“Oshetavalen?” Avi asked in disbelief. “Ieskya?” Neither word was familiar to her, though to be fair, there was an island in the Hebrides called Skye, but as far as she could remember, it looked nothing like this place. “I don't... I mean, I've never heard of these places. Are they near England?” She was clinging to the idea that she was in England, or perhaps even Wales. The alternative—that she was in another world somehow—was far too unsettling to contemplate. Not to mention impossible.
“I'm uncertain,” the man said hesitantly. There was a thoughtful look on his face and Avi took a moment to discretely study him further. He was dressed in rough homespun cloth, but his bearing and his speech were noble, like he'd gone to Eton or something. He was indeed carrying a sword on his hip, which combined with the horse, the tent, and the cook pot at the fireside made her hope she'd stumbled across a medieval re-enactment of some sort. She hoped. Oh, God, did she hope!
“There are other continents, but I do not think they are called England. They might be, though,” he added hopefully. “I've always had a poor head for geography.”
She closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head. She felt herself perilously close to tears and the very last thing she wanted to do was break down in front of a stranger. That was simply Not Done. She clenched her hands in her lap tightly enough that she could feel her fingernails digging into her palms and she used that tiny pain to anchor her to reality. She was most certainly not dreaming; she would have woken up already by now. Maisie must have drugged her, dragged her out into Holyrood Park, and paid some actor to pull one over on her. But that was elaborate, even for Maisie, who, frankly, had a lot of imagination but not a lot of money.
“I think... I think I'm in a different country.” She said the words slowly, hesitantly, like they were a new coat and she was trying them on for size. It was frightening, to be honest, the thought that she might not even be in Great Britain any more, that she might be in a completely different continent maybe, but there seemed to be no other logical explanation. She opened her eyes and looked at the man, meeting his sea-green eyes.
He sat down slowly next to her, a frown on his handsome face. “A different country?” he asked breathlessly, as though he, too, found the concept frightening. “Do you truly think so?”
She nodded. “That thing back there. What do you call it?”
“That was a juvenile poisonling. Did you not recognise it?”
Juvenile? Good lord, what would it look like fully grown? “No, I didn't. And you said the name of this forest is the Evermere?” The man nodded, his eyes fast on her face. “Neither of those things exist in...” She swallowed and decided for the moment to play along. “They don't exist in the U.K. We don't have... poisonlings. And the only thing I know of with the name 'mere' is a lake in England.” She swallowed desperately and couldn't stop the flow of tears.
The man leaned forward and took one of her hands in between both of his. They were hard and rough, as though he did a lot of manual labour... or training with swords. That was another strange juxtaposition. “Please don't cry, my lady,” he said. “We can fix this. We'll go to the Unelmite temple in Litsey and find Father Toliver. He's the most powerful Dreamer in the whole of Oshetavalen. I'm sure he can send you back to...” He waved his hand vaguely.
“Edinburgh,” Avi offered. “That's where I'm from. In Scotland. I'm Avi, by the way. My mum named me Aveline, but I much prefer Avi.”
“Avi,” the man said with a little smile. “I'm Bremi.” He bowed over her hand and brushed his lips briefly across the back of it. She reluctantly withdrew her hand from his and used it to wipe her tears away, ignoring the fluttering in her belly.
“What's the Unelmite temple?” she asked, hoping to distract herself from her predicament.
Bremi stared at her for a long moment, his brow furrowed in a frown, as though he was trying to figure out if she was having one over on him as well. Finally, he cleared his throat and his voice adopted a certain pedantic tone as he said, “The main place of worship for Unelma Anheyma, the goddess of the Dreaming and the founder of our royal house,” Bremi replied. Avi detected a bit of pride there and wondered if he was a minor member of the royal family, like the Prince of Kent.
“You keep saying this word, Dreaming, like it's a big deal. What is it?”
“Dreaming, yes. It's our magic, our religion.” He frowned a little. “Do you not have magic in Edinburgh?”
Avi chuckled and shook her head. She sure hoped Maisie had paid this guy well. He really was quite a good actor. “No, our world is very non-magical. Religion, though, we have that in spades.”
“Oh? You worship Unelma Anheyma as well?”
“No. We worship God. Or Allah. Or the Buddha. Or Shiva.” Avi shrugged. “We have lots of gods.”
“I see.” Avi could tell that Bremi was confused, but she didn't know how to explain modern religious views to him. She wasn't even sure she understood it herself.
“How far is Litsey from us? I want to get home, get back to my life.”
Bremi's smile brightened, now that they were back on safer conversational ground. “Litsey is about three, maybe four leagues away. It will take us only two days to get there.”
“Two days?!” Avi's eyes flew open wide in shock. “It can't take that long! I have a life, a dog, a job. I have to get back to Edinburgh. Can't we get there faster?”
“There is only one horse, and she's not fast. You may certainly ride, but I will still have to walk.”
“God, what I wouldn't give for my car!” Avi groaned and covered her face with her hands.
“Car? What is this word?”
She shook her head. “Never mind. It's not important. Do you... Do you have some spare clothing? I'm freezing.” She stuck her foot out and examined the nail beds. Sure enough, they were looking a little blue. “I'm going to get frostbite or something.”
Bremi stood up abruptly and nodded. “Yes, of course. So rude of me. One moment.” He strode across the campsite and disappeared inside the tent. Avi took a moment to look around their surroundings once more. The trees were beautiful, she had to admit. The scarlet and gold and orange leaves looked aflame where they were touched by the sun, and now that the rain or mist or whatever it had been had cleared up, the air wasn't so chilly any more. The layers of dead leaves beneath her feet, though, were like ice, and her damp nightgown wasn't helping keep her warm either.
Maybe she was in New England, Vermont or Maine. Or maybe she was somewhere in Romania or Hungary. But neither of those possibilities explained the change in seasons. Were there places in Australia or New Zealand that looked like this? She closed her eyes, trying to remember if there were ancient woods in any of the Lord of the Rings films. She remembered there were, when Merry and Pippin met Treebeard, but was that a studio lot or had it been filmed on location?
Bremi appeared moments later, holding an armful of drab-coloured cloth. “It's my spare clothing.” He smiled as he held out his armful to her. “I'm afraid they won't be a good fit, but they're dry and warm. I have boots as well, but they'll be too big as well. Still, since we'll not be leaving until the morning, they'll do overnight.”
Avi took the clothing, happy to see that they were made of good cotton and wool. “Thank you,” she said and crossed the campsite to enter the tent so she could change in privacy. She stripped out of her sodden nightgown, pleased her underwear was still relatively dry. For wont of something better to do, she laid the gown over a pile of Bremi's belongings to dry. True to his word, the clothing Bremi had given her was huge on her. She rolled up the pants' legs and arms of the shirt enough that her hands and feet could hang free. She had also found some long woollen socks—she supposed they were rightly called hose—and slipped her feet into those gratefully.
As she dressed, she glanced around the tent and saw something that reminded her of a lute leaning against the tree truck to which the tent had been lashed. So Bremi was a travelling bard? That would explain his speech, and since the clothing he'd given her was of good fabric and a well-tailored fit, he must be a good bard, one that earned good coin for his songs and stories and what have you.
She reached up to run her hand over her head, hoping to smooth her hair into submission. It was not cooperating, so she rummaged around in the tent, hoping for a mirror or a comb or both. She found a knapsack tucked away beneath a blanket near the lute, and hoping to find what she was looking for, opened it and dug around inside. She didn't find a comb or a mirror, but instead found a book, some quills, and a stoppered bottle of what looked like ink instead. Curious and perhaps too nosy for her own good, she opened the book and read the last page:
“Fourteenth Day, Harvest Moon.
There is word from Orumbury. The town has been destroyed, burned to the ground by unknown forces. The news has come from a travelling tinker who saw the ruins from a distance. So far no survivors have come forward and the worst is feared. I am uncertain whether Conri is prepared for this. I fear an invasion, and feel once more the guilt for saddling my brother with the throne. What have I done?”
Avi's brows raised. Bremi's brother was the king? And if Avi had read the passage correctly, Bremi was supposed to have been the king? She blinked in shock and carefully replaced the book into the knapsack and buried once more beneath the blanket. If Bremi was supposed to be king, why had he abdicated? Maybe he just didn't want to rule. Maybe he was forced to give over the crown by his brother.
She had to admit that not only was the actor talented, but whomever had set up this joke was amazingly dedicated to detail. The poisonling chasing her, the campsite, Bremi's journal—everything was perfect for convincing someone that they were in a completely different world, different universe. She wondered how they'd managed the poisonling, whether it was a dog in a remarkably life-like costume or if it was some sort of high-tech projection.
Still puzzling the questions over, she slipped her feet into the boots and giggled softly at their size compared to her feet. She felt as she did as a child, wearing her father's shoes as she left the tent. Bremi was sitting at the fire's side, stirring whatever was in the cook pot. He glanced up at her. “Good fit?” he asked with a smile.
“Perfect,” she answered and joined him at the fire. “How is it that we can understand each other? I mean, if this is another world, how are we speaking the same language?”
Bremi shrugged. “You sound as though you're from Eslos. Vilia maybe.”
She chuckled. “In the north, are they?”
“How did you know?”
“Edinburgh is in the north of my world, too.” She shrugged and leaned forward to peer into the cook pot. “What's that?” The liquid inside was murky and smelled unpleasant. She desperately hoped it wasn't dinner.
Bremi's cheeks were touched with red and he looked down. “It's...um...laundry. Hose and small clothes to be precise.”
Avi giggled. “Oh, thank goodness! I was worried it was dinner.”
“Oh, no. I wouldn't force you to eat my cooking,” Bremi said and chuckled. “There is bread and cheese in the tent. There might be a bit of venison sausage and an apple or two as well. Are you hungry or thirsty? I can offer you a taste of fine Cloudhill red, but only a taste.”
“I'm a little hungry, yes. What's Cloudhill red? A wine?”
“A wine, she says. Oh, my dearest Avi. It is more than a wine. It is... Well, you'll just have to taste it.” Bremi rose and went back into the tent. Moments later, he came out carrying a small wheel of cheese, a round loaf of bread, and a stone bottle. He handed her the cheese and a small knife and tore the bread in half. She cut a small wedge and accepted some bread in exchange for the rest of the cheese and the return of Bremi's knife.
He sat down at the fire's edge and she joined him, warm and dry and filling her belly. She soon discovered that Bremi was correct about the wine. It was fantastic and it was strong. She knew she'd have to limit herself; otherwise she'd be drunk and that was not safe. The cheese and bread were hearty and she was grateful to Bremi for sharing his meal.
“Tell me of this Edinburgh,” he said after they had finished eating and were relaxing by the fireside. The sun was slowly setting, turning the sky in the west to a brilliant, blazing fire of reds and pinks and golds. The breeze changed direction, bringing with it the cries of nocturnal animals—owls, bats, maybe a wolf or coyote. Avi was relieved to hear such familiar sounds. She could smell water on the breeze now, too. They must be circling back to the burn she'd followed.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, uncertain how or where to begin explaining her home to someone who had never and probably could never visit. “It's an ancient place. I think people first started living there over ten thousand years ago. There's a big hill with a big castle atop it. There's an important university and it's the capital city of my country, Scotland.”
“Ten thousand years? Truly?”
Avi nodded, hoping her maths were right. “It's a big city, too. I think something like five hundred thousand people live there. It's called Auld Reekie, because of all the coal fires. There's lots of art galleries and museums, theatres and cinemas, too.” She trailed off and could feel the pricking of tears again. “I miss it,” she said, her voice soft and thick with emotion.
“Do not worry, Avi. We will be in Litsey in two days' time. We will see Father Toliver and he will know how to send you back. And soon,” he said with a little smirk, “all of this will be nothing more than a strange, half-remembered dream.”
Avi smiled and sniffed. “Thank you.” She took a long pull at the stone bottle and felt the wine slide down her throat and curl up in her belly like a warm, purring cat. “Tell me of... of Litsey. And your country, too.”
Bremi nodded slowly and looked off into the trees, his eyes distant. “Well, Litsey is the largest city on the continent, though nowhere near the size of your Edinburgh. There are some twenty thousand souls there. Most are merchants and tradesmen; the rest are nobility, as the Aeskrow—the castle where the king resides—is located there. The main temple of Unelma Anheyma is there, too. The city's population doubles during Cold Moon, as we celebrate the Lady of Dreaming's death. We also have a university.” He returned his attention to Avi's face and asked, “Who rules your Edinburgh?”
“The Prime Minister, though we do have a queen. She's mostly just a figurehead though; her position is largely ceremonial. She doesn't have much power or influence any more.”
“And your gods and goddesses?”
Avi chuckled softly, trying to figure out how to explain the religions of Earth. “There are many different religions in... my world. Some people worship just one god, some worship many. Some cling to old religions, and some embrace new ones.”
“And you? Which do you worship?”
Avi raised her brows and scratched idly at her ear. “Well,” she began slowly. “I was raised to worship one god, but now?” She shrugged a little and looked down at the ground between her feet. “I'm not sure what I believe now.” She could feel Bremi's eyes on her and raised her head to look at him. “See, my brother—my younger brother—was killed five years ago. He was so young and we were told that it was a possibility that he would die, but we just weren't prepared for it.”
“What do you mean?” Bremi's expression was soft, sympathetic, and his voice was gentle.
“He was in the Army, and there's a war in... Well, in a far-off place called Afghanistan. He was killed just a few months after being sent there.” She raised her hand and gripped a golden locket at her neck. Opening it, she leaned forward to show Bremi the picture inside. It was of a young, dark-haired man in desert fatigues, gripping a machine gun.
“That is your brother's likeness?” Avi nodded and Bremi's eyes grew wide as he studied the photograph. “That is... That is astounding! How is the miniature so precise, so detailed? And what is that thing he is holding?”
“It's not a painting. It's a photograph. It's sorta like a painting, but made with light and... I don't actually know how it works.” She shut the locket and sat back once more, her hand still wrapped around it. “The thing he's holding is a machine gun. It's like...” She frowned, trying to think of something he might be familiar with. It seemed as though the level of technology in this world was on par with the medieval ages, so perhaps he'd know what a bow was. “Do you know what a bow and arrow is?”
“Yes, of course. We're not backwards Dimmen here.” He sounded insulted and Avi smiled contritely.
“I didn't mean to insult you. The thing he's holding, the machine gun, is like a bow that can shoot hundreds of small, terribly lethal arrows a minute.”
“Truly?” Bremi's eyes grew wide. “How does it work?”
Avi chuckled and shook her head. “I'm afraid I don't know. I'm not an engineer. I'm just an editor.” At Bremi's blank look, she elaborated. “I read stories—books, really—and decide if my publishing house will buy them from the author to publish them.”
“I only understood one of those words, Avi.” When she tried to explain, Bremi held his hands up in surrender. “Your world is too different from mine. I don't think I'll ever understand any of the things you talk of.” He stood and collected the bread and cheese, carefully wrapping them in what looked like thin strips of birch back. He put the stopper back into the stone bottle and extended his hand to Avi. “You will take the tent tonight. I don't mind sleeping out of doors. There will be clear skies.”
Avi took his hand and rose to her feet. “Thank you, Bremi. I guess... I guess I'll go to sleep now. Good night.”
“Good night, Avi. Sleep well.”