In the distance, the last rays of the setting sun blooded tendrils of clouds stretching as diaphanous claws from the wall looming in the east. Those bloody claws reaching from the blackening hand gave warning of an approaching storm.
Kreg leaned on his staff and rubbed at his neck. Healing blisters still itched, legacy of the sunburn that had almost killed him after he found himself naked and alone in the desert. The waterskin slung over his shoulder, long since drained, slapped empty against his side. The rutted track stretched behind him a dozen miles to where he had said his goodbyes to the nomads. His shoulders rose and fell in time with his deep, ragged breaths.
"The smoke does not command," the shaman had said that morning. "It only gives counsel. And the counsel is that your path lies among others, among those of steel and stone. This is the Gods' word, as told by the smoke. You will always be welcome in Three Mountain's Clan, but it is to others you must go and this is the time to leave."
Two weeks in this strange world and Kreg had to leave the only friends he had come to know.
"Halt and state your business," said one of the mail-clad men from the top of the wall at Kreg’s approach. The language was the same as what Kreg had somehow known when he first met the desert nomads although the dialect was different.
"I seek food and lodging.” Kreg leaned against the staff, like his clothing a gift from the nomads.
"What brings you to Trevanta?"
"I am a traveler." Kreg suppressed a hysterical laugh as he thought of just how far he had traveled, farther than the guard could possibly imagine. "I . . . was told I needed to be here."
"A damn nomad." The voice held more than a hint of disgust. “Off with yo--“ A softer voice interrupted the first speaker. Kreg only understood a few of the words of the second speaker. Something about coin? "He might have some coin?"
“As you say,” the first voice said, then louder, "Alone you are no doubt as harmless as you are worthless, nomad. Enter and be done."
The portcullis creaked upward. Kreg shuddered. The spikes reaching downward from the bottom of the gate and the shadows beyond it made the opening look like a giant mouth preparing to swallow him whole. The gray wood doors behind the gate blew a blast of fetid air over him as they creaked open.
He swallowed once and forced the apprehension to the back of his mind as he limped through the gateway.
Rutted dirt streets, led in all directions. The buildings blocked most of the light of the setting sun and the smaller of the twin moons leaving the city’s depths shrouded in gloom. Trampled piles of animal dung littered the streets. Since no street differed from any another that Kreg could see, he set off down the road that led straight ahead, into the city's interior.
Kreg remembered the first time he had seen that second moon. He had known then that he had not just appeared in some distant land, but on a whole other world. Once more he fought down the panic that arose at that thought. Another world, a world of two moons, dropped among people who wandered with their herds from well to well to well in the desert, then to a city guarded by stone walls and mail-clad men armed with spears and swords. Had anyone ever been so lost before?
He hobbled through the soot-black shadows, his pace slow as the strap of his right sandal stung where it had rubbed his ankle raw. He clung to his staff, leaning his weight onto it every time his right foot touched ground. He had long since given up on trying to adjust that strap for comfort. At one step something squished underfoot, releasing a noxious odor to assault his nose.
At the next intersection, Kreg peered down all four streets. The narrow streets and the heavy clouds, which had rolled in with the setting of the sun, conspired to prevent him from seeing more than a few yards. He gnawed at his lower lip as he considered. The nomads had given him a few coins but he did not know how long they would have to last. He doubted he would find anything like the welfare departments and homeless shelters of his own world. The best he could hope for was a church that gave aid to the poor. Yet he did not even know what religions exited, let alone which might have a tradition of charity. He did not even know what a church or temple might look like. None of what he remembered from the stacks of history books he read helped him now, not even the time he had spent with the middle ages reenactment group gave any guidance.
He would have thought this a dream, created from the stories he had read, had it not continued so long.
Stumbling around the city at random seemed a hopeless task yet he did not know what else to do.
"Oh, God," he whispered as once again despair and panic rose up within him. "What am I going to do?"
A moment later he shook his head and pushed the feeling down, where it lay like a block of ice in his belly. He began walking once more.
A door opened ahead of him, releasing a pair of short, burly men into the street. Through the open doorway Kreg saw men sitting around tables, drinking from enormous flagons before the door closed again.
An appetizing smell wafted past Kreg's nose, driving away even the stink of the street, a smell of meat and broth and of fresh bread baking. Hunger drove even his despair away. He had not eaten since that morning. For a moment Kreg considered entering and parting with some of his sparse funds in exchange for a meal. He extended his hand toward the door then caught himself. He could survive a night without food, but he might not survive a night without shelter if the storm clouds rolling in were any indication. And meals in a tavern would be expensive at a time when he would have to make his few coins last. He would be wiser to wait until day and find someplace where he could buy cheap food. With a regretful glance over his shoulder, he walked away from the tavern.
After some time Kreg stopped. Two lanterns, set on the ground, illuminated the scene before him. Two men dressed in embroidered waistcoats over short-sleeved tunics and knee-length breeches held an old man wearing tattered robes by his shoulders, pressed against a wall. A third waistcoated man drew back a fist in preparation for striking the old man. Blood ran from the old man’s nose and smeared his upper lip. More blood marked the old man’s lower lip and chin.
Kreg considered turning and leaving. This was not his affair and he had troubles enough of his own. But another look, at the blood trickling from the old man's mouth and nose, quickly quelled any such notion. Anger rose within him as his hands tightened on the staff and his lips pulled tight and thin.
Kreg rapped the tip of his staff against the boards of the walk. "Don't you think that's enough?" Kreg asked, anger driving all traces of exhaustion from Kreg's voice.
The men whirled to face him, releasing the old man, who slumped against the wall but remained upright.
"I'll say when it's enough," said the man who had been doing the beating. "And I say it's just begun." He drew a long thin sword. "Begone, you."
Typical bullies, Kreg thought, keeping what passes for brains in their muscles, and bone and muscle where their brains should be. These were the same kind who had tormented him throughout his childhood until his parents had found a teacher for him and he had soon needed to fear bullies no more.
Kreg straightened his shoulders and looked down to meet the man's eyes. Drawn to his full height, he stood a full head taller than any of these men. He held his staff in his left hand, one end planted on the ground, the shaft tilted forward and to the side. Kreg's right hand, under the cover of his cloak, gripped the cloak pin.
He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly, then rolled his shoulders and curled his back, first to one side then the other. With luck, the quick stretch would leave the men thinking Kreg were preparing some secret attack. Whatever the men thought, the exercise served its primary purpose. When Kreg spoke, his voice held no hint of either fatigue or fear, and most of his anger was under control. "Put that toy away."
Raising his voice in a shrill shriek the man charged. His sword snapped outward, the point driving at Kreg's belly.
Kreg dropped his staff. His right hand pulled his cloak pin free as his left hand came up to his collar. He whirled the cloak from around his shoulders and around, tangling, for an instant, the other man's sword and driving it aside. In the instant that the other man's sword was deflected Kreg stepped forward. He released the hold on his cloak and grasped the other's right sleeve with his left hand. He stepped in further, pulling hard on the man's arm, keeping him off balance while he grabbed the back of the man's neck with his right hand. He continued to turn, fitting his hips into the socket where the man's upper body bent forward. His right leg swept up, driving hard against the inside of the other's left thigh. Kreg swept his right leg up higher and pushed hard with his right hand, driving the man headfirst to the ground. There was a soft crack then the man convulsed once and lay still.
Kreg stared at the body at his feet. A stone. His head must have hit a stone. Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed furiously, fighting down an urge to vomit.
"All right," Kreg's voice sounded a little shaky, even to himself as he turned to face the other two men again. He managed to cover uncertainty with volume. "Who's next?"
The two remaining men responded by backing away, their swords held at low guard. In the gleam of the lantern light, Kreg could see their eyes darting from one side to the other.
"If that's the case," Kreg stooped to retrieve his staff and lifted it overhead, one end pointing at the nearer of the two men, the other slanting up and back, "get!" Kreg hoped that the pose would make him look larger than he was.
The men turned and ran. Kreg sighed and let his arms drop loosely, still holding the staff. His whole body shook.
"Oh, wondrous well done!" The voice came from close behind Kreg.
With a yelp, Kreg pivoted to face the direction from which the voice had come.
The voice belonged to a woman in her early twenties, about Kreg's own age. She was tall, nearly matching Kreg's six feet, and towering over anyone Kreg had yet met on this world. A tunic of chain mail covered her to mid thigh and down each arm to her wrist. A massive sword hung down her back. Leather boots encased her legs, their tops disappearing under the hem of her mail tunic.
"Kaila," she said. "Knight in the service of King Marek Caelverrem. And you?"
"I am Kreg," he said. "I am a stranger in these parts, a traveler."
“One of the desert nomads?” Kaila asked.
“No,” Kreg said, “Though I stayed with them for a time.”
They regarded each other for a few seconds, Kaila's eyes, a gray that was almost silver meeting Kreg's blue eyes.
"But we're forgetting someone," Kreg said. He turned to look for the old man but found that he had already gone. A moment later, Kreg saw the old man down the street, stooping from time to time to pick up something from the street and put it into a large bag.
"Have you never been to Trevanta before?" Kaila asked as she stooped to examine the dead swordsman, tugging at the body's legs to pull it to its full length. "No,” she said before Kreg could respond. “I perceive not. Still, few have I seen in this city given to much honor. None, it is certain, who would have come to the aid of that one--" She jerked her head in the direction the old man had gone. "--saving perhaps me or my father. As I saw you before you met those Briganti, you seemed to be wandering without purpose. Have you no place to go?" She looked up at him.
Kreg sighed. "No, not really."
"As I thought," Kaila said. She removed something from the swordsman's belt and flipped the body onto its back. She then rubbed her upper lip for a moment and before continuing. "Come. I will introduce you to my father, Shillond. From him you will receive wise counsel."
"Fair enough," Kreg said. Although he felt uncertain about following a stranger into the unknown, he could not suppress a surge of relief. He could use advice from someone, anyone, who knew about this world, and no nonsense about smoke.
Kaila rose smoothly to her feet. In her right hand she held a small leather pouch which she opened and inspected its contents. "Three norbeni, half a dozen rabeni, and a few ve'ib. A good catch from such a one."
She tossed the pouch to Kreg who caught it by reflex. "Law of this city. A villain, slain in pursuit of villainy. What was his, is now yours."
Kreg stood looking at the pouch in his hand. "Brutal law."
Kaila cocked her head to one side and stared at him for a moment. Her shoulders rose a bare fraction of an inch, and then dropped. "This city is scarce lifted from barbarism, it is true."
"I see." Kreg sighed. "Shall we go?"
"'Twould be the course of wisdom to take yon briganti's sword as well." Kaila pointed at the weapon. "You have shown a skill remarkable without arms but such would serve you naught ‘gainst one more skilled than this briganti."
Kreg laughed. "I'd be more likely to slice off my own head if I tried to use a sword."
"You are unskilled in the sword?" Kaila looked Kreg up and down. "And yet, you would be so foolish as to be abroad after nightfall in a city unknown."
If Kreg’s being out after nightfall was foolish than Kaila was as much fool as he. He decided it would be wiser not to say so. "I . . . didn’t have a choice."
Kaila regarded him for a moment. "I am a stranger in this city, but I think you are more so. Whence come you?"
This was a hard question to answer in a way she would understand so he did not try. "I am from Earth," he said. "Ever hear of it?"
"It must be far indeed," Kaila said. "I am familiar with all the lands hereabouts and never have I heard the name, nor seen it writ on any map. 'Tis not of the eight known kingdoms. Still, whatever the customs of your land you would be wise to take the sword and learn its use."
With an exasperated sigh, Kreg removed the sword belt from the corpse, struggling for a moment with the body's weight. He could at least humor her. Besides, she could be right. She knew local conditions far better than he did. Primitive societies could be, often were, quite violent, with an unarmed man seen as fair game by anyone who wished to practice a little robbery, or a little assault as he had just witnessed.
He had, after all, just wished for advice and it would be foolish to spurn the offered advice.
He sheathed the sword and buckled the belt around his waist. He then stooped again to retrieve his cloak and fastened the pin under this throat. "Now, Shall we go?"