From the author: Donna Quick is mad. And her companion, Jane Smith, is a magician. This is perhaps my favorite story (I love them all but Jane Smith has a strong place in my heart). Have you read "Don Quixote"?
I swear on what honor I have managed to scrape together over the past few years that she is unhinged.
Her name is Donna Quick and she is quite mad.
Myself, I am not mad. I am perhaps far too sane to spend my life following the lead of this peculiar swordswoman, but this is what I do. I am Jane Smith, magician, traveler, occasional trouble-maker. Occasionally trouble finds me; and this was how I found Donna Quick, in the midst of my troubles.
The whole tale of the ugliness surrounding my introduction to her service is best suited for another time. Suffice to say she threw herself into the fray, mindless of the danger to her own person, when I was attacked by an army of ferric cats set upon me by the evil enchantress Altisidora. Her sword danced and iron cat heads flew shedding rusty fur in a splattered monochrome arc, accompanied by the music of flung bells and cat screechings.
Donna Quick saved my life that night. This was many years ago; any debt between us has been settled long past my memory; now I follow her because in all truth I love her.
In her service I grew used to sleeping out of doors, around a campfire, with only Nature as a constant. Still I found it difficult to sleep, even after all these years, and more difficult than that to awaken each morning. As usual, on this morning Donna rose while the birds still slept. Her warmth in our blankets faded and I stirred, chilled.
I learned long ago not to ask her back into my embrace. She believes me a sluggard and has more times that I can count come after me with the flat of her sword to beat me out of my comfort. I pretended to sleep a little longer but she knew I was awake. I could see the attentive angle of her head as she moved about more noisily.
Despite my slowness, I was not slothful. Donna and I had different biorhythms. Our bodies reflected our differing humors as well. I was large enough that my leather breeches wore out in embarrassing places on a regular basis and my corset functioned overtime to strap down my mammary bits. Donna, on the other hand, never found pre-constructed leathers small enough for her slight, lanky frame, and must needs have her riding gear hand-fashioned by whatever craftswomen we met along the way.
On her own Donna would perhaps be naked. She would certainly starve to death.
I stuck my arm out from under my blanket and pointed in the general direction of the fire pit.
“Accendō,” I muttered. The fire agreeably flared into existence.
When the clearing held enough warmth to melt the rimes of frost from the stones surrounding the fire pit, I threw off my blankets and stretched. From our saddlebags I gathered the necessaries for our meal: water and coffee, bread and sausage.
“Come along, your breakfast,” I said, holding out a tin plate of hot food for her. She seized the plate and retreated to the far side of the fire pit.
Afterwards, I washed up and packed the camp. I could have accomplished the tasks with a few magical gestures, but I did not want to start the day worn out. Travel was exhausting enough. Before long Donna finished her morning exercises with her rapier, those swooshings with her sword that kept her the best swordswoman I'd ever known. To me her movements looked like she engaged in tango with a slim metal partner; or perhaps flamenco, some wild Spanish dance that left her and her blade sweaty and satisfied. She wiped the blade until it gleamed then slipped it into her intricate dyed-leather scabbard.
Our mounts awaited us.
I rode an Asian designed rice-burner, soberly black, carefully polished so rust had no chance of eating her alive. The grain in the fuel nacelles murmured as I seated myself, knocking the kickstand up. I twisted the throttle and she started right up, the pleasant thrum of her single cylinder engine a nice salute to the morning.
Donna's mount, Rosinante, was of an entirely different breed. What breed that might be, I did not know. Her fuel nacelles were curved and unpainted, gray as morning fog. Her handlebars were long and drooped alarmingly towards the leather and cloth patchwork seat. Her fairings were baroque designs of swirled metal with holes poked through from some attempt at decoration that looked like a teenager's acne scars. In short, Donna's mount was the ugliest thing I had ever laid eyes on.
Yet Donna loved it and it responded with deep-voiced power that ran so efficiently I swore she fed it air. If I had not known better I would have thought Rosinante an enchanted mount.
Sometime after we set off on our road, I spied the first road sign of the day. Depending from the horizontal arm of a tree growing too near the common way, the painted tin sign announced that we would arrive in Wadi Seco “soon.” Claims were made as to the town's lively tavern and fabulous dining possibilities.
Donna swerved as she passed the sign. She down-shifted; the roar of her mount softened to a purr and Donna put her foot down on the asphalt.
“Jane, fetch me a mirror!” Her voice was harmonic and rich in timbre. If I were blind I would still love her for just that voice. She did not consider the difficulty of producing a mirror or the incongruity of wanting it now whilst we traveled along the main road.
I complied without objection.
I sorcelled a mirror for her, as I did not carry one in my saddlebags. What would be the point of that? A mirror shivered by the vibrations of travel was no mirror at all, merely a collection of destroyed potential.
She spied herself in my impromptu magic and grunted in satisfaction at the reflected vision from my heart: bronzed willowy body, masses of golden curls, eyes the color of Argentine emeralds, and dimples meant for capturing hearts.
In truth, a truth I tended to disregard, her hair was gray and wiry with wind; her eyes faded from too many years of betrayed hope and misplaced trust. Her skin was the slick leather of someone with too many miles totaled in the accounting book of her days. But still she gleamed, oh yes, especially when she was preparing to embark upon some new mischief.
This morning she was fairly luminescent.
“Jane, I have the desire for some civilized company, some cold drink and hot food and games of chance. In short, I want to stop at this tavern and sit in on a game of veintiuna.”
Her desires announced, she started up her mount again and sped onto the road. I hurried to catch up.
Some time in a village, soft beds and clean sheets, appealed to me, but we had little money, perhaps just enough to stretch for the evening. Of course Donna Quick might smooth the way for us financially. She was good at card games if not the best player I'd ever known. She might make us a stake, she might not. Either way, a day of taverning and a night of comfort seemed a good way to break our travels.
Not an hour later, the crash of the gaming table turned topsy interrupted my fledgling flirtations with a gentleman at the bar.
The warm looks he sent my way from the moment we entered this tavern made me moist with possibility. The road had been long since our last laying-by, and my mount's seat, pleasant though it can be, grew stale as a source of pleasure. He was handsome enough, tallish, not too muscular, dark curly hair and blazing brown eyes, a hawk's nose and the kind of lips that promised sensual pleasures. Over a draft of beer I learned his name: Miguel; and he learned mine. I enjoyed the way my name sounded on his lips.
“Who is your companion?” he said, his hand brushing my arm.
“Her name is Donna Quick,” I murmured. Then I heard the harsh rise of voices from her gaming table and I sighed.
“Her name is Donna Quick and she is quite mad.”
I said this as a litany against terror and perhaps as a prayer to all the gods that she would not get us murdered. It occurred to me that I have earnestly prayed this same phrase many times before.
The tavern, this anonymous establishment in a forgettable town on the road to someplace better, filled with silence. Men and women stood or sat motionless, barely breathing, containing coughs and sneezes so as not to draw my mistress' attention.
For she was mad but she was also quick.
Her blade was busy etching the clothes off the back of a card playing man.
Moments before she and five identically sleazy men had sat round a table, playing some version of some card game, pinochle, bridge, veintiuna, I did not know, I did not care to know. This witless man had thought to try cheating on a madwoman with a sword.
Perhaps he decided her sword was just decoration. More fool he. On the road we traveled, only swordsmen carried steel; otherwise the blade will be wrenched away and the owner's life along with it.
Donna Quick made short work of such challengers. I never needed to carry a sword.
Miguel squeezed my hand a bit more roughly than necessary. I pulled away from his amorous grasp. This was not the time to continue with courting; I shook my head while smiling slightly to indicate not now but absolutely later.
He waggled his eyebrows at me and jerked his chin. Either he had come down with some nervous disease or he was trying to convey a message. I had never been good at semaphore; I eased closer to him and whispered, “Not now!”
“Do something, you idiot!” he whispered back.
He misplaced his confidence in my abilities. The creaky magic lock on this place prevented use of magic inside the walls. I knew the lock worked, I tried it automatically when I first walked in and received a bit of a shock for my trouble. An old habit, this trying of locks.
I could not magic inside, but perhaps I could create a distraction outside the doors. I could not shove the doors open, but I could pull them from outside; it was a bit of a trick, involving visualization and concentrated throwing of the fields of power, but within my talents.
The doors splashed open with thuds of wood smacking wood, enough to distract Donna from her cutwork. A passing cart and horse transformed into a slow-moving fire-streaming dragon; impressive if I do say so myself. Screams from the crowd gathered outside the tavern, from people walking the streets, from the driver of the sudden dragon himself.
Someone outside shouted, “Beware, a dragon!”
Donna Quick swung her booted foot high and strong into the thigh muscle of the cheater on the floor. His whining pleas for help transformed into screams of agony. I taught her that move. She was too fine a person to ever consider kicking a downed opponent. Slice him like bologna, yes, but kick? That was my kind of trick, designed to keep an opponent down while I made a quick getaway.
Donna charged through the tavern doors. She shouted something about waiting, about death to dragons, about how she would rescue any who needed rescue; her usual battlefield declarations.
Once they could breathe again, the men and women of the tavern talked in excited voices, rehashing the events, retelling the story, getting the details settled. More than one person sidled up to the cheater on the floor and kicked him again. He was not going anywhere.
Miguel offered me another drink, a neat shot of amber whiskey, and it broke my heart to turn him down but I needed to find Donna Quick and get us back on the road before the cheater and his friends developed a desire for revenge.
I shrugged and smiled at Miguel, then snagged the cheater's hard leather bag of coin off the floor. I bowed and made my exit.
She was easy to track: people fleeing, dust roiling, yelps of surprise. She was at the end of the street, sitting on the boardwalk, dangling her legs into the street. No one approached her, not even the omnipresent street urchins who stood a respectful distance away from her, watching her every move.
This may in part have resulted from the ferric cat that climbed into her lap, purring and begging for attention. No one sane wished to handle ferric cats but so very little stopped Donna Quick.
Ferric cats. I glared down at the rust-ball. The damnable things were some meddling iron-monger's brilliant answer to the rodent problem: a mechanical mouser that needed neither care nor concern once loosed on the streets. They bred as rapidly as flesh and blood cats but they did not die as readily. Rust streaks decorated them. They were known to gang up on hapless children and beg for dishes of lubricant oil. Few people were willing to run afoul of these creatures and risk tetanus-laden bites and scratches.
Ferric cats were best left to themselves.
The cat observed my glares and slunk away, leaving speckles of rust on Donna's breeches. She smiled up at me.
“I did not engage the dragon, but I did chase it out of town,” she reported. “The beast disappeared in a puff of smoke just as it passed the town limits. I know the direction it ran; we might yet be able to track it to its lair. Perhaps there we can find enough dragon's treasure to make our sojourn to this village worthwhile.” She pursed her lips. “I fear I did lose our entire wallet at the gaming table.”
As always, I spoke before I thought. “Never fear, mistress. I snagged that cheater's bag of coin before I followed you.” I shook the hard leather sack at her, enjoying the metallic jangle of coins rubbing against coins.
Donna Quick frowned. And stood in one graceful movement. And grabbed her sword. Her eyes blazed deep intense green hotter than a Ferrier's flame.
“You promised that you would never steal again!” She did not quite point her sword at me. “You will return that to its rightful possessor. You are not a thief, Jane. We are not thieves and that is not the name we wish to bear into our futures.”
I was not sure if she meant us 'we' or was using a royal 'we,' but the result was the same. I would have to return the coins.
“You are a hard mistress,” I whined.
We walked back to our mounts, waiting where we'd left them near the tavern doors. A chubby boy stood beside Donna's mount, not daring to lean on it. When he saw us he swept off his flat cap and sketched an untrained bow.
“If the gentle ladies would please join us inside, we need a word,” he said, twisting his face into all kinds of odd shapes as he struggled to remember the message. “I um we, that is, the men of this village, would appre… enjoy…” He gave up the struggle. “Please, ma'ams?”
Donna turned ferocious eyes my way.
“As I said, they believe us thieves and wish to castigate us! You will march in there right now and return that bag of rotted money.”
The boy looked at us, unhappy. “I beg your pardon, but both you ma'ams, please, we… they want to see both of you all.” He preceded me to the tavern door and held them open. I walked, stiff-backed, certain Donna would prod me with the tip of her sword. She strode along behind me.
The tavern, abuzz until a split-moment before, fell silent like all the good villagers had gone dumb at the same second. The cheater, a bit bruised and bloody, sat in an empty corner and nursed his wounds while glowering at us.
“They will never…” he began but was hissed down by a cascade of sibilant shushes. He glowered yet more.
My mistress showed her teeth and waved her non-sword arm in a regal flutter. “Gentlemen, we have returned to bring to you a favor captured in the heat of battle which rightly belongs not to us but to our worthy opponent.” She indicated me and I pulled the bag of coin from my pocket with a good deal of reluctance. “Boy,” she said, “fetch this to its owner.”
The boy took the bag from my hands and trotted over to the cheater. That man stopped complaining and now looked ready to have a heart attack: red of face, bulging of eye, hard of breath.
Miguel, my gentleman friend from the bar, approached us with two schooners of dark beer in his hands; newly-drawn, by the foaming heads. I unburdened him of one and he offered the other to my mistress.
“Dear ladies, we would like to offer you employment,” he said.
The men of the tavern told of the great dragon that afflicted this part of the world, and especially this village. It ate the children, someone said. One morning a week it strode by, the most arrogant worm in creation. The dragon was protected by armed guardsmen, they said, evil men tempted by the dragon's treasure. Would she be willing to help control the beast? Would she, a woman alone, great swordswoman regardless, be able to withstand it and its retinue? Would she, in short, slay the dragon for them?
I rolled my eyes at their story. She was mad, true, but not stupid. Whatever their motivation, she would not be taken in. Though she'd undoubtedly play with them for some time. She had a head for strategy and ambuscade and these men had maps.
I spared little time for their machinations and instead resumed my flirtation with Miguel. He started by holding my hand again, so gently, and before too much longer our lips were pressed against each other and my hands were finding his nether skin very pleasing indeed.
Donna ignored us, stalking up and down the floor like a captured tigress ready to pull apart the bars of her cage. I in turn ignored her. When Miguel whispered against my neck that he had a room upstairs, I let him lead me there.
When I awoke, morning sunlight rounded into the south facing window. The man was not in the room; I could tell from the warmth of the sheets and the scent of him that he left but recently. Perhaps his leaving woke me.
The bed leaned alarmingly and were I prone to hangovers I might have spilt my dinner on the floor. We had broken the bed's farther legs. I giggled at the memory.
Time to pull on my leathers. I pushed aside the curtain and looked down on the town, which did look nicer now than it had the previous day. I saw my black mount below, patiently awaiting me, but not Rosinante. Not Donna's mount.
Ah, damnation! I slid into my boots and slammed through the door, startling Miguel returning with his hands full of coffee and food. I pushed by him, stuttered down the stairs, and ran out the twin doors of the tavern.
My mount was covered with a rime of morning dew and street dust. Her mount was indeed gone. I knelt to check the tire marks. She left but recently, and she left in the direction of the dragon's lair.
I hopped on my mount and throttled the engine to life. Miguel was at the doors, then at the rails, still only half-dressed. He shouted something to me. I turned off the engine.
“Tell me fast,” I said.
“The train,” he said. “The weekly payroll train goes by, guarded by horsemen and never slow enough for us to do anything except stare at it and dream. Donna agreed to help! She'll stop the train long enough for us to get the gold,” he said.
“You lied to her, she would never agree to that,” I said. “Where is this train, and when is it due?”
“East of town, and north. It will pass by sometime today. The schedule varies. It is protected by a troop of guardsmen who ride alongside and they… they ravage our village on the way through,” he said. “We've lost so much. So many. The train doesn't eat our children, those guardsmen do.”
“You might have told her that and she would have protected you,” I said.
“Think of it: enough gold for all of us to live wealthy for the rest of our lives! Think of it! We can go elsewhere, buy a house, a sturdy bed…” His eyes glazed over with the lust for things which could be bought.
I shook my head. “You mistake us, sir. We are not thieves.” I throttled up the engine again and skidded away.
I found her some few miles out of town, her two feet planted on the trestle board between the rails. A swarm of the train's guardsmen milled around her, busy being felled by her sword. A handful of tavern men stood behind her, but most had taken to their heels at the sight of the guardsmen.
Donna faced down the dragon. The train. The enormous black iron steam engine puffing smoke and making hellacious screaming announcements of its closeness. She intended to fight the beast, the worm, the eater of children, and she would be crushed by the locomotive like a snail beneath my boot.
My magic never worked on Donna. I had thought that perhaps the iron of her sword drained it off, but she did not always have the sword at hand. I had thought her madness protected her somehow, charmed safe from the sorcery of cruel or kind hands alike; but I had been able to sorcel other maniacs. Sometimes I believed that her imperviousness to my magic was what kept me at her side.
Perhaps so, but at moments like this, I cursed the woman's slipperiness. Magicking her might be the first and easiest solution, but I could not even throw a protection bubble around her.
I must needs magic the train. Excuse me, the dragon. But the locomotive was made of iron and iron was impervious to magical talents.
If I were a great magician, I would make the locomotive –no, the entire train –just up and disappear in a twinkle of sparks. If I were a good magician, I would find a way to make the people inside the train safe, or a way to move Donna Quick to safety even though it cost her her blade.
But I am Jane Smith. I am a magnificent magician.
My feet spread for balance, my arms raised high, I faced the oncoming machine and sorcelled the very atmosphere surrounding the locomotive and its entire train and even the red caboose and all the people and contents. The air solidified and encapsulated the train and then rose up, up into the air, high above the remaining tavern men and the defeated guardsmen and my own beloved Donna Quick. She screamed something about watching the treacherous dragon fly away, but I heard her words through a fog of dimness. The concentration required for this trick was awful and tore at me. I must needs find a safe place to settle said train before my strength gave way.
I decided to encircle the village with the black tail of this dog. A mile of train would do the job nicely.
Donna was mightily frustrated with losing her choice opponent. She revisited her fallen foes, the guardsmen, and set about relieving them of arms and badges. She was more than equal to the task of putting down the ones with enough remaining energy to offer resistance.
Normal times I would have joined her and perhaps taught her new defensive moves against the prone bodies; but I had another debt to settle. What to do? I wracked my brain for a suitable solution to the problem of a tavern filled with men who felt they could use random passersby in their schemes. A lessoning was needed and I was up to teaching it.
I rode my mount back into the village, slow enough to examine the hidden alleys behind the storefronts and the new-created alleys between the train cars. I saw what I needed.
Once again, I could not cast a spell on an iron thing, but there are more ways to skin a cat than the direct route. Fish and lubricant oil, conjured puddles and bowls of the stuff, made a trail to the door of the tavern. The village's army of ferric cats wasted no time in crowding forward, caught by the scent and the promise of oil. Once a goodly number of the rust-balls trotted through the open tavern doors, it took but a wave of my hand to close the doors, another flick of my wrist to lock them in. Shutting the windows and being certain of my thoroughness took but another minute.
I head many satisfying shouts and one or two falsetto screams as the ferric cats made their demands known to the tavern men. Had I an ounce of energy left, I might have smiled.
I did look up at Miguel's window. The curtain was drawn but I saw a shadow-mime played out that convinced me Miguel would never forget this day.
I put the town behind me, my mount roaring steadily, a comfort better than anyone's arms. Donna Quick was easy to spot. She straddled the train tracks, a stack of weaponry piled high beside her, a mass of badges under her feet. I sat next to her. She did not acknowledge me but stared down into a puddle of water formed in gravel at the tracks.
She looked long at her reflection.
“Jane, fetch me my mirror!” she cried at last.
But me, I was all magicked out. I shook my head. My weariness was such that shaking my head was an effort. I stared down at my dusty boots.
The expected thunderstorm did not break over my poor head. Instead she sat next to me in the dirt, carefully stretched her arm around my shoulder, and let me rest my head against her breast.
“You must think me a great fool, to not notice,” she said. “I see your broken heart and my own aches for you, sweet Jane. Yet what would you have me do: pine along with you, face ravaged by sadness, for the dreams and men forever out of our grasp? I think not. I think we must continue our quest. The one true thing is out there, and it is up to us to find it.”
Her embrace tightened into a hug; a hug from Donna Quick, would wonders never cease? She stood and wiped dirt from her leather britches and approached her mount, Rosinante, without a backward glance at me.
I stared after her. The quest. Yes, it was all about the quest. How could this madwoman be so right?
Perhaps this was why I followed her. Among all the myriad reasons.
I dragged myself upright and clambered onto my own gentle mount. Her motor thrum was all but drowned out by Rosinante's roar. Donna shouted over the noise.
“Hurry, Jane. Whilst fighting those guardsmen I did spy some giants on that yonder hillside, flailing their arms and threatening to march on the nearest hapless village.”
“You mean the windmills? That's the town's windmill farm, their electrical supply…”
“The giants, Jane. I must slay them.”
I was engulfed in a plume of road dust as Donna Quick resumed her travels.
I grinned and followed her, my own grail, into our glorious madness.
This story originally appeared in Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology.