ONE TWENTY ONE
“Tha protector should not have let tha come so far,” Murac added in a voice that implied that he thought we were having a conversation and furthermore assumed I was paying attention.
I blinked again. Murac as the voice of sanity and sweet reason. No, that was a little strong. Murac as the voice of current, um, reality. But that was almost as bad. The hand holding the hilt of a sword—my hand holding the hilt of my sword!—was trying to spasm. Ow. Ow. At least Murac was human. Probably. I was trying to remember if I had ever addressed the issue of Murac’s heritage. I doubted it. He wasn’t a major character. I lowered my aching arm and relaxed my stiff hand—as much as it could relax. Protector? Possibly that meant poor old Watermelon Shoulders.
“It was a trifle —” I stopped, coughed, and tried again, endeavoring not to crackle and squeak this time. There wasn’t a PA system to blame for the way I sounded, the way there had been the first time I gave a speech at a con to an audience big enough I couldn’t see the back row. I couldn’t see any of the audience here and I doubted their weapons were peace bonded. “It was a trifle busy, our side of the—gate,” I said, clearly and firmly. I remembered the giant maggot with the teeth and shuddered so hard poor Monster threw up his head and sidled—and I felt the bulge of mighty muscles against my bare legs. I gasped, but maybe the saddle had a little magic in it too, because I stayed beautifully in place and that straddling-a-small-city sensation did not return. I did seem to have a misplaced buckle or a twisted strap chafing just below my left knee, but that didn’t seem crucial at this moment.
I didn’t want to have come so far. I wanted to roll back time to—to—to before the company of horses and riders in the road to Cold Valley. Before that inconvenient pile of fresh horse dung had ruined the comforting hypothesis that I was merely losing my mind. Before Watermelon Shoulders had told me to fetch my sword and before I’d had a sword to fetch. I couldn’t bear to think about my new kitchen as I had left it—where was Sid? Was she okay? Was she safe? Was the spiky shadow on our side, as Watermelon Shoulders seemed to think? Mr W was a big guy with an impressive hacking and slashing technique but he needed more allies than one skinny dog. Maybe the spiky shadow would motivate the rose-bushes. Maybe the madwoman in the attic would have a gift for garrotting and a desire to maintain the status quo. Hey, maybe deinonychus and Yog-Sothoth would join the Rose Manor team. But Sid—I didn’t want her to have been better off living on the street. . . . My eyes burned.
I refocussed on Murac, sitting on the horse next to mine. He had a recent-looking scar that tugged at the corner of his right eye before disappearing into his hairline. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to be here . . . and then felt an idiotic pang of conscience and patted Monster’s shoulder. Nice horsie. I hadn’t stopped being silly at eleven. If it had been my fifteen-year-old.horse-camp-attending self sitting here she would have thought she had died and gone to heaven. She’d think Silverheart was cool. She might even have thought Murac was romantic in a ramshackle sort of way. I had had terrible taste in men pretty much right up to Gelasio. I wanted to think about Gelasio even less than I wanted to think about Sid. “Possibly,” I said around the lump in my throat to the scruffy bandit next to me, “the patrol on this side—on what should have been this side—had become just a little lost earlier? Which may have contributed to the—er—interdimensional confusion on—er—our side?”
To my surprise, Murac grinned. The scarred eyelid pulled down, giving him a kind of squint and making him look even more shiftily dangerous than he did already. I didn’t want to be here and I really didn’t want to be hanging out with Murac and his mates. Even if there were some very nice-looking horses involved. Murac’s horse looked a lot better than he did, and he sat in his saddle like both he and his horse were comfortable with the state of affairs. A man who takes good care of his horse can’t be all bad. Define ‘all bad.’ That twisted strap under my knee was going to give me a blister if we started moving and I had to try and remember how to, you know, ride, and not just perch on a saddle.
“It may have so, eh,” said Murac. “We’d heard there was new Defender and Tulamaro wanted t’look. Trust Borcaithna to get it wrong. We should’n have come tha side at all, but his hand slipped.”
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