ONE HUNDRED NINETEEN
Gah. Well, I suppose if you survived long enough to be a middle-aged mercenary (whatever middle-aged meant here) you were probably ipso facto strong and tough. And in my willowy urban way and present state of dishabille I probably didn’t weigh that much, even including Silverheart. I managed to get my right foot over Monster’s back, so when I landed with a thump I was facing in the right direction. I looked down. I was still clutching Silverheart and Murac—and Monster—didn’t seem to be bleeding. I looked up, and ahead. About half a mile of long, lavishly-maned neck away, Monster’s small fine ears were tipped back in my direction.
And if I moved even a fraction of an inch I would split straight up the middle. This wasn’t a horse I was trying to get my legs around, this was a two-car garage or a mountain range or a small city. Monster shifted his weight and I managed not to squeal. The various indignities attendant upon sitting on a saddle in your nightgown were not helping the situation either. At least the nightgown skirt was fairly generous. With my free hand I managed, I hoped surreptitiously, to tuck a fold of it under me. That left an awful lot of pale bare leg but there was nothing I could do about that.
Gingerly I lifted Silverheart over Monster’s neck and slid her into what was either a scabbard or the Neiman Marcus Super Giant Tent Pole Holder. My feet found the stirrups. Although I was cold, sitting on Monster was like sitting on a radiator turned on full blast, and the cool metal of the stirrups was soothing against my sore feet. My hands found the reins. They weren’t smooth, factory-die-cut reins, but my fingers recognised them, and when I picked them up I could feel Monster’s mouth on his bit. Evidently he found this interaction reassuring because his ears relaxed. I tried to let my legs go limp and my seat soften but since I felt like I was being drawn and quartered from the waist down this was not entirely successful. But Monster gave me points for trying. And when he relaxed . . . suddenly my legs slid into a slightly more possible position. There was a lot more front and back to this saddle than the modern dressage and jumping saddles I was used to so within the limits of the total brain-snapping absurdity of my position I felt almost secure. Monster and I both sighed.
The scuttling noises had stopped when Silverheart exploded, and when the silence filled up with motion again it had become a more purposeful sound. There was a lot of rustly something-or-other happening behind me but I didn’t feel like testing my precarious sense of having arrived somewhere by finding out what was next on the to-do list. Monster wasn’t bothered and therefore neither was I. For a second or two. Maybe three.
I was thinking about all those stories you read where the hero gets beaten up by a gang of thugs with tire-irons or the heroine is pushed out of a fourth-story window by the chief villain’s chief minion but it’s okay because she hits the shop awning on the first floor and it breaks her fall. And they moan for a bit and they may even go home and have a hot bath and a shot or half a bottle of Scotch—or aspirin—and then they’re if not good as new, at least fully functional again, and totally pumped up to go after thugs, minions, villains, whatever. After recent events I would have wanted to lie down, possibly forever, except that I was so comprehensively sore it wouldn’t have done any good.
By the end of three seconds I was growing increasingly aware that I couldn’t afford to sit here idly thinking because of the appalling directions my mind wanted to run off in. (It, at least, could still run.) What, where, when, why, how . . . what if . . .
A horse-nose became visible in my peripheral vision. I was higher up, sitting on Monster, than I’d been sitting in the driver’s seat of Merry, and I told myself I didn’t really recognise the brown-black head and non-standard-to-my-eyes bridle; but I still wasn’t surprised when I turned my head and Murac was in the saddle. Another horse came up on my other side and I could assume that the thud-crunch-rustle noises were more horses and riders forming up. Behind me. Behind me. I wondered who had been riding Monster when I’d seen the others earlier. Whatever earlier meant. My adrenals were so tapped out they couldn’t zap me for accepting that this was the troop I’d seen . . . for accepting that any of this was happening at all. My bruises made me accept that something had, but my mind was still objecting to what. And what if.
“Gate’s beyond,” said Murac, gesturing.
“Gate,” I said.
“Tha’s Defender,” said Murac. “Tha stand by Gate. Tha should not be here; we’ll get tha back if we can, for all”—he said with what seemed to me ghoulish and unnecessary relish—“will die if tha’s lost this side of Gate.”
Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.