Chapter One

In which our Heroine (namely me), gripes and moans

Meets a new friend of a rather odd persuasion

Shares her pithy ideas about life

And walks through a door

Part the First

I own a lot of books. Unfortunately for those people who do own a lot of books, it means they are often looking for something that cannot be found in their own lives. This was certainly true of me. If I had been born, for instance, in a parallel universe that would have allowed me to be a warrior/princess/enchantress/very beautiful woman, I suppose I would not have had much use for books. In actual fact, I was, and am…not.

If I may be allowed to give this narrative a rather David Copperfield-esque beginning, I was born in the ordinary year of 1988, when nothing particular was happening in the world. No stars fell from the sky (of note, anyway) during the hour of my arrival, and still, so far as I know, no fortune-teller prophesied that a child who could change the world had just been born.

Such things, no matter how many stories you read, are just plain unlikely.

Even the unromantic hour of my birth, 2:30—broad daylight—and manner of the birth—natural, with the mother surviving delivery—might have early been an indication of just how humdrum my life would turn out to be.

Now, let's continue on to appearances. I am quite ordinary looking. I suppose, if I had to be frank, (I am not named Frank, thankfully…my name is Jocelyn, though I always go by Josie) but if I had to be honest, I am rather a shade or two on the plain side. Not ugly (not that anyone's ever said, anyway) but certainly not transcendently, transparently, or in all other words insanely beautiful.

If you want specifics, let's just say that I am of average height for a girl, with (unfortunately) short brown hair of nondescript shade that tends to curl uncontrollably. My skin is not as soft as silk, nor the color of cream, and even at the outskirts of adolescence, I still tend towards being a little zitty. There.

No man has ever fought a duel (or even a fistfight) over me, and quite frankly I would have thought him silly if he had. Unfortunately, being plain tends to lead one to untold levels of practicality, even if one does happen to be 18, and given to expecting the world…and the unexpected.

In actuality, I was given to expecting and anxiously anticipating both of those things. Not from this world though…no indeed. In fact, when things go unexpectedly in my ordered and rather closed existence, it throws me off balance. For my life, as I hope I have conveyed to you by this point, was not one in which one expects to find much fodder for wonder, or magic, or even strangely interesting events.

The circumstances of my life, I admit, were not the only things to be blamed. I was, by my own admission, quite an ordinary personage. Whether I remain so is a matter of question. But anyway…I treasured some skill at writing in my heart, but was completely and utterly incapable of sharing this skill, whether real or imagined, with others.

In other ways, I had average capabilities. I could speak French passably well, but had never been to France to test that theory. I was a tolerable dancer—danced, both tap and jazz dance, as a matter of fact, for 14 years—but could not find my way onto my college team. I could fence a little, read quite quickly, make friends rather easily (but could never handle more than a certain number at a time) and in all other ways was socially and intellectually capable. People called me smart, but I was never in the top 10% of my class, being only barely in the top quarter.

For all of my longing for adventures, I admit, by 18, that I wasn't quite ready to believe with such assurance that they would happen anytime soon.

You see, in all the books (or most of them) the heroine either saves her family, her lover, her nation, or her world, at the latest, by the age of fourteen. In some cases, she is sixteen. She is never over twenty, unless the story is an adventure of the sort that I was not interested in. You know, the bodice-ripper type.

Older than this, she ceases being the main character, and becomes an accessory to the story, as some kind of wise counselor, or queen, or maybe an enchantress. All of these characters are well and good, don't get me wrong…but for a girl who loves the limelight, it just wasn't good enough.

You may laugh, Reader, and think that this is just silliness on my part, and I don't know if you ever shared the insecurities of a teenager of my generation. For example, the terrible anxieties about what you should be when you grow up. College plans, then job-hunting, then retirement plans…everything in this world moves so quickly…adventures need to happen when you're young, or you simply lose the energy for them!

The setting of the beginning of my adventure was equally as dull. The summer between my freshman and my sophomore year at the University at Albany was a long, slow, and quiet one. My parents had just moved down to Virginia for my father's job, my older sister had finally moved into her apartment in New Jersey, my brother had flown with the Marine Corps to Iraq, and I was left to bid good-bye to my friends in New York and Connecticut and seek my fortunes in the wilds of Jeffersonton, Virginia.

As things went, at that time, my future looked bright. With one major in Japanese Studies, and another one in Chinese, I had finished a year of college, 35 credits, with good grades, and was taking 20 credits in my first semester of the following year alone.

Now, I love college, love it more than almost anything I've ever done, so you can understand that living approximately one billion miles west of East Bumble-fuck Virginia gave me the impression that I was sloshing through a bushel barrel of molasses, y'all.

In this unenviable situation, I trucked back and forth four or five days a week to the local Burger King, which, all things considered, was not a bad job. It was infinitely preferred to the title of Shop Rite cashier, which I'd held for the year and a half previous. And though the job was mindless and customers were sometimes several points below the bell curve as far as IQ was concerned, really it was only the absence of my friends and sister that made that summer difficult for me.

That, and I was nearing an end-of-adolescence crisis. 19 would be my last year of it…and then…

I would be forever relegated to female support staff in whatever adventure was to come my way.

Again, Reader, I see you smile. But I taught myself to read at age 4, and have had a healthy diet of fairy tales, fantasy books, and English literature ever since. Trust me, the routine hardly varies. If I was going to find a magical portal, meet a dark stranger, rescue a handsome prince, or save the United States from its most dangerous threat ever, I was going to have to step on it.

Unfortunately again for me, adventures don't come when they're called. In fact, by all the research I have ever done, they only happen by falling on your head. Or you fall into them. Either way, it's a thoroughly messy business, especially if the world you live in doesn't have any magic to begin with. Which was certainly the case with me.

Things looked pretty bleak. I was sure that I was doomed.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, my heretofore determined Readers, comes the pivotal point…

But…

Isn't that word just wonderful? If you are sympathetic, you can feel yourself teetering over the edge. On one side, the banal, everyday side, lies the world you know and either love, tolerate, or out-and-out hate. On the other…there is magic, mystery, and mayhem; possibilities are bursting from behind every corner and all manner of fascinating creatures wait to hurl you into your wildest dreams.

Apologies…I've always been a little rhapsodic about the things I love.

So I'll just continue, then, shall I?

But…

All that changed when I finally spoke to Sir Edward.

Part the Second

Yes, I know. One billion miles west of East Bumble-fuck Virginia, otherwise known as Jeffersonton, does not sound like a breeding ground for nobility. And if you really know your stuff, Reader, you're questioning why there should be any respected 'Sir' living in the wilds of Virginia anyway.

I'll tell you about Sir Edward, and end your fevered questioning.

Sir Edward is a horse.

Yes, a horse. And, aside from some behavioral quirks that led me to giving him his aristocratic nickname, he was a remarkably normal working farm horse. I never saw him work, but I assume that was what he had been purchased for, because he never impressed me with any untoward athletic ability, nor was he particularly handsome.

But keep that under your hats, Readers, for he would shove me quite hard with that impressive snout of his if he saw what I am writing to you now. He was quite flattered by the name I gave him, and kept it for quite a long time after we met.

His real name…but that comes later. You will know it, but for right now, let me stick with calling him Edward.

I chose the name Edward because it seemed a good name for someone who might be royalty, but what his real name means, I cannot tell you, for he has never confided it to me. Truth be told, I am not too concerned about the details. Like me, he is quiet about the things that embarrass him, and I don't want to embarrass him. Heaven forbid it should have been something as antiquated and silly as Bartholomew, which is the worst possible name for any horse, or indeed any human.

Before I verge, however, into the other various sundry things about Sir Edward's character, let me first tell you how it was exactly that I met this venerable equine and later came to discover his incredible nature.

Jeffersonton is mostly a farming community. The center of the town (est. 1798) contains only a post office and a church. It was not exactly a burgeoning population, either. And the miles around it were absolutely lousy with cattle ranches, horse farms, and acres and acres of unpopulated fields.

On the corner between one road and another lies what used to be Sir Edward's farm. I say 'Sir Edward's farm', certainly not because it was his, but because no matter how many times I drove past its fences, I never learned the name of his owner or the master of the farm.

The first time I first noticed Edward was during the few weeks after we moved into the new house. After all, it was a bit hard to miss him, for he would be standing, at all hours of the day, with his snout sticking out between the slatted fence crossbars at the junction of the two roads, with a face alternately calmly and superiorly sedate, or dismally doleful. It was both the place in which he stood, day after day, and the almost human expression in his face that first called to my mind stories of an enchanted Prince, and made me give him his name in the first place.

I called him 'Sir Edward' in my mind long before I shared that nickname with anybody; and it wasn't until he disappeared for one day that I remarked to my mother his absence, using my familiar appellation. She picked up on it too, but my father still shakes his head whenever I refer to Sir Edward in conversation.

Apparently, an eighteen-year-old girl giving a name to a horse based on the idea that he might be an enchanted prince waiting for a rescue was almost too silly to be countenanced by a fifty-four-year-old man. Oh well.

Though I noticed him often, it was several months after that when we finally met face-to-face, for I certainly wouldn't have made a trip especially to visit him, seeing as his farm was at least three miles away from my house. Virginia summers are hot, making a walk out of the question, and driving there to visit a horse seemed too silly even for me.

No, it was pure accident that allowed me to make Sir Edward's acquaintance. Heading home early one night, I was nearly blinded by the exquisite sunset in my rearview mirror, and having promised myself that the next time I saw one of the true beauties of the south, I would pull over and snatch some pictures, I turned my car into the ditch that abutted my Lord's fence, and stepped out of the car.

The road was just…a little…too far to the right of what I wanted to capture, so I climbed up the few feet of slippery bank to my left and took hold of that slatted fence for stability. Photographing the sunset left colorful retinal images in my eyes, but I was certain that I'd gotten a couple good pictures before blindness made me quit. But the sunset was so beautiful…and I wasn't expected home…

Will you blame me too much, Reader, for taking a moment of this narrative to describe the sheer beauty of a Virginian sunset? Well, even if you do mind, this is my narrative, so I may do whatever I like within its boundaries.

There are probably sunsets all around the world that could far rival what I am about to describe to you, but having been basically born and raised in a thickly wooded suburb of Connecticut, I had rarely seen a purely unspoiled evening view. Though, as since the beginning of time there have been descriptions of sunsets, I'm sure mine will be nothing to some that have gone before it.

So mind you, studious Reader, upon reading this disclaimer, to pull out your very formidable mental encyclopedia of memorized sunsets, and compare mine to them. Why let the author get away with anything that isn't perfection?

Imagine first, if you will (it is necessary to describe this in terms of your own imagination, for nothing else will do) a wide-open sky. And when I say (or write) 'wide open', I mean…imagine standing in the middle of a field and looking around…and for miles and miles you can't see anything. No buildings, no roads, no people, no cars, no telephone poles…nothing. Only the green fields, and the over-arching sky, as just a beautifully painted bowl, placed upside-down over your miniscule being.

Now, at the corners of your eyes, place a road to your right and a fence to your left. And at the very bottom of your eyes, you can see a highway, and tall telephone poles and power cables, and a cemetery. But the sky is still enormously high, dwarfing everything around you.

This is a wide-open sky. The sky feels enormous in Virginia.

On the very top of this sky are painted the most delicate clouds. Imagine the finest painting you've ever seen. You know, the one where you leaned a little too close, trying to determine one brushstroke from the other. When the guard took you by the arm and had to force you away. Now, imagine that you can soar right up into the sky, and see the definition in every portion of every cloud. Big puffy strokes where the artist used a scalpel to ladle on the paint, and fine wispy hints of cloud, fashioned from the tiniest brush of the finest hair.

The clouds float along like this, unconscious of their delicate perfection, as the sun sinks below the horizon, and the light defines the clouds and changes them from wisps of vapor into things of substance and weight. And yet these monoliths, these giants, float above you like carnival balloons.

Now you have the sky and the clouds. Focus now on the sun.

Forget movies. In an actual sunset in America, the sun comes nowhere close to taking up an enormous portion of the sky. It is quite a substantial blot on it though, varying from the size of a dime to the size of a quarter, depending on where you're holding the coin (no duh). And it is so much brighter than the brightest light bulb in your house. You take one glance at the sun and your vision is instantly darkened, your eyes trying to save you from your own romantic stupidity. Tears start to your eyes, and sometimes, if you blink but refuse to look away, slide down your cheeks.

A riot of colors just pours from this incredibly powerful disk. Brilliant crimson, pinks that Barbie decorates her Dream House with, yellows and greens and oranges, and all of these colors are radiating off of the clouds and turning into giant cones of cotton candy that you wish you could just pull right down from the sky…

This is a sunset in Virginia.

And this was what I was watching, when I said, almost too low for God to hear me,

"Beautiful."

There was a low whicker beside my ear, so close that I could feel my hair stirring, as someone, evidently, agreed with me.

Sir Edward brushed his rubbery wet lips across the fingers of mine that sullied his fence, and, pulling his snout backwards, nodded enthusiastically at me, stamping one foot and whickering again.

I laughed, and turned away from the sun, which had spent most of its palette already.

"You have a beautiful view, my Lord Edward," I said, bowing like a cavalier with one foot forward and one arm outstretched, "I am sorry to have intruded."

In hindsight, I was certainly lucky never to have had anyone intrude on these little sessions of mine with my soon-to-be close friend. They would first have warned me off the public road with shotguns, then have called the nearest sanatorium.

Anyway, Sir Edward didn't seem to mind. In fact, swinging his heavy head sideways at me (so that he had a better view) his attitude seemed rather complacent, if touched with a hint of condescension. He seemed rather pleased with the idea of sharing his magnificent view, only nudging my hand once more to see whether or not I had anything tasty for him to munch on.

Good views always go well with good food, a fact that movie theatres have been aware of for years, as I have cause to remember every time I purchase another bag of Reese's Pieces.

"Sorry, my Lord," I said, upending my palm to him, "Not a single carrot or sugar cube was to be found in the whole realm of the Burger King."

He pulled his nose back and nodded once again, for the first time sending chills down my spine. His oddly human manner would maybe have been normal to a fourteen-year-old, ready for her shot to be whisked off to adventure, but remember, I had by this point almost given up the idea of getting my chance.

But, as most rational people can do, I calmed my inane superstitions and turned back to the sunset, hardly watching the view as I berated myself for being absolutely ridiculous.

Part the Third

Chilled by this first encounter, but with the chill quickly dispersed, my life went on as usual, however sad it is to relate. Again, I nearly forgot about Sir Edward, save for a brief feeling of stomach-pinching fear as I drove past his pen in the evenings and afternoons. He seemed to regard all cars, and my car especially it seemed, with a knowing, strangely imploring eye.

But all such feelings pass, and as the days counted down towards that glorious two weeks of vacation that I had intended to spend with my parents in New York's Thousand Islands, by the St. Lawrence river, I found myself comfortable and wholly unaware of my impending doom.

However, remember when I said that adventures are messy businesses that often end up falling on your head? Unfortunately, a dead battery precipitated mine.

No, the battery did not fall on my head. Good Lord.

Climbing up that long hill towards the junction of my road and Sir Edward's, my poor old battery, for one reason or another, gave its last dying croak, and deposited me in the ditch right beside his Majesty's corral. This time, it was ten o'clock at night, pitch black, and cold. I had no flashlight, and no cell phone.

Damn.

I climbed out of the car, and for no reason in particular, popped the hood, as though I knew what was wrong with the car, or could fix it even if I had known what was wrong. After approximately two seconds of staring at the masses of wires and weird boxes underneath my hood, it became necessary to begin thinking of more appropriate reactions to this situation.

As far as I could see, I had two options.

One was to go to the farm, knock on the door, and ask to use the phone.

The other was to walk the miles home.

It was late, and my mortified pride couldn't bear the thought of asking someone else to open his doors to me for such a trivial matter. Unfortunately, I also had a terrible fear of the dark. Well, not so much the dark, but walking in it. Especially when I knew there were packs of wild dogs that liked to make their homes along these roads. Thinking of that was enough to make me shiver, and I admit that my teeth chattered just a tiny little bit.

"Car trouble?"

I gasped, jumped, and with my arms tight around my shoulders, whirled around.

No one there.

My heartbeat skyrocketed, and I backed against the car for protection, looking wildly into the dark underbrush for the serial killer, who, I was sure, was going to hack me into pieces momentarily. A tense moment went by. And then another.

Damn him and his little games. Why couldn't he just kill me and get things over with?

"Up here."

Jumping again, I turned and looked up the embankment, straight into Sir Edward's placid brown eyes. Were it not for the fact that horse emotions are unlikely at best, I should have assumed he was laughing at me. Of course, this still didn't solve the problem of my serial killer. Only that he was an accomplished ventriloquist. Better and better.

"You should not be afraid. It really is I who is speaking."

Whoa. Now he was a ventriloquist with an excellent grasp of the English language. If only he weren't going to kill me, we might talk for a bit. Then I noticed, through the haze of my fear, that the horse's mouth had been moving. Not moving like speech, but his lips had parted, and though I'd heard the sounds of English, I could distinguish that he was making slight horse-y sounds at the same time.

Even though serious doubts crossed my mind as to the state of my sanity, I whispered, "Sir Edward?"

"Yes!" The mouth opened and the voice came. "Oh, I am so delighted that someone managed to hear me at last. You know, it gets dreadfully tiresome, standing here day in and day out, trying to get your farmer to understand that you just need to get back to the Gate of the Between-Times."

Now that my attention was fully focused on him, I could hear slight whickers coming from his mouth as he spoke. At the same time, though, those whickers were being transformed into words that were understandable to me.

For a long moment, I simply gaped like a carp trying to swallow a too-large piece of bread, so full of the most incredibly overwhelming emotions that I simply let him carry on the conversation by himself. Thankfully, he didn't seem to notice.

"After all, I suppose it is not every day that you find you have an enchanted Prince among your livestock. All the same though, he must be a particularly grounded mortal, for he did not seem to understand the first word I said. And he did drag me most disagreeably to that smelly old cart."

"Oh." Oh, rock on, Josie! Way to dredge up an interesting word. At least I thought up an ample cover. "So you are an enchanted Prince, then?"

He nodded vigorously. "First in line to be King, and the oldest child and only son of the current King and Queen, as a matter of fact. And were it not for my vicious cousin…"

"Who had you transformed into a horse by an agreement he made with an evil fairy…" I continued, stifling my chuckle and certain that I'd gone completely round the bend.

That stopped the flow of his conversation.

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact. How did you know? I would have noticed if you had had the smell of magic about you. But you seem to be just the same as most of the people of this world."

"It was a lucky guess," I said, feeling almost insulted. After all, I had been right, and I could hear him. Didn't that count for anything? "Is there anything I can do to help you? And what's your name, anyway?"

He cleared his throat with a quick snort or two. "My name is not important. But you can help me. You see, when I was in Senorrah, no one seemed to understand me as a horse. And no one here can, either. But for some reason, you can. May I ask if you are of Questable eligibility?"

"Questable eligibility?" I repeated, bewildered, "I don't even know what that is."

"You are a girl, that much is certain," he murmured, speaking more to himself than to me, "Probably under twenty, still…I suppose you might be. That might explain it. I never did meet anyone of Questable eligibility before they sent me through the Gate. And the only other people who might understand me are those of Magic, although the parameters of the enchantment could have been to render me unrecognizable by magical means…"

"Excuse me," I said, feeling as though I'd better stop him before he went much further, "What does all of this mean?"

"Various things, of course." His breezy manner was starting to wear on me. How could one be so passively turned into a horse? "For our purposes though, and for the sake of expediency, I believe that you are just what I need."

"And what would that be?"

"An interpreter. You can help me return to and navigate my world in a way I would not be able to do as a lone horse. And, since you are Questable, I formally lay claim to you as an assistant in my mission."

Shaking my head, I decided that smaller words were safer. "Let's start with definitions, shall we? First off: Questable?"

"You are under twenty, correct?"

"Yes."

"And you have not been on a Quest before, have you?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"And you are obviously a girl."

Snort. "Last time I checked."

Although he seemed puzzled by my slang, he went ahead with his explanation. "Then you are ready to go on your first Quest. How startlingly inefficient to have to explain all this to you! How does anyone secure help in your realm without Questables?"

In point of fact, this was an element in all those stories that I had never been certain of anyway; after all, how much help was a teenage girl supposed to be, really?

"We usually don't rope our female teenage population into random quests," I began, "but if I went with you, what would I have to do?"

"Help me find the fairy who put the spell on me and convince her to break it, of course."

Of course, that was nothing more than the most reasonable demand in the world!

"Find a random fairy, who has magical powers, who turned you into a horse, and convince her, convince her to undo a spell that probably worked to her advantage?" I said, half laughing and half quivering. "Do you have a plan for doing this?"

"No. I have no doubt, however, that together we can accomplish it."

It was ridiculous. It went beyond ridiculous, as a matter of fact, and became ludicrous. There was no way that I could seriously be considering this.

However…the spirit of adventure entered me, and its heat burned cynicism away. This was magic, it was magic…how could I possibly walk away? What was I even arguing about? Hadn't I just been wailing and complaining about wanting something exactly like this? To back down now would be pointless, stupid, and probably something I'd regret for the rest of my life.

So, hell.

"I'll do it," I said, sounding pretty confident, all in all, "I just hope you'll let me get some stuff together first."

"Indeed," he said, sounding not at all surprised that I had decided to go along with him, "we shall both need rations, you will need proper clothes, and I shall, for the purposes of disguise, need a saddle. If you can procure those in a week, the Gate will be open again."

"What's…" I had been about to ask 'what's next week' when it occurred to me. Next week was the end of the month. The Gate of the Between-Times was what he'd called it. That tugged a string in my memory, the string attached to my Celtic mythology neurons, and I wanted to look up that phrase when I got home.

Oh.

"Well, I'll meet you here next week, but right now you've got to do me a favor, and that's get me home. Can you jump the fence?"

He gave me a look, one that said of-course-I-can-jump-the-fence-you-knave, backed up two steps and neatly, effortlessly, jumped the fence. I applauded and petted his nose as thanks, and as he seemed grateful for the attention, he knelt so I could scramble easily onto his broad back.

Trotting quickly down the road, jolting me painfully with every step, he asked me questions about myself; where I came from, and what I did, his voice stumbling adorably over the foreign words and ideas. He kept up such a steady stream of questions that he never let me fit one in myself. As badly as I wanted to know the specifics of what we were going to be up against, I found myself deposited at my door with one instruction:

Next week at sunset.

And there I was, stumbling out answers to my parents, who had been worried sick, and wondering how I was going to do what I had just pledged myself to do.

Part the Fourth

Having had the experience now, I will vouch for the fact that it is very hard to remember whether or not, on reflection, you were actually accosted by a talking horse or whether you might have just jumped off the deep end. There are several people in my family who frequent the deep end, medically speaking, and when I woke up the next morning with this conversation ringing in my ears (and a very bad headache) I was more than willing to just turn myself in and call the whole Quest thing off.

However, driving to retrieve my car from the side of the road and receiving a tell-tale wink from the supposedly dumb animal with whom I'd held my conversation the previous night does tend to convert one to an…alternative school of thought, shall we say.

As such, there seemed nothing else to do but make plans.

Avoiding vacation, the most pressing matter, was easy. I told my parents that one of my friends had just lost her grandmother/aunt/goldfish (any excuse would have worked, provided the proper heartfelt delivery) and told them that I would spend the weeks with this friend in order to help them get over the traumatic experience.

After expressing certain condolences and buying a card, which I cleverly intercepted before it went into the mail, they were more than willing to let me drive up on my own and spend the week with my 'friend'.

Secondary concerns included the purchasing of food, garments, and a saddle. Again, finding the time to go was simple. I exaggerated my working hours and stole time to purchase the saddle first (disgracefully expensive!) a suitable rucksack (God bless Army/Navy surplus stores) and some potable food completely free of plastic wrappers. This last mostly involved potatoes, rice (packaged in a burlap sack) and fruit, which I sliced and dried in my parents' machine in the wee hours of the morning. I also bought several packets of beef jerky and wrapped them in clean rags.

Clothes were a bit harder to come by, since I wasn't at all sure what kind of clothes people of his world actually wore, but I packed my two Renaissance outfits (being a Renaissance nerd) and a couple of cotton shirts and blouses of semi-Renaissance-y style, mostly for the purposes of wearing while washing my other clothes.

Why I assumed these people wore Renaissance clothes, I have no idea, but it seemed like a sensible assumption at the time. I mean, when have you ever read a fantasy story where bell sleeves and long skirts aren't mentioned? Queens just don't go around in slacks and sandals! Speaking of footwear, however, I chickened out and bought some heavy-duty hiking boots, wearing them all the time so I could break them in over the course of a week. Something I will never ever, ever do again. Ouch.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave, I packed the following in my rucksack:

Two thermal blankets: one to put on the ground, the other to put over me.

Assorted skirts/shirts/dresses/shorts/jeans: I have long since learned that you can never have too many clothes.

Gold and silver jewelry: It was painful to pillage my jewelry box, but I might need some money, and gold and silver is generally accepted, unless you can take your Visa.

Rations.

Mess kit.

Hairbrush, hair ties, soap, toilet paper, pads: Having made the assumption that the society I was going into was significantly less advanced technologically than my own, I was damn sure to bring all the toiletries I would need. Particularly toilet paper.

Enormously heavy Western-style saddle: the only kind I can ride with any kind of grace. Or balance. This did not actually go in my rucksack, but was stowed in my trunk. It was pretty big.

Hefting my bag on my shoulder was still fairly simple, so I tucked a few books into the pockets. As previously mentioned, I have a lot of them, and am nearly incapable of going anywhere without one. I didn't need to be any more nervous than I already was.

This whole mess got shoved into my closet, behind some of my memory boxes, heart palpitating at the thought that my parents might see something and have it set them off on a paranoia journey. Which was officially the last thing I needed.

The final day was an absolute agony of waiting, trying to dodge my parents just so fewer questions would be asked. But finally I maneuvered through the entire thing, even managing to stow the saddle that I'd been hiding for less than a week by the side of the road in the thick underbrush near Sir Edward's pen. He promised to watch it for me, although what he could do if someone found it was questionable.

That night, expecting sleeplessness, I was disappointed when I dropped off immediately. Apparently stress in myself is an excellent narcotic, and it wasn't too long before my parents were waking me to tell me that they were leaving. Whispering 'goodbye' and forgetting even to hug, I fell asleep again and woke up at one o'clock in the afternoon.

As I was lovingly taking my last shower, enjoying my Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner, I was struck with sudden heart palpitations, and a strange, eerie line started running through my head…

What the hell am I doing?

After skipping out on vacation, lying to my parents, spending somewhere over $600, and going out on the skinniest limb imaginable, my logical brain demanded an explanation for what this was for.

Well…for a talking horse, of course.

It's times like this that I am exceedingly disappointed in myself.

So, shoving the logical brain aside, I went downstairs and watched a Lifetime channel marathon of The Nanny. Oh, that cheeky nanny from Flushing!

Part the Fifth

On reflection, this whole situation would have been easier if I'd had no choice in the matter. If I'd just been dragged into another world and left to make the best of it. As it was, my thoughts, as I hauled my rucksack towards the corral, were to the point that every step taken could just as easily be reversed, and that none of this was necessary.

How fickle we humans are! I made it a point to try not to think about any of that, and focus instead on putting one foot in front of the other and trying to ignore the pain of the blisters on my feet. At the very least I'd put some loose Band-Aids in my pack, so I could take care of them when I stopped.

The sun was just beginning its flourishing descent when I paused, exhausted, by Sir Edward's corral. After having to endure some highly impertinent remarks from the cars that had passed by, and not feeling so well what with fatigue, heat, and my rather incredulous mental state, the question, "What the hell am I doing?" was still the question of the day, and I was no closer to an answer.

Sir Edward's snout bounced happily up and down as he caught sight of me. Trotting joyfully over from the cattle by the water hole, he reared once and stuck his nose through the slatted fence, sniffing enthusiastically at my hand.

"You know," I said, rather caustically, "I'm covered in sweat; that can't smell too good."

"I am extraordinarily pleased to see you," he whickered, pawing the ground, "I thought you might not come."

"You seemed pretty confident last time we spoke."

"Well," he said, fixing me with a disconcerting stare, "I find that people of your world seem to find little wrong in breaking a promise. After all, my…temporary owner has often promised me sugar, but never brings it."

Staring at him, feeling a slimy bead of sweat trickle down between my shoulder blades, I asked, "Doesn't anyone break their word back where you come from?"

"Not among nobility, my dear." The condescension in his tone and look was enough to make me nearly call it all off.

"Hang on, hang on," I scoffed, chucking my sack to the ground for emphasis, "So, did your cousin tell you that he was going to turn you into a horse? Or was he all lovey-dovey so you didn't suspect a thing until he stabbed you in the back?"

It was the first time but thankfully (for my sanity) not the last time I was to see him completely wrong-footed. He bobbed his head, eyes twitching from side to side but never meeting mine, and seemed desirous of changing the subject. So I sighed, and obliged.

I've always been too polite.

"So are we doing this or not?" Well, maybe that was lacking in a certain politesse, but you, Reader, can understand my circumstances, right?

He either didn't notice, or didn't want to make an issue of it.

"Yes, indeed!" he said, sounding immensely relieved, "The longer we wait the less likely the Gate will be as accessible to us this night. Especially since I am not entirely sure that you will be able to traverse it with me. But we shall see."

I could have made a stink about his seeming ignorance as to my ability to even go on this journey, but what was the point? After all, what could I do if I couldn't? Count my blessings and go back to the life that only a few days ago I had dreaded as dull and tiresome?

No matter how sweaty and hot I was, I shivered in that moment. That possibility scared me.

So I dragged the saddle out of the underbrush, he leaped the fence, told me how to put the saddle on and tie on my rucksack, and we galloped off towards the sunset.

I should have realized, what with the absence of cars, farmers, and passers-by, that my journey had already become enchanted. But I certainly realized when I found I was looking into the sun and not squinting. And then, when the sun grew to an enormous size and we were actually getting closer to it…shivers of delighted anticipation started simmering all over my body.

Eventually, the sphere of the sun took up my entire field of vision, and all other noticeable landmarks of my world had been entirely blotted out. I knew not on what Sir Edward was running, or where we were going, but it ceased to matter. This was no hallucination; this was real.

When we got so close to the sun that I started wondering if we were going to crash against it, Sir Edward slowed and we cantered gently forward.

You know how at night, Reader, your eyes adjust to the dark, and even when a whole room is dark you can start to see distinguishing features against the black? Apparently, light works the same way. I became able make out features on the sun's surface, like craggy mountains, and elaborate windows, in which, I could swear, people were looking out just as I was looking in, and I started getting nauseous because I realized that none of this could be real, because the sun is just…not this way!

As we got even closer, I started to make out features closer to the ground…or at least, not above us, but in front of us…

They were doors.

There were doors in the sun.

And through one of these doors, fashioned out of the most brilliant substance (it made me think of flame-distressed copper) Sir Edward walked, calm as you please.

Nothing stopped me from going with him, and as we walked through, I felt no distinguishable change, save for the fact that I went blind as soon as we stumbled through. Walking through universes ought to have been a traumatic experience, full of agonizing pain and fear, but it was as simple as passing from living room into kitchen.

But on the far side of the door, where the light was more normal, as the sun was suddenly returned to regular size, it took me several moments of painful blinking before my pupils dilated again and I started to distinguish shapes in the dark.

We were in a forest. A calm, quiet forest, where the pine needles were falling gently down around us…a dying forest. In front of us were several large, ornate arches, and beyond them was a beautiful gate of what looked like wrought iron inlaid with silver, and all of these edifices stood in the middle of a broad path, blocking nothing.

The whole place was so quiet and chilling that I leaned even closer to Sir Edward's mane and shivered again, this time with fear.

Behind us, standing upright in the middle of this eerie wilderness was a simple wooden door, standing in a thick frame. As I watched, it swung gently closed.

This should have been the time for some kind of declaration, of the "we're not in Kansas anymore," or "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," variety, but the atmosphere was too quiet, too…reverential. I found I couldn't say anything, and left it to Sir Edward to comfort me in whatever way he knew best.

"Well!" he said brightly, not seeming to sense my fear at all (of course), "That was a sight easier than I had thought it would be, although we are too late for tonight. The Gate will open again tomorrow evening, so we had better make camp for now. I do hope you brought something to eat."