Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Snippets of upcoming and in-progress works.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Hi

This story started as something of an experiment - basically I intended to write a serial portal fantasy rather than a novel. It will be updated, but very - very - slowly: I’m talking 1-2 chapters per month.

The basic idea is that a person very different to Emily wound up in the Nameless World and shaped a very different life. They have no magic and, obviously, a different experience. The working title is Stuck in Magic <grin>.

If you have any suggestions and suchlike, feel free to insert them.

All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

If you’re interested in following my writing and hearing news of new releases (and a ton of other goodies), please follow my blog (The Chrishanger) or my mailing list (chrishanger-list Info Page). My Facebook fan page is also online - Christopher G. Nuttall - but Facebook has been playing silly buggers recently, so you’re better to follow either of the first two options (or both <grin>).

Or simply follow me here. <grin>

Thank you very much for your time.

Chris

PS - If you read, please comment from time to time. It encourages me.

PPS - If you want to write yourself, check out the link below.

https://www.superversivesf.com/fantasticschools/2020/09/14/now-accepting-stories-for-fantastic-schools-volume-3/
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter One

I shouldn’t have been on that road.

I should have been safe at home, in bed with my wife, but ...

I cursed savagely as I drove down the interstate, cursing my wife and her lover and the schools she’d chosen for the kids and everything else, including myself. It should have been so wonderful. I’d been given permission to go on leave a day early and, fool that I was, I had driven straight home to see my wife and kids. I’d walked in on her in bed with the neighbour, a fat fool who had nothing to recommend him beyond an even fatter bank account and a wife too in love with her social life to make a fuss about her husband’s infidelity. It had taken all the willpower I could muster, growing up a poor kid who’d decided the army offered him the only chance of a decent life, to keep from killing the pair of them. I honestly wasn’t sure why I’d hesitated.

My fingers tightened on the wheel. Cleo and I had said some pretty horrible things to each other, as soon as the fat fool had fled. She’d screamed that I just didn’t have any ambition, that I could have moved up in the army or left for a high-paying civilian job somewhere ... somewhere I’d be bored out of my skull within the week. I’d shouted back that she’d known what she was getting into, back when she became a military wife. God knew she’d coped well, in our early years of moving from post to post. It was only when the kids had come into our lives that she’d insisted on putting roots down somewhere permanent, somewhere the kids would have stable lives and schooling. And then the kids themselves had entered the fray ...

They’d known. They had to have known. And they’d said nothing.

I pushed down on the accelerator, the car surging forward as if I could outrun my demons. I sure where I was going. I just wanted to get away. A hundred ideas ran through my head, each one more outrageous than the last. I could drive to a red light district, meet up with a few of my buddies and get insanely drunk. Or I could put in for BUD/S training or something - anything - that would get me away from my life. Or ... I felt a wave of self-pity that would have surprised the men under my command, on my last deployment. I’d put everything into the marriage. I’d done everything right. And it hadn’t been enough.

My fists clenched again as I peered into the darkness. The interstate was empty. I hadn’t seen another car for miles. I wasn’t even sure where I was. The stars overhead seemed to mock me, reminding me I was small in the eyes of the universe. Nothing I did would ever matter, in the long term. Nothing ... I knew I should be thinking about divorce, about getting a lawyer to sort out custody and shit like that and ... despair threatened to overwhelm me as I remembered an old teammate who’d gone through a very bitter divorce. He’d put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I understood, now, how he’d felt. Everything he’d worked for had vanished in the blink of an eye. And there was nothing he could have done that wouldn’t have made matters worse.

Fuck, I thought, numbly.

I frowned as I saw lights in the distance, flickering lights. The police? I forced myself to take a deep breath, slow down and drive sensibly. I didn’t want to be pulled over, not when I was in no state to handle it. There’d been too many horror stories about people being shot for me to want to risk it. The cops were jumpy these days. Everyone was.

My eyes narrowed as the lights rose up in front of me. For a moment, I stared in disbelief. A helicopter? A light aircraft? Was I driving towards an airfield? It was possible ... the lights darted and twisted in a way I would have thought impossible. A UFO? I snorted at the thought. It was insane. The lights were flickering ... maybe they were fireworks. Some dumb kids, living in flyover country, letting off fireworks for the sheer hell of it. I’d done it myself, when I’d been a kid and thought I’d never amount to anything. My past self had been a fool. And yet ...

The air flared with light. I cursed, throwing up a hand to cover my eyes. A nuke? The car shook violently, as if I’d just driven into a shockwave. I kept my eyes tightly closed, hours upon hours spent reading the manuals for WMD attack echoing through my head. I slammed down on the breaks, feeling the car tilting ... my head span so badly I was sure the car had been picked up by the shockwave and thrown back down the interstate. Was the country under attack? I’d heard the usual rumblings from Iran and North Korea, but ... there’d been no hint they were going to throw a nuke at us. Even if they had ... I couldn’t think of anything near that merited a nuclear strike. The closest major target was quite some distance away.

A loud crash echoed through the car. I winced, my eyes snapping open. Bright sunlight beamed down at me. I stared, blinking stupidly. Sunlight? It had been near midnight, only a few short seconds ago. Had I blanked out? My fingers fumbled with the safety catch on my belt, trying to get free. If the country had been nuked ... I heard glass crashing behind me and knew I hadn’t blanked out for more than a second or two, if that. The car was falling to pieces and my fingers were refusing to cooperate ... I gritted my teeth, trying to open the door. It wasn’t easy. The car was at the bottom of a ditch.

My head spun. What the fuck?

I stared in disbelief as I forced the door open and stumbled into the ditch. I’d been on the interstate, driving through the plains. I wasn’t any longer. There was a forest behind me, as if I’d driven out of it, and a roughly-made road in front of me. The ditch reminded me of a trench I’d seen in Afghanistan, right down to the tiny trickle of water at the bottom. It was bizarre. I rubbed my head, wondering if I was delirious. It made as much sense as anything else. What the fuck had happened to me?

The sense of unreality grew stronger as I looked back at the car. It was clearly smashed beyond all hope of repair, the front looking as if I’d driven her into a tank. And yet ... there was no hint I’d actually driven out of the forest. I looked into the trees and felt a flicker of naked fear, something I hadn’t felt in years. It felt like unseen eyes were looking back at me. I hadn’t felt so threatened since I’d patrolled the streets of Baghdad during the Surge ...

It made no sense. I clambered out of the ditch and looked around. The entire world had changed. I could see mountains in the distance, mountains I could have sworn hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. The road itself looked like a poorly-maintained dusty track, rather than the interstate. I’d seen better roads in the Third World. I looked up into the clear blue sky and saw nothing, save for a handful of birds. There were no planes, no helicopters ... nothing I would have expected to see, after a WMD attack. There wasn’t any mushroom cloud either. I swallowed hard as I realised that, whatever had happened, I wasn’t in Kansas any longer. I’d read a book where a nuclear blast had tossed a homestead through time and space. Had that happened to me? I hoped not. The future world had been nothing more than a dark mirror of the present.

It could be worse, I told myself. Really.

The thought didn’t reassure me as I tested the air. It was warm, although nowhere near as hot as Texas or Iraq. I had the feeling it was probably going to get a lot hotter, judging by the dusty road and the absence of any real traffic. The locals were probably trying to sleep through the worst of the heat, then resuming their business as the sun started to go back down. If there were any locals ... a shiver ran down my spine as I realised there might not be any locals. For all I knew, there weren’t any locals.

Hugh Farnham thought the same, I reminded myself. And look what happened to him.

I snorted as I jumped back into the ditch and started to dig through the car. My pistol went on my belt, the handful of clips I’d brought with me into my bag. I’d packed a handful of things in the car, including a first aid kit and a bunch of ration bars, but I hadn’t expected finding myself ... somewhere. I kicked myself for not packing a rifle and ... whatever else I might have needed. If I’d known I was going to fall through time, or whatever else had happened to me, I would have brought along everything from a reference library to tools and gear to build my own homestead. It would have been so much easier.

My smartphone felt oddly warm as I took it out of my pocket and pushed the power switch. Nothing happened. I stared down at the device for a moment, then sniffed it. It smelt of molten metal and electrical fire. I shook my head slowly, remembering all the dire warnings about what EMPs would do to our electrical devices. Whatever had happened to me had been much more than a simple EMP, but it had clearly fried everything electrical in my car. I tested the radio, just to be sure. It was useless. I hesitated, then pointed the pistol down the ditch and fired. The gun, at least, worked properly. So did my clockwork watch.

Although I have no idea what time it is here either, I thought. The sun suggested it was just past noon, but ... that was nothing more than a guideline. Fuck.

I finished searching the car, transferring everything useful to the bag. There were wasn’t much of any use, save for the pistol ... I looked up, wondering if I would have to shoot a bird for dinner. The ration bars wouldn’t last very long. I cursed under my breath, wishing I’d thought to pack a handful of MREs. One of my buddies was a demented survivalist, stockpiling everything from medical supplies to MREs and enough canned food to feed an army. He’d invited me to stay with him, if the shit hit the fan. I wished he - and his supplies - were with me. I had a feeling I was going to need help.

I clambered back onto the road and looked down at the car. I’d never been very attached to it - the dealer had tried to screw me, damn him - but it still felt wrong to see the crumpled mess. I hoped the fuel tank was intact ... I couldn’t smell gas, yet that was meaningless. A match in the wrong place might set off an explosion. I might have been luckier than I’d realised. The EMP might have sparked a fire instead, turning the entire car into an inferno.

Fuck, I thought, again.

I peered east, then west, trying to decide which way to go. The air was growing warmer, the heat haze starting to blur my vision. There was no hint of which direction led to civilisation, no hint of anything ... if indeed there was a civilisation. I told myself not to be silly. The road might be primitive, but it was clear proof that someone was trying to make the world a little smaller. And that suggested a unitary authority of some kind. The tribesmen I’d met in Afghanistan had been reluctant to help build roads outside their villages, fearing they’d be used and abused by terrorists, taxmen and other undesirables. They’d probably been right.

A movement caught my eye as I looked west. Something was moving, coming out of the haze towards me. I tensed, one hand dropping to my pistol before I forced myself to stay calm. I had absolutely no idea what was coming. If I’d had a platoon behind me ... I banished the wishful thinking with an effort as I strolled back, trying to find a place where they could see me well before they got close enough to pose a threat. I had no idea if they’d be jumpy, when they saw me. I’d spent enough time in the Third World to know that travellers were rarely considered welcome, particularly in war zones. It was quite possible the newcomers, whoever they were, would try to rob or kill me.

I waited, as patiently as I could, as the newcomers took on shape and form. It looked like a wagon train, right out of the Wild West, combined with gypsy caravans and ... a shiver ran down my spine at the complete absence of modern technology. I’d lived in trailer parks that had everything from satellite dishes to hot and cold running water. These people ... there were no visible automobiles or weapons or everything else even the poorest had taken for granted. I had the feeling, suddenly, that I was about to come face to face with Laura Ingalls Wilder or someone like her. This was no meeting of the SCA. This was real.

The caravan started to slow as they saw me. I held up my hands, uneasily aware that I didn’t look harmless. I’d had to look strong on the streets, then as a raw recruit and soldier ... it had been important, back then, to look like you wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense. It was the quickest way to ensure there would be no nonsense. But now ... I kept myself still, studying them as intensely as they were studying me. They didn’t have any weapons, but that didn’t make them harmless. My Drill Instructor had been smaller than me, yet he’d never had any trouble kicking my ass across the field.

They were a strange lot, I decided. The first wagon had three people sitting up front: an elderly man who looked like a mix of African and Chinese, a middle-aged woman who looked as if she hailed from Mongolia and a young man who had a distantly Slavic appearance. I wondered, despite everything, if I was being tricked, if a hidden camera crew were about to jump out of nowhere and laugh at me. I’d seen enough tribal societies to know they were very suspicious of newcomers. It was strange to see such an odd racial mix.

The rules might be different here, I thought. Don’t let your preconceptions get in the way of your understanding.

The wagon train came to a halt. The elderly man stood and peered down at me. He had a vaguely grandfatherly face, the sort of person you would trust completely. I knew at once he was no one to mess with, or to jerk around. The other two held their places, but the younger man seemed to be shifting into position to attack ... if necessary. I didn’t blame him. They had no way to know if I was friendly or not. The man spoke ...

I could have kicked myself. He didn’t speak English. Of course he didn’t speak English! I should have expected it, but I’d met English-speakers right across the globe. Here ... it was anyone’s guess. I didn’t know what language he spoke, but it wasn’t English or Arabic or any of the other languages I’d studied over the years. I didn’t recognise a single word. Not one.

“I don’t understand you,” I said, trying to convey a complete lack of comprehension. “My name is Elliot. Elliot Richardson.”

They stared at me with equal lack of comprehension. The elderly man hesitated, then spoke again. I guessed he was trying a different language, one he didn’t speak anything like so well. It didn’t matter. I still couldn’t understand it. He tried a third language, then a fourth, both uselessly. I tried a handful of languages myself - the army had turned me into something of a linguist - but he didn’t seem to understand them. My heart sank. If I was ... somewhere else ... their languages might have nothing in common with earthly words. I might never be able to make myself understood.

The man turned and shouted a word. “Jasmine!”

I blinked. Jasmine? That, at least, sounded familiar. But they hadn’t understood my Arabic or my Farsi. I knew I wasn’t a perfect speaker, but I wasn’t exactly incomprehensible. And they didn’t look remotely Arabic. It might be nothing more than a coincidence or a loanword from another language, something that had moved from culture to culture so long ago that everyone had forgotten its origin.

A girl - I guessed she was Jasmine - jumped out of the second wagon and landed neatly on her feet. I stared. She was stunning, with long dark hair, oriental eyes and a strikingly pale face. I figured she was around twenty, although it was hard to be sure. She raised her eyebrows when she saw me, then glanced at the elderly man. Her grandfather? The man said something to her, then looked at me.

Jasmine held up a hand, then moved it in a strange pattern. I blinked in astonishment as I saw light flickering between her fingers. What the ... her hand straightened out and jabbed towards me. I felt a tingle running through my body, a strange sense the world had tilted off its axis ...

“Hi,” Jasmine said. She spoke English! But ... her lips weren’t matching her words. “Can you understand me?”

I felt my knees buckle. What the fuck was that?
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Two

“Can you understand me?” Jasmine was eying me, worriedly. “Can you ...?”

“Yes,” I managed. “What ... what was that?”

“Magic,” Jasmine said. She sounded slightly reassured. “A simple translation spell.”

A simple ... my mind seemed to stagger in utter disbelief. Magic? Impossible. I was dreaming. I had to be dreaming. I’d crashed the car and fallen into a coma and any moment now I’d wake up in a hospital bed, facing an enormous bill. Or I might die. The road had been empty when night had become day and ... it was unlikely anyone would see the crash in time to save my life. It had been very dark. A car might drive past, the driver unaware there was anything to see. I could die at any moment.

Jasmine stepped forward. “What would you like to be called?”

I blinked. It was an odd way of asking my name. “Elliot,” I managed. “I’m called Elliot.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Jasmine bobbed what looked like an old-fashioned curtsey. “You came out of the Greenwood?”

My incomprehension must have shown on my face, because she pointed to the car and the trees beyond. It did look as though I’d driven through the foliage and straight into the ditch, although it was clearly impossible. There was no suggestion I’d crashed my way through the trees. They were practically a solid barrier. The handful of chinks within the foliage were barely big enough for a grown man. I felt claustrophobic just looking at them. I’d delved into enough tight spaces, during the war, to feel uneasy about going back inside.

I found my voice. “What happened to me?”

“Some people walk into the Greenwood and come out in a different time and place,” Jasmine said. She walked past me, her eyes narrowing as she saw the car. “I’m afraid there’s no way home.”

“I have a family,” I protested. “I ...”

Jasmine turned to look at me. “I’m very sorry,” she said. I didn’t doubt her for a moment. “But there’s no way home.”

“You can walk back into the Greenwood, if you like,” the older man said. “I just don’t know when and where you’d come out.”

I pinched myself, hard. It hurt. It didn’t feel like a dream - or a nightmare. Cleo and the boys were ... where? When and where? Was this the past? Was this a time when magic had actually existed? Or was I on another world? Jasmine and her family looked human enough, but ... they were such a strange mixture of races I found it hard to believe they lived and worked together. They looked like gypsies. Maybe they were travellers, moving from place to place.

“I’m Grandfather Lembu,” the older man said. “And we are the Diddakoi.”

“He doesn’t know anything about us, Grandfather,” Jasmine said. “He’s in shock.”

“I don’t know anything,” I said. It wasn’t the first time I’d been abroad, but ... if magic was real, the world would be very different. Right? “Where am I?”

“You’re in the Kingdom of Johor,” Grandfather Lembu said, calmly. “Does that mean anything to you?”

I shook my head, wondering - too late - if they understood the gesture. It was possible it meant something completely different here, if they had had no contact with my world. Or ... I looked around, feeling hopelessly lost. What was I going to do? Where could I go? I was as ignorant of this new world as a newborn child ...

“You are welcome to stay with us, at least until we reach the nearest city,” the old woman said. “As long as you honour our ways, you will be welcome.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Jasmine said. She shot me what I thought was meant to be a reassuring look. “He won’t know how to behave.”

It was hard not to feel a twinge of panic. I tried not to show it on my face. I had no idea of the rules, or how to behave ... for all I knew, smiling at someone was a grave insult. Or something. It was terrifyingly easy to give offense if one didn’t know the rules and the offended rarely bothered to give the offender the benefit of the doubt. If I’d managed to get in trouble when I’d moved from state to state, just by not knowing what I was doing, it would be far worse here.

“First, we bury that ... thing,” Grandfather Lembu said, waving at the car. “We can’t leave it lying around for the peasants to find.”

Jasmine nodded. “Take whatever you want from it,” she said to me. “And then we’ll bury it here.”

I didn’t want to leave the car behind, but there was no choice. Even if I could get it out of the ditch, the engine was fucked. There was no hope of driving down the road and out of the nightmare. I turned and walked back to the car, going through it to recover everything I could. I’d known operators who crammed their cars with their kit, on the grounds they might be called back to duty at a moment’s notice. In hindsight, I should have done the same. I just didn’t have anything like enough supplies to last for more than a few days, if that.

Jasmine sat on the ditch and watched me calmly. Her eyes seemed to skim over the car, as if she couldn’t quite see it. I glanced at her in puzzlement, then looked away. She was stunningly pretty, yet meddling with the local women was a pretty universal to get into trouble. I’d known a guy who got into deep shit because he’d fallen in love with a girl from the sandbox. And besides, Jasmine looked to be around nineteen. She was practically half my age.

“I should have brought more,” I muttered. Was the remnants of the car any use? Could I tear out the windows for trade goods? What about the gas in the tank? Given time, I was sure I could figure out a way to drain it safely. “If I’d known ...”

“You’re not the first person who walked into the Greenwood and came out somewhere else,” Jasmine said. She had very sharp hearing. “All you can do is make the best of it.”

I straightened. If this was real, a single mistake could get me killed. If it wasn’t ... I pinched myself again, just to be sure. It still hurt. The wind shifted, blowing the scent of arid sand into my nostrils. It felt ... wrong. I picked up the bag and clambered out of the ditch. I’d go through the bag later, in hopes of determining what I could use for trade goods. I had no idea what was worth what, not here. For all I knew, the small toolbox was nothing more than a curiosity.

Jasmine stood beside me. “Are you sure you have everything?”

“Everything I can carry,” I said. “Do you want me to help bury the car?”

“No need,” Jasmine said. “Watch.”

She raised a hand. My hair stood on end as the dirt and sand started to rise of its own accord and cover the car. I stumbled backwards in shock, my head spinning in disbelief. Magic was real? I’d seen one spell already, but ... I thought I understood, now, how the Native Americans had felt when they’d seen European guns and technology. It was so far beyond their comprehension that they must have felt they could never catch up. The first contact between the two worlds had been an outside context problem ... this was an outside context problem. Jasmine, a girl so slight I could break her in half with ease, had enough power to shake the world.

I forced myself to watch the tiny whirlwind as it covered the car completely. The ditch looked ruined. I couldn’t help wondering if someone was going to be very annoyed about that, one day. The ditch didn’t look to be in good condition - I could see patches where the sides had caved in - but the hump hiding the car was a great deal bigger. If it rained heavily, it was going to reveal the car ...

Jasmine lowered her hand. The storm faded away. I felt a sudden sense of loss as I looked at the mound. The car hadn’t been a good car, but she’d been mine. I’d bought her, I’d refurbished her, I’d repaired her ... I felt as if I’d been completely cut off from my life and world. I wanted to jump over the ditch and run into the trees, but Grandfather Lembu was right. There was no guarantee I’d get home if I tried. The sense of unseen eyes looking at me grew stronger with every passing second.

“Come on,” Jasmine said. “I’ll show you around.”

I followed her numbly as she led the way back to the caravans. They seemed to be an entire mobile village. A cluster of women were lighting fires and boiling water, while the menfolk fed their horses and the children ran and played. I stayed close to Jasmine, doing my level best to ignore the stares. They didn’t feel hostile - I’d been in war zones, I knew the difference - but they didn’t seem very friendly either. It wasn’t uncommon, in isolated communities. A newcomer couldn’t walk up and demand admittance. He would have to work long and hard to earn their trust.

And I’m the newcomer here, I thought, sourly. They don’t know me.

Jasmine motioned for me to sit by the fire. I sat, watching the travellers watching me. They were a very diverse group, far more than I’d realised. And yet, there was something about them that made them look alike. I studied them, drawing on my years of experience. The men and women seemed separate, but equal. There was no sense the men were automatically superior or vice versa. The children were certainly playing together without any sense of separate worlds.

“Drink this,” Jasmine said. “It’s safe.”

“Thank you,” I said. The mug looked like something out of a bygone age. The liquid inside looked like soup. I sipped it carefully, tasting hints of chicken and vegetables. My stomach growled, reminding me that it had been a long time since I’d eaten. Thousands of years, perhaps. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought, even though it was a grim reminder I’d never see home again. “I ... I don’t know anything about being here.”

“I understand.” Jasmine’s eyes darkened, as if she was remembering something unpleasant. “I had to go away too, for a while. It’s never easy.”

“No,” I agreed. “Where did you go?”

“Whitehall School,” Jasmine said. She held out a hand. A spark of light danced over her palm. “It was very different. Being in a room ... ugh.”

I had to smile. “What did you study there?”

“Magic,” Jasmine said. She sounded wistful. “I have to go back at the end of the summer.”

My head spun again. A school for magicians? A real-life Hogwarts? It wasn’t a pleasant thought. I’d read the books to my kids and I’d been unable to look past the multitude of unfortunate implications. Jasmine seemed nice enough, but ... for all I knew, pureblood supremacism was a very real thing. If there were people dumb enough to think they were superior, just because their skin was lighter than mine, I was sure there were people who thought magic made them superior. My skin crawled. What could magic do? What could it not do? The teenage girl sitting next to me might have the powers of a minor god.

And without her, you couldn’t talk to anyone here, I thought. You need her.

I forced myself to think. “The spell you put on me, how long will it last?”

“I’m not sure,” Jasmine confessed. “I can keep renewing it, you see. Without renewal” - she frowned - “it’ll last around six months, at best. It also has its limits. Focus on learning the language before it wears off.”

“I’m good at learning languages,” I said, although I wasn’t sure it was true here. There’d been teachers who’d taught me how to speak and write a handful of different languages. I’d had multilingual friends who’d helped me to develop my skills. “I’ll do my best to learn.”

Jasmine nodded. We fell into a companionable silence as we drank our soup. I couldn’t help noticing that Jasmine seemed as isolated as I, although she was one of them. I’d wondered if I was treading on someone’s toes, if Jasmine had a partner or admirer amongst the travellers, but ... she seemed too isolated for it. I didn’t understand it. In my experience, beauty made up for a lot of things. Maybe she was just too closely related to the rest of the clan. There’d been tribal societies with strict rules to prevent inbreeding.

“I need to pay my way,” I said, as the travellers started to pack up. “What can I do to help?”

“You can help us set up the campsite when we reach the crossing point,” Jasmine said, mischievously. “There’s a lot of fetching and carrying for all of us to do, when we arrive.”

I smiled. If there was one good way to integrate yourself, it was through being helpful. And I did want to pay my way, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing. Jasmine stood and escorted me towards a small caravan, so small it looked like a children’s toy. I glanced inside, half-expecting it to be bigger on the inside. It wasn’t. There was barely enough room for a single person. I had the feeling I’d break my bones if I tried to sleep inside. I’d probably be sleeping under the caravan. The horse - no, donkey - gave me a bored look as Jasmine scrambled up and took the reins. I sat next to her, put my bag in the rear and watched as the traveller convoy lurched back into life.

“You have magic,” I said. I tried to keep my voice casual, but it was hard. “Does everyone have magic?”

“No.” Jasmine looked pensive. “A lot of us” - she waved a hand at the caravans - “have a spark of magic and know a few simple spells, but most people don’t. The really talented magicians go to school and learn how to do far more advanced magics. They don’t always come back.”

I winced, inwardly, at the pain in her voice. It was never easy for someone to leave a traditional community, learn something very different and then come home and try to fit in once again. I’d seen it happen back home, to kids who might have been great if they hadn’t been dragged down by their peers; I’d seen it happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where religious fanatics had no qualms about murdering educated women and blowing up schools for girls. Jasmine might not be facing death - I had the feeling she was still part of the clan - but she didn’t quite fit in any longer.

“Magic,” I repeated. “How does it work?”

Jasmine launched into a long and complicated explanation I couldn’t even begin to understand. There were too many things that didn’t make sense, too many words I didn’t know ... I lacked too many concepts, I guessed, for the translation spell to work properly. I wasn’t even sure how it worked. The military had messed around with universal translators, but they’d never been particularly useful. They’d been too many dialects and too little time.

I shivered, again, as she talked about her schooling. The students were dangerous ... I recalled my earlier thoughts about pureblood supremacism and cursed under my breath. It was impossible to believe magicians didn’t have a superiority complex. There was no real difference between whites and blacks, but magicians and muggles? I didn’t want to know what they called muggles in this universe. It was probably something just as insulting.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do here,” I said. “This place is so ... different.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Jasmine assured me. “It’ll take us two weeks to reach the city. After that, if you want to stay with us, you’ll be welcome. Or you can strike out on your own.”

I hoped she was right, as the sky started to darken. The caravans came to a halt in a clearing, Grandfather Lembu snapping out orders to hew wood and fetch water. I jumped to the ground and helped, carrying water from the stream to the campsite. The young men said little to me as I worked, although I caught them giving my clothes sidelong glances. I made a mental note to find new clothes as soon as possible. I looked like a stranger, someone who didn’t fit in. And yet ... I thought I saw glimmerings of respect as I helped set up the fire and a dozen other tasks. Perhaps being here wouldn’t be so bad after all. And yet ...

“Don’t go out of the clearing after dark,” Jasmine advised, after dinner. The food had been surprisingly tasty, following by singing and a dance. I’d sat and watched. “You don’t know what might be out there.”

“No,” I agreed. “I ... where do I sleep?”

Jasmine pointed me to the space beside the caravan and tossed me a blanket. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I lay back on the ground and stared into the dark sky. It wasn’t the first time I’d slept out of doors, but ... this time, the constellations were different. I swallowed, hard. Wherever I was, it wasn’t Earth. I was a very long way from home. I was never going to see Cleo and the boys again. Cleo I could do without, after everything, but the boys ... I tried not to sob openly as I realised they were gone forever. They might be as well be dead.

It was a very long time before I fell asleep.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Three

I would have gone mad, if it hadn’t been for Jasmine.

She understood, to some extent, what I was feeling. She was always happy to chat, even when she was doing her bit for the clan. She explained what I was seeing, told me how the clan worked and, often, answered questions I hadn’t thought to ask. We might not be close friends - we were just too different - but she was, in her way, as isolated from the rest of the caravan as me. The rest of the clan kept their distance. It was hard not to feel a little offended, even though I knew I should be grateful. I’d had enough of that back home.

Jasmine explained it, when I asked. “They’re not sure if you’re going to be hanging around for much longer,” she said. “They don’t want to get close to you if there’s still a chance you might leave.”

I frowned. “Where would I go?”

“You’re not the first person to come stumbling out of the Greenwood,” Jasmine said, as we sat on the edge of the campsite. “Some try to make their way back home, even though hundreds of years might have passed since they were lost. Others find new homes and wave goodbye to us. It happens. We don’t open our hearts to newcomers unless they’re committed.”

“They don’t seem to like you either,” I said. “I thought you were one of them.”

Jasmine’s mouth twisted, as if she’d bitten into something sour. “I went to school,” she said, softly. “They don’t know if I’ll come back, after I graduate, or make my life elsewhere. If I don’t ... my parents won’t disown me or kick me out, but I won’t be one of them anymore. A friend, perhaps, yet ... an outsider.”

I winced in sympathy. I understood the feeling. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine said. She smiled, rather wanly. “I haven’t decided yet.”

She waved a hand at the caravans. “There are two circles,” she said. “The inner circle consists of those who are committed to our lives, who would sooner die rather than surrender the freedom of the open road. The outer circle consists of those who travel with us for a time and then go on to make their lives elsewhere. They’re welcome, in a way, but they’re not truly us.”

“I see,” I said. “What should I do?”

Jasmine looked me in the eye. “Follow your heart.”

I changed the subject and tossed question after question at her, trying to get the lay of the land. Or the lie of the land, as my old sergeant had put it. Jasmine didn’t know that much, although I had a feeling she knew more than the average peasant. I’d met tribesmen in Central Asia who hadn’t known anything beyond their villages. They neither knew nor cared who ruled their country, let alone what side they were supposed to be on in the forever war. I had the feeling the Diddakoi paid as little attention as they could to such details. It left me feeling more than a little frustrated. How was I supposed to decide where to go, let alone what to do, when I didn’t know what the options were?

We kept moving, never staying in one place for more than a day or two. I slowly grew used to the limits of my new home, to the simple absence of everything I’d taken for granted. We cooked dinner on a fire, not in a microwave; we washed in streams, when we could, rather than fancy showers. I’d hoped to impress them with my knowledge of ‘little devils’ in water - and the importance of boiling the water before drinking it - but it turned out they already knew it. Martin Padway had known enough tech to ensure that darkness never fell on the Roman Empire ... he’d come from a less advanced world. I knew a lot, but I didn’t know how to build crap I’d taken for granted a few short weeks ago. If I’d known ...

If I’d known, I would have crammed the car with supplies, I thought. The toolkit and first aid supplies were useful, but they wouldn’t last for very long. I had only a limited amount of ammunition and no way of making more. I could have brought enough arms and supplies to build a whole kingdom for myself.

The thought sobered me. Jasmine had shown me enough magic - parlour tricks, she’d insisted - for me to be very aware there was an unpredictable element in my new world. She might imagine herself to be performing tricks, but I ... I now knew how primitive tribesmen had felt when they’d come face to face with the wheel, guns and every other piece of technology that was light years ahead of them. The gulf was so wide I feared I couldn’t begin to cross it. Even Jasmine’s assurances there would be work for someone like me, if I was willing to work, fell flat. How could I learn to use magic?

“You can’t,” Jasmine said, when I broke down and asked. “You don’t have the talent.”

I gave her a sharp look. “What happens to people who can’t do magic?”

“They don’t go to magic school?” Jasmine shrugged. “Seriously, there are places for everyone.”

I sighed and resigned myself to asking more questions as I struggled to learn the language before it was too late. I’d always been good with languages, but this one ... Jasmine’s spell was a hindrance as much as it helped. She wasn’t that good a teacher either. I found it hard to believe that everyone spoke the same language, with some slight local variations, but ... the more I thought about it, the more it seemed true. Back home, there was an entire industry built around teaching people to speak foreign languages. There were people who knew what they were doing. Here ... there didn’t seem to be any need. I forced myself to learn, trying to come to terms with the underlying grammar. It didn’t help that there seemed to be a higher and lower language, as well as a written script that made no sense.

They always leave this part out of the books, I thought, grimly. They wave their hands and overlook the problem so they can get on to the meaty part.

It grew harder, as the days wore on, to remember that I had children. The boys ... I wondered, grimly, if they’d ever guess what had happened to me. They’d report me missing, right? I’d certainly be listed as AWOL when I failed to show up for duty. And then ... and then what? They’d never find my car, let alone my body. Cleo would probably insist I’d gone underground to avoid paying child support. And when they realised I hadn’t cleaned out my bank accounts ... I made a face. Cleo would get the money, along with my army pension and everything else. She’d push to have me declared dead as quickly as possible.

I felt a pang. I loved my sons. I’d even loved her. And I’d never see any of them again.

“You’re brooding,” Jasmine said, when she found me on the edge of the clearing. “It doesn’t really make things better.”

I glared at her. “What do you know about loss?”

“Too much.” Jasmine didn’t sound angry, merely saddened. I’d told her I couldn’t stop thinking about my family. “They’re not dead. They’re just out of reach.”

I stared into the trees. We were a long way from the Greenwood, but I’d been warned - time and time again - never to go out of the clearing after dark. The urge to just walk into the woods and keep walking, in the desperate hope of finding my way home, was almost overpowering. Jasmine had told me that there was no guarantee of going anywhere - and I believed her - and yet it was hard to stay where I was. My father had deserted me when I’d been a child. I’d promised myself I’d always be there for my sons. And, through no fault of my own, I’d broken the promise.

The stars mocked me, every night. They were so different. I wasn’t on Earth. I was ... I was somewhere else. It was good news, in a way; I could tell myself I wasn’t in the past, years before my children had been born, or so far in the future that my great-grandchildren were nothing more than dust. And yet, they might as well be. I had no hope of ever seeing them again. I glared down at my hands, wondering if there was any point in going on. Who knew what would happen when we finally reached the city? Would I stay or would I go?

Jasmine touched my shoulder, lightly. “They’re not dead.”

I rounded on her. “They might as well be.”

She stood her ground. “You can remain lost in memories, if you wish, or you can look to the future.”

I shook my head, slowly. There were times when it was impossible to forget that we came from very different worlds. Jasmine had grown up in a world where the slightest scratch could mean certain death, if the cut got infected. There was a fatalism in her attitude I’d seen in the Third World, but not in America. Death was her constant companion, despite her magic. She’d learned to accept death in a manner I found impossible ...

She’s never had any children, I thought, sourly. She doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a child.

I knew I was being unfair, but the thought refused to fade. Jasmine was young. It was hard to be sure of her age - Jasmine herself didn’t seem certain - but she couldn’t be any older than nineteen. She didn’t seem to have any suitors sniffing around either. That surprised me. Jasmine was strikingly pretty as well as a gifted magician and singer. But then, it was also unclear if she’d stay with the clan. If she left, her partner would either have to let her go or leave the clan himself. There weren’t many people in tribal communities who’d make that choice.

“I had a wife,” I said. Cleo and I would probably have gotten divorced - I couldn’t trust her again, not after she’d cheated on me - but ... it hurt. “Don’t you have anyone?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Everyone here is related to me, in one way or another,” she said. “If I stay, I’ll meet prospective suitors when the clans assemble for the winter ceremonies.”

I reminded myself, again, that Jasmine was young. “You don’t have anyone at Hogwarts?”

Jasmine blinked. “Hogwarts?”

“Whitehall,” I corrected.

“No.” Jasmine shook her head. “How many of them would want to live out here?”

She waved a hand at the caravans. I shrugged. Her description of Whitehall had made it sound like a boarding school from hell, where you couldn’t walk down a corridor without someone zapping you in the back and turning you into a frog. The whole idea was utterly terrifying. Jasmine seemed to take it in stride, but ... her attempts to explain magic to me had been incomprehensible. Nothing she said made sense. It all boiled down to trying to explain things like the whichness of the why and ... it made me think of the song about the dancing centipede. She’d lost the talent as soon as she’d tried to figure out what she actually did.

“They might see it as a step up,” I pointed out.

“A step down,” Jasmine corrected. “None of them grew up here.”

We stood together in companionable silence. It struck me, suddenly, that she was oddly relaxed in my presence. I liked to think we’d become friends over the last couple of weeks, but ... it was odd. I was a big beefy man and black besides. I was used to people eying me with concern, even with fear. Sometimes I understood and sometimes they were just assholes. And yet, Jasmine didn’t. She neither learned towards nor away from me. It was curious ...

It clicked, suddenly. Jasmine wasn’t nervous, around me, because she didn’t need to be. She had magic. She could protect herself. I’d known women in the sandbox who’d been able to rely on their relatives to protect or avenge them - such protection had a price, up to and including complete submission - but Jasmine was different. She wasn’t a defenceless girl, she was ... my head spun as I realised she was strong in her own right. I’d known some female soldiers who were just as tough as the men, women who’d earned their spurs, but this was different. The world seemed to turn upside down as I glanced at her. I was wondering why Jasmine wasn’t nervous around me? Perhaps I should be nervous around her!

She let out a breath. My paranoid mind wondered if she could read my thoughts. The concept made my skin crawl. What if she could? What if ... I tried not to think of her naked and promptly thought of her naked. I told myself, sharply, that I was being silly. She’d told me enough about magic to convince me she couldn’t read minds, although it was possible she was lying. Or simply accidentally misleading me.

“You can make your own choice, here,” Jasmine said. “Be what you want to be.”

I laughed as we made our way back to the caravan. The clan was moving out again, heading down a road that looked as if it had seen better days. I had the feeling it had been trodden down by thousands of people, over hundreds of years. The air grew warmer as we picked up speed, inching our way out of the woods. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw, for the first time, hints of real civilisation. I could see tiny villages in the distance, half-hidden amidst the fields.

My heart sank as I took in the sight. I was no farmer - I knew very little about farming - but I could tell the peasants were working desperately to scratch a living from the soil. The land looked almost painfully dry, the plants seeming to droop as they fought to draw nutrients from the soil. The handful of workers in view looked tired, utterly beaten down. They were all men. I couldn’t see any women at all.

The air seemed to grow even hotter. I felt sweat trickling down my back. Jasmine seemed unbothered. I couldn’t tell if she was using magic to shield herself or if she was simply used to it. I kept my eyes on the countryside, my eyes trailing over row upon row of sickly-looking crops. A dry ditch marked the edge of the fields. It looked to have dried up years ago. The ground looked as hard as stone. I couldn’t believe the farm would last for much longer, no matter how hard the peasants worked. They looked permanently on the edge of starvation.

We drove through a town, the locals paying very little attention to us. They didn’t show any sign of interest, or fear, or anything. I’d been in places where the locals greeted American troops with sticks and stones - at least partly because they knew the local insurgents would kill anyone who wasn’t insufficiently unwelcoming - but this was different. The locals didn’t care about us or anyone. I saw a woman making her way down the road, just as we left the town, and stared. She looked ancient. It was hard to believe she was still alive.

I heard a galloping sound and looked back, just in time to see a line of horsemen cantering past. The hooves kicked up dust, which the wind blew into our faces. I reached for my pistol, then stopped myself. Who knew who the riders were? What would happen if I killed one or more of them?

“Local toffs, out for a ride,” Jasmine explained. She waved a hand, the dust fading from the air. “They’ll own the estate for sure.”

I glanced at her. “Who owns the land?”

“The local lord,” Jasmine said. “That” - she said a word her spell couldn’t or wouldn’t translate - “is probably his son.”

She sounded indifferent. I had the feeling it was a matter of great concern to the peasants. Land ownership was a major issue right across the world. The people who worked the land could find themselves displaced, or enslaved, if the land was sold to someone else. And it would be perfectly legal.

“Asshole,” I commented. I didn’t know the brat, but I disliked him already. “Why don’t the peasants revolt?”

“It happens,” Jasmine said. “They all get killed.”

I put my thoughts aside as we drove down towards the city. The land looked like a chessboard, patches of cultivated land rubbing shoulders with fields that had been left fallow and ditches that looked as if they’d dried up years ago. An irrigation project would probably have done wonders for crop yield, I thought - I’d seen it work in Afghanistan - but I doubted anyone was interested in trying. It looked as if no one was even thinking about helping the peasants. The riders I’d seen cantering past had been doing them harm simply by existing.

And they keep the peasants so downtrodden they can’t even think of a better life, I mused. It made sense. I’d seen it before. It was just sickening. They’d sooner keep their power than make life better for everyone, including themselves.

The wind shifted, blowing an unholy stench into my face. “What the fuck ...?”

Jasmine giggled. “Do you know what we call cityfolk?”

“No.” I forced myself to breathe though my mouth. The stench was appalling, the scent of piss and shit and too many humans in too close proximity. “What?”

“Stinkers,” Jasmine said. She sobered. “Believe me, it fits.”

I nodded as the city came into view. Somehow, I didn’t doubt it.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Four

The city - Damansara - was ... striking.

I was used to cities that sprawled out until they blurred into the suburbs, overrun towns or countryside. Damansara was a walled mass, with a clear line between the city and the country outside. The land immediately outside the city had been cleared, providing absolutely no cover for an invading army bent on looting, raping and burning its way through the city. I could see a handful of men on the battlements, watching the distant horizon. I hoped it was just paranoia. The idea of being caught up in a war was far from appealing.

The stench grew worse as we made our way towards a gatehouse that looked a lot like the Jugroom Fort. It wouldn’t stand up to modern weapons for a second, I decided, but it would be difficult to assault without firearms and explosives. The gates were designed to allow only a couple of wagons and carts through at any one time, ensuring the guards would always have the advantage in numbers. I was pretty sure there were cauldrons of boiling oil positioned above us, ready to make life miserable for anyone who caused trouble, and archers on the battlements. I’d seen archers in the SCA. Bows might not have the flexibility of guns, but an arrow through the gut could be lethal. The men who’d died at Agincourt might as well have ridden straight into machine gun fire.

I shivered, helplessly. There was a sense of age around the gatehouse that was almost a physical presence. I’d seen buildings from the colonial era and none of them had the sense of being hundreds of years old. This one looked as though it had changed hands time and time again without ever losing its sense of purpose. I felt tiny and insignificant as we joined the line of horse-drawn carts waiting to pass through the gatehouse, my eyes threatening to water as the stench grew worse and worse. I’d been in a dozen hellholes with poor sanitation and no clean water and this was worse. The stench of too many people and animals in too close proximity was almost unbearable. I did my best to bear it without complaint.

The guards eyed us nastily as we inched through the gatehouse - I was uneasily aware that the building was designed to let the defenders pour boiling oil on unwanted guests - but waved us through without comment. I was surprised. They looked the type of guards to demand bribes before they let anyone through the gates, their clothes so tattered that the only thing that marked them as guardsmen were the white sashes on their shirts. I’d seen more impressive policemen lazing in their cruisers or stuffing themselves with donuts. And yet, some of them had lean and hungry looks that bothered me. It was never good to attract the attention of the police in a third world country. They were almost always deeply corrupt.

Jasmine looked uneasy as we made our way onto the streets. I didn’t blame her. The city reminded me of New York, although the buildings were smaller and much less impressive. They seemed to hem us in, looming over the crowded streets and casting long shadows into our hearts. I had the sense we were driving straight into an ambush, although I couldn’t have said why. A team of men with modern weapons could have made an attacker pay in blood if he wanted to take the city. And the local population would pay too.

I studied the crowds curiously as we made our way down the road. They were of all colours and creeds, from men darker than myself to women so pale I thought they were albinos. There was no unity, as far as I could tell: there were people covered from head to toe and people wearing barely enough to cover their privates. Some looked extremely rich, surrounded by cronies and bodyguards as they paraded through the city; some looked so poor they had to be beggars, constantly begging for alms. I felt a pang as I saw a handful of amputated men, sitting by the roadside. There was nothing I could do for them.

The stench - incredibly - seemed to get even worse. I tried not to think about the sewers. I wasn’t convinced that any of the buildings had any plumbing. The buildings themselves were an odd mix, a blending of medieval styles from all over the world. I thought I saw European influences, mingled with Arab and Far Eastern. It was easy to believe, suddenly, that I wasn’t the first person to find my way across the dimensional gulf. I was alone, but if an entire town or city had been scooped up and shipped to a new world ...

Jasmine pulled on the reins as we entered a large courtyard. “We’ll be setting up here,” she said, as the rest of the travellers parked their caravans in a circle. It reminded me of cowboys readying themselves to repel an ambush. “And then we can go explore.”

I nodded, stiffly. My arms and legs were aching, but that was nothing a little exercise wouldn’t cure. Jasmine hopped down effortlessly and waved to her grandfather, who started barking instructions with the air of a man who expected to be obeyed. I scrambled down beside him and hurried to work, lifting boxes of goods out of the caravans and piling them up as directed. Jasmine was setting up a small stall, a structure that looked oddly childish until she completed the finishing touches. A couple of younger girls hurried up with a tray of tiny glass jars and bottles. Potions, from what she’d told me earlier. I still found it hard to believe they actually worked.

“It’s a little quieter than I expected,” Brother Havre said, from behind me. I tried not to jump. I’d always had the feeling he didn’t like me. Given that he kept making eyes at Jasmine, I was fairly sure he was jealous. “There should be more people on the streets.”

I gave him an odd look. The courtyard was empty, save for us, but the streets beyond were crowded. New York wasn’t so busy and, the last time I’d visited, it had been heaving with people. It looked as if there was no hope of getting out of the courtyard, let alone back to the gatehouse and onto the road. The older folk looked uneasy as they finished setting up their stalls. I didn’t blame them. I’d grown up in a city and I found Damansara oppressive as hell.

“There should be more,” Brother Havre repeated, reading my face. “It’s oddly quiet.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. A pair of wealthy men - judging by their clothes - appeared on the edge of the courtyard. “Who are they?”

“Inspectors,” Brother Havre said, darkly. “You go back to Jasmine. I’ll take care of them.”

I nodded. I had no trouble recognising his attitude. I’d been much the same, before the army had knocked it out of me. I was tempted to point it out to him, but I knew he wouldn’t listen. I wouldn’t have listened at his age. Instead, I turned and walked back to Jasmine’s stall. She smiled at me as I came up.

“Grandfather says we can explore the town,” she said, pressing a pair of coins into my hand. “We just have to be back in time for tea.”

I felt an odd little qualm. Jasmine hadn’t said anything about it, but ... it was clear I’d have to make a decision, soon, about what I wanted to do with myself. Stay with the travellers or find a place somewhere else ... I cursed under my breath as I accepted the coins and studied them thoughtfully. I just didn’t know enough to make up my mind. What was I going to do? I didn’t know.

Jasmine passed me a long cloak, then donned one herself despite the heat. I pulled mine on and followed her out of the courtyard, into the packed streets. They weren’t as bad as I’d feared. The crowd seemed to know when and where to move, walking in long lines that moved surprisingly quickly. It was worse on the roads. Oxen carts clashed constantly with horse-drawn carriages, their drivers shouting curses at each other ... it struck me, suddenly, that they might be real curses. A handful of guardsmen were trying to calm everyone down, but it didn’t look as though they were having much luck. It looked as though a dozen fights were constantly on the verge of breaking out.

I kept my eyes open, watching the crowd. A small boy - he couldn’t have been older than eight - eyed me speculatively. I eyed him right back and he looked away ... a pickpocket, probably. An older man groped Jasmine’s rear ... I started forward, intending to punch his lights out, but there was no need. There was a flash of light and a wave of heat ... he staggered away, clutching his hand and cursing openly. I stared at her in astonishment. I would never be truly used to magic.

It was all around me, I realised dully. Street magicians played with fire for the locals, or performed tricks that might have been sleight of hand ... or real. I’d seen my share of street performers, in the states and overseas, but I wanted to stop and stare like a rube. Jasmine stood next to me for a few moments as a man turned a woman into a statue, moved her into an absurd pose, then released the spell. She staggered, her face twisting as if she was unsure if she wanted to laugh or cry. Jasmine caught my hand and pulled me away. I didn’t try to resist. I didn’t dare lose her, not in a city I didn’t know.

Jasmine kept up a running commentary as we made our way onwards. The veiled men and women were high-ranking aristocrats ... or, the cynical part of my mind added, people aping their social superiors. How could one tell if one couldn’t see their faces? The middle and merchant classes wore more dramatic clothes respectively, showing off their wealth if not their breeding. The poor wore rags. I couldn’t help feeling sick at the sheer number of poor and desperate people on the streets, from pickpockets working the crowd to topless prostitutes who looked as though they were coming to the end of their lives. I saw the desperation in their eyes and shuddered, helplessly. They didn’t want to be on the streets, but what choice did they have?

We walked past a row of temples - Jasmine’s disdain was obvious - and past a set of mansions before circling back towards the marketplace. There were fewer people on the streets, something that alarmed me before I realised it was getting hotter and hotter. The locals probably took siestas, sleeping through the heat and returning to the streets when it grew cool again. Or as cool as it ever got. The terrain outside the city strongly suggested the kingdom was one bad summer from drought and famine.

“This might interest you,” Jasmine said, as we stopped by a stall. “What do you think?”

I stared. The stall was covered with books. They looked oddly tattered, as though they’d passed through multiple hands or simply produced by printers who didn’t quite know what they were doing, but ... they were books. And the letters on the front were English letters ... I reached for one and picked it up. The language was impenetrable gibberish, as if someone had tried to transliterate a foreign language into a pronunciation guide, but ... they were English letters. And Arabic numbers. I’d wondered, earlier, if I was truly the first person to cross the dimensional gulf. I knew now I was not. There was no way a completely separate world could have duplicated the letters and numbers so precisely. God knew Latin and Chinese numerals had nothing in common with their Arabic counterparts.

The sense of unreality washed over me - again - as my eyes swept over the rest of the books. There were instructions on how to build a steam engine ... I couldn’t read the text, as if the book had been produced by IKEA, but I could follow the diagrams. Others showed how to produce printing presses, abacuses and looms ... one of them looked something like a spinning jenny. I stared down at a book about the human body, shaking my head in disbelief. It was just ... unreal.

“My wife laughed at that book,” the stallkeeper said. He had the air of a man telling a joke that never got out. “Can you believe they left out one of the holes?”

I put the book down, wishing - suddenly - that I could read. It was easy enough to sound out the words - I guessed there was no clear agreement on proper spelling - but ... Jasmine’s spell didn’t seem to work quite right when I said the words to myself. I was tempted to ask if we could buy one of the books, but ... I frowned as I realised the true implications of what I was seeing. I’d assumed my knowledge of modern life would give me something to sell, when - if - I left the travellers ... I cursed under my breath. I should have known better than to assume anything. All of the low-hanging fruit, when it came to industrial development, had already been plucked. I didn’t know if there was another cross-dimensional traveller or not, but it didn’t matter. I could no more produce a jet engine or a computer for them than I could get pregnant and give birth ...

Jasmine steered me down the stalls. I followed, feeling numb. Stalls selling food contrasted oddly with stalls selling weapons, primitive blunderbusses and muskets that looked as if they would explode in the user’s hands. It was strange to note that the stallkeepers had gunpowder weapons out in the open, but no edged weapons bigger than a dagger. There were no swords, no spears ... it made no sense. Or did it? If gunpowder weapons were unreliable, and I had the feeling they weren’t particularly accurate, they might not be seen as dangerous to the balance of power. The thought made me smile. If the gunsmiths were producing blunderbusses now, what would they be churning out in a decade or two? I hoped I’d be around to see it.

I touched the pistol at my belt and smiled. The odds were good it would be worth a lot of money, if I sold it. I didn’t want to sell it. I’d had to leave behind far too much already. And besides, it would useful ... at least until I ran out of ammunition. There was no hope of finding more, not here. I doubted the local gunsmiths could do anything with the pistol, except - perhaps - taking it apart for ideas.

Jasmine stopped in front of a food cart and bought a pair of squidgy sandwiches that might have passed for hot dogs, if they hadn’t been squashed by the seller. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat it - the cart looked terrifyingly unhygienic - but my stomach rumbled loudly the moment I took a sniff. The stench of the city had faded ... no, it hadn’t faded, I’d just gotten used to it. I wanted a bath. It didn’t look as through the locals bothered to wash. Even the richer ones looked filthy.

This city is a breeding ground for disease, I thought. I’d seen all kinds of diseases in third world hellholes, some of which had been alarmingly close to home. Do they even know to boil water before they drink?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. There was no water on sale, not even the ever-present bottled water I’d seen in the Middle East. Everything looked alcoholic, which made a certain kind of sense. Beer and wine had been safer, at least in the short run, until people had figured out the importance of clean water. I gritted my teeth, then bit into the sandwich. It tasted better than I’d expected, with a spicy sauce that make my mouth burn, yet ... I didn’t recognise the meat. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I was eating either. Cat? Dog? Snake? Who knew?

“We’d better start heading back to the caravans,” Jasmine said. She gave me a sidelong look as we started to walk. “What do you think?”

I hesitated. The city might grow on me, if I let it. I could find a place to stay, surely ... I shook my head. I didn’t know where to find a job or ... or anything. I looked at the beggars and shuddered, wondering if I’d end up begging myself. What could I do, to make a living? Teach the locals how to make sandwiches? They already knew how to make sandwiches. I probably knew all sorts of things they could use, but ... how could I make myself heard? I didn’t know.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. The city did have its good points. “If I stay ... what would I do?”

“They’re very accepting of newcomers here,” Jasmine told me. “People come from all over the world, just to trade their wares. There’s always work for someone who’s willing to work.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. The Diddakoi weren’t that accepting. I’d have to dedicate myself fully to them, if I wanted to stay permanently. It was just a matter of time, I feared, before they started asking pointed questions. “When do I have to decide?”

“We’re due to leave in five days,” Jasmine told me, as we entered the courtyard. She squeezed my hand, reassuringly. “You have until then to decide.”
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Five

I couldn’t decide, not really.

The city did start to grow on me, as Jasmine and I spent a handful of days exploring the streets. It was weird and wonderful, yet - in so many ways - alien and horrific. There was a bit of me that insisted I could fit in, that I could find a job and build a life for myself, and there was a bit of me that wanted to stay with Jasmine and her people. It wasn’t easy to decide. The city wasn’t a very safe place and yet staying with the travellers would mean - eventually - subsuming myself in their society. They’d made it clear they would accept me, but only on their terms. And I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of life for myself.

I spent the week, when I wasn’t helping Jasmine and the others, exploring the city. The basic design reminded me of New York - the streets and buildings were laid out in regimented patterns - but generations of inhabitants had laid their own work on top of the chessboard, creating their own little worlds within the city. I walked past temples for a dozen different gods co-existing in uneasy harmony, then strode through a magical section - it was oddly empty, as if no one visited unless they had business there - and peered into what was self-evidently a gated community for the rich and powerful. The guards looked nasty enough to deter anyone, beyond hardened thieves. I guessed they had authority to do whatever they liked to intruders. The law probably didn’t apply to the wealthy.

My instructors had taught me to learn the lay of the land. Or the lie of the land, as one of them had cracked. It wasn’t easy. I spoke to people - Jasmine had encouraged me to speak to as many strangers as possible, to ensure I leant the language quickly - but few of them really wanted to discuss politics. The questions I wanted to ask would raise eyebrows, I was sure, because they were the sort of questions that would make it clear I really was a newcomer. I bought mugs of foaming beer in bars and taverns, then sat and listened unobtrusively as people - merchants and farmers, mainly, as well as runaway serfs - talked and gossiped. And, slowly, a picture began to emerge.

The city was, technically, a free state. It owed loyalty to the king, but the king didn’t seem to have any real authority over it. The city itself was run by the city fathers, who were elected by property owners. If you didn’t own property, I guessed, you were effectively disenfranchised. The property owners could run the city to suit themselves. Or could they? The merchants grumbled about taxes and tariffs laid down by warlords and aristocrats, making it harder for them to turn a profit as they moved from city to city. I had the uneasy feeling the city’s independence wasn’t anything more than an illusion. The walls were strong, but the city could be surrounded and besieged very easily. I doubted the locals had enough food within the walls to withstand a siege. The local warlord could bring them to their knees very easily.

There were more and more details, from a hundred different people, that I tried to slot into a coherent whole. There was a king, who had a daughter ... and only a daughter. The general opinion seemed to be that she’d be married to one of the warlords, sooner or later, and the outcome would be civil war as the rest of the warlords banded together against their new king. It definitely sounded like a recipe for trouble. I did my best to work out how the different places went together, but it wasn’t easy. My mental map was effectively blank. They might as well have been talking about somewhere on the other side of the world.

The stories seemed to grow wilder as they touched on events further and further away. A king turned his kingdom into a land of the dead. A naked woman rode a dragon and melted down a castle, in hopes of putting the rightful heir on the throne. A sorceress lost her powers, only to come back stronger than ever before. A university ... the word brought me out of my listening trance. Was there another dimensional traveller? Or was it just a wild coincidence?

I mulled it over for a while, then dismissed it as useless. The stories were so wild that I couldn’t tell how much of them were actually true, if any of them were true. And even if I knew, what could I do with the knowledge? I had no way of knowing where to find him or ... or anything. If people were being dumped randomly into the world, they could be scattered right across the globe. The thought made me shiver. I could have found myself drowning if my car had been dumped into the ocean ...

A sense of loneliness washed over me as I stared down at my drink. The night was growing darker. The erotic dancers were coming onto the stage, but ... I didn’t want to look at them. I felt oddly disconnected from the world around me, lost in my own thoughts. The patrons were starting to hoot and holler, waving their hands at the dancers. It could have been a rough bar near a military base, except ... I stood, leaving the beer for whoever wanted it. I didn’t trust it. Alcohol was supposed to be safe, but I had my doubts. Besides, I’d seen enough shady characters around to know it was better to remain sober. The last thing I wanted was to be mugged.

The darkness was hot and muggy, the air smelling of spicy food and rotting meat. My stomach churned as I walked past a row of stalls, selling something akin to kebabs and sausages. I didn’t want to know what went into the meat. Behind the stalls, a sewer gaped open. The stench almost overpowered the food. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as I kept walking, heading down the road to the campsite. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the stalls, not when they didn’t even have the slightest respect for hygiene. The sewer had to be a breeding ground for disease.

I kept one hand on my pistol as the crowd closed in around me. They were just too close ... I gritted my teeth, reminding myself that I’d been all around the world. And yet ... I tried not to look at the street rats - little boys, mainly - running through the crowd’s legs. They wanted to rob me, to steal what little I had ... I shuddered as I saw a small boy who was probably a girl. Her face had been so badly mutilated that I knew it was just a matter of time before she died in a ditch. No one seemed to be helping the poor kids. Their lives had only just begun and yet they were already over ...

My gorge rose. I’d seen poverty in America - I’d grown up in poverty - and yet, this was different. This was worse. There wasn’t any hot and cold running water, let alone computers, televisions and any other modern concepts. I’d learnt to hate the people who thought they were helping my community, as a young boy, yet I had to admit they were trying. Sometimes very trying. Here ... there didn’t seem to be anyone interested in helping the poor. I guessed that anyone who did would have very dark motives indeed. The boys could be turned into pickpockets, like Oliver Twist; the girls ... I shuddered. I didn’t want to think about it.

I heard someone shouting further down the street, sounding more like a carnival barker than a protester. I hesitated, then walked towards the noise. I wasn’t the only one. The shouting was coming from a courtyard, just like the one granted to the travellers. I frowned as I passed through the crowds, noting that the onlookers seemed to range between very rich and middle-class. It was odd, I thought. What was it ... a flash of light burst out of nowhere, illuminating the courtyard and revealing a stage. A show? I stared as five people were pushed onto the stage. For a moment, I thought it really was a show. And then I realised it was something far worse.

Horror flowed through me as I took in the sight. Four of the five people were in manacles, making it impossible to fight or run. The fifth wasn’t shackled, but had a nasty-looking collar around her neck. Generations of atrocities flashed through my mind as the barker - no, the slave dealer - started to talk. The slaves were a mix of colours, but ... I recoiled in horror. My ancestors had worn chains too. Was this what awaited me, if I stayed in the city? Or what ...

The dealer kept babbling. The shackled men had been legally enslaved, he insisted; they were good for five days work out of every seven. I recoiled as the bidding started, the price rapidly going up and up. I couldn’t believe anyone would bid for a slave ... no, I knew better. I’d seen slaves in the Middle East. If this culture accepted slavery, if it saw nothing wrong with enslaving people ... I studied the slaves themselves, trying to determine how they felt about the whole affair. Two of them - insanely - looked pleased. A third was loudly declaring that he was worth more than a pittance. I couldn’t understand it. It was just horrible.

My mind raced, trying to come up with a scheme to free them. But nothing came to mind. The crowd would tear me to pieces if I tried ... I touched the pistol, then shook my head. Back home, orders had prevented us from doing anything about barbaric traditions. Here, I was just as helpless. All I could do was watch.

I turned away as the collared girl was pushed forward. The crowd grew louder, screaming for her to take off her clothes. She was pretty, her tanned face a mix of a dozen different roots. I granted her what little privacy I could by not looking, cursing myself for ... for what? There was nothing I could do for her, but look away. I forced myself to push my way through the crowd and out of the courtyard, fleeing the helplessness gnawing at my very soul. I’d heard of horror - I’d seen horror - and yet the sight behind me had unmanned me. There was nothing I could do.

It’s easy to be detached if it happened in the past, or in a country that isn’t yours, I thought, in a fit of self-mockery. But it’s harder to just watch it happen when you’re trapped in the same world ...

I lost track of time as I stumbled through the city. Rationally, I knew I shouldn’t be surprised. Slavery was the mark of a primitive society, with a primitive mindset. It wouldn’t survive the dawning industrial revolution ... or would it? Slavery had been on the decline in the United States before the Cotton Gin had suddenly made it cost-effective again. I didn’t want to think about it. And yet, the nightmare pressed against my mind. What sort of society would condone such treatment? I really shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d seen enough, over the last few days, to know I was trapped in a medieval world. Slavery and serfdom was just ... normal, as far as the locals were concerned. I wished, desperately, for a portal back home and a chance to recruit my army buddies. Magic or no magic, a small army of men with modern weapons could punch out the opposition and start reshaping the world.

But it’s not going to happen, I thought. Whatever force had brought me here had done so, seemingly, at random. Jasmine had told me there was no way to guarantee I’d get back home. I am trapped ...

The air changed. My instincts sounded the alert. I looked up and frowned as I spotted a gang of older toughs, manning what looked like a makeshift checkpoint. They were an oddly diverse lot, but there was no mistaking their intention. A young lad eyed me as I walked towards him, gauging my willingness to stand up to him. I looked back at him evenly, silently daring him to try something. I didn’t like the odds, pistol or no pistol, but I didn’t have it in me to back down. Show weakness to a human wolf and he will be forever at your throat. The boy stared at me for a moment, then shrugged and said something to his companions. I guessed it was a dismissive remark, a droll observation that I probably didn’t have anything worth the effort of stealing. I understood, all too well. It was important to save one’s face in such a world.

I heard laughter behind me. The brats were laughing at me ... I ignored them with an effort. The City Guard should be dealing with them, but ... the City Guard didn’t seem to be good at anything beyond pushing people around and, really, it wasn’t much good at that either. I found it hard to believe they had any sort of authority, let alone a way to keep the street toughs under control. Back home, the cops had all sorts of advantages. Here ... they didn’t even have a monopoly on legal force. No wonder the city was so ridden with crime.

My thoughts were spinning, again, by the time I reached the campsite. The travellers were packing up, readying themselves for the next stage of their eternal journey. Brother Havre gave me an unwelcoming look ... I balled my fists, trying to resist the temptation to start a fight. He’d spent some time, yesterday, trying to convince Jasmine to walk out with him. She hadn’t been interested. I thought he was jealous. Idiot. Jasmine was young enough to be my daughter.

Jasmine herself was sitting by the caravan, brewing a potion over a fire. She looked up and smiled as I approached. “Did you have a good time?”

“No,” I said, bluntly. I was too tired to dissemble. “I saw a slave market. I ... how did they wind up slaves?”

“Depends,” Jasmine said. “People in debt sometimes sell themselves into slavery to pay off their creditors. Or they are enslaved, by order of the court. Or ... criminals are enslaved to repay their debt to society. In theory, we are told, a slave can earn money for himself so he can buy his freedom. In practice ...”

“Let me guess,” I said. “The slave’s master will keep charging interest until the slave owes him more money than ever before.”

“Sometimes,” Jasmine agreed. “It does work, sometimes. The slaveowners aren’t supposed to cheat the slaves. A slave who knows he has no hope of buying his freedom is a slave who can turn on his master, or simply run away. There’s a certain incentive to play fair.”

I squatted beside her, feeling sick. “It’s disgusting.”

“Yes,” Jasmine said, flatly.

“Doesn’t anyone try to change it?” I shook my head in disbelief. “It’s ... it’s horrible.”

Jasmine shrugged. “The city-folk have their little ways,” she said. “They can govern themselves as they wish.”

“As long as they don’t upset the local lord,” I pointed out. “Right?”

“Yeah.” Jasmine let out a breath. “Even for us, freedom is never free.”

I sighed, inwardly. I thought I understood. The Diddakoi had their freedom, but it came with a price. They were a highly-stratified society, one that could never put down roots or become a steady community. Those who chose to play by the rules were welcome. Those who didn’t were either shunned or asked to leave. I wondered, suddenly, if Jasmine would be pressured into marrying her father’s choice, even though she had magic. It was never easy to leave a tightly-knit community. I’d known people who’d been cut off from their families for marrying outside their culture.

Jasmine snapped her fingers at the fire. It died, instantly. I felt a shiver, despite the warm air. I was never going to get used to magic. It was just ... unnatural.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Jasmine said. She stood, brushing down her skirt. “Do you want to stay?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to stay in the city and I didn’t want to lose myself in the Diddakoi. They weren’t bad people, but ...

“I think I’d like to see the next city,” I said, finally. “Is that allowed?”

Jasmine grinned. “It’s just the same as this one,” she said, waving a hand towards the nearest building. “The name is different, but the people are just the same. Unless you go to Dragon’s Den or Pendle and they’re both on the far side of the world.”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure Jasmine’s grasp of geography was any better than mine, given how vague she’d been about how some places related to others, but if a town was over a hundred miles from Damansara it might as well be on the other side of the known world as far as the locals were concerned. There was nearly three thousand miles between New York and San Francisco and, without modern transport, travelling from one to the other would take months.

Jasmine touched my hand, lightly. “You can stay for the next part of the journey,” she said, “but you’ll have to make up your mind soon.”

“I know.” I wished I had an answer. There wasn’t much I could do for the Diddakoi, beyond manual labour. It wasn’t as if they needed me. Jasmine had been very kind and helpful, but I knew it was just a matter of time before she went back to school. And then ... I snorted at the thought of going back with her. What place did I have in a school of magic? “I’ll decide at the next city.”

“Good.” Jasmine grinned at me. “And right now we’d better get some sleep. Grandfather wants to leave bright and early tomorrow morning.”

I saluted. “Yes, My Lady!”
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Six

We left the following morning, bright and early.

I couldn’t believe just how clean the air was, after a week in the city. It was hot and dry - I thought I could taste sand with every breath I took - and yet it was so pure. The stench of human sweat and waste that had pervaded the city was gone, blown away by the smell of fields and pollen. I thought I could taste sand in the air, whenever the wind shifted slightly, but I didn’t mind. It was so far superior to the city that I honestly didn’t understand why so many people stayed there.

They don’t have a choice, I thought. The city was ... the city. I’d picked up enough about local politics to know the cityfolk couldn’t simply move into the countryside and stay there. The lucky ones would wind up swearing loyalty to the warlords or moving from place to place in hopes of finding work. The unlucky ones ... I grimaced. The slave market haunted my dreams. They’re stuck.

I glanced at Jasmine, sitting beside me as we led the convoy further down the rough road. She looked oddly pensive. She’d explained, as we waited to pass through the gates, that she’d be returning to magic school - I couldn’t help thinking of it as Hogwarts - within the month. The thought bothered me more than I cared to admit, to anyone. Jasmine was the closest thing I had to a friend, in the strange new world. When she was gone ... I didn’t know what I’d do. I didn’t want to stay with her people and I didn’t want to set out on my own. And there were no other choices.

My mind churned. I’d moved from place to place before, but this was different. This wasn’t my world. The underlying assumptions of how things worked would be different. The city might be reasonably tolerant - Jasmine had told me that merchants from all over the world passed though its gates - but the countryside would be suspicious of strangers. I could see ways to irrigate the drying fields, yet ... would they listen? I’d met enough do-gooders back home, idiots who hadn’t understood how the world actually worked, to fear the locals wouldn’t listen to me. They’d think I was just another idiot. I would have sold my soul for the remainder of my old platoon, or even a handful of army buddies with guns. If nothing else, we wouldn’t have been so vulnerable. This was a dog-eat-dog world.

The wind kept shifting, blowing through Jasmine’s hair as she guided the horses onwards. I frowned as we passed a set of hovels, the locals so worn they didn’t even look up at us as we passed, and headed deeper into the countryside. The terrain was strange, a weird mixture of tundra, thickets and sandy near-desert that puzzled me. I thought I spotted people living amongst the trees, but it was hard to be sure. The back of my neck prickled as we headed further and further from the city. I was certain we were being watched. It was hard not to escape the feeling that some of the unseen eyes weren’t human.

“It’s good to be on the move again,” Jasmine said, more to herself than to me. “We’ll find a place to camp somewhere ...”

Her eyes narrowed as she peered into the distance. I followed her gaze. Three men on horseback sat ahead of us, holding what looked like spears. It took me a moment to realise they were lances, honest to God lances. A whiff of something unpleasant crossed my nostrils as the wind shifted again, a scent of horseshit mingled with something I couldn’t place. They were knights in armour, yet they lacked the polish of movie knights or SCA recreationists. It was hard to be sure - they were some distance away - but they looked more than a little grubby. I reminded myself that didn’t mean they were useless. I’d learnt the hard way that a military force that prized appearance over reality was certain to get thrashed when it actually had to fight. And yet, it was hard to take them seriously.

I grimaced as the distance narrowed. A tank would have squashed them flat and never even noticed. Hell, an AFV or a police car - even a regular car - would have had no trouble running them down or outrunning them. I doubted the horses would willingly charge a tank or an AFV. And yet, I didn’t have a tank. My hand dropped to my pistol, combat instincts screaming a warning. There was going to be trouble. I knew it.

Jasmine scowled. “Don’t say a word, unless they speak to you first,” she ordered, curtly. I heard an edge of worry in her tone and shivered. “And don’t tell them where you came from.”

I winced, inwardly. Jasmine had more power in her little finger than most people had in their entire bodies. I’d seen her use magic for all kinds of things. I’d even encouraged her to show off a little, in hopes of understanding my new home. It was hard not to feel a little intimidated by the power at her disposal, although she’d never done anything remotely threatening to me. And yet, she was worried. I eyed the knights worriedly. Did they have magic too? Or ... or what?

The knights moved into the middle of the road, forcing us to come to them. My instincts kept sounding the alarm. I felt as if we’d moved into an ambush, with insurgents on both sides ready to pour fire into our positions. I found myself looking for cover, for places we could hole up while calling for air support ... I shook my head in frustration. It wasn’t going to happen. We were trapped and yet ... there were only three of the bastards. Magic or no magic, we outnumbered them. We could fight our way through easily.

It won’t be that easy, a small voice reminded me. The knights represent the local warlord.

I kept my face impassive, somehow, as the convoy shuddered to a halt. The knights managed - somehow - to look both ridiculous and dangerous. Up close, their armour was tarnished and patched in dozens of places; their faces were twisted with grim anticipation that only sharpened when they looked at Jasmine. I shuddered, bracing myself for real trouble. They weren’t anything more than bully-boys, throwing their weight around as if they might lose it at any moment. I knew the type. They liked pushing people around, but they were useless in a real fight. And they tended to alienate everyone, even potential supporters.

The knights dismounted and walked towards us, moving with surprising grace despite their armour. They kept their swords in their scabbards - I was surprised they weren’t carrying gunpowder weapons, just swords and whips - but I was certain they could draw them at incredible speed. Their armour looked heavy. I made a mental bet with myself that the knights were at least as strong as me, probably stronger. Their faces were brown, scarred and pitted with a lifetime spent in the open air. They looked mad, bad and dangerous to know, but they wouldn’t be weaklings. They were carrying heavy armour all the time.

And what sort of threats do they expect to encounter, I asked myself, if they’re wearing armour all the time?

The leader scowled as he stopped beside the caravan. “Get down.”

Jasmine obeyed, putting the reins to one side before clambering down to the ground. I followed, feeling uncomfortably exposed. There were only three of them ... I stared, silently assessing my chances. I could draw my pistol and put a bullet through the first one’s head before he could react, probably. They hadn’t moved to take my pistol, even though it was clearly visible on my belt. I frowned. They stared at me in cold disdain. I realised my mistake a second too late. I’d met their eyes. There were cultures where meeting someone’s eyes was an unspoken challenge.

Perhaps I should grovel, I thought. I hated the very idea of kneeling in front of a trio of thugs, but ... perhaps there was no choice. Perhaps I should ...

The knight waved a hand at me. “Who is he?”

“My prospective cousin, here to learn the ropes,” Jasmine said, quickly. I kicked myself, mentally, for not suggesting we put together a cover story. “He’s from Galicia.”

The knight looked me up and down, his eyes lingering on my face for a long thoughtful moment. One of his companions made a remark I didn’t quite hear, but sounded crude. He grinned, rather sadistically, and shot me something that might have been a pitying look. I guessed he thought I was attracted to Jasmine. I didn’t know much about marriage customs amongst the Diddakoi, but if I was a cousin she was presumably off-limits even though it was pretty clear we weren’t actually related. I felt a wave of loathing. Jasmine was young enough to be my daughter.

“Our lord has commanded us to search everyone who enters his lands,” the knight said, in a tone that suggested he hoped we’d try to resist. He raised his voice. “Everyone out of the caravans.”

The Diddakoi obeyed, looking as pissed as I felt. I gritted my teeth as we were herded away from the convoy and ordered to wait by the side of the road. The knights leered at us as they started to poke their way through the caravans. Something broke inside one of the lead caravans, the sound echoing in the air like a gunshot. Jasmine’s fingers shaped themselves into a spellcasting pose, then stopped as she forced herself to relax. I told myself it would all be over soon, that we’d resume our drive shortly. It wasn’t very reassuring.

I leaned closer to Jasmine so I could whisper in her ear. “What’re they looking for?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Runaways, probably,” she said. “The serfs are bound to the land, unable to leave without permission. Their local lords never give it, so they run away. The cities are supposed to capture and return runaways, but as long as they’re careful they don’t get caught.”

I shuddered. My ancestors had had much the same problem. I wondered if there was anyone in the city helping the serfs to run and hide. It was possible, although unlikely. Damansara would be easy to starve, if the warlord laid siege to the walls. The city fathers might try to turn a blind eye to any runaways, but if the warlords came calling with an army ... I cursed under my breath. The runaways might keep wages down, too. It was quite possible they’d find themselves locked out of the local guilds, ensuring they’d have problems finding work. My ancestors had had that problem too.

The knights finished poking their way through the caravans and headed back to the front of the convoy. I had the impression they hadn’t done a very good job, although it was hard to be sure. They’d probably made certain they’d checked everywhere big enough to hide a grown man. I frowned at the look on their faces as they walked up to us. They looked dark with anticipation. It wasn’t over yet.

“On your feet,” the leader ordered us. “Now.”

I stood, keeping my eyes lowered. I couldn’t understand why the Diddakoi were taking it so calmly, not even trying to put up a fight. Jasmine wasn’t the only magic-user amongst them, surely. The knights had had their fun ... I tried not to grimace as they formed us up into a line, Jasmine at the front. I knew what was coming ... I knew what was coming, even as I hoped and prayed I was wrong.

“Let’s see what you’re carrying,” the knight said, with a leer. “Let’s see ...”

I felt a surge of anger as the knight started to search Jasmine, hands wandering all over her body. How dare he? Jasmine stood still, but I could tell she was shaking with rage. I’d been taught how to search prisoners, yet ... it wasn’t about safety or security. It was about naked sadism and power and ... they wanted to do worse, much worse. I knew the type far too well. They weren’t going to stop until ...

The pistol practically leapt into my hand. I pointed it at the leader’s head. “Step away from her!”

He laughed. It wasn’t a nervous laugh. I was pointing a gun at his head, my finger tightening on the trigger, and he genuinely thought it was funny. It struck me, too late, that he honestly didn’t recognise the threat. The flintlocks and muskets I’d seen in the city were handmade things, strikingly crude. The pistol in my hand had come from another world. He probably thought I was threatening him with a truncheon.

“Step away from her,” I repeated. “Now!”

“I’ll teach you to threaten your betters,” the knight growled. He tugged the whip from his belt. “I think fifty lashes ...”

He shoved Jasmine to one side. I shot him, instinctively. The shot was strikingly loud in the silence. He staggered, then crumpled to the ground. His companion gaped, unsure what had happened, then grabbed for his sword. I shot him too, then turned to look for the third knight. He turned and fled, running for the horses as fast as he could. I guessed he wasn’t Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, even though I supposed a hasty retreat was the best choice under the circumstances. He’d just seen two men killed through what might as well have been magic. Even if he knew what a firearm was, he would never have seen anything like mine before. And putting some distance between us was his best chance of survival.

I hesitated, then shot him in the back. He tumbled - I breathed a sigh of relief that the bullet had gone through his rear armour - and hit the ground. I paced towards him, keeping my pistol pointed at his head. He wasn’t dead, but - from the way blood was flowing out of the wound - it was just a matter of time. I grimaced in disgust. If he hadn’t been wearing armour, he might have survived long enough to get medical treatment. The bullet hadn’t just punched through the armour. It had rammed chips of metal through his body. He was beyond help.

Jasmine stumbled to her feet. “What have you done?”

I blinked at her. “They were going to rape you!”

“I could have handled them,” Jasmine snapped. Sparks darted around her fingertips. “You didn’t have to kill them.”

“You could have zapped them into frogs or something,” I pointed out. “Why ... why did you even let them stop us?”

Jasmine looked pained. “There are agreements,” she said. “We’re not supposed to get involved in local politics.”

I scowled as I turned back to the dead knight. The guards might not have been magicians, I supposed, but their master probably had magic-users under his command. Maybe Jasmine could have taken them out, easily. Their master would have sent others after the travellers and who knew where that would have ended. I wondered, sourly, if I’d made a mistake. The local warlord might be an asshole who made regular assholes look bland by comparison, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take care of his men. I’d seen too many warlords in Afghanistan to feel otherwise. The smart ones treated their men well. The stupid ones rarely lasted long enough to make a mark. And if this local warlord had lasted long enough to establish a dynasty ...

The thought mocked me as I searched the bodies. They weren’t carrying much, beyond small pouches of coins. I poured them into my hands and studied them thoughtfully. They were so rough and imprecise that it was impossible to determine what they were worth, not without a pair of scales and some dumb luck. Or magic. One of the knights had a dagger concealed in his sleeve. Jasmine sniggered when she saw it. I didn’t get the joke.

“What’s so funny?” I turned the blade over and over in my hand. It was very well made, certainly compared to the swords. I had the feeling they would snap under the right - or rather the wrong - conditions. “It’s just a dagger.”

“That’s a virgin blade,” Jasmine explained, as I removed a miniature scabbard from the knight’s arm. “Noblewomen carry them, in order to defend their virtue. It’s very rare for a man to carry one.”

“Probably why he carried it,” I said. I knew the value of a concealed weapon or two. The dead knight might have been endlessly mocked by his comrades for carrying a lady’s weapon, but it might have saved his life. Particularly, my thoughts added, if it was something he wouldn’t be expected to carry in the first place. “He could stab someone who thought he was defenceless.”

The thought made me smile, which vanished when I looked at the knights. They were walking slabs of muscle. It was hard to believe they’d ever be helpless - or seen as helpless. I’d seen tougher men in the army, but not many. I was strong - I knew I was strong - but I was relieved I hadn’t had to trade punches with them. I had a feeling I might have lost.

“We’ll have to bury them, then let the horses run off,” Grandfather Lembu said. I tried not to glare at him. He, not Jasmine, should have spoken to the knights. “And we have to talk.”

Jasmine looked as if she wanted to say something, but he cut her off and looked me dead in the eye. “You can’t stay. Not now.”
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Seven

I couldn’t say I was surprised.

Not really, not after I’d killed the three knights. Clearly, there was something going on I didn’t understand. It was a grim reminder that I was a stranger in a strange land. Jasmine could have stopped them and yet ... I didn’t understand. I promised myself I’d think about it later, when I had time. The bodies were cooling, and the Diddakoi were burying them by the roadside, yet it was only a matter of time until their master realised they were missing. They hadn’t looked to be part of a decent outfit, with superiors who looked out for them, but I couldn’t take it for granted. In my experience, most warlords tended to be very aware of the foundations of their power. The ones who lost sight of what put them on top tended to lose everything else very quickly.

A chill ran down my spine as the wind shifted, bringing with it a reminder of the encroaching desert. The Diddakoi were ignoring me - although some of the young men were shooting admiring glances at me - and I felt alone, even though I had yet to start walking. I didn’t even know where I’d do. Heading further into the warlord’s territory struck me as foolish, perhaps even dangerous. Small communities and suchlike tended to be worried about strangers. The odds were good I couldn’t pass for a local. Everything from skin colour to posture shouted that I was a traveller from distant lands. I feared the worst if they decided I was a potential threat. For all they knew, I was the vanguard of an invading army.

If my entire unit had arrived here, I thought sourly, we could have carved out an empire before we ran out of bullets.

I put the thought aside as wishful thinking and checked my pistol. I had four rounds left in the clip and another clip on my belt. It was a relief to know the bullets could go through armour - and whatever magical protections the knights might have had - but my military superiority wouldn’t last. Once the bullets were gone, they were gone. Hell, just having superior weapons was no guarantee of victory. In theory, I could reload the gun with local powder. In practice, I feared that trying would end with the pistol exploding in my hand.

Jasmine caught my arm and pulled me behind the caravan. She looked ... flushed, although I wasn’t sure why. Embarrassment I’d saved her? Or ... I gritted my teeth, unwilling to entertain the thought of her family blaming her for being groped. I’d seen that before, in too many countries to mention. And ... I still wasn’t sure why she hadn’t saved herself. The knights hadn’t posed any kind of threat to her. She could have blasted them all before they could react, let alone lash out or run.

“Thanks.” Jasmine’s hands twisted for a long moment. “I ...”

I took the plunge. “Why didn’t you save yourself?”

“There are agreements,” Jasmine said. “I could ... I could have handled it. I could have dealt with them. I could have ... I could have handled them in ways that wouldn’t bring a world of trouble down on our heads. But ... I couldn’t do anything overt.”

I reminded myself, sharply, that this was a very different world. The Diddakoi paid a price for their freedom to roam where they willed. And yet ... it was hard to accept I might have done the wrong thing.

“There are hexes of permanent impotence,” Jasmine was saying. I barely heard her. “Or other spells, all of which ...”

“I’m sorry,” I said, although it wasn’t really true. There was no point in begging to be allowed to stay. My presence was a liability now. The Diddakoi would have to swear blind the knights had allowed them to pass, then met their fate later on. I supposed it would be easy enough. The local warlord might not even realise just what had killed his men. Even if he knew about gunpowder and muskets, my gun was from a whole other world. “I ...”

I wanted to ask her to come with me, but I had the feeling it would be pointless. Jasmine was going to go back to school, leaving her people alone. Unprotected. I supposed there might be a reason she had so much freedom ... I shook my head, trying to put the amateur speculation aside. This society had magic. There was no reason to assume it had evolved along similar lines to my own and plenty of reasons to suspect otherwise. How did society cope with some of its people were effectively weapons of mass destruction?

Jasmine held up a hand, then scrambled into the caravan and started to rattle through her drawers. I waited, silently cataloguing what I’d kept with me. Perhaps I could sell some of it for ready cash ... I had a bunch of concepts I could sell for money, even if there was someone else who’d snapped up the low-hanging fruit, but getting them into production wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t even know enough to determine where best to start. God knew there’d been plenty of busybodies, from the temperance and porridge women to civil affairs officers and social justice warriors, who hadn’t even bothered to ask why things were the way they were before trying to change them. I’d hated that sort of arrogance when I was a kid. And here, trying to meddle too much might end with my death.

“Here.” Jasmine returned, carrying a small glass vial. “Regeneration potion. It’s tricky to make and pretty expensive, particularly as it isn’t tuned to a single person. Drink it in a single swallow and it’ll repair anything that doesn’t kill you outright. Once. Don’t try to dilute it. You might be able to sell it, if you’re desperate, but make sure you drive a hard bargain. You’ll only be able to sell it once.”

I swallowed. I’d done a little buying in the marketplace, back in Damansara, but it hadn’t been easy to work out how much things cost. Prices had been very variable, certainly outside the basics like food, drink and clothing. “How much should I charge?”

“As much as the market will bear.” Jasmine’s voice was serious. Very serious. “I could never have paid for the ingredients myself. I had to brew the cauldron at Whitehall and I was lucky to be allowed to keep a couple of vials. I was ...”

She shook her head. “If someone is seriously ill, the potion might save their life. But if they’re desperate, they might try to take it.”

“I understand.” I had the sudden feeling she’d given me something everyone would want to steal. She might as well have given me a gold ingot to put in my pocket. The ingot might have been safer. “Do you ... do you not need it for yourself?”

Jasmine smiled. “I can handle most things without it,” she said, with a hint of pride. “I was going to be a healer. If it wasn’t for ...”

Her voice trailed off. I found it hard to look at her. Jasmine’s smile was so bright it was otherworldly, as if I was unworthy to so much as glance at her. It was suddenly very hard to even stand so close to her. Jasmine dropped down from the caravan and stood next to me. She barely came up to my shoulder, yet she seemed taller. A crude joke ran through my head, only to be instantly dismissed. She was something ... different.

Jasmine touched my chest with a single extended finger. I felt a faint tingle, which vanished so quickly I thought I’d imagined it. My heart seemed to skip a beat, just for a second. She leaned forward, reality itself seeming to twist around us. I felt another tingle, a stronger one, as her lips kissed my forehead. It was hard, so hard, to keep my mind focused. She couldn’t kiss my forehead without my cooperation and yet ... my head span. It was all I could do to remain standing. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t speak.

She stepped back. Reality shifted, one final time, and snapped back into place. My head ached in confusion. What had just happened? I couldn’t quite remember ...

“I replenished the translation spell,” Jasmine said. She sounded more ... normal now, less of an untouchable goddess. “And I gave you a little protection.”

My forehead tingled. “What did you do to me?”

“I gave you a little protection,” Jasmine repeated, patiently. “It won’t last forever, as you don’t have magic yourself, but it’ll give you a chance. I think you’ll be able to withstand one hex, perhaps two, before the protection is rendered useless.”

“And then someone will be able to turn me into a toad,” I guessed. “Is that likely to happen?”

Jasmine frowned. “It depends where you go,” she said. “And what you wind up doing.”

“Ouch.” I tried not to shudder. I’d seen books listing curses and hexes ... how many of them were actually real? “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Jasmine gave me an odd little smile. “And thank you for riding with me.”

I took the rucksack and a proffered gift of water and food, the latter little more than hardtack and salt beef. I’d never thought I’d miss MREs, but ... I wished, not for the first time, that I’d known I was going to fall into another world. I could have assembled a platoon of army buddies - I knew a bunch of people who’d be up for an adventure - or simply crammed a van with trade goods before driving down that road. Hell, there were people who’d been raised in more traditional communities who had far more useful skills. I wished - suddenly - that I’d spent some time on the farm. I’d had a friend who’d invited me. It felt like a lifetime ago.

The remainder of the Diddakoi ignored us as we walked to the edge of the convoy. They’d finished burying the bodies, leaving the graves covered with sand and soil. It was hard to tell the ground had been disturbed, let alone turned into makeshift graves. A few hours - or days - would see the wind sweeping away what few clues remained. By the time the bodies were discovered, if they ever were, the Diddakoi would be long gone.

“Don’t wear your pouch too openly,” Jasmine advised. “And be careful what you say or do.”

I have no friends here, I thought. I’d never been so alone in my life. No one to come to my aid, no one to ...

Jasmine kept talking. “Make sure you keep practicing the language,” she warned. “That spell won’t last forever. Once it goes ...”

“I understand,” I said. I’d practiced already - and I had a great deal of experience with foreign languages - but I was going to have to do more. It would be tricky to explain to a sorcerer what I needed if I couldn’t speak his tongue ... if, of course, I could find a sorcerer I could trust. I’d heard so many horror stories that I wanted to keep a safe distance from magic users ... it didn’t help, I supposed, that I had no idea what a safe distance actually was. “I ...”

Jasmine gave me a tight hug. “Take care of yourself,” she said. “And may the gods go with you.”

I shivered as I returned the hug, then took one last look at the convoy. The Diddakoi had been friendly, but distant. I’d known I would have to decide, sooner or later, if I wanted to become one of them or leave ... I hadn’t thought it would come so quickly. The thought churned in my mind as I turned away, readying myself for the walk. It wasn’t going to be easy returning to the city, but I knew I had to be there before dark. The city gates would be closed and locked as soon as night began to fall, leaving me in the open. I had the feeling it would prove hazardous to my health.

“Thank you, for everything,” I said. “And goodbye.”

I raised a hand in salute, then turned away and started to walk. Behind me, I heard the sounds of the Diddakoi mounting up and driving further into the warlord’s lands. I hoped they’d be safe, I hoped they’d have the sense to keep their mouths shut if anything happened and they got caught. Or they’d blame everything on me. I didn’t want to be hunted by a man who probably had a small army under his command, but it would be better than him harassing the travellers. Besides, he’d find it harder to track me than the convoy.

Unless he uses magic, I thought. It was a hot day, the sun high in the sky, but I shivered anyway. Who knows what he can do?

I tried not to think about it as I kept walking, maintaining a steady pace. I’d done route marches and forced marches and - of course - I’d had to keep moving in Iraq and Afghanistan and a handful of other countries. It was preferable, I told myself, to be here. The locals might be suspicious of strangers - I was careful to circumvent the hamlets and villages, rather than walking through them - but at least they weren’t shooting at me. The handful of people I saw looked too downtrodden to shoot at anyone, even if they’d had the guns. I saw no weapons. I was fairly sure the local warlord wouldn’t want his people to have guns. They might start shooting at the knights instead of passing strangers.

The fields looked strange, an odd mixture of fertile and dried-out land. I had the impression, although I couldn’t be sure, that the farms were undermanned. It wasn’t easy to tell where one farm ended and the next began. The road led me past dried ditches that might have marked the edges of a farm, or might have been nothing more than irrigation channels running dry through disuse. I wondered, idly, why the farmers weren’t trying to produce more food. The city wasn’t that far away. I could easily imagine it consuming more and more food every year, particularly if the population continued to swell.

Which it might not, I thought. There had to be limits to how much a city could grow, certainly in the absence of modern technology. There’d been millions of people in New York and feeding them all had to be difficult. I’d read a handful of books where the supply chains broke down and the results were looting and rioting, followed by mass starvation. The larger the city, the greater the risk of total collapse if the food runs out.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought, I decided, as I started to encounter more and more people heading to and from the city. They looked like merchants and farmers. A handful of them shot wary glances at me, but the majority seemed content to ignore the stranger. They were all men, at least on the surface, yet I was sure a handful were actually women. It wouldn’t have been apparent - not even remotely apparent - if I hadn’t grown up in a world where women regularly wore male clothes. I didn’t blame them. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen women pretend to be men in patriarchal societies. It gave them more freedom, as well as security. I guessed they were the wives, sisters and daughters of farmers, come to sell the farm’s wares.

My stomach growled as the city walls came into view. I ate a piece of hardtack, then joined the line of people advancing towards the gates. The wind shifted, blowing the stench of the city into my face. I grimaced, telling myself I’d get used to it. I had no choice. There was nowhere else to go. If the guards on the gates told me to get lost ... I wondered, idly, what I’d do if that happened. Try to sneak into the city? Or set out into the unknown? My heart started to race as I passed through the gates ...

The guards ignored me. They almost made a show of ignoring me. I tensed, half-expecting to be jumped the moment I crossed the line into the city. There were guards on the far side, all paying more attention to the farmers than to me. They didn’t seem to be waiting for me ... it took several moments to realise they were deliberately ignoring me because they didn’t want to take official notice of my presence, because they thought I was a runaway. I was torn between relief and fear. If I was taken for a runaway serf, I might be dragged back to a farm I’d never left ...

I kept walking, allowing the city to envelop me. I wasn’t sure where I was going. People shouted back and forth, their words echoing in my ears as they pushed their way through the crowded streets. I had the vague idea I could find a place to stay somewhere near the market, perhaps a job or two. There was always work for someone willing to do the dirty stuff, I knew, although I wasn’t sure anyone was doing the dirty stuff here. The streets were filthy. I doubted there were any volunteers to clean the sewers ... hell, I wasn’t even sure there were sewers. My stomach churned at the thought. Damansara was a breeding ground for flies and disease. I wondered if they’d even made the connection between flies and disease. Perhaps I could tell them.

And perhaps they wouldn’t listen, I thought, numbly. I was starting to feel hunger pangs again. Why should they listen to you?
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Eight

The question mocked me as I purchased some food from a roadside stall and forced myself to eat it. Why should anyone listen to me? I was no one. I wasn’t a warlord or a magician or even a wealthy merchant. Hell, for all I knew, I was missing something. There were no shortage of horror stories about ignorant do-gooders who’d made things worse because they didn’t really know what was going on. Sure, buying food staples in bulk can save money in the long run, but only if you have the space to store the food. What sort of idiot wouldn’t realise that poor people often didn’t have the space to store anything?

A ignorant idiot ignorant of her own ignorance and idiocy, I thought. My stomach shifted as I chewed a piece of meat ... I thought it was meat. I didn’t want to know what it had been, before it had been killed and tossed in the cooking pot. But what am I going to do here?

I was terrifyingly aware of my own ignorance. I’d come to a world where no one gave a damn about the colour of my skin or college degree and yet ... I didn’t have the slightest idea how to apply for a job. Or what was fair pay. Or what my legal rights were ... actually, I was fairly sure I didn’t have any rights. Damansara didn’t strike me as a place founded on law, order and a shared understanding of the rules. The citizens had presumably evolved ways to govern themselves, but I didn’t even know who to ask for help. And who would give me help? I didn’t know that either.

The marketplace surrounded me as I wandered through the square. The merchants might be interested in hiring me ... it was galling to consider being a shopboy or delivery man after spending years in the army, but it was better than starvation. I’d known too many people who’d refused to do menial labour, even when it was that or starve. I knew better than to let myself fall into that mindset. And yet, I didn’t even know where to begin. Who’d be interested in hiring me? I didn’t even know how to ask.

I wandered past a stall piled high with fruits and vegetables, wondering if the stallkeeper would be interested in a spare pair of hands. I needed somewhere to stay as well as money to earn my keep ... I was used to sleeping in uncomfortable places, but I doubted I’d last a night if I tried sleeping in an alleyway. Shantytowns and homeless encampments tended to be thoroughly unsafe for strangers. I was lucky I wasn’t a young woman running away from home. I’d probably find myself being sweet-talked by a pimp, then get put to work turning tricks on the street. Somehow, I couldn’t see myself being a successful prostitute. Even Cleo had hesitated to describe me as handsome.

The thought hurt, more than I cared to admit. I’d loved her. I loved my boys. But I’d never see them again and they’d never know what had happened to me. The army would probably class me as a deserter, as someone who’d driven into the countryside and vanished ... I made a face. They’d never even find the car. And ...

I heard a shout behind me and turned, just in time to see a young boy - he couldn’t be older than fourteen, although it was hard to be sure - running away from a stall as if the hounds of hell were behind him. He held a loaf of bread in one hand. The merchant was shouting about thieves ... I realised, to my horror, that he’d stolen the bread. A flash of naked anger ran through me. I’d known too many would-be shopkeepers ruined because of thieves, their livelihoods destroyed because they couldn’t replenish their stock or ... I lunged forward without thinking and tackled him. He tumbled to the ground, lashing out with surprising strength. It was hard to get a grip on him. He twisted and turned in a desperate bid to escape. I held him down, ducking a wild blow aimed at my face as I caught his arms and pressed them against the ground. The loaf of bread hit the street and lay still. I hoped someone wouldn’t try to eat it. I’d seen animals shitting and pissing on the ground. There were things on the cobblestones no one wanted in their mouth.

“Got the brat!” I looked up to see a pair of city guardsmen running towards me. “Good work!”

The thief twisted underneath me. One of the guards clapped me on the shoulder, then pushed me off the boy and kicked him hard. Too hard. I tensed, suddenly wondering if I’d made a mistake. The boy was a thief and yet ... the other guard caught hold of the lad by his hair and yanked him upright, then searched him roughly. A set of pouches tumbled to the ground. I guessed the boy was a pickpocket as well as a thief. And yet ...

I eyed the guardsmen warily as they pocketed the pouches, making sure to keep their hands on the boy. They looked ... it was hard to put the feeling into words. They didn’t look very professional. They looked more like thugs than real policemen. I had the feeling they were the type of guardsmen who’d take bribes, who’d exploit their positions for all they were worth. I’d met the type, in Afghanistan. They’d managed to unite entire districts against them. A shudder ran down my spine. Who could blame the locals for wanting the policemen dead?

“You’ll come with us,” the lead guard said. I was certain it wasn’t a request. “Come.”

I hesitated. They were muscular, but I didn't think they knew how to use it. I could take them both, even without the gun. And yet ... I considered running, on the assumption I could simply outrun them, but where would I go? The boy I’d caught moaned in pain as one of the guardsmen kicked his ankle, hobbling him. I sighed and fell into step beside them. It was hard not to miss the looks people were giving me. They probably felt I’d done the wrong thing. I was starting to feel the same way too.

The crowds parted as we walked down the streets. I couldn’t help noticing how many people turned away from the guardsmen, as if they were fearful of attracting their attention. I’d seen that before too, in places where honest policemen met unpleasant ends and government cared more for appearance than reality. I wasn’t sure this place was advanced enough to care about appearance, but ... I considered, again and again, simply running for my life. And yet, it was pointless? Where the hell would I go?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have shot those guys, I thought, morbidly. Perhaps I should have asked Jasmine to take me ...

The boy let out a moan as a small fortress came into view. I stared in astonishment. The guardhouse was a blocky structure that looked designed to withstand a siege, surrounded by a wall topped with iron spikes. A pair of guardsmen stood outside the gates, their hands resting on their swords. The street beyond was surprisingly quiet. I guessed no one wanted to walk past the guardhouse for fear they’d be dragged inside and tortured. My escorts spoke to the gatekeepers, then marched through the gate and into the building. The air inside was surprisingly cold. I shivered, helplessly. The thief was passed to a pair of guardsmen and I was shown to a stone bench. I shrugged, sat and waited. It wasn’t as if I had anything else to do.

I forced myself to wait for what felt like hours. Guardsmen - all men, I noted - came and went with astonishing regularity. They wore the same uniform - a white tunic with a black belt and sash - but otherwise they were strikingly dissimilar. Some were old, some were young; their skins ranged from white to black and everything in between. Some of them looked as if they could get into Special Forces without even trying, others were weirdly acrofatic to the point I couldn’t help wondering if they’d been cursed. One of the weirder looking men reminded me of Obelix. They chatted to each other like ...

Silence fell. I looked up to see a middle-aged man making his way towards me. He wore the same white tunic, but a golden - or at least gold-coloured - sash. I would have known he was in charge even without it, from the way the rest of the guardsmen deferred to him. His face was rough, covered with unkempt stubble; his smile was missing several teeth; his piggish eyes showed a glint of intelligence unleavened by humanity. I was careful not to meet his eyes as he marched closer. I had the feeling he’d take it as a challenge.

He looked me up and down, his expression managing to suggest he’d seen more impressive people sleeping rough on the streets. I did my best to remain calm, yet ready to act. I’d met my share of unfit commanding officers, but the newcomer managed to be worse. He looked the type to explode at a moment’s notice, the type who could be set off by anyone or anything. I braced myself, unsure if I’d be rewarded or punished. It was quite possible I’d made a serious mistake and put my neck in the noose.

“So,” the newcomer said. He had no indoor voice. He sounded like a sea captain trying to make himself heard in a storm. “Who are you?”

“Elliot, sir,” I said.

“I am Captain Alder, City Guard,” the man thundered. He turned away. “Come.”

I stood and followed him through a twisting maze of corridors. The building felt old, as if it had been passed down from generation to generation of guardsmen. I suspected the interior had been designed to confuse intruders as much as anything else, although there was no way to be sure. Captain Alder marched onwards without so much as slowing down, forcing everyone else to get the hell out if his way. I wasn’t even sure he was looking where he was going. It looked as if he didn’t have to. I saw men jumping out of his way as if they were about to be run down by a charging elephant.

My lips quirked. I hastily smoothed them into a neutral expression as Captain Alder led me into a small room. Another man - tall, thin, bald and strikingly pale - stood to greet us. He nodded to Captain Alder, then looked at me. I felt an odd little tingle as his eyes met mine for a second. Magic? The man was dressed in black. Jasmine had told me that magicians were the only people allowed to wear black clothes.

Crap, I thought. I didn’t have the slightest idea what this man could do, but ... there was something in Captain Alder’s posture that suggested the magician was dangerous. It was strange, very worrying. I’d known boys who were so insane, so willing to do anything to hurt someone even if it meant getting hurt themselves, that they’d scared even grown men. What now?

“Sit,” Captain Alder ordered. He pointed to a chair. “Why did you help my men?”

I felt a strange compulsion to answer - and answer truthfully. It was disconcerting to feel my lips threatening to move of their own accord, to speak words that I didn’t quite want to speak. I tried to shape a lie, it refused even to form. I cursed under my breath, wondering if I should shoot the pair of them and then try to escape. Magic ... who knew what the sorcerer could do to defend himself? They had guns. It wasn’t impossible they knew how to protect themselves too.

“I don’t like thieves,” I said, finally. It was true. It was also a test of just how much the spell would allow me to do. I could say anything I liked, as long as it was true. I’d just have to be careful my answers matched the questions. I was pretty sure they had ways of making me talk. “They ruin lives and businesses.”

“Good.” Captain Alder seemed oddly amused by my answer. “You’re new to the city, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I tried to tell a half-truth, to say I’d been in the city before, but I couldn’t force myself to shape the words. “I’ve only just arrived.”

“I see,” Captain Alder said. “Where do you come from?”

I tensed. They might not believe the whole truth, spell or no spell. And if they did ... I shuddered, inwardly. I wasn’t sure what would be worse. If they believed me ... I wondered what they’d do. Laugh at me? Enslave me? Sell me to someone who could put my knowledge to work? Or ... I didn’t want to know.

“I was brought from a distant land,” I said, carefully. “I’ve been travelling ever since.”

The sorcerer leaned forward. “You have a translation spell on you,” he said. “Why don’t you speak the common tongue?”

“I was never taught how to speak it,” I said. “I’m trying to learn.”

Captain Alder studied me for a long moment. “Did you run away from a farm?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“Good,” Captain Alder said. He seemed pleased by my answer. It took me a moment to realise he’d have had to return a runaway to his former master. “What are you doing in the city?”

“Looking for a job,” I said. “It isn’t going very well.”

Captain Alder laughed. “What sort of job do you want?”

“Something that pays and lets me have a place to sleep,” I said. There were several other answers, but I didn’t want to get into them. I needed to learn how the city really worked - and master the common tongue - before I tried anything more complex. “I’m not that picky.”

Captain Alder and the sorcerer exchanged glances. “Last question,” Captain Alder said. “Do you want to join the guard?”

I blinked in surprise, then kicked myself. There was no reason to believe the locals vetted the guardsmen very thoroughly, if at all. Captain Alder had confirmed that I was new to the city and in desperate need of a job and ... he didn’t need to know anything else. Hell, he might see my lack of anywhere else to go as a positive advantage. Besides, I might just have made myself unpopular by catching the thief. The locals probably didn’t like thieves, but I’d bet my life they hated the City Guard even worse. I might discover the locals didn’t feel inclined to help me at all.

“It would be a good job,” I said, although I wasn’t sure that was true. The spell should have kept me from lying, but ... what if I didn’t know I was lying? I found it hard to believe the spell could determine absolute truth or ... I shook my head. There would be time to think about the implications later. I needed to learn the common tongue, then start studying. “I would be interested.”

“Good.” Captain Alder glanced at the sorcerer. “Thunder, I’ll see you later.”

The sorcerer - I tried not to snicker at the name - stood and left the room. I shaped a lie in my mouth, just to test if the spell was still working. The lie seemed ready to leave my lips. I didn’t dare say it out loud as Captain Alder stood and stared down at me. I was taller than him, I thought, but he had a presence that dominated the room. It was hard to escape the sense I was far too close to a wild animal, one that might turn on me at any moment. I wasn’t sure what I’d managed to get myself into, this time. Working as a guardsman might just land me in worse trouble.

“Kneel,” Captain Alder ordered. “Have you ever sworn fealty before?”

I shook my head. I’d taken the oath, when I’d joined the army, but I had a feeling Captain Alder meant something different. It was disturbing to kneel, let alone place my hands in his and listen to a string of words that bore no resemblance to anything I’d heard back home, even in period dramas. There was no mention of truth, justice or even law and order. Instead, I was told to obey orders from my superiors and little else. Back home, I’d been told policemen spent years training for the role. Here ... the ability to wield a club or a whip was sufficient. I suspected there was no such thing as a written law code.

“Welcome.” Captain Alder relaxed, slightly, when he’d finished reciting the oath. He hadn’t asked me to recite it back to him, not even the important parts. “I’ll have you outfitted at once.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask questions so quickly - Captain Alder would probably react badly - but I owed it to my conscience to take some risks. “Sir ... the boy I caught ... what will happen to him?”

“The street rat?” Captain Alder shrugged, as if the matter was of no importance. “He’ll be lamed, probably. Or sold into slavery. There are lots of people who’ll pay good money for a young worker ...”

I felt my gorge rise. I’d caught the boy and condemned him to ... I swallowed hard, cursing myself savagely. What the hell had I done? This wasn’t America. This was ... this was somewhere completely different. And I might have made a dreadful mistake.

Learn the rules, I told myself, savagely. There was nothing I could do to save the boy. Not now. And then you can figure out how to make things better.
chris
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:39 am

Re: Stuck in Magic (Ongoing Serial)

Post by chris »

Chapter Nine

“This is where we sleep,” Constable Horst said, indicating the barracks. “That’s your bunk over there. Don’t sleep anywhere else or there’ll be trouble.”

I kept my face expressionless. The barracks looked uncomfortable, and the bedding looked as if it had been used for decades before it had been passed down to me, but I’d slept in worse places. Probably. The air was cold, but heavy with the stench from the washroom at the rear of the chamber. I grimaced in disgust as I peeked inside. My old Drill Instructor would have had a heart attack. The less said about the toilets - and washing basins - the better.

“Just hang with us,” Constable Fallows assured me. “You’ll get the hang of it in no time.”

Or I’ll get hung, I thought.

I studied the pair of them thoughtfully. Horst was tall and thin, with brown skin and dark hair; Fallows was short and fat, although he moved with a grace that suggested he was stronger than he looked. His skin was surprisingly pale, but his eyes were - somehow- darker than mine. I couldn’t have guessed at his origin, not on Earth. Here ... I reminded myself it probably didn’t matter. I was the only person who’d so much as ever heard of Earth.

“We’ll get you changed, then take you on patrol,” Horst said, opening a cupboard and thumbing through the racks of clothes. “And then we’ll take you on patrol.”

“Unless you want something to eat first,” Fallows said. “Or take a nap.”

Horst snorted. “He’ll have plenty of time to nap when night falls,” he said, darkly. “He won’t be going on night shift for a while.”

I kept my thoughts to myself as they found me an ill-fitting uniform with a hat that was suspiciously heavy. A quick check revealed the seamstress had concealed a metal helmet under the cloth. My tunic was heavier than I’d expected, designed to provide at least some protection if someone tried to club or stab me. I doubted it would turn a bullet. Or a sword. I dressed quickly, concealing my pistol under the cloak before making sure I could draw it in a hurry. I was trained in unarmed combat, but only a fool or a movie star would use his fists when a weapon would do. I’d seen trained men brought down by unarmed mobs in my previous life.

“This is your club,” Horst said, holding out a gleaming weapon. It looked more like a wooden truncheon than a club. I took it and hefted it thoughtfully. “And this is your whistle.”

Fallows produced his and put it to his lips, but didn’t blow. “You hear this on the streets, you come running,” he said. “One of your fellows is in trouble.”

“You blow it, every guard on the streets will start running towards you,” Horst added, curtly. “Do not blow it unless you’re in real trouble.”

I nodded, wordlessly. I understood the principle. False alarms would eventually - inevitably - convince people that it wasn’t worth heeding the distress call. The boy who cried wolf had been a bloody idiot, but so too had his parents and the rest of the townspeople. Their willingness to tolerate his stupidity had cost them dear. I guessed I’d regret it if I blew the whistle without good cause. The guardsmen wouldn’t come running if they believed it wasn’t desperate.

“I get the idea,” I said. I was going to have to learn the rules before I did anything. Back home, it took years of training to become a policeman. Here ... they were threatening to put me on the streets within a day. “What sort of authority do we have?”

They looked at me as if I’d started speaking in tongues. “... What?”

“I don’t know the rules,” I said. There would be rules, unwritten if not written. “What are we meant to do on the streets?”

“Follow us,” Fallows said. “You’ll pick it up as we go along.”

I winced, inwardly, as I changed into my new uniform and stowed my old clothes under my bunk. I had no idea if they’d be safe, but there was nowhere else to put them. Horst and Fallows looked me up and down, then nodded curtly. My heart sank. Standards were clearly lower than I’d feared. The white uniform was so baggy I suspected I was going to have to do some needlework myself, just to make it fit a little better. I certainly didn’t look very intimidating. It was easy to wonder if I’d just made myself a target.

My two companions led me down the corridor, pointing out chambers and compartments along the way. I looked from side to side, mentally noting the kitchens, the dining hall, the armoury and washrooms. I’d lived in worse places, although even in the sandbox there’d been a certain understanding of basic hygiene. The toilets were something out of a medieval nightmare. The stench was appalling. I thought I’d caught something just by looking through the door.

We stopped in an office, Horst standing beside me while Fallows went to speak to the officer on the desk. A handful of other guardsmen came and went, glancing at me as they passed. I suspected it would be a while before they warmed up to me. I didn’t take it personally. No one was ever fully trusted, not in the military, until they proved themselves. The guardsmen probably felt the same way. They wouldn’t befriend the FNG until he proved himself a good man, someone who could be relied upon in a pinch. I didn’t blame them.

Horst, perhaps a little more understanding than Fallows, pointed out detail after detail as we waited. There were only three real ranks in the guard - Constable, Captain and Adjunct - and seniority was determined solely by time in grade. It wasn’t easy to tell who’d served the longest, but I didn’t need to worry about it. I was right at the bottom. Horst seemed to find that amusing. I had the feeling the guardsmen were permanently short of new recruits. No wonder they’d been so quick to snatch me up.

Fallows rejoined us. “We’re going on patrol,” he said. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, sir,” I lied. I wasn’t remotely ready. “I’m ready.”

“You don’t have to do anything, but watch and follow our lead,” Horst said. “It isn’t as if we’re putting you on the gates!”

He laughed, as if he’d just cracked a joke. Fallows scowled at him and led the way outside. The warm air slapped against my face, the scent of the city tickling my nostrils. It looked like mid-afternoon, although it was hard to be sure. Horst and Fallows motioned for me to stay between them as they started to walk, heading down the streets in a manner that suggested everyone else would get the hell out of their way. It rapidly dawned on me that they were right.

I kept my eyes open, watching the crowd. It was hard not to see - or feel - the sharp glances aimed at us, the hints of resentment and fear hanging on the air. I hadn’t felt anything like it since I’d been on patrol in Baghdad, where even the locals who liked us had feared what we might bring in our wake. I tensed, one hand dropping to my club before I forced myself to relax. Horst and Fallows weren’t stupid. We wouldn’t be walking down the streets, in the open, if there was any real danger. The crowd didn’t like us, but that didn’t mean they were going to attack us.

“Keep your eyes open,” Horst muttered, as we turned the corner and headed down the market street. “There’s a reward for each and every thief you catch.”

“The merchants are always grateful,” Fallows agreed. “And the captain will be pleased too.”

I nodded, eyes scanning the row upon row of stalls. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, selling everything from basic clothes to food, drink and weapons. The stallkeepers didn’t seem too pleased to see us, even if we were deterring crime. Behind them, I could see nooks and crannies and alleyways that could have concealed anything and everything. It reminded me of the marketplaces I’d seen in the Middle East, although there were more women in plain view. They were careful not to meet my eyes. I didn’t really blame them.

My eyes narrowed as I spotted the street children. They scattered the moment they saw us, scrambling under stalls and fleeing into the alleyways. Horst and Fallows snickered as the children vanished, making no move to chase them. I felt my stomach heave. I didn’t want to think what life must be like for a child, on the streets of a very rough city. I doubted anyone cared enough to set up shelters for them, let alone try to offer a better life. I suspected the only people offering to help them would want something in exchange. Children made excellent pickpockets ...

Horst kept up a quiet running commentary as we reached the end of the marketplace, crossed the street and walked straight into another marketplace. I forced myself to listen as he pointed out street markers, showing me how to find my way around the city. It was a confusing mess. Whoever had designed the city, if indeed anyone had designed it, had tried to lay out an orderly pattern, but had rapidly been overwhelmed by the original inhabitants and their heirs. Some parts of the city were easy to navigate - and if one walked down a main road one would reach either the walls or the city centre - but others were a nightmare of narrow streets, dark alleyways and homeless encampments that had taken on an air of permanence.

“Don’t go in there, not alone,” Fallows warned, darkly. “You won’t come out again.”

I eyed the encampment and nodded. It looked small, from the outside, but it had enveloped a sizable chunk of the city. The stench was unbelievable. I saw a handful of children playing in a puddle of filth and shuddered, feeling my stomach churn again. Behind them, there were a couple of men watching us with unblinking eyes. The naked hostility in their gaze was terrifying. They were men who had nothing to lose.

“If you have nowhere else to go, you’ll wind up there,” Horst said, as we walked around the edge of the camp. “And you won’t come out again.”

I tried not to shiver as we kept walking. Horst and Fallows didn’t seem to have any regular patrol route, as far as I could tell. Or maybe they were just showing me the city and using it as an excuse to goof off. I walked through a red light district - prostitutes were everywhere, some holding out cards covered in illegible scribbles - and then through a more upmarket section that was so great a contrast I wondered if we’d walked into a whole new city. It wasn’t precisely the suburbs I’d come to know and love, but ... it was clear the locals actually took care of their district. The streets were clean, the people looked happy and well-fed and ... I frowned as they stared at us as if we were something a gentleman’s gentleman might scrape off his master’s shoe. I’d known blatant racists and insurgents who’d stared at me with less hostility. I didn’t understand their attitude. Surely, they should be glad of our presence.

“They despise us,” Horst commented.

Fallows snorted, but said nothing. I frowned, puzzled, as we kept walking towards a giant mansion. It looked thoroughly weird, as if someone had taken the White House, squashed it down until it was a little smaller and then painted it in sandy colours. The guards on the gates, wearing fancy uniforms covered with gold braid, sneered at us. Horst and Fallows waved their fingers back at the guards, then turned away. I guessed it was their way of giving the finger.

“That’s Lord Seed’s residence,” Horst explained, once we were out of earshot. “The men on the gates work for him personally, not for the rest of us. Don’t expect them to come to your aid if you get into trouble. It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

“Private guards,” I said. “Fuck.”

Fallows snorted. “Everyone who can hire private guards does,” he said. “And if they’re wealthy enough, the guards can do whatever they like.”

I blinked. “Whatever they like?”

“Sure.” Horst made a dismissive motion with his hands. “Anyone who can hire a small army of guards, like him” - he pointed behind us - “can afford to bribe a judge, if his men get into trouble.”

“If he isn’t already the judge,” Fallows said. “The landlord might find himself judging his own men. He won’t judge very harshly.”

I frowned. “How does the government actually work?”

They stared at me. “What ...?”

“I’m new here,” I said. If nothing else, it was a good excuse for asking dumb questions. “I don’t understand how the government works. Who makes the decisions?”

Horst and Fallows exchanged glances. “It’s complicated,” Horst muttered, finally. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“It’s really very simple,” Fallows snapped. “If you own property, you’re a landlord. If you’re a landlord, you get a vote. You can run for office, if you can convince your fellow landlords to vote for you, or get appointed to a government office. If you’re not a landlord, you don’t get a vote. It’s as simple as that.”

I frowned. “And what percentage of the population are landlords?”

Fallows gave me a sharp look. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, how many landlords are there, relative to the rest of the city?” I had the feeling I’d gone too far, but it was too late to stop now. “How many landlords are there?”

“It’s hard to be sure,” Horst said. “It gets complicated.”

“There are landlords who own tiny plots of land, barely enough room to bury themselves,” Fallows said, coldly. “And landlords who own vast chunks of the city. And their families.”

I listened to the explanation as we resumed our patrol. The landlords owned the city. They paid taxes, which paid for the guardsmen, the army detachment outside the walls - apparently, the soldiers weren’t allowed inside the city itself - and the local government, such as it was. The idea of everyone having a vote was unthinkable. It was easy to deduce, reading between the lines, that the system was massively weighed against the common citizen. As long as they were landless, they were powerless. I supposed that explained why the wealthy citizens were wary of us. They might be wealthy, but as long as they were landless they had no real power. We were the club that kept them in line.

We, I thought, sourly. Are you already thinking of yourself as a guardsman?

“The magicians live down that way,” Horst said, pointing to a wide - and completely deserted - street. “Don’t walk there unless you want to be turned into something - or worse. The magicians have nasty senses of humour and they don’t like intruders. Most people just avoid the street completely unless they have an invitation. They have a bunch of shops on the far side, if you want to buy some magic for yourself, but don’t waste their time. They’ll get mad.”

I frowned. “What do you do if a magician is also a criminal?”

“We find something to do on the other side of the city,” Fallows said, bluntly. “There’s a bunch of sorcerers who work for the guard. Let them handle it.”

“They normally keep their own rules,” Horst said. “And there’s no point in trying to do anything about it.”

“I see,” I said. I wanted to condemn them for cowards, but I’d seen enough magic to know it could be very dangerous. “I think.”

I peered down the street as we walked past, feeling my hair trying to stand on end. Something hung in the air, a weird sensation that reminded me of the hours before a thunderstorm ... I looked up, half-expecting to see clouds forming overhead. But the skies were clear.

My head spun. The city was so ... different. I’d seen the endless struggle between rich and poor, between privileged and unprivileged, but this was ... weird. The rules were different, beyond even my imagination. I wished, suddenly, that I’d spent more time reading fantasy books. Travelling to a foreign country wasn’t easy, when one didn’t know the rules, but ... how could I understand magic? How did magic affect the rules?

The magicians are effectively above the law, I thought, numbly. And so are the landlords.

“We’re home,” Horst said, as the guardhouse came into sight. I spotted a handful of guardsmen heading out on patrol, nodding to us as they passed. “What do you make of it?”

I hesitated, unsure what to say. Part of me regretted ever accepting the offer. Part of me suspected I wouldn’t have gotten a better one. I knew too little to know if I was being cheated - or worse. I certainly didn't know where to find a place to sleep. I’d considered sleeping in the alleyways, but it would probably have gotten me killed. Or worse. I needed native guides ...

You are a native now, my thoughts mocked me. It was easy, far too easy, to fall into the trap of considering myself a tourist. And you can’t afford to pretend otherwise.

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting time.” I yawned before I could stop myself. “Can we get some rest now?”

“Of course,” Fallows said, dryly. He led the way past the gatehouse and into the guardhouse itself. The officers on the desks glanced at us, then returned to their work. “We’ll get something to eat, then hit the bunks. We’ll be going back on patrol in the morning.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Post Reply