Kaila watched her newfound companion from beneath lowered lids as they walked. He was an odd one. His name, Kreg, what kind of name was that for a man, just a single, harsh syllable. The barbarian hordes of the Anor and Selb had such names, but no one else. Yet he could not be one of their ilk as they were short of stature and dark of skin. The tallest of them would be able to walk without stooping, without even bowing his head, beneath Kreg's outstretched arm.
He had courage enough, certainly. That he could face three briganti while armed only with a staff 'gainst their swords, and even toss the staff away to face them unarmed, told her that. That he could do so in the depths of exhaustion told her that he had more than mere courage, but possessed the strength of will that oft' marked true heroism and nobility. Indeed, she could only name three of the Knights of Aerioch who would do so under such conditions for anyone other than the noble born.
As they walked, he seemed to shrink into himself. Kaila knew what he was feeling. When the battle-rush fades, it leaves one more tired than before.
A movement drew her attention for a moment, as someone retreated before them into deeper shadow. A robber, as she supposed, unwilling to try her sword. In the dimness she caught the hint of a face, the gleam of eyes. Those eyes gazed, for a moment, on Kreg, then flicked her way just before the robber slipped yet further into the shadow and into invisibility. Or not a robber. That gaze directed at Kreg....
Did Kreg have some enemy dissuaded by his coming under her care? She did not know. Such thoughts were too deep for her. Later, when she could speak to Shillond alone, she would ask him.
At her side, Kreg walked on, seeming not to have noticed. This brought a frown to her face and she stopped. "Kreg."
"If you must be about at night, it would be well if you blundered not about like a blind pig."
"I don't understand," Kreg said.
Kaila pointed at a shadowed doorway. "Not a dozen heartbeats past, someone stood within the shadows yon. Whether man or woman, I know not, but surely meaning no good at this hour. The one within skulked away as we approached."
"I didn't see," Kreg said.
"Aye. You did not see. This time the skulker in shadows quailed from facing us, but what of the next? If one were to strike at you, an' you not be aware to defend yourself, you could be slain before I could come to your aid."
"I...see." Kreg’s expression became distant for a few heartbeats. Kaila surmised that he was pondering his fortune that no one had waylaid him before she had taken him in hand.
"Be cautious," Kaila said, "and 'ware of such things."
Kreg nodded slowly.
"Come," she said and shook her head. Stout heart Kreg may have, but he had no more wit than a babe in this town.
The inn where she and her father, Shillond, abode was not far. This was fortunate, as the skies would soon unleash their pent fury. And while storms were few, and short, here on the verge of the desert, they were all the more fierce for their shortness, as though all the fury of northern storms squeezed into one or two candles of time. Kaila led Kreg to the back entrance of the inn, avoiding the crowds in the common room. As they entered the building the first drops of rain fell.
Kaila climbed the stairs followed by Kreg to a room in the upper floor of the building where she knocked on the door. "Shillond? It is I, Kaila. I have returned."
After Kreg had followed Kaila to the inn and she had knocked on the door to announce their presence, she opened the door. A fringe of gray hair framed the bald pate of the short and stout man who stood on the other side of the doorway. The lines of his face told Kreg a story of frequent laughter and his eyes held the hint of a twinkle that Kreg suspected was a permanent fixture. Those eyes were the green of new-mown grass. One look at this man's face made Kreg want to trust him.
"Kaila! Come in. Come in. Who's your friend?"
"This is Kreg," she said. "He braved three briganti with that staff of his. Killed one, the other two fled. The fight was over 'ere I could intervene."
"Which upset you, I'm sure," Shillond said.
Kaila shrugged. "He has an interesting story, I daresay. I have heard enough to know it is beyond me."
"Really? Shillond shook his head. "Child, whatever am I going to do with you? You are always taking in strays." He smiled.
Before Kreg could even begin to feel uncomfortable about the banter over him, Shillond smiled at him and said, "Don't mind me. We have this argument quite often. Last week it was an injured sparrow; the week before, an orphaned fawn; Kaila has difficulty realizing that she cannot save the entire world from hurt and harm." He cast a sidelong glance at his daughter.
"And if I cannot defend all the weak and helpless of the world," Kaila said, "Is that not all the more reason to defend and aid those who do come under my hand?"
Weak and helpless, Kreg thought. That means me.
Shillond grinned and turned his attention back to Kreg. "But we forget our manners. Sit. We have neither food nor drink to hand or I would offer...."
"I understand." Kreg stepped through the door to find himself in a small room of rough-hewn wood, the kind that made him wary of splinters. Several three-legged wooden stools stood scattered about the room but their rickety construction appeared hardly likely to support his weight. Gingerly, he lowered himself onto one. It creaked, but held. Wind-driven rain sheeted against the wood tiles above them making him glad that he was inside.
"So you have a story?" Shillond sat on another stool with far more confidence. Kaila sat on the bed, tucking her legs under her.
"Of sorts." Kreg pursed his lips and thought for a moment. Not knowing where to start, he decided to start at what he thought was the beginning. "I suppose it begins at home, in my land, I mean. I was walking home from my--" He realized that the language he had somehow learned had no word for his job. "--call it a shop, I guess. As I passed an alley I saw a mugging well on its way to becoming rape." He frowned at the memory and anger rose fresh in his mind. The man had ripped the woman's blouse half off and had been fumbling at her bra. If there was one thing he hated more than a bully it was a rapist, the ultimate bully. "I had to stop it."
"So you engaged the villain with your staff?" Kaila said. "What man of honor could do less?" The fury on her own face told Kreg all he needed to know of Kaila's feelings about rape, feelings which apparently mirrored his own.
"Kaila, hush," Shillond said. "Let the man finish."
After a nod of acknowledgment to Shillond, Kreg said to Kaila, "Not quite. You see, we don't generally carry weapons in my country.” He waved off the shocked look on their faces. “I know you think that absurd but it’s the truth. I am somewhat skilled in a form of unarmed combat. We call it..." Kreg hesitated. The name he knew it by would mean nothing to these people, so he translated. "We call it The Way of Yielding. It's a sport mainly, practiced for exercise and entertainment, but useful at times." He laughed. "What I didn't realize what that the filth had a friend. Somebody hit me from behind."
He shivered at the memory. "This is where it starts to get weird. As I fell, I felt a...wrenching, as if I were being turned inside out, but strangely not an unpleasant sensation at all. My head hit something hard and I don't remember anything else for a while. When I woke, I lay, naked, in the desert with a lump growing on the back of my head the size of an ostrich egg. I'd already gotten a bad sunburn."
"Os-trich?" Shillond asked.
"Shillond, hush," Kaila said. "Let the man finish."
A faint smile caressed Kreg’s lips at the by-play. "A tribe of nomads found me. It seems their customs required them to feed and clothe anyone they found in such need. I had awakened near a water hole, but I had no protection from the sun. The sunburn was so bad when they found me that I was sick for days.
“I thought I was going to die. But they were patient and gentle with me. They smeared some kind of paste on my skin and lay wet cloths over me to ease the pain of the burns. They made me drink water with salt and some kind of berry juice in it. That helped the sickness. After a few days, I felt like living again.
“Another few days later I was able to do their chief a good turn and gained a little more open welcome among them, although they never did figure out quite what to do with me. After about two weeks, the shaman told me something about smoke and needing to find my way among the people of iron and stone. I left the nomads and made my way to Trevanta. Here I found those three men attacking another and the rest you know."
And what a terrifying decision leaving the nomads had been. He could have remained with the nomads, lived with them, perhaps even married one of their women. That would have been safe, but something he could not explain had told him that the shaman had been right and he had to leave.
"Interesting," Shillond said. "You speak Shendi well for a mere two weeks in this region, or do you come from some lost colony of the Empire of Shend?"
"That's part of what makes this so strange," Kreg said. "This isn't any language I've heard before, yet I could speak it from the moment I first met the nomads." He shook his head.
"I don't understand any of this. Simplest explanation is that I'm lying in that alley with a fractured skull and you are all the hallucinations of a dying man." He waved a hand, as if to dismiss the thought.
"I have some knowledge of foreign lands," Shillond said. "Perhaps if you described your land and its neighbors, I may be able to recognize them even if I don't know the name."
Kreg shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Oh?" Shillond asked.
Kreg laughed. "No, and I doubt you'll believe the reason why not."
"You can only try." Shillond said.
"All right." Kreg shrugged. "Where I come from we've explored the whole of the world and there is nothing like Trevanta anywhere. And where I come from, there's only one moon. So I must be on some other world, either that or I am lying in that alley."
"Travel between worlds?" Shillond stood up and began to pace. A few seconds later, he stopped. “It is possible, I suppose, but I know of no one who has ever done so.”
“Jandak, Father,” Kaila said, “He crossed the great void before the world was.”
“Yes, Kaila,” Shillond said, “And spoke to the God of another world and brought back the plan by which the world was made. I know. But Jandak is one of the three First Gods. No mortal has ever done so and I know of no wizards of sufficient power to make the attempt. I do not have such power.”
"Wait a minute." Kreg stood up. "Gods? Wizards?" Shillond had sounded so intelligent, so rational, that Kreg had not considered that he could believe in magic. And yet, did Kreg have any better explanation for how he had come here?
"Of course," Shillond said, clearly puzzled by Kreg's question. He turned his right hand, face up, and a ball of light appeared in the palm. "I know a thing or two about magic."
Kreg's world spun about him once more. He had seen magic tricks before but no one had ever done anything like that. The light was not fire, nor was it a glowing object. It was simply light, a ball of blue light.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto," he murmured.
He fought down an urge to babble. Magic. There really was magic here. Either everything he knew about reality was wrong or he was not just on a different world but in a different reality.
Shillond stared into Kreg's eyes for a moment, his gaze forming a bastion to which Kreg clung while his world reoriented itself.
"It is late," Shillond said. "Might I suggest that a meal and drinks would be in order?"
"Aye," Kaila said. "Roast venison would suit me well, if they have it in this place."
Kreg had almost forgotten that he was hungry but Shillond's suggestion made his stomach rumble. He nodded and licked his lips.
"The fare in the common room," Shillond said, "although not up to the standards of Aerioch, shall suffice I think. And we will not have to brave the storm." He opened the door and motioned the two others to precede him. "Shall we go?"