“What do you say--two hundred dragons?” Sir Amadis asked as they wheeled overhead.
“Maybe two hundred fifty,” said Sir Ogier.
“And that close to the water, probably not a lot of worthwhile fire among them.” Added Sir Huon.
“Still--a good day’s work,” Said Amadis.
“Remember--our first concern should be for the protection of our charges. Our companion Lord Elphinstone will be wroth with us--again--if we jeopardize their safety.” said Sir Ogier.
Standing on the ground, things looked a bit scarier to Jeanette. She was, in principle, scared of alligators in general--and these were about ten times as big as any she’d ever heard about. And given that they could talk, there was a good chance that there was magic involved somewhere. She had hopes that the guardians appointed by King Oberon himself were a match for them--but they were in the middle of a swamp a very long way from Avalon. What do you do about giant alligators as far as the eye can see--and behind that--holy crap--dinosaurs?
Diotima, though just a normal-sized lynx, wasn’t giving an inch. “I’m under arrest, am I? On what charges?”
“Trespassing, loitering, disorderly conduct, and conspiracy to resist arrest,” said the alligator, baring his teeth and rising still higher.
“That’s all hogwash,” said Diotima. “This is simply a band of brigands engaged in a shakedown. If there’s a badge or a commission among you, I’ll clean the lice between your teeth.”
“This has gone on long enough,” the alligator said, his tail thrashing out of the swamp water and the other alligators advancing.
“INDEED IT HAS!”
Sir Amadis swooped down and backed into a hover over the group. He had his lance out and pointed towards the sky. The other three, all on white winged steeds, assumed positions that guarded the flanks of the companions and the rear.
“In the name of Charles Martel, King of Broceliande, I take possession of these lands for his greater glory, since it seems to be overrun by worthless rabble. I call on you here to bow and submit to his august power, or face the consequences!” Amadis’s voice rung out like a golden trumpet over the tall grass and water.
Amadis leaned forward in his stirrups, and, grinning, addressed the foremost alligator, and said intimately, “Yield, clown.”
That seemed to be enough.The alligator reared up and swiped up at the knight. Amadis wheeled upwards in an arc, dropped his visor, set his lance, and charged down at him. The alligator stood his ground, and began to glow a green glow. Amadis connected with the beast’s forehead, but the point skittered off without penetrating. The companions moved back a few paces.
Amadis came about in a circle away from the road, then returned to charge again. The alligator, with perceptible arrogance turned to meet him, and began to glow again. It opened its mouth, and a pillar of flame came right at the paladin.
Then Diomede (Jeanette knew the winged horse as well as the knight) neighed, and Sir Huon blew his horn in answer. The horse lifted his hooves and and down the beam of fire, throwing gouts of flame with each impact. Amadis had his lance down again, held lower. Now it glowed with a white light. The lance rammed into the alligator’s mouth, up and into the head, and with a splatter of brains and blood into the sky, the horse and rider lifted the thrashing beast completely into the air. Diomede’s wings beat back, and the alligator flipped loose, to land in the swamp water on its back. There was a single thrash, and then no motion at all.
“Well? Who’s next?” Sir Amadis shouted.
One after another, the alligators submerged and started swimming away. “Obviously used to easy targets,” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said.
“Well, you were wrong about the fire, Huon,” said Sir Ogier. Huon shrugged.
Jeanette said in a small but firm voice, “I’d like to heal him. If you all could help me, I think I could do it.”
Her father looked at her alarmed, but the alarm softened. Grandmère said, “We can’t always afford this magnanimity,” and Jeanette said “Yes, but we can now.”
Diotima spoke up. “I actually think this to be an excellent idea. I know this old monster--he’s a bastard, a cheat and a bully, but he might learn from this lesson. And it would definitely cement our reputation throughout Limberlost. And half his brains are in his spinal column, so it might not be as hard as all that.”
Silvertyger looked at Amadis. “Do you object?”
“Not so long as it still counts as a kill.” Amadis said. “Go right ahead.”
They didn’t like getting into the dirty (and bloody) water, but the three white-gloved companions put their hands on Jeanette, and she touched the healing jewel on her necklace. She immediately felt her legs go weak, but she felt energy coming through her. In a remarkable short period, the alligator started to move. Just to be safe, they withdrew--except for Diotima Gearheart, who sat on his belly.
“That was...scarcely fair…!” The alligator murmured.
“Oh shut up. You were killed good and dead, and this little girl brought you back,” said the lynx. “Your badass reputation is completely finished, so you might try building a new one,”
“Go...fuck yourself…” said the alligator weakly.
This was interrupted by two of the enormous dinosaurs. They were brontosauruses, Jeanette knew, and plant eaters, so she had been more startled than scared to see them. But, like the alligators, they were far far bigger than the skeleton she had seen.
They were pushing with their chests two big flat-bottomed boats with raised back ends, enough for everyone, even the horses. “Listen,” one of them said in a boom that made the request irrelevant, ” We feel bad about all this. He just wanted us for scenic effect, he said, and we figured it was easy money.”
“So here they are,” the other one said. “Free of charge, of course.” They turned and left.
The capybara and the orangutan both tried to shake themselves thoroughly before they came aboard, but they still dripped. The boats were well-appointed: benches and seats polished smooth, of sizes that would accommodate small animals to giants. There were grab-bars everywhere and cabinets for storage. A raised grill in the center offered opportunity to cook.
In the back of each boat was a peacock like fan made of giant dragonfly wings. Jeanette asked Haec, “Does this bother you?” And the dragonfly responded, “Oh, no. Our nation--I can’t speak for others--shed their wings periodically. In the wild, to be sure, that does pose a peril, but in civilized society they bring a pretty penny. What I do get upset about is finding assemblages made of smaller wings, which usually means forced-grown wings. But these look to be of the finest quality.”
The wings were the propulsion, gentle but persistent, and offered a decrease in their traveling time. Jeanette fell asleep first; when she woke she found that Diotima had placed a small music box by her head.
They came upon a small island a bit after sundown, and set up camp, with a nice big fire. After the meal, Jeanette sat down by Diotima and gave her back the music box.
“So where are we going? I mean precisely,” she asked.
“The great Shipyards of Powhatan,” Diotima intoned. “It was from there that the great ships were built to cross the ocean and discover the massive dark continent. It was at first thought to be the abode of the dead, but they soon discovered it had great resources and even treasures, that all found their way back through the Yards.”
“Were they humans? I mean, like me?”
“Yes, though others went with them. One day, though, the Builders built ships far bigger than they ever had before, and left Limberlost, leaving it to us, for they never returned. Whether they went to the Dark Continent, or to other worlds all together, because you can do that, no one has found out. This was all tens of thousands of years ago, my dear, and these days mainly the stuff of art. But ships are still built, for ocean or for space, and ships dock from everywhere with a certain frequency.”
Jeanette fell asleep with that in her head. America discovering Europe: that was cool. But she woke up in the middle of the night with another thought: Another abandoned place. Might it have something to do with us? But it didn’t keep her awake long.
There were two more days of traveling before they saw a forest of cranes and cables in the distance and land rising gently out of the swamp. When they found the beginnings of a road, the Avalonians bade them farewell. All, that is, except Diotima. “You’ll still need someone familiar with the place to sort things out.”
Dr. Ransom looked at her. “And you’ve decided to come with us.”
“Oh, from the very start.”
And that was that.
It was still the better part of the day to go over the rise in the land and down to the immense shipyards. There were three ships under construction, and one on its side having a new hull put in. It still had the feel of abandoned greatness.
It was dark before they came to a gate in the wall that surrounded the yards. From a distance, the wall seemed low, but it was at least twenty feet high, and made from various colors of ragged brick. The gate was an ugly arch, and while there seemed to be a smaller door next to it with a light, the light was not on yet.
This feels like a prison, Jeanette thought.
They stood, following Diotima’s lead, in front of the small door in the dark for quite a while. When the door opened and a figure emerged, Jeanette gasped and grabbed her father’s sleeve.
It was a giant mantis.