There were a number of sounds and smells around him that were unfamiliar. A child's giggle sounded from a distance. The smell of rain was carried in by a soft breeze that flowed over his face, stirring his honey-gold hair slightly. As his awareness gradually increased, his mind began to draw a picture of where he was. There was definitely some sort of bed, the covers tucked in around him tightly enough that they wouldn't pull loose easily. The slightest twitch brought smell of lavender and straw to his nose, something he hadn't smelled since he'd left Kansas as an adolescent. His mind flooded with memories. Also, there was the smell of cooking meat, most likely chicken. It was a homey smell that reminded him of afternoons in the kitchen with his mother before the cancer had stolen her away.
He mentally scolded himself. Now was not the time to be nostalgic…or was it? He was defenseless. Stripped of his powers, he was mortal again and nearly dead for that matter. Had he actually died? He wasn't sure. His surroundings didn't meet his expectations of Hell at all. Perhaps God had taken mercy on him?
"Layla! If you must giggle so much, do it outside," a motherly voice gently scolded, "these patients need their rest."
"Sorry, Mother," a childish little girl's voice said. Swan heard a heavy-sounding door creak open, then slam shut. The mother who had spoken sighed. He heard a spoon scraping in a pot and the crackling of flames. He cautiously slid one eye open, a barely noticeable pale blue-green slit. Through the pale fringe of lashes, he saw a woman with her back turned to him stirring something over a fire. The source of the meaty smell was some kind of roast bird turning slowly over the spit. Some sort of geared contraption was catching the wind from outside and turning it. He opened his eye a bit wider and very slightly turned his head. There were two more beds in the room—he could see Winslow in one of them, his blind eye concealed behind a bandage. Winslow was still unconscious as far as he could tell. In the other bed was Phoenix, her dark brown hair spilling out around her head like a halo on the white pillow. There appeared to be this main room. The big wooden door, he guessed, led to the outside. There were two other doors, but they were closed. One hand cautiously reached up to touch his face and found it bandaged heavily. The only things that weren't covered were his eyes and mouth. He was so preoccupied with wondering how bad it was that he didn't see "Mother" come up to the foot of the bed.
"Best not to fidget with it, Sir," she said, making him jump, "that skin's got a great bit of healing to do."
He couldn't for the life of him place her accent.
"Where am I?" he asked, flushing scarlet under the gauze.
"You're in Skylar, Sir. My husband Gherard found you three along the road and brought you home in the cart. You three was about dead."
"How did we get here?"
"I just told you. Iffing you wonder how you appeared here, you either slipped in from your mother or…some of our more, eh, unusual travelers, say they've popped in from other worlds. Mind you, I'm not really certain they exist, but who am I to judge? I ain't the great Lord Almighty."
She wiped the flour from her hands on her food-splattered apron.
"We take everybody in unless they're a known criminal. I checked the public records and none of you has a bounty on their head. We let 'em stay for a while, get all healed up, then we send 'em off with supplies to find their place in the world. Some find their way back to where they came from, others like it here so much that they decided to stay. I don't suppose you're one of them 'otherworldly' types, are you?"
"I am," Swan said nervously, wondering how on earth it had happened.
"And these your friends?"
Swan glanced over at Winslow and Phoenix.
"We're more acquaintances," he said evasively.
"I see. These injuries must've come from your world. I've never seen a face burned so badly. The odd thing is that it was only your face. And that one…what's so dangerous that it could simultaneously crush 'is jaw and burn him like that?"
Swan glanced at Phoenix.
"What happened to the girl?"
"Nothing I'm aware of…she was awake earlier. She saw you, screamed bloody murder, and passed right out again. I gave her a little sleeping mixture in her tea. Figured she wouldn't mind."
Swan nodded. That would be best. He still needed to sort out what exactly had taken place. All he could remember was Winslow tearing his mask off in the crowd and having his hands on Phoenix's throat. After that, everything sort of dimmed and faded.
"There might be somebody can help you in Graysnow Castle in the mountains," the woman continued, "but the way is dangerous and long. I wouldn't advise going up there now. Those frosty wolves can get pretty vicious. And then…there's the dragons. You cross one of them nasty things and you'll be in its gut faster than a blink."
Dragons? Seriously? Dragons? I feel like I've been dropped into a children's movie. A poorly written one at that, Swan thought.
"Oh…almost forgot me manners. I'm Martie, the little gigglepuss out front is Layla, my husband is Gherard, and our newest….well, we'll have to wait and see."
She patted her abdomen fondly. There was just enough curve there to suggest a pregnancy though her apron hid it well.
"It won't be much longer and my famous hornskull stew will be ready. I hope you're a man of large appetite. I grew up in a large family, you see, and never could break meself of the habit of cooking twice as much as is needed."
She returned to the hearth and it was then that Swan could study her without feeling rude. She wore a dress that was probably a vibrant blue under the soot and debris. She looked to be in her late thirties and was rather plump in the rear-end. Her youthful beauty had not yet begun to fade and her copper-colored eyes were kind and bright. Her red-brown hair was braided on the sides of her head, but twisted into a tight bun at the back. A solid white band held any loose strands around her face in place.
The door opened again and a tall man appeared, silhouetted against the pearly gray light from outside. He was an absolute beanpole—he was even skinnier than Winslow and perhaps even taller. A trimmed dusty-blonde beard adorned his deeply tanned face and he wore a wide straw hat, the marker of a farmer. Unlike the farmers that Swan had come to expect, his clothing was all one piece and appeared to be some kind of jumpsuit. The boots came up to the knees and were splattered with mud. He stood at the door, scraping off the crust of it as best as he could. His green eyes were apologetic to Martie as he struggled.
"Gherard, what have you been doing? Playing mudpies with Layla?" she asked teasingly.
"No…not quite. I had to go and get Mollie's silly foal out of the mud. Stupid little thing squelched right down into that pond and couldn't climb back up the bank. Oh, Mollie sure scolded her! She even bit her right on her wee little rump! I'd have hated to be in her hooves just then."
Martie giggled at the story and embraced him affectionately. His eyes closed when she hugged him and his head came to rest on hers. An odd feeling twinged in Swan's gut.
"Ah, so you made it! Well, that's one blessing, isn't it? If you don't mind me asking, what happened to your face, son?"
Swan clenched the brightly colored quilt in his hands.
"I don't want to talk about it," he mumbled.
"All right, then…just so long as your heart's still beating. I bet when Martie gets through with you, you'll have no scars at all!"
"Oh, yes he will!" a voice yelled from across the room. The only thing Swan was able to register was a black blur before something hit him hard enough to send him into darkness.