The daughter of rich but neglectful parents, Terisa Morgan lives alone in a New York City apartment, a young woman who has grown to doubt her own existence. Surrounded by the flat reassurance of mirrors, she leads an unfulfilled life—until the night a strange man named Geraden comes crashing through one of her mirrors, on a quest to find a champion to save his kingdom of Mordant from a pervasive evil that threatens the land. Terisa is no champion. She wields neither magic nor power. And yet, much to her own surprise, when Geraden begs her to come back with him, she agrees.
Now, in a culture where women are little more than the playthings of powerful men, in a castle honeycombed with secret passages and clever traps, in a kingdom threatened from without and within by enemies able to appear and vanish out of thin air, Terisa must become more than the pale reflection of a person. For the way back to Earth is closed to her. And the enemies of Mordant will stop at nothing to see her dead.
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The night before Geraden came for her, Terisa Morgan had a dream – one of the few she could ever remember. In it, she heard horns: faint with distance, they reached her through the sharp air over the hills covered with crisp snow like the call for which her heart had always been waiting. They winded again—and while she strained to hear them, again. But they came no closer.
She wanted to go looking for them. Past the wood where she seemed to be sitting or lying as if the cold couldn’t touch her, she saw the ridge of the hills: perhaps the horns – and those who sounded them – were on the far side. Yet she didn’t move. The dream showed her a scene she had never seen before; but she remained who she had always been.
Then along the snow-clogged skirt of the ridge came charging men on horseback. As the horses fought for speed, their nostrils gusted steam, and their legs churned the snow until the dry, light flakes seemed to boil. She could hear the leather creaking of their tack, the angry panting and muttered curses of their riders: the ridge sent every sound, as edged as a shard of glass, into the wood. She yearned to block out those noises, to hear the horns again, while the three men abruptly swung away from the hills and lashed the snow toward the trees – directly toward her.
As their faces came into focus for her, she saw their fierce hate, the intent of bloodshed. Long swords appeared to flow out of their sheaths into the high hands of the riders. They were going to hack her into the snow where she stood.
She remained motionless, waiting. The air was whetted with cold, as hard as a slap and as penetrating as splinters. In the dream, she wasn’t altogether sure that she would mind being killed. It would bring the emptiness of her life to an end. Her only regret was that she would never hear the horns again, never find out why they spoke such a thrill to her heart.
Then from among the black-trunked trees behind her came a man to impose himself between her and the riders. He was unarmed, unarmored – he seemed to be wearing only a voluminous brown jerkin, pants of the same fabric, leather boots – but he didn’t hesitate to risk the horses. While the first rider swung his blade, the man made a sidelong leap at the reins of the mount; and the horse was wrenched off balance, spilling its rider in front of her second attacker. Both horse and rider went down, raising clouds of snow as thick as mist.
When a low breeze cleared her sight, she saw that her defender had snatched up the first rider’s sword and spitted the second with it. He moved with a desperate awkwardness which showed that he was unfamiliar with fighting; but he didn’t falter. In furious assault, he stretched the first rider out against the trunk of a tree before the horseman could strike back with his long poniard.
Watching, Terisa saw the third rider poised above the young man who fought for her – mount firmly positioned, sword hilt gripped high in both fists. Though she understood nothing of what was going on, she knew that she ought to move. In simple decency and gratitude toward her defender, if for no other reason, she should fling herself against the rider. He wasn’t looking at her: surely she would be able to reach his belt and pull him out of his saddle before he struck.
But she didn’t. In the dream, a small, vexed frown pinched her forehead as she regarded her passivity. It was the story of her life, that mute nothingness – the only quality she could ascribe to her uncertain existence. How could she act? Action was for those who didn’t seriously doubt their own presence in the world. During the more than twenty years of her life, her opportunities for action had been so few that she typically hadn’t recognized them until they were past. She didn’t know how to make her limbs carry her toward the rider.
Yet the man who fought for her did so for no reason she could see except that she was being attacked. And he didn’t know his danger: he was still trying to wrest his blade from the body of the rider he had just felled, and his back was turned.
Startling herself and the horseman and the sharp cold, she cried, “Watch out!”
The effort of the warning jerked her into a sitting position. She was still in bed. Her shout made her throat ache, and an unaccustomed panic pounded through her veins.
She recognized herself in the mirrors of her bedroom. Lit by the night-light plugged into the wall socket behind the bed, she was hardly more than a shadow in the glass all around her; but she was herself, the shadow she had always been.
And yet, while her pulse still labored and a slick of sweat oozed from her face, she thought she heard beyond the comfortless noises of the city a distant calling of horns, too faint to be certain and too intimate to be ignored.
Of course, nothing was changed. She got up the next morning when her alarm clock went off; and her appearance in her mirrors was as rumpled and wan as usual. Though she studied her face for any sign that it was real enough for men on horseback to hate so fiercely, it seemed as void of meaning as always – so unmarked by experience, decision, or impact that she was dimly surprised to find it still able to cast a reflection. Surely she was fading? Surely she would wake up one morning, look at herself in the mirror, and see nothing? Perhaps, but not today. Today she looked just as she remembered herself – beautifully made, but to no purpose, and slightly tinged with sorrow.
So she showered as usual, dressed herself as usual in the sort of plain skirt and demure sweater her father preferred for her, breakfasted as usual – watching herself in the mirrors between bites of toast – and put on a raincoat before leaving her apartment to go to work. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the way she looked, or about her apartment as she left it, or about the elevator ride down to the lobby of her building. The only thing out of the ordinary was the way she felt.
To herself, so privately that none of it showed on her face, she kept remembering her dream.
Outside, rain fell heavily onto the street, flooding the gutters, hissing like hail off the roofs of the cars, muffling the noises of traffic. Dispirited by the gray air and the wet, she tied a plastic bandana over her head, then walked past the security guard (who ignored her, as usual) and out through the revolving doors into the downpour.
With her head low and her concentration on the sidewalk, she moved in the direction of the mission where she worked.
Without warning, she seemed to hear the horns again.
Involuntarily, she stopped, jerked up her head, looked around her like a frightened woman. They weren’t car horns: they were wind instruments such as a hunter or musician might use. The chord of their call was so far away and out of place that she couldn’t possibly have heard it, not in that city, in that rain, while rush-hour traffic filled the streets and fought the downpour. And yet the sensation of having heard the sound made everything she saw appear sharper and less dreary, more important. The rain had the force of a determined cleansing; the streaked gray of the buildings looked less like despair, more like the elusive potential of the borderland between day and night; the people jostling past her on the sidewalk were driven by courage and conviction, rather than by disgust at the weather or fear of their employers. Everything around her had a tang of vitality she had never seen before.
Then the sensation faded; and she couldn’t possibly have heard rich horns calling to her heart; and the tang was gone.
Baffled and sad, she resumed her sodden walk to work.
At the mission, her day was more full of drudgery than usual. In the administrative office, seated at her desk with the ancient typewriter crouching in front of her like a foul-tempered beast of burden, she found a message from Reverend Thatcher, the old man who ran the mission. It said that the mission’s copying costs were too high, so would she please type two hundred fifty copies of the attached letter in addition to her other duties. The letter was aimed at most of the philanthropic organizations in the city, and it contained yet another appeal for money, couched in Reverend Thatcher’s customary futility. She could hardly bear to read it as she typed; but of course she had to read it over and over again to get it right.
While she typed, she seemed to feel herself becoming physically less solid, as if she were slowly being dissolved by the pointlessness of what she did. By noon, she had the letter memorized; and she was watching in a state that resembled suspense the line of letters her typewriter made, waiting for each new character because it proved that she was still there and she couldn’t honestly say she expected it to appear.