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.
This is a really interesting article anyway full of stuff I need to check out but don’t miss the last paragraph.*
And thanks for all the happy chirping noises about last night’s news.**
Is it a bad thing that I already own The Blue Sword as an e-book? I would NEVER knowingly get a pirated copy of anyone’s book. That would be BAD! The e-book that I have looks very professionally done. I’m confused! I’ll have to get another copy (a legit? copy) of the e-book when it comes out.
You’ve probably got one of the ones that were briefly and in the publisher’s mind legitimately available a while ago. When said publisher had it politely pointed out to them that in fact what they were doing wasn’t totally pure and square and holy they were very embarrassed. They were so embarrassed it’s taking a while to winkle them out from under the bed, convince them that All Is Forgiven, and persuade them that we really want to do it again, just the right way this time, okay?
Well, I’m conflicted. Congratulations for the e-books. But I’ve already bought them in old fashioned, space gobbling, real book style. What excuse do I have to buy an e-reader?
Good heavens. Have you never found yourself standing in an endless queue and wished you’d brought with you that really good book you were reading but it’s large and heavy and you were only going to be gone ten minutes because there are never any queues this time of day? Or equivalent? E-editions are pretty much a scam that I’m allowing myself to be gorgleblorged by because of the Library in Your Knapsack thing. I wouldn’t dream of having keeper books only in e-format. I just have more editions of stuff I’ll want to read again.
And as Lenni says you don’t have to have a dedicated ereader. I have the Kindle app on my iPad. If you’re portable-tech-free you have a slightly more epic struggle with your conscience ahead of you but . . . well, I’ve told this story many times before, but I only bought my first computer because the office shop could no longer get parts for my IBM Selectric I typewriter. I forget why I let myself get gorgleblorged*** by the idea of an iPad† but I use her constantly, however often I want to throw her against the wall for her tantrums about Microsoft.
I can’t wait to be rescued from a long wait somewhere by pulling up a comforting favorite story on my phone.
Yes, exactly. But I am fascinated by you people who read on your phones. My eyes can do it but, dunno, my brain can’t. It’s like people with little tiny writing. My hand can do it BUT MY BRAIN CAN’T. I have big sprawly handwriting. I guess I must have big sprawly eyes†† too. I was actually going to buy the next size down of tablet for portability reasons next time but then I thought about the pleasantness of reading double page spreads like a REAL book on the iPad . . . and then I read about the iPad Air which weighs about two butterflies and a feather and I thought, fine, I wasn’t seriously planning to downsize my knapsack anyway.
* * *
* Thank you, Gomoto^, although why one of my American readers was faster off the mark than any of my English ones . . . is one of those little mysteries of the modern global-internet world.
^ Also Rachel on the forum, but her post went up later, and I also don’t know which side of the pond she’s on. Or even which pond.
** One person out in public on Facebook and a few people more privately on email have said that they aren’t buying anything of mine till I produce the second/third/ninety-seventh/final volume of PEGASUS. It’s not always easy to tell tone of voice from a stranger in print, but I have the impression that these declarations are typed in some dudgeon, possibly high. What people choose to do with their disposable income is up to them, of course, including whether or not they buy books and if they do buy books whose books they buy. But just in case this has slipped anyone’s mind . . . I’m not not producing PEG II, III and LXXXIX out of any disturbingly perverse desire to alienate readers. Um, why would I? I need to keep eating.^ Also I’m a storyteller by blood and bone; I don’t exist in my own mind let alone anyone else’s if I’m not telling stories. I would love to have PEG II already out and PEG III being wept over by final-stage copyeditors^^ and myself be contemplating writing that story about the bottle of sentient champagne. But I’m not.^^^ I’m not because PEG II is moving approximately as quickly as it’s going to take all those plate tectonics to bring Africa back to West Quoddy Head. I’m not happy about this.# But it’s not up to me—rather like producing my books in e-format isn’t up to me. You can, of course, nag me, about ebooks## or PEG II or LXXXIX, but it won’t produce any results except making me miserable.### Control freaks seriously don’t like things to be out of their control. And storytellers hate not telling stories.
^ And buying other people’s books.
^^ Tears of joy, mind you. Supposing it ends with III, which is to say it better had or I may become a full-time professional practising homeopath after all, not everybody is going to be spectacularly happy in all ways after the climax but this is still a McKinley story and there will be some kind of a big shiny hurrah somewhere near the end.
^^^ Except at my 3 am equivalent which is about when most people are heading off to work, or the local builders are arriving and turning their frelling radios on to the Maudlin Pop Drivel station.+
+ I keep forgetting to check if U2 are trying to break into my iPhone.
# In fact I am wildly, frantically frustrated and crazy over it. Just by the way.
## Including, inevitably, what goes wrong, because things will go wrong.
### You can’t make a horse win a race even if you’ve bred, fed and trained her perfectly. You can’t make a rosebush cover herself in huge fabulous flowers+ ditto. And horses are horribly expensive to keep and rose-free rosebushes are mostly pretty ugly. It goes like that sometimes.
+ Unless you’re a character out of ROSE DAUGHTER
*** Or ‘sandbagged’ if you prefer
† NO NOT COMPUTER GAMES. COMPUTER GAMES ARE THE DEVIL’S SPAWN.^
^ Yes of course I play several. I might not be so outraged if I played them a little better.
†† And a big sprawly brain. If it were tidier I might be getting on with PEG II quicker. Sigh.
Well of course I knew this was coming. I signed a contract, right? Months ago. But I was fallen on in body by everyone involved and FORBIDDEN to announce the news before time.* And then at the last possible minute, of course, because that’s how these things go, MAJOR FAILURE IN COMMUNICATION OCCURRED, so not only did I not see the final of anything, the frelling press release went out two days ago and the only reason I knew about it was because I started getting deluged by emails (and one or two tweets) from people saying FINALLY!! FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY YOUR BACKLIST IS COMING OUT ON EBOOK!!!!!!
So here’s a link to the press release:
. . . But you might want to check it again in a few days when certain details have been AHEM tidied up a little.**
* * *
* And very frustrating it has been too with the increasing numbers of emails pleading for me to produce or permit ebook editions of my backlist. IT’S NOT UP TO ME. IF I COULD WAVE THE ABRACADABRA WAND I’D’VE DONE IT YEARS AGO.^ The problem with a lot of us old people is that we were writing books long before ebooks existed and renegotiating terms as the ebook revolution scampers around us and our elderly text-only contracts going nanny nanny boo boo hahahahahahaha is kind of a drag. Not to mention complicated. And before you send me a list of 1,000,000 authors even older than I am who got their backlists out on ebooks decades ago^^ yeah, well, that’s them, okay? See: ‘clever’, below. It also depends on your publisher or publishers; some divisions of some publishers are farther into the twenty-first century than others.^^^
^ No I don’t personally love ebooks, but I certainly read them,+ and I totally understand the comfort of having a vast bursting library on a skinny little tablet in your knapsack.
+ And anything I like a lot I then have to buy in hard copy. Those cheap ebook come-ons from amazon unfortunately work a treat on me; I generally only buy stuff in e- that I don’t know and might not otherwise get around to. So this totally generates more income for other writers from this out-of-control reader.
^^ Before ebooks existed. But that’s not going to bother a bunch of clever SF&F writers. Please note I specify clever.
^^^ And just by the way you emailers who think it is funny or okay or persuasive to tell me that if I don’t produce legitimate ebooks you will be forced to buy evil pirated editions . . . this is not funny or okay or persuasive. Pirate editions are illegal, and every one you either buy or download free is another kick in the teeth to writers who are trying to earn a living. Don’t do it. If the ebook edition—of any author’s book—is not available, live with it.+ Worse things happen at sea.
+ You might also keep in mind that begging the author to do something about the nonexistence of ebooks only makes the author miserable because she can’t. If you want to harass the whatsit out of someone, try the original edition hard copy publisher.
** And before you ask, BLUE SWORD belongs to another publisher. Communication has failed on that front too but it will be available as an ebook. Soon. I’ll try to remember to post here when I know. But, hey, you may hear about it before I do.^
I haven’t seen much of Niall in quite some time because I haven’t been ringing bells. I’m aware that I miss ringing but there’s been a lot going on including all the major life change stuff and I’m so boring I keep getting tired. We’ve stayed in touch by text* which in Niall’s case is chiefly offers of handbell opportunities which I mostly rebuff although he’s caught me once or twice by being pathetic, when they really really really need a third person or they can’t ring. Sob. But we also occasionally exchange fascinating information like that fresh brownies have just come out of the oven** or that there are mushrooms growing on the dashboard*** since the torrential rain that broke our early autumn drought last week with an unnecessarily extended HURRAH. The seasonal river at the bottom of our hill is now in places pretty much up to the hellterror’s little evil eyes since of course the storm drains are blocked up again because that’s what storm drains do. Ask any local council.
But Penelope has been ill so I’ve been going round their house to see her with Niall in attendance and it’s a lot harder to blow off someone bringing you cups of tea and fresh brownies† on a tray and staring at you with beady, meaningful eyes†† while ‘handbells’ forms in a thought bubble over his head.
Arrrrgh. So last night I had late duty††† which ran over time because that’s what it does, and when I get home I still have me and a hellmob to feed, and the hellmob needs a final relieving hurtle and I need a bath in which I will fall asleep and then not be able to sleep in my bed.‡ So I was staggering around this morning on even less sleep than usual wondering where the teakettle was‡‡ when Pooka chirruped. I just about got her open and on and . . . Niall. Wanting to know if I might come along before Old Eden tower practise tonight to be a steady pair of hands to ring handbells with his new beginner.‡‡‡ No. Next question. I scowled at the screen. Poor earnest hopeful Niall§, wishing for a mere half an hour of my time, and even in my present condition I can (probably) ring plain hunt on handbells, in fact it’s probably one of the few things I am capable of so it would be half an hour of this bleary day that would not be wasted. Think of the next pan of brownies§§.
Okay, I texted back. But I’m too tired for tower bells; it’s been too long and the Old Eden bells are possessed by demons anyway. Thank you, replied Niall politely.
You see where this is going. I successfully rang handbells with Niall’s very nice beginner.§§§ My basic handbell autopilot is still alive and well even if the rest of me is mushroom compost. The tower bell ringers began trickling in and . . . stopped. There were at final count six of us, including the very new beginner and one less new beginner. And Niall and Vicky. And Monty. And me. I stayed. Obviously. I rang. I enjoyed it.#
I MISS MY BELLS. DRAT YOU NIALL. HOW AM I GOING TO FIT TOWER BELLS BACK INTO MY LIFE?
* * *
* Old people. Texting. You youngsters^ may need to avert your eyes.
^ I know there are youngsters who read the blog. They email me sometimes. Hi, I’m sixteen, and your blog makes me laugh. —Oh good. I think.
** Niall retired about a year ago and has learnt to bake. Clearly I should be cultivating this connection.
*** All right I don’t really have mushrooms growing on the dashboard. But I will soon. It’s a little-known fact that commercial mushroom compost is made of compressed dog hair.
† Okay, they’re not really brownies. He thinks they’re brownies, but he’s a bloke. They haven’t got enough chocolate in them. They are totally superlative cake, dense and moist and studded with cranberries and raisins and other redeeming social values and with a faint pleasant haze of chocolate just discernible in the background. THESE ARE NOT BROWNIES. Brownies must be so saturated, so rampant with chocolate that they suck all the light out of their immediate surroundings except for a faint seductive gleam on their enigmatic darkest dark brown almost-black surfaces. Redeeming social values wither and die in the vicinity of true brownies. Penelope however, is no fool. Darling, she says, these are excellent. And has another one.
†† Almost hellterrorish, Niall, staring at you.
††† And anyone who is wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Samaritans by name on the blog in months, it’s because the admin asked me not to. Oh. Ah. I know they are pathological about confidentiality—which is a GOOD THING!!!!—but, um. I may try to renegotiate the absoluteness of the ban some day in future but at the moment, while I’m still a frelling beginner, is not the time. I will however risk mentioning that I’m out of the initial clueless wonder apprenticeship period and into the second, theoretically not quite so clueless^ apprenticeship period and yaaaaay. But the main thing is, yes, I’m certainly continuing with it. I hope that joining is proving to be one of my better ideas—and yes, one of the new time and energy holes in this blog, as I anticipated when I stopped posting every day, is/are my Samaritan duty shifts and various relateds. And if anyone reading this has been wondering if volunteering for the Samaritans is for them—find out where your local is and go along to an information evening. No, it’s not easy work, but yes it is rewarding, and like pretty much every other worthwhile organization in this world, they can always use more bodies.
Shutting up now.
^ I would cross my fingers but that makes it harder to answer the phone.
‡ I swear if I could figure out a way to keep the water effectively hot I’d just sleep in the bath.^ Although as soon as this became official I’m sure the demons would say SHE’S SLEEPING IN THE BATH. RELOCATE. YOU’RE NOT AFRAID OF A LITTLE WATER ARE YOU?
^ No a waterbed is NOT the same thing.
‡‡ On the counter. Where it always is. I have a relationship with my electric kettle and my large bag(s) of loose leaf tea and various necessary accoutrements not unlike my relationship with my glasses. I can’t see anything till I find my glasses, including where I put them. I can’t possibly get a couple of handfuls of those tiny black shreddy things into that ridiculously narrow-mouthed sieve and then accurately pour just-off-boiling water into it and over them . . . till I’ve had my caffeine. I can almost see why tea bags caught on.
‡‡‡ Niall has this hilarious idea that handbells help you learn tower bells. Well, yes, they do, after several years of hard graft and when you’re getting used to the sensation of your brain melting and running out of your ears every time you ring a method. Not so much when you’re in the early not-strangling-yourself-in-your-rope phase, when ‘plain hunt’ sounds like ‘nuclear physics’.
§ You frelling manipulative ratbag
§§§ I hope she stays.
# With two beginners it’s not like we rang anything demanding. And when I folded half an hour early the others were ready to pack it in too: ringing bells possessed by demons nonstop because there are only five or six of you is taxing even if you don’t have ME and a complicated life.
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.”