by David McLeod
Ways of (the) World
The next morning–their second day on this world, crackers from the dead man's saddlebags and water from a stream made a rude breakfast. Jon saddled the horse, and asked Tyler, "Ever ridden a horse?"
"Pony rides at carnivals is all," Tyler answered. "You?"
"English saddle and some formal dressage when I was a kid," Jon replied. "And camels in the desert. On the other hand, I can wear his boots; you can't. And, those hospital scuffs are about worn out."
Both Jon and Tyler had been wearing issued shoes made of cotton with a thin, natural rubber sole. They were disposable, intended for a single use in the operating theater.
"So, you ride. I'll lead the horse," Jon said.
"What about his sword?" Tyler asked.
"I don't suppose you are a swordsman," Jon said. "Did you ever follow-up on those fantasy games?"
"No," Tyler said. "I gave that up when I decided to be a doctor."
"I'm sorry, Tyler. That wasn't meant to be criticism," Jon said. "And I understand. Believe me, I understand. I'll wrap the sword in this blanket, and tie it to the saddle, with the spurs. I suspect we'll both need to learn how to use the sword, though."
They had traveled what Jon estimated to have been two miles. They'd seen no one on the road, which continued to pass through forest and meadow.
"What kind of social structure and government do you think we'll find, here?" Jon asked Tyler.
Tyler thought for a minute, and then said, "Feudal, probably with a rigid aristocracy backed up by soldiers and mercenaries. I think that's what the man was: a mercenary."
"Oh?" Jon prompted.
"You saw the logo on his vest? Crossed sword and dagger. But it was in a cartouche, not a shield, so it probably wasn't a coat of arms. I mean," Tyler hedged his words, "if heraldry and all works like it does on Earth. Anyway, weapons, but not a uniform, and on his own. So, I'm guessing mercenary and not soldier."
"Yes, he denied being a soldier," Jon agreed. "What you say makes sense. A feudal system, eh? That may make things harder for us."
"Why?" Tyler asked.
"The philosophy, the justification for the feudal system on Earth was codified in the Treaty of Verdun in 843 C. E. It boiled down to one simple phrase, 'every man should have a master.' Every man, from the meanest peasant to the noblest duke had a master: a king or prince. The poorest country priest, the most ragged mendicant, and the most princely cardinal had a master: the Pope. The princes, kings and popes' only master was god. We don't have a master–and I don't intend to have one. We don't fit in the system," Jon said.
"We may be in even more trouble than that," Tyler said. "I figured this out and told the game master. He was surprised I'd figured it out, but agreed. The way the feudal system was practiced on Earth, it was more like a protection racket.
"He knew about the Treaty of Verdun, and said it was created mostly to legitimize the power structure by claiming a divine right to rule. He put it this way, the nobles ruled all, the peasants fed all, and the priests prayed for all."
"This guy must have been quite a historian," Jon said.
"PhD in history," Tyler said. "He taught at the college for a while, before he got a better job."
Tyler and Jon had been walking for what Jon estimated to be an hour. They had walked past one farmstead: a dozen large buildings and several smaller ones, enclosed in a wooden palisade and surrounded by fields.
The green shoots of unknown crops suggested that it was spring in this world, although they'd left their own on New Year's Eve. Dogs ran out the gate but came only halfway to the road. Their barking was a signal for several men to step through the gate or onto the walls. One by one the men turned away when it became apparent that Jon and Tyler would pass by.
"Why didn't we stop?" Tyler asked.
"The men, more than a dozen of them, and, there was something about them," Jon said. "I'm pretty sure a couple were holding swords. That and the dogs. I didn't think we'd be welcomed, and we'd surely be outnumbered."
About two hours later, they saw a second, larger farmstead. This one, set about a mile back from the road, had stone walls. A wooden gate stood open. People were about in the fields. Again, however, Jon did not stop. Again his reason was that it didn't feel right.
The road now passed through woods, meandering with the stream that it followed.
They heard the cart before they saw it. "It's behind us," Tyler said. "And it's catching up with us."
"Not likely a problem," Jon said. "The wheel rims are wood. At least, that is, they're not metal. I can't hear any ring of metal on the stones. I heard children's voices–one, at least. My guess is a farm family."
Tyler looked back. "You're right," he said. "Two swaybacked horses pulling a wagon. Like a buckboard in the m . . . mo . . . old west. Two men and a woman in the seat. Can't see much of what's in it. Someone, a child, looking over the woman's shoulder."
"This is more like it," Jon said. "We're outnumbered, but not quite so badly." He led the horse to the side of the road, and stood beside it, keeping his hands in sight of those in the approaching wagon.
"Good day to you," the driver said. He reined in the horses.
"Good day to you," Jon replied. At least he didn't say 'Have a nice day,' Jon thought.
"Headed for market?" the woman asked.
Jon divided his attention between the men in the seat and two teenage boys in the back of the wagon. No weapons in sight, but that doesn't mean they're unarmed, he thought. The question is, are they friendly?
"How far is it?" Jon asked. It was the wrong thing to say. "Who are you?" the second man bristled. His hand dropped behind the seat. The man intended the movement to be casual, but Jon realized the man was reaching for a weapon.
"Please," he said, spreading his hands. "We mean you no harm. We're a long way from our home. Frankly, we're lost. It's fair to say that we are refugees."
"Mighty fine horse for a couple of refugees," one of the boys in the back of the wagon said. "However, your clothes suit your story, which," he turned and spoke to the driver, "is true."
The hand of the man who had been reaching for a weapon appeared. It was empty. The driver relaxed, and the small boy Tyler had seen crawled from between the baskets and looked at them with unabashed curiosity.
"Bow–that's the town–is about three hours away," one of the men said. "Market starts tomorrow. Supposed to rain tomorrow morning, so we came early." He looked at the boy who had spoken earlier and nodded.
"Our horses are not nearly as fine as yours, and they are slow, but they're faster than walking," the boy said. "We pledge no harm to you. If you will swear us no harm, we'd be glad of your company."
"Uh, yes," Jon said. "We pledge no harm to you." Jon glanced at Tyler, who nodded his agreement. That seemed to be enough for the farm boy.
"Tie the horse to the wagon, and climb in with us," the boy offered.
Jon and Tyler joined the two teens and the child in the back of the wagon. The wagon was cramped: burlap bags, by the smell containing potatoes, and wheels of cheese took most of the space. Jon was a little disconcerted when the small boy climbed into his lap.
"Why were you walking when you have such a fine horse?" the boy asked. "And why was your squire riding? If you're a knight, where is your sword? You are a knight, aren't you? Why are you dressed so poorly? Your clothes don't fit, and they smell funny. My name is Robbie, what's your name?"
"His name is Jon, which you would have heard if you hadn't been teasing Alfred," the oldest boy, who appeared to be about 17, said. "I'm Morgan," he added, turning to Jon. "By elimination, that's Alfred, and Robbie, of course. And you're Tyler?"
Tyler nodded. That's why Jon looks so different, he thought. He's not an adult, anymore. He's a teenager. I didn't realize it until I saw him beside these boys. He lost his scars; we lost body hair; what else has changed? How have I changed?
"Why did you decide to believe that we were refugees?" Jon asked, bluntly. I've got to know what's going on. This almost didn't go well, he thought.
"I'm a Sembler, of course," Morgan said. "Besides, you don't look wicked enough to be a Brigand or hard enough to be a deserter. You're not wicked are you?"
Sembler, Jon thought. Opposite of dissemble, meaning to lie. He can tell if I'm lying? These thoughts scarcely flashed through his mind before he answered.
"I'm not religious, but neither am I Evil. Nor is Tyler." Whoa! Jon thought. Religious isn't a word in this language. It's English, and I can still say it."
"What is religious?" Alfred asked.
Jon thought fast. "It's not an easy thing to explain. Some people spend their lifetime studying it and still don't understand it. Where we're from, our culture is based on the idea that people are inherently flawed. Therefore, people are doomed to suffering and misery. And, because we're flawed, we cannot change or fix all this. We just have to endure it. This leads to a culture of despair."
"That's awful!" Alfred said. "Are you from Eblis?"
"Um, no. Arizona. Anyway," Jon continued, "since we are miserable, we tend to grasp any hope, no matter how improbable. Most of the hope comes to us in the form of revealed religion, a way of living and doing penance that promises either to end the suffering, or to guarantee that we'll live in a pain-free world after we die."
"That's worse than awful," the woman said. She had listened carefully. "That's evil."
"But Mother, he said they weren't Evil!" Morgan protested. "And he's telling the truth."
"And he said he wasn't superstitious," the woman said. "I heard him, and I believe him."
Superstitious, Jon thought. She understood what I meant by religious and used a word that I understand. Hmmm.
"Where is Arizona," Robbie asked, looking at Tyler.
"Actually, I'm from Minnesota," Tyler said. "Jon's from Arizona." The boy looked helplessly at Jon.
"East of the sun and west of the moon," Jon said, smiling at the boy.
"I know that story!" Robbie said. "Tell it, Morgan, please?"
"Okay," Morgan said. "You know that you can't talk about it, don't you, Robbie?" When the little boy nodded, Morgan gestured for all the boys to huddle together at the back of the wagon. His voice was low, nearly a whisper.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
A hundred lifetimes ago, during a Great War, in a valley far from any town, lived a boy-child and his mother. The boy's father was dead: killed in the war. One by one his older brothers had become soldiers or clerics or mages, and gone to fight the war. They, too, had died or were so far away that their mother knew not where they were. She knew that two were still alive. Her woman's magic was strong enough to tell her that.
(Jon caught Tyler's eye at the mention of magic. Tyler raised his eyebrow; Jon shook his head slightly.)
One day, while she was bathing her last son, she discovered that his testicles had descended, and that he was now a boy.
(Tyler looked at Jon. The expression on his face alternated between shock and puzzlement. Jon merely shook his head and shrugged. A boy's testicles descend while he's still in the womb, or at least they do where we came from, Jon and Tyler thought before returning their attention to the story.)
Now, the woman had something else to worry her: Who would initiate her son in the Mysteries? The isolation of their home, which had protected them from the war, now proved a barrier. She considered traveling to the nearest town, but she was afraid of what she would find. The last time she had spoken to anyone other than her son, she had learned that the town had been overrun by Dark Forces, and that the Light had been extinguished.
"That's what happened in Brody," Robbie interrupted the story. "Trolls from the mountains attacked the town and broke down the gates."
"Yes, that's what they say," Morgan said. "Now, am I telling this story, or are you?"
Robbie fell silent, and Morgan resumed the story. Jon and Tyler exchanged glances again. Trolls?
One day, while the woman and the boy were weeding their garden, they were startled to see a huge white bear standing inside the hedgerow. The woman took up her hoe to protect her child and herself, when the bear spoke.
"I have come," the bear said, "to take the boy to a place where he will be initiated into the Mysteries and learn the ways that boys share themselves and their magic with other boys."
The woman was awestruck, and wondered if she should believe the bear. Her mind raced. Before she could speak, the bear spoke again.
"The boy is a Sembler. He can tell the truth of what I say."
The woman looked at her son. The boy nodded. "He speaks the truth; and, he is Good. His Light is Bright."
The boy rode on the back of the bear, clinging to his white fur while the bear bounded up hill and down, always traveling in the direction of the rising sun. After several days, they arrived at the bear's den: a cave in a hillside.
"You will lie here," the bear said, pointing to a pallet set on the floor of an inner room. "Sleep, now," he added, and blew out the single candle, leaving the boy in utter darkness.
The boy slept; how long he didn't know. He was wakened by a rustling. Before he could cry out, he felt a warm, smooth body slide onto the pallet beside him. The gentle baritone voice of a tween stilled his fear. Hands more gentle than the voice stroked the boy's body and removed his clothes. A gentle mouth found the boy's penis, and took his boy magic.
Tyler started. His eyes widened. Again, Jon shook his head, pursing his lips to indicate that Tyler should be silent.
When the boy's breathing slowed, the gentle hands guided the boy to the tween's penis. Soon, the boy felt the tween's magic flowing into him.
"Who are you?" the boy began, but a finger to his lips silenced him.
"I cannot say who I am," the tween's voice replied. "I will come to you every night, and for as long as you wish it, we will share magic." With that, he was gone.
The bear came for the boy the next morning, and took him into another part of the cave where the boy found food and a stream in which to bathe.
That night, in the darkness, the tween with the gentle voice came again, and he and the boy shared their magic. The tween told the boy how to use the magic he received from the tween, and one by one revealed the Mysteries to the boy.
Four ten-days passed this way, and the boy reckoned that it was the month of Bila, for he had left home in the late spring. He wondered about his mother, but most of all, he wondered about the tween who came to him every night in darkness. He resolved to see this tween.
Several nights later, having practiced carefully and secretly, the boy was ready. When the tween slid onto the pallet, the boy sent magic into a tin spoon, which he had taken from the table on which his food was served. The spoon glowed with a pale light: just enough light for the boy to see the tween who lay beside him. The boy gasped, for the tween was the most beautiful boy imaginable. His eyes, which reflected the light of the spoon, were violet; his hair was silver; his skin was the color of fresh cream.
"Oh! What have you done?" the tween cried. "If you had remained with me in the darkness for a year, the spell would have been broken. Now, I am doomed. My stepmother, who lives in a castle east of the sun and west of the moon, has bewitched me. Now, I must be a bear and live with her forever."
Before the tween spoke, his silver hair began to spread over his body. His face became a muzzle. His ears grew until they stood out from his head. His hands and feet turned into paws with long, sharp claws. In short, he became the bear. Before the boy could speak, the bear bounded away.
The boy searched the cave, and walked in every direction away from the cave, but the bear could not be found. The food which he had been accustomed to eating no longer appeared on the table, and the spring berries had all fallen from the briars. The boy became very hungry. He sat outside the cave, where the stream flowed into the forest, and cried.
"Why do you cry, little boy?" a voice whispered.
The boy looked around, but saw no one. Thinking that a magical creature, perhaps a Dryad, had asked the question, he answered. (For it's not nice to be impolite to a Dryad.)
"I cry because I have doomed a beautiful tween to a lifetime as a bear," the boy said. "I cry because I am alone, and have no food. I cry because I am far from my mother, and know not how to find her." The boy explained how he had come to this place, how the bear had taught him the Mysteries, and how he had cursed the bear by trying to see him in Human form. "The bear now lives with his wicked stepmother in a castle east of the sun and west of the moon."
"I know the bear," the voice whispered and shook the leaves on the trees and bushes.
"You're not a Dryad, are you?" the boy asked.
"No, I am the East Wind," the voice replied. "The tween you seek was unjustly turned into a bear. I will help you find him, and perhaps you can break the spell."
No sooner had the voice stopped, than the boy was picked up gently and born toward the south. Day after day he flew on the East Wind, but no sign of the bear did they see, nor did they find a castle that was east of the sun and west of the moon. At last they reached the ends of World where dwelled the South Wind.
The East Wind addressed his brother, who agreed to help the boy continue his quest. "A great Wrong has been done," the South Wind sighed. He picked up the boy and carried him on his search.
Day after day the boy flew on the South Wind, but no sign of the bear did they see, nor did they find a castle that was east of the sun and west of the moon. The weather grew hotter and hotter, until at last, they reached the ends of World where dwelled the North Wind.
The South Wind addressed his brother, who agreed to help the boy continue his quest. "A great Wrong has been done," the North Wind gusted. He picked up the boy and carried him on his search.
Day after day the boy flew on the North Wind, but no sign of the bear did they see, nor did they find a castle that was east of the sun and west of the moon. At last, they reached the ends of World where dwelled the West Wind.
The North Wind addressed his brother, who agreed to help the boy continue his quest. "A great Wrong has been done," the West Wind blustered. "I am the most powerful of these brothers, and I will find the bear," he said, and picked up the boy.
Far they flew, over the seas and across islands to continents we do not know today. The weather grew colder and colder the further they flew. The strong West Wind grew weary, but he persevered until he deposited the boy at the gate to a castle.
"I can go no farther," the West Wind gasped. "This is the castle that is east of the sun and west of the moon. The bear is inside. You, alone, can rescue him." A handful of dry leaves churned in an eddy on the stone pavement outside the castle, and the West Wind was gone.
The boy broke off an icicle that had grown from his chin, and marveled that it did not melt in his hand. The more he considered the icicle, the more he realized that it was magical.
"Hmm," he muttered, "I wonder, just what can it do?"
The boy touched the icicle to the lock on the gate, and the lock crumbled to dust. The gate swung open, and the boy entered the castle.
The boy walked through empty halls and chambers, and had nearly given up on finding the bear when he entered a great hall. On a throne at one end, sat an evil looking woman. Chained to her throne, was the bear.
"How did you get in here, boy?" the crone asked. "Come here, and let me look at you."
When the boy was a few feet from the throne, the crone cried to the bear, "Kill him!"
The boy threw the icicle not at the bear, which was coming toward him with sharp claws and long teeth ready to rip the boy to shreds, but at the crone. The instant the icicle struck her, she exploded into a cloud of dust and green air. The bear stopped just before its claws disemboweled the boy. In a trice, the bear became the violet-eyed, silver-haired tween with skin the color of fresh cream. The boy–
The rest of the story was lost. The wagon lurched. A loud crack, another jolt. This one was stronger. The cart jerked to a halt. It tilted. Bags of potatoes and people spilled indiscriminately. Wheels of cheese rolled down a low hill. Jon grabbed Robbie, who was still in his lap, and wrapped himself around the boy, rolling across the verge as the cart dumped them all to the ground.
Jon jumped to his feet. "Are you hurt?" he asked the boy.
Robbie shook his head. Jon ran his hands over the boy's limbs quickly, and confirmed that nothing was broken. I'll have to check more closely, later, he thought.
"Tyler!" Jon called, running to where that boy was kneeling.
Tyler's hand was pressed against Alfred's chest. "His dagger," Tyler said. Alfred had been honing a dagger while Morgan told the story. "He must have fallen on it. It penetrated his chest and then fell out. The wound is sucking."
Jon picked up the dagger from the ground and began to slash bandages from his shirt.
"You thought quickly and correctly," he said. He and Tyler were back in the surgery center, and the teacher-student-partner relationship they'd developed during Tyler's internship was running on autopilot. "Something impermeable," Jon said.
"My shoe sole," Tyler said, kicking off the rubber-soled scuff. "It's not clean, but neither was my hand."
"Exactly," Jon said, "we will deal with infection later."
Tyler pulled his hand away at the instant Jon slapped on the piece of shoe sole. Jon held the patch in place. Tyler prepared to wind a bandage around Alfred's chest to hold it in place. Abruptly, Jon grabbed Tyler's hand. "Tyler, look!"
Tyler's eyes widened. He saw–but did not know how he saw–what Jon was seeing. Better than an X-ray or three-dimensional MRI, they saw Alfred's lungs labor to pull in air. They saw the blood that had pooled at the base of the right lung. "He's going to need more than a bandage," Tyler said.
"The blood needs to be removed," Jon said. "We need suction."
Tyler gasped. The blood seemed to crawl toward the gash in Alfred's chest. Jon released the patch long enough that the blood could flow brightly over the boy's chest. He pushed the patch back. "What's next, Tyler," he asked.
"Close," Tyler said. "The lung's not harmed. Oh my g . . . g . . . g . . ."
Muscles and membrane came together. The sucking wound on Alfred's chest closed. The healing was far from complete, but the chest wall was sealed.
The woman, who had watched calmly, offered a jug to Jon. The woven reeds that enclosed the earthenware had protected it when the wagon had tipped. Still, it was extraordinary that the jug was still intact.
"Water to wash him," she said, simply.
Jon handed the jug to Tyler and stood. Tyler poured water over the wound. Looking for something with which to wipe the water away, but finding nothing, he shrugged and gently rubbed his hand over Alfred's chest. I really need some antiseptic, alcohol, maybe, something more than just water, Tyler thought. He jerked his hand away when the water foamed. It's almost like hydrogen peroxide–H2O2. The water bubbled more furiously. Tyler dribbled more water from the jug onto Morgan's chest. The water continued to bubble. Tyler saw dirt being carried away. Curious, he poured a little water into his hand. Nothing. The water merely pooled in his palm. Hydrogen peroxide, he thought. The water in his hand began to bubble. Tyler jerked his hand, flinging the water away. Oh, shit.
"Is anyone else hurt? Jon asked. He was strangely tired, but incredibly exhilarated. If wishes were fishes, he thought. How did that happen? Did we simply wish, and it happened? There's been a lot of talk about magic, and I did tell Tyler we were on one of his fantasy worlds.
"A few bruises, perhaps," the woman said. "You're a healer. You didn't say."
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Jon began, only to be interrupted.
"Mistress, only, if you please," the woman said. "Mistress Alice. I am not noble in this life. Why didn't you say you were a healer?"
"It's not my way, Mistress Alice. Healer is only part of what I am, and part of what Tyler is becoming. To say at first that I am a healer is to close off other parts of what I am."
"You have depth unexpected in a tween," Alice said.
Before Jon could ask her what she meant, Tyler called, "Jon! Alfred won't stay still."
"Deal with it," Jon replied.