Here’s what I have so far. It’s not finished yet, but since I’m so slow getting around to it, I thought I’d go on and post what I have and add to it when I get more written.
I grasped the elder’s outstretched hand with both of mine, and patted hers just a little before dropping away for a normal handshake.
“I’m Treya.” I cleared my throat. “Umm, just, Treya.” We ended the handshake and I put my hands on my hips. “I’m not sure what I expected to find here. But … I’m glad to have arrived in a strange world to meet a friendly face for a change.”
“And I am relieved to see a friendly face step through that portal, for a change,” she agreed.
“So,” I continued. “What exactly have you been whispering to the trees, and how do I fit into that answer?”
Ledier bent slightly and lowered her head in a different sort of greeting. I mimicked her action.
She spoke softly. “There is something you need. I need something as well. I whisper to trees because there is no one else to talk to here. However, while in service to this post, and because of the solitude, I’ve learned that they do listen.”
“Amazing,” I replied and looked closer at the tree she’d been holding with conversation. “How do you know?” It wasn’t that I doubted her. It wasn’t a foreign concept to me, since I’d had quiet exchanges with trees before, myself. But she’s the first to ever confirm such a thing was more than my imagination.
Ledier almost laughed. “There is no way to explain to someone who doesn’t already know.”
I nodded. “Truth.” We understood each other. “So what do you need from me?” I assumed agreeing to whatever she had in mind would be necessary to get the curare I needed.
“I need you to take a passenger back through the portal with you.”
I stepped back a little and looked around a little more cautiously than I had the first moment I’d entered the space. No one else was there that I could see.
“A passenger?” I asked her. Surely the skepticism was written all over my face. This request made me nervous. If I agreed without seeing the person, what would I be agreeing to? It might not be human for all I knew. “I need to know a little more than that. What kind of passenger, and how far does my obligation extend beyond the exit of that tunnel?” I nodded back toward the tunnel entrance.
“She’s a Forest Folk. Just wait.” Ledeir held up a finger to silence me and turned around. She stooped and held out a hand, palm up, on the ground. Something small scurried onto her hand from beneath the leaves of the maidenwood tree. When she turned back towards me, there was a six-inch … some sort of person … standing defiantly on her hand.
“Treya, this is Aada,” Ledier said. “Aada, this is your ride out to No. 457.”
For a few seconds I was stunned. Competing thoughts short circuited my brain. Aada? A six-inch wild-haired red bodied ancient faced pregnant looking Forest Folk, and …
When words came back into my mouth I asked, “What do you mean about ‘457’”?
Not, what is that little person thing, but what is 457. Of course, I wanted to know what that thing was too. Especially since now it appeared that she’d be my passenger back through the tunnel.
Ledeir smiled and held her hand out towards me. I hesitated and then reached out to touch fingers. Aada scrambled from Ledier to my hand, and then grappled her way up to my shoulder and sat down. Chills ran up and down my body, but I ignored them and waited for answers.
“457 is the number name we have for the world you call ‘home’ on Earth. I’m assuming you’ve been through other portals, yes?” I nodded and she continued. “Every iteration has a number name. Yours is 457.”
“How do you know which is which? Who assigned the numbers and keeps track of them?” I assumed since mine was 457 that there must at least be 456 others out there. “And how many are there?”
Ledier nodded. “There are innumerable iterations. I don’t know them all, just this one and yours, which once was also mine. But, I have met travelers from others. Most don’t know the assignment of their own world, just as you didn’t know yours. And most are accidental travelers who didn’t know other iterations existed. You’re the first in a very long time who came here consciously, with intent.”
“Interesting.” This was news to me, and felt like something I needed to know. “So, who names them? How do we find the name of the various worlds that are out there?”
Ledeir pressed her lips together and didn’t answer, but walked over to the base of the giant tree she’d been talking to earlier. She picked up a little whisk broom and began dusting the exposed roots.
“These are questions I can’t answer for you right now. We don’t have the time for it. If you have a request, make it. I’ve other work to do. And depending on your request, you may have other tasks to tend.”
The idea occurred to me that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I first thought. What more could she possibly want? I already had agreed to transport the wee thing back across. I took a deep breath.
“I need a pot of curare.”
Ledier looked thoughtful and pursed her lips. “I know what curare is, but not exactly how to find it from here.” She tapped her fingers together. “I know who to ask, but reaching them will take some time.” I started to reply but she interrupted me – “and it won’t come cheap.”
“Money won’t be an issue, I can get that from home office,” I said.
She released a little puff of air from her nostrils, like a stifled laugh.
“The currency here isn’t money,” she said. “It’s time. Your time. See? Time passes differently here. While you’ve been here chatting with me, only a fraction of a millisecond has passed for anyone on the side you came from. They wouldn’t have even noticed your absence. On the other hand, it’s been more than an hour since you walked through that portal on this side.”
Portals were a phenomenon I didn’t really understand. The first ones I’d encountered were not that long ago, back at the compound I’d gone to with the asshole, my ARSA mentor, DRSS. He didn’t know anything about them. No one seemed to know anything about them. Except for Eli. That man seemed to know a lot about them and he wasn’t someone I wanted to encounter again.
I swallowed and cleared my throat. “How much time are we talking about?” I asked her. Raymond knew I had gone out to gather some supplies I needed, but he didn’t know I’d gone to another world. As far as I knew, they didn’t know about portals at all. It was probably a good idea to keep it that way. When the government got involved with anything, it always turned out poorly. Besides, I liked having escape routes . Who knew when I might need to exit my own world. But then again, who knew what kind of life might await on the other side?
Ledier smiled and the lines rearranged that ordinarily placid impish, elvish face she had. “In your time it may only amount to a couple of hours. Possibly a few days. But I’ll need you to stay here and guard the Maidenwood tree while I seek out the curare you want. It could take a while. A day or two, at the least. If, for some reason, I don’t return, though, it is your duty to guard the Maidenwood tree until a new guardian arrives. However long it takes for that to happen.”
“Well,” I stepped forward, Ada still perched on my shoulder. “I guess I’ll see what life is like on the other side, then.”
Ledeir nodded and walked toward the shadows beyond the maidenwood tree. She looked back, motioned me to follow.