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Next: The Grinning Shark Up: dark_brotherhood Previous: Brand's Tavern   Contents


Graber, it turned out, was another matter. I instantly respected him for his deep love of the sea and his hard won store of common sense, but he was almost totally withdrawn into himself. It took a pint or two of ale before he'd talk at all, and then his conversation was morose.

Not that I tried all that hard. My two silvers bought me enough room to lay out a simple bed with straw for a mattress and, once I'd pushed aside and rearranged the tangle of old fishing nets and broken tools, enough more room for a barrel for a chair, another barrel for a table of sorts, and room for a crate or two of my stuff.

Even paying for meals (which I didn't have to do for very long - as soon as it was clear that I was willing to work for my keep he gruffly waved it aside when I offered to pay for the rough meal of rice and fish stew that his daughter silently served us both) the fifty silver from the creni teeth appeared to be sufficient to support me for a rather long time. Life was cheap on Mirath in every sense of the word, and long before my cash ran out I expected to have sources of income.

In the meantime, I clearly needed to learn to take care of myself; this was a rough world, and only the strong survived. I planned to be strong.

My day was therefore filled with exercises of all sorts, followed by a swim in damn shallow water (a tidal pool at low tide, preferably) to rinse off the sweat. One didn't willingly swim deep in the bay, or when the tide was high and deep water came up close to the shore. Sharks and worse teemed in the off shore waters and, unless the dolphins or killer whales were in and policing the area, the water was just not safe. About a third of the fishermen who frequented The Grinning Shark exhibited missing limbs or other evidence of the struggle for existence in a dangerous profession.

Grinning Shark, indeed.

Graber had a puckered ring of scar tissue on his leg where a shark had bitten his leg. But it hadn't been very hungry that day, and so Graber still had the leg. He also had the shark's jaws mounted in the rafters of the house. It was a pretty big shark. His daughter, Lissala, told me the story one day when Graber was out fishing and she was making the evening meal.

Apparently the fishermen here enlisted the aid of the dolphins and killer whales that swam in the shallow waters off shore when they fished. The warm blooded ocean mammals of this world were different from those of earth in two ways. First of all, they had a written and oral language; they could communicate with humans verbally in a "dolphin Swahili" that was part Ushtian, part dolphin, part context. Second of all, to satisfy the curiosity of those who wondered how dolphins could have a written language, these dolphins had prehensile flippers.

The hell with that. They had hands.

They were webbed hands, of course. Evolution had apparently taken a very odd turn somewhere - how odd I wasn't to learn for a very long time. The arms tucked up into the body when they swam so that they looked and streamlined just like ordinary earth type dolphins. But extended, they could write (a cuneiform scribble on sheets of sharkskin, tattooed in with a pointed shell filled with an oily ink) and they could use tools.

They could not, of course, use fire or make metal tools. They used tools made of bone, mostly, but they treasured certain man-made items. Their pay when they worked was wrought iron harpoon heads and ironwood shafts. They also liked certain other things, like worked leather belts and bags for their possessions, fishing nets, and other simple, hand made items that were more readily available on land than at sea, but they needed the harpoons.

In the sea there were hundred foot sharks called sharedhi by the locals and worshipped as a sort of primal force of the sea, at least four different kinds of large carnivorous saurians, plain old garden variety barracuda, a kraken that ate the hundred foot sharks (among other things).

They needed the harpoons.

The dolphins and orcas of this world could well have been the origin of the mermaid/merman legends of ours. Their harpoons rust out rapidly and could easily be mistaken for tridents. Or maybe some of them have tridents and I just didn't see them.

Anyway, Graber was out fishing one day with the help of about four dolphins when, just as they were pulling in his full nets, a squall appeared out of nowhere. Graber was (according to Lissala's story) a smart sailor, and could easily have weathered the wind and rain in his rather small boat if it were not for the bad luck they had to attract a school of small (only forty foot) sharedhi. These proceeded to tear into the net full of fish and managed, in a few well placed bites, to eat the entire catch, ruin the net, and capsize Graber's boat in the stormy seas.

Graber held onto the overturned hull, and was cursing his bad luck when one of the smallest of the feeding sharks, feeling slighted by the others or just generally hungry, swam over to investigate Graber.

Graber grabbed a harpoon that was floating nearby and tried to poke at the shark and drive it away, but this only angered it (perhaps because it smelled its own blood in the water) and it drove into the boat and hooked part of Graber's leg in its jaws.

Graber threw the harpoon and by great good luck struck the shark deep into the eye, causing it to let go. The shark fled, Graber climbed higher onto the overturned hull, and the dolphins pulled him to shore.

Later that day a passing group of orcas drove the wounded shark into the shallows. It was bleeding from nearly a hundred wounds, all inflicted by the orcas themselves and the myriad creatures in the ocean that fall upon a wounded creature of any type. The falling tide stranded it (the great tides of Mirath are slow but high; they vary from thirty to fifty feet, depending on the position of the moon, the sun, and the gas giant) and Graber, bandaged and weak from loss of blood, went out to dispatch it and claimed its jaws.

They were mighty big jaws. I don't see how they missed taking his whole leg. Or even his whole body.

All the while Lissala was telling me this she was checking me out with a pensive eye. She had heard the tale of the creni and Rendar from somebody or other, and I suppose that she was duly impressed. She was also quite pretty in a young, fresh, nubile sort of way. I began to feel a little uncomfortable, as I always do when women are interested in me. I still wasn't clear in my own mind that I was no longer married; death had parted Julie and me, but then, she was also still alive in some other Universe. I mean, was I committing adultery when I slept with Julie Two? How about Julie Nine?

I felt like I was not obligated to spend the rest of my days celibate, but the local situation was troubling because, among other things, Lissala was about eighteen (Earth) years of age. This was almost an old maid by the cultural standard (which was very different from Earth's; Mirath was semi-matriarchal sexually, with women having their choice of men but also having to prove their fertility by becoming pregnant before marriage) but just past statutory by my own. Also, Graber had warned me off of her. Also, common sense told me that she was the settling kind, and I had been settled once and had quite an agenda planned that did not include raising babies in an early iron age culture. I wasn't ready to settle down again.

So, even though I was pretty thoroughly convinced that I would never see Julie One again and was willing to consider inter-universal travel coupled with her unknowing adultery (sort of) with my successors as ``death'' parting us, and even though I was desperately horny (as anyone who has been married happily with a pretty steady diet of sex and then parted from their spouse will understand) I was prepared to dodge her bullets pretty readily. On the other hand, I was considering coming to an understanding with one or two of the tavern maidens with whom Arto and I drank, if I could put aside my fear of venereal diseases, lice, and about eighteen other really good reasons not to have sex with tavern maidens.

I'm sure this all sounds somewhat like an apologia. Obviously, I made love with Lissala before I left there, and I'm trying to tell you how it came about.

It really began about a maloon after I moved in with Graber and Lissa, as everyone called her.

Oops, new word. Let me explain. I could call the time interval a month, but its not, and the sky-clocks on Mirath are important - they significantly affect things like the tides and the weather, so let's go through it a bit of local astronomy.

I think that I mentioned that a day on Mirath was around 28.3 hours - different enough that my watch was useless except as a definition of an SI unit ``second'', which I needed in order to do all sorts of physics-y computations like the ones below if and when I tried to jump through my gate or any others I might discover.

The ``year'' of Mirath is really the orbital period of Malo about the sun Streya and is called a streyaan. (Note that Mirath can be a bit ahead or behind Malo in its epicycle so there is no point in using its highly variable period about Streya as a year.) One streyaan is 350 (or so) local days. From all sorts of abstruse computations (beginning with measurements of the radius of Mirath, knowing the periods of Mina and Mirath and Malo in their various epicycles, and a knowledge of the gravitational constant $G$) one could figure out fairly precisely the mass of the sun Streya and the mean radius of Malo's orbit and Malo's mass and Mina's mass and so on, but I didn't bother to do more than estimate them assuming that Mirath's mean density was about the same as Earth's, because measuring the radius of a planet without a handy well, a telescope, or the ability to travel some known distance on its surface wouldn't yield any better resolution.

Mirath's moon, Mira, goes around Mirath once in 4.92 days, call it 5. This is Mirath's ``week'', called a miraan. Mirath goes around the gas giant, Malo, every 45.34 days - about 9 miraan. This cycle is called a maloon, and is Mirath's ``month''.

For anyone who cares, Malo orbits Streya (a sun very similar to Earth's) around 150 million km out. This explains the tolerable climate and also how a jump to here is possible from Earth, as jumps that significantly change local gravitational potential energy are very unlikely.

Mirath orbits Malo somewhere between 2 and 2.5 million km away, which is at least consistent with Malo being close to the size of Jupiter and subtending an angle of 0.06 radians (compared to the 0.01 radians subtended by the moon). It was enormous in the night sky, reflecting at least 36 times as much light as the moon at its brightest when full. One could easily read and see color by Malo light at night - it wasn't even ``night'' at all.

Mina's orbital radius is around 123,000 km and its diameter is a bit less than 900 km. This made it a bit smaller than the moon as seen from Earth to the eye, but close enough to generate really significant tides.

So much for the simple astronomy - if that were all there were to it I could call a maloon a month and a minaan a week and a streyaan a year and nobody would care. However, a maloon is also the weather cycle, as the little seasonal variation Mirath has is due to the fact that its distance from the sun varies by around 5 million km (several percent) over a maloon, and that the nighttime reflected irradiance of a full Malo overhead actually suppresses nighttime heat loss. Practically then, a maloon is seasonally a lot more like a year, although Malo's orbit is eccentric enough (5 million kilometers variation between semimajor and semiminor distances) that there is an annual hot/cold seasonal variation weakly superimposed on the maloon cycle - enough to generate at least some interesting weather, but nothing like axially tilted Earth's. The seasonal rains, as already noted, followed the maloon cycle like clockwork, although as on Earth the weather was unpredictable and it could rain or be nice at any place on any given day.

On Mirath, the big player was the tide, especially when creni and their cousins kept humans largely restricted to coastal and mountainous areas. Earth tides anyplace but the Bay of Fundy are a joke by comparison. They vary tremendously according to where Streya, Malo, and Mina are in their orbits. When the Sun, Malo, and Mina all line up, normal coastal tides can rise and fall forty to fifty feet and the coastlines become very dangerous. The tides in places like the Bay of Fundy - natural tidal funnels - made the coasts there simply uninhabitable.

The tidal heating also made Mirath very active volcanically, with a distinct maloon cycle to that activity. Finally, the tides made Mirath one of the switching stations of the multiverse - it was riddled with gates, all opening and closing according to the complex of planetary clocks in the sky. This in turn made it a source of great political intrigue, as I was soon to learn in the very hardest of ways. But I get ahead of the story.

As you see I really can't call them weeks and months, though they break up the year and measure out certain events in much the same way.

So anyway, to return to the story...

I was gradually getting to be as tough as a piece of old leather. My day began with a mile run up and down the beach. Then a dozen or so sprints. Then boot-camp style calisthenics - push ups, squat thrusts, sit ups, leg lifts, even some simple gymnastics (using the softer parts of the sand as a mat). To this I added an extra five mile run up the beach in my new crena-skin leather boots (made by the local cobbler out of my rapidly diminishing stash of hide) to a cove partially blocked from the ocean by a reef with a convenient little cave handy for stashing my swords and other gear while I worked out. This toughened my feet no end while gradually breaking in the hard-soled boots to where they were comfortable. Running on sand in heavy boots is, I will testify to all who might want to hear, painfully good exercise. Tara, who by now under the constant cooing and feeding of Lissa had grown to around twenty five somewhat lazy pounds would generally accompany me on this (for her) casual romp.

I had sorted through my possessions to figure out what I needed to keep on my person to get by and what was to be stored for an emergency or another jump, whichever came first. As far as was possible I used only local materials to live on and with, hoarding the irreplaceable items I brought from Earth eleven. Almost everything I had brought with me, including the rifle, was packed up and sealed away in several caches up on top of the cliffs, which turned out to be riddled with small caves. My instruments had showed that there was indeed a gate on the cliff-top, so I hid my caches some distance away from anyone who might pass through and carefully concealed them with boulders.

Hence my new boots which wore incredible blisters on my feet until the feet toughened up and the boots softened down. My clothes, too, were now entirely made by local tailors. I no longer looked outlandish (literally) compared to the locals.

Following the long run I fed Tara a snack, rested a bit, and then did at least an hour of shadow fencing. In time, this latter evolved into a game I developed with Tara's enthusiastic help. It was played with a wooden practice sword. I would try to touch her with the tip, she would try to dart in and climb my chest, growling and spitting all the way. Needless to say, I wore a set of locally made leather armor for a lot of the exercise and the sword practice to get used to the stiffness and weight; it rapidly ended up with tiny holes in it (and sometimes in me) to where I eventually needed another set. She almost always won, but it was incredibly good practice.

Then an hour of knife throwing, archery with a brand new locally made bow (I was an embarrassingly poor shot at first and couldn't possibly have backed up the creni story even if I could have explained a compound bow on a world of recurved wood and horn), dry firing my derringer, or general weapons study. On this world, and every subsequent one I might inhabit unless/until I found ``civilization'', skill with weapons would doubtless be key to my survival. I was already a good shot with a rifle, but it took me all of that big moon to hit a head sized melon five times out of five with that throwing knife at a mere twenty paces and get to where I wasn't an actively bad shot with the bow.

I followed weapons practice with an hour of swimming in the shallow waters of the shore, ideally an empty tidal pool, tide permitting. This was actually the most dangerous part of my regimen. Creni were rare during the day, and there was no easy access to this shore for them (which was why men lived here in the first place) but the ocean was full of fish, reptiles, and even crustaceans with a taste for humans. Tara, who could swim like an otter, was invaluable here. Only twice was I was bitten on the heel by small things with sharp teeth, and both times the offending creature was dumped, gutted and in pieces, at my feet afterwards.

Another time, swimming along an unprotected part of the coast at a time that the tide was coming in and the water rapidly getting deeper up next to the shore, I made it out of the water about twenty good feet ahead of a fish so big that he would have grounded in three feet of water. It took the fish about fifteen minutes to unground himself in the rising tide; that's how I know. Tara, who was no fool and who made it to shore well ahead of me, made sure that when that fish ungrounded itself it was sans eyes and about ten meters of intestine. The water was already starting to boil around it when it managed to break free.

After that I only swam in three feet of water or less in my cove at or close to low tide, and even there favored a sidestroke facing the ocean side, with Tara surfing back and forth in front of me. Eventually I gave up swimming in the ocean at all. I have this thing about being eaten alive. Also, quite aside from things with teeth, the forty foot rise and fall of the tide made swimming at all near the shore a most hazardous proposition as the most wicked riptides I'd ever seen emptied the bay through gaps in the reefs. God knows how Graber managed to fish out there, but he seemed to know the tides and reefs the way I knew Newton's Second Law.

Then I did more calisthenics. Jumping jacks, squat thrusts, push ups, and an ad libbed martial arts routine based on half-remembered Jackie Chan moves. I had a feeling that karate (etc.) was unknown here. Unfortunately, I didn't know it either. Fortunately, I brought a book on it. Unfortunately, karate doesn't seem to be the sort of thing you can learn from a book. Tara had great fun with it, though. She didn't need lessons, never lost her balance, and would have handed any ninja who ever lived his testicles the first time he tried a swipe at her.

Eventually I recovered my gear, left the practice armor in my cache, and ran the five miles back wearing my weapons, my boots, and a kilt-y sort of thing, Tara frisking by my side.

After a final ``bath only'' rinse in a freshwater stream not far from Graber's cottage, I usually spent the rest of the day hanging around the tavern working on one of my ``projects'', or helping Graber do one thing or another. I even went out fishing with him a few times, but he clearly didn't trust me on the water, which was wise. I was scared stiff every minute, not by nature being a sailor and really not being a sailor on waters that surged in and out at high speed over a field of underwater reefs whose depth varied by the minute.

I did keep my surf fishing gear out of the cache. I had a great time for about a minaan. Even Graber was impressed at the fish I brought home out of that carnivorous surf. I could catch them on bare hooks most of the time, and a lot of the fish I brought in had a bite or two taken out of them by their equally zealous cousins. Tara had by now an impressive array of teeth and didn't seem to mind if bites were missing from her dinner. She was gaining weight at a furious rate.

Unfortunately, the ones that got away -- which averaged about every other one in those sharp-toothed seas -- used up a spool and a half of thirty pound test monofilament in that minaan and began to tear up the reel. So I quit.

The day it all happened I was just finishing my run back to Graber's hut, not feeling winded at all and wondering if I needed to carry thirty pounds of sand with me the next day to break a good sweat when I heard a scream carried by the wind. It sounded like it came from the beach, away from the house.

Tara had dawdled behind me over a particularly large and smelly fish that had washed up on the shore; she was nowhere to be seen. Without stopping, I jogged past the house down to the beach, and heard voices carried from beyond a row of low dunes covered with high grass. Graber was just pulling his boat in through the shallows of the shore at his hand-built stone landing, home for lunch.

When I reached the top of the dunes I saw Lissa, stripped naked and held on both sides by two ugly, half naked toughs, being force-fed the swollen prick of a third while a fourth held her by the hair with a knife at her throat.

There was blood seeping from her nose and the corner of her mouth. There was blood elsewhere on her body.

I heard a sound like a nail scraped lightly across a smooth board, and then another, and then realized that I had shrugged off my bow and drawn both swords. Julie was in my right hand and my saber in the left. It's always this way when I fight. The universe seems to crawl into a ball, and I, the I that thinks and feels things, watches from inside while another I, one that lives inside me but never speaks, does the fighting.

So it was this time.

I never slowed down. One of them was at the right angle to see me as I came over the dune. He grunted to the others and they pushed Lissa face down into the sand, whacking her on the back of the head with the heavy knife hilt as they did so. It made a sickening, wet sound when it hit. From inside my cocoon, I hoped that she wouldn't breathe sand and suffocate before I could get to her. I hoped that the blow didn't crack her skull.

The one with the knife waited, and when I got close enough, threw it. It was a big knife and he didn't need practice. It spiraled through the air, making a whistling sound. From inside my head, it seemed to move in slow motion, at least slow relative to Tara's twisting, diving spring that was my practice referent. I saw my hand lifting the saber, which had the bigger guard, while Julie automatically rose to cover my face. I saw the tip of the saber flick the dagger up into the air. It landed somewhere behind me.

The others all managed to get their swords out and pants up, but I hadn't faltered by a single step since I came over the dune top. Really since I started my run, five miles before.

Something inside of me said dark, blasphemous words that lit a red fire in my head and damped down all sounds so that they seemed to be coming from far away. Through this fire I could ``see'' all around me. I don't know how else to describe the state I was in; it's the equivalent of ``the zone'' for a swordsman, a state where no thought occurs, only extremely precise and deliberate action. I was aware of my opponents' positions, their balance, the way they held their weapons. I felt the rough sea grass move under their feet as they shifted their weight. I sensed Graber's position over the hill behind me and knew without seeing the instant he broke into a run. A part of me heard the frantic scream of Tara as she flowed molten over the dunes in anger, called by Lissa's small cry. I felt a tiny bird in a scraggly bush twenty feet off to the side shiver and then flit away, leaving behind its young.

I'm trying to convey in verbal images a gestalt, a thing that happened so fast that I missed most of it myself; I wasn't really there. These are a few points that stuck in my memory but there were infinitely more that went into the cusp.

The first one was the one with his dick out. He had turned toward me; his hard-on still bobbed up and down as he tried to push it under his leather skirt and into his loose pants with one hand while holding his sword with the other. So I cut it off.

For all I know, he got confused and tried to parry with the wrong one.

This, while not immediately fatal, seemed to disturb him. He fell to the sand on his butt, both hands (one now sans fingers) trying to simultaneously staunch the spurts of blood from the stub of his erstwhile penis and hold his intestines in; it seemed that Julie's tip brushed against his considerable paunch in passing.

The second one attacked directly, his sword slashing down from overhead in a vicious cut, but seemed distracted by his friend's problem. His blade ran into my saber in a straight parry and shattered like a piece of glass. Real steel will do that to badly tempered too-high carbon steel made badly from wrought iron. One of the shards spun into my cheek and cut a gash there underneath my left eye. I felt a thud and little else; I was too busy. My parry followed through to gently score a line with the edge across his ribcage. When the tip was pulled into alignment with the middle, I thrust and twisted. His chest cavity was neatly skewered, with a ragged hole four or five inches long marking the entry point.

I recovered back, moving the left handed saber to an en garde while raising Julie, in my right hand, high above my head and angled slightly to the left (to attack from my right) in the Japanese style. The third one, who was grimmer than his fellows and bigger too, finally made it past his friend sitting on the beach and pissing his life in blood away by the simple expedient of kicking him over and leaping diagonally to my right side. I leaped back and to the right, exactly parallel to his motion, and ended facing him directly. This is bad European form, offering the broad part of the torso for a thrust, but these fools had never heard of the point and I had two blades anyway and besides, I wasn't there to worry.

As he swung on me right handed, the saber engaged his blade, not opposing it but directing and controlling it harmlessly to my left and down even while Julie came down like the flicker of an eyelid.

He had just enough time, as he was a competent enough swordsman in his own right, to realize his mistake and attempt to recover and parry. But the saber had somehow flipped to the top of his blade and lined up on his right nipple which it smoothly penetrated as I leaped forward and inside his guard on my right, even while it pushed his recovery further to the side. In the same motion the lower part of Julie split his head in two to his nasal septum. Both swords slid out without effort, the saber still cutting through the cartilage of his ribcage, as the meat collapsed in a gush of blood. People are just bags of blood. Cut them, slash them, rupture them, and they'll splash it all over you. They never showed you this on TV when I was growing up, but it's true.

The fourth, who had thrown his knife and watched his fellows die in literally ten seconds and four blows, turned and ran.

I stuck Julie in the nearest body, which happened to be the one whose skull she had just split, pulled the derringer from its wrist holster, and went down on one knee in the sand.

I shot the fourth one in the right leg at about ten paces. This was not a bad shot for a gun with a four inch barrel and almost no grip. He staggered on a few steps (which was amazing since, as we found later, I had blown his kneecap off with the hollow point bullet). So I shot him in the other leg with the second barrel and he went down screaming.

A sable blur the size and rough shape of a badger flew past me on the right. The screaming suddenly got serious. It hurts, I'm sure, to be shot in the kneecap. It really hurts to be disemboweled by an angry food processor while having your nose bitten off and eyes scooped out.

The screams cut off suddenly as Tara found the throat and it was suddenly unbearably quiet. I found myself at home once again in my own head, with blood covering the front of my body and my face and my hands. Some of it was my own.

It's always that way, with me, in a fight.

One day, I suppose, I'll probably lose and die. But I'll never know what hit me, because I won't be home at the time.

This time it was close. In addition to the gash in my cheek, a four inch long, narrow splinter of sword tip had hit precisely in a small gap in my mail. It went right into my chest over on the right and stuck, jammed into the space between two ribs. Suddenly I felt sick and quickly pulled it out, cutting my fingers a bit in the process. As I did so, I became suddenly aware of a presence behind me.

Graber was never closer to dying, even with his shark. I stopped the saber an inch from his face. He never flinched.

The broken blade tip hadn't quite dropped my lung. Only an inch and a half of the rusty tip was bloody where it stuck in but there was a bit of a slash where the edge had cut when it hit at an angle. I tried to remember when my last tetanus shot was. I hoped it would work against the tetanus (or worse) of this world.

All of a sudden I was very tired, and my ears were buzzing. I sank to my knees in the sand. After a minute of catching my breath, I pulled Julie out of the now-still corpse beside me and began to clean her. The air was rank with blood and feces loosed from the bowels of the dying men. Lissa had pulled herself up on her knees and was vomiting into the sand. Blood matted the tangled, thick, black hair that had cushioned her skull and probably saved her from serious injury. Blood and semen trickled down her thighs. Her young breasts, already purpling where rough fingers had pinched them and smeared with blood from her nose, heaved with the effort of ridding her soul of the filth heaped upon it.

I staggered to my feet and took a cloak from the pile of packs and gear off to the side that had belonged to the men. I moved to her and threw it over her, covering her nakedness. When she returned to herself she would need her privacy, from me, from her father, from the whole world.

When I turned back, Graber was standing over the one whose penis was cut off and whose guts were at this point dangling out onto the sand. He was making small incoherent noises and he was still trying to crawl away on his knees, hunched over in a vain attempt to hold in the life streaming out between his fingers. His eyes rolled back to the whites as they turned toward me and Tara, who was drinking the blood from the throat of her grisly kill and making unbelievable noises in her throat. I suppose he thought that, with my blond hair, blue eyes and unfamiliar features I was T'sala himself, come to take vengeance for his inequity. Tara, with her brilliant white star on her forehead, was obviously a demon, not natural to this world.

Knee against the nape of his neck, Graber pulled his head back to face him. The wild eyes of the bravo steadied, focused for a minute. Graber's face was like granite. Slowly, methodically, deliberately, he spat in the face of the bravo. Then his other hand, holding his short fishing knife, slashed across the stretched throat and the man made a sighing sound and turned into a limp rag even as Graber twisted the head to the side to avoid the spewing blood.

And it was really over.

I wasn't much use after that, but I tried to help. I cleaned my blades and stripped. Tara amused herself by ripping sundry chunks off the bodies until I called her to heel, then she hung over Lissa like a mother hen her wounded chick. Graber and I took Lissa down to the sea and washed her in the tepid water as if she were a child. The salt water stung on my wounds and I'm sure hers too, but she never gave a sign of pain. When the gore attracted the interest of little toothy friends, Graber threw one of the stripped corpses into the surf down from where we stood. In a few minutes the water boiled around it. Tara kept the strays away from us.

Afterward we carried her to the hut and bundled her into bed. I gave her a glass of scotch and watched her drink it. Tara, clean and towelled dry, crawled in with her, sharing her warmth and touch, and Lissa curled around her with a sigh. We waited for ten minutes, for the trembling of the small figure beneath the covers to stop, for the easier, merciful breathing of sleep to start, and then we left to drag the bodies to Graber's boat. The metal and money that was on them we salvaged; the rest we rowed a short way out and fed to the voracious sea.

No part of them made it to the shore although the tide was rising. Mirathan sea creatures will eat filth that no decent creature would be able to stomach.

Only then did I collapse.

I have very vague memories, again, of the next few days. I know Graber carried me in his arms back to his hut. I now believe him when he says that he could have killed me; I'm not light and he's damn strong. I know that he put me into his own bed and put some sort of salve onto the gash on my chest. After that the fever took me for more than a week as my body met a whole world of new bugs intimately for the first time, and I only remember blurry moments.

I had a stash of broad-spectrum antibiotics in the hut with me. I managed, in my near delirium, to get out the bottle and take some, along with some acetaminophen. I repeated this at odd times when I was sufficiently lucid. It probably saved my life.

I came out of my delirium (at least far enough to form a memory of the event) one afternoon. I had the shakes. I was trembling from head to foot, and felt freezing cold. My teeth were chattering and I had difficulty breathing through the spasms. I could feel my mind slowly go numb from anoxia and exhaustion, and I was sure that I was going to die, only I didn't care. This seemed to go on forever. I vaguely remember hearing a voice, it must have been Lissa's, talking to me and forcing me to take a pill with something hot and bitter that burned my lips and tongue. (She had realized that the pills were part of the healing magic I needed.)

This didn't seem to help, though, and just as I felt my consciousness slipping away and my swollen tongue somehow starting to clog my throat I felt something almost hot to the touch slide under the covers next to me and press itself onto my naked, frozen flesh. Another body, this one furry, pressed against my back. I teetered on the edge of a cold, dark place while the heat of their bodies gradually restored my equilibrium, and then, the shaking past, I slipped into a deep sleep. I woke once or twice, the first time to hear two voices talking vehemently as if far, far away. I'm sure now that it was Lissa and Graber. Graber must have returned and found her stripped and in bed with me. Later I awoke to hear Lissa and Arto talking quietly. Their voices were twisted through my dreams but in my fever I could no longer understand what they said as I slipped in and out, finally falling into oblivion.

The next day (more than a week after the encounter) I woke slowly with the noonday sun streaming down outside the hut, still weak but no longer actively sick. My head was all fuzzy and mixed up. For a long time I just lay there, gradually becoming too aware of the naked back pressed up against my chest as we lay there spoon-fashion, my arm thrown over her side. Tara was out, undoubtedly feeding her face. The fine, dark hair across the nape of her neck was pressed up against my face; it smelled fresh and clean, with a slight, salty tang of the warm flesh beneath. A perfectly normal and completely involuntary response to that kind of stimulus is to get an erection. Surprisingly, in spite of my weakness, I did.

Her breathing didn't change, but one hand sneaked behind her back and another between her thighs and grasped my penis, gently stroking. A very old, very primal piece of machinery started to engage somewhere deep in my belly and my breathing became shallow as my upper hand moved to gently cup her small, bruised breasts. Something inside of me said that what I was doing wasn't a very good idea, but something else inside of me was in control of my body at the time. The fever-burned husk of me was amazingly horny, considering.

After a few minutes she shifted slightly, arching her back and raising one leg and the next thing I knew I was inside of her, my free hand reaching through the thatch of hair between her thighs, my (probably foul; forgive me, Lissa) breath hot in her ear and she was moving enthusiastically against my prolonged bucking.

My orgasm was an explosion that went on and on. I remember her sighing and snuggling up closer to me, wrapped up in my arms as I literally passed out from exhaustion. It was a pig-dog, male chauvinist thing to do (passing out before your female partner has an orgasm) but what the hey. When I awoke a second time, I was alone, lucid, ravenously hungry and wondering if it was all a dream.

Willow bark tea, goat and fish broth, and boiled vegetables slowly restored my strength. I discovered that Brand had come and, under the advice of Arto and following the pictures in the book Arto had retrieved for him, stitched up my chest. Of course they couldn't actually read the parts about using sterile equipment and were generally clueless about bacteria and using antiseptics. The needle and thread were used (I'm sure) to mend fishnets and septic as hell, as was the sword, and the subsequent infection, compounded by my second major jump adaptation illness, had nearly finished me. Finally Arto, in despair, had opened the swollen and rank wound to let the pus drain out, whereupon it began to heal. I am convinced that only penicillin and Lissa had saved my life.

Close to a maloon later I had a lovely pink and twisted scar on my chest when I finally puffed two hundred yards up the beach and back, the first step toward ten-plus miles a day again. Lissa never made advances, never referred to that morning that we made love; I began to wonder if it really was a fever dream, but was grateful to the goddess of such dreams nonetheless. I was planning to leave after I recovered my strength.

Graber's reserve had disappeared entirely; he treated me like a son. He helped me exercise and train, and was surprisingly skilled with a sword as it turned out that he'd done a stint in the local guard when he was young. I learned the best of what passed for swordsmanship in a place where swords were short, broad, and either soft or brittle (or sometimes even both), which proved to be invaluable knowledge later in many a fight.

We started fishing together more regularly, as he claimed he needed help; eventually I learned how to handle myself on a small boat in that chaotic sea and not be constantly terrified. The sea toughened me more than my exercises on the land ever did; but Graber, even with my help and the help of occasional bands of passing mer-porpoises, still made smaller catches than before. We didn't dare go far out into the bay and leave Lissala alone, although Tara now remained behind and she wasn't truly alone.

There was never much law around Sind-a-Lay. There were too many drifters and deserters from one army or another moving through, drinking at the The Grinning Shark and looking for a little loot or a little toot. Or occasionally a young woman or boy to molest or carry off without the need to pay (sex of all varieties was available, at cost, at the Shark and elsewhere along the roadside, or course).

Graber's hut was far from the ``beaten path'' of the crossroads, but a rut ran from the road to his door and nearly every day he hitched his mule to a cart and took his day's catch of fish down it to market in town. Some of the passing soldiery wandered down the rut to the sea to bathe or just wander along the shore for a while. Most of them missed the hut (somewhat hidden from the rut by the dunes) or were reasonably courteous, but a few, when drunk or angry, were dangerous.

So we fished close to the shore, and Lissa took to spending time with Arto. In fact, two maloons after the rape incident, she told her father at the table that she would start going with Arto to the moors with the goats, so he could fish deep once again. Graber got up with a grunt and pulled Arto up by the hair. They stood, looking each other in the eye for thirty full seconds. Arto blushed and looked a little scared, but he didn't flinch or look away.

Finally, Graber was satisfied, and pushed Arto back onto the bench. ``Fine,'' was all he said.

The next day it was storming on the sea, so we went into the tavern together and took a earthen pitcher of ale over to a dark table. Tara was curled up at my feet (now around seventy pounds, black, sleek, and deadly). Arto and Lissa were out behind the kitchen, doing some sort of job for Brand. After the third pitcher, when truth was upon our tongues, he looked at me over the table with shrewd, knowing eyes.

``So, did you take Lissa, then, that day that she crawled in your bed?'' he asked.

``Well,'' I said, the hairs on the back of my neck rising, as his words penetrated the fog. ``First, she probably saved my life, crawling in with me like that. I was dying of a chill.''

He nodded, and waited.

``Second, the next morning, when I woke up, I was not myself, but, well, my root was, if you know what I mean. I mean, there she was, all warm and bare and pressed up against me. Still, I am not one to force myself on a woman (for your daughter is a woman) and the moment would have passed, but, well, she-''

``I know, I know. She told me she would if she felt like it. She ordered me out of my own house, when I should maybe have thrown her out. Ah, she's like her mother that one. A mind of her own and a cute little ass to boot. Still, I love her, and I owe you, so I left. The question is, she's taken a shine to Arto and she's laid you. A woman's choice, of course, but still. What will you do?''

I thought for a moment. I really didn't want to fight Graber. After training, I was almost certain I could take him in a fair fight (assuming either one of us fought fair or that Tara let him live while the fight was going on), but there was no way I could win, given that he was at this point one of my few good friends. Still, there was no percentage in lying to a fundamentally truthful man. He'd see through me in an instant, and then I might have to fight him.

So I said quietly, keeping my mug hand high (and near the hilt of my sword), ``I plan to move out in a maloon or so. Maybe sooner. I'm moving to Sind-a-Lay and going into business.'' I paused and said very carefully, ``I care for Lissala like a sister, a kid sister. I would never have had sex with her except for the circumstance, and it was her idea and free choice, not mine. But I don't want her for a wife. She's too young, and I have things I have to do where a wife would just tie me down. Not to mention the risk to her - I don't expect to succeed without first making some pretty serious enemies.''

Graber visibly relaxed. ``Ah, man, don't worry. You can put down the ale you're ready to throw into my eyes. I'll not be making you more honest than you already are if you can say that to my face. Truth be told, I don't want you for a son-in-law anyway. No offense,'' he added hastily, as if fearing that I'd actually be offended, ``but I know you for a rover. In fact, I know you for something more.'' He looked at me shrewdly down his weather-beaten nose.

``Where are you from, Sam Foster? A man with two names when the rest of us have but one? Arto claims you as brother, but I knew his mother, who had but one child and died birthing him leaving him bonded to Brand for his upbringing, and even she didn't know his father for sure. And that thing with the pictures and scribbles that Brand used to sew you up, that thing never came out of Sind-a-Lay. Nor did one or two other things.'' He glanced over my shoulder at my swords.

So I told him. I trusted him, somewhat. And besides, he had guessed enough already.

It took another three pitchers of strong ale. Afterwards, as we staggered down the cart ruts to his house, our way lit by the swollen ball above, he said, to me, to the wind, ``Came from another world through a magical gate that's not really there, did you. Killed two creni with a thing that spits metal. Blew the kneecaps off of a man at twenty paces before my very eyes with a wave of the hand. Kills better with two swords than any I've ever seen can do with one, better than myself at his age. And what swords!'' He put his arm around my shoulders and said in a beery voice close to my face. ``Sam my friend, you're a damn good sorcerer. And a damn good swordsman. And a damn good man...'' He paused for a moment.

``But you'd be a piss-poor son-in-law. And I doubt I'll ever make a proper fisherman out of you.'' At that he broke up into beery hysterics.

After these cruel words (Not a proper fisherman? I'm deeply wounded.) he sang a truly obscene sailing chantey the rest of the way home.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29