It had been a rough passage. The sails of the GNNV Bythos had, of course, been furled, but the rigging of the fore topsail had been snarled somehow, by wind or sheer chaos, so it could not now be unfurled. Ensign Ines Thauvin was proud to be the one to go up the mast and unsnarl it. She could show off her rigging skills and perhaps be the first to sight land.
There was no land to be seen, though, only open water, almost calm, as it must have been before the waterspout descended, depositing the Bythos. Above, the sky was clear except for a spattering of small clouds. If you knew, you could see the remains of the spiral formation where the waterspout must have blossomed. The sun was at late afternoon. It looked like a normal sun, but the position meant… Well, it could mean too many things. Maybe they were in a different time zone now. (Maybe it was an early morning sun.) Maybe there had been a time slip. Maybe it just looked like the regular sun. Maybe they had spent more time than Ines realized, recovering from the passage through chaos.
To work. She got much of the snarl undone, but eventually she came to a point where one loop had gone through another—how in hell could mere wind have done that?—and the outer loop pulled tight. A good, hard pull would undo it, but not from her. She looked down at the deck; she had an audience looking up. "Send up someone big!" she called. "I need a hard pull!" Someone yelled back "Aye!" and she turned back to the mess of rope.
Time passed. She was peripherally aware of jolts and tugging on the shrouds as "someone big" started up. A little later, and not so peripherally, she became aware that the shroud lines were taut and rigid. She looked down.
She should have been more specific. By "someone big" she had meant, for instance, Rollo, who was over two hundred pounds. What she was getting was one of the centaurs. He was a huge black mass that, at the moment, seemed to have far more legs than the standard four, plus the torso of an outsized blacksmith clad in a red-brown cavalry T-shirt.
He rose higher, tug by tug. She deliberately banished an image of the whole ship tipping over as this … object unbalanced it.
He was staring straight at the mast, looking neither up nor down, and his face—the part not covered by curly black beard—looked putty-colored, not at all like the ruddy tan of his arms. As he got closer, she heard him muttering something. It sounded like "big as a dime." Over and over.
She glanced down at her own feet, bare and slightly but usefully prehensile. She looked at the flailing hooves coming up on the ratlines. How–?
She could hear him more clearly now. "Pegasus time. Pegasus time." Was it a spell? She hoped so.
He was about a fathom below her. Reluctantly, he looked up, squinting as if she were as bright as the sun. "Throw me the rope." The deep voice trembled.
"Line," she corrected.
"Just throw it." She watched him work at releasing one hand and holding it out to her. He very much did not want to let go of the ratline.
Rollo would have just climbed up and taken the line from her. This creature ought to do the same, but she decided not to push it. She tossed. The loosely coiled line went over his arm like a horseshoe over a peg. "Thank you," he said and began plucking a foreleg out of the webbing.
"How can you climb?" she asked.
"I wonder," he muttered, once more staring straight at the mast. But then he held the foreleg out and up for her inspection. "Cleated boots." Sure enough, the hoof was not bare but in a neatly buckled boot, with a cleated sole, perhaps of hard rubber. "What do I do now?" he asked.
"Just climb down with the line. It'll go taut, but keep on going. I need your weight to pull it out of that loop." She pointed and he glanced briefly after her gesture, then back at the mast.
He nodded and started working his way down. He seemed to be getting better at it with practice. And faster. He was clearly anxious to get down. Yes, she had asked for someone big, but why one of them?
Down on the deck, Rachel Coudray, captain of the Bythos, was asking the same question of Philip Fletcher, captain of the Ufham trainee class of the Dedicated Cavalry: "What was that stunt all about? Hasn't my ship taken enough of a beating without dropping centaurs on it?"
Fletcher smiled. "He didn't drop and he won't. He's– Mr. Wardley!" he called. Rene Wardley, "Renny" to friends and also known as "Horsepower," was now near the bottom of the shrouds, close to the ship's railing. A great grin of relief spread through his beard, and he looked disposed to hop down the last four feet. "Just swing around underneath and let yourself down gently," Fletcher called to him.
"My deck!" Captain Coudray muttered just a half second too late, as Wardley nodded, saluted with his free hand, then swung his whole mass around and under the shrouds, down onto the deck, rear legs then forelegs. He did this with a facility that made it clear it was the height of the mast that had given him trouble, not the act of climbing. Somewhere in the last several yards, he had pulled the line free, but he did not appear to have noticed.
"I admit to the label 'stunt,'" Fletcher said as Wardley frisked back over to him, merry with relief. "But a stunt is for an audience. I wanted people to see what Wardley can do. In particular, Wardley, I wanted you to see what you can do." Wardley sobered and saluted. "And other people, of course. There are some–" He swept his gaze blandly over the folk on deck, many of them still watching the denouement of the 'stunt.' "–who regard us as pointlessly talkative pack animals or a freakish alternative to the Standard Cavalry. And she did ask for someone big. Lucky we were already wearing our deck boots, eh?" He grinned down at her.
Coudray sighed. "How big are you, lad?" she asked Wardley, now looming over her like a respectful thunderhead.
"Eight feet tall, ma'am," he answered promptly, saluting. He must get asked his dimensions a lot. "And an even ton."
"Imperial or metric?"
"Just imperial, ma'am." Undoubtedly the biggest person on the ship, and the least likely to shinny up the rigging, but his captain had set him to it.
The Dedicated Cavalry was over seventy years old, but Fletcher, it seemed, thought it still needed to be sold. And he was probably right. However: "You don't think it was rather dangerous?" she asked Fletcher. Fletcher also loomed, but was a mere seven feet tall, a white-haired, white-bearded dun in cowboy hat and T-shirt.
"Oh, no," Fletcher answered airily. "He's had practice. What did that rope ladder remind you of, Wardley?"
"The climbing net on the agility course, sir," he answered. Coudray guessed it was not his favorite piece of equipment.
"It's exactly like. Made to the same spec. We looked it up. Or rather, Mr. Darneley looked it up for me." He nodded toward another trainee, a dark bay who smiled, saluted, and brandished a phone in evidence.
"You have them practice climbing nets?" Coudray asked. It was the sort of thing you wanted to get clear.
"No, ma'am," Wardley volunteered. "He leads us in climbing the nets." His eyes gleamed with pride in his teacher, but then darkened with reproach. "Only not so high, and with safety harness…"
"Have to take the safety harness off sometime, lad," Fletcher told him. "Anyway, you've already dropped out of the sky today. What's a little mast?"
Coudray sighed again and looked up at the sky, where the clouds were nearly done dispersing out of the spiral pattern, sauntering off innocently as if they had not just attended a rupture of chaos into wherever they were now.
"Anything else we can do, to help with repairs?" Fletcher asked her.
"Thank you, lad," Coudray said to Wardley with a dismissive nod. She did not want to discuss exactly how screwed their equipment was in front of a trainee.
Wardley saluted again and did his best to withdraw. Even crowded in among his classmates, he was conspicuous, but it was all he could do. A rangy young chestnut grinned at him and gave him a high-five. "You looked awesome up there, big buddy!" he told him. It was his good friend Danny Brice, often called Trickshot.
"I looked like a circus act. Coudray called it a stunt."
"An awesome stunt!"
"Horsepower's always awesome," declared Carlin, a white and brown paint. He gave Wardley a friendly clap on the withers. It was he who had given Wardley the nickname "Horsepower."
"Thanks. Any idea where we are yet?"
"You didn't see any land up there?" asked Danny.
"I just looked at the mast all the time, so I wouldn't scream like a little girl," Wardley rumbled. "But I'm sure that ensign would have sung out if she'd seen anything." He looked to Charles Darneley, a.k.a. "Charliehorse," the one who had looked up the specs of the rope ladder. He was the class intellectual and general answer-man.
Charliehorse shook his head. "At the moment, our best bet is to ask Luinnen when she comes around." Luinnen was the ship's nix. "But right now she's just lying in sickbay, panting. I haven't heard if she's conscious or not. She's certainly not responding. A couple of the mer-crew are sluicing sea water over her. I'm told that ought to be soothing."
This was not at all the way the voyage was supposed to go. A few hours ago, the Grand Norman Naval Vessel Bythos had set out from Côte d'Ys, main port of Brequelle, a small worldlet held by Grand Normandy. It was bound on a voyage of exploration. It had nosed cautiously into the edgestorm that bordered Brequelle, expecting a very rough ride through watery chaos, then to emerge from another edgestorm in a somewhat-known worldlet somewhere in the Hathor Marches. That was the plan.
But they were, after all, sailing chaos. The ride had gotten much worse even than expected, the bottom had dropped out of the sea, then the nix had shrieked and enveloped the entire ship in stinging blue light. That was tied, somehow, to why the ship had not simply been torn apart by the waterspout as it rode down to the sea, where it impacted– Well, no one knew how hard it had hit, but the nix's magic undoubtedly saw them through that, too.
No one was surprised that Luinnen had fainted. They were a bit surprised she had not turned into a gull and jumped ship. And they were very, very grateful.
"We may learn more when the stars come out," Charliehorse added, glancing at the sun. Yes, it was a regular yellow sun and definitely setting. And gravity and air-mix were normal. All good signs as far as they went.
Danny turned to another classmate, palomino Paul Fells, and asked, "How are the horses?"
"Still asleep." On the deck below, two dozen horses, pack animals and Standard Cavalry mounts, hung in special transport slings, in enchanted sleep. Several centaurs had expressed envy: they had been stuck in similar slings but awake all through the passage. "They'll be fine as long as we can get them to water and pasture soon enough." These would have been ready to hand, if they had come out in the Hathor Reach as planned.
There was a splashing sound in the water below. Fells glanced over, then beckoned Danny to the rail. Thus they were both in position to offer a hand to the young woman who came over the rail. "Thanks," she said to Fells, and to Danny, "Hey, dance-partner!"
"Hi, Mrs. Navino," Danny replied. "I mean lieutenant."
"'Jenny' is fine right now," she said, holding onto their hands and heaving herself up to sit on the rail. She was, starting at the top, an athletic young woman with short brown hair, in a sober blue swim top. Below that, she wore a utility belt, and below that were the gills and five feet of fishtail, with golden-brown scales and brown fins.
"How's it look below?" Fells asked.
"Better than it did," the mermaid answered carefully. "I came up for another tub of sealant. At least it's easy to apply, with the water rush– Going with the flow."
"We aren't sinking, are we?" Fells asked.
"No, no. But we do have to keep the bailing pumps going, right now. I expect you'll be called down to take your turns soon, unless they can get the power back on. From the way Crotal is swearing, it might not be long." Crotal was the chief gremlin, partner to the ship engineer.
Then she smiled. "The really good news is that it's shallow bottom." Danny and Fells nodded cautiously. She read the landsmen's incomprehension. "That means," she said, "that we're probably not far from shore." That got her genuine smiles.
"Any way to guess which way?" asked Fells, glancing at the featureless horizon.
"Given the time and the wind," she answered promptly, "that way, most likely." She turned and pointed behind her, along the wind. "Coudray will want us to scout that way, I expect."
"And why would I want to do that, lieutenant?" Coudray came round Fells' hindquarters just in time to hear Jenny's prediction.
Jenny smiled. "Shallow bottom, ma'am, and this might be a land breeze, so best chance for land is that way."
Coudray nodded. "Best news I've had since I heard we're in one piece and the bailing pumps are working. See to it, lieutenant. Pick a partner and head out. Walkie-talkie report every fifteen minutes."
"Aye, ma'am." Jenny smiled, saluted, and slid backward off the deck, into the water.
The captain looked at Fells, then Danny. "Ready to take a few turns on those bailing pumps?"
"Yes, ma'am," they chorused.
The down side to having great endurance was having to use it. But after the mer-crew finished the first round of patching, the bailing pumps caught up.
The sun was just down and a crescent moon hung in the west when Danny climbed back on deck. A few minutes later, Charliehorse emerged. His young friend was staring at the moon.
"Why are they ringing that bell?" he asked Charliehorse. "Is it some kind of warning?" His tone was remote, and he never took his eyes off the moon.
"No, no," Charliehorse assured him. "No warning. Things are looking up! Didn't you hear? Jenny and her friend found a shore. Not too far east. The bell is to help them find their way back to the ship." It did sound ominous, though. The mer-crew had hung a big brass bell under the ship. They were still ringing it, at slow, stately intervals. It was audible on deck and reverberated everywhere below. Jenny and Adele, on their walkie-talkies, reported the sound steadily getting louder; they would be back soon.
Danny nodded and repeated "Looking up" as if by rote. He still stared at the moon.
Charliehorse followed his gaze. "What is it?"
"Charliehorse, this looked like a pretty regular zone, right?"
"Yes. So far. Why?"
"How screwed are we if you can see stars through the Moon?"
"Uh, that would be ... a very different place. Do you?"
Danny nodded. Charliehorse believed him. Danny, a.k.a. "Trickshot," was the best archer in his class, maybe even magical, and certainly had the best vision.
Charliehorse searched between the horns of the moon and, now that he was looking for them, did see very tiny stars, two of them. "Let me get some binoculars," he murmured. He wormed away through the obstacle course that was the deck, leaving Danny to his worries.
What more likely than that a random fall through chaos would leave them in some uncharted, unknown zone? How were they to get back? You couldn't recall the waterspout. If the very sky misbehaved like that, how off-kilter was this world?
Danny had longed for his transformation. He had joined the Dedicated Cavalry at sixteen, the earliest allowed age. He had been happy to pay for the new shape with fourteen years' service in the expeditionary forces; in fact, exploration was a bonus, an exciting icing on the cake. He knew, of course, that it was dangerous, but he had faced that. Thought he had faced it.
Now, he was not so sure. Danny was not a natural worrier. The fall out of the sky had been too abrupt to qualify for "worry," and then it had been easy to not worry when you were busy helping (a) make sure everyone was alive, (b) make sure the horses were all right, (c) assess damage, (d) get on deck to stay out of the way, and finally (e) work bailing pumps.
But now, tired, alone for the moment, and in the dark, Danny started to wonder how lost he was. If the moon here was actually crescent-shaped, that was one freaky little world, far away from anything discovered by any Grand Norman expedition. Any expedition that had returned.
He thought about his last email home. He couldn't remember it in detail, but it had been full of enthusiasm and cheer, with a picture of him, freshly done with his equine growth spurt, a chestnut stallion and a rangy young man with a new red blaze of beard, fully loaded with trekking gear, holding the reins to Bisou and good old Nuck, likewise loaded. He had expected to see that picture in the family album next Christmas. It would undoubtedly be there. Would he?
Charliehorse came looming and blundering out of the gloom with the binoculars. He trained them on the moon, but his hands were unsteady. Charliehorse was second biggest after Horsepower; it was easy to tell if he was trembling. He propped his elbows on the rail, hunkered down, and tried again.
The binoculars and the deepening darkness made it clearer: there were little stars between the horns of the moon, at least half a dozen. Charliehorse inhaled sharply, then handed the binoculars to Danny. "Danny, what do you see? Describe it!"
"Yep, they're there," he confirmed grimly.
"Give me details. What colors?"
"They're all the same color. A little yellowish."
"Anything else? Do they flicker?"
"No, they're steady. The biggest one is a little fuzzy, not quite round. Wait. Are they planets? Are they something on the Moon?"
"Yes! They're cities. I know where we are now. Broadly speaking. We're on Hod. Let's find the captains!"
There were four captains aboard: Coudray of the Navy, Fletcher and Alain of the Dedicated Cavalry, in charge of their classes of trainees from the Ufham and St. Eloi-sur-Mer bases, and Dean of the Standard Cavalry.
They were gathered at the stern. The non-naval captains were simply listening to the conversation between Coudray and her senior officers, principally the ship's engineer and the chief gremlin. Danny was glad to see the group included the nix, Luinnen. She was a thin, half-sized, blue-skinned woman in naval uniform, nursing a mug of something hot and rummy. She sat on Captain Alain as on a sofa, her back against his human back, her legs stretched out along his equine spine, her eyes closed.
Then Charliehorse arrived and they all listened to him.
"Hod?" asked Coudray. "How sure are you?"
"Reasonably sure, ma'am," he answered. He gestured at the sky, now darker and more starry. "The constellations are all normal, as they would be on Hod. They even match the latitude we left from."
"We didn't leave from a place with latitude," Coudray replied.
"Yes, ma'am, but the sky over Brequelle matches that over the English Channel." Coudray nodded.
"It's the far side of the Road from where we meant to be," Dean remarked, "but at least it's on the Road to the Sun. If it is Hod."
"With luck, we could get to Hod-Amon for proper repairs," said the engineer.
"And get back on course," Coudray added. Grand Normandy controlled a passage from Hod-Amon. "We'll be able to verify this when the power comes back up and we can listen for radio chatter."
"We could get a GPS fix!" said Danny from behind Charliehorse, at the edge of the group. His hooves clattered in a joyful little jig, his meditative worries forgotten.
Coudray smiled a little wryly. "I wish." And since captains are always teaching the junior crew, she looked to Charliehorse. "Mister– I'm sorry, what's your proper name?"
"Mr. Darneley, can you explain to Mister– to your friend why there's no GPS here?"
Charliehorse turned to Danny and answered simply, "War." Then, because he too was a natural-born teacher, an academic Chiron-in-training, he quizzed, "What do you remember about Hod?"
Danny was used to this sort of thing from Charliehorse. "I remember where it is on the Road. And that it's pretty empty. The humans live in a few hi-tech city-states."
Charliehorse nodded. He was turned away and did not see Coudray, Fletcher, and Alain all nodding too. Danny smiled to himself. On a trainee expedition, all the senior officers were teachers. "That's right," Charliehorse confirmed. "They run on a mix of mundane tech, Mad Science, and magic. And they feud. A lot. Like Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy. If one city puts up satellites, another shoots them down. They do a little with reflectors on the Moon." He waved to the city-spangled crescent. "But they're fighting there, too."
"If this is Hod," Coudray added. "I certainly hope it is. Nicely done, gentlemen."
"I didn't do anything," Danny muttered after they had saluted and backed away.
"You observed. You reported. That's how it starts." Charliehorse rattled his own hooves in a more ponderous happy-dance. "I sure hope it's Hod."
Electrical power refused to return, but the Bythos set sail in the night, crawling toward the newly discovered shore despite some leaks opening up again. The shallow bottom rose slowly and meant the Bythos could not get very close. But the shore was well within swimming and wading range for the cavalries.
Accordingly, Eowyck, the stable brownie, took the sleep off the horses, then the soldiers of both cavalries gentled them to waking, into their tack, and up on deck. The Bythos had been designed for this, but it still made for a very crowded deck. Coudray had the ramp lowered and the cavalry captains sent some horses and soliders out while others were still gearing up below.
Ines Thauvin and her friend Marcia watched. "They look sort of like big swans," Marcia remarked.
"Yes, but the centaurs, too."
"I suppose. Big, ugly, hairy, grubby swans."
(From just off the railing: "I heard that!" and "We are not grubby!")
"They're not all ugly, either," Marcia countered, nodding toward the palomino Fells, just now stepping off the ramp and into the water, a pair of pack horses flanking him. His golden form had caused him to be labeled "Mister What-A-Waste" in a few conversations. "You still sore about that climb yesterday?"
Ines shrugged. "I just wanted help with that line, not to be in a weird, dangerous stunt. Coudray called it a stunt."
Marcia nodded. "And Fletcher admitted it. But there's this: If Fletcher spends time scoring points in inter-service politics, it means he expects us to get back home. I think that's good."
Danny waded up onto the beach and gazed around. Ahead lay a plain of scrub and scattered trees. Beyond that, the trees thickened into forest and climbed part way up some stony hills, too short to call mountains. The morning sun would top them in a few minutes. Cliffy hills and forest stretched away north, to his left. South, to his right, the hills descended toward the sea, sending a long tongue of house-sized boulders into the water.
"Wood for repairs," Charliehorse remarked, come up behind him. "That's good. Maybe game available." Like Danny, he led a pair of pack horses. "What would be great would be a stream coming down from those hills."
"Did we lose a lot of fresh water?" Danny asked.
"Not that I heard, but we'll want it if we're here for any length of time. I suppose Luinnen could freshen some seawater, but, ah…"
"Yeah, she's done her bit for a while. Quite a while."
Charliehorse pointed. His horses followed the gesture. "That area's fairly clear. Might be good for a corral. Or tents."
"Good planning, Mr. Darneley," came Fletcher's voice from behind them, "but first let's make sure the area is safe." He and Lieutenant Sanders were leading three pack horses each out of the waves. Behind and around them, their classmates, Alain's class, and Captain Alain himself were all gathering on the beach. Those not leading pack horses had cavalrymen on their backs. Riders on horses-simple splashed among them.
Fletcher exchanged glances with Alain. The instructor from St. Eloi-sur-Mer was a dapple gray, somewhat taller and leaner than Fletcher, with black legs and tail, steel-gray hair and beard, and a dark, aquiline face that still sometimes put him in the What-A-Waste category with Fells. Alain nodded. "Mesdames et messieurs," he announced in Chenelaise that leaned to the French, "we are checking for mines and IEDs. M. Roberts here will go about with a metal detector–" He nodded toward the trainee centaur who was unpacking the device from one of the horses. "–but as he cannot be everywhere at once, you are all to be observant. If you see anything metal, or any disturbed earth, or anything odd—if you are Receptant or a dowser, and perceive something—do not approach, but contact us at once."
Fletcher brandished his walkie-talkie. "Channel two," he told them. "Leave the pack horses here. Line up along the beach, spread out in pairs, and head in about two hundred meters, at a slow walk. Arms at the ready." He waited for the two cavalries to get in formation, then called, "Head in."
"Pauvres jeunes," Alain sighed, watching the line tip-toe into the brush. "They should be trotting around grassy hills and prairies in the Hathor Passages, helping surveyors, not wary of mines in Hod."
Fletcher nodded. "Pray God this place is as quiet."
Danny had paired himself with his friend Horsepower. The big draft glanced at him and asked, "Rifle?"
Danny had one, but it was slung on his human back. Alone among the scouts, he carried a bow, a black, arachnid-looking thing of pulleys and advanced composites. "Fletcher told me to use this," he answered. Horsepower nodded. Danny was fine with a rifle, but much better with the bow.
To their left paced one of Alain's students and a woman from the Standard Cavalry on a sorrel. To their right walked another kind of pairing, their classmate Darneley, ridden by his friend Max. Two sniffer dogs flanked them.
Danny called to Darneley, "Charliehorse, what lives on Hod besides humans?"
"Fays," he answered, "a lot of them animal-themed. There are reports of jinn, but all up in the ionosphere. A lot of the humans are exotic. Don't know of any transformations like us, but there are whole city-states run by half-elves, and there are tribes of weird-looking Cainites."
"Look who's talking about weird!" said Max, digging his heels lightly into Charliehorse's flanks.
"Hey, at least I have only one head. And they conjure a lot of elementals for their tech-magic, and some of those individuate, so you find them, too." He tilted his head, considering. "Baseline humans, just a smaller proportion. Nothing we don't have back home, but of course, that's just as far as we know. It would be terrific to find something unique to Hod. Then there are the animals. There's grif–"
"Hold it," Max interrupted. The sniffer dogs had gone into point. Max brought his rifle to bear on a clump of bushes just ahead.
The bushes erupted. Panicked yelling. Terror-filled faces. The horse ran, galloped, almost bucking as it fled. Something crashed into its side. Something grabbed it. It started to rear, to strike with forehooves.
The horse ebbed from Danny's mind. Equine panic gave way to human confusion. Horsepower held him by the upper arm. With his other hand, he pushed down on Danny's horse shoulders, blocking the rearing.
Danny struggled for orientation. For a moment, the only familiar thing was Horsepower. He tried to recall where he was, and at first could not. Then it clicked back in. A score of meters away, centaurs and mounted folk clustered around something, weapons drawn. But they were even now relaxing, some backing off, some talking and laughing, though the guns stayed pointed. Charliehorse was prancing in place as he aimed. The sniffer dogs sat motionless, bolt upright, looking conspicuously innocent: "We didn't start anything!" their postures said.
"What happened?" Danny asked. "What was it?"
"Satyrs," Horsepower answered. "Just satyrs. Trying to hide, then broke cover. Go get your bow." He nodded back toward the cluster of cavalry.
Danny nodded, only now realizing his hands were empty. Horsepower, he noticed, had his rifle slung, albeit precariously, across his back. He hadn't dropped his weapon.
By the time Danny returned to the dropped bow, he was white and shaking with shame. He picked it up, looking away from any possible gaze, but saw all three captains trotting up—Fletcher and Alain on their own hooves, Dean on his black mare. Surveying the scene, Fletcher glanced at him, but no more. Did he know? There and then, Danny resolved that Fletcher should know: he, Danny, would at least be brave enough to confess.
But not just now. Fletcher, together with the other two captains, saw to that. They conferred with each other and, by walkie-talkie, with Coudray, then issued orders. "Fletcher's trainees, keep the prisoners covered," Dean said. "Everyone else, go back to the survey. Mr. Laughlin, change mounts." Laughlin slid off Weldon's back, flipped him a farewell salute, and strode toward a senior centaur who had waved him over. Satyrism was catching, but only to adult baseline men. And only on long exposure. Removing Laughlin was practicing over-abundant caution, but it reminded everyone of the rules.
Danny slung the disgraced bow onto his back and readied the rifle. He sidled up to Horsepower and tried to blend in. It wasn't easy: there were only six in his class. In addition there was Carlin's rider, Terrell, and Max on Charliehorse. Terrell was a woman and Max was a werewolf, so they had not been told to leave.
Danny relaxed slightly, since no one seemed to be looking at him, but that just left him free to brood on his… He had bolted.
"Ever see satyrs before?" Horsepower asked.
Danny surveyed their charges. He saw a fifteen or so naked men in various shades of European and Mediterranean skin tones, all shaggy-bearded, most with various styles of horns, all with tails of horses or asses, and with pointed ears that flicked nervously. No goat legs, but he hadn't expected any. The goat-pants were, he knew, an artistic convention of later, more decency-minded ages. Instead:
"How can they still be ... hard?" he asked Horsepower. "They're scared witless." Horsepower was studying to be a medic and might know such things.
"They always are. Hard, I mean. They have bones in 'em. Most male mammals do. Men and stallions are among the few who don't. Pure force of will for us, eh?"
Here came Captain Fletcher and Lieutenant Sanders. "Weapons down," Fletcher told them, then beckoned Charliehorse over. After a brief conference, he spoke to them all: "You caught them, so you get to keep them for the moment. Captain Coudray will be here soon to question these fellows, but meantime I'm asking Mr. Darneley to open communications. Stay focused. Keep channel two open." He exchanged salutes with them and withdrew.
But not far, Danny noticed. Fletcher and Sanders were too far away to hear, but they could see what was happening, and they stood out of the satyrs' line of sight, since they were all now focused on Charliehorse. Oh, and hey, channel two. He looked at the walkie-talkie on his belt. Maybe they could hear as well if Charliehorse had locked the Send button.
Charliehorse, now with Max afoot beside him, settled down next to the satyrs to a comfortable racket of crushed bracken—presumably to look less intimidating—and addressed them: "Do you speak Chenelaise? Du yu speek Inglish? Parlez-vous français? Ne quis vos Latine loqui? Parli italiano? Pedil Sindarin? ¿Hablas español? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Xereis na milas ellinika? Gàidhlig? Cymraeg?"
"Does he speak all those languages?" Danny asked in awe.
"I don't think so," Horsepower answered. "But, for each of them, he knows there's probably someone on the Bythos who speaks it."
"Alearabiata? Ljoselvisk? Svartelvisk? Wentle? Brythonic? West Goblin? Gremlin-cant? C'mon, work with me here."
A middle-aged specimen, gray-bearded and ram-horned, raised his hand. "Ay speek Inglish. Or– or some Chenelaise."
"Well, you might have said so before," Charliehorse replied in tones of mild annoyance, sliding into English. Despite the mild tone and the half-smile, the spokes-faun and his fellows cringed.
Gutless. Cowards. Satyrs were known for that. And Fletcher was taking all sorts of measures to keep from spooking them. Danny thought about being spooked and hung his head.
"You okay?" Horsepower rumbled softly.
"I'm like them," Danny answered, even softer.
"What? Because you–? Anyone can be startled."
Danny shook his head. "I'm gonna turn myself in."
Horsepower stared at him a few seconds, then said, "No. You can't. Because you haven't committed a crime. But, yeah, talk to Fletcher. Later."
And they both turned their attention to Charliehorse and the satyrs.
"Well," said Charliehorse, smiling broadly and laying down his rifle, "here we are, a centaur cavalry speaking Chenelaise, so you must know we're Grand Normans. Now, I'm not speaking for my commanding officers, but let me just say I'm sorry we scared the liver and lights out of each other. We don't have anything against you, particularly." Just generally: you're satyrs so we despise you. But: "We are military, yes, but we're not... on the warpath." Another smile. "We're explorers. So, here we've found some folk with local knowledge, and naturally we'd like to ask you some questions." He broadened the smile and did not say they were lost explorers.
The spokes-faun smiled back, wryly, and glanced about. In his turn, he did not remark how he and his fellows were surrounded by people with guns, most of whom were large monsters. It showed a trace of spine, and Danny found himself liking the old silenus better. "Ask your questions, please."
"What is this place called? Who lives here?"
"You have recently sailed across the Veil?" he asked, glancing out to the Bythos. The ship did not look visibly damaged. Charliehorse nodded.
"You are on the western shore of this plane's Eurasia, in the cognate of France. But I suppose you knew that much already." Charliehorse smiled, cheerful and waiting, and did not contradict him. "The nearest city is Kales r'Aa, over there." He pointed back over his shoulder, toward the spur of rock that thrust into the sea. Then he leaned down and wrote the name in the dirt, in Roman letters. "Fine harbor. High tech. The folk are human, fully human." There was a slight but clear note of bitterness in his voice. "Though they have visitors of some other sorts, and they conjure stocks."
Charliehorse nodded and smiled some more. "And do you think they would welcome visitors like us?"
The wry smile faded and the satyr shook his head. "A military expedition? Doubtful. Awkward. They are at war just now."
"A city called Tonji, on the north coast of this Africa."
Charliehorse cocked his head thoughtfully. After a moment, he asked, "Atlantists? Are they fighting to control Spartel Bank and the Straits of Gibraltar?"
The satyr shrugged. "I know nothing of Spartel, but Gibraltar, yes. And they claim to be the heirs of Numenor."
Charliehorse beamed. Looking past the flock of satyrs, Danny saw Fletcher clap his hands and Sanders give a fist-pump. "I'm guessing we really are on Hod, and this proves it," he said softly to Horsepower, who nodded back.
Charliehorse went on: "And visitors like you? Are you welcome? Or were you?"
Several satyrs proved they understood English by looking sullen. The elder said, "No. Not yet. Up river, there are farms. We came seeking work, but they said come back at harvest and bade us move on. So we eat leaves in the forest and head north." He nodded up the coast, away from the city.
Charliehorse made an absentminded effort to nod sympathetically, but was busy with his phone. "Up river, you say. Is this river called the 'Aa'?" He looked up from the phone and saw the satyr nod. "And this city of Kales–" He rhymed the name with "sales." "–Kales r'Aa, is it cognate to Calais? You know about base-Earth and cognates."
"Yes, yes it is. I was there once. A long time back. When I was human." The mobile ears drooped, but the face stared straight ahead, stony.
Charliehorse grimaced, and now the sympathy was not absentminded. "What is your name, sir? Mine is Darneley. Charles Darneley. Or Charliehorse."
The old silenus flickered a smile at the nickname and answered, "Berger. I am Berger. And these are—" He pointed and named: Allo, Niko, Cornu, Daw, and so on.
"And does Kales claim this area?"
Berger shrugged again. "I suppose so. I am sure they would not like anyone else to claim it."
Charliehorse nodded. "I'm sure. But do they hunt here, or put it to some other use?"
Berger could only speculate. Some of the other satyrs chipped in with rumors and hearsay, in a hash of French and English. Charliehorse tried to act as moderator, but found little wheat among the chaff. Also, satyrs in a group, or perhaps just satyrs other than the lucid Berger, tended to stray from topic to topic. Danny, gazing over the group, saw Fletcher in an extended conversation on his walkie-talkie. Then he hung up and waited.
The rest of the cavalries concluded their sweep and returned to the shore. Danny noted Roberts with the metal detector.
A few minutes later, Coudray walked up to Fletcher, escorted by Captain Alain, Charliehorse's recent rider Max, and a wiry centaur, a dark brown bay. Still no men-simple, Danny noted. "Isn't that Rocky Joe?" he asked.
"It sure is," Horsepower answered. "And when I was up on that mast, I was really wondering why Fletcher didn't pick him."
"Wouldn't have made the point so well," Danny replied.
Lieutenant Joseph "Rocky Joe" Conran was no trainee, though assigned to Fletcher for the expedition. He was a renowned scout and courier, particularly famous for his mountaineering skill. "Half goat, not half horse," was the by-word.
After a brief conference, Coudray and the assorted cavalrymen approached the flock of satyrs.
They all stared at her. Coudray was short, slim, middle-aged, of a perfectly serviceable appearance, but "object of desire" was not the phrase she first brought to mind. She reminded Danny of the sort of aunt one does not mess with. But all the satyrs stared.
Maybe they hadn't noticed Terrell on Carlin and Coudray was the first woman they had seen in days. They stared like it. Danny saw why a woman with no escort of monsters might stay away.
Perhaps not all were inflamed with lust. But some where; it was obvious. Some, including some of the aroused, looked away, shamefaced. Berger, not aroused, met her gaze and nodded.
Charliehorse rose with a reverse crackling of bracken, came to attention, and saluted the collected brass.
"What news, Mr. Darneley?" Coudray asked.
"Ma'am, I'm told there is a city on the other side of that ridge, called Kales r'Aa, mapping to Calais in the home zone, presently at war with the city-state of Tonji in local north Africa. That sounds like Hod again, ma'am, given Tonji is here."
Coudray nodded. "It does indeed. And for a capper, what do you make of that, Master Sagittarius?" She pointed at the eastern hills, where the sun was minutes from rising. Danny squinted into the glow and saw it before Charliehorse: a spark against the wash of light.
Then Charliehorse saw it. "Mercury! Brighter than Venus! Hod, by St. Albert!"
Coudray and the other captains smiled. "So that's settled. But please introduce me to your informant."
"Ma'am. Allow me to present M. Berger and his companions. M. Berger, this is Captain Coudray of the GNNV Bythos."
"M. Berger, we regret that we startled you and your companions. We hope to make it up to you. In the meantime, we would appreciate your views on some findings we have made. What do you make of these?" She gestured to Captain Alain, who produced a canvas bag and carefully emptied it on the dirt. By having Alain do it, Coudray did not have to lower her gaze past the satyrs' faces.
The bag yielded several pieces of sheet metal, some with bits of circuit board and wire adhering, two with lenses, a metal tube, and a hand-sized propeller. The satyrs muttered among themselves. Berger took stock and said, "We can only guess, but it looks like debris from flying guns and flying cameras. We have seen such stuff, when working in the fortress. As fetchers. Unskilled labor. And we have seen similar things at work in the city.
"I have heard that is how they fight, in the main—each side approaches the other's city and sends in swarms of such machines against defending swarms. Soldiers and city-folk shelter. Country-folk stay away. Each swarm tries to fight through the other, to disable the controllers. Once that happens, the victor sends in worse machines, to kill, or the loser flees. Or so I have heard."
Coudray and her colleagues nodded. "Drone warfare," she said. "Very techy. Very Hod. A war of attrition, really, to see who runs out of drone-making capacity first. And this area has been a battlefield. Or a testing ground, or both. What do you make of this?" She gestured to Rocky Joe, who held a camera out to Berger and slowly clicked through the images. Danny could not tell if Berger had ever seen a modern camera before or not; the silenus had a good measure of self-control. Had it taken him until he was this old to develop it? Danny thought about self-control again…
"That is certainly Kales r'Aa," the satyr answered. "I do not know what I can tell you about it that you cannot see for yourself."
"You can verify our guesses," said Rocky Joe. He pointed at the current image. "Does the wall enclose the city completely?" Berger nodded. "Are these areas on the hillsides the drone launch fields?" Another nod. "Is this a runway?" Nod. "Are these vortical craft?"
"I do not know what that means. They fly, but are not as fast as the jets. They can hover."
"Thank you." He withdrew the camera.
"M. Berger," said Coudray, "please allow us to supply you and your companions with a meal, in return for your help and to apologize for startling you."
"Maybe some pants, too," Danny heard Carlin mutter, somewhere behind him.
The meal was a costly gift, Danny reflected. The Bythos was well-stocked, but at the moment there was no knowing when they could re-stock.
"Thank you, madam captain," said Berger. Coudray nodded, turned, and walked away. This was apparently Dean's cue to ride off, presumably to see about the satyrs' picnic.
"Gentlemen," said Fletcher at his public-address volume, "leave these fellows to await deliveries and convene with me on the shore." He trotted off.
Charliehorse flipped Berger a friendly salute and they all followed Fletcher down to the beach. The satyrs almost melted with released tension.
Danny and his classmates found Fletcher in conference with the other captains. They joined the respectful audience around them.
Coudray was already summing up: "So here we are, around the corner from a city-state at war, inadvertently looking like a sneak attack, while really bailing and repairing for all we're worth. And we may be noticed at any moment, maybe have been already." Her colleagues nodded.
"Let's walk away quietly," Captain Dean proposed with a brittle grin. "Even if we've been noticed, that's the least provocative action I can think of."
Coudray nodded. She had the final say; it was her ship. "But we can't 'walk' very fast."
"I suggest a saunter up the coast," said Alain, pointing toward the north. "Cavalry can take the horses, looking for water and grazing, while the Bythos tags along, as slowly as you like. It would in truth be good to do that. Good for the horses, we get out from under your feet, and we will be going away."
"Yes," agreed Fletcher, "and I think we should explain ourselves. Assume we have been spotted. I think we have, or soon will be. Send someone to talk to them. Tell them we're explorers; they may have heard already about Grand Normandy poking about. Admit we got a bit lost. All that's true, if they're running verification spells. Just don't mention we're damaged."
In the considering silence that followed, Fletcher met Alain's eye. White head and silver head both nodded microscopically. "A couple of old plugs won't look very threatening," Fletcher went on, "and we have enough authority to represent the expedition. Alain and I could wade around the point–"
"You underestimate yourselves. And you leave Dean to manage all your pony-boys if anything goes wrong," Coudray replied. "Thank you, but no. My circus, my monkeys. I'll send a couple of my people. Yes, explaining is good, if we're spotted. Serious disagreement?" She looked at Dean, who had not yet opined. He shook his head. "Very well, then."
They discussed practicalities for a few seconds, then started giving orders.
"Looks like you're satyr liaison," Fletcher said to Charliehorse. "Go back and ask them what they can tell you about the forest and the north coast. Yes, Mr. Brice?" This last in a definite "I'm busy" tone to Danny, who had pushed forward.
Danny saluted and said, as quietly as he dared, "Sir, I–"
"Wait." Fletcher issued three more orders, then turned back to him. "Yes?"
"Sir, I bolted!" He forgot to be quiet.
"I know," said Fletcher.
"Lad, it's my business to keep watch on all of you. I was certainly watching your first real sortie. It wasn't a bad case."
"But I only stopped because Horsepower grabbed me!"
"That's what I mean. He grabbed you, called your name twice, and you stopped immediately. I've seen bolters, horse and centaur, who would have gone up one side of him and down the other. Now, get two horses and head north, up the beach."
Danny collected Nuck and Frou and followed his classmates. At least he had come clean. At least Fletcher hadn't shot him on the spot.
On the other hand, he found that Fletcher was walking right next to him, leading his own pair of horses down the sand. Normally, he enjoyed his captain's company, but now, with his new guilty status...
"What do you do with a bolting horse?" Fletched asked him, in his lecture-room voice.
Fletcher snorted. "Not applicable here. What do you do if you know you're riding a bolter?" He watched Danny's mouth work. In a way, the lad knew too much about it; he was trying to sort through a mass of details. Fletcher summarized for him: "You try to avoid what makes it bolt, if you can figure that out. You keep in mind tricks like pulling its head hard round or aiming at a wall, if you think those work. And you definitely keep your eye on it."
Danny protested, "But I'm–"
"Yes, you're the scared horse. But you're also the rider." Fletcher sighed. "For more than a year, I've watched you rejoice in your transformation, enjoying the new body, soaking up the added insight into horses your new horse-wits have given you. I've been very glad to see it. But all that time, I now see, the human in you was trusting the horse. That's fine. Your equine nature is quite trustworthy in its proper sphere. But it's you, the person, the rational creature by virtue of your human side, that has to judge when to give the horse side its head and when not."
"But sir, how do I fix the horse when the horse is me?" That was more like it. Danny no longer hung his head. He sounded fretful but he looked interested—worried, but interested.
"Being the horse makes it easier!" Fletcher gave him a salesman's smile. "As I said, you keep your eye on it—that is, on yourself. You know, you never bolted in training—playing Red-Team/Blue-Team in the woods with the Standard folk and senior Dedicated. We made sure there were plenty of surprises. But you knew, with your human wits, that you were going to be surprised and you were keeping an eye on yourself. You also knew the surprises would be safe ones. Now, here in the field, I can't promise you safety, but you knew that all along. You already know how to do what you need to. Just do it more and harder. If you learn to spot when you're starting to bolt, you can keep your honor safe.
"And Danny–" Not the brisk "Brice," not the casual "lad," but "Danny." "–you don't have some special grievous problem. Anyone can be startled. And we all have to watch ourselves. We're all children of Adam."
"(Thank you, sir)," Danny replied, sotto voce.
Fletcher nodded, clicked to his horses, and took his own gait and theirs up to a trot. Soon he was next to Lt. Sanders, up ahead. Probably discussing Danny.
Danny did not have long to brood on Fletcher's words. He heard hoofbeats at a quick walk coming up behind, and in a few moments "Rocky Joe" Conran was walking beside him.
He was of average height, a lean brown-black bay, starting to gray at temples and chin. He wore his hair long but tightly bound in a club. His jacket and saddle cloth were non-regulation camo. He led a single pack horse. Danny knew her name was Skylark, and she was said to be nearly as good at mountaineering as Conran. Man-horse and mare bore the usual anonymous packs, but also hammers, loops of rope, exotic-looking cameras, what Danny thought was a sniper rifle, radio equipment, and electronics he could not identify.
The lines between surveyor, scout, and spy were dim on a military expedition. Rocky Joe Conran danced across them like a dressage champion.
Though he had never put it to himself this way, Danny collected heroes. First, certainly, was his big brother Ed, up on hooves a few years before, a bigger, brawnier, altogether more impressive version of Danny himself, giving him a target to shoot for. More recently, there were his teachers and classmates. Danny had added Fletcher to his pantheon for being wise, Horsepower for being a good friend, Charliehorse for being educated, and so on. Danny loved to admire.
He had been excited to learn that Rocky Joe Conran was going to be on the expedition. Here was a hero ready-made. He had hoped to talk with him. But not now. He started to give a polite little nod.
"I saw," Conran said.
Already pale, Danny paled more. "I'm sorry, sir! I won't– I know–" He choked, unable to think of anything to say, unable to make any promise when he could not trust himself to be able to keep it. He did not dream of making excuses.
"Ever hear of the hot and cold treatment?" Conran asked. "Good-cop/bad-cop?" He did not wait for a response. "Well, I'm the cold water, the bad cop. I know Fletcher and I heard some of what he said. He did not tell you enough, because he's nice." The word sounded like an accusation. "I am here to tell you to get a grip. You can never repeat that performance. Bolting gets ingrained in you fast. Stop it now, or you'll be a danger to yourself and all your mates, and the best you can hope for is to be a pack horse that can load itself and say 'yessir.' You have no more chances. Oh, you might have a chance with the brass, because we're expensive and they'll be slow to throw you away or shoot you, or with Fletcher, because he's soft, but you cannot afford to believe for one moment that you have another chance with yourself."
Conran delivered this speech in a clear flat voice, facing forward. Only now did he turn to look at Danny, expecting to see a downcast face blood red with shame. Danny stared straight ahead, his face still white. He wobbled slightly as he walked. Conran had never heard of someone fainting with humiliation. The shaft had gone deeper than he expected, but he continued:
"Some people say anyone can bolt with the right bad luck. Maybe, but most never find out for sure. They're lucky. If–"
He stopped. He heard a high, faint buzzing.
Lieutenant Jennifer ai Navino and her friend Lieutenant Adele Fortin perched on the edge of the inflatable landing craft, sitting at attention, standing at attention not being an option for mermaids. Captain Coudray concluded her instructions to them, then allowed herself a moment of mere chat:
"Did you know Alain and Fletcher wanted to go? Fletcher said they were too old to look alarming. But can you see the two of them, splashing up out of the water, looking like Neptune's uncles?"
Jenny smiled. "We'll try to be placating."
"They're like the war-horse in the Bible, I think," said Adele, "'When he heareth the trumpet he saith: Ha-ha!' and off to the battle."
"Oh, I don't think they're impulsive," Coudray answered. "Not in the least. But this is a navy problem, and I think you two will make a better first impression, as long as you change before surfacing."
"Captain, are you asking us to use 'feminine wiles'?" Jenny asked, grinning.
Coudray cocked an eyebrow back. "You just look less intimidating than my seven-foot, half-ton colleagues. And I have confidence in your negotiating skills. Nor do I have any idea what sex ratio you're going to find around that spit, or how susceptible the men will be. But sure, if deploying a wile or two looks profitable, go for it. Now, one more check for my peace of mind: Walkie-talkies? Derringers? Knives? Skirts? Belts?…"
The mermaids rummaged in their backpacks, touching each sealed pack in turn and answering, "Check."
"Check," Coudray answered. "Then as long as–" She heard a high, faint buzzing. A hexagon of black dots lifted over the ridge between them and the city. "Damn! Go! Go! Make waves!" The mermaids wriggled into the shallow waters and vanished. Coudray watched their ripples fade into the waves. "Notre Dame Stella Maris, help them. Help us," she sighed, then pulled out her binoculars and studied the specks. For the moment, they held obligingly steady: She saw big drones, more than a meter across, she thought, though it was hard to judge size. They were thick metal squares with a rotor at each corner and a gun hanging from the underside.
"Futtle," she swore. "Coudray aux collègues," she said on channel one of her walkie-talkie, speaking French rather than Chenelaise in case the drones were listening. An analog of Calais, she had decided, was likelier to understand French than any other language she had, and if the Kalesiens were now listening, she did not want to seem to be talking secrets.
"Dean." "Fletcher." "Alain," came the replies.
"Voyes-vous les drones?" (See the drones?) They did. "Je veux rester stable. Marchez, ne courez pas. D'accord?" (I want to hold steady. Walk, don't run. Agreed?) She considered that this was still a navy matter, so she was top captain—they were here to repair and supply the Bythos, not to launch the expedition—but if they all just agreed, that was so much better.
Alain, playing to the audience: "Why should we run? It's not like we were guilty of anything."
"Where are you, gentlemen?" Handing Kales their positions as well as informing herself. Another gesture of candor.
Fletcher: "At the edge of the forest, to the north."
Dean: "A few dozen meters east of you." She could see him, on horseback. He lifted a hand.
Alain: "East and north of you, Dean, with my students." "Students." That was good. She saw him once he reared and waved.
"I am going to face the drones and hold up my hands," she announced, then did.
Their voices came fainter from the hand holding the walkie-talkie:
Alain: "Moi aussi." She saw him wheel and do so.
Dean: "Right. Hello, Kales!" He waved, two-handed.
Alain: "Greetings from Grand Normandy!" He waved too. Coudray decided that looked more like friendly greeting and less like surrender, so she did the same.
Fletcher: "I'll do the same as soon as I update our students."
Ah, right. She'd been assuming their troops—pardon, "students"—would watch and copy. But of course that wouldn't always apply up in the woods or even everywhere in that copse-dotted plain, with interrupted lines of sight.
At least there had been no male theatrics of defiance, not even from the war-horses. Well, really, she knew them all better than that.
She did not know Kales. How hot-headed were they? Here she was, with her charges, discovered in what could look very like a sneak attack, especially to people already at war. She hoped they appreciated the show.
Kales was not listening. For years, all their radio broadcasts had been scrambled, as had been those of the Tonjiens and the enemies before them, and the enemies before them. They did not think to bother eavesdropping.
They were watching, of course, through the drones. They saw the landing party, and the riders, and what looked like riders at first glance, and a white sailing ship that looked more or less elvish to them. (This was not a recommendation. There were elves and elves.)
A few people in Kales had heard of Grand Normandy as some group from old Moyen-terre, exploring, trading, or raiding in the upper planes, according to the tale, but none of them were among the droneurs directing the drones. It would have made no difference.
They saw some people waving, but that could easily be misdirection.
Danny and Conran turned and stared at the hexagon of buzzing specks. Their horses lowered heads and twitched ears, not liking the sound. "Drones are approaching from the city," Fletcher's voice crackled from the walkie-talkies at their belts. "Continue as you were. Walk, do not run. Continue walking north." He then repeated.
They turned back, obeying. Danny felt Conran's eyes on him. He would not bolt. He did not even feel like bolting. He was almost grateful to the hovering, whining guns; they distracted from the bigger worry that a wave of panic would come over him and he would find that he had bolted, before will or reason could act.
A few score meters ahead, he saw Fletcher at the edge of the forest, arms raised, waving. Signaling "over here"? But he was looking up. Signaling the drones?
The satyrs had no walkie-talkies. It is doubtful they would have listened anyway. They ran almost silently on bare, unhoofed feet, and for some reason did not yell in their panic this time, perhaps from an unconscious fear of attracting the drones' attention.
They surprised Danny about as much as they had the first time. Suddenly, they were racing past him, making for the forest. He reared.
In the moment that he was ten feet tall, the blank panic started to yawn under his mind again. But it was again, and the very dread of it let him see it coming.
He came down, not bolting, his head whirling with many thoughts:
Damn satyrs! Is it their mission in life to make me bolt?
Even Berger. I was starting to like him.
Well, no one told him not to run.
Frou reared too.
So did Conran.
I will always be watching for that panic in me, from now on. I have to. I will.
But I didn't bolt.
Conran came down scowling and gave a kick of sheer annoyance. Danny, his own blood still well up, copied it. Very satisfying. Skylark pressed her head against Conran and he rubbed her neck. Danny found Frou was doing the same to him. Nuck snapped at the retreating satyrs. "My feelings exactly," Danny growled. He kissed Frou between the eyes.
He and Conran traded glances, each starting to re-evaluate the other. But then the buzzing rose higher, louder. The hexagon of drones no longer hovered over the ridge but drove toward them.
"Run," ordered Fletcher.
All were heavy-laden, but Frou was little and young, Nuck not young at all. They and Danny fell behind Conran and Skylark. As he pulled ahead, Conran spared breath to shout back, "Don't bolt! Never helps!"
Wasn't going to, Danny snarled, though only in his mind, to save breath.
Frou, however, seemed to think bolting might help, judging from the whites of her eyes and her labored breathing. Danny lost more speed getting her to focus enough to follow him instead of charging blindly.
Then the drones roared closer and he saw Frou's point. The panic opened up in him again. The cause didn't run away this time, though, as the satyrs had, but roared on and on. So the grip of his will had to go on and on. Both preoccupied, he and Frou plowed into a bush, a big one, about the size of the two of them together. He lost the horses' leads.
Frou was plunging and squealing. In another kind of panic, he snatched and fumbled for her lead, got it, then looked for Nuck. He stood to one side, jigging and prancing in place, puffing and waiting for Danny to take his lead back. "Oh, Nuck!" Danny wailed, "You're more grown-up than I am!" Nuck just blew at him and looked impatient.
Danny grabbed the other lead and started forward, then stopped. The infernal buzz was steady now. While he wrestled with the bush, the hexagon of drones had flown over, unfolded, and formed a line between him and the woods. There was no sign of Fletcher. Conran and Skylark were vanishing into the trees.
He looked behind. The forest didn't start in a clean line. There were little spinneys and copses at its skirts, now behind him. Nor was he the only one cut off from the woods. There was Carlin, with Terrell and a pack horse. There was Horsepower, dear as brother, with his two horses. There were mounted Standard Cavalry folk and one afoot, all with horses. There were others, probably navy folk, back at the landing site on the beach.
In Kales, the droneur commander looked over the high-altitude view. She spoke carefully, as one does to machines with weapons: "Use constraining fire. Cover targets in zones A through D. Don't let any more reach cover."
Her subordinates waited for the drones to ask their questions.
The whining of the drones rose, then died away. Turning back, Danny saw that the line of machines was rising into the air. Were they being allowed to pass? Both hearts still pounding, he led the horses forward at a deliberate pace.
Pf-Pf'Pf-P'Pf-Pf A cluster of little dust plumes rose two meters ahead, where the drones had shot the sand. Colors glittered in the sand. Danny stopped. He heard more Pf noises behind him. Distance and the screaming of the rotors hid the actual sound of gunfire.
"Restraining fire," Fletcher told them over the walkie-talkie. "We may be under arrest."
The drones had risen to get a wider range of fire, not to let them pass.
"Confer on channel one," said Coudray's voice. There was a little click and Danny felt slightly more alone.
"They don't want us walking toward the woods," said Charliehorse on channel two. Danny was grateful for the company.
"Not even these little groves," chipped in Carlin. "I tried." That must have been the fire he heard behind him.
"If they're that set against it," said Charliehorse, "it must make good cover."
"Can't they use infrared or radar or something?" said Max's voice. Where were Max and Charliehorse?
"IR might not work on a warm day," came Terrell's voice.
"And tree leaves might baffle radar," said Charliehorse, "at least when it's looking for flesh. Maybe."
"Charliehorse!" exclaimed Carlin, mock-chiding. "You don't know that for sure? Off the top of your head? What kind of universal genius are you?"
"Trainee universal genius," Charliehorse shot back.
"Maybe these drones are just the cheap models," Terrell proposed.
Some of these people, maybe all of them, Danny reflected, were out here under the flying guns with him. They sounded tense, but they were making sense, even joking. No one was bolting. Neither was he. You could still think out here.
So he had a thought.
Telling Nuck and Frou "Stay," he stepped forward. Pf-P'Pf'Pf-Pf-Pf Six little plumes of dust, each with a line of colored light in it. Targeting lasers. He glanced up. Six shiny motes in a line.
He told the horses to lie down, the better to stop them following, then took another step forward and raised another cluster of six plumes. He was willing to bet that, each time, the center of the cluster had been exactly two meters in front of his forehooves.
He wheeled and barked, "Stay!" at the horses, as fiercely as he could. They looked worried but stayed. He wheeled back and started trotting athwart the line of approach, only gradually getting nearer the forest. A line of plumes escorted him exactly two meters to his left.
"Danny, what are you doing?!" bellowed Horsepower, so loudly he hardly needed the walkie-talkie.
"Diversion! They're all on me. Get under cover! I'm okay!"
Under the sound of his own hooves and the bullet rain, he heard Charliehorse, explaining: "He's closest. They all shoot at the moving target closest to the woods. No, no, not at. They shoot before. Before."
"Diversify targets!" the droneur commander snapped.
"There are more than six targets," the targeting system pointed out.
"Decision procedure?" the targeting system asked.
"Random. Ret!" That little "ret" was the signal for the machine to wait for more, quicker than saying arrêtez or attendez. The system wasn't always good at handling conversational pauses. "Random from among the previous set of targets." She wasn't sure she needed to say that, but she wasn't sure she needn't.
"Losing targets," the targeting system reported. In fact, there was only one, racing parallel to the edge of the wood. All the others had reached cover. The conversation had only wasted time.
"Another time," said her aide, "let the droneurs pick their own targets." The two women traded glares, but there was nothing the commander could say.
Rocky Joe Conran could hear the captains arguing from where he and Skylark stood, shoulder deep in brush, watching the Brice colt tease the drones. He heard Fletcher directly and all the others over the former's walkie-talkie, cranked up loud to get through the gunfire.
At least four ideas were being bounced around: surrender and (maybe) live to fight another day, continue to run away because we knew nothing about the Kalesiens except that they liked to shoot, send a flying fay to an uncertain reception as back-up for the mermaids on the talk front, and come up with a Clever Plan (to be supplied). No one seemed to have a favorite.
So was this "Too many cooks spoil the broth" or "Four heads are better than one"? Conran thought the former, and also thought that the Brice colt had already delivered the clever plan.
"We're all under cover, sir," came the voice of the paint, Carlin. "All but Danny. He's– He's still okay."
The radio chatter stopped. Everyone was holding breath.
When you weigh half a ton and have feet like stones, stealth is a challenge. Whoever was coming up behind Conran was not trying for it. Without looking away from his field of observation, he could tell they were equine. Eventually, the sound of the breathing told him it was a fellow centaur, not a horse or a rider on a horse. Finally, he felt the warmth of their flank next to his. He was fairly sure who it was. He kept watching. They could talk when and if they chose.
He was still surprised when the hand came down on his neck, cold and hard. His reflexes did what they always did in a surprise: he started to rear. As he checked, he heard Fletcher say, "Conran, you had better not have shamed that boy into holding his life at nought. If he throws himself away out there, you will find your own shame issues are just the beginning of your woes."
"You divined our talk?" Conran kept his watch, not looking aside. He kept his voice level.
"I turned around, to see how he was doing, if he was dawdling. I saw the two of you and the expressions on your faces." And that was enough for Fletcher to guess the rest, if "guess" was the word. Witchy old cayuse.
"I know what you told him," Conran said. "You were too soft."
"You would be amazed, how seldom people who are whipping themselves need any help. But I know you think I was too soft on you."
"I have to burn it out of myself. Had to. No one else can do that for me."
"Understood. What did you say to him?"
Horses have good memories. Conran had taken that gift and trained it up. He reported to the captain.
"All true," Fletcher conceded. "But there is the timing and the tone."
"You can't always protect him."
"True. He's a soldier. He knows to expect harsh treatment. He knows it's his duty to face it. It doesn't follow that it was your duty to deal it out. Do the devil's work and you can expect his wages."
"So what's to be my punishment if he dies?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure you'll come up with something good." Fletcher released his neck. "How's he doing out there?"
"Good. He makes me think of Hector."
"Hector, Tamer of Horses. That was his epithet. Hector before the walls of Troy. Defending his people. Everyone retreated while he stood off Achilles."
"Hector. A thoroughly decent man. Heroic and doomed. God rot your comparison, Conran."
"I don't want to play Priam."
Jenny and Adele swam just under the waves. Here, small objects were hardest to spot, except by eye, and they would stay away from eyes.
They rounded the point and immediately saw the changes on the bottom, here littered with bits of machinery. A couple of sunken ships showed the harbor of Kales r'Aa had seen battle not too long ago.
Powered, not sail, Adele noted, in the sign-language merfolk used underwater.
Jenny nodded. Lots of fusion power on Hod, I hear, she signed back. Maybe that was. Then she pointed at some netting, half-buried in silt. Fishing, but not for some time.
Adele nodded. Wartime conditions. But now no subs, no mines, no sonar pings. Naked as a slug, this harbor.
Bet we're inside their perimeter, signed Jenny.
Adele nodded. Let's take a look topside. She tilted her head and surfaced enough to get one eye above water. She saw a pier, still some distance off. A man stood on it, looking indecisive. No one else was about. She submerged and told Jenny. Receptant, I bet, she added.
Jenny nodded. What could you do? She pointed to a hump of pebbly shore making a gentle incline up to the surface. It wasn't far from the pier. Let's change and come up there. Adele agreed.
A few yards out, they unslung their backpacks and extracted their skirts, pleated white knee-length garments of water-repellant fiber. After wriggling their tails into them, they extracted their shoreleave belts, lengths of mother-of-pearl discs. When the clasps closed, their tails shrank away as the pair of fins below their waists grew, thickened, and became legs.
They extracted their walkie-talkies and derringers, still wrapped, and tucked them into their waistbands, thoughtfully broad for just such uses. Then, flutter-kicking to a suitable depth, they stood, drained their gills, and walked out of the sea. The man on the pier was already staring at them.
Adele reached out to catch as Jenny wobbled. Jenny had acquired her shoreleave belt only recently, and it had been long since she had walked on legs. "You'll be all right?" Adele asked.
"Good enough. A little staggering will allay suspicion. Maybe I'll make puppy eyes at him, too." Adele snorted.
Without puppy eyes, Jenny walked with slow care toward the man, who was still staring, waiting. He looked fully human, mortal, and wore a dark blue uniform. "We are from a nation called Grand Normandy," Jenny told him in French. "Our ship is around the headland from here." She pointed. "We're explorers, and just came ashore to water and graze our horses. We only learned your city was here within the hour. We are not enemies. We only want to leave peacefully. Can you help us tell the city rulers?"
"So that was it," he said to himself. To Jenny, he said, "Please come with me."
"He's taunting us!" the droneur commander protested.
The aide shrugged. "He found a weakness and he's using it."
Anger flared in the commander. "Target him," she told the nearest droneur, the one on Yellow station. Then, "Ret," she said, in case the system got ideas. You didn't kill people for annoying you, or you shouldn't. They hadn't told her to kill yet. "Just take out his horse."
Something was going to happen.
The panic started to push from background to foreground in his mind.
Humiliation, loyalty, and fear warred in his soul at the speed of spirit.
The war over, Danny's hands started flying over his shoulder, to his back, executing the plan that was somehow already there for them.
Danny's eye locked on the glint of metal in the sky. He created its fate, or realized he already had.
The bow ended its arc over his shoulder, in position in his left hand. His right hand was already at his ear, holding the string back.
The arrow was away.
A spot, a spark of light, prickly scratchy yellow light, flicked and danced over the ground. It flew across his forelegs, up and down his human chest, wavered, then settled into a hummingbird dance on his horse ribs. He stared, and the angles of the shadows told him now what he had needed to know, and so he knew it earlier that second. Since the arrow was gone, he had leisure to wonder: Why yellow? Weren't targeting lasers usually red? He saw a tiny flicker of Charliehorse, his face lit by a campfire, opening his mouth to explain why. But not yet.
The droneur at Yellow station stared at the screen. The word CONFIRMEZ? shone on it, but he paid no attention. He lived in, had grown up in, a city based on magic, but there was still the element of surprise, of wonder. Here was his first close-up view of the target. Surely that was really a rider? Surely the horse's head was obscured somehow? No, it really was–
The picture whirled. The message changed to PERTE D'ALTITUDE.
SIGNAL PERDU read the otherwise black screen.
No one exactly saw what happened to the first drone. Not even Danny or the droneur could be said to have seen it. But the surviving five drones were curious. They had their own AI, some of it aboard, some back in the city, and did their own scouting, under the direction of the droneurs. (They no longer did their own firing. There had been too many incidents of "friendly fire.") The remaining five knew of the loss of the first and saw movement on the ground.
Danny saw more sparks flicker in the grass: green, orange, aqua, indigo, scarlet. "Color-coded," he muttered. He saw the angles. He saw the glints in the sky. The bow was already in his hands and his mind was settled, so the next five shots were much faster. The first was away before he had finished saying, "Color."
"What did he just do?" Fletcher asked in a numb voice.
"He shot the enemy drone fleet out of the sky." Conran's own voice was flat. The professional duty done, he allowed a note of awe to creep in: "Like that!" He lightly snapped his fingers.
"He can shoot across time," said Fletcher, his voice now dreamy, a murmur. "He's a mage of the bow."
"What did you say?" Conran asked.
"Mm? What did I say?"
"Oh, never mind. I'm just a poor mythical beast. I won't meddle with the affairs of mages."
"I'm no– Never mind. What did you say?"
"Seer, then. I said he shot the enemy drone fleet out of the sky."
"They weren't our enemies before."
"They were about to be."
They had more than six drones. Jenny and Adele stood in a conference room, sneaking glances out at the launch field. Rank upon rank of drones stood there. One block was flashing running lights and revving rotors. In the hillside behind the field was a wide rectangular slot of a doorway, leading, no doubt, to yet more drones in hangers, and to drone factories.
They stood among Kalesiens, most of them in dark blue uniforms, before a wall screen. "Before we decide," said the one with the most colored buttons on his uniform, "we want you to explain this."
The screen had been showing the field on the far side of the ridge, viewed from the ridge itself and now quite empty. They had told the mermaids about the removal of the six drones. Now they showed it to them, from the ridge camera and from the various drones themselves. Jenny compared the time stamps on the images with the clock readout in the screen corner. This was less than an hour old.
She saw the drones chivvy her shipmates with their fire. She saw Danny draw their fire while everyone else dived into copse and brush. She saw the view from drone Yellow, saw it tumble and go black.
"That went by very fast," remarked the top-brass Kalesien. "Here is a still, in close-up." He touched a control. "It is the, ah, the last thing the drone saw."
It was Danny. He was rearing, viewed from above. He held that heavy-duty black mechanized bow and had clearly just shot it. In this image, it was not his equine body that made him look inhuman; it was his eyes. Above the sweep of red beard, they stared out of a pale face, not angry, not frightened, just focused and intent, like those of an owl or hawk.
"These clips–" Windows opened on the screen, showing slow-motion recordings from the other drones. "–indicate that, as the close-up suggests, he shot it down." The slo-mo clips showed a flitting black dash, the arrow, going into a rotor on drone Yellow, then the drone starting to tumble. "Shot them all down."
"That's my friend Danny," Jenny said. "He's not a monster or a secret weapon. He was only defending himself. He was being targeted." She pointed at Danny's image, where a grainy yellow squiggle was visible on a foreleg: the targeting beam.
"I'm sorry," blurted a woman in a blue uniform. "I hadn't seen a close-up. We were just going to take out his horse. We had not raised to Lethal. We didn't know…"
"That he was his horse," concluded Adele. She traded looks with Jenny, in which they decided not to tell the Kalesiens how the Dedicated Cavalry—and through them, increasingly, the whole Grand Norman military and the nation—felt about horses.
"Danny," said Top Brass, waiting to hear more.
"Daniel Brice. Age seventeen. He's a sweet kid. And, um, a young stallion, too, of course. He makes friends easily. He likes to dance. And." She paused, trying hard not to smile. "And he's a very good shot."
"The armaments system says a bow like that, aimed vertically, could have a range no more that a fifth of the altitude of the drone," Top Brass said, sounding aggrieved. "Not to mention the aiming. That's magic!"
Jenny shrugged, as did Adele. "Well, yes. His nickname is 'Trickshot.' I think he's found his metiér." She did not entirely succeed in suppressing the smile this time. She sobered. "Did you want more explanation?"
Top Brass shook his head. "I just wanted to know what happened. If what appeared to happen did happen." And if it could happen again, Jenny thought.
One of the civilians stared at Danny's image. "It's like looking down the Zodiac end on," she murmured. The business end, Jenny thought.
"'Daniel Brice' is a very English name," the civilian woman went on. "I would have expected something more Hellenic or Latin. Classical." She paused. Apparently Kalesiens liked to give you silences to fill.
"He grew up in England," Jenny said. "Until last year, he was a normal boy, fully human. Then he enlisted and was changed. He is a transformation, like me." This was nothing they couldn't learn if they spared an agent to send to the Grand Norman station of Hod-Amon, or to walk the streets of Ufham, St. Eloi-sur-Mer, or Stoke Norry.
The Kalesiens nodded; they knew about merfolk and about her, since her bare midriff showed the gill-slits just above her hips.
"I'm sorry," she said insincerely, "about the loss of equipment. It was in self-defense, as I said. And in defense of his shipmates, his countrymen." She glanced out the window again, at the waiting drone fleet. "Clearly, you could obliterate us, forest or no forest, with that fleet. I am willing to give my oath, which you may verify with any scrying you like, that we came here by accident, with no idea you were here, or even that you existed. We are only exploring, not making any claims, not looking for any fights. We just want to go. At most, we might want to graze the horses and top off our fresh water." It might be good to sound a little needy.
"I will take the same oath," said Adele. "And we can arrange meetings with our captains, if you like, who will swear likewise."
The brass, top and middle, looked at the civilians, who looked back. The one who had invoked the Zodiac sighed. "What's to be gained by shooting or capturing passing strangers? We'd only make enemies and stain our souls. We're out six drones. Consider it a live-fire exercise, and an instructive one. Let us hear your oaths, spoken before a verifier, and then, I expect, part company. Though we would appreciate it if you told us something about yourselves before that."
The captains, two- and four-legged, sat in a semicircle around a driftwood fire. They were well up the northern shore, on a thin strip of beach, with the forest near their backs. Before them, the Bythos floated, dark against a late dusk. Over it hung the city-cradling crescent of Hod's Moon.
"Okay, we try again," came the chief engineer's voice over the walkie-talkies. "Gremlin, if you've been holding back on the luck–"
"Think I want to stick around here? Go."
There was a throaty noise and the Bythos lit up, running lights and portholes shining. Everybody cheered, the captains and the larger audience massed behind them. Under the noise, Danny could hear Crotal the gremlin saying, "High five!" then, "Still got a lot to do," answered by a human grunt.
For the folk ashore, "a lot to do" included setting up a sketchy camp, rummaging suppers, setting watches, and more, each with hundreds of subordinate details. But Danny stayed where he was, standing respectfully behind Fletcher and Alain. He had been told to stay, along with "the other principals in our recent adventure," as Alain had put it.
"Now," said Coudray, "we have a little breathing space." She placed her walkie-talkie on the sand and set it recording. "Debrief, please. You two first." This was addressed to Jenny and Adele, lying on the beach in their own forms, between fire and water.
They recounted their visit to Kales r'Aa. "We'll write up what we told them about Grand Normandy, ma'am" Jenny said. "I don't think we know anything classified, but in any case, we tried not to tell them anything they couldn't learn in a tavern in Hod-Amon. Their verifier was interesting. We testified in front of a little metal arch with a bell in it, standing in a pool of what looked like blue mercury. Alchemical truth-detecting. It never rang, which I gather was good." She glanced upward, where an observation float hung, flashing running lights to make everything above board. Nobody's hiding from anyone. "Think they're listening in, ma'am? Parabolic mikes or mini-drones or something?"
"We will assume so," said Coudray. "Now for what we will call the land engagement. Here's what I know." And she gave her account, watching drones fly and people flee, and being able to do damn-all about it. "'They also serve who only stand and wait,'" she concluded, quoting Milton. "Or fume and fret. Gentlemen of the cavalries?"
Dean, Alain, and Fletcher told their stories in turn. After Danny shot down the drones, everyone had rushed from their copses and spinneys into the main body of the forest, where they had worked their way northward as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, on the Bythos, Luinnen had rallied her energies and summoned what wind she could to push the ship north after the troops. "She gets a medal as soon as we make Hod-Amon," Coudray declared and the audience agreed. "She'd have sprained something, if it was the sort of thing that sprained."
The retreat north had stopped only when Jenny and Adele had checked in by walkie-talkie. Coudray and the other captains had spoken with the Kales officials by radio and, over the radio, given their oaths as to their non-aggressive intentions. That seemed to be enough. The observation float had popped up within the hour and repairs had resumed. Kales would soon realize that the Bythos was damaged, not just re-stocking, but by now no one cared.
Conran, the renowned scout, gave his report, including the fullest description so far of Danny's exercise in drone-baiting. He communicated the concept "reckless courage" without using those words.
Danny found that standing away from the fire did not put him in enough darkness to keep all the captains from staring at him. "Mr. Brice?" said Coudray. "Your account, please."
With a certain amount of stammering and "er's" and "um's," Danny produced a factual and objective account of his actions.
"Marvelous," said Coudray, briefly unmilitary in tone.
"I will be putting in for a medal at Hod-Amon, too, ma'am," Fletcher said, and again the audience agreed.
"I think I was really pretty safe, ma'am," Danny demurred. "They were always two meters away, very steady."
"You can't have felt safe," Coudray answered. "And we know from Lt. Navino's report that you were not safe just before the moment you–" She paused, looked up at the observation float, smiled, and hoped they were listening. "–shot the drone fleet out of the sky," she finished with relish.
"I didn't know they were aiming at me, ma'am. I just got this feeling that something was up. Right after, while I was running for the woods, I figured they'd got tired of my teasing and would've just started shooting everyone. But I couldn't decide why I thought that. I don't think I did think that at the moment."
He shifted on his hooves uneasily. "It sounds like I got them mad. And no wonder. I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. When you shot down all the drones–" She smiled again. "–you gave us time. Time for everyone to get into the forest, and even more important, time while the Kalesiens picked up their hanging jaws and paused to talk with the lieutenants. And, yes, I know you didn't know that's what you were doing. I gather you didn't really know why it was time to shoot; you just did. But you were right. It was time to shoot. And before that spectacular bit, you had already given your brothers and sisters the chance to get under cover. Not with magic, just wits and guts. Well done."
Danny came to attention, saluted, and muttered his thank-you's.
"Well, I have a working ship to get back to. Good night, gentlemen." Coudray walked down to the beach, got in the inflatable with three of her people, and was hauled out by the mermaids. The cavalry captains rose and conferred.
When Fletcher turned to his trainees, he found Danny staring at Charliehorse with an odd smile. Charliehorse was saying, "The color coding is to help the drone-pilots sort out who is aiming at which. The drones can do that just by keeping track, and I bet there were IDs and time-stamps and stuff coded into those beams, too, but Hod cultures– They like their tech, so they deploy it all over the place, then find they can't trust it and have to rein it back in. Maybe they could have let those drones battle on their own, but that probably hasn't worked well. So they put human judgment back in the loop."
"I wonder if that worked for me or against me," said Danny.
Charliehorse shrugged. "Maybe it slowed them down a little. But you don't need to worry about speed! They get faster, you just anticipate sooner! It was human decision that said, and I quote, 'take out his horse.' For which the horse kicked their asses. Go, Trickshot!"
"Go, Trickshot," Fletcher echoed. The trainees, hearing him, wheeled and saluted. "Gentlemen, we have a camp to set up." He gave orders for a while. None sent Danny away and soon he was left with Fletcher and Conran. From the way Conran stood, Danny thought he had been ordered to stay.
"Mr. Brice," said Fletcher, "now I would like your report."
"Uh, what do you want me to add, sir?"
"The inside story. What were you thinking and feeling while you played with those drones?" Fletcher glanced about, making sure no one else listened. "How did you not bolt? What did it feel like?"
Danny stared for a while at the driftwood fire, then finally answered, "It was like a bad ride, sir. Riding a spooked horse. I loved riding; it's the one thing I miss. I've never regretted changing for a second. I don't mind about being too big for indoors, or having to eat lots of mulch, or any of that. I do miss riding, sir, but not riding like this. Like riding something big and scary-strong. Only in me, like you said, sir."
"But you made it work for you?"
"Yessir. It needed a short rein. Like when you have to keep telling the horse to keep to the job, right here, right now, thinking about nothing else. I– It kept me working because if I didn't keep working, it would cut loose."
Conran nodded and said, "I take back my hard words."
"No," said Fletcher. "Give or take opinions about what's too soft, you were right. We both were."
"Very well, sir. Then I apologize for the tone and the personal remarks." He held out his hand and Danny shook it, grinning. "Fortunate child."
"Not a child," Fletcher corrected.
Conran nodded again. "But fortunate," he insisted. "Fortunate to get schooled in handling a weakness within an hour of discovering it. First Fletcher jaws at you, then I do, then you get your real lesson from our friends the Kalesiens." He waved upward, at the float.
Fletcher gazed at Danny for a bit, then said, "Just to make sure: I hope you're not going to fall off the other side of the donkey and go looking for situations like this for the thrills."
"Oh, no sir. I’d rather do my own galloping now."
"Good. Go, Trickshot! Right now, go help Horsepower; he's having trouble with the picket, it looks like. Nuck has used up all his good temper for the day. And you're our best tamer of horses."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017