Late the next day they arrived out of the mountains at the valley containing the village. From a distance, everything looked peaceful enough. It wasn’t until they got closer in that the hunched shoulders, shifty looks and quiet, skittish movements of the people told them something was very wrong.
Nobody would look at them directly until they’d entered the inn, and then they were greeted with sullen suspicion, all except for Lena. Her, the barkeep tensed up upon seeing. “Back, then, are you? Where’s the one you were with last time?”
Lena twisted her mouth in a frown. “We parted ways, I’m happy to say.”
He visibly relaxed and went back to wiping down the bar with a rag. The rag was spotless, as was the bar, Brendan noticed. Small wonder; there were few others in the place, and what others there were were clustered in tight groups around tables far from the door.
“We’ll need two rooms for the night,” she said firmly, an unconscious air of command coming over her that Brendan hadn’t seen before. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was surrounded by an air of otherness; she always had it, he realized, but it felt much stronger in this place. Looking at her at that moment, he couldn’t think of her as a human being, and the term she’d given him, Ilthem Saeri, seemed suddenly to be the only appropriate label to apply.
The barkeep nodded, leaping to retrieve a pair of keys for her and taking her money. “Of course, we’ve plenty of space open m’lady. You can take the two rooms farthest down the hall; they’re our finest.”
She nodded and accepted the keys. “Thank you, that sounds perfect.” The she turned back to the two of them. “I need to get out there immediately and learn what I can, while I can. As we discussed yesterday, the two of you stay here and learn what you can in my absence. Without me around, the locals may be willing to tell you things they wouldn’t tell to me.”
Brendan had to wonder at that. “Why would they be more willing to tell us about their business? They don’t know us.”
Sorcha nodded. “True! But they do know me, or my kind, anyway. And they know one of us was around when things were bad. That association will take time to fade in their memories.”
“I wish there was more I could tell you about where Myra went while she was here,” Lena said.
“I appreciate the thought, but I should be able to figure it out. You’ve told me plenty already. Be careful, you two. I’ll be back before morning.”
She vanished out the door without another word, leaving the two of them to their own devices. They took a table away from the others in the place, who grew more animated in their own conversations as soon as Sorcha left.
They spent the last couple of hours before sundown in quiet conversation, Brendan telling Lena the story of how he’d come to be Called since she hadn’t yet heard the story. “You don’t seem especially happy to have been Called,” she observed at one point.
“It’s that obvious?” he replied with a wry smile. “It’s not that I object to being called, really. It’s more … well … I guess it’s a bit petty, but it has kind of thrown my life into chaos. All the attention I was getting back in the real—er, the main—what do we call our part of the world? Anyway, I’m not used to it. At all. I keep to myself, live simply, mind my own business … I never asked for all this, you know?”
“I can’t help but think of it as the real world, too. I guess we could call it the familiar world,” she said, and smiled. “I know what you mean about having your world turned upside down. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the familiar world though. This has been reality for me for months now.”
“The familiar world,” a decidedly unfamiliar voice said. “I like that term.”
They looked over, and up. A tall, lean figure stood by their table. He was cloaked, but the hood was down, revealing longish brown hair with just a hint of grey about it. He had a friendly face and a deep voice that Brendan wanted to trust. Ironically, that made him want to question whether he should be suspicious of him.
“I’m Richard,” he said by way of introduction. “Richard Leadingham. You can call me Rich.” He pulled up a chair and sat down with them. “You must be Brendan and Lena?”
Taken aback, Brendan nodded. “Brendan Burns,” he confirmed.
“Lena Glavan,” Lena offered.
“A pleasure to meet the both of you. I was told you’d be here; I ran into Sorcha on my way into town just now.”
“You know her?”
“She was my Guide, once upon a time,” he nodded. “It’s been a couple of years since I traveled with her. Strange how time flies, even for us, isn’t it?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Brandon said. “I’ve just barely started, and still more than half wish I could get my life back to normal!”
Rich chuckled. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, except to say that your life will probably never be normal again. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but once you’ve seen the bigger picture, the smaller corner never again looks quite the same.”
Brendan had the sinking feeling that he was probably right about that, and drank down some of the beer Lena had bought while Richard signaled for another round.
After a bar maid had brought over a pitcher and a new mug, Richard drank and relaxed into his chair. “So, yes, Sorcha and I know each other going back quite a while. When I ran into her, she asked me to join you.”
Lena looked him over, assessing everything from the state of his clothing to the ease with which he wore the weapons Brendan hadn’t even noticed up until that moment. “You seem to be pretty capable. Why didn’t she ask you to help her with her investigation, especially if you’ve worked together before?”
“I did offer to help, but she needed to move quickly. She’s on the trail of another of her kind, she said. I won’t be of much help with that. They’re better at finding their own than any of us could ever be.”
“So she sent you to mind the kids?” Brandon asked, suppressing a sudden burst of humiliation.
“Far from it, she sent me back here to meet you and then get some sleep. I’ve been on the road for days, I’m exhausted!” he said with a grin. “You two can continue you intelligence gathering at your own pace, and I’ll be happy to help you—but not until tomorrow. Tonight, you’re on your own!”
“You said you traveled with her as your guide a couple of years ago?” Brandon asked.
“Yeah. Not too long ago for us, I suppose. For her though, that was a long time ago. She was very young then. I was her first Called hero.”
“Two years was a long time?” Brendan found himself wondering again just how old Sorcha really was.
“Yes indeed. The Ilthem Saeri are a very short-lived race, at least compared with us. I don’t know exactly how old Sorcha is, but I’d guess she’s probably about 7 or 8 years old.”
“What? No way!” Brandon exclaimed, then hunched down in embarrassment as his outburst drew stares from other tables.
“Can she really be that young? That’s fascinating,” Lena added.
“She can, and probably is. She’ll be middle-aged by about 12 or so, and by 15, she’ll be considered an old woman.” Rich grinned at the expressions on their faces. “They’re an interesting people to get to know. They can take some getting used to; they’re pretty impetuous and impatient by our standards, sometimes, and some people find them flighty. They’re fast though, unbelievably smart and quick on the uptake, and curious about everything. They were the first people to learn to travel between the aspects of the world.”
“The first?” Lena asked. “There are others who can do it?”
“The fact that you’re here is ample evidence of that, I should think.” Rich suppressed a yawn. “You’re both in the early stages of learning to do it yourselves. I can do it at will now, without assistance, though it took a good half a year for me to master it. An Ilthem Saeri typically learns to do it in a week.”
He finished his beer and hid a yawn behind a hand. “And now, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, and I’ll be happy to keep gossiping tomorrow, but I really must sleep. And I’m keeping you from learning what you can about this place. I bid you a good night!”
He rose and they bid their good nights. He got a room from the barkeep before vanishing upstairs.
They’d been on the road for a couple of days themselves, but figured they had at least another hour left in them. They relocated to the bar in the hopes of catching the barkeep in a talkative mood.