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A Sterkarm Kiss
By Susan Price
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Susan Price
All rights reserved.
21ST SIDE: DOWN AT THE PUB
"Per? Hite thee Per?"
The young man seated at the table looked up — and it was Per. From the bar she'd doubted, but looking into that strikingly pretty face, with the large eyes, so pale a blue they were almost silver, there could be no doubt at all. Especially when the younger boy who sat beside him was so much like him, and could only be Per's cousin Ingram. Except that it was impossible for either of them to be there.
Per stared at her, startled, and then his eyes gave that silver flash she remembered so well, as if a small bulb had lit behind them. He jumped up, still staring. "Yi hite Per Toorkildsson Sterkarm-oh vah air thou hite?" — I'm called Per Toorkildsson Sterkarm — and what art thou called?
It was afternoon. The bar was almost empty and almost silent. Per's throaty yell shocked a couple on the other side of the room, and they looked around. The Sterkarms had always shouted where other people murmured — it came from habitually conversing across valleys. That loud voice, and its bronchial hoarseness, would have made her absolutely sure, even if she hadn't been before. Besides, who else in this entire world could have understood what she said, and answered her in the same thick dialect? Who else would stare at her — big fat Andy — with such obvious admiration and place such flirting stress on "thou"? It was Per, it could only be Per. But as certainly as she knew it was him, she knew it couldn't be. I am going mad, she thought. She'd read somewhere that hallucinations always seemed perfectly real to those who experienced them.
It was the start of her afternoon shift, and she'd been checking that there were plenty of crisps and peanuts, when she'd felt her attention pulled to the seat in the corner by the door. Something she'd glimpsed there, subliminally, was hammering for her fuller attention. She'd looked, and had seen Per.
The shock had jolted her. She'd thought she was over the phase of seeing him everywhere, had done with following tall, fair-haired young men through the streets convinced, against all sense, that it was Per. Don't say it was starting again. Take a better look, she ordered herself. You'll see that it's not him.
She'd leaned over the bar to get a good look, to make it plain to herself that it wasn't Per and couldn't be him. He was dressed in jeans and sneakers, for God's sake, with a zip-up jacket and a baseball cap. Sitting beside him was a thin young man with close-cropped hair, dressed in a gray suit and wearing spectacles with fine gold frames.
Ah — but sitting on the other side of the table, also dressed in jeans and sneakers, was a slightly smaller, younger version of Per, a boy of about fourteen. Ingram Gobbyson, the cousin who admired and ran after Per, and wished they could be brothers.
It could not be Per and Ingram. Could not be.
But the way they sat, the way their hair grew — it was them.
Andrea felt scared and sick. To hallucinate so vividly, while stone sober, in the daylit afternoon — it couldn't be good.
There was only one way to settle it. She had to go right up to the man, look into his face at close quarters, speak to him ... Her heart had thumped wildly as she'd approached him. Now he stood looking down at her, smiling. Her heart hammered and raced, half stifling her. Heat flushed her face, her vision blurred, and she thought that she would faint. Turning, she ran for the quiet room behind the bar.
Near the bar she collided with someone. A big man. An expanse of smooth dark suit filled her blurring vision. Looking up, she saw a rather pink and fleshy but still handsome face. It smirked at her with full red lips from beneath a quiff of very dark hair. She gaped at the man in confusion, recognizing the face and feeling dread at recognizing it, but unable to remember, at that distracted moment, where she had seen it before.
"Andrea!" said the smirking lips, and the whole face creased into what was meant to be a winning smile, though it retained much of its habitual sneer. "You don't look a day older or a pound lighter!"
James Windsor. Meeting James Windsor, under any circumstances, would have spoiled her day. To meet him seconds after meeting Per where Per could not possibly be was sinister and frightening. She couldn't breathe; her knees shook. The edges of her vision were brightening to white — "Let me by!" She shoved past him and hurried, as best she could, through the open gate of the bar and into the little stockroom.
There, among dingy cartons of crisps and peanuts, she collapsed onto a stool, gasped in a deep breath, and leaned forward, putting her head between her knees.
It had been a normal, settled day in what had become her normal, settled life. A casual glance across the bar had torn all that to pieces and thrown it into a wind, to whirl about her. To see Per again, when she had just been recovering from —
And it was not possible! The Tube had been closed down. Per was in his own world, he was five hundred years dead. He could not be here in the 21st, hanging out in pubs with James Windsor.
And Windsor. Per had put a lance through him, and he'd ended up in a hospital bed with half his guts missing. Even if it was possible — which it was not — why would he be in company with —?
She realized something else, which made her sit up straight, something almost as surprising as seeing Per at all. Per hadn't known who she was. She'd spoken to him, she'd stood right in front of him, and he'd looked at her without knowing her and had asked what her name was.
That was impossible. She'd known his shock of roughly cut fair hair, the slope of his shoulders, the slant of his neck. She'd have known his voice, instantly. At a distance she'd have known his walk. She'd have known him in the dark. But to him she'd been a stranger.
The Tube was up and working again.
It was the only explanation. They'd said they were closing it, but it must be up again, it must be. And they'd gone back to a time before contact had been made with the Sterkarms. So Per had never met her and didn't know her.
Per hadn't looked any younger, though.
Of course, if the Tube had gone back to a time ten minutes before contact had been made with the Sterkarms previously ...
She put her face into her hands again, her head aching as her brain tied itself in knots. She didn't understand. She knew only that if James Windsor was involved, it had to be bad news.
A clump of heavy shoes made her look up. Her boss, the landlord, was intruding on her hidey-hole. "Aren't you supposed to be —?" He broke off. "You all right, Petal?"
Andrea opened her mouth to say, automatically, like the good sort she was, that she was fine — but then changed her mind. "I've had a bit of a shock." Her voice wavered convincingly.
"Oh." Her boss stood awkwardly, just inside the door. "Well. Sit there for a bit, if you like. We ain't what you could call busy. Have a cup of coffee."
"Thanks. I'll be okay in a minute."
"Bloke gave me this for you anyway." He held out a small card to her. "Posh sort." Andrea looked at the card but made no attempt to take it. "Go on then — I don't want it."
She took the card. It gave Windsor's name, his telephone number, his cell number, his fax, and his e-mail. On the back he'd written: Want a better job? Call me.
She knew immediately that calling him would be a big mistake, and that she would do it the first chance she had.
4 4 4
At the table in the corner by the door, there was some consternation.
"She spoke English!" Per said to both Gareth and Ingram.
"She did," Gareth agreed, and stared across the bar. James Windsor was speaking to the broad-beamed barmaid. A barmaid who could speak an obscure 16th-century northern dialect of English, so thick it was almost another language — and a language, moreover, not even from this dimension. It was, to say the least, surprising.
"She was beautiful!" young Ingram said enthusiastically.
"Aye," Per agreed, and cupped his hands. "Lovely big tits!"
They both laughed, and Gareth sighed, feeling depressed. The Sterkarms often had that effect on him. They were as unthinking and crude as any 21st-century yobs. Somehow he had expected better from the 16th century. They didn't even have good taste. The woman wasn't beautiful. She was fat.
"She came right up and asked thy name!" Ingram said. "Looked thee right in face and asked thy name!"
Leaning back, adopting a knowing air for his young cousin's benefit, Per said, "Elf-Mayen be like that — forward and free."
Giggling, Ingram leaned across the table and poked his cousin. "She wants thee for her prick!"
Per glanced across the bar, in time to see the Elf-May push past Elf-Windsor and run away into a back room. "Nay," he said, to hide his disappointment. "She's frit it be too big for her!" They both laughed again. Inwardly, Gareth groaned. Soon he would be back 16th side, hemmed in on all sides by people like this.
James Windsor came up, smiling. "Shall we go?" It was an order, framed as a question.
"Elf-Windsor wishes to leave now," Gareth said to Per and Ingram.
Per hesitated for no more than an eye's blink. He would have liked to stay longer — the alehouse was palatial, with thick cloth on the floor and glass in the windows and polished wood and brass everywhere. And then there was the serving may. He would have liked another look at her, and a chance to see if Ingram was right — but this wasn't the tower, where any woman was fair game for him. He was a guest in Elf-Land, and if Elf-Windsor wished to leave, then as a polite guest he had to leave. So he said to Ingram, "Another ride in cart!" Ingram rose readily at that, a smile on his face, and both of them made for the doors.
Falling in beside James Windsor, Gareth said, "That barmaid. She spoke to Per — in Sterkarm."
"She used to work for me," Windsor said. "She was rather good." He omitted to mention that the rough dictionary and tapes from which Gareth had initially learned his "Sterkarm" had been made by Andrea. "I'm thinking of asking her to come back to her old job. You didn't think we'd come all this way just to give the Merc a run?"
"Ah," Gareth said, and wondered if the fat barmaid could be a rival for promotion. Surely not.
Outside the alehouse several Elf-Carts were at rest and waiting. They were of many bright colors — the colors of Elf-Land were brilliant, even garish, and sometimes hurt the eyes. Per led Ingram past them all to the gleaming black cart that was Windsor's. As they stood beside it, waiting for the others, he drew his fingers along its smooth, glassy surface. Dimly, as though in a black mirror, they could see themselves reflected in the cart's side.
"I like red carten," Ingram said, pointing to a scarlet cart on the other side of the pound.
"'Car,'" Per corrected him. "They call them 'cars.'"
The car gave a shrill electronic squeal as Windsor came nearer — it had picked up the signal from the coder in one of his pockets, identified him as its owner, turned off its alarm, and unlocked its doors. Both Windsor and Gareth smiled to see the two Sterkarms jump at the noise.
But then Per opened the driver's door and got into the driver's seat. Ingram laughed aloud, looking from his cousin to the approaching Elves, thrilled by his cousin's daring but a little apprehensive at what the powerful Elf-Windsor might do.
Gareth looked to see how Windsor was taking it too, and was surprised to see Windsor watching the Sterkarms with a strange expression that was almost tender.
"He's quick to learn," Windsor said. "Smarter than a Labrador. You could teach him all sorts of tricks." Windsor was remembering how Per's feet had crumpled the hood of another, similar Merc, and how the lance point had come through the windshield, crazing it, shattering it. That hadn't been this Per, of course. Except that it had.
Per, in the driver's seat, had his hands on the wheel. He pressed the pedals with his feet and pulled at the gear lever, knowing that they had something to do with making the cart go.
Windsor, stooping to look into the car, said, "Okay, okay."
Per, instead of getting out of the car, simply moved over into the passenger seat, thereby ensuring that he sat in the front, next to the driver. Windsor got behind the wheel, and Gareth, opening the back door, ushered Ingram inside before climbing in after him.
Per had already fastened his seat belt — snapping the belt together seemed to have something to do with the magic that made the car go — and was looking eagerly toward the ignition, wanting the ride to begin. In the back, Gareth had to help Ingram fasten his belt. It was the boy's first visit to Elf-Land — he'd been brought along only because Per had asked for him to come.
Windsor didn't fasten his own belt. Instead, he turned and said to Gareth, "We'll give them the gewgaws now, I think. Will you do the honors?" When Gareth looked blank, he said, "The boot?"
Gareth climbed out of the car again, resentfully. It had begun to rain slightly. He opened the boot and took out the two shopping bags, handing them to Windsor through his now opened door.
As Gareth climbed back inside, Windsor handed the bags to Per and Ingram. They were much struck by the material the bags were made of, their smoothness, bright colors, and perfect lettering. The rustling, crinkling noise they made was appreciated too. After a few moments Windsor lost patience, took the bags back, and gave the Sterkarms the velvet boxes from inside. "Open them."
Two watches were found inside: large, chunky, shiny gold things. Per immediately slipped his on over his wrist, showing Ingram how to do it and pointing out the watches that Windsor and Gareth were wearing.
"Gareth will teach you how to use them, eh, Gareth?" Windsor said.
"Oh — aye." Gareth translated what Windsor had said, and promised to teach them how to tell time. A perfect waste of his time, he thought, since the Sterkarms had absolutely no use for watches. They got up at first light and went to bed when it was dark. In between, they herded cattle, robbed one another, and fought. What did it matter to them if it was eleven in the morning or three in the afternoon? Still, he supposed, there was nothing else for him to do once he was back 16th side.
"Toosand takh!" Ingram said. A thousand thanks.
"There are packs of aspirin in there too," Windsor said. "Enough to keep you going for a while."
Gareth translated. Per and Ingram were impressed and excited to see how many boxes of "wee white pills" they were getting. Windsor had supplied the very cheapest and nastiest-tasting aspirin, but it didn't matter. The Sterkarms had nothing to match it for painkilling properties.
"And a couple of rather special T-shirts," Windsor said, and taking one from the bag, he spread it out. Both Per and Ingram exclaimed. The T-shirts were of cheap black cotton. On the chest, in red, was an upraised arm — a left arm — holding a dagger. The arm and dagger were enclosed within the red outline of a shield. It was the Sterkarms' badge, their name in picture form — "strong arm."
Per and Ingram were thrilled. Per undid his seat belt, shrugged off his jacket, dragged off the white T-shirt he was wearing, and put on the new one. Ingram quickly followed suit.
Windsor laughed as he fastened his belt. He pressed the starter button, and the car began to purr. He said, "Kvenna, eh? Stoor kvenna?"
Per wasn't listening, too interested in his gifts and the steering of the car out of the parking lot. Even when Windsor repeated himself, he was puzzled. "Woman, eh?" Windsor had said. "Big woman?" But despite being a powerful Elf-Man, Windsor spoke terrible English, and you had to make allowances. Looking over the back of his seat at Ingram, Per said, "He means Elf-May in alehouse."
"Hoon var smookt!" Ingram said.
Gareth translated for Windsor. "She was beautiful."
Gareth spoke unenthusiastically, but Ingram's tone had been very different. Windsor laughed. "You like her, eh?"
Gareth repeated the question in the Sterkarms' dialect, and Per and Ingram answered together, "Ya!" and laughed.
"Big way!" Per added, trying out some of the Elvish he'd picked up.
Windsor turned the large car onto the main road and picked up speed. The Sterkarms were distracted by the scenery flying past, by the car's faint vibration, like the breathing and heartbeat of a living thing. Ingram, especially, was as scared as he was excited.
"Ask them if they'd like her," Windsor said.
"I've already asked them that."
Irritated and contemptuous, Windsor said, "No. Ask them if they'd like to screw her."
Gareth was silent for a moment. He wanted to ask, What? Am I a pimp now? But he knew that Windsor would only order him to do his job. "I'm not sure how to ask that."
"I thought you were a translator? Ask them!"
It took a few seconds to get their attention away from the car and its speed, but then Gareth said, "Woman in alehouse — er —" He felt his face reddening and was furious with himself. "Would you — er. Like to lie with her?"
Excerpted from A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price. Copyright © 1998 Susan Price. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. 21st Side: Down at the Pub,
2. 21st Side: Taking the Position,
3. 21st Side — 16th Side: The Elf-Palace,
4. 16th Side: The Wedding Ride,
5. 16th Side: The Wedding,
6. 16th Side: The Wedding Dance,
7. 16th Side: The Bedding Ceremony,
8. 16th Side: The Wedding Night,
9. 16th Side: The Wedding Fight,
10. 16th Side: After the Fight,
11. 16th Side: Elf-Rescue,
12. 16th Side: Return to the Tower,
13. 16th Side: A Burial and a Wake,
14. 16th Side: So Braw a Man,
15. 16th Side: The Funeral,
16. 16th Side: A Tiny Hole,
17. 16th Side: The Tower,
18. 16th Side: The Elves' Offer,
19. 16th Side: Peace on the Border,
20. 16th Side: An Agreement,