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.”
ONE FORTY ONE
I blinked. And there was Murac with water dripping off the end of his nose. I’d imagined all that, hadn’t I? The castle and the banner and the . . . Lady? Wearing Glosinda and greeting me by name? My hand wanted to touch Glosinda on my arm, but both hands were occupied: one holding my blanket closed and the other forcing my bad leg straight.
Just as I’d imagined all that about a black tower and a company of riders and a hovering kestrel. Right? Maybe the Spirits of the Black Lagoon had some hallucinatory qualities—aside from the non-specific impression that your brain has just exploded if you drink any. Maybe there were magic mushrooms growing in my leg after it having been topically applied there. And that had been the same Lady I’d seen when I’d been imagining all those other things? Hadn’t it? I’d been too dazzled by her dress—her gown—to remember much past the dazzle—deep jewel colors, lace, long sweeping skirts, blue?, red?, something that went well with a golden sighthound—and never mind the Lady’s clean combed shining hair and bright clear eyes not red and puffy from exhaustion and weeping. And total lack of visible bruises.
If a psychiatrist were assessing me for entry into the locked ward of the local laughing academy would my consistency of hallucination be in my favor or against me? Although how was I defining ‘against’ here? If they could guarantee that I’d find life genuinely humorous from inside the rubber room I’d go quietly.
I felt even smaller and shabbier and more beat up, trying to remember anything specific about the Lady. Maybe it was just sensory overload. After you’ve been fighting off the enemy with your enchanted sword while wearing a dirty pink cotton nightgown and you are suddenly presented with a graceful vision in radiant velvet your neurons rebel. I couldn’t remember her face—I couldn’t remember what color her eyes were—blue? Hazel?—or all that flawless hair—blonde? Grey? —Green? Purple? No, I’d probably remember green or purple.
Funny though. I could remember her pen. The feather was reddish-brown, russet or chestnut, and barred with dark brown or black. I couldn’t remember ever having seen a quill pen that wasn’t white or dyed, not that quill pens were a much of an item in twenty-first-century America, but I went to fantasy cons where they sometimes were. This particular feather looked like it had come straight off the bird. My knowledge of birds big enough to produce quills for pens was limited. Domestic geese came in spots and stripes as well as white, didn’t they? I couldn’t remember any tawny-red ones though. What else was there? Great Auburn Vulture? I wasn’t in a good position to borrow my mother’s Raptors of the World book to check the colored plates.
“ . . . We knew,” Murac said, “New Defender coming.”
I tried to focus on what Murac was saying. They had known they had a new Defender coming. How did they know? And did they know in advance that their new Defender was a useless mare? If I had to characterise those first minutes in Murac’s world I would have said they were not expecting, um, me. They’d have decided the terrified non-babe in the big metal box with wheels was part of Borcaithna’s hand slipping and nothing to do with the Defender they had wanted a look at. In that case how did they know I was who they were expecting?
I was not going to ask. Asking questions was always a mistake here. Furthermore with Tulamaro behind me rumbling like a surly volcano I wanted to keep the provocation level low.
I didn’t want to think I already knew that answer. That it might have been where I had come from. From not being killed by the black thing. Supposing there was a ‘where’ about the black thing. When a scuzzy old bounty hunter rides in from the north, it’s good news. When a handsome young lieutenant rides in from the south, it’s bad news. Unfortunately the good news comes with the team member you don’t want.
When—when—I saw Watermelon Shoulders again he so had explaining to do. He was responsible for Silverheart and Glosinda. Okay, they had saved my life with the black thing—but if I’d just been recently-divorced middle-aged genre-writer Kes Macfarquhar I bet the black thing wouldn’t have noticed me. I wouldn’t have been dropped into that STAR TREK reject plot in the first place. Never mind all the introductory flimflam at Rose Manor. . . .
Watermelon Shoulders was responsible for parting me from my dog. He’d better be taking excellent care of her. No, I wasn’t going to start leaking tears again, just because I was wet and hungry and cold and the only warm part of me was my throbbing leg. And possibly my overheating brain. I wondered if the black thing and the black tower had anything to do with each other.
Murac wiped his hand across his face and dripping hair and dropped what looked like a good handful of water onto the ground. It went splat anyway.
“Hey,” I said suddenly, before I could stop myself—my question-asking compulsion, foiled of asking anything important, was at least going to ask something stupid or break itself trying—“who—or what—threw all that water? And why?”
“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.