Presently, I reached the road. It was quite wide, of packed earth with dressed stone blocks lining both sides. It was formerly well-maintained, but now showed signs of neglect. Weeds peeked between the stones and some of the blocks were cracked or askew. I stood, wondering which way to go.
A badger stuck its snout from a burrow near the road. That is, if a badger had six legs and smooth skin. The powerful digging forelegs and its low, wide stance in the mouth of the burrow were what called the image of the terrestrial badger to mind. It also seemed to share the camouflage trait with the forest squirrels. “The Inn of the Forest is a short way ahead,” it said and disappeared back into its burrow.
I stood for a full minute before I slowly raised my hand and triggered the transcriber. “I am now wondering if I am trapped in a fantasy simspace, or if I am really exploring a new planet. One of the native animals just addressed me and offered me directions. The translator identifies it as a dialect derived from archaic English, from around the time of the first exodus. The animal’s enunciation was distinct and understandable, and the translator rendered it directly into Trondnorsk for me. The question now is whether the creature has language or whether it is merely repeating what it heard, like a parrot? Either way is remarkable.”
I decided to take the badger’s advice since I had no better information of my own. Over the course of the next hour, two more badgers accosted me with information about the inn. It seemed a rather peculiar sort of information network. It was ultimately effective, as a rambling wooden structure came into view in a clearing in the woods where another road intersected this one, leading from a direction that I had decided was south.
I approached the building while rehearsing the phrases I wanted to use, based on an assumption that the badgers had picked up the common human tongue. I needed to acquire the local language as quickly as possible so I could remove the filter of the translator in learning the indigenous culture. I came to the door and hesitated. Did one announce oneself outside the door, or enter first? Since it was a place of business and expected customers, I decided on the latter. I opened the door and announced with what I hoped was casual confidence, “Stenn Gremm is at your door.”
“Yah, what of it? You want dinner, it’s in about an hour. You want a room, I got one. Two Dukes for the night; four if you want a girl with it.”
I stood in the door while taking in the vast room with the roaring fireplace at one end. A spit turned some unnamed creature above the fire. Wooden trestle tables filled the space, stained and carved by past occupants. A great bar filled the far wall, presided over by a man built to the same scale. A black beard tumbled over his chest, caught by a gold ring at his breastbone and braided beneath. His head was as bald as his beard was full. Against the wall behind him, a double-headed ax rested, looking both sharp and ready for use. Half the tables were occupied by men and women in travel-stained clothes.
“I require—no, want—a meal. Room later,” I stuttered. “No girl.” I knew I was missing something. Oh. “Kindly thank you.” That could have come out better. The room assaulted me with smells of roasted meat, beer, something that had boiled over and burned in a kettle, unwashed bodies, and scents that I probably didn’t want to put a name to. I hoped I would be able to get that meal past my nose.
I sat down at one of the far tables, sweating profusely. If one of my students had performed that poorly in a fieldwork sim, I would have failed him. I had been doing sims for years in hundreds of cultures, and even live telepresence work. Now, faced with the scarred, greasy wooden interior, the primitive spit over the fire, and the glowering reality of the proprietor, I had made a hash of my first sentence. My hands shook; I hid them under the table.
A presence eclipsed the dim light. The proprietor stood with an enormous flagon in hand. “Beer.” It wasn’t quite a question.
“Yes. Thank you.” He grounded the flagon on the table with a sound like doom. More beer than I could drink in a week sloshed wetly across the table. I reached for the flagon to test the contents, then became aware that the eclipse hadn’t moved on.
“Two copper princes,” he said.
“I am from far away. What trade here do you?”
He rolled his eyes, and I was glad that some gestures seemed to be universal. “Coins.” I didn’t have any. “Metal.” I started thinking about taking the cover off of one of my devices. “A joke.”
“You can’t pay, you entertain. Tell stories. Sing. After dinner.” He left, having settled that to his satisfaction if hardly to mine. I could not even begin to comprehend the thought of standing in front of a group of strangers and singing songs. I felt anxiety begin to rise and briskly shoved that whole line of thinking into a corner of my subconscious for the present time.
I pulled the flagon towards me and tried to lift it to my lips. After straining with it, I had to settle for tipping it towards me and sipping from the rim. In the dimness across the room, I could see the proprietor laughing.
The beer was surprisingly good. It had a dark amber tint and a complex taste that hinted at several different grains. A woody hint of some herb balanced the bitterness of the grain. I drank deeply and started to think a little better of my start in this world. As it settled into my stomach, I could feel the warmth of the alcohol and wondered whether my kidneys or my liver would succumb first if I attempted to finish my flagon.
The door swung open again, and someone entered. A dusty travel cloak concealed a tall and slight figure. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled down over his eyes, shadowing his face. He walked directly to the bar and acquired a similar flagon of beer, bouncing two coins on the bar in return. He carried his flagon to a table on the far side of the room, where he could sit with his back to the wall and watch everything that went on. As I watched, he lifted the flagon with ease and drank. I started to feel that I might have gotten in over my head.
I looked back to the proprietor to see if he was still amused. Thunderclouds had gathered over his craggy eyebrows, and the glare he sent toward the newcomer should have scorched the grease from the tabletops. I heard him mutter “Cray Leth!” loudly enough for the thin man to hear, but that produced no reaction.
That was an interesting word. My translator didn’t pick it up, and it certainly didn’t sound like English or any other Terran tongue that I knew. I snagged the utterance from my audio recorder and committed it to my field notebook. “This appears to be the first new term I’ve heard,” I dictated to the transcriber. “Unknown derivation could be unique to this planet.”
The proprietor slammed down the tankard he was holding and seized his ax. I thought at first he was going to confront the newcomer, but then he advanced toward me like a storm front. “You! Warlock! Are you trying to curse my inn?” He swung. The ax bit deep into the table, obliterating my audio recorder, which I had placed in front of me. He raised it again, taking aim at me this time.
I held up my hands, tissue paper before a tornado. “Not am I! Who? I do not know, what?” I was going to fail this examination in a very final and bloody way.
“Stop!” The thin man had crossed the room like the shadow of a raptor. One hand had stopped the descent of the ax, while the other held a long and very sharp knife just below the golden ring on the innkeeper’s beard. Despite their vast difference in size, the smaller man disarmed the innkeeper in seconds. He had lost his wide-brimmed hat in the rush, and now red-golden hair tumbled down his—no, her—shoulders.
“I wish to speak to this traveler. Go back to your work, Geistman.”
“He was speaking a curse! He spoke strange words into that thing … that thing of the Grimmerroth.”
“I see a terrified stranger who doesn’t know our language. He will not harm you, I will see to that.”
“Not six months past you killed Lord Mallord under this very roof, and brought down the Daughters on me,” the innkeeper said bitterly. “Now you protect a warlock who has no money, who speaks an unknown language over his uncanny tools. We’ll all have the pox by morning, or worse.”
“Tend to your stew, Jo Geistman. I’ll keep him from tearing your inn down long enough to get a meal from you.”
She sat uninvited at my table and looked curiously at me. “You are not what I was expecting,” she said.
It took me a moment to realize that she had spoken in modern Galactic. “What … How … Why? Did you stop him, I mean? How do you speak Galactic? Cray Leth? Is that your name? Who are you?”
She appraised me evenly, as if she hadn’t just stopped a giant with an ax. “You can call me Gilwyr.”
“That answers one of my questions. No, it doesn’t even answer that one.”
“I know that when a blue sword is drawn across the sky, I should look for a traveler from far away. Two nights ago, I saw the blue sword, and this morning I heard thunder in a clear sky. One looks for a traveler at an inn, and here you are.”
How does she know that? The captain had said that any civilized world would recognize the blue light of a starship arrival, but who on this world would know about it? Any interaction with supraluminal starships was centuries and many generations in the past.
“How is it that you know this language?”
“I learned it from my mother. It is not unlike Dalactyn, though it is very different from Anglich, which our innkeeper speaks.”
“Where was your mother from? Did she fall from the sky?”
Gilwyr frowned. “This is not a campfire tale or a story for children. People don’t fall from the sky. We lived in Cloudhaven, and she died when I was young. That is all that I know, other than she told me to watch for the blue sword.”
Gilwyr’s mother must have been stranded here by some previous starship. Another contact with this planet that had been lost in the Void Guild’s records. I wondered again what game they were playing. Her mother had been left here and died here. I felt a chill.
“My name is Stenn Gremm,” I said. “I’m a scholar. I study people, and their customs and culture and history. Is there a place where people study these things or collect books and records, a library?”
“There is a university in Misthaven. It is several days of walking from here.”
“Can you give me directions to this university, and who I should ask for when I get there?”
“Do you know what you did to anger our friend Jo over there?” I admitted that I did not. “Unless you learn, you will have a very short visit. The next person you offend may not be as genial as he is. I do not believe you are even carrying weapons.”
I tried with some disquiet to picture someone less genial than the innkeeper. “I don’t see you carrying anything larger than that knife,” I countered. “How dangerous can it be?”
With an icy stare, she reached over her shoulders and withdrew two long swords and placed them on the table. They were over a meter long, with a narrow blade of a lustrous metal joined to a simple leather-covered hilt with a minimal and elegant guard. They looked sharp enough to split hairs. Curiously, they didn’t resemble any historical workmanship with which I was familiar. I captured an image with my ocular implant and sent a search daemon looking for closest matches in the compact artifact database in my backpack. If I could classify these, I might gain some clue to the ancestry of these settlers.
The great door of the inn, which I had noted on my entrance as being stoutly built from a dark, dense wood, shook to a heavy blow from outside. I nearly jumped from my seat at the thunderous sound. Gilwyr coolly picked up her swords. The innkeeper seized his ax and yelled an imprecation at the abuser of his property. The other guests arose uneasily from their seats and backed away from the door.
Another blow landed on the door, even greater than the first. The door shattered into splinters that flew across the room. A reddish-brown shape stood without, bulking taller and wider than the doorframe. It began to force its way through the opening to the sound of breaking timber. “Morghaest!” shouted the innkeeper, hurling his ax at the manlike figure. The ax embedded itself in the creature’s shoulder, pinning it to the doorframe and nearly severing its arm. The morghaest, if that was its name and not just some general curse, struggled briefly at the restraint before reaching across its body with its other hand and snapping the handle from the ax. That finished severing the arm, which fell to the floor. A new arm immediately began growing from the stump, while the creature stomped on the detached arm where it wriggled on the floor and absorbed it back into its body.
Gilwyr was across the room in a blur. Her silver blades flashed, removing the creature’s head. She kicked it out of the doorway and continued to slash, removing chunks of the beast with every motion. It was slippery progress that was set back every time a chunk rejoined the monster. What kind of creature could take such damage and reassemble itself?
“If I manage to clear the door, run!” Despite Gilwyr’s still unflappable demeanor, I could hear that she was becoming winded. There was a general movement of the others to follow her advice, though some fled up the stairs to perceived safety. I grabbed my pack and made ready to follow her sensible suggestion. As soon as I moved, however, I was the center of the morghaest’s eyeless attention.
“It wants the pack! Give it the pack!” called Gilwyr across the mayhem.
“I can’t! It has all my research in it!”
Gilwyr took advantage of the creature’s distraction and sliced at its legs. She severed one at the knee, though I wasn’t sure if it had anything like discrete joints. It toppled forward into the inn and Gilwyr danced backward in front of it. The innkeeper rushed forward, having secured a more workman-like ax from the woodpile near the hearth. He buried the head of ax deeply into the morghaest’s back. I sagged with relief that he had finished it off.
A mighty arm swept up and swatted the innkeeper across the room. I watched in disbelief as it absorbed the ax into itself and reattached its severed leg. It rose again, still headless but having regrown one arm. It had advanced into the room, leaving an opening for me to try for the door. I sidled around it, trying to hide the pack behind my body where it couldn’t see it. Sight seemed to make no difference to the creature as it rounded on me and swept me aside almost casually. I lost my grip on the pack and dropped it while staggering back across the room.
Headless, it still scooped up the pack unerringly and held it to its chest. The pack blurred at the edges. It began to crumble to sand and be absorbed into the morghaest. My notes, my analyzers, my reference library, not to mention the food and medical supplies I’d carried from the lander, and perhaps most distressingly my ansible, were lost. I wailed in despair. My link to everything I knew as civilization was gone.
I don’t think it could hear me, but it still turned towards me and started groping. Unlike the pack, the creature didn’t quite seem to know where I was. A paw swung through the space my head had occupied before I ducked. It slammed a fist down, missing me but splitting a table in two. There didn’t seem any way past its flailing reach. Gilwyr called to me, “You must have something else that it wants. Give it over! Quickly!”
“I don’t have anything else! What if it wants me?”
“That’s not likely.”
Her tone was so dismissive that I wanted her to be wrong for an instant before my rational brain told me to hope that she was right. The morghaest swung blindly for the space I was in and I blocked with my forearm in desperation. I felt my bare skin touch the morghaest’s gritty surface. I saw my hand’s edges turn fuzzy as a cloud of dust boiled up. My last thought was that this had been a short field trip. Too bad I had flunked it.
I watched in amazement as the morghaest crumbled into a heap of mud on the floor. From the expressions on the faces of Gilwyr and the innkeeper, they had expected that outcome as much as I had.
“Right. We had better go.” Gilwyr hustled toward the door.
“I’ve lost my equipment! I can’t go on without it!”
“You won’t get it back by staying here. It seems that I am now going to Misthaven as well. There are those who need to know that a morghaest has been seen again. Since you attracted it, you are now of interest as well.”
“What was that thing? Are there more? It didn’t look … it looked like something that shouldn’t exist!”
“It shouldn’t but it does. They are warped creatures, created by the Grimmerroth.”
“Created? But … it’s almost dark. Isn’t it safer to stay here?” As the reality of the destruction of the last few minutes sunk in, I started having a bad case of shakes.
“Does it look like we’re welcome to stay?” I looked at the innkeeper. We weren’t. The other patrons had mostly fled and those that remained cowered in corners, apparently as afraid of me now as they had been of the morghaest a few moments previously. The innkeeper was loudly insinuating that we were somehow responsible for his door and that we should pay him for it and then clear out. Gilwyr put down two coins of impressive heft and soft yellow-red hue. They bore a seal of two crossed swords of the sort she had lately been employing. He argued some more and she added a third. Encouraged, he began to elaborate his claim. She placed her hand on the hilt of her own sword. Negotiation completed.
As we walked out into the gathering gloom, I asked her if she couldn’t have been as persuasive about a bed for a night.
“I never intended to sleep there tonight. It was easier to fight off that morghaest than his bedbugs,” she said.