ONE TWENTY ONE
“Tha protector should not have let tha come so far,” Murac added in a voice that implied that he thought we were having a conversation and furthermore assumed I was paying attention.
I blinked again. Murac as the voice of sanity and sweet reason. No, that was a little strong. Murac as the voice of current, um, reality. But that was almost as bad. The hand holding the hilt of a sword—my hand holding the hilt of my sword!—was trying to spasm. Ow. Ow. At least Murac was human. Probably. I was trying to remember if I had ever addressed the issue of Murac’s heritage. I doubted it. He wasn’t a major character. I lowered my aching arm and relaxed my stiff hand—as much as it could relax. Protector? Possibly that meant poor old Watermelon Shoulders.
“It was a trifle —” I stopped, coughed, and tried again, endeavoring not to crackle and squeak this time. There wasn’t a PA system to blame for the way I sounded, the way there had been the first time I gave a speech at a con to an audience big enough I couldn’t see the back row. I couldn’t see any of the audience here and I doubted their weapons were peace bonded. “It was a trifle busy, our side of the—gate,” I said, clearly and firmly. I remembered the giant maggot with the teeth and shuddered so hard poor Monster threw up his head and sidled—and I felt the bulge of mighty muscles against my bare legs. I gasped, but maybe the saddle had a little magic in it too, because I stayed beautifully in place and that straddling-a-small-city sensation did not return. I did seem to have a misplaced buckle or a twisted strap chafing just below my left knee, but that didn’t seem crucial at this moment.
I didn’t want to have come so far. I wanted to roll back time to—to—to before the company of horses and riders in the road to Cold Valley. Before that inconvenient pile of fresh horse dung had ruined the comforting hypothesis that I was merely losing my mind. Before Watermelon Shoulders had told me to fetch my sword and before I’d had a sword to fetch. I couldn’t bear to think about my new kitchen as I had left it—where was Sid? Was she okay? Was she safe? Was the spiky shadow on our side, as Watermelon Shoulders seemed to think? Mr W was a big guy with an impressive hacking and slashing technique but he needed more allies than one skinny dog. Maybe the spiky shadow would motivate the rose-bushes. Maybe the madwoman in the attic would have a gift for garrotting and a desire to maintain the status quo. Hey, maybe deinonychus and Yog-Sothoth would join the Rose Manor team. But Sid—I didn’t want her to have been better off living on the street. . . . My eyes burned.
I refocussed on Murac, sitting on the horse next to mine. He had a recent-looking scar that tugged at the corner of his right eye before disappearing into his hairline. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to be here . . . and then felt an idiotic pang of conscience and patted Monster’s shoulder. Nice horsie. I hadn’t stopped being silly at eleven. If it had been my fifteen-year-old.horse-camp-attending self sitting here she would have thought she had died and gone to heaven. She’d think Silverheart was cool. She might even have thought Murac was romantic in a ramshackle sort of way. I had had terrible taste in men pretty much right up to Gelasio. I wanted to think about Gelasio even less than I wanted to think about Sid. “Possibly,” I said around the lump in my throat to the scruffy bandit next to me, “the patrol on this side—on what should have been this side—had become just a little lost earlier? Which may have contributed to the—er—interdimensional confusion on—er—our side?”
To my surprise, Murac grinned. The scarred eyelid pulled down, giving him a kind of squint and making him look even more shiftily dangerous than he did already. I didn’t want to be here and I really didn’t want to be hanging out with Murac and his mates. Even if there were some very nice-looking horses involved. Murac’s horse looked a lot better than he did, and he sat in his saddle like both he and his horse were comfortable with the state of affairs. A man who takes good care of his horse can’t be all bad. Define ‘all bad.’ That twisted strap under my knee was going to give me a blister if we started moving and I had to try and remember how to, you know, ride, and not just perch on a saddle.
“It may have so, eh,” said Murac. “We’d heard there was new Defender and Tulamaro wanted t’look. Trust Borcaithna to get it wrong. We should’n have come tha side at all, but his hand slipped.”
ONE HUNDRED TWENTY
Oh good. Thanks so much. That was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hear. Especially while sitting on an elephant-sized horse in my nightgown surrounded by grim, weary, beat-up looking mercenaries well furnished with the paraphernalia of hacking and hewing. Living next door to an orc farm was beginning to sound bland and tranquil. And compared to the black thing Yog-Sothoth was a small-time gremlin. The sort of gremlin that makes a spot appear as if by magic on your only clean businesslike-ish shirt on the day you’re having lunch with your new editor, or inspires your printer to print only gibberish in sixty decorator colors and nine hundred and twelve ever-more-dazzling fonts. Which is only life-threatening when you’re a writer under deadline who needs hard copy to mark up for draft revisions: but then it’s very life-threatening. As well as hard on the eyes. I blinked.
I hadn’t realised before this moment how much I liked that kind of life-threatening. I knew what to do about spots on my only clean shirt: I had an assortment of rhinestone pins for all occasions. And in my experience editors meeting authors of supernatural-bashing heroines, the sword-wielding leather-cuirass and/or the modern urban leather-miniskirt varieties, tend to be grateful when it turns out you speak in complete sentences and use the restaurant tableware in the usual manner instead of demonstrating your throwing skills at the wall opposite, and that the most bizarre aspect of your appearance is the strange location and arrangement of rhinestone pins. I mostly enjoy lunches with my editors. I also knew what to do, at home, with my printer panting from renewed effort, on my knees on the floor surrounded by piles of fresh manuscript pages rapidly becoming studded with cryptic notes scribbled on the second sides of ripped up manuscript pages of previous attempts to tell a story. And the bleeding involved, barring stabbing yourself with the spot-disguising-pin backs or stapling your fingers together, tended to be metaphorical.
‘Out of my depth’ didn’t begin to describe it. Monster’s long thick mane brushing my hands as he nodded his head seemed at least as strange as aliens landing their flying Airstreams in your back yard. Or large black forsoothly guys waving swords in your kitchen.
I blinked again. I waited for Monster and the mercenaries to dwindle back into my imagination where they belonged. They didn’t. I was going to blink once more, positively and with intention, and when I opened my eyes, I would be kneeling on the floor in my old penthouse office . . . Flowerhair and Aldetruda and the others had variously been known to go into battle significantly underprepared and inappropriately dressed but I’d never been so unkind as to send anyone out to meet a ghastly destiny wearing a flimsy cotton nightgown covered in little pink roses. There was a lump in my throat and my bruises were doing a sort of choral fantasy of pain. The bass notes were especially impressive. It was harder to pretend I was making all of this up with all the throbbing going on.
My heroines also usually had some skills applicable to their situation. Aldetruda had excellent aim with a variety of hurling weapons, including crossbows and holy water. Doomblade hadn’t got Flowerhair killed yet partly because it bore her some grudging respect, and she’d pulled off a few jobs that should have killed her because it decided to pretend that she was its master. An enchanted sword is an excellent ally, so long as it is an ally. Although unless it had more sorcery hammered into its steel than Flowerhair or I had discovered, I was pretty sure even Doomblade wouldn’t be able to take on the black thing. Supposing, you know, I had Flowerhair’s cell number and could ask her to come along and help me out. Bring some friends, I could say.
The black thing. I hadn’t survived that encounter through any virtue of my own; Silverheart and Glosinda had done what they could, but what had saved me was one of those Mr-Spock-develops-another-mysterious-skill-just-before/after-the-commercial-break scenes. Some door between worlds had opened at just the wrong moment and shoved me into that situation; some other door between worlds had opened at just the right moment and let me escape.
It was still out there, the black thing. I had no idea what it was, or where it was, or why it had wanted to kill me. Because I was there? Because I was—however inadvertently and totally uselessly—this Defender person? And I had no idea if I might get sent or thrown or dropped back to face it again. My bruises thundered in counterpoint. I wouldn’t survive the next confrontation. If there was one.
For a moment this murky and dangerous place—wherever it was—paled and flickered, and that geographic-feature-length black sword was about to smash me into the dirt again. Involuntarily I raised the arm with the rose wristlet on it while my other hand groped for the hilt of my sword: that awful little dusty wind was in my face again, and a smothering silence fell. . . .
ONE HUNDRED NINETEEN
Gah. Well, I suppose if you survived long enough to be a middle-aged mercenary (whatever middle-aged meant here) you were probably ipso facto strong and tough. And in my willowy urban way and present state of dishabille I probably didn’t weigh that much, even including Silverheart. I managed to get my right foot over Monster’s back, so when I landed with a thump I was facing in the right direction. I looked down. I was still clutching Silverheart and Murac—and Monster—didn’t seem to be bleeding. I looked up, and ahead. About half a mile of long, lavishly-maned neck away, Monster’s small fine ears were tipped back in my direction.
And if I moved even a fraction of an inch I would split straight up the middle. This wasn’t a horse I was trying to get my legs around, this was a two-car garage or a mountain range or a small city. Monster shifted his weight and I managed not to squeal. The various indignities attendant upon sitting on a saddle in your nightgown were not helping the situation either. At least the nightgown skirt was fairly generous. With my free hand I managed, I hoped surreptitiously, to tuck a fold of it under me. That left an awful lot of pale bare leg but there was nothing I could do about that.
Gingerly I lifted Silverheart over Monster’s neck and slid her into what was either a scabbard or the Neiman Marcus Super Giant Tent Pole Holder. My feet found the stirrups. Although I was cold, sitting on Monster was like sitting on a radiator turned on full blast, and the cool metal of the stirrups was soothing against my sore feet. My hands found the reins. They weren’t smooth, factory-die-cut reins, but my fingers recognised them, and when I picked them up I could feel Monster’s mouth on his bit. Evidently he found this interaction reassuring because his ears relaxed. I tried to let my legs go limp and my seat soften but since I felt like I was being drawn and quartered from the waist down this was not entirely successful. But Monster gave me points for trying. And when he relaxed . . . suddenly my legs slid into a slightly more possible position. There was a lot more front and back to this saddle than the modern dressage and jumping saddles I was used to so within the limits of the total brain-snapping absurdity of my position I felt almost secure. Monster and I both sighed.
The scuttling noises had stopped when Silverheart exploded, and when the silence filled up with motion again it had become a more purposeful sound. There was a lot of rustly something-or-other happening behind me but I didn’t feel like testing my precarious sense of having arrived somewhere by finding out what was next on the to-do list. Monster wasn’t bothered and therefore neither was I. For a second or two. Maybe three.
I was thinking about all those stories you read where the hero gets beaten up by a gang of thugs with tire-irons or the heroine is pushed out of a fourth-story window by the chief villain’s chief minion but it’s okay because she hits the shop awning on the first floor and it breaks her fall. And they moan for a bit and they may even go home and have a hot bath and a shot or half a bottle of Scotch—or aspirin—and then they’re if not good as new, at least fully functional again, and totally pumped up to go after thugs, minions, villains, whatever. After recent events I would have wanted to lie down, possibly forever, except that I was so comprehensively sore it wouldn’t have done any good.
By the end of three seconds I was growing increasingly aware that I couldn’t afford to sit here idly thinking because of the appalling directions my mind wanted to run off in. (It, at least, could still run.) What, where, when, why, how . . . what if . . .
A horse-nose became visible in my peripheral vision. I was higher up, sitting on Monster, than I’d been sitting in the driver’s seat of Merry, and I told myself I didn’t really recognise the brown-black head and non-standard-to-my-eyes bridle; but I still wasn’t surprised when I turned my head and Murac was in the saddle. Another horse came up on my other side and I could assume that the thud-crunch-rustle noises were more horses and riders forming up. Behind me. Behind me. I wondered who had been riding Monster when I’d seen the others earlier. Whatever earlier meant. My adrenals were so tapped out they couldn’t zap me for accepting that this was the troop I’d seen . . . for accepting that any of this was happening at all. My bruises made me accept that something had, but my mind was still objecting to what. And what if.
“Gate’s beyond,” said Murac, gesturing.
“Gate,” I said.
“Tha’s Defender,” said Murac. “Tha stand by Gate. Tha should not be here; we’ll get tha back if we can, for all”—he said with what seemed to me ghoulish and unnecessary relish—“will die if tha’s lost this side of Gate.”
sputter sputter sputter… eeep.
Oh dear oh dear oh dear.
That’s the cliffiest cliffhanger yet. Eeep.
Now this interests me. This is in response to Kes #15, “Keep it together, tha useless mare”. I thought the cliffiest cliffhanger was #14, the ep before, “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me”. Granted my view is a trifle different than readers’.
It is also interesting—to me anyway—that plucking Kes up and plonking her down In Another Part of the Forest when the reader is getting the story only in 800-900 word snatches with looooong gaps between, must produce a much bigger HUH? factor than it would if the reader could turn/fingersweep the page and keep going. Yes? Or am I over-interpreting? I was thinking that you could, not unreasonably, suspect me of cheating. I’m not—or I don’t think I am—by the somewhat elastic rules of storytelling—and the somewhat differently elastic rules of fantasy storytelling*—it’s allowed, not to tell your readers stuff. Till you feel like getting around to it. Till the story insists.
I look forward to Sunday mornings – make a pot of green tea, settle down with my tablet, check Kes’s latest predicament. But these blog posts need to be much longer if they’re to last 2 cups of tea.
I have a great idea! Only read KES every fortnight! Then you’ll have an ep per cup! That works!
So thank you for today’s episode. And thank you for a heroine who is only 10-plus-some years older than me. I read and enjoy YA fantasy but I do occasionally wish for more stories with protagonists who have a little more life experience.
You’re welcome. And also thank you. The apparent near take-over of YA in this end of fantasy storytelling does discourage me a trifle sometimes, despite the fact that I have substantially contributed to it.** Some day I am going to write a story with a kick-ass heroine who is over sixty. We can still kick ass, you know. It just hurts more afterward.***
. . . if I were in Kes’s place I’d just get furiously angry. Look, it’s not my fault no one told me to go into heroine training!!!
Furiously angry keeps you moving forward, though, and so is very probably a useful reaction.
Yep. Adrenaline-rage, which allows slender willowy people to sling large sacks of (wet) compost around. For example. It’s a very useful tool and I wouldn’t want to be without it but I possibly overuse it a trifle. If what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Kes does adrenaline-rage too. For better and worse.
1) Everyone in Kes’s world(s), stop being mean to her already & give her a freaking break!!!
Everyone? We need a few villains and persons of dubious motives for story tension.
2) Her horse!!!! There’s a horse for her!!!! Yaaayyyy!!!! . . .
Of course there is a horse for her. There was always going to be a horse for her. Remember she’s an even-more-blatant-than-usual wish-fulfilment for me.
3) (And not to be forgotten): HOW ON EARTH DID KES ESCAPE THE BLACK GIGANTIC SWORD-WIELDING THING??????
Well . . . escape is maybe putting it a little strongly. She side-slipped worlds at a very good moment. As to why she side-slipped worlds at that moment. . . . ::whistles::
But…where’s Sid? Is this Sid morphed into a horse?
Nope. Very different personality.
(No, Kes needs Sid as Sid, the faithful hound. This has to be the faithful steed, yhight…Star? Socks? Brownie? Bay..um…Bayeux? Bayberry? Eli?)
Snork. I like Bayeux.
Horse. Horse is good. Good horse is good. Evil horse…I don’t even want to think about it.
No, no! Good horse! Very good horse! Brave noble patient horse!† Cheez. These frelling supple professional-fiction-producing minds.
Yay, the horse. I’m wondering if this is Merry? Otherwise, how will Merry fit into this? or has the story council let that slip out yet?
Hmm. This might be the moment to warn you all that I’m not a big fan of the parallel worlds thing. Connected overlapping similar-in-weird-ways containing-confusing-parallels worlds, yes. Parallel worlds, no. Nothing—except frelling algebra—is x = y in this world; why should reason and logic suddenly reign just because we’ve breached a few walls between one messed-up and inconsistent world and a few more of the same? Although it wouldn’t surprise me if Monster and Merry became very good friends.
Also, I will be very relieved when Sid shows back up in the picture.
Sid’s okay. Although she may be having her own adventures. And she has a very important part to play in the coming . . . ::whistles some more:: . . . well, whatever.
Didn’t the kitchen table start making horse-like motions a few episodes ago?
Yup. But remember what I said about parallel. Here’s another suggestion for how not to make yourselves crazy trying to figure out how the pieces fit together: you can dye your hair orange this week and purple next week. It’s sunny today†† but it will rain tomorrow.††† A table that stamps its feet today may be a table next week. And an octopus the week after that.
I too am curious what happened to the big black monster. And everything else.
You’d better also remember that I don’t tie things up neatly or give full, exquisite explanations. Curiosity is good. It keeps you awake. You’ll know more about most things before END OF PART ONE scrolls up on your computer screens.
I’m thinking some hybrid between
[photo of Shire horse—or anyway it should be a Shire and it could be a Shire]
[photo of Andalusian horse—and I know it is an Andalusian because it’s on the Wiki page for Andalusian horse, although I keep wondering if the lad is a midget or the horse is standing on a box, because Andalusians are not huge]
what’s your image of the biggest horse?
I’ve had an enormous [sic] crush on Andalusians forever. Talat, although somewhat inspired‡ by an Arab stallion I used to know, is really more an Andalusian. The only heavy horses I’ve had a chance to know up close and personal are Shires and Clydesdales—and Suffolk Punches to a very limited extent—and Shires win hands down. I adore Shires. I know it’s not as easy to get a good cross as to take one Andalusian stallion and put him to one Shire mare‡‡, but it’s like Sid being (probably) Saluki/Deerhound. Monster is probably Andalusian/Shire. And they’re each a really excellent cross with only the BEST features of both bloodlines. Hey. I write fantasy.
Even if for a newyorker that has never seen a cow any horse in that stressful situation and while not standing properly would look big or bigger.
Ahem. Kes doesn’t know from cows, true, but she went to horse camp for several years in her teens. She’s not totally clueless.‡‡‡ We’re going to say it was a good horse camp too, which I realise is pushing the reality connection pretty hard—but Kes does know the basics of how to ride. Probably not to battle in her nightgown however.
|Two of my all-time favorite fantasy novels featured a cavalry that rode without either bridle or stirrups.|
Haven’t even finished reading the episode…had to come say I LOVE that grin at a couple of my favorite fantasy novels too! (Go Aerin & Hari!!)
I’ve known from the beginning that Kes must have read McKinley. I was going to have to refer to this some time.
|I looked back at Monster.|
I know I asked for a name, but now I’m hoping there is a chance he gets renamed along the way; although Monster will be an affectionate name before long, I suppose.
Well hmmph. Personally I think Monster is a very good name for a huge horse, but in fact I think it’s like Sid is also the Phantom. Give poor Kes some slack here: she’s a bit pressed. She’ll name Monster when things quiet down a little.§ No one was trying to kill her when she gave Sid a name.
* * *
* Insert standard rant here about how you do get to make up your own rules, writing fantasy, but then you have to follow them. No Mr-Spock-reveals-new-skill-after-the-commercial-break.^ Also no all-powerful mages throwing lightning-bolts of awesome power at one another while making mean faces.
^ Spock ex machina, one might almost say.
** When I first told Hannah what I was doing, a year and a half ago, after she stopped laughing, she said, Make her younger. Merrilee will want to try to make a book out of it at some point^. It’ll sell better if she’s younger.
I remind myself that at least there are quite a few strong heroines in fantasy around now. Some of the books they’re in even receive a certain amount of advertising. EMoon and I can remember when this was not the case. Especially the advertising part.
^ Great publishing minds think alike
*** Ow! My foot!
† This is still a McKinley story, after all.
†† Wrong. No.
‡ ‘Inspired’ isn’t quite right; it’s like as Talat blooms into his own self, it turns out some of Binni’s tack fits.
‡‡ And the stallion would have to stand on a box. But I’d be afraid to do it the other way around: she might break.
‡‡‡ Another pet peeve is characters in books who never learn to ride, they just get on a horse and hey presto. It’s not like that.
§ Unless it turns out he’s already got a—er—Abernathy’s Elegant Mythology by Abernathy’s Hyperborean Mystique out of Plutonium Farms Bethany-by-Night name already. In which case we’ll have to shorten it. To Abe. Or Myth. Or Pluto. Or Fred.
ONE HUNDRED EIGHTEEN
I wanted to say, In my nightgown? I also wanted to say, What do I do with the—with my sword? Chiefly I wanted to go home, but that didn’t seem to be an option. Aside from the burning question of what or where home was, and, supposing it had anything to do with Rose Manor, what was going on there in my absence. ‘Burning’ was perhaps not the most diplomatic adjective I could have thought of.
I felt sick.
Astur took care of the sword problem. He took Silverheart away from me. I flinched but didn’t resist. I wouldn’t be able to resist, so why demonstrate my helplessness any more than I had to? I didn’t want to press my ‘Defender’ status too hard. Astur, however, stood there examining my sword—my sword—and I found myself growing stupidly and uselessly angry. What was I going to do, kick him in the shins? He was wearing leather shin guards and I was barefoot. And while he was about my height he was about three times my width, and I doubted any of it was flab. Not to mention two or three decades of experience in some of the nastier forms of hand to hand, if what Flowerhair knew about him was anything to go by. I had bailed on self-defense classes because beating up some harmless guy in a padded suit creeped me out. Gelasio had laughed at me. But it wasn’t going to happen to us, you know?
Assuming that getting mugged isn’t going to happen to you and you therefore don’t have to prepare for the possibility is stupid. I grant you that. I don’t however feel I can be faulted for assuming that I was not going to meet any of the less salubrious characters in some of my own overheated novels, and that I could safely remain ignorant of generic-late-medievalish-fantasy mores beyond what I needed for fictional purposes.
Murac dropped his hands and stood upright. “What gija tha playing at?” he said to Astur. “Scabbard’s there. Put ’ee in.”
I looked at Monster’s saddle. I couldn’t see anything. You hung a scabbard on your body on the side away from your sword-arm so you could pull it out. Not that I had ever had cause personally to do this, but these are random factoids from a generic Olde-Worlde high-fantasy writer. If perhaps you were wearing a nightgown and your scabbard was attached to your horse’s saddle, and you were furthermore utterly clueless, presumably you would want to hang your sword on the same side as your sword arm so you didn’t get tangled up with the reins on the draw, or inadvertently try to cut your horse’s head off. Flowerhair had ridden in cavalry before, although never in a nightgown, but I often left out the details I couldn’t find easily on google. Besides, Doomblade had a mind of its own, so expecting it to behave like an ordinary sword was unwise. Flowerhair had the scars to prove it, but she was also still alive.
Astur said something, but I didn’t think any of it was in English. ‘Azogging’ featured in whatever it was. He swung Silverheart over his head as if he was planning to cut down a low-flying pigeon.
And Silverheart exploded.
I didn’t actually see what happened; the dazzle was blinding. But I heard Astur shout—it was more of a scream—and the rushing, scuttling, thudding sounds around us stilled. When I could see again, Monster was still there, as was Murac, although I thought (blinking my watering eyes) they perhaps looked a little tense. Silverheart, still shining rather hard and steadily, was lying on the ground. Astur had disappeared.
“Pick ’ee up,” Murac said. His voice had gone all scratchy again and I thought, He’s afraid. Well . . . that made two of us. “Tis Defender’s sword,” he added.
I tried to mosey on over and stoop down to pick up a detonation-prone sword as if this was something I did every day (although preferably not in my nightgown) and not as if I were an inexperienced cobra handler trying to make a grab for the back of my irritated charge’s neck without getting bitten. When I straightened up with Silverheart’s hilt in my hand Murac was looking dismayed again. But he was also looking sardonic. In the circumstances I decided sardonic was an improvement. I had to stand still a moment or two while my bruises resettled after the stooping business.
“I’ll not handle ’ee,” said Murac as I approached (limping). “Try not to cut me, Defender,” he added as he bent down and cupped his hands again.
Oh. Help. I shifted Silverheart to my left hand and reached up to grab a handful of Monster’s mane. I wasn’t sure I could straddle something this size, even if I were appropriately clothed and hadn’t recently been pounded into the ground by a giant black thing. I hoped Murac wouldn’t recognize the slash on my leg as self-inflicted: this was not likely to build confidence. Although it was only a little slash. But I saw his eyes rest on the rose bracelet as I put my muddy, aching foot in his hand.
. . . And then I was flying through the air as if I’d been shot out of a cannon.