Sam threw open the door and stalked in without bothering to make himself nonthreatening. I’d already seen him coming up the stairs, and the way he carried his shoulders had braced me for trouble. But now, Jurt slid away from the wall to stand half in front of me, and Edris threw a big-eyed glance at him over her shoulder. That was what made Sam stop in his tracks and reset his expression, I think.
Then she went straight back to smiling at / psychologically wrestling with her offspring. He was smearing food on my countertop in lieu of eating it.
“HellCop,” Sam explained.
That didn’t mean anything, unless–
Jurt’s hands were loose and easy at his sides.
“Jurt, does the Kite have a tracking beacon?”
“It’s always trouble….hey, Allie.”
Alice Preston vibrated to a halt. “Cass, are you in?”
“Yep, the, uh, the Protector said we needed to go help you out.”
Alice did not reach out and grab his face between both of her hands, but she looked like she wanted to. “It’s going to be perfectly simple and perfectly easy and I just need three things from you, okay? Three. That’s it. Three.”
“Three, yup, sure–”
“Don’t die before Wednesday.”
“Okay? Just don’t. Okay?”
“Show up on Wednesday.”
“Okay, yup, show up on Wednesday.”
“Do not. Forget. The bolt cutters.”
“I love you so much,” said Alice Preston, reassuringly.
“I do have a question,” said Cassidy, not reassured.
“What about the big giant dog?”
“We will deal with the big giant dog.”
“I have no more questions.”
Alberich smothered a rejoindering sneer from Jehan by saying lazily, “The women among the Pastless ride into battle some times with their men. They carry long knives. There is no greater fear for a wounded man.”
Vay flicked a glance at him from averted eyes, unsure whether this constituted support.
“They are barbarians.” Alberich said, and went mute again. He appeared, as usual, entirely ready to say nothing more for the rest of the evening.
Vay gathered up her, well, courage. “Sire–then you will say it is not a matter of courage.”
“Is it any less dangerous to bear a child? This thing that you do for love alone?”
Then the winds awoke in vengeance,
Traitors, but to treason faithful
Like hounds lept, let loose from leashes
Or like hunting hawks were driving;
After fleet prey they were speeding:
After hare the hounds were chasing,
On the sparrow were they plunging.
On the shore and in the waters
Under sky the sea was rising
And its head was lifting higher:
Nine great waves had risen wrathful—
Mighty children of the Sea—
Ad the ninth of them rose highest,
And the last of them was greatest:
Iron-Bearer of the Sea.
Iron brought she from the oceans,
From the deepest ocean carried
From the far abyss recovered,
From the deep-delved caverns brought it;
Iron cast she to the shores;
On the sandy shores she set it;
On the broken shores she brought it
To the peoples gave she Iron:
Gave to warlike kindreds sword-blades;
To the feuding kindreds, arrows;
To the weeping, she gave ingots;
To the vengeful, she gave steel.
Then the best of them were heroes
And the worst of them were wolves;
Then the greatest got them kingdoms,
And the lesser served as slaves.
Fell swords made and cast them heedless
For the strongest hand to seize them—
Black swords called to black hearts going—
Made for Elfe, thrice-drowned, the Rider,
Shining spear with heavy handle;
Many heroes gave their helpmeet--
Iron arms and shining armor—
Many more received their bane,
If the dark swords met a greater
Or the black swords’ might was broken:
In the wolf’s-feast, served as poison
And the ravens got their gain;
And the iron shards, well-reddened,
Washed away to join the sea.
Jurt may have said something. I wasn’t listening. All I could see was the Fence and the gate in it, getting closer and closer but somehow no larger as we walked towards it. I twisted my cold fingers in Ajax’s mane. Contact was getting easier now; all I had to do was subvocalize the words. “Ajax, baby, are you sure? Are you sure?”
Ajax twisted an ear and his whole attention towards me. It felt like a puppy’s breath and the strum of distant thunder while the sun was still warm. “Are you afraid, Telzey?”
Of course he wouldn’t believe I could know fear, or doubt, or be wrong. Sam and I were still gods to him.
Old gods, primitive, little gods. Not the lofty ones of marble Olympus–lesser, nameless, one bare step above the mortals they taught how to use fire, or language, or how to kill with implements of metal and take someone else’s crops. Gods that could bleed and die, and revenge and betray.
We had raised him from a cub, and he was mighty–but he was not full grown yet. He still worshipped his gods, his little, strange, half-sighted gods of the field and the farm and the sky.
“Ajax, if you die, you’ll break my heart.”
Ajax threw his head back and his mind-voice roared out like a chord of deep music. “I will not die, I cannot die. Songs I still have that are not yet sung!
The captain continued to study him. “Then why?”
“There’s a girl,” Jack admitted. “–she thinks I’m a hero.” Despite everything, he found he was smiling, just at the memory, just at the thought. “She thinks there is nothing I cannot do.”
Tall Bear said: “You give generously for a man with empty hands.”
Alberich had borne his scabbarded sword into the gathering place, easy in the crook of his arm; he had passed it to the Wolf Boy before entering the council circle. His hands were currently beneath his cloak, as if he sheltered from the cold. He said: “I am a man, Tall Bear, and I speak to you as a man. My vassals, I order. A free man, I do not coerce or command. A free man chooses what he will do, and where he will go, if will profit him–or because he is asked, and it pleases him to answer.” And with this, withdrawing his hands, he revealed a sealed letter. “Tall Bear, I ask you now to be my messenger. Take my word to that whelp, the younger Jalra, that he may know to whom he will bend the knee.”
Piya paused at the airlock.
Spacewards: the starfield, blotched by speeding clumps of debris. Below: the Ship. The star Ship. Their limping orbit had brought them directly over the yawning crack in its shell.
All she had to do was step out, and trigger her jets.
Behind her: a wounded enemy. She had his armor, and he had a broken leg. She had his parole. He had her–half-crippled–skiff. They had exactly the same amount of air and power left.
The metal void was dark, motionless.
She was wasting oxygen.
Piya stepped off the platform, and triggered her jets.
Ahva was changed. Grim lines were weathered into her face now, her eyes narrowed, her skin roughened; her smile, once free and flashing as sunshine, was constrained. “Heya, Beak.”
They clasped hands, and she reached up to touch his face, a brief return the familiarity they had once shared. “You have a beard coming. It will look well on you.”
“What happened to your–the Sword Immortal?”
“He died drunk.—I won’t speak of him.” She reached across the table to pour him a drink, her square, blunt hands as steady, and as rough, as her smoke-thickened voice. “You disapprove.”
“It was beneath you.”
Ahva smiled slightly and said nothing until the next drink was poured. She raised her cup to him. “May you be lucky in love, Maivor.”
Go tell the Spartans:
Where the path of the fury takes us,
Though foundation and empire shatter
And the stars asunder wrend,
Til the mountains of mourning crumble
And a fire is upon the deep,
Til the shards of honor are gathered
And the forever war is won,
The guns of Avalon go silent
And the long patrol come home,
Ours is the fury--a high crusade--
To bring in the steel with our brothers in arms.
Soldier, ask not, lest darkness fall,
Of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.
For us the living, sum the cold equations,
Counting the cost of the human edge.
If the price of the stars
Be the broken sword,
If the price of the stars
Be the rebel worlds,
If the price of the stars
Be the demon breed,
By God, we have paid it dear!