“Fine,” Darren said. “All right, I’m ready.”
Maggie looked over at Fischer. “You need to tell him before he leaves,” she said, giving her boss a disapproving frown.
“He’ll find out when he gets there,” Fischer said, shifting from one foot to another, like a child caught in a lie.
“Fischer, that’s not fair,” Maggie said. “Tell him.”
Fischer looked at Darren, and cleared his throat. “Um, maybe you should know what was happening in Norway in 1350.”
“What? Was there a war or something?”
“No, no war. Just this thing. There was this sort of… um… plague going on at the time.”
Darren’s eyes widened. “A plague? What kind of plague?”
“Well, it was sort of,” Fischer said, and winced a little, “sort of… the Black Death.”
“The Black Death?” Darren said, his voice rising to a hysterical squeak. “You’re sending me back there during the Black Death?”
“Well, that’s when the divergence happened. Not my choice. Just, um… watch out for rats. And fleas.”
“Watch out for fleas?” Darren shouted. “How do I watch out for fleas?”
“I don’t know. Take lots of baths.” Fischer gave Darren an uncomfortable smile. “Anyway, off you go. Remember, you’re trying to find some guy named Per Olafsson. Ask around. There can’t be many Per Olafssons.”
“Now wait a minute, Fischer, you can’t just send me somewhere when they’re in the middle of a freakin’ plague…” But Fischer flicked his fingers at Darren, as if he were brushing off a fly, and Fischer’s office was suddenly replaced by a chill, windy darkness and silence that seemed, to Darren’s mind, distinctly plague-like.
At first, Darren thought that there was something wrong with his eyes. Then he wondered if he’d materialized inside a cave, or in a dungeon. The darkness around him seemed absolute. Then he remembered his last night in Scotland – the total, cloying darkness, in the absence of any sort of artificial light source, a darkness that most modern humans never experience. But once his eyes had a minute to adjust, he realized that it wasn’t completely dark. In the distance were spots of a faint, yellowish glow that looked like they could have been candles or torches. It wasn’t much, but it gave his eyes something to focus on and his brain something to hope for. He walked toward them, down what seemed to be some sort of tree-lined road, although it was hard to tell in the dark.
The wind was incessant, and icy. Darren had thought that the Hebrides in summer was cold; here, Darren could feel his ears and fingertips going numb within five minutes after his arrival. His foot found a puddle, and there was a cracking sound as his sneaker broke through a rind of ice and his foot sank up to the ankle in frigid mud. Swearing, he pulled his shoe free, and continued to trudge toward the light, which had resolved into a collection of low buildings whose windows held oil lanterns, guttering smokily, and producing a jaundiced glow against grimy panes of glass.
“Charming place,” Darren muttered under his breath. “All this, and the plague, too. What else can go wrong?”
And that was when he heard a sudden thudding noise, and turned just in time to be knocked flying by a running horse that struck him broadside. He was airborne for what seemed an amazing amount of time – he had time to think, Broke my cardinal rule. Never ask “What else can go wrong?” Because the next thing you know, things go further wrong, like being trampled by a wild horse. It figures. And then his head struck something solid, and there was an explosion of fireworks inside his skull, and his consciousness winked out like a snuffed candle.
Darren opened his eyes, an uncertain amount of time afterwards, to find himself on his back on what seemed to be a straw-filled mattress, to judge by the crunching noises it made when he stirred. There was no wind, but it was only marginally warmer, despite the fact that he was under some kind of covering made of singularly scratchy wool. The back of his head was throbbing, and he moaned a little, tried to sit up, and almost immediately decided that this wasn’t a good idea.
An oil lamp, with a greasy-looking flame that illuminated almost nothing, seemed to detach itself from its perch across the room, and float upwards through the air toward Darren. It finally stopped, hovering right over him, and Darren squinted at it. He could barely make out a gnarled hand holding it, and then, still in deep shadow, an even more gnarled face, a face neither clearly male nor clearly female, a face that looked like a shriveled apple, all creases and lumps and crags. It was framed by a few thin wisps of white hair. A voice with the timbre of an unoiled gate said, “Don’t sit up.”
“I’m not going to,” Darren said.
“Knocked your head a good one, you did. Shouldn’t get in a horse’s way, especially not Thorvald’s stallion. Bloody dangerous beast, he is. Bit the tip of my great-nephew Bjorn’s nose off, poor lad, all ‘cause he thought to offer him a bit of a turnip. Now he wears a clamp bit on his face.”
“No, Thorvald’s horse. To keep him from biting. Doesn’t help poor Bjorn, but I s’pose it’s better than nothing.” The person with the lamp paused for a moment. “He has the devil’s own time breathing on account of it.”
“No, Bjorn. Doctor tried to stitch his nose back together but it didn’t work, and he looks like he has a lump of putty in the middle of his face. Snores something terrible. Sounds like someone strangling a goat. Keeps the whole house awake at night.”
“That’s a pity.”
“It is that, stranger, it is that.” The voice paused again. “What’s your name, and where are you from? Your clothes are odd, and I’m guessing you’re not from Trondheim.”
“My name is Darren. Darren Ault.” Darren left a definite pause between the two; he hadn’t really minded being called “Darinauld” by Maire and her family, but no sense encouraging the same kind of thing here.
The lamp-person gave a cackling laugh. “Darren Ault? Such a name. Darren Everything.”
“What are you talking about?” Darren squinted at the person holding the lamp, as if bringing the face into focus would make the voice make more sense.
“Alt. Alt means ‘everything.’” The voice cackled again. “So if you’re ‘Darren Alt’ you’re ‘Darren Everything.’ Who gave you that name? Everyone?” This elicited a bout of laughter that only ended when it turned into a paroxysm of coughing.
“No,” Darren said, in a weary voice. “It’s just my name. I didn’t know that’s what it meant, and I didn’t choose it.”
“What was your father’s name?”
“A fine name. So, you are Darren Carlsson. No need for more than that.” The gnarled hand came down and patted Darren’s shoulder. “Well enough, Darren Carlsson. I am called Gerda Ingjaldsdottir. I’ll stay with you till sunrise – sometimes these knocks on the head can turn evil, and always when it’s dark out, seems like. My granddaughter’s husband’s brother was kicked in the head by a mule, and he was fine at first, but that night he took badly and now all he does is cluck like a chicken. Terrible shame.” Gerda tsked under her breath. “But when it’s light out, if you’re still alive, I’ll fix you some food and a cup of hot broth to drink. Till then, just sleep if you can, and try not to die.”
That seemed like good advice, and Darren closed his eyes, and despite the pain in his head and the clutching cold, he finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
Darren opened his eyes and turned his head painfully toward a source of cold, gray light that turned out to be a pane of glass so covered with grime that it was impossible to see out. He turned the other way, wincing a little, and saw Gerda sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, snoring softly, her lumpy chin resting on an ample, and equally lumpy, chest. She wore a loose-fitting dress of some coarse brown material, and had tucked her hands into the sleeves so that her entire body appeared to be wrapped in burlap. Another piece of brown cloth covered her head, with a few strands of wispy hair sticking out from beneath. She looked a bit like a cloth bag full of potatoes, with an oddly face-like, burlap-wrapped potato protruding from the top.
Darren sat up, which made the pounding in his head get worse, and a wave of nausea swept over him. He considered throwing up, decided not to, and then swung his legs out of bed. His shoes and socks had been removed, and when his bare feet touched the icy-cold wood plank floor, he yelped a little and lifted them again.
The noise awakened Gerda, who snorted, coughed, and then opened her eyes, blinking sleepily.
“You didn’t die,” Gerda observed, and then yawned cavernously, exposing gums only sparsely adorned with teeth.
“Not yet,” Darren said.
Gerda nodded. “Always could happen,” she said, and stood up. “Day’s barely begun.” She walked over to Darren and leaned over him, peering at him nearsightedly. “You look like you might be all right. You haven’t had any inclinations to cluck like a chicken, have you?”
“What sort of clothes are those, that you’re wearing?”
Darren looked down at Fischer’s sweatshirt and jeans. “What do you mean?”
“They’re brightly colored, like the fancy clothes nobles wear, but they don’t seem to fit you very well.”
“I borrowed them from a friend,” Darren said.
“Ah.” This seemed to satisfy her for a moment, but then she frowned, and leaned forward. “And what are those things?” she said, pointing at Darren. “On your face.”
“They’re glasses. They help me see better.”
“Do they? How?”
“I don’t know if I can explain it. But they work.”
“My eyes are none too good. Do you think they might help me?”
Darren shrugged. “Could be.” He took them off, and handed them to her. She shoved them on her face, and then gave an exclamation of delight.
“Jesus and all the saints!” she said. “It’s like being young again!” She looked around the room, her face a study in wonder. “I can see every crack in the wall!” She frowned. “And every speck of dirt. I guess no blessing comes without a curse.” She took the glasses off and handed them back to Darren. “Just as soon not know how filthy this place is,” she said.
Darren put his glasses back on.
“Are you hungry?” Gerda asked. “Good sign you’re not imminent to die, if you’re hungry.”
“I’m famished,” Darren said, with feeling.
“Well, that’s good. I’ll get you breakfast.” Her brow furrowed. “Don’t take a bad turn and die while I’m gone.”
Darren assured her that he wouldn’t.
Gerda was gone for only five minutes, and returned with a wooden bowl containing something steaming. She handed it to him, and he saw, with some dismay, that it was filled with porridge.
Good lord, Darren thought, why can’t I end up going to a place and time that knows how to make a decent breakfast? Didn’t people in the past know how to fry an egg? But he was hungry enough that he dug in, and finished the entire bowl in short order. Afterwards, his stomach seemed as if it were accepting of what he’d given it, and his headache appeared to be abating a little. He handed the empty bowl back to Gerda, and said, “Thanks.”
Gerda gave her cackling laugh. “Good appetite,” she said. “It’s a good sign.”
“Gerda, do you know someone named Per Olafsson?”
Gerda’s wrinkled face seemed to crumple. “Per. Poor Per. Yes, I know him.”
“Why do you call him ‘poor Per?’ He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
“Well, as far as I know. I haven’t checked on him this morning.”
“Good. But what’s wrong with him?”
“Oh, he’s just a poor, sad young man. He’s got the second sight, you know. He’s always sighing and pining for what he thinks should have happened. He’s never satisfied with what he’s got. Makes himself miserable, poor thing.”
Darren frowned. Okay, he thought, this sounds significant. I wonder if this guy is a Monitor? “Wait,” he said. “What do you mean, ‘what should have happened?’ How does he know what should have happened?”
“Well, that I don’t know. He gets these fits. In church one week, he suddenly burst into tears, poor dear. He said that he just felt like it was all wrong, that he should be somewhere else. But where else he would have been, of a Sunday morning, I don’t know.”
“Did he have any idea of what he should have been doing?”
“He said something about a wife, a wife he should have had.” Gerda leaned forward, and said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “He’s not married, you know. Never has been. I think that’s part of his problem. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but if a man’s secret parts don’t get used, they kind of spoil, and the rot backs up into his brain and makes him crazy.” She gave Darren a grin that exposed two yellowed teeth. “That’s why I made sure to give my husband, rest his soul, plenty of opportunities.”
Great, Darren thought. Now I feel nauseated again.
“Anyway,” he said, “did Per ever tell you any details? About what he thought should have happened? I mean, other than he should have been married.”
“No. Just seems sad all the time, poor thing, and goes on and on about how everything should be different than it is. But of course, you can ask him yourself, as soon as you feel up to it. He lives only a mile away.”
“Do you think he’d mind? Would he be upset that you told me about his, um, obsession?”
“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t. He goes on and on about it to everyone who will listen. I think that the only danger will be to your spirits. He’s a bit… melancholy, as they call it.”
After a second bowl of porridge, Darren felt as if his strength had returned sufficiently that he could venture out. He cleaned a spot on the window, and looked out into a muddy road, with a field of brown grass and leafless birch trees stretching off into the distance. A few disconsolate-looking goats grazed in the field. The sky was a uniform gray, like dirty cotton. The wind was still blowing, rippling the grass, and rattling the pane of glass; he could feel it slipping its fingers through the cracks in the wall, making Darren shiver. The whole place looked cold, miserable, and generally uninviting.
“Here’s a jacket you can wear,” Gerda said, just as he was steeling himself to open the front door. “It belonged to my husband, rest his soul. He’s no use for it any more, being called forth into the Fields Of Lilies To Sit At The Feet Of Jesus.” Darren could hear the capital letters.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Oh, it’s all right. In the midst of life, we are in death. But, in any case, no sense hastening your own travels into the next world. You can’t go out there clad as you are, or you’ll catch a chill and die.” Gerda handed Darren a battered coat, much worn, but lined with what appeared to be sheepskin. It looked deliciously warm, and he put it on and tied the front snugly. It seemed a little short in the arms, but otherwise fit well. He decided that he would wear it from now on, even indoors, unless he was still in Norway when the weather warmed up.
“Thanks,” he said. “I really appreciate your taking care of me. Thanks for everything.”
Gerda patted Darren on the shoulder. “It was the least I could do,” she said. “It was wonderful having someone to care for, and to keep me company. Ever since my dear husband died of the plague last week, I’ve been that lonely.”
Darren goggled at her. “Your husband died last week? Of the plague?”
“Yes, and such a terrible wrench it was. He didn’t suffer long, poor thing. Died in that very bed you slept in last night.” Gerda sniffed a little, and dabbed her eyes with the end of her head scarf. “So sad. He was a good man, Jon Haraldsson. A good man.”
Shit, Darren thought, and felt the panicked sweat forming on his skin. I’m going to die. It’s not fair. I survive getting shot by a homicidal physicist, and speared by a crazy Viking, only to catch the plague from fleas in a mattress. I wonder if the lightning-fast microprocessor will get me back in time for a doctor to give me an antibiotic before I die of the Black Death?
Darren looked down at the coat he was wearing, and suddenly felt as if the sheepskin was crawling with fleas. He knew it was his imagination – well, he was almost certain that it was his imagination – but the feeling was maddening. He nearly took the jacket off and gave it back to Gerda, but when he looked at her ugly, kind face, he thought, You can’t do that. She wouldn’t understand. And it just wouldn’t be nice.
A snide voice in his mind responded, Fine. Just be nice, then, and die of the plague. She’ll be upset that you died, and say about how nice a guy Darren Everything was, and wasn’t it sad how he got the plague, but now he’s Sitting At The Feet Of Jesus, and so it’s all okay. And then she’ll offer the Flea-Infested Bed of Death to the next hapless traveler who comes through, and it’ll all happen again.
But then, he thought, Hey, look, it’ll be okay. Compared to being skewered by a Viking, the Black Death is at least potentially survivable. You survived the Vikings, you’ll survive this. And then the surprising thought went through his mind, Maybe Fischer was right; maybe all of this is making me more confident.
Darren said his goodbyes to Gerda, who gave him a rather tooth-challenged smile and a sincere farewell (“Stop back any time. Don’t die in the meantime.”), and went out into the cold April morning to try to find the depressed, second-sighted Per Olafsson – and see if he might have a clue as to what was supposed to happen in a day or two that so decisively changed everyone’s timeline.