A Wizard Abroad, New Millennium Edition (10 page)

She sighed and closed the manual on one finger for a moment, gazing out across the fields on either side of the hedgerows at the thought of the place. She’d experienced Timeheart several times, for brief periods. She had seen it look like a city, like the ocean, like the depths of space. But regardless of your personal viewpoint, it was always a place where the physical universe was as it
would
have been had the Lone Power taken exception to the way creation was going so far, and gone out of Its way to invent something that the other Powers had not intended: entropy… death. Timeheart cast its own bright shadows into the less central dimension surrounding it, and the local Powers, taking advantage of this, had simply moved into that universe nearest to Timeheart which to them looked most like Ireland.

But much coming and going had forged a link, broadening the road between this world and that one from a little track into a highway that it was easy to stumble onto. All of Ireland had become a place where one could suddenly go
sideways.
This to-ing and fro-ing of the greater and lesser Powers between Ireland that was, and their version of Ireland—
Tir na nOg,
as they called it, the Land of the Ever-Young—was, in the long run, dangerous. But it wasn’t a thing you could just stop: at least, Nita couldn’t.

True,
I
went sideways, and it didn’t kill me. But I’m a wizard.
If that kind of thing started happening to regular people, though—people in the street who were standing waiting for a bus, and suddenly found themselves in the middle of a Viking invasion, or something worse… Nita shuddered at the thought.

The problem with being sent somewhere by the Powers that Be to do a job was that, frequently, they left it to you to find out what the job was. So Nita now turned her attention to the manual again and flipped through it to the directory pages. There she paged along to her own listing and saw that, yes indeed, she was on active status, and her aunt’s address was listed. There was also an address for a senior wizard listed there, with an asterisk and a note saying, “Consult in case of emergency.”

if they’ve left me on my own on this one,
Nita thought,
I guess I have to assume an emergency of some kind is what it is. And it must be something that having Kit along wouldn’t help.
Though that was a thought that made her a little uneasy. Were the Powers trying to break up their partnership? Or on the other hand, was this just the kind of solo work that even a partnered wizard had to do every now and then? Either way, she was hardly going to refuse the commission. She shut the manual again and put it away as the bus bounced into Bray.

It wasn’t all that big a town, its main street about half the length of the main street at home; and as usual, everything continued to look small and cramped and a little worn-out by Nita’s standards. She berated herself inwardly. Just because you’re used to everything looking slick and neat and new, doesn’t mean that it has to be that way here. Aunt Annie had mentioned to Nita that though Ireland had been doing pretty well economically in previous years, they were now caught in the same worldwide economic crunch as everyone else—in fact, a worse one than most—and there just wasn’t the money to spend on things that Nita took for granted.
So don’t be judging everything you see…

She got off in the middle of town, across from the big Catholic church, and had a look around. There was a sign there that said
Leabhlair poblachta,
public library. Nita grinned at the sight of it. Finding libraries had never been one of her problems.

The library was two buildings—one older, which had been a schoolhouse once, a big square granite-built building, very solid and dependable-looking, all on one story; and the newer annex, built in the same stone but a slightly more modern style. Nita spent a happy two or three hours there, browsing among the books and augmenting what she found with Internet searches on the library’s computers.

The books by themselves were a revelation. Nita had had no idea there was so much written in the Irish language—so many poems, so many poets; humor, cartoon books, all kinds of neat things. And structurally the language looked, and occasionally sounded, a lot like the Speech in places. But she tried not to be distracted from what she was there for.

She picked out several large books on Irish mythology, and began going through them in hopes of correlating what Tualha had told her with what she had seen in the manual. Mostly she found confirmation for Tualha’s version—the terrible eye of Balor that burnt everything it saw—and many strange tales of the old “gods and goddesses,” the greater and lesser Powers that Be. As usual, the Powers had their jobs divided up. Among many others, there were Govan the smith and beer-brewer, Diancecht the great physician of the gods, and Brigid of the Fires, who was heavily into multitasking as hearth-goddess and beast-goddess, artificer and miracle-worker. And there were bard-gods and carpenter-gods, builders, charioteers, cooks and warriors; a surprisingly widely-distributed community of Powers that had apparently gone sideways to settle together.

There were also tales of the “little people.” Nita had to smile at that. Worldgating, especially the parts of the science that had to do with hyperstring behavior, did odd things to the density and refractive index of air. Something close, seen through air whose structure was disturbed by wizardry, might seem far away, or small. But this was an effect of local optical and hyperdimensional physics, not magic. The “little people” were little only to human perceptions, and only occasionally.

And then there were the stories of the saints. Bridget, for example. When those stories came to Ireland, so many miracles attended the saints that Nita seriously wondered whether what the legends were just new versions of the tales about the Powers, transferred to the saints to make them “respectable” in the new religion. Saint Bridget’s stories in particular were interesting, though there was ongoing confusion (even among nonwizardly scholars) over whether they were happening to the old Goddess in disguise, or the new, mortal saint. Her miracles seemed to be of a friendly, homey sort, more practical than spectacular. She fixed broken things and fed people, and she said that her great wish was that everyone should be in Heaven with God and the angels, and should have a nice meal and a drink.

Nita found a whole lot more pertinent material, and did her best to digest it. Eventually, though, digestion came up to be
seriously
considered, since she hadn’t had any breakfast. It had partly come about due to nerves. When she’d awakened Nita had felt afraid to hang around the farm for long, lest she should look at some common thing and abruptly find herself back in time, or sideways in it.
I’m really no safer here, though,
Nita thought as she stepped out of the library, looking up and down the little road which ran parallel to Bray’s main street. This calm-looking landscape with its brownstone houses ranged across the way, and the truck unloading groceries for the supermarket around the corner, and the people all double-parked on the yellow lines, all this could shift in a moment. Without so much as a second’s warning she might find herself outside the stone age encampment that was here once long ago: or the little row of wattled huts that the Romans came visiting once, and never left—their bones and coins had been found down by Bray Head. Or she might find herself in the middle of the great eighteenth-century spa town that people from Britain had sought out for their vacations, promenading up and down the fine seafront, a second Brighton…

Well, it could happen anywhere, and there’s no escape… so I might as well go get lunch. Nita made her way up to the main street and looked around for somewhere that looked promising. There were some tea shops, but at the moment she felt like she’d already had enough tea for a lifetime. However, near a the bridge that ran over the part of the Dargle River that ran through the town, there was a place with a sign that said AMERICAN STYLE FRIED CHICKEN.
Hmm,
Nita thought, her mouth watering as she made for it,
we’ll see about that.

She went in. As she ordered, she saw a few heads turn among the kids who were sitting there: probably at her accent. She smiled.
You’d be staring a lot harder if you knew what I was really here for…

She got herself a Coke and settled down to wait for her chicken to be ready, gazing idly over at the kids sitting at the other table. They were stealing glances back at her, boys and girls together: a little casual, a little shy, a little hostile… and in that way, they resembled a lot of the kids she knew from school back home. They did dress differently, though. Black seemed to be a big favorite here at the moment, and big heavyish boots. In fact the preferred look in general was decidedly on the punk side: tight torn jeans, or just tight jeans, or very tight short skirts, all black again; and black leather seemed popular. Nita felt a little out of place in her layered V-necks and jeans and little fleece vest, but she grinned back at the other kids and paid attention to her Coke again.

A couple of minutes later, two of them came over to her, and Nita looked up, trying not to look too freaked: this wasn’t a time to let her shyness get the better of her. One of the two locals was a boy, very tall, with very shaggy dark hair, a long nose, dark eyes set very close together, and a big wide mouth that could have been very funny or very cruel depending on the mood of its owner. The girl could have been his twin, except that she was shorter, and her hair was marvelously teased and ratted out into a great black mane. At least, parts of it were black; some were stunningly purple, or pink. She was wearing a khaki T-shirt with a wonderfully torn and beaten-up leather jacket over it: black again, black jeans and those big heavy boots which Nita was becoming rather envious of.

“You a Yank?” said the boy. It wasn’t entirely a question. There was something potentially a little angry on the edge of it.

“Somebody has to be,” Nita said, paying no attention to the potential anger. “Wanna sit down?”

They looked at her and shuffled for a moment. “You staying in town?”

“No, I’m out in Kilquade.”

“Relatives?”

“Yeah. Annie Callahan. She’s my aunt.”

“Woooaaa!” said the boy in a tone of voice that was only slightly mocking and only slightly impressed. “Rich relatives, huh?”

“I don’t know if rich is exactly the right word,” Nita said.

“You here looking for your roots?” the girl said.

Nita looked at her hair, looked at the girl’s. “Still attached to them, as far as I can tell. Though finding them around here doesn’t seem to be a big problem.”

There was a burst of laughter over this. “Come on and sit with us,” the guy said. “I’m Ronan. This is Majella.”

“Sure.”

Nita went with them. She was rapidly introduced to the others, who seemed to alternate between being extremely interested in her, and faintly scornful. The scorn seemed to be because she was an American, because they thought Nita had a lot of money, because they thought Nita thought she was cooler than they were, and because America (they thought) had caused the economic trouble that was making life harder for them and everyone in the world right now. The admiration seemed to be because she was American, because they thought everything was cheaper and better and cooler in America, because they thought she had a lot of money, and because they thought she could download all the movies and music on Earth for practically nothing.

It took a while for them to run down, particularly on that last subject. “Uh,” Nita said finally, “it’s not so much like that. Broadband’s pretty expensive for us. Ours has a cap. And my folks won’t let me download much of anything unless my schoolwork’s really good.”

There was a general groan of agreement over this. “There’s no escape,” said Ronan.

More detailed introductions ensued. Most of the kids lived in Bray. One of them lived as far out as Greystones, but said she took the bus in “for the crack.” Nita blinked until she discovered that they didn’t mean crack, but
craic,
which sounded the same but was a local word for good conversation or a good time. Nita was immediately instructed about all the local clubbing opportunities and “discos,” which turned out to be not mirror-ball-adorned buildings, but dances that various pubs or hotels held at the weekends. “The non-alco ones are good value for money,” said Majella. “And better if you don’t feel like people throwin’ up on your shoes,” said little blond Eva sitting by her. “Depends on the DJ of course,” said Eamonn, who was sitting by Ronan: and immediately the conversation veered into an enthusiastic discussion of what they would wear and who they would go with.

“What about you? You got somebody to step out with?” said Ronan.

“Uh, no,” Nita said, thinking regretfully of Kit. He loved to dance. “My buddy’s back in the States.”

“Oooh, a buddyyyyyy, she’s got a buddyyyyyy!!”

Nita grinned: she was now beyond the blushing point. Her sister had been teasing her about Kit for so long that this was a very minor salvo by comparison, and the cruder kids at her own school had long since run out of anything original to say and had ceased to get on her nerves.

“Aren’t you a little young for that?” Eva said, clearly teasing, to judge by the way Eamonn had started massaging her shoulders.

Nita arched her eyebrows. “Let’s just say that in my part of the world we make up our minds about this kind of thing early.”

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