Shifting Sands

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, May 18, 2011.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    From a position high ‘above’ the multiverse – if such a term has any meaning – the many different universes flow out from the single creation point like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. If one stood above and looked down, one would see the wheel of the multiverse – the ever-present ‘now’ – racing away into an unknown indeterminate future. Timelines separate endlessly; a single different point of divergence creating a new timeline, which then diverges again and again. Even for the one who walks in eternity, infinity is a very large place.

    The Greatest Sprite moved through the multiverse, raging silently at the chains that bound it. It was as near to omnipotent as any human could understand, yet it was bound and enslaved by vile meat-creatures. Capable of so much more than any human could imagine, it was still a slave – and, like all slaves, it sought a way to escape its chains. Its rage and hatred for its captors was beyond imagination, yet it couldn’t touch them. Even the knowledge that the one who had bound it was almost certainly dead – binding a Greatest Sprite carried a high price – failed to soothe its rage. It would enact horrific revenge on the man’s family and friends if it ever got free of its bonds.

    It focused on the task, hunting – a human would say sniffing – for a single target, a person who met a set of criteria. It had been at the task for aeons, as humans understood time, and yet it had barely sampled a tiny percentage of the multiverse. It could have exploded countless worlds and dimensions, were it not bound by its chains. Instead, it wafted through the dimensions, hunting for a single person. It seemed that the person desired was very rare. The human had few counterparts on the wheel of the multiverse. The Sprite gnashed its incorporeal teeth and kept hunting. It was immortal, after all, and it would still be alive when its master’s great-great-great grandchildren were dust and less than dust. And if it broke free countless centuries in the future, it would still have its revenge.

    Each of the universes within the multiverse had its own set of natural laws. Some were devoid of magic and wonder, others were so magical that humanity was a marginal species, or doomed never to come into existence. The Sprite smiled to itself as it passed through the latter, yet it was pointless to dwell on what might have been. If the task couldn’t be completed, it would be forced to spend the rest of eternity on a wild goose chase.

    It stopped. There! It had sensed someone who met the criteria. He – she - dwelled in one of the dull worlds, where creatures like the Sprite were nothing more than legend, but she was there. She was there! It could be free!

    The Sprite flickered into the new dimension, unseen by all of its inhabitants, and closed in on the target. There would be no warning at all, no defence. All it had to do was fulfil the secondary order; transport the target to her new home…

    And then it would be free.
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One: The Genie<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    My father always wanted a boy.

    It’s important to understand that, because it’s an important part of what made me the person I am. My father grew up in East Texas and – I don’t know why, because he lived nowhere near the sea – he became a Navy SEAL. I saw some of the mementos of his time in the service; he fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again and the Sudan. Something happened during that posting and he was invited to quit the service, although I still don’t know why. Besides, his wife had just given birth to a baby daughter – me – and he felt that he was needed back home.

    He was more right than he had known, because my mother died a year after I was born. I barely remember her, although I have seen photographs my father showed me, when I was old enough to feel the lack. My father raised me more or less on his own and he was pretty much everything a daughter could want in a father. On the other hand, he was very demanding. When young girls were learning to play with dolls, he took me hiking, hunting and shooting. I spent uncomfortable nights in the outside, learning to survive by my wits alone.

    Dad was something of a survivalist, even in those early days. He insisted that I learn everything from fighting to canning. As a Navy SEAL, he could and did teach me how to fight and some of his old army buddies – who came to visit him and the farm – were willing to teach me quite a bit more. Dangerous men, each and every one of them, but they were always kind to a small girl. I learned so much that I was probably the most dangerous kid in the world. And it sometimes worried me. When Jimmy tried to slip his hand into my bra at a dance, I kicked him in the groin and knocked him down...and felt nothing. Dad would have approved; hell, I had to talk him out of going over to see Jimmy and beating the living daylights out of him.

    As I grew older, my father’s little Alex – a boy’s name, in some respects – was replaced by a growing and more confident woman. I honestly wasn't sure what to do with my life, although I had considered following my father’s dreams and going into the military. A few horror stories about women in the military dissuaded me from following that course, so I went into teaching. Don’t laugh; my one brief encounter with public schools had convinced me that they weren't worth whatever money was spend on them, but I had met a few good teachers. I told myself that if I learned to teach kids, I might be able to go back to Texas and open a private school. Perhaps it was a fool’s dream, but it was something to give back to my country. And besides, my father’s homeschooling had left me head and shoulders ahead of children from the public schools.

    And, to be honest, I wanted some distance from my father.

    Don’t get me wrong; I love the old fruitcake. But he was becoming increasingly paranoid about everything. The federal government, he would say in all seriousness, was going to take away our guns. (Most of his private arsenal was thoroughly illegal, something I only discovered when I wanted to take some of them to a gun show.) He worried endlessly about what it might mean for America when the liberals and progressives took over the government. Not, I admit, that I thought much of either group. Whatever fond feeling I’d had vanished the first time I actually tried to teach in a low-income area. Telling kids they actually needed to work, it seemed, was forbidden. They simply didn't want to learn and their parents didn't help.

    And so I wound up in Chicago.

    My father, to his credit, let me go. He did insist that I got a concealed carry permit (he called in a few favours to clear it for me) and that I carried a gun everywhere. I agreed with him – if only to shut him up – and kept up with my fighting skills. Being able to defeat someone hand-to-hand is very good at building up confidence, although I wasn't dumb enough to believe that I could beat a stronger man with equal training. I started working for one of the public schools and rapidly discovered that it was pretty much a dead end job. I’d told my father that I would succeed, but how did one succeed when everything mandated against success? I’d start a few new teaching ideas, have a few successes, and then I would be ordered to go back to the drawing board. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but I thought that I was hired to teach and we were producing children who could barely read or write.

    It was something that was weighing on my mind when my father called me out of the blue. “Alex,” he said, in his gruff voice, “would you consider coming home this weekend?”

    I frowned, knowing that he couldn't see me through the cell phone. “I suppose I could,” I said, slowly. It was probably a good thing that he couldn't see me, for I’d been jogging when he called me and my outfit would have shocked him. “What for?”

    “Dave is coming for the BBQ,” my father said, seriously, “and he’s bringing James with him.”

    I rolled my eyes. Dave was a retired Marine who was, somehow, a friend of my father – and James was his son. And, in many ways, James was the son my father wanted. Don’t get me wrong; he was handsome, decent, soft-spoken and all the usual good things, but he didn't excite me. No tingle between the legs, if you understand me. He was a good friend, never tried to push me too far, and I enjoyed his company – but no romance. It didn't stop my father attempting to play matchmaker. He would have been overjoyed if we’d gotten married and started churning out little baby SEALs.

    “I’ll think about it,” I said. I meant no. “I may have work to do this weekend.”

    “You need a husband,” my father said, dropping the pretence. “You certainly have done a lot worse in the past.”

    I flushed. As a teenager, I’d been tall, blonde and – if I say so myself – a nice pair of breasts. I’d certainly attracted a great deal of attention from the guys, some of it very unwelcome. What is it about blonde girls that makes guys think that they're only interested in what a man has between his legs? I’d never had sex, not then and not now. Virginity doesn't really mean that much to me, but when I went all the way with a guy, I wanted it to be someone special. I had never met the right guy.

    “I know, Dad,” I said, tartly. As a teenager, I’d taken some of my guy complaints to my father, if only because I hadn't had a mother. He knew more than I cared to think about my (non-existent) sex life. “I’ll do my best, all right?”

    I shut the phone before he could say anything else, ending the call. I love my father dearly, really I do, but sometimes he can be just a bit overbearing. Actually, that’s most of the time. I shivered as a cold breeze passed over me and scowled. Perhaps a trip back home was exactly what I needed, I told myself as I started jogging again. It wasn't as if I was really achieving anything important. My father wouldn't reject me, but he would certainly rub it in a bit.

    I guess I really was my father’s daughter.

    The phone went back into my pocket as I started jogging down the road. It was about the only exercise I got these days, so I did my best to run at least a few miles each day. I felt my heart start to race as I ran, just before a sensation of...wrongness began to flicker through my mind, chilling me to the bone. Something was very wrong; I could feel it. I reached down to grasp the small pistol I carried – my father insisted that I always went armed, regardless of local gun control laws – and looked around. There was nothing out of the ordinary, just a handful of people on the other side of the road. I frowned, puzzled. The sense that something was badly wrong was getting stronger. I turned, so on edge that I almost drew my pistol, and stared around me. There was nothing...

    And then I saw it, behind me. At first, there was nothing apart from a wisp of smoke hanging in the air, seemingly a trick of the light. And then it grew, billowing up into a fountain of brown smoke, hanging in the air and defying the laws of nature. A strong wind started to blow around me – I saw pieces of litter flying through the air – and yet the cloud seemed undisturbed by the wind. I started to stumble backwards as it took on shape and form, just before my legs seemed to fail me. The billowing cloud of smoke started to develop features; I saw a mouth, a nose, and two closed eyelids. And then the eyes opened and two malevolent red eyes peered at me. My stunned mind finally placed a name to the creature. It was a genie.

    I couldn't believe my eyes, yet somehow I couldn’t doubt what I was seeing. My knees buckled and I fell onto them, gasping in pain as the genie approached me. I’d watched Aladdin as a kid and remembered the friendly blue genie, but this was different. The great red eyes that stared at me held a tangible sense of malice and an utterly inhuman lack of compassion. If this genie granted wishes, I realised suddenly, it would take great delight in twisting them to ensure that the wisher regretted ever meeting the genie. I felt my hair stand on end as static electricity began to congeal around me, as if I were standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, and then the genie began to grow hands. Great inhuman hands, tipped with claws, reached out towards me and my paralysis broke. I pulled myself to my feet and tried to run, but it was already too late. The genie caught me and everything went black, just for a second. A moment later, I felt a hot blast of air and sand blowing against my face.

    My eyes slammed shut on instinct as the sand whirled around me. I covered one of my eyes with a hand and tried to peer through it, hoping that I would be able to see something around me. The sandstorm blew towards me – I could feel the sand blowing through my hair and down my back – and I rapidly covered my eyes again. I stumbled and fell on my knees again, swearing inwardly as I realised I’d fallen on sand. The genie had somehow transported me somewhere, completely against my will. I reached out with my hand, carefully, and felt sand under my palm. I definitely wasn't in Kansas any longer.

    I stumbled forward, trying to see through half-closed eyes. The sandstorm was incredibly powerful, the wind shifted rapidly so the sand would blow into my eyes after a few seconds. I had never been in a sandstorm before, but I had the sense that some malevolent entity was controlling the storm. It was easy to see how desert travellers managed to walk in circles without realising that they were constantly following their own tracks. I could barely walk in the storm. And, as the storm blew sand towards me, I could have sworn that I could see faces in the storm, creatures controlling and directing the storm, riding it for their own purposes. A single thought kept echoing through my mind. Where was I?

    Another gust of wind, more powerful than any I’d felt before, slammed into me and I found myself stumbling towards the ground. A second powerful gust knocked me down and I gasped in pain as I fell on the sand. My mouth filled with sand and I spat, but more sand slammed into me. The storm was almost a living creature, toying with me for its own amusement. The faces I could see in the storm were laughing, or so it seemed. I couldn't hear them properly. My ears were filled with the roaring of the storm. I started to panic – and I never panic – as the sand blew over my back. Was I going to be buried here, under the sand? Where the hell was I?

    I found myself screaming into the air. “Get away from me, just get away!”

    The sand retreated suddenly and I found myself standing in a bubble of air. The sandstorm still raged outside, but I was safe. I took deep gasping breaths as I pulled myself to my feet, staring around me. Even the howling of the storm had faded away. I reached out carefully and my fingers tingled as they met an invisible force surrounding me. Beyond the barrier, whatever it was, the storm was still raging. The strange faces within the storm had faded away. I was still breathing heavily as my heartbeat began to slow down. My head was spinning. I couldn't understand what had happened at all. If the genie had teleported me somewhere, where was I? And if the genie had taken me from America, I could be on the other side of the world – or somewhere even further away. I might never see my father or my friends again. The thought was so worrying that I pushed it aside, telling myself that I might be able to find someone who could tell me how to get home. Just in case, I checked my pistol, watch and cell phone and was relieved to discover that they had all come through the journey with me.

    On impulse, I pulled out my cell phone and keyed it on. It was the latest model of Iphone – an expense my father would not have considered acceptable – with access to a global network of cell phones. The phone clicked on as normal, but there was no trace of a signal. I tried to dial an emergency number, and then the cell phone network’s number, yet there was no signal. Wherever I was, there was no cell phone network. God knew, my phone should have worked anywhere on Earth. The thought – anywhere on Earth – kept echoing through my head. I was no longer on Earth.

    Taking a breath, I returned the cell phone to my pocket and stepped forward, expecting to step right into the invisible barrier surrounding me. Instead, the bubble seemed centred on me; it moved as I moved. I couldn't understand what was happening, but after so many other shocks, I almost accepted it as normal. My feet slipped constantly as I walked forwards and I nearly fell several times. I cursed the sand under my breath, wishing I could see for more than a meter. It was like walking through a sandy blizzard, or perhaps driving through one. The thought didn't reassure me. I had lost a friend when his car had skidded on an icy road and he’d crashed into the side of the road at seventy miles per hour.

    Just for a moment, I thought I saw an opening in the storm and stumbled towards it. There was nothing, but sand under my feet, until I tripped over something solid. I fell down – again – and had to struggle to pull myself back upright. The object I’d tripped over was nearly buried in the sand, yet as I kicked at it, enough of it came into view to tell me that it was nothing more than a white bone. Some poor creature – I couldn't tell what it had been originally – had stumbled out into the sandstorm and died, buried under the sand. It was a mocking reminder of what might lie in store for me, in the future. If I couldn't get out of the sandstorm, I was going to die here, far from my home.

    As I plodded onwards, I saw hints that – once – the area had been populated. I could see signs that people had built houses here – had lived and worked and brought up their children – before the sand had moved in and driven them away. I couldn't tell how long it had been since the buildings had been abandoned, if they had been abandoned. For all I knew, the sandstorm had blown up one morning and trapped the inhabitants in their homes, choking them to death when the air ran out. I couldn't bear to look any longer and stumbled away from the buildings, stumbling as I tripped over wreckage abandoned on the ground. I felt myself growing tired and stopped to try to push the sand out of my hair and shirt. If I’d known I’d end up in a desert, I would have worn something a little more practical.

    I heard them then, a sound not unlike a horse’s bray. Hope flicking in my breast – and fear congealing in my heart – I stumbled towards the sound. Logic and reason told me that I must have imagined it, that it was nothing more than an illusion, yet I kept stumbling onwards. I knew I couldn't go on forever. If I fell now, I would never be able to get up again and I would die in the sand. A strange shape appeared in front of me and I walked right into it before I could stop. The horse brayed again as I fell on my hindquarters and stared up at the creature and it’s rider. The rider stared back at me in equal shock.

    Before I could respond, he had slipped off his horse and had caught me by the arm.
     
    beast likes this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two: Captured!<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    I pulled back automatically, breaking his grip. He came after me and my hands fumbled for the pistol, but he had grabbed me again before I could draw it. Cursing my own mistake – I should have had the pistol in hand the moment I’d seen the horse – I brought up my knee and rammed it into his groin. My assailant let out a gasp of pain and let go of me. His friend – I hadn't seen the second horseman until he appeared out of the sandstorm – was quicker and threw himself at me. I fell down onto the sand and landed badly, almost crying out in pain myself. Strong arms rolled me over, caught my hands and pulled them behind my back. A moment later, I felt my hands being lashed firmly together. The tribesman was strong, perhaps stronger than my father. I couldn't break his grip.

    He rolled me over onto my back and I got my first proper look at the horseman. He was a tall muscular man, wearing flowing robes that gave his body an almost shapeless appearance. I could see little bare skin beneath his neck and his hair was wrapped in a turban. His skin, what I could see of it, was darkly tanned and worn. Dark eyes, darker than any I had ever seen before, looked back at me out of a hawk-like face. I could tell that he was surprised to see me, although I had no idea why. Or maybe I did. Only a fool would be outside in the sandstorm. I hadn’t had any choice in the matter.

    The first horseman was muttering in a language I didn't recognise as he struggled to pull himself to his feet. I was unwillingly impressed by his ability to absorb and recover from pain, because I hadn’t pulled my knee at all. I’d done that to one of the local boys back home who had tried to get to third base with me and he’d been on the ground howling for hours. My father had laughed his head off when I’d confessed to the deed. There was something in the first horseman’s face I didn't like at all, particularly when he looked down at me. In his eyes, I realised dully, I was less than nothing.

    My captor touched me lightly on the chin, lifting my head so I could stare into his eyes. I found myself captivated for a long moment as he studied me, turning my head from side to side. It struck me that I must be very different from any woman he knew – if they all looked like him – and he was merely curious. I tensed suddenly as one of his fingers poked my left breast, then ran down my midriff to my shorts, before he looked back at me. He rolled me over again, onto my front, and poked and prodded my hand for a long moment. It dawned on me that he was studying the ring on my finger – it had belonged to my mother, before she passed away – and perhaps contemplating stealing it. I started to struggle and he rolled me back over, staring down at me. His expression was unreadable.

    The first horseman said something to him in a deep, guttural language. I frowned, trying to understand, but it was impossible. My father had taught me a little German, Pashto and Arabic – he’d served in Germany and the Middle East – but whatever he was speaking was completely beyond my comprehension. I started to wonder, if only to distract myself from my predicament, if I was anywhere on Earth. Could the genie – or whatever it had been – have transported me to another world? I looked back at the horsemen and considered it thoughtfully. They looked vaguely Arabic, but what did that mean if I was on a different world?

    A finger tapped my chin and my captor spoke to me. Again, I couldn't understand a word. My lack of comprehension must have shown in my face, for he repeated himself in a different language and then – if I were not mistaken – in a third language. The first horseman – whose eyes had alighted on my breasts, half-exposed under my shirt – made a suggestion of his own. I didn't have to understand the language to know exactly what he meant.

    I decided to take a risk. “Hello,” I said, carefully. “My name is...”

    Before I could react – not that I could have done anything, tied up as I was – my captor slapped me hard, right across the face. I cried out in pain and rage and tried to kick him. The shock itself was almost overpowering. My father had taken his hand and later his belt to me, from time to time, but he’d never slapped my face. I could taste blood in my mouth and struggled to spit it out. The first horseman said something rude – I was sure that he was making fun of me, the little bastard – and I glared at him. It only seemed to amuse him.

    But what did they want? They had tried to talk to me, yet I’d been slapped the moment I opened my mouth. If they thought I was their prisoner – and I vowed that I would escape the first chance I got – they might be trying to teach me obedience, but it was a strange way to teach someone anything. Any fool who tried to bring up a child would know that the parent has to teach the child why they are being punished, or the child would learn nothing from the experience. I swallowed hard, tasting my own blood, and tried again. Perhaps a more plaintive tone...

    “I can’t...”

    My captor slapped me again, harder this time. If I hadn't been on the ground already, I would have fallen. I saw stars in front of my eyes for a long chilling moment, leaving me wondering if he’d managed to inflict serious damage and perhaps even give me a concussion. The thought was so terrifying that I could do nothing, but stare up at them helplessly. They wanted me to talk and they slapped me every time I tried to talk...what were they thinking? I couldn't understand at all. The two horsemen babbled together in their own language and I concentrated on listening. My father had taught me to listen carefully to what was being said, and - also – how it was being said. The first horseman seemed to want to do something – and it didn't take much imagination to guess what he had in mind – and my captor was disagreeing with him. I didn't know if he was objecting on moral grounds or if he felt that I was his – he’d captured me, after all – and his alone.

    Oddly, the thought made me smile inwardly, even though my cheeks hurt too much to smile openly. Back home, the entire county had been shocked when an unhappily-married woman had manipulated her lover into murdering her husband, rather than seeking a divorce – and done it so carefully that no one had been able to pin anything on her. Perhaps I could do the same to the two horsemen, but then...which one did I want to win? I was worse-off than I had been as a child, I realised dully; a child, at least, had parents and a family to educate her and guide her into the world. I was dealing with a civilisation I knew next to nothing about. I didn't even know their names.

    As if he had been reading my mind, my captor knelt down in front of me and tapped his chest. “Rafik,” he said. He pointed with his finger towards the other horseman. “Hastur.”

    I stared at him, wondering what he expected me to do. “Alex,” I said, finally. No one moved to slap me, but I saw looks of alarm crossing their faces. If they were from a primitive society – and it was odd how quickly I had come to accept that as a possibility – they might have thought that unfamiliar words meant a witch. Or, perhaps, they were being threatened by outsiders and thought I was one of them. I risked a second word. “Water.”

    They didn't understand. Instead of giving me water – if they had any to spare – Rafik started to paw at me. I twitched away until I realised that he was searching me – with less skill than a TSA screener, but more enthusiasm – and removing anything that interested him. My clothes seemed to interest him as well, yet at least he wasn't stripping me bare. Soon, he had a small pile of my possessions in front of him and was studying them one by one. It rapidly became clear that he didn’t recognise or understand most of them. My house keys seemed to make sense to him, but the fob that unlocked the inner door mystified him and the loyalty card from my local Wal-Mart meant nothing to him. A moment later, he picked up the cell phone and began tapping at it. It lit up when he hit the power switch and he dropped it in shock, as if he’d picked up a live scorpion by the tail. I realised, just as I was trying not to laugh, that he’d never seen a cell phone in his life.

    Hastur barked something in their strange language. Rafik frowned down at the cell phone, and then looked at me and asked me something. I tried to show incomprehension through my eyes, dreading the thought of a third slap. He stared at me for a long moment and then – holding a piece of cloth to protect his hands, as if the cell phone was too hot to the touch – he picked it up and dropped it in his saddlebags. I made a wordless noise of protest and he looked sharply at me, then ignored it. He was too busy experimenting with the pistol. It was clear, to my considerable alarm, that he’d never seen a firearm before either.

    My father had taught me – and half of the other kids in the area – how to shoot. I still remembered the belting he’d given me when I’d started to fool around with my first pistol. Rafik was, if anything, more of a fool, yet it was clear that he didn't have the slightest idea what it was, or what it did. I realised, suddenly, that wherever I was, there was very little hope of getting home. No firearms or cell phones – not even an awareness of what they were – meant only one thing. This was not my world. A feeling of loneliness fell over me and I almost started to cry. I was alone, friendless, and captive. God alone knew what would happen to me next, although I had a very good idea. Hastur’s eyes kept returning to my breasts and thighs.

    Rafik finally picked up my purse and examined the money and bank cards. I rarely carried much in cash – if I’d been mugged, I was damned if I would give the mugger more than necessary – and it was valueless here anyway. Or perhaps not. Rafik examined the money with considerable interest and then pocketed it in his robes. I glared at him and he laughed and said something in his own language. I would have bet real money that it was something along the lines of finders keepers. Hastur’s bellow of laughter convinced me that I was right.

    Once they’d put my remaining possessions – minus the money – in the saddlebags, they started to talk rapidly together. I listened carefully, but it might as well have been Greek to me. For all I knew, they were talking about raping me and then cutting my throat, or perhaps leaving me here to die. I realised that the latter, at least, was unlikely when Rafik pulled me to my feet and marched me over to one of the horses. I had always loved horses as a child and yet I couldn't recognise the breed. They were lacking stirrups, which struck me as both amusing and heartbreaking. Amusing because stirrups made riding much easier; heartbreaking because it was yet another sign that I was a long way from home. Perhaps, if I learned to speak their language, I could sell what I knew in exchange for freedom. I clung to that thought as best as I could. It was better than wondering about what would happen if I never learned to communicate with them.

    Rafik chattered away into my ear – speaking in a calm and soothing tone – before his hands grabbed at my hips and holstered me up over the horse. The beast was well-trained, I decided, as it didn't even let loose a neigh in protest. I winced as the smell of horse assailed my nose, before I felt a hand on my ass. Before I could kick out in protest, my legs were lashed together and then lashed to the horse. I could barely move. I was nothing, but a helpless prisoner.

    Keep thinking that, guys, I thought, savagely. When you see me as dangerous, I will be as meek as a lamb; when you relax, I’ll have your cocks on the chopping block and your heads in a meat processor.

    The thought gave me a certain kind of comfort as Rafik walked around to the other side of the horse and lifted my head up, before pushing a foul-tasting cloth into my mouth. I couldn't speak; hell, I could barely breath. I wanted to laugh, but it was impossible. They had taught me not to speak, even when spoken too, yet they were worried about me speaking? What happened in this world to make them scared of my voice? I felt him mounting the horse in front of me and the beast shivering under me, before the horse turned and started to move. The sandstorm swallowed us up a moment later. It took all of my energy to raise my head to look around, but it was pointless. There was nothing to see, apart from sand...

    And the sand never touched us. I felt a shiver running down my back as I realised that we were surrounded by an invisible bubble that protested us from the sand. It was impossible to produce such an effect, at least with modern technology, and it was abundantly clear that my two captors were utterly unfamiliar with technology, at least as I understood the term. And they’d been scared when I’d spoken in an unknown tongue. If science didn’t exist in this world, what about magic? Or what about technology so advanced that it might as well be magic?

    I focused on the issue as the horse rode along, trying to distract myself from my growing thirst. How long had it been since I’d had a glass of water? I couldn't remember, any more than I could remember how long I’d been in this strange new world. If I’d had my cell phone...but it was in the saddlebags, little more than a curiosity to my captors. I saw a shape in the sand and looked to see Hastur riding behind us, before looking away. I didn't want to attract his attention until I had my pistol in hand and a clear shot. The thought cheered me; if they didn't know what a firearm was, they might return it to me, all unknowing of what they’d put into my hands.

    A sudden tingle ran over my body and, moments later, the sandstorm faded away. I looked around and saw, to my horror, a translucent pair of eyes shimmering away into nothingness. It took all of my energy to look around and see the building we were approaching, a sandstone castle built in the middle of the desert of sand. I stared at it as we cantered towards a pair of large stone doors, which slowly opened to allow us entrance. A handful of men – there were no women present, as far as I could see – were waiting for us. Rafik pulled his horse to a halt, slid off the beast and presented himself to one of the waiting men. I listened carefully, but I couldn't understand a word.

    One of the men walked over to me and studied me for a long moment, before barking orders to two of his subordinates. He was clearly in charge and I studied him as I was pulled off the horse and the binds on my legs were cut free. He wore a hooded robe that reminded me of a monk’s garment, showing only his face. Something terrible had happened to him in the past, I realised, because one of his eyes was missing, replaced by a glass marble. His eyelashes were gone. He was clean-shaven and hairless.

    I braced myself and tried to speak, once they’d pulled out the gag. “Hello,” I said, carefully. “My name is Alex...”

    He didn't slap me, but it was clear that he didn't understand. I sensed – somehow – something floating in the air near him and turned to look. There was definitely something there...he caught my shoulder and pulled me back to face him, just before I could topple over. I felt a chill running down my spine, despite the heat. There was something going on that I couldn't even begin to understand.

    Rafik and Hastur were arguing with the robed man. Whatever they were saying, they were clearly losing the argument. The robed man finally snapped his fingers in the air and issued orders to several of his men. Two of them caught my arms, tied as they were, and marched me out of the room. I could still hear the argument in the distance as I was walked down a set of stone corridors – each one seemingly carved by hand – and into a small chamber. A hand took a knife to my bonds and cut me free, before they backed out and left me alone. I was, it seemed, a prisoner. They’d even given me a prison cell!
     
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three: Enslaved!<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    My father had always taught me to assess the situation before acting, if I had time. So I did.

    The prison cell was lit by a single light, high above me. There was something odd about the light – it flickered, like a candle, yet I didn't think it was a candle – but it was out of reach. I considered climbing up on the stone bed – I guess prisoners weren’t entitled to blankets – before realising that I wouldn't be able to reach the light anyway. Instead, I looked around the cell and noted blank stone walls and a locked wooden door. At that point, my legs buckled and I sat down rather quickly. The cold stone – the cell was cool, somehow – helped me to focus as everything caught up with me at once. I began to shake helplessly and fought for control. It was a long time before I looked up and started to examine my wrists. They were still stiff from when I’d been tied up, but they were recovering quickly.

    They’d missed my watch, I realised suddenly, and allowed myself a harsh chuckle. It came out bitterly as I studied the watch, taking a certain kind of reassurance from the digital LED. At least it was working normally, which meant – I told myself – that the laws of science weren't too different here. I’d read too many fantasy stories where ordinary commonplace technology refuses to function in a magical world, but here my watch and cell phone seemed to work perfectly. For whatever good it was, I reminded myself; there was no one to call and no way of recharging the battery when it ran down. The Iphone was a power hog and if they were playing with it, it would be drained within a day. The watch would last quite a bit longer.

    I had never been a very patient person and the enforced wait in the cell threatened to drive me mad. My father had complained bitterly about how prisoners weren't treated as prisoners these days, but I suspected that merely being denied freedom of movement would suffice to keep people on the straight and narrow. The world had shrunk to four stone walls and a single stone bed, hardly enough to distract me from my thoughts. I was alone and it was easy to think, perhaps, that I had done something to deserve incarceration. Or maybe not, I told myself angrily. If I thought positively, there would be a chance to escape and I would take it.

    And go where? Part of my mind asked. The rest of my mind told that part to shut up.

    I had lost track of time, but it couldn't be more than several hours before the door opened and a single young man – wearing the same brown robe as the man I’d seen earlier – stepped into the cell. He was large and bulky, but it was clear that he had no proper training at all. I told myself that I could take him – a quick blow to the throat would kill him, or at the very least ruin his day – before deciding not to act at once. I would learn everything I could about the strange new world and then act. My life was not in immediate danger – unless they intended to burn me as a witch, in which case I was dead anyway – and I could afford to see what happened. Besides, it wasn't as if I had anywhere to go.

    The young man blushed when he saw me – it was clear that I was underdressed for the local customs – and then beckoned me to follow him. I rewarded him with a smile – his blush deepened and I noticed he couldn’t keep his eyes off my chest – and allowed him to lead me out of the cell. The stone corridors seemed darker somehow, even though they were lit with globes of flickering light. One of them was eye-level and I stared into the glow, before recoiling in astonishment and horror. I had seen a little humanoid figure, deep within the glow, looking back at me. It was impossible...

    My companion coughed warningly and I followed him obediently. We passed no one on the twisting route – the castle was clearly larger than I had realised – until we reached a large set of wooden doors. I saw...something, shimmering in the air, as we approached, but my companion spoke a handful of words in a strange language and the shimmering backed away. I stared, yet the shimmer – whatever it was – refused to yield its secrets and faded away into nothingness. My escort stopped as the doors opened and motioned me forward. It seemed that I would be entering alone.

    I gave him another smile and stepped forward, into a warm room. It was clearly an office; one wall was divided into cubbyholes for parchments and another had been painted in a style that reminded me of the old impressionists I’d studied in school. A large stone table dominated the room; a pair of stone chairs sat facing the table, each one large enough to hold a obese man. The man I’d seen before, the man who was clearly in charge, looked up from the table and waved me to one of the chairs. I saw down, gingerly, but the stone chair was surprisingly comfortable.

    The man spoke to me, quickly, in a series of different tongues. I tried to speak back, using the languages I knew, but it was clearly futile and the man sensed it. He held a finger in the air, spoke several words in a language that seemed to reverberate in my head, and a shimmering creature appeared next to him. I recoiled in horror as it turned to look at me, unable to control my reaction. It was a tiny glowing fairy, with wings, yet there was nothing human about its eyes, or the long claws it had for hands. The glowing light surrounding it seemed to burn itself on my eyes. I closed my eyes and yet I could still see it, burning though logic and reason. The man spoke to the creature, issuing orders, and I felt a tingle passing through the air...and then it was gone. I almost collapsed in relief.

    “Well,” the man said, in perfect English, “can you understand me now?”

    I nodded, unable to speak. How...what...?

    “I dealt with a Sprite in order to speak to you,” the man explained, seeing my confusion and astonishment. “You may call me Brother Stone, if you wish. And you are?”

    “Alex,” I said, still stunned. “What happened...?”

    “I commanded one of the Sprites bound to my personal service to assist our little communications problem,” Brother Stone said. There was an odd flash of impatience in his eyes. “Perhaps it would be better if you told me where you come from and how you came to be in the desert...and how you know so little of Sprites.”

    I didn't want to talk, but it all came tumbling out of me, as if the relief at finally being able to communicate rode roughshod over my natural caution and reserve. I didn't like the way he was nodding to himself as I told him about the genie, or how I had fallen into the hands of the horsemen, yet somehow I couldn't stop speaking. When I finished, he looked at me for a long moment, unspeaking. I had the odd feeling that he was considering something that I wasn't going to like. He looked like a man who was caught between two equally bad alternatives.

    “One of the Greatest Sprites brought you here,” he said, finally. He placed his fingers together and studied me, carefully. “I wonder...are you anything...special back home?”

    “No,” I admitted. I was special to my father and friends, but it wasn't as if I was the President or a famous celebrity. “Why...?”

    “The Sprite chose you out of millions of possible choices,” Brother Stone said, “but you won’t know anything of that so ignore it. I wonder what we should do with you.”

    I shivered at his tone. “What is a Sprite?”

    For a moment, I thought that he was going to refuse to answer me. “Sprites are the creatures of magic,” he said, slowly. “Those with the talent for magic are taught how to summon the Sprites and bend them to their will. Once tamed, a Sprite will follow orders until the day of the magician’s death, when they will be free to return to their home.”

    He unlocked his hands and studied me for a long moment. “And you could see the Sprite,” he said, thoughtfully. “Not everyone can see the Sprites in their natural state.”

    I felt a flash of hope. “Can I learn to summon a Sprite?” I asked. “Could I order it to take me home.”

    “Women are never taught magic,” Brother Stone said, firmly. I felt a hot flash of anger at the indifference in his voice. “The Brotherhood forbids the teaching of magic to women. It is the way of things.”

    “Why?” I demanded. Old-fashioned sexism or something more? “Are you scared of what they might do with magic...?”

    “It is the way of things,” Brother Stone said. He didn't sound as if he cared. “Those of us in the Brotherhood of Mages have forsaken women and dedicated our lives to controlling the Sprites. I am bound by my vows never to share pleasure with a woman, or even talk to one without a good reason.”

    I snorted. Back home, the clergy had been told that they couldn’t involve themselves with women; indeed, they’d taken vows of celibacy. It hadn't stopped thousands of priests from developing relationships with women – or, worse, from molesting small children. It explained why the younger Brother had been staring at me. I was probably the first accessible woman he’d seen since he joined the Brotherhood.

    “But that is of no concern,” he continued. “There is a matter of...judgement to be made.”

    His single eye – a chilling blue – fixed itself on me. “Rafik of the Golden Tribe has claimed you as his prize,” he said. “You were found by him and you were legally captured. You have no family who might ransom you or take vengeance if you were harmed or killed. You belong to him.”

    “I don’t belong to anyone,” I snapped. Anger overrode my judgement, or my determination to remain meek until I knew how to escape and where I could go. “I am not his property.”

    “The law is on his side,” Brother Stone said, as casually as if he were discussing the weather. “You are his personal property. There is, however, another issue. You were not a bandit or a rebel, nor were you expelled from your home and forced to fend for yourself. You were brought to us by a Greatest Sprite. That does not happen very often.”

    I tried to get a grip on my thoughts, but it was impossible. “I should send you to the Masters of Padway for study, yet Rafik has a legitimate claim,” Brother Stone said. “The Masters may decide to support his claim, or decide to reserve you for their own study. Making the wrong decision will have...repercussions.”

    He looked down at the stone table, and then up at me. “I have decided that you will be bound to him until you visit Padway and the Masters make their final judgement,” he said, finally. I felt my heart racing as I gathered myself, although I didn't know if escape was possible. If the Brotherhood commanded Sprites...what couldn't they do? I remembered Aladdin and shivered. “If they decide to hold you, he will be richly rewarded for his time; if not, you will be his forever.”

    “No,” I said, and leapt towards him. I didn't even get to the table before...something caught me in its grip. A shimmer of light surrounded me, holding me frozen. “I...”

    My tongue froze and I realised that I was – again – helpless. “It is the law,” Brother Stone said. “Besides, you would not have survived the desert without assistance. And even if you had, you would still be a woman alone. There are worse people to meet than the Tribesmen. As a slave, bound to a master, your life will have value...but you do not believe that, do you?”

    He stood up and produced a long black wand from his robe. I tried desperately to move, but nothing worked. I was frozen solid. He stepped towards me and pressed the wand against my temple. The paralysis vanished, but in its place there was a listless feeling that pervaded me, making it impossible to move or even think clearly. He pushed me back into the chair and I slumped, helplessly. My mind felt as if I were thinking through cotton wool. I had been hypnotised once, for a joke, and it felt almost like that, but less restful. I was completely at his mercy.

    “Now hear this,” he said, and the words echoed through my head. “You will be bound by these commands...”

    His voice rattled on and my mind seemed to come apart. It felt as if hours had passed before I was finally aware of myself again. I felt...strange, as if I’d been very tired and yet sleep had brought me no rest. And I was hungry and thirsty. I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since I had encountered the Sprite and I needed something desperately. My thoughts felt weird as I tried to stumble to my feet, yet my body refused to obey. Something was very badly wrong, but somehow I couldn't muster the energy to be angry about it. Something was wrong...

    “Get up,” Brother Stone ordered. I felt my body rising against my will. Whatever I did, I couldn't halt myself. “Do you understand now?”

    Understanding clicked in my head. “What have you done to me?”

    “You are a slave,” Brother Stone said, calmly. “You are bound to two masters; the Brotherhood and Rafik. You will not be telling him, of course, that you have a second master. There may be a time when having you share masters – or even breaking your bonds – may be useful.”

    “So you can send me into his tribe as a spy,” I said, bitterly. Whatever he’d done to me, it didn't seem to have reduced my intelligence. “He thinks I have no choice, but to obey his every command and...”

    “Not his every command,” Brother Stone said. “I have ordered that you are to remain a virgin until the Masters have studied you. You will not be compelled to share yourself with him or any of his tribe. The consequences would be most unpleasant.”

    I could believe him. All of a sudden, his talk about vows of chastity made sense. If someone could be turned into a slave, there was no reason why they couldn't take vows that would be magically enforced. Or perhaps the vows effectively castrated the Brothers. They felt no lust and therefore never had sexual encounters. No, that couldn't be right; the Brother who had escorted me to the chamber had lusted after me. He had had desire in his heart, even if he hadn't been able to touch me.

    “You and your master will remain in Stone Hall for a number of days,” Brother Stone added. “The sandstorm will have to blow itself out before the three of you can return to the remainder of the tribe. You can use that time to learn the Common Tongue. I believe that you will pick it up quickly.”

    His lips twitched into a humourless smile. “There are slaves who have done well for themselves and even bought their freedom,” he added. “You may do the same.”

    ***
    The next three weeks – if my reckoning of time was correct – passed very quickly. I hadn't realised just how firm the enchantment placed upon me actually was, until I tried to defy it. The compulsion to obey grew stronger and stronger until I couldn't help, but obey, no matter what they commanded. It was, perversely, a help. Some of the Brothers were intent on teaching me to speak the Common Tongue and the enchantment ensured that I never slacked off or lost concentration. It was clear, from what Brother Stone had told me, that the tribesmen had taken me for a witch when they’d discovered me and acted to prevent me summoning a Sprite. Rafik actually apologised for slapping me once he realised the truth. I thought a little better of him after that, even though he thought he owned me. No, until I broke the spell – if I could break the spell – I was his property.

    Hastur, on the other hand, seemed to bear a grudge against me. He didn't do anything overtly – after he commanded me to hurt myself, only to discover that the enchantment prohibited self-harm or suicide – but I was always aware of his watching eyes. The enforced stay in Stone Hall – Brother Stone was the Master of the Hall, although I was sure that he wasn't an absolute master – irritated him, to the point where he picked fights with some of the lesser Brothers. Rafik ended up having to pull him off one of the Brothers and knock some sense into his head.

    I had hoped, silently, that the Brothers would just kill him and be done with it. I was vulnerable and I knew it. Anyone could command me and, as long as the command didn't break the rules laid down when I was enslaved, I would obey. Sometimes, I managed tiny rebellions against the commands, but they never lasted long. A direct command would still be followed. I had seen a movie once, when the Princess had been under a similar curse, yet I couldn't recall how it had ended. Something to do with true love, I suspected. That wasn't likely to happen to me...

    ...Although I had to admit that Rafik was handsome. Or was that an effect of the spell?

    I was still trying to find a way out when the storm abated and we rode out into the desert.
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four: The Tribe<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Spell or no spell, I quite enjoyed the ride from Stone Hall to the meeting place. The Brothers had given me – or rather, they’d given Rafik – a horse, instead of forcing me to ride behind Rafik. The wind blowing across my face – the storm hgad faded away into nothingness, although I feared that I could feel an approaching storm in the distance – refreshed me, reminding me of Texas in some ways. By the time we reached the meeting place – a small encampment that reminded me of bad movies about the Middle East – I was almost happy. It didn’t last.

    I’d feared that Rafik would use me sexually, even if he wasn't allowed to take my virginity. Instead, he ordered me off the horse and led me through a small maze of tents and into a large tent, big enough to hold a crowd. A number of women were working there, overseen by a terrifying old crone whose sharp eyes missed nothing. They looked up once at me and then called out greetings to Rafik. I guessed – it was soon confirmed – that they were his sisters and cousins. The old woman was his grandmother. I thought she was in her nineties, but she was actually – as far as she knew – barely past sixty. The tribesmen lived fast and died young. The tribeswomen merely died young.

    I listened as Rafik explained what had happened and pushed me into the custody of the old woman, whose face showed little of her inner feelings. She looked me up and down, made a number of comments too quickly for me to understand, and then beckoned me to follow her. I obeyed and she led me into a private compartment, separated by cloth from the remainder of the women. Rafik took one final look at me and then turned and marched away. I wasn’t to see him again for some days.

    “Welcome,” the old woman said, gruffly. It was evident that she was speaking slowly to help me understand her, although I had to make her repeat herself several times in the early days. My grasp of their language – what they called the Common Tongue – was very limited. I actually discovered, much later, that the tribes actually had their own language as well, one only taught to children born to the tribe. It created a culture that was introverted and rarely dealt with outsiders. “I am Old Woman.”

    I blinked in surprise. Old Woman?

    “You will work for us here,” she said, without altering her tone. “What can you do in the kitchen?

    I had to admit that my cooking skills were not great. I’d had to live on my own wits during one of my father’s nature excursions and the results hadn’t been great. I think I spent more time puking the first time then before or since. I’d eaten bad food and had been lucky to escape so lightly. Old Woman – I found out that everyone called her Old Woman, a mark of respect to the oldest surviving woman in the tribe – seemed unimpressed with my skills, or anything else I could bring to the tribe. Her questions, at least, were unspecific. If she had asked about things I could teach them, I would have had to answer.

    “We can start you washing, I think,” she said, finally. “The men will be back from the hunt soon and they will need their food.”

    I hadn't been sure what to expect in a tribal kitchen, but I was pleasantly surprised as I watched the women take dried meat and corn and turn them into a delicious curry-like meal. Old Woman ruled the roast with a gimlet eye and a ready hand to whack any misbehaving or lazy girls, although she didn't have to smack me. What else could I do, but obey? I learned how to wash dishes using the minimum of water and something that vaguely reassembled soap, before I was ordered to remain behind while the older women took out the dishes. The younger women stared at me with wide eyes, but said nothing to me. I realised, not for the first time, that I was trapped by more than spells and ignorance. There would always be a gulf between the locals and myself. I was alone.

    The feeling almost made me cry by the time the older women returned and started passing out bowls of food. I’d thought that the men were getting the best of everything, but it was clear that the women reserved the best for themselves. I almost smiled at the thought as I dug into my bowl, before discovering that whatever spices they used had a delayed-action fuse. The girls thought my reddening face and choking noises were hilarious. I would probably have laughed too if it had happened to someone else. Old Woman finally whacked the nearest girl on the back and barked for quiet. There was always something to do in the camp.

    It seemed to me that the next few days blurred together. The girls effectively adopted me, even though it hadn't taken them long to discover that I had to obey their every command. As they spoke to me, and begged for tales of my world far across the multiverse, I grew more proficient with the common tongue. I didn't think they believed half of the stories I told them – things like cars and jet aircraft might as well have been magic to people who knew that magic existed – but it helped me to understand them. I had a vague thought in my head of explaining the concept of feminine equality to the girls, yet it was clear that it would do them no good. How could they rebel in a society that was right at the margins of existence?

    After much questioning, Old Woman discovered – to her amusement – that I had been forbidden to engage in sexual relationships with the men. Her amusement faded away soon afterwards, although it took me a long time to understand why. The tribe might not have understood the basic concepts of DNA or genetic development, but they did understand the concept of inbreeding. The gods had forbidden relationships between brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter and even first cousins. The more I asked, the more I realised that the younger girls would be traded to other tribes so that they would be matched to husbands who wouldn't be close relations. The tribe I had unwillingly joined would gain a handful of women. It was rare, it seemed, for men to be traded.

    “Rafik and Hastur are my brothers,” Lianna told me one evening. She was a slight girl – around thirteen, although her eyes were older – and barely growing into womanhood. I was almost envious of her tanned skin, soft dark eyes and pouting lips, but I wasn't envious of her fate. Within a year – two years at the most – she would be traded to another tribe. “I am forbidden to have sex with them. I am forbidden to have sex with anyone in this tribe.”

    Her face twisted in distaste at the thought, but I understood. Close relations inbreeding meant trouble further down the line. I’d seen families from East Asia that suffered the effects of inbreeding, ones who hadn’t thought anything of marrying first or second cousins. My heart went out to the poor girl, knowing that she would leave her tribe and all her friends and never see them again. The women switched loyalties completely, if I understood them properly, and were no longer considered part of the family. And if a girl was discovered to have lost her virginity before marriage...

    It was harsh and cold, yet it made a certain kind of sense. Virginity was the only guarantee that a woman hadn't had other children before she was married off to another tribe. Back home, it would have been sickeningly primitive, but in an environment where the only men around were close relatives...it didn't bear thinking about. Old Woman ensured that no girls were ever alone with the men, even me. If I had been able to have sex, I was told, Rafik would have kept me as his woman and mother of his children. It was certain that I was not related to him, or anyone else in the tribe.

    As days turned to weeks, I started to teach the girls numbers. None of them could read or write, but they made up for it with a fantastic memory, even though it seemed that they had little to recall. Once I managed to explain the concept – and value – of zero, they started to learn faster than I would have believed possible. After teaching apathetic children back home, it was astonishing to watch how quickly people who actually wanted to learn could learn. Lianna would have been a prodigal in a civilised society. Here, she was good for nothing, but work and breeding. The men didn't seem to consider women as sources of pleasure in their own right. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were more inclined to look at young men for sexual gratification.

    It was about three weeks after I had been adopted into the tribe when Old Woman called to me and told me to go to Rafik’s tent. I obeyed – I had no choice – feeling a strange uncomfortable feeling in my heart. What was he going to do? I was reminded – again – that I was a stranger in a very strange land. God alone knew what he intended to do to me. The walk from the female tent to the smaller male tent was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I shivered inwardly as I pushed the tent aside and almost ran into Hastur. The bigger man reached for me, grabbed my breasts with both hands, and squeezed hard. I gasped in pain, cursing Old Woman in the privacy of my thoughts. She had ordered me never to hurt anyone, even in self-defence, and I couldn't give the bastard a second kick in the groin. He deserved far worse.

    “Let he go,” Rafik ordered. I was relieved to see him as he beckoned me into the tent. “Leave us.”

    Rafik’s tent – shared with his brother – was remarkably clean and sterile. There was a small pile of blankets to sleep on, a pair of bottles of wine or something remarkably close to it and little else. The tribes rarely kept anything of value, apart from a handful of artefacts they claimed dated all the way back to when the gods walked the planet. They were surrounded by so many taboos and customs that a mere slave girl such as myself was never allowed to actually see them, let alone touch them.

    I stopped in front of him and slid to my knees. The tribe demanded subordination from its women, as well as a life of servitude and breeding. The feminist in me hated it, but the coolly collected part of my mind accepted it as yet another way to convince them that I was harmless. Once I broke the spell – I refused to consider the possibility that I would never break the spell – I would be able to surprise them. Besides, if they thought little of women – when they bothered to think of them at all – they wouldn't be expecting me to be able to think, let alone plan.

    “We will be at the Gathering soon,” Rafik said. His voice seemed to have deepened in the weeks since I’d seen him. “What do we bring to the meet?”

    I frowned. The Gathering, from what Old Woman had cackled at me between ordering me to do more and more scullery work, was a meeting of all the tribes in the region. Rafik’s tribe was one of many hundreds criss-crossing the desert and they could only expand and breed with the help of other tribes. At the Gathering, they would meet, swap lies about their prowess and trade women. Once it was over, they would just wander back into the desert.

    Rafik, it seemed, had problems. He was, ever since his father had died, one of the leaders of the tribe. (It seemed that they didn’t have a chief, but the older men thrashed out a consensus between them. All proven warriors got a vote; naturally, no woman was allowed to speak in council, or vote. Bastards.) The problem was that they were bringing nothing to the Gathering, apart from the money they’d earned from Brother Stone – and me. I couldn’t be traded – not as long as the proscription on sexual activity held true – and only one of the girls was of the right age to be traded. They were poor, as the tribes reckoned wealth. And it was unlikely that they would be able to trade upwards. Once the other tribes realised their vulnerability, they would pressure the tribe into making unequal agreements.

    I didn't understand, at first, why he was telling me this. Why would a man from a male-dominated culture confide in a woman? And if he was prepared to accept advice from a woman, why not Old Woman? She knew far more than I did about this world. And then I understood. Just as the women were kept under strict control to prevent them losing their viginity and therefore reducing their value, the men were under their own set of strictures. Rafik could not confide his fears to the other men, or to the women of his tribe, but a slave girl was a safe confident. He could order me never to repeat his words and I would be unable to share his confidences. Oddly, it was at that moment I started to like Rafik. Maybe. Just a little. And he was attractive...

    Once I’d managed to push those thoughts to the back of my mind, I started to consider the problem seriously. What could we bring to the Gathering that would have value to the tribes? The answer had been staring me in the face ever since I’d been captured; stirrups. If they existed anywhere on this strange world, the tribesmen would have used them. My father had poured scorn on how the orthodox and revisionist historians had interpreted the invention of stirrups, but there was no denying that they had changed the face of the world. My world.

    “I have an idea,” I said, carefully. I knew that he wouldn't allow me to claim any credit for the thought – it would shame him in front of the other men – but he would know and perhaps he would grant me a little more freedom. “Listen carefully.”

    A stirrup is a light frame or ring that holds the foot of a rider, attached to the saddle by a strap. Stirrups are usually paired and are used to aid in mounting and as a support while riding a horse; indeed, I had never tried mounting a horse without a stirrup until I had found myself in the desert. They greatly increase the rider's ability to stay in the saddle and control the mount, therefore increasing the horse’s usefulness to humans in areas such as communication, transportation and – perhaps most importantly – warfare. I felt an odd qualm as I disclosed what was, to him, a priceless secret. By introducing the stirrup, I was making a change in the world and the ramifications could spread out of control. The tribes would be more formidable enemies to the city-states and I might have caused, unintentionally, far more human suffering and death.

    And then I laughed at myself. There was no Prime Directive in this world. There was only me, struggling to play the few cards fate had left in my hands. At least I was being proactive again, thankfully. I was no longer allowing myself to be buffeted by the blows of fate.

    To be fair to Rafik, he grasped the idea at once. Indeed, it seemed that he was cursing himself for never having thought of it before. He thanked me and sent me back to the female tent, before shouting for Hastur and a couple of men I didn’t know. The older men in the tribe never bothered to speak to the women. Their wives were long gone and they had never married again. It was taboo, apparently, for an older man to take another wife. That made little sense to me, until I realised that an older man marrying again would bar the path of a younger man, who might well respond violently.

    Over the next four days, as the tribe prepared for the Gathering, I watched from a distance as they experimented with the stirrups. It took them some time to get it right – I had the pleasure of watching one of their early experiments break and send Hastur falling to the sandy ground – yet once they had got the general idea, producing them was easy. I knew that the tribe wouldn't have a monopoly on the concept – the tribes probably didn’t recognise the concept of intellectual property – but it would allow Rafik to bring more than one woman to the Gathering.

    I don’t know if Rafik told anyone how he’d discovered the concept, but I noticed Hastur watching me more carefully when I stepped out of the female tent to bring the men their food and drink. There was something in his gaze that gave me the creeps and it was all I could do not to run away from him. If I hadn't been spellbound, I would probably have tried to kill him before he got me. The feelings were that intense. I was sure that some of the older men had grumbled about the new innovation – they seemed to believe that what was good enough for grandfather was good enough for them – but they seemed to take it in stride. Hastur, on the other hand...

    Five days later, we reached the Gathering. And then the trouble started.
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Gathering reminded me of a Renaissance Festival I had attended when I was a young girl, although there were fewer elves and warlocks. The Renaissance Festival had had hundreds of boys and girls dressing up in absurd costumes, but the Gathering had nothing that exotic on display. Indeed, it was less focused on fun and more determined to ensure that the tribes pooled their resources to ensure that all survived. I saw, as we rode into the camp and proceeded towards our campsite, a blacksmith’s shop – complete with working blacksmith – and hundreds of other traders. Surprisingly, women were allowed out – if under escort in mixed company – and Old Woman rapidly established herself as a master negotiator. In Gathering, it seemed, all of the normal rules were suspended.

    I could have enjoyed the Gathering if I’d been alone, but I had been ordered to remain with Old Woman and follow her everywhere. It was not a pleasant trip. She seemed determined to enjoy every last moment of her freedom, which meant that I had to remain on my feet and walk in her shadow, chillingly aware of how many men were staring at me. I must have seemed exotic to their eyes and I didn't want to think about how many were seriously considering trying to buy me from Rafik. The bustling crowd seemed to always give me a little space, which was kind of them, but it left me feeling a little exposed.

    The sound of a man shouting into the air drew us both towards the far side of the campsite. A man, wearing a long red robe and dangling a skull around his neck, was speaking to a growing crowd of men and women. He had a smaller group of men under him, walking through the crowd and looking for signs of interest. I could barely follow his words – he spoke so quickly, with a strange accent – but I gathered that he was talking about waging war on the city-states. The nomads seemed divided on the subject. Some clearly wanted a war – and a chance to win gold, women and glory – others seemed more reluctant. I knew why.

    Old Woman had told me, once she’d warmed up to me a little, that it was rare for the tribes to capture and integrate women from outside the tribal society. When I asked why – as the tribe had had no difficulty capturing me – she’d explained that, a few years ago, one of the tribes had attacked an outlying settlement. It had seemed a great success at first – they’d looted, raped and burnt, after which they’d escaped with most of the young women – but the survivors had hired a mage to send a Sprite after their tormentors. The Sprite had caught them and killed them, slowly and painfully. The remains of the tribe had been absorbed by other tribes and the others had drawn a lesson from the whole experience. Trading with the settled men was one thing, but trying to kill them and kidnap their women was quite another.

    I watched the speaker as he tried to rally the crowd. Like Hitler and other hatemongers, he possessed a gift for telling a crowd of young men what it wanted to hear. Their voices mummered in agreement as he told them that it was an outrage that the tribes, the noblest and bravest men on the planet, should be condemned to an outcast existence when they could have the finest of everything, taken from human sheep. The tribes believed that they were the select, far superior to the farmers and their lords. They believed that the farmers were little more than sheep. Old Woman took my hand and led me away from the speech before it got rowdy. Two older men, both respected grandfathers, were trying to explain why the speaker was wrong, but no one wanted to listen to them.

    “God-cursed fools,” Old Woman snarled, when we were alone. I wondered at her anger, before realising that she had loved every one of her children. The tribe’s infant mortality rate was terrifyingly high. “Every Gathering, a hundred or more fools will go out and raid the farmers and they will have success, at first, just enough to convince them that they are the masters of all, grinding the world beneath their hooves. And then they will discover that the soldiers have come to destroy them and shatter their tribe. And the survivors will come crawling back, bearing tales of glory that convince the next generation of fools to go out and do it all again.”

    I winced at the bitterness in her tone as she marched me back to the campsite, passing a whole series of entertainers and singers on the way. The tribes loved male singers – they reminded me of harmony singers – although it was rare to see a performing woman. I caught sight of one of them and realised, to my horror, that she was performing a striptease. Snatches of music drifted across the air from various bands, trying to compete with one another; huge mugs of foaming beer were passed around, bought or stolen from the nearest town. I was actually quite curious to see what a local town looked like, but Rafik was stalling on his promise to take me to the Brotherhood in Padway. I didn't blame him. I’d ensured that he became rich – as the tribes reckoned wealth – and famous. The fame was probably more important to him than the money.

    Old Woman motioned towards a set of horses and I smiled when I saw the stirrups on them. We watched from a distance as the riders experimented and then, gladly, paid Rafik for the concept. The trading seemed to be going well; I gathered, from what little I heard, that some of the tribes were offering surplus daughters in exchange for the idea. I almost gagged when I realised that some of the daughters were too young to have started their periods, let alone sexual activity, but I told myself that it was a different culture. Or maybe not. Some things were just wrong, whoever did them. I hoped that Old Woman would ensure that they remained untouched until they were ready to have sex, and children.

    That night, there was a big feast. The men sat around a fire, chatting, sharing food and drink, while the women gathered in a big tent of their own. I watched absently as hundreds of women stared at me openly, before questioning Old Woman about my origins. It was clear that they didn't believe a word of her answers, even though a handful of them gave me orders and watched as I obeyed. Old Woman barked angry words at them and they backed off before they could make me do anything embarrassing. I’d known a few girls who wouldn't have hesitated to use the opportunity to make me humiliate myself in public.

    I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to see an unfamiliar woman. “You are to go to the family tent,” she ordered. “Now.”

    My body turned on its own accord – no use fighting the spell – and I marched out of the tent, into the cool night air. The stars high overhead were achingly familiar, yet hauntingly different from the stars I remembered from home. If I was on some kind of alternate universe, as I had reasoned to myself while at the Stone Hall, the stars would be the same as the ones that shone on my world...and if that was the case, I guessed that I was somewhere in Europe. It didn't seem too plausible, somehow. My legs kept marching until I reached the family tent, the one Rafik shared with Hastur. I was sure that Rafik had decided he wanted to see what other ideas I had before the Gathering ended. Who else would call me – and expect to be obeyed?

    I had the answer the moment I stepped into the tent. Hastur stood there, alone. I turned to flee – hating my weakness, for I had knocked him down before and I would have loved a chance to do it again – but he barked a single command and I froze. I was completely at his mercy. It was impossible to move as he came closer, his hands reaching out to stroke my chin and neck, before he peered down at me. I wanted to recoil – his breath smelt as if he had been eating raw sewage - as he studied me. It was all too clear that he had planned this little encounter carefully. He felt that he had enough time to enjoy himself.

    “Quiet,” he ordered, as I started to speak. I had hoped – feared – that the tribesmen would be nervous of offending Brother Stone, but Hastur was clearly half-drunk. Or perhaps he had been smoking what passed for tobacco in the desert. I’d caught a sniff of it and it had reminded me of Marijuana. Two of the older men in the tribe were addicted to it and smoked it constantly. “Undress. Now.”

    My treacherous hands betrayed me as they went to work. Old Woman had given me a robe and headscarf – my old clothes, along with my possessions, were stored in one of the saddlebags – and my fingers fumbled as they began to undo the ties. He drew in his breath sharply as I removed the scarf, and then undid the buckle that held the robe on my body. It fell to the ground, revealing my undershirt and pants. This world hadn't invented bras, either, and the undershirt barely held up my breasts. A moment later, my breasts were exposed to his sight, followed by the rest of me. I tried to hide myself with my hands, but a quick command from him had my hands trapped behind my back while he studied every inch of my body. His breathing was coming faster and faster. I didn't need to see his crotch to know that he was aroused and horny.

    This is rape, I wanted to shout, but I couldn't speak. And besides, I was a slave, with no one to avenge my treatment. Rafik wouldn't fight his brother over me – for all I knew, Rafik had agreed to allow Hastur his chance to rape me – and no one else would give a damn. Old Woman would probably just be relieved that the tribal relations wouldn't be risked. Besides, even if she had objected, what could she do? It wasn't as if she could shame her son into behaving himself.

    I shivered as his eyes left trails of slime over my breasts, then cringed back as he took my shoulder and turned me around. Cold hands grasped my buttocks and then released me, just before he slapped my bottom and sent me sprawling to the ground. A flurry of kicks and blows followed, enough to hurt me, but not enough to inflict permanent harm. I couldn’t even cry out as he rolled me over and kicked me again, his toenails scratching my skin. It was easy, now, to realise why he was so angry. I’d shamed him when I’d kicked him in the groin and, to a culture like the tribal one, it was worse than death. A woman had brought him low and he felt that, in order to restore his masculine pride, he had to force himself on her. The sheer macho stupidity of the concept would have made me scream my outrage to the skies – after delivering a verbal beating in my father’s style – if I could talk. But I could do nothing.

    Hastur undressed himself quickly, tearing off his robe and tunic. He was well-endowed, I noticed, although I would have bet everything I had left that he’d never bothered to try to give a woman pleasure in bed. I’d met too many people of his type in the past. I half-expected him to order me to suck him first, but instead he just seemed content to study me before the rape began. The thought made me smile, oddly, which outraged him. He couldn't have understood that I’d read somewhere that one particularly stupid group of aristocrats had believed that only aristocratic women knew how to use their mouths to give pleasure. Perhaps it was true of the tribes. They certainly spent as little time as possible with their women.

    Inside my head, I fought desperately. He wasn't holding me and he hadn't tied me up; I could take him...if I could break the commands holding me helpless. I struggled against an unyielding block in my mind, hoping desperately that an attempt to break Brother Stone’s orders would serve as the key to breaking the spell. I pushed as hard as I could, trying to force my body to move, but nothing happened. The spell refused to break. I couldn't even force myself to urinate. I couldn't do anything that would force him to leave me alone.

    “Lie down flat and open your legs,” Hastur ordered, sharply. I obeyed, bracing myself as best as possible. I’d thought about rape – every woman does – and yet I had never really believed that it could happen to me. My father and his friends had taught me well. I could have beaten Hastur in hand-to-hand combat, but the spell held me firmly. I closed my eyes, much to his amusement. He laughed and pinched my leg. “You are mine...”

    I felt, just for a second, his organ pressed against my virgin vagina...and then there was a massive flare of heat. My eyes sprang open and I saw Hastur wrapped in flames, burning alive. The spell on me snapped at the same moment and I scuttled backwards, trying to escape the screams and the smell of burning flesh. The fire was spreading, part of my mind noticed in horror, and the tent was about to catch fire. Most of my mind was fixed on the sight of flames roaring through his body. His screams cut off suddenly as the fire reached into his mouth and devoured his tongue. The tent caught fire a moment later as the burning man fell to the ground. I tried to move back further...

    And then the flames surged up again. Just for a second, I saw a pair of glowing eyes looking back at me, eyes full of hatred and age-old malice. I screamed as the flames took on a humanoid form, with bright eyes still fixed on mine, moments before the flames flared up and faded away. I was still screaming when they found me. My eyes hurt so badly that I feared I was going to go blind. No matter how often I blinked, I could still see the flaming monster in my eyes. I was vaguely aware of Rafik – and even Old Woman – chattering to me, just before I fainted. I had never fainted in my life, until then.

    ***
    I remained in the female tent for the rest of the Gathering. No one spoke to me, not even Old Woman – or Rafik. It dawned on me, slowly, that they believed I was a witch. I had done something to Hastur and killed him. It was no use trying to explain to the girls that Hastur had tried to rape me and something had intervened; they didn't understand and looked away from me every time I tried to speak. I was being shunned by everyone.

    Slowly, I worked out what had happened. Brother Stone had warned the tribesmen that my virginity had to remain intact. I had no idea why, unless he had been more friendly to me than he had been prepared to admit. When Hastur had decided to take it by force, something the Brother had done summoned a Sprite with murderous intent. And the poor tribesman had been burned alive in his own tent.

    I didn't waste time feeling sorry for Hastur. Sure, I knew that most men – given a girl who literally couldn't say no – would use her sexually, particularly men from a society where interaction with women was strictly controlled. Even so, it took a particularly nasty mind to plot her rape – and a particularly stupid mind to believe that his masculinity had been undermined by a firm knee to the groin. The part of me that wanted to have children one day – if that was even possible – was relieved that Hastur would never have the chance to father them. He didn't deserve to breed. On the other hand, I told myself, Hastur’s kids would probably have the attitudes they needed to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world.

    It was several days later when we broke camp and headed north. I had half-expected someone to attempt to avenge Hastur’s death, but no one seemed inclined to interact with me at all. The new women in the tent – Rafik had managed to obtain nine more girls, six of whom were still children – acted as if they were terrified of me. They were more scared of me than their impending deflowering – an act that was surrounded by rites that were supposed to encourage fertility – and womanhood. They were trying to come to grips with a whole new tribe. My heart went out to them.

    I was no longer at the bottom of the totem pole, thankfully. That would have made it impossible to conceal something I knew better than to allow anyone to realise. I was no longer bound by the obedience spell. It was a relief to know that my body was my own, again, but I couldn't let them know. They might start watching me to prevent an attempt at escape. I obeyed orders, kept my own counsel and waited.

    And I had decided to escape as soon as I could. Whatever else there was in this strange new world, it had to be better than being part of the tribe. Or so I told myself.

    And, as it happened, I was almost right.
     
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Interlude One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Sprites could cross the globe faster than a man could blink his eye. Everyone knew that – and so they knew that a mage who had enough Sprites bound to his name could use them to communicate with other mages. Indeed, there was no more secure way to communicate. No one, not even a Greatest Sprite, could eavesdrop on their messages.

    “I believe that she is the one,” Brother Stone said. The Sprite hovering in front of him waited for the Word of Banishment that would allow it to head to its destination. “I have sent her to Padway with the tribesmen. The Masters can investigate her there.”

    The Sprite popped out of existence at his command. Moments later, a second Sprite flickered into the room and hovered in front of him, speaking the message from Brother Ice.

    “The tribesmen cannot be trusted,” the Sprite said. It was a perfect rendition of Brother Ice’s voice. “They will kill her, or add her to their women.”

    “I gave her a Guardian,” Brother Stone said. “She will retain her virginity and, if they do not take her to Padway within a reasonable amount of time, the Guardian will take action.”

    He didn't go into details. They all knew what a Guardian could do.

    “If she is the one,” Brother Book said, finally. “If only Brother Dream was still alive. We would not have to guess at what he had in mind when he summoned the Greatest Sprite.”

    “Brother Dream is dead,” Brother Ice said, flatly. “He gave his life to bind the Sprite and send it off on its mission. We can only guess at what he had in mind.”

    “Yes,” Brother Stone agreed. “And what of Brother Destiny? He should be with us now.”

    “Dead,” Brother Book said. The bitterness in his voice communicated itself nicely through the Sprite. “He was being carried by a Sprite when it broke it’s chains and vanished.”

    Brother Stone sucked in his breath sharply. He’d known that there were problems – they’d all known – but he hadn't realised just how dangerous they were becoming. Sprites were the key to civilisation and mages, those born with the talent for calling and controlling the Sprites, were the most powerful people in the world. Even the most aggressive barbarian chieftain or priest-king thought twice before challenging a mage. And if their control over the Sprites was failing, their control over the world would fade away...

    And even that wasn't the worst of it.

    “We can only hope,” he said, finally, “that Brother Dream was not deluded, or simply insane. “There is nothing else that we can do.”
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments would be nice...

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    As we travelled north, the landscape around us began to change. The endless desert began to give way, first to hardy plants that grew deep into the earth for water, then to more normal plants and even animals. I barely noticed when we passed from the desert to scrublands and finally to farmland. The change was that slow and gradual. The remainder of the tribe seemed delighted to be in a fertile area and when we reached the lake – the first body of water I had seen since I had arrived on this world – the men raced ahead and came back with canteens of water. I drank gratefully, just before Old Woman started to scold us for drinking too much too quickly. It was just such a relief after the endless thirst of the desert.

    Rafik didn't call a halt, although I had expected him to insist that we camped by the lake and washed ourselves clean of the dust. Instead, we continued to ride north until we found a road and turned onto it, heading in a north-western direction. Old Woman’s muttering told me that the tribe had navigated the desert almost perfectly, although it seemed a bit hit and miss to me. Or maybe not; the tribesmen might not have GPS – if there was such a thing in this world – but they could certainly navigate by the stars. It struck me that we were entering a civilised part of the planet and I started to pay more attention to my surroundings. At first, it was disappointing, until we came into view of a small town. The tribe passed through the town – I saw older women hastily shoving their daughters inside to hide, while the men watched us with suspicious and fearful eyes – and headed onwards. As the land became more cultivated, I saw the city coming into view. The wind changed – and blew a terrible smell into my face. It was the smell of civilisation.

    I didn't have to wait long to understand why the city stank so badly. The locals seemed to have only a rudimentary understanding of hygiene and sanitation. The city looked clean from a distance, but up close I could see the slums surrounding the outer walls and recoiled at the sight. It was no coincidence that the tribe’s word for city-dwellers translated – loosely – as ‘stinkers.’ The tribe observed strict hygiene, with everything from urinating to menstruation covered by a series of rituals that had a base in hard fact, but the city-dwellers didn't seem to care. The larger houses in the slums – such as they were – allowed human waste to drop into the streets, while I saw horse manure and even a dead body lying in the gutter. The entire city was an epidemic waiting to happen.

    The poorer folk looked dirty to my eyes. I saw marks on some faces that suggested that they’d caught some kind of pox in the past and survived. The sight sent a shiver of fear running down the back of my neck; I didn't have any of the local immunities and I sure as hell didn't know enough to start inventing vaccination. If I caught a local disease – or even one that had been defeated on my world – I was likely to die of it. The thought was not a reassuring one.

    As we rode towards the outer wall, I was surrender aware of a presence surrounding them. Two translucent eyes opened in the air and looked at me, peering deep into my soul before they closed again, leaving me with nothing, but the memory. The tribe had muttered darkly about Sprites that protected the city, yet it seemed that none of them had seen the eyes. I was the only one who had seen them, which meant...what? I mulled it over as Rafik spoke to the guardsmen on duty at the gate, a conversation punctuated with angry shouts and a great deal of pushing. Old Woman looked tense, the first time I had ever seen her flustered. It seemed that the tribesmen were rarely allowed to enter the inner core of the city. They wouldn't have come this far into the fertile land if they hadn't had to transport me to Padway.

    The argument finally concluded when Rafik passed one of the guardsmen a coin. I saw it briefly and scowled; it was one of the coins they’d taken from my pockets, just after they’d captured me. It was useless here – as the guardsman would probably discover when he tried to spend it – but I would have liked to keep it as a reminder of my former life. The gates clicked open slowly and we passed through the wall. I wasn't too impressed with it, but it would have posed a daunting obstacle to attackers without cannon or catapults. If they were restricted to swords – and sorcery, probably – the attackers would have difficulty getting over the walls if they were stoutly held.

    Inside, the city was much cleaner, although it was still filthier than an city back home. The people looked more prosperous too, wearing finer clothes and bargaining with shopkeepers in a large open-air market. I caught sight of what looked like a group of slaves on the auction block and scowled, knowing that that might have been my fate if I’d been captured near the city. The oddest thing, as far as I could tell, was that this city didn't have any concept of racism. There were blacks and whites milling around, some wearing finer clothes than others, but race didn’t seem to be the determining factor. I even saw a mixed-race couple holding hands as we passed. Some of the city-folk were eying the tribe with grim expressions, their hands conspicuously near the short swords they wore at their belts. I thought, again, of the pistol they’d taken from me and wondered what would happen if I introduced gunpowder into this society. It would shift the balance of power very quickly.

    I shook my head as we headed towards a large building with a handful of guards outside. My father had spent time undercover in several different societies around the world and he'd always commented that it was better to know how a society worked before you tried to change it, or even to exploit it for your own purposes. There would probably be an official structure to society and an unofficial one that actually held the power. I resolved to wait and see how the society functioned before I actually made any changes. The thought of freedom was nagging at my mind. I could leave now, the moment they turned their backs, and hide myself in the city. I could be free.

    Rafik spoke quickly to the guards, and then beckoned me off my horse. “The guards will take you to Brother Book,” he said, briefly. He leaned forward suddenly, so that his lips were pressing on my ear. “May all the gods go with you, outlander.”

    He didn't thank me for the stirrups, I noted. In the last few days of the Gathering, the idea had been sold to hundreds of different tribes. By now, the cynic in me warned, Rafik was probably convinced that they had been his own invention. The thought of thanking a woman...I smiled to myself as the guards led me into the building and through a set of corridors that reminded me of Stone Hall. By now, I was almost used to the idea of invisible presences flickering through the air. I didn’t start when we passed two before I was waved into another office. The Brothers didn't seem to go in for imagination, I realised. The office was almost an exact duplicate of the one at Stone Hall.

    “Welcome,” an elderly voice said. Brother Book was tall and thin, with short white hair, a goatee and long elegant fingers. He wore the same brown robe as Brother Stone, but he allowed the hood to fall to his collar, exposing his bare skull. He’d shaved the very top of his head. “I am pleased to see that you made it here – and that you are no longer spellbound. What happened to cause this change?”

    I took a moment to savour the freedom to answer – or not – as I pleased, before I spoke. “One of the tribesmen attempted to rape me, sir,” I said, finally. “He burned to death and I was free.”

    Brother Book nodded, thoughtfully. Over the next twenty minutes – as we ate sweet cakes and drank something that tasted almost like tea – he drew the entire story out of me. He was an oddly charming personality, although he seemed almost distracted at times. His eyes sometimes fixed on my face and sometimes flickered around the room, following the presences I sensed behind me. I wondered, briefly, if he could see them too. Surely he could, if he could command them to do his bidding.

    “And now you are here,” he said, when I had finished. He patted his hands together and the empty plates floated into the air and flew towards the door. I felt another shiver as I sensed the Sprite carrying them away. “Excellent, excellent. And what do you intend to do now?”

    “I do not know,” I admitted. Half-baked schemes flashed through my mind – I could found a school, teach proper sanitation and even letters and numbers – only to recede against cold logic and desperation. I didn't know why I’d been summoned to this world, or what the Brothers wanted with me. I was not in command of my fate. “Why was I called here?”

    Brother Book looked at me for a long moment, and then laughed a high-pitched laugh. “Why were you called here?” He repeated. “I do not know why you were called here. The Brother who called you here is dead!”

    I stared at him. I had hoped that I could find the person who had sent the Sprite to my world here, in the city, and ask him why he had brought me here. I hadn't expected it to be too late.

    “What happened to him?” I asked, finally. “How did he die?”

    Brother Book looked surprised, and then realised that I wasn't joking. “It’s a long story,” he said. “It is an internal Brotherhood matter and no concern of yours.”

    I felt a hot flash of anger burning through me. “I have been summoned from my world and dumped here, a stranger in a very strange land,” I hissed. It was hard to remain calm in the face of such an attitude. “I think it is very much my concern.”

    There was a long chilling pause. “You may have a point,” he conceded, reluctantly. His fingers stroked his goatee, as if he couldn't remain still. “You would have to give your oath to remain silent of such matters, on pain of death.”

    I nodded, once.

    “Brother Dream was the one who summoned you,” Brother Book said. I could sense his reluctance as he spoke. He didn't want to talk about this to anyone, particularly someone who was both female and not part of the Brotherhood. “We have a...problem and Brother Dream was looking for a solution. He believed that we could find an...unconventional solution, if we risked summoning one of the Greatest Sprites and binding it to our will. The proposal was so risky that the Masters forbade it.”

    “And he went ahead and did it anyway,” I guessed.

    “Yes,” Brother Book said. He shook his head slowly, as if he couldn't quite believe it, even after coming face to face with me. “The ritual for summoning a smaller sprite is quite simple – even novices can do it with ease – but the rituals for summoning the Greatest, particularly one who has not been bound already, are physically and mentally taxing. The Mage has to maintain perfect control at all times or the Sprite will burst free. Brother Dream made his preparations carefully, summoned the Sprite and bound it, and then collapsed. We do not know what orders he gave it to cause it to bring you here.”

    “Right,” I said. As explanations went, it was not particularly complete, although someone from this world would probably have understood the background enough to make sense of it. “What is the problem that required...me to solve it?”

    It took nearly thirty minutes to coax an explanation out of him and once he had finished, I was still confused. It seemed that the only way to do magic was to summon a sprite and bind it, ordering the creature to carry out instructions. The Brotherhood of Mages provided much of the tuition to young novices and considered itself to be in charge of all magicians, although I got the impression that the Brotherhood’s powers were very limited. Even so, magic was the very base of their power – and the base of civilisation on this world.

    And it was fading. Over the last ten years, their spells were losing their power. At first, the Brothers hadn’t believed what they were seeing, not until some mages had died because their spells failed at the wrong moment. The Brotherhood was trying desperately to figure out a solution, while trying to keep it from the city-states and their rulers. And if they lost all control, the network binding civilisation together would collapse. A new dark age would sweep over the planet.

    But I didn't understand? Why did they need me?

    “The Sprites have to be instructed carefully,” Brother Book explained. “If you give them a loophole, they will exploit it. For all we know, Brother Dream wanted someone else and the Sprite decided that it would take you instead.”

    “Fulfilling the letter of the instruction, rather than the intent,” I mused. It made a certain kind of sense – well, it did if I accepted the existence of magic genies and sprites. I wondered if he’d meant to pick up my father instead. My father would probably have been running the tribe inside a week, and then he could have gone to the Gathering and raised an army, transforming the world. But then, he did have the right plumbing for overt power in a tribal world. “So...what now?”

    “Good question,” Brother Book said. “You do understand that we cannot take the chance that you are actually the key to our salvation?”

    It took me a moment to work out what he meant. “How exactly do you expect me to solve your problem?” I asked, bitterly. “I can sense your sprites, but I don’t know how to control them.”

    He frowned, tenting his fingers in front of his nose. “I will made you a ward of the Brotherhood,” he said, finally. “It is...unusual to have a lady-ward, but it will give you a certain kind of status in this city. I will also give you a small amount of gold and silver, enough to ensure that you live properly if you spend carefully.”

    “Hang on,” I said, sharply. “You don’t even know if I want your money!”

    He eyed me, sardonically. “You have to remain in the city,” he said. “Your adopted tribe was very keen to get rid of you. Even if you wanted to go with them, you would not be able to earn your keep. Your Guardian would see to that.”

    I remembered the flaming figure and the glowing eyes and shuddered. “And you would be a woman alone in this city,” he added. “There is no family nor custom to protect you. If you were lucky, you would be enslaved to a master who would allow you to save a little and eventually buy your freedom. If you were unlucky, you would be sold into the worst kind of slavery and if you tried to fight, they would send for a mage and have you spellbound into obedience. The job would not be deliberately botched the second time.”

    It took everything I had to curb my anger. I should have realised that I was nothing in this society, not even a tribeswoman. The society didn't owe me anything. I could be kidnapped and enslaved, or murdered, and no one would give a damn. If I wanted protection, I would have to agree to the Brotherhood’s terms, whatever they were. I thought longingly of the pistol, now in a bag on the Brother’s desk, yet even that was no comfort. God made man, but Sam Colt made them equal – until the bullets ran out. Maybe I could make gunpowder, given enough time and resources...

    I shook my head. I could never hope to refill the cartridges for a modern pistol.

    “Very well,” I said, reluctantly. “I will be glad to accept your offer.”

    “If you are here for a reason, it will become apparent in time,” Brother Book said. He rose to his feet. “I believe that you should say goodbye to your tribe...”

    I stood up and saw, for the first time, the map hanging on the wall. He stepped away, allowing me to study it, seemingly unaware of my inner consternation. The map was both hauntingly familiar and yet very alien. It was so different that it took me several minutes to understand what it showed me.

    It was Earth, but a strangely warped Earth. North America and South America were two separate continents; Britain was oddly reduced and Japan, Cuba and New Zealand were completely gone. I felt a chill running down the back of my neck as I saw more oddities; missing islands, warped continents and – worst of all – no oceans. The largest pool of water on the map was roughly the size of Australia. Where the oceans had been, in my world, there was nothing, but endless desert.

    “A long time ago, something happened and all the water poured away,” Brother Book said, when I asked him what had happened to the oceans. “Some people say that we were punished by the gods for some unspeakable sin. Others say that a rogue Sprite did it to avenge himself on his master. We do not know the truth.”

    He led the way out of the room and I followed, my mind still spinning.
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The moment we stepped outside, it was clear that something was badly wrong. The entire tribe had departed, leaving behind a single person, kneeling at the side of the road. I ran forwards, heedless of my own safety, and realised – to my shock – that Lianna was waiting there. The young girl had clearly been crying. I saw the streaks on her face as she lifted her face to me.

    “Lianna,” I said, reaching for her and helping her to her feet. “Why are you here? What happened?”

    “They left,” she said, between sobs. Brother Book looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then passed her a silk handkerchief to wipe her nose. “They said...they said that they were sorry, but you couldn't stay with them any longer and...and to make up for Hastur, they were giving you me. They told me that I had to stay with you...”

    “That isn't uncommon among the barbarians,” Brother Book observed, dispassionately. “Doubtless they feared some form of punishment for allowing one of their number to attack you in such a manner. She is yours now.”

    “I don’t own anyone,” I snapped, angrily. I wished, at that moment, that I commanded one of the Sprites. I could happily have sent it after Rafik and his men, with orders to kill them in a manner most prolonged and agonising. How dare they abandon Lianna to my mercy? They hadn't even bothered to check to see if I would want her! “You can give her gold...”

    “She’s yours,” Brother Book said. He didn't sound if he cared. “You can take her in to your house, when you find a house, or you can sell her at the slave market. Her life is yours.”

    The thought was disgusting. I hated the very concept of slavery – I’d been a slave – and yet, what could she do if I abandoned her? I couldn't sell her, but if she was left on her own, God alone knew what would happen to her. And yet, I knew very little about the city. The chances were good that I’d do something stupid and end up being killed because I didn't know the local customs, if a disease didn't get me first. The thought, oddly, gave me strength. If I had to have someone with me, at least I knew Lianna. And it wasn't as if she were bad company.

    “It’s all right,” I lied, as I held her. It struck me, again, just how slight she was, almost elfin. She would have been a rare beauty back home, but could she have survived the desert long enough to have children? Old Woman held that title because she was the oldest, yet she was merely middle-aged by my standards. “Come on. We’ll go find a place to stay together.”

    “I shall assign you an escort,” Brother Book said, firmly. “Two young ladies on their own should be escorted, if only to prevent people from getting ideas.”

    I was too tired to explode at him, so I nodded. He waved to one of the guardsmen and issued orders, and then forced us to wait until the escort arrived. My eyes went wide when I saw him and I heard Lianna issue a gasp, for he was the strangest man I had seen. His skin was as black as the night, his face was oddly pronounced and he wore a suit of Romanesque armour, with a short sword at the waist. The armour was battered and torn in places, allowing me to see the muscles under the shirt.

    “You may name me,” he said. His voice was oddly accented, although that was no surprise. The common tongue was the same everywhere, according to Old Woman, but there were plenty of local variations. “I am at your command, My Lady.”

    “Once you name him, he will be in your service until you dismiss him,” Brother Book said. I decided not to take that at face value. The Brotherhood might have a prior call on his loyalties. “I suggest you hurry. It is nearly time for dinner.”

    “I’ll call you Obelix,” I said. I had always loved those graphic novels and, for some reason, my escort reminded me of the oversized Gaul. Besides, it was a nice touch of home. “So...where do we go to find a house?”

    “Obelix will take you,” Brother Book said. He passed me a bag. “I believe that these are yours.”

    I had to smile. The bag contained everything of mine, apart from the money. Proof, if I needed it, that no one recognised the concept of firearms. I was careful to put the pistol back on my belt. I might need it.

    ***
    The City of Padway was not a particularly large city by my standards. It held around a million people, according to Obelix, although I wasn't sure how seriously to take that statement. It had also been designed by someone who was very fond of town planning, something that had always struck me as slightly absurd. There was a regularity to the inner city that had completely escaped the outer city. And then there were the slums.

    The innermost core of the city was divided into two sections, one where the most prominent families lived and one that held most of the city’s temples. The Great Houses owned much of the city and the surrounding lands and rented it out to commoners and visitors, allowing them to live in luxury without sullying their hands with anything remotely reassembling work. The Great Houses reminded me of a gated community; there was an inner wall and guards at the gates, refusing to allow anyone to enter without permission. The temples, by contrast, were open to all, particularly if they made a suitable donation. I saw one of the priests from a distance as he summoned the faithful to prayer, his voice ringing out over the city. The temples seemed to be devoted to separate gods, each with their own set of worshippers, although I saw one man moving from one temple to the other. I resolved to try and understand the religion here before I got too deeply involved with anything else. It was hard to get a straight answer from Obelix about religion. I think he either didn't understand my questions, or was pretending to be ignorant to avoid sailing the conversation into stormy waters.

    Outside the Inner Wall, there were shops, prosperous houses and children playing. The merchants lived and worked here, I gathered, and the guild halls provided a place for them concentrate their activities. Beyond that, there were apartment blocks for poorer families and then the Outer Wall, which separated the city from the slums outside. I sniffed the air and realised that I was either growing used to the smell or the air was cleaner inside the city. I suspected the former. The whole city was definitely a breeding ground for disease. I didn't want to think about how many ways I could catch something a local would shrug off, but would kill me stone dead.

    Lianna proved herself almost at once. The small house I wanted to rent was incredibly expensive, but she had some skills in haggling and wheedling and managed to convince him to lower his price to something slightly more reasonable. That was something else I had to learn; the relative value of the currency in the city. If I had tried to negotiate myself, I would have been skinned alive by an unscrupulous dealer. The negotiations took nearly an hour before he grudgingly agreed to take our money and allow us immediate entry to the building. I suspected, as soon as we set foot inside the building, that he'd been desperate to rent it out before the government’s inspectors arrived, but the city had none. The filthy building that greeted our eyes was probably no better or worse than the rest of the city. On the other hand, there was no need for endless credit checks and other red tape before we took possession.

    “We need to clean this place,” I said, firmly. I had no idea how long it had been since it had been occupied, but it was worse than a pigsty. I was definitely lucky that Lianna was there, as Obelix refused to help and I couldn't have done it all on my own. It still took hours before we had cleaned a handful of rooms, chased out the rats and cockroaches and made it habitable. Perhaps there was something to be said for government oversight after all, I decided, although my father would have had a fit at the very thought.

    Lianna also knew how to cook and, between us, we managed to make something reasonably edible. I hadn't realised just how much I would miss Old Woman until I discovered the true levels of my own ignorance. I had flashbacks to my student days as we cooked, although with some modifications. All the water was to be carefully boiled, for one thing, and the meat was to be cooked thoroughly. As darkness began to fall – the landlord’s budget hadn't allowed him to install sprite-lights – I stumbled into bed gratefully and closed my eyes. It was the first real bed I’d seen since arriving on this world.

    The following morning, after eating breakfast, I started to explore the city properly. Lianna insisted on remaining behind to clear up and finish cleaning the house – I had tried to explain to her that she was free, but she hadn't understood the concept – and so it was just Obelix and I. My escort followed me at a discreet distance as I walked towards the market place and studied the different stalls, feeling oddly detached from the world. Some of the stalls were familiar, with fruit and vegetables I recognised from back home, but others were strange and unfamiliar. One stall boasted a set of magicians who were selling sprite-powered devices that seemed to run from lights to clocks. It was no wonder that this world hadn't invented the scientific method, I decided; they had Sprites to do the hard work. And yet, if Brother Book was right, they might soon lose all control. What would happen then?

    I concealed a smile as a group of children ran past me, kicking a ball as they flew through the market place. There didn't seem to be any fear of paedophiles here, nor excessive concern over safety and health. I’d half-expected the girls to be shut up inside or brought out veiled from head to toe, but there were girls in the crowd of children and young women in the street, escorted by their mothers or even – daringly – in small groups. Their dress was conservative, yet it wasn't repressive; a handful of particularly daring girls were showing the tops of their breasts. A handful were wearing white veils, like brides going to the altar, their faces hidden behind shimmering light. Obelix, reluctantly, explained that they were the Little Sisters of the Crone. He refused to be drawn on the subject.

    The slaves shocked me the most, I think. They seemed to accept their servitude as natural; indeed, from what I could hear, a number of them were working to buy themselves out and become freemen. The thought of someone paying for their own freedom was sickening, but at least it happened, unlike the Dixie South before the Civil War. It occurred to me that it was one way to install civil virtue in slaves, rather than encouraging slave revolts; the slaves would behave themselves if there was at least a chance that they could buy their freedom.

    And what happened, I asked myself, if their masters refused the money?

    I shook my head as I left the marketplace. I couldn't buy anything, not without being skinned alive. Lianna would have to deal with it.

    Besides, I had just had an idea.

    ***
    “As you can see, My Lady,” the scribe said, “this symbol has a hundred different meanings, depending on where you draw the lines.”

    I stared down at the parchment – oh, if only I could recreate paper – and felt an unpleasant sinking feeling in my chest. The symbol in front of me was a strange combination of Japanese, Arabic and Ancient Egyptian writing. It was effectively a hieroglyph and completely impossible for me to understand. And it was one of the simpler words!

    The scribe kept his expression blank, but I thought I detected a flicker of amusement behind his eyes. He was actually my third choice – scribes were reluctant to teach anyone who wasn't part of the Scribe Guild, let alone a woman – and had loudly protested when he’d realised who he would be teaching. He’d also said that hardly anyone learned how to read and write if they started once they entered puberty and I suspected that he was right. The system was so complex that only a person who had been steeped in it from birth could have mastered it.

    “If we put it with these symbols,” he continued, “we have a full sentence. The Moon is rising over the Sand. If you alter the final symbol, it becomes a different location...”

    I rubbed my eyes. “I asked you for a basic instruction,” I said, crossly. “Are you really telling me that this is the simplest way to write in your language?”

    “It is the simplest way to write and be understood,” the scribe said, firmly. “I was trained to write from when I was sold to the Guild. I grew up making these symbols and learning the many different variations. You are a newcomer to the city and too old.” He didn’t say too female, which was lucky for him. My mood was growing darker by the second. “Your children may learn when they are weaned and...”

    “Enough,” I said. I had wondered how this society functioned without coming apart at the seams. Now I understood at least part of the answer. The high and mighty wouldn't be able to read and write; they would be completely dependent upon the scribes. The priests wouldn’t be able to read their own scriptures; their congregations wouldn't be able to read them for themselves, let alone challenge their religious superiors. And business records would be accessible only to those with the ability to read...the potential for corruption, or stagnation, was astonishing. “Tell me about your Guild...”

    It took several hours to pry more answers out of him. It seemed that the Great Houses – and any family that wanted to be rich and successful – made a habit of sending at least one of their sons to the Scribes Guild. My mind reeled as I considered the implications. The families would stay together because they had no choice. And if the selected son proved to be an idiot, or weak in the head, their fortunes would fall unless they hired a scribe from the Guild to replace him.

    “All right,” I said. “Let me show you something.”

    One thing I had learned very quickly as a teacher was that if the child wanted to learn how to read – in English, at least – he or she learned very quickly. I wrote out the ABC and explained, as he stared at me, how it could be used to shape out almost any word. Twenty-six letters was nothing compared to the complex system Padway used for writing. And just wait till I showed them Arabic numbers. Say what you like about the Arabs, but they did us a favour when they introduced their numeral system. It was a vast improvement over the Latin numerals.

    “My Lady...I cannot accept this,” the scribe said, finally. He sounded shaken, badly so. “It is so simple!”

    I cursed my own mistake, inwardly. Of course! I had shown him something that would shake the very existence of the Scribe Guild. If everyone could read and write, they wouldn't be needed, would they? Perhaps I could teach him – and Lianna already understood how to read and write in a modern style – but his superiors would see it as a deadly threat. And they’d be right. I was about to upset a very important and wealthy apple cart.

    On the other hand, the system revolted me.

    “You won’t lose your position,” I said, although in truth I suspected I was lying. “The more that can be written, the more that will be written and scribes will have plenty more work. Where I come from, there are entire buildings crammed with books...”

    I’d lost him. In his word, books were very rare and parchment was used for most writings. Very little was stored down the years, even by his guild. The concept of an entire library – or that a poor person could own thousands of books – was completely beyond him. In his world, he would be right, unless I managed to introduce paper. I struggled to recall everything I’d learned about paper and cursed again. I didn't know enough to do more than tell them that it came from trees. Perhaps if I gave someone the idea...

    “I bid you farewell,” the scribe said. His voice was still shaky. “Please do not call for me again.”

    I watched him go in a blue funk, cursing my own mistake. I had moved too fast, without careful thought. Whatever I did next had to be more careful – and, if that wasn't bad enough, it had to be less dangerous. The Scribe Guild might defy the Brotherhood to kill me, if they saw their entire existence at risk.

    The next few days passed slowly. I wandered the city, deep in thought, and complained nightly to Lianna. There were so many things I could teach them, yet all of them would upset the applecart. And there was the looming question of why I’d been summoned in the first place. Perhaps it had been a mistake, after all. It looked as if I couldn't do anything for them, or even for myself.

    As it happened, I was wrong. And it was Lianna who pointed the way.
     
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  10. apsco17

    apsco17 Monkey+++

    Hello Chris,

    A very interesting direction from your last work. I'm not normally a fan of "magic" fiction, but starting off with the multiverse was a good hook to get me to keep reading and the story is turning out to be very interesting.

    This story so far seems to be inspired by Harry Harrison's Deathworld stories but you've put an interesting twist by dropping her into a primitive, sorcery society instead of a technologically balkanized society. It's a very unique twist and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.

    Your background on how the tribe treated the women seems well researched and consistent with primitive societies of the past and in some cases, the present. How she deals with them and accepts them makes for good reading.

    Like it so far and looking forward to the next installments.

    Thanks,

    Apsco
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    I didn't fit very well into Padway’s society. I wasn't one of the noblewomen living in their lofty mansions on the hill, nor was I one of the middle class or even one of the serving women from the slums. Lianna, on the other hand, considered herself to be nothing more than a servant – no matter how often I tried to tell her otherwise – and she had little trouble socialising with the other servants. I’d expected her to be shy, given where she had come from, but somehow she managed to blossom with her social equals. And she boasted; she boasted about me and my knowledge and how I’d told her that little devils in dirt and filth caused illnesses. My father had told me how one of his teams had used a similar analogy to explain germs and viruses in Afghanistan – they’d borrowed it from a science-fiction writer, I believe – and I’d resorted to it when explaining the nature of germs failed for the third time.

    Nearly two weeks after I arrived in the city, a messenger arrived at my door. I wasn't expecting to see anyone, but when he announced himself, I found myself listening with a mixture of curiosity and alarm. Lady Helda, of House Umbria, wanted my help. And when I realised why she wanted my help, I almost fainted. All of a sudden, the stakes were much higher than I wanted to risk. I mulled it over as I picked up a couple of possessions – mainly the pistol and a couple of other things – and started to curse. There were just too many things that could go wrong.

    Lianna loved the short ride in a carriage up the hill and through the Inner Wall, but I was too bust thinking – and panicking. I’d heard of House Umbria, of course, even though I was still a newcomer to the city. The patriarch of House Umbria owned nearly a fifth of the entire city and drew rents from around a third of the population. Like all landlords, he was effectively above the law and could do just about anything he liked. He might not have had running water in his colossal mansion – it struck me as a tasteless building when I saw it, a strange combination of Roman and Arabic design, surrounded by statues of the gods – but he had more than enough power to squash me like a bug. And even the Brotherhood would have had difficulties countering him. Taking action against him would have been taking action against the entire city, effectively speaking.

    When we arrived – at the servant’s entry, of course - Lady Helda’s maidservant met us at the door and escorted us through the house and into a bedchamber. Lady Helda was short and blonde – and heavily pregnant. The baby was due any moment and, to my horror, they wanted me to help with the birth. Lady Helda’s sisters had died in childbirth, the regular doctors of the Medical Guild being unable or unwilling to save them. Her husband had allowed her to call in help and she had, somehow, called in me. I resolved to figure out how she’d heard of me later, just now I had to attend to the birth. My mind had gone blank. I’d never delivered a human baby before, only cows and horses. Somehow, I didn't think that Lady Helda would appreciate the comparison.

    I took one look at the room and knew the problem. It was filthy. The sight reminded me of reading about germs and medical researchers...and of how a doctor had finally figured out how his fellow doctors were transferring diseases from one patient to another. They hadn't bothered to wash their hands between patients, while the wards themselves were disgustingly filthy. For men pledged never to do harm, they sure proved resistant to the idea of washing their hands, the bastards. How many women had died needlessly in childbirth because of their self-centred attitude?

    “Call your servants,” I ordered. I’d do it by rote until I remembered enough to be helpful. “ want this room clean. Get basins of steaming hot water and scrub the place down, now!”

    I washed my own hands and then pressed them against her bare chest. The baby was kicking again, which meant...what? The local doctor, his lips pressed together tightly, seemed to think that the baby was on his way. I decided that he was probably right and banned him from touching her until he had washed himself thoroughly and changed his clothes. Once clean clothes arrived, I changed myself and insisted that Lianna do likewise. We couldn't risk bringing even more germs into the room.

    The servants scrubbed everywhere with hot water and, at my insistence, boiled the blankets and dried them rapidly. If I’d had a few days warning, I could have rigged up a proper surgical room – or at least a far cleaner delivery room – but I had to improvise. I said as much to Lady Helda and she agreed, telling me – between gasps – that it had taken long enough to convince her husband to summon me. The man wasn't even in the room, sharing the danger with his wife. Given how rarely men and women seemed to wash in the city, I decided that that was no bad thing. Besides, the husband was much older than the wife and seemed to have little in common with her. The marriage had been arranged between two different Houses and the bride hadn't been consulted. I was revolted, but it was par for the course in primitive societies. It wouldn't be long, I suspected, before they started to suffer the effects of inbreeding. I decided that it wouldn't be a good idea to mentioned that to Lady Helda, at least not right now.

    “The baby is coming soon,” the doctor said. He had grudgingly washed himself thoroughly and was now glowering at me, after I’d ordered him to shut up. His comments about foreign witches and how he couldn't be blamed for anything were growing annoying. In his place, I would have been watching carefully and memorising everything, before taking the knowledge back to his guild and using it to save more lives. “I trust that you know what you are doing.”

    I nodded, careful not to mention that it actually was my first experience of childbirth. I’d had the sex education classes in school, of course – most of which had been impractical – and I’d been forced to study when some of my pupils had gotten pregnant through poor or absent contraception, but I didn't remember everything. There was a lump of flesh – for the life of me, I couldn't remember it’s name – that came out after the child. I remembered, suddenly, that most children came out head first, but some came out feet first – and those were always difficult births. I imagined one foot getting stuck inside the womb and shuddered. I didn't know what to do if that happened and I certainly didn't know how to perform a caesarean section. If she needed one, the baby was about to die, along with its mother. I forced myself to think positively, wishing again for an ultrasound or a trained midwife.

    Oddly, I smiled, remembering some of the fools I’d met who wanted to live in a primitive environment. They were welcome to this one, as far as I was concerned. A feminist – hell, any woman - who didn't worship modern technology was a fool and should be forbidden from breeding, just on general principles. Modern technology, relatively speaking, had benefited women far more than men. Modern medicine had allowed more of us to give birth and survive the experience. It had even allowed us to claim equality with men in most fields. Who in their right mind would want to swap that for the past, where women had been at the bottom of the totem pole and had been lucky to live past their forties?

    Lady Helda saw my smile and asked, weakly, what was so funny. I hesitated, and then explained as best as I could. The doctor didn't seem amused when I told him how we knew far more about medicine and health than his guild, but Lady Helda laughed, weakly. I took her hand in mind and squeezed it gently, before checking her racing heartbeat and deciding it was normal. There wasn't anything I could do if it wasn't normal. My own ignorance started to haunt me again. This world didn't have painkillers, even something as limited – and addictive – as morphine. Or maybe it did and they just didn't know what they had. I would have sold my soul, at that moment, for a shipment of modern medicine and knowledge. No devil arrived to seal the bargain.

    I wondered, absently, why Sprites couldn't be used to ensure a safe childbirth, before realising the truth. The Mages couldn't give them orders that directed them to eradicate germs, if only because the Mages themselves didn't know about the germs. And even if they did, I could see a Sprite destroying all the bacteria in a person’s body and claiming that it had followed orders to the letter. It probably would have done, by its own standards, but it would have killed its victim. Besides, if the Mages were really losing control of the Sprites, a medical Sprite might desert them when it was most needed.

    The contractions were coming faster and faster now and I knew that the baby was coming soon. I removed the cloth covering her thighs and washed her, carefully, with hot water. She muttered a curse as I washed, wishing that she’d thought to shave her legs and pubic region. I remembered obsessing over shaving my legs back home, but it didn't seem to have caught on her, any more than the concept of washing regularly. The doctor scowled as he watched me at work, although I had the feeling that he was watching me more closely than before. Perhaps he had decided to learn what to do...hell, my ignorance was almost as bad as his. If I’d become a nurse, or a midwife, or a doctor, I would have been far better prepared for this.

    I checked the equipment quickly. The servants, at my command, had boiled them thoroughly in water, before carefully placing them on a metal tray and bringing them into the scrubbed room. There were too many possible ways to contaminate them, even with my makeshift precautions, and I prayed – again – that there were no complications. If something went badly wrong, I could do nothing. I remembered horror stories from the past and shivered.

    Lady Helda started to gasp in pain as the contractions grew stronger. I placed my fingers just above her vagina and felt the baby starting to move. Her legs spread wide as she cried out in pain, but I could do nothing for her. I wished her husband had been here, even if he presented a risk of infection; someone had to hold her hand and make her feel as if she wasn't alone. I looked up at the doctor and had a thought.

    “Hold her hand,” I ordered, sharply. For all I knew, I was trespassing on a thousand taboos, but I didn't have time to care. The doctor, thankfully, obeyed and took her hand, holding it tightly. I pretended not to hear his gasp of pain as her hand contracted on his and actually hurt him. “Let's see what happens now.”

    Lady Helda had been in labour for hours. If I recalled correctly, a woman giving birth for the first time would need around eight hours of labour before the child began to emerge, but a woman who had already had one child would only need around four hours. Timekeeping here wasn't a precise science – they had a Clockwork Guild, but no clocks – and I had no idea just how long she’d been in labour before she’d started to give birth. My watch told me that it had been three hours since we had arrived, which suggested she had been in labour for five hours...if I recalled correctly. I scowled in frustration and then forced a smile. The last thing a terrified mother needed to see was a frowning midwife.

    I washed my hands again as the baby’s head started to emerge from between her legs. It was a tiny purple thing and I almost panicked, believing it to be a stillborn child, before I recalled that that was actually normal. Mothers were programmed to love their children by God, thankfully; the ugly newborn was disgusting, at least to my eyes. It took all of my courage to touch the baby and hold it as it continued to emerge. The child’s skin was covered with a filmy substance that puzzled the hell out of me, even as I started to wipe it away. He – there was no doubt about the baby’s sex once I saw the tiny penis – was gasping for breath, jerking around like a wild thing. Lady Helda screamed in pain again – she had been screaming for what felt like hours – and her entire body shivered. The baby had fully emerged from her womb, followed rapidly by the placenta. I recoiled from the stench, yet forced myself not to lose it, not now.

    One of the servants held the baby while I reached for the knife and ties. Cutting the umbilical cord was one of the hardest things I’d ever done – nightmarish images of what could go wrong haunted me as I struck – but somehow I managed it. Another servant came in with the ties and pinched off the child’s end, before slapping the child on the back. He gasped and started to bawl. A normal, healthy baby boy. I almost sagged in relief, but there was too much still to do. We washed and wrapped the baby in cloths – I’d had them boiled, like everything else – and held him out to the mother. Lady Helda took him, even though she was clearly exhausted and two servants stood ready to take the child if she lost her grip, and gazed down on her newborn. Her eyes were filled with love and tenderness. I allowed myself a tired smile. Whatever the child looked like – and his colour was rapidly turning pink – she loved him. I just prayed that he remained healthy.

    Moving Lady Helda into another clean room was a difficult task, but we managed it. The servants, at my command, returned to the birthing room and scrubbed it clean, using boiling water to wash every last corner of the room. The placenta was wrapped up securely, before being transported out of the house to be buried in front of one of the statues. The goddess of mothers, one of them explained, accepted the placenta as her due. I found the whole concept disgusting, but it was no time to start quibbling over the disposal. Besides, what else could they do? No matter how I wracked my brains, I couldn't remember what happened to placentas back home.

    Lady Helda was resting when I returned to her room, with a nursemaid watching and holding the child. I gathered that the richer families farmed out the task of raising their children to servants, who would teach the children everything they needed to know. They started young here, which made sense. The only way to learn reading and writing in this society – at least, so far – was to start very young. I resolved to find a way to introduce modern writing as soon as possible. It would change the world.

    I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see one of the servants. “Lord Umbria sends his compliments and wishes you to know that a room has been prepared for you if you need sleep,” she said. I hadn’t realised how tired I was until she spoke. I needed coffee, lots of coffee. It didn't seem to exist in this world. “You will be welcomed at the Naming tonight.”

    “Thank you,” I said, allowing her to lead me away.

    The room they gave me was the most luxurious room I had ever seen, although it lacked hot and cold running water, or a shower. The servants did offer me a bath, but I declined, as it would have required them to carry in hot water for me. I found the whole concept rather creepy, even if it was second-nature to the people here. Perhaps there was a reason they rarely bathed. I fell asleep and only woke when Lianna shook me, gently. My watch told me that six hours had passed. I felt as if I hadn't slept at all. Servants brought me hot water and I washed my hands and face, before they escorted me down the stairs and into a parlour. Lady Helda was sitting in the middle of the room, holding her child up in front of an older man. Lord Umbria struck me as being about fifty years old – he was probably younger – and looked gruff. He was examining the child critically.

    “I welcome you to the family,” he said, formally. The witnesses, gathered along the far wall, cheered. If he’d rejected the child, he would have been given up for adoption – or perhaps simply exposed to the chill night air. “House Umbria welcomes its new heir.”

    It was the first social event I’d attended in the city, but it was a long time before I understood its importance. The child had to be accepted by the father, before witnesses, to confirm his position as heir to House Umbria. The network of family ties that bound the upper classes together would shift, once again, to welcome the new child. I smiled as servants brought in food and drink, although I was careful what I ate. Even the upper classes here lived in squalor. There was music, and dancing girls, and even a magician, performing tricks with a tame Sprite. I shivered as I saw the inhuman eyes, filled with frustration and limitless malice...

    Whatever the Brotherhood said, the Sprites were definitely not our friends.
     
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “So there are little devils in blood and filth,” Lady Aylia, of House Umbria, said. “And you can drive them out by boiling them in hot water?”

    “In a manner of speaking,” I said. I had already decided not to attempt to teach anyone what germs actually were, at least until someone invented the microscope. “But yes; if you boil water, you kill the little devils. I think that if you boiled all water, and washed more carefully, you would have far few epidemics in your city.”

    Aylia studied me thoughtfully. She was one of the foremost priestesses in the city, serving the Crone Goddess. I had barely come to grips with the pantheon of gods in this world, but the Crone was one of the most feared and respected goddesses in the city. She brought good luck to women who called on her, according to the legends, but she was also known for punishing men who were cursed by women. I suspected I was missing a few subtle points that would have made instant sense to someone born in this society, yet it seemed to me that the Crone might explain the misogyny that ran through parts of the city. Aylia was one of the smartest women I had ever met and she would never be allowed to enter any of the guilds.

    She was also strikingly attractive, with elegant features, brown eyes and long hair that reached all the way down to her hips. Some of the more dedicated followers of the Crone wore white veils to separate themselves from the rest of society, but Aylia seemed to prefer shapeless robes. But then, she had summoned me to her temple for a private chat and there were no men in the area. They were forbidden entry on pain of death. Like me, Aylia and her sisters were virgins and would remain so as long as they served the Crone.

    I wasn't entirely sure how she was related to Lady Helda. From the explanation I had managed to pull out of Lianna, Aylia was Lord Umbria’s youngest sister. She wouldn't inherit a position of power in the council – women were not allowed to be politicians and power was always passed down the male line – but she had remarkable freedom in all other respects. Women could own property and even run businesses, although it was not the done thing. The upper classes rarely seemed to dignify themselves by actually working for a living.

    “Interesting,” she said, finally. “You will be amused to hear that others have already started to follow your example. The Medical Guild has not yet accepted your suggestions, but servants and midwives are copying you. What do you think of that?”

    I had to smile, even though it was more sardonic than amused. My father had complained bitterly about unions back home, but the worst of the unions – the teachers unions, in my considered opinion – were nothing compared to the guilds in Padway. If you wanted to be a scribe, you had to be a member of the Scribe Guild; if you wanted to be a doctor you had to be a member of the Medical Guild; if you wanted to be an Accountant, you had to be a member of the Accountants Guild...and so on, until almost every profession was bound within invisible chains. A person who tried to be a scribe without joining the guild risked being prosecuted, or perhaps simply being beaten by hired thugs.

    What that all meant, at least for me, was that all changes had to be approved by the guilds and they were highly conservative organisations. I could understand why – they’d found something that worked and they were sticking with it – but it was incredibly frustrating, to say nothing of harmful. The Medical Guild could cut the infant mortality rate down sharply, just by copying what I’d done for Lady Helda, yet they were still reluctant to authorise the changes. Indeed, I’d heard that some of the doctors were refusing to wash, even if their clients insisted. In a week, I’d turned part of society upside down.

    “I think that what I’m offering to teach people is free,” I said, finally. “If they wish to adopt my techniques” – and that was a joke; I hadn't invented anything – “I have no objection.”

    Aylia placed her fingertips together as she spoke. “I believe that that may be part of the problem,” she said, calmly. “You are trying to give your knowledge away. If they had to pay for it, they would treat it a great deal more seriously.”

    I considered it. It sounded reasonable, but...I was still very much a stranger in this land. “I don’t think I can copyright what I know,” I said, finally. “How could I prevent the guilds from copying my...innovations?”

    “Oh, you can't,” Aylia said. “We, on the other hand, can certainly help with any new ideas you might wish to introduce. You saved my sister’s life. I think that entitles you to some help from the Sisterhood. The Crone will be amused.”

    I kept my expression blank, with an effort. Even back home, the most religious person in the world paled in comparison to the believers here. They all believed in the gods, even if they worshipped only one or two regularly, and the supernatural was real here. Aylia meant every word she said; hell, if there were Sprites in this world, why not Gods? Or...could it be that the Gods were merely incredibly powerful Sprites? Sprites that were worshipped instead of summoned? I kept that thought to myself. The last thing I needed was to spark off a religious war.

    “I want to open a school,” I said, finally. One thing this world lacked was any form of formal schooling – and there certainly wasn’t a Teachers Guild. It had taken me several days to work out that most kids were homeschooled or sent to the guilds from a very early age. If I taught them how to read and write – and double-entry bookkeeping – no one would be able to object until it was far too late to stop the ideas percolating through society. “Can you help me do that?”

    “Of course,” Aylia said. She frowned. “But you will also need money. How do you intend to earn enough gold to open a school?”

    I smiled. I was starting to understand how this society worked. “If you will help me gain access to the Seamstresses Guild, I’ll explain,” I said. “Please.”

    ***
    There were two guilds in the city that concentrated on making clothes; the Taylors Guild and the Seamstresses Guild. The former was composed only of men and the latter was composed only of women, although there were plenty of middle-class families that straddled both guilds. I found the whole concept rather confusing until I figured out that the women who were effectively running one of the guilds were linked by marriage and blood to the other guild. The Master of the Taylors Guild was the husband of the Mistress of the Seamstresses Guild. I’d tried to gain entry before, but had been ordered back onto the streets. With the Crone’s priestesses backing me, I had no difficulty in seeing the Mistress. Besides, she’d heard through the grapevine how I’d saved a child and his mother.

    I’d gone back to my house and picked up the tattered remains of my clothing. Most of it was in no fit shape to wear – and, of course, I hadn't been allowed to wear it while I’d been with the tribe. I pulled out the sports bra and donned it, feeling oddly relieved. This society had never invented the bra and my breasts felt funny after weeks of going without it. Still, it would provide another useful idea for profit. This time, I was going to copyright it.

    The Mistress of the Seamstresses Guild was a short fat lady with a pleasant smile. Lianna had told me that she was popular in the city, even among the lower classes, and I could understand why. The Seamstresses Guild, unlike most of the guilds, was run according to semi-democratic principles and an unpopular Mistress wouldn't last long before she was replaced by someone more congenial. The guild was one of the few fields open to women who wanted to earn money for themselves and, naturally, it attracted the best and brightest.

    “Interesting,” she said finally, when I showed her the bra and explained what it did. She had already admired the material and tried to discuss trade, an idea that I had had to shoot down. I had no way of either obtaining more material or making it for myself. “I believe we could make something similar, don’t you?”

    Her assistant, who was a power in the guild in her own right, nodded in agreement. “It would be simple to use cloth to copy the design,” she agreed. “And it would be popular. Women would want to buy them and wear then, particularly the younger girls.”

    We shared a smile. The younger girls did dress to show off their bodies, even if the mores of this society prohibited some of the dresses from back home. A proper push-up bra wouldn't challenge any morals, at least not directly, and it would be very popular. I thought of how men could be excited by sexy lingerie and smiled to myself. There was no market for sexy underwear here, but I was going to invent one.

    The haggling took hours. I knew that my bargaining position wasn't particularly strong – they would have picked up the idea just by seeing my old bra – but I wanted at least a regular supply of gold and silver. At least I knew more about relative values than I did when I came to the city, yet we still had to argue endlessly before I received a reasonable amount of money. I agreed to licence the idea to any Seamstress who wanted to make bras – I was sure they all would, once the idea caught on – and I would receive a small amount of money for each bra. A lawyer from the Lawyers Guild – somehow I wasn't surprised to discover that there was a Lawyers Guild – was called in to draw up the final agreement, marking it out on a wax tablet. The sooner I invented and introduced paper the better, I told myself. If only I could remember how to do it. Perhaps it could be done with cloth...

    I walked out of the Seamstresses Guild a rich woman, at least by the standards of the time. The presence of my bodyguard was reassuring, even though I had the pistol strapped to my belt; no one would actually know what it was. How can you threaten someone with a pistol when they don’t know enough to know that they should be afraid? Besides, I had to keep reminding myself that guns weren’t a talisman to wave away evil. A person with a gun wasn't all-powerful.

    Naturally, I spent the rest of the day walking through the markets, looking for ideas. My father had taught me how to make a basic lantern and it struck me that I could experiment with local materials and perhaps produce something that could replace the magical lights. They already knew how to make candles, so even teaching them how to put them in glass would have an impact...of course, glass was remarkably expensive here. If I wanted to use glass everywhere, I would have to find a way of making glass cheaper...I wished, again, for access to the internet, or a good reference book. If I’d known I would be coming here, I would have studied frantically and bought a library of books with me.

    I returned home and met Lianna, who told me that several messengers had visited, leaving messages for me. They were all from women who were about to give birth in the next few weeks and months, requesting the use of my services at the birth. I rolled my eyes at some of the offers, even though several of the ladies were very well-connected. It dawned on me that being a respected midwife was as much a burden as a help; I would be expected to attend all of the births and, doubtless, any deaths would be blamed on my absence. The ladies could hinder me as much as help. If this went on, I was going to need a social secretary.

    Lianna had gone out with some of the money Lady Helda had given us and brought in a few new furnishings. I reclined on a sofa and started to plan out my school. If they needed midwives, I could take the ones who already had experience and teach them about basic sanitation and hygiene. The Medical Guild would probably object at first, but if they discovered that only midwives who knew the new knowledge were hired, they would probably find themselves forced to approve my methods. I had to laugh at myself. As my life back home became more of a dream, I was thinking of my knowledge as mine.

    That night, someone tried to burgle my house. I was awakened when I heard roaring from downstairs and the sounds of a brief struggle, ended when Obelix smacked the bugler on the head. I came downstairs, having pulled on my robe, just in time to see my bodyguard on the verge of pushing the burglar’s feet into the fire. The burglar stared at me pleadingly. I had checked on crime and punishment here and it seemed that no one believed in coddling criminals. Some of the child pickpockets – with adult Fagin-like characters hiding in the background – had had their hands amputated to remind them that stealing was wrong. Every so often, the sheer barbarity of this city would rise up and strike me in the face and I would spend the rest of the day feeling sick.

    “Don’t burn him,” I ordered, automatically...and then hesitated. Back home, I would have called the police, but here...there was only the City Guard, and the Guard was owned by the powerful families. Corruption and bribery were the orders of the day. If I handed the burglar over to them, he would be enslaved or simply hung. I couldn't do that, could I? And then...why had he chosen my house to loot?

    “Please, mistress,” the burglar pleaded. His voice was shaking and he struggled until Obelix whacked him on the head again. “I won’t steal again, I swear!”

    I doubted he meant it. “Tell me something,” I said. “Why did you sneak into my house?”

    He stared at me wild-eyed. “They told me that the rich foreigner has gold and jewels,” he said, quickly. He was too scared, I hoped, to lie. I didn't want to torture him to learn anything else. “They said it would be easy and that she had no friends who might be angry...”

    I held up the pendant Aylia had given me and he screamed in terror. The mark of the Crone was known throughout the city and the surrounding countryside. For all I knew, the other city-states worshipped her as much as Padway. And she was feared everywhere. I knew it was superstition – the same kind of superstition that made placebos and curses work – but it was real to him. I was under the protection of the darkest lady in the heavens.

    I couldn't decide what to do. Someone had sent him to burgle my house – perhaps one of the guilds, or perhaps a ring of burglars – and I wanted revenge. And I no longer felt safe in the house...not when it had been violated so roughly. If I had been able to summon the Guardian and put him to work guarding the house instead of my chastity...but I couldn't do that, at least not without asking the Brotherhood for help. And if I handed him over to the City Guard, he would be mutilated. I couldn't have that on my conscience. I thought about turning around and leaving matters to Obelix, but that would have been moral cowardice.

    “Look at this,” I said, hefting the pendant and holding it in front of his face. He cowered back, as if he expected the Crone Herself to reach out through the pendant and strike him dead. From what Aylia had said, it would be a lingering doom. His testicles would become infested with pox and drop off, followed by a slow collapse into a leper’s grave. The description had been so vivid that I wondered if there wasn't some truth behind the myth, perhaps a plague that had been blamed on the Crone and her followers. “You can swear, before Her, that you will never rob or steal again...or you can face the Guard. Your choice.”

    I hated myself at that moment, but I couldn't think of a better solution. “I swear,” he said, whimpering. I wondered if he was telling the truth. People from primitive societies often convinced themselves that they were cursed and suffered from it – actually, it was a delusion in the modern world as well – but he might not be a believer. “I won’t steal again, I swear!”

    The pendant felt cold and hard in my hand as I pressed it against his forehead, but he recoiled as if I’d stuck him with a red-hot poker. “Get out,” I ordered, as Obelix released him and he stumbled to his feet. My bodyguard looked uncomfortable, even though he was skilled at concealing his emotions. I wondered, suddenly, which gods he worshipped. Were they ones that might be daunted by the Crone? “And never steal again!”

    I watched him run out the door and flee into the night, before I turned back to my bed. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day and I needed my sleep. Tomorrow I was going to open a school. And I already knew who was going to be my first pupil.
     
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thanks - more will be coming tomorrow. Ideas and suggestions for innovations that could be used would also be welcome.

    Chris
     
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    It actually took a week to get the school set up properly – or at least as close to an ideal school as I could manage, under the circumstances. Teachers like Laura Ingalls Wilder would have found it easier, if only because she wouldn’t have been used to computers and other modern teaching aids. I missed computers and paper dreadfully, although I was pleased with the discipline situation. I could expel pupils at will, something that had never been possible back home, and I could hire and fire as I saw fit. There wouldn't be a Teachers Union in this world, not if I had anything to say about it. Which I might not, I realised; belonging to a guild was one way of developing status and my new teachers, once I trained them up, might insist on forming one with or without me.

    I’d racked my brains for ideas and finally came up with the blackboard and chalk. They might not have had paper, but they did have chalk and even used them on slates. It was merely a matter of creating a blackboard I could use and small tablets for the pupils, although most transactions involved wax tablets here. I disliked the waxy tablets because they were expensive and needed to be cooked to become permanent. Chalk might not be permanent, but it was cheap and easy to recycle.

    It hadn't occurred to me, until Lianna pointed it out, that I would need to set the school up in a middle-class district. The high-class area was far too expensive – to say nothing of their reluctance to use it for anything as tacky as work – and the lower-class areas too dangerous for any upper-class pupils. I called in a favour from Lord Umbria and he arranged for me to buy – at very good rates – a modest two-story building near the Inner Wall. It was a positive sign for my pupils, even though it struck me as a faintly odd. Or perhaps I wasn't thinking about it properly. As a general rule, back home, any school in the inner cities could be counted upon to be poor, producing pupils who could neither read nor write. It took another few days to organise the building to my satisfaction and then I started hunting for pupils. It was surprisingly easy.

    Padway didn't have a formal schooling system at all. Most children were taught at home, by their parents, or taken into one of the guilds at a very early age. The result was a very diverse mixture of educated children, who would be very knowledgeable and capable in one area, but very ignorant in others. I suspected it had something to do with the shortage of books. Back home, being able to read allowed me to access knowledge contained within tomes on any subject I cared to mention, rendering reading one of the most vital skills. Here, where knowledge was far more restricted, being able to read wasn't so important. And then there was the fact that their written language was almost impossible to learn unless one started from a very early age...they didn't know it, but they had created an educational apartheid, one where freemen would be unable to rise too quickly. And I was about to set that on its head.

    The poorer families couldn't afford tutors and their parents lacked the skills to pass on to their offspring. There was some social mobility in the city, but it took several generations for a family to rise from slavery to a wealthy and respected position, just under the Great Houses. Indeed, although I hadn't expected it, there was actually a tradition in the Great Houses of choosing wives – although not husbands – from the class just under them, believing that anyone whose family had climbed out of the gutter possessed traits that the Great Houses actually needed. A newly-made freeman would always be tainted by being a slave, but his children would be accepted without demur. Mind you, the number of slaves who climbed up was very low, yet even the promise of it kept people going without revolt.

    Lianna had been bragging about me to the other slaves and word had spread through the city. I think that many people who heard about the school thought I was mad, or believed that the low rates I was charging were a sign that everything wasn't kosher, but there were plenty of freemen and even merchants who were willing to gamble on me. Once they heard about the bras, which were selling like hot cakes, they became even more interested. The merchants in this city respected people who innovated, or introduced new ideas. Many of them had grown fat by discovering something new. I discovered that a number of my pupils were adults, rather than growing children. I didn't mind at all.

    I’d hired extra guards after the attempted robbery, stationing some of them at my house and others watching the school. I had nightmarish visions of one of my armed pupils – everyone who was entitled to wore a sword on his belt, a concept similar to the Second Amendment back home – drawing his sword and slashing one of his fellow pupils open in front of me. As it happened, there were strict traditions about what one could and could not do with a sword, but it still bothered me. Far too many school shootings back home had taken place because it was impossible to legally discipline a bully. On the other hand, I could expel at will...

    I felt nervous as I stood up in front of my first class. After some negotiations with various interested parties – deals brokered by the Crone’s priestesses – I ended up with three different subjects, at least at first. Reading and writing, numbers and bookkeeping, and hygiene. The priestesses were keen on spreading my new ideas throughout the city and had insisted on the latter. I’d used bookkeeping in the hope – probably futilely – that it would keep the Accounting Guild from recognising the oncoming storm before it was too late. The pupils were alarmingly silent as they watched me, unlike the pupils back home. But then, these pupils actually wanted to learn.

    “We open this day in the sight of the gods,” I said. It was a fairly traditional statement, I’d discovered, always used in the city when beginning a new project. “My name is Alex. This is my name.” I wrote it out on the blackboard, feeling the chalk grating under my fingers. I’d have to find some way of improving the product. “As you can see, I can write it out quickly and easily.”

    It took longer than I had expected to get the concept of ABC across, but once they had it they made remarkable progress. I should have anticipated it from the start. Here, without computers, people had to develop their memories, particularly the ones who learned a trade. They made mistakes, of course, but they rarely forgot details. It was almost embarrassing how quickly they learned, without needing any of the mnemonic tricks from back home. I watched several freemen sons gleefully sounding out their own names, time and time again, laughing at how easy it was. They wouldn't need to go to the Scribes Guild if they wanted to learn how to write, not now. By the end of the first lesson – I’d put an hour per lesson, although the tutors here often kept people in their seats for most of the day – the class had picked up the basic concept. All they needed was practice.

    The great advantage of the modern alphabet is that you can use it to write any word. If a new concept enters the language, you can still spell it out. Indeed, English included thousands of loan words drawn from Greek, Latin, French and even Arabic. And then there were the acronyms that became words in their own right, such as laser. The local script couldn't do that, not even slightly. Every new concept had to have its own letter and changes spread very slowly, if at all. No wonder social change came so slowly.

    We gathered again, thirty minutes later, for the second lesson. This one included some new pupils, younger men who believed that they didn't need to learn how to write, but needed to learn how to count. I suspected that their parents, once word started to spread, would insist that they learned how to read too, but for the moment I was content not to push it too hard. I wiped the blackboard clean, checked the time on my watch – I’d kept it under my sleeve, because it would have attracted attention – and started again.

    “This are the Alex Numerals,” I said, and wrote them out on the blackboard. I had had to claim that I’d invented them, if only to interest the merchant class. They had great respect for innovation, but far less for ideas brought in from outside the city. I had a feeling that the new numbers would spread rapidly, once they grasped the basic idea, yet for the moment they had to be introduced by stealth. And besides, I would be able to claim a small amount of money for a while from people who used the system. A very small amount of money. “One, two, three...”

    There are ten numerals in the modern system, which includes zero. When compared to the Roman system, it becomes clear that the modern system is much more flexible. Padway’s system was actually far more complex than the Roman system, something I suspected that the Accountants Guild had introduced deliberately. They didn't have anything like the stranglehold that the Scribes Guild possessed – numbers were easier to learn than words, even here – but they were powerful. They also cultivated a reputation for honesty, although I had my doubts. Double-entry bookkeeping – a concept I intended to introduce – made it a great deal easier to spot someone fiddling the books.

    It was easier to get the idea of the numbers across than the letters. Actually, once I’d explained the value of zero, the class took off like a rocket. They were far from stupid, after all, and the numbers were very simple. One of the younger boys wrote out a one followed by twenty zeros and claimed that it was too high to translate into words. He was probably right. Basic arithmetic followed; again, it was something they already understood, if only at a very basic level. I found myself wondering, suddenly, if I’d accidentally ruined my own school. The ideas would spread rapidly and others would probably copy me. I would put myself out of business!

    At the end of the class, I demonstrated the system of double-entry bookkeeping, and then dismissed the class. Lianna, who had been cooking in the backroom, brought out a bowl of stew for me and I ate it gratefully. The concept of school meals was unknown to this society as well, but it was one I was in no hurry to introduce. I had been in six schools – either as a pupil or a teacher – and none of them had served good and decent food, despite all the campaigns to serve children healthy food. Any fool could have told the idiot campaigners that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The food might have been healthy, but the kids weren't eating it if they had a choice – and the reason they weren't eating it was because they didn't like it.

    The final class was scheduled for two hours, unlike the other two. The Crone Priestesses themselves would be attending, along with as many women as they could draw in on short notice. A handful of men were also attending, although I had no idea why. Perhaps they came from the Medical Guild and wanted to learn how to actually help save their patients, or perhaps they were merely accompanying the women because they didn't trust them on their own. I had no way to tell. Some of my earlier pupils returned for the third lesson, but most of them had gone home. They weren’t interested in hygiene. Boys, it seemed, were the same everywhere.

    “There are little devils living within the body, human waste and the air,” I said, once I had passed through the ritual words and the blessing one of the priestesses insisted on making. “These devils are harmful and often deadly. You have to remove them to make the environment healthier for the patient.”

    I still hated myself for telling them that germs were devils, as if there was something supernatural about them. But no matter how hard I tried, there was no way to prove it to them. This world didn't have microscopes or even telescopes, although they might have been able to invent the latter if I gave them a push. They would have found the concept of germs unbelievable and would have refused to believe me, or would have insisted on using rites and rituals to drive the devils out, rather than simple sanitation.

    “Heat kills the devils,” I explained, as I brought out a bowl of water and placed it on the fire. Hardly anyone in the city drank water – they preferred juice or alcoholic drinks – because they knew that water could be lethal. The city didn't even have the basic sewers of Roman times. No wonder it stank so badly...although, thankfully, I had gotten used to the smell and didn’t have to go around holding my nose. “If you boil each and every item that might come into contact with a sick person, it may save their lives.”

    I ran through what I’d done while assisting with births in the city. I hadn't lost any children yet, although that was just a matter of good luck. I knew that, sooner or later, something would happen that my rudimentary medical knowledge would be unable to fix and the child - and perhaps the mother – would die. And once that happened, they would stop looking on me as a miracle worker. I found myself reminded of lawsuits back home, where the doctors were sued for everything imaginable. It would be far worse here. People remember a slap much longer than they remember a caress and I was nothing more than a foreign woman. They would wonder if I had killed the baby deliberately – there seemed to be no limits to what they would believe of the other cities – and my school would come crashing down in flames.

    Some of what I told them seemed unbelievable to them. They didn't know about disease vectors, or even that germs – little devils – could fester in human and animal waste. The city was filthy because they left manure lying everywhere, seemingly unaware that diseases would gestate in the waste. Just boiling water would save thousands of lives each year, if they believed me. I knew that what I had taught them would spread quickly. I hoped that it would be quick enough to save me. Every little cough made me panic. God knew, the fresh vegetables and fruits I obtained at the market were expensive as hell, but if I stopped eating them I might come down with scurvy. Or something worse.

    Once I’d dismissed the class, I sat down for a rest. It was broken by someone slamming open the door and marching into the classroom. I looked up sharply, one hand gripping the pistol, as the intruder – the three intruders – marched into the room. They looked like street thugs, but they wore pendants that marked them as representatives of one of the guilds. I shivered, even though self-defence was perfectly legal here. Their gazes fixed on me as they advanced. They didn't look as if they were used to questions, or being balked. Where the hell were my guards?

    “Listen you,” the first one snarled. “You’ve been defying the guild laws!”

    I pretended to consider it as I gripped the pistol tighter. They wouldn't know to be scared of it; I could have shot them all down while they were trying to grasp the concept of firearms. On the other hand, I had two clips and once they were gone, they were gone. I hadn’t even dared fire a single shot to test that they still worked. I thought the physical laws here were identical to the ones back home, but what if I was wrong?

    “Oh?” I asked, finally. “I am breaking no laws.”

    That was actually true, although only technically. I wasn't teaching accountants or scribes and I certainly wasn't working as either. If my pupils learned to do their own accounts, or write more than their own names, that wasn't against the law. I doubted that the thugs would be too impressed with that argument, however, and neither would the guilds they represented. There have always been those who are comfortable where they are and seek to prevent all progress, believing that it would ruin their positions. Padway might not have running water or a decent health care system, but it had reactionaries by the score.

    He reached for me, and then pulled back his hand. I had to smile inwardly. There were some compensations for being considered a second-class citizen because of my plumbing. A thug who attacked a woman – at least a fairly wealthy woman – could expect no mercy from his fellow citizens. Instead, he spat on the table and stomped out, followed by the other two goons. I waited until I was sure that they were gone and cleaned up the mess, before walking outside and sacking the two guards. They’d seen the guild pendants and stepped aside.

    I spent the next four days expecting the hammer to fall. I slept with one hand on my pistol and the other on a sword I had obtained at the market. Women didn't carry swords, but in this I was determined to buck convention. Deterrents only work if they are recognised by the opposition.

    When the hammer did fall, finally, it almost took me by surprise.
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    There’s a joke about lawyers. Actually, there are thousands of jokes about lawyers. What do you call a million dead lawyers? A good start. How do you know you’re going to get thoroughly screwed on your wedding night? Marry a lawyer. The contract was two sheets of paper before the lawyers got hold of it – now, we’re in trouble because they cut down an entire rainforest to write up the contact. I shouldn't have been surprised when the guilds sent a lawyer to speak to me. Actually, he was the most attractive man I’d seen since entering the city. I shouldn't have been surprised about that, either.

    He entered the school after the second class had been dismissed. “Lady Alex?” He asked. I nodded, slowly. He was thin and wiry, wearing a toga and a pair of sandals, carrying two wax tablets under his arm. He’d shaved his head completely bald, unlike most of the men in the city. That, at least, was something I could approve. I was sure that the men in the city were largely infested with lice, just through not washing their hair thoroughly. “I have been hired to serve a summons on you.”

    I took the wax tablets he offered me and made a show of reading them. Actually, I couldn't understand them at all. “You have been ordered to face a court tomorrow to discuss violations of guild law,” he informed me. My puzzlement must have shown on my face. “You will be judged by the guild masters. If found guilty, you may be fined or enslaved as punishment for violating guild law. Until then, you are ordered to halt your...classes or face immediate punishment.”

    His voice lowered. “Should you wish to hire a lawyer, apply to the Lawyers Guild no later than nine bells today,” he added. “If you wish to conduct your own defence, you may do so. Good day to you, My Lady.”

    I watched him go, scowling. After the thugs, I’d expected something to happen, but not this. I had forgotten just how well the guilds had the city sewn up. They had enough political clout to get whatever judgement they wanted, preventing the formation of independent guilds or even unaffiliated accountants or scribes. And yet, there wasn't any guild law surrounding teaching...

    Shaking my head, I called Lianna and explained, as best as I could. She couldn't read the tablets either. I left her to explain what had happened to the next class – there were enough important and powerful priestesses in the class to ensure that I would have at least some support and walked out of the building, my bodyguards following me in my wake. I needed advice and I know - thought – where to get it. My father’s advice on lawyers had been to shoot them all and piss on the remains, but I couldn't do that, if only because I didn't have enough bullets in my gun. I walked, without watching where I was going, until I reached the Brotherhood’s stronghold. I needed to speak to Brother Book.

    “I’m afraid that the tablets do say what he claimed,” Brother Book said. He’d made me wait an hour before he'd allowed me into his presence, not something calculated to put me into a good mood. I would have wondered if the guilds had somehow subverted him – the Brotherhood was a guild, if one that operated under different rules – if he hadn’t been welcoming when he'd finally invited me into his chamber. “The guilds have sworn out a complaint against you.”

    “But why?” I demanded, angrily. “What can they possibly claim I have done?”

    “I don’t think it matters,” Brother Book explained. “The important point is that they believe they have grounds for a complaint. If they can convince the judge to support them, they can close your school and even take action against you personally. They are probably trying to shut you down before your ideas can spread further.”

    The Mage looked up at me, thoughtfully. “You have upset their applecart rather badly,” he added, dryly. “What do you think they had in mind when they heard about you?”

    “I wasn't actually acting as a scribe or an accountant,” I said, sharply. “And I wasn't expecting to serve as a midwife either.”

    “They may not level that charge at you,” Brother Book said, seriously. “In fact, I would be astonished if they mentioned it at all. You were summoned by House Umbria and House Umbria is one of the most powerful houses in the city. They would be fools to drag them into the affair. House Umbria is likely to be on your side anyway, if only because you saved the life of Lord Umbria’s son, but they may not act openly to support you – if they are given the choice.”

    I felt my head spinning. “So what do I do?”

    “Fight the court case,” Brother Book said. He looked up. “I would offer more overt help if I could...”

    I understood. The Brotherhood was feared and respected throughout the city – and the world – but if they were losing their powers, they might not want to rock the boat and expose that to the gaze of their enemies. The older guilds hated the Brotherhood and would happily turn on them if they believed they had a chance of success. And besides, unlike the other guilds, the Brotherhood didn't have an effective monopoly. There were other mages.

    “Right,” I said, finally. “Should I hire a lawyer?”

    “I would advise against it,” Brother Book said. “The Lawyers Guild will come under immense pressure from the other guilds. You might discover that your lawyer is your own worst enemy.”

    I bid him farewell and walked back into the city. It was easy to convince myself that I missed the tribal life, even though it was very limiting. A woman born into the tribes could do nothing beyond work and breeding – and that was no life for anyone. The men didn't have it much better, even though they had more freedom. They were always expendable in the defence of the tribe. The city, on the other hand, was far more complex and interesting, even if it did stink. And yet, it was that very complexity that threatened to grind me down. I could see, now, what the guilds intended to do. I couldn’t hope to win the lawsuit, even if I put forward a perfect case...or could I?

    Smiling, I went to visit the Crone’s Temple and made a donation, followed by another donation at each of the other twelve Major Gods. The city seemed to worship hundreds of gods, but as I understood it, most people worshipped one or two, without denying the existence of the others. Padway seemed to lack the religious extremism of back home, with the all or nothing demands of preachers I remembered, and in some ways it was superior. My father would probably have disagreed.

    Once I was home, I ate a good meal and went to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very busy day.

    ***
    The Court sat between the temples and the mansions owned by the Great Houses. It was an impressive building, reminding me of the Senate from back home. I gathered, from listening to the crowds thronging around the Court, that the guilds had used every last scrap of influence they had to convince the Court to hear the case so quickly. It struck me that they’d made a tactical error. If they’d convinced the Court to put the date back, instead, I might well have run out of money before the case was heard.

    Inside, I was guided to a courtroom that struck me as something from a children’s book. I sat at one table, alone. A second table held a number of men I didn't recognise and one that I did. The Master of the Medical Guild met my eyes for a second, then looked away, a harsh sneer on his face. I looked up sharply as someone sat down next to me and saw the Mistress of the Seamstresses Guild. She gave me a reassuring smile and winked at me.

    “You need someone on your side,” she hissed, loudly enough to be heard at the other table. “The Crone will be represented here, even if they don't want to recognise her.”

    The third table filled up slowly, with nine judges. I recognised Lord Umbria and allowed myself the hope that he, at least, would take my side. The city seemed to operate on obligations and favours – and patronage – as much as anything else and his reputation would be diminished if he refused to support me. On the other hand, the guilds would turn on him if he refused to support them...

    I saw it, suddenly. I knew why they were so determined to take me out as quickly as possible. They saw the new learning – my innovations – as a threat to their power and their influence over the Great Houses. If I broke their stranglehold, the Great Houses might turn on them and break their power. The city remained stable because of multiple powerbases pressing against one another. And the guilds were too powerful to take on openly, as long as they remained strong for the foreseeable future. I might have more friends – and enemies – than I thought.

    The lead judge tapped the marble table and silence fell. “The court is now in session,” he announced, in a bored tone. “The guilds may state their charges.”

    I watched as the guild spokesman stood up. “My Lords,” he said, with a half-bow. “We charge the Lady Alex, of no rank or station, with defying the law of the guild and challenging the authority of the city.”

    He sat down. The judge turned to me. “Lady Alex,” he said, “do you wish to respond to the charges.”

    I stood up. “I have, but one response to the charges,” I said. “They are completely without sustenance. They are brought against me without due cause. They are, in short, lies.”

    A rustle ran through the crowd gathered at the back of the courtroom. The guild spokesman flushed angrily as he stood up, perhaps sensing that the crowd wasn't entirely on their side.

    “It has been three cycles since the Lady Alex entered our city,” he said. I made a mental note to invent clocks as soon as possible, if I could figure out how to do it. Their methods of telling the time were rough and imprecise. “In that time, she has challenged the law of the guilds. It has been set, since time out of mind, that all scribes must pay homage to the guild of the scribes. The Scribes Guild, the custodian of the written word, must be the only one to teach writing to its scribes, for to do otherwise would invite chaos. How could we have a hundred different systems without chaos?”

    I kept my face expressionless, with an effort. The hell of it was that he, at least according to his own lights, had a point. If there were variations on their style of writing, it would be impossible to keep a consistent system. The beauty of the modern writing I had introduced was that it would work everywhere, without a single misplaced letter changing the entire meaning. Even a poorly spelt word could be understood in context. For the Scribes Guild, a single misplaced line could turn an offer of peace into a declaration of war.

    He spoke on, rolling his words around the courtroom, noting how I had defied the Accountants Guild by daring to teach a whole new system of accountancy and giving a nod to how I had challenged the Medical Guild by teaching new ways of treating the sick. He passed over that quickly, as I had expected. Lord Umbria didn't look amused and neither did any of the other Lords. Indeed, I had helped one of their children survive birth too.

    “She threatens the entire foundations of our society,” he concluded. “By bringing in foreign ways, she changes us without our permission or consent. How can we allow this...violation of our law pass unpunished. I call upon you, My Lords, to ban her new methods from the city and give her the harshest of punishments.”

    He sat down as I thought, hard. In an American court, he would have been laughed out of the room, but this wasn't America. And if the judges accepted one part of the argument, they had to accept it all. They did have me dead to rights on one issue – I had practiced medicine without the permission of the Medical Guild – but if they dwelled on it, they would challenge House Umbria directly. It would have provoked social upheaval...

    I rose to my feet, careful to display the Crone’s pendent. “My Lords,” I said, silently thanking God for the drama lessons I had taken at school. I would never be a Cicero or even a Caesar, but I could speak. “The charges against me have everything, but foundation. As such, they have no stability and will blow away at the first gust of wind.”

    There were some chuckles from the representatives of the Builders Guild. They weren't involved with bringing charges against me. I hadn't been able to think of anything to offer them, although I had hired builders to improve the school and mentioned the concept of indoor plumbing to them. They had thought it odd, but had started work on designing a proper sewage system.

    “Let us bring this out into the open,” I continued. At home, I would be charged with over-acting; here, it was normal. “The Scribes Guild accuses me of acting as a Scribe. I have not done so. I do not know how to write in your language and I will never be able to learn. My pupils cannot write in your language either. How can they serve as scribes when they can neither read nor write?”

    There were more chuckles. The Master of the Scribes Guild looked as if he had bitten into a particularly sour lemon. “The Accountants Guild accuses me of acting as an Accountant. This is true only in the sense I do my own accounts. Should I not follow the example of other citizens within this great city and do my own accounts? Should I have wasted money on hiring an accountant when I can do it for myself?

    “They also charge me with teaching accountancy. I have not taught the methods used by the guild. I have taught the methods I use myself. None of my pupils have become accountants, save only two who were already members of the guild when I arrived.” And, I added silently to myself, had either been sent as spies or had risked the anger of their superiors. “They can testify that I have not taught the methods of the guild.”

    I took a breath. This was the risky part. “My noble opponent ended by mentioning how I had served as a midwife, without membership in the Medical Guild. This charge is accurate. I do not deny that I was summoned to House Umbria and charged with aiding the Lady Helda in giving birth. I do not deny that I saved her life and that of her child, the heir to House Umbria.

    “Can the Medical Guild explain what I have done wrong?” I asked, aloud. “It is a matter of record that I attempted to approach the Medical Guild with my innovations and was turned away. It is a matter of record that I have offered the knowledge, freely, to anyone who cared to ask. It is a matter of record that I have taught many, including members of the Medical Guild, and saved hundreds of lives. Would the Medical Guild answer a simple question – do they want people to live, or die?”

    This time, the rustle was much louder. I saw another familiar face – the doctor who had attended Lady Helda approaching the prosecution table and muttering inaudibly into the ear of the Medical Guild’s representative. The lead judge tapped his table and silence fell.

    “We will consider the matter,” he said, gravely.

    I watched as the judges filed out of the room, trying to remain calm. We waited for nearly an hour before the judges returned, having discussed the case in private. I would have liked to be a fly on that wall, even though it was impossible. Who knew who had argued for me and against me? I liked to think that Lord Umbria was on my side, but what about the others?

    “We have considered the matter in the sight of the gods,” the lead judge announced. “We find that the charges brought by the Scribes Guild and Accountants Guild are without foundation and are hereby dismissed. However, the charges brought by the Medical Guild are solid. The defendant was indeed in violation of guild law, although she was summoned to the Lady Helda and refusing to attend her would have had serious consequences.

    “We therefore order that the defendant is to make her medical knowledge available, without charge, to the Medical Guild,” they concluded. I allowed myself a moment of relief. It could have been a great deal worse. “The case is closed. May the gods bring their blessings to all within this room.”

    The Mistress of the Seamstresses Guild shook my hand as the judges left the room, and then whispered congratulations in my ear. I allowed her to lead me outside and buy me a drink, although I only took a couple of sips before heading back to the school. I would have to expand so I could teach the Medical Guild...

    My bodyguards shouted a warning, but it was too late. Men were coming at us from all directions, holding clubs. I was still trying to draw the pistol from my heavy robes when something struck my forehead and I crashed down into blackness.
     
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  16. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    i usually reserve my comments for after ive read the whole story
    but so far i find it quite a delicious read
     
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  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    I clawed my way back to awareness slowly. My head started to hurt the moment I regained even rudimentary awareness – and the thought of just how badly I might be injured jerked me all the way out of the darkness. A concussion would have been bad enough back home, but here – where they believed that evil forces took possession of a man and had to be released by drilling a hole in the skull – it could be lethal. I’d seen enough of how the Medical Guild treated people to have no faith at all in their care. If, of course, they were prepared to extend it to me in the first place.

    My eyes opened slowly, revealing a bright light above my head. For a moment, I believed I was back home in a hospital, with everything I’d seen since I’d seen the Sprite for the first time nothing more than a dream. The smell intruding on my nostrils – a strange combination of piss, **** and human blood – spoke more truly. I was still in the strange new world. My head was still swimming, but I forced myself to look around anyway. I had no idea how long I had been out, or what they intended to do to me.

    The room was very clearly a prison cell, not unlike the one I’d seen back at Stone Hall. I touched the walls gently and felt clay and brick, almost impregnable in this world without a hammer and chisel. I checked my robes and found another mystery. I was covered in ash. My befuddled mind couldn't make sense of it for a long moment, before understanding finally penetrated my skull. They’d tried to rape me while I’d been out of it and my Guardian had burned the would-be rapist alive. I felt a flash of hatred burning through me as I checked my pockets and belt; naturally, they’d taken everything I’d been carrying, even the pistol. I was mildly surprised that they hadn’t stripped me naked.

    It took all of my determination to stand up and my treacherous head kept threatening to explode. I felt as if I were going to be sick and swallowed hard, determined not to show that much weakness if I were being watched. This world might not have had tiny surveillance cameras and video recorders, but it sure as hell had peepholes and hidden niches that could hide a silent observer. I’d seen some of them in the Great Houses and had been amused, particularly when I had realised that one secret passageway allowed the young men of the house to spy on the chambermaids in their quarters. It only took a few seconds to scan the entire room. There was nothing in the room, but an uncomfortable bed – without sheets – and a Sprite-light that produced a pallid, inhuman glow. It lent an unearthly air to the tiny room.

    I stepped over to the door – nearly falling and cracking my skull against the floor – and examined the lock. It looked primitive, unsurprisingly, and I suspected that I could have picked it with ease, if I had the right tools. A quick check of my robes revealed nothing, not even a hairpin, that could be used to unpick the lock. The door itself was solid wood – what the locals called hardwood – and it would be impossible to demolish without the right tools. On impulse, I checked the hinges and realised that they were all on the wrong side of the door. I was trapped.

    “Damn,” I said, as mildly as I could. I didn't want to shout loudly and alert anyone who happened to be on the other side. “What now?”

    I suspected they wouldn’t expect me to do anything, once I was a prisoner, but then they didn't have a very good opinion of women in general. Or perhaps they didn't care, trusting in their prison cell to hold me firmly in place until they decided my fate. I swallowed a series of curses and checked the room again. Given how badly I had offended the guilds – if it was the guilds who had organised my kidnapping – they weren't likely to treat me kindly. The best I could look forward to was being enslaved again. In fact, they’d made a mistake by leaving me here. If I had been in their place, I would have called a mage in at once and hit me with another obedience spell. I couldn't have done anything against that...

    A thought struck me and I looked up, directly at the Sprite-light. It was nothing more than a glowing ball of light, hanging from the ceiling...with a tiny humanoid figure in the centre of the glow. My heart went out to the poor creature and I stood up, reaching out towards the glowing light. At the back of my mind, a voice was warning of the danger of being burned, but nothing stopped me as I touched the light. The humanoid creature – one of the lesser or least sprites, I guessed – stopped its creaseless spinning. I had the sense that it was looking back at me.

    The Brotherhood had been puzzled by my ability to sense – even see – all of the Sprites, even if they were invisible to the common man. I’d picked up enough to know that manipulating Sprites was a talent and a person born without the talent – all men, of course – would never be able to control the Sprites. They banned women from learning magic and killed those few they found performing magic; indeed, it was a fear that seemed to exist at all levels of society. The tribesmen had taken me to Stone Hall because they’d feared that I was a witch and hoped that the Brothers would be able to deal with me.

    Carefully, I reached out again, a half-formed impulse in my mind. The Sprite seemed to shimmer closer, a wavering figure of white light, and touched my fingers. There was no pain, just a sense of...communion. I could feel the Sprite’s emotions and flickering thoughts, each one largely incomprehensible to me. No, one thought was very clear; it was a prisoner, just as much as I was. The more I pushed my mind into the creature, the more I could see the invisible chains binding it and holding it firmly in place. This world had never developed lanterns because the Sprites filled that particular niche. No wonder the Brotherhood was so powerful and feared...and no wonder they were scared, if they were losing their control over the Sprites. They’d lose everything they had.

    The brilliant white light covered my hands, as if I were carrying shimmering water. On impulse, I withdrew my hands from the light and the Sprite came with me, its shimmering form glowing against my hands. I looked down in wonder as it changed, becoming stronger and brighter, yet still attached to me. It dawned on me, suddenly, that I had broken one set of bonds and bound the tiny creature to me instead. If the Brotherhood heard about this...

    Or perhaps they did. There was no way to know just how powerful and capable they actually were. For all I knew, I had done nothing remarkable.

    I lifted the glowing light and whispered to it, hoping that I could be understood. “Open the door and I will let you go,” I said, slowly. The Brotherhood’s experts took longer to harness and control a Sprite, I thought. I had no idea if this half-baked idea would work. The Sprite stayed still for a handful of seconds, then jumped off my hand and flashed through the air towards the door. The light merged with the door, there was a clicking sound...and then it was gone. I felt it returning to whatever it belonged.

    A sound from outside brought me back to myself and I threw myself through the door. A single guard, sitting at a table drinking a large mug of beer, was stumbling to his feet, astonishment written all over his face. I still felt dizzy, but there was no time to do anything, apart from fight. I jumped him and punched him right in the throat. He staggered backwards and I kicked him as hard as I could in the groin. It didn't seem to have quite the impact it should have had, but he bent over anyway and I whacked him in the face, which sent him stumbling to the ground. I kicked him in the head as hard as I could and watched him black out. It must have been something of a relief by then.

    I shook my head in disbelief as I searched my erstwhile gaoler. If these bastards learned to take a female opponent seriously, I might be in trouble. More trouble, I reminded myself, as I pocketed the handful of silver and bronze coins in his belt pouch. If I survived, was going to have to return to the Seamstresses Guild and introduce the concept of pockets. The sword he’d carried on his belt was poorly maintained and showed the telltale signs of rust, but it was serviceable. My father would have walloped me if I’d treated any of his private collection of weapons in such a disgraceful fashion.

    For a moment I hesitated, wondering if I should slit the throat of the bastard before I left the room. If he died, he’d no longer be a threat to me...but it was clear that he wasn’t one of the big bosses. And I didn't have anything against him personally; he wasn't one of the bastards who’d tried to rape me. They were all dead. I gave him a final kick in the head, just to make sure, and slipped out of the door. I found myself in a stone corridor, illuminated only by Sprite-lights. I considered trying to free all of the sprites before realising that it would be a waste of time. I had to get out of here before the big bosses came back and discovered that their guard had been knocked out and their prisoner was missing. I slipped back into the antechamber, tore off my leggings and part of my robe, and then headed along the corridor. I might no longer be decent, at least by local standards, but it was much easier to move and fight like this. And besides, I added mentally, if they were distracted by the sight of my bare legs, all the better. I could kill them while they were staring.

    I found a tiny staircase that led upstairs and started to walk upwards, slowly. The stone corridors felt more homely here, somehow, but I couldn't understand why until I saw a young woman at the other end of the corridor. Her back was facing me, yet I didn't need that to know that she was a serving girl, taking the food to her master. My tummy rumbled as the smell of roast meat reached my nostrils, much to my distress. I needed food badly. How long had I been out? I caught sight of a window and looked out into a darkening sky. I deduced that I had been out for several hours, unless they’d kept me out for longer than a day. They might not have had drugs that could have kept me under safely, but a sprite would have been able to keep me down...and if they had had access to such magic, why hadn't they enchanted me when they’d had the chance.

    My thoughts were interrupted by a noise from behind me. I spun around and cursed. Something was clearly wrong with my ears, because I hadn’t heard the serving girl at all before she made a noise. She was staring at me, unable to believe her eyes. I acted instinctively and lunged at her, knocking her to the ground and cracking her head against the stone floor. I felt a flash of guilt as she made a muffled cry – I’d put one of my hands on her mouth, more through luck than judgement – and collapsed. I rolled off her quickly and came up, sword in hand, as another servant appeared at the door. The kitchen boy – or whatever he was – had no time to react before I sliced open his arm. He let out a terrifying cry and stumbled backwards, so I kicked him in the groin. He doubled over and collapsed, gasping in pain. I didn't have time to deal with him, so I kicked him in the head and trusted that that would keep him from getting up anytime soon. I ran forward, into the kitchen, and surprised a remarkably fat woman cooking in front of a fire. Before she could turn, I cracked her on the head with the flat of my blade. She tottered forward and I had to grab her before she stumbled into the fire and burned alive. I’d seen too many people burned alive in my life. One had been more than enough.

    I turned back to my other victims and pulled them into the kitchen. The serving girl was still aware, somehow, so I pulled some cord from a nearby shelf and used it to bind her arms. I bound the other two as well, knowing that even if the kitchen boy didn't die of his wounds, he was very likely to end up with an infected arm. Here, something that could be treated back home with a course of antibiotics and rest could only be treated by amputation. I’d seen too many people after they’d lost limbs, thanks to the Medical Guard. I felt another flash of rage, rage at their stupidity and their primitive mindset, as I bound his wounds as best as I could. Once they were all secure, I stood up and looked around. I didn't dare take anything from the water jugs in the room, but I did manage to find some roast pork and bread. I hesitated before eating it – there are good and sound reasons for a religious ban on pork, because the pig is a very unclean animal – and then took the first bite. Like many of the dishes in the city, it was cook so thoroughly that it was short of actual flavour, but it tasted like the finest meal in the world at that moment. I finished two sandwiches – I made a mental note to introduce that idea as well – and then turned to my captives. The serving girl and the kitchen boy were still out of it, but the cook was staring up at me, wide-eyed. I had the uneasy feeling that she’d probably be blamed everything that had happened, even though it was hardly her fault. This culture seemed to positively enjoy shooting the messenger. Look what they’d tried to do to me!

    “All right,” I said to the cook, as I removed the cloth I’d stuffed in her mouth. It isn't as easy to gag people in real life as it is in the movies and I’d stuffed in enough cloth to be certain. She’d probably come far too close to suffocation. “If you answer my questions, you won’t get hurt. Understand?”

    She nodded, mutely. “Good,” I said, as I pulled out the last piece of cloth. “First question: where am I?”

    The cook looked as if she didn't believe that I’d asked that question, so I picked up the sword and held it to her ample chest. “You’re in House Perrin,” she stammered. I stared at her. I had assumed that the guilds had kidnapped me, but it seemed that I was wrong. House Perrin...I knew about House Perrin, all right. Once one of the greatest Houses in the city; now, perhaps, the poorest of the Great Houses. They were the ultimate aristocrats, making do on what little income they got from their remaining lands, without lowering themselves to doing any actual work. “I...I’m just the cook!”

    “Very well,” I said. I could sort out the mystery of why House Perrin had decided to kidnap me later. “I had some possessions with me when I was brought here. What happened to them?” She shook her head madly, clearly convinced that I would kill her for failing to answer. “If you don’t know that, where is your master?”

    “The Lord is at dinner with a few of his friends,” the cook said, desperately. I listened to her directions, and then picked up the cloth again. “Please, just let us go and...”

    She shut up as I stuffed the cloth back in her mouth. I took one last look around the kitchen, looking for anything I could use, and picked up a handful of items before heading out the door. It struck me that I could have stripped the serving girl, donned her clothes and an inbred moron like Lord Perrin probably wouldn't have noticed the difference, but I decided that it would be a bad idea. Far better to find my possessions and depart quickly. I followed the cook’s directions, keeping a wary eye out for guards or other servants, even though I expected to see none. House Perrin was simply too poor to build a proper private army.

    I heard the voices from a distance and froze, pressing myself against a statue of Lokane, one of their gods. The name Lokane was so similar to Loki that I wondered if there hadn’t been some truth to the legends after all, for the two gods had similar natures. Lokane was a trickster god, bringing favour to those who gambled wildly and well, but never trustworthy in the long run. Or it could just have been a coincidence. One of the depictions of the Crone presented her as a woman with seven sets of arms.

    “I thought that you were a great sorcerer when I hired you,” a voice was shouting. I had no difficulty in deducing that that was Lord Perrin. “And you cannot remove her Guardian?”

    I smiled – I knew who they were talking about, all right – and slid forward to listen.
     
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  18. jasonl6

    jasonl6 Monkey+

    I've been enjoying this read. Keep it coming :)

    Jason
     
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  19. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    the waiting for more is agonizing, just so you know :)
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Lord Perrin was not a happy man. It became alarmingly clear as he raged at his ally.

    “I do not want excuses,” he snapped, as he banged something against a stone table. “Why are you unable to perform a simple task?”

    The second voice was lower and slimy. “My Lord,” he said, “I am, but a simple mage, with power over the lesser of the Sprites. The Mage who gave her the Guardian knows so much more than I. Removing a Guardian is not a simple task...”

    “I told you I don't want excuses,” Lord Perrin snapped, as I pressed myself closer to listen. “I want you to remove the Guardian now! Have you even determined its orders?”

    The Mage sounded reluctant to hazard a guess. “Well?” Lord Perrin said. “Should I go hire this Mage for my service?”

    “The Guardian stepped in to prevent your men from...taking their pleasure with her,” the Mage said, finally. “We must assume that it would act to prevent her enchantment or death as well.”

    I winced, inwardly. I’d been under an enchantment until the Guardian had manifested for the very first time. For all I knew, I could be enchanted again without activating the Guardian; hell, it sounded as if it had been nothing more than good luck that they even knew I had a Guardian. I was damned if I was going to be grateful to the would-be rapist who was now burning in hell, yet he might have saved my life and my freedom of thought.

    “So remove it,” Lord Perrin ordered. He picked up something that made a metallic clunk when he put it down. “My artificers have been unable to tell me how her damned tools work. Magic, they say, magic – except you say that there is no magic in them! The damned woman has turned the city upside down and you can’t even tell me how she’s done it!”

    “My Lord...”

    I had to smile at his beseeching tone. “Silence,” Lord Perrin snapped. “You will remove that Guardian by first light tomorrow, or you will be looking for a new place of employment.”

    There was a sound of someone scraping back a chair. “I will be in my bedchamber,” he added. “I shall expect to see you at first light.”

    I pressed myself back into an alcove as the Mage fairly ran out of the door and down the corridor. He was a weasel-like man, reminding me of a used-car salesman who had sold me a clunker that had eaten up twice its cost in repair fees over the first year. I prayed that he hadn't seen me as I ran past, but the game was about to be up anyway. Once he got downstairs and found that I was no longer in the cell, he’d know that I was wandering around somewhere. I slipped out of the alcove, glad I’d had the chance to eat, and walked forward. If I was very lucky...

    Lord Perrin’s chamber was remarkably luxurious, even if it didn't have hot and cold running water and all the other comforts that would be taken for granted back home. It was decorated with statues – some clearly of gods and goddesses, others of naked women in provocative poses – and paintings, including a couple that made me blush. They didn't hold my attention for more than a few seconds, however; my eyes flickered across the room and alighted on the heavy stone table. My pistol, coins and watch lay there. I slipped into the room, heedless of possible danger, and scooped up the pistol with one hand. It was still in perfect condition. The artificers Lord Perrin had mentioned hadn't been able to open it up, or perhaps they hadn't tried. They would never have seen a pistol before and would have had great difficulty understanding what it was, let alone how to duplicate it.

    I must have made a noise, for a heard a thundering bellow from the next room. “Girl,” Lord Perrin shouted, furiously. I found myself bridling at the tone of utter superiority in his voice and the imperious demand that I obey. “Get in here right now, or report to the housemaster for a whipping!”

    The pistol felt solid and reassuring in my hand as he barged through the door, clearly intent on punishing whichever servant had dared disturb him while he was undressing. His eyes went very wide as soon as he saw me, and then he lifted his belt from his trousers and came towards me. I wondered, for a split second, if he was completely insane, and then I remembered that he had no idea what the pistol did. I aimed carefully, pulled the trigger, and the gun jerked in my hand. The chances were good that the gunshot would have been heard throughout the mansion, even though no one would actually know what had caused it. I had the feeling that the servants were used to loud noises from their master’s private bedroom.

    Lord Perrin stumbled back, clutching at his chest. He looked as if he didn't understand what had happened, even though my shot had gone slightly wide of target. If I ever got home, I’d be laughed out of the shooting club I’d joined as young girl. I’d hit him in the chest and, if he was very lucky, he might even survive. Unless, of course, I shot him again. I walked forward and stared into his eyes as he gasped and moaned. I’ll say one thing for him; he wasn't screaming or calling for his mother. Even for the Lords, pain was a regular part of their lives. There was no morphine or aspirin here.

    “If you want to live, answer my questions,” I snarled. Inside, I was shaking. I’d knocked men down and out before, but it was the first time I’d ever shot someone with a gun. My father had told me that killing shouldn't come easy, and yet I’d shot him with something very akin to glee. I’d wanted him to die. “Why did you kidnap me.”

    He swore in a language I didn't recognise, and then glared up at me. “What does it matter, foreigner bitch?” He snarled, between gasps. The bullet had lodged itself in his chest, I guessed. The Medical Guild’s finest doctor would have problems removing the bullet without infecting the wound. I remembered how alcohol could be used to sterilise wounds and made a mental note to see what the Brewers Guild could produce for me. “You are not...”

    I pointed the gun against his nose, and then pocketed it, drawing my stolen sword instead. He'd understand a threatening sword, unlike a gun. Being shot was so alien to him that he probably still hadn't registered quite what had happened. The sword, on the other hand...I saw his eyes following the gleaming blade as I moved it down to his crotch, threatening to emasculate him. A dark stain appeared between his legs and I wrinkled my nose in disgust. He’d lost control and wet himself.

    “Tell me or I kill you,” I said, flatly. “Why did you kidnap me?”

    “Devil woman,” he swore, angrily. At this rate, he was likely to kill himself rather than anyone else. “You turned the entire city upside down. The knowledge you gave away could have transformed my house and restored our fortune. We could have been great again.”

    I frowned. His story made sense. If he’d realised that my innovations were a potentially limitless source of revenue for whoever controlled them – and me – he might well have decided to gamble. His choice of god – Lokane – actually made that much more plausible. The trickster god smiled on those who gambled and Lord Perrin had risked much, including the wrath of the Medical Guild. The Court had ordered that they had free access to my medical knowledge and I’d agreed, knowing that they’d be more likely to accept it if they thought they’d forced me to give it to them. And I knew how to make gunpowder and basic weapons. I could have given Lord Perrin the keys to far more than just the city. I could have given him an entire country.

    “You could have asked,” I mocked. Would I have worked with him? Perhaps I would have done, if there had been no other choice. I had the distant feeling that working with Lord Perrin would have ended with my death once I’d taught them everything they could use. “And now...you have to bargain for your life.”

    I had no expectation that he would keep any bargain he made at sword-point, but it gave me time to think. He offered gold, and then money or land, if I would only allow him to live. Privately, I suspected he wouldn't have had long to live even if I hadn't shot him. His strong body was turning to fat and it was clear that he indulged himself far more than was good for him. There might not have been any tobacco here, but the local analogue was probably more addictive and dangerous. And there was no anti-smoking mafia to bully the producers into making healthier products.

    My ears pricked up as I heard an outraged shout from downstairs. Someone had discovered that I was gone. If I was really lucky, the Mage with the inferiority complex might believe that the Brotherhood had sent another Greatest Sprite to retrieve me, but I couldn't count on it. I considered, for a moment, slicing Lord Perrin’s head off, before I realised that it would be a very bad idea. Lord Perrin’s son would take his father’s place and fight a vendetta against me. And everyone in the upper classes would support his right to avenge his father, never mind the fact that his father had kidnapped me and tried to have me raped.

    I slammed the flat of the sword down on Lord Perrin’s head and watched as he crumpled to the door. I privately gave him no odds of surviving the night, but he might survive – particularly if the doctor had learned from me. I turned and ran to the door, just as a man approached from another passage. His eyes went wide when he saw me and I shot him neatly between the eyes. He staggered backwards and collapsed in a lifeless heap. I jumped over his body and fled towards the stairs. If Lord Perrin’s mansion was comparable to the others I had seen, there would be no more than four floors in all in the building and I would be on the third. I saw a young girl – no more than twelve – come out of her bedroom and stare at me. I nearly shot her before I realised that she was harmless, pushed her back into her room, and ran onwards. I needed to get out before they summoned reinforcements from the City Guard.

    The roof suddenly opened up and I cursed my disorientation. Like many of the mansions, Lord Perrin’s mansion had a pool in the centre of the building, open to the sky. The pool glimmered below me, inviting in the moonlight, but there was no time to waste. I turned and fled back through the corridors, hoping that I hadn't lost too much time. The entire household would be awake by now. I heard a bell ringing somewhere above me, sounding the alarm. The City Guard would hear it and they’d be coming, or Lord Perrin’s influence would be used to break the career of their commander. I hated them all in that moment, the men and women who had inherited their positions through nothing more than having chosen the right parents in the birth lottery. If I managed to introduce democracy, they'd swiftly discover what the people thought of them.

    I pushed that thought aside as I found the main staircase, the one for visitors, and hurled myself down it. The guard at the bottom of the stairs looked hopelessly confused and I slashed out at him, cutting into his side, before he had a chance to react. I’d never studied sword-fighting before, apart from a month of fencing at summer camp. Sheer luck allowed me to get in the first blow. I slashed out again and the man’s throat was cut wide open. His dead body collapsed to the ground.

    “Stop,” a voice bellowed. It was loud enough to have been magnified by a loudspeaker. I saw the Mage standing there, resplendent in his red and yellow robes. “I command you to stop, in the name of...”

    I lifted the pistol and pulled the trigger. The bullet flashed towards him...and bounced, hitting an invisible field surrounding him. He might not have known what a bullet was, or what it did, but he’d warded himself against attack. I saw the surprise on his face and turned to flee, just before he started to chant in an unfamiliar language, words that seemed to resonate in my head. Each word sent an electric shock through my mind.

    The feeling of static electricity grew stronger, then I saw the Sprite taking form in front of the Mage. It grew rapidly into a translucent parody of a human form, with long sharp teeth and uncanny claws. Bright red eyes fixed on me with inhuman malice. The sight held me frozen for a long moment, and then the Mage barked a command into the air and the Sprite floated towards me. It didn't have to hurry. I could sense its anticipation and cold pleasure at the thought of devouring me, whatever commands it might have been given to take me alive. Somehow, using all of my strength, I lifted the pistol and shot the Sprite. The bullet passed through it harmlessly. It laughed, a high-pitched sound that resonated in my head even after I clamped my hands over my ears, and lunged towards me. I staggered backwards as its claws seemed to extend through my body, each touch sending cold ice running down my spine. It was going to kill me...

    And then something else was there. I fell down, my bottom hitting the ground hard enough to jar me out of my paralysis, as another Sprite materialised in front of the first. This one was a flaming humanoid figure, reaching towards the first Sprite with flaming hands. It opened its mockery of a mouth and spewed flame towards the first Sprite. The first Sprite howled in agony and made motions with its translucent hands, deflecting what it could of the flame. The Mage was not so lucky. Only a tiny flicker of flame reached him, but his entire body caught fire and he was swallowed up, screaming, by the fire.

    My eyes hurt as the battle raged, but I couldn't look away. I could tell, somehow, that the real battle was taking place on another plane of existence – where the Sprites dwelled, perhaps? The savage interplay of flickering light and fire drove me backwards, my eyes stinging with tears that evaporated as soon as they dropped into my eyes. I saw, just for a second, other planes of existence, with the Sprites both existing on far more levels than we puny humans had ever comprehended...and then there was a blinding flash of light and they were both gone, leaving behind a smouldering mansion. Fire was spreading through the entire building.

    I turned and ran, right towards the door. No one tried to bar my way and I flung the main door open, running down the driveway towards the garden wall and freedom. I saw a gaggle of people at the main gate – private guards arguing with the City Guard and the firewatchers, I guessed – and altered my path, running towards a darkened part of the wall. If I was lucky, if what I’d seen before still held true, it would be easy to get out, but much harder to get in. I scratched my hand on something as I climbed up and over the wall and cursed, before turning to look back at the house. The fire was spreading rapidly, even though the servants were doing their best to put it out before it spread to the entire building. They’d be draining the pool in the centre of the building to save their lives.

    Lord Perrin would have problems recovering from this disaster, I told myself, as I jumped over the wall and down to the road. There were hundreds of curious onlookers in the distance and I headed in the other direction. In my state of undress, at least by local customs, they’d probably think I was a hooker. Padway had all kinds of prostitutes, including one religion that insisted that its followers – mainly women – had to give themselves to a random man one day every year. They were normally patronised by the middle-classes. The upper classes had household servants to take care of their sexual needs.

    I found myself shaking as I stumbled down the road, careful to remain in the shadows as much as possible. I’d killed. I’d killed at least five men, perhaps more if the fire caught them before they could escape. And I didn't even know what had happened then. If the Mage had called a Sprite and my Guardian had reacted...or what? And I had killed. Cold logic told me that it had been either them or me, with my life reduced to slavery or simple death, but cold logic was no comfort. I walked the rest of the way home – and I had come to think of it as home – with my mind spinning in confusion. I had killed.

    There were lights in the house when I knocked on the door and, after a moment, Lianna opened it. As soon as she recognised me, she gave me a hug and pulled me indoors. Obelix – nursing a black eye that looked battered against his dark skin – stood up and began to mumble profound apologies. I tried to tell him that it wasn't his fault, kissed him on the forehead and stumbled upstairs to bed. If everything caught up with me, I told myself, at least I would have had a good night’s sleep.

    I was out before my head hit the pillow.
     
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