Mira wasn’t sure how she’d gotten there, but she stood on a dirt path with two narrow ruts dug into it. She had pine needles and leaves in her hair, and even a broken off twig. Fresh scratches covered her bare arms and face, and her feet were blistered from heel to toe.
“Oi! Lass! What’re you doing?”
“Wha…” Mira turned to see an old man walking toward her. He had a thick oak staff in one hand and a burlap sack held slung onto his back with the other. Behind him, a donkey weighed down with four more sacks plodded along.
“It’s not safe to stand around day dreaming out in the woods like this,” he said. “And where are your boots? Girl your age ought to know better. Come on, let’s get you to town.”
“Oh. Um, thanks. I’m Mira, by the way.”
“Gestar. Nice to meet you.”
He walked past and beckoned for her to follow. Not having a better idea herself, she did. They walked along, her doing her best to stay off the blisters on her feet and him silent and plodding, just like the donkey he was leading. As she walked, pieces of her forest run started to come back to her. There was the thing, the demon that had attacked her, and the stone she’d taken from inside its body.
And there was the woman who had helped her until she’d seen the cloak Mira wore. Mira remembered that detail with a flush of panic. She pulled the cloak off and balled it up so that the stitching was hidden from view. When Gestar turned to give her a questioning look, she just shrugged and said, “I was getting too warm.”
“If you say so, lass.”
Mira wished she’d taken the pack that her clothes had been in with her, but she hadn’t wanted to take anything more than she had to from whoever had left them for her. Now, with nothing to carry the cloak in, she had to tuck the balled up wad of cloth under one arm.
It was only a twenty minute walk to the edge of a town unlike any place Mira had ever seen. For one thing, there was an actual wall circling it. It was almost twice as tall as she was and looked like it had been made out of rocks instead of bricks or cinderblocks. Men stood on either side of an opening in the wall holding honest-to-God spears in their hands.
That was when Mira gave up. No matter how she tried to reconcile what she was seeing with what she knew, it didn’t add up. There was a big black hole in her memory, and something had obviously happened there, something that she had no explanation for. She remembered leaving work, walking home, and then… nothing solid until she woke up naked in the woods.
They passed under the archway into the town. Mira followed Gestar until he stopped and shot her a look. “First time in Vinmarch? I expect you’ll be wanting a good pair of shoes. Well, you just let me deliver this and I’ll show you to the cobbler’s place.”
Mutely, she nodded. It took her a few seconds to remember what a cobbler even was. Somehow, she doubted it would look anything like the shoe section in a department store. By the time she realized she had no money anyway, Gestar had already disappeared inside, leaving her with his donkey.
The only polite thing to do after that was wait for him to come out, thank him for his help, and figure out how she was going to get home. But when the door opened again, it wasn’t Gestar but a tall, lean man with an overabundance of toned muscle and a face on the border between handsome and pretty. Studded leather straps wrapped his biceps and forearms, and a long-handled ax was slung across his back, held in place by a strap.
“You’re Mira then?” the man asked.
“That’s me. Who are you?”
“Not important. Come with me, please.”
“What if I don’t please?”
The man smirked at her. “I was just being nice.”
“Fine,” she said, eyeing up the man’s arms. Then, muttering, she added, “Prick.”
The inside of the house was more authentically old-timey than any historical recreation could have hoped for. Unfortunately, that included a stink that curled her nose. Mira tried to hold her breath, but the smell seemed to follow her from room to room.
The man led her out a back door to a garden, where four other men stood in a loose circle. Off to the side, Gestar was leading his donkey in through a wooden gate. He gave her a sad smile and ducked his head as he steered the animal over to where he’d already deposited one of his sacks.
“Well then,” one of the men said. He stood head and shoulders over everyone else, and looked to be easily over two hundred pounds of solid muscle. He was wearing a vest over a white shirt, and leather pants tucked into calf-high boots. “This is the demon girl we’ve been hearing about? She certainly doesn’t look like much.”
Everyone else shifted and cast dark glances at her, but none were willing to meet her eyes. If Mira hadn’t known any better, she’d have thought they were afraid of her. She was so distracted by their reactions that it took her a second to realize what the man had called her.
“Hey! What’s this demon shit? And what is it with you people? Everyone is all ‘demon this’ and ‘demon that.’ I’m not a demon. I’m just a girl who’s a long way from home and I’d like to get back there.”
“We were… forewarned… of your arrival,” the man said. “A traveling minstrel came through and told stories of the strange woman she met in the forest who held a demon’s heartstone in her bare hands and wore a cloak bearing the insignia of the demon king.”
He lunged forward and snatched the bundled up cloak from under Mira’s arm. With a shake, he rolled it open to reveal the stitching pattern. “And here it is! No, girl, you might not be a demon, but whatever you are, you’re dangerous. And that’s not something we can deal with right now, not with all the other problems.”
“What should we do with her, Kull?” one of the other men asked.
Kull scowled at him. “I have a few ideas, Velun.” The emphasis on the man’s name was unmistakable. “But for now, I think she should be jailed until we sort out the problems you hired me to deal with.”
Velun wilted under Kull’s glare and ducked his head with a mumbled apology. One of the other men opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Mira said, “Now hold on just a minute here. I haven’t done a thing to anyone. I definitely haven’t done anything to deserve being thrown in jail. If you don’t want me in Camelot-lite here, fine, I’ll clear out of town. Wasn’t even my idea to come here to begin with. Like I said, all I want is to go home.”
“And where’s that?” Kull asked.
“Home? Uh, I live in apartment in Elkton.”
“That so? Never heard of it. Look, if you’re really not a demon, then it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re a day or two behind schedule. Judging by the state you’re in, you need a break from the road anyway. I’ll have this local trouble cleaned up in a few days, and you’ll be free to go.”
“What? No! Screw that. I don’t owe you guys anything,” Mira said. “And I’m definitely not going to sit in a jail cell for a few days because you guys are scared of a skinny white girl from Oregon.”
“Oregon, huh?” Kull echoed. “I thought you said you lived in Elkton.”
“Elkton is a town in Oregon, jackass.”
“We’re not really giving you a choice here. For Vinmarch’s safety, you’re going to be confined until the current crisis is resolved and the council has time to deal with you. If that’s not acceptable, we can just kill you now and be done with it.”
Mira sputtered and glared at Kull, but he just gave a faintly amused smile back to her. The man with the armbands and the ax who’d escorted her to the garden moved up to grab her arm. She tried to jerk away, but he just clamped down tighter and gave it a twist.
“Come on, then,” he said. “The more you fight, the rougher this’ll be for you. Behave yourself, and it won’t be a bad few days.”
“Fuck you guys. This isn’t right, and you know it.”
Some of the men did look troubled, but none spoke up to defend her. In the end, Mira had no choice but to let herself be led away.
* * *
The jail smelled, if anything, worse than the rest of the town. It had straw bedding in one corner that looked like it had been there for years, and an actual bucket for her to go to the bathroom in sitting against the opposite wall. They hadn’t provided her with any sort of toilet paper to wipe with either.
One good thing to come out of it was food. It wasn’t particularly appetizing, but Mira literally couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten, and when the cop or guard or whatever he was called passed her a wooden bowl full of some slop through the bars, she’d devoured it. It was disgusting, but she’d have eaten a second bowl if they’d given it to her.
The first day was mercifully swift. As it turned out, Mira needed the rest. She spent most of it asleep despite the scratchy straw at her back and the questionable smell. Exhaustion outweighed discomfort, and it wasn’t until her bladder demanded attention that she woke up sometime in the night.
The second day, however, was one filled with boredom. It was nice to stay off her feet, but there was nothing to do but wonder and worry. She spent her time testing out one theory after another, but nothing fit. She didn’t know what was hidden in her missing memories, and ideas like “thrown backward in time” were too unbelievable to be real.
It made for a fruitless and frustrating day. She was fed once and otherwise left alone and ignored. Mira couldn’t ever remember feeling quite so powerless as that second day in jail. She could hear the world passing her by through the cell’s window, but it was set too high for even to see out it. It was maddening.
Kull came to visit her on the third day. He had dried blood on one side of his face and a fresh chunk of his nose missing. He walked with a pronounced limp, but none of that stopped him from scowling as he stomped up to her cell. “Just thought you’d want to know that things aren’t going well. You’re going to be in here a while longer than I expected.” He turned to walk away, then stopped and looked back at her. “Sorry.”
“Hey, wait! Come back here,” Mira called out. “You can’t just leave me in here. I didn’t do anything.”
Kull didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down. He just limped back out of sight and, thirty seconds later, Mira heard the jailhouse door close. “Fuck,” she muttered.
* * *
“Why are you still here?” a voice asked.
Mira jerked awake and looked to the cell door, only to find it empty. “Who’s there?” she asked into the dark.
“Stupid girl. If you’re as powerful as you’re supposed to be, why are you letting this village of fools and puppets control your life? You’ve had enough time to rest. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Now that Mira was awake, she realized the voice came from inside her cell. Standing in the corner was a slender woman with one hand on her hip. She wore form-fitting clothes that left her stomach and arms bare, though it was hard to tell in the dark. Everywhere below her neck where skin showed was covered in markings. Only after a moment of study did Mira realize they were tattoos.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”
“Fine,” Mira snapped. “I’m here because I can’t bend iron bars, because the men who put me here were bigger and stronger than me and I was outnumbered.”
“Excuses. I know what you are,” the woman said. “Even if you don’t. You’re here because you’re afraid. You’re lost, and you’re confused, and you just want to go back to your pathetic little life on your pathetic little world.”
It must have been Mira’s imagination, but she could have sworn the tattoos on the woman’s arms moved around as she spoke. She tried not to look at it, instead focusing her attention on the glint of metal pierced through the woman’s bottom lip. “You still didn’t tell me who you are,” Mira said.
The woman stepped closer. “You may call me Shy. I’m here to give you a present.”
Mira recoiled. “I don’t think I want anything from you.”
“Oh no, you do. You really, truly, absolutely do. Here, take it.”
One of the tattoos snaked down Shy’s arm into the palm of her hand. She flicked her wrist and it blossomed upward like ink flying off a fountain pen to form into the shape of a knife. Shy caught the tip between her fingers and offered it to Mira.
“Those men in Kull’s mercenary band are in a foul mood. There’s been talk that you’re to blame, that the demons know things they shouldn’t and you told them.”
“That’s stupid. How am I supposed to have done that from inside here?”
“Frightened men are rarely rational. They’ve been beaten badly by the demons and are looking for an excuse to take it out on someone who can’t fight back.”
Mira looked from the knife to Shy. “Why should I trust you?”
Shy shrugged. “Why shouldn’t you?”
“You say you want to help me. Fine, get me out of here. That’d be helpful. You got in somehow. You must be able to get back out. Take me with you.”
Shy laughed. “Your fragile little human mind couldn’t handle the strain of it. It took months of work to prepare you for the first trip, and even then, you suffered permanent damage. No, it’s better for you to find your own way out. In fact, I think I hear opportunity knocking right now.”
She pressed the knife into Mira’s hand and stepped back into the shadowy corner of the cell. “Good luck, little girl. Prove that your worth the name of your ancestors.”
Then she was gone, and Mira was alone. The jailhouse door opened, and the sound of footsteps gave Mira a few second’s warning to hide the knife behind her back before a guard with an oil lantern came into view.
“Don’t know how you did it,” he grunted as he fumbled with a key ring before fitting one into the cell door. “But you’re sure as hell going to regret it by the time I’m done with you.”
The door swung open and the guard stepped in, his lantern held high in one hand and a thick wooden club clutched in the other.