Although she is cold in the darkness, she cannot really feel it. The cold is her whole world; she has no awareness of where her body ends and the hard walls around her begin. According to the nature of her people, her body and her blood are only ever as warm or cold as her surroundings. The deep-buried pod in which she nestles is as cold as ice, as cold as death, its temperature maintained by a zero-point energy generator that will burn for one hundred million years. Ice embraces her, entombs her, shackles her limbs and crystallises in her frozen tissues. Her heart…beats…so…slowly…as it sluggishly pumps her thickened blood along stiffened veins and arteries. She is as cold and hard as a steel blade.
In the cold and dark, she dreams. Images flash across her third eye, the hidden eye that sees all and knows all, the secret eye at the centre of her mind.
She sees the blade, bright and red, steel glowing like fire on the anvil, shedding clouds of orange sparks with every ringing hammer-blow. Her blade; made for her, a mate for her. The smith, a low-caste male but skilled, grunts with effort, green-scaled muscles gleaming in the firelight as he hammers out the steel, folds it back, hammers it and folds it back upon itself, hammers it out again.
He lifts the blazing steel with long-handled tongs and plunges it into hissing water. Steam rises now instead of sparks. Different parts of the folded, multi-layered metal, the different grades of steel, cool at slightly different rates. As the smith pulls it from the trough black and glistening, the straight blade bends as the heat goes out of it, imperceptibly shrinking, taking on that perfect curve that no smith, however skilled, could ever craft deliberately.
She squirms in the frigid darkness, flexing her creaking limbs in what might be pleasure, or might be pain, as the dreams and half-formed memories both good and bad continue to swim and swirl across her mind. The year of the comet, she remembers. It all happened in the year of the comet.
She dreams of kneeling amid ten thousand brightly-burning torches in the great brood-hall. She dreams of raising her hands in supplication to accept the Matriarch’s gift, the perfect blade with its perfect curve. She takes the sword from the Matriarch’s hands and watches the waves and whorls of colour crawl along the steel, the patterns beaten into it by the smith revealed by the warm torchlight. Where the hard, brittle cutting edge meets the softer, more flexible core of the blade, a wavy silver line snakes along the weapon’s length, a sine-wave pattern, the song of the steel; another thing impossible to replicate through conscious artistry.
“Take this blade,” the Matriarch gravely intones, looking down on her with eyes like molten gold, skin shining in the flame-light like a pavement of emeralds. “It will be yours for as long as you serve me. Wield it with honour. Wield it with loyalty.”
“I take this blade,” she murmurs in the cold darkness, ice cracking and re-forming as her dry mouth struggles to shape the words. “I will wield it with honour and loyalty. I will serve you, my lady, for as long as I draw breath.”
“Now kiss the blade,” says the Matriarch; the final seal upon her oath. In the dream, the steel is cold against her lips, or is that only the ice?
In the brood-hall, she rises and her sisters gather around her, offering encouraging hands and welcoming words. They are all sworn blades, as she herself is now, sword-sisters. Their only destiny is to serve and die for the glory of the Matriarch. That is their only destiny. She sheaths her new steel in a scabbard of carved and lacquered gingko wood, thrusts it through the silken sash that closely girds her narrow waist. The sword sits firmly at her side, hard and reassuring. The only mate she will ever know, for that is the oath of the sword-sisters.
“Welcome, sister,” whispers Kastara, sword-mistress, standing at her right shoulder tall and lithe and beautiful, one hand resting lightly against her back. “You have been given your blade,” she tells her in precisely-pitched tones intended for her alone to hear in the clamour of the hall. “Now you must prove yourself worthy of it.”
“I will,” she mouths, in the ice. And the memory stings her heart, hurts her worse than any sword-stroke could.
“I’m going now,” she says in a different, later, time and place. They stand at a little-frequented postern gate leading out of the City, looking out over the land beyond. It is sunset, and in that red light the great inland sea and its speckling of marshy islands seem to burn like steel on the anvil. Dinosaurs, great hunch-backed beasts with flat bills for mouths, stoop by the side of a meandering stream to drink. Roosting birds and pterosaurs chatter and bicker in the treeline of the nearby conifer forest.
“You’ve been saying that for a long time,” Kastara replies, gently teasing her.
“I am,” she insists, ignoring her friend’s sardonic tone. “Right now.” She is naked but for a simple breechclout and her sheathed sword tied across her back. No armour for this evening’s work, just her own body and her steel. She takes a deep breath, flicking her tongue at the breeze and tasting the wet mustiness of the forest and the animal stink of the dinosaur herd. Somewhere in the distance, one of the huge two-footed meat-eaters that prey upon the flat-bills honks thunderously at the setting sun. The flat-bills drinking at the stream turn as one and stampede across the plain, feather-crests bristling and snapping, throat-pouches inflating as the enormous beasts hoot and thrum their fear for all to hear. She can feel the vibration of their passage through the trembling ground, tingling in her own feet and ankles.
“Now”, she says decisively, and launches herself from the edge of the portal in the City wall. She skips from rock to rock on the slope below until her three-toed feet squelch into thick, fecund mud cratered and pocked with dinosaur tracks. She runs for the treeline without looking back once.
To be a true sword-sister, she must blood her blade, blood herself. She soon reaches the great rock outcropping at the heart of the conifer forest, the place where the Sickle-claws nest, and starts to climb. Her claws dig deep into cracks and crevices on the cliff-face. The hard scales that cover her body protect her from scrapes and scratches as she swarms up the hard, uneven rock. Never look down she tells herself, only upwards at the darkening sky and the first twinkling, frosty stars. One of the brightest stars seems smeared, she notices, a ghostly tail of mist stretching away from it as it burns down at her.
In the ice and the darkness, she remembers what it was to climb that cliff, testing and stretching every one of the taut muscles in her long green body, the sword swinging and slapping at her back, lungs burning with every breath.
Her blood is still hot from the hour spent standing at the City gate under that blazing sunset. She knows she must complete the climb, complete her task, before it cools and her strength fades away with the heat. Already, even as she hauls herself over the last spur of rock and rests for a moment atop the Sickle-claws’ plateau, she feels the cold of the darkening world around her, feels it seeping into her flesh, leeching the energy from her. She must make this quick.
She advances carefully in the gathering dark, the ground firm and stony beneath her claws as she scans the desolate domain of the Sickle-claws. She is by training a warrior, but by nature and breeding she is a hunter, a tracker. She can see in the dark, thanks to the reflective layer at the back of her eyeballs, and her sensitive tongue detects what her eyes cannot. Night and day are for her more about cold and warmth than they are about darkness or light. She perceives the little clues; the shed feather lying in the dust, the scratch-marks on the bark of a half-dead bush clinging to life amid the rocks, the subtle taste of dried uric acid on the thin breeze. She pieces them together instantly, by instinct, knows that this is the trail she must follow. The scuffed fragment of a two-toed footprint pressed into the hard soil merely confirms it.
There! She raises her hand to her shoulder and grips the protruding hilt of her sword. She can see the flicker of movement over by that pile of boulders, but instinct must also be tempered by reason and knowledge. She knows Sickle-claws hunt in pairs, or even family packs, and that they have the cunning to deceive and misdirect their prey. Even as she pretends to watch the feint from the boulders, she hears the real attack coming from behind. She springs aside, drawing her sword and striking in one fluid motion at the blur of movement as it passes her.
The way of the sword, whatever sword-mistresses may want you to believe, is based not on arcane mysteries but on simple principles. The crucial elements are the Seven Cuts and the Five Stances and, perhaps even more importantly, the smooth, dancelike movements that enable one to move quickly and economically from one Cut or Stance to another. She first learned those when she was barely more than a hatchling. Just because something is simple, however, does not mean that it is easy. One cannot truly become mistress of the sword until one is mistress of oneself.
Like the steel, she has been beaten and tempered and folded back and back upon herself until she is as sharp and hard as she can be. She has learned how to bend and twist her body into demanding and uncomfortable meditation postures, and moreover to hold them for days on end as she peers within herself with her third eye. She has contemplated the most esoteric philosophical concepts in hopes of opening that eye wider and unlocking the mystical powers of her mind. She has spent days upon days rehearsing endless, repetitive sequences of Stances and Cuts like demented ritual dances, alone or with a sparring partner, with a wooden mock-sword or with real steel. In the end, the moves come as easily as blinking or breathing and the sword feels like an extension of the arm.
She has spent countless hours with a simple practice sword, not a work of art like the blade she wields now, but sharp, practicing the Cuts again and again against dried snake-grass stems until the skin sheds from her palms. It must be snake-grass because the stems have just the right density and thickness; the sensation as the blade cleaves through them approximates that of severing a living arm or leg.
She feels something similar now, the sweet vibration passing from the blade to its hilt to her hand and arm as the Sickle-claw crashes to the ground beside her. Its razor-toothed jaws clash, its long bony tail thrashes from side to side. Its bright feathers are made brighter by its own crimson blood. A killing blow, she notes with satisfaction as the carcass gives a final twitch and then stiffens. She flicks most of the blood from her blade in another predefined movement rehearsed until it is unconscious, spattering a nearby stand of dry and withered ferns. Perhaps the red-stained soil around them will help the failing plants find new vigour. She lets her long tongue lash out to clean the rest of her steel. The blood is hot and fragrant. It tastes like iron and copper, like life.
Invigorated herself, she takes up a defiant fighting stance, sword brandished before her face as she addresses the pile of boulders where she knows that the other Sickle-claw — her first victim’s mate? — lurks still:
“Well, why are you hiding?” It cannot understand her words, but she hopes it can sense the insolence with which she speaks them. “I haven’t got all night. Show yourself!”
Without the slightest warning, the second Sickle-claw springs from among the rocks, abandoning stealth, dashing towards her with its razor jaws agape and great claw-tipped wing-arms spread. The monster’s stiff tail bobs and wags behind it, a balancing pole enabling it to maintain its footing in its headlong sprint. It is trying to appear larger and more threatening by splaying and puffing up its feathers. It need not have bothered. It is quite terrifying already. She feels her heart race and her breathing quicken, and in that moment there is no difference for her between fear and excitement and pleasure. Even in the face of onrushing death, she relishes every heartbeat thudding in her ear membranes. She feels supremely alive.
It is the beast’s feet she is watching as she tenses every sinew, holding the blade before her in a two-handed Stance. There, on the first toe of each, are the weapons that give the Sickle-claw its name, cruelly-hooked and sharp as swords. The track she followed earlier showed two toes only because the toe that bears the killing claw is held clear of the ground to preserve its stabbing point and rending edge. One kick could split her in two from shoulder to opposite hip, the way the greatest sword-mistresses are supposed to be able to cleave their foes in twain with a single stroke.
She waits until the last possible instant, remaining poised and still throughout the Sickle-claw’s charge, unflinching in the face of its almost melodic trills of rage. At the very last moment she takes a single backward step, pivoting simultaneously on her forward foot, neatly removing herself from the onrushing monster’s path. Her blade flashes red and gold in the dying light, a single Cut. The beast’s outstretched, kicking foot flies free of its leg, the deadly curved claw still attached. A second Cut (although it is actually named the Fourth Cut in the manuals of the sword-mistresses) follows the first by less than a heartbeat and the air fills with tasty red mist as the Sickle-claw’s head separates from its neck. The creature crumples to the ground, as dead as its companion.
She returns to the City gate stumbling, almost swooning with exhaustion, faltering in the deepening cold as starry twilight becomes night. With the last of her energy, she climbs the slope to the threshold where Kastara stands staring up at the smeared star in the sky. She soon looks down again when the Sickle-claw’s severed head tumbles to the ground at her feet.
“Will that do, sister?”
Kastara looks down at the head, then back at her sword-sister, eyes gleaming excitedly, tongue flickering as she tastes the reek of souring life emanating from the trophy: “Admirably.” Kastara extends a hand, clasping her sword-sister by the arm, holding her up as the last of her strength deserts her. “Come, sister, into the warm,” Kastara urges. “You have proved yourself this night.”
And then it is later, much later. The celebratory feast is over. Kastara and the other sword-sisters have presented her with a suit of the same elaborately lacquered armour they wear themselves and finally, formally, accepted her into their ranks. The brood-chambers are quiet now and she lies naked and dozing on her sleeping-stone in the fire-lit barracks. Her tired limbs drink in the heat of the hypocaust until she is as warm as the stone beneath her, until she cannot feel herself as she hovers on the edge of sleep. And then suddenly there is another body alongside hers, a slim, strong arm snaking around her and drawing her close.
“What…?” She starts up from the stone, snapping back into awareness, instinctively reaching for the hilt of her sword. Sword-sisters never sleep without their steel nearby.
“Hush, sister,” says Kastara, easing her back down onto the warm surface, shiny red tongue shooting out to caress her scales. She shudders in response, aware of her heart quickening. It is a feeling not unlike that she experienced facing the Sickle-claws in mortal combat, and she welcomes it just as much. It excites her just as much.
In the lonely blackness of her pod, she dreams vividly of that night, picturing the firelight and the way it swam across Kastara’s scales. She moves involuntarily within her cradle of ice, or tries to. Her body remembers the caresses and embraces, the bond she and Kastara made between them, as vividly as it has ever remembered the Seven Cuts or the Five Stances.
For a moment, she fights to be free of the pod’s cold enclosure, but the ice is too strong and she slumps back into fitful dreaming.
Much later again, she is standing on the Grand Portico looking up at the black night sky. She maintains a guard Stance, stiff and unmoving, as implacable as the gleaming sword she bears. All around, great braziers crackle with flame, providing comfortably warm surroundings for the illustrious gathering over which she and her sisters stand guard.
The Matriarch holds court in the centre of that great open space beneath the sky, golden eyes fixed upon the endless darkness above and the baubles that move across it. Her long robes glitter with constellations of jewels as bright and complex as those that decorate the heavens. The ruler of the City is surrounded by astrologer-priests and natural philosophers and augurs and scribes and diviners and all of them are contemplating that strange smeared star, the comet as they call it, as it rises in the East.
The sword-sister tries not to look up. She is here to guard, not to take an interest in the stars, but she cannot help noticing that the apparition seems larger and brighter than it was on the evening of her blooding, perhaps closer. Its ghostly tail is now a long brightly-glowing streamer of milky-white mist, semi-transparent with other stars visible behind it.
“Are you sure…?” The Matriarch’s voice is low and… As a good sword-sister, loyal and honourable, she hesitates to think it of her lady, and yet in all honesty she cannot deny it. The Matriarch sounds…scared.
“Yes, my lady,” replies one of the philosophers, keeping his head reverently bowed. “We have made many months of astronomical observations and the conclusions we have reached are incontrovertible.”
“And when it strikes….?”
The philosopher’s tone is almost calm, or maybe just fatalistic. “When it strikes, it will mean nothing less than the end of our world.”
“The end of the world?” The Matriarch seems stunned. In a nervous gesture, she reaches out and plucks a squirming mammal from the gilt serving-cage that stands at her right hand. She bites down hard upon the small furry creature; it squeaks once between her jaws and is silent.
“The planet will endure,” the philosopher insists with the air of one trying hard to convince himself. “And there will be some form of life upon it, but not us. It will mark the end of civilisation as we know it.”
The Matriarch finishes swallowing the mammal whole. The crunching of tiny bones compacted by powerful throat muscles is barely audible over the spitting and popping of the braziers. “And how soon?” the ruler asks, as soon as she is able. The note of fear is gone from her voice. Already she is rallying, demanding information, acting as a leader again. The sword-sister feels her chest swell with pride and admiration.
“Soon, my lady,” one of the other philosophers interjects. “Mere months, we calculate.”
“I would not advise letting this news become common knowledge, my lady,” intones a scribe, standing close and surreptitiously inclining his head to the Matriarch’s ear. “Already, there come tidings from some of the Eastern broods, talk of uprisings and anarchy as the masses rail against their inevitable fate.”
“I refuse to stand here inactive until that fate overtakes us,” says the Matriarch, decisively. “If some form of life, as you put it, can survive this catastrophe, then so can we! You are a quorum of our most learned males; you must devise a way.”
“Well, my lady,” says the first philosopher, sounding almost reluctant about it. “There was a plan discussed many years ago, back at the time when the Great Atom Wars threatened to obliterate our very society…”
And through it all, the loyal sword-sister stands guard, blade shining bright in the gathering dark as she pretends not to hear and not to care. She is pledged to serve the Matriarch until her last breath, to fight and die in that service. Loyalty and honour are the only things that are supposed to concern her. Survival, even the survival of her civilisation, her species, is but a trifle by comparison to that. For a sword-sister, they say, duty lies heavier than a great mountain upon her shoulders but death falls lighter than a dinosaur’s feather.
“Go back to your schools and your laboratories,” the Matriarch tells the philosophers, “and report when you have worked out the practicalities of this plan. Be quick; the comet will not give you much time, and neither will I.” With that she turns haughtily away from the gathering and hurries back inside to the greater warmth of her private chambers.
The staunch sword-sister, her sworn protector, falls into step behind her, blade held high. She resists the temptation to look back at the looming comet and the males who continue to examine it with foreboding, insisting again and again to herself that all that matters to her is her duty, her honour, her oath. No bond, no love, but the bond she has sworn to her Matriarch and the love she bears her steel.
That night, in the barracks-chamber, she and Kastara hold each other close and tell each other that if there is no future then they must make the present as vivid and as fulfilling as they can. That night, entwined together upon the hot stone, they strive as hard as they can to do so.
And then the blackness seems to close in upon her, blotting out the memory. She does not want to remember the next part, but she knows it is coming. It always comes, every time she dreams. She tries to strike out with her arms, to twist free of the ice, to escape from the memory as much as from the pod, to flee, but succeeds only in making the tiniest movement of her hand, pushing futilely against the vessel’s smooth interior. She wakes for the briefest moment before plunging back into frozen black slumber, silently screaming.
She stands barring the path across the high narrow bridge between the Lower City and the Matriarch’s residence, alone. She is the last line of defence, her body the last remaining barrier.
The great comet fills the sky now. Even in the azure daytime, it glares almost as brightly as the sun, the harbinger of the apocalypse. Its plaited, tangled tail of dust and debris stretches nearly from horizon to horizon. The philosophers predict that it will strike within hours, somewhere between the two Western continents. When that happens, the world of her green-scaled people will be at an end.
She wonders what form of life, as the philosophers put it, will come after them. She has heard tell that in the settlements razed during the Atom Wars the only surviving creatures were the cockroaches. Perhaps they will inherit the Earth when we are gone, she thinks, with bitter humour. Perhaps the verminous mammals will? She laughs aloud at the idea, hearing the desperation in her own voice as she loosens her blade in its sheath.
She knows her sisters are coming. She can hear them on the other side of the bridge, drawing ever closer. She can hear the clash of swords and the crackle of flames and the screams of the dying, the zip and whine of blaster-bolts. She does not know what feels worse; her shame that so many of her sword-sisters would dare raise their hands against the Matriarch, or the betrayal she feels on her own behalf. It is like a blade slowly slicing through her heart.
Kastara, she thinks as she stands alone upon that dizzyingly high bridge, the cold wind whipping around her and the comet shining above. I loved you, sister. She remembers the nights they spent as one, the caresses they lavished upon each other. Hard as the blade, she tells herself; she must be as hard as the blade. Only the edge of the blade is hard, though, she realises; its core is soft iron, intended to bend under a blow instead of breaking. She cannot afford to bend now. A single tear trickles over her scales as she yanks her blade from its scabbard with a scraping, chiming note.
“Stand aside, sister,” urges Kastara, emerging from the gate at the far end of the bridge. A dozen or so other sword-sisters follow close behind her, naked steel burning in their hands. They have retained that much honour, although it is little enough; their blasters remain inert and holstered at their sides.
“So few of you left?” she asks sardonically, although they outnumber her twelvefold even after fighting their way through the Lower City. “And where are all the rest? Fallen, fighting my other true sisters?”
“If you have ever loved me, sister,” says Kastara softly as if she has not heard her, “stand aside. Now.”
“You speak of love?” she shouts back in her wayward sister’s face, tears streaming freely now. She brandishes her sword: “You speak of love, you worthless traitor?”
For a moment Kastara flinches, as if struck a physical blow. Then, she starts forward again, blade raised in a fighting stance, the First Stance: “Do not be a fool, sister. Do not die to protect those miserable pieces of —”
“You swore an oath!” she hears herself screaming, even above the blast of the wind. “You kissed the blade!” You kissed me. So many times.
“They’re going to save themselves!” Kastara yells back, the scales around her own eyes glistening with moisture. “The Matriarch and her fat philosophers and brood-mothers, they’re going to freeze themselves in those pods and survive this catastrophe, even as they leave the rest of us to die! Surely you can see this!”
“Better to save a few,” she answers coldly, “than for all of us to perish.”
“And why should they be the few? All of our loyal service, our devotion, our sacrifices, and when it suits them they cast us aside like a shed skin!” Kastara swallows hard, visibly fighting to contain her rage as she redoubles her grip on the hilt of her weapon. Her voice is suddenly quiet: “You know I love you, sister. You must know that. But know also, for a certain fact, that I will kill you where you stand if you do not take this last chance. I beg you, Vastra. Let us pass.”
“I take your blade!” She cries in response, raising her sword above her head in a two-handed grip, the Fourth Stance, the one for meeting an anticipated but as yet unrevealed attack. It is an invitation as much as a precaution. “I will wield it with honour and loyalty! I will serve you for as long as I draw breath!”
Kastara looks away, takes a deep breath: “So be it.” She knows Kastara too well; she has eaten with her, and lain with her, and sparred with her. She can predict the precise moment when the attack will come. Even as Kastara leaps forward, as fast and deadly as a Sickle-claw, she is already moving to meet her, anticipating the exact speed and direction of her first stroke. Their blades meet with a deep, reverberating sound like ritual bells, steel flashing in the sun and the comet’s white light. The vibrations shiver along her limbs, spreading throughout her body.
She knows Kastara’s moves, knows the way she always leaves her left foot too far back, always holds her guard slightly too low… Kastara slashes at her face but she is already leaping back out of reach, sweeping her own blade down in the long two-handed arc of the Third Cut. Steel meets steel again, their swords striking bright sparks from each other. So fast in the counter; Kastara has always been the faster of the two of them. Even knowing her moves, it is all she can do to fend them off.
They both take a step back, taking a moment to watch each other, to search for an opening. Again, Kastara is first to the attack, feinting low as if to sever her sister’s forward leg, redirecting the blade at the last moment in a disembowelling upward stroke; the Sixth Cut.
Again, she reads Kastara’s intention before she makes the move, but again it is blindingly fast. Even as she jumps away from the blurred arc of Kastara’s blade, she feels it biting through the lamellar plates of her armour. That hard, keen edge kisses her across the curve of her belly just as Kastara’s tongue has so many times. She feels scales snapping and splitting as the steel draws a bloody stripe across her skin. The pain is too big to feel at first, registering instead as a terrible sensation of emptiness, but as she feels the wetness flowing down her legs she knows that it is a severe wound, perhaps a fatal one.
She has no time to worry about that. In striking that blow, Kastara has left a fatal opening of her own. The same way she always has in training.
She brings her own blade down into that opening, down and across from left to right. The First Cut, the one only the greatest sword-mistresses are supposed to be able to perfect. She barely feels any resistance as the sword sweeps down, its point finishing upon the flagstones of the bridge with a bright silvery chime. As she sees Kastara stagger back from her, seemingly unscathed with an expression of bewilderment upon her face, she thinks for a moment that the blow must have missed. And then Kastara’s sword falls from slack green fingers, clattering upon the pavement.
Kastara, her sword-sister, her lover, opens her mouth to speak but only bright blood emerges. In the same moment the broad red diagonal line becomes visible across the front of Kastara’s armour, weeping long rivulets of gore.
She watches Kastara dumbly, her own sword dangling at her side. Suddenly it seems to weigh ten times as much as normal; she can barely keep her grip upon it. She hears herself panting as she begins to feel her own wound properly. She is still watching, helplessly, as Kastara’s head, shoulders and left arm separate neatly from the rest of her body along the line of that diagonal cut. They tumble over the right-hand edge of the narrow bridge while her legs, her right arm and the rest of her torso fall away to the left, careering over and over into the abyss below.
The rest of the former sword-sisters turn and flee from her undoubted prowess. She has slain the very best of them, before their very eyes. Even with all their numbers, on that narrow path they know they cannot overcome her. It is lucky that they are gone before she finally falls to her knees. Blood pools scarlet around her and crushing pain rushes up to fill her. She tries to rise again, in case the traitors return. It is her duty. She uses the sword still clutched in her hand like a walking stick, managing with a tortuous effort to raise herself to one knee. She quickly sinks back down, kneeling and gasping in the middle of the deserted bridge. She weeps bitterly, partly from pain but mainly for the friend she lost today. The comet above is bright enough now to hurt her eyes if she looks up. So she looks down instead, opening her third eye wide and plunging into the fathomless darkness within herself.
Somewhere in the darkness, she hears a voice. The Matriarch: “Carry her back inside at once. And find her a pod!”
Another voice she does not recognise, male, coming from far away: “But my lady, we have no more room for…”
“Give her my pod if you must! She has given her life for me. Surely at this hour of all hours, when all debts are about to be settled, the least I can do is try to repay her?”
“My lady…” the male voice protests.
“Do not worry,” says the Matriarch with contempt, “you at least will still have a pod, chirurgeon. Now give mine to this brave sword-sister and pray that its preservative energies will heal that grievous wound she has suffered on my behalf.”
“Yes, my lady.” She is practically unconscious by now; she hears the male voice only as a distant echo in the blackness: “And what will you…?”
“I will remain here,” says the Matriarch, very firmly. “I am looking at the comet. It is quite interesting."
“As you say, my lady.” She can almost feel the male bowing obsequiously, even if she cannot see him.
She feels hands upon her limbs, lifting her from where she is by now lying. She feels something tear within her as she moves, a spasm of agony radiating from the gaping rip in her belly, blotting out all sense and thought.
That is the last she remembers of her old life, the life before the comet, the life of a sword-sister. Everything afterwards is infinitely dark and infinitely cold. She does not know for how long she sleeps, only that from time to time she wakes in terror, trying to move, trying to scream, but finding herself incapable of either as the ice closes in around her. Always, she fades quickly back into sleep, memories she knows are dreams rising and fading before her third eye. Time passes, and she knows it is a long time, years beyond counting, until the brief moments of wakefulness seem like dreams themselves and no more disturbing than some of her stray memories from the days before the comet.
An eternity later, she hears the crunch of iron against soil, the clink of iron against the alloy skin of the pod. Suddenly, for the first time since she fell on that high bridge, she feels fully, unambiguously, awake.
She opens her eyes, and finds herself still in darkness. Fortunate, she thinks; she does not know if she could endure sudden light after so many aeons spent a-dream. The pod unfolds around her with a sigh of dispersing gases. Its heater unit hums into life, dissolving and evaporating the constraining ice, unstiffening her limbs and thawing her blood, rapidly restoring her to full strength and consciousness. She welcomes the warm humidity that envelops her as the cold melts away. It feels almost like home.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
She does not recognise the language or the words, an exclamation in some barbaric tongue. And yet, as much as it resembles the snarling of beasts, she recognises it as speech directed by one intelligent being at another. Gradually, she manages to focus her eyes, her night-vision quickly re-establishing itself as she clambers from the pod. She feels a twinge of icy pain across her belly as she manages to stand upright on shaky legs, and recalls the fight, the kiss of the steel, the wound. Kastara. For a moment her memories almost overcome her, but then the glare of a torch or lantern stabs at her eyes and she is dragged back into the present.
She realises that she is in some deep-buried tunnel with walls of bare earth. A handful of strange figures stand around the pod, staring at her with odd glassy eyes. One bears a small metal cage dangling from a carrying ring, a candle burning bright within; the source of light that startled her. The others hold what seem to be crude digging instruments, picks and spades, gripped in soil-encrusted hands.
“What the bloody hell is that thing?”
Again, the creature’s utterance sounds like a snarl, incomprehensible, but so clearly intended for its compatriot beside it, and clearly acknowledged by the movement of the other creature’s head and the movement of its pale face. She is instantly convinced that the strange animals are at least intelligent beings. In physical form they are not unlike her own people. They stand upright with two arms and two legs each, but as the temperature of her own body continues to adjust to its surroundings she can feel the heat that radiates from them. And yet many animals of her own time had hot blood, including the mighty dinosaurs; that does not surprise her. The strangest things about the beings are the pale, smooth skins that peek through the dirt that covers them. They do not appear to possess any scales or feathers like most of the creatures she is used to. Instead they seem to be partially, almost randomly, covered by growths of thick, wiry…hair…
The sudden realisation and its irony force her to laugh aloud, but the sound seems to scare the strange figures, provoking fresh outbursts of impenetrable speech. Still, as the sudden realisation hits her she cannot help but laugh, almost hysterically: Hair! The mammals have inherited the Earth!
She does not know why the creature chooses this moment to strike at her. Perhaps it mistakes her laughter for a roar of aggression; perhaps they are naturally territorial and hostile after the manner of Sickle-claws and some other wild animals. Nevertheless, the nearest of the creatures raises the sharply-pointed pick in its hands and swings it at her head. She reacts instantly, instinctively. They put her sword in the pod with her before entombing her; her hand falls naturally upon its hilt. The steel flashes in the lantern-light as she draws it and simultaneously sways to one side to avoid the mammal’s inelegant attack. She barely feels her own blow connect, so sharp is her blade. With a gush of blood the mammal’s arm comes free of its body, cleanly severed, staining her steel crimson. The reek of spilled life fills the tunnel.
The surviving creatures turn as one, strange voices raised in panic and consternation. Most of them drop their tools as they rush back up the tunnel, fleeing from her as well they might. She hisses loudly at their retreating backs, announcing her victory to any who might hear.
Her wound gives another twinge as she looks down at her fallen foe. If the mammal has not already bled to death, it will very shortly. The fingers of its detached arm continue to flex and twitch for a few moments before lying still. The hot smell of its blood is intoxicating; her stomach growls, demanding to be filled after being empty for sixty-five million years. With a small movement of her mouth she dislocates her jaw and stoops to feed.
“Ma’am?” The voice comes from far, far away, from somewhere in the dark. For a moment, she is convinced it is the Matriarch calling her. She feels a nudge against her shoulder and the tunnel and the slain navvy melt away as her third eye closes and she regains her anchorage in space and time. “Ma’am? Vastra?”
Finally, she really does wake up.
“Were you dreaming?” Jenny asks, sleepy voice sharpened by concern. “I heard you…you cried out.” She is lying beside her, raised up on one elbow to look down at her anxiously.
Vastra stares past the worried face at the plaster mouldings of the bedroom ceiling, at the patterns repeating across the wallpaper, perfectly visible to her in the dark. The first moments of her awakening rush through her mind again in a jumble; the railway workers fleeing along the underground tunnel, the act of killing with which she introduced herself to the new world. Other memories, more disturbing still, float at the edges of her consciousness; her sword-sisters, the last days beneath the comet…
Her sword hangs near the foot of the bed, encased in its ornate scabbard. She focuses upon it for a moment.
“Ma’am?” Jenny’s face is white in the darkness, brow furrowed and eyes glistening. “Are you all right? Were you dreaming about…?”
“And when have I not been all right?” she asks, feigning light-heartedness as she gently caresses Jenny’s soft cheek. She wonders sometimes how her own hard scales must feel rubbing against that fragile skin, although Jenny has never complained at her touch. “Go back to sleep,” she whispers in the darkness.
Jenny settles down again, nestling close and laying an arm across Vastra’s body, her mouth against her neck, warm damp breath making her scales tingle. So hot; Vastra luxuriates in the warmth leaking from her bed-mate’s slick smooth flesh, feels it soaking into her own chilled flesh until she starts to lose sensation in her extremities and their bodies seem to merge together as one. She half-rolls and presses herself against Jenny, holding the young woman close to her. Soon enough, if she holds her close enough, she will be as warm for the time being as Jenny is all the time.
“Mmm,” Jenny murmurs as she starts to drift off, her hand slowly tracing the curved scar arcing across Vastra’s belly. Vastra shivers involuntarily from crest to toe, responding with a quick flick of her long tongue. She tastes heat and salt as it flows over tender skin, making Jenny shudder in her turn.
She counts herself lucky in her new life, in so many ways. Especially in the people she has met and the friendships she has made. They have prevented her time upon this new Earth from being as bloody and short-lived as it threatened to be in the hours following her awakening. She has been most especially lucky, she considers, in finding Jenny. She has a sword-sister again, one who will never betray her and who she will never betray, for they both know that each loves the other more than life itself and that the cause for which they fight is just.
After a long search and many inquiries, she has finally found an old human male dwelling in East Finchley, a learned and expert sword-smith scraping a living as an immigrant cutler. Nihon, the old male’s native land, is an island-nation on the other side of the planet. There, until quite recently, ruled a warrior-caste in some ways not unlike the sword-sisters of her youth but composed bizarrely of males rather than females. And, like the sword-sisters, they lived and died by the strength and sharpness of their master-crafted steel.
When Vastra first unsheathed her sword before him, the old male gasped in admiration at the quality of the blade, at the skill and science that his expert eye could detect in its forging and the artistry of its decorations. So moved was he that he has offered to fashion the sword she has commissioned for Jenny for the cost of its materials alone. Vastra has seen the poverty in which he lives, however, and hopes she can find some way to reward him more substantially without wounding his deep sense of dignity.
In the meantime she has seen to Jenny’s training personally, although Jenny already had impressive skills when first they met. She was counted an accomplished crackswoman and fingersmith, in the idiom of her peers, and accordingly has acquired certain physical and mental strengths that suit her well to the way of the sword. Vastra has taught her how to breathe properly and how to meditate, how to open the third eye and how to execute the Cuts and Stances as if born to them. Their comrade Strax, a warrior of no mean accomplishment himself, watches their lightning-sharp sparring sessions in what Vastra likes to think is awe, perhaps even fear, although he would never admit as much. He most definitely does not get to watch what they do afterwards, with their hearts still thumping and their blood still singing with excitement. He would not appreciate it anyway; obtusely for a purported military genius, he still calls Jenny “boy”.
Vastra raises her head and looks at the sword gleaming below her feet in its lacquered sheath. She swore once that it would be the only mate she would ever know. Sorry, she tells it, not wholly sincerely, before lying down again to sleep.
Yes, she thinks, tightening her embrace around her wife and feeling warm curves give beneath her fingers; she has been so very lucky. Jenny is no Kastara, just as she herself is no longer the staunch warrior who stood upon that bridge, blinded by duty, foolishly thinking that it mattered more than love. Were such a moment to occur again, she likes to think, one or other of them would yield before swords were crossed. They would fall into each other’s arms and hold that final embrace until the comet fell upon them and they went into the dark together, not alone and frozen. She would not be parted from Jenny even for another sixty-five million years of life.
As sleep enfolds her and consciousness deserts her for the next few hours that is her final thought: Love would win this time.
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