“See what I mean, Master Gorean?” My diminutive guide pointed to me and shook his head, briefly revealing pointed ears as his long black hair swung to the side. “Danek does not even know who you are — his own father!”
I looked over at my supposed father again. No. Right age, but my dad wasn’t an athlete, and this guy filled the dimly lit log cabin. He looked like he could lift a car with his bare hands. At least six inches taller than my own father, he towered over the small, elfin figure of Jobb, and beneath his full salt and pepper beard, bulging muscles strained the rough home-spun shirt he wore.
I sighed. “I keep telling you, I know perfectly well who I am. My name is–”
“–Davebrennan and you claim to be of some royal house of some place called Prussia.” My guide’s ears flashed again as he interrupted. “Delusions of grandeur. He is. . .”
My “father” held up a hand and spoke for the first time, in a deep echoing voice that fit the massive body perfectly.
“Jobb: Show more respect! If all at once my son thinks he is a prince or something, there must be a reason. Did you check to see if–”
“I’m not hurt!” This was ridiculous. I was having enough trouble adjusting to the fact that I was suddenly able to walk for the first time in six years, and that I now had a muscular body and a beard of my own. Damn, the thing itched!
I tried again. “I never said I was royalty. I’m from King of Prussia. It’s a suburb of Philadelphia. . . Pennsylvania? The United States? Earth?” This was getting silly. Nothing. “Where the hell are we? I thought I was dreaming. . . that I was lying in a hospital somewhere. . .” A flash of memory overwhelmed me briefly. A blaring truck air horn and blinding light as the wet Schuylkill expressway flashed by at seventy miles an hour. . . a numbing shock and then. . . the image faded and just left a vague ache.
I looked around the immaculately clean, but primitively furnished room. “I guess this is real. But where am I? This looks like some museum exhibit on the Middle Ages.”
The room took up the entire log cabin we were in, though the back part was shielded by a hanging curtain. The cabin was probably about twenty by fifteen, and made of roughly cut, but precisely fitted logs that were joined by smoothed plaster of some sort. The low plank ceiling was held up by vertical beams and the floor was made of carefully polished boards with beautiful grain patterns that were hidden in many places by woven straw mats. Sturdy wood furniture was scattered around, and a rough-cast iron stove took up the middle of the room.
Jobb started to answer, but was stopped again by a quick wave from Gorean as he fixed me with an intense stare.
“Just call me Dave.”
“Dave. . . strange name. Dave, Jobb tells me he found you wandering around on the road to the village and that you did not recognize him, or anyone, or anything on the way back here. He said you were muttering about comas and delusions and star journeys. What star journeys were you talking about? That is something only Adepts can do.”
“Treks, not journeys. I thought I was having a dream and I was just bitching about having a fantasy one instead of a science fiction one. It’s a great T.V. show. . . never mind. You don’t even have electricity.” Their obvious confusion stopped me again and I tried a different approach.
“When I woke up, I thought I was lying unconscious in a hospital, a place of healing, dreaming after a. . . an accident.” That at least seemed to satisfy them. Then I remembered something Gorean had said and leaned forward. “What do you mean by star journeys and Adepts?”
Gorean ignored me, frowning as he turned to Jobb. “Go, get Turek the Healer. He is an Adept. He may be able to discover what has happened.”
Jobb ducked past the leather flap of the door and I stared after him. The small man had been the first. . . person I had encountered after waking up in the middle of a sunlit meadow — awakened without my wheelchair and dressed in rough homespun clothes. I had been wearing a scratchy brown tunic and stiff gray pants held up by a rope belt and tucked into surprisingly well-made leather boots. Not that I had been inclined to be too upset by my change of clothes. I had been too busy cursing the most incredible headache I had ever experienced. It had taken me over an hour to get over it and to discover to my delight that I was able to walk for the first time in six years; shakily at first. It had been so long that it had felt. . . a little scary, actually. But I had also discovered that I was not only healthy, but disgustingly strong. I had been able to casually snap a two-inch-thick branch in half without even straining.
But I also smelled like I hadn’t had a bath in a week, and I thought back to my awakening…
* * *
As the euphoria over my miraculous cure wore off, I started exploring and soon spotted a trail. Picking a direction at random, I followed it until I saw a small village in the distance. As I walked, I breathed in with delight the most incredibly clear and pure air I had ever encountered, while overhead, the sun was beating down almost too generously. Such an incredible contrast from the muggy, rain-driven night that was my last memory. . . I had been driving, too fast, on the rain-slick night-time expressway and then. . . I must have had an accident.
And I had awakened here in the middle of another century in bright sunlight?
I decided I was probably just having an incredibly real hallucination while on an O.R. table somewhere. Considering how fast I had been going, it was probably just as well, and I decided to just relax and enjoy it. At least it was a nice day.
The tall trees that surrounded me had obviously never seen organized logging, and the village I was approaching looked like an illustration from a text on medieval Europe. Definitely an interesting if, for me, unusual dream.
Then I came across a small man riding a good-sized. . . “mule” was the best description I could think of. Except it had stripes. Black stripes on a dark brown coat. The small — under four-feet tall — rider was a shock, too. He had green-complexioned skin and pointed ears — but was not at all logical or unemotional. He greeted me enthusiastically, and then teased me about having had about too much wine the night before. As he dismounted, he ribbed me about some girl called Coneea, wondering what I had done with her.
Jobb, as he introduced himself when he realized I really didn’t recognize him, decided I was suffering from a lot more than a hangover and brought me to my “father’s” house. That was when it had finally sunk in that I wasn’t having a particularly vivid dream. The sights, sounds — and smells — of the village were just too intense and too detailed to be anything but real. . .
* * *
And now Jobb was fetching a “healer” who was an “Adept”, and who was able to “star journey”. I felt my headache coming back.
“Lie back,” Turek ordered. “And be quiet.” A claw-like hand pushed me back on the cot, and I gave up trying to explain to the wizened old man who I was. I wanted to ask him what was going on, but he just kept puttering around with various aromatic herbs and liquids, mixing up a vile-looking mixture that actually smelled deliciously familiar somehow.
Finally he was done and he pushed a beaker of the scummy green-and-yellow liquid at me. “Here, drink it.”
I closed my eyes; until the smell caught my attention: Popcorn! It smelled like fresh buttered popcorn. What the hell? I drank it.
It was warm and smooth and tasted absolutely wonderful, warming me through and through as I felt it spread out in my body.
“What is this stuff?” I held out the beaker to Turek.
He shrugged. “I know. It tastes awful, but it works. It will help liberate your mind so I can enter it. Obviously you were lying about star journeying if you don’t recognize a standard journey-potion.” He frowned and I started to explain, but gave up as he wasn’t paying attention.
“Now lie back,” he ordered, and shoved me down again as he perched himself beside me, humming softly and closing his eyes.
The soft droning grew hypnotic after a few minutes, and the room blurred. I felt my body slip away as I suddenly thought about Sarah and our last meeting…
. . .the room started spinning. . .
* * *
“I’m sorry, Dave. It’s not as if I haven’t been straight with you.” She didn’t pull back physically, but her brown eyes skipped away, and I felt as if someone had just dumped a bucket of ice-water over me. What was wrong?
Face to face. She was perfect. Rejected by a lot of men because of her shortness, her slender, four-foot-six frame put her at the perfect height for a man in a wheelchair — like me. We were able to go out and feel almost normal; side by side in the shopping malls or along the street. It was a new experience for both of us. No craning of necks for either of us. It’s hard to feel like you’re really “with” someone when they’re a couple of feet above you.
It had been a year, and I had been surreptitiously shopping for an engagement ring, knowing that this time, with Sarah, I had finally found my other half. That’s what it had felt like. The past year I had finally felt complete; as if I had been walking, and then rolling along, as only half a man before meeting Sarah. She fit my arms, my life, my dreams, perfectly. I just had to work on winning over her father, who didn’t approve of me — not because of my M.S. but because I wasn’t Jewish! But I figured he would come around because her mom had been wonderful and welcomed me when I had “met the family” the first time. So I had figured it was time for the next step. Until now.
“I want a commitment, too, you know.” Her face suddenly mirrored my own pain. “I am so sick and tired of being alone.” She reached out to touch my face gently. “I don’t mean with you. This past year had been wonderful. I’ve needed it. I had a lot of doubts at first, but it really has been good. You’ve helped me in a lot of ways. But as I’ve been telling you, this. . . you and I. . . it isn’t what I am really looking for, for the rest of my life. I need to know that the man I commit to will be there twenty, thirty years down the line. I want someone who I can do things with without having to take half of our time making preparations. I want someone–”
“–you can go lie or run on the beach with, go swimming with — make love with normally,” I finished. She was right. This was nothing new. She had told me all this before — that and more. She had warned me not to build up any hopes or expectations, but I had lost sight of it because of our increasing closeness over the past month. So close!
I pulled her tight, feeling her body against me as she stood between my legs in front of the wheelchair. Her arms crept around me and hugged tight. She felt my pain, I knew, and I realized absently that this had to be hard for her, too. But at the moment, all I could focus on was the empty feeling in my chest and the sick twisting in my stomach.
Her floral-scented hair tickled my nose and I fought an urge to sneeze, shifting my face as the fresh scent of her black curls surrounded me. I felt the tears running down my face and wondered why the hell my nose was suddenly stopping up.
A burning surge of rage overwhelmed me for a moment and I felt my hands clench into fists behind Sarah’s back. Why? What was wrong with me?
My hands relaxed and the pain came back. I couldn’t be angry at her. I loved her. I let go and leaned back, feeling wet lines run down my cheeks. . .
* * *
For a moment the world shimmered and I had an impression that I was lying down in a dark room somewhere with an old man looking down over me and muttering. . .
“. . .a little too soon. But informative. It sets the stage. A little later. . .”
The voice faded and I. . .
* * *
. . .I was driving. The expressway was a wet blur in my headlights. I didn’t want to be late for work. . . Why not? Who the hell cared? What was the point anymore?
The road was nearly empty, and I noticed absently that the speedometer was hovering around seventy-five. No real complaints other than an increasingly loud metallic shimmy from the wheelchair lift that always started up right around fifty five — my own little state-trooper. Not bad for a ten-year-old van with 150,000 miles on it.
Idly I wondered what would happen if I would ram a solid wall at this speed. That would take care of the pain.
Nah. My luck, I’d survive and wind up as a quadriplegic instead of just a paraplegic. Besides, I had too many other projects going and I didn’t like giving up. Still, for a brief moment, the urge to just quit was overwhelming. I was so tired of being alone, and if Sarah wouldn’t have me — if someone who so perfectly complemented and connected with me, couldn’t see herself together with me, then who the hell else would? My hands tightened on the steering wheel and I felt my eyes burn again.
Then I got mad at myself. Damn it! I had not given up when the M.S. had floored me, and I wasn’t going to do so now. . .
Suddenly, a loud truck horn. . . bright lights, an incredible metallic shock. . .
. . .a wash of heat and the world spun around me so fast that I blacked out.
* * *
“That is it!” A geriatric chuckle, and with a shock I woke up on the cot, staring up at Turek’s cracked and smiling face. “A transfer. I suspected as much from what Jobb told me, but it has been a long time.”
“A ‘transfer’? What’s that?” I was still a little woozy from Turek’s potion.
“It is when two souls switch worlds. It is very rare because the circumstances have to be just right; both emotionally and physically–”
I levered myself up on my elbows. “Switching–?”
“Be quiet!” Gorean commanded. “Go on, Turek. I remember a long time ago my father said something about there being a shadow world somewhere that sometimes touches ours. What is it?”
“He,” Turek nodded at me, “is not your son. He is in your son’s body and because of it he can speak and understand our language, though he doesn’t realize it. But he is actually a man from that shadow world, though we are the shadow to his world. It has not happened for a long time, but once in a while, two compatible individuals, one in each world, are geographically close at the same time as they are emotionally and intellectually in similar frames of mind, and in such an instance, a switch can occur.”
“Wait a minute,” I sat up and rubbed my aching forehead. “I’ve read all sorts of stories of things like that, but they’re fantasy–”
“This is all imaginary?” Turek spread his arms and then pointed to Jobb’s ears.
“All right, all right! So this is real, but if I’m here. . . then Gorean’s son is–”
“–in your body. Exactly. And if you did have a bad accident like you suspect, then you are in danger. I do not understand all of what I saw when I was in your mind, but if that carriage you were in was traveling as fast as it seemed to be, and that other carriage that lost control and hit you was also traveling so quickly, I am surprised you are still alive at all. If your body dies–”
“–I’m stuck here?”
“No.” Turek shook his head. “Then you go back–”
“To death.” I swallowed. “Oh.” I thought about Danek stuck in my body. What was happening to him? Was he lying comatose in a hospital bed somewhere? Or unconscious on an operating table while surgeons frantically worked to save his, my, life?
Light suddenly flooded the small shack as the door flap was thrown back and a small figure was outlined in the doorway. A softly musical woman’s voice that sounded vaguely familiar called out, “Where is Danek? Is he ill?”
Gorean rose, his face angry. “Girl! Get out. I told you to stay away from my son–”
“Wait a minute!” I got up and stopped him as he went for the door. “How old am I, anyway? What’s the problem? And who. . .” I froze. It was Sarah.
But it wasn’t, quite.
The girl, woman, in the doorway took my breath away. She could have been Sarah’s twin, except for her green complexion, straight hair, and pointed ears. She was obviously the same as Jobb, whatever that was. The forest-brown tunic she wore did a hell of a lot for her, too. Cinched at the waist and cut low and high in the right places, it showed off her slender, but definitely feminine figure beautifully. The brown eyes were smoldering as they locked with mine, and her voice dropped an octave.
“Why Danek, you’re finally stopped moping and started speaking up for yourself.” She moved closer, flipping her hair at Gorean, and her hands slipped under my shirt to caress my chest. She leaned towards me and stretched her neck up, lips obviously expecting to be kissed. I felt suddenly disassociated and dropped to sit back on the bed to oblige, my arms creeping around her from a more convenient height as I tasted a darting tongue that flicked across mine teasingly. Her body felt so warm, so familiar, so comfortably real as I tightened my grip.
“Danek!” Gorean’s voice thundered. “I will not have this in my house! Get out, Vayaa. Leave my son alone!”
I broke free, my face burning, and Vayaa turned to Gorean with a chuckle.
“Who should leave whom alone? He was doing quite nicely on his own, thank you. Better than ever before, as a matter of fact.” She turned back to me with a teasing grin. “I’d like to know just who he’s been practicing on.”
I just stuttered something and then shut up. What the hell was I doing? This wasn’t Sarah. Or was it? Was I dreaming after all? For a moment it was as if someone else had been in control and it had seemed perfectly natural. I realized Turek was watching me curiously.
“Dave. Was he there?”
“Who?” Then I realized what he meant. “You mean Danek. Do you think he might still be in here somewhere?”
“It is possible. If you are dying in your world, or in a deep coma, part of him may still be
connecting with this world.”
Vayaa was looking back and forth, confused, but also deliberately ignoring Gorean’s apoplectic face as he stood by the door, holding the flap for her to leave. “Turek, what are you talking about? He is Danek, believe me! Why are you calling him by a strange name and speaking as if he is not here?”
Turek explained, and Vayaa’s eyes grew wide. “Then it is his fault!” She pointed to Gorean and then turned back to the Adept. “Danek, was totally depressed because I told him that I was going to leave him if he didn’t tell his father off and see me openly. His dad wouldn’t let us–”
“Not if he wants to inherit my land!” Gorean was adamant, though he let the door flap drop as he saw Vayaa wasn’t leaving. “It will not go to some half-breed children with pointed ears!”
“Then we will get our own land!” Vayaa moved in on Gorean, who actually backed away from his diminutive aggressor. “It seems as if he has finally made up his mind. And you’ll risk losing everything!” Then she spun back to Turek, suddenly concerned. “What is happening? Is he Danek, or a stranger? His kiss was not that of a stranger.”
“You are very much like a woman he loves in his world. So much, that, together with whatever part of Danek that may still be with us, he was confused and reacted as if you were her.”
Vayaa moved in on me again and put her hands on my shoulders as I sat there. It was eerie. She was so much like Sarah that it hurt.
“Oh really?” Her mouth curled in a sly grin. “Well, I hope Danek is paying attention, if he is in there, too. He could learn from you.” Her eyes sparkled as she asked: “Am I really so much like. . . what is her name?”
“Sarah,” I managed. My mouth was dry. “More than you realize. Not just the way you look.”
“So, they have Faeries in your world, too?”
She wasn’t saying Faeries, exactly, but to my mind that’s what came out. I shook my head. “No. Her ears and skin are just like mine, but her features, eyes, and size are just like yours. And,” I grinned, “her temperament.”
“But she didn’t want you?”
Suddenly I couldn’t answer. I just shook my head. Then I remembered what she had said to Gorean. “What did you mean when you said this was Gorean’s fault?”
Her hands kneaded my shoulders, firm fingers soothing as they eased sore muscles I didn’t know I had. “I know a little of world switching, and I think it was because you were depressed and wished to die when your Sarah would not accept your love. And just like you, Danek was feeling rejected and alone. He was afraid to come out and declare our love. Faeries and humans do not mate, you see. It is not that we cannot or that it is Law, but it is just not acceptable. And as Turek told you, if, in each world, you were in much the same place physically, and were of the same mind, that is how you switched. I know how helpless Danek felt. It was his only weakness. He was unable to fight his father’s wishes.” She glared at Gorean, who returned it in kind.
I remembered my sudden change of heart; the surge of angry resolution that had come just as the world had faded. I reached up to grab her hands.
“Vayaa. I think he decided to fight for you.” I explained my own reaction. “If he made a strong decision to go against his father’s wishes at the same time as I decided not to be a bloody idiot and give up, that would have been one hell of a strong, simultaneous rush of emotion.” I remembered how angrily I had denied my momentary weakness. “Maybe that is what opened whatever gateway there is between our worlds?” I glanced up at Turek and raised an eyebrow in question.
The Adept nodded. “That makes sense. It also makes it imperative that you two stay together. It is not you alone that was the key, but your relationships with your women. Let me ask you then: if your body is badly injured, would not your Sarah be there to help? She may not have been able to accept your love, but from what I saw in your memories, she does care for you a great deal.”
I realized he was right. “She’d be there.”
“Good. There’s a bond then between you two, just as there is between Danek and Vayaa. As long as that exists, it increases the chances that you may switch back. Also, your body will heal better with someone there who cares for you. Even in your world, I believe. And you must heal. From what I have been told, these switches do not last. Each soul needs to return to its own world, but Danek cannot. He is trapped in your injured body and the longer he is away from his own body; the more his soul may be damaged. It is fortunate your Sarah cares for you.”
I sighed. “She just isn’t ready to accept my desire to marry her, but yes, she cares. She didn’t want to stop seeing me at first, but we found it impossible to stop making love — in our own way — when there was time and opportunity, and she felt threatened by that and was going to cut things off totally. What she needed was some time and space. . . a chance to decide what she wants. Maybe to meet someone else. But she cares a lot about me. I know that. She will be there at the hospital. Her name is in my wallet and she would have been called.”
“You would let her meet other men?” Vayaa cocked her head.
“Hey, I don’t own her.” I shrugged. “I want her to be happy. If it can’t be with me, I hope she does find someone else. I’ll admit that I wish she’ll eventually decide that maybe I can give her what she needs and wants, and that she’ll come back to me, but if not. . . well, as long as she’s happy. That’s the important thing.”
“What about you?” she pressed.
“I’m in no hurry.”
Vayaa studied me closely and then leaned forward to kiss me again; a deep and lasting kiss that made me shiver. “That was for Dave, not Danek,” she said firmly. “He could definitely use some lessons from you. Not that he doesn’t have his good points, mind you.” She glanced at Gorean. “He was just a little weak. But then, around here, that is normal.” She let go and headed for the door, ignoring a red-faced Gorean, who was held back by Turek and then pushed down into a wide chair.
“I will return,” Vayaa promised as she blew me a kiss. “I just have to take care of something.”
Then she was gone. Only a sweet, yet spicy and almost herbal scent remained for a moment. I felt a little dazed as I stared at the doorway and I heard Jobb chuckle.
“My sister is quite a bundle, is she not?”
“Your sister?” I twisted to look at him. “Tell me something, if you don’t mind. What are you? If this is a parallel world of some sort, where do you fit in?”
He didn’t answer, but just grabbed my arm. “Come on. I think your father needs to sulk a little on his own.”
As we headed for the door, I glanced back to see Gorean sitting there concentrating on a pack of elaborate cards that Turek had produced from a hidden pocket somewhere. His jaw was clenched and he very carefully ignored me.
“You had better be careful,” Jobb warned with a grin, “I think Vayaa likes you. One of the things that angered her about Danek was that he would go after other girls, but he did not want her to see anyone else. That is not unusual here, of course, but she never liked it. You are obviously more in line with her own wishes in that regard.”
“Thanks for the warning.” I ducked in the doorway and as we stepped out in the open air, I suddenly caught a whiff of myself again and turned to Jobb. “By the way, where can I get a bath?”
Jobb’s eyebrow crept up. “A bath? Now I know Vayaa will like you better! For some reason, humans and baths do not mix often enough.”
“There it is again. Humans. You are different. Why?”
Jobb glanced around nervously. “Turek can answer better, but I will try. This world is different from your world. I pretend not to know of it, but I have heard the same stories as Turek and Vayaa, I just have not ‘journeyed’ in it as have Turek and other Adepts–”
“Journeying again. What’s that?”
Jobb glared at me, but with a smile. “Questions, all these questions. ‘Journeying’ is what he did with you. Any good Adept can look into that other world. But only recently has it become easier. There seems to be a weakening of the boundaries of late. And what they see scares them and they will not talk of it.”
“I’m not surprised. Hell, it scares me sometimes! But go on. How else is this world different?”
“Here, magic works. Those with strong minds are able to influence the minds of others–”
“And even the bodies?” I sensed the beginnings of his answer.
“Exactly. Not low-level Adepts like Turek. He is a senile old man who never had much power, even in his youth, and now, it is all he can do to try to keep the children healthy. Even there, I think his potions work better than his spells. And they are not magic. But there are other Adepts. Powerful ones who rule from castles in the mountains to the west. (I smiled as I realized he was talking about the Poconos. What would he have thought of the Rocky Mountains?) These Adepts decided long ago that those like my sister and myself who are shorter than others, should be kept separate, so we were given our ears and color to keep us apart, even though we really are just as human as you are. But we exist to serve and amuse.” Jobb’s jaw was clenched and his face was an interesting shade of emerald as blood suffused it. “Now there are no more short humans born. And we breed true.”
“What if you decided to stop ‘serving and amusing?'”
Jobb grabbed my arm and hissed: “Do not even suggest that in jest! There have been those who have tried. They live, but not much else. Now they serve and amuse very well.”
All the sudden the bucolic charm of this alternate world evaporated and I thought of times not that long ago in my own world when similar dynamics existed with our ‘people of color’, and we walked in silence as I followed him to a small cabin near a stream.
As the door flap was pulled back, I was startled by a cloud of steam and Jobb laughed. “Do you think we like ice cold baths?”
Inside, I saw six, small round tubs — two occupied by dozing Faeries, happily soaking in steaming water and ignoring us. Along the back wall was a huge, carefully crafted ceramic stove where a line of large water crocks were being heated. I smiled blissfully as Jobb grabbed one of the jars carefully and poured its steaming contents into an empty tub, signaling me to do the same, as he grabbed another crock.
“A tight fit for someone your size, but our bath house is much nicer than the humans’, and I thought that you deserved it.” He added cold water from other jars on the floor. “As I said, it is not often a human asks for a bath.”
“Thank you!” As I finished filling my own tub, exhausting the last of the hot water, I hesitated until I saw Jobb casually peel off his clothes and jump into his tub. I shrugged and followed suit, cringing as I stepped into the hot bath. But soon enough, I adjusted and sank gratefully into it, feeling myself relax as I scrubbed myself clean with the brushes and crude lye soap Jobb had left for me beside the tub. Then I just leaned back to relax.
Jobb’s voice drifted through the steam after a moment. “Tell me, Dave, what do you do in your world?”
“I work nights in the data-processing department of a large hospital. . . a place where sick people are healed.”
“Yeah. . .” How to explain it? “We have large machines called computers that count very fast, and using them we can keep records of the patients and what is done to make them well–”
“So you can charge them as much and as often as possible,” Jobb guessed cynically.
“Well, not just that. But also so we can keep track of what’s wrong with them.”
“The more that is wrong, the more that has to be done, and the more you can charge.” Jobb was teasing me, I could tell, but at the same time, he was right.
“Touché!” I shook my head. “Your turn. What do you do?”
“I train the mounts,” he answered after a moment. “Both the bred and the wild ones that are captured. They are very intelligent and loyal, and we seem to have an affinity for them. Perhaps because we both are domesticated and serve?” His tone held an icy edge to it that cut through the warmth of the room. “The Adepts have us go out and cull the wild herds that roam at the foot of the mountains, and then we bring stock back to work our farms and as riding animals.”
“Oh no. The Adepts have decreed that our women must serve in the kitchens and clean–” “You’re not answering me.”
Jobb laughed. “Yes, she helps me with the mounts, too. Can you picture her as a serving maid or house keeper?”
I thought of her counterpart and smiled, shaking my head. “No, no more than Sarah. Like I told Vayaa, they seem to be a lot alike, from what little I saw of her. I do most of the cooking whenever Sarah and I get together. Oh she did some, mind you, but she never really got into it. Which was fine. I enjoy it. I just don’t like doing dishes, and we did those together.”
I heard Jobb chuckling again. “Oh, it is a good thing she is not here to hear you say that. You would find yourself at the altar in a moment. I do not think Danek would like that.”
“What? Me at the altar with Vayaa, or himself at a stove cooking dinner?”
“Neither, er, both!” Jobb was emphatic. “No, she does a minimum for appearance’s sake to help our mother, but then she joins me in the fields. She is one of the best!” His voice was proud. “In a way Danek is angry with her, but that is his father’s influence. Deep down he likes her for being strong and different.”
I thought about something he had said before. “Is she in danger, because she doesn’t toe the party line. . .? I mean–”
“No. I know what you mean.” He was silent for a moment. “Yes, she may be. From more than one direction.” He fell silent.
I waited for him to go on but it was pretty clear he didn’t feel like elaborating. I leaned back, my mind running through various possible scenarios, none of them pleasant, even while my body was lulled by the cradling warmth around me. . .
* * *
Suddenly I woke up with a start as a young Fairy burst through the door with a shout.
“Jobb! She is gone! They came and took her!”
Jobb jumped out and grabbed a drying cloth, throwing another one my way as I climbed out of the tub.
“Who took whom?” he demanded.
“Vayaa! They came and took Vayaa. . . Adept Castor’s soldiers.”
Jobb growled as he finished drying himself and reached for his clothes. “Where did they go?”
“They headed back towards his castle.”
I fumbled with the unfamiliar fastening on my pants a moment, realizing someone had brought me clean clothes, while I hobbled towards a bench to get my boots. “Who’s Castor?” I asked, as I got my pants on and laced up my boots.
Jobb snorted derisively. “A crude, medium-level Adept in the area who fancies himself good enough to be one of the Council of Adepts in the Mountains. Don’t worry about his soldiers. Just two or three dimwits.”
“What’s Castor want?”
“Vayaa. He’s been after her for a while. She wants no part of him, but the more she says “no”, the more he wants her. She has been safe because she is a Faery, and while humans and Faeries do. . . ahh, mingle, from time to time, it is as Vayaa said: ‘not accepted’. Especially for the Adepts. But lately, he has been after her to volunteer for a spell designed to turn a Faery back to human. That way it would be all right. Apparently he is getting more aggressive in his quest. I have to try to get her out. I cannot involve any of the others — even if they would have the nerve — because then the whole village would be a target.”
“Well, I guess we’ve got to go get her, then!”
“Well you heard Turek. Vayaa and I should stay together.”
He was silent a moment, but then smiled. “Good. Castor will sense you are not who you seem to be. That may unsettle him.” Then he stopped and studied my face carefully. After a moment he nodded. “You do care for her. It is not just that she reminds you of your Sarah. That is important.” He wouldn’t explain why, but just led the way for us to get a couple of the Zebra-Mules. An experiment of the Adepts, he explained.
* * *
As we rode, I considered these Adepts, trying to get a handle of why, if our worlds were parallels, this Pennsylvania held such an archaic culture. I described my own world, seeing Jobb smile a little patronizingly. Obviously he didn’t believe me as I asked him what he thought about the difference. He probably thought I was either exaggerating or a little demented. Maybe a bit of both? But he thought about it as we rode, and after a while, reined his mount back.
“It’s all a matter of control, Dave,” he explained. “There would be no way the Adepts could keep control if technology had been allowed to develop as it has in your world.”
“What about the rest of the world? Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America?”
“I know nothing of those places. I do know that our ancestors came here from across the sea because of a battle between Adepts that drove us from their lands.”
“No Vikings or Chris Columbus here, huh?” Jobb’s face was blank, and I shook my head. “Never mind. How much further to Castor’s castle?” We had been riding most of the day and I was glad that Danek was obviously an experienced rider, because I was only mildly sore. His body apparently knew what to do. Or, Turek was right, and Danek was still partially with me and helping out.
“There.” He pointed, and down in a small valley, a fairy-tale castle was nestled near a winding stream. An eerie flash of double vision came over me as I realized that it was Gulph Mills, or what was Gulph Mills in my world.
“That doesn’t look so bad. Now what?”
“Now we go in and get her out.”
“Just like that, huh? What about his magic?”
“That,” Jobb admitted, “is a slight problem. Which is why I brought you–”
“Hey, I made you bring me!”
“If you say so.” He smiled.
I thought back and then took a guess. “That little invasion when the messenger burst in, did you arrange that?”
“Actually. . . yes. You fell asleep. I found out earlier and I was trying to figure out how to get her free. Remember when she left?” I nodded. “Well, she went to send Castor a message to forget it. She had been about to finally accept his offer and give his spell a try. Danek was being a coward, and Castor offered her freedom and riches. Even if she did not really love the Adept, she figured she could always dump him and go away after he changed her. Then she would be a free woman. . . you are frowning. Why?”
“Sarah wouldn’t have compromised her ethics. . .” I noticed Jobb’s face getting a darker green and shut up, thinking about what she had planned. After a moment, I realized that this was not the same. I turned back to Jobb.
“I’m sorry; I don’t mean to criticize your sister. She is trying to win her freedom, if she can’t have love.” I realized that I could understand that. Vayaa was trying to survive. “I think I understand.” I reached out my hand. “Now why did you bring me?”
After a moment, Jobb nodded. “Apology accepted.” He shook my hand firmly. “As for why I brought you, that’s simple. You will confuse him. Since Danek is still partly in your mind, and since you yourself are of another world, Castor will not be able to get a solid lock on your mind to force you to do as he wills. I have a potion I tricked Turek into making some time ago, and that will do the same for me. . . I think.” For a moment he looked uncertain. “With both of us resistant to his power, we may be able to get her out — if we move fast. He may be weak as far as Adepts go, and it may take him a while, but he will be able to control us once he studies us enough.”
“Well, we’d better get our asses in gear, then.” I smiled briefly as Jobb threw me yet another confused look. as we urged our Mubras on. I had decided on a term for our mounts. “But can you at least give me an idea of what to expect?”
“No. I do not know just what he is capable of. I have seen him move objects and control people with his spells, but I do not know just how strong he is. Just that he is not strong enough to be accepted by the Council of Adepts in the Mountains.”
“Gee, sort of like facing a guy with a shotgun who wasn’t admitted to a survivalist group because he didn’t have an automatic rifle.” I saw Jobb give up trying to understand, and shook my head. “Never mind. It’s just not very reassuring.”
As we wound our way down the hillside, closer and closer to the castle, and with Jobb leading the way, I wondered what kind of early warning system this Castor might have. I hurried to catch up. “Hey, what are we doing? Are we just going to go up to the front door and knock?”
“Of course. You have to challenge him.”
“Whoa! Challenge him? To what? A duel? Crossbows at forty paces, or some such?”
“Sort of. A duel, of the mind. You just have to come in and convince her to leave. And then walk out with her. If you can!” Jobb’s voice sounded strained and I moved alongside to get a look at his face.
“Shit! You should have asked Turek about the shelf-life of his potion.” It was obvious that Castor had solid control of Jobb’s mind. His face was slack and his pupils mere pinpoints. He sat stiffly on his Mubra, jerkily guiding it in the direction of the huge front gate, which was slowly dropping open to bridge the moat.
Close up, the castle was an eerie sight. I remembered when Sarah and I had visited Disneyland and we had made a brief foray into the Magic Kingdom. What I was entering now was like a larger version of Cinderella’s Castle. Immaculately clean and looking brand new, the walls swallowed us up and I felt suspiciously like a fly wandering onto a spider’s web. The huge wooden rectangle of the gate remained down, though, teasingly showing the outside world that was serenely unaffected by our visit here.
I didn’t know what else to do as we entered a large central courtyard, so I followed Jobb’s lead and dismounted and tied up my Mubra to a convenient hitching post.
I heard a deep chuckle behind me and turned.
Across the courtyard, a sweeping staircase led up to a grand entrance to the body of the castle, and at the top of the stairs, Vayaa stood stiffly next to an older, heavy-set man with long, curled blond hair. He was wearing elaborately brocaded and puffed clothing reminiscent of 18th Century French aristocracy, and he had dressed Vayaa up in a proper ball gown that accented her tiny waist and gave her one hell of a cleavage for someone only moderately endowed. Her hair was up and intricately worked into a high wig to make her fully fit for a formal ball at the court of Louis the XIV.
Castor giggled. “My dear Danek, forgive me, Dave, what have you done with yourself? Scrubbed, rinsed and freshly dressed; my, my. All this to come pay me a visit.” He lifted a small cloth bundle to his nose and sniffed. “This is so much easier. Healthier, too.” He began descending the staircase, demurely followed by Vayaa. “I suppose I should be flattered. But she is mine, now. You realize that, don’t you?”
“Only as long as you consciously control her,” I guessed. “What happens if you have to sleep?”
“True, that is a problem. But she can be locked up at night, until I finish my spells. Then I will give her a nice new body — small, but human — and a mind more amenable to my advances.”
“Psychic brainwashing!” Vayaa had obviously not anticipated that, or would never have come. I felt a surge of anger rising in me and moved towards him, gratified to see him move back. “Jobb was right. My mind must be a bit too alien for you to get a good grip on.”
“Just for the moment,” Castor promised. “But you will never get her out of here unwillingly, not with both her and her brother resisting. But I told you what to do: just ask her to go with you. If she does, she’s yours.”
I looked at her and I cringed. She wore the same vacuous expression as Jobb. I moved towards Vayaa, dragging an unresisting Jobb along with me. I had to try to divert Castor’s control somehow; get Vayaa’s attention and make her want to fight him. I grabbed her.
“Vayaa! Look at me! This is Danek, I’m back. My father is not going to control my life. I’ll go to the Council of Adepts in the Mountains and ask permission to marry you if I must, but we will be together!” I dropped to my knees and pulled her close and hugged her tight. Think! What would Danek say if he were here. . .? A stirring in my mind and I felt light-headed again. “I am here, Vayaa. We both are. He’s right. I love you!”
It was my voice, but there was a difference. Danek was there. Turek had been right. Vayaa must have heard it, too, because she blinked and shook her head.
“Daa. . . Danek?” Her voice was strained. “Is it–”
“Yes! Fight him, come to me!” I felt compelled to hold her tight and I embraced her fiercely. The familiar, slight body was preciously warm and alive in my arms, and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks as Danek’s presence faded. So like Sarah! Why couldn’t she and I be together like this? Her arms joined behind me and she relaxed and melted into my embrace.
“Thank you!” she breathed warmly in my ear.
Then a strong hand suddenly grabbed my collar and tore me loose from Vayaa.
I turned just in time to feel a small fist connect with amazing strength to send me reeling backwards.
“I still control this one!” Jobb’s mouth spoke the words, but I saw a flash of Castor’s strained face behind me as I ducked Jobb’s next blow and rolled to the side before scrabbling to my feet. Vayaa gasped and I turned back to Jobb just in time to see him grab a short spear that floated in the air uncertainly.
Castor was barely keeping control!
Vayaa yanked the elaborate wig off her head and threw it at Jobb to spoil his aim as he hurled the spear at me. I ducked again and jumped towards him — the butt of the spear grazing my cheek — and grabbed him. A single sharp uppercut and his eyes rolled back as he slumped, unconscious.
“Sorry Jobb! I’ll explain later.”
“Look out,” Vayaa called and pointed.
Three tall men were approaching. Human, but they were shambling and ungainly figures who were clumsily wielding heavy swords and shields.
“Attack!” Castor’s voice had a hysterical edge as he pointed at us.
Obviously these three were not controlled by the Adept, and I realized that Castor was just what Jobb had said. A mid-level Adept with delusions of grandeur. He had been strained by controlling both Vayaa and Jobb and now was panicking and resorting to non-magical tactics.
I bent and picked up Jobb, throwing him over my shoulder, staggering a bit under his weight. He was a lot heavier than he looked. “Come on!” I grabbed Vayaa’s arm and tugged her along towards the Mubras. Luckily, Castor’s infantry weren’t too quick on their feet, and they were only halfway across the courtyard before I was able to drape Jobb across the back of one of the animals and I lifted Vayaa’s slender form up to sit behind him. For a moment, my face was delightfully buried in a fragrant cleavage, and I had to force myself to withdraw.
“Hang on to your brother.” Then I mounted the other Mubra and grabbed the lead to Vayaa’s mount and spurred mine on towards the gate.
The large gate was just starting to rise, and I saw Castor standing by the stairs, his mouth moving in a silent and strained chant. Presumably his other servants handled the gate normally. I urged my Mubra on, seeing Vayaa’s mount catch up as Vayaa did the same to it. The wooden slab of the gate was partially up when we thundered out onto it, but our combined weights must have strained Castor to the limit because it dropped with a crash and I struggled to keep my balance, seeing Vayaa grab desperately for Jobb’s belt as he started to slip off.
“I’ve got him. Go!” she called, seeing me slow down.
As we crossed the meadow in front of the castle, I looked back and caught a glimpse of Castor standing on the drawbridge, face twisted in anger and then in concentration. Vayaa jerked back and lost her grip on Jobb, who fell to the ground with a dull thud. I winced and stopped my mount, spinning to bring it around alongside Vayaa’s as she started to turn back towards the castle.
“Oh no you don’t! If I’ve got to knock you out too, I will damn it!” I grabbed the reins away from her and halted her Mubra. Then I reached across to take hold of her by the shoulder and turned her to face me.
“Vayaa! You’re in there! Fight him! You got free when Danek called you, so I know you can do it. Don’t believe their shit about being inferior and weak. You’re strong. Now fight him! He’s just a horny, old sleaze.” I don’t know what came out in her language, but she must have understood me because she gritted her teeth and clenched her eyes tightly shut for a moment and then opened them wide, her mouth curling in a grin as she giggled.
“You are right.” She turned and stuck her tongue out at Castor and then gasped as she spotted Jobb on the ground.
I cringed, remembering how he had dropped, and I dismounted to help him to his feet as he groaned and woke up.
“What happened?” he asked groggily.
“You need to get a refund on that potion.” I grinned.
“You tried to kill Danek,” Vayaa accused, and then we stumbled over each other verbally, trying to explain, even as I helped him mount in front of her and then jumped back up in my own saddle.
As we headed back towards the village, I sensed that Castor had given up for now.
* * *
The sun was sinking below the horizon by the time we approached the village, painting the sky with a brilliant palette of colors that washed generously over the clouds. We were still a quarter-mile away when someone must have spotted us and we saw a surge of people coming pouring out across the fields. Off to the side I saw Gorean’s massive figure, flanked by an older Faerie couple. Jobb’s and Vayaa’s parents? I looked over and Jobb confirmed my guess; but it made me wonder.
“What about Danek’s mother?”
“She died giving birth to you,” Vayaa answered softly, guessing my question. “That is why your, his, father has tried so hard to control you. You are all he has.” She stopped her mount for a moment as Jobb jumped off, and she took my arm intently.
“Back at Castor’s castle, was it you, or Danek?”
I thought back. I had felt Danek’s presence briefly when needed, but then he had faded and he had left me with Vayaa. She was so much like Sarah, but so much more accessible. It was so tempting! Here, with her, I had the best of both worlds. Vayaa was already attracted to me, as much as Danek. Here I could have the love I wanted. Her eyes showed it.
I closed my eyes tight, forcing down the confused reactions. NO! She was not mine.
“It was Danek,” I answered finally, as I opened my eyes. “For a moment he broke through and had full control of me to fight for you. I don’t even remember all of it,” I lied.
Vayaa looked at me closely, searching my face, and smiled tenderly after a moment. “I don’t believe you. . . but thank you.” She leaned over to kiss me. Then she straightened with a delighted laugh. “Come on! Let’s catch up with Jobb before he tells everybody that he rescued me.”
I held back, trying to force down the ache in my chest that had disappeared for a while. . .
the world spun. . .
* * *
I was lying down and looking up into an anxious face. Warm, brown eyes stared down at me, moist with tears.
“Come on Dave, wake up! Don’t leave. I’m here for you. I know you can’t hear me, but I love you. I’ve had a lot of time to think while sitting watching you lie there, halfway between life and death. All the sudden it’s as if everything’s changed. A different perspective, I guess. I know it won’t be easy, and there are going to be times that I’ll be frustrated and angry because of your limitations, but I know you love me. Really love me. How can I lose that?”
I tried to speak, but I was frozen, unable to move.
Her fingers picked at a loose strand on my blanket and she twisted it slowly, studying it. “I don’t want to spend more years looking for something else that there is no guarantee will last. Sure, I guess I can find someone normal to love me and who I can do all the things I want to do, with. . . but how do I know that will last?” She looked back at me and I felt my throat tighten. “I see so few relationships that really last. And with you, at least I know that there will be a constant. You will love me. I trust that. Now damn it! If you hear me, you damn well better fight to wake up or I’m going to leave you. . . for real!” Her voice broke and she dropped her head down onto my chest, her shoulders heaving softly.
I fought to bring my hands up and I finally felt them slowly creep towards her, to touch her.
Her head popped up, eyes bright. “Dave?”
I tried to speak, but my mouth was a parched wasteland and I just nodded.
She grabbed hold and her arms tightened convulsively around me. “Yes!”
I worked up some saliva and tried again to speak. “Sarah,” I croaked at last, “I think I’m going to be all right, but if I black out again and then wake up and start talking strange, as if I’m hallucinating. . . well, don’t worry. I’ll explain.”
I felt the room spin again and I couldn’t be sure, but I felt my link to Danek was still there, as if there was something undone. . .
* * *
I wavered on the back of the Mubra and looked down at Turek as he stood looking up at me.
“Good. You are back. I sent Danek back to your body a while so I could talk to you.”
He looked different, somehow. Younger, stronger, and more focused and alert. I dismounted carefully and faced him. “What happened here?”
“You notice.” He smiled. “Yes, I am a little different. Your battle with Castor did not go unnoticed, you know. The Council of Adepts in the Mountains felt it. Apparently you have some power, boy. You made them nervous. As did Castor. They were not happy with him at all.” He chuckled. “No, not at all. They stripped him of his powers and turned him into a Faery in a distant village.” He chuckled a little maliciously. “All while you were on your way back here. He embarrassed them, not being able to handle a couple of Faeries and a local farm boy. They made me the local Adept and boosted my powers. To keep an eye on you, I suspect. But that was a mistake because I have no love for them.” His frown made that clear. But his face cleared after a moment.
“However,” he went on. “I am curious about you two. I do not know if you have the power, or if it is Danek. Or maybe the two of you together? I will tell you this much, your minds are linked across the worlds and if you are willing to help me, I am going to make sure they stay linked, even after your body heals.”
“What do you have in mind?” I was getting a little nervous, but at the same time, excited.
“I want your help with something. Both of you.”
I felt Danek there with me. More because of an eerie sense of double vision than anything. “I will help train your powers,” Turek promised. “Joined, the Council will not be able to sense your presence clearly. You see, my sympathies are not with them. I grew up in this village, and I have been a part of its life since I was a child, and I do not like the second-class status of the Faeries. I think that together, we may be able to do something about that. I also do not like the way our world is being kept primitive by a group of elitists who do not want to share power. But I have to be very careful to keep a low profile, or I will be stripped of my powers just as Castor was — or worse!”
I stared at him, feeling a momentary surge of fear from Danek. Understandable. After all, all his life, the Adepts had been the ones to fear. I couldn’t blame him there. But then, fear was replaced by curiosity as I asked, “Okay, as long as I’m semi-comatose, I can come over here, but what about after I recover?”
“I will teach you how to put yourself in a trance and you can do that instead of sleeping. . . the only problem is that we have to work during the day here–”
“No problem, I work nights most of the time and sleep during the day. You’ll just have to talk to Danek about preempting his days.”
Turek brightened. “So you will help?”
“Sure. Why not?” I felt almost dizzy as I wondered what I was getting myself in for.
Turek slapped his thigh and grinned. “Excellent! Then before I send you back, I will implant some spells and instructions on how to place yourself in a trance. The spells may help you to heal yourself faster. I do not know if they will work in your world or not, but it is worth trying. The power of your mind should work in either world. Now close your eyes.”
I did and after a moment, I felt a strange tickling in my mind, and then. . .
* * *
“Dave! Wake up. You were rambling.”
I looked up at Sarah’s concerned face and smiled. “I’m fine, honey. What did I say?”
“Well, you just woke up for a moment and in a strange voice said something like: ‘So that is what Adept Castor was after. Very nice, but not the same. Too pale, and the ears have no character’.” Then you blacked out again.” She cocked her head. What do you mean about my ears not having any character?”
I laughed, briefly. It still hurt too much. But I felt alive. “I’ll explain in a minute. Boy do I have a lot to tell you. . . that you probably won’t believe–”
“Shut up!” She bent down to kiss me and I leaned up into it hungrily. I was home!
After a long while, she suddenly broke free. “David!” Her one hand had been reaching under the blanket and her eyes were wide. “I thought I felt. . .”
My turn. “Shut up!” I pulled her down again. I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. Maybe Turek’s healing spells were working on more than just the effects of the accident. . . *
About the Author: F. Alexander Brejcha emigrated to the US from Sweden as a child. He studied art and psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with Chronic Progressive M.S. in 1980, Alexander has been paraplegic since 1985, but for 27 years worked nights at Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital. He now writes motivational pieces, some fiction, some disABILITY-related non-fiction, and does peer counseling. His award-winning disABILITY resource web site is at http://www.netreach.net/~abrejcha or http://disabilityhelper.org/. Alexander has written for newspapers and magazines (fiction and non-fiction), and his first three books were published in 2004. Complete stories from two of his books and other work is posted at http://www.netreach.net/~abrejcha/biblio.htm
Story copyright 2012 by F. Alexander Brejcha
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago travels between the worlds of art and commerce.
Illustration copyright 2012 by Romeo Esparrago