Back in the saddle

The Beloved Other is getting past the crisis at Wreck Tech: one of her courses finished today, and she’s pretty sure she passed the final exam. That makes easier going for the rest of the term, with no more classes on Wednesdays. Easter is on its way, the sky is getting lighter, and I have been taking stiff doses of vitamin D to rev my sluggish metabolism. And I have, thanks partly to the encouragement of my 3.6 Loyal Readers, begun slowly working again.

Where Angels Die has lain fallow so long (and against my original intentions) that I could not look at it without a pang of guilt. Part of the trouble was that I published the first episode without having done enough of the necessary background work. And then the second episode proved stubborn, and I made four or five false starts over the course of many months. But I think (and my Editorial Consultant, the fine and capable Wendy S. Delmater, agrees) that I have nailed it this time round.

So here, after long delay, is the opening chapter of Episode 2, ‘The Little Charter’.


 

Chapter 1
MOSQUITO AT THE GATE

 

There was a commotion at the gate of Angel Keep, and Ham Yushon, known to all and sundry as Greyhand, was the first man out to see to it. It was his business to be first, as Baron Vail’s unofficial steward: first to arrive whenever there was news, first to bear the word back to his master. Things were so much harder to manage if the Baron heard six conflicting stories first and Greyhand had to set him straight. He was not a man who took confusion in his stride.

The steward shoved through the bustle of the gatehouse, across the rough triangle of the Yellow Court, and made for the massive portcullis that barred the entrance to the ancient fortress. The two halberdiers on sentry duty were huddled by the wall to one side, shielding themselves from the bitter north wind that howled between the stout wooden bars. Clutching his long yellow coat tightly about him, Greyhand hollered in Prama for their attention. ‘Hoy, the watch! Why is the gate not open?’

‘There’s Taken out there, sir,’ said the less junior of the sentries. ‘We’re not to open the portcullis, not for nobody.’

‘Orders, sir,’ said the other.

‘Great Ram! Whose orders?’

‘Master Herison’s, sir. I don’t think those folk out there like it much. Mad as hornets, they are.’

‘Can you blame them? Great Ram!’ Greyhand shook his head in disgust. Ignoring the sentries’ protests, he strode up to the portcullis and peered at the crowd outside.

Two horses stood patiently by the gate, a ragged orphan boy holding their reins. A man was slung over one horse’s saddle-bow, obviously unconscious. The other rider had dismounted, and was trying to lower his companion safely to the ground. Both wore thick fleece jackets with felt caps and boots. A dozen or more of the local folk had gathered round, some trying to help, some getting in the way, all of them shouting at once.

The young steward put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle for silence. In his own Anayan tongue, he upbraided them: ‘—Peace, brothers! I have not five ears, nor five tongues either. Let the stranger speak first.’

The dismounted rider ducked his head politely. It was the closest he could come to a bow with his arms supporting the other man’s dead weight. ‘—O merciful master, my brother is sorely wounded and will die without aid.’

Greyhand peered skeptically at the unconscious man. ‘—I see no mark upon him. What harm has he taken?’

‘—O my master, it may not be spoken before so many ears.’

The young steward raised an eyebrow, but made no objection. Turning to the locals, he pointed at random. ‘—Speak thou, brother.’

‘—O sapient and enlightened Greyhand, I come seeking justice. Is this not the fifth day, upon which pleas are heard in the Red Court? Yet this barbarian keeps fast the gate against me, and says that the Baron sees no one. My cause—’

‘—Thy cause shall be heard. And thou, brother?’

‘—Galzu sent me to bring medicaments from the stores.’

‘—And thou?’

‘—I also seek justice. The honour of my daughter is in jeopardy.’

‘—Indeed. Is that she?’ Greyhand’s gaze fell upon a slight young girl in a patched blue-green dress, face demure, eyes downcast, shivering in the cold. If she was trying to look pitiful, she was succeeding brilliantly.

Switching to Prama again, he said to the sentries: ‘Why don’t you numbskulls open the gate? Waiting for this kid to freeze solid?’

‘But our orders,’ the older one protested.

‘Orders! I’ll get you some orders. If these people aren’t inside by the count of ten, you’ll spend the next month mucking out latrines.’ He sucked in a double lungful of icy air and bellowed at the battlements above: ‘Open the gate!’

The portcullis rose slowly, with a groaning of winches and a clatter of chains. As soon as it was high enough, the locals ducked their heads and filed in, followed by two men carrying the unconscious stranger, his companion on foot, and the boy with the horses. Greyhand gave the boy a small coin, whereupon he took off at a run down the road to the village.

 

Two men of the garrison brought the unconscious man into the Keep on a stretcher, with Greyhand and the second rider following. They took him to the exorcists’ day room, close by the inner gate, and scratched at the door. To the steward’s surprise, it was one of the Angels who answered. The brown and white pattern woven into her flowing habit, as much as her round, stolid face, identified her as Mistress Brant. ‘Good morrow, Greyhand,’ she said politely.

‘Mistress. Who’s on duty this morning?’

‘No one, I’m afraid. I hope you haven’t got any Taken.’

‘I don’t think so. Just this fellow. What’s the matter with our paladins?’

Brant smiled sadly and shook her head. ‘Three hundred exorcisms in six days, that’s what. You couldn’t wake the poor dears with an earthquake. Come in, come in. Tea?’

‘Thank you, no. This is—’ Greyhand stammered to a halt. ‘—Thy pardon, O my brother. In his haste, thy servant asked not thy name.’

‘Call me Bulrush,’ said the rider, in clipped but faultless Prama. ‘It’s a good thing Bracken isn’t Taken, by the sound of it. I hope your surgeon can bring him round. What’s locked up in his head is worth a lot more than gold.’

Greyhand grinned. ‘What, is he a philosopher?’

‘Certainly not,’ Bulrush answered crisply. ‘He’s a Mosquito.’

The young steward did not know quite what to make of this statement. To buy time, he goggled. ‘Are you feeling quite well yourself?’

‘Nothing a night in a warm bed won’t cure. Why do you ask?’

‘I thought you said your friend was a mosquito. Begging your pardon, Mr. Bulrush, but if there’s a crazy man in this conversation, I’d rather know which of us it is.’

Bulrush’s grave face looked even graver. ‘Oh! If you don’t know, you shouldn’t hear it from me. Please forget I said anything.’

Brant laid a hand on the rider’s arm and led him, gently but firmly, to sit on the long couch against the back wall. ‘It’s all right. Greyhand is Lord Vail’s factotum. You can trust him completely. A Mosquito,’ she explained, turning back to the steward, ‘is a kind of spy.’

‘Ah,’ said Greyhand. ‘But why—?’

Bulrush gave Brant’s face a long, searching look, as if to gauge how far she herself could be trusted. He seemed to come to a satisfactory conclusion, because he shrugged and said frankly: ‘We’re mind-readers. We spy on demons, and that takes a light touch – like a mosquito landing on your arm. If the demon notices—’ He brought his right hand down on his left forearm with an emphatic slap.

Greyhand gave a low whistle. ‘No more Mosquito. Is that what happened to your friend?’

‘That’s why they send us out in pairs,’ said Bulrush. ‘One to skim the demon’s mind, the other to watch his back – and bring back the pieces if necessary. I’m surprised you didn’t know all this.’

‘I don’t think we’ve ever had a Mosquito at Angel Keep.’

‘You’ve had several, actually, but I suppose they kept quiet. We don’t exactly shout from the housetops. Unless—’

‘Unless one of you gets swatted and needs a surgeon?’ Over his shoulder, Greyhand said to the waiting stretcher-bearers: ‘Get Mistress Merganser from the surgery. Whatever she’s doing, tell her to drop it. Run!’

The two men ran.

‘Mistress Brant, can you look after our insect friends? I shouldn’t keep his Lordship waiting.’ Without pausing for an answer, Greyhand left the two riders in the Angel’s care and set off at a trot for the Red Court.

 

Comments

  1. I am enjoying these series so much.

  2. Oh, yay! I enjoyed the first installment of this very much, and am glad to see you continuing it.

    Also, let me commend you for so neatly managing the issue of portraying shifts between languages by changing the syntax. That works very well. Much better than the usual alternatives, for sure.

  3. E. Crook says:

    I’m looking forward to the next episode now . . . please keep writing as you can. I enjoy your work very much!

  4. Garth says:

    Very nice! I’m looking forward to this one.

  5. Tamquam says:

    I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Bring it, brother!

  6. “Things were so much harder to manage if the Baron heard six conflicting stories first and Greyhand had to set him straight. ”
    “…if there’s a crazy man in this conversation, I’d rather know which of us it is.”

    The subtle humor as a running current throughout makes this story so delightful. I’m continually feeling a little grin inside as I read. So glad to see your words flowing again!

Speak Your Mind

*