It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.
—That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
Gus stared out the window, down the slope of the town to the bay. It was a great view, despite being from the ground floor. The rambling old castle had long ago shed its walls and this wing of it was planted on a steep hillside. The scene would make a great tourist shot. And send it home how? Maybe bring it on that ship.
The nice view showed they were valued, another gesture of gratitude, along with the bonus on their pay, for all they went through defending that caravan. Gus still did not feel over-paid.
"Are they still there?"
"Yep," he answered. "I'm looking at their ship right now. They'll be here another month at least."
"But do we know what a month is for them? Remember that place where we nearly missed the wagon train."
"Yeah, but they had that extra moon there. Don't worry. Thirty days. They said so themselves."
"Who, these Normans or whatever?"
"Yep," Gus answered. "The guy said 'month,' then he said 'thirty days at least.'" Gus carefully kept his tone equable. Doug's fretting was annoying, but Doug had every right to be shaken. And, holy crow! how he needed Doug. People are people only through other people—wasn't that what that African philosophy said? He and Doug kept each other believing they were people. There was room for doubt.
"Thirty days at least," he repeated, now trying not to sound like a nanny. "And the guy should be here any time now."
"Thirty days at least," the man had said, and he had said exactly that, in English. Gus had asked in English, after hearing them use it a bit. He had wanted to talk on and on with the man, about anything—the weather, where to find a good restaurant, baseball teams—as long as it was in English. Instead, he had just thanked him and asked more directions, noting how the guy looked at him. Gus could nearly hear him think, "Why is someone like you speaking English?" And the accent would have made it odder.
He stared hungrily at the Grand Norman ship. The GNNV Bythos. It was a blend of old and new. It looked like a nineteenth-century clipper ship, or a schooner or something—Gus didn't know ships—except that the hull was white and made of fiberglass or stuff like that, and it had a radio mast and radar and running lights that shone all night and electric light in the cabins. The name on the side was in regular letters. It flew bright flags of red and blue, spangled with gold lions and fleur-de-lis, symbols he knew. It made Gus's mouth water. A ship from … Earth? Maybe they could tell him what was going on and where they were and how many… How many what? Miles? Light-years? Planes? How far they were from home. And if they could get back. Ever.
Gus heard clopping in the hall, then a knock. Good. "Coming," he said. From long habit, one hand hovered near his scabbard as he reached for the door with his other. Deliberately, he switched and opened the door with his sword hand. Don't borrow trouble.
Gus saw a centaur. The equine body was dun—fawn with dark brown tail and legs. The human body was that of an old man with flowing white hair and beard, wearing a ruddy brown heavy-duty jacket, a uniform jacket such as Gus had seen on both two- and four-legged folk on the docks. Below the jacket hung a belt bearing a holstered revolver, a walkie-talkie, a knife, and other miscellany. The man-horse held a cowboy hat in his left hand, removed to aid in ducking through the door, since he stood seven feet tall. Gus knew about that, as he knew about soldiering. The creature offered his right hand to Gus. He took it, fleetingly grateful at the lack of hesitation, given what his hand now looked like.
"Captain Samms? You asked to meet. I'm Captain Fletcher." He spoke British-accented English, a little Oxbridge-y, and sounded perfectly human, except for a hint of reverb.
"That's right, Virgil Samms. Call me Gus. Come on in. Thanks for coming. Thanks a lot!" He then caught himself grinning and remembered the teeth, but it was too late.
Fletcher picked his way carefully into the room. In expectation, Gus had moved some furniture aside to make space. In a spark of inspiration, he had hauled in a throw rug from another room and put it on the stone floor. He now gestured at it and Fletcher settled down comfortably. He gave Gus a curious look. "Not the Virgil Samms?"
Gus laughed. "The galaxy would be in poor shape if the Virgil Samms was me, wouldn't it? Nope, that's just an alias, a nom de guerre." He held up his forearms with loose fists, displaying the wrists. "No lenses."
Fletcher stared at the wrists with interest and took a few seconds to examine the rest of Gus. Likewise, Gus looked over Fletcher for more details, like the mundane appearance of the gear at his belt, the fact that he was shod just like a horse, and the chess-knight-over-crossed-arrows emblem on his jacket and hat.
Fletcher saw a big ... man ... humanoid. His size and build made Fletcher think of American football, apparently a game for young giants. Gus was as tall as Fletcher. His accent had prompted the football association, since it was American—not the gruff eastcoast one or the yawning southern one, but the flat, twanging middle one, delivered in a husky tenor. An American ... troll. Fomor. Something.
The arms he held up, to show he was no Lensman, were a human shade of light brown, but the skin was covered in horny knobs, like crocodile hide, in roughly rectangular array, coarser on the back of the arms, finer on the underside and the back of the hands. The nails were very thick: on the right hand they were trimmed normally, but on the left they were shaped into claws. There were stubby horns on the knuckles. Thin, even, blond hair grew between the plates—to give back the sense of touch lost under the thick skin, Fletcher guessed.
Gus was wearing a light open vest, with pants and boots. Fletcher could see the plating get even coarser up the arms and across the chest and belly. The effect reminded him of a comic book hero—American again—called simply "the Thing." A monstrous hero, a transformed man. Fletcher could relate.
The neck was armored but the face was mammalian and free of plating. Gus had a very short muzzle, as if his mouth had grown forward to be even with his nose. The effect was rather cat-like, though there was no little moist patch at the tip. The lips looked human, but just outside the ends of the shaven mustache area sprouted foot-long cat whiskers.
The upper nose and the blue eyes looked entirely human. Well, yes, the eyes were slit-pupiled, but eyeballs aren't really very individual. It's the surrounding face you go by, the lids and eyebrows, and these looked human (waiving two closely-spaced bunches of shorter whiskers above the bridge of the nose).
Gus had a Neanderthal-like brow ridge. His ears were pointed, mobile, and had their own whiskers. His hair was in a military crewcut, sandy brown.
The big deviation was the tail, tufted and lion-like, though covered with armored skin rather than fur between the tuft and the base of the spine. The end swayed just above the floor.
Gus saw Fletcher examining. He turned his hands out to show the palms, which looked human, spread his arms in display, and slowly turned around. Fletcher saw heavy plates on the back of his neck and the tailoring that accommodated the tail.
"Thank you," Fletcher said, when Gus had turned around all the way, "for indulging my curiosity."
"Oh, I have my own reasons to give you a good look. I'll strip, if you want. I'm hoping you can tell us what we are."
"You don't know?" And, a moment later for the penny to drop: "'Us'?"
Gus gestured toward a table that had been displaced for Fletcher's convenience. Behind it was a shadowy alcove containing a bed. A figure hoisted itself up from the bed, T-shirted, another alligator-lion man, black-haired, brown-eyed, the skin a less ruddy shade of brown, the eyes oriental. He started to wave the stump of a right arm, then switched to his complete left arm. "Hi."
"Doug," said Gus. "Douglas Adams. 'Nother nom de guerre. He's under the weather right now."
Doug smiled and gave Fletcher a tired left-hand salute. Fletcher returned it, noting the teeth in the smile. Doug turned the salute into a wave, then sank back out of sight.
"I'm sorry for your injury, Mr. Adams," Fletcher said, raising his voice slightly to reach the bed, though he suspected his hosts had excellent hearing.
"We'd be a lot more upset about it," Gus answered for his roommate, "if we didn't know it would grow back. It's already started to. We saw the same with another pal." He curled his tail around and looked at it meditatively. "I've had this cut off twice. For a trophy, I think, both times. Grew back in a month. A hungry month. A tired month." He nodded at Doug's bed. "But it grew back.
"As for what we know about what we are—" He walked over to the table before Doug's bed and rummaged, then handed Fletcher two plastic cards. They were both old and scuffed, but both had pictures. Driver's licenses, Fletcher supposed. (Fletcher had not been in a position to drive a car for decades.) With only a little imagination, you could see that one was Doug ("Douglas Shengming Cheung," 6'3") and one was Gus ("August Virgil Weisskopf," 6'1"), both perfectly human. "That's how we started."
Fletcher nodded thoughtfully and handed them back. "When you started what?" he asked. "Please tell me about it. And why are you asking me?"
"I'm asking you because I watched you during the trade talks. People kept coming up to you. Your juniors, but also all sorts of other folk—people of higher rank, people of different sides and different species. Asking questions, getting answers. Even though you've never been here before."
"You must have asked around, to determine all that."
"Yeah, I did," the cat-man admitted. "And I learned that what you are, mainly, is a teacher, and what you teach is exploring. And you'll talk peaceably with anybody."
"Well, with most anybody."
"Good enough. And you speak English. And we could really, really use a teacher."
"To teach you what you are?"
"And where we are, and what the hell has been happening to us for the last, I dunno, two or three years."
Fletcher regarded Gus for a few seconds, then said, "I'll do what I can. Now, please tell me about yourselves."
"Doug and I are both from Chicago. You know where that is?" Fletcher nodded, which earned another jack-o'lantern grin—so much hungry joy at meeting someone who had merely heard of his home. "We grew up near each other—he's from Chinatown, I'm from Near West Side— but we never met until we enlisted. Did a hitch in the army together, in Afganistan. When we got out, we kind of missed it, but not enough to re-enlist. We met up with a couple of other guys who felt the same—Neil and Aaron—and decided to set up as mercenaries. Called ourselves the 'Windy City Squad.'"
Gus paused and gave Fletcher a cautious look. "You okay with mercs?" he asked.
Fletcher nodded. "A common profession in Grand Normandy. I've worked with them. 'Mercs' are fine as long as they're honest and not bloodthirsty."
Gus relaxed a hair, nodded back, and continued. "So we blew out to Iraq and looked around for work. And we were picked up by this woman—and that was unusual right there—who said she was recruiting for a company that would supply support for a city near the Iran border. Back-up and training and tech support for the local police and the Iraqi force stationed there. Besides us, she got some Brits and a couple of Canadians, some guys from New Zealand and Australia, and some Indians. Wanted everyone to have a common language. Twenty-seven in all.
"When she decided she'd got enough, or all she was going to get, she threw us a big party to 'welcome us aboard' before we 'shipped out.' Put up a big marquee in the middle of the desert outside Baghdad. Great band. Great jugglers, acrobats, stage magicians. (I wondered about them later.) 'Hostesses' to dance with, utterly gorgeous, some Middle-eastern, some European, some Indian. Or that's how they looked. Don't really remember the end of it.
"Woke up in quarters. I remember this so well. Someone was yelling, and it sounded too loud, somehow. My head felt crawly. But I didn't feel hung over. And I felt like someone was giving me a wedgie or something. Uh, do you know what a 'wedgie' is?" Fletcher waived the question away. "So I opened my eyes and yawned (and my mouth felt funny) and stretched– And I saw my arms." He looked down at them. "And I jumped out of the bunk and saw the rest of me, and my butt felt weird.
"And in the other bunk I saw Doug. I knew it was Doug 'cause I've seen his back plenty of times before, but he was all scaly. And he'd kicked off his sheet and there was a tail sticking out of the leg of his shorts. So I twist around and I catch a glimpse of something and feel something knocking on the bunk, and sure enough, I have a tail." He waved it demonstratively as he spread his hands. "My shorts were jammed up under it, and that was the wedgie. And I go to the mirror and– and see why my head felt crawly, all ears and whiskers..."
Doug was now sitting up, looking alert, though Fletcher could see it was an effort. "Somewhere in there, you started yelling 'Doug! Doug!'
"Don't remember that."
"You did. So I wake up and go through pretty much the same thing. And we're yelling 'What's this?' and 'What's going on?' and 'Is this real?' And the yelling from the hall is getting louder. So we look out–"
"And see all your fellows transformed as you were," Fletcher concluded.
"Yep," said Gus. "And we're all yelling questions at each other and building up to a panic. And then Dagny steps in, with a couple of her folks."
"Dagny?" Fletcher asked.
"That was the woman who hired us. Called herself 'Dagny Flynn," but sometimes it was 'O'Flynn' and sometimes 'Finn.'
"Careless," murmured Fletcher.
"Yeah, she was the one told us to pick out nom de guerres–" Fletcher carefully ignored the mangled plural. "–then she screws her own around. But she was hot. Tall and toned, with that black Irish coloring. Had some relatives with her, it looked like, four guys and two other girls, all black-haired and pale-skinned and tall. They all stepped into the hall then, and Dagny yelled, 'Silence!' And we did. I don't know why, really, or why we didn't go for her.
"We were expecting a speech. But she just said, 'I have made you over for battle. You are my 'lions' now, Dagorrodel's lions."
"Raurhoth i Dagorrodel," Doug muttered. "She said it over again in her language. We were the Raurhoth. That was important."
"Names are important," Fletcher agreed.
"We were her Raurhoth," Gus amplified. "That was even more important. 'You are my Raurhoth and very dear to me.'"
"I'm sure," said Fletcher. "Transforming twenty-seven men, even moderately, is a great deal of magic."
"There was more magic coming," Gus said. "She and her family just started giving orders, and we obeyed. We were scared not to. If she could do this to us, what else could she do? And who else could turn us back? So we went to the lockers to gear up, but everything was different.
"The stuff in our backpacks was pretty much the same, but instead of khakis we had homespun pants and light capes to put on. And swords with belts and scabbards. I remember thinking, 'I don't know how to use a sword,' but we took guns, too. The pants– the pants had a kind of button-up fly in the back. Like these. For our tails.
"Then they marched us out. It was still night. We were at the edge of town to start with, and we marched straight out into the desert. Not in cadence. They didn't care. They just wanted us to hike fast. Straight north."
"To the dustdevil," Doug put in.
"Yeah. It was a clear night, and calm, but there was a dustdevil out there, not moving, just spinning, steady as a rock. Our ride. I remember that so well. Marched miles but didn't get tired or cold. I could feel the cold on my face, but nowhere else, even though we were just wearing T-shirts under those capes. I remember marching beside Doug, us always glancing at each other, thinking, 'That's how I look now.' Worrying about being seen by... civilians. Ordinary folk. Muggles."
"Mondain-minors," Fletcher supplied.
"Okay. But I think I really mean 'humans.' And tails! Everyone switching their tails like angry cats, getting used to them. Holy crow! I don't what was spookier, walking straight up to that pillar of wind and dust that just stood there, waiting for us—or ourselves, me, being able to see it clear by starlight, my new tail all twitchy, not ... not knowing what I was."
("Still don't," Doug muttered, sinking back onto his bed.)
"Was it hard getting used to your new height?" Fletcher asked.
"No, we started at our old height. We brought some of our old clothes, and they still fit. I suppose the new height, all of a sudden, would have made us clumsy." Fletcher nodded. "It took a few months to put the extra head on our height."
"Don't say it like that!" Doug said, spurred into sitting up and glaring at Gus, ears back. "'Put an extra head on.' It's the sort of thing she could have done."
Gus winced but continued. "Came out Somewhere Else. Mountainous but lots of lakes and patches of forest. Castles, citadels, surrounded by wilderness. They were carved straight into the rock, hardly any masonry. And way open to the air, but that didn't matter because no one seemed to mind the cold. No farms. Our sky, but the pole was in Orion's Belt. Our moon but only half as wide, the sun too. No questions answered."
"Kept you unsure and dependent," Fletcher noted.
"We figured. Later. So after getting our bodies changed and the scenery changed, we still wound up doing what you hire mercs for: we stood guard and took care of equipment and trained folks, and sometimes led raids."
"Who were you fighting?"
"Another crew like hers," said Gus dismissively. "The dagorendor and his crew, his family. That's what she called him, when she talked about them at all. We saw them a couple of times at parleys. We think it was a straight territorial dispute, but like I said, they didn't answer questions much. They just wanted to point us and pull the trigger."
"And who did you train?"
"Little people. The size of eight- or ten-year-old kids, but adults. Looked like Middle-easterners, but could have been Latin American or Polynesian just as well."
"Tell me more about them."
The cat-man considered briefly. "They had guns already, but it was our job to take care of the guns for them, even to loading for them, and to keep training them when new ones wandered in. They lived in the forests, in burrows I think. Dagorrodel would put out the call for training sessions, and sometimes new ones came. And they'd show up for more ammo.
"They really weren't very smart. We led them on raids, but one of the Aussies said it was more like taking dogs hunting than leading troops. At first, we thought it was just the language barrier, but we finally decided they didn't have much language. Names of things and people and qualities. Exclamations. One-word orders. Sometimes jumbled them together but didn't really make sentences.
"If you thought of them as people-shaped dogs, they were really clever, but if you thought of them as people, they were only a bit smarter than dogs. But not like mentally deficient. Not the same holes in their minds. I liked some, didn't like others. In that way, they were more like people. I just plain like dogs.
"It was way easier for us to learn their language than to teach them ours. Turned out it was crumbs off the language the boss and her folks used. We asked to learn, but they—the boss and her family—gave us the brush-off. They didn't want us to learn it. But some of the servants didn't mind and would talk to us. They were some other breed, full-sized and brown-skinned. And there were a couple of prisoners.
"Oh, yeah, about them. They were talking dogs. Canines, anyway. As big as ponies, sort of like wolf-coated giant Rottweilers, only even stockier. Called themselves farad'huar. That's what most of the enemy's troops were. They were happy to give language lessons. They weren't kept in cells; they wandered freely around the citadel, on their parole I guess."
"Yeah. Anyway, then we found out the language was called 'Sindarin' and Hank, I think it was, said, 'That's Elvish! Tolkien Elvish!' Well, that would have sounded silly at one point, but not now."
"Was there really a War of the Ring?" Doug asked wistfully.
Fletcher shrugged. "There is a Red Book of Westmarch, written in Sindarin and Quenya, and it's full of tales. Even conservative scholars agree there were big mage-wars late in the last ice-age. That's as far as we know. Or guess. Many people do believe in the Ring War."
Human facial expression depends on mouth and eyebrows. Feline facial expression depends on ears and whiskers. Gus looked unhappy both ways at once. "Thing is, if Tolkien's true, we're orcs."
Fletcher cleared his throat and said in his best commanding officer's barracks-filling voice, "You are not orcs." Then less loudly, "As my lieutenant is fond of saying, monstrous is as monstrous does."
"Yeah," seconded Doug, "and if Tolkien's true, there ought to be some good elves around, too, right?"
Fletcher nodded. "Certainly. We have some as our main allies."
"Okay," said Gus, "good. But if we're not orcs, what are we?"
"I'm still working that out. Please go on. So you started learning Sindarin...?"
"Yeah, and realized 'Dagorrodel' was just a title, 'warlady,' not a real name. And 'dagorendor' was 'warlord.' Anyway, the boss found out pretty soon, but sort of shrugged it off. I think she knew it would happen sooner or later. What she said was she didn't think we cared about learning a new language, since we weren't going to be there long."
"A mistake," said Doug. "It got us wondering how long we had been there. What year is it, Captain Fletcher?"
"Damn!" Doug pounded on the table with his one fist.
"So it was three years after all," Gus said glumly. He explained to Fletcher, "We were hoping it was more like 2015 or '16. You see, we lost track of time. When we got free, we tried to figure out how many years we'd been there. Tried to remember winters. We guessed one, two, or three. Couldn't decide." He pulled a chair up to the table and sat down to brood. Fletched shifted a little on the rug so that, with Doug sitting up in his bed, the three of them now shared the table.
"We hoped it was one year," Doug said, "because that's all our actual contract was for. Back... back on Earth. And even if it was a magic contract, it ought to have expired."
"By the end of the first year," Fletcher said, "you simply belonged to her. She didn't need the oath any longer; it didn't matter if it had expired."
"We were ... shanghaied," said the Asian cat-man with an edge to the word, "early in 2013. We figure we've been on the road about two years, so maybe grand total three, if we were there only one year. But it's five." He stared at the table. "I bet my granddad's dead by now. And never knew what happened to me." He snorted. "I don't know what happened to me."
Gus looked up from his own blank stare at the table and looked at Fletcher. "This is like those stories where people party with the elves one night and come back and it's centuries later, isn't it? And then they crumble away or give up and go back with the elves."
Fletcher nodded but said, "It's more like those who come back from the fays bewildered."
"'Kilmenny had been she could not say where,
And what she had seen she could not declare,'" quoted Doug.
"Well, I'm bewildered," Gus stated.
"Indeed," said Fletcher. "But you seem fairly well-versed in these matters."
Gus nodded. "In down time, we pooled everything we knew. Well, all the fantasy we'd read. But that was the best guide we had."
"So how did you get free?"
"She lost," Gus said shortly. "It was winter. Later, we hoped it was the next winter after we came, but it must have been the third. We had surprised some of the enemy hiking through a valley. Or we thought we had. It was a feint. As soon as we were well out in the open– Aerial attack. A Wild Hunt. Great big black horses. Gold eyes and manes and tails. Three hooves to a foot. But mainly, they could run on air! On freakin' air! What did we have? Midgets with guns. They took one look at the horses, threw the guns down, and ran. Which was smart. We lost Sandy, Gopal, and J.J. there. The horses took off after the little guys like hounds after rabbits. Their riders were just trying to hang on, I think. But they took time to use rifles and bows sometimes. That's what got our guys.
"Hank was the one who saw the boss go down. But we knew. We all knew in an instant. No one was leading us. It's like at the end of Lord of the Rings: when Sauron went down, all the orcs panicked." Mouth tightened. Ears and whiskers drooped.
Fletcher rumbled, "You're not orcs."
"Well... well, thanks. We didn't panic, anyway. We threw down our weapons—we were using swords a lot, by then—and sued for peace. Got it. Each of us got bracketed by two or three of the big dogs, those that weren't busy running on air with the horses. And they– And they took our surrender and they vouched for us to the warlord's men. And his, uh, high dogs. You see, those prisoners had been traded back a while ago, and I guess they spoke well of us." He muttered to himself, "Holy crow! Do I love dogs now!"
"A Wild Hunt," Fletcher mused.
"Yep," said Gus, "we figure he must have said, 'This has gone on way too long,' and decided he'd do whatever it took to end it. I mean, we don't know how the pricing works on these things, but he must have paid steep for a Wild Hunt. It couldn't have belonged to him, or he'd have used it ages ago."
"Like her big bid, using all that magic to change us and bring us to her place," said Doug, ears angrily back. There were a couple of soft thumping noises, and Fletcher guessed he had lashed his tail, back in the bed clothes.
"And," Gus resumed, "the warlord didn't hold any grudges. Let her family take oaths and go into exile. Took her lands and her little folks but gave her a decent burial. Our dead, too. Her servants signed on with him. So did Hank and Venkat. Thought about it myself. Partly because he seemed like a lot better boss, but partly because it felt weird to break up the troop that way."
Fletcher gazed at him thoughtfully. "Weird in what way?"
"Tell him about the hive mind," Doug said.
Fletcher sat still and waited.
"She had us all linked," Gus said. "From the first. Remember how I said we felt like we had to obey her, didn't dare not, because what else might she do, and she was our only ticket back to– to human. Well, after a while, we didn't bother with reasons. We just had to obey her, were scared not to."
"Clearly," said Doug drily, "a follower of Machiavelli. Better to be feared than loved. Give me Sun Tzu any time: the leader should be respected and loved."
"Yeah, not much love," Gus agreed. "And she was a real looker, but she never used it on us, or seemed to think about it at all. Her folks were the same. No carrots, just sticks."
"We weren't their type," Doug said, still dry.
"Scales and tails? No. Anyway, the main thing was we came running when she called. All of us. All at the same time. Even if you weren't there to hear the order, you'd just know and come, like she'd blown a dog-whistle even you couldn't hear, but still obeyed.
"And the really hive-y part, though, was that now our moods were catching. We all got tired together. We all got excited together. If someone lost his temper with one of the little guys, the men around him would get angry, too. They might get angry at him or at each other, not always at the little guy, but they'd all get angry. And if guys tried to keep their temper, other guys nearby would start to cool off too.
"And focus! Holy crow! We'd go through hours of practice, focused on it all the time. Like satori or flow, maybe. I gotta say, we learned fast."
"Hiving was a real help learning Sindarin," Doug said. "Some guys would be learning Sindarin from the dogs—farad'huar the 'North Dogs,' but I bet you knew that—and the next guy to take a lesson wouldn't remember the first guy's lesson, but he'd be that much further along anyway. It would die down if we were calm and well-rested. We could think clearly. And privately. But even then, we couldn't lie to each other. We could mouth the words, but never be believed. But even calm and private, the link was working.
"We called it the hive mind. When– when you can't lie to each other, and you feel together, and are all in the same trouble together, you get really tight. Even if you don't like everyone in the team. You understand, me, sir?"
Fletcher nodded but said nothing.
"On the other hand," Doug went on, "it made you wild for a scrap of privacy. And it screwed over your sense of time. You spent a lot of time dazed. Well, pro and con, it all went bust when she died. I have to say, there's a lot about it I miss. But it was scary, creepy, too, to look back on. Anyway, that's the hive mind, or it was, and it's why we felt weird about breaking up after she died."
"And after she died and the warlord let you go your ways?"
"Well, he couldn't change us back. He said the shapecaster was one of her kin, who had died in the Hunt with her. And he couldn't send us back as we were. Not many wanted to try it, but he said that even if we did, it wouldn't work. The spell would misfire. 'No luck would take such as you back to Ennorath,' was what he said."
Fletcher murmured, "Sundered."
"So," said Gus, "he just said goodbye. Said we were honorable soldiers, and had been cheated by his enemy, and he– Pitied us. But he said we knew how to hunt and fight and forage, and knew a wide-spread language, so we were good to 'make our way across the worlds' and he hoped we would find... 'homes and forms that pleased us.' Then he just gave us directions to the next, uh, eärda." Gus looked at Fletcher to see if he understood.
"We say 'zone,'" he answered.
Gus nodded and continued: "It was a day's hike east of his citadel. He sent some dogs with us. You'd think it was to monitor us, but I really think it was a courtesy, just to make sure we didn't get lost. Mostly, anyway. The dogs were friendly enough.
"Then the land fell away in cliffs and clouds, and it looked like we must be on a big mesa. The dogs led us to a place where two standing stones marked the head of a path down into the rocks and mist."
"You could hear roaring," Doug put in, "like the sea or a waterfall. Constant."
"And Morcas—he was the lead dog, one of our old teachers, and I think that's why he got put in charge of us—Morcas said, 'It is two days' careful march from Beraïd Torgon to Gaërlad. And be careful! If you fall, it will be long before you climb out! But you should meet no one on the road. There has been little traffic while we fought here. Farewell! Believe that I do wish you well.'
"And suddenly I felt lonesome. You could hardly say this was home, but it was the nearest we had. I had. I'd lost the hive-mind now, along with– Anyway, I understood Brett when he said, 'I wish you were coming with us.' And Morcas laughed—really a laugh, not much like a bark—and said, 'You were good enemies, but not that good. Come again as friends someday.'"
"And that was it. We shouldered our packs, and waved to the dogs, and headed out."
Fletcher took a notebook out of a pocket and wrote. "Beraïd Torgon and Gaërlad?" he asked. They nodded. "Ever see those written?" They shook their heads.
"I guess it was two days," Gus went on. "We slept once, in the middle. As we got further out, things got weirder. More wind, pulling the clouds around in loopy, twisty shapes. The mountains started looking melty and like the clouds, and gravity got bent—it would look uphill but be downhill when you got there, or vice versa, and you'd get heavier and lighter. And the sky would get dark and show us stars, but different ones, or aurora, or just a web of light, and we never saw sun or moon. From the way you're nodding, Captain, I guess that's pretty standard stuff for you." Fletcher nodded more distinctly. "Anyway, call it two days, and we follow the road into a gully, in the middle of a squall—I bet you that squall is always there—and find ourselves walking out of mist, into rocky hills, with a proper sky over us, and rolling green hills below, and a little trail at our feet. We came to a bigger road, with a little guard house at the–"
"Fast forward," Doug cut in. "It's been two years. And we've marched and ridden and sailed from one 'zone' to another. Five 'passages,' grand total. There are twenty of us left. We lost three in that fight, two stayed with the warlord, and we lost two in fights while we were enslaved. Haven't lost any since. We went on calling ourselves the Raurhoth, because we had to call ourselves something and that seemed to fit peoples' expectations: big, scaly, taily guys, pretty shaggy by then—the 'lion host'? Sure. And, oh good, they're just looking for work. Nothing here. Try down the road. Ennorath? Heard of it in legends, that's all."
Fletcher asked in a careful voice, "Did you ... ever have to ... turn to banditry?"
Gus stood to attention while sitting. "No sir! We did not. Kept our noses clean that way, at least. Got chased for poaching a few times, but a man's gotta eat."
Fletcher nodded and muttered, "Brave gamekeepers." The two spread carnivorous grins and chuckled.
"We have wound up," said Doug, "working for the city of Huspaan. That's in this zone, west of here, at a river mouth."
"I know of it," Fletcher said. "Free city-state. Big trade center."
"Yessir. We got there, all twenty of us, and got hired into the city guard. That was eight months ago. We've been there longer than anywhere else. Lots of people speak Sindarin and we're starting to learn the local language. Harder, without the hive mind. They take our looks more easily than most. There are people there who are walking silhouettes. And some bigger than us, and lots smaller. A couple of guys have dated local girls, even.
"Sometimes, they ask for volunteers to hire on as guards for their caravans. We just came in from a gig like that. Met bandits in the passes, and I lost this." He lifted his stump.
"And what did people say you were?"
"They asked what we were," Doug replied, "and we just said the Raurhoth. We couldn't ask. We couldn't say, ' 'Scuse us, we're a bunch of doofus soldier-boys from a place with no magic. What have we been turned into?' Bad for our street cred. Captain, you're the first person we've dared ask."
Fletcher thought he knew what "street cred" was, from context, but made a note to check with Carlin.
"So we're asking," Gus said. He looked humbly into Fletchers eyes and repeated, "Captain, we're a couple of doofus soldier-boys from a place with no magic. What have we been turned into?"
"And," Doug added, "where the hell are we? And– and what's going on? Please, sir."
Fletcher took a deep breath. They watched the horse ribs inflate. "I can tell you where you are, and maybe I can tell you where you were." Fletcher pulled out his walkie-talkie, put it on speaker, and placed it on the table. "Yessir?" asked a voice. "Mr. Darneley, I have a question for you to research. I am with two fellows who want to know what zone they were in. It or part of it is called 'Beraïd Torgon.' About five passages from here. Includes chilly mountainous country. Elfholds ruling populations of unMarked fays. Talking dogs for soldiers in some. No mortals in evidence, but that's uncertain. Open-finite with border passages, at least one into chaos marches. The celestial pole is in Orion and the sun and moon are undersized. Is that enough to go on?"
"I don't place the name, sir, but it sounds like zones in the Cadmon cluster, off Gevurah. They have skies like that, and it's the right distance."
Fletcher smiled and said softly, "Didn't even have to look anything up. Go, Charliehorse!"
"We may never have sent an expedition to that particular zone, sir" the voice went on, "but we passed through the cluster about fifteen years ago and collected local accounts. I'll look into it. Any more names, sir? Other places? Rulers?"
"It's one passage from a place called Gaërlad, and I may have more details for you later. Thank you, Mr. Darneley." He hung up.
"Do you have anything like a big sheet of paper?" he asked.
The cat-men produced a local newspaper, the ink so faint, the marks of Fletcher's pen overruled it easily. "Ennorath, Middle-Earth, the home zone, connects to many other places, other zones. Most are much smaller, islands or small continents. Some seem to be whole parallel worlds, though there's a new theory that they are somehow ingredients of our own world."
"Which world, Captain?" Doug asked. "Where is Grand Normandy?"
"I meant Ennorath, Earth, your world and mine. I live in England, lad. But Grand Normandy is hidden, a 'cryptic nation.' I'll explain later. The home zone connects to other zones, which connect to each other, and it forms a network." By now Fletcher had drawn a circle marked "HOME" and was adding more. "Part of it is a string of zones we call the Road to the Sun. It has three lanes or branches. Here's Yesod, and then, on the left branch, Hod and Gevurah." He sketched in more circles, totaling ten, and connected them, but did not label any more.
"I've seen that diagram," Doug said.
"Very possibly," Fletcher agreed. He was adding smaller circles near Gevurah. "There are little by-ways off the Road to the Sun, to lesser zones. Here's the Cadmon Cluster that Darneley mentioned, and somewhere in there is your Beraïd Torgon. Don't know where Gaërlad is yet, but you are now in Varsis in the Hathor Passages to Netzach." He labeled a big circle "Netzach" and a small neighbor "Varsis."
"We came here by sea-passages on the Bythos, past Hod and Yesod from Brequelle." He made and labeled a little circle next to the HOME circle. "And from Brequelle you can march home." He thickened the lines marking his route while the young soldiers stared.
Gus placed a fingertip on the Varsis circle. "'You are here,'" he murmured reverently. "Holy crow!"
Doug caught Fletcher's glance. "He used to swear like any soldier. But we all got more religious while we were enslaved. Foxholes, no atheists. I mean, here we were, in another dimension, transformed by a wicked fairy. God's not that hard to believe in then, and maybe He seems closer. And with the hive mind, we all got more religious. This is how it took him."
Gus looked a little sheepish. "I just got to feeling it was ... rude, calling on God and Jesus like that, and mixing their names up with dirty words, when I was asking them for real help."
"So he picked a minced oath and turned it into a habit."
"How did it take you?" Fletcher asked Doug.
Doug seemed to study the map intently. "I wasn't raised religious. But I started praying. I still do. I'm just not sure who to."
Fletcher smiled gently. "I believe the message routing is excellent."
Doug looked up. "Are you religious?" he asked.
"I'm a Christian." Fletcher dug in his collar and pulled out a small silver crucifix, which he displayed, kissed, and replaced. "Avignese Catholic, in particular, though I don't suppose you've heard of that branch of the Church."
Doug stared at him curiously. "No offense, but how does a centaur wind up Christian?"
Fletcher smiled. "The question is, how does a Christian wind up centaur. I'm a transformation, like you. All centaurs are, as far as we know. I volunteered for this shape when I was twenty."
Gus shook his head. "You used to be human? I thought you were, you know, your own race, like elves."
"We thought that, too, in Grand Normandy, until 1943. I can tell you the history some time. But I'm human. Equine now, too, of course. And mortal. Good for a few decades more, but mortal."
"So what are we?" Gus asked.
Fletcher took another long, slow breath. "As far as I know, there is no race that looks like you. I think she just made up your form. Partly, yes, she was transforming you to make you better fighters, but a lot of these details are cosmetic. She could have given you armor instead of crocodile hide, or brass knuckles instead of those spurs. Did she say the tails were to improve balance?" They nodded. "Maybe, but the main reason for the changes, I think, was to make sure you were always fighters, always on duty, always her fighters, made by her. It was to claim you and intimidate you and tear you away from your old lives."
"Are you saying she just deformed us?" Doug asked. "That we're still human?"
Fletcher rose and wheeled. Clearly, if there had been room, he would have paced. "'Human' is one of those words that takes several different meanings when the context gets bigger." He looked at their doubtful expressions. "You did ask for a teacher. Back in the monde-minor, in your old world, 'human' meant that you were born of the Homo sapiens species and that your body was standard for that species, or near it, and that you were a mortal child of Adam, because everybody is all three of those things.
"Now, here we are in the monde-major, the larger world." He nodded toward the window, to the harbor where, in a month, the Bythos would sail away through the edgestorm into chaos. "None of us three has a body anyone would look at and say 'human.' I'm human tissue here and equine tissue here." He patted man-chest, then horse-shoulder. "You lads are probably still human tissue throughout, simply because she wouldn't bother to, say, re-write your DNA.
"Your warlady and warlord, and their servants, and the little folk you trained were all human in those senses, too, in all probability. Genus Homo, at least. Human anatomy and tissue and DNA. But they were fays, not mortals. It's a different metaphysical state. Your friends the dogs were also fays, or so I expect. Right now, they have canine anatomy and tissue and all the rest. But they may have been biologically human before, and may be biologically human again."
Doug looked thoughtful. "I should be taking notes," he muttered.
"What are we, sir?" Gus asked. When Fletcher did not answer immediately, his ears went down and his tail lashed. "We are orcs, aren't we?" he snarled
"YOU ARE NOT ORCS!" Fletcher thundered, rearing. His shoes struck sparks from the stone floor as he came down. The lads flinched.
All three of them mumbled "Sorry" at the same time. Gus's was a "Sorry, sir." Fletcher then asked Doug, "What are you sorry for?"
He shrugged and returned to the issue at hand: "What are orcs, sir, if we're not?"
"It's a term of abuse, really. Or you could say it means 'ugly, vicious, unMarked common fays.'" He poked Gus in the chest. "You're a son of Adam, you're not vicious, and you're not ugly, you just look unusual. So don't call yourself an orc."
"Yessir," said Gus softly. He looked calmer, even gave Fletcher a rueful smile. It occurred to Fletcher that Gus had introduced himself as "captain," so all the "sirs" these lads had been tossing into his accustomed ears were not really in order, but right now he thought they could use an authority figure.
"What's 'unMarked,' sir?" Gus asked.
Deliberately, Fletcher sat down on the rug again. The two lads relaxed a little more. "Common fays divide into Marked and unMarked. The unMarked ones don't have full language or abstract thought. The ones that have received Adam's Mark do. The unMarked ones aren't really morally responsible. The Marked ones are. That's more important than what they look like, and they come in a huge variety of forms. Most don't look like physically standard humans."
"Sounds like our little guys," said Gus. Fletcher nodded.
"So what are we, sir?" he persisted.
Fletcher stared back at them. He opened his mouth but nothing came out. He rose again, turned in place again, and wished he could pace.
"It's bad news," said Doug. "I've seen it in his face ever since we told him about the hive mind."
Enough of being the skittish horse. "I don't know if you'll think it bad or not," Fletcher said. He faced them directly and spoke quietly. "But I've never given anyone bigger news." He stood to attention and locked eyes with each of them in turn. "You are no longer mortals. You are fays."
They stared back, mouths open. Then:
"Wait. Why?" Gus demanded. "You said we didn't look like anything you knew of."
"I'm not going by how you look. I'm going by what's happened to you."
"What do you mean?"
"The hive mind," Doug said.
Fletcher nodded. "We call it a troop. Fays can turn mortals into fays, and they do it by joining the mortals to a troop. Sometimes, they simply have you live with the troop for a year os so, and it just happens. But you took an oath of service to her, accepted her hospitality—ate and drank and danced with her and her family. That gave her the opening to form a troop with you. Then she would have left the troop while you slept. Then she had her shapecaster transform you, but you were already fays."
"But what does that mean?" asked Doug. "What is a fay?"
"We're outta the troop now, right?" Gus interrupted. "I mean, the hive mind's over."
Doug: "Can we change back? If we're fays and not 'mortals,' does that mean–? Does that mean...?"
Gus: "We're not stuck, are we? Can we go home?"
"The troop ended when she died. As far as I can see," said Fletcher, "you can go home."
"But looking like this?" Gus stared down at his armored skin. "And those other people, in the stories. The ones who vaporized or had to go back..."
"The ones who vanished were recruited as ghosts. They weren't fully embodied yet and just lost it in the shock. Probably didn't realize they were dead until then. The ones who went back had nowhere else to go. Centuries had passed. You've just missed five years."
"But what is a fay?" Doug demanded.
"A fay is an immortal shapeshifter," Fletcher answered.
There was another pause.
"Naw, wait," Gus objected. ""The boss, Dagorrodel, died. I went to her funeral. I saw the body."
"She will recover. It may take years or centuries, depending on her individual degree and kind of magical power, but some day she will come walking out of that burial mound. They did bury her in a mound, didn't they?" They nodded and Fletcher nodded back. "If they had cremated her and scattered her ashes, it would take much longer, but she would still come back. This way, at least, they know where she will appear, and will be ready to meet her with the demand that she take a permanent oath of peace. If they have any sense."
"So," said Doug softly, "seriously immortal." His gaze had gone somewhere deep inside.
Fletcher smiled grimly. "Seriously."
Now it was Gus's turn to look thoughtful. "When our guys died—J.J. and Sandy and Gopal, and before them Roj and Terry—they buried them in the mounds, too. Did they know? Are our guys going to– Would we–?" He stopped and his gaze went inward too.
Fletcher stared silently at the floor. He had seen people die. He had guided scores of men through transformations like his own. He had met ex-mortals. But he had never before told anyone they were immortal. They had asked him for guidance, but what could he possibly give, here so far outside his own experience?
Abruptly, Doug pushed the table aside, scrambled out of bed, and strode to the window. He gazed down over the town, his one hand on the window frame, breathing hard.
Gus did not seem to notice. His gaze still inward, he said to Fletcher, "You said we could go home. How?"
The gears turned again in Flecher's mind. He could advise. "I will ask the captain of the Bythos to give you passage, if you want. At the very least, I will leave you a passage map and you can make your own way."
"But the dagorendor said luck wouldn't let us get home."
"Something about luck does hide magic and its results from the monde-minor, the ordinary world. We call it the Sundering. But I don't think the dagorendor knew much about it. He lives far away from the monde-minor, after all, and doesn't seem to have much interest. Your warlady, clearly, knew a lot more.
"All you have to do is keep out of public view or go disguised. That same twist of luck will bless your efforts."
Gus brought his gaze outward again and looked at Fletcher doubtfully. "How could I disguise this?" He spread his arms and twitched his tail. Doug turned at the window, now listening.
"Glamour," said Fletcher promptly. "You've heard of it?" Gus nodded. "When I go abroad, I wear some enchanted thing, a shirt or blanket, that makes me look like a horse or a mounted man. The dagorendar wouldn't think of such things because his kind can see right through them, but they work a treat on mortals. We sell such things, at home."
"But that's just tricks with light," said Gus. "An optical illusion can't really hide how big I am now. Or the tail and all. Not close up." He stood and spread his arms again.
Fletcher nodded. "You could walk the streets, but you couldn't hide that from your families and friends. You would have to tell them at least some of the truth."
Fletcher considered briefly. "'I was captured by an evil warlord who experimented on me.'"
"That sounds really lame."
"Not if you're standing there, seven feet tall. Or take off the glamour and tell them the whole story. In either case, warn them of the bad luck if they try to make it public.
"Anyway, glamour is just the simplest, quickest fix," Fletcher went on.
"Shapeshifting," said Doug, but he sounded preoccupied. "You're saying we can become shapeshifters."
"You already are," said Fletcher. "Regrowing arms and tails. It's ... built in. You just need to learn to control it. From what I've heard, it should be relatively easy to return to your original forms."
"Good," said Gus, but his gaze had returned inward and he sounded preoccupied too.
There was silence for some seconds. Then Doug came and stood behind Gus, put hand on shoulder, and said, "We have a lot to do." His voice was hushed.
"We do?" Gus sounded distant.
"We need to tell the rest of the guys, back in Huspaan. We need to get word to Venkat and Hank back in Beraïd Torgon. We need to do something about our dead. Our buried. We need to pick up some of these glamours and get home as quick as we can."
Gus nodded. "And then?" he asked after a short silence.
Doug stood silent too, then, "I don't know."
The silence returned. Fletcher let them have it. Living alongside fays, he had wondered often enough how he would face immortality. The wondering had come out many different ways. No telling which perspective on Everafter they were gazing down. Finally:
"It'll never get any better," Gus said.
"No, man," Doug denied, but he sounded unsure. "We can go back. We can learn to change back. In fact–"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. But–" He broke off, then resumed: "There was this story in my head. Was always there, I guess. I never thought about it until she took us. Then I did. It was pretty simple. I'd grow up and– and knock around the world and have Adventures, and get– and be– and get tough and smart. Good enough so that– I'd find a girl, and we'd get married and have kids and I'd be good enough to take care of them until... it was their turn. And then the girl, whoever she was– The girl and I would just go on together and– And look back on a job well done.
"But there are so many, many places that story can get torn up. And I knew it had. We all knew. It got torn up when she took us. Lots of us– In the hive mind, you could feel it. Lots of us were…"
"Mourning," supplied Doug.
Gus nodded. "Mourning for our stories. I thought I was over it. I mean, after she died—or whatever—we were all lost and confused, and we still missed our old lives, but I didn’t think it would hurt so much to hear again that my story was gone forever.
"I guess I hadn't really given up on it. When I saw your ship down at the harbor, I guess I started hoping again without realizing it. And now I've got to stop hoping again. And it hurts. I think it hurts worse.
"I thought that we'd never find out where we really are or what we really are. I thought it'd just go on being crazy, and eventually we'd die without understanding what had happened to us. And that would be– That would be the worst. But at least– I just now realized, I was kind of counting on dying, to end it. To be a way out. We could escape to Heaven, eventually. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to go on in the craziness forever. Not forever.
"And now we do understand what happened. But it's not a way out. There's no way out. We can't leave." He voice began to sound tight and choked.
"Yeah we can! We can go home. We can change back."
"No. No, we can go back where we came from and we can go back to looking like we did, but the craziness will follow us. We're part of it. Forever. Forever!"
"But man!" Doug protested, "we're immortal! We're fays! Think of the possibilities!"
"Are you happy with this?" Gus asked, looking up. He met Doug's eyes, not resentfully but with desperation in his gaze, a kind of hope. Doug looked back, confused, upset.
Oh, no, no, no, thought Fletcher. Don't ask your friend to be happy for you. That's no fair burden to put on him.
"I don't know," said Doug. "It's a lot to take in. I think it's more to take in than waking up all scaly and taily. But– But you don't have to assume it'll be bad."
"But it can't be normal. And it can't end!" Fletcher thought he heard a dam cracking. "You and me. We were gonna see the world. We've seen, what, six or seven now. We wanted to see wonders. We did, and they were terrible. We wanted– Oh, God, Doug, all those nights under those sideways stars, all those days under that tiny sun, we wanted out! Each of us could feel all the others wanting out. And now we're just wandering around in– in weirdness and we'll always be part of the weirdness, never get out, no matter where we go or what shapes we take. We can't go home–"
"Sure we can."
"If we go back to Chicago, we either hide what happened, what we turned into, and lie, or we don't and bring down all this weirdness on our families. Great choice! Damn her! DAMN her!
"Only that won't ever happen, will it? She'll just walk out of her grave someday and go on her merry way! She'll never go to Hell! And we can never go to Heaven!" He waved at Fletcher's map. "The circles of the world. We are bound forever to the circles of the world! Like the Eldar. Forever." He hung his head and wept. It was silent weeping, the kind made when no help can come.
Doug's hand still rested on Gus's shoulder. He turned the grip into a one-armed hug, but hung his own head and stayed silent.
Fletcher wracked his brain for what to say. He had seen people weeping because the fays would not take them, left them to wither in their mortality. It was a commoner response. He thought Gus's reaction the wiser, but it was less than no help to tell Gus that.
"Do you know gospel music?" Doug asked, out of nowhere as far as Fletcher was concerned. His voice was flatly calm.
"I think I've heard of it. That's all."
"Created by the slaves in America and their children. It looks forward to Heaven a lot." Fletcher saw Gus's closer ear twitch, listening. "I understand it so much better now. Gus and I, we were both looking for something more, something beyond. Oh, man, did we get smacked down for that! While we were enslaved, in the troop, we by and large gave up thinking we could get home. All of us. Hive mind. There was a sliver of desperate hope in some of us. Like Gus. But we talked and thought a lot about escape. Of course. But she had that chain on our minds. The only escape seemed to be death. So we thought about Heaven a lot. Or our next life, or nirvana. Out. Better. Beyond. The differences didn't seem very important.
"Then we were freed. But only from her. Gus and I—I won't speak for the others—here we had all the 'something beyond' anyone could want. And, yeah, it would be nice to go home, but when you've given up on that, you start to see that this world, any of these worlds, aren't enough. They aren't the 'beyond' you want, not really. Suppose we did live decades of glorious adventure. Lots of fun, but it adds up to what? Sir, Gus talks—talked—about Heaven a lot lately. I ... listen."
Fletcher thought: You were just two young men from Chicago, wanting to knock around the world, never knowing you had a hunger for transcendence until you started starving for it.
Doug met Fletcher's eyes. "Is that what you're really telling us, Captain? That we're stuck here while glaciers roll and the Moon falls and the stars die and the sky shreds, and we're still stuck here? That we'll never reach a worthwhile beyond?"
Fletcher had had time to rally. "No. No, I'm not. Lads, listen: 'I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor... uh, nor any other creature, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.' Paul. Romans. If life and death and angels can't do it, a jumped-up elf certainly can't.
"Lads, listen: On the ship or on foot, every Sunday our expedition stops for mass if at all practical. And I stand there making the responses, in my pagan form, and you know who's perched on my back or my shoulders, like as not, to get a better view? Common fays. We've a dozen or so on this expedition, and they all took baptism as well as the Mark, some of them back in St. Alice's day—sorry, back in the twelfth century. And while nations rose and fell, and the Church herself reeled and splintered, they've been patiently waiting for Kingdom Come.
"Now, they have a natural advantage. Born fays, natural fays aren't bothered by the idea of infinite time. They're made for 'everafter.' They don't get dizzy, looking ahead or behind. Just each day as it comes and plan as you need to. But you– Us– Life everlasting, yes, but even that isn't enough and we know it. That's why you're terrified of the idea of everafter. We need more, and you'll get it, you'll get it.
"We all are waiting for Kingdom Come, under one name or another, fay and mortal alike, waiting for it alive or dead. We were already immortal souls, you know. I will outlast Sagittarius just as you will outlast Leo. We will all remember the galaxies as an old tale.
"Now, in the meantime—and I grant there may a lot of 'meantime'—'each day as it comes and plan as you need to' is a pretty good strategy. Doug's got a good plan already laid out, I think. That will keep you busy for a while. Give you time to think. But in general—" He folded his arms and deployed the patient, probing gaze he had used on so many students. "—what do you think is the best thing you can do while you wait for Kingdom Come?"
Gus blinked the human tears out of his feline eyes and essayed a smile. "Be good fairies?"
Doug burst into laughter and clapped his friend on the back. Fletcher relaxed, though he did not quite see the joke. "We'll buy up teeth!" Doug shouted. "We'll be godfathers!"
"We'll hunt monsters out from under beds!" said Gus.
Fletcher smiled. "And my offer still stands," he continued. "I will ask the captain of the Bythos if she can give you passage back to Grand Normandy. Including your battlebrothers in Huspaan. Twenty is a lot to take on, but Captain Coudray isn't immune to compassion, and there's a definite glory in befriending a band of twenty elven knights."
"Elven knight!" exclaimed Gus. "That's a role I can get behind!"
"Beats orcs!" seconded Doug.
The three of them made plans, not for everafter, but for the next few days. How long would it take to get to Huspaan and back? How much time would the rest of the Raurhoth need to wind up their affairs, if they chose to come? What had been their route from Beraïd Torgon to Varsis?
They refined what to say to their families back in Chicago: something along the lines of "We were captured by an evil warlord who experimented on us, then we escaped and got mixed up in undercover work, so we can't tell you much about it."
By the end, they had arranged for Gus and Doug to come down to the docks tomorrow, there to meet Fletcher and Captain Coudray, to hear her judgment and to debrief to her, her navigator, and other expeditionary scholars. Fletcher also wanted them to meet other folk who could best address their situation: his own cavalrymen, the fay crew of the Bythos, and the mer-crew. ("Mer-crew?" "You'll see.")
The two young men laughed a lot, even at tiny jokes or at nothing. Fletcher laughed with them and recognized their merriment as relief. Years of confusion were over. There was a prospect of home. There had been bad news, but it had been faced and was mixed with good. As Fletcher left, he heard Doug say, "Next time, we get tangled up in my mythology and get turned into magic foxes," and Gus's returning laughter.
Gus watched out the window, following Fletcher's tall form down the hill. "Elven knights. Holy crow. I am an elven knight," he said to himself for the first time, and remembered the moment everafter.
See Fays, Grand Normandy, Cavalry Cycle
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018