Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
I whirled around and, sure enough, there it was, just stunted trees and bushes, a little thicket in the middle of all those fields, presumably where the ground was too poor to grow anything. Or maybe around a creek-I braced myself, hoping to hear a splash. Instead, I heard a crack that filled my whole head, along with a piercing pain. The scene went dark for an instant, then came back full of bright little shiny lights. I would have fallen down, but a big rough hand was holding me up by the arm while a voice guffawed, "He is nothing, only a scrap of skin and bone! Here, Heinrich, you try him!
" And I was spinning and staggering across the grass, dazed and amazed to realize I could understand the words, though I knew damned well they weren't English.
Then I slammed into something else meaty and with foul breath. He slammed a fist into my gut. I doubled over, my stomach trying to climb up my throat, and a huge bellow of laughter filled my ears. Then something hard slammed into my bottom, and I heard another nasty laugh. I moved my legs fast, just barely managing to catch up with my top half in time to keep from falling-but behind me, I heard an outraged shout. "It was not your turn, Rudolf! Remember your place!" Then I slammed into another wall of leather and sweat that made an evil laugh and pushed me back far enough so that I could see the fist swinging at me. Reflex finally took over, and I squirmed aside so that the fist hit my shoulder, not my head. It spun me around enough so that I could see Heinrich belting Rudolf one. Rudy went down to his knees and stayed there, rubbing his chin-and behind them, the knight was sitting his horse with his visor up, nodding and laughing. Then another tough snarled, "My turn!" and grabbed me. But another clunk grabbed my other arm and yanked back. I yowled, but I could still hear him bellowing, "Take a lower place, Gustang! I will not be forborne!" And he swung a quick left hook into Gustang's gut.
I couldn't believe it. Not only were they beating up a total stranger, just for fun-they were fighting over me, too, about the pecking order.
But the wrangling had taken just long enough for me to collect a little bit of my wits, and it was the part that held the memory of my karate training. What would I have told my teacher, if he'd been here?
"Sorry, Sensei, I was watching the scenery?" Sure. Time to remember I was a trained killer. I'd never killed anything larger than a mouse, of course, and that was only with a trap-but that didn't change the training.
I spun around, slamming into the guy who had my arm and snaking my leg around his in the process, shoving and kicking back. Down he went, and I spun to the next one, who was so surprised he was slow getting his guard up-only it wasn't a guard, he was just swinging at me, not even trying to block. I ducked and kicked, and he went down.
The other four finally woke up to what I was doing and fell on me with an outraged roar. I sidestepped, ducked, punched, whirled, and kicked, recovered and chopped. The adrenaline was singing, and if I was bruised and groggy, I didn't realize it. Two of them were down, and the other two hesitated, uncertain-at a guess, I decided they weren't used to having their toys play back.
Then the knight shouted and slammed down his visor-obviously time to restore a little order here. His men relaxed, stepping back and leaving it to Papa.
All the outrage I felt boiled up as I saw the Percheron plodding forward and beginning to pick up speed. This was no way to treat a stranger, at least one who hadn't even offered an insult! As the huge beast lumbered into a trot, I shouted, "What are you doing, jumping a stranger just going his way? Are you out of your brains, have you nothing but hay? Do you have any sanity? Any common humanity? You should feel what it's like to be crashed up this way! " The huge horse tripped. It tumbled. It hit the ground hard and rolled. The knight bellowed in alarm, and just managed to kick free at the last instant.
So did his men.
Then somebody hissed, "Zabreur!" and the knight began to kick his arms and legs-he was on his back, trying to turn over.
But he was out of action long enough for me to make some headway against his men. I turned to them, advancing-if I tried to run, it would restore their self-confidence.
But that was very thoroughly shot. They moaned and backed off fast, then turned, stumbling, and started to run.
I stared, thunderstruck. They couldn't be that scared, just because the horse had hit a gopher hole and tripped! Okay, so it was a lucky coincidence that I had just finished yelling something-but that shouldn't have scared them that much.
The knight didn't think so, either. "Hans! Klaus! You worthless, good-for-nothing blobs of dog meat! Come back here and aid me, or I'll ..." Then he caught sight of me limping toward him, frowning, curious, and I guess I must have looked pretty bad, being mussed up with my shirt torn and all, because he moaned and made some sort of sign. "You cannot prevail! My master is an Earl of Evil!
Some force staggered me, making my head ring. He must have thrown something I hadn't seen. Anger surged, and my instinct sent me to kick his head in-but prudence took over at the last second, pointing out that I should get as far away from him as possible, and not add homicide to any other charges the local authorities might dream up against me. This was especially true because he obviously was one of the local authorities. I had laid off smoking grass for similar reasons, and it had apparently paid off, since I hadn't been arrested. I slowed and nodded. "Right. I love you, too, sweetheart. Remind me to return the hospitality some day." Then I turned and went away, walking fast-or as fast as I could; I seemed to have developed a limp.
I glanced back a couple of times, but no one was showing any great interest in following me. That made me curious after a while, so I shinnied up a tree until I had a line of sight back to the little forest we'd been near. I was on the other side of that woods now, but I could see the knight and his boys trudging off toward the castle way up high across the valley. That was both good and badgood, because it meant I had some time to find a hiding place, or get farther away; bad, because it meant they'd apparently decided I was too much to handle and were going back for reinforcements.
Of course they could just be cutting their losses. Maybe they were planning not to mention me to anybody again-but somehow, I doubted that. Might have had something to do with that word somebody'd hissed when the knight went down-"Zabreur." My German was a little rusty, and that probably wasn't real German, anywaybut didn't the word mean "male witch"?
I shinnied back down, turning thoughtful. Chambray and blue jeans probably looked like luxury fabrics, to them-now that I thought about it, their cloth had looked pretty much homemade. And my styles were certainly odd, by their standards. The belt and boots alone would be enough to mark me as above peasant rank, and weird-tooled leather with a huge metal buckle, and high heels. No, from their point of view, I was familiar enough to be real, odd enough
to be special.
I set off uphill again, deciding I'd better stay alert. The
"magician" pose was a good idea-it could help protect me, and I sure didn't have anything else to do the job. Well, no, I had a large clasp knife in my pocket-I like 'em big enough so that "jacknife" seems like an understatement. I decided I'd better use it to help me make something better in the way of a weapon. I stopped off at the next woodlot, hunted around, and found a fallen branch that was still pretty solid. I whittled away twigs as I walked and, pretty soon, I had a serviceable staff.
I'd hung around with some SCA guys and learned a little about quarterstaves from them-but I'd learned a bit more from my sensei. I wasn't an expert, mind you, but I was capable, and it was better than nothing.
I looked around me then, finally letting the scenery sink in, instead of just taking a quick glance to know which way to go. There were rugged mountains in the distance, big hills nearby, with sheep grazing on the slopes and every more-or-less horizontal spot taken up by grain. I couldn't have told you one cereal from another unless it came in a box, but this stuff looked too hairy to be wheat. Finally, it hit-I wasn't in the Midwest any more. In fact, I doubted
I was even in America-and judging from what I'd seen of the locals, I wasn't even it the twentieth century.
Time travel? Space zapping? Impossible! I had to be dreaming. But those punches had sure hurt. A dream, this wasn't. Hallucination?
Possible-but if it were, it would've had to have been the most detailed trip I'd ever heard of, and the most enduring. Besides, I had sworn off all chemical experiences years before.
Again, possible-though I didn't think I'd taken anywhere near enough drugs, ever, to have caused a spontaneous trip to happen, and certainly not one that lasted this long. Still, it was a possibility. I closed my eyes and willed myself back to my apartment. But there were no psychedelic patterns inside my eyelids, only darkness-well, redness; I was standing in sunlight. I groped for my identity symbol, but my hands were empty, except for the staff. In desperation, I put my left hand on my belt buckle and started tracing the patterns of the Native American symbols I could feel there. Nothing happened.
I sighed and gave up, opening my eyes. I was stuck here, wherever
"here" was-and I was going to have to live by the local rules, whatever they were. Denial wouldn't help, and it might be a quick road to disaster. Whether that disaster was psychological or physical was kind of a moot point-it would be very unpleasant, either way. Unless there was some evidence to the contrary-and I couldn't see any-I had to assume that the knight and his bullyboys were genuine not modern people putting on some incomprehensible show.
Those guys couldn't have been SCA members-they weren't polite, they weren't friendly, and their weapons weren't padded. So, somehow, I'd landed in the middle of some sort of medieval culture, from what I could see of it-and if they thought I was a magician, that could explain a few things.
I wondered where I was. I couldn't offhand think of any place on Earth that was still living in the Northern European Middle Ages. Okay, there were some isolated islands where the living was still pretty limited-no TV, even-but so far as I knew, they didn't run to knights.
A medieval fair, being held to attract the tourists? No; you don't beat up on tourists.
I sighed, deciding that I just didn't have enough information to fig
ure out where I was, how I'd been brought there, or why. I shelved it until I could learn more. There were more immediate problems that needed tending to, such as survival.
I set off up-slope. A few hundred yards later, I passed a berry bush-and I was amazed to realize I was hungry. I stopped and stepped closer, inspecting the berries carefully, and decided that I couldn't be all that badly off, if I could still want food. I'd tied in with a local back-to-the-basics group for a year or two, going out on field trips into the countryside to learn how to survive in the wild, or at least without grocery stores; I hadn't quit until they started talking about setting up a commune. So I knew which plants were edible and which weren't, and the all-important rule: if you're not sure it's good to eat, don't touch it. But these looked to be perfectly ordinary raspberries, so I took a chance, and a handful. They tasted good, so I took another handful.
As I was munching, I noticed a very big spiderweb, glowing with the sunlight behind it-in fact, several of them; the neighborhood must have been saturated with flies. The biggest web, though, had an eight-legger the size of a quarter, an exact double for the one that had stung me. Anger rose, and my hand tightened on my staff-but I told myself that it couldn't be the same bug, and I turned away. Bad year for spiders, folks.
The land was still sloping upward. I decided I must be in the foothills of the mountains I'd seen in the distance. After a little while, I came to a woodlot that went on and on. I stayed on the fringe, just this side of the underbrush, and kept a wary eye on it-for all I knew, a dragon might have come charging out any second. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to duck into it quickly, if Sir Overbearing and his boys decided to come hunting, after all. Then, suddenly, the shock hit. I stopped dead still, leaned on my staff, and waited for the feeling of desolation to pass. it didn't.
I lifted my head, looking out over that strange, strange view, and Kullervo's lines from The Kalevala sprang into my mind. I chanted them aloud, hoping the sound would make me feel better:
"And the friendless one reflected, 'Wherefore have I been created?
Who has made me and has doomed me, Thus without a sun to wander Through the starry wastes forever?'
It worked. just the sound of a human voice helped, even if it was my own-and the feeling of kinship, the knoN,Iedge that somebody else had felt this way before, somewhere, somewhen, and that a lot of other people had to have felt the same way, too, to keep that verse alive down the centuries. I wasn't a total oddball, and I wasn't completely alone. Culture can be a great consolation.
Consolation enough to put some spirit back into me. I straightened up, squaring my shoulders, and set off again. Light blossomed-an actinic, piercing light that seemed to lance though my eyes.
I fell back, raising a forearm to protect them. Panic surged through me-the only thing I'd ever heard of that made sudden light like that was a from .
But there was no explosion. Instead, I seemed to hear, very faintly, the sound of a chiming gong-but it could have been imagination.
In fact, it had to be-and so did the strange, vague, anthropomorphic shape at the center of that light burst, where the glare was strongest. As I watched, it coalesced, becoming clearer and more humanlike.
Then I caught my breath. It had turned into the shape of a young man, swallowing up all the light so that it still shone faintly, even though I could see through him. just barely.