“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 3:  Hae-jin

One shock after another was starting to give Lindsey a vague feeling of annoyance.  There were far too many people (for want of a better word) going around disappearing and reappearing here and there for any sensible girl’s liking.  It would, Lindsey reflected, be just mildly useful if these folks would just stay in same place for a few minutes at a time.

 

Still, she was grateful for the iodine.  Not anxious to be pantless for any amount of time in this distinctly unpredictable place, she instead used the pocket knife to cut her jeans open a bit wider, and after daubing the wound with some of the iodine bound it up snugly with the handkerchief.  She just hoped she wouldn’t wind up needing stitches (or whatever passed as such in this stupid place). Pocketing both the bottle of iodine and the knife, she then began to creep cautiously back towards the road.

 

There was a beating of wings, and abruptly Lindsey was rejoined by the Bird.

 

“Well, that was more or less satisfactory.  They should be sufficiently lost by now that we will be undisturbed for the remainder of the time we are here.”

 

“Who were they and what did they want?  We could have been killed!”

 

“A slight hiccough, yes.  I hadn’t been watching the time.  But it’s all well enough, we’re out of it unscathed.”

 

You’re out of it unscathed.  They got me pretty well.”

 

“Eh?  Bless me!  Let me attend to it!”

 

“Forget it, I put iodine on it.  Let’s get just get out of here first.”

 

“Quite, yes.  Getting out. We’ve got to fetch Hae-jin first though.”

 

“Who is Hae-jin?”

 

“I’ll let him tell you himself.  Follow me!”

 

They were soon back on the road, and turned again in the direction they were headed before they were attacked.  Here and there a few arrows were now embedded in the ground along their way or stuck in trees, and Lindsey shivered.

 

They came again to the edge of the valley.  This time no hail of archery was there to await them, although far in the distance behind them Lindsey thought she could hear faint shouts now and then.  Apparently the Archers were still fairly closeby. Hopefully they wouldn’t be coming back this way any time soon. Lindsey picked up her pace abit as she followed in the wake of the Bird.

 

The road wound to and fro down the hillside.  They did not travel along it very far before the Bird led the way off the road and into the trees.  For some distance they picked their way meticulously through the brush and bramble (or rather Lindsey did, for the Bird simply flew over it all).  Eventually they came upon an unremarkable outcropping of rock which was overgrown and largely obscured by the foliage. Here the Bird stopped, and whistled.

 

There was silence for a moment.  Then, some of the boughs overhanging the rock face stirred and then fell away, revealing a small cave opening wherein there stood a man.

 

He was not very tall.  Wiry and athletic, he appeared to be about thirty-five or so with bronzed skin, distinctly Asiatic features, and a regal bearing of command.  He was dressed in rugged silks and wore a red headband with a bronze badge in its center, and his hair was bound in a topknot. He regarded them warily for a moment while in one hand he held a sheathed sword.  He then bowed slightly and spoke.

 

“I am pleased to see you, Bird.  Whom have you brought with you?”

 

The Bird gestured towards Lindsey.

 

“This is Lindsey Ann Fluger.  She will be participating in our little venture.  Lindsey, may I introduce you to General Moon Hae-jin.  It’s only a little thing, but I do think I should mention that you will depend on one another for your lives over the next day or so.  Shall we go inside?”

 

Hae-jin led the way into the cave.  It was small, hardly big enough for more than a couple people.   It was devoid of any signs of habitation save for a single bag resting in one corner.  It seemed to Lindsey that if nothing else, this man Hae-jin appeared to be traveling light.

 

Hae-jin squatted down near the entrance where he could see fairly well through the concealing boughs, and looked Lindsey over with a mix of wariness and curiosity.

 

“You are foreign, Lindsey Ann Fluger.  I take it that the Bird has brought you from a land which is at least as far away as his own.”

 

“Further, in point of fact.  Lindsey is not of this world, but from the other world of which I told you.”

 

“The one you say my ancestors came from?”

 

“Precisely.”

 

Lindsey was not enjoying being spoken of in the third person.  Moreover, she had some serious things to say.

 

“Okay, look.  You said that Hae-jin and me were going to depend on each other for our lives.  What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve jumped through worlds, faced giants and been shot at, and you still haven’t given me an explanation.  I think you owe me one.”

 

“You speak Han remarkably well, Lindsey Ann Fluger.”

 

“It’s Lindsey, and what do you mean, ‘speak Han’?  What’s Han?”

 

The Bird interjected.  “Ah, yes, I should have mentioned that.  You probably didn’t notice (people usually don’t), but you haven’t been speaking English since you got here.  Just before I spoke to you today, you see, I breathed the Gift of Tongues in your ear. It’s one of my little talents.  I find it quite indispensable in such situations. One’s associates need to be able to understand one another.”

 

“Gift of Tongues?”

 

“Quite.  It’s a sort of charism derived from elemental white magic, a primal and complex enchantment the net effect of which is that one can understand most forms of speech, and likewise speak them in turn, usually quite instinctually.  I’ve known people to go for months chatting away in languages otherwise alien to them without even realizing it. I also gave the gift of tongues to Hae-jin, as you will both be needing it where you’re going.”

 

“Which is?”

 

“West of here by a few thousand miles, a place called the Hinterlands, which lies in Northern Eptomar.”

 

“That’s far away indeed.  You weren’t exaggerating when you told me I would be going into exile.”

 

“Under the circumstances I thought you’d find it a welcome opportunity.”

 

“I do.  I worry about my people though.”

 

“With you out of the way I don’t think the Li will bother with your family.”

 

“Can somebody explain to me what’s going on here?”, Lindsey interjected.

 

“Eh?  Oh, right, yes.  Hae-jin, you see, has been having some difficulty with the Li government of late, and suffice to say things have become rather awkward for him, which is why I thought he could so well do with an opportunity for change, sooner than later.”

 

“I can imagine.  Those guys were hunting him with bows.”

 

“I’m afraid my life would in all probability be quite short and painful were I to remain in my homeland any longer.”, Hae-jin observed ruefully.

 

“Jeez, that really stinks, I’m sorry.  Why would anyone want to hurt you?”

 

“This is what happens to all who run afoul of the Li.”

 

“Who are the Li?”

 

Hae-jin regarded Lindsey for a moment, perhaps trying to decide for himself just how much explaining would be necessary.  He then leaned forward a bit and traced a crude outline in the dirt.

 

“This is a continent, which is called Zhongyang.  We are out here, in the northeast. There are many nations here in Zhongyang, but the most powerful of all is the empire of the Li.  My people are called the Hancheon, and most of our kingdoms and cities are tributaries of the Li. The Li rule us by the appointment of High Commissioners, who dictate the will of The Lotus Throne to our kings and princes, who must obey.”

 

“Why don’t your people rebel!”

 

“We have tried.  The cost to our people was too great, for the rage of the Li is a terrible thing.”

 

“Were you a rebel?  Is that why the Li are hunting you?”

 

“I have lived my life in the service of my people and prince, and in doing so I have achieved great status.  But the demands of the Li are severe and often unjust. Likewise there are many in the court of my prince who serve their own ends and seek to destroy their rivals, often through currying the favors of the Li.  It is one of the ways the Li have always been able to dominate us. They exploit the rivalries within their tribute nations and turn our officers and captains into willing pawns. But I will not be a pawn, and I will not be an instrument of injustice.  And for that, I have paid dearly. I have gone from holding the highest rank in our armies to being a fugitive in my own country. A week ago I commanded twenty thousand soldiers. I had a thousand acres of fertile land, a great house, and a hundred servants.  Today, I have nothing but my clothes, my sword, and a price on my head. My wife is dead, and none of my children ever survived infancy. I have nothing left to go back to. But I am not yet ready to die.”

 

Hae-jin fell silent.  Lindsey felt a compulsion to say something, anything, but found herself at a loss.  Unsurprisingly, somehow, the Bird was not.

 

“Well my good fellow, this is precisely why I approached you in the first place to be a partner to this little venture of ours.  I take it you’ve made your final decision then?”

 

“I don’t see that I have much else to choose from.”

 

“On the contrary, you have the whole world to choose from (or very nearly).  As I mentioned before, the forces at work here in Hancheon are far beyond my power to redress.  However, I can give you a second chance by taking you anywhere else in the world you wish, and leave it at that.  You need only decide.”

 

Hae-jin mused in silence.  After a few moments he looked up, first at the Bird, and then at Lindsey.  And then he replied.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Splendid!  Utterly splendid!  I knew I was right about him, didn’t I tell you Lindsey?”

 

“No, I don’t think you did.”

 

“Eh?  Well, no matter.  Come, collect your things Hae-jin, and we will all be off!”

 

“Now hold on just one second!”

 

“You had something to say, Lindsey?”

 

“Yeah, I sure as hell do.  You haven’t told me yet what this venture is, or asked me whether I’m still going to come along or just punch you until you take me home.”

 

Hae-jin chuckled.

 

“You picked a hot ember there, Bird!  Be careful you don’t burn yourself!”

 

“Have I really not explained everything to you, my dear?  Goodness, but I’m in such a flutter today! It all comes from having to manage appointments across multiple worlds and continents, I defy anyone to keep their pebbles in order with such a schedule.  Let’s see, where shall I start?”

 

“Somewhere other than here, if you don’t mind.  The High Commissioner’s men aren’t too far away.”

 

“Steady notion, Hae-jin.  Let me put a hole in the floor.”

 

Just as he had done in Lindsey’s dorm room and in the beside the monument of Barri the giant, the Bird cut a rough square in the detritus of the cave floor.  The dried leaves and twigs sagged and clung together, and the Bird had to give them a little shove before they fell away in a bundle. The Bird then went through himself.

 

Hae-jin then grabbed his bag and swung his legs into the hole.  Before dropping through, he took a last look towards the outside the cave.  He then turned to Lindsey.

 

“Somehow, I feel this is the last I shall ever see of my homeland.”

 

“You don’t know that for certain.”

 

“I don’t.  But I feel it for certain.”

 

Hae-jin then dropped himself through the hole, and after calling up to say he was out of the way, Lindsey followed.

 

Lindsey landed with a now-familiar sort of shock in a patch of vibrant green grass awash with wildflowers.  About her was a pleasant woodland, and she lay beside another road….or to be more precise a narrow path, hardly more than a couple feet wide, which was paved with smooth cobbles.  And on it were two rather extraordinary rabbits.

 

They were large rabbits, but that was not what made them extraordinary.  No, rather it was the way in which they sat on their back haunches and held small baskets in their forepaws, and the slack-jawed way in which they were staring at her.  Their fluffy white chins drooped limply in a paralysis of bewilderment, while each ear was pricked erect in a shocked rigor mortis, and their black eyes blinked wide in utter astonishment.

 

Lindsey looked back at the rabbits and smile nervously.  The rabbits looked at one another.

 

“And now there’s a third one!”

 

“Shocking!”

 

“Fell out of the sky, just like that!”

 

“I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

 

“Nor I!”

 

“Nor anyone!”

 

“Hardly credible!”

 

“Hardly respectable!”

 

“Uh, hi?”  Lindsey propped herself up on an elbow.

 

“It talks!”

 

“The other ones didn’t talk!”

 

“Uh, yeah.  I talk.”, Lindsey said, “Do you know where the “other ones” went?”

 

“Shall we talk back to it?”

 

“I don’t think so.  Not proper without a proper introduction anyway.  Best ignore it do you suppose?”

 

“I don’t know, we might want to ask it if there mightn’t be more of them.  Are they going to start falling out of the sky very often do you suppose? And landing on top of us, our houses and our gardens?”

 

“This seems to be the last one.  Let’s just ignore it.”

 

“Hey, listen.”  Lindsey said as she began to get up.

 

“Scatter!”

 

The two rabbits dropped their baskets and dashed off on all fours into the woods.  Lindsey stood up and cursed silently to herself. Talking rabbits now, huh? More like a bunch of rude scaredy-cat talking rabbits.  

 

A shadow fell across the ground before her, and Lindsey turned to see Hae-jin approaching.

 

Hae-jin looked about briefly and spoke.

 

“Where are those Rabbits off to?”

 

“They just ran away.  Did you hear them talk!”

 

“They talked?”

 

“Is that normal in this world of yours?”

 

“I don’t know actually.  I’ve heard tales, but I have certainly never witnessed such a thing before myself.  We must quite far from Zhongyang indeed, or perhaps in yet another world entirely.”

 

“Where’s the Bird?”

 

“He told me to come back here for you, and that we’d meet him at a signpost just up the road.  Come.”

 

They followed the path for some distance before reaching the signpost the Bird had spoken of.  It was a tidy object, smartly crafted with two elegantly carved signs, one pointing to the left and the other right, for here the path had come to a fork.

 

The signs bore on them the first examples of writing which Lindsey had seen in this peculiar world she had fallen into.  She recalled the words of the Bird regarding the “gift of tongues” she and Hae-jin has supposedly been given. The whole thing was a bit weird, but whatever it was it somehow worked, and apparently even applied to writing.  She could plainly see that the words were neither written in modern English nor with any alphabet she had ever seen. Yet, she could read it all quite clearly.  

 

The signs gave very little to go on, however.  Each was shaped like an arrow, and bore only a list of names, or a least what Lindsey assumed were names.

 

Lindsey was interrupted in her thoughts with a gentle tap on the shoulder.  She turned to meet Hae-jin’s eye, and he pointed at the ground by the base of the sign, where Lindsey saw four feathers of an unmistakable golden hue lying on the road, arranged in an arrow towards the left hand route.  

 

Lindsey looked back up at the leftward sign and read off the names to herself again:

 

Rabbits Smith

Rabbits Jones

Rabbits Wiggins

Rabbits Tyler

Fox-Goodburrow

Rabbits Jenkins

Rabbits Wilberforce

Wogs

 

Lindsey turned to Hae-jin.

 

“I guess we’re supposed to follow the arrow, then?

 

Hae-jin merely shrugged, and began to walk in that direction.  Lindsey followed.

 

Just visible through the trees ahead, Lindsey saw what appeared to be a small structure.  Hardly big enough for a house, it seemed more in the way of a large shed. Yet a house it proved to be as Lindsey and Hae-jin reached it.  And up ahead, there appeared to be another, and still another.  

 

The structures were definitely complete dwellings, ordinary looking cottages well finished and painted in bright colors, each surrounded by a small yard containing a garden plot or two and a few tiny outbuildings.  They were principally distinguished by their size, having apparently been built for the comfort of very diminutive tenants, which Lindsey could only assume were Rabbits. Indeed, painted above the door of each house there was written a name, corresponding to those which had been on the signpost back at the fork.  Rabbits Smith, Rabbits Jones, Fox-Goodburrow….and Wogs.  

 

The seventh house along the road was a bit unlike the others.  Taller, larger, and a bit sprawling, dilapidated and drooping in every direction, with overgrown grounds and not a inch of fresh paint in sight, save for the lettering above the door which bore but one word:  “Wog”.

 

And at Lindsey’s feet along the path, there were four golden feathers arranged in an arrow, pointing directly at the house.

 

Lindsey and Hae-jin exchanged a look.  Then together they approached the door, and Lindsey knocked.

 

There was silence.  Lindsey knocked again.

 

This time, muffled voices, then silence again.  Lindsey knocked for a third time.

 

Muffled voices again, followed by a scrabbling noise, and in a moment the door opened with an unpleasant sort of creak.

 

If sounds could be seen, the creaking of the door would likely have looked very much like the creature who had done the opening.  Already becoming rapidly accustomed to strange sights, Lindsey was nonetheless taken aback by the being which was now glaring petulantly at her.

It was just under five feet tall or so, and shaped more or less like a human in most respects.  Scrawny, boney, with skin like a mouldy tangerine, its face was angular and its nose a full four or five inches long.  It had ears of equally outrageous size, shaped very much like those of a donkey and were full of bristly black hairs. It was dressed in vaguely medieval looking attire in faded colors, and on its head was a bright yellow cap. 

The creature gazed up at Lindsey and Hae-jin, blinking back and forth between them for a moment with a look of bewilderment, then recognition followed by a dark scowl.

 

“Oh my fickle gods.  Humans.”

 

And the creature slammed the door shut.

 

Lindsey and Hae-jin looked at one another, speechless for a moment.  Hae-jin opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted when the door was opened again and the creature reappeared.  

 

The creature looked sternly at them for a moment, and then spoke.

 

“You do realize that this is impossible?  At least it’s supposed to be, at any rate.  It’s not allowed. I never agreed to see anyone impossible.  You can tell that Bird that I won’t have anything to do with flagrant impossibilities.”

 

Hae-jin remained speechless, but Lindsey did not.

 

“In my world, little orange monsters with bad attitudes are impossible, so that makes us even.  The Bird told us to come here, so here we are. If you don’t want to talk to us, fine. We’ll wait here for the Bird.”

 

“Now now now missy, don’t be getting all hoity toity at me.”

 

“Hey, I don’t have to take any garbage from ‘impossibilities’, mister monster.”

 

“Well of all the cheek!”

 

And the creature slammed the door again.

 

Hae-jin coughed.

 

“You didn’t have to insult the…..the…the whatever it was.”

Lindsey threw up her hands.

 

“Look, I’ve just about had it up to here.  Earlier today I jumped through a hole in my floor without any idea why or where it led and I still don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing here and I’m still not even sure whether I’ve just done the stupidest thing in my life or if I’m just plain crazy and hallucinating it all.  If that’s not enough to give a girl something to bitch about, then I don’t know what would be.”

 

“I understand, Lindsey Ann Fluger…..”

“And you can call me Lindsey.”

“I understand, Lindsey.  This is new to me as well.  Let’s wait for the Bird. When he comes back….”

Again Hae-jin was interrupted as the door opened and the creature emerged for the third time.  It stood there glaring for a moment, and Lindsey glared back at it.

 

Lindsey raised an eyebrow.

 

“Well?”

 

The creature shuffled.

 

“Fine.  You can come inside.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you, because I’m going to right now.  Dire consequences will come of this ill fated encounter, you can take my word for it.”

 

“And what is your word worth?”

 

“Fifty-one silver marks.”

 

“Oh great.  And how are we supposed to trust you then?”

 

“By paying me fifty-one silver marks.  That’s my price and I’m sticking to it.  The Bird can pay up or do without me. Come inside, and I’ll dig up some cold ham and beer.  Don’t thank me, the Bird will have to pay for that too.”

 

With that the creature swung his door wide, and beckoned inward.  

 

The interior of the house was dim, cramped and cluttered.  The walls and ceiling were decked with hooks and knobs of all sorts from which hung every manner of object, from pots, tools, and bundles of herbs to old clothes, armor, and rusty weapons.  Battered furniture was stacked high with an equally mixed assortment of articles, and the floor was strewn with nut shells, wood shavings, the odd bone or two, and other sorts of careless refuse.  A chicken was rummaging about the floor, and fluttered off to perch on the mantlepiece as Lindsey and Hae-jin entered the room.

Beneath the mantle there was a table set with a half eaten meal at which two more creatures sat, eyeing the newcomers warily.  

 

Their host waved grandly about the room.

“Welcome to the house of Wog.  I am Alwog. These are my brothers….”  Alwog indicated to the two creatures at the table.   “…..that is Berwog, and that is Gerthwog.”

To Lindsey all three appeared wholly indistinguishable, save for the color of their caps.  Their host Alwog wore a yellow cap, while Berwog’s cap was red and Gerthwog’s was green.  

 

The one called Gerthwog addressed Alwog while jerking a rude thumb in Lindsey’s direction.

“Humans?  You know they’re illegal, Al.”

Alwog shrugged.

 

“Sure I do.  I’m thinking we should charge more, seeing as they’re humans, properly impossible and all.  I’m thinking sixty silver marks would be more like it.”

The one called Berwog piped up.

 

“You mean sixty-one!  You can’t divide sixty by three, not evenly.”

Gerthwog rolled a disgruntled eye over to his other brother.

 

“Yes, you can divide sixty evenly by three.”

“No you can’t!”

 

“Yes you can.  Use ‘rithmetic!”

 

Berwog squinted and began to count on his fingers.

 

“…Nope, still don’t come out even.  Sixty-one I say!”

“No, sixty.  Here, lunkhead, I’ll prove it to you.”

Gerthwog seized a fork and began carving sums into the table, muttering the results to his brother.

 

At this point, Hae-jin addressed Alwog.

“What do you mean, humans are illegal?  And impossible?”

 

“They’re against the law.  Against the law and against the magic.  Human’s aren’t allowed here, that’s the law of the Drixi.”

 

“Who are the Drixi?”

 

“The law-givers ‘round these parts.”

 

“Ah?  And what do these Drixi have against humans?”

“Most everything, so it seems.  Don’t want them around nohow.”

 

“And yet you are willing to defy them?”

“The Bird got you here, didn’t he?  Got you here right past all that Drixi magic.  I’m thinking the Bird’s magic must be better. I’m always happy to offer my services to the party with the better magic….for the proper fee, of course.”

“Of course.”

 

“Of course.  Sit down, make yourselves comfortable.  Don’t know when that bird will be back.”

 

Alwog slouched over to the table and flung himself into one of the chairs, propping his feet up next to the cold ham and between the faces of his two brothers, who were now in the heat of an argument.  Hae-jin squatted down in a relatively clear part of the floor. Lindsey took one look at the floor, then another at the filthy furniture about her, and decided to remain standing.

 

The brothers Berwog and Gerthwog continued to argue.  Alwog leaned back, humming and whistling and muttering snatches of lyrics from ribald sounding songs.  Hae-jin remained silent, and Lindsey began to wander around what little there was of the confined room.

Her eyes lighted upon the mantelpiece, which was remarkably clean compared to any other surface in the room, containing only a peculiar wooden structure not unlike the sort used to display bottles of fine wine, on which there were three objects which appeared to be the substantive remains of three large eggs, one of a vaguely yellowish hue, one of red, and the other green.  As she took a step closer for another look, Alwog spoke up with a nod in that direction.

“Those are ours, of course.  Family heirlooms.”

“Yours?  Are they eggs?”

“Of course they are.”

“Are you telling me you and your brothers hatched from eggs?”

“What do you take us for, freaks?”

 

“Um….”

“I forgot, you’re a human.  You breed like the Rabbits and Drixi.  Why any creature should be born outside of a proper egg is beyond me, but I suppose your hereditary defects are your own business.”

 

It may have been Alwog’s intention to further elucidate on the specific shortcomings of live birth, but he never had a chance to speak, as from the door there came a pair of dull thuds which reverberated throughout the house and shook it’s creaking timbers, leaving a bewildered hush in its wake.

 

Berwog and Gerthog had stopped arguing, and all three Wogs were staring in the direction of the door.  Lindsey and Hae-jin exchanged a concerned look.

 

Alwog arose, and tiptoed over to the door.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could a throaty voice came from outside.

 

“I was told by the Bird to come here.  Open up.”

 

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