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.”
Let me get this over with.
I won’t be at Boskone next February. I’ve written to the Boskone admin and asked Blogmom to take the sidebar down.
I’m extremely sorry. I don’t like screwing people over and . . . and I wanted to go.
I’ve also known this was coming for a while but I have been trying to pretend not to know it. I’ve been putting off talking to my vet for . . . probably two months, because by two months ago I knew that his Miracle Cure for the hellhounds’ digestion, while it has certainly improved matters for which I am very grateful indeed, it hasn’t been quite the miracle cure we’d been hoping for. One of the possibilities is that the other dogs he’s cured (and admittedly there are only a few of them because it’s kind of a new and experimental as well as last-ditch treatment) are all half the hellhounds’ age or less, and my hellhounds may just have permanent unfixable damage. . . .
Last Friday I finally talked to my vet.
The bottom line is, the hellhounds are a life sentence, of which I’ve already served eight years while trying not to think about it in those terms. A kennels won’t take them and I wouldn’t inflict them on a pet sitter* and my few certifiably deranged-ly doggy friends who could and would cope are all hundreds to thousands of miles away.
And this is just the way it is. Fortunately I’ve turned into something of a homebody in my old age, and while there is a needs-must aspect to it, still, I don’t exactly sit around twiddling my thumbs, do I? And have I mentioned I’m going back to homeopathy college? Speaking of sitting at home not twiddling.** I discovered rather by accident recently that since I dropped out of the face-to-face, classroom, commuting kind of college***, on-line courses have come a long way. I’ve been poking around the corners of this intriguing information the last few weeks, and about a fortnight ago, when I finally made the appointment to talk to my vet, I thought, okay, when the vet tells me what I already know he’s going to tell me, I’ll get serious about college. Because I have so much spare time now that I’m not writing a blog post every night.
Who knows. Maybe I’ll find a cure for the hellhounds. But it won’t be before next February.
* * *
* This aside from the fact that after my interesting acquaintance with a downward spiral of dog minders and my one DISASTROUS even by my standards experience with a national pet sitting company, I wouldn’t be likely to inflict a pet sitter on the hellmob anyway.^
^ Although I could just tell the hellterror that if he/she gets out of line, eat them.
** Except knitting needles, of course.
*** For the given reason of my ME-afflicted energy level not being up to it, but the hellhounds had something to do with it too.
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.”
The charity gang that were taking away all our surplus furniture finally came today. Either they’re a very popular charity or their lorries break down a lot.* Or both, I suppose. But the situation was made unnecessarily exciting by my penchant for living on cul de sacs. I’d asked the lorry guys to ring me fifteen minutes before they arrived to give me time to get down to the mews and let them in. They rang. Fifteen minutes, they said. I stuffed the hellhounds in their harnesses, shoved the hellterror’s breakfast, ready made against this moment, into her crate and her after it, not that the shoving of a hellterror toward foooooood is required, and the hellhounds and I bolted up to Third House to fetch Wolfgang . . . and found the end of the cul de sac comprehensively full of large flatbed lorry delivering pallet after pallet after pallet of . . . I don’t know, buildery stuff, with reference to the fact that the row of Tiny But Desirable Cottages that abut the churchyard seem to be in a state of permanent renovation. The one on the end had barely swept up its last skip’s worth of brick and cement dust when one of the ones in the middle ripped out all its insides and started over. Arrrgh.
So I spun round the footpath corner toward my driveway and AAAAAAAUGH. I rushed up to the bloke overseeing the latest pallet swaying earthwards on its giant hoist and said in a frantic voice, I HAVE TO GET MY CAR OUT!!!! And he looked at me and said, We’ll move, ma’am—perhaps there are advantages to being a little old lady: blokes don’t like to see us cry—and they did. Mind you, getting something that carries 1,000,000,000 pallets and a giant hoist doesn’t move very fast, and I was a few minutes late . . . but so was the charity lorry. And we were all somewhat bemused by the labyrinth of scaffolding we had to make our way through because they’re painting the Big Pink Blot again**.
While the two guys from the charity were wrestling furniture that must come out since it certainly went in I prepared to load up Wolfgang, around the hellhounds, for a quick sprint to the dump, since empty houses extrude junk and a corner you perfectly well know was empty the last time you had a sweep (so to speak) through has six boxes and a broken lamp in it this time. The charity guys eventually solved their problems of practical geometry and went their way two double beds and some miscellaneous doodads the better and the hellhounds and I went ours to the dump . . . where the way was BLOCKED by an even MORE gigantic lorry with an even MORE gigantic hoist, lifting in one of those massive small-country-sized skips that town dumps use. ARRRRRRRRRGH. I hadn’t packed Wolfgang at all carefully—for one thing I’m a little cross about the empty-house-extrusion thing—and I didn’t think it was going to matter for long that when I opened the passenger door there would be an avalanche . . . or that the hellterror’s travelling crate is full of superfluous kitchen gear for the dump shop.
So in this cranky and unalleviated state we went back to the cottage long enough to . . . NO WE DIDN’T. BECAUSE THERE WAS ANOTHER FRELLING LORRY UNLOADING MORE BUILDERY STUFF FOR ANOTHER RENOVATION PROJECT THAT IS GOING ON FOREVER ON THE COTTAGE CUL DE SAC AND SAID LORRY AND ITS LOAD WERE ENTIRELY BLOCKING THE WAY.
Some days you should just stay in bed with a few good books and some knitting.***
* * *
* This may be part of their training programme. They offer apprenticeships to street people to learn money-earning skills. I think mechanics is one of the choices. So maybe the trainers sneak into the lorry-fleet garage in dark of night and yank a few wires and drill a few holes and put antifreeze in the petrol tanks to make sure their course will be popular.
** Since it was a four-hour slot I would not have made her wait that long if they’d come at the end instead of the beginning. But the domestic fauna are not having a good time right now because Pav is in bloody [sic] season so she’s locked up more than usual and the hellhounds . . . have stopped eating again.^ She’s in her second week which is usually when the hellhounds start moaning. I had PLANNED that when the moaning became tedious^^ I’d stash hellhounds in the sitting room or the attic at Third House and leave her to emit hormonal fug in her crate in the dining room, and probably leave her there overnight since they’re all in the kitchen at the cottage.^^^ But we are also having the absolute worst season for fleas I’ve seen in a quarter century so while I’m frantically trying to get it under control there’s not as much wandering about the house(s) as normal as a kind of despairing attempt at damage control. I won’t use the standard chemicals, they’re frelling poisonous, they make some dogs sick—ask me how I know this—and they don’t even always frelling work. If I’m going to fail to eradicate fleas I’d rather do it without toxic side-effects. Meanwhile the list of ‘natural’ flea extermination methods, thanks to in depth on line research, gets longer and longer and longer and longer and more and more time-consuming and expensive# . . . and we still have fleas. So the ways in which the indoor wildlife and their hellgoddess are currently not having a good time are many-splendored. Remind me why I have dogs?##
^ Fifty percent is a good average. I try not to complain if they eat one and a half of their three meals. I start losing the will to live (again) when they stop altogether.
^^ This takes about seven minutes.
^^^ If the hellhounds’ sexual appetite rates with their interest level in food this probably explains why I’m getting away with having three entire creatures of two genders in a relatively small space at all.+ But simply putting them in separate rooms stops the moaning++ and while I’m very grateful I’m also surprised since, you know, dogs have a tediously discerning sense of smell and can nail the precise location of that dead hedgehog/rat/squirrel while you’re only just registering ‘ew—dead thing somewhere in the vicinity.’ I’d’ve thought hormonal fug would be fairly penetrating, if you’ll forgive the term.
+ Although Pav is not noticeably more besotted with the hellhounds than she ever is—which is extremely, just by the way—and her interest in FOOOOOOOOD is in no doubt whatsoever.
# The only thing that slows them down from chewing holes in themselves is a neem-oil based salve that costs £20 for a tiny little pot.
## And the NOISE the hellterror makes while she is Slurping Her Inflamed Parts is enough to . . . enough to . . . ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH.
** What’s it going to be this go? Maroon? Mint green? Why don’t they just leave it pink? I think the co-op admin doesn’t have enough to do with its time or its AGMs.
*** KNITTING. ARRRRRRGH. No, I’ll tell you about it some other post. . . . ^
^ But Fiona and I did have a lovely yarn adventure yesterday. And I haven’t told her this yet but if you count the yarn I bought last night off the internet I did spend more money than she did. The thing is, there’s this line . . . never mind which line . . . that I’m quite fond of for reasons of EXTREME AND LURID COLOUR, and this shop had a lot of it, so I fondled a great deal of it and bought some, but was Juiced Up with Desire for More by this tactile experience+ and, while we were sitting around knitting over supper, my mind would keep reverting to the knowledge that several of the more intense colourways were on sale on one of my deplorably regular yarn sites . . . colourways that were in fact not available in the shop we’d been to. I hope you can follow my thought (?) processes here. BECAUSE I had SUPPORTED MY LYS++ I therefore deserved to buy some of what they hadn’t had that was on sale. You get that, right? Yes.
+ LIKE I NEED MORE YARN. LIKE I FRELLING NEED MORE YARN.
++ Local Yarn Shop/Store, for those of you unafflicated by the knitting mania
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?”