“WHAT?” I said again. I tried to lower my voice. “What hasn’t happened in a long time?” I wanted to know, but I wanted to get away from the armful of naked woman remark as fast as possible too. I was shivering harder, in spite of the blanket (or cape), shivering hard enough that my wounded leg was threatening to give way again. You are not going to cave on me, I said to it—telepathy ought to be possible with your own body parts—and tried surreptitiously to press one hand against the thigh of that leg to stop the knee buckling. I didn’t want Murac diving for me. I didn’t want Murac anywhere near me ever again.
“That Defender can understand us,” said Murac, and I thought he sounded wary. I doubted that the tenets of modern feminism were well-known in Murac’s world but if there were women soldiers inclined toward the, um, filleting of insolent men there might be a practical similarity. Gender politics. They are everywhere there are genders. I had spent a good deal of my professional career performing a kind of metaphorical filleting. But that was in my own world where I occasionally had a clue what was going on. I felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes again. I was so tired. And confused. And cold. And my teeth were missing Murac’s shoulder.
And the pain in my leg seemed to be occupying most of my brain. There must be something I could usefully be thinking about. If I had a brain available.
Murac wasn’t exactly standing with his hands over his groin but it seemed to me he was standing the way an old soldier might who was expecting to have to protect himself from sudden assault. I wondered how much force someone was allowed to use against his Defender. Even if she was threatening to fillet him.
“I’ve been understanding you right along,” I said. Barring the occasional azogging and giztimi.
Murac shook his head. “Na so much,” he said. “When the stones choose you, eh . . .”
You saw the stones roll. . . . You saw Lorag put them through fire and water and earth. “Lorag,” I said. “Who is Lorag?”
Now Murac definitely looked wary. There was a rumble behind me that was probably Tulamaro. It was a negative sort of rumble.
But Murac straightened out of his slight warding crouch and his face dropped wary and became determined. “Should na have mentioned her,” he said. “She . . .” he hesitated.
Louder negative rumble from Tulamaro.
But Murac shook his head. “Na. Here is Defender. And the stones chose me.” He grinned unexpectedly. The grin was still creepy but there was an edge to it I hadn’t noticed before. “Giztimi, eh? Arnehgh.” Arnehgh ended with a glottal stop like a body blow. And my new insta-translate function told me that giztimi was more runs with scissors than strictly moron—which had been my first guess an eon or two ago—and arnehgh was more loose cannon with the fuse burning than weasel which would probably have been my first guess if Murac was about to say something that would piss off Tulamaro.
There was a low nasty laugh from somewhere behind me. Astur, I guessed. The naked-woman remark had sounded like his voice. He was the weasel. I was pretty sure he’d be out to do Silverheart’s bearer what mischief he could but I wasn’t going to turn around and check his position. Tulamaro didn’t like me but I was pretty sure he thought I was this Defender, and would probably stop the likes of Astur from accidentally killing me—‘so sorry, my hand slipped’.
We’re all going to die . . . drifted unpleasantly across my memory. I banished it. I went on staring at Murac, willing him to say what he was poised on the brink of saying. I stood up as straight as my leg would let me, and tried to look as fierce and Defendery as possible. A blanket was less embarrassing than a rosebud-embellished nightgown but I doubted it was any more authoritative.
“Lorag is our zhulmgwlda,” said Murac, and my insta-translate heaved and fumbled, like someone who has just caught a hot potato and it’s a lot hotter than they were expecting. Random syllables bounced around inside my head, caroming off the skull and going squish splat thud through my ex-brain. Ra lah dlah cors fa mor un ta fat grue blee storn. . . .
I saw a castle on a hill and a banner divided into quarters by two swords, containing a hawk, a sighthound, a horse and a rose. I saw a woman in a high tower with a silky golden sighthound at her feet.
Lady, said the insta-translate. Try harder, I answered.
The woman had been writing. But she now laid her pen down with a sigh, and for a moment she slumped forward, elbows on the table, like any tired, written-out person. I’d done that slump many times, with my elbows either side of my keyboard. Then she straightened and turned toward . . . well, turned toward where my point of view was coming from. As if she saw me.
“Kestrel Macfarquhar,” she said. As she turned, the sleeve on her left arm rucked up, and on her wrist she wore Glosinda’s twin.
Shaman, said the insta-translate.
ONE THIRTY NINE
. . . I was drowning. The Black Tower had turned into a waterfall as it stooped over me and . . . I gagged and tried to turn my head—no, something was in my way—the water was too strong for me, it beat me back, pounded against my closed eyes, forced its way down my throat . . .
Through the roaring in my ears I heard someone shouting. I was stupid with dying (again) and at first it sounded like gibberish . . . although I thought fuzzily that I heard the recently-familiar word azogging . . . more gibberish . . . but then, absolutely clearly, and articulated with deep earnestness, I heard an interesting variation on a routine suggestion about creative uses of horse manure. Whoever was shouting was not in a good mood.
I coughed. That would make two of us. But at least I had air to cough with. The cascade of water had stopped but I was so torrentially wet I might not have noticed except for the breathing and coughing. I couldn’t see out of my glasses—not only were they as wet as the rest of me but I was peering through the smothering water-weed of my hair. I tried to stagger, discovered that only one of my legs would hold me, tried not to scream with limited success about the ‘not’, and would have pitched over on the non-holding side, except that . . . Murac caught me. Oh. Yes. Murac. He was what had been in the way when I’d tried to turn my head. He was as wet as I was. And one of the shouting voices was his.
He was not as wet as I was. He had a lot of leather in the way. I, on the other hand, was starting to shiver in my even-less-adequate-when-sopping, increasingly ragged, flimsy-to-begin-with nightgown . . . which [insert creative use of horse manure here] was probably now transparent. . . .
The only thing keeping me warm was the hard male body whose arms were holding me upright. At the cost of keeping me plastered up against him.
Think about something else. Think about the pain in my leg.
Okay. I can do that. I can totally do that.
Murac was shouting again and Tulamaro—I was pretty sure it was Tulamaro—was shouting right back. Murac’s breastbone and diaphragm or something kept thumping me as he shouted, but given the body parts potentially on offer I wasn’t going to be embarrassed by a diaphragm. My leg was throbbing to a rhythm of its own. Distraction. Distraction is good.
And then someone dropped something across my shoulders—something heavy and warm and fabric—and Murac loosened his grip enough to pull it round me with a sort of impatient gentleness that reminded me of a mother with a tiresome small child. He probably went for buxom barmaids anyway. I hadn’t been built for buxom even when I was young enough to be interesting. I let him jostle me around and this time when I staggered my wounded leg behaved the way a leg should, although it still hurt so horribly I felt light-headed. There, it was nothing to do with hard male bodies. It was just my leg.
Tulamaro and Murac had stopped shouting but they were still spitting words at each other. I wished I could understand them. I had the unpleasant suspicion they were talking about me. Defender, said Tulamaro. Okay, I thought. They are talking about me. Except that . . . I didn’t think he had said Defender. He’d said something that my deranged-by-circumstances brain was translating as Defender.
You saw the stones roll, said Murac to Tulamaro. You saw Lorag put them through fire and water and earth. You’ve no cause now to cry rogue.
My brain was doing a double whammy to come up with ‘cry rogue.’ What Murac seemed to have said originally was ‘no grounds to say your ass is on fire and I struck the tinder’. I would have been brilliant as a simultaneous translator at the United Nations when the honored member from whatsit called the honored member from whosit a dying warthog with mange.
Nor have you cause for arrogance, said Tulamaro.
‘Arrogance’ was something like ‘your sword was forged with piss and horse manure’. Ubiquitous stuff, horse manure.
How am I arrogant? shouted Murac.
Or, ‘How am I the bearer of a bastard sword?’
Would you I had let her fall? Murac went on. Let Defender fall?
So, eh, said another voice. Most of our women soldiers—
I’m not even going to try to de-translate ‘women soldiers’. My first-grade teacher would hunt me down to the ends of the universe and wash my mouth out with soap.
—Will fillet you—
Do I have to translate ‘fillet’?
—if you sneeze wrong. So friend Murac—
‘Friend’ was something like ‘dying warthog with mange’. It’s all in the tone of voice.
—is enjoying his armful of naked woman. Eh, why not? We’re all going to die—
But I had got hung up on ‘armful of naked woman’. ‘WHAT?’ I yelled, involuntarily, stumbling away from Murac and clutching the warm but scratchy cloak or blanket or whatever it was tighter around me. ‘WHAT?’
There was a brief pause.
‘She can understand us,’ said Tulamaro wonderingly. ‘She can understand us. That hasn’t happened in . . . ’
‘A long, long time,’ said Murac.
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.