Saturday, September 10, 2011

Different Kind of Knight

It was bound to happen. Extreme heat and drought conditions made the whole state of Texas a big box of kindling. Some fires had already sprung up, but with the dry wind that had hit the state earlier this week, fire started attacking us like the worst supervillain in history. Thousands of acres have burned this week. Close to 2000 people’s homes. And I was in the middle of it.
Jack and I were sent to the Bastrop fire about 20 miles southeast of Austin, even though it was way outside our area. Everyone with any kind of skill that might help went to the 16 mile wide fire that ate a national park, a bunch of ranchland, and more than 1500 people’s homes. It’s still burning, even now, but Jack and I have done our part, and it’s up to others to keep up the fight against an enemy that doesn’t sleep.
I’m not sure I can even begin to describe what it’s like to face a wall of fire and smoke miles wide. I gained a lot of respect for White Knight. This is his day job. When he’s not fighting the forces of evil, he fights this force of nature that devours all life in its path.
When Jack and I arrived, White Knight, in full scale armor was directing the super aspects of the rescue and firefighting operation. Liberty was in charge of the Austin area Protectors, but she let White Knight take the lead here. He’d already done this once, when similar fires hit North Texas a couple months back.
As soon as he saw me, he didn’t even bother being snarky, just started telling me how he thought I could help. Officially, I was here as a paramedic, but we both knew I could do more than most. In addition to the ability to heal, he knew I was strong, knew I was fire resistant, but vulnerable to smoke inhalation. And he knew that I’d risk or do virtually anything to save a life. It was a little scary, really, how much this Georgian knew about me.
That left Jack doing normal paramedic duties on his own. The first person he treated, though, was the lady firefighter we met at the 18 wheeler wreck, the one with a blue streak in her hair. She’d been fighting this fire for hours and sucked in way more smoke than was good for her. She’d also gotten a minor burn on her arm, saving a dog from a locked kennel in the path of the fire. Her supervisor ordered her not to go back to the line, so she volunteered to help Jack out while I was drafted into supe duties. Jack put a little burn ointment and bandages on the dog’s paws, and it followed them around from then on. According to the tag, the dog’s name is Rocky. I still haven’t caught the firefighter’s name.
The next two days was a jumble of terrifying moments embedded in a lot of hot, dirty work. I got an oxygen mask, coat, and helmet from one of the fire trucks, which made me mostly fireproof.  Then, I got sent into a lot of areas that were already partially on fire to make sure no one was left. I got drafted to lift a downed telephone pole off a road. It was blocking the exit to a neighborhood, keeping people with their cars stuffed full of their kids, their pets and their possessions from leaving. Their homes probably would be gone in a day, but at least, once I got the pole out of the way, they could get out with a little more than the clothes on their backs. That made them luckier than some. The hot wind kept blowing the fire so fast, we could barely keep ahead of it.
I heard rumors that other fires had started in the suburbs around Austin: Pflugerville, Cedar Park, Leander and more. It felt like the fires were a living enemy, surrounding Austin and putting us all under siege. The thought gave me weird flashbacks to the siege of Camelot by the Black army. I called Ma to make sure she was okay, but she said there wasn’t anything near her in downtown Austin. For now at least.
I put away the cell phone and went to pick up my oxygen gear again, but White Knight put a hand on mine. “You won’t need that this time,” he said. “We’ve got a ranch in the path of the fire, with the owner out of town. We need to get about 500 cattle and horses out, without them trampling the firefighters. Do you know anything about herding cattle?”
“I was raised on a Texas ranch. Never done a cattle drive, but I’m familiar with the principles.”
White Knight nodded, “That’s better than anyone else available. Let’s get those animals out of there.”
“Let’s? You, too?” I asked as we headed for a small stable. About a half dozen horses were still in their stalls. I chose a compact quarter horse with a broad chest and a short body. I used to barrel race for fun when I was a kid, and she looked like she’d be good in the corners; might win me a trophy or two at a rodeo.
“No one else available. Civilians are too likely to get injured with that much panicked livestock.”
White Knight chose a lanky gray Arabian with a long flowy main and tail and a high shoulder. She looked like a prissy show horse to me, but I didn’t have to ride her. We led the other horses out of the stable and onto trailers for evacuation. “I’ve asked several of the normal volunteers to clear a path to the west for the herd to follow, out of the fire’s path. TakeDown is doing rescues on the other end of the line.” Knight strapped his shield to his back, and struggled with the bridle, trying to figure out how to get the bit in the horse’s mouth.
He gave me the rest of the rundown while I helped him get the bridle on. “Liberty is immune to electricity, so she’s clearing downed power lines. A couple of local flyers are dropping loads of fire retardant near a neighborhood. Even Lord Vile sent some minions to help under the command of some crazy scientist, calls himself Madspark.”
“Lord Vile sent help?” I found a couple of saddles and tacked up my chosen mount.
White Knight shrugged. “Fire doesn’t discriminate between hero and villain. For all we know he may have a secret base somewhere in this area. Madspark set off a bomb that blew out a quarter mile section of the fire. Too bad he only had one.” Knight started to mount and his saddle slid sideways.
I sighed, tightened his cinch, and gave the pretty white Arabian a little knee bump to get her to stop blowing up. “Where’s the Devastator?”
“He went back to California weeks ago. San Francisco is his normal HQ. He just flew in for the Mansfield dam bomb threat” He hopped up and down on one foot with the other foot in the stirrup. The horse danced sideways and laid her ears back.
“Not a big enough headline here, huh?”
Knight stopped hopping around and turned to glare at me. “He’s not like that. California needs heroes, too. We can all only be in one place at a time, Dee. Just because we’re not where you think we should be, doesn’t mean we’re all just glory hounds following the spotlight.”
“Right, how silly of me. You clearly don’t give a damn about the spotlight.” I’d seen him talking to reporters about the supe contribution to the firefighting effort earlier, all puffed up with self-importance as the acting leader of the supes. I was not buying what he was selling.
“PR is just part of the job. We lead by example.," he said, but blushed when he said it. "Our main goal is to save lives and bring criminals to justice.” He gave another hop, trying to mount the white horse who danced sideways again, all but laughing at him now.
I sighed, grabbed the mare’s bridle near her chin, and gave it a mild yank. I clucked at her reprovingly. She brought up her ears and stood steady while the Knight finally made it onto her back.
“Are you ready?” I asked as I swung up onto the bay quarterhorse’s back. At this rate, we’d have 500 head of barbecue.
Knight nodded, lips and jaw tight, holding the reins in one hand and the saddle horn in the other.
“Have you ever been on a horse before in your life?”
“Twice,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
“Glorious.” This was going to be a very long day. I grabbed a lasso from its hook as we rode past it, and handed him the long-handled cattle prod I’d found with the tack. The rope took some skill, but all he’d need to do was poke with the electric prod and it should be enough to get a steer’s attention.
As we headed toward the nervously mooing and milling herd, it hit me and I started laughing.
“What?” Knight snapped, knowing I was laughing at him, but not knowing why.
“You’re a knight on a white horse who doesn’t know how to ride.” I giggled. He didn’t get it. Guess he wasn’t a Christian Kane fan. No taste.
He managed reasonably well to not get in my way, and keep his side of the herd moving more or less in the right direction for a few miles despite his horse shying from the cattle periodically. We really could have used about 3 more hands, but the little bay cutting horse I rode practically managed to be in two places at once. She had to be someone’s pride and joy.
Then things got a little hairy.
We weren’t moving as fast as we should have been and the fire started catching up to us. The cattle got a stronger whiff of smoke. We started to feel the heat and see some orange glow in the pine trees, headed our way. The cattle broke into a run, in the wrong direction. Instead of following the path to the side, cleared of fences and obstacles by the volunteers Knight sent ahead of us, the cattle headed toward a highway full of cars driving out of the affected areas and emergency crews and volunteers driving in.
The only thing between thousands of pounds of panicked beef and a bunch of cars travelling at 40 mph was a flimsy chain link fence and the White Knight.
He waved his arm with the cattle prod in it, yelled at the cattle and rode the white horse toward them at an angle to try to get them spooked the other way, but they only turned a little and kept running. The showy Arabian reared and spooked hard as the herd pounded toward her. Knight flew off like he’d grown wings and the mare hightailed it out of there without him.
He’d gotten the herd turned slightly, but the mare had thrown him into their path. He landed badly, but rolled back to his feet quickly. He held the cattle prod like he normally would a sword and faced the enemy, favoring one leg.
I smacked that little quarter horse on the rear with my rope and ran her as fast as she could go, weaving in between cattle and shouldering them out of the way when they wouldn’t give her space. Luckily, my legs are armored these days, so I wasn’t in any danger of them getting smashed in between thousand pound animals.
The leading edge of the herd got to Knight well before I did. He danced like a matador jabbing cattle away from him with the prod and side-stepping, but it couldn’t last. The cattle were packed too tightly as they turned at the fence and ran the other way, the direction we wanted them to run, for a human to fit between any of them without getting crushed.
Sure enough, that shiny silver-scaled figure went down in a sea of heaving, squealing, shoving, running sharp-hooved beasts. I felt my heart jump in my chest, and a lump well up in my throat as he went down. White Knight was a Georgian and an asshole, but I didn’t want to see him die.
I dug my heels into my horse’s ribs, but she was already doing the best she could to shove her way to Knight through the crowd of heavier cattle. I could see some of the beasts stumbling or jumping over an obstacle, so I knew where he was, whatever was left of him.
I took the end of the rope and put some super-strength into it as I whipped the cattle to either side of me. The cattle hit by the end squealed and jumped to get away from the pain, shoving the other cattle. It widened the space the little horse and I had to move in.
I made it to Knight after what was probably just a few seconds. I’d cleared a hole in the herd, enough to see him down on his side, curled up, arms trying to protect his head. I couldn’t stop with the panicked herd pounding forward all around me.
He got up to one knee when the pressure let up for a moment. He saw me, and held up a hand.
I leaned way to one side, gripping the horse with my legs and one hand fisted in her mane, and caught that hand as we rushed by. Knight hopped as I grabbed him, and I used the momentum of our speed to help swing him up behind me. He landed hard on the horse’s rump against my back.
The horse stumbled and almost lost her footing. I clung to her hard, and just hoped. If she went down, we’d go down with her, and all three of us would probably die. I had a couple of seconds to think how ironic it would be for Knight and me to survive supervillains, bombs and giant robots only to be killed by thousands of pounds of terrified hamburger on the hoof.
But the quarter horse didn’t let us down. She found her footing again and kept running, even with twice the weight on her back.
The cattle turned at the fence, instead of going over it, so they at least weren’t going to cause a massive traffic hazard. I worked my way to the edge of the herd and did my best to keep steering them in the right direction. There was no stopping them, but at least they were running the right way now.
I risked one quick look behind me and saw the hungry fire licking at the grass where Knight went down. Maybe the cattle had the right idea. We ran. The quarter horse gave us all she had, with Knight just barely holding on behind me. His grip was weak, but he didn’t fall off, and until we got clear of the fire’s path, that was enough.
The smoke thickened until I coughed as we ran. The horse I rode coughed with me, but didn’t stop running.
Suddenly, like riding through a curtain, the air cleared. A huge pasture opened up in front of the herd, hundreds of untouched acres with pine and oak trees along a creek. Enough room for them to run out their panic without doing any real harm.
I looked back, and could see the smoke blowing the fire across the land we’d left behind and on, perpendicular, not toward us. We’d made it clear of the fire’s path.
White Knight fell off the horse.
“Whoah, girl, whoah, easy.” It took me a bit to get the scared horse slowed down and turned back around to go get the downed hero.
She blew hard as I dismounted, but there wasn’t any bloody foam around her mouth or any other sign that she was foundered. Even as I worried that Knight was dead, I spared a part of my mind to be grateful that the brave little mare hadn’t killed herself to get us out of danger.
I knelt beside the Knight and took his coif off his head. I’d already seen his face, anyway.
He was unconscious, lips pale, skin clammy. He’d gone into shock.
His normally flat belly was bloated a little. Internal bleeding. I’d gotten him out of the path of the fire, but not before the cattle had already killed him. It was just a matter of minutes before he died, and I was miles from help.
The only way he was going to survive was with my venom.
I didn’t even think about not saving him. Maybe I should have. He tried to kill Fafnir and Vlad. He’d no doubt want to kill me if he knew what I was. But it didn’t matter.
I stripped off his right gauntlet so I could get to his wrist, and the feel of the tiny, fine silver scales in the glove felt familiar. I stripped off the leather glove from my left hand and looked at my palm, then looked at the palm of the gauntlet. Identical in all but color. I turned the gauntlet over and looked at the articulated plates that protected Knight’s knuckles and the back of his hand. Identical, even the color.
I touched the shimmering silver scales covering Knight’s muscular arm and the purple and green scales on my own arm. They were the same.
Dragon scales. White Knight’s armor was made of dragon scales. Silver dragon scales to be exact, my grandmother’s clan.
Knight was wearing the skin of one of my relatives.
It should have been repulsive, but instead I found myself weeping. Tears ran from my eyes for the, no doubt long dead, member of my family that I was touching.
On an odd impulse, I put the gauntlet on my right hand. Knight’s hands were thick, short-fingered and blocky with muscle. Mine were long-fingered and slender, but the gauntlet fit perfectly. It all but merged with my hand. I flexed and wiggled my fingers and found my movements no more inhibited than they were by the natural scales on my left. The gauntlet adapted to me, and I felt an overwhelming warmth that triggered more tears. Images in my mind of my grandmother, Lady Nyneve, flooded me. Soaring over the lake where she lived, hugging my father when he was little, holding hands with Merlin and looking out from the battlements at Camelot.
This wasn’t just any silver dragon’s skin. It was my grandmother’s. The images in my mind weren’t the bloody, angry, battle images that had filled my sleep the last few nights. They were gentle, peaceful, sheltering. It was as if the gauntlet, through time, sought to protect me.
It wasn’t just my grandmother’s skin, there was something of her spirit in this armor as well. And it wasn’t angry. If I was her, I would be so angry. Why wasn’t she?
I looked at Knight’s sword and shield with new eyes. I pulled his sword from the sheath and touched the blade. Though the edge was sharper than a razor, it didn’t cut me, and I knew it never would.
I saw images behind my closed eyes of Lady Nyneve doing battle, her claws striking down her enemies. I touched the shield, with the image of a knight slaying a dragon painted on the front like obscene graffiti. I saw swords and arrows, and even the fierce flames of the Reds, hotter than a volcano’s breath, turned aside by the heavy plates on Lady Nyneve’s breast and spine in her giant battle form.
I opened my eyes as Knight’s breathing caught and grew irregular. He was dying.
A few moments ago, I would have saved him without hesitation. I had saved him, more than once.
Now? I hesitated.
I looked at the gauntlet on my hand. Lady Nyneve hugged Robert, her youngest son, my father, close, and I felt it, not as if I were her, but as if I were the one being hugged. She knew me. She recognized me as kin.
Why aren’t you angry, grandmother? I thought hard, remembering her gift to read thoughts. This man is a Georgian. He’s sworn to kill us all on sight, and he’s using you to help him do it.
For a moment, I saw Fiona, my grandmother’s sister, hugging her son, Gawain. Then, just a flicker of images, Gawain holding a baby up and laughing. A woman grown who I knew to be that baby singing to her toddler son. The son grown and playing with dolls with his daughter. The daughter holding her son to nurse at her breast and smiling as she died from childbirth complications in a hospital that looked almost modern.
The last image was of the babe, now about six, getting in a fight with a much bigger and older boy on the playground at an orphanage. A little girl with a cut lip cowered behind him. The boy had hazel eyes and brown hair, and the bigger boy slammed his face into a merry-go-round splitting his upper lip and brow open to the bone, cuts that would leave scars on his face for life. But the little boy stood again between the bully and the little girl, tiny fists held high as blood ran down his face. He gave the bigger boy a bloody nose that made him cry and run.
The brave little boy’s face disappeared and I opened my eyes and looked at the dying Knight. The scars were still there, and the sandy brown hair that fell in his eyes.
A feeling of peace and love overwhelmed me. I bit his wrist gently, inserting a fang into the vein and giving him a full dose of healing venom.
I put the leather glove back over my scaly left hand to hide it, and reluctantly peeled the silver gauntlet off my right.
White Knight was a Georgian, but he was also a son of Silver. The armor and weapons that all but defined him wouldn’t have worked for him if he weren’t.
The Knight didn’t know it, but he was a dragon.

D Dragon

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