The chore of peeling and chopping vegetables for the stew at Gabriella’s behest had allowed Fiona and Elise plenty of time to establish what was black and what was white. Yes, they’d conjectured upon everything applicable and then some while Gabriella roamed the woods with the guys. And gray was in abundance.
First, that they were in another place/land/world.
That they’d arrived here under anomalous and inexplicable circumstances.
To date, there was no way of returning home.
That the days lurked interminably, which meant that if all of these conclusions were possible, then it was certainly possible that this world commanded more hours in a day than home did. After all, the other planets in the solar system each had longer or shorter days depending on the length of their revolutions around the sun.
Also that this woman, Gabriella, somehow knew what you were thinking, which both Fiona and Elise found distinctly unsettling.
And that she, Fiona, would personally love to look like Gabriella, although this she had not disclosed to Elise, for vanity’s sake. A girl had her pride, after all.
That they were going to receive a firsthand lesson in wilderness survival.
That none of them planned to cut up any more animals (how disgusting).
Fiona had also observed that Derrick was amazing, but she had also determined that Elise found him utterly insufferable, especially if she couldn’t at least admit that Derrick was attractive. Any time Fiona brought him up in conversation or even mentioned his name, Elise would roll her eyes or scowl. Fiona couldn’t imagine why, Derrick seemed perfectly nice to her, friendly, thoughtful, outgoing, six feet something of broad shoulders and chiseled muscles…. She conveyed as much, feeling safe in divulging this information to Elise after all they’d already shared together.
Evincing distaste with a sniff, Elise’s knife scraped relentlessly against her potato.
“What’s wrong with him? He’s a nice guy. He’s good to have around, too,” Fiona added, recalling two or three times he’d hefted the firewood into the hearth for her. But Elise was swiveling those blue eyes of hers with disgust.
“No, see, you don’t go to school with him. Believe me, he’s a jerk,” she insisted.
Fiona struggled to picture Derrick (who really needed to shave, even though his current scruffiness did add to his appeal) acquitting himself as a jerk. Perhaps he proved a bit arrogant now and again, but a little occasional arrogance didn’t the label of jerk warrant.
Striving to prove her point, Elise’s brow wrinkled with resolve. “For instance, one of my best friends is completely in love with him. A few weeks ago, she got up enough courage to actually introduce herself and maybe see if he might want to go out or something. She introduced herself and he simply looked at her and, just so he could impress all of his friends, he said, Yeah, so what’s your point, babe? And then he and all his friends laughed at her.”
Fiona blinked. Wow. That was pretty rude. Intolerable, in fact. That assuredly qualified him for smacking. Yet still, even in the face of Elise’s earnestness, Fiona couldn’t envision Derrick trampling someone’s feelings with such disregard. She mulled her comrade’s story over as she chopped up another carrot.
“Don’t you have people like that at your school?” Elise wanted to know as she deposited her chopped potatoes into the kettle.
“Well….” Fiona trailed off, at a loss for a plausible defense. Weakly, she wondered if possibly he’d been having a bad day. Fiona rarely encountered problems stemming from the opposite gender at her all-girls’ school, but nevertheless, the faces of a few supercilious personas sprang to mind. She decided to observe Derrick with more vigilance for conduct such as Elise was recounting. Thoughtfully, Fiona mused that if Elise took an affront to her friend so personally, then she must be a good friend to have, the kind who’d go out on a limb for you, not one of those… what did you call them. Fair weather friends.
Plainly she had been a tiny bit blind to Derrick, or blinded by him, more likely, she reflected ruefully, picturing his blond hair and turquoise eyes. Yet, even in light of Elise’s narrative, she couldn’t help but abide by her original instincts, that Derrick was a pretty decent guy, smart, clean-cut, a gentleman. A leader.
After they put to rest all things Derrick, she and Elise compared all the differences of this world to their own routines.
“I don’t know what I wouldn’t give for a hot shower,” Fiona sighed yearningly, sliding her cut up vegetables into the kettle.
“And I’d love some clean clothes,” agreed Elise.
That was true. Their clothing now sported blood and… well, gore, Fiona supposed distastefully, from the galdor yesterday. It had dried and stiffened into grotesque brownish stains, so right now, clean clothing stood out as a priority for her as well. They’d washed their clothes the best they could at the creek again this morning, letting the sun dry them while they bathed in the cool water with Gabriella.
“A brush would be nice, too,” added Elise, whose unruly short curls were hard to tame upon waking.
“And a toothbrush,” Fiona mused, fervently hoping a more sanitary alternative presented itself soon.
They deliberated over of all kinds of luxuries and had finally narrowed it down to electricity in general when Fiona realized how much longer her personal list of needs was than Elise’s. Fiona was the most anal-retentive person she knew….
Well, no. Actually there had been one other person just like her, exactly like her, in fact, but he was dead. Had been dead, nearly a year now. It would be a year ago this month, November 27, that Cedric had died. Never would she forget that night, no matter how long she lived, Fiona would always be able to replay that vivid scene (no don’t think about it) with perfect clarity, just as if it had been yesterday. It had been burned onto her brain….
Mother, Kay, Virginia and Fiona had driven Dad to the Naval Airport to catch his flight back to Norfolk, where he was currently stationed for the next two years; he had flown home to visit for the weekend. Cedric had exchanged good-byes with Dad at home so that he could finish his report on astrodynamics. How many kids ever dreamed of becoming an engineer for NASA? It had always sounded so boring to Fiona, but it had been her twin’s passion.
Kay and Virginia had entered the house first, not noticing anything amiss, while Fiona and Mother brought in the few groceries they’d picked up on the way home. As Fiona and her sisters unpacked the groceries, Mother handed Virginia, then fifteen, the plastic report binder Cedric had neglected to pick up at the school bookstore and instructed her to bring it upstairs to her brother.
Yes, poor Cedric, he was the only male in a household of females, since Dad was so rarely home. But Cedric was good-natured about it; he stood in line for the upstairs bathroom, offered a male viewpoint on potential dates, and retreated to the tranquility of his own bedroom whenever sisterly battles ensued from opposing predictions of what was going to happen on next week’s episode of favorite television programs.
Virginia had screamed and screamed and screamed. The reverberating sound, which had taken a paralyzing moment to identify, assailed her chillingly. Fiona had raced up the stairs behind Kay and Mother, down the hall to her brother’s bedroom….
Mother caught her and endeavored to restrict Fiona from getting past her brother’s door, while nineteen-year-old Kay attempted to shush Virginia.
Adrenaline drove Fiona through the familial barrier in front of Cedric’s door anyway, crying out wordlessly from a sudden fear that snaked cold fingers around her heart and her skin seemed hypersensitive, cold….
The bastard who murdered her twin had similarly murdered seven other children just as brutally, all of them between the ages of four and eighteen, in Louisiana, Maryland, and now North Carolina. He was apprehended in the act, a mere three days later.
The neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Demantas reported a suspicious stranger breaking into a basement window of their neighbors while Mr. and Mrs. DeMantas were down the street at a cocktail party, thereby saving the life of young Christina DeMantas.
Edwin Richard Mitchell, former medical student of Stanford University, was taken into custody that night along with his bag of goodies, a doctor’s black bag which held within it various surgical items. Three of said items bore traces of blood from previous victims, including Cedric’s. Or so the newspapers and magazines claimed, over and over, day after awful day (even when she was cloistered in therapy for the following several weeks, she still heard the news from the TVs in the other rooms through the thin walls.)
Mitchell was sentenced to death for the murder of Cedric Daniel Wolfe, among others, and was still sitting on death row, while, as Fiona’s mother and aunt were fond of remarking bitterly, the taxpayers paid for his food, his fitness machines, the books he read at the prison library and the toilet paper he wiped his ass with.
All afternoon they studied the language with Gabriella. She led them through the woods and pointed at various things, making all five of them repeat the word after her until they pronounced it to her satisfaction. Fiona envied Andrew, he picked up everything on the first or second try. As a teacher, Gabriella was very exacting, often returning to a word to test their memory, quizzing them.
Fiona especially enjoyed watching the wickas play in the trees above them. They were sort of a combination of tiny koala bear and monkey – they leapt from tree to tree with strong hind and forelimbs, had a long and lively tail like a cat and emitted soft cooing noises like a mourning dove.
She suddenly realized that Gabriella was staring at her expectantly. Fiona pronounced the word for leaf improperly, not surprisingly, so that Gabriella smiled patiently, corrected her, and then pointed up at the wickas.
“Wickas,” Gabriella said, and shook her head. She then held up the leaf she’d been demonstrating with and gestured emphatically, with the slightly raised eyebrow reserved usually for wrenching back a wayward student’s straying attention. Fiona sighed and nodded in acquiescence.
After Gabriella accompanied them back to her cabin, (Fiona found it amazing that Gabriella could maneuver her way around to the creek, the cabin, and the surrounding land without any trails) she stood tapping her finger thoughtfully on her chin as she gazed down at Elise. Elise had collapsed on the floor by an open window, her black curls matted to her head as she gulped water thirstily. Her thick fleece sweatshirt, now stained with the blood and gore of the galdor, served only to augment the late summer heat rather than shield her from the biting wind of late autumn at home. Then Gabriella turned decisively about and gestured for Elise and Fiona to follow her. Andrew and Derrick also arose, but Gabriella waved them back.
“It’s a girl thing,” Rick said in a falsetto, waving his hand delicately.
Fiona and Elise exchanged quizzical glances and followed Gabriella into her bedchamber. While Gabriella busied herself rummaging around in an enormous wooden trunk, Fiona, with nothing else to occupy her, studied her hostess’s bedchamber with interest. A shaded window let in cool breezes, while shutters bordered it for inclement weather. Leather bound books randomly forsaken lined the nightstands and shelves above the small hearth, lending a cozy ambience. She admired the inviting bed covered with cushions and soft looking blankets and quilts. With envy, she pictured the furs and blankets that she slept on in the floor in the other room and found them easily wanting in comparison.
Gabriella finally found what she had been searching for and, clearing her throat, recaptured Fiona’s ever-wandering attention. She was holding up a long, full-length dress in front of her, blue with minor ornamentation, and laid it on the bed, along with some underclothes that looked like long, loose tank tops. Those she could certainly appreciate, weary of sleeping in her clothes as she was. She presumed they were to be worn beneath the dress. Gabriella rummaged around again, stood up and offered a second dress to Elise, russet-colored with a cream bodice and some simple embroidery gracing the neckline. She wants us to put them on? What for? Who have we got to dress up for, wondered Fiona. They’re not likely to fit me anyway….
“Wow, it’s like silk,” Elise murmured, fingering them.
Gabriella gestured impatiently. Put them on, she motioned. Abruptly, Fiona visualized herself in her own mind, with a smile on her face, wearing the blue dress, feeling clean and cool and happy. Just as abruptly, the vision disappeared, leaving Fiona thinking her sanity had been momentarily suspended, until she noted that Elise’s eyes were wide with surprise as well.
“You?” Elise asked, pointing at Gabriella, who nodded once gravely.
As if that affirmation had rendered Fiona and her other female comrade motionless, they stared at Gabriella in what for Fiona was shock (she was in my mind.)
Well, of course it’s shock, thought Fiona suddenly with a deep breath. How else was she supposed to react having suddenly discovered firsthand that… telepathy, or magic, or whatever (whatever characterized a lot of recent occurrences) actually existed? People who claimed to have it were laughed at, gossiped about, scorned, one card short of a deck, although often prosperous from scams. Not only that, but under what did you categorize the ability to project images into other people’s minds? Was that also telepathy?
Gabriella frowned and moved suddenly; with a flourish of her arm, the room suddenly brightened with tiny specks of light that flew whimsically all about the room, like winged stars. Gabriella uttered a single word and they all vanished, leaving Fiona and her companion breathless and stunned.
Their hostess laughed merrily, shaking her head at them as if they had made a joke and gestured again impatiently for them to don the dresses, winking as she closed the door.
Almost a week had passed since Gabriella had commenced instructing them in the ways of her world. They were acquiring the language fairly well, Fiona mused, at least as well as a group of tourists stranded in a foreign country might.
The only one encountering difficulty was Rick – he got his I’s and his me’s confused, and his pronunciations of words suffered as well, though they were still intelligible. Fiona’s completion of two years of a foreign language study afforded her some understanding of how to conjugate verbs and other such grammatical principles, although this language was nothing like any other language she knew of. What also helped was the fact that their mastery of this language was on a must-learn basis, not a need-to-pass-to-graduate, as in school. They were in a strange land with no way of getting home and this was the native language. No alternative remained but to learn it.
Fiona padded into the small kitchen, which was quite different than any other kitchen she had ever seen. Sharing the other side of the hearth in the main room was a tremendous fireplace with a large kettle hanging above the ashes, while knives and utensils of every size and shape hung from hooks anchored in the stone above it. Pots, kettles, pans, plates and bowls adorned shelves to one side of the hearth while shelves to the other side accommodated spices and herbs as well as various other cooking utensils and supplies. Dried herbs hung from the center of the ceiling along with cured meats and bread. A barrel of clean water sat next to a tub used for cleaning pots and pans and a large table stood at the other end of the kitchen beneath the window where several herbs grew on the sill, taking in the afternoon sunlight.
Not finding Gabriella, she slipped back on her moccasins, which looked quite ridiculous peeking out from beneath her long, dark blue dress, and returned outside once more.
The afternoon was beautiful, breezy, not too warm, and from what Fiona could see through the dense tree cover, not a single cloud passed through the sky. She strode past the stable that housed the strange-looking but gentle iros and all of their tack. In all were three buildings, the lodge, the stable, and the workroom. Behind the lodge stood an almost invisible shed, cunningly crafted into the back of the lodge in such a way that one easily overlooked it. It housed several barrels and sacks of supplies, gardening tools, and every weapon Fiona had ever imagined, and many she had not – medieval-looking swords, bows, and axes. A well-tended garden behind the lodge produced vegetables, berries, and herbs. The small stable had a meat locker built into its side, which served to store preserved meat and drain fresh game.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark workroom as she scanned the interior. A large oil lamp hung above a scarred but sturdy wooden table in the midst of the room. A glass window allowed a dusty ray of sunlight to brighten the small room, while a small stone hearth provided heat in the winter. Half of the room functioned as a stillroom while various books and scrolls, vials, bottles, and jars on the shelves, and parchment and ink on the table proclaimed the room’s use as a study of sorts. Glancing around briefly determined that Gabriella was not to be found here either, so she returned to the outside cookfire and resumed her chore of preparing vegetables with Elise for tonight’s dinner.
Fiona had observed covertly Derrick for signs of the heartless conceit that Elise so avidly insisted he displayed. But as far as Fiona was concerned, if this was actually what Derrick was up to, then she had had to assign him full marks for an excellent performance, for her gut feeling still maintained that he was really a decent person with integrity. So he had a smidge of arrogance now and again, but that could be construed as self-confidence. Fiona often wondered through the course of the day if Elise wasn’t being a bit dramatic possibly over the little imbroglio she’d described about Derrick humiliating her friend. Perhaps Derrick had been trying to be funny. Not a good choice for humor, granted, but he had yet to evince such behavior in her company. Maybe he had an alter ego.
Having Elise around all day, every day, to talk to was nice – Fiona felt as if they had been best friends for years. And one gnawing, mutual concern of all of theirs was, what was going through their families’ minds? Fiona was sure her mother was having hysterics – she was on antidepressants already since they’d lost her brother, though Fiona did not expound upon the circumstances involving Cedric’s death.
The two of them also speculated aloud about the magic Gabriella manifested. Did everyone here do… that? And how many people were there? They didn’t as yet even command the vocabulary necessary to inquire. So many burgeoning questions raced through Fiona’s mind at night while she was trying to fall asleep. Was there a ruler of this land? Did women have rights? Were there cats and dogs? Did everyone practice magic? Were there four seasons? Did it snow? Was there a way to get back home?
“Look,” nodded Elise, resting her paring knife on her knee.
Fiona looked up to witness Andrew, Rick, and Derrick emerging from the woods with Gabriella, each carrying a dead rabbit-like animal by the neck. Apparently Gabriella had thrown in a hunting lesson.
“Dinner approacheth,” observed Elise drolly. “And we get to chop it up again.”
Actually Fiona would have preferred slicing and gutting the animals (windits, according to Gabriella) but instead Gabriella had Elise and Fiona skin the animals and then showed the guys how to gut and slice them up, pointing out which parts were inedible. A skill each of them, to Fiona’s disgust, would need to be proficient in, claimed Gabriella placidly.
When they had finished with dinner, which was windit stew and fresh fruit, Gabriella cleared the table and led them into the main room. She gestured for them to sit down on the floor in front of the fire. On a piece of thin parchment, she sketched with a quill what looked like a continent. Wavy lines around the continent indicated water, Fiona saw as Gabriella’s map progressed. In the southeast of the continent, she drew a small outline.
“Illyth Forest,” Gabriella said.
That promised ambiguity – was this just the beginning of a geography lesson, or was that the name of the forest they currently resided in, Fiona wondered. She watched Gabriella surround most of that small outline with tiny drawings of trees and decided this was going to be their first lesson in geography.
“We are here,” Gabriella pointed her quill to the west-central side of the forest she’d drawn. She then drew a long, curving line from the south coast through the forest and out of the outline that she’d drawn, extending it into the rest of the continent. A shorter line was drawn from the first, heading south.
Neither Fiona nor the rest of her comrades needed to inquire what that meant. It was a river.
“It is usually hailed as the Illyth River, when referred to at all,” Gabriella informed them. She spoke slowly for the group’s benefit, but if one of them didn’t understand, then Gabriella projected a small image of what she was trying to teach. Such a learning aid, Fiona mused, would be enormously effectual at home if the teachers used such an ability.
Next, two small marks on the makeshift map represented close-by towns outside the Illyth Forest, Corsington and Tillabeth. Both were sizeable towns, but not quite cities, Gabriella explained.
Rick was excited about this – there was civilization nearby! His face lit up as he told them that this might be their chance to get home.
“What are you going to do, Rick, find the nearest telephone and call an airport?” Elise asked.
“You don’t really think we’re somewhere on Earth, do you?” Fiona felt compelled to ask in a pitying tone.
Rick just looked at them, stricken.
“No offense,” Andrew joined in, “but the magic she does should tell you….”
“Well, excuse me for missing my home and family!” Rick flared.
“You are upset?” Gabriella broke through in her own language. Fiona knew Gabriella didn’t understand a word of English, but neither was she stupid.
Fiona wished there was a way for her to telepathically convey how they all felt in the same way that Gabriella did, yet as she was wishing for this, Gabriella sat back and observed solemnly, “Ah. You are bandista.”