She woke to a smell that reminded her of breakfast – sharp, citrusy notes and something fatty grilling somewhere.
She lay on something soft and yielding, that seemed to adapt to her body and cushion it, and some kind of covering was over her. As she opened her eyes and sat up, she saw that she was lying on a pile of the low growths, and that the same kind of material woven from the thorn bushes that her captor? host? had worn formed the blanket she was under.
“Good thing. Red Lady wake, eat?”
If it wasn’t her captor, it was close enough to it to be a twin. It held out a bowl to her, from which came the aroma of fried meat and fat. She was way too hungry to wonder about what kind of meat, or even if she could eat anything in this strange place. She took the bowl and scooped out little crisp nuggets of fried meat, which tasted slightly savory and slightly sweet, and almost like ham but not quite.
Once the bowl was empty, her host handed her another bowl with a greenish liquid in it. She sniffed it and realized it was the citrusy scent she had caught earlier. A cautious sip revealed a deliciously refreshing acid and sugar mix, with hints of lime and lemon and orange and nectarine all mixed in.
“Now talk, please?” Her captor/host was leaning forward, it’s long neck extended so that the face hovered close to her. “No loud, just soft, OK?”
“OK.” She drew her knees up to her chest and nodded.
“OK. So you Red Lady, yes, no?”
“I don’t know who this Red Lady is supposed to be. I’m Tracy, Tracy Pike. I’m in the eleventh grade at Lincoln High and yesterday someone attacked me at the amusement park and I think I died and came here, or maybe I just blacked out and he brought me here and tossed me in the sea, although I’m not sure, it happened so quickly, or it seemed to.”
“Too very much word. Understand no.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Tracy.”
He bowed its neck. “Me name Valinja. That,” he pointed to another, “Ajnilav, my half person.”
“We born same mother.”
“Yes, twins, half person. Tracy half person?”
“No, no, I don’t have any sisters or brothers.”
“No half person? Then Tracy Red Lady! Red Lady come like say, come to fight.”
Tracy thought for a moment. Red Lady – maybe a reference to her red hair, and ‘come like say’, maybe a prophecy? But she’d have to spend more time getting to understand these strange beings. She was convinced that they meant her no harm, and also, that, whatever else, she was safe here for the moment.
Valinja was smiling again at her, that wide stretch of the mouth and the crinkling of the eyes, and patting her hand. “Tracy Red Lady welcome. Tracy Red Lady stay? Stay this place, us?”
It was also clear that for the foreseeable future she was stuck here, where ever here was, and so she answered, “Thank you, yes. I’ll stay here for now.”
All four of the humanoids now grinned, and then one chirred something, and Valinja said to her, “Yes, Banilev say you now our person, and we take you soon to see,” and some chirring sound for a word he/she didn’t know, “and Tracy fight!”
“I’m not sure about the fight, but I’d like to meet other people and find out where I am and what this place is.”
Valinja drew him/herself up proudly. “I teach. I good speak otherworld and I teach.”
And so, slowly, over the next few days, with many pauses and repetitions to aid understanding, she managed to learn that her initial contact and his twin were what she thought of as male, and shared the house with their wives, two possibly female half persons named Banilev and Velinab.
She had to admit that she made the distinctions based on the roles they seemed to take. For instance, Banilev and Velinab spent most of their time preparing food, cleaning the house and weaving the thorny plants - which yielded long thin fibres when cut and beaten - into robes or patching existing robes. Valinja and Ajnilav, meanwhile, tended to forage outside the home, bringing back the low growth which served as both fuel and food at the same time, and some of the little silvery fish or some big shells from which came a meaty muscle, all of which got cooked into various stews or fried as on the first morning. The fact that they had no other physical differences, such as hair length, and no body morphology that distinguished one sex from the other, added to the confusion. Yet their faces had differences. The size and slant of their eyes and the set of their mouths and noses all helped her to gradually distinguish them from each other.
She also learnt more about the Red Lady prophecy. Apparently the land was under the domination of an overlord of some kind, described as ‘enjoy hurt’ by Ajnilav, and many years ago the local seer or wise person had told of a time that the Red Lady, ‘one whole person’, would come and fight against the overlord and overthrow them. There was, in fact, a verse, which Valinja tried to translate to English.
Red Lady, one body, no half person she,
riding yellow flower on red color fish,
come with might magic,
lead fight and DarkLord slay,
win to free.
She was also told why English was spoken, brokenly, but spoken to some extent, by everyone. It appeared that the overlord spoke perfect English, and issued a decree that everyone would speak it on pain of death.
And, she came to realize as she met more of the people and explored the village with her hosts, her coloring was unusual here and explained to some extent why she was regarded with awe. This land or world held shades of grey, blue, black, white and a dull green, overlain here and there with coppery reds that were muted and tarnished, nothing like her hair which shone in this place like a red banner. She had always thought of the color as mousy, but now it burned like a flame against the shades of grey around them.
The low growth, she was told, was called canija, the thorny plants which became flexible fibres when harvested were zeliwa, and the tall sponges were gowira. Canija still tended to grow towards her whenever she stood still or sat down outside, and she wondered why. It was almost like it was attracted to her. Her hosts could not explain why.
Just one more weird thing in a weird place at a weird time.
At night she dreamt of her mother crying, and her own funeral being held, and she would wake to see one or the other of her hosts crouching nearby, hands stretched towards her, crooning a soft tune. It always made her feel better, knowing someone cared for her here.
It had been about a week and four days since she washed up on the shore when the raid took place.
She was shaken awake and pulled towards the outside.
“We make quick quick, go, go!” They all kept urging her. One of them helped her into her backpack, which felt quite full, and she saw that they had bags slung over their shoulders as well.
They had barely cleared the nearby hill when she heard the thunderous noise, and from the opposite side a troop of strange beasts came galloping into the clearing around the house. Valinja pulled her down and they lay flat, looking out through the vegetation at the scene below.
The beasts were cousins of those who were the house pets, but more heavily armed with horns and bony feet. Riding them were persons dressed, not in the usual robes, but in some kind of armor, made from something that looked vaguely coppery. They carried long lances with which they now prodded open the door.
Obviously disappointed by the fact that there was no-one in the house, they dragged out the house-beasts and casually spitted them on their lances as these valiantly tried to defend their house and themselves.
Tracy watched in horror and would have cried out and tried to rise but for Ajnilav and Banilev holding her down, Banilev’s hand over her mouth.
The attackers then proceeded to toss out all that was inside the house, and after pawing through it and gathering some loot, they urged their mounts over the pile, crushing and destroying it.
Then one went back inside the house and soon came out, mounted up and the troop retreated a little way. They watched in obvious enjoyment as flames started to pour out of the windows and the doorway, only leaving when there was but a smoldering pile of ash.
It seemed her hosts had been prepared for this possibility, since they now rose and shouldered their burdens and motioned to her to do the same, cautioning her by putting their hands over their mouths, to keep quiet.
Although seething with questions, she had learned by now that it was best to accept the situation, move forward and ask at an opportune moment.
They strode through the gentle hills across which the settlement was scattered very widely, and came across other houses in the village, similarly reduced to ash, and outside one not only the pets, but also the householders lying dead on the ground.
She cried out at this, and would have run to try and help, but her arms were grasped by the two females and she was pulled with them. Gradually more villagers joined them and they walked inland, trudging uphill all the while.
For a long time, it seemed to her, they stumbled over the ground through the gowira forest, at least, she stumbled since she was blinded by tears, but at last they seemed to get close to their destination.
“Wait moment here,” Valinja said, then he stepped forward and seemed to disappear in the gloom. She took the opportunity to sit down, and Banilev and Velinab sat down on either side of her.
“You knew it would happen?” She spoke with a kind of weary resignation.
“Dark one time again for we.”
“You mean this is a regular occurrence?”
“Reg, rego laarr? What is this rego laarr?”
“It happens many times, at the same time every time? Like sunrise and sunset is regular, you understand?”
“Like time, pass, then time? Eat, time, eat again?” Banilev seemed to be faster than the others in getting abstract meanings. “Yes, very rego laarr hurt men come, break.”
“I see. And it is this that you want me to lead the fight against?”
A different voice spoke.
“Exactly. Eventually, of course, you will have to fight the DarkLord himself, but for now we need your help to fight the bringers of destruction.”
Valinja was back, and with him was someone half his height, leaning on his arm. Garbed in the same clothing as everyone else, obviously frail, but with an authority that had Tracy on her feet along with her companions.
“Sit down, Red Lady, and I will join you.”
She sat down, and the newcomer made a gesture toward the canija. Banilev quickly cut an armful of it and laid it on the ground, shaping it into a nest. Amid clicks and creaking noises, the newcomer sat.
“I need softness for these old bones. I am Leman, and I am a non-half. My half-person died when we were barely minutes old, and so her soul and mine commune across the divide between alive and dead, which made me a seer and wise woman.”
Tracy stared at her. “You believe you talk to the dead sister you once had?”
“I don’t believe. I know. I know you don’t believe it. But a week ago you didn’t believe that other worlds existed, did you?”
Tracy was tired, still slightly hysterical from the violence she had seen, and befuddled by all that had happened to her since that awful moment when she felt her life slipping away as the hands squeezed her neck, choking her breath. Without thinking she reached into her backpack and drew out her fluffy toy and hugged it to her.
“And that was exactly how I/we saw you in this moment,” Leman said, “with that bright fish in your arms, leaning your head on it.”
Tracy drew a breath to deny it, but Leman quelled her with a look. It was the look of authority, the look that all good teachers had, where they could silence a class with that look.
“Your world and ours dance together in the spaces and times, and where the space thins we can cross. Not everyone can cross, only those who have some affinity for the extra senses, the strange spaces, the other, the unknown. Some even know how to live in both spaces, and some try to conquer the different world, using the strength of being different. I believe in your world we are seen as fairies, or elves, or goblins. Creatures with magic powers?”
“But those are stories, aren’t they?”
“Are they? Is this a story?”
“I don’t know. I might be lying in some hospital bed in a coma, and this is just something my brain is dreaming up.”
Leman suddenly leaned forward and stabbed something sharp into Tracy’s hand. A drop of blood welled up.
“Ouch, that hurt!”
“Now touch that drop, Red Lady Tracy. See it spread. Feel the life in it. Feel how thousands of cells are dying away from the nurture of your body, but will, in turn, in their decay, give life to others. Is a dream as real as this? Is there not always something that tells you it is a dream?”
“But that’s just it, you see. I’ve had dreams that have felt every bit as real as this while they were happening, but then I’d wake up and it would become jumbled and confusing.”
Leman leaned back. “Indeed. But then, whether this be real or dream, the best to do is to experience it to the fullest, don’t you agree? If your dying brain is making this story for you, accept it and revel in the fact that you, Red Lady Tracy, are here to save the realm of the fairies from an evil emperor, if that helps you to do what we need you to do.”
Against this Tracy had no answer. She nodded, mutely.
“Good. So as I was sharing, in your world there was a time when people from ours tried to conquer, and were driven back. Now we have people from your world, who came across and have conquered us. Through self-bonding with us, they managed to birth two half-people who yet have your blood in them too, and these two first fought each other for right to rule, and then proceeded to establish rule over us using the disharmonious ones.”
Tracy held up a hand.
“I think this is going to be a long story and there are many things you just said that I heard but don’t understand. Can I ask you some questions, and try to get some of the things that have been bothering me sorted out?”
Leman nodded in turn.
“I think now there is only one thing you must hear, and that is this. The DarkLord knows of you as well, and may well have raided the village to find you. So we need to rest now, and then move onward to a place of fastness I only know of through the dead, and so a place he cannot see yet.”
Rest. The word was a boon, and almost as soon as it was spoken Tracy felt herself slipping into sleep.