The knight holds me in both hands, one clamped around the harness across my chest and the other to my belt. The pavestones show white claw-marks where her feet slid.
“Is your knee alright?” The voice is indeed a woman’s, muffled by the visor. At her words, that moss and grass scent grows suddenly furious, and then recedes. Her accent is cultured but local.
My head swims and the world tilts. Nothing is making any sense. For a moment, the sky seems below me, the ground above. It passes as the pain in my leg grows.
I lift my head to look into the eyes behind the visor. There’s an intelligence in them but not that piercing light I saw before.
“It might be a small injury,” I confess.
“Nonsense. Your leg’s bent at a very uncomfortable angle.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
She laughs. “Good! And that was fine flying. By your colors, you’re of the Western Malta. Octane is your liege?”
“Yes Sir. Sir Castor is my name.”
“Sir Castor?” She emphasizes the honorific before my commoner’s name with surprise. “Knighted for your flying then?”
“Sir has the truth of it.”
“Octane has been kind to you.”
“We will see you returned to him, as you desire.” Her fingers shift against my chest. With my weight resting on her hands it’s a little hard to breathe. My leg is a jumble of confused sensations, like my skin houses a bunch of broken pottery.
“Sir might have permitted me to return without interference. That is where I was going when she caught me.”
With my leg broken, flying home at night may now be beyond my ability.
“True,” she says curtly, “but then we would not have had such a merry chase. Come. The keep’s physician has felt betrayed that he has no work and longs for an injury to treat. We shall fulfill his desire. Will you swear to follow me to the keep, and stay as my guest until I discharge you to return to your country?”
“As your guest, Good Lady? Forgive me but our houses are not allies.”
“No, but we may soon be. You will be treated as my friend. Will you trust me?”
“If I try to escape, Sir will catch me again.”
“She did not seem overmuch taxed to catch me the first time.”
“True, but surprise is a strong ally. I expect you could now escape me, given a chance. But I’ll trust your oath if you give it. If you won’t swear, then I must carry you to a prison instead of a guest-room. Choose. I have given you my word you will be well treated and allowed to depart, so unless you are a scoundrel-“
“By my wings I swear to follow to the keep and to there stay until discharged.”
“So be it,” she declares. Something in her armor clicks, then hisses like a snake. She takes a deep breath and the bright green light returns to her eyes. She turns and, like a javelin thrower in the great games, takes two swift steps and hurdles me into the sky.
As a child, we would fly every day. It was training – the duty we undertook as orphans adopted to the Kite. But it was also my love. On some grey days in autumn or spring, when the sun is muted, the earth cool and the winds over the Alps still, there are no thermals or ridge-winds. A kite cannot fly. In those rare days our obligation to train would be lifted. But some few of us couldn’t let it be. I and little Mary Winder, the Salizar brothers, and Seamus of MacLorry, all orphans with no family but our canvas wings and each-other, would load ourselves into the old trebuchet and let the others fire us out over Chevalier’s Folly.
The sudden, neck-breaking surge of the trebuchet will tear your arms from their sockets if you launch with your wings out. Then the weightless hurtle tries to stop your heart and all you want to do is open your arms as you feel the world whirl past. But first you have to level out. Remember to breath. Face into the wind. Only then do you open your wings and fly.
The knight’s throw is worse.
“Bite down.” Grimwerd the castle physician has his beard tucked behind his leather mask to keep hair out of the delicate matters of his profession – in this case, the frame suspending my leg and the many screws he’s tightened to position my broken bones just so.
I bite. He twists a screw. Another shot of shifting agony tilts my world.
“Good,” he says. “This will be the last time.”
He’s said that more than once.
I lay on my back on a cheap blanket atop a pile of pillows. An apron spreads beneath my leg to catch the drips. His tools look like a torturer’s set, spread across a leather fold on the floor and tended by his assistant who hovers over them like a covetous crow. Carved panels of the white pine wood local to Heart-Home line the walls, with a crisscrossing pattern meant to seem like flames. A high window is dark except for the glimmer of moonlight, and a fire in the big hearth casts flickering orange across the room, which stinks of alcohol.
The door opens as I stare at the ceiling. The lady enters, clothed in her black and gold armor. Its helmet hangs from her belt next to a sheathed sword with a gallowood hilt. Her black hair’s cut off above her ear. Her skin’s golden, her eyes green. She has a sharp nose that’s been broken before and high, hellenic cheekbones, smoothed by impacts much as the jousting knights’ are. Her hands clench her sword-belt, folding it in half.
Twist. Agony. I try not to shout. The leather I bite tastes of salt.
“Still working, Master Grimwerd? Was the injury so severe?” Her accent remains cultured and local, no hint of a Celtaen lilt or even a Saxon consonant. I continue to expect one, or some other hint she must be from those lands or have spent time there.
The way she chased me makes me remember thunder and fire raining from the sky, a wide street burning as buildings fall, and a knight leaping through the smoke like a an archangel alighting from on high. Not today. Long ago. Not her. It couldn’t have been.
Her boots are black, where that one’s were greened bronze.
“Extremely severe, Warden,” the doctor’s saying. “The joint was broken like the green wood of a juniper. It continues to twist out of place under its own weight and I am unable to position it, but even if I could, the split muscle and bone will corrupt. It would be safer to remove the leg mid-thigh, than risk corruption.”
She shifts her weight off her left leg. She hasn’t told me a name.
“To return to her liege without a leg would be a disgrace. I should not wish to burden her so, Doctor. Do your best.”
I spit the belt from my mouth. “If I may, Lady, the Doctor knows his art. I have known kite riders who flew for years after worse injuries than this because of his skill. I will trust him.”
Her eyes glitter. She studies my face as if waiting for something.
“It is no matter, My Lady,” I assure her, watching as she pinches her belt again. “I have wings, and do not need to walk.”
Elen loves to dance. He has been teaching me, since I proved untutored at our wedding. His smile is often warm, but never so delighted as when I do well. It claws at me to take this from him.
“Very well,” The knight’s voice is conversational but her face seems a weathered stone.
The doctor reaches for his tourniquet and saw.
She stays to watch, and when my struggles overturn the doctor’s assistant, the metal of her hands holds me still.