“It’s worst for Coudray,” said Fletcher. “Regs and honor dictate that she be up there at the helm, strapped in, with the first mate and the nix, watching the water turn into chaos. And when it’s worst, that’s when she can do least about it.”
He was sprawled comfortably on grass, with Gus and Doug on either side of him. Behind them towered the Bythos. Before them spread Yod-34-subminor-f6. It was a grassy island. You could see all of it from the Bythos crow’s nest. But it had the grass and a good anchorage, and the sea water here was fresh. The horses had been let out to pasture for a full day, and longer if Eowyck, the head stable brownie, could browbeat Coudray into it.
“The woman is made of iron, then,” Doug remarked.
“That was a rough one,” Gus agreed. “At least– Please, Cap’n Phil, tell us that was a rough one! Not a good one! We’ve been through a couple of other ‘edge-farings,’ like you call ’em, but they weren’t nearly...” He trailed off.
Doug nodded. “It’s like the difference between a bit of turbulence on an airplane flight and hitting a good, stiff air pocket. Uh, have you ever flown in an airplane, sir?”
Fletcher nodded. “A few times, little hops back and forth across the Channel, before I got up on hooves. So I know what you’re talking about. Yes, that was a bad one. The hazard of traveling on an exploratory vessel. We haven’t yet found the good passages to Varsis. We barely knew it was there. But! We know some good passages out of little old f6, here. Smoother sailing ahead.”
“I won’t hold his nerves against Charlie,” Doug said. He looked up the gentle rise, where he could see his erstwhile mount stretched out on his side, his eyes closed, but still talking to a human sitting on the grass beside him.
“He’s simply candid enough to admit to those nerves,” Fletcher said. “He’s made something of a spiritual discipline of candor. Ah, here comes one of yours. What’s his name?”
“Rob,” said Gus. “Robert Inslee. Canadian.”
Inslee approached but zeroed in on Fletcher, paying no attention to his captains. His expression was a mix of eager and cautious, solidly focused on Fletcher with feline ears and eyes. “The last thing the mouse sees,” Fletcher thought to himself.
“What did you mean,” the cat-man demanded, “when you said we were immortal now? I know we’re not invulnerable, but did your uh–” He glanced back at Charliehorse. “Your guy there, was he right about surviving anything, recovering from anything?”
“Mr. Darneley is my student,” Fletcher answered. “And yes, he’s right.”
Doug and Gus had taken the news of their immortality like a punch in the gut, but Rob looked doubtful.
“And sooner or later,” Fletcher went on, watching the cat-man carefully, “you will be able to return to your proper form. However, as you said, you’re not invulnerable. There’s still pain and loss. You must still take care.” But Fletcher did not feel he was getting through. Rob nodded, grunted “Okay,” and turned on his heel.
“That,” said Doug, “was kind of stupid, and not very mannerly. Sorry, sir. But that’s Rob.”
“Our friend,” said Fletcher, “learned he was a fay only a few hours ago. It takes some believing. Then we hustled him out of town and hurled him through chaos. Is he generally a discipline problem?”
“Can be. Not insolent, but careless.”
“Well, let it go this time. He’s going through a lot. And he’s on shoreleave, you could say. And it’s Sunday.” He nodded as he made the last remark. Following the nod, they saw Father Robert Moncey striding up to a low rise. He was a young man with dark, Sicilian coloring, in Standard Cavalry dress uniform, the hat carefully off; you would have to stand close to see the cross pin on his lapel. As he took his position, people began to congregate in front of him.
Fletcher rolled himself upright, gathered his legs, and heaved himself up. Gus and Doug joined him in walking toward the forming congregation.
Rahul and two other lungmao hurried over, looking confused. “Sir,” he asked Doug, “are they really having a church service?”
“That’s right,” Doug answered. “It’s quite painless.”
“But what do we do?”
Instead of answering, Doug looked to Fletcher, who answered, “Listen politely, say ‘amen’ with us if you feel moved to, sing along if you know the songs, though that’s unlikely. Moncey is Avignese Catholic, though you won’t have heard of that; but it means an open communion—if you’re any kind of Christian, you’re welcome to take part.”
Rahul nodded hesitantly, said, “Thank you, sir,” and went with his two companions to spread the information among the other lungmao.
“Today’s sermon is for our guests, the Raurhoth. You have been greatly wronged, and most of it cannot be undone, but I want to offer what consolation I can.
“A reading from the Old Testament: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but in the end came to him to beg mercy. He said to them, ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’ Genesis 50:20.
“This elven war-lady meant you nothing but ill. She did not even bother to hate you, but made you tools and robbed you of your shapes and freedom only to further her military goals. But her will is not final. Against his brothers’ will, Joseph rose to high office and saved multitudes, including his own treacherous family. Now your captor lies in her grave, against her will, leaving you (without your will) with magic and immortality. Who can say what you will be able to do?
“A reading from the New Testament: St. Paul says of the suffering and hope of the saints, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:38–39.
“We have been shipmates only a few hours and I do not know you yet. I do not know what you believe. But I believe what Paul says here: ultimately, your destiny is between you and God. Nothing and no one can bar you from Him. Perhaps you do not even believe in God.” He smiled. “Well, you are now immortal, and some day I hope to be ex-mortal. We will have all the time we need to discuss the matter, and more experience at our disposal. But already I tell you that, no matter what some violent, bullying creature has done to you, the ultimate good is still there, whatever you call it, and the road to it is still open. Do not in any way despair.”
Gus walked next to Fletcher on the way up to receive the elements. “That’s what you told us,” he said, “the day we met.”
Fletcher nodded. “It’s what there is to tell.”
Gus nodded and threw back his shoulders, a stalwart soldier starting his long march to Doomsday. Another lungmao came up and fell in with them. When they were in line, he murmured, “Uh, Captain Gus?”
Gus lifted a hand to pause his fellow and said, “Cap’n Phil, this is Dan. Daniel Hotchkiss. American. Dan, this is Captain Philip Fletcher. He’s the guy who figured out what happened to us and talked the lady captain into taking us home.”
“Oh! Uh, thank you! Thank you, sir!”
“It didn’t take much talking,” Fletcher told Hotchkiss, smiling. “We’re explorers. A score of elven warriors is quite a discovery.”
Hotchkiss smiled back gratefully and decided to address himself to Fletcher rather than his own captain. “Uh, sir, I didn’t quite follow the sermon. Did he mean we can still get to heaven?”
Fletcher stared thoughtfully at the ground for a few shuffling paces, picking his words. “He means you are immortal but you can still be a saint. You will still be here when the mortal saints come back from Heaven in the Resurrection. He means you will stand with us at the Last Judgment. We’ll receive the blessing together, pass into the New Creation together.”
Fletcher studied Hotchkiss as they inched up the line together. Poor Dan! An ordinary young man, kidnapped, mangled, cast wandering across worlds and through chaos, only now getting any explanation, all in a rush, topped with a dollop of high theology. He stared back at Fletcher open-mouthed.
But it was a Christmas-morning kind of amazement, and Fletcher smiled to see the smile it kindled on Gus’s somber face. Gus linked arms with Dan. “Onward, Christian soldiers!” he proclaimed, and took another step along the line.
Doug waited, sitting where he had parted company with Gus and Fletcher. He felt homesick. It was a familiar feeling, but he had had a long break from it these past weeks, with the prospect of home before him. Now it was back. He lay buried under layer on layer of strangeness: this island was a little scrap of unexplained stability in the center of what looked like a hurricane’s eye; above shone a sun that, Charliehorse told him, never moved at all; he had been rescued from a world of magic and myth-creatures—by a magical ship full of myth-creatures. And his ears twitched, and he had fangs and cat-whiskers and scales and a goddam tail. He thumped it angrily on the ground.
And now even Gus had gone to practice the religion that was one of the few major things they didn’t share. Doug had been raised secular. It was, of course, hard to stay secular in any normal sense, when magic and the results of magic infested every moment of your experience. So Doug wouldn’t call Gus and Dan’s belief crazy or stupid, but neither would he say that of Rahul’s Hinduism, or Lloyd’s Americanized Buddhism. He did not know what to think.
Well, “you can only understand backward but you can only act forward.” Wasn’t that how it went? Though now he could do arbitrary amounts of both. Moreover, he had an inkling of how he could make peace with Gus’s faith while staying honest.
He surveyed the landscape. It seemed all the crew, human, fay, mer (on crutches), or centaur, were filing up to the priest to take communion—and yes, including some lungmao. But they had been doing it for a while and the ones who were done strayed about among the horses. They were forming slowly into larger shoals and schools, for the final singing and blessing.
Speaking of collectives, here came a little clowder of his own men: Rob, Derek, Lloyd, Jose, and Miles. Derek seemed to be in the lead, and to look puzzled. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?” Doug asked when they were close enough.
“We were wondering...” Derek began, then started over: “Captain Doug, did you understand the sermon?”
(Still “captain,” eh?) “I think so,” he answered. “Did it puzzle you?”
“Why was he trying to comfort us?” asked Derek. “That was what he was trying to do, wasn’t it?”
“Because,” interrupted Rob, “that centaur captain just told us, back in Huspaan, that we were fays. And he said that means we can change ourselves back, and do magic, and never have to die, right?”
“Basically,” Doug agreed. “We can learn to change back. We can learn magic. And we are unable to die.”
Rob ignored these subtle distinctions. “Okay, then, what’s the down side? Why’s he think we need comfort?” “You don’t look very happy, sir,” Derek noted. “Nor does Gus. What’s up? Or down?”
Doug could not hide in his reserve with them, “captain” or not. During the years in the hive mind, the fay “troop,” they had caught moods from each other like yawns, and lying was literally impossible. They all knew each other far too well, now. “I’m homesick,” he told them—enough of the truth. “And Gus... There was a country-western song we tried to remember once.” Dredging up songs and stories had been a major recreation for the Raurhoth. “The chorus went something like ‘Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to go now.’ Well, turn it around for Gus. He doesn’t want to go now, but he wants to wind up in heaven. And he won’t, can’t, because we can’t die.”
Rob snorted. Derek and Lloyd looked a little regretful. And because he knew them as well as they knew him, he was sure none of them were in sympathy with Gus. He watched them silently dismiss Gus's existential problems and focus on him again. Derek drew himself to attention and said, “Captain, in the light of recent developments, we were wondering if you had any plans. And what they were, sir.”
So he was definitely still “Captain.” He had wondered when that would end. Any time from later today up to never, it seemed.
It all went back to Chicago. When he and Gus were job-hunting among military contractors, they met and teamed up with two other young men, Neil and Aaron. They had joined forces and Gus had nicknamed the foursome “the Windy City Squad.” But it was soon apparent that he and Doug were the squad leaders; Aaron and Neil had been clueless about navigating the job-hunting channels and woefully unprepared for international travel; they huddled all the closer when the foursome arrived in Baghdad.
When the dagorrodel, the warlady, changed and abducted them all, she had dumped them in the wilderness outside her citadel and taken no interest in the internal organization of her “lion host,” her raurhoth. She just wanted her orders obeyed. The Squad, now embedded in the hive mind of the troop, had expanded automatically, simply because each terrified, bewildered young man knew, felt, that Gus and Doug were a team and willing to take care of others. Doug and Gus were “captains” by acclamation, and stayed captains when the warlady fell and the troop disintegrated.
And it was all about having plans for what to do next. “My plans?” echoed Doug. “My immediate plan is to stick with the Grand Normans. They have plans. This place and Varsis are in a mess of little worldlets they call the Hathor Reach. We go from here through the Hathor Passages to a world they call Netzach. It’s an entire Earth, a parallel world, and they have a base called Netzach-Isis, where they’ll report and restock. Then we’ll go to another network of worldlets called Yetzirah, stop at a station called Yetzirah-Thoth, and finally to an island in the chaos called Brequelle. Grand Normandy owns it. From there, Fletcher says, we can march home. That is, to Earth, Middle Earth, our Earth.
“That’s their plan. It’ll take a couple of weeks or more, and we can use the time to make our own plans for after.” Doug studied them. Rob looked like he wanted to think of an objection but couldn’t come up with anything. The others just looked thoughtful, especially Derek.
“Where do we come out?” Derek asked.
“You mean on Earth? Fletcher and his class come out in England, in the countryside. Alain—that’s the other centaur captain—and his class come out in a place on the French coast, in Normandy.”
“‘Class’?” Derek echoed. “These are trainee centaurs?”
“That’s right. And in two senses. They are cavalry trainees, and they are being trained in how to be centaurs. A year ago, they were all regular guys. They’re transformed too.” He let that sink in for a second or two, then added, “The big difference is they all volunteered.”
“And they have a teacher,” Derek added bitterly. He lashed his tail. Doug sighed and nodded. “Think they’ll be able to change us back?”
“They’ll give some kind of help,” Doug said. “They’ll do what they can. They’re experts on walking both sides of the street, weird and normal. They’ve already given me some ideas.”
They nodded and left. A minute later, Gus returned from communion. “Fletcher’s gone to see if he can put his students to use,” he said, dropping onto the grass next to Doug. He looked his friend over. “What’s the problem, zhījĭ?”
“You go weeks without calling me that,” Doug remarked.
“Special time. Problem?”
Doug shrugged. “Homesick. Weirdness overdose. And some of the guys just now asked me what our plans were. I just told them the plan was to take this free ride and make more plans on the way.”
“That last doesn’t sound like a problem.”
“Yeah, but I wish I had something concrete in mind already.”
“We got time. We got Fletcher and his pals for help. And I thought you had something already.”
Doug briefly wondered how Gus had guessed that but shrugged it off. “A little something. Very little. Oh. Um.” The part of the Bythos crew that made up the choir had started singing: “Amazing Grace,” almost certainly selected because it was a hymn that some of the Raurhoth might know. Doug got up with Gus and stood silent and respectful.
Gus sang softly and stopped after the first verse; he didn’t think his husky tenor was worthy of display. The less familiar verses rolled by, including:
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we’ve first begun.”
“Not entirely tactful,” Doug muttered, “since we’ll never get ‘there’.”
“Nah,” Gus contradicted cheerfully. “We’ll get there. Just not by dyin’.” He stood respectfully silent for the benediction, then sat back down and asked, “So what’s your little something?”
Doug sat next to him, flipped his tail into his lap, realized this had become a habit, and wondered how weird it was. No. Center. “We ... could ... become an order of knighthood. Give them—give us direction. Not just a bunch of escaped slaves. Not just a bunch of vagrant freaks. The ‘Lion Knights.’ We’d have standards, a mission.”
Gus nodded, inviting more. “What mission?”
“Well, I’m still working on it. Not ready to pitch it to the guys. But... That book I asked for?”
Gus did not say “Silver Chair.” He leapt ahead and said, “Puddleglum. The guy who kept faith even when the witch destroyed his belief.”
Doug, who had been looking anywhere but at Gus and nearly mumbling, came into focus. His face lit as he quoted, “‘I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.’”
Gus gazed back as thoughts flickered through his mind:
That is one helluva noble idea.
That is so not going to fly with the guys. Not all. Not nearly.
That is not a mission.
Well, he did say it needed work.
Of course, I like the idea, but–
“That,” Gus said slowly, “is the most ... splendid present anyone ever gave me. And the most expensive.”
Doug cast his eyes down but did not deny the implication. Then he looked up, puzzled. “Expensive?”
“You,” Gus answered, “are willing to take as your lord and master a being you flat-out say you aren’t sure exists. So we can be Lion Knights together. Expensive.”
Doug stared out at the everlasting hurricane for a bit, then, “So,” he said. “Think we can sell it to the guys?”
Gus sighed. “Needs content.”
“What does a ‘Lion Knight’ do?” Dan asked.
They stood on the low rise where Father Robert had held his outdoor service. Around them were scattered the other lungmao and several centaurs. Three campfires had been set up, and a few young men of three species were preparing large pots of soup, stew, and coffee. Others made sandwiches. This, the captains deemed, was the most useful thing a collection of untrained passengers could do for the crew while the latter inspected the Bythos to make sure she was still seaworthy and edgeworthy. The cooking, though, only took a few people, so the rest hung about and talked.
“Do?” Doug echoed. He glanced at Gus for encouragement. Dan, as they both knew, needed things put simply. “We’d be knights. We’d be chivalrous and protect the weak from bullies.”
“Like we wish we’d been protected,” Gus put in.
“We’d be faithful and true,” Doug went on. “That is, we’d be honest and keep promises. We’d help anyone, no matter what kind of ... thing they were, because look at us.”
Dan nodded but said, “Shouldn’t we do that stuff anyway?”
“Sure. But we’d be a team, help each other stick with it.”
“Like Alcoholics Anonymous,” Dan supplied helpfully.
“Okay, but...” Dan’s ears went down, his tail tucked in between his knees, and for a moment he looked like a lost cat out in the rain. It was a look all of them had worn many times. “Can I go home?” he pleaded. “I’m all for doing good, but I want to go home.”
“Sure!” Doug answered. “We’re all going back to our homes. I didn’t mean we were all going to live together in a clubhouse somewhere.”
“But how’s that gonna work?” Dan asked. He met Doug’s gaze with the vast-pupiled eyes of a distressed cat. “If I walked into my home town this way, people’d just scream and shoot me.”
“Magic,” Gus said firmly.
“Magical disguises,” Doug amplified, “and later we’ll learn to turn back.”
Dan nodded but muttered, “I don’t know that the fix for bad magic is more magic.”
“I hear you,” said Doug, “but I don’t see an alternative.”
Then there was Rob. He was standing on the strip of beach that bordered f6, looking at the Bythos, where, now that the worship service was over, the crew were resuming their round of inspections and repairs.
“Why Rob?” Gus asked as they approached.
“He was one of the ones who came to me asking for a plan.”
“I don’t know that I’d try to sell him on an order of knighthood.” If you ranked the guys by idealism, Rob would be near the bottom.
“I’ll be oblique.”
“... I’ll watch.”
They joined Rob in gazing at the Bythos. “’Afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “If it is afternoon,” he added, looking up at the moveless sun at the zenith.
“When you asked me for a plan,” asked Doug, “what kind of plan were you looking for?”
“More detail on how we get back to civilization, mainly. And how we get back to human.” He rubbed his mouth, feeling the muzzle. “You tell me they’ll take us as far as England or France, right?”
“Right,” Doug echoed.
“And this part?” Rob asked, sweeping his hand along his whiskers.
“Disguise, to start with,” said Doug. “Glamour. Then we need teachers. They tell me shapeshifting is passed down teacher to student, if you want to learn at all fast. Anything else?”
“What else would there be?”
“Long-term strategy. Direction.”
“We got a lot of time to fill,” Gus added.
“Right,” said Rob, giving Gus a sideways glance. “The immortality thing. Is that for real? I mean, how can they know? Even your centaur captain could only report second-hand stories. Is this just some elvish religious belief?”
Doug stared at Rob briefly, then said, “Nothing second-hand? Okay, come with me.” He led the way toward the Bythos. This meant wading through a few yards of shallow water, to the foot of a broad, heavy gangplank designed for horses and centaurs.
As they climbed the ramp, Doug said, “They want us out of the way, but we’ll see if we can get away with this.” He didn’t explain himself further until they were back in the main hold. All the harnesses hung empty and only three people poked about, evidently inspecting.
All three wore the gray-blue slacks and blouses that were their duty uniforms, and all three looked ostensibly human, but Doug pointed one out. “That’s Commander Randirel,” he told Rob, “the magic officer. Best all-around mage on the ship. Works in tandem with the chief engineer. Also, he is an elf and older than dirt.”
Doug approached Randirel, trailed by his two companions. The elf was perched on a pile of crates, his hand on the bulkhead, apparently listening. He looked like a young man, barely adult, indecently beautiful. His flawless skin was pale as cream, his golden hair bound back in a short braid. His ears were lightly pointed, and his eyes had a silvery sheen.
Doug cleared his throat. “Commander, may I trespass on your time?”
The elf looked them over. “Briefly. How may I help?” He turned from the bulkhead and settled, crosslegged, on the pile of crates.
“This is my companion Rob Inslee. He’s finding it hard to believe that he’s a fay and that fays are immortal. Would you assure him of your personal experience?”
Randirel swept a sardonic glance over them. “Well, of my ‘personal experience,’ it is obvious to me that you are fays, not merely sculpted by magic like our centaur shipmates.”
Rob pricked his ears forward. “Obvious how?”
The elf shrugged. “The set of your personal magic. Everyone has some, whether they are using it or not. And, professionally, I’ve learned to take note of it.”
“And the immortality?” demanded Rob. “How do you have experience of that?”
“Paradoxically, by dying. Or so it looked. Then coming back. I have come back twice.” He looked at Doug, then back to Rob. “I have told this to your captain, but if you wish it first hand: The first time was late in the Fourth Age, though we knew nothing of such chronology where I lived; it was far east of Gondor, in what is now Switzerland, I think. Orcs were plentiful there and then. I died in an orc raid. I did not go to the Halls of Mandos; I know not where that tale comes from. I woke in a burial mound, weary beyond telling, naked, with a bronze sword at my side corroded as blue as the sky. Such mounds are built to be easy to break out of.
“Next time, it was further east, out on the steppe. Early in the Silver Age, as they called it later, after the first Olympians had won the Gigantomachy. Zeus waged wars of consolidation, and conscripted all the kouretes, including me. Again, a battle death. But the captain, a son of Ares of whom you have never heard, brought me back the very next day—stuck my head back on and pumped me full of fiery vis. And thus bound me to his service—you know about such service—until he himself died later in the war. And he was not of fay kind, so he remains dead.” The lovely face hardened. “Heirs of the Valar but not a tithe as wise.
“I avoided gods and war for a long time after that. Though, eventually, I got swept up in the Rama-Ravana war.”
“The Ramayana,” Doug supplied in an undertone.
“You don’t look very Indian,” Rob observed.
Randirel smiled. “I wore my skin darker, then. And was called a yaksha, not a kourete or quendë, and of course not yet an ‘elf.’”
Gus smiled. “Sir, someday when I have money, I’d like to buy you a few drinks and hear you reminisce.”
Rob snorted. “All of it sounds like tavern talk to me. Why should–”
“Dammit, Rob!” Doug barked. “What does it take? You’ve been transformed by a wicked fairy and shanghied to the Twilight Zone, spent five years skipping through worlds and chaos, and you don’t believe them when everyone tells you a new strange thing?”
“No!” Rob shouted back. “I don’t trust these people! ‘Want your good will’ my ass! Immortality is the oldest bait in the book!”
“No one’s offering it! You already have it! This guy is taking time out to help and you call him a liar.”
In the moment Rob was taking to frame an answer, Randirel cut in: “You are young and ignorant, so I will forgive the implied insult. Besides, I am Christian nowadays, and am enjoined to forgive. It is a wise teaching, though it does not seem so when one is called on to do it; then it just seems unfair. Howsobeit—I will swear to what I say, if you like, by my name, by Eärendil, and by St. Alice, and it will cost me nothing because it is all true. You will soon learn, if you do not yet know, how such oaths work. In mortal tales, they sometimes say fays cannot lie. That is an exaggeration, but lying is rare and careful among fays.”
The elf admitted later that this lecture had a condescending tone. It set Rob off again.
“Don’t you dare ‘forgive’ me! You’re the same kind of pretty monster she was! You–”
“Rob, shut up!” Doug roared.
It was long since Randirel had had a spell go so wrong. It was a very slight spell, too, so slight he hadn’t even thought of it as magic, just as being emphatic. But he had pushed the idea of peace at them as he said the word, and now:
Rob had crouched and drawn a knife. Doug was curled defensively, his fists up, baring his spurred knuckles. Even Gus, who had had no part in the shouting, stood balanced like a fencer, with one armed drawn back, fist aimed.
And all three stared at the elf in stark terror.
In a single stride, Randirel was on top of a higher pile of crates. He held his hands up, placating. Making his voice as flat and human and unmagical as possible, he said, “Forgive me. I was a fool.” When, at length, the three lion-men relaxed from terrified to wary, he added, “I will not touch your minds again, not without your leave. This I do swear by my name and by the star of Eärendil and by St. Alice. And I hope you will see that forgiveness is wise.”
Twelve long seconds passed, in which the three lungmao slowly uncoiled and noted the other two crewmembers in the hold: one had found a coil of rope and the other had picked up a piece of piping; both were watching with great attention.
Doug hung his head and closed his eyes. “I was a fool,” he heard Randirel repeat in his private dark. “We had just been speaking of the thralldom you suffered. I had not thought I was touching wounds still raw. I apologize.”
Doug inhaled deeply, then nodded as he sighed. He opened his eyes in time to see Rob give a single curt nod. “Sure,” Gus murmured sadly. “We didn’t know... No one’s ... touched us since we got free of her. We didn’t know.” They didn’t know they had these wounds. He looked away. “I’m–”
“Do not say you are sorry,” Randirel commanded him. Still perched high on the stacked crates, he called to his two crewmates, who were now watching in puzzlement, though they hadn’t put down their ad hoc weapons. “I frightened them. My bad judgment. They let it pass. Please, do you as well.” The other two nodded and went cautiously back to work.
“We should go,” Doug said, and started to turn toward the ladder.
“You would do me a great favor,” said Randirel, “if you did not flee me as though I were a monster, but stayed and talked with me as I worked.” He got down as he spoke, and stood among them, barely coming up to their collarbones.
It looked brave, but Doug and the others were arctic-fresh on how he could terrify them with a literal word.
“We went into a blind panic,” said Gus.
“No,” said Randirel, turning back to the bulkhead and again feeling it. “None of you struck. Now. Rob? May I do more to explain how deathlessness works?”
Rob nodded, deliberately finished calming down, then asked, “What if you get eaten?”
“Ah. You want to avoid that more than most deaths. Coming back from dung is long and hard. Of course, I go by mere report...”
When Rob ran out of questions, Randirel asked them to leave while he finished his inspection, but gently requested they meet with him out on the grass in a little while.
Back on shore, Doug asked Rob, “So why do you believe him now?” When they had been bound in the troop together, Doug would have simply known about the trust, been strongly tempted to share it. But, after five years’ acquaintance, telepathic and otherwise, he could still guess quite well.
Rob stared at the permanent storm-bank surrounding f6, then said, “He had us. Had us in his palm. And pulled back, even apologized. She never held off. And apologize?” He waved the idea away.
Doug and Gus traded a look. Rob gave away trust like a miser gave away gold coins. They might have wounds to lick, but there was a battle won here, somewhere.
Doug sat down on the grass and watched their hosts, the ones off duty, stray about the island or sit chatting as they did. Now did not seem the time to talk with Rob about giving direction to his life.
“Gentlemen.” Suddenly, Randirel was sitting with them. He planted a wine bottle on the grass and passed out aluminum coffee mugs from the galley. “This wine is pleasant enough, though nothing special. Let us share it and relax together.” He filled the mugs, then raised his in a toast. One by one, the lungmao raised theirs. They clinked together. “To peace in your hearts,” the elf proposed.
“Thanks.” “Yeah, thanks.” “Cheers.” They drank.
Rob picked up the bottle and looked at the label. “French,” he said. “Earthly. After all this time, that seems so strange.” He looked to Randirel. “Not to you, I suppose.”
“No,” the elf admitted. Then he pointed to the zenith sun. “That is still strange.” He pointed to the standing ring of storm on the horizon. “That is still strange. You are not strange. I have met former mortals often. I meet fays in new forms on most voyages. And the touch of magic on the mind is not strange, either. Not to me, and it must become familiar to you as well.” He met their eyes in turn. “I am still ashamed of the shock I gave you. It is as if I gave you a friendly slap on the back and found you had been freshly flayed. But you must toughen yourselves to such things somehow. They are too common to avoid.
“For instance, I made you a promise, and besides the moral force of it, it was an oath, a spell I put on myself. If I were to break the promise, those who read such things would know on meeting me that I was foresworn. This is a very common magic of the mind, and many folk will scarcely deal with you if you cannot do it.
“With enough practice, you may resist efforts of domination such as you suffered.”
“How do we do that?” Rob asked.
“I do not know. I will inquire. I think I will ask your friend Captain Fletcher. Despite appearances, he is more like you than I am. But–” The elf grinned. “–mark that you are on the path already: when I called ‘Peace,’ you did not react peaceably!” This won grins back from the three soldiers.
They passed two more rounds of wine in quiet talk, then Randirel excused himself to his duties and left them. Gus watched him go. “So we didn’t panic and we didn’t cave,” he said. “Not too shabby, under the circumstances.”
Rob nodded. “Yeah, good. But we have another item on the to-do list: get home, change back, and now learn to fight enchantment.”
“At least we know we can,” said Gus.
“It would appear,” said Doug, “that not only can we learn magic, we must.” He sighed. “I wondered, sometimes, all the while we were on the road, if someone like the dagorrodel might not try to snap us up again. But mostly they just took one look and ran. I guess that was lucky.”
It occurred to him that he had been feeling beat down, one way or another, since the passage through chaos. To hell with that! There was no need. Less need than in the last five years.
He jumped up and prowled around Gus and Rob, hands clasped behind his back, ears down, scowling and lashing his tail. “Okay! More to learn. Just part of the map for the road home. There is a road home! And you’re right, Gus, we can do this, we already do this, we didn’t cave.” He squatted down by the other two lungmao, speaking face to face: “You know those magical oaths he talked about? Maybe we should take an oath, all of us, not to stand idly by if we see people being mind-bullied the way we were.”
Rob winced. “Christ, Doug, could we even stand to take an oath? When the elf, there, nearly blew us away without meaning to?”
“Someday,” Gus proposed. “When we’re up to it. Meantime, we could just promise.” His eyes met Doug’s for an instant. “That’d have the moral force, like he said.”
Rob rose with an exasperated growl. “Oaths. ‘Moral force.’ If I want to stop someone from laying down bad hoo-doo, I’ll just do it. I’m gonna tell the other guys about this.” He strode away toward a small group of lion-men.
“Well, that was nice and oblique,” Gus remarked once Rob was out of earshot.
“You were going to be oblique, remember? You sure were. A great example of obliqueness.”
“One of those. So oblique, it skimmed right off him.”
Doug hovered on the edge of another disconsolate sigh, but instead grinned and took a lazy swipe at Gus, which he could easily block. And he did, following with a shove to the chest. Doug, still squatting, fell back. Next moment, the two mercenary captains were tussling on the grass like kittens, laughing.
Their tussle rolled them down the gentle slope of the island until they came up against a pair of forelegs. They looked up into the face of Charliehorse. “Horseplay?” he asked, grinning.
“Are we infringing your copyright?” Doug asked. Gus laughed.
“Hey, don’t stop,” said a paint centaur standing next to Charliehorse. “We were just starting to lay bets.”
“Sorry, no bet. Game over.” Doug stood and stretched as if rousing from a nap.
“Just blowin’ off steam,” Gus said, standing. “We’ll go roll down the other side of the island now. See ya ’round.” When they had sauntered a few yards away, he asked Doug, “What got into you?”
“I… just decided I was stupid for fretting. We’re going home! We’re changing back! Whatever else happens. Yeah, it won’t be the same, we’re not the same, but that’d be true if we’d lost bits in Afghanistan. We’d still be happy to be going home!” Gus slapped him on the back and reflected that, maybe soon, he wouldn’t feel scales under the shirt.
⇦ The GNNV Bythos
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