ONE TWENTY SEVEN
Silverheart’s light went out like a bonfire that had had a bucket of water thrown over it—there was even a burning smell. I let my aching arm drop; my mouth fell open of its own accord. Mr TS wrenched his horse away from Monster, standing up in his stirrups and shouting. I could guess that the rustling, hustling noises around me now were of the people I’d seen forming up . . . to do what? There was a somewhat similar shout and seethe on my left—Galinglud, perhaps, if Mr TS was Tulamaro.
But no one shouted at me. No one told me what to do. Nobody told me to follow them. The muted but urgent noises were leaving a little empty space around me. I didn’t know where Murac was and it seemed . . . unsuitable, somehow, to turn and look. What if he was right there, staring at me? What if he wasn’t? I put Silverheart carefully back into her scabbard and straightened my back. I knew what was supposed to happen: I could recognise a story reaching its climax when I saw it. I just wished I was seeing it the usual way: from a desk chair, staring at a computer screen, my hands clamped around a cup of tea, and my vocabulary having just run away to join the circus.
Only the faint vibration through the reins as he tongued his bit and a silky-rough lash across my bare legs when he swished his tail told me that Monster was maybe a trifle worried also. But he stood perfectly still, ears pricked. Adventurer’s horse. Warrior’s horse.
I wanted to say something funny or throw-away, like oops, or oh well. But I didn’t have the heart. I hate letting other people down. I’m still haunted by Norah’s second daughter’s tenth birthday, when I’d promised her a hot-off-the-press copy of ZOMBIE MACAROONS, published by the tiny indie house that occupied a corner of my then-publisher’s giganticonormous offices . . . and forgot. I got it to her the next day, but it’s not the same, is it? Especially when you’re ten.
It somehow wasn’t making it any better right now that I was pretty sure no one in my immediate vicinity was ten years old today.
Monster swished his tail again.
I was supposed to say something memorable and heroic, wasn’t I? But with my vocabulary cleaning up after the performing elephants nothing occurred to me. And my range of available quotations was limited. Even when you’re curled up in your own bed with Joe the Doorman on guard downstairs and the need for heroism is limited it’s noticeable that Tolkien is short of valiant women. ‘But no living man am I!’ drifted apologetically across my mind: 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 even at the age of eleven. “ ‘Beneath the Moon and under star/ she wandered far from northern strands, bewildered on enchanted ways/ beyond the days of mortal lands. . . .’ ”
‘Bewildered’ was certainly apropos.
I sat there, breathing, listening to my ragtag army lining up behind its useless Defender. I had one hand on Silverheart’s hilt, one hand pretending to hold Monster’s reins. I could feel the faint throb of my heartbeat in my throat, in my bare thighs against the saddle flaps, in the thin skin of my wrist and forearm inside Glosinda’s firm but gentle grasp. My heart didn’t seem to be beating nearly as panic-strickenly fast as it should be, I thought. Maybe it was tired of the whole ‘about to die’ situation. About to die did seem to be grinding on rather.
Let me go out trying.
There were quite a few figures marching through the Gate, toward us, by now. Some of them were on horseback. Or on something-back.
I pulled Silverheart out of her scabbard again, with a satisfying ringing noise. She understood her business: she flared up immediately, lighting the harsh ugly empty slope in front of us. The front ranks of the marching figures were disconcertingly outlined in gold, and I saw several swords drawn in answer, although none of them shone with their own light.
Let me go out trying.
“YAAAAAAAAAH!” I howled, wrapped my legs around as much of Monster’s barrel as I could reach and squeezed. Warrior’s horse, Defender’s horse: his rear end dropped and his hind legs drove us forward as if he was longing to plunge into battle. You don’t expect a horse his size to be able to sprint; the only reason I didn’t topple off the back end when he barrelled downhill toward the approaching troop was because I had a good handful of mane in my non-sword-holding hand. And, faintly through the drumming of my huge horse’s huge hooves, the wind in my ears and the banging of my own heartbeat, I heard a YAAAAAAAAH behind me, and the clamor of another company—of my company—sending its horses into a gallop.
APOLOGIES. I have a lovely guest blog series waiting in the wings . . . which I managed not to send to Blogmom to set up in hangable form. ::Beats head against wall:: All right, it’s the day after KES: let’s catch up on a few comments. Whimper.
Okay, I would feel slightly abashed that my first question after this post has to do with Kes’s choice of sleepwear, but since it’s obviously an issue which intrudes quite frequently into her own thoughts I don’t feel too bad about asking:
Can we expect Kes* to make it a priority to adopt sleeping attire more appropriate for the occasional nocturnal interruption of sword-wielding, thing-hacking, horseback-riding adventure**?
No. She’s going to get home (finally) and TRY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY* HARD TO PRETEND THAT EVERYTHING IS BACK TO NORMAL AND NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Since you posted this question I’m pretty sure Kes has made some remarks about sleeping in black leather and Kevlar but she’s joking. She’s trying, somewhat urgently, to keep her spirits up in a situation rather designed to smash those suckers flat.
*Assuming that she makes it out of this alive and sane^
^This is a McKinley story, after all, and the Hellgoddess, while a lover of cliffhangers, nonetheless would never hang her heroine out to dry
Well, not for very long anyway. This is a McKinley story. I have every intention of bringing Kes safe home**, although she’s going to have to get used to the lack of normal and the disturbing existence of change. I don’t know if the bloodstain in the front room is permanent or not, but Kes is going to have a major problem with funny creaky-old-house noises, you know the kind that you and I say ‘mice’ or ‘hellcritters’ or ‘dream’ and put a pillow over our heads or turn the music up in response to? Kes won’t be able to. Or anyway she probably better not. . . .
**Kes might prefer the term “horror”
And she can start by learning to say ‘adventure’ rather than ‘horror’. Poor woman. I’m so with the hiding-under-the-bed impulse.
. . . the thing that I am MOST enjoying about Kes is that it’s episodic. I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities, my first Dickens, and wishing for that possibility to read something in installments. . . . given that I can, if I want to, read whole new books all in (roughly) one go — the 800-900 word nature of Kes is exciting. . . .
Are you too young to remember the . . . uh oh, this is not an easy google search so we’re going to have to rely on my memory. BAAAAAAAD. Well, when I was a young lass, ANALOG used to run serials. This would have been in the ‘60s, because I was introduced to both ANALOG and their serials by my First Boyfriend in junior high. And they made me crazy.*** I don’t know if ANALOG still runs them—I was just looking at the table of contents of the current issue†—and I don’t see anything that overtly says serial but that’s not definitive. And I can’t remember if F&SF did (or do) serials too? I can’t begin to keep up with my book TBR piles, I stopped subscribing to fiction mags decades ago, the idea of a steady, relentless additional few hundred pages arriving every month makes me cry, although I’m perfectly capable of buying or ordering several hundred more specific-book pages every month, and usually do. And if I’d been alive back when Dickens was publishing HOUSEHOLD WORDS I would totally have had a subscription.
. . . [Kes] doesn’t want her life to go High Forsoothly. YES. In spite of my fondness for fantasy and fae and all that . . . I don’t really believe any of it exists. And I do have a way deep-down fear that someday it will show up and prove me wrong.
I have a deep-down fear that it won’t show up and prove me . . . um . . . right? Although if it involves wielding a sword—which I know as little about as Kes does††—and riding to battle in my nightgown I’ll pass. So would Kes, of course, if she didn’t have a mean author jerking her around. I’m sitting here wondering what I can safely wish for, in terms of some manifestation of magic in this our real world, you know? Be careful what you wish for. Is there anything that is both undeniable and harmless?
I can totally understand the act of closing eyes to force reality to come back. . . . . But I’ve also dealt with GMs before, and I know full well that you never break in the middle of a mind-frelling (and/or battle) bit.
I’m really worrying about ‘GMs’. Gastric Mucosa? Grandiloquent Mayhems? Giant Metatarsals? Gorblimey Maelstroms?
Plus which, like TheWoobDog, I’m assuming this will not end with Kes a smear and Murac saying ‘Gah, wenches’
::falls down laughing::
or something of the sort.
I think ‘gah, wenches’ will do nicely.
I *am* worried about Sid. I’m getting close to pulling an entitled reader moment
Hee hee hee hee hee hee. Try it. Go on, try it. Hee hee hee.
and demanding to know where she is! Too many episodes without Sid!!!
Mwa hahahahahaha. Hint: there may be barking soon.
And that twisted strap thing? If Kes doesn’t fix it, it’ll turn into a nasty. I’ve been there, and I know.
While I am a partisan of Murac . . . I would like to point out that “A man who takes good care of his horse can’t be all bad.” is kind of a bad way to judge him. As a fantasy style mercenary his horse is his very close to his life, livelihood, and continued good health. Taking good care of his horse is an important business/survival practice and (possibly) has nothing to do with goodness or badness.
We-ell. Point taken, but I don’t think really effective partnerships between Person and Horse are made if the person solely looks at the horse as a means to an end. I don’t think the horse is going to put itself out for the person without some kind of, you know, relationship bond, even if the feeding regime and stable management are sound—which as a mercenary’s horse they won’t always be. So you have to be the kind of dude who can fulfill this charge. Which means you have some spark of positive emotional connectedness behind that leathery exterior. Whether or not this has any effect on your attitude toward other human beings is, however . . . unpredictable.
But I can understand how Kes is grasping at straws here after that “at least they’re not going to rape me” moment. (Although I think Flowerhair would not be undecided on the Good vs. Bad issue if Murac were a known rapist there still remains the unknown.)
If Flowerhair knew him to be a rapist she would (excuse me) have cut some salient bits off. But, you know, The McKinley Story thing can be relied on here too. If Murac were that kind of total scumbag, he wouldn’t be getting the air time. Remember that KES is for fun. I don’t say there won’t be some genuine thorough-going villains . . . but Murac isn’t one. Although personally I don’t want to invite him over for a cup of tea and a chat about world politics either.
Somehow the comment about Kes’ younger self “She might even have thought Murac was romantic in a ramshackle sort of way.” made me think of her as an Agatha Christie heroine momentarily.
Snork. Well, I read a lot of Agatha Christie in a very short space of time when I was young and impressionable. Possibly these things Will Out.
So, on another topic, tangential to Katsheare’s comment… I’ve been wondering if there’s a new kinship with serialized authors such as Alexandre Dumas (and others) developing?
Elizabeth Gaskell maybe. Or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Or Frances Hodgson Burnett. Or George Eliot, if you will allow SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE to count as serialised. Or as a novel.
TO BE CONTINUED. . . .
* * *
* Very to the ten to the whatsit power. Very to the max.
** And if the Story Council should be so indiscreet as to attempt to get in my way I will WHACK THEM.
*** So did he, but that’s another story.
† The internet really is amazing.
†† I took some fencing lessons, but with a modern sabre—nothing like the practical hacking-and-hewing items that Murac and his lot carry, or that Silverheart, for all her superior breeding, is also built for.
ONE TWENTY SIX
My feeling exactly. But I couldn’t open my mouth to say so and I had a small timorous thought that this guy might not go for modern throwaway humor and silence, involuntary or not, might be my best choice.
He turned on Murac like a firing squad and spat out some words like streaking bullets. Or arrows, possibly, if I wanted to keep the contemporary feel. I didn’t hear either azogging or giztimi but I didn’t think what I was hearing was the local version of ‘good job, well done’ either.
“She holds Silverheart,” said Murac—slowly. As if making sure I’d understand him.
Thanks, friend, I thought, I know named swords are bad news—at least for anyone who doesn’t find the death-and-glory route appealing. It was freaky enough when Mr WS addressed by name the large shining pointy thing that had suddenly appeared in Rose Manor’s hallway. A lot had happened since then, very little of it desirable, and I was willing to bet a full suit of armor against a tattered pink nightgown that it was seriously worse than bad news that the name of my sword was known by a scruffy adventurer. Possibly a scruffy azogging, giztimi-type adventurer. Trying to find a bright side to look on I thought okay, wielding, or trying not to wield, something called Silverheart is a little less discouraging than finding oneself lumbered with something named Doomblade that has a curse on it and hates you.
At least Flowerhair was still alive. Yes. I was keeping her alive. What—or who—was keeping me alive? Hello?
Mr Torpedo Shoulders turned back to me. He brought his horse alongside and I did not flinch, although Monster had turned to stone—and a very handsome statue he would have made with some other rider—and I wasn’t sure he’d’ve moved even if I’d asked. Mr TS pointed peremptorily at my scabbard and said, “See.”
Assuming this meant he wanted to see her, I fumbled for the hilt to draw her out. My hand was shaking so badly it took me a couple of tries but once I had my fingers wrapped around the handle shaft they stopped trembling and I drew her almost smoothly. The torch-bearer moved closer and . . . Silverheart blazed up like a torch herself. Eeeek. There was a collective sigh from the retinue. I briefly closed my eyes. No, my hand was not burning up. I opened my eyes again. I could see rows and rows of grim, grubby, worn-looking people staring at my presently flaming-gold sword, which was throwing some major lumens into the surrounding murk. Most of the people I could see were on horseback, but not all of them. I hoped a few of the beardless ones were women.
The scene could have been the subject of a Pre-Raphaelite painting: the Revelation of the Whatsit. Only the babe holding the sword should be more authoritatively attired. Also I wasn’t sure how long my unaccustomed arm muscles were going to be able to hold the Whatsit up and at this romantic if impractical angle. I hoped Millais or Burne-Jones or whoever was painting fast.
But as if in response to some stray beam of Silverheart’s light, the Gate now blazed up too, the side pillars falling away like curtains being yanked aside, the lintel exploding upward, the carving seeming to organise itself into tiers or sequences of what looked like runes. . . It’s a spell, I thought, and for one terrifying fragment of a moment I felt that I could read it, that I almost knew what it said. . . . But the lava-lamp bubbles, now as bright as tiny teardrop-shaped suns, streamed upwards as if the lintel had been a lid that they had shoved aside like floodwater bursting up through a broken storm-drain—and the runes crumbled and disappeared.
The confusion at the sill heaved wildly, throwing off splashes of streaky darkness like storm-seas on a moonless night crashing over a rocky shore. I could almost hear it as a distant broken roar . . . although it was probably just the horses around me restlessly snorting and stamping and their riders murmuring to them and each other. Did I hear someone say Silverheart? The wildness at the Gate’s threshold steadied . . . settled . . . solidified. My eyes tried to turn it into landscape: were those trees? A ridge of bumpy hills? . . . Fence posts? Steles? Monoliths? It was impossible to guess size or perspective. They could have been thumb sized, garbage-can sized, Empire-State-Building sized. I was pretty sure they weren’t thumb sized. It wasn’t that kind of story.
The Gate had now swallowed up most of the horizon; you could still just about see—or imagine—the demarcation between there and here, a shadowy suggestion of upright jambs—which made me feel sick and dizzy if I let my eyes rest on one or the other—aggravated by the upright lurching things in the Gateway.
Which became . . . rank upon rank of . . . figures, growing taller and taller as if they were walking up a slope toward the Gate . . . and then walking through it. . . .
ONE TWENTY FIVE
It was making my head hurt.
A faint, wavering sort-of rectangle, taller than it was wide, paler than the surrounding stormy, turbulent darkness. A sudden streak of light like lightning lashed across my blurry, uncertain Gate and . . . made it . . . real. White, slightly spirally pillars on either side swept up to a lintel gleaming with intricate patterns of what looked like carving; there was also a glittering, fuming confusion at threshold level that wasn’t encouraging to anyone thinking of walking across it, and this whatever-it-was bleeped upwards in big fat slow bubbles like a lava lamp.
Define real. My mind would keep producing that awkward demand; in the circumstances I couldn’t blame it. But I wasn’t the only one who saw this vision, this Gate: there was another moment of stillness—the kind of heavy, breathless stillness that tells you that there are really a lot of people around you—and then mutters and murmurs . . . and a few shouts. Gaduld! Forshaz donol yar! Or something like that. There were other murmurs that sounded more like rhubarb rhubarb or possibly blither blither blither. I clamped my jaws together to avoid joining in on that last.
“Defender,” said Murac, beside me, and his voice was hoarse and scratchy again.
The lava-lamp bubbles seemed to be straining to come through the Gate—toward us. Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe they were the other-worldly version of friendly puppies. Somehow I doubted it. “What—what are —” I doubted Murac had ever seen a lava lamp. Although Borcaithna had brought off some pretty spectacular stunts—especially when he was trying to do something else. Pulling a troop of leather-and-swords mercenaries into a mid-twentieth-century American house with shag carpeting, Harvest Gold appliances and lava lamps wouldn’t be beyond him. If he had done it, I bet that was the last time whoever it was hired him. Magicians tended to live a long time. Borcaithna might run out of people to be hired by before he died of old age.
“So what’s the funny blobby stuff in the Gate?” I said in my best crisp, professional manner.
“Eh,” said Murac. I looked at him, and in the uncertain light I thought there was a sheen of sweat on his face. “Don’t know, Defender. Never been this close to Gate before.”
Mercenaries can do the blithe-in-the-face-of-death thing if they have to, it’s part of the contract, at least in the genre corner of high fantasy I occupied, but they aren’t big on death and glory if there are other options, preferably alive, relatively hale and whole, and paid in good currency of the realm. I decided not to ask how Borcaithna had bypassed the Gate recently . . . or why this Gate was apparently my particular doom. Defender. What a joke. What an awful joke.
In the few seconds I had spent thinking these thoughts my throat had closed up and I wouldn’t have been able to ask any more questions even if I’d wanted to. I still felt ill, but staring at the lava-lamp blobs was making me feel dizzy as well and it occurred to me to wonder how long it had been in the-life-of-this-body time since I’d eaten.
I curled my cold fingers farther into the long lock of Monster’s mane that fell over the pommel of the saddle and gently squeezed his gigantic barrel with my legs. A little light-headed thought floated by, suggesting that I should find out if any of the signals from humans Monster had been trained to obey were importantly different from the signals-to-horse that I knew. . . . He took a step forward. Two steps.
And some kind of clamor broke out on our right. How many of us are there? I had said, and Murac had replied: Too few. But to me, who was used to working alone in a small room with a computer, and whose idea of hell was a confrontational-fan-heavy SF&F con, it sounded like a medium-sized army in a bad mood.
Someone—someone with a retinue—was making his way through the gloom—the gloom already full of horses and riders. Toward us. There didn’t seem to be any blood or screaming involved so I assumed they were some of ours. One of the retinue was holding a torch, and in its hazy light I could see horses shying out the way, and the occasional glint of what I guessed was chain mail. And yes, I was sure that the figure at the front was a man. Even allowing for what the dim light and personal terror was doing to his silhouette as his horse walked toward me, he seemed about two storeys tall. With shoulders that would give even Mr WS serious competition.
His horse was possibly even bigger than Monster. But Monster drew himself together and raised his head, and I decided the honors were about even. I still had to look up—a long way—into the rider’s face. Who was scowling down at me.
“Tha?” he said disbelievingly. “Tha’s Defender?”
ONE TWENTY FOUR
They had forgotten why they were there, if they had ever known. But the Lady of the Keep wanted this grey, flat, foggy stretch of nowhere patrolled, and so the duty rota for certain of her companies included a tour at the Black Tower. There were jokes about the turning of the year at the Black Tower, that in spring it was grey, flat and foggy, in summer it was grey, flat and foggy; and then in autumn it was . . . grey, flat and foggy. In winter there was usually a little snow for variety, but even the snow was grey. The companies came, they patrolled, they were bored out of their minds, they went away again.
It was an unpleasant sort of boredom however. You were never quite at your ease at the Black Tower billet; if the roster hadn’t stipulated a twenty-four hour watch they’d have set one up or no one would have ever got any sleep. You still tended to wake up at odd hours and lie there listening to the silence—or straining to hear a cough or a clink from whoever was officially awake and watching the flat grey nothingness for . . .
No one knew for what. And they didn’t talk about it much, but everyone from the oldest seen-it-all to the youngest eager recruit knew that the flat grey wasn’t quite nothing. Wasn’t quite empty. You tried to tell yourself well, of course not, or why would the Lady want it watched? But it wasn’t a reassuring answer. And it didn’t help you sleep.
There were stories. Of a Gate. Of a Defender. The peculiar—and disturbing—thing was that no one ever said those particular stories had anything to do with the Black Tower watch, but it was on that watch that those stories were told. Maybe it was because of the huge ominous black figure that loomed in the background of these stories, a man-shaped creature, but as tall as a tree, as tall as the Lady’s castle, as tall as the sky, with a black sword as long as it was. Maybe it was because the Gate was a wavering, grey, uncertain, nothingness sort of Gate and no one knew where it was or, perhaps, where it might appear. Maybe it was the inconsistency, or the transience, of the Defender, who was sometimes a bent old wizard, sometimes a heroic young archer—the stories usually included that to cross swords with the black giant meant death—sometimes a proud stalwart leader like their Lady. Sometimes the Defender was a great bird of prey, for even the strongest human archer could not send an arrow high enough to pierce the black giant in the throat or the eye, which, it was said, were its only vulnerable places.
But there were no stories of its destruction, of its defeat.
There were other watches, like theirs. There was a river where the weeds at its margins were so thick and entangling, and the current at its centre so savage, that even a black thing as tall as the sky might hesitate to attempt passage. There were islands in that river where there were watchers like themselves at the Black Tower—although the stories did not say how, or if, they got on or off their islands.
There was a forest where the trees watched—you lay awake sometimes hoping that the trees took turns, watching. Trees, even guardian trees, didn’t get up and walk around—so far as you knew—didn’t go back to regimental headquarters when their tour of duty was over and get sent somewhere else where there were only werethings or rogue magicians or marching armies seeking conquest and empire to worry about. But even trees (you hoped) had time off. If they watched like you had to watch you hoped they had time off.
And there was a desert. There weren’t any stories about the desert; when a story about the Gate and the Defender stumbled into the desert whoever was telling it might stutter on for a few words, but would then fall silent, and a heavy gloom would fall on the audience until someone roused enough to suggest a song, or declared wasn’t it nearly dinnertime? The desert was maybe a little like the foggy grey not-quite-void around the Black Tower, but as ‘like’ as the black giant was ‘like’ an ordinary human soldier.
The Falcon company had only arrived two days ago, and the handover from the Eagles had gone as usual but every member of the Falcons felt more than usually on edge by the first nightfall. When Durmain dropped his tankard on the stone floor of the mess there were two swords and three daggers out and ready before the tankard banged up against a table leg and stopped. Everyone sighed—Durmain got clumsy when he was nervous; fortunately he had no nerves at all in battle—and the rest of the evening, and the next day, were uneventful. Except for the buzzing in your ears and the way even the oldest soldiers tossed the dice oddly, as if their hands were shaking.
That second night very few people bothered to go to bed, to pretend to sleep. Usually their colonel made them bank all the fires and blow out all the lamps after supper, to preserve fuel, except for the small grate and a lantern or two in the duty room. Tonight she just shook her head, and the dice games, the whittling, the mending of gear went on. It was a muggy almost-warm night so they built a fire outdoors, and brought benches and lamps outside.
The sense of oppression grew worse and worse. The third time Durmain stabbed himself with his needle, shuddered and cursed, he laid his mending down; and he was not the only one. It was hard even pumping your chest in and out to keep breathing. While there wasn’t much wind, and what there was was damp and sullen, the clouds were boiling overhead, and everyone kept glancing uneasily skyward.
The clouds slowed and settled. The sky seemed to clear, but it was still a louring grey, not night-black, and there were no stars. As you stared upward the clouds began to look like a landscape, bleak and barren, pitted and treacherous. Eventually your eyes made out that there were people—people on horseback—in that landscape. The horses were standing still, stiff and prick-eared, they and their riders all facing as if staring somewhere over your left shoulder. At their head stood a horse made even bigger, you thought, by the slightness of its rider: a pale slender woman, with long tangled hair, riding bare-legged and barefoot.
You didn’t know who shouted, only that it sounded like it came from someone standing with you, some Falcon, and that the voice was rough with both joy and terror.