Omric led me to a different room than the one in which I had awoken, farther down in the castle, or whatever these guys called the stone structure we were inside. This time, Intimidating Woman and one of the guys who had walked with us before trailed after us. The woman made the back of my neck twitch with nerves, she was just so much a bundle of potential energy, so much so that I stopped and gestured for her to walk beside me. The two guards looked a little surprised, but after flicking a glance to Omric, she did so.
I took her arm, and thought calm thoughts, and the tension that had been twinging from her eased, the carbon steel bands of muscles under my hand softening with relaxation into merely iron cables. The itch in the base of my neck eased, too. It is amazing to me the power of touch, the way it can build up a sense of connection, of community and acceptance. I’ve calmed down a few of my cousins and some of my father’s students with the same tactic, just offering a hand, a connection, and quiet acceptance.
A few moments later, when I was more hopeful that the tension wouldn’t flood back at any moment, I tapped my chest with Omric’s closed finger pointing, and said, “Zoe,” giving the woman an inquiring look.
She smiled and said back, “Zzoe,” followed by a few words in that musical growl. Then she tapped her chest and said, “Jacket.”
I blinked and repeated her name, but she chuckled and, saying it slower, pronouncing her name as “Jah – kat.”
She nodded, smiling at me. She said a few more things, and fingered the sleeve of my T-shirt, a question in her eyes.
Plucking at the hem of my shirt, I said, “Shirt,” and pointed to my jeans, saying “Jeans. Pants.” She and Omric both repeated my words. Then Jakat began pointing to various things as we passed them, giving me their words for things and acquiring my words for them. More often than not, I mangled the words, their growling inflection harder to reproduce than the sing-song parts. They, on the other hand, managed to pick up English very quickly, with very few mistakes, though they tended to want to lisp any sibilant es sounds.
We reached Omric’s destination after a longer walk than the one from the room where I had awakened. This time, the door was closed, but it was also thinner, more fragile than the other doors, made of woven sticks, some with the leaves still green on them. I cannot identify a plant by its leaves or what have you, but I was pretty sure that I had never seen a tree in Washington state with leaves like the ones on this door, or with a nearly purple wood underneath the bark. The leaves (very green leaves, with tonal shades from new growth yellow green to pine needle green, but mostly the color of flawless lab made emeralds) resembled nothing so much as a three fingered sliding palm print.
Omric and the other guy, Poigrill was as close as I could come to pronouncing his name, much to my consternation, hung back while Jakat pushed the door of twigs and leaves in, calling out to whomever might be inside.
There were three women, naked as the day they were born, sitting around a lightly misting pool, two with their feet in the water, who jumped up when Jakat entered. The third was sitting closer to the wall, covered in a damp pelt, running something that looked like a slicker brush over her calico fur. She looked up from her ministrations and said something, with a lot more growl than song, to the guard. Her face was a mix of feline and ape, having a short muzzle and wet nose perched over a more simian mouth, the lips fuller than anyone but Steven Tyler’s (the lead singer for the band Aerosmith, and in my personal opinion one of the strongest pieces of evidence for humans being related to the other primate species). Her chest was nearly flat, and a tail curled and twitched beside her legs.
The whole “welcome to a new dimension” thing that I had been trying to ignore for now crashed over me, or maybe saying it sucker punched me to the gut would better describe the way it stole my breath and numbed me for a moment before a terrible sense of panic tried to close off my vision. I took a few steps back, bouncing up against the wall, which I promptly slid down, putting my head between my knees.
Omric, Poigrill, and Jakat didn’t bother drawing their daggers. Claws popped out of their finger tips and Omric and Poigrill stepped in front of me, as if they expected something to come charging through the door. Jakat, however, turned and sank her clawed fist into the door.
She snarled something, then disentangled herself and, moving as slow as I would have around a stray dog, she said a few things to me in their language. The more she talked, the quieter, less angry, her voice got and the more soothing.
When I could breath, I raised my head enough to give her a rueful shaky smile and said, even knowing they couldn’t understand me, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just, this really isn’t Kansas anymore, you know? This isn’t my world.”
One of the women who had jumped to her feet came out, and asked, in halting English, “You not scary on Bhrett?”
I looked up, surprised, and said, “The cat woman? Should I be?”
“Bhrett no hurt. You no scary?” she said again.
I shook my head. “This isn’t my world, that’s scary. I didn’t really believe the guy with the fake fangs about Doors and leaving Earth behind, but, it’s real, isn’t it?”
Omric barked out something, and the woman answered him first, then said to me, “No you ‘Earth’, is Nimala. My boy, he on Dimeter, you ‘Earth’. I go, see my boy. Learn little English. You no scary Bhrett?”
I had to focus very hard on my “peace in, stress out” mantra before I could say, “No, Bhrett no scary for being Bhrett. I just need some time to wrap my head around this whole not being on Earth anymore.”
“What name you? I Lyrgrul.”
“Zoe, my name is Zoe.”
Lyrgrul sank down to a crouch in front of me, but far enough out not to antagonize the men guarding me. “Zoe, you … water. Water no scary. Water happy.” She held out her hand to me, and I looked at that hand for a moment, feeling very fragile, but Lyrgrul just waited, calm in her eyes. I smiled, knowing it was shaky but her kindness was steadying, and pushed up to stand again.
“Yes,” I said, taking her hand. “Water is good for calming a body down, isn’t it? Will you tell me about your son?”
Lyrgrul grinned at me. “Ayup. He … good son, Klyr, good son. I tell you.”
“Ayup?” I asked, having heard that word before.
“Ayup, is ‘yes’,” Lyrgrul said smiling.
“What is ‘ulfgart’?” I asked, the niggling suspicion awoken by Aiden’s scent suddenly back in full force.
Lyrgrul blinked at me, then said, “‘Ulfgart’ is man of mans, he … ” Lyrgrul looked frustrated in her search for the word, but I had an idea of what she meant.
“Is it like the man who leads, who decides what the other men will do?” I asked.
“Man who leads, ayup, man who leads!” she said, smiling brightly at me.
“Your son, his ulfgart, what is his name?”
Making a sound like a cross between a tongue click and a purr first, Lyrgrul said, “Ulfgart is Tanak. Good ulfgart. Klyr happy.”
I wet my lips, and shut my mouth after that, letting Lyrgrul’s cheery chatter about her son fill my ears. My lover was somehow linked to these people, and I had no clue if he was the reason I was here now.
I put that thought in a box in my mind for now, and shelved it. It turned out that Omric had led me here so that I could cleanse myself of the road grime I had accumulated, it being a serious breach of personal space to groom someone without their consent, done only in the case of extreme illness.
The men stayed outside the bathing room, which Lyrgrul explained was an unorthodox thing, and asked if I had been attacked. As I mentioned before, Jody had managed to wipe out the last vestiges of any body modesty I might have around other women, though being a gym member since puberty had helped keep that from being one of my big hang ups to start with. Assured that the guys wouldn’t peek, I slipped off my clothes and was stepping into the water when she asked me that.
Lyrgrul and Bhrett sucked in deep breaths when they saw the bruises on my sides and shoulder (the third woman had slipped off while Lyrgrul was coaxing me to come into the bathing room). I also had a fat black bruise on the top of my thigh that didn’t hurt until I touched it, and several smaller, yellowing bruises on my shins. Jakat just pressed her lips together into a flat line. When the water rose over the bruise in my side, I hissed, the heat finding puncture wounds I hadn’t realized were there, and also in the middle of the bruise on my shoulder.
With Lyrgrul acting as translator, I was able to get across what I remembered of the abduction, which was pretty much nothing between the snatch to waking up here. Jakat nodded as if she had expected as much, and they pressed me again about whether I had been attacked. It finally dawned on me that they were asking if I had been sexually assaulted, which led into explaining about the American taboos on casual nudity or casual touch between the sexes.
The concept seemed to be utterly screw ball to them. In the end, I found myself falling back on Jody’s line. “I did not make the world; I only live within it.”
I did manage to get Lyrgrul back to talking about her son, and the more she told me about him, the more I wondered if I had met him at Tank’s house. I also managed to satisfy a sensory curiosity. Touch was such a casual normative among my hosts that they laughed at my request to feel Bhrett’s fur. It was very silky, and when I asked her how she fared in the summer, she laughed and her body made an all over quiver.
The fur retreated into her skin, her muzzle flattening, her breasts growing a little, and in less than a minute, a woman with blond hair, brown eyes, and bronze skin, her lips still quite full and wide, sat in the same place that the cat woman had been. I waited for panic to hit me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself mostly intrigued, and a little awed.
Maybe I wasn’t such a mouse, after all.
By the time the bath was over, I hated to realize that Aiden was at least right that I needed more rest. I was nearly asleep on my feet. Jakat pressed me to put on a clean leather wrap, which prompted me to ask if they had any cloth. The women looked at me like I was kind of strange, and asked what kind of animal had a cloth pelt. I opened my mouth to answer, and ended up yawning instead.
Omric had been replaced by another guard, and they escorted me to a new room. I barely looked around before pulling one of the furs piled in the corner over me and falling into a deep slumber.