His head was spinning as he fell onto his elbows and knees, knocking them painfully against the flat stone. As the world around him stopped swaying and swimming, Nicholas lay very quiet, motionless, drawing deep, heavy, ragged breaths. After a little while, he dared to try and get up. His legs were as wobbly as jelly, and one of his hands was throbbing where skin had been scraped off by the fall.
He looked about him. He stood on a small strip of flat beach with very fine, very clean white sand. Sun sparkled on the gently rolling waves. At some distance, a little white town could be seen behind rounded walls. He squinted. Something was odd about this town; picturesque, to be sure, but he as a professor of history ought to have been able to discern straight away to which period it belongs, when it was built, yet he could not. The sun was shining above him, the gulls were crying out, the air smelled of salt and seaweed, yet there was something inexplicably foreign about it all the same. This was not England. This was not even...
A girl walked towards him, but not purposefully. It seemed she was simply wandering down the beach, looking rather downcast and dejected. She was brown-haired and slim, and her light dress flapped just above her bare feet. When she came within sight of him, she stopped in her tracks and regarded him as an outstanding oddity. She eyed him up and down, and nervously threw her long braid back. Then she said something, and it was very odd – although in his mind, he knew her words were spoken in a tongue he did not know, as soon as he heard them they penetrated his brain and, by a queer alchemy, transformed into a phrase he could comprehend.
"Who are you?" she repeated.
He cleared his throat. "Nicholas Swift," he said.
"That is a strange name," she replied placidly.
"What is yours, then?" he countered. And to his astonishment, although he definitely spoke English, the words that came out of his mouth sounded quite different.
"I am Jada Kotsar," said the girl.
"That is a strange name."
"It is not," the girl seemed more amused than offended. "The Kotsar are one of the founder clans of Rhasket-Tharsanae, and there were hundreds of women named Jada in our clan."
"Your clan?" Nicholas repeated. "Who – what – where are we?"
Now the girl looked at him as if he was some sort of moron. "That," she said very slowly and clearly, pointing in the direction of the nearby town, "is Rhasket-Tharsanae."
"Do you live there?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Was that where you meant to go?"
I meant to go home, thought Nicholas, to take a good hot bath and get into my nice comfortable bed. To say so would have appeared petulant, though. "Can you take me there?" he asked. She nodded.
"Where are you from, anyway?" she asked curiously. "We have a port here, see, so all sorts of people come to land, but it doesn't look like you arrived by ship."
"I am from England," said Nicholas.
"Eng... England?" repeated the girl, looking puzzled. "I have my lessons with a learned woman every day, but I have never heard of such a place. Is it near Adrinor? Letaria? The Eagle Islands?"
I have gone mad, Nicholas thought dryly. Or perhaps I am dead after all, and this is what the Other Side looks like. If so, it is not too bad.
"Take me to the town," he repeated.
Before long, he was admiring the curved streets and neat little plazas, the overhanging branches of unfamiliar trees. He inhaled the comfortingly familiar smells of new bread, freshly caught fish, and horses. People hurried past, talking and laughing, chickens clucked, salesmen haggled, and if someone cast him a curious look, it was not very obvious. The townspeople were dressed in a fashion very unlike his own; a fashion that seemed to be both practical and beautiful, and he took an instant liking to it.
"Where are you taking me, exactly?" he asked the girl, Jada, who seemed to have some purpose in mind.
"To the home of Rohir, our Head of clan," she replied. "It is just here around the corner, do you see?"
It was a handsome manse, built with no reference to any style of architecture familiar to Nicholas, and although the foreigner in him was somewhat intimidated, the historian and anthropologist wanted nothing more than to walk through the doors and continue his observations.
The man to whose presence he was admitted was tall, fair and handsome, yet he had the look of someone who had had to deal with a lot of trouble in a short time.
"Who is it that you brought to me, Jada?" he asked the girl. "You know I have no presence of mind for strangers."
"He said he came from Eng-land," she said. "Where is that, Uncle?"
The man's cool eyes were fixed upon Nicholas with a more active display of curiosity. "How queer," he murmured. "But perhaps I should not be surprised. It has been told that the Gates were opened, and according to legends, our coast is notorious for such apparitions. Tell the servants to bring refreshment," he told his niece, "and help them while you are at it, if you would be so kind."
He stared without speaking, and this unnerved Nicholas. He gave a small, tense nod of the head.
"Was it your purpose to come here?" asked the man.
"I assure you I had not the least intention of it," said Nicholas, "and I would be extremely grateful for directions that would enable me to return home."
"I'm afraid it isn't possible," said the man impassively. "Limited though my knowledge of the Stormglass gates is, I do know they cannot be opened twice in a short span of time. You will be here for a while... but fear not. I am sure your stay will turn out both enjoyable and profitable."
"Where is here?" asked Nicholas. "And, I do not mean to sound rude, but who are you?"
"You find yourself in Rhasket-Tharsanae, an old and venerable town in the United Kingdom of Tilir, and I am Rohir, Head of the Kotsar, the greatest clan in this Province."
A woman entered, handsome and haughty and proud – yet she, like her husband (for Nicholas could only surmise she was Rohir's wife) looked dejected, deflated, as if a large measure of her vital energy had been sapped from her.
"Jada told me we have a visitor from The-World-Beyond," she remarked, looking at Nicholas but not speaking to him. He did not find this very pleasant. "It is going to cause great interest, I am sure."
"Shall we offer him to lodge with us?" asked Rohir, but again, over the head of Nicholas, as though he forgot his words were heard and understood. The handsome elegant woman coolly shook her head.
"I am in no mood for visitors," she said, "and it seems to me we have more urgent matters to tend to."
"Please don't go to any trouble on my account," said Nicholas with the iciest courtesy he could muster. "I will be perfectly fine in an inn or – well, whatever it might be – until I get a clearer picture of how I came here and, more importantly, how to get away."
"Take him to Thadorn," said the woman. "Let him take charge of this. It was all his fault to begin with. Jadine needed a firm hand, but he did not understand it, he gave her free reign in everything, and the result is before you. Our daughter has disappeared without a trace, and he is to blame."
"Be reasonable, Hinassi," Rohir sighed wearily. "If you could not control Jadine, why would Thadorn succeed? But I will do as you wish. I'll take this man from The-World-Beyond to our goodson, and Thadorn will decide what to do with him."
Nicholas did not like the idea of anyone deciding what is to be done with him, but he did not protest. He had a vague feeling this Thadorn, however scornfully Hinassi spoke of him, could not be more unpleasant than his two present companions.
Thadorn was the biggest man Nicholas had ever seen – and the gravest, too. While Rohir was distracted, Thadorn was downright absent. His attitude bordered on indifference which would have been offensive to Nicholas, had he taken it personally.
"I beg your pardon," the giant man said after some minutes of broody silence. "I am sure the circumstances of your arrival are outstanding, and no doubt there was good reason for your coming. But I simply have too much on my mind to pay close attention to all your inquiries. I will leave you at the hands of Rogell, my kinsman and my second-in-command at the Sea Guard."
Nicholas was getting rather tired of being tossed about hither and thither by men who had no possibility or inclination to explain anything, and was prepared to become sulky and sarcastic – but upon his arrival at the home of Rogell and Lya (those, at least, were the names he heard, and he hoped he heard correctly) he very soon understood there would be no need of that.
The house was relatively small, but elegantly built and beautifully decorated with a mosaic of smooth colorful sea stones on one of the outside walls. The garden, too, was tiny but well-tended, and the woman who walked forward to open the gate for them had the pleasantest air Nicholas had ever sensed in a person. She was small of stature, slim of waist, her back straight and proud, her step akin to dance. Her shiny dark hair was collected in a bundle at the back of her neck. A fine-looking small boy who bore a strong resemblance to her clung to her skirts, peering curiously at the unknown man.
"I am sorry to bother you, Lya..." began Thadorn.
"A visit from you is never a bother, Thadorn," she said mildly. "Do you want to see Rogell? He is home."
"I figured he should be. I am going on duty soon myself, but before... do you see this man? If what we heard is true, he is a visitor from The-World-Beyond."
The woman's eyes widened, and her hand absent-mindedly stroked her son's black hair.
"Are you certain?" she replied in a hushed voice. "But... why here? Why now?"
"As to the why and how, I cannot be certain," said Thadorn, "but I thought this might have something to do with... with Jadine." Nicholas assumed the last word was a name, and if it was, he had never heard a man speak a name so reluctantly. This did nothing to help him understand, though.
A brittle silence hung in the air. Lya seemed afraid to speak.
"Which is why I would rather not have anything to do with it," added Thadorn. "Nothing personal against you," he looked at Nicholas, then back at Lya again, "but I have washed my hands clean of Jadine. I searched for her, I left messages for her all over the kingdom, begging her to come back, but she did not. She has chosen her path... and mine will not go near her again, if the Great Spirit has the least bit of mercy on me."
"Have you thought she might... might be... held in captivity?" Lya suggested timidly.
Despite understanding so little, Nicholas found himself listening intently. Thadorn made a noise of disdain.
"I will not believe there is a man on earth, within or without the borders of Tilir, who can hold Jadine captive. Let us go inside and see Rogell."
Rogell, Lya's husband, was a pleasant young man with blue-grey eyes and raven-black hair. He took unfeigned interest and ready involvement in the situation.
"You needn't worry, Thadorn," he said. "The Spirit knows you have had enough on your plate lately. In the meantime, this poor fellow looks like he had never been so confused. We need to make inquiries with the Learned Men, but first, he seems in dire need of something to eat and drink. Isn't that so?" he turned politely to Nicholas.
"Some refreshment wouldn't go amiss," he admitted. His throat felt as dry as parchment, and although he was never a great eater, there was a feeling of emptiness in his stomach that indicated it is time for some food.
When Thadorn was gone, the atmosphere lightened considerably and almost instantly. Lya hurried off to return with a platter of fresh bread, garlic sausage, olives, grapes and figs, flat honey cakes and a jug of pink wine. Nicholas ate and drank and answered Rogell's many questions about his identity and homeland and the manner of his arrival, and in turn, posed his own questions.
"I am a sane man," he said, "I have always flattered myself by thinking I am also a man of logic. Yet how can it be that I am, as you claim, outside the physical borders of my own word?"
Rogell shrugged. "I am not one of the Learned," he said, "and I doubt even they fully understand the nature of Stormstone and the gates that sometimes open between our world and yours. But it is certainly true that you cannot reach your world by land nor sea, and it would be futile to try."
"What is going to become of me, then?" asked Nicholas rather gloomily. Andrew must be going beside himself with worry, because Kate has surely told him of my disappearance. By now the police are probably searching for me all over the country, but they will not find me, and then Jim O'Keeffe will make another fabulous story out of it.
"I completely understand your confusion," Rogell said sympathetically, and poured him more wine. "If it were me wrenched outside my world without warning, without even being able to send a message to my wife... are you a man of family?" he asked.
"No," said Nicholas, "I am not." For some reason it seemed to him that a softer sympathy appeared in Rogell's sea-green-and-blue eyes, and he hastened to switch the subject.
"Are you related also to... mm... Rohir? And the girl who was the first to meet me... a sad-looking girl. Jada, I think her name is."
All of a sudden, Lya spoke up, and her voice quivered with suppressed indignation. "No wonder she is sad. You do know Ned Kamtesir's parents sent him away?" she spoke to her husband. "To learn about Stormstone and trace the Path of the Messenger, they claim, but I know the truth. The Kotsar went all haughty and prickly at the notion of a betrothal between Ned and Jada, as if the Kamtesir aren't good enough for them. It was Thadorn's good-mother's doing, I'm sure. Jada's parents were perfectly likeable to Ned all along. They have known him from infancy."
"Yes, well," Rogell seemed uneasy. "If the girl is persistent enough, she can stand up to her parents... or at least evade their plans of marrying her to Akira Kotsar."
"They wouldn't do that!" Lya looked horrified. "He is their clansman, I know, but he is cold and cruel and certainly not a fit match for a tender-hearted fifteen-year-old girl."
"Wouldn't do that?" repeated Rogell. "Under Hinassi's supervision, why not? Remember how she had served Kelena, her own daughter? But we digress," he turned to Nicholas again with an apologetic smile. "You will be staying with us, of course?"
"I," Nicholas stammered, overwhelmed by this open-hearted offer, so unlike his own moody and secretive nature. "I would not want to be an encumbrance..."
"Nonsense," Rogell cut him off warmly. "The house isn't large, to be sure, but there is a guest bedroom which is scarcely used. We will be honored to have you here, and in time, I am sure, your situation will be clarified. Visitors from The-World-Beyond are rare, but you are not the first – and I am pretty certain all but a few return where they came from in the end."
"All but a few?" repeated Nicholas, not at all encouraged.
"Well," Rogell seemed sheepish. "I think there are stories of a man or two who stayed... but that was so long ago, and besides, I am fairly sure it was their choice."
Nicholas could only hope this was true. Another question was on his lips before he could think twice of it.
"Who is Jadine?" he asked. Rogell and Lya exchanged a quick look which did not escape him. "Did I ask something wrong?" he said. "If so, I take it back and – "
"No, no," Rogell hastened to reassure him. "It is only natural for you to wonder, for her name came up in connection with yours... personally, I am entirely unconvinced this connection exists, but there you go. Anyway, Jadine is Thadorn's wife."
"Or was Thadorn's wife," said Lya with an unexpectedly hard glint in her eyes. "And alas, from the start I suspected this union will bring him little happiness."
Rogell looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Be that as it may," he said, "the marriage was not dissolved, nor has Thadorn called for dissolution, so it remains valid. They have three children, the eldest of whom, Korian, is of an age with our Jorrel," he gave a reassuring nod to the boy who lingered about the room, nibbling at a fig and looking ready to walk out at the first reprimand. Instead, Rogell held out his hand and drew his son closer.
"By the way," he said, looking at his wife again, "Tari was brought back home last night. I wondered how come Thadorn did not mention it to you, but then, he seemed to be in such a hurry."
All at once, the hard look was gone from Lya's eyes, and they shone with warm sympathy. "How wonderful!" she cried. "Finally, at least all the children will be together. Did Kelena come with her?"
"No. Apparently, Dankar was reluctant to let her go, for some reason that Thadorn could not quite make clear. Instead he hired two guards and two nurses to convey the babe safely."
"Something is very fishy about this," said Lya, pursing her lips, but after one glance at the bewildered Nicholas, who understood very little of this conversation, she smiled politely again. "Do forgive us," she said, "it is usually just Rogell and me here, we are not used to having a lot of company, and naturally we talk of matters which are close to our hearts."
"Anyhow," Rogell picked up the thread again, "Jadine is, or considers herself to be, or is believed to be a sorceress... a witch... a magic-woman... do you have any such in your world?"
For the first time, a brief smile touched Nicholas's lips. "It is odd that you should ask me, of all people," he said. "There was a time in our history when people saw, or claimed to see, witches and sorcerers left, right and center, and people suspected of the practice of such arts were cruelly repressed. But now it is plain to all with an ounce of sense that this was merely superstition of the Dark Ages."
"Well, in our world, we know with fair certainty that sorcery did exist," said Rogell. "Nine thousand years ago, when the Great Spirit first breathed life into this bare and barren world, particles of its Essence flew away unnoticed, infusing rivers and mountains, forests and lakes. Thus the magical beings were brought forward into the world, Children of the Wood and Water and Wind. Some find comfort in the thought that they still exist, someplace humans dare not tread. Smaller particles of the Essence bestowed themselves on mortal men, sometimes appearing in a seemingly random way, sometimes passing from father to son, from mother to daughter. But it is widely known that the last spark of this legacy had been extinguished hundreds of years ago... or at least so it was believed until recently."
"Thadorn is still of that opinion," Lya chimed in. "He says he can readily believe that Jadine is up to no good, but he doesn't believe in sorcery or shadows or fortune telling."
"Thadorn is my clansman and my closest friend in the whole world," replied Rogell, "and I usually trust his judgment without a second thought. But here I am only repeating what people say. Some say that sorcery is not all that dead, that some men and women still have the Essence, although it is often difficult to crystallize. It is said that an army of warlocks and their servants is rising in the Emerald Mountains in the southwest, and that Jadine is not the least among them. It is said that one day soon they will march out of the mountains and bind Tilir to their will, and begin a new epoch, and deny the Messenger entrance when he knocks upon our door."
"The messenger? Who is that?" inquired the confused Nicholas.
"Our men of faith say that one day, the truest bearer of the Spirit's essence will descend into this world, in a form we cannot know or imagine, and will bring understanding in the highest form, and the world – ours and The-World-Beyond, out of which you came here – shall be changed forever."
"Fine," said Nicholas, "let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that sorcery is experiencing some obscure rebirth. What would I have to do with it?"
"Ah," said Rogell, "but the Stormstone and Stormglass and the gates-between-the-worlds are the closest thing to sorcery that is still openly acknowledged and practiced. The Gates have not been opened in a very long time, and now that they are in motion, it is only natural some will make a connection between you and the warlocks. No sane man will think to blame you, of course," he hastened to add, "but..."
"But the world is full of insane men," Nicholas finished with a twitch of his mouth.
Despite the uncertainty of his situation, his stay at the home of Rogell and Lya had proved to be one of the most enjoyable times of his life. Everything was neat, pleasant, beautifully arranged, and a peaceful welcoming atmosphere lingered over it all. Lya was a motherly woman who took great pleasure in the work of her hands, and at any time of the day she could be seen doing something, calmly and patiently and steadily: hanging her washing on ropes that were strung beneath the large grape vine behind the house, sweeping the front steps, stirring a large pot on the stove. Little Jorrel accompanied her wherever she went, and when his cousins Korian and Datrine came to visit him, all the children often flocked around Lya, asking for plums or apples, or pieces of dough to knead, or bits of chalk to draw upon the paving stones of the yard. At other times Jorrel spent the day in the house of Thadorn, lending, together with Korian and Datrine, some merriment to its echoing walls.
There was a time, not long after Nicholas's arrival, that Rogell took all the children – except little Tari, who was left behind in the tender care of Lya – to the harbor, to watch the Sea Guard ships assembling for patrol. A ride in the boat, a great treat, was promised to them as well, and perhaps a splash in the waves.
"Only if the water isn't too cold!" Lya called out to her husband warningly as he was walking off. Rogell held Jorrel's and Korian's hands in his, while Datrine was already walking ahead, looking back across her shoulder and tapping her little foot impatiently, waiting for them to follow. "You know Thadorn has enough to take care of without children's coughs and sniffles!"
"Don't worry, Lya," Rogell said indulgently. "These never get ill, you know them," he nodded towards the boys. "And that little vixen over there," he looked at Datrine, "runs barefoot winter and summer, and only grows stronger and prettier for it. Do you want to come too, Nicholas from The-World-Beyond?"
"Thank you, but I am a little tired," said Nicholas. "I have been out all day, exploring your fine hills. I have found at least ten specimens of plants the likes of which I have never seen before."
"Ah, was that where you disappeared since breakfast? You could have earned yourself a heat stroke. Before the year's heat breaks it is pleasanter in the afternoons, just before sunset, like now. But suit yourself. Stay here in the shade, and I am sure Lya will be kind enough to pour you a cold drink."
Lya was standing by the little stove, clad in a crisp white apron, stirring a pot of rose petal jam that filled the little kitchen with a wonderful aroma. She paused her work to hand a goblet to Nicholas. It was full of cold water, with slices of lemons and oranges floating on top and chunks of ice clinking gently. He took a grateful sip.
"Your husband works under the command of Thadorn... Thadorn Tionae, isn't that so?" he asked.
Lya nodded. "Yes, Thadorn is the Commander, but he always listens to Rogell's counsel and gives him free reign in everything. He knows he can trust Rogell. They are as close as brothers, always have been. Inseparable."
"It is funny," murmured Nicholas, "how friendships can be that way... between people who are so dissimilar."
Lya shot him a look the meaning of which he could not quite fathom. It was not anger, not annoyance even, and yet... "I know what you must think of Thadorn, but I assure you, you are not doing him justice. You only met him a couple of times, and it is a time of his life that does not... does not bring out his merriest side. He is a good man, an excellent man, a man of pride and principles and valor. He was... very dear to me once – he still is, of course... as a kinsman and brother."
A blush akin to the rose petals she was simmering in the pot effused the delicate skin of her face. She continued to stir and add sugar.
"Well, you know him better than I do, I suppose," said Nicholas with cautious awkwardness.
"I have known him all my life," said Lya, nodding. "When we were little we were inseparable, much like our Jorrel is now with Korian and Datrine. Of course, then there was that awkward age when boys and girls don't feel very comfortable around each other, but even so. Within a clan, especially in a town so small, one always knows what goes on in the others' lives... and I've always known Jadine Kotsar was no good. Oh, don't get me wrong," she amended, stirring rather more vigorously than was strictly necessary. "She is beautiful and clever and charming and talented, but she is a harpy." At this last word, Lya's hand shook and her stirring spoon jerked violently, making the pot nearly slide off the stove. She hastened to put it right. "Some say she truly has the Essence, the magic, whatever it is... I couldn't care less. No matter what, she had no right to do this to Thadorn and her children. She abandoned them without as much as a second thought."
She put out the fire and carefully slid the pot off the stove, and placed it on a rough wooden platter which was meant to protect the surface of the table from being scorched. She spooned some rose petal jam onto a glazed clay saucer and offered it to Nicholas. He carefully sampled it, cautious not to burn his tongue. He had never tasted rose petal jam that was as fragrant and delicious, and was about to tell as much, but unexpectedly, the words that escaped his mouth were completely different.
"Perhaps she is regretting this," he suggested.
"Jadine?" scoffed Lya. "I hope so. I hope she regrets it until the day she dies."