When they had all gathered by Jeanette, it was her father who gently made her give up her hold on Kelly’s dead body.

“It’s all wrong,” she cried. “It’s all just wrong.”

He said nothing, but walked her away, then knelt and wrapped her in a cloth from his knapsack. Such was the virtue of it that the blood all came off, even that which had dried. He moistened his fingers in his mouth and cleaned her face with the tips as he had done before she could walk.

Then he stood up and looked down at her. “I think I knew what we should do.”

Senhor Capoeira Capybara straightened up, Kelly’s white gloves in his hand. At Terence’s look, he said, “It grieves me to bring this up at this moment, but that’s how you got your gloves--from me taking them off too--those of our kind who had died.”

“It’s okay,” Dr. Ransom said.

Ransom took out the packet of chalks and opened the flap. With the others (including the crows) instinctively forming a circle around the body, he took the black chalk and drew a shape on the hard-burnt ground. He filled it in with broad strokes, and the shape seemed to pull itself together until it was solid black.

He took out the white stick, but Jeanette said, “Let me do this part,” and he handed it to her. She drew on top of the black a sketch of the Decision Tree.

With Lord Elphinstone holding the head, and Dr. Ransom holding the feet, and the others standing close, they moved Kelly’s body and lowered it into the hole. Once it had sunk below the surface, it floated in the complete blackness, now in a universe with no gravity.

“Where he came from, we do not know. Where he goes, we don’t know either,” Grandmère Hutan said. “While he walked with us, he did us no evil, and saved our sister in his final act. May his journey be great.”

Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone raised his longsword to the sky and roared a mighty roar.

Then, starting with Jeanette, each of them bent down and erased the chalk-mark on the ground, until there was nothing left.

Terence and his daughter walked over to the crater the two had been running for, and sat at the edge.

“I was convinced he was keeping stuff from us--and like you said, he was working to separate me from you guys. But I still don’t know whether he was going to turn me over to--to them, or to save me from them. It works either way. So I don’t know whether he was my friend or my enemy.”

“And now you never will. At least probably not,” Terence said. “So you don’t know how to feel.”

“Not even with him saving my life! I don’t!” Her voice raised. “But I do know that despite it all--despite everything--I th-thought he was cute--and f-f-f-un…”

There arose high in her throat a thin high whining sound--a keening that she hd never made before in her short life, and it scared her and cut her even as she couldn’t stop doing it…

...And it was fortunate that the only person in all of cosmic infinity who could receive that sound and understand it in its totality was sitting right next to her.

Four sleek silver jets came in for VTOL landings, their exhausts churning up dust, around them. Terence could see now that the symbol on their fins, wings and bodies that resembled the Communist emblem was in fact a sickle crossed with a sprig of flowers, and he wondered if it was mistletoe.

Four figures climbed down from the jets and took off their helmets. They were four tall, beautiful women in flight pressure suits, as tall as the tiger, and their long hair shone like metal: silver, gold, copper, and iron.

“Whoever you are, you struck a blow than enabled us to gain victory, and that was in doubt. We owe you thanks and a whole lot more.” The golden haired one spoke in a young voice. “Wherever you came from--and I venture to guess that it was not all one place originally--”

“You’re certainly right about that,” said the capybara, and everyone smiled a little.

“--we welcome you as friends.”

“Your fight is our fight,” Silvertyger said and bowed. The others all made little motions of some sort.

The copper-haired woman said, “We won’t halt you if you wish to be on your way--”

“Well, that might be a problem,” said Dr. Ransom. “Lost our ride, you see…”

More smiles. (“This isn’t going badly,” said Thyrsis over Jeanette’s jewelry.)

“Then we can at least offer you our hospitality,” she said.

So they came to be the guests of the 50th Druidic Stilyagi Combat Wing that evening. Jeanette kind of liked the headquarters: a big stone aircraft hangar with pillars carved like trees, but with oxyacetylene torches and barrels of fuel; in the back a long table arrayed with helmets and flight suits with what looked like a whole roast ox and wine (but milk for her) out of curved horns; and the young women in colored robes and very cool earrings laughing and, in places, playing dice games. It was explained to Jeanette that, yes, there were male battle units, but the 50th was the best of the best.

“We have no real idea why, but it seems like this whole invasion may have been conducted to get at us,” Dr. Ransom said to a woman with iron gray hair (and a half-dozen others). “We were in the Radiant City of at least a thousand years from now, and the ship you saw us in was sent forward either to capture us or kill us.”

The woman nodded. “When these monsters--one of our bards dubbed them Theravaders, and the monsters they deployed yetis, although their fur wasn’t white--dropped down out of the heavens, the first thing they did was occupy the Fane of the Future, one of our most powerful foci--but while they set fire to much of the city, made no concerted attacks on our other temples. But I would dearly like to know why they would want you so badly.”

“Other than the fact that we are aware of a terrible force that in times past attacked our, mm, sodality and scattered us over cosmic infinity, I don’t know how we might be personally special.”

“And your sodality is--?”

He held up a white gloved hand and wiggled the fingers. “Does this mean anything to you?”“

“There was a fad for such about a decade ago. Except they were stag-leather, and one had to kill, dress and tan the beast oneself. It’s considered rather charmingly arch these days.”

“Our journeys have been equal parts wandering blindly and running away, but after this episode I don’t think we want to precipitate another invasion.”

“Oh, we’ll thrash them again--although if you want to lend us your tiger, we’d make him most welcome.”

“He’s pledged himself to us, but you can ask him.”

“Never mind. Sleep tonight without apprehensions. We are the 50th.”

Way too early the next morning the hangar was bustling and even the capybara was woken up. The young women were assembling in ranks, but there were no colors: everyone was in long white robes, and at their waists were a sickle and a sprig of mistletoe. The silverhaired woman they had first met said to them, “We lost too many sisters in battle: today we do them honor, We in turn would be honored if you shared this with us, but it isn’t required.”

“Of course we will,” said Dr. Ransom.

There was a bit of a discussion, and a few of the young women in the procession said that, rather than leave them behind unprotected they would be glad to carry the visiting heroes’ belongings.

So they started out towards a dense grove of woods on the side of one of the steepest hills, all the aviators and engineers in perfect step, small bells at their ankles ringing as one. At the front were a dozen carven caskets. The companions walked alongside, and the crows, sensing Jeanette’s feelings, perched on Lord Elphinstone’s shoulders instead.

As they approached the trees, Jeanette saw just how huge and old the trees were. She couldn’t tell what kind they were, but they were as big as sequoias, and close together. There didn’t seem to be a path, but the young women’s steps never lost their synchronization. Soon the light wasn’t ordinary sunlight.

They moved into what seemed to be a secret clearing, and Terence’s hand went down to Jeanette’s shoulder, preventing her from gasping. The crows flapped their wings but then were silence.

It was a railroad station. And running beside it until it stopped at a mound or earth and tall grass, gleaming silvery tracks.

The women all lined up into a semicircular formation, with the caskets at the center, the bells still perfect. Then a hooded woman at the center held up a sickle in one hand and a sprig in the other. She started to speak in a singsong voice and in a language that was not the one they had been using.

It was a list of names, but it seemed to be a long genealogy of each of the women--and then it became difficult to hear, because of the noise of a train.

“Our friend the Earl of Maurya hears nothing and sees nothing,” Antithyrsis reported over Jeanette’s jewelry. And it seemed neither did any of the women.

The train was gleaming and misty, but in the green light of the holy grove of the forest, not ghostly or deathly. It was every bit as tall as the one Jeanette had seen before--and run away from.

Senhor Capoeira Capybara managed to pick up the knapsacks and the tiger’s heavy suitcase and scurry over just before the woman turned as one, with a single shake of bells, and faced away from the station. Then they started to chant in yet a third language, something that came across via Jeanette’s white gloves, as just reciting the alphabet.

Jeanette paused only a second before she joined her companions in climbing up on the station platform. This time she was ready--heartsick ready--to get on.

Fanfold doors opened, and floating behind them was a delicate winged fairy, wearing a cute version of the conductor’s uniform. Outside the chanting continued. “Tickets, please!” she said in a voice like birdsong.

Jeanette stepped forward and held up her railpass.


next chapter