The Lion Knights

The GNNV Bythos

Two hours later, everyone was on the Bythos, and Huspaan was astern.

The Bythos and her twin the Aphros were the largest ships in the Grand Norman navy, built to accommodate a score of centaurs along with the horses and the human and mer crews, plus a pack of dogs and some ever-miscellaneous fays. However, the Bythos was already fully crewed, and had now taken aboard a score of lungmao, big and restless.

Captain Coudray had Doug and Gus arrange their men in a few tight groups near the poop deck, locations carefully chosen to be out of the way of the crew.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “welcome aboard the Grand Norman Naval Vessel Bythos. I am Captain Rachel Coudray. We have a lot of captains here, at the moment, but I am the naval captain, so getting this ship and her people from A to B in safety is my job.”

She looked over the batches of lungmao to see how they took this polite declaration of authority. Lots of smiles, in fact. Good. They probably appreciated having someone volunteer to take care of them. Also, she had heard from Doug and Gus about the sheer homecoming pleasure of hearing English and seeing modern machinery.

“We are working under some time constraints. Below, we have twenty horses, dozing in their slings. It’s an enchanted sleep, but they still need to get out and about soon. So we are on our way now. There.” She pointed away from Huspaan, to the permanent cloudbank of the edgestorm.

“Your captains,” she went on, nodding at Gus and Doug, “tell me you’ve made edge-farings before, though it was pretty crude.”

(“They tied us up in bundles, in the hold,” someone called out. “Like cargo.”)

“Well, we can do some better than that,” Coudray answered, “though I am afraid there will be similarities. After all, we weren’t expecting you. Please go below, now. You’ll find most of the centaurs already there. They will show you how to secure yourselves.” She waved toward the hatches and turned away.

“How did the centaurs even get there?” a lungmao wondered aloud.

“Like this,” said a big dark-bearded bay standing near. He backed toward a hatch and gradually disappeared into it. “Take a look,” he said, waving them over. “It’s like watching one and a half firemen go down a ladder.” They looked, then followed.

The hold was, of course, very full and getting fuller. Everyone not needed on deck was coming down one hatch or another and securing themselves. It was so full of packages and people, you could get very little idea of the room itself, except that it was long, well-lit, and had a lot of horses.

The horses all hung in slings, heads hanging in sleep, but kept from dangling by their halters. Additional lines kept them from swaying and bumping against each other. In among the human crew, the centaurs were climbing into their own slings, very similar but for the lack of halters. The big bay started to do so, too.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said to the lion-men, raising his voice above the general chatter and clatter, “you see that there’s not much room. In fact, shortly, there won’t even be standing room for everyone, now that that includes you.

“But, as it happens, there are twenty of us centaurs and twenty of you. You are going to ride us through this edge-faring. You’ll notice each of us is wearing a saddle blanket and a duty jacket for the occasion. Lion-men and man-horses, pick out partners!”

“Dibs,” said Doug, scrambling up on the bay, using the stout straps on the back of the jacket to pull himself up. “Darneley, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, sir. Charles Darneley, but most folk call me ‘Charliehorse.’”

“Dibs here,” said Captain Fletcher, hanging in the next sling. He seized Gus by an upper arm and helped him up. “Go on, Mr. Darneley.”

“Captain Fletcher is grooming me to become an instructor,” Charliehorse said, in aside to Doug. “Time will tell, though it often tells Fletcher first.” Then, at the general-address volume, “Now, gentlemen, once you are mounted, your mount will give you a length of rope.” He held one over his head then handed it to Doug. “Pass it behind your back and pass the ends up to your mount, who will tie them. You’ll be tied together, chest to back. Between that, hanging on to the straps on our jackets, and gripping with your knees, you should be fairly secure. Did I mention gripping with your knees? Grip with your knees. Now we wait.”

“How about stirrups?” Doug asked, after waiting a bit.

“That would mean saddles, and I feel we’re uncomfortable enough. I haven’t worn a saddle while in a sling, and I’m in no hurry to try. Just grip with your knees. I don’t mean now, but when the action starts. Anyway, I doubt we’d have saddles that fit you. I’d guess you’re well over a hundred kilos. Are you?”

“I don’t know,” Doug said in a distant tone. “I certainly wasn’t before.”

“I do apologize,” said Charliehorse. “Didn’t mean to touch on a painful subject. But I’m spoiled. My usual rider is Max over there.” He waved at Max, a skinny young man with a mustache too big for him. Max waved back briefly but was busy buckling in a cluster of harnessed dogs, sleepy with sedative. “Max isn’t fifty kilos soaking wet.”

Doug experimented with gripping with his knees. “Is this right?” he asked. “I’ve never ridden a horse before. I mean... uh...”

“You meant what you said, and that’s fine. I’m a horse. I’m just also a man. Your knees are ... pretty good. Next trick is to keep your heels in, though I’m not sure that matters here.”

Doug experimented with his heels, to no obvious effect. The horse body, he noticed, felt solid as a log. Now that he thought about it, so did the human body. Tense. And he thought he could hear a tension in Charlie’s voice as well. “Nervous?” he asked.

He felt the ribcage under him pump while the rope tying him to Charlie’s back tightened, and he realized Charliehorse had sighed. “Rather,” said his mount, at the lower volume of his earlier aside. “Sorry. My first edge-faring, a couple of months ago, was very rough. We, uh, we fell out of the sky. And I’m still twitchy. You needn't be nervous.”

“Why not?” asked a voice from behind. It was Rob, the blond lungmao. Charliehorse had not reckoned on lungmao hearing. “Because we’re supposed to be immortal?”

Charliehorse glanced at Fletcher, who smiled back and nodded, then answered at his lecturing volume, “No, I meant no need to be nervous about this passage. Bad passages like that are very rare. If they were at all common, would we chuck big, expensive ships full of our own valuable selves through edgestorms? Ah, here we go.”

The words were delivered with brisk calm, but Doug realized that Charliehorse was something of an actor, because his body, which had started to relax while he talked, was tensing again. The occasion was a series of mechanical dragging noises followed by a motor’s thrum.

“The crew are winching in the sails and starting up the propellors,” Charliehorse told the lion-men. “Best not to have the sails beaten about by the edgestorm. There’s a passage somewhere in the storm, and we’re aiming for it using the maps we made coming here and at least three different kinds of divination.”

“If we’re immortal,” Rob continued, “do we have anything to fear from the storm?” He sounded skeptical, as if he had caught the Grand Normans in a contradiction.

Doug felt Charlie relax again as he settled into the task of explanation: “You don’t have death to fear,” he lectured, “but you could get pounded to pieces in a shipwreck, dropped off the ragged edge of the zone into hyperspace, e-ven-tu-al-ly smack into a zone where a bit of you could grow back to full size and consciousness, and then look around and wonder where in creation you were and how many quintillion years it’s been.” This being delivered with matter-of-fact cheer.

Doug, on the other hand, felt a little more understanding of Gus’s dismay at being immortal. Since Charlie’s ear was right in front of him, he murmured into it, “You, on the other hand, get to be just plain dead.”

“Which is like what, exactly?” Charlie murmured back. “Let’s get back together after Doomsday and compare fates. Before that?” He shrugged.

Meanwhile, Gus muttered “Holy crow!” into Fletcher’s ear. “Is he right?”

Fletcher nodded. “Very occasionally, fay folk come stumbling in from the Chaos Marches, very confused, from very long ago. ‘Metal? What’s this “metal” stuff you talk about?’ They’d been through things like that. So yes, he’s right. But he’s also right that our odds are very good. Don't worry.”

“Okay, then.” And Gus sat up straight, did his best to grip with his knees, and stared over Fletcher’s shoulder at the clutter of baggage in the nose of the hold.

Doug felt Charliehorse ... shuddering? trembling? oscillating, anyway ... under him. “Are you laughing?” he asked. Around them, voices died down but the sound of motors and rushing water rose.

“I suppose,” the centaur answered. “At myself. The commander I strongly suspect of being psychic says not to worry, and I know that’s good, but I can’t convince my nerves. Captain Cheung, I’m afraid you’re riding a silly ass. But not for much longer! Here we go!”

The roar rose, the ship started to stand on its nose, Charliehorse swung forward in his sling and became rigid as marble under Doug. Immortal or not, Doug now saw his point. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Still pointing down, the whole ship heaved up. Then it pointed up and fell down some hole in the sea. If they were still in the sea. Doug remembered what Charlie said about falling out of the sky. And being torn to living pieces. And being thrown into oblivion.

What if he couldn’t even die?

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2022