Authors: Diane Duane
“We wouldn’t say
that would be it.” And Nita chuckled, for that meant “the little red dog” in the Speech.
“Local customs rule,” Nita said, smiling. “As usual. I have a warning for you,
There’s a hunt coming through here in a few days.”
The fox yipped softly in surprise. “They are early for the season, then.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Nita said. “But if I were you, I’d spread the word to keep your people out of this area, and probably for about five or ten miles around on all sides. … And you might lay off the chickens.”
The fox laughed silently, a panting sound. “They’ve poisoned almost all the rats and trapped or shot the rabbits: what’s a body to eat? But for the moment...as you say. I am warned, wizard. Your errand’s done.” It looked at her with a thoughtful look.
“So then,” the fox said. “Go well, wizard.” And it whisked around and went bounding off through the pasture-grass without another word.
Nita shut her manual and sat there in the quiet for a while more, getting her breath back. Talking to animals differed in intensity the smarter the animal got, and the more or less used it was to human beings. Socialized pet animals like cats and dogs tended to have more fully humanized personalities, and could easily be made to understand you; but they also tended to be short-spoken. Possibly, Nita thought, because being domesticated and more or less confined to a daily routine, they had less to talk about. Wilder animals had more to say, but it was often more difficult to understand them, the message being colored with hostility or fear, or plain old bewilderment. The fox lived on the fringes of human life, knew human ways, but was wary, and so there was a cool tinge, a remoteness, about the way it came across.
At any rate, she’d fulfilled her own responsibilities for the evening. A wizard had a duty to prevent unnecessary pain, and foxhunting didn’t strike Nita as particularly necessary, no matter what farmers might say about the need to exterminate “vermin.” If a fox was stealing someone’s chickens, let them shoot it cleanly, rather than chasing it in terror across half the countryside and getting dogs to rip it to shreds.
Meanwhile, there were other concerns.
she said in her head.
A pause. Then, more distant than usual, but clear enough:
She paused a moment.
What’s that noise?
Oh no, you’re eating dinner!
It’s not such a fascinating experience that I can’t take a few minutes out to talk to you,
he said. Nita got a distinct impression of slightly lumpy mashed potatoes, and restrained herself from swallowing.
she said, and gave him a series of pictures of the day as quickly as she could, ending with the fox.
Bored with me
already, Kit said.
I knew it
Maybe we should stick to image chatting on the manual if you’re going to let me hear you thinking about decking me.
Nita was shocked for a moment. Then she grinned.
kind of wiped,
And this kind of takes it out of you, at a distance.
I’ll talk to you more in the morning.
She felt Kit starting to nod, as if she was standing there. They both laughed as he caught himself.
Have a good night,
Thanks. Will do.
She let the contact ebb away, then got up and started carefully walking back the way she had come. Behind her, from the woodland, a fox was barking; perhaps a mile away, another answered it.
Nita smiled to herself and headed for the trailer.
As she had thought, she wasn’t able to stay up very late that night. Nita tried to watch some television, but the jetlag kept catching up with her. And if that problem wasn’t enough, even the more interesting channels were showing stuff that was six months out of sync with the various TV series Nita was watching at home. There was also a lot of stuff that
interesting, but which kept running her up against the “Is That Even English?” barrier, or its more frustrating younger brother, “I Understood That But I Don’t Know What It
Though a wizard who’s good with the Speech normally has an advantage in comprehension of alien dialects, Nita found that this wasn’t helping her much with material televised from the depths of Glasgow. Finally she turned the TV off and went back to the trailer again to read… though not before opening a small can of cat food on the sly, and parceling it out to the cats. They accepted this with great pleasure, purring and rubbing and making their approval known: but none of them spoke to her.
Afterwards Nita went back to bed and slept some more. The dreams were not entirely pleasant. In one of them, she thought she felt the earth move, but it was probably just the wind shaking the trailer. When she woke up everything was quite still. It was early morning—how early she couldn’t tell any more without her watch: the different sunrise and sunset times here had her thoroughly confused. Nita fumbled around for her phone, and on checking it saw to her surprise that, even though the sun was well up the sky, it was only a little after seven AM.
She got up and dressed in yesterday’s clothes, slipped into the house, had a quick shower, dressed again—in clean clothes this time— and went to see what there was for breakfast. There were already several people in the kitchen, two of whom Nita had been introduced to before. One was Joe, the stable master, a tall lean young man with a grin so wide that Nita thought his face was in danger of cracking. Another was Derval, the head trainer, a tall curly-haired woman, eternally smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. She had a drawly accent that made her sound almost American. “There y’are then,” Derval said. “You want some tea?”
Nita was beginning to think that most conversations in Ireland were likely to begin this way. “Yes please,” she said, and rooted around in the big ceramic bread crock for the loaf. “Where’s Aunt Annie?”
“Down at the riding school, waiting for the farrier. She said to tell you to come on down if you want to.”
“Okay,” Nita said, and cut herself a slice of bread and put it in the toaster. The butter was already out on the counter, along with a basket of eggs from the farm’s hens, various packages of bacon and a gruesome-looking sausage called “black pudding,” more toast, some of it with bites out of it, boxes of cereal, and spilled sugar. Breakfast was a hurried business in this house, from the look of things.
Nita sat down with her tea and toast and pulled over the local weekly paper, the
Its front-page story was about someone’s car catching on fire in the main street of Wicklow town, and Nita sat there paging through it in total wonder that anyplace in the world should be so quiet and uneventful that a story like
would make the front page. Derval looked over her shoulder and chuckled, pointing with one finger at an advertisement in the classifieds that said BOGS FOR SALE. Nita burst out laughing: she remembered seeing somewhere that “bog” was slang not just for something you dug peat out of, but also for the toilet.
“If you’re going to be around the stable block,” Derval said to Nita, while going to get another piece of bread out of the toaster, “just one thing. Watch out for the horse in number five. He bites.”
“Uh, yeah,” Nita said. She had been wondering when she was going to have to mention this. “I’m a little scared of horses...I hadn’t been planning to get too close to them.”
“Scared of horses!” Joe said. “We’ll fix that.”
“Uh, maybe tomorrow,” Nita said. She had been unwillingly put up on a horse once, several years ago on vacation, and had immediately fallen off it… twenty or thirty feet down, it had seemed at the time. This had colored Nita’s opinions about horses ever since. From her newer wizardly point of view she was sure that horses were probably very nice people, but she had no desire to get on top of one again.
Joe and Derval finished their breakfasts and headed out, leaving Nita surrounded by cats eager to shake her down for another handout. “No way, you guys!” she said. “Once was a special occasion. You want more, you’d better talk to your boss.”
They looked at her in thinly disguised disgust and stalked off. Nita finished her tea and toast, washed her cup and plate, and then wandered out into the concrete yard again. There was a pathway past the back of her trailer into the farm area proper, and the road that wound past the front of the house curved around to meet it. Here there was another large concreted area with two or three large brown, metal-sided, barnlike buildings arranged in a loose triangle around it. The field on the right-hand side as she faced it was full of horse-jumping paraphernalia, jumps and stiles; all around the edge of it ran a big track covered with wood shavings and chips for the horses to run on. Further down and on her right was the stabling barn, and beyond it what Derval had referred to as “the riding school,” a big covered building that had nothing in it except a floor thickly covered with the same chips as on the track outside. This was where the riders practiced when the weather was bad.
Nita took a little while to look around in there, found nothing of interest, and made her way back to the stables. There were about fifteen box stalls with various horses looking out over the doors, or eating hay from baskets hanging from the walls of their boxes, or just standing looking out with vaguely bored expressions.
Nita paused briefly in front of the horse in number five, who was a big handsome glossy black beast. Yes, he did have a bad look in his eye. But who knows? He might have his reasons. Nita glanced around, saw no one there to hear her but the horses, and said under her breath,
The horse eyed her coldly, laid his ears back and snorted. “Bugger off, little girl, or I’ll have your arm off.”
Nita raised her eyebrows, shrugged and moved on. The other horses down the line were more forthcoming. When she greeted them in the Speech, they answered, asking her for a sugar cube or if she would please take them out. A few just tossed their heads, blinked lazily, and went back to their eating.
At the end of the stable barn was an extremely large pile of hay, kept under cover there so that the rain couldn’t get at it and the horses could be given it easily. Nita was standing for a moment looking at it, when something small and black, a rock she thought, fell down from the top of it. It tumbled down the hay, and even though Nita sidestepped, the falling black thing fell crookedly, and landed on top of one of Nita’s sneakers.
She looked down in shock. It was a kitten, its body no bigger than one of her hands. It more or less staggered to its feet, looked up at her, and meowed, saying, “Sorry!”
“Don’t mention it,” Nita said.
The kitten started scampering off after a windblown straw. But at the sound of NIta’s voice it stopped so suddenly that it fell over forwards.
Nita restrained herself mightily from laughing. The kitten righted itself, washed furiously for a second, then stared at her. “Another one,” it said. “The wind does blow, doesn’t it.”
“Another wizard. Are you deaf?”
“Uh, no,” Nita said. “Just new here. Who are you, then?”
“I am Tualha Slaith, a princess of the People,” she said, rattling it off in a hurry, “a bard and a scholar. And who are you?”
“I’m Nita Callahan.”
“Nita?” said the kitten. “What kind of name is that?”
Nita had to stop for a moment. She was amazed to be getting this much conversation out of a domestic cat, let alone a kitten that barely looked old enough to be weaned yet. “I think it was Spanish, originally,” she said after a second or so. “Juanita is the long form.”
“Aha, a Spaniard!” the kitten said, her eyes wide. “There’s wine from the royal Pope / Upon the ocean green: / And Spanish ale shall give you hope, / My dark Rosaleen!’”
“You lost me,” said Nita. “Anyway, I’m not a big ale fan...”
The kitten looked at Nita as if she was a very dim bulb indeed. “It’s going to get crowded in here shortly,” the kitten said. “Let’s go out.” She scampered out the barn door, and Nita followed her, feeling rather bemused. Out the back of the barn the two of them went, into the areaway between the riding school and the stable block. The path led up towards the field where the jumping equipment was. There was no one there at the moment.
The kitten stopped several times in her run to crouch down, her butt waggling, and pounce on a bug, or leaf, or stalk of grass, or blown bit of hay; and she always missed. Nita was having trouble controlling her reaction to this, but if there was one thing a wizard had practice in being, it was polite: so she managed. A little dusty whirlwind passed them by as they went between the riding school and the stable block, and Tualha paused to let it go by. “Good day,” she said.
“You usually talk to wind?” Nita said, amused.
Tualha eyed her. “That’s how the People go by,” she said: “the People of the Air. You really
new here.” She scuttled on.