Walking through the village half a step behind Lazhar—as the ale vendor had introduced himself—Alyssa kept quiet and tried to draw as little attention to herself as possible. Lazhar didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t even ask about her odd attire. Not a single woman that she passed had anything other than a dress on. Alyssa’s pants had to stick out like a sore thumb.
Perhaps he was too preoccupied to concern himself much with the strange visitor. Every ten steps, people walked right up to his wagon. Lazhar chatted with everyone, calling them by name as he refilled their drinks. Alyssa never saw currency exchange hands nor any promise of later payment. Just smiles, laughter, and ale.
Watching them, Alyssa’s initial wariness lessened. Even if they worshiped that angel, they didn’t act like bad people. Everyone was entitled to their own religions. Lazhar had looked disappointed when she had said that she wasn’t a pilgrim, but he hadn’t pressed anything of the religion on her. All he had done was answer her question about the festival. People who came around to preach their religions back on Earth were more pushy than that when they knocked on her door.
So long as it stayed that way, she wouldn’t have a problem with them.
Eventually, they came to one of the larger buildings that she had initially thought to be a barn. Lazhar pulled his cart to a stop around the back. The tall building cast the slightly worn grass into shadow from the moon. Aside from Lazhar, there weren’t any people either. Both had Alyssa casually dropping her hand to the holster at her side.
But Lazhar turned with a smile on his face. “Entrance is on the other side,” he said. “Do me a favor and get Yzhemal to open up the back door? I have a load of ale to deliver.”
“Ah,” came Alyssa’s eloquent response as she moved her hand away in shame. Lazhar didn’t seem to notice. Then again, did he know what guns were? This place didn’t look technologically advanced. He used a mule drawn wagon, had rough leather shoes, and she had yet to see a single sign of electric lighting. “Right,” she said after a moment. “It’s the least I can do after you brought me here.”
“No problem,” he said as she started walking away. “Like I said, I had a delivery to make.”
Alyssa hurried around the building before she could create any other awkward situations. She made it around to the front and entered through a simple wooden door. A drawn out creak pulled everyone’s attention to the opening door. Alyssa stood frozen under the gazes of at least thirty people. Most were dressed in the same manner of clothing as those outside, and all were eating and drinking and laughing with each other. Or, they had been until she arrived.
“Well? Come in, girl. You’re letting all the warm air out.”
“S-Sorry!” Alyssa did as she was asked, closing the door behind her.
The tavern didn’t smell quite like she would have expected of an enclosed building in the Middle Ages. Mint overpowered nearly every other scent inside. Though it wasn’t nearly as powerful as out in the fields. Still, it worked. Only the pungent scent of sweat made it through, and not strong enough to really bother Alyssa. Certainly not worse than at the recreation center she frequented. The source of the mint quickly became apparent around the door. Leaves littered the dirt floor.
“And you lot,” the man behind the bar barked out, pulling Alyssa’s attention back to the tavern patrons. “No need to be staring at everyone who comes in the door. You’re making the lass uncomfortable, you are.”
At his command, most everyone turned back to their drinks, meals, and companions. A few didn’t. A few kept staring at her. The ones who didn’t dress as everyone else did. A young boy seated at one of the tables kept his eyes on her. A kid that, were she on Earth, wouldn’t be out of high school by the looks of things. Just behind him, a man that had bigger muscles than Alyssa did leaned against a wall with one hand resting on a straight sword attached to his side. Alyssa couldn’t help but stare at how gaudy they were. While the man wore a relatively subdued vest made of metal scales, the boy made up for it with his violet cloak. The first real color that Alyssa had seen being worn since entering the town.
A table away, a girl Alyssa’s age—maybe a bit older, Alyssa didn’t have any lines on her face just yet—sat with a serene expression on her face. Her fingers curled through her deep green hair as she let out a deep puff of smoke from an old fashioned pipe. Green hair! With it shaved on one side over her ear, she looked more like she belonged in a punk rock concert than a medieval tavern.
Some of the others drew Alyssa’s attention; a wizened old man with a long white beard, a man with an almost modern tuxedo, and an old woman staring into a crystal ball. Not wanting to cause more of a scene, she refrained from watching them for too long and made her way straight to the counter. The man behind it looked remarkably similar to Lazhar with his same beard and pointed nose. He didn’t have quite the beer belly though. Lazhar probably sampled his own wares more than he should.
“Are you Yzhemal?”
“I see you know me,” he said with a slow nod of his head. He set a tankard on the counter as he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the wooden surface. “Though I cannot say that the reverse is true.”
“I’m Alyssa. Just a traveler, I suppose. Not a pilgrim,” she said before he could ask. Technical truths worked best. She sure wasn’t going to say something about being brought here from another world by the so-called angel they worshiped. And yet she had to say something. Lazhar called her a traveler when he first saw her, so a traveler she would be. “However, Lazhar sent me to tell you that he is waiting out back with a delivery.”
His lips peeled back, displaying the exquisite dental care the Middle Ages provided in the orange tavern lighting. “It’s about time. The last keg is down to nothing but dregs. I’ll be back.” He stepped back towards an opening in the wall behind the counter, but paused to glance back at Alyssa. “You being hungry? Shall I bring you a tankard of fresh ale?”
Alyssa nearly answered in the affirmative. While she had her granola bars and other assorted snacks, plus more food back at the house should she absolutely need it, she obviously wasn’t going to be able to resupply. From now on, she would do her best to preserve them for emergencies. She had just one little tiny probably inconsequential problem.
Lazhar had never heard of America. She had no reason to believe that Yzhemal would be any different. Unless she had wound up somewhere exceedingly strange, she highly doubted that the few dollar bills in her wallet would be much good here. Her credit and debit cards even less so.
“I would, but I have no means with which to pay.”
Yzhemal’s frowned, scratching at his beard in exactly the same manner as Lazhar had. His eyes ran from the top of her brown hair down to her waist, stopping only because of the counter top being in the way.
Alyssa shifted, narrowing her eyes once she realized what he had been doing. This was, by all appearances, a medieval society. Contrary to popular belief, chivalry didn’t exist in Earth’s history. Why should it exist in this medieval town? She should have expected something like this from the moment she realized what the town was. It would be several months before she ran through all the frozen meat in her freezer and possibly even longer for all the canned food. So long as she rationed herself properly. The only downside would be the food tethering her to the house. The house Tenebrael had told her not to leave.
But if she thought about it for a moment, she would almost certainly choose confronting that angel over the worse alternatives. With the food stores, it would be a good year before she was desperate enough to sell herself for a meal.
And definitely not to the first—or second—creep she met. With a full year, she could shop around for someone who looked like they bathed more than once a season.
The tavern keep opened his mouth before she could inform him of that fact.
“I might have a job for a pretty lass.” Alyssa opened her mouth, but he held up a hand. “Pilgrimage season is a busy few days. In years past, I was younger. Now? Too busy for one humble man.”
“You’re saying that you’ll pay me for work. Real work,” she clarified. “Like waiting tables.”
“Cleaning, cooking? Are you able to cook?”
Alyssa opened her mouth to answer yes, but hesitated. Did she know how to cook? She could use a modern stove and a microwave. She could prepare a handful of meals from scratch. How much did that apply to whatever his kitchen looked like? Her idea of cooking from scratch might start twenty steps into his idea of scratch.
So she shook her head. “But I can learn. I think I know the basic theory behind most cooking.”
“We shall see. But! I have kept my brother out in the cold long enough. If I wait too long, he will start drinking my ale to keep warm,” he said with a half-hearted chuckle. “I only wish I could joke about that. When I return, I shall bring a small meal. After, we discuss your duties.” With that, he disappeared into the back door.
Alyssa sighed as she turned back to the rest of the room. Getting a job solved at least one immediate problem. Only by creating a hundred more in the process. The biggest of which was that somewhere deep down, it felt like she was committing herself to staying in this strange world. Which she absolutely wasn’t. Alyssa vowed to find a way home even if she had to twist that angel’s arm to force her. She couldn’t just leave her parents and brother thinking she was dead. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like getting back anytime soon was in the cards.
Really, she wondered if she shouldn’t be freaking out more. Trapped in a strange world with no way home and no real connection to home should alarm her. And yet, she felt oddly calm. Maybe I’m in shock. Freaking out wouldn’t solve any of her problems. It would do nothing more than waste time. So it was probably a good thing she wasn’t.
Looking around, she decided to move to a table in the far corner. High stools lined the counter that Yzhemal had stood behind. If she wanted, she was certain that she could eat there. But then Yzhemal would stand over her the entire time. And probably talk too. On the opposite end of the room, he would have to choose between managing his inn and chatting with his new employee.
The far corner offered another advantage. Alyssa slung her backpack off her back and sat with her back to the wall. No one could sneak up on her. Placing her backpack on the floor between her legs ensured that no one could steal from her either. The counter’s stools lacked that helpful aspect. It wasn’t that she was paranoid. She just had a lot on her, like her cell phone and wallet, that she probably shouldn’t wave around for everyone to see.
Yzhemal returned much faster than she had expected. Food should have taken longer to cook. And yet, he had a wooden tray in his hands as he started for the counter, only to stop and look around when he realized that she had disappeared.
Alyssa gave him a little wave from her corner of the room.
“Sorry,” she said as he approached. “I don’t like leaving people at my back for extended lengths of time.”
“Fair enough,” he said, sliding the tray in front of her.
She looked down and suddenly understood just why her meal had come faster than a modern fast food restaurant. A simple wooden bowl contained some kind of porridgey-oatmeal substance, plain and without color. Two slices of dry bread had been placed just to the side of the bowl, along with three carrots and a single stick of broccoli. Boiled, by the looks of them. Yzhemal likely had all three portions of her meal sitting in the back over some slow burning coals to keep them warm. No cooking required.
A far cry from the pig on a spit, grilled duck, or even roast suckling potatoes that she had expected from a medieval tavern. Hollywood had lied to her again. Then again, she wasn’t a paying customer. Why waste the good food on her?
“Thank you,” she said as she picked up the nearly flat wooden spoon. Packing a few pieces of silverware might be worth running back to the house for.
“Yeap. Come see me when you finish.”
Watching him walk away, Alyssa looked around at the other tables. Others had a bowl of porridge too, but there were other things set out in front of them. The boy in the colorful cloak had a few bones on a plate with a few scattered leaves. And the old man had a pie of some sort. A meat pie.
Alyssa dug her spoon into the thin porridge and brought it to her mouth before she could have second thoughts.
It didn’t taste like anything at all. Which, if she thought about it was better than some alternatives. No sugar. No salt. No spices of any kind. The important thing to remember was that it could easily have tasted like feet and she would have had no choice but to eat it or dig into her stores of granola bars.
At least he had brought along a small tankard of ale. One could never go wrong with a good beer. Taking in a mouthful, she held it there as she thought.
Do I spit it back out or man up and swallow it?