom!
You stiffened, and your mare shook her head and sidled, but yours was not the only horse and you were not the only rider to react to the colonel’s words, so no one need know that you could smell the magic her words had released. But the rest of your company were probably only responding to the magic’s kick, the disturbance in the aether. You didn’t have to be able to recognise magic to feel its strength.
The colonel wasn’t a magic user; soldiers rarely were. It was one of the reasons why, when you ran away from the village where you’d lived all your life, you went straight to the Lady’s army headquarters and enlisted as fast as you could ink your thumbprint and press it where the captain told you to. Therefore what the colonel had just shouted wasn’t a spell or anything she had to work herself; it was probably some kind of key. . . .
“Is this the only way?” said Barolin.
“It’s the only way I know,” said the colonel. “It’s not like this happens every duty shift, is it?”
You could feel the ripple of unease curling through the company. The colonel didn’t talk like this in front of the people she led. She turned her horse so she was facing her company. “Listen, you green dogs,” she said, which made everyone smile a little: green dogs were either the newest, stupidest recruits or the legendary heroes who saved the country or the queen against impossible odds. Dornag had swum leagues in stormy seas to bring critical news; Eenarloc had fatally stabbed the enemy general in the eye with the shaft of a feather pulled out of her horse’s tail after the general had broken her sword in battle. Eenarloc had been a Falcon, and the feather woven into her horse’s tail had been a falcon feather.
“I’ve heard most of the stories you lot tell each other,” the colonel said briskly. “I’ve told some of them myself. But I don’t think I’ve heard you tell the one that says a company that goes to support the Defender of the Gate probably won’t come home again?”
It was a tribute to what her people thought of their colonel that no one looked away.
“I confess that generations of officers have tried very hard to prevent that story from becoming commonly known.”
Magic, you thought. Soldiers are the worst gossips in the world. They’d’ve had to put a spell on it to keep it quiet.
“Partly because no one knows if it’s true or not. If you’re going to lose sleep over something at least let it be real. And the Black Tower is an uncomfortable enough posting; it doesn’t need help from ghost stories.
“But”—she looked at Lamos, but he bowed his head and stared at his horse’s withers—“personally I think there’s something a bit odd about the Black Tower duty—aside from the amount of sleep you lose over nothing. The Lady’s regimental histories go back hundreds of years. You can look up how many sheaves of corn were stolen eight hundred years ago from a farm called Bright Harvest a quarter league west of the village of Rillbrook, or how many folk from Bagshire, and their names, ages and date of contract, enlisted in the Lady’s army seven hundred and eighty three years ago. But there’s almost nothing, ever, about the Black Tower aside from the fact that duty there was already long established when records began to be taken.
“So I’m thinking that I want to send word back to base about what’s happened to us.” She paused while the implications of what she was saying sank in. “Coros. Your wife’s expecting your first child, isn’t she?”
The whole company knew. Coros could talk of little else. And his face lit up every time he did.
“No ma’am,” said Coros. “I mean, yes ma’am. But Dora is a Raven herself, ma’am, and she’s the wife of a soldier and a daughter of a soldier. And I’m a Falcon. Ma’am.”
“Hmm,” said the colonel. “Mol, you’re the last child your mother has left, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Mol promptly. “But she loves her horses more, and the rents from her farm easily support her and her current lover. Or lovers.”
“Oh?” said the colonel. And so it went on: Dumain’s old father didn’t need him, nor did Susalla’s crippled sister—“She’s scarier than a pod of dragons. That she can’t walk is beside the point”—until the colonel laughed, perhaps a little painfully, and said, “All right, all right. We’ll leave whoever comes after us a note.”
She paused again as if listening. But you’d been aware of the change trembling in the air since very shortly after the colonel had shouted out the words of the key. A key was as good a way of explaining it to yourself as any. A kind of key that opened a kind of door.
You could feel the Black Tower . . . waking up.
ONE THIRTY FIVE
I fervently do not recommend this tactic. The biting thing under some circumstances may perhaps provide a certain fleeting satisfaction but unfortunately your tongue is intimately connected with your teeth and the taste of well-worn well-used well-oiled well-blooded leather, with maybe an edge of chain for that tooth-chipping sensation, is VERY UNPLEASANT. Even if your taste buds are still stunned from their inoculation by Spirits of the Black Lagoon but moments ago.
It’s not as though I had any chance of doing Murac any damage. Neither my neck nor my teeth were long enough and he was, after all, wearing (evil-tasting) armor. It wasn’t Kevlar or titanium alloy, but it was well up to protecting him from being munched on by a wussy modern human woman whose idea of difficult chewing was a tough piece of fruit leather.
I did feel him startle and he shifted his grip on me very slightly—and was now holding me tighter. Oh well. There was enough else going on, breathing was perhaps surplus to all the other stuff I needed to be thinking about.
All of this did serve briefly to take my mind off the sensation of someone carving up my leg like a Thanksgiving turkey. Briefly it took my mind off. Not nearly long enough. Droko was not nearly fast enough at his job. How many stitches were involved, for pity’s sake? Was he embroidering the Defender logo down there or something?
I couldn’t have kicked if I’d tried. The motor controls to that leg were off-line and the remaining leg was gallantly trying to keep me upright. I didn’t think Murac had really planned on supporting me as a dead weight. Um. Let’s rephrase that. He hadn’t planned on carrying me.
I was pretty well failing at the job of constructive thought. Like whether anyone was looking at the slash on Monster’s shoulder, and if someone had loosened his girth. I should ask—I should have asked—a soldier sees to her horse first.
More thoughts intruded. Like whether what was happening to me here was having any undesirable spillage into my world . . . or rather what kind of spillage and what kind of undesirable. It must be too much to hope for that my being snatched into madness and infamy might have cauterised the gap . . . No. This crew wouldn’t be going on about Gates and Defenders and providing me with bodyguards (gitzimi optional) and huge magnificent horses if Silverheart appearing in Rose Manor’s front hall had been a fluky one-off.
But then the worst thought, the one that kept repeating: What was happening to Sid? Watermelon Shoulders could take care of himself. But Sid . . . whom I’d only just supposedly rescued. . . .
And while I’m worrying about spillage . . . how long does it take and how far does it go? If someone wanted to drop the orc farm next door in another galaxy—or deinonychus under the porch—I wouldn’t mind too much. But will it suck up Serena and Gus and Mike and Jan and the Eatsmobile? Will it ooze its way down to Manhattan and thrust sticky tendrils under Norah’s door?
For a moment, through the escalating pain that I was trying to tell myself, with my fading remnants of reason and rationality, was ridiculous for a mere leg, I thought I heard barking. . . .
It had been a long day. I was bone-marrow weary in a way not usually pertinent to someone whose crises had never until very recently involved edged metal and gates between worlds. Although walking out of Gelasio’s penthouse for the last time, whizzing down to the basement parking garage in the impeccably decorated tenants’ elevator containing a specklessly uniformed elevator attendant and a rotating selection of exquisitely tended tiny bonsai trees in a mirror-backed niche . . . and turning the key in an elderly van with over two hundred thousand miles on it, squashy shocks and illuminated by a diverse series of screaming skulls, was as close to walking through a gate into another world as anyone needed.
I was also dismayingly aware of the hard male body I was being clutched against. I was indecorously dressed for close contact and the truth was that I hadn’t been clutched to any hard male bodies in a while for any purpose, although minor surgery without anesthetic was not something that had ever occurred to me to fantasize about. But I’d always been attracted by strength and preferred the real kind rather than the gym-bunny kind although blacksmiths, stevedores and sword-bearing mercenaries are badly outnumbered by wimpy suits in the corridors of publishing where I tended to hang out. MacFarquhar get a GRIP. You’re talking about MURAC. Who is a figment of your OWN overheated brain and furthermore, said the fading remnants of my reason and rationality desperately, you don’t even LIKE HIM. Um, said my hormones. Isn’t being distracted by a little inconvenient animal magnetism preferable to total concentration on all this PAIN?
I was way beyond coping.
I had to stop biting Murac to gasp.