ONE TWENTY FIVE
It was making my head hurt.
A faint, wavering sort-of rectangle, taller than it was wide, paler than the surrounding stormy, turbulent darkness. A sudden streak of light like lightning lashed across my blurry, uncertain Gate and . . . made it . . . real. White, slightly spirally pillars on either side swept up to a lintel gleaming with intricate patterns of what looked like carving; there was also a glittering, fuming confusion at threshold level that wasn’t encouraging to anyone thinking of walking across it, and this whatever-it-was bleeped upwards in big fat slow bubbles like a lava lamp.
Define real. My mind would keep producing that awkward demand; in the circumstances I couldn’t blame it. But I wasn’t the only one who saw this vision, this Gate: there was another moment of stillness—the kind of heavy, breathless stillness that tells you that there are really a lot of people around you—and then mutters and murmurs . . . and a few shouts. Gaduld! Forshaz donol yar! Or something like that. There were other murmurs that sounded more like rhubarb rhubarb or possibly blither blither blither. I clamped my jaws together to avoid joining in on that last.
“Defender,” said Murac, beside me, and his voice was hoarse and scratchy again.
The lava-lamp bubbles seemed to be straining to come through the Gate—toward us. Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe they were the other-worldly version of friendly puppies. Somehow I doubted it. “What—what are —” I doubted Murac had ever seen a lava lamp. Although Borcaithna had brought off some pretty spectacular stunts—especially when he was trying to do something else. Pulling a troop of leather-and-swords mercenaries into a mid-twentieth-century American house with shag carpeting, Harvest Gold appliances and lava lamps wouldn’t be beyond him. If he had done it, I bet that was the last time whoever it was hired him. Magicians tended to live a long time. Borcaithna might run out of people to be hired by before he died of old age.
“So what’s the funny blobby stuff in the Gate?” I said in my best crisp, professional manner.
“Eh,” said Murac. I looked at him, and in the uncertain light I thought there was a sheen of sweat on his face. “Don’t know, Defender. Never been this close to Gate before.”
Mercenaries can do the blithe-in-the-face-of-death thing if they have to, it’s part of the contract, at least in the genre corner of high fantasy I occupied, but they aren’t big on death and glory if there are other options, preferably alive, relatively hale and whole, and paid in good currency of the realm. I decided not to ask how Borcaithna had bypassed the Gate recently . . . or why this Gate was apparently my particular doom. Defender. What a joke. What an awful joke.
In the few seconds I had spent thinking these thoughts my throat had closed up and I wouldn’t have been able to ask any more questions even if I’d wanted to. I still felt ill, but staring at the lava-lamp blobs was making me feel dizzy as well and it occurred to me to wonder how long it had been in the-life-of-this-body time since I’d eaten.
I curled my cold fingers farther into the long lock of Monster’s mane that fell over the pommel of the saddle and gently squeezed his gigantic barrel with my legs. A little light-headed thought floated by, suggesting that I should find out if any of the signals from humans Monster had been trained to obey were importantly different from the signals-to-horse that I knew. . . . He took a step forward. Two steps.
And some kind of clamor broke out on our right. How many of us are there? I had said, and Murac had replied: Too few. But to me, who was used to working alone in a small room with a computer, and whose idea of hell was a confrontational-fan-heavy SF&F con, it sounded like a medium-sized army in a bad mood.
Someone—someone with a retinue—was making his way through the gloom—the gloom already full of horses and riders. Toward us. There didn’t seem to be any blood or screaming involved so I assumed they were some of ours. One of the retinue was holding a torch, and in its hazy light I could see horses shying out the way, and the occasional glint of what I guessed was chain mail. And yes, I was sure that the figure at the front was a man. Even allowing for what the dim light and personal terror was doing to his silhouette as his horse walked toward me, he seemed about two storeys tall. With shoulders that would give even Mr WS serious competition.
His horse was possibly even bigger than Monster. But Monster drew himself together and raised his head, and I decided the honors were about even. I still had to look up—a long way—into the rider’s face. Who was scowling down at me.
“Tha?” he said disbelievingly. “Tha’s Defender?”
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