Warning: some readers may not find this tale tasteful.
Although he was certainly no believer in supernatural occurrences, be they ghosts, faces of saints on buildings, or cures performed at sacred shrines, upon awakening and looking around, he didn't even attempt to deny that the more or less orderly universe that he had known all his life had been turned upside down. It seemed that unexplainable events didn't happen only to believers, and what had happened was actually even weirder than the appearance of ghosts. Hoping that it would provide extra oxygen for his brain to process all the unusual occurrences and, perhaps, help control his rapid heartbeat, he inhaled deeply a few times and discovered that the unpleasant odor became even worse. He had never been one to panic, and, after several seconds of ignoring the smell, difficult though that was, things became closer to normal, at least internally. Outside his body, it was a different matter.
He thought to himself, 'I'm still Gary Snider, still twenty-nine years old with a degree in physics, and, if anyone is playing a prank on me, it has gone way beyond the ridiculous.' It had all begun when he paid a visit to the little town in Wales to see the old castle. No, it had begun earlier, although all the weird events up until that time in the little Welsh town could be explained without resorting to repeal of natural law. The events flashed through his mind quickly while he was trying to decide how to proceed.
When he visited Wales, Gary was totally at loose ends, he and his now-ex-girlfriend Marilyn having, less than a year earlier, each received five-and-a-half million dollars plus a few shares of stock for the consulting firm they had started fresh from college and built up to provide steady incomes for them and two employees. The purchasers were more interested in software that he and Marilyn and the employees and coworkers had developed than in the company itself, but they had formally agreed to keep the firm operating or at least to keep the two employees for at least five years, a period that was more than adequate for them to find other employment. Both employees were quite skilled and could probably walk into another firm and be hired immediately, and Gary and Marilyn had added one-hundred thousand, after taxes, to the pension fund of each. Gary knew one of the employees didn't need to concern himself over money, anyway. So, there were no regrets on anyone's part because of the sale.
Having no urgent need to work and plenty of money for a new home, a new automobile, travel, and other enjoyable pursuits with one's lover would not normally be considered a problem; however, shortly after the sale was completed, Marilyn presented him with the news that she would be trading him in for another model.
"Gary, I've tried not to do this or say this, but I can't help myself. I love you, but I have found that I love Ray even more. I don't know anything to say except I'm sorry, and I know that doesn't make you feel a lot better. I'd be perfectly happy sharing my love between the two of you because I love you both deeply, but, even without asking, I know neither of you will go for that option."
Although Gary was aware that a man given such news was supposed to feel betrayed, to accuse his partner and the other man, and to vow revenge, he was not even angry, just filled with sorrow and regret. Ray, Raymond, had been his best friend since they began college and was one of his and Marilyn's two employees. Ray was actually the one who had introduced Marilyn to Gary back in those early days when she had been Ray's girlfriend, and Gary and one of the young women he was dating at the time had sometimes gone with the other couple on dinner dates and often attended parties with them. Although there had been no unfaithfulness or other monkey business, after Marilyn and Ray split amicably, with each beginning to date others, Gary became one of her dating partners and soon her only dating partner. They had been living together for several years and had plans for marrying when their consulting business finally left them enough time.
He briefly considered the sharing option she had mentioned but rejected it quickly because he knew it wouldn't work even if Ray agreed to it. It was not even primarily the sex situation that he could not accept, but instead it was knowing that there would be a deeper love for one partner than for the other and that he would always see it in her eyes or in the glow on her face. He wondered how she had avoided showing that love for Ray during the period after it had rekindled up until the present, but he concluded that the bustle and stress of selling and transferring the business had just made him unaware or her inexpressive, perhaps some of both. He knew that it had put a strain on their relationship but thought it would be temporary. He didn't even ask her if she had engaged in intercourse with Ray because, although he assumed that she and Ray were too loyal to do anything behind his back, it didn't change the situation if she had. 'Too loyal as friends to do anything behind his back except fall in love' flitted through his head, but he knew that was unfair. Briefly, very briefly, he had wanted to hate both of them, but he found that he really couldn't develop whatever it took. He bowed to the inevitable: she would marry Ray.
In his late twenties, Gary had all the money he could spend, no family closer than distant cousins, no reason to stay where he was, and nothing he really needed to do. Momentarily, he considered chasing women full time or drinking himself under the table every day as an antidote to the loss of Marilyn, but having emotionless sex was not his way, and being in an alcoholic fog didn't appeal to him. On a whim, he enrolled in a martial-arts class, four hours a day, although he couldn't have explained why he did that because he had no enemies against whom he needed to protect himself, and he didn't intend to use any new-found skills to beat up on Ray, whom he still considered a friend, or do violence to Marilyn, who had said that she thought she loved both men. To his surprise, Gary found that, in addition to getting much-needed physical exercise from his practice of martial arts, he became quite good, not at any exalted level, of course, and, although he didn't know of any practical use the skill might have, he felt better about himself and about the situation. After a while, he decided to visit Europe, or, more-specifically, to visit the British Isles.
He knew that, other than the government that would want taxes from him, the only ones who would even care where he was were Marilyn and Ray, but, although it might seem strange to anyone who didn't know the three of them well, he knew they would worry and try to locate him if he just disappeared; so, he paid them a visit to wish them well and to tell them of his plans before he left the country to tramp across the south of Britain. Surprisingly, he had no difficulty in updating his passport and obtaining other necessary paperwork, and even the journey went exactly as it was supposed to go for once. Soon he was making his way from a village just outside Gloucester toward the principality of Wales, stopping often to visit castles, as he had planned. During his trek, he continued his training in martial arts whenever he could find a gym, an instructor, or just a willing partner for practice.
With no trouble but several enjoyable days of visiting, exploring, and sight-seeing along the way, he found his way to Wales and enjoyed walking from town to town, visiting old castles and ruins of castles when they were open and old and new pubs which were almost always open. He had stopped in the village in which he sat drinking away an evening in a local pub because he had heard tales about a local haunted castle or, maybe, about a haunted lady who inhabited that castle and sometimes visited elsewhere in town, and such events usually meant a pleasant tale or two in the local pubs. The haunting was said to occur once each month or once every few months or, perhaps, only once every few years, with the reported frequency depending on the source, all of which agreed that the haunting always occurred on a night with a full moon, and a full moon was just a couple of days away on that evening when Gary sat, enjoying his pint of ale and listening to tall tales from his drinking companions, who were willing to tell the stories if he bought the ale. While he didn't believe the tales and doubted the ones telling them believed them fully, they added intrigue to his sojourn in this village, and, although even the portion of the castle that was not in ruins had been closed to public tours for a bit of badly needed maintenance, he hoped to gain entry by spreading a bit of money about. Little had he expected what occurred.
One of the locals held forth, "It's said to have occurred in the fourteenth century, about thirteen-sixty-five, and, for sure, the castle dates from about that time. Lady Gwenyth married when she was only eighteen, what we consider young but getting a bit old for a noble lady of that time, and her man, Lord Alun, wasn't much older than she. It's said that they loved each other deeply and that they enjoyed a good romp in the hay almost every day or night, and I suspect it was hay back then. 'Tis said Alun had done his share of playing with the local girls before marrying, and the tales say that Gwenyth had been a lusty bit also before marrying him. The couple liked to visit a pub much like this one and had their special table in a dark corner." He pointed. "Like that one. They might wander into that pub any evening. They were a good-looking couple and would buy drinks for townspeople who were in the pub on the evenings they visited, and sometimes, they would pick a likely-looking lad or a lively wench, if there were any of either present, to sit at their table and flirt, nothing more than flirt. Now this didn't happen all the time, but occasionally, and parents made sure sons and daughters of the appropriate age were usually about because Alun and Gwen might help the young man or lass find a place in life if he or she showed intelligence and drive. Furthermore, folk say that they never abused, ill-used, or took advantage of anyone spending an evening drinking with them. It was all peachy with them for five or six years, and they were well loved by all the locals, but it didn't last."
"No one knew it, but Alun had a flawed heart and, while they were engaged in having a jolly time back in the castle one evening Alun was stricken suddenly and died within the hour. Of course, he didn't want to die and leave her, but it's said that he was doubly irked because he didn't believe he had given his Gwen her due ration of excitement and loving before he left her. Now, I don't swear to the truth of all of that, but that's the tale that has come down to us."
"Yes," another put in, not wanting to miss the possibility of another ale by not contributing, "and it's said he vowed to her as he was dying that he would help her find another to be her man for life if she would come to their pub when the moon was full each month. The tales say that she may have visited their pub and may have enjoyed a few men but that she never found a man to wed and that, upon her death, her spirit was fated to continue visiting the pub and choosing men for her pleasure until she found the right man."
A third added, "Of course, their pub's gone, but people swear she's sometimes been seen here and at other pubs in town. I've never seen her, but, even today, she's supposed to still be making those pub appearances. A couple lives in the modest cottage on the castle grounds and claim title to it, although government might dispute ownership. Anyhow, they're the caretakers, and she claims to be a descendant of Lady Gwenyth. Her tale doesn't quite fit very nicely with the other tales of Gwen's never finding a man to wed, but they're all just good stories for an evening spent as we are spending this one."
"I wouldn't be so sure. My brother Egbert was one of the men who was chosen. People say she visits every month, but, so far as I know, the time that she picked him is the only visit since I've been a man," a fourth man said. "People back up Egbert's claim and attest that they saw him leave the pub with this beautiful young woman after they had spent most of the evening kissing and flirtng, over in that corner. I wasn't here with him, then, but he swears that she took him to the castle with her and soon had him engaged in giving her the delight she desired. He says she seemed substantial enough, but a strange thing he reported was that, suddenly, a ghostly man, Lord Alun, he was sure, stood by the bed yelling at him. My brother finally admitted that he was so unnerved he got up and left with the act only half finished. Egbert has been pretty much off women since then, over four years ago."
The second man took over again, "According to the tales over the years, it's been more or less that way with every man. She comes to one of the pubs and sometimes picks a man to take back to the castle with her, but all of them have insisted they're yelled at and, sometimes, physically assaulted by Alun's ghost. He doesn't seem to be helping her get her man, and, in all of the tales I've heard, nobody has ever even claimed to spend the full night with her."t.
By making a sizable donation to help with the repairs being carried out, Gary succeeded in his efforts to visit the castle, and, during the tour, he had an opportunity to speak with the caretakers, Rhys and Carys, a man and a woman in their mid-forties. Although they dressed well and were assuredly not penniless, they didn't appear to be wealthy, nor, if the tales of the villagers were believed, did they live lives of luxury. They seemed to be somewhat above mean in intelligence but were not greatly different otherwise from a random couple one might encounter in the area.
They and those before them had maintained the castle in some fashion, but not extremely well, and the centuries showed. There was some furniture, a bit of it made to look as if it came from earlier centuries and other furniture more modern. Gary thought to himself that he didn't envy Gwenyth or her ghost for having this castle as her habitat.
During their conversation and explanation, the woman had said, "We have to charge people who want to tour the castle in order to maintain it because we aren't rolling in pound notes, but we aren't really interested in making a fortune from the castle. It has been in my family forever, and my folk have handed from parent to child the story that we come down from Gwenyth but not from Alun; however, I have no proof of that because there are no written records. We know when Alun died, and that is all that is definite. I believe my family tale and don't know whether it means my ancestor was illegitimate or whether Gwenyth found another man to wed and love her as the tales say Alun promised her. I only hope she had a good life, if anyone had a good life back in those days."
After the castle tour, Gary debated whether to hike on to the next village on his list or to remain near the castle until after the full moon to listen to the tales that might arise to explain the failure of Gwen's ghost to appear. Finally, he decided to stay put for a bit.
He knew little about the fourteenth century but faintly remembered from his studies and reading that bubonic plague, the black death, had swept across Europe around mid-century and had killed most of the people. Since even the little place he was staying had access to the web, he logged on to satisfy his curiosity and found that the plague had occurred around 1349 in the area where he was and that it was thought to have killed somewhere around one-third of the population of Britain and Wales, perhaps a bit less than a third, perhaps a bit more. He also found that the disease took three forms, bubonic, pneumonic, and a form that attacked the blood directly and that the bubonic type was the lesser evil, if one could say lesser about a malady that killed half the people who had it. The form attacking the blood was almost always fatal within a few hours. Alun and Gwenyth would probably have lived through the plague years as young children, a detail no one had mentioned in the tales about the haunted castle and its haunted lady. A web page mentioned the poor sanitation of the time, that baths were rare, and Gary suspected that the ghost of a lady from the period would be preferable to a embodied lady from the period. One of the articles he found stated that the plague had changed feudal society, killing some feudal lords with that lord's holdings being taken over by a neighboring lord or by an outsider awarded the position by the king. Although the relationship between a Welsh peasant and his lord had been more equal than that of serfs and their feudal lord, that began to change when the lords were more beholden to the British king. Gary didn't know what all that meant for Lord Alun and Lady Gwenyth around the year 1365, but the life didn't seem inviting for nobles or peasants.
On the night of the full moon, he was in the same pub where he had sat listening to the tales a few days earlier, and, around seven o'clock, a good-looking young woman about his age, perhaps as much as two or three years younger, came in and ordered a pint of ale and joined him at his table after identifying herself as Gwenyth. Gary had suspected something earlier when he had been given excuses by several locals for not joining him, even though they had previously drunk with him, and he knew for certain now that he was having a trick played on him for someone's amusement. He decided to play along because the villagers around here weren't known for harming people passing through, and he didn't mind being the butt of a joke if there was a good tale to go along with it. The woman was no raving beauty as had been the Gwenyth of the tales, but she was certainly pleasant enough to view and converse with for an evening in a pub, if she possessed intelligence. Although she was certainly a material woman and not a ghost, she seemed to have bathed recently, and her scent, a mixture of clean woman and very weak perfume, was pleasant.
Gary and the woman who had claimed to be Gwenyth drank and talked for the remainder of the evening. Her dress could have been from almost any time, but it seemed that she had found a garment from some past era or one that was made to appear so because it had no buttons. She made no particular effort to appear ignorant of the present and talked of things modern as well as things of the past. During their chatting, she let him know that she had recently lost her man and was out tonight looking for a bit of fun and, maybe, more, and he revealed his recent troubles to her without being too specific. He knew soon enough that she was certainly intelligent and had a ready wit and that she was a woman he wouldn't mind getting to know better after the locals had enjoyed their fun with him. He knew that, if she was a local woman and was not the wife or girlfriend of one of the pranksters, he would likely spend a few more days here to become better acquainted, and, on second thought, decided that, even if she was a prankster's girlfriend, that man deserved whatever might ensue. He was certain of one thing; Gwenyth, or whatever was her real name, could hold her pints without excessive visits to the loo and without becoming intoxicated. Unlike in the tales, he and this Gwenyth didn't exchange kisses and caresses all through the evening, although they did have a few friendly brushes of lips when they found something in their conversation very interesting or very amusing, and, once, when he gave her thigh a squeeze just for a test, she didn't object.
After two or three hours, she invited him to go along with her, and, when he agreed, she led him from the pub down the street toward the old castle, which was deserted at this hour. Well, he supposed it wasn't totally deserted because the ones setting up and enjoying the joke on him were probably hidden inside, ready to jump out at him. There was not enough light to see the lock that had been put on the door, but she produced a small flashlight and a key and let them in. Producing and using the flashlight wasn't in keeping with her role, but, even though she was certainly very intelligent and knew history, she hadn't pretended to avoid knowledge of modern customs and gadgets earlier. Still, Gary expected the prank to end at any moment, but, after re-locking the door, she led him on to one of the bedrooms, one with the outdated furniture, where she focused the light from the flashlight on a candle sitting on a table by the bedside while she used a match, a modern match, which was lying by the candle to light it. At any moment, he anticipated someone or a crowd jumping out to tell him he was the fool this time; however, he followed her lead in exchanging kisses and caresses when she began to make love to him. He knew he should put an end to it, but he didn't, expecting her to do so; however, they continued making love right on through to the end, very, very satisfactorily for both, if truth must be known. Afterward, they kissed a while and fell asleep without extinguishing the candle, but, as he began to nod off, he wondered where the obnoxious Alun had been and was.
When he awakened, it was morning, and things were different. He was still in the bed beside Gwenyth, whom he had begun calling Gwen, in the same bedroom, in the castle, but the bedroom was different in some manner, and the castle itself appeared different. Last night and when he had toured the castle, there had been a musty smell that was gone; however, the current smell, though unidentifiable, was itself not pleasant. After experiencing the rapidly beating heart and the mental confusion, he knew that something had shifted, that he was not in the same ruined castle where he and the young woman beside him had made love and where they had gone to sleep. He decided that the best course was to get up and explore the surroundings after dressing, and he had begun to arise from the bed when Gwen awoke.
First, she said something he didn't understand; then, after a look at him, she said, "Good morning, Gary. You won't understand what anyone says in Gamrayic, but I will translate for you. Apparently, you have passed the test and will be my lover and my champion. I'll call for clothes for us." He knew that the word she used was not really Gamrayic, but that was what it sounded like to him. He would try to learn better. He didn't know what he was in for, but being her lover might not be bad even if all else was.
She arose to stand beside him and pulled a cord. Soon, a woman entered, followed by a man, and Gwen, who had used the bed linen to cover herself and Gary, spoke to the man and woman in what he assumed must be the language she had called Gamrayic. After a brief conversation, they gave slight nods, bows perhaps, and left. He was certain beyond doubt that this was not really a prank any longer, and he didn't know anything to do but follow Gwen's lead.
"They'll be back shortly with clothes for us. You don't have to cover in front of the servants, but it is polite to do so. And although it's not something I believe you would ever do, you must not harm or harass the servants. Many lords and ladies do so, but Alun did not allow it, and I do not allow it."
He had no intention of harming any servants and was more interested in getting dressed. "If my clothes are not suitable, will my underwear be acceptable?" Gary asked.
"The servants will think it strange, and, based on what I have experienced, nothing from your land will long endure here, but wearing it will be acceptable since it is covered. Ah, here they are back with our clothing," she told him.
Gary had donned his briefs, and the man helped him get into some type of leg sleeve, one for each leg, that attached to a belt and a tunic that came down to nearly his knees, while the woman helped Gwen dress in some undergarment and some garment that fit over it and laced up the front. Gary thought he remembered such a garment being called a kirtle, an undergarment he was sure, although Gwen and the servant woman were both wearing it without an outer cover. Both he and Gwen donned simple leather shoes with a leather sole. When they were dressed, the servants gave them bread and milk, followed by a pint of ale for each. He followed her lead in eating and drinking, and, although he expected the ale to leave him a bit light-headed, he found that it did not, likely because it had a low alcoholic content.
When they had eaten, Gwen began a conversation, "Gary, I don't understand everything that is happening, and I'm sure you don't; however, I'll tell you what I know. A bit over than a year ago, my husband Alun, to whom I had been wed seven years, died suddenly, but, before he died, he told me that I would find a worthy man who would love me as he did and could protect our people if I visited the nearby monastery's ale house where he and I liked to go to have a pint and to listen to problems brought to our attention by our people. The qualities necessary in that man have changed somewhat over the months, but I'll tell you more about that presently. Our castle exists in your land as well as in our land, and I have apparently visited your land several times and spent considerable time there because I speak and understand your language; however, that ability could possibly be something that Alun's spirit has given me, though I don't believe that is true. I would suspect I have been there many times because my servants tell me I have brought several strange men here, none of whom was still here when morning came until you. I remember only four before you, and two of those were from our local ale house, but I trust my servants and believe what they have told me. That I remember differently from them and that there must be more 'I's than can really be is just another of the mysteries because those other 'I's appear to be as real as I am, and I seem to know part of what they learned, but not all of it. I don't know where I was when the my other selves were here or where they are now. I don't know how I get from this land to your land, but I really suspect it is the same land, only changed. Your land doesn't even reckon time the same. Can you understand the possibility of two realities with one person and no one else able to go back and forth between them?"
"Alternative histories. Yes, I understand the concept and what it means, although I never believed it could truly happen. What is the year here now?" Gary asked.
"The Church says it is one thousand, three hundred, and seventy-two years after the birth of the Lord. That is the date most commonly used, but the Druids give some different date. I found when we drank together and talked together that you were far from stupid, and you are apparently educated. Many of the men and women in my land can't understand or accept anything out of the commonplace, but Alun and I liked challenging each other's minds."
"Your world and my world are the same, at least likely so, but in my world your world has already been and is over six hundred years in the past. In my world, the date is two thousand and ten, not one thousand, three hundred, and seventy-two," Gary told her.
"That's as easy to accept as different realities, alternative histories as you say. Then, the castle is a means of traveling from one period of time to another period of time and back again. But the round-trip journey is not perfect because some version of me has made many trips and brought back several men while I have made only a few journeys and only on full-moon nights and have brought back two men before you; however, I am those other versions of me, also, because I understand the language they have learned, though I don't remember learning it or remember all the men," Gwen told him.
"Your IQ must be off the scale. How many others in your time would understand any of this?" Gary wondered.
"What is IQ? That is new to me," she said.
"Intelligence quotient, a measure of how much intelligence you have," he replied.
"I suspect my intelligence is high compared with others. I know Alun picked me as a bride, based as much on my wit and intelligence as on the fact that I was a comely and lusty, even lustful, wench. He liked both and often said he couldn't have lived with a dull woman. Even many of our servants and the tenants of the land loyal to the manor are above what you will find among most of the populace, servant or lord or lady."
"Your servants don't seem to fear you or resent you," he told her.
"No," she said, "we have tried to treat them as we would have wanted to be treated if we were born to servitude. They must work although they are not serfs, but we don't work them beyond what they can endure, and we have never beaten a servant and don't even yell at them too often. We even say please and thank you quite often. Our customs are different from those of the English because the lord and lady of the manor know they have kin among those surrounding them and often grew up with all playing together on feast days and other times we were not working. But enough of that, and forgive me for still saying 'we' when Alun is gone."
He replied, "No forgiveness necessary. I noted that you used the flashlight, the small cylinder that emitted a light, and lit the bedside candle with the match without hesitation. What do people here think of such objects? Do they consider them demonic magic?"
"I don't show them about much, mostly to two servants whose IQs are, as you said, off the scale and who are completely trustworthy. They, like several of the servants and subjects of Alun, are his cousins; these two are fairly close, but some are more distant. Although I'll let you observe and learn about our customs and relationships instead of telling you about them, they may appear somewhat strange if you grew up among the English. Well, no, you grew up in a land -- a time, we decided -- that would be strange even to the English, although you speak a language that is close to English. As to the items brought from your land, time, to our time, they soon disintegrate, become particles of dust. I tried bringing back matches because they are so useful, but they didn't last long. I brought what you called the flashlight. See, it still works, but it won't last long either. Owain and I have done some testing because we refused to believe such lights are powered by magic. We suspect that they are powered by the small cylinders within. See. Take the end cover off, and it doesn't provide light. Take the small cylinders out, and nothing, with or without the cover. Put the cylinders in incorrectly and no light. Something comes from the small cylinders to provide power, but it seems to flow only when conditions are right. Now, look at the end cover. There is a strip of metal across it, with one end of the strip touching the center of a small cylinder and the other going to this piece of metal along the side. Watch what happens when I put a copper coin across the center of the small cylinder to the side of the flashlight. Light if I press down on the coin. But see; nothing if I put a piece of wood across instead of the coin."
He broke into her explanation to say, "But you say the flashlight and other items brought back from my time will soon decay away into dust and, I suspect, quit working even sooner."
"That is correct. Thus, we have to learn about the items very quickly if we want to understand why they work, but even knowing how they work provides us no advantage because they are soon gone. Still, learning can't hurt."
"You and Owain and your other clever servant are scientists, very good ones. Does everything turn to dust at the same rate, or do some decay faster than other?" he wanted to know.
"Some much faster than others, but all within two fortnights, even a mouse, except for one time," she replied.
She was about to go on, but he stopped her, "Let me think a moment. There's something I need to go through in my mind before we talk more."
She remained quiet while Gary thought rapidly, and his thoughts didn't provide any comfort. If a mouse that was brought back had died quickly, that didn't bode well for him, and he was surprised that Gwen and her servant Owain hadn't thought of that, given their apparent high intelligence. Perhaps they were accepting her Alun's promise that a man from the pub would save her and her people as meaning that he would be her protector forever. Then again, perhaps his role, as assigned by Alun, was simply to father a child before he faded away. That might be good enough for Gwen, but it wasn't good enough for him, although there appeared to be little he could do about it. He wondered what hadn't decayed like the rest, probably some gemstone or item that already existed here. But, on the other hand, that didn't appear likely either because it would then be here in the original and in a copy from the future if it didn't fade away. He might as well obtain the additional information she had, let her say whatever she had been about to say when he stopped her.
"Tell me everything. People have said that your husband promised you a man from the pub would make you happy for life. Tell me more about Lord Alun's promise. What must I do?"
"Likely, the first thing you must do is fight and defeat Lord de Braeden, who will challenge you as soon as he sees you with me. Alun's spirit or whatever it is that tests all the men I have chosen believes you can defeat him, else you would not have awakened in my bed. Are you a great warrior? You didn't claim such when we were drinking at the pub, but you appear modest."
That wasn't the discussion he wanted to be having, but he decided he might as well get this topic out of the way before dealing with whether his life could be prolonged. After getting details, he could decide whether to go out in a blaze on a suicide mission for her or to just fade away.
"I'm not a warrior at all, and the only fighting I know about is done without weapons. Knights wear armor here, don't they?" he asked. He was carrying on this conversation as if he were going to accept the challenge from this Lord de Braeden and fight him for what. Gwen's honor? Her property? He didn't know, and he knew the old Gary Snider would never fight a duel for a woman, but, of course, the old Gary wouldn't have let himself get into a situation where he was transported to the fourteenth century without hope of surviving more than a few weeks. He realized that, if he had to be here, short though his time might be, he wanted to spend that time here with this woman, Lady Gwenyth. She might not be the woman he wanted to be with forever, if he were to be here forever, because she appeared to be quite ready to use her sexual charms to improve her situation. On the other hand, she had stayed loyal to her Alun while he lived, for seven years.
Gwen replied to the question he asked, not to his musings, "Yes, but I doubt you know much about horses because I've seen drawing of horses but no real horses in your world, and, if you wear armor, you must have a horse to carry you about. A knight on foot can't wear armor because it's too unwieldy. But, as I said, you probably don't know much about horses. People in your world travel in carriages powered by something not animate, but, unless all other explanations fail, I won't believe it is magic; however, all that can wait to be an interesting exercise for our minds in the future because we need to focus on what's important now. A warrior on foot wears chain mail, links of metal that make a tunic. Even that, to be effective, is heavy and tires a man quickly. Lord de Braeden, who is taller and bears more muscle than most, would be more able than others to bear up to the burden of the mail, but no one can fight for long so equipped."
Gary interrupted, "Am I to assume that this Lord de Braeden wants to marry you and you don't want to marry him? Is that why I must fight him?"
"No, he doesn't want to marry me; he wants me as his common whore, and he wants to ruin my people and my estate. I would marry him to save them, and I would even prostitute myself to save everything, but he would destroy the people and ruin the lands even if I submitted to him. Let me tell the tale."
"Good. I need to get it all straight," he replied. Once that was accomplished, perhaps he could discover why Alun had promised that he, Gary, would make Gwen happy for the rest of her life.
"Alun's actual title was Baron Oswel, referring to the lands, and that's the best I can put it in your language, but from childhood, he was known by all the people as just Lord Alun or more often as just Alun. His father died when he was very young, and his mother held the lands and people for him on her own without re-marrying, and the English king dared not offend the people by giving the title or the lands to another. She still lives, but Alun, the only son, assumed the title of baron at sixteen, and he married me at twenty. I was merely the younger daughter of a minor baron, subject to Alun, who, having heard of me, came to bed me, but he wed me as well. I was the luckiest woman in the world, and he said he never regretted taking me as wife. You have heard of his promise to me, and he has visited me after his death. I had never believed in ghosts, but his presence seems real. I visited the local public house, as he made me promise, and, on two occasions, chose landless, untitled younger sons of barons, and, although I soon discarded the first as not having the required wits, the second, young Cadwin, appeared to be the one; however, that was before de Braeden appeared on the scene, and we knew Cadwin was not ready to stand against him when he showed up. I sent Cadwin out of the county to find a life elsewhere because I did not want him killed needlessly. I was prepared to visit our public house again, but Alun directed me to change and to sleep in a certain bed. I've said that he was quite intelligent, but, when he was living, he knew no more than most of us about transfers by magic or alternative histories or how to test the men I choose, and he says he is not aware how he knows now, but he is certain that he does. Actually, I've seen or experienced him in dreams only five times. Oh, I dream about him, but it's different."
"So you began sleeping in a special bed in a special room, which I assume is the one we used," he suggested to get her back on the topic. If he became her lover as she wanted, he wasn't sure that he could stand to compete with Alun for her affections. In some ways, it could be worse than sharing Marilyn with Ray.
"Yes, that's right. When I sleep there, on nights of the full moon, but only then and not even every full-moon, I travel to your land or another like it, where his spirit helps me chose a man who may be the right one to fight de Braeden and to be my friend and lover. Alun has informed me that he tests the men and, although he hasn't spoken since you and I met, he has said that I will wake up in the morning with the right man and only the right man. And that must be you."
"What happens if I defeat de Braeden?" Gary asked.
"All the barons subject to baron Oswel, or at least almost all of them, will support me and demand the English king award you the title, but they dare not do that unless there is a man who can stand against de Braeden," Gwen responded. "I'm assuming that you will wed me because you have shown no reluctance to be with me so far."
He could have mentally pitted the arguments for marrying her against those against marrying her, but he knew that if he stayed here and lived, he had little choice because he had neither money nor land and few skills that were useful here. Being married to her appeared to be a good-enough deal if she wanted him."If I live and if you will accept me and cease seeking a man in ale houses, I'll wed you. I'd rather do it in my land and time, but, if we are fated to be in your land and time I will wed you here," he told her, and that he would certainly do if he lived long enough.
"The bishops will demand that the marriage be in the church according to their rules, but we will be together in all ways from this moment on if you are willing. When de Braeden appears, he will challenge you to a duel, and, as the one challenged, you will be the one to say how it will be fought. It can be with lightweight swords or heavy swords on foot or mounted or with lances on horseback. I suspect you do not want lances or heavy swords because his added weight would be a great advantage with lances, and the heavy sword is more suited for burly men such as he."
"Could the combat be with small knives, daggers perhaps?" he wondered because he could probably disarm an assailant who attacked with a dagger.
"A nobleman will not duel with a dagger because it is a weapon used by common criminals," she told him.
"Your Alun seems to believe me more worthy as a fighter than I believe I am. If I must try to learn to use a sword, I agree with you that the lighter of them is better for me." A thought struck him. "If I choose weapons, can I also choose that we fight without the chain mail."
"I believe not, for de Braeden. The challenged can choose only the weapons. You could fight without the mail, but why would you wish to?"
If he was to fade away in less than a month, he didn't have much to lose by fighting de Braeden, even if he lost his life; however, he wondered if he would become weaker and weaker as time passed. If so, the sooner the fight, the better his chances, but, of course, he needed time to learn to use the sword. Although, if he was to die soon, he wanted to spend all his last days making love to the woman who had enticed him to come with her to her time, he would have been unable to do so even if he could have kept his mind focused because all the people of Alun's and Gwen's land depended on him to defeat de Braeden. He didn't know how, but perhaps he could, even if it killed him!
His first move would be to appear publicly with Gwen in the village and let someone inform de Braeden that he was staying in the castle with her. He told her so, and she agreed; then, he turned the conversation to his living here or, more likely, his ceasing to exist here.
"From what you have said, I know your Alun was not stupid, and you are far from stupid, but why does he believe I can make you happy for the rest of your life if all objects from my time decay within a month? Perhaps the stone in my ring will last because it is a natural stone, but that doesn't help me."
She interrupted with, "Oh, the stone will fade away as other objects do. One of the two men I told you about left a ring from his finger on the little table, and it was still there when he was gone the next morning, but metal and stone turned to dust just as everything does."
"So, what did last?" he asked.
"A mouse," she replied.
"A living organism?" he wondered aloud. "I would have thought life most fragile, meaning I'm concerned about me."
"I have brought two mice from your land, your time, here with me, and one of them has lived many months and is still living now, while the other died within a week. The one that died was a male, caged alone, while the one still living is a female that is caged with a male from our land. I accidentally brought the one that is living, and Owain put it with another mouse he was using to determine whether any smell would keep mice from our stored grain. Apparently not, but, when my first mouse lasted beyond a month, I brought the other to see if it lived as long, which it did not. Owain and I put forth the proposition that the mouse lived because of its body contact with the local mouse, the effect perhaps enhanced by the exchange of body substances during sexual pairing. Alun in the dreams I have agrees with us, but it would take much more testing to know what is true; however, the transfer may not work any longer since the one I sought is here. Because I want to and perhaps because the act may have been of benefit to the mouse, I plan to have lots of body contact and sexual exchange with you if you are willing."
"I am willing," he responded, knowing that refusing her would be stupid on many levels.
He struggled to make some order out of the confusion. He didn't love this woman, but he liked her and could perhaps come to love her if he survived. He was sure that she didn't love him, but apparently liked him, and they certainly enjoyed making love, although they had done it only once. She loved her dead husband Alun and was using him to replace Alun. She wanted him to fight a knight in a duel and seemed to believe he could defeat the knight in a fight using swords. He had even semi-offered, well, better make that totally offered, to participate in the fight. His odds for a long life, with or without the duel, were rather dismal, but she believed she could increase his lifespan by frequent sex with him. He suspected he had zero chance of getting back to the twenty-first century and that this was where he would spend his remaining days, however many or few they were.
In the days that followed, he met many of the people who served the barony, which was not the term by which the locals referred to the land but was the best equivalent in the English of his day, and he found that the people supported their Lady Gwenyth and were willing to accept him as the lord of the manor, if he was her choice. He met Owain and discovered that he was as intelligent as Gwen had described him, and he even met the mouse who had unexpectedly survived the transfer through time and who had become an incredibly long-lasting survivor.
On many evenings, he went with Gwen to the public house in the village, where he and she talked and drank their pints with others there. He noted that it was not uncommon for some of those visiting and drinking to be servants, and they joined in and were treated almost the same as other patrons, the chief difference being that they seldom addressed or were addressed by anyone except the persons they served. Usually a servant would be with the person served, but occasionally a male servant would be there on his own.
Lord de Braeden paid a visit to the castle a mere three days after Gary's arrival, and two prospective combatants went through all the insults and other pleasantries preliminary to a duel. It would take place in three weeks. Gary hoped that he was still alive when it began and when it ended.
Gary tried to pack as much living as possible into each day, and an activity in which he engaged almost daily was making love with Gwen, and she seemed to enjoy that activity as much as he did. Very frequently throughout the day, she would touch him or caress him, skin to skin, and, when they slept, she always cuddled close to him, naked. He was no authority but had always thought of women of her era as hiding their sexual feelings, but such was certainly not the case with her, and many of the other women didn't appear overly backward. He hoped that the bodily contact between a person or animal out of time with a person or animal from the past -- better change that to the present, he thought! -- worked in some way to prolong the existence of the animate object out of time.
Alun had been the best with the lightweight sword, but Gwen knew of an under-lord with whom he sometimes practiced, and Lord Howell was now the most skilled in the region, probably superior to de Braeden in many ways, but, being into his fifties and having a leg injury, he lacked the agility and speed needed to evade a skilled opponent's slashing. Still, all who watched the man in practice agreed that he had lost nothing in the actual use of the sword and could teach anyone with the ability the fundamental's; however, Gary's first efforts convinced him that, although he might become a fair swordsman over time, he could never hope to become proficient before the battle with de Braeden. Given his lack of skill, he couldn't understand why Alun had picked him, and Gwen could not provide enlightenment because, even a week after Gary became her chosen lover, she had not been visited by Alun as a spirit or in a vivid dream.
When Alun made an appearance, it didn't seem to help. One morning Gary awakened, half remembering a dream of making love to Gwen. He didn't remember having dreams every night, but, usually when he remembered his dreams, those memories were vivid, not hazy. Gwen kissed him, and he realized that her kisses were what had awakened him. There were much worse ways of being awakened, although he woke up to another day of trying to prepare to survive.
"Good morning, Gary," she greeted. "I'm sorry about last night, although I'm not really sorry about last night. I'm just sorry if it hurts you."
"Whoa! What are you talking about?" he asked.
"You don't remember, I suppose. You were Alun last night, or his spirit was in your body during the night. I let him use your body and make love to me. Of course, there was no way I was not going to make love to him if there was opportunity, but it was not fair to you or faithful to you. It is very difficult trying to be faithful to two men, both of whom you love."
"So he's trying to take over my body? He picked someone who could be invaded," Gary accused.
"He says not, and I believe him because we have always been truthful with each other. He says he thanks you for the opportunity to love me again."
He knew there were some questions that should never be asked, some answers that should never be heard, but he could not stop himself. "Since it is my body in both cases, can you tell the difference between my making love to you and his making love to you? Which is better?" He knew he should never have asked the last.
"Yes, I can tell the difference, but I won't answer 'better' if you ask or if he asks, and, yes, he did ask last night. He operates your body differently from the way you operate it. More importantly, he still believes you can defeat de Braeden by learning from him and from Lord Howell."
He didn't like the way the conversation went, but he kissed her anyhow before preparing for the day's activities. He couldn't help thinking that he had turned down being one of two men for Marilyn in a world where he could live very comfortably and where the world including the three of them would be clean to be one of two for Gwen there in a world where life would always be a hardship with the norm being dirty, even for the lord and lady of a manor. He believed that Gwen had spoken truthfully and believed also that he loved her, and he concluded that was enough for whatever time he managed to survive here. He was not despondent, depressed, or despairing, merely felt that he should face reality but that acceptance of the situation didn't mean he shouldn't try to enjoy every day.
Knowing that his survival in the duel depended on his ability to evade the blade, he decided to wear a covering that appeared to be made of metal but that was really only fabric because the chain mail's weight would sap his strength and tire him quickly. Gwen designed his shirt for the battle and provided oversight to a couple of women who worked on it each day.
Each day, he practiced fighting with the sword, but, although he became more skilled, he doubted he would ever be able to win unless pure luck decided the battle. He was still feeling healthy and had possibly even gained some strength from the exercises each day. Perhaps the frequent sex and even more frequent body contact was working against entropy for him. Since the first time, Alun had borrowed his sleeping body to make appearances three more times, and Gwen reported that she had welcomed him into her arms each time. He could actually recall one of those episodes with her fairly clearly, meaning he must have awakened, and it was almost like being along for the ride, not being in control but not finding it at all unpleasant. He even seemed to receive a vague 'thank you' from the other before he was given back or took back control of his body.
Four days before the duel, he and Gwen received a shock; the mouse died There had been no symptoms of sickness or ailment. It just died. Since they had no way of knowing how old it was when Gwen had transported it to this time, they couldn't know whether its death was natural; however, he would have wilted had he not been determined to be strong for her, and she refused to let him see her weaken.
That evening they made love as usual, but, in an unusual move, Alun joined them -- in Gary's body of course. It was different from any of the previous times because first one and then the other was in charge. In the early moments, it seemed to be a battle in which one would briefly prevail, but they began cooperating and handing control back and forth. It was the weirdest love-making in which Gary had ever engaged, but he couldn't deny it was erotic, and Gwen seemed to completely explode. Afterward, as they kissed and touched, Gary and Alun swapped control back and forth because only the one in control could have the actual physical sensation; however, they found that they could even switch control second to second during a kiss and drive Gwen wild as she tried to make adjustments for each kisser. Gary had found that he could always seize control if he put an extreme effort into it, but he didn't push the issue. He had temporarily put the mouse's death out of his mind, but it was brought back to the front when he heard his own voice addressing Gwen.
"I don't believe there has been any deterioration of his body. I don't even know how I know that, but I can sense some life force, and it is as strong as, maybe even stronger than, it was in the beginning."
"I'm glad. I do love him, you know, in addition to loving you, Alun," Gwen spoke.
"Of course I'm jealous, but I'm the one who advised you to do it this way. I believe he is a good man, as was young Cadwin, who would have been fine except for the need to overcome de Braeden. And with this man, I can sometimes appear in this manner, although I don't want to anger him by abusing his hospitality," Alun told her in Gary's voice.
"And do you still believe that Gary can defeat de Braeden?" she asked.
"Yes. As he and Howell have discussed, he needs to keep de Braeden on the attack. Taunt de Braeden. If he stands back so that Gary has to attack, Gary can't win. Oh, I love you. Gwennie."
Alun surrendered control to Gary, who spoke immediately to say, "I love you too, and it's strange to hear my voice tell you those things he was saying. If I win, I suppose this is what we have to look forward to for the rest of our days together, which Alun seems to believe will be a long time. I must overcome the jealousy issue; perhaps, since its the same body, I'll just pretend he and I are two different roles I'm playing."
Gwen answered, "No! Accept it for what it is. I love both of you and, since I know both of you, would love both in whatever body or bodies you inhabit. I have enough love for the two of you in all love's aspects as it is, perhaps not enough display of love if you and he had two bodies."
Gary decided to take her advice and accept it, and it seemed that Alun went along with that advice. Except for the times with Gwen, he had surrendered control of his body to Alun only briefly, once so that he could taste some dish he considered a delicacy but which Gary knew he would find unsavory but expected to find at least acceptable as a secondary experience, which he did.
The day before the duel, Gary and Gwen visited Owain for an update on the mouse. Although he wasn't sure why, he wanted to know. They found that, although the mouse's body had started out decaying as normal flesh would after death, as more time passed, disassociation seemed to be occurring as it did with other objects brought back through time. Not encouraging, but the duel might have first priority for his death in any case.
The evening before the duel, he and Gwen made love, and Alun asked to join them. He thought without saying that he should be permitted privacy for expressing farewell lovingly in case he perished in the duel, but the thought struck him that Alun could well be bidding farewell to her in this manner also if this body was struck down, and he permitted the other to share his body. That was one of the flaws of being overly introspective. Although it wasn't intentional at first, they accomplished something that had never occurred before. They shared control, or neither was in control, and it was not the greatest sex ever for any of them, but it had some ingredient that seemed to bind them, which appeared appropriate for the occasion.
Lord Howell seconded Gary in the duel, and some under-lord seconded de Braeden. Gary noted that his opponent was about his height but outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, and, although he knew some of it was muscle, he suspected a great deal of it was excess fat. Since he knew the man was assuredly a better swordsman than he and stronger than he, he had no chance if they only traded strokes. From his lessons with Lord Howell, he had learned some small amount, but really little, about defending himself against the sword, and he knew he would have to rely on the training during which he had learned to defend himself against a club or stick.
He understood very little of the preliminary announcements about the duel but knew when they were told to begin. After the battle started with their swords crossed, de Braeden went on attack while Gary used his body flexibility and superior agility to evade the slashes from the other man's sword. Tiring his opponent without being badly wounded would give him his best chance, and that was what he attempted. Once, when he used his sword to deflect the other sword, the word 'parry' flashed through his mind, and he wondered at the oddity of thinking about trivia when he was fighting for his life. They had to stay within a circle, but that gave him sufficient room to back away and weave about so long as he didn't get trapped at the circle's edge. He tried going on attack or pretended attack a couple of times keep de Braeden wary, but he was unable to make the correct moves by reflex or instinct and had to think of the moves. The other man seemed to read the signals he gave and was easily able to defend himself from Gary's attack. Gary went back on defense, and each time de Braeden seemed about to hesitate in attack, he would use phases that Gwen had made him memorize in the local language, Gamrayic, and in the middle English or near-English that was de Braeden's native tongue to toss insults. Gary didn't know how much time had passed since the duel began, but, although he could tell that the other man was tiring, the tiring didn't appear to be rapid enough that his poor technique could ever be effective at attack.
After perhaps a quarter hour, a long period for sword play, de Braeden made a lucky strike and wounded Gary's left arm, the one without the sword. The wound didn't sever or damage any major blood vessels and was not likely to be fatal if he could stop the bleeding and prevent blood-poisoning, gangrene, who-knew-what infection. Although the agony was not severe enough to be debilitating, pain and surprise momentarily drove his thoughts from his battle for life, and, in that momentary lapse, he felt control of his body shift from him to Alun, although he had not even felt the other's presence before that moment. Alun couldn't master the body in defensive moves, but he instinctively went on attack and drove deBraeden back with a series of slashes, but he could never maneuver himself -- or Gary's self -- to accomplish the fatal slice although he left a few scratches on the other man. Finally, he jumped back and returned the body to Gary because he knew that he would sooner or later allow the opponent to deliver a major blow.
Gary re-commenced his defensive moves, but he knew that he was not as effective as earlier because of the wound. Perhaps he and Alun could swap from time to time and do defense and offense to keep de Braeden off-stride, but he wasn't sure how long it would be before bleeding from the wound sapped his strength. Time for a desperate move!
"Together?' he signaled Alun, and they melded as they had done that one time in making love to Gwen. There appeared to be no differentiation of roles, and the body they shared was capable of anything it could do for either of them. It was nearly anti-climactic because, almost before anyone knew what was occurring, de Braeden's body lay on the ground, neck sliced open.
After the duel, Gary managed to stay upright to accept the loyalty pledges of Alun's under-lords and to make it to the castle with his wits about him. He didn't know much about medicine but suspected that the locals knew even less than he. Owain knew about the distillation of grain alcohol and was able to locate some that that had been double-distilled and then stored in a sealed container. Gary had them use this alcohol to wash out his wound and insisted that any cloth used to clean the wound or to bandage it be boiled in water before its use. He knew that stitching the wound would result in less scarring but could also cause problems if healing took place on the surface before it did inside. He would take the scars. Gwen and Owain asked among the under-lords and freeholders and received nearly a gallon of grain alcohol for which Owain supervised another round of distillation.
Gwen left Gary's side for only brief periods until he was well on the way to recovery and insisted that anyone tending him have skin contact with him on each occasion, and, although she didn't allow anyone else that right, she engaged in sex with him every day, right from the beginning, even when that was somewhere down the list of his priorities. If that was the source of his continued existence in her world, she was willing to subject him to some pain to save him. Although Alun would surface frequently in Gary's consciousness, though seldom as the one in charge, he did not participate in the activities with Gwen until nearly three weeks had passed; however, after Gary had healed, the minds or souls or psyches or whatever of the two men shared the body almost full-time, giving sole control to one or the other only upon request or when some task or venture required that. Gwen thought that she was the luckiest woman in the entire world and entire time span from their present to the year from which she had plucked Gary, and the only complaint about the relationship registered by either man came from Gary, who would have preferred a higher degree of body cleanliness, even though Gwen agreed to bathe many times more frequently than the norm. Even so, they never ceased the skin-contact treatments to ensure his continued health, and they reasoned that the treatment must have been effective and that even the DNA from the future must have remained sound since a son and a daughter were born of their union.
- - - - - - - -
When Gary didn't return and ceased sending postcards to show that he was alive and well, Marilyn and Ray became concerned and attempted to trace him, even making a trip to the British Isles and to the little Welsh town where he had disappeared according to reports from an agent they had hired. Their odd personal relationships with Gary and and a handwritten and signed note in Gary's backpack that left all his possessions to them made British and American police suspicious, and there were several fruitless attempts to prove them responsible for having him killed.
The British police had re-traced Gary's trail to the little town with the ancient castle but could find nothing more about him after his evening in the pub with the ghostly lady, who was reported as looking very substantial. The police did not believe the tale about ghosts, of course, but they could find no evidence that any local citizen had harmed the visitor or that they had reason to do so. Several of them made statements that he had entered the castle with the woman, whom the police listed as unidentified although the local citizens named her Gwenyth, but no one saw either of them come out. Almost every local citizen interviewed related a story about the castle, Alun, and Gwenyth, but the legal authorities considered the stories to be close kin to fairy tales. There was one item that the police official in charge refused even to admit as evidence because he believed someone was trying to make fools out of the police.
This 'evidence' was a piece of cured animal skin, not parchment, supposedly found behind a wooden beam that had not been moved since the castle had undergone cosmetic and structural changes around 1380 until it was replaced during the recent repairs to the castle. The skin bore a cryptic message, but, although tests on unchanged areas of the skin confirmed it as originating around the latter half of the fourteenth century, the age of the material used for writing the message could not be established because someone had smeared an oily substance over the area of writing to soften the skin, supposedly after the skin had broken into three pieces while being handled shortly after being found. The damage -- or fraud -- had been accomplished by the time the castle owners learned of the discovery. The owner gave the skin fragments to the British Museum where it is supposedly well cared for but is not displayed for tourists; however The Museum provided a photo to Marilyn and Ray.
The unsigned message written on the skin, apparently in modern English, reads:
"R, M, Carys, & __ : Im OK Wndrful wife Gwen, fine frnd Alun, grt son & dau. Life harsh but good"