ONE TWENTY THREE
“Where’s Tulamaro then?” I said experimentally. I really had to get over this obsession with asking questions.
Murac nodded toward the darkness over my right shoulder. “He stands to Defender.” He turned his head and nodded over his own left shoulder. “Galinglud also stands to Defender.”
“Galinglud?” I’d never heard of Galinglud either. If I ever saw Flowerhair again I’d . . . gah. What was I saying?
Yes, but where the hell was I? And why did it seem so . . . persuasive? I was willing, even eager, to believe that I was imagining Murac but feeling as if I’d recently been pounded into the ground by something a lot bigger and stronger than I was was very convincing. So was the feeling of Monster’s mane over my hands, and the slow expansion and contraction of his ribcage between my legs. I wanted to take comfort in the ‘slow’—that he wasn’t breathing in little rapid hysterical grunts like some thoroughbreds I had known—but it might just be that he had lungs the size of Zeppelins and even shallow anxious breaths took a while.
“Tha has choice, choose Tulamaro,” said Murac enigmatically, and with a gleam in his eye I didn’t like at all. I couldn’t tell if it was a, ‘Galinwhatsit stole my horse/sword/girlfriend and I want his head on a spike’ gleam or a ‘Nobody told me I had to play fair with Defender and she turns such an interesting shade of puce when I say something alarming’ gleam. Not that he’d said anything yet that wasn’t alarming and how would he know that puce wasn’t my natural skin tone?
“Well,” I said in the kind of voice I imagined a first-grade teacher who wanted to be a nuclear physicist and hates kids might use on the first day of school to her new class, “we should go look at this Gate, shouldn’t we?”
I nudged Monster forward. Although I was startled when he went. As if he were accustomed to being ridden by middle-aged women in nightgowns who were, furthermore, trembling like entire forests of aspens. He didn’t fall into any chasms either. I was almost sorry. Falling into a chasm would have been one solution.
As Monster took his first steps the rustling around and behind us began again. I thought of the unknown Gate . . . and what I knew about the black thing. I was so tired. And I was so not built for heroism. And if I survived this I was going to start wearing black satin pajamas to bed. No, black leather.
“How many of us are there?” I said, conversationally, in a voice that surprisingly did not quaver.
“Few,” said Murac, and he didn’t sound blithe at all. “Too few.”
Lie to me, I almost said, and I may have bitten my tongue keeping the words back. I tried to tell myself that I’d been expecting to die under the third stroke of the black thing’s sword; it wasn’t that much different, half an hour or an interdimensional eon later.
I thought that the darkness around us was trying to break up, but what it was breaking up into or against or over or under wasn’t making any sense. Streaks of darkness would fray and splinter, and there would be trees, and then there would be no trees, and then there would be what might be trees but like no trees I had ever seen before. There was water and rock, and then no water and different rock; there were—possibly—buildings, and then no buildings and then . . . I had no idea. Maybe sleeping dragons. It was as if the landscape itself were a palimpsest.
And which view was real? Define real. The black thing couldn’t possibly be real—that I was talking to Murac couldn’t possibly be real. I was leaking again: the tears ran silently down my face, dropped hotly onto my collarbones, ran down the inside of my nightgown and became cold. But there were so many reasons to shiver.
Trying to stare at the shifting nothing/everything ahead of us I said, “Where is this Gate then?”
“Where?” I said, trying to keep my temper; I have many years’ practise of shortcircuiting fear into anger. Anger fluffs you out and makes you bigger, like an angry cat; not very helpful when you’re facing unknown terrors in a strange world, but it was all I had.
“I don’t know,” said Murac—and that answer made me feel so crazy and hopeless and ill I might have thrown up, if there had been anything in my stomach to heave. “I cannot see Gate. Tis yon, there, in darkness, in confusion. Tha is Defender: tha find ’er, Gate. Tha look.”
I looked. I looked as if my life depended on it—which, presumably, it did. I looked as if I could conjure order out of misrule; democracy from anarchy; a gate from splintered reality. I looked at the seething mess before me as I had often looked at my blank computer screen. With loathing. With despair. With hope. With determination. With a desire to keep eating.
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