The witch doctor



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THE WITCH DOCTOR

by

Christopher Stasheff


Chapter One


What can you say about a friend who leaves town without telling

you?


I mean, I left Matt sitting there in the coffee shop trying to

translate that gobbledygook parchment of his, and when I came back

after class, he was gone. I asked if anybody'd seen him go, but nobody

had-just that, when they'd looked up, he'd been gone.

That was no big deal, of courser didn't own Matt, and he was a big

boy. If he wanted to go take a hike, that was his business. But he'd

left that damn parchment behind, and ever since he'd found it, he'd

handled it as if it were the crown jewels-so he sure as hell wouldn't

have just left it on the table in a busy coffee shop. Somebody could

have thrown it in the wastebasket without looking. He was just lucky

it was still there when I got back. So I picked it up and put it in my

notebook. "Tell him I've got his parchment," I told Alice.

She nodded without looking up from the coffee she was pouring.

"Sure thing, Saul. If you see him first, tell him he forgot to

pay his bill this morning."

"Saul" is me. Matt claimed I'd been enlightened, so he called me

"Paul." I went along-it was okay as an in-joke, and it was funny the

first time. After that, I suffered through it-from Matt. Not from

anyone else. "Saul" is me. I just keep a wary eye for teenagers with

slingshots who also play harp.

"Will do," I said, and went out the door-but it nagged at me

especially since I had never known Matt to forget to pay Alice

before.

Forget to put on his socks, maybe, but not to pay his tab.



When I got back to my apartment, I took out his mystical

manuscript and looked at it. Matt thought it was parchment, but I

didn't think he was any judge of sheepskins. He certainly hadn't

gotten his.

Well, okay, he had two of them, but they hadn't given him the

third degree yet-and wouldn't, the way he was hung up on that

untranslatable bit of doggerel. Oh, sure, maybe he was right, maybe it

was a long-lost document that would establish his reputation as a

scholar and shoot him up to full professor overnight-but maybe the moon

is made of calcified green cheese, too.

Me, I was working on my second M.A.-anything to justify staying

around campus. Matt had gone on for his doctorate, but I couldn't stay

interested in any one subject that long. They all began to seem kind

of silly, the way the professors were so fanatical about the smallest

details.

By that standard, Matt was a born professor, all right. He just

spun his wheels, trying to translate a parchment that he thought was

six hundred years old but was written in a language nobody had ever

heard of. I looked it over, shook my head, and put it back in the

notebook. He'd show up looking for it sooner or later.

But he didn't. He didn't show up at all.

After a couple of days, I developed a gnawing uncertainty about

his having left town-maybe he had just disappeared. I know, I know, I

was letting my imagination run away with me, but I couldn't squelch the

thought.

So what do you do when a friend disappears?

You have to find out whether or not to worry.

The first day, I was only a little concerned, especially after I

went back to the coffee shop, and they said he hadn't been in looking

for his damn parchment. The second day, I started getting worried-it

was midnight and he hadn't shown up at the coffeehouse. Then I began

to think maybe he'd forgotten to eat again and blacked out-so I went

around to his apartment to tell him off.

He lived in one of those old one-family houses that had been

converted into five apartments, if you want to call them that-a

nine-bytwelve living room with a kitchenette wall, and a cubbyhole for

a bedroom. I knocked, but he didn't answer. I knocked again, Then I

waited a good long time before I knocked a third time. Still no

answer. At three A.M when the neighbor came out and yelled at me to

stop knocking so hard, I really got worried-and the next day, when


nobody answered, I figured, Okay, third time's the charm-so I went

outside, glanced around to make sure nobody was looking, and quietly

crawled in the back window. Matt really ought to lock up at night;

I've always told him so.

I had to crawl across the table-Matt liked to eat and write by

natural light-and stepped into a mess.

Look, I've got a pretty strong stomach, and Matt was never big on

housekeeping. A high stack of dishes with mold on them, I could have

understood-but wall-to-wall spiderwebs? No way. How could he live

like that? I mean, it wasn't just spiderwebs in the corners-it was

spiderwebs choking the furniture! I couldn't have sat down without

getting caught in dusty silk! And the proprietors were still there,

too-little brown ones, medium-sized gray ones, and a huge malecater

with a body the size of a quarter and red markings like a big wide grin

on the underside of its abdomen, sitting in the middle of a web six

feet wide that was stretched across the archway to the bed nook.

Then the sun came out from behind a , loud, its light struck

through the window for about half a minute-and I stood spellbound.

Lit from the back and side like that, the huge web seemed to glow,

every tendril bright. It was beautiful.

Then the sun went in, the light went away, and it was just a dusty

piece of vermin-laden debris.

Speaking of vermin, what had attracted all these eight-legged

wonders? It must have been a bumper year for flies. Or maybe, just

maybe, they'd decided to declare war on the army of cockroaches that

infested the place. If so, more power to them. I decided not to go

spider hunting, after all. Besides, I didn't have time-I had to find

Matt.


The strange thing was, I'd been in that apartment just three days

before, and there hadn't been a single strand of spider silk in sight.

Okay, so they're hard to see-but three days just isn't time enough

for that much decoration.

I stepped up to the archway, nerving myself to sweep that web

aside and swat its builder-but the sun came out again, and the golden

cartwheel was so damned beautiful I just couldn't bring myself to do

it. Besides, I didn't really need to-I could look through it, and the

bedroom sure didn't have any place that was out of sight.

Room enough for a bed, a dresser, a tin wardrobe, and scarcely an

inch more. The bed was rumpled, but Matt wasn't in it.

I turned around, frowning, and scanned the place again. I

wouldn't

say there was no sign of Matt-as I told you, he wasn't big

on house

keeping, and there were stacks of books everywhere, nicely webbed

at the moment-but the pile of dirty dishes was no higher than it had

been, and he himself sure wasn't there.

I stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind me, chewing

it over. No matter how I sliced it, it came out the same-Matt had left

town.

Why so suddenly?



Death in the family. Or close to it. What else could it be?

So I went back to my apartment and started research. One of the

handy things about having some training in scholarship, is that you

know how to find information. I knew what town Matt came fromSepar

City, New Jersey-and I knew how to call long-distance information.

"Mantrell," I told the operator.

"There are three, Sir. Which one did you want?"

I racked my brains. Had Matt ever said anything about his

parents' names? Then I remembered, once, that there had been a

"junior" attached to him. "Matthew."

"We have a Mateo."

"Yeah, that's it." It was a good guess, anyway.

"One moment, please."

The vocodered voice gave me the number. I wrote it down, hung UP,

picked up, and punched in. Six rings, and I found myself hoping nobody

would answer.

"'Alio? I1

I hadn't known his parents were immigrants. His mother sounded

nice.

"I'm calling for Matthew Mantrell," I said. "Junior."



Mateo? Ees not 'ere."

"Just went out for a minute?" I was surprised at the surge of

relief I felt.

"No, no! Ees away-college!"

My spirits took the express elevator down. "Okay. I'll try him

there. Thanks, Mrs. Mantrell."

"Ees okay. You tell him call home, si?"

"Si," I agreed. "Good-bye." I hung up, hoping I would see him

indeed.

So. He hadn't gone home.



Then where?

I know I should have forgotten about it, shoved it to the back

of
my mind, and just contented myself with being really mad at him.

What was the big deal, anyway?

The big deal was that Matt was the only real friend I had, at the

moment-maybe the only one I'd ever had, really. I mean, I hadn't known

Matt all that long; but four years seems like a long time, to me. Four

years, going on five-but who's counting?

It's not as if I'd ever had all that many friends. Let me see,

there was jory in first grade, and Luke, and Ray-and all the rest of

the boys in the class, I suppose. Then it was down to Luke and Ray in

second grade, 'cause jory moved away-but the rest of the kids began to

cool off. My wild stories, I guess. Then Ray moved, too, so it was

just Luke and me in third grade-and Luke eased up, 'cause he wanted to

play with the other kids. Me, I didn't want to play, I was clumsy-I

just wanted to tell stories, but the other kids didn't want to hear

about brave knights rescuing fair damsels. So from fourth grade on, I

was on decent terms with the rest of the kids, but nothing more. Then,

along about junior high, nobody wanted to be caught talking to me,

because the "in" crowd decided I was weird.

What can I say? I was. I mean, a thirteen-year-old boy who

doesn't like baseball and loves reading poetry-what can you say? By

local standards, anyway. And in junior high, local standards are

everything.

Made me miserable, but what could I do?

Find out what they thought made a good man, of course. I watched

and found out real quick that the popular guys weren't afraid to fight,

and they won more fights than they lost. That seemed to go with being

good at sports. So I figured that if I could learn how to fight, I

could be good at sports, too. A karate school had just opened up in

town, so I heckled Mom until she finally took me, just to shut me up.

I had to get a paper route to pay for it, though.

It only took six months before I stopped losing fights. When

school started again in the fall, and the boys started working out

their ranking system by the usual round of bouts, I started winning a

few-and all of a sudden, the other guys got chummy. I warmed to it for

a little while, but it revolted me, too. I knew them for what they

were now, and I stopped caring about them.

It felt good. Besides, I'd connected with karate-and from it, I

got interested in the Far East.

One of the teachers told me I should try not to sound so hostile

and sarcastic all the time.

Sarcastic? Who, me?
So I learned to paste on the smile and sound cheerful.

Didn't work. The other kids could tell. All I succeeded in doing

was acting phony.

Why bother?

Of course, things picked up a little in high school, because there

was a literary magazine, and a drama club, so I got back onto civil

terms with some of the other kids. Not the "in" crowd, of course, but

they bored me, so I didn't care. Much.

So all in all, I wasn't really prepared for college.

Academically, sure-but socially? I mean, I hadn't had a real friend in

ten yearsand all of a sudden, I had a dozen. Not close friends, of

course, but people who smiled and sat down in my booth at the coffee

shop.

Who can blame me if I didn't do any homework?



My profs, that's who. And the registrar, who sent me the little

pink slip with the word probation worked in there. And my academic

counselor, who pointed out that I was earning a quick exit visa from

the Land of Friendship. So I declared an English major, where at least

half of the homework was reading the books I'd already read for

recreation-Twain, and Dickens, and Melville. I discovered Fielding,

and Chaucer, and Joyce, and had more fun. Of course ' I had to take a

grammar course and write term papers, so I learned how to sneak in a

few hours at the library. I didn't take any honors, but I stayed in.

Then I discovered philosophy, and found out that I actually wanted

to go to the library. I started studying without realizing it-it was

so much fun, such a colossal, idiotic, senseless puzzle. Nobody had

any good answers to the big questions, but at least they were asking.

My answers? I was looking for them. That was enough.

So I studied for fun, and almost learned how to party. Never got

very good at it, but I tried-and by my senior year, I even had a couple

of friends who trusted me enough to tell me their troubles.

Not that I ever told them mine, of course. I tried once or twice,

but stopped when I saw the eyes glaze. I figured out that most people

want to talk, but they don't want to listen. It followed from that,

logically, that what they liked about me was that I listened, but

didn't talk. So I didn't. I got a reputation for being the strong and

silent type, just by keeping my mouth shut. I also found out, by

overhearing at a party, that they thought I was the Angry Young Man.

I thought that one over and decided they were right. I was angry

about people. Even the ones I liked, mostly. They wanted to take, but

they didn't want to give. They cared about fighting, but they didn't
care about brains. They spent their time trying to get from one

another, and they didn't care about why they were here.

Oh, don't get me wrong-they were good people. But they didn't

care about me, really. I was a convenience.


Except for Matt.

Matt was already working on his M.A. when I met him, and by the

time I graduated, he was making good progress on his PhD.

So what was I going to do when I got my degree? Leave town, and

the one good friend I had? Not to mention the only three girls who'd

ever thought I was human.

No way.

So I started work on my master's. Physics, of course.



How come? From literature and philosophy?

Because I took "Intro to Asia" for a freshman distribution

requirement, and found out about zen-and learned about Shredinger's Cat

in "History of Science." Put the two together, and it made a lot of

sense.

Don't ask. You had to be there.



Then Matt ran into a snag on his doctoral dissertation. Do you

know what it's like to see a real friend deteriorating in front of your

eyes? He found that scrap of parchment, the-i got hung up trying to

translate it. Wasn't in any known language, so it had to be a prank.

I mean, that's obvious, right? Not even logic-just common sense.

Matt didn't have any.

Now, don't get me wrong. Matt's my friend, and I think the world

of the guy, but I'm realistic about him, too. He was something of a

compulsive, and something of an idealist, as well-to the point of ...

Well, you know the difference between fantasy and reality? Matt

didn't. Not always, anyway.

No, he was convinced that parchment was a real, authentic,

historical document, and he wasted half his last year trying to

decipher it.

I was getting real worried about him-losing weight, bags under his

eyes, drawn and pale ... Matt, not me. I didn't have any spare weight

to lose. Him, he was the credulous type-one of the kind that's born

every minute. I'm one of the other kind, two born for every one of

him. I mean, I wouldn't believe it was April if I didn't see the

calendar. Forget about that robin pecking at the window, and the buds

on the trees. If I don't see it in black and white, it's Nature

pulling a fast one. Maybe a thaw.

So he had disappeared.

I thought about calling the police, but I remembered they

couldn't
do anything-Matt was a grown man, and there hadn't been any

bloodstains in his apartment. Besides, I hadn't been on terribly good

terms with the local constables ever since that year I was

experimenting with recreational chemicals.

Still, I gave it a try. I actually went into the police

station-me, with my long hair and beard. Nobody gave me more than a

casual glance, but my back still prickled-probably from an early

memory, a very early memory, of my father saying something about "the

pigs" loving to beat on anybody who didn't have a crew cut. Of course,

that was long ago, in 1968, and I was so little that all I remember of

him was a big, tall pair of blue jeans with a tie-dyed T-shirt and a

lot of hair at the top. I hated that memory for ten years, because it

was all I knew of him until Mom decided to get in touch with him again,

and I found out he wasn't really the ogre I figured he must have been,

to have left Mom and me that way. Found out it wasn't all his idea,

either. And I had a basis for understanding him-by that time, I had

begun to know what it was like to have all the other kids put you down.

"I'm sorry, kid," he told me once. "I didn't know alienation was

hereditary. " Of course, it wasn't-just the personality traits that

led to it. I wouldn't say I ever loved him, but at least I warmed to

him some. He had shaved and gotten a haircut, even a three-piece suit,

by then, but it didn't fool anybody for very long. Especially me.

Maybe that's why I wear chambray and blue jeans. And long hair, and a

beard-like my early memories of him.

And early memories stay with you longest and deepest, so I really

felt as if I were walking into the lion's den.

The cop at the desk looked up as I approached. "Can I help you?"

About then, he could have helped me out of there, and I might have

needed it-but I said, "I hope so. A friend of mine. He's disappeared.

Right away, he looked grave. "Did he leave any message?"

I thought of the parchment, but what good is writing you can't

read? Besides, he wasn't the one who wrote it. "Not a word."

He frowned. "But he was over twenty-one"' "Yeah," I admitted.
"Any reason to think there might have been foul play?"
Now, that question sent the icicle skittering down my spine. Not

that the idea hadn't been there, lurking at the back of my dread, mind

you-but I had worked real hard not to put words to it. Now that the
sergeant had, I couldn't ignore it any more. "Not really," I

admitted.

"It's just not like him to pick up and pack out like that."

"It happens," the sergeant sighed. "People just get fed up with

life and take off. We'll post his name and watch for him, and let you

know if we find out anything-but that's all we can do."

I'd been pretty sure of that. "Thanks," I said. "He's Matt

Mantrell.

Matthew. And I'm-" "Saul Bremener." He kept his eyes on the form

he was filling in.

"Three-ten North Thirteenth Street. We'll let you know if we hear

anything. " My stomach went hollow, and my skin crawled. It doesn't

always help your morale, finding out that the cops know you by name.

"Uh ... thanks," I croaked.

"Don't mention it." He looked up. "Have a good day, Mr.

Bremener-and don't take any wooden cigarettes, okay?"

"Wooden," I agreed, and turned numbly about and drifted out of

that den of doom. So they remembered my little experiments. It makes

one wonder.

The sunlight and morning air braced me, in spite of the lack of

sleep. I decided they were nice guys, after all-they'd left me alone

until they could see if it was a passing fad, or something permanent.

Passing, in my case. So it was smart-they'd saved taxpayers'

money and my reputation. I wondered if there was anything written

about me anywhere.

Probably. Somewhere. I mean, they had to have something to do

during the slow season. I began to sympathize with Matt-maybe blowing

town suddenly wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Get real, I told myself sternly. Where else would I find such

sympathetic cops?

Back to the search. Maybe they couldn't do anything officially,

but I wasn't official.

So I searched high and low, called the last girl Matt had been

seen with-back when I was a junior-and started getting baggy eyes

myself. Finally, I took a few slugs of Pepto-Bismol as a preventative,

screwed my disgust to the nausea point, and went back into his

apartment.

I scolded myself for not having moved that table; just lucky Matt

hadn't left anything on it. I laid my notebook down on the desk next

to the phone and gave a quick look at the table, the kitchenette

counter, and the miniature sofa. Nothing there but dust and spider

silk.
Then I went through that apartment inch by inch, clearing webs and

squashing spiders. Or trying to, anyway-I must have been dealing with

a new and mutant breed. Those little bug-eaters were fast!

Especially the big fat one-I took my eyes off it for a second to

glance at the arachnid next door, and when I glanced back, it wasn't

there any more.

it wasn't the only thing that wasn't there-neither was any sign of

where Matt might be. I mean, nothing-until I turned and looked at the

kitchenette table and saw the parchment.

I stared. Then I closed my eyes, shook my head, and stared again.

it was still there. I could have sworn I'd put it back in my

notebook-so I picked up the notebook and checked. Yep, the piece of

sheepskin was still in it, all right.

That gave me pause. Practically a freeze, really, while I thought

unprintable thoughts. Finally, slowly, I looked up and checked again.

it was on the table.

I looked down at the notebook, real fast, but not fast enough-it

was back between the lined sheets. I held my head still and flicked a

glance over to the table, but it must have read my mind, 'cause it was

there by the time I looked. Then I laid down the notebook, real

carefully, and stepped back, so I could see both the notebook and the

table at the same time.

They each had a parchment.

Well, that settled that. I gave up and brought the notebook over

to the table. I set it down beside the parchment. Yep, they were both

still there-Matt's parchment in my notebook, and a brand-new one where

none had ever been before. At least, a few minutes before-I had

checked the table as I crawled across it. I frowned, taking a closer

look at the new parchment.

It was written in runes, and the "paper" was genuine sheepskin,

all right.

How come runes?

Because runes are magical.

I tried to ignore the prickling at the base of my skull and told

myself sternly that runes were just ordinary, everyday letters in

somebody else's language. Okay, so it was an old language, and a lot

of the items written in it had been ceremonial, which was why they had

been preserved-but that didn't mean they were magical. I mean, the

people who wrote them may have thought they could work magichut that

was just superstition.
But it was also something that made the scholar in me sit up

brightly and smack his lips. I mean, literature had been one of my

undergraduate majors-justified an extra year on campus, right thereand

although it wasn't my main field any more, I was still interested.

I'd learned at least a little bit about those old symbols-and I

knew Matt had a book around here that explained the rest. I hunted

around until I found it, blew the dust and webbing off, and sat down to

study. I looked up each rune and wrote its Roman-letter equivalent

just above it. I tried pencil first, but it just skittered off that

slick surface, so I had to use a felt pen. After all, this couldn't

really be anything old, could it?

After three letters, I leaned back to see if it made a word.

H-e-y.

I recoiled and glared down at it. How dare it sound like English!



just a coincidence. I went to work on the next word.

P-a-u-l.


I sat very still, my glance riveted to those runes. "Hey, Paul"?

Who in the ninth century knew my name?

Then a thought skipped through, and I took a closer look at the

parchment. I mean, the material itself. It was new, brand-new, fresh

off the sheep, compared to Matt's parchment, which was brittle and

yellow-several years old, at least. Something inside me whispered

centuries, but I resolutely ignored it and went on to the next word.

I wrote the Roman letters above the runes, refusing to be

sidetracked, resisting the temptation to pronounce the words they

formed, until I had all the symbols converted-though something inside

me was adding them up as I went along, and whispering a very nasty

suspicion to me. But as long as I had another rune to look up, I could

ignore it-even after I'd already learned all the runes again and was

looking each one up very deliberately, telling myself it was just to

make sure I hadn't made a mistake.

Finally, though, I had written down all the letter equivalents and

I couldn't put it off any longer. I stayed hunched over the parchment,

my hands spread flat on the table, trying to grip into the plywood as I

read the translated words.

H-e-y P-a-ul g-e-t i-n t-o-u-c-h I-v-e I-o-s-t y-o-u-r address.

Or, to give it the proper emphatic delivery: "Hey, Paul! Get in

touch! I've lost your address!"

I could almost hear Matt's voice saying those words, and I swear

my nails bit into the plywood. What kin o a ousy joe was t is?


Friend? You call that a friend? First he leaves town without a

word, and then he sends me this?

I was just realizing that he couldn't have sent it, when I felt

the pain in the back of my hand.

"Damn!" I snatched it back, saw the little red dot in the center,

then the big fat spider standing there with that big wide grin painted

on its abdomen, and so help me, it was laughing at me. Anger churned

up, but the room was already getting fuzzy. Still, I tried to hang on

to that anger, tried to lift a hand to swat-the blasted thing had no

right to ...

But before I could even finish the thought, the haze thickened,

wrapped itself around me like a cool blanket, rolled itself up, and

bore me away to someplace dim and distant, and I almost managed to stay

conscious.


Chapter Two
When I came to, the mist was gone, and I felt amazingly well. I

mean, I had never felt that whole, that healthy, since I was a kid-and

I hadn't been aware of it then, of course. it was like waking up on an

April day, with the air fresh and warming from the night's chill, and

the sun painting the day in primaries as you watch, and knowing it's

your birthday.

But it wasn't April, it was November, and I was inside Matt's

apartment. Only I wasn't, I was out in the open-and it wasn't November

any more, it really was April. Either that, or it was Florida.

Florida, with mountains stabbing up from the horizon? And not

gently rounded mountains, like the Appalachians, but jagged granite

obelisks, with snow on top?

Of course, they were off in the distance. Close by, all I could

see was a field of wheat, with two or three little hedges cutting it

into odd shapes. Whoever lived here, they could use some lessons in

geometry.

I was just beginning to wonder how I'd come here, when I saw the

knight.


Well, I knew about the Society for Creative Anachronism, of

course, but I also knew they didn't go in for tilting, and this guy was

carrying one of the most authentic lances I could have imagined. Plus,

he was riding a Percheron-and I don't know any SCA types who could

afford the upkeep on a pony, let alone a beerwagon bronc. And, of

course, there were the half-dozen men on


foot behind him, all wearing more or less the same combination of

brown and gray, with steel bands glinting on their hats and long spears

in their hands. They raised a whoop and pointed at me. The knight

turned to look.

He saw me and perked up right away-dropped the point of the lance

to horizontal, aimed the warhorse at me, and kicked it into a gallop.

Must have been the long hair and the beard. Mine, I mean. Either

that, or he had something against blue jeans and chambray.

His men raised another whoop and came pelting after him like

children hearing the bells on an ice cream truck. I just stood there,

staring at all that scrap iron and horse meat thundering down at me,

trying very, very hard not to believe any of it.

Then I realized the tip of the lance had come close enough so that

I could see it was sharp and made of steel, and I had to believe that

much. I jumped aside. The rider tried to swerve, bellowing some nasty

things, but his Percheron didn't have that tight a turning radius, and

he went crashing into the underbrush.

Underbrush?

I whirled around and, sure enough, there it was, just stunted

trees and bushes, a little thicket in the middle of all those fields,

presumably where the ground was too poor to grow anything. Or maybe

around a creek-I braced myself, hoping to hear a splash.

Instead, I heard a crack that filled my whole head, along with a

piercing pain. The scene went dark for an instant, then came back full

of bright little shiny lights. I would have fallen down, but a big

rough hand was holding me up by the arm while a voice guffawed, "He is

nothing, only a scrap of skin and bone! Here, Heinrich, you try him!

" And I was spinning and staggering across the grass, dazed and amazed

to realize I could understand the words, though I knew damned well they

weren't English.

Then I slammed into something else meaty and with foul breath.

He slammed a fist into my gut. I doubled over, my stomach trying

to climb up my throat, and a huge bellow of laughter filled my ears.

Then something hard slammed into my bottom, and I heard another

nasty laugh. I moved my legs fast, just barely managing to catch up

with my top half in time to keep from falling-but behind me, I heard an

outraged shout. "It was not your turn, Rudolf! Remember your place!"

Then I slammed into another wall of leather and sweat that


made an evil laugh and pushed me back far enough so that I could

see the fist swinging at me. Reflex finally took over, and I squirmed

aside so that the fist hit my shoulder, not my head. It spun me around

enough so that I could see Heinrich belting Rudolf one. Rudy went down

to his knees and stayed there, rubbing his chin-and behind them, the

knight was sitting his horse with his visor up, nodding and laughing.

Then another tough snarled, "My turn!" and grabbed me.

But another clunk grabbed my other arm and yanked back. I yowled,

but I could still hear him bellowing, "Take a lower place, Gustang! I

will not be forborne!" And he swung a quick left hook into Gustang's

gut.

I couldn't believe it. Not only were they beating up a total



stranger, just for fun-they were fighting over me, too, about the

pecking order.

But the wrangling had taken just long enough for me to collect a

little bit of my wits, and it was the part that held the memory of my

karate training. What would I have told my teacher, if he'd been here?

"Sorry, Sensei, I was watching the scenery?" Sure.

Time to remember I was a trained killer. I'd never killed

anything larger than a mouse, of course, and that was only with a

trap-but that didn't change the training.

I spun around, slamming into the guy who had my arm and snaking my

leg around his in the process, shoving and kicking back.

Down he went, and I spun to the next one, who was so surprised he

was slow getting his guard up-only it wasn't a guard, he was just

swinging at me, not even trying to block. I ducked and kicked, and he

went down.

The other four finally woke up to what I was doing and fell on me

with an outraged roar. I sidestepped, ducked, punched, whirled, and

kicked, recovered and chopped. The adrenaline was singing, and if I

was bruised and groggy, I didn't realize it. Two of them were down,

and the other two hesitated, uncertain-at a guess, I decided they

weren't used to having their toys play back.

Then the knight shouted and slammed down his visor-obviously time

to restore a little order here. His men relaxed, stepping back and

leaving it to Papa.

All the outrage I felt boiled up as I saw the Percheron plodding

forward and beginning to pick up speed. This was no way to treat a

stranger, at least one who hadn't even offered an insult! As the huge

beast lumbered into a trot, I shouted, "What are you doing,


jumping a stranger just going his way? Are you out of your

brains, have you nothing but hay? Do you have any sanity? Any common

humanity? You should feel what it's like to be crashed up this
way! " The huge horse tripped. It tumbled. It hit the ground

hard and rolled. The knight bellowed in alarm, and just managed to

kick free at the last instant.

I stared.

So did his men.

Then somebody hissed, "Zabreur!" and the knight began to kick his

arms and legs-he was on his back, trying to turn over.

But he was out of action long enough for me to make some headway

against his men. I turned to them, advancing-if I tried to run, it

would restore their self-confidence.

But that was very thoroughly shot. They moaned and backed off

fast, then turned, stumbling, and started to run.

I stared, thunderstruck. They couldn't be that scared, just

because the horse had hit a gopher hole and tripped! Okay, so it was a

lucky coincidence that I had just finished yelling something-but that

shouldn't have scared them that much.

The knight didn't think so, either. "Hans! Klaus! You

worthless, good-for-nothing blobs of dog meat! Come back here and aid

me, or I'll ..." Then he caught sight of me limping toward him,

frowning, curious, and I guess I must have looked pretty bad, being

mussed up with my shirt torn and all, because he moaned and made some

sort of sign. "You cannot prevail! My master is an Earl


of Evil!

Some force staggered me, making my head ring. He must have thrown

something I hadn't seen. Anger surged, and my instinct sent me to kick

his head in-but prudence took over at the last second, pointing out

that I should get as far away from him as possible, and not add

homicide to any other charges the local authorities might dream up

against me. This was especially true because he obviously was one of

the local authorities. I had laid off smoking grass for similar

reasons, and it had apparently paid off, since I hadn't been arrested.

I slowed and nodded. "Right. I love you, too, sweetheart.

Remind me to return the hospitality some day." Then I turned and

went away, walking fast-or as fast as I could; I seemed to have

developed a limp.

I glanced back a couple of times, but no one was showing any great

interest in following me. That made me curious after a while,
so I shinnied up a tree until I had a line of sight back to the

little forest we'd been near. I was on the other side of that woods

now, but I could see the knight and his boys trudging off toward the

castle way up high across the valley. That was both good and badgood,

because it meant I had some time to find a hiding place, or get farther

away; bad, because it meant they'd apparently decided I was too much to

handle and were going back for reinforcements.

Of course they could just be cutting their losses. Maybe they

were planning not to mention me to anybody again-but somehow, I doubted

that. Might have had something to do with that word somebody'd hissed

when the knight went down-"Zabreur." My German was a little rusty, and

that probably wasn't real German, anywaybut didn't the word mean "male

witch"?
Possible.

I shinnied back down, turning thoughtful. Chambray and blue jeans

probably looked like luxury fabrics, to them-now that I thought about

it, their cloth had looked pretty much homemade. And my styles were

certainly odd, by their standards. The belt and boots alone would be

enough to mark me as above peasant rank, and weird-tooled leather with

a huge metal buckle, and high heels. No, from their point of view, I

was familiar enough to be real, odd enough


to be special.

I set off uphill again, deciding I'd better stay alert. The

"magician" pose was a good idea-it could help protect me, and I sure

didn't have anything else to do the job. Well, no, I had a large clasp

knife in my pocket-I like 'em big enough so that "jacknife" seems like

an understatement. I decided I'd better use it to help me make

something better in the way of a weapon. I stopped off at the next

woodlot, hunted around, and found a fallen branch that was still pretty

solid. I whittled away twigs as I walked and, pretty soon, I had a

serviceable staff.

I'd hung around with some SCA guys and learned a little about

quarterstaves from them-but I'd learned a bit more from my sensei. I

wasn't an expert, mind you, but I was capable, and it was better than
nothing.

I looked around me then, finally letting the scenery sink in,

instead of just taking a quick glance to know which way to go. There

were rugged mountains in the distance, big hills nearby, with sheep

grazing on the slopes and every more-or-less horizontal spot taken up

by grain. I couldn't have told you one cereal from another unless it

came in a box, but this stuff looked too hairy to be wheat.

Finally, it hit-I wasn't in the Midwest any more. In fact, I

doubted
I was even in America-and judging from what I'd seen of the

locals, I wasn't even it the twentieth century.

Time travel? Space zapping? Impossible! I had to be dreaming.

But those punches had sure hurt. A dream, this wasn't.

Hallucination?

Possible-but if it were, it would've had to have been the most

detailed trip I'd ever heard of, and the most enduring. Besides, I had

sworn off all chemical experiences years before.

Flashback?

Again, possible-though I didn't think I'd taken anywhere near

enough drugs, ever, to have caused a spontaneous trip to happen, and

certainly not one that lasted this long. Still, it was a possibility.

I closed my eyes and willed myself back to my apartment.

But there were no psychedelic patterns inside my eyelids, only

darkness-well, redness; I was standing in sunlight. I groped for my

identity symbol, but my hands were empty, except for the staff. In

desperation, I put my left hand on my belt buckle and started tracing

the patterns of the Native American symbols I could feel there.

Nothing happened.

I sighed and gave up, opening my eyes. I was stuck here, wherever

"here" was-and I was going to have to live by the local rules, whatever

they were. Denial wouldn't help, and it might be a quick road to

disaster. Whether that disaster was psychological or physical was kind

of a moot point-it would be very unpleasant, either way.

Unless there was some evidence to the contrary-and I couldn't see

any-I had to assume that the knight and his bullyboys were genuine not

modern people putting on some incomprehensible show.

Those guys couldn't have been SCA members-they weren't polite,

they weren't friendly, and their weapons weren't padded. So, somehow,

I'd landed in the middle of some sort of medieval culture, from what I

could see of it-and if they thought I was a magician, that could

explain a few things.

I wondered where I was. I couldn't offhand think of any place on

Earth that was still living in the Northern European Middle Ages.

Okay, there were some isolated islands where the living was still

pretty limited-no TV, even-but so far as I knew, they didn't run to

knights.

A medieval fair, being held to attract the tourists? No; you

don't beat up on tourists.
I sighed, deciding that I just didn't have enough information to

fig


ure out where I was, how I'd been brought there, or why. I

shelved it until I could learn more. There were more immediate

problems that needed tending to, such as survival.

I set off up-slope. A few hundred yards later, I passed a berry

bush-and I was amazed to realize I was hungry. I stopped and stepped

closer, inspecting the berries carefully, and decided that I couldn't

be all that badly off, if I could still want food. I'd tied in with a

local back-to-the-basics group for a year or two, going out on field

trips into the countryside to learn how to survive in the wild, or at

least without grocery stores; I hadn't quit until they started talking

about setting up a commune. So I knew which plants were edible and

which weren't, and the all-important rule: if you're not sure it's good

to eat, don't touch it. But these looked to be perfectly ordinary

raspberries, so I took a chance, and a handful. They tasted good, so I

took another handful.

As I was munching, I noticed a very big spiderweb, glowing with

the sunlight behind it-in fact, several of them; the neighborhood must

have been saturated with flies. The biggest web, though, had an

eight-legger the size of a quarter, an exact double for the one that

had stung me. Anger rose, and my hand tightened on my staff-but I told

myself that it couldn't be the same bug, and I turned away.

Bad year for spiders, folks.

The land was still sloping upward. I decided I must be in the

foothills of the mountains I'd seen in the distance. After a little

while, I came to a woodlot that went on and on. I stayed on the

fringe, just this side of the underbrush, and kept a wary eye on it-for

all I knew, a dragon might have come charging out any second. On the

other hand, I wanted to be able to duck into it quickly, if Sir

Overbearing and his boys decided to come hunting, after all.

Then, suddenly, the shock hit. I stopped dead still, leaned on my

staff, and waited for the feeling of desolation to pass.
it didn't.

I lifted my head, looking out over that strange, strange view, and

Kullervo's lines from The Kalevala sprang into my mind. I chanted them

aloud, hoping the sound would make me feel better:


"And the friendless one reflected, 'Wherefore have I been created?

Who has made me and has doomed me, Thus without a sun to wander

Through the starry wastes forever?'
It worked. just the sound of a human voice helped, even if it was

my own-and the feeling of kinship, the knoN,Iedge that somebody else

had felt this way before, somewhere, somewhen, and that a lot of other

people had to have felt the same way, too, to keep that verse alive

down the centuries. I wasn't a total oddball, and I wasn't completely

alone. Culture can be a great consolation.

Consolation enough to put some spirit back into me. I

straightened up, squaring my shoulders, and set off again.

Light blossomed-an actinic, piercing light that seemed to lance

though my eyes.

I fell back, raising a forearm to protect them. Panic surged

through me-the only thing I'd ever heard of that made sudden light like

that was a from .

But there was no explosion. Instead, I seemed to hear, very

faintly, the sound of a chiming gong-but it could have been

imagination.

In fact, it had to be-and so did the strange, vague,

anthropomorphic shape at the center of that light burst, where the

glare was strongest. As I watched, it coalesced, becoming clearer and

more humanlike.

Then I caught my breath. It had turned into the shape of a young

man, swallowing up all the light so that it still shone faintly, even

though I could see through him. just barely.

He wore a glowing robe, and there was a shimmering behind him, a

suggestion of huge folded wings-and his face was very severe.

No. It couldn't be. An angel?

"I am even so," the being responded, "and the one who hath known

thee even since the day of thy birth, Saul."

Well. That brought me back to my senses, a little. "If you've

known me that long," I said, "how come I've never seen you before?"

"In that dull world to which thou wert born, naught of the spirit

can be seen, save to those few souls that do glow with goodness.

Here, though, the world of the spirit is open to men, if they do

but seek. " "World?" I frowned. "You mean I'm in a totally different

world from the one I've lived in all my life?" Somehow, that didn't

seem like news.


"Even so," the angel agreed, but he was still frowning.
Then the other part of his message registered. "But," I said,

"I'm not particularly interested in the world of the spirit."

"How little thou dost know thyself, Saul! And how greatly dost

thou seek to hide thine own nature from thyself. Thou hast ever


been preoccupied with the things of the spirit, and 'tis even thy

aching search for truth that hath led thee away from the churches of

men."

I just stood there for a second while that sank in. Then I said,



"I thought you boys were supposed to think the churches had a monopoly

on truth."

"The religions they serve have truth within them, and therefore do

the churches, also-yet the folk who constitute each church are but

human, and as fallible as any among thee. How intolerant art thou, to

excuse thine own failings and condemn them for theirs!"

I lifted my head in indignation. "I haven't condemned anybody!"

"Hast thou not turned from them because thou hast judged them to

be hypocrites? Yet surely thou must needs see that their fait is a

striving after perfection."

I nodded, not following.

"Therefore, if they do strive for perfection, they cannot already

have attained it."

"Now, wait a minute!" I held up a hand, seeing where he was

going.

"Thou hast learned it," he said, nodding. "If they are thou canst



not blame them for their imperfections." not perfect,
"But I haven't judged anybody!"

"Hast thou not but now judged even thy Creator? Hast thou not

blamed Him for creating thee doomed to loneliness?"

"Oh," I said. "That's what brought you here."

"Even so," the angel confirmed. "In this world-nay, this

universe-prayers are answered more obviously than in thine own, and

verses are prayers, or petitions to the Adversary."

Suddenly, I was very glad I hadn't sung "Sympathy for the Devil."


Then the rest of what he'd said sank in. I frowned. "What do you

mean, 'this universe'?"

"Hast thou not perceived it with thy vaunted reason?" he taunted.

"Thou art no longer in the universe of thy birth. Thou hast been

transported to another, in which magic rules, and physics is

superstition."

I stared.

"Yet the God of All is the One God here, as well as in thy home,"

the angel said inexorably, "and of all the universes that be; for 'tis

He who made them, and doth maintain them by the force of His will. It

is this mighty and majestic God whom thou dost blame for thine own

failings! "


"But I wasn't talking about the judaeo-Christian Creator," I

objected. "I was reciting a quotation from the Finnish national epic!

If you want to look for the 'creator' I was talking about, go look

among the gods of the Finns! Besides, I didn't even make a statement!

I just asked a question!"

The angel waved the objection away with an impatient gesture.

"'Tis immaterial. Thou art in a universe in which the only true

Creator is Jehovah, and thou must needs align thyself either with God,

or with the Devil."

"Are you trying to say God didn't make me to be lonely?"

"Nay, nor to wander. If thou dost lack friends and home, that is

the consequence of thine own deeds and choices. If thou dost not wish

it so, thou canst choose otherwise."

I frowned. "Choose to go back to my own world?"

"Even that, though thou shalt have to seek the means, and labor

long and hard to earn or learn the way. Yet I spoke more of thy

grieving for friends and place."

"I've been looking for friends all my life!"

"They have been there," the angel said inexorably. "Thou hadst

but to live as they did, to learn their ways and follow them."

"Wait a minute! You're saying that if I wanted to be part of a

group, I had to do as everybody in that group did? " "Thou hadst need

to abide by their rules," the angel said. "There are many such that I

have rejoiced to see thee turn away from-yet

there were others who

were good folk, whose customs thou didst dis

dam. " t
I remembered the kids in grade school, who thought fighting and

sports were everything. "Damn right!"

The angel's face flared in wrath. I shrank back. "Uh, sorry,

there.


Darn right."

He diminished to a slow burn.

I collected the pieces of my wits and said, "They were so phony!

And their standards were, too! Thinking that how well you could

hit a ball really mattered!"

"It did," the angel said, "to them."

"Not to me! Reading books counted! Knowledge counted!"

"Thus thy books meant more to thee than friendship. Thou hadst

made thy choice; thou hadst small room to rail 'gainst God."

"Oh, yes I did! I should've been able to have friends and

booksother kids who liked to read, liked to learn! Then I would have

been



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