The Quest of Green and Orange
Part I: The Life You Eat
by Dal Merlin Jeanis
Rhabcán awoke to the sight of a golden eagle perched on her bedside. It regarded her with huge, beautiful, iridescent eyes, then called over its shoulder.
The voice was familiar, but it took Rhabcán a few moments to recognize it. Speireag, her husband's lover.
Ex-lover, she reminded herself as she dragged her mind up from a foggy sleep. How long had she been out? Her arms barely responded to her, and her legs felt like they hadn't been used in weeks. There was a rustling of the tent flaps, and a tall handsome man dressed in knight's livery entered and looked her over briefly before smiling.
"We worried about you," he said briefly.
She shook her head, trying to empty it of the monsters and the screaming that it seemed she had been hearing forever. Outside she heard a strange crackling, as of two tree branches being rubbed together. "How long was I out?"
"Hard to say." Said the knight.
The golden eagle stopped preening for a moment and shrugged comically. "What he means is, time is a little odd here. We'd guess about three months."
The eagle bobbed its head in acknowledgement.
"You were hurt. This place heals."
Rhabcán sat up in bed. Of all the things for her to think about, she couldn't free her mind of the sight of Speireag kissing Feegan during the fight a few hours... or months... ago. If the feather girl had had three months alone with her husband, anything could have happened. She looked from one to the other of her hosts or captors. What in green grasslands was going on?
"And what have you been doing for three months with my Feegan?" she asked archly of the eagle.
Speirag caught the implication. "With Spider-breath? Not bloody likely."
Before Rhabcán had time to take further offense, the tent rustled again, and in stalked Tam Hunter, to stand high over her with his hand on the sword in his belt. Her hand closed reflexively around her staff, and she became further confused. Hadn't she broken Branagh's wand? How was it here? She looked at it wonderingly as her brother Ùrlann walked in and stood behind the red-headed giant..
Ùrlann smiled. "We were worried for a long time. When that" he indicated the wand, "...finally appeared, we knew you were going to make it. Well, except of course there was your skin."
Rhabcán looked at her hand on the staff. It was bright green. Somehow she couldn't hold it all in her head, and she had to let go into the dark.
She drifted in and out for what seemed like days, occasionally hearing the voices of her brother, her husband and her rivals and enemies. Not quite enemies, she realized over time. They were beyond that. In the land of the dead, perhaps there were no enemies, nor true allies.
But then there was her husband.
When she opened her eyes to Feegan's voice, it was always night, and he always spoke soothingly from far away in the dark. Knowing he was not sleeping with the feathered girl, she was comforted.
Morning came, and it was her brother Ùrlann who carried in a tray of stew and light bread. It tasted slightly odd, but she couldn't complain about the cooking of those who had kept her from slipping into the outer dark. She spooned the thick stew into her mouth with hands that were bright green. It seemed she hadn't eaten in weeks, either.
Ùrlann watched her eat with a delight she had seldom seen on his face. Her brother's normally serious manner was vanquished like clouds by a rainbow. He chattered about the odd place they were in, giving her details that she had difficulty grasping or giving credence to.
"We call them cows, mostly because that makes it easier to treat them like cows. But their head is shaped more like a fox, and they have a shaggy body and wings on their legs. They graze by sticking their heads into... well, you don't need to hear about that right now. Just be aware that almost everything flies, and that things are seldom what they seem, except that they're often more what they seem than anything else they might be."
Rhabcán put down the spoon and looked at her brother, for a moment trying to figure out whether he was making any sense at all, then giving up completely. Everything he said seemed to have a certain consistency, which might be what passed for logic here. Eventually, she would probably wake up and find this all to be quite entertaining, as dreams went.
"I must have been fairly spinny when I awoke before. Speirag didn't have a human part on her feathery little body." She realized the remark seemed very catty, but she couldn't help herself. Ùrlann looked uncomfortable, but said nothing.
"My dreams seemed to be all knights and monsters."
Her brother shrugged. "When you are ready."
"Cullen Antaine O'Daly, you stop treating me like an invalid!" Rhabcán's voice went momentarily shrill as she rose from the bed, spoiling the effect completely when her legs refused to support her. Her words faded to a spluttering yelp as she landed on the cold rock floor.
"Caitlín Tara O'Daly, you are an invalid." He paused with a grin. For once he had gotten the last word. Then his voice softened, and he added what she needed to hear. "But this place heals you quickly. We should be ready to move within a few days."
He helped her back into the bed then rose to leave, but she could tell from his face that he was withholding something. As he reached the tent flaps, she blurted out, "What are you protecting me from, Cullen? What are you not telling me?"
A look of pain crossed his face. "This place also changes you."
The flaps closed behind him.
It wasn't Ùrlann or Feegan who came with her lunch - it was the handsome knight she had seen at the first time she awoke. She didn't recognize the face or the voice. Somehow she felt he deserved an apology, or at least thanks.
"Thank you for your help," she finally said. "I do appreciate it."
"You're welcome." He said with a nod, then fell silent again.
"I haven't seen my husband yet. Where is he?"
"Hunting. He catches the cows." Again he nodded, this time toward the food. She was beginning to feel a bit foolish, for the noble young man apparently didn't want to converse with her.
"I'm Caitlín O'Daly."
"Yes, you are." He replied. She raised an eyebrow, and finally he understood she was attempting to get an introduction. "Oh, I'm Jack."
"Well, thank you, Jack."
Her eyes widened briefly. This was the Manx Shaker his own self. The terror of... she shook her head as if to clear it. This polite young man was the creature that destroyed Kilkenney? It was like being told someone's pet iguana was the very Godzilla.
He watched her gently as the tension built within her. "Let's not fight. I like not fighting."
He set the food aside from the tray, then turned it up to show her the shiny bottom face. It made a fair mirror, and she could see her green face, set in grim lines by her internal tension. Her hair was a coal black, darker than it had been.
"This place changes you..." she heard in her brother's voice. The green light in her eyes slowly faded.
"When will Feegan be back?"
"Probably around nightfall. Most places around here don't have night, but we like it. So we have it."
There it was, another of those strange little comments that seemed to slip out of everyone's mouths at irregular intervals. Well, her legs were rapidly regaining strength, and she would as soon see this odd place for herself. "Help me outside then."
Jack looked at her quietly for a moment, then slipped his arms underneath her body. She actually felt a momentary thrill along where her hip and side touched the soft cloth over his hard chest. Then she put it out of her mind and pulled aside the tent flaps as Jack carried her into the blazing starlight.
The sky was a brilliant surrealist painting, with dabs of color and misty patches, and odd curving lines of force or greyness that wandered across the immensity like so many children's scrawls. It took her breath away.
He set her down on a boulder whose upper half resembled the heavily upholstered chair from her parents' home in Ulster - the one Feegan loved to sit in and read. It was as if a chair was in the process of organically transforming itself into rock, or vice versa, but it was every bit as comfortable as the one she remembered. She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked again at the intense distances. It was awe-inspiring, and vertigo-inducing, and intensely poetic.
Jack stood quietly, behind her slightly, to avoid blocking her view of any of it. He was the most polite monster she had ever met.
"Don't do that." Jack said.
"Do what?" she asked.
Jack looked embarrassed, turning a rock over and over in his hands. "Think nasty things about people."
She swiveled her head to face him. How had he known what she had been thinking?
"You can feel it when they try to change you." There was a childlike quality in his voice that was striking. The wonder of this strange place became only a simple matter-of-factness in his voice. "Here you have to be what you are, or you'll soon be what they make you."
"Anyone." Jack shrugged, then concentrated on the rock for a few moments. He handed her a small porcelain cup shaped like a flower - his huge hands were otherwise completely empty.
Rhabcán stared at the cup. Which was the illusion, the cup or the rock before it? Or were they both? Finally she asked Jack, knowing the answer would be unsatisfactory if not completely cryptic. "Which is it really?"
"Whichever you use it for." He replied, then seemed to listen intently. "It's almost time."
Looking at the star scape above her, the scribblings and ravings of an impressionist painter, she wondered what could possibly be meant here by "nightfall". And she wondered what nightfall would bring.
Jack seemed to be struggling for words. This was something that his simple, matter-of-fact statements must have been unsuited for. There was that odd sound again, like tree branches rubbing. It gave her chills.
"You have to understand. We could make mirrors, and they would show us ourselves. We could make food, but it wouldn't feed us. The life you eat has to be real."
Her scalp crawled with the approaching sound. She knew, in some deep, dark place inside her, what Jack was telling her. But her mind rejected it. She wanted to stand, to run away from that shuffling, scratching noise. But her legs still wouldn't obey her.
"We needed to eat."
Her voice escaped her as a hoarse cry, almost a scream. "Feegan!"
"We needed a true hunter."
The hairy thing that came over the crag resembled a wolf spider writ large. Walking on eight legs, the head modified only slightly to have space for a large swept-back brain case, it carried the bloody carcass of another shaggy beast.
As the sky began to darken, Jack took the carcass and solemnly thanked the creature. The spider shook itself slightly, then managed a gutteral "You're welcome, Jack."
Rhabcán's voice was reduced to a forlorn squeal. Jack looked over to where she was seated, and repeated his earlier advice in a quiet voice, a voice that nonetheless carried to someplace deep inside her. "Don't do that."
"Feegan, what have they done to you? What have you done to yourself?"
The spider cocked its head at an odd angle, as if pondering a difficult question in the deepening twilight. The voice, when it finally came, was recognizable and only a little sad.
"What I must."
With a familiar scratching sound it turned and was gone into the darkness.
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