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The Time of the Dark
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
Gil knew that it was only a dream. There was no reason for her to feel fear—she knew that the danger, the chaos, the blind, sickening nightmare terror that filled the screaming night were not real; this city with its dark, unfamiliar architecture, these fleeing crowds of panic-stricken men and women who shoved her aside, unseeing, were only the vivid dregs of an overloaded subconscious, wraiths that would melt with daylight.
She knew all this; nevertheless, she was afraid.
She seemed to be standing at the foot of a flight of green marble stairs, facing into a square courtyard surrounded by tall peak-roofed buildings. Fleeing people were shoving past her, jostling her back against the gigantic pedestal of a malachite statue, without seeming to be aware of her presence at all; gasping, wild-eyed people, terrified faces bleached to corpses by the brilliance of the cold quarter moon. They were pouring out of the gabled houses, the men clutching chests or bags of money, the women jewels, lap-dogs, or children crying in uncomprehending terror. Their hair was wild from sleep, for it was deep night; some of them were dressed but many were naked, or tripping over bedclothes hastily snatched, and Gil could smell the rank terror-sweat of their bodies as they brushed against her. None of them saw her, none of them stopped; they stumbled frantically up those vast steps of moonlit marble, through the dark arch of the gates at the top, and out into the clamoring streets of the stricken city beyond.
What city? Gil wondered confusedly. And why am I afraid? This is only a dream.
But she knew. In her heart she knew, as things are known in dreams, that this scene of frenzied escape was even now being repeated, like the hundredfold reflections in a doubled mirror, everywhere in the city around her. The knowledge and the horror created a chill that crept along her skin, crawled wormlike through her guts.
They all felt it, too. For not a man would stop to lean on the pillar behind her, nor a woman stumble on the steps at her feet. They looked back with the blank, wide eyes of madness, their frenzied gaze drawn as if against their will to the cyclopean doors of ancient time-greened bronze that dominated the wall opposite. It was from these that they fled. It was behind this monstrous trapezoidal gateway that the horror was building, as water builds behind a weakening dam a soft, shifting, bodiless evil, an unspeakable eruption into the land of the living from out of black abysses of space and time.
There was motion, and voices, in the cavern of the arched gateway behind her, muffled footfalls and the thin, ringing whine of a sword as it was drawn. Gil turned, her thick hair tangling in her eyes. The wild, jumping dance of wind- bent torches silhouetted crowding forms, flickering across a face, a blade-edge, the dull pebbled gleam of chain mail. Against the thinning tide of desperate civilians, the Guards stepped into the cool pewter monochrome of the moonlight—black-uniformed, lightly mailed, booted, men and women both, the honed blades of their weapons shining thinly against the play of the shadows. Gil could catch a glimpse of a nervous rabble of hastily armed civilians massing up behind them, whispering in dread and fumbling with unpracticed hands at the hilts of borrowed armament, grim fear fighting terrified bewilderment in their half-seen faces. And striding down ahead of them all was an old man in a brown robe, an old wizard, hawk-eyed and bearded and bearing a sword of flame.
It was he who stopped on the top step, scanning the court before him like a hunting eagle while the last of the fleeing, half-naked populace streamed raggedly up the stairs past Gil, brushing against her, unseeing, past the wizard, past the Guards, bare feet slapping hollowly in the black passage of the gates. She saw him fix his gaze on the doors, knowing the nature of that eldritch unseen horror, knowing from whence it would come. The battered, nondescript face was serene behind the tangled chaparral of beard. Then his gaze shifted, judging his battleground, and his eyes met hers.
He could see her. She knew it instantly, even before his eyes widened in startled surprise. The Guards and volunteers, hesitating behind the old man, unwilling to go where he was not ahead of them, were looking around and through and past her, dubiously seeking the wizard's vision in the suddenly still moonlight of the empty court. But he could see her, and she wondered confusedly why.
Across the court, from the cracks and hinges of those timeless doors, a thin, directionless wind had begun to blow, stirring and whispering over the silver- washed circles of the pavement, tugging at Gil's coarse black hair. It carried on it the dank, cold scent of evil, of acid and stone and things that should never see light, of blood and darkness. But the wizard sheathed the gleaming blade he held and came cautiously down the steps toward her, as if he feared to frighten her.
But that, Gil thought, would not be possible—and anyway she was only dreaming. He looked like a gentle old man, she thought. His eyes, blue and bright and very fierce, held in them neither pride nor cruelty, and if he were afraid of the shifting, sightless thing welling in darkness behind the doors, he did not show it. He advanced to within a few feet of where she stood shivering in the green shadows of the monstrous statue, those blue eyes puzzled and wary, as if trying to understand what he saw. Then he held out his hand and made as if to speak.
Abruptly, Gil woke up—but not in her bed.
For a moment she didn't know where she was. She threw out her hand awkwardly, startled and disoriented, as those suddenly wakened are, and the cold fluted marble of the pedestal's edge bit savagely into her palm. The night's damp cold knifed her bare legs, froze her naked feet on the pavement. The cries of fear from the night-gripped city came to her suddenly clearer on the wind, and with them the elusive scent of water. For an instant, the shrieking horror of what lay behind the doors was like a gripping hand at her throat, and then it sank, whirled away like leaves in the face of shock and confusion and even greater horror.
She had waked up.
She was no longer dreaming.
She was still there.
All the eyes were on her now; startled, uncertain, even afraid. The warriors, still gathered at the top of the broad polished steps, stared in surprise at this thin young woman, dark-haired and scantily clad in the green polka-dot cowboy shirt that she habitually wore to bed, who had so suddenly appeared in their midst. Gil stared back, clutching for support the sharp edge of the marble behind her, weak with shock and frantic with bewilderment and dread, her legs shaking and her breath strangling in her throat.
But the wizard was still there, and she realized that it was impossible to be truly afraid when she was with him.
Quietly, he asked her, "Who are you?"
To her own surprise she found the voice to answer. "Gil," she said. "Gil Patterson."
"How did you come here?"
Around them the black wind blew stronger from the doors, rank and cold and vibrant with brooding abhuman lusts. The Guards murmured among themselves, tension spreading along the line, visible as the humming quiver of a tautened wire—they, too, were afraid. But the wizard didn't stir, and the mellow, scratchy warmth of his voice was unshaken.
"I—I was dreaming," Gil stammered. "But—this—I—it isn't a dream anymore, is it?"
"No," the old man said kindly. "But don't be afraid." He raised his scarred fingers and made some movement in the air with them that she could not clearly see. "Go back to your dreams."
The night's cold faded as the cloying haziness of sleep blurred sound and smell and fear. Gil saw the Guards peer with startled eyes at the blue, flickering shadows that she knew were all they could now see. Then the wizard spoke to them, and they followed him as he strode across the deserted pavement of the court, facing into the black winds and the nameless menace of the doors. He raised his sword, a long two-handed blade, and it sparked in the darkness like summer lightning. Then, as if an explosion had rocked the vaults below the building, the doors burst open, and blackness poured forth over them like smoke.
Gil saw what was in the darkness, and her own screams of terror woke her.
Her hands shook so badly she could barely switch on the bedside lamp. The clock on the table beside her bed said two-thirty. Drenched in sweat and colder than death, Gil fell back against the pillow, whispering frantically to herself that it was only a dream—only a dream. I am twenty-four years old and a graduate student in medieval history and I will have my Ph.D. in a year and it's stupid to be afraid of a dream. And it was only a dream. It's all over now and none of it was real. It was only a dream.
She told herself this, staring out from the fortress of worn sheets and cheap blankets at the convincing familiarity of her own apartment—the Levi's lolling out of the half-closed dresser drawer, Rooster Cogburn glowering down from a poster on the wall, the absent-minded litter of textbooks, tissues, pennies, and dog-eared paperbacks that strewed the threadbare shag of the rug. She thought about the early hour of today's seminar, glanced again at the clock and the lamp, and considered seeking sleep and darkness. But though she was, as she had said, twenty-four years old and almost a Ph.D., far too old to be troubled by the fears felt in a dream, she rolled over after a short time and groped Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages from the floor beside her bed. She found her place in it, and by act of will forced herself to become fascinated by the legal status of the King's Highway in fifteenth-century England.
She did not trust herself to sleep again until it was almost dawn.
Oddly enough, Gil remembered nothing of the dream until nearly a week later. And what she did remember, driving home from the university in the tawny-golden brilliance of a California September afternoon, was the wizard's voice, wondering where she had heard it, the warm timbre of it and the characteristic break in tone, the velvet smoothness sliding into roughness and then abruptly back.
Then she remembered the eyes, the city, the shadows, and the fear. And she realized, turning her red VW down Clarke Street toward her apartment building, that it wasn't the first time she'd dreamed about that city.
The odd thing about the first dream, Gil recalled, maneuvering into a narrow parking space on the perennially crowded cul-de-sac, was that, though there had been nothing at all in it to cause her fear, she had been afraid and had waked up chilled with a lingering sense of dread.
She had dreamed of wandering alone in a vaulted chamber, so huge that the lines of shadow-curtained arches supporting the low, groined ceiling had vanished into darkness all about her. Dust had stirred mustily beneath her bare feet, had coated the disused junk and dilapidated boxes piled between and among the pillars, and had fogged the distant glow of a yellow flame that she was following to its source, a little tallow-dip lamp burning beside the dark sweep of a red porphyry Stair. All around her, as cloaking as the dust, as ubiquitous as the shadows, was that sense of lurking fear, of being watched from the darkness by things that had no eyes.
The pallid flame had gleamed dully on the broad red steps and had thrown back the half-seen shape of monumental bronze doors at their top, but had drawn no reflection from the leaden blackness of the basalt floor, in spite of the fact that the floor was as smooth as glass, polished by the passage of countless feet; how this could be in the deeps of the vaults she did not know, and it was clear from the dust that few if any came here now. The floor was old, far older than the walls, though how she knew this Gil was not sure—older, she thought, than the city over her head, or any city of mankind. In the midst of that dark pavement, right before the lamplit steps, one single slab of the floor was new, hewn of pale gray granite, its surface rough against the worn, silken smoothness of the rest of the floor, though it, too, was covered with that agelong mantle of dust.
In the darkness above her a door creaked, and light wavered across the many arches. Gil slipped back into the shadow of a pillar, though she knew it was only a dream, and knew that people here could not see her because they did not exist. A woman, a servant by her dress, came padding down the steps with a basket on her arm, holding a lamp up above her head; at her heels lumbered a hunchbacked slave, peering around him at the darkness out of shadowed, wary eyes. The woman led the way unconcernedly down the Stair, across the smooth dark floor, turning aside to avoid walking on the odd granite slab, although her goal—a bin of dried apples—lay directly opposite the foot of the stairs, and the odd slab was in no way raised above the level of the rest of the floor. The hunchback made an even wider circuit, moving from pillar to pillar, woofing and clucking quietly to himself and never taking those sharp, fear-filled eyes from the pale stone.
The woman loaded her basket and handed it to the hunchback to carry. She started back toward the steps and paused, irresolute, clearly telling herself not to be a silly, superstitious goose, that there was no reason to be afraid, not of the darkness that pressed so close around her, and certainly not of six feet by twelve of pavement that was gray instead of black, granite instead of basalt. But in the end, she took the long way around, to avoid walking on that odd slab.
That's why it's rough, when the rest of the floor is so weirdly smooth, Gil thought. No one walks on it. No one has ever walked on it.
But even the sense that the two dreams were somehow connected held only a kind of passing curiosity for her, until the third dream. They did nothing to disturb the fabric of her daily existence. She continued to spend hours in the university library, searching scholarly articles and moldering Middle English town records, jotting information on index cards that she later sorted out at the kitchen table back in the Clarke Street apartment, trying to make sense of what she knew. She graded undergraduate papers, sweated over her grant proposal, and had her dealings with friends and lovers—the routine of her life—until she dreamed of that beleaguered city again.
She knew it was the same city, though she looked down on it now from above. She found herself standing in the embrasure of a tall window, in a tower, she thought. So bright was the moonlight that she could discern the patterns of the courtyard pavement far below, see the designs worked into the wrought-iron lace of the gates, and make out even the shadows of the fallen leaves, like a furring of dust on the ground. Raising her eyes, she could catch, across the peaked maze of rooftrees, the glimpse of distant water. In the other direction, the black shoulders of mountains loomed against the hem of a star-blazing sky.
In the room behind her a solitary tongue of flame stood above the polished silver of the lamp on the table, and by its small, unwavering glow she could distinguish the furnishings, few and simple, each exquisitely wrought out of dark wood and ivory. Though the design and motifs were alien to her eyes, she could recognize in them the creative height of a well-founded tradition, the product of a sophisticated and tasteful culture.
And she saw that she was not alone.
Against the chamber's far wall stood the room's largest piece of furniture, a massive ebony crib, its scrolled railings veined in mother-of-pearl that caught the dim lamplight. Above it, all but hidden in the massed shadows, a tall canopy loomed, with an emblem picked out in gold: a stylized eagle striking, beneath a tiny crown. This emblem was repeated, stitched in pinfire glints of bullion, on the black surcoat of the man who stood beside that crib, head bent and silent as a statue, looking down at its sleeping occupant.
He was a tall man, handsome in an austere way. Some silver showed in his shoulder-length brown hair, though Gil would not have put his age much above thirty-five. From the soles of his soft leather boots to the folds of the billowing robe that covered surcoat and tunic, the man's clothing was rich, of a piece with the subdued grandeur of the room, dark, plain, flawlessly tailored of the most expensive fabric. The gems in the hilt of his sword flickered like stars in the lamplight with the small movement of his breath.
Excerpted from The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1982 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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