It was some time later, and Garain and Isabella, just them, had joined us in the yurt.
“So, you’ve travelled far I take it, and you have strange companions,” he indicated the three wolves lounging in the yurt. “Have you been troubled by the ice?” I went to answer, but Ellie raised her hand. I nodded.
“The ice has been our friend and provided meat, and these noble companions,” she used a word, ‘amösti’, which really means ‘strange companions of my trusted tribe’, “we have travelled far from our range. We go to reclaim what is ours lying on the land of a Noble Lady.”
“Bought a castle eh?” asked Garain with a wry smile on his face. “Good job you’re not dead before you can enjoy it.” I didn’t know what to say to that.
“Um…” Isabella rescued me.
“John, I’m truly sorry for my attitude, I really shouldn’t have been that rude, it wasn’t fair on you or your ladies. I’m getting a bit crotchety in my old age.” I waved this away. “No, no, John. There are other implications too.” I looked askance at this. She took a deep breath. “Life has become brutal and short in the last years; we’re calling them that now because we cannot see any way of usurping the King. He seems to know everything, so even this conversation is dangerous.” Garain brings his hand down low while this is being said. Isabella sees and nods slowly.
“I’m with a civil society, which respects authority and civility.” I said very slowly. “I respect and revere the King, and if the judgements seem harsh, then we shall await the judgement of history.” Garain scowled.
“Kings usually only wait on the judgement of the gods.” The scowl deepened. I passed over a large chunk of meat on a piece of leather. This bought a smile to his face for a moment. Then, carefully, he took out a knife and a crudely beaten fork and a little tin plate, cut the meat in half and spent several minutes cutting up the meat into very small pieces before reheating it over the fire. I noted in passing that he just put the plate into the fire with his bare hand and held it there, before placing a rag on Isabella’s lap and placing the plate there. “Truth is,” continued Garain, “we’re going out on to the ice. It’s more than a man’s life is worth to challenge the King, and the ice is the only place I know of he doesn’t fully influence us with his magic. I need some time away from him to think. So do many if only they knew it.” He bit into the remains of the meat, and chewed thoughtfully.
“Supposing,” I said, carefully, “supposing there was someone who could get rid of him. Could you do without a King? Is there succession?” Garain swallowed the meat carefully, and took a good long look at me before replying.
“There would be a tourney. There are no heirs. A tourney would the only thing to decide it. There would be many deaths.”
“I don’t like to be callous, but would that matter?” Again, a long look.
“You halve yourself. There would be deaths, it matters not.” He frowned and picked up another piece of meat. “Why speak like a woman, and then a man. Women’s words are for women. If you must speak them, then be a man and commit to them.” I looked confused. Ellie put her hand up. I nodded.
“If I may have a word?” We left the yurt.
“I don’t understand what he just said; was he insulting me?” Ellie shook her head.
“He was expressing confusion. When you said that you didn’t like to be callous and then asked if it would matter, that was halving yourself. You might hear it often if you do that.” I looked more confused. “You’re a strapping great warrior. Well, you look like one, you just lack a few skills. You’re not supposed to care if they die, you’re only supposed to care if you win. But every man has a son or cousin he cares about, being concerned about that is womanly. You might have to fight if you express those emotions, so you have to man up and express them, commit. If you commit you might have to fight about it less and you might get insulted less, or choose to ignore it.”
“Got it.” We went back in, where Garain was having a long conversation with Sam about fighting, and how an unarmed person could still take on a sword. It stopped when I stood for a brief moment. I sat.
“I am sorry if I divided myself and it was confusing.” I began. Garain laughed.
“You’re a very strange man. It is done, you did it. Only women regret, it is their way, you speak like a woman, but you are a man, and you have the commitment of a man. Choose who you are!” He frowned briefly, but laughed again. “I’m not trying to insult you friend, but you are strange. I do not understand your purpose.”
“To bring peace.” I said firmly. He stopped laughing. I could see him working his brain, like a clockwork, as he mulled this over.
“That is the goal of a woman.” He held up his hand as drew breath. “it is a laudable aim, but men want war. It is our chance for glory!”
“And yet you run away to think.” Isabelle put her hand firmly on Garain’s arm. I could see his muscles bunch and clench. After a moment he patted her had lightly and she withdrew it after an extra squeeze.
“Yes, it shames me. And yet I would rather have this shame than the fainting death the King’s magic brings, or the drunkenness of so called Lords and Ladies who can barely keep a civil tongue in their heads and sword in its’ sheath. It used to be a countryside that had a reputation for quick tempers and quicker deaths; now those places as a bucolic peace.” Actually, I did translate there some-what. The world he used was ‘hardapga’ which would take a month of Sundays to translate. “There used to be a civility in a town, but now there is one town, and no civility.”
“Were there not matters of honour all the time?” I asked curiously.
“Oh yes, but we were forbidden to fight in towns by the old King’s order. he said that there were too many warriors lost in incidentals. The other monarchs agreed. But now there is one monarch in this long winter, and no need for armies. Just Barons bickering amongst themselves.” He said bitterly. “And I am but one man. I go to think.” He turned to Isabella. “Would you ask Tatty to bring some string drink? My friends here have none, or they would have offered it up.” I nodded, and stood as she rose. “Ah my friend, you give yourself away with so many little gestures.” He smiled, “How long have you been on this world?”
There is, as they say, nothing like when a plan comes together. And this was nothing like a plan coming together. We had been on the ice for a total of four months at this time. So far, that was two and a half months longer than we had anticipated. We had been on the ice too long, and even Ellie and Sam had become too used to our own company, and so we gave ourselves away in a thousand little ways.
Our company saw straight through us, and he was of the opinion that anyone else would too, and therefore our plan was hopeless.
“You’re off-worlders, that’s obvious now. I didn’t get it at first. Some men can be too long on the ice, and they turn a bit weird. You’re more than weird.”
We looked at him, a little aghast. Isabella leaned forward.
“It’s not unknown, there are a few places in the world that are confused with other worlds; and sometimes people come through.” Garain nodded. “We have ben to most of the portals,” she continued. “Some of what comes through has to be dealt with.”
“Your current King is one of those things.” I was tense, I didn’t know how they would take this. Garain and Isabella shrugged in unison.
“We suspected as much. We couldn’t prove it. And he has bought magic with him.” Ellie leaned forward.
“I would argue with you for the world, Garain, but it’s not magic, it’s tech. And we are policemen come to end him.”
“I do not know those words you used, ‘teche’, ‘pleaseman’, but if you are here to end him, then I am with you.”
“Hang on, hang on,” I said, “what are the odds of meeting someone willing to help us more or less first bat off the wicket?” And then I saw it, I saw what had been going on all the time. Sam was looking sad.
“Yes, John. You’re right, I see it in your face. Isabella is my entangled double.” Garain looked up, first at Sam, and then carefully at Isabella.
“I see it now. Had not before.” He rumbled. “It is obvious now, you are sisters.” Isabella put her hand to her mouth, clearly shocked. “I am more committed now.” He paused. “If you are Isabella.” She looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Since when did a man ask permission from his women to do anything?”
“Their ways are not our ways; you need to be certain of this course, it may end your life for a futile cause. As do the other women. Everyone must be certain. I have a responsibility. If I must, I will don the robes and furs of a woman and be this man’s creature, but everyone must consent.” And standing abruptly, he left the yurt and disappeared on to the ice sheet.
There were a few moments of contemplative silence. Eventually Isabella made to get to her feet, and I got up and lent her a hand. She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement and stood for a moment regaining her composure.
“I have things to attend to now ladies and gentleman, and I must see to them, because the head of my household may be no more.” She looked me up and down. “I hope you are equal to this task, because you do not know the enormity of what you have done.”
“I have an idea, Lady.” She frowned and became very thin lipped.
“I think your idea is a faint reflection of what you will see happen when we encounter the town. Manhood is prized here, more than anything. We ladies own what we own to relieve men of the responsibility, to allow them to think and fight. He will not fight again. His punishment of me is nothing. He will disgrace himself and his line for you. Don’t fail him.” I bowed as low as I knew how. “I am honoured, but it is more important that you don’t fail. More than anything.” And she left the yurt also, sweeping her train behind her with a flick or her hand.
“What did I just do and is this sort of thing going to happen all the time?” I said, “And is there any of that drink left?”
We got pretty drunk that night, all of us, on Garain’s mead and rum. Isabella was the only one who showed any restraint, and even was tipsy. The other ladies, Tara, Kate, Helena and Gefina, joined us, demurely robed and suitable chaste, and we told them of the so called plan so far, and what was happening. They all wanted a hefty dose of the mead after that.
It was morning when I was woken by Garain gently rocking my shoulder. Everyone else asleep around me and the brazier was low. He gestured to me to come outside. I groggily got up and followed. The world was hard to resolve, I was clearly hung over, and I felt and urgent need for some water. I began looking about, but Garain handed me a waterskin, by the expedient of grabbing my hand and shoving it into it. I took a long draught, and splashed a bit on my face. Garain waited patiently.
“I have a plan,” he said, “A new plan.” I nodded. “You are clearly immune from Kings Geas, he cannot kill you dead with his magic, or you would not be here.” I nodded again.
“That’s the theory.” He looked grim.
“It had better be more than a theory, or we are all dead for nothing.” He took a deep breath, there was something more. “I might be dead anyway, but I think you can save the women.” He looked off into the distance.
It was while he was doing this that I noticed that his clothes had changed from the dark rough furs of his battle dress, to a lighter linen type robe in many layers, and cream, almost white furs, wrapped around in the same style the women wore, rather than just hung loosely and carelessly as his others had been.
“I think that whatever makes you immune is within you, and you can pass it on to your sons and daughters. I think that act will protect the women too, but not me.” I looked at him, gaping. “You must father all my firstborn. Then I will train you to fight. Then you will be ready for battle.”
I had a good sense of why Garain would spend the night on the ice, naked, as it turns out. He is hugely hardy; that would have killed me even with all the additional bulk. I gathered later that it was a test of his destiny. If he died on the ice, no problem, as the man on the scene I automatically inherited everything moveable, so not houses and such, but the cart, the women, all that. He had said this in the discussions with Isabelle that amounted to his will. But, as he had come back, he was bound, he thought to take the robes of a woman, and serve me, at least, on the surface.
“Tell them I owed you a gambling debt and couldn’t pay. They will believe it, and it will not be an unexpected disgrace. I’m known for a gamble, it will give amusement to my enemies. They need some amusement since the last tourney.”
“Um, what did you do to them?”
“Broke the leg of every single challenger as he fell off his horse. And Lord the Madam Lissom.”
“She killed her husband and challenged her accuser to hand to hand combat. Woman are not allowed to fight, but it would have been a dishonour to refuse. It would have been a bigger one to kill a weak, defenceless woman in combat, and a disgrace to lose. As it turns out she is neither weak nor defenceless, and she doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of men, so we have to let her get on with it.”
“Let her get on with it?”
“I have taken the robes of a woman, she has taken the robes of a man; unless one likes to get one’s head chopped off, or sawed off more likely, one just accepts that sometimes the cart goes the other way. She’ll have a bit more humility now though. I told her that lance was too heavy for her.” He shrugged his robes around a bit. “This will take some getting used to, ah, My Lord.” I was a bit taken aback. The ladies had been calling me this for the last two days as we rearranged camp and packed it up again. But Garain?
“I am your ‘woman’, you are my Lord. That is how it is, get used to it.”
“Huh. I’ve been thinking about this impregnation thing.” He shot me a look.
“You have done nothing so far. You have not even talked about the matter with your women, what is the matter with you?”
“I’m a bit shy about it to be honest.” He glowered.
“You said what?” He began to bunch his fists. I grew noticeably nervous, this did not seem to improve his mood.
“Little bit shy.” I said recklessly. This as too much for him.
With a great roar he threw off the robes and swung a great roundhouse blow at me, not the gently telegraphed blows with the coshes, but massive blow of a man fully enraged. It connected and I saw stars as I flew across the clearing. He was roaring incoherently, and stamped across the grown before I could find my feet or my wits. He pulled me upright with one hand and swung again, but this time instead of hitting me with his fist, he opened his hand, saving all my teeth, and slapped me across the clearing again. It didn’t feel any less hard than the punch and I was dazed again. I saw that the women had come out and formed a rough circle, including Ellie and Sam. No-one seemed inclined to do anything about the beating I was getting. He seemed less incoherent now, but just as angry.
“I,” he said, lifting me up again, “have given up my manhood for your plan, so you will fight!” he punctuated this with a punch to my stomach. I doubled over and he kneed me in the face. I fell over backwards. “I will never mate!” He went to stamp on me, but I managed to roll out of the way in time. He had to turn a little, and I managed to scythe my legs into his. He fell over heavily, but bounded up again before I had a chance to do any more. Enraged he went to punch me in the face again, directly into the ground and I had to move my head suddenly to avoid it. He drove his fist deep into the earth. I looked directly at Ellie, a mute appeal in my face, but she shook her head and I realised, as he kicked me in the ribs, that I was on my own. I rolled over and over but he kept walking towards me and I realised that he really wasn’t going to give up until he killed me, or I reacted. I changed tack.
I rolled instead towards him, and while he looked marginally surprised he instantly stopped walking and pulled his foot back for a kick. I stopped and put my hands up to catch it, but I was far too slow. I cursed in frustration and stood up as he regained his balance from his missed kick. I took advantage of this to hit him in the face.
Now, I must relate something here. I haven’t done much fighting, and what I have seen has been on the television. Yes, I’ve boxed a little for exercise, but what no-one will tell, no-one, is that hitting a very large man with a very large neck trained practically from birth to fight is almost pointless. Also, you are quite likely to break a knuckle on his face. Unless he has a glass jaw. Garain did not have a glass jaw, but rather one that seemed to be made or granite or some other, harder, material.
I cursed again and retreated rapidly across the ground that was open. He rubbed his jaw, and smiled nastily. Although we were fighting in a small area, I can only describe what he did next as a charge. He developed in a few paces a sort of implacable run that looked as if only some sort of natural disaster would stop it, a mountain falling on him, that sort of thing. I looked at this for a brief second and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and ran off onto the ice.
I didn’t know until that point that I could run really fast, and I easily out- paced Garain and he cursed and shouted and called me a coward. I knew I’d have to answer that, and probably with a challenge, except I didn’t know if that was allowed now. I did know he wasn’t supposed to fight with me.
I was sweaty, and this was not a blessing as night fell out there on the ice. I grew bitterly cold, and as I felt it seeping into my bones I knew a growing warmth that told me frostbite was coming deep within, as the tingle took me and I shook and shook. After a couple of hours the shaking stopped and I was in the pitch black walking on the pack ice. I was lost and in the dark and alone. I kept moving, my only instinct to keep my body moving as long as possible and keep it warm. Anyhow, didn’t lost people walk in circles? Maybe I would come across the camp again, eventually.
The night was darker than anything I had ever experienced outside at night. There was no moon, and no Milky Way, and it struck me how far from home I really must be. I might be anywhere, in a different galaxy for all I knew, and then the truth hit me like a hammer; I wasn’t just in a different galaxy, I was in a different reality, and my way home was up there orbiting the planet, with currently, no way to get back to it, because my quantum double was right here on the planet with me. I was more lost than it would have ever seemed possible to be, before I left Earth, came to this desolate place and acquired a new body.
I fell over in the ice and snow, and just lay there, not caring if I lived or died, frozen cold and lost, and then I did a very stupid thing. I fell asleep.
I was at the tea party again, but this time I wasn’t a five year old girl, I was me, and the rest of the grotesquery were around me, as well as the little girls. My knees were practically around my ears as I sat on the small plastic chair.
“Well,” said a little voice, “you took long enough to get here.” I just looked at her as if she was an alien. “Don’t know who I am?”
I’m a in a garden with four little girls and a bunch of shot in the head teddies and dolls, sitting, crouching at the table with little cucumber sandwiches on it, and slices of cake. I recognise Natashia, Katie and Samantha, but not the little girl talking to me. So when she asks me if I know her, I shake my head.
“I’m Ellie, silly. I meet you or the first time here. You’ve shared my dreams before though.” I just gape. “You’re supposed to face up to it here, what you’ve done. A lot of it is pretty awful, don’t you think?” She picks up the teapot and pours thick black coffee out of it, and offers it to me. “Drink this, it might wake you up in a minute, before you freeze to death.” She thinks about this while the other delicately eat cake with little plastic forks. “Actually, you have the Nanites now don’t you? You’re magic, so you won’t die.” She takes a big slurp of the black coffee with every sign of satisfaction. “Oh well, Sweet Elephants Track me Down.” She says, smiling, a hint of her grown up self showing in her face as it fades. “Come and see me again when you need another hint.” She smiles as she fades and I wake up.
I’m in a hot spring as far as I can make out, steaming away. The others arrive after about half an hour, and after Ellie and Sam making some fuss about wearing mittens, they pull me out. There are many admonitions not to touch me at all. I find out why when after about two minutes my clothes are dry, but my feet are wet, because I sunk into the ice.
“Start walking Jessop.” Ellie says, before the effect wears off and you have damp and cold feet.” It’s dawn, and Ellie remarks. “You’ve been out all night.” Sam looks over.
“Yes, all night and you left us with that angry lunatic. And we were worried about you. And him. He chopped up a boulder after you left. A bit one. Have you any idea what t’s going to cost to repair his sword?” I mumbled something. “What?” she asked, crisply.
“I said, ‘I got bit tired of being hit in the face.’” Sam slid to a stop.
“That’s what you get paid the big bucks for! You should have put him down, that’s your job! That why you have the big muscles! Do something about it!” She stamped on again back towards the camp, where she sat on a little stool, and sulked.
When we got back to camp, Garain was in clean clothes and furs and deep in conversation with Kate. He was looking earnest and Kate was just laying her hand on his shoulder. He looked up as we approached. I must have looked wary, because he held his hands up in the universal gesture of peace, and walked towards me. What he did next was quite hard to see, not hard to see, but hard to witness.
He went down on both knees and prostrated himself before me, arms outstretched and completely vulnerable. He turned his head to one side, so I could hear him clearly. I glanced up, Kate was openly crying, and the others were holding back tears. Garain spoke.
“My master. I am sorry for my inexcusable actions. My life is forfeit, my body yours. I am yours for pleasure or work. I have my place and have taken it at your feet, where I stay, to stir only by your command, or starve, as you wish.” I gestured to Isabella, who looked utterly miserable. As she came to my side I held out my arm, and she took it. I walked some little distance away, Ellie and Sam went to follow, but I shook my head, and surprised, they stayed, and comforted the other women.
I spent some time explaining, with Garain lying in the dirt a little distance away, what I wanted to Isabella. The return explantation took a long time.
When we had finished she was crying as well, and put both hands on my shoulders, and kissed me briefly on each cheek. “Truly,” she said, “as I love and revere Garain; there has never been a man such as you.” I shook my head.
“I am just a man, but I do what is right.” And gently kissed her on the lips, hesitating just slightly. She was firm about completing the act, and then pushed me back and turned me to face again the man on the ground.
I took a deep breath.
“Garain. You will stand up when I have finished speaking. Until then you will contain your feelings and listen carefully. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my master.”
“You will from now on instruct me in the usages and methods of battle when I demand it. You have taken the robes of a woman, and you will wear them and be disgraced, but you will use the skills of a man to instruct me in fighting.”
“That is most irregular, Master. Women are not allowed to fight.”
“That’s not what I wanted to hear you say, Garain.” I said firmly. “I wanted to hear you say ‘Yes Master.’”
“If you are worried that you will offend a Man, be assured that I will deal with him, firmly.” I said, hardening my voice as much as I could. “Very firmly indeed.”
“As to the women. I will accede to your request and advice, but only if they expressly agree, if they do not, we will find somewhere safe for them to stay. Understood?”
“When this time is finished, I will go home. Any offspring you will raise as your own. You will make every effort to have more children with these women, and be a family. You will never tell anyone of the true lineage of your first born. They will be yours. When this affair is over, we will restore your honour by whatever means necessary. There is no choice, you will cooperate or you will die. And one more thing.” He turned his head up a bit more. “You are all to call me John. It is my name. I want it used. Now get up and stop grovelling in the dirt. Never do that again.” When he got up the big man as crying freely and all the women gathered around us as I gave him a great big bear hug.