The Lion Knights

Huspaan

“This looks like a good port,” remarked Captain Fletcher. He stood on the deck of the Bythos as it sailed in to the harbor of Huspaan, at the mouth of the River Huss. It was middle morning and the weather was breezy and clear—clear, at least, except for the bank of storm just visible on the horizon. But that was the edgestorm, the boundary of Chaos, and never moved. Or if it did, it was time for everyone and everything in the worldlet of Varsis to find another realm.

Huspaan showed whitewashed buildings with golden-brown tiles on the roofs, and a harbor full of craft of many sizes. The docks and quays bustled, though the people were hardly more than brightly colored specks at this distance.

“It welcomes little fishes in with gently smiling jaws,” replied Doug Cheung. “Very prosperous. Very free, too, and tolerant, as long as you don’t get in the way of the prosperity. Easy, in that way, for an American to get used to.”

“But you didn’t like the place,” Fletcher said. You could see, now, that many of the folk on the docks were staring at the Bythos.

Doug shrugged and waved at Huspaan with his right arm, the one with the new hand. “It’s a city, foreign and crowded. Full of people and customs to trip over. Out roughing it, you might wonder how hungry a body could get, or what things might live in the undergrowth. Or, of course, about bandits.” He looked at the new hand and flexed it. “But I felt more out of place here than in the wilderness.” He glanced at Fletcher. “Your folk must feel the same.”

“Indeed.” Neither were built for the cities of men. To look in the face, Fletcher was an old man with white hair and beard, but below the waist he was a dun horse. Between, he wore a red-brown military jacket. His hat was a stetson, a cowboy hat, in dusty blue.

Fletcher stood seven feet tall, but Doug Cheung over-matched him by three inches. Unlike Fletcher, Doug was humanoid, in a feline way. His ears were large, pointed, and mobile. He had a muzzle—no longer than a human nose, but a muzzle nonetheless—and luxurious cat-whiskers that reached as wide as his shoulders. His good hand was clawed, with additional spurs on the knuckles, and behind waved a leonine tail, aiding his balance on the gently rolling deck.

But not only feline. He wore pants and boots and an open vest, showing skin on arms and chest that was thickly scaled in rectangular knobs like crocodile hide, though the color was still a golden tan, the color of a young Asian man much in the sun—as he had once been.

“So I feel no pang,” Doug went on, “at leaving Huspaan behind forever.” He glanced at Fletcher again. “Though I suppose I should be careful, now, about words like ‘forever’.”

A lean, middle-aged palomino centaur clattered up and saluted the two captains. He smiled and presented Doug with a book—a sheaf of papers hot-glued down the spine. The cover read “The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis.”

“Here you are, sir,” the palomino said. “No illustrations, I’m afraid, but the complete text.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Doug, smiling back. He riffled through the book, looking for something at the back.

“May I ask, sir, why you wanted that particular book?” Lt. Sanders asked.

Behind him came another cat-man, who said, “Yeah, I’m curious too.”

Doug ignored them, paused at a page, said “Ah!” to himself, and read for a little.

Men are supposed to be stoic. Chinese are supposed to be reserved. Soldiers are supposed to be disciplined. Doug was all three, but Fletcher was a careful observer and saw Doug’s eyes change. They were a human golden-brown but slit-pupiled. The feline slits widened at something fascinating and a human hint of moisture barely stared to gleam.

Doug blinked, quietly took a deep breath, and said “Right” softly to himself. He turned to the other cat-man. “I don’t quite know why,” he said. “It haunted me. But I still relish my privacy, even from you, zhījĭ–” (“brother”/“friend”) “–so I’m just going to mull it over in private. In short, tell you later.” He looked at the lieutenant. “Sorry, Mr. Sanders, you too. But thank you for getting it printed.”

“I was surprised you made room for it in a ship’s library,” said the other cat-man. “Even on line.” This was Gus. He was shorter and stockier than Doug, a mere inch over seven feet, blue-eyed and with sandy brown hair. Like Doug, he spoke in a Midwestern American accent, his voice a husky tenor, Doug’s a smooth bass.

“Oh, we’ve got quite an extensive fantasy library, sir,” Sanders assured him. “You have to sift carefully, of course, but when you’re exploring the out-zones, it’s useful to have a record of rumors that may have filtered back to the monde-minor through the Dreaming or whatever.”

“But no real Narnia,” said Gus, a bit sadly.

“Not that we know of, sir,” Sanders said to the younger man.

“It’d be gone by now anyway,” said Doug, putting a sympathetic arm on Gus’s shoulder. “All gone ‘further up and further in,’ remember?”

“Yeah. But there’d still be the Wood Between the Worlds. Well.” He turned to Fletcher. “Cap’n Phil, I’ve advised Cap’n Coudray that those little rowboats with the blue noses are the local customs officials. They’re very, uh, diligent–”

“Rapacious,” Doug translated.

“–and they have guards with crossbows, plus their friends back on shore.”

“Sounds like a time to be pleasantly but firmly diplomatic,” said Fletcher.

“Yessir. Coudray asked everyone to start spreading that word, starting with the captains.”

“Thank you, Gus. Duly noted.” Gus nodded and departed with Doug.

Sanders watched them out of earshot, gave them some more distance, since their ears were very keen, then said, “‘Cap’n Phil’?” in an offended tone.

Fletcher grinned at his aide-de-camp. “It’s worse. You know how informal Americans are. I was calling them ‘Captain Cheung’ and ‘Captain Weisskopf,’ since that’s how they style themselves, but they asked me to call them ‘Doug’ and ‘Gus.’ So I told them to call me ‘Philip’ but they seemed uncomfortable with that. ‘Captain Phil’ seems their idea of a compromise.”

Sanders shifted on his hooves and looked uncomfortable himself. In relaxed moments, Fletcher sometimes called him “Liam,” but Sanders never addressed his commander as anything less than “sir.”

“Well, sir,” he said, “informal they may be, but I suppose they want to show respect. After all...”

“I’m old enough to be their grandfather.” Fletcher smiled.

“I was going to say that you’ve given them a lot of help. So they want to include your rank to acknowledge that. Even if they call themselves captains, too.”

Fletcher nodded. “We’re in a very captain-rich environment at the moment. And here they come.”

Working her way across the deck toward them was Captain Coudray, the actual skipper of the Bythos. Closely following was Captain Dean of the Standard Cavalry, in charge of the land-based side of the expedition. They were normal humans, she short and slim, composed and professional; he tall and athletic, quite suitable for a professional adventurer.

But the eye of an outside observer would have been drawn to the remaining three captains: Captain Alain of the Dedicated Cavalry, a dapple gray with steel-gray hair and beard and a dark, handsome, aquiline face—like Fletcher, leading a class of trainees—and Gus and Doug, the captains of the Raurhoth, the Lion Host.

“Gentlemen,” said Coudray to the beast-men, “if you would, please arrange yourselves around Captain Dean and myself, and try to look big and weird and scary. Loom, if you like. It never hurts to have an edge. But don’t scowl. Captain Fletcher, I’ll do the introducing but when we get to the subject of the Raurhoth, please take over. That is,” she added, “after Captains Cheung and Weisskopf.”

“I think you know more about this kind of thing than we do,” said Gus.

“We’ll follow your lead,” said Doug.

So the assembled brass adopted various expressions of calm attention or confident smiles while the little blue-nosed boats approached. There were five of them, and Sanders thought their crews had reason enough to be intimidated before they saw the creatures waiting to greet them.

In general form, the Bythos was like a nineteenth-century sailing ship, but made of modern materials spiced with alchemy, and fitted with modern equipment tended by gremlins. Her white hull and sails made her look like a huge cloud or swan—huge because she and her sister the Aphros were the only Grand Norman ships designed to transport horses and centaurs for the land-faring side of Grand Normandy’s explorations.

The folk of Varsis would recognize the gunports. If they worried about the radar and radio antennae, let them. The lions and fleur-de-lis of Grand Norman heraldry would be unfamiliar but brave and bright, and the figurehead was a gilded ichthyocentaur gazing into a spy glass, an image, in fact, of Bythos son of Cronos.

There were four men in each blue-nosed boat, uniformed in blue and gray, all mainstream humans to look at, of some Mediterranean stock perhaps. Of every four, three carried heavy crossbows.

“Aren’t five a lot of boats to inspect one ship?” Fletcher asked Gus quietly. “Even one this big?”

“Yeah, you’re right. ’Course, more boats means more crossbows.”

“Turn about’s fair play,” Coudray remarked. “But all this snorting and pawing the ground and fluffing our fur only works when it keeps the peace. I don’t suppose they often shoot, do they, Captain Weisskopf?”

“ ’Course not, ma’am. Bad for business.”

The five boats came on in V formation. As they approached, a figure carefully stood up in the center foremost boat, solid, clean-shaven, and graying. He held a ledger book, not a crossbow, and looked not at all intimidated.

“That’s Toosig,” Gus told them. “Retired guardsman. A lot of the customs officers are.”

Fletcher saw a hint of scowl behind the man's bold demeanor and thought the fellow recognized their “fluffing fur” and resented it. Well, who could blame him? And an officer for a city that faced on chaos would be schooled in the strange. The fellow’s expression conveyed the idea “Now what?”

On the other hand, who could blame wanderers in a strange land for wanting to forestall bullying? Fletcher sighed quietly behind the calm expression he held.

When they were close enough, Coudray called, “Nín suilaid!” (“My greetings!”) in Sindarin. No one in this zone knew English, French, or Chenelaise, and the Bythos crew was just beginning to learn Varsic, but they held the elf-tongue in common. She continued in it, “I am Captain Rachel Coudray and this is the Grand Norman Naval Vessel Bythos. Are you the customs inspectors of Huspaan?”

Officer Toosig called back, “Yes. You are in the waters of the free city of Huspaan. Know that all incoming goods are subject to tarrifs, in proportions according to their type.”

“Of course,” Coudray replied. “But we are not here to trade. If you–”

“There remain docking fees and a water toll you have already incurred,” Toosig interrupted. “What, then, is your business?”

“We came on behalf of the Raurhoth.” She nodded to left and right, indicating Doug and Gus where they flanked her.

Toosig glared at Doug. “You are Chong?”

Doug clasped his hands behind his back, wrapped his tail around his shins, and answered coolly, “I am Guardsman Cheung of Huspaan, Captain Cheung of the Raurhoth. You are Toosig?”

“A caravan from Gelho’on brought word you had been wounded escorting another caravan to Gelho’on, one that left about four tendays ago. They said you had lost a hand.”

“True,” Doug said. He displayed his hands and said, “It grew back.” His right hand was clearly paler and more slender. It had, as yet, no nails, and certainly no spurs or scales on the back.

Toosig stared at this for a few seconds, then demanded, “Why have you brought a battleship to Huspaan?”

Doug smiled, looking infuriatingly catlike. “Rather, the ship has brought me. They are only giving me a ride, out of generosity.”

Fletcher decided it was time to speak. “And we are not a battleship, Officer Toosig. Our purpose is exploration. As you must know, the Raurhoth are wanderers from very far away. We have simply come to offer them a passage home.”

Eyes lit in Toosig's otherwise impassive face.

Doug smiled broadly. “See? There's a bright side.”

“Our popularity’s kinda spotty,” Gus admitted. “Still better in Huspaan than it’s been anywhere else.”

It was early in the month before. Gus and Doug had been been made free of the Bythos for meetings with the many captains and their aides; the Raurhoth and their discoveries were a great find for an exploratory expedition.

For Gus and Doug, the Bythos was likewise a great discovery: first, of course, it was passage home, but it was already a taste of home. Yes, the crew included creatures at least as fantastic as themselves, but these folk, arcane or not, spoke English to them and used familiar gadgets. As he spoke, Gus gazed fondly at a running light—an actual electric light—on the mast before him. He sat crosslegged on the poop deck, next to Doug, in conversation with Coudray, Fletcher, Dean, and Alain. It was evening, and the light shone white.

“They didn’t have twenty open slots in their city guard,” Doug told Fletcher and the other captains. “But they hired us on as a group, a kind of labor pool. If things get loud in the bad parts of the town or dockside, they’re happy enough to hire some of us to come with the regular patrols. Usually, it's enough to loom behind the human and smile." He demonstrated, showing the predatory teeth.

Fletcher nodded. His lessons to his own students included deterrent looming. But, “That doesn’t sound like a lot of work,” he remarked.

“It isn’t,” Gus agreed. “They set a night patrol of six of us on the city border. I guess that’s worked real well. But, being Huspaan, they’re wondering if it’s worth the money.”

“We can’t afford boarding houses,” Doug said, “so we’ve set up a camp in some scrub woods at the edge of town that doesn’t belong to anybody. Or–” He showed his magnificent teeth again in a sour smile. “–no one wants to chase us out.”

“It’s mostly farmland,” Gus said, “so there’s not much hunting. So we have to buy food in town. I’m surprised no one’s accused us of stealing chickens, or whatever those things are.”

I’m still surprised they didn’t just attack or run us off,” Doug replied.

Five years ago, Gus, Doug, and twenty-five companions had been transformed and abducted by a ruthless fay, to be soldier-slaves in her military adventures. Two years ago, the fay had died in battle, leaving the Raurhoth—the Lion Host, as the fay had dubbed them—homeless and shapeshifted in a worldlet they would have dismissed as fantasy before their capture. The twenty remaining soldiers had tramped and sailed and ridden their way through the chaos marches, from one world-fragment to another, looking for a better lot.

For much of that time, they had lived off the various kinds of land. Sometimes, they could hire on as guards for a ship or caravan, but they were never welcome where they arrived. A score of huge, unasked-for lion-soldiers? No, thank you.

Huspaan had been a little different. A trading center and seaport, bordering chaos, already with a multi-species population, it took in the Raurhoth without real shock. Still, that was not the same as welcoming.

“Some rich merchants hire us as house guards sometimes,” Gus said. “And there’s guarding caravan traffic. Overland is slower, but it’s cheaper than paying all the port fees, and it makes smuggling easier. ’Course, there’s bandits.” And he nodded at Doug. His friend had lost his right hand in a bandit attack. The tip of the stump was lengthening and complicating, but no hand was there yet.

“No bandits on the water? No pirates?” asked Coudray.

“Nope,” Gus answered. “That’s the value you get for all the port fees and stuff.”

“It sounds to me,” said Captain Coudray, “like they are trying to find a use for you but haven’t succeeded yet.”

Doug nodded. “That’s about right. Of course, it’s only been a few months.”

“Would there be any contractual problems with the Raurhoth shipping out of Huspaan?” she asked.

Doug shook his head. His smile was non-toothy and rueful. “They don’t have us on long contracts. They don’t pay before service. They don’t let us buy on tab. I don’t know everyone’s debits and credits, but the total won’t be much. Maybe some grocery bills. Gambling debts for the stupid.”

“We can cover such things,” Coudray said.

“Thank you. Again.”

Gus nodded, but added, “We’ll have been gone a month and some. Hope nothing’s come up.”

Toosig made few further difficulties about letting the Bythos into port. The docks were crowded with the people of Huspaan, in their bright robes, saris, and tunics, curious about the foreign ship. “Give ’em a show!” Coudray commanded, and had the broad, heavy-duty gangplank set out. Doug and Gus came marching down it, and Fletcher and Sanders came thundering behind.

In the worldlet of Varsis, news moved no faster than riders or the occasional messenger bird, not without magic. But someone might have expended magic on news like the Bythos, and in any case there had been a month for word to get from Gelho’on to Huspaan. These folk had heard there was a ship from across chaos, crewed with a mix of humans and oddities, but they hadn’t seen.

Seasoned explorers, Fletcher and Sanders were used to people who had never seen, maybe never heard of, creatures like themselves. They stood still, smiled, tipped their hats, and listened for remarks or questions in Sindarin or any other known language. The first such utterance they heard was in English, and not addressed to them: “Doug! Gus! Over here!”

The speaker was another cat-man, the third they had ever seen. He had chocolate brown skin and was dressed in a gray and blue uniform like Toosig's. Gus and Doug waved him over. He waded through the humans and began in a staccato Indian accent, “Doug! We heard you had been...” then trailed off, staring at Fletcher and Sanders. Fletcher was familiar with the reaction: the fellow had first seen the centaurs screened by the crowd, had assumed they were men on horseback, and was only now getting a clear view.

Doug produced a grin laced with ivory blades, took his fellow’s elbow, and pulled him toward the group. “Captain Fletcher,” he said, “may I present my comrade in arms, Rahul Batra. Rahul, this is Captain Philip Fletcher of the Grand Norman Dedicated Cavalry, and his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Liam Sanders. Despite appearances, they are from Earth, Midgard, Ennorath. They’re going home soon and they can take us with them!”

Batra blinked. His eyes were too dark to show the slit pupils and made Fletcher think of the eyes of a deer. He doubted the poor cat-man had had time to take in everything Doug said. But he had taken the salient point: “Home?” he echoed.

“Yes!”

A look of almost agonized joy spread over Batra’s face. Then came doubt and confusion, and he put a hand up to the whiskers that flared from his muzzle, and his ears, just now swiveled forward at full attention, drooped back and down.

“There’s a fix for that, too,” Doug promised. The joy came back, mixed with some caution.

Gus had been watching, with a more restrained smile. Now he asked, “What’s been happening?”

Batra glanced from one captain to the other. Fletcher could see him shifting mental gears. “Not too much bad news,” he answered. “Dan tried to rent a room in a boarding house and got in a fight—well, an argument—well, a little fight with the landlord, but we smoothed it over. Ted ran up some gambling debts. The worst bit is Marco got in a bar fight. Some adventurous girl let him kiss her, maybe invited him—haven’t heard her side. Her brother was there with a friend and the friend egged him on to put a stop to it. And off they went.”

Gus sighed. “Injuries?”

“Nothing much on Marco. But he clubbed the brother. Uh, with the friend. Broken ribs. Dislocated shoulder. Comes up before the magistrate within two days. I think the girl will speak up for him.”

Fletcher cleared his throat. “What will be the outcome if the magistrate finds against Marco.”

Briefly, Batra gave Fletcher another wondering look, then answered, “Some months in the conscript pool, I guess.” He explained: “Instead of a jail, they farm prisoners out as labor to whoever wants them, for whatever they want. There are spells or tattlers—I’m not sure which—to make sure no one runs away.”

“Would paying damages and a fine do instead?”

“Yah, but we’re all broke, or nearly.”

“Well, we may be able to help.”

“Let’s get back to camp,” Gus urged. “Captain Fletcher’s got more big news to give.”

He, Doug, and Batra escorted Fletcher and Sanders through Huspaan. Their horseshoes rang on cobbles. Stone buildings two to four stories tall were common, as were flagpoles flying bright banners bearing symbols and Varsic inscriptions: spells and prayers, as the Grand Normans had found in Gelho’on.

The bulk of the people were human, in bright, loose clothing. They had black hair, light brown skins, and seemed largely healthy; either beggary was rare here or it wasn’t allowed in the business area.

But there were other citizens: lemur-like creatures, little black balls of fluff with long tails, no bigger than squirrels, skittering along ledges, across thin rope bridges made for them, and occasionally across the streets through the feet of the big folk. These were a type of fay; Grand Norman explorers knew them from other realms and called them “nimmies,” though here they were called slilifers.

Mingled among the human pedestrians, and staring just as openly at the newcomers, were figures even darker than the nimmies, perfectly black silhouettes in tunics or robes just as black but trimmed with bright piping, epaulets, and buttons—dökkálfar, dark elves, another known race.

And, here and there, as conspicuous as lion-men or centaurs but ignored by the crowds because they belonged here, there were folk in the seven- to eight-foot tall range, their skin darker and ruddier, their hair wavy and black. You could call them “giants,” but that just meant they were big. The Grand Normans did not yet know enough to classify them further, but had seen children and elderly among them, so they must be mortal.

“What kind of big news?” Batra asked. “On top of changing back and going home?”

“We–”

“Wait, Captain Weisskopf,” Fletcher interrupted. “Excuse me, Mr. Batra, but it’s ... subtle. I think there will be less confusion, less chance of misunderstanding, if I tell all of you at once.”

“Well, ... okay,” Batra agreed. “But is it good news, at least?” Gus did not look cheerful.

“It’s big,” Doug told him. “It’s good or bad depending on what you make of it.” He glanced at Fletcher, who nodded slightly. “Is everyone else at camp?” he asked, diverting the discussion.

“Daytime? Mostly, but I don’t think all.” Batra glanced at a post at the side of the street. “You got money for a runner?”

“Oh, yeah,” Doug assured him. “The caravan paid well. Even gave me a hazard bonus for losing the hand.” He led the party over to the post. It bore a structure like a large, open-air bird house. In it, sipping from a tiny cup and watching the passing scene—certainly watching the approaching quintet of giants—sat a nimmy. The round ears rose and the round, amber eyes grew rounder as they advanced.

Doug addressed it in Sindarin: “Friend slilifer, can you and your fellows find all the lungmao at large in the city, and tell them to meet at our camp? Immediately. From Captain Cheung.” He raised his hand—the new one still without nails or scales—and offered a silver coin.

“That is far too much,” the nimmy piped.

“The occasion is important and I am feeling expansive,” Doug answered. “Please keep any difference.”

The nimmy took a few seconds to get a good look at the centaurs, then said, “I serve,” and shot up a ladder on the post, into the network of miniature rope bridges.

Doug watched it go with a smile. “That will give it a good few days of gossip.” He then led them on through the streets. They came at length to a wall and passed through a gate.

There were guards at the gate but no challenge or check; the guards watched the strange strangers pass, and stared like anyone else. Beyond was a stretch of open land—vegetable gardens, pasturage for horses and sheep (or goats—some unfamiliar ungulates), and small public parks. Nothing built up against the wall, Fletcher noted. A prosperous city at peace, for now.

They passed through a belt of loose, half-countrified suburb. Rapid footfalls came from behind, then slackened. Fletcher and Sanders paused, turned, and saw two more lion-men, at a standstill, staring at them. Gus waved to them. “Come on!” he called. “Big meeting!”

The two caught up with them and were introduced as “Brett” and “Derek,” apparently white Americans under their transformations.

Soon they were into real countryside. A footpath led off the road into a patch of wood. Another lungmao (“dragon-cat,” Doug’s own coinage) caught up with them at the edge of the trees and was introduced as “Lloyd,” an Australian. Half a minute later, they were at the camp.

Fletcher took it in with an experienced eye. It was very simple but looked and smelled clean: three banked campfires surrounded by a straggling ring of bedrolls and bundles, interspersed with many iron and wooden buckets of water. And it was full of lion-men.

They were all young men and all dragon-cats, but various within that range. A few wore the gray and blue city uniforms, but most wore homespun woolens. Some were bearded, others shaven. Hair could be short, collar-length, shoulder-length, pony-tailed. Fletcher wondered if they wanted to assert their individuality after being trapped in the fay troop, the “hive mind” as they called it.

Unlike the ones trailing Doug and Gus, these had had no word of their captains’ return. Now, here they were, escorting two mythical monsters. Into the gob-smacked silence, Doug commanded, “Listen up! These are Captain Fletcher and Lieutenant Sanders of Grand Normandy. Yes, that sounds Earthly. They’re from Earth. They don’t look it, but we don’t either, do we? They and their folk are the best friends we have. We met Captain Fletcher in Gelho’on and he was able to tell us what happened to us, where we are, how we can go home, and what we are!” By now, there was a rising rumble of voices. “Quiet! And let him talk.”

“How do you do, gentlemen. I am Captain Philip Fletcher of the Dedicated Cavalry of Grand Normandy. Grand Normandy is indeed an earthly nation, but small and hidden by magic. We are explorers and traders, and we were on a liaison mission to Gelho’on when I met your captains. They told me how you had been transformed and abducted by a wicked fay, to be slave-soldiers in her battles. They’ve told me about your wanderings since. In return, here is what I can tell you:

“First, the year is 2018. It is five and a half years since you were taken.”

Fletcher waited out a wave of muttering and cursing. They knew it had been at least three years. They were relieved it had not been centuries. He resumed: “That’s ‘when.’ As for ‘where,’ by now you’ve seen several different worlds. We call them ‘zones.’ They come in different kinds and sizes. There’s a chain or archipelago of Earth-sized zones we call the Road to the Sun. Bera├»d Torgon, where you were captive, is a small zone near the major zone of Gevurah. Your wanderings have come into the Hathor Passages, as we call them—a network of little zones near Netzach, another major zone. The point is, we’re mapping all this. There are passage maps, like networks or flowcharts of zones. I can show them to you.

“And on the map, at the beginning of the Road, is Middle Earth, Ennorath, Malkoth, my home and yours. Our ship, the Bythos, is in port here in Huspaan right now, ready to set sail for home.

“And you can come.”

Another wave of noise went up, something like a cheer, but it crested quickly. All of them instantly saw the snag. One of the lion-men called out, “Like this? That’s ‘when’ and ‘where’; what about ‘what’ and ‘how’? What are we? How can we go back like this?”

Right. The tough part. Fletcher glanced at Gus. He was staring stoically into the distance. Into forever, Fletcher guessed. Doug was watching his men closely but spared a glance for Fletcher. “The ‘what,’ then. “Your dagorrodel—your ‘war-lady’—or her shapecaster did not base your shape on any existing breed of creatures that we know of. They made it up. And, just as a shapecaster changed you, one can change you back. We do not have one handy. But they exist.”

The rumble and mutter started up again. “But,” Fletcher continued over it, “there was another change, much more significant than the change of shape. I’ve been told of the ‘hive mind’ you lived in while you served this daggorrodel. That is what we call being in a ‘troop.’ When you are put in a fairy troop, you become ‘fay-marked.’ You become fays.

“You are all fays.”

Bafflement. Stunned silence. Fletcher quickly filled it. “Fays are immortal shapeshifters. Shapeshifters: Sooner or later, with help or without it, you will all be able to turn back. Immortal: You are all immortal.”

Fletcher took a small step back, folded his arms, and waited. The wait was short: before he had finished the gesture, voices rang out, louder and more confused than ever. But there were fewer speakers. People were either very loud or silent. Doug and Gus waded in among their men, calming, explaining. Fletcher listened to the babble:

“We can learn to turn back?” “Immortal!?” “We can turn into anything?” “Where do we find a shapecaster? Do they know?” “You believe them?” “How the pus-bleeding hell can we be immortal? Did you tell them about J.J.? And Sandy? And Gopal?” “Forget the immortality jive. Can we get back? Really? Can we really change back?” “If we can change back, how come we’ve stayed this shape for three years? Five years?” “How long does the trip take? What do they charge? Can we work our way?”

Doug and Gus, being calm and patient, were inaudible.

Fletcher felt a slight warmth at his flank and glanced to his right. Sanders had moved up close, nearly touching. Fletcher felt a bit heartened. The equine side of his mind was not happy, watching a pack of agitated predators. An ally close by was welcome. “You’ve given them a lot to chew on, sir,” Sanders said, accidentally poking at the predator theme. “Home, immortality, changing back. All at once.”

Fletcher nodded. “True. And they’ve already had to swallow other worlds and transformation. They need just one more impossibility to pull even with the White Queen.”

“What? Oh, yes, six impossible things before breakfast. I don’t suppose you could have fed the news to them a bite at a time?”

“I thought about it. But, in the first place, that would mean keeping secrets from them, at least for a bit, which would erode trust as I doled out the news. And asking Gus and Doug to keep the secrets, too, and they have– Liam, you and I were glad to transform, but it was still tough.”

Sanders’s ears were not mobile, but you could almost see them twitch at the use of his given name. “Yessir, certainly.”

“Doug and Gus didn’t want to transform. It was a shock and a horror. Five years of it. And then I told them the transformation went deeper than shape, right down to their metaphysics. I won’t add secret-keeping to their burden.

“Anyway, this method keeps their lads from getting stuck on any one part of it. Each has a quarter of his mind wondering about home, a quarter wondering about immortality, a quarter about shapeshifting, and the remaining quarter being flat-out confused. It’s stressful, but not as stressful as any one of those ideas alone. I think. They can keep moving forward.”

“Whoa-whoa-whoa!” yelled Gus, done with being calm and patient. “Time out! Yes, I believe Cap’n Phil.” Sanders winced. “He’s got a whole ship’s crew vouching for him, including a bunch of fairies. Gopal and Sandy and J.J. will get better. And Terry and Roj. And we have been changing shape, growin’ back hands and tails; that’s part of it. And the trip’ll take a month or so. And it’s free.”

“Frying pans and fires!” called back a blond lungmao, the one who had asked about the price of the trip. “Why are these critters doing this?” he demanded.

“They’re sorry for us!” Gus answered. Suddenly, he and the blond were the foci of a public debate. “We’re poor, wayfaring strangers, and they’re sorry for us. That’s all!”

“I don’t want their pity!”

Gus took two strides, bringing himself muzzle to muzzle with the blond dragon-cat, as big as himself. “I do!” he declared. “I’ve been kidnapped and mutilated and enslaved and left lost-er than I knew anyone could be! Haven’t you? Don’t you want help? If pity means help, I’m not too proud to take it.”

“‘Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart,’” quoted Doug, quietly but clearly. “Generosity is a real thing. Take it.”

Fletcher saw the young men latching onto one idea and getting bogged down. Time for the “critter” to speak up. He took a few steps toward the debate circle, caught the blond’s eye, and called, “Sir! Mister...?”

“Rob,” said the blond. “Just call me Rob.”

“Rob, here’s what we get out of it: your future good will. Yes, you are ‘poor, wayfaring strangers,’ but you are also a score of elven knights, a band of immortal warriors. That’s a rare thing, and very powerful, or it could become so. We call the life you came from, the one without magic, the ‘monde-minor,’ the little world. This is the ‘monde-major,’ the big world. It’s big in many ways, but the population is small. You’ll run into Grand Normandy again, of a certainty, in one century or another, and who knows what you might be by then? We want you to remember us fondly.”

Rob blushed and looked confused. Gus gave him a friendly cuff on the shoulder. “Let’s get packing,” he told Rob. And, though there was still plenty of talking, the men turned to and began to pack.

“I see what you mean, sir,” said Sanders, “about keeping several balls in the air. Distract him from his suspicion by bringing up the immortality.”

Fletcher nodded but said, “I’ve done a bad thing. It was expedient, as bad things often are, but still... Wouldn’t it have been better if he had just had the grace, the humility to accept charity? Instead, I appealed to his vanity.”

“I don’t know there was a lot of humility forthcoming, sir. And you also helped him feel better about his fate,” Sanders countered.

“There’s that.” Then Fletcher found Doug was watching him, and he remembered how keen the lungmao ears were.

But then, with both ears and eyes, Doug aimed his attention above and beyond Fletcher. Turning, Fletcher saw a nimmy in the tree branches above. It piped something. Doug apparently understood; he nodded and held out his hand.

The nimmy came dropping down, barely touching branches, leapt out of the tree to Sanders's shoulder, thence to Doug's outstretched hand. “You are leaving?” it squeaked. “You wish it?”

Doug furrowed his brows. “Yes...”

“Marco! Amdis and Lorco want him in the labor pool. They have heard. They want him detained.”

“Am...bis and Lorco... are the two men he beat up?”

“Yes! They have heard he is leaving, but they want him held for punishment.”

Doug sighed loudly, scanned the camp, then bellowed, “Marco!” A cat-man came trotting up, a bit shorter than Doug but brawny. Fletcher had no trouble believing he had used Ambis to club Lorco, or the other way around. But right now he looked worried.

Doug had thought hard in the few seconds that Marco had taken to cross over to him. “Your punching-bags, Andis and Lorco, have heard we’re leaving, but they want to keep you here, to face their music. Labor pool.”

“More!” squeaked the nimmy in Doug’s hand. “They plan to have him assigned to one of them.”

Doug brought the nimmy to his face. “We need a good magistrate,” he said to it. “Can you recommend one?”

“Gaeldui,” the creature answered promptly. “But hurry. Ambis and Lorco are moving now!”

“Show us the way,” Doug said. He grabbed the dismayed Marco by an upper arm and held the nimmy out before him. It pointed back down the path, toward the road. Towing Marco, Doug turned and started to run.

Fletcher followed, pausing only to tell Sanders, “Help them get to the ship. Answer questions but keep ’em moving.”

Doug and Marco were big and young and strong and urgent, but Fletcher was a horse. He had no trouble catching up and keeping up. They sped back up the path, down the road, through the belt of suburb and the next belt of park land, then the gate. Fletcher’s hooves rang on cobble; the sound warned pedestrians out of the way.

After a few turns directed by the nimmy, they came to a halt on a street of townhouses. But they did not stop before a house. Rather, they stood before a tall garden gate. It and its fence were twined with ivy, and hemlock trees rose behind. They stood before a garden or small park. There was a bell by the gate; Doug rang it.

“I wondered,” said Fletcher, regaining his breath, “if you would order me back. Or ask why I came.”

I order you?” Doug asked. “No. And I just figured you were continuing your work of uncovenanted mercies.”

“What?” puffed Marco, still catching his breath.

“He’s here to help. He’s the first person to be kind to us in five years.” Doug met Fletcher’s eyes. “Send you back?” He rang the bell again.

Fletcher shrugged. “This isn’t my business, I just–”

“Thought you could help,” Doug concluded. “Right.”

“At the least, I’m evidence that you’re not making the whole story up.”

Doug started to reply, but then the gate opened. A shadow stood in it, a dark-elf, as Fletcher had guessed when he heard the nimmy give the name. “Is Magistrate Gaeldui available?” Doug asked.

“I am Gaeldui,” the silhouette replied. He looked them over. “Here is a tale worth hearing. Come in.” He opened the gate and waved them in.

While Doug and Marco gabbled out their story, Fletcher looked around with interest. They were indeed in a garden. The nearest to a sign of habitation was a small gazebo in one corner, containing a cabinet, a small table, and four chairs. There was also a well in the center flower bed. While he listened, Gaeldui drew a bucket from the well, filled ceramic goblets, and offered them to his guests, still sweating from their run.

All was dark. The gazebo was made of black marble and iron pillars. The furniture was of dark woods. The paths and well were dark gray stone. The leaves of the garden were dark greens.

But all this was background for lights. The dark plants and bushes bore a profusion of flowers, mostly small, many white. Lily of the valley and miniature white roses seemed to be favorites. The gazebo was ornamented with reflectors and crystal hangings. The goblets they drank from were dark blue but rimmed in silver.

Gaeldui was the same. Fletcher knew something of dark elves, and knew that, in himself, Gaeldui was black of skin, hair, and eyes, but beyond that, he wore a glamour of complete blackness, as habitual to him as his accent. His robe and cloak were likewise black. But not merely. And today was a yellow day, it appeared. Clothes had yellow embroidery. He wore yellow flowers in his hair, and yellow makeup (or glamour): eyebrows, lashes, and lips all picked out in yellow, even something like yellow contact lenses so you could see where he was looking.

He was looking at Fletcher now. “Master Fletcher? I perceive these great fellows are sincere, but that went by very quickly. You are an officer among these Grannormans?”

“Yes, Magistrate. I am a captain among them, one of four. We are explorers, by ship.”

“Yes, I have heard,” said the elf, glancing at the nimmy.

“Our ship came to Gelho’on some tendays ago, where we met Captain Cheung and his fellows. We are from Ennorath, as are they, and we have offered to take them home with us.”

Gaeldui shifted his black-and-gold gaze to the two lion-men. Their ex-human faces were actually more expressive than before: Doug was mastering his, staring resolutely back, but Marco, equipped with mobile ears and whiskers as well as human eyebrows and lips, looked like a woebegone cat and a young man full of anxiety.

Gaeldui sighed. “I have not heard the other side of the tale, except as gossip.” He glanced at the nimmy. “But... A tavern brawl. They happen most nights.”

They hit me, sir!” Marco insisted plaintively. “To start with. I had to–”

“Of a surety. Well, so the other combatants want you sung as the villain of the song, and kept when you would leave for home. That is your song.”

“From what I have heard, sir,” said Fletcher, “these other combatants are at least as guilty. Can Marco be guilty of more than defending himself with excessive force? Is there any reason the penalty cannot be a fine rather than the labor pool? Is there any reason his fellow brawlers should be allowed to specify his penalty?”

Gaeldui turned and strode toward the gazebo, beckoning them to follow. “Not by my judgment, no. Master Marco, you were to appear before a magistrate within the next two days, the time given to let you ready your defense.” He stepped into the gazebo and opened the cabinet. “Now, Amdis and Lorco are seeking a magistrate to their own liking, to seek a ruling now. (They will probably seek Lemmadi; he is harsh and off-hand.)” He took a sheet of paper and a stylus out of the cabinet. “I can perceive your honesty, but you may be mistaken, and if I merely let you go, I may miscarry justice, against my oath. Are you willing to forego your defense and simply pay a fine?”

Marco looked ready to cry. “I... I don’t have any–”

Doug pulled his purse off his belt. “Thank you, Magistrate!” he said, and tossed it to Gaeldui, who caught it.

The dark elf nodded, fished briefly in the purse, pulled out two silver coins, and tossed it back. Then he sat down and scribbled hastily on the paper. He then thrust it at Marco, who took it in a daze.

“I greatly desire to hear more of your tale,” Gaeldui said, “but rather you should take that to the paanloff immediately. If your opponents deliver their writ first, they win.”

The lungmao grinned, saluted, then turned and ran for the gate. Fletcher saluted, too, and followed.

Paanloff?” he asked as he cantered beside Doug. They had been speaking Sindarin with Gaeldui, but this was a Varsic word he did not know.

“City hall,” Doug answered briefly, then gave himself to running.

Fletcher noticed Doug’s gait was hindered. He reached out. “Give me the nimmy,” he said. Doug passed him the little fay. Fletcher put it on his shoulder, where it giggled maniacally in his ear. It would be dining out on this story—or whatever nimmies did—for months.

Fletcher followed through a rush of staring faces and twisting streets. Soon, they were in a market, a nest of booths and carts. In the middle was a multi-story building so decked with banners, it almost looked shaggy. Fletcher stopped at the bottom of the stairs, but Doug and Marco vaulted up. At the top, Marco slapped the writ into the hand of a wide-eyed guard. And that, apparently, was the finish line.

The nimmy shrieked in Fletcher’s ear, then leaped from his shoulder to the top of a booth, where it pounced on another nimmy and began chattering to it at high speed.

Doug and Marco came down the steps, grinning and panting. “We were in time?” Fletcher asked them. Doug pointed into the crowd. Two young local men had just come into the market square. They were halted, scowling at the monsters on the steps of city hall. One man had a piece of paper in his hand.

Marco swelled and took a step in their direction. “Nope,” said Doug, taking his elbow. “Just wave and walk away. Where to, Captain Phil?”

“The docks, I think. I told Lieutenant Sanders to get your men down there. Unless there was something you wanted back at camp?”

“Not a thing. Not a cursed thing.”


The Lion Host
The GNNV Bythos
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