Keira found the path Danny had mentioned easily enough and, keeping the river on her left, had been following it for half an hour when she saw smoke in the distance. Keira wasn’t sure who those two men had been or why they were so committed to whatever acting troupe they were a part of, but she honestly didn’t have time to figure it out. Hurrying now, she rounded a bend in the path and stopped dead in her tracks.
In front of her, the path merged with a wide road that came out of the forest to her right and met with a great stone bridge that spanned the length of the river she’d been following. This road was clearly well-traveled, as people bustled over the bridge and about their business, all dressed in rough homespun dresses and tunics that looked practically medieval. Many were laughing as they greeted those coming from the opposite direction, leading horses and oxen bearing wagons laden with baskets of food, bundles of hay, and other items fit for a farmer’s market.
A shout brought Keira’s attention to the river she’d been following, as ahead of her men floated downstream, riding rafts of great tree trunks lashed together. The men called to the people on the bridge as they floated their cargo underneath toward the town that lay beyond. The town, Keira now saw, was filled with one- and two-story houses made of wattle and daub, which she knew had been a common building material in centuries past.
This was all absolutely too strange for Keira’s liking, and she shook her head vigorously, as if she might clear the sight from her mind’s eye by sheer force of will. This is ridiculous, she told herself. Taking a deep breath, she strode forward, determined to find someone who could help her, or at least explain what the hell was going on.
Holding her head erect, she tried to ignore the looks of shock and bewilderment people gave her as she crossed the bridge. Suddenly feeling very conscious of the tattered jeans and sweatshirt that she wore, she tried to avoid eye contact as she hurried into town. Surely there had to be a visitor center or tourism office, right?
When she made it into town, the sights and smells of a medieval market immediately accosted her senses. Fish mongers hawked their wares as they shooed sniffing dogs away from their product. Farmers at their stalls proudly displayed their baskets and crates of fresh, sweet-smelling produce. The large, open square was filled to the brim with people buying and selling, laughing, and catching up on the week’s gossip. Keira spun around, feeling the people and noise crushing in on her from all sides. There was no one else dressed in normal clothes, and when she asked a helpful-looking and very pregnant woman dressed as a fishwife if she could point her toward the visitor center, the woman looked at her like she was a raving lunatic.
“Visitin’ are ye? Well, tha’ explains loads.” She eyed Keira up and down. “Hob-nogged downlanders,” she muttered to herself. “Ye’ll be wantin’ the tavern over thar.” She pointed across the square and waddled away.
Keira hurried towards the tavern but couldn’t help but stop to gawk at two passing columns of men in blood red robes, their low-voiced chants emanating from unseen faces beneath bowed and hooded heads. She gave them a wide berth before heading on to the tavern, where her questions about police and phones were met with blank looks and wary expressions. These folks clearly were not exactly used to visitors, especially strange ones who walked around in ripped jeans. Desperate, Keira went back outside and held her now-throbbing head in her hands. She tried to slow her breathing, willing her heart to stop pulsing in her ears. She had to figure out what on earth she would do.
A warm hand on her shoulder got her attention. Roughly shoving aside tears, she looked up into kind green eyes. Danny had clearly followed her to the town. He offered her a hand, and she took it as he pulled her to her feet.
“Come with me.”
Not exactly having a better idea, Keira did. Danny led her past an ornate circular building at the top of the town square and through a door at the base of a bell tower to its side. They ascended narrow spiral stairs for what seemed an eternity, until they emerged through a trapdoor at the top and into a tiny room made all the smaller by the massive bells that filled it nearly to capacity. Keira followed Danny over to one of the great windows to the side and slowly approached it, acutely concerned that her fear of heights might stoke the all-too-fresh bouts of nausea she’d been wrestling with earlier.
But as she approached, she recognized what Danny had wanted her to see. High above the trees as they were, Keira could see not only the market and town below them but also the massive lake, whose banks the town sat upon. Beyond this, Keira could see vast expanses of land sloping down from them, and far off in the distance, a wedge of sea that she could just make out sliced inland as arable lands swelled around its intrusion.
“That,” Danny said, gesturing at the lake, “is Lake Abel. The town we’re in now is called Abalás. Over there,” he said, motioning to the wedge of sea, “is the Fertile Inlet. A river runs from Lake Abel all the way to Port Galaén, and all the farms in that area are nourished by river plains draining into the inlet.” Keira stared out at what he’d described, trying desperately to make sense of it.
“You are not in California anymore,” Danny told her softly, and she knew in that moment that he was right. She felt tears fill her eyes again, and she roughly squeezed her fists against them, groaning.
“I promise I don’t normally cry this much,” she said.
He touched her lightly on her arm and gave her a small smile as she looked up at him.
“It’s a lot. I get it. I tell you, I was the same, if not worse.”
She stared at him, surprised. “Really? You’re like me? I-I mean, not from here?”
His smile widened and his eyes softened, considering her almost shyly.
“More than you know.”
As Danny had followed Keira into town, he’d wondered what he’d do if she refused to come back with him. Keep following her? It’s not as if he could just leave her to wander Loren, untrained and unaware of exactly what type of world she’d wound up in. No, he’d just have to think of a way to convince her they really meant to help her and were not, in fact, loony playactors.
As they crossed the bridge and entered the great wooden palisades that marked the town’s borders, he realized he needn’t have worried. He could sense her growing fear and panic from where he was, following at a distance and weaving in between townsfolk. He could tell from the way her head darted side to side as she stared at the unusual sights of fish hawkers and the philosian monks in their red, hooded robes, chanting as they walked en masse through the streets. She listened with interest to a group of wool merchants arguing about the latest tax levies but shook her head wearily and pushed past when talk turned to whether the old Regio in Crîd Eálas was truly to blame.
After pausing briefly to question a fishwife busy corralling a flock of children, Keira headed toward the Wailing Mudder, the local tavern. Knowing there was only the one public entrance, Danny waited at a bit of a distance for her to exit the same way. When she did, Danny saw a look of absolute dejection cross her face, her eyes blinking furiously as she fought back tears. When she finally sat down on the edge of the tavern’s porch, head in hands as she massaged her temples, Danny figured it was as good a time as any to check in on her.
When he reached her, he placed a light hand on her shoulder. Her head snapped up, and she quickly brushed the back of her hand across her cheeks. The look she gave him was one of utter sadness, fear, and embarrassment all rolled into one, and he wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around her and tell her everything would be all right. He checked himself though, knowing logically that such an action would be more confusing than helpful at the moment. Instead, he settled for helping her to her feet and bidding her follow him. He somehow knew intuitively that in this moment the thing she needed most was to know with absolute certainty that she was actually here and that this was really happening, her new reality. The whys could come later.
So he took her to the top of the local temple of Pneumos, to the tower where she could see far beyond Abalás to the Fertile Inlet and even the sea beyond, with the impressive mountains to the north and west. It worked. Seeing it for herself, she was finally convinced that she was no longer in California. He glanced shyly at her, knowing that she was still upset. Her lip still trembled slightly, but there was a new upward tilt to her chin and a determined look in her eye.
She’ll get through this, he realized. Just like I did.
That said, she was clearly exhausted, and so he offered to take her home.
“Home?” she asked him ruefully.
“My home,” he told her, “and yours, for as long as you want it. Elliott and Nazor took me in when I was like you, newly arrived and scared shitless. You haven’t met Nazor yet, but I think you’ll like her, strongest woman I ever met. They took care of me, taught me—”
He paused, glancing at her wary expression, and decided that a full explanation could wait. “Well, they taught me how to take care of myself here, and they’ll take care of you too.”
She looked at him with the same hesitant expression but with slightly more trust in her eyes. She nodded slowly.
“Ok,” she told him. “Home . . . for now.”