Heat. Body heat, and the softness of another's skin pressed against her. Rosalynn's eyes opened, and she took in a dimly-lit, unfamiliar ceiling. She decided to hold very still until things started making sense.
She was laying on her back in what after a moment's thought she decided must be a bed. This in itself was a new and strange experience. Thus far in her life a cot and a thin blanket had been the upper echelons of luxury. Between the soft mattress and the thick coverlet, Rosalynn wasn't certain she ever bring herself to leave.
But there was something else that held her where she was. A soft weight pinned her left arm in place. Turning her head, her breath caught when she saw Lady Lunessa in the bed next to her. The young lady's arms were wrapped about Rosalynn's, and held it close to her chest like a small girl with a doll. Something very like panic began to rise in Rosalynn, and she started to pull away. But even as she did, Lady Lunessa tightened her grip, and a soft groan of protest slipped between her lips. Rosalynn paused, and then relaxed, letting herself sink back down into the mattress. She looked over at the young lady again, smiling fondly at how wonderfully peaceful she looked. A lock of strawberry hair had fallen across her face, and without really thinking, Rosalynn reached over with her free hand to brush it away.
“Mhmm...” Lady Lunessa murmured at the contact. Her eyes fluttered open. Rosalynn froze. “Rosalynn?”
Rosalynn snapped her hand back to her side hard enough to hurt, and hoped against hope that the searing heat on her face wasn't visible in the faint light of the room.
“Is something the matter?”
Rosalynn sputtered for a moment before she could remember words. “Uh, I, um, no, milady, nothing at all!” She forced her mouth into something that was probably a smile. “Good morning, milady!”
Lady Lunessa arched an eyebrow, but to Rosalynn's eternal gratitude she did not press the subject further. “Good morning,” the young lady yawned, casting her eyes about the room. “Now, if I were to ask why we were in a strange bed in a strange room wearing nothing but our small clothes, would you have an answer for me?”
“I... would not, milady,” Rosalynn said, realizing belatedly that she was in fact undressed. She still had her trousers, but her shirt was missing, leaving only the leather band she wore across her breasts in place to preserve modesty. “The last thing I remember,” Rosalynn mused, her forehead pinching in thought, “is jumping into that... thing in the Spirit Wood.”
“It is the same for me,” Lady Lunessa said. “Oh well, at least the bed is comfortable.” She wriggled under the covers, sighing contentedly and reminding Rosalynn suddenly that the young lady still hadn't let go of her arm.
They laid like that for a few more moments in companionable silence, before Lady Lunessa spoke up again. “Do you suppose that we are dead, and this is Paradise?”
Rosalynn gave thought to the idea. “But wouldn't a bed be a silly thing for Paradise to be?”
“Can you think of anything better right now?”
Rosalynn had to admit that she could not.
A door on the far wall opened, and a blonde head with odd, sharply pointed ears poked through to look at them. Lady Lunessa quickly disentangled herself to sit up in the bed, pulling the coverlet up to her chest. Rosalynn followed her lead a moment later. Once the figure in the doorway saw that they were awake, he – Rosalynn thought the figure was a man, though his features were far more delicate than any man she'd met before – stepped into the room to regard them. He spoke, but the words were alien, and made no sense to Rosalynn.
“I beg your pardon?” Lady Lunessa said. She caught Rosalynn's eye, but all Rosalynn could do was shake her head.
The man spoke again; it sounded like a question this time, but once again the words were so much nonsense to Rosalynn.
“I am sorry, sir, but we can't understand what you are saying,” Lady Lunessa said, speaking slowly.
The man nodded as if he had confirmed something, and held up a single finger. Apparently he was telling them to wait. He closed his eyes for a second, and held his arms up, fingers outstretched toward them. Then he spoke once more, and the words seemed to echo, as if there was more than one person speaking. Rosalynn felt a chill wash through her body, as if a bucket of cold water had been dropped on her.
“What in the Saint's holy names did you just do?” Lady Lunessa asked. It seemed that whatever it was had affected her as well.
“Just a language charm, doll. Nuttin' ta worry about,” the man said, and Rosalynn realized with a start that she'd understood him this time. His accent was strange, but his words were now perfectly clear.
“Now, how yez feelin'?” the man said, “Da two a yez were in pretty bad shape when I dragged yez in here last cycle.”
“I would be faring a great deal better if I knew where my clothes were,” Lady Lunessa said archly, holding the coverlet tight to herself.
“Dem tore up things? Pitched 'em. Weren't even fit for rags. I'm sure I got somethin' around here dat'll fit yez, though.”
“And was it you that removed our 'tore up things'?”
“Dat's right. Heh, I can see what yer thinkin', but don't worry. Nuttin' I ain't never seen before.”
“Really? Do you make a habit of undressing unconscious women?”
“Nah, usually when I undress a girl she's wide awake and tellin' me ta go faster.” The man winked. Out of the corner of her eye, Rosalynn saw Lady Lunessa start to turn an ugly red.
“Excuse me, sir,” Rosalynn said, hoping to turn the conversation before things could really get bad, “but who are you, and where are we?”
“Oh yeah, I'm bein' kinda rude, ain't I? Da name's Edenion L'Kevvious. Call me Ed,” the man said with a ridiculously formal bow. “And dis is my shop, right on da top end of da Rat Warrens.”
“The... Rat Warrens?”
“Ah, yeah, yez are a couple a New Falls, ain'tcha?” The man, Edenion, put his hand to his forehead. “Look, dis is gonna take a while. Why don't you get yezelves cleaned up, I'll bring yez some clothes, then wez can talk like a bunch a civilized hominids, yeah?”
He departed, and somehow Rosalynn and Lady Lunessa managed to drag themselves from the bed. They shared a long glance, and Rosalynn saw that Lady Lunessa was nearly as lost as she was. Edenion returned with a basin of water, and then he was gone again, to come back with an armload of cloth. He laid out a selection of clothes in unfamiliar styles on the bed.
“Help yezelves,” he said with a wave.
Rosalynn grabbed a piece of clothing and held it up for for inspection. It was a pair of trousers made of some soft material, but far too short, ending well above where her knee would lay. Lady Lunessa picked up something else, like half a shirt with laces up the bottom, and peered at it with her head pitched to the side. Then, with a shrug, she set the bit of cloth down and turned to Rosalynn.
“Rosalynn, could I get you to help me?” She seemed embarrassed as she gestured at her side. “It... still hurts.” Rosalynn frowned with remembered guilt, even as she hastened to help the young lady. They managed to peel the thin shift off of her. The pained expression on Lady Lunessa's face and the livid red line on her pale flesh were like twin shots to Rosalynn's gut.
Rosalynn also helped to wipe the blood and grime from Lady Lunessa using a soft cloth and water from the basin. She put a lot of effort into trying to keep her hand steady as she worked. Lady Lunessa offered to return the favor, but Rosalynn wasn't at all sure she could deal with that, so she demurred. Then, freshly scrubbed, they turned to the problem of getting dressed.
It took some time, but they managed to puzzle out the strange clothes. Lady Lunessa quickly divined the purpose of the half-a-shirt, and directed Rosalynn to hold still while she put it on her and did up the lacings. The cloth touched her in unfamiliar places, but she had to admit that over all it was quite comfortable. It was all fairly easy from there, and, sticking to what she knew as much as was possible, Rosalynn slipped into a pair of dark colored trousers and a white shirt that buttoned up in front.
Lady Lunessa, after a fair amount of dithering, eventually picked out a pale pink dress with white frills on the skirt and sleeves, and Rosalynn aided her in getting it on. It fit her quite well, and she looked beautiful in it.
“Why, thank you Rosalynn,” Lady Lunessa said, and Rosalynn cringed as she realized she'd spoken aloud. “You look very nice as well.”
“Ah, th-thank you, milady,” Rosalynn said, and then managed to keep her mouth shut for the rest of the time it took them to dress.
* * *
Out of the door and down a flight of stairs, they found Edenion again in his parlor. He bade them each to take one of the large chairs that dotted the room, and offered them a drink that he called 'coffee'. Lady Lunessa graciously accepted, and Rosalynn followed, though she had no idea what to expect. The drink smelled pleasant enough, but the brown liquid didn't look particularly appetizing. This impression was borne up when she actually tasted the hot, bitter drink. Rosalynn watched Lady Lunessa sample the drink, saw her very carefully not make a face, and then watched her discreetly set her cup aside. For her own part, Rosalynn continued to take sips, and thought that this 'coffee' might grow on her.
Once he saw that they were comfortable, Edenion began to explain where exactly they were. It seemed that the place they had come from, the place they'd lived their lives, was called a 'realm', and they'd 'fallen' through a 'portal' into a place called 'Midway'. She did remember a sensation of falling – or maybe floating – when they'd stepped into that thing in the Spirit Wood.
“Da portals, dere like weak spots in reality, see? So when ya fall through 'em you end up at da point a least resistance, which is Midway, right?” All of which meant nothing to Rosalynn.
“So,” Lady Lunessa spoke up after a moment's thought, “how many people are there here in Midway? Do they all come from these different realms?”
“Oh, dere's lots a people here. I don't think anybody knows how many. Most o' dem come from da Realms, yeah,” Edenion said, leaning over the back of a chair. “Usually people runnin' away from somethin', like da two a yez.”
Lady Lunessa sat up straighter in her chair, and Rosalynn tensed slightly. “And what would make you think that we were running from anything?”
“Oh, nuttin'. I'm sure da tore up clothes and all da blood was cuz da two a yez were enjoying your picnic too much, yeah?”
Lady Lunessa flushed, and took a large swig of her coffee to cover her embarrassment. This time she did make a face as she nearly choked on it, coughing frantically. Rosalynn half rose from her chair before Lady Lunessa waved her back down. “Go on,” she muttered, glaring up at the man.
“Ain't much more ta say, doll.” The man was grinning widely at the spectacle that Lady Lunessa was making of herself. “Midway's a pretty facinatin' place, but I don't think da two a yez wanna hear da whole history. It's a long one.”
A question tugged at Rosalynn's mind. “Can we go home?”
Edenion regarded her, and his grin grew a little friendlier, tinged with something she couldn't quite place. “Of course, doll,” he said. “Yez just gotta go back through da portal you fell in from. I can take yez dere if you want.”
“I think,” Lady Lunessa interrupted, “that we should discuss the matter first. Master Edenion, if you would leave us for a moment?”
“Sure, sure. I gots work ta do anyway. Come find me if yez need anythin'.”
“Milady?” Rosalynn said, after the man had gone.
“Rosalynn, do you truly want to return right now?” Lady Lunessa had relaxed her posture, and stared off into a corner of the room as she spoke.
“Well, of course, milady,” Rosalynn replied. “What else is there to do?”
“Think about it, Rosalynn. We're in a place where no one can bother us. Not even my thrice-cursed brother.” Lady Lunessa smiled for a moment, then it faded like a snuffed candle. “At least I hope not,” she added, with a faint frown. “In any event, we should take advantage of it while we have the chance.”
For the second time in as many days, Rosalynn had the feeling that this wasn't going to go as well as Lady Lunessa envisioned. But there was little purpose in arguing. The only thing to do was go along and try to keep matters from going too poorly. Because that had worked so well the previous time. Rosalynn sighed, setting down her cup to bury her face in her hands, a touch depressed.
She didn't rouse herself until she felt Lady Lunessa's hands on her shoulders. “Rosalynn, come on,” the young lady said, tugging at Rosalynn. “We will have to go back soon enough. For now, let us have some fun.”
Rosalynn allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. “As you wish, milady.”
* * *
It didn't take long for them to find Edenion again. It turned out that the front room of the house was dedicated to small shop that sold a random assortment of odds and ends. It didn't seem to be the most popular place, since it was empty aside from the three of them. As Rosalynn wandered through the shelves and display cases, looking over the wares, Lady Lunessa struck up a muted conversation with Edenion. Rosalynn, caught up in her inspection could only make out a handful of words. Jewelry... Dress... Foot...
Before long, Lady Lunessa came to collect Rosalynn. “Master Edenion has graciously offered to show us around town,” she said, and took Rosalynn's arm. “Shall we?”
Rosalynn was gently but inevitably steered out of the shop. Edenion led the way, and as he opened the front door, he gestured grandly out at the scene that laid outside. A city street under a gray sky. He was forced to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd as he told them, “Welcome, ta Midway!”
Rosalynn boggled. So many people! The crowd filled the street from one edge to the other, like water filled a river bed. All of the people she had met in her life could disappear into that river without a ripple.
And then slowly, almost unwillingly, details began to filter through to her. Some of the people were far larger than any human she'd ever seen. Some were far smaller. Some were stockier, some more slender, and some flew above the heads of all the others. Her eyes traced the movements of a great hulking thing. It towered over a foot above the next tallest members of the crowd, and it walked hunched forward on its knuckles. It must have felt her eyes upon it, for it turned to regard her curiously. It's face was just human enough, between the over-large ears and the granite complexion, to seem all the more alien. Rosalynn, realizing that she was staring, blushed and averted her eyes.
“Will da two a yez close yer traps? Yer drawin' flys.”
Rosalynn did so with a click, which was echoed to her left. She looked over at Lady Lunessa, who just shook her head.
Edenion looked up at them impatiently, arms folded. His attention focused on them, he was nearly trampled over by a huge figure. “One side, elf,” the figure said, glaring down at him. Its expression shifted to wary surprise when steel appeared in Edenion's hand. “Watch yezself, ogre,” Edenion said. “Plenty a room ta go around.”
The – ogre? Rosalynn guessed from Edenion's use of the word – proceeded to do just that, with a snarl to preserve its dignity. “Damn big bastards, think dey own the damn streets,” Edenion grumbled. “Heh, have I got news for dem.” The knife disappeared again, just as suddenly as it had arrived. Rosalynn would have really liked to know where he kept it. “The two a yez wanna hurry up? Wez burnin' bright time.”
They followed him out into the street. Lady Lunessa kept a tight grip on Rosalynn's arm, and they followed closely behind Edenion, so as not to lose him in the swirl of bodies. “What was that he called you?” Lady Lunessa asked him as they traveled. “An... 'elf'?”
“Yeah, ya gots pointy ears, dey call yez an elf. Big and fat: yez an ogre. Little, with bug wings: yez a sylph. Maybe a pixie, dependin' on how little wez talkin'. Everybody's gotta have a label. Just how people work, I guess,” Edenion said.
“Then what would we be?” Rosalynn asked, curious.
“Humans. Normals. Dere's a lot of yez types around, so yer what everybody else gets compared to.” Rosalynn wondered if she was imagining the touch of irritation in Edenion's voice.
They didn't speak much more as they walked. For their parts, Rosalynn and Lady Lunessa were too busy trying to see everything they could. Rosalynn craned her neck this way and that, looking at buildings and people and what seemed to be hundreds of little market stalls. Lady Lunessa, on the other hand, was a touch more restrained, but her eyes darted back and forth just as much as Rosalynn's.
The buildings were what Rosalynn marveled at the most. Each and every one was built in a different style, and with wildly varied materials, from it's neighbor. Sloped roofs hunched up against box-like constructs and domes and more than a couple of large, colorful tents. There was no order to it. It seemed as though a person was just given a plot of land and left to do whatever they wished. The effect was a little eye-watering, but Rosalynn found that she liked the free-spiritedness of it. She wondered how one went about acquiring a bit of land here.
Occasionally Edenion would point out a building or a statue, and explain it's historical significance. He rattled off a number of names and dates which Rosalynn forgot nearly the moment he said them, but she got the gist of things. The area they were in was called the Rat Warren, and as the name would suggest, it was one of the poorer cantons. “Though don't yez be thinkin' dat it don't have a lot a cultural depth,” he admonished, though neither of them had suggested that might be the case. The cantons, he explained further, after a little prompting, were the dozen or so different districts of Midway, each like a city unto itself. Each canton had its own culture, its own mindset, and its own way of doing things.
“It seems a very strange way of governing a territory,” Lady Lunessa remarked.
Edenion shrugged. “It works,” he said. “People in Midway, wez not da type dat likes bein' told what to do, see? So, everybody does their own thing, looks after demselves, and everybody's happy.”
That seemed to be all he wanted to say on that matter. He talked for a little while about how Midway was laid out, but aside from Founder's Square being in the city's center, and Rat Warren being not far from there, it all went quite over Rosalynn's head. She doubted it would be important anyway.
He led them to a small open air market, and they browsed among the stalls. Each one sold a different assortment of items: clothes and trinkets, produce and fresh baked goods. They found one selling weapons, and Rosalynn stared longingly at the blades on display for a moment before she was whisked by. Another had dresses for sale, and Lady Lunessa ran her hand over a couple with a wistful sigh as they passed it. At some point they lost track of Edenion, but Lady Lunessa said not to fret. He would likely find them again soon. Rosalynn certainly hoped so, for she was quite sure she would never be able to retrace their steps without help.
As they continued their circuit of the market, they came across brilliant blue tent with a sign hawking ale and wine, and a number of other beverages which Rosalynn didn't recognize, but could hazard a guess as to their content. The place seemed to be popular, judging from the crowd milling about, outside it as well as within. Lady Lunessa, distracted by their conversation, stumbled in the path of one patron and the two collided solidly.
“'Ere now, why don'tcha watch where yer goin'?” the other party slurred. He towered over them. Even Rosalynn, who was used to being able to look most men in the eye, had to look up, and then further up at him. His complexion and build were much like the man who'd accosted Edenion earlier. Rosalynn supposed that this one was an ogre, too.
“I am terribly sorry, sir,” Lady Lunessa said, retreating a step so as not to have to lean backward to look at him. He took a step forward to follow her, and his expression changed from a surly scowl to a broad grin. Which was far more terrifying. “I was talking with my friend here,” she went on, taking another step back, which was again matched, “and did not see you. I do apologize.” The ogre glanced at Rosalynn for a fraction of a second, but dismissed her almost instantly to return his attention to Lady Lunessa.
“Oh, that's okay, dollface.” The ogre reached out, and put a hand on Lady Lunessa's arm. “Now wot's a pretty little thing like you doin' all alone in a place like this?”
Rosalynn snarled, and moved without thinking. She stepped between the ogre and Lady Lunessa, and slapped the hand away. “Don't touch her.”
The ogre regarded her with amazement, and it was at this point that she actually considered what she was doing. The ogre stood head, shoulders, and most of an arm above her, and likely weighed more than three of her put together. But there was no chance of backing away now.
“Outta the way, scarecrow,” the ogre growled, and shoved her aside. She tried to stand her ground, but with was like trying to stand in the face of a rolling boulder. She stumbled a handful of steps, and then spun, bringing her hands up in the process. She wasn't sure that, given the monstrous man's bulk, that he would even feel one of her punches, but she had to try. Then, without looking away from the ogre, Lady Lunessa stopped her with a gesture.
“Oh, sir, I am not alone. My fiance is in fact close by,” she said, pointing off across the crowd. Rosalynn followed her finger, and saw that Edenion was standing not far away, engaged in conversation with a couple of men. She tried to signal him over, but he didn't seem to notice her.
“Wot, the elf? Hah! Bring him over 'ere, I'll kick his arse and show you what a real man is all about,” the ogre said, thumping his chest.
“Oh, no sir. I know that he is nowhere as much of a man as you are, and you would in fact leave nothing of him but a bloody smear on the pavement. But I do love him terribly,” Lady Lunessa said, clasping her hands together, “so I must beg that you be as merciful as you are... handsome.”
The ogre scratched at the back of his head, and his grin grew even wider, showing off a great number of crooked yellow teeth. “Haha, if you want, doll. But if you ever get tired o' that pansy, you can find me right 'ere.”
“Surely,” she said. The ogre turned to head back in to the tent, and Lady Lunessa wasted no time in gathering Rosalynn up and marching her toward Edenion.
“Thank you, Rosalynn.”
“For what, milady?”
“For protecting me.” Lady Lunessa smiled at her. Rosalynn beamed back.
As they approached, the men Edenion had been talking to melted into the shadows. As he turned to face them, Rosalynn noticed something pinched about his expression, and he shifted his weight back and forth nervously.
“Is something the matter?” Lady Lunessa asked. Edenion looked like he wanted to curse.
“Ah, nah,” he said, smoothing his face. “Just some bad business. Look, wez should be headin' back. Cycle's almost up.”
“Lead the way,” Lady Lunessa said.