I lay on my side in the morning, watching the sun come up through a glassless window. Its awning had kept some of the rain out before it had ripped away in the wind. What had gotten in formed a puddle on the floor and was slowly dripping through the cracks.
It was chill in the little shack, the charcoal long since burned out. I was pressed close against Nevianne’s naked back, enjoying her body heat, my arm around her waist but careful not to touch anything that would get me slapped or worse; I had no idea what the sexual mores were of these people except for having my hand slapped away. I needed to use that chamber pot, but I didn’t want to get out of the sack for it before absolutely necessary.
Instead, I used the time to think. I was far from home even though I was close to the spot where I started. Returning was going to be a hit or miss proposition, with way more misses than hits. I was also intrigued by the idea of the “Dark Lord,” and impressed beyond measure by the willingness of my hostess to sacrifice herself for all eternity to help her neighbors. That seemed extreme. I could maybe, kinda sorta, see it for as long as it took the demon to solve her problem – whatever it was; a week or so, maybe a month. In exchange for eternity seemed kind of lop-sided.
The situation was silly, of course. You had to believe in magic to take it seriously. The thing was, Nevianne and her coven did believe in it. They had tried conjuring an actual demon, and not just one of the small fry demons, an imp maybe; they had gone for the top tier, an actual personification of (capital E, 32 point Medieval-style typeface) Evil. I had to respect that, the fact that it was nonsense notwithstanding. They didn’t believe it was nonsense.
“What ponder’st thou, Lord of Rage?” my blanket companion asked out of the blue, removing my hand from what could have been cleavage if she’d been dressed. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. I hadn’t even realized where my hand had wandered. Well, maybe I had, kind of.
“Different things,” I told her, contenting myself with her soft little belly and her round little butt rather than her feminine protrusions.
“As?” she asked.
“As in wondering about your ‘Dark Lord.’ While I’m considering him, I’m thinking about filling the chamber pot, brushing my teeth, then having a bath, then breakfast. Clean clothes wouldn’t hurt. While I’m pondering all that, I’m enjoying how warm and comfortable you feel. You have a very pretty bottom, among other things. And I’m noticing how hard this floor is under me.”
“Truly thy mind works’t under heavy load. Find’st me thou thee pleasing?”
It took me a couple seconds to unravel the way she used the dative case. You don’t usually hear it without a preposition, at least the way she was using it with the archaic diminutives. I thought “thyself” would be more grammatical, but she’d been speaking the language longer than I’d been deciphering it. “Very pleasing,” I told her after untangling the verbiage and parking a part of myself between comely thighs. “You’re a cute girl.”
She was, too. She was a natural blonde – the carpet matched the drapes. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face, good teeth that weren’t perfect, and enormous blue eyes. She could hold entire conversations with those eyes, without bothering to open her mouth. She looked something like a Kewpie Doll, only with high cheekbones, furry underarms and slightly hairy legs. And she had really nice frontal protrusions. I may have mentioned that before.
“It pleaseth me that thou like’st me,” she told me. “Thou, too, hast æn comely ærse.”
She insisted I use the pot first. I took a deep breath before getting up. It was chill from the rain and the fact that it wasn’t quite June yet. I ran some water through my hose and then turned away, getting dressed while she emptied her own bladder behind me. She wore the same dress she had the night before to empty the pot out back on a covered, fragrant manure heap – a niter pit like the Confederacy used during the Civil War. Her dress was a light bluish color, purplish at the seams. It may have once been dark, before many washings in strong soap.
“Ye maiden cometh tomorrow med wasser für ye bad,” she told me when she came back, “if she cometh at alle. Thou musst wait until then.” While she was talking, she was squatting by the charcoal stove, relighting the fire.
“That will have to do then,” I told her.
“Mine tooth brush ist thær in ye wasser closet.”
I hesitated a second or two, then overcame my fastidiousness. Before the invention of the plastic toothbrush, most families shared. Hers was of about the same design, the handle longer and the brush a bit shorter than my Oral B. It was a whittled wooden handle holding a boar’s bristle brush. She had some tasteless dentifrice powder to use with it, and there was water in a two-gallon urn. The water was flat but there weren’t any wiggly things in it, nor was it green. The dentifrice was mildly gritty. My mouth still tasted much better after I’d brushed. I’m prone to dragon breath in the mornings so I was grateful for it. I used her comb to put my hair into some semblance of order, as I was overdue for a cut. The comb was shorter than what I was used to, and hand-carved, but it did the job.
“Förgive if thou will’st,” she said after her own trip to the WC, which was actually the size of a closet. Her teeth fairly sparkled when she reappeared. Her long hair was combed, parted in the middle, loosely braided, and caught up in a bun behind her head. Its color was somewhere between ripe wheat and gold. She produced a half loaf of bread, a chunk of crumbly-looking cheese, and a half bottle of dark wine for breakfast. She had a little square table of rough-hewn wood, and three stools around it. “Ic thought not to have thee as a comer. Ic thought ne’er to see mine poor hut nor mine folk again.” A “comer” was a visitor in Chaucer-speak, I recalled.
“You mean you expected to be carried off by Asmodeus?”
“Aye, ist so. Instead Ic carried off Asmodeus œnd still awoke a maiden.”
That told me something too. They had been in the process of sacrificing a virgin. They’d been serious about it all right, even though it hadn’t worked. I wondered if they’d ever actually called up an actual demon before. I was pretty sure they hadn’t.
The bread was homemade. It wasn’t fresh, which was a side effect of no preservatives, and it had a good flavor, with lots of rye. There was no butter or jam. The cheese had an unusual flavor, something like Gorgonzola, only stronger, to go with its pungent odor. I tried some of the wine and thought my entire head was going to turn into a giant pucker. It lent a new dimension to “rough and red.” Nevianne cut hers with generous amounts of water, and I followed suit as soon as I could get my lips out of my gullet.
“Addresseth me thou med gross formality,” she observed as we ate. “Gross” was “great” in her dialect, I filled in from my knowledge of German.
“It’s merely the way people talk where I live,” I responded after deciphering what she’d said. “We went through a formal age, I think, and it stuck. Much of the way you speak is the way people spoke five or six hundred years ago.”
“Things changen mehr slowlic hier, p’rhaps?” she guessed.
“No idea. They may change twice as fast for all I know, just in different directions.”
“Aye,” she agreed, though her expression told me she had no idea how that would work.
“So tell me about this Dark Lord,” I said, changing the subject. “What does he do and why does he do it?”
“Ye Lord Rægan holdeth æn writ from ye Dux of Burgundia as legatus… Legate? ...in this province. It falleth in ye Dux’s realm. Ye Imperial yoke hath ever ridden light in these lænder except in time of war. With ye coming of Lord Rægan ye burden of tax hath grown heavier with these past six yeærs. Ye warlock Palégos enforceth his master’s whims, dispatching his minions to collect æn ever growing portion œnd to pick over ye towns and villages and farms. Ye Lenappeh ære little more than serfs, œnd debt grindeth ye peasantry to poverty, œnd from thære to slavery œnd worse.”
“All that’s happened before, in lots of places,” I told her sympathetically. “No wizards or warlocks have been needed, just a big enough brute squad. I can’t figure why you need a demon and not just torches and pitchforks.”
“Perhaps in thy realm, Lord Asmodeus. In ours, Palégos dealeth death and destruction to all who displease him.”
“What sort of death and destruction, Nevianne?”
“He causeth fire to rain from the skies,” she explained. “Creatures emerge in ye corn to feed, and ye crops they leave die. Wells ære poisoned, children disappear, their bodies found mangled and half-eaten. ‘Tis said he raiseth ye dead and causeth them to walk among ye living œnd that his women bathe in ye blood of maidens. Wives leave their men to lie with ye Dark Lord…”
“He sounds like a one-man plague,” I agreed, cutting her off and wondering how much of the tale I could discount. I could see why they wanted a demon, given a strong belief in magic and the occult. I could even see why they were willing to sacrifice a virgin to hire him. I couldn’t approve, having met the virgin, but I could understand.
I got more detail about the setup from Nevianne while we finished our breakfast and cleaned up the little mess we’d made. The Emperor was the latest version of the Roman emperor. The capital, under the umpteenth dynasty, was currently located in Gades, in Iberia. There was no state religion; it had “always” been like that, so they had somehow avoided having a papacy and a lot of religious wars, though there had been lots of riots and pogroms among the sects over the years. I suspected the split from my own timeline must have been in the 300’s or early 400’s, while the Nicene Catholics were competing with the Arians and the Monophysites and Mithras and Osiris and nine or ten other approaches to Eternity. She mentioned Emperor Honorius and the Caesar Valentinian, and Emperor Athaulfus the First and Empress Galla in passing, so maybe they took charge of things instead of Athaulf being assassinated in his bath. There was also an Emperor Genseric, who had moved the capital from Ravenna to Hippo Regius, in North Africa, so all wasn’t all peaches and cream in those days.
The New World – my description; to the Emperor it was just western provinces – had been discovered during the reign of Melchios II, when the capital had been at Carthage. That had been maybe a thousand years previously, about the time the Saxon settlers of Celtic Britannia were absorbing a migration from Latin Gaul. There was no Battle of Runnymede, just a big Norman-Gallic migration spread over years.
The province I was in was called Agus, after some mage who’d lived about the time Queen Elizabeth the First would have. It was vassal to Burgundia, which was vassal to the current Emperor, whose name was Bidrig, or Bidrigus. The province north of us was Filadios, and it was tributary to the Dux of Hippo Regius. Hippo, of Saint Augustine fame, was near Algiers on my reality line, and was still a thriving city.
And everyone believed in magic. Nevianne claimed she’d seen it work, that it worked routinely. She believed in it like I “believed” in science.