- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
One moment Conrad Schwartz was suffering from a severe hangover as he hiked through the mountains of present-day Poland, the next he was running for his life from an angry Teutonic knight. Things went downhill from there, and he finally had to face the disheartening fact he had somehow been stranded in 1231 A.D. He would have been happier if he had known less history. But there was very bad news in his new future, so he set out to turn Medieval Poland into the most powerful country in the thirteenth century. It ...
Ships from: Chicago, IL
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
One moment Conrad Schwartz was suffering from a severe hangover as he hiked through the mountains of present-day Poland, the next he was running for his life from an angry Teutonic knight. Things went downhill from there, and he finally had to face the disheartening fact he had somehow been stranded in 1231 A.D. He would have been happier if he had known less history. But there was very bad news in his new future, so he set out to turn Medieval Poland into the most powerful country in the thirteenth century. It wouldn't be easy. He would be investigated by the Inquisition, be knighted, round up vassals, build a city, survive armed combat with the Champion of the Teutonic Knights, invent the steam engine and cloth factories, establish universal education, and organize an army. He needed the army most of all, because he knew that the Mongol hordes would attack in only ten years and destroy Medieval Poland-and that would really mess up Conrad's life.
The weather had been perfect, the color change was at its peak, and-since it was just past the usual tourist season-I had whole mountains to myself. The farmers were getting in the harvest, and all the children were back in school. All the teachers were back in school, too, which was unfortunate. I usually scored pretty well with schoolteachers.
Vacationing, I generally ended up with some agreeable female companionship, but such had been sadly lacking this trip. I had been three weeks without, and frankly, my horns were showing.
Well. My allotted two-week holiday from the Katowice Machinery Works was almost up, and there was one small errand I had yet to perform. I lived with my mother, and she had read a magazine article about the Zakopane Agricultural and Horticultural Research Station. I was going to be near Zakopane, so it seemed reasonable to her that I should visit the station and buy her some seeds.
Just why seeds purchased at the ZAHRST should be any different from seeds purchased in Katowice was not explained. Neither was her sudden interest in gardening, although I suspect that she had visions of me in the backyard, hoeing up carrots, instead of being out with my friends. In any event, to keep peace in the family I had promised to buy some seeds.
The station was served by a hiking trail as well as a road. I took the trail because the pleasures of walking are degraded by road dust and noise and because I am not friendly with the fat, motorized tourist who says, "You mean you walked up here?"
The store was empty when I arrived. Empty, except for a few million seeds. It is incredible how many different kinds of plants there are. One rack had seeds for more than eighty different varieties of roses. Another had almost as many kinds of beets, lettuce, and strawberries.
The prices on everything were low-trivial, really-so the thought hit me: The old girl wants seeds? Well, she's going to get seeds! Thousands of them! Not that I'm going to stick any of them into the ground!
This slightly sadistic train of thought was interrupted as a magnificent pair of breasts came in from the back room. These breasts were followed by an equally magnificent young lady.
"Sorry. I didn't know anyone was out here. Can I help you?" Her eyes were a glorious pale green that floated in a field of red freckles. Her hair was that incredible natural red that you see maybe once in a decade, and, oh yes, dear God, she could help me in so many wonderful ways!
However, sad experience has taught me that pouncing on them tends to frighten them off. So I smiled, making sure that my mouth was closed and that I wasn't drooling.
"I expect so. My mother wanted me to buy her some seeds."
"Then you've gotten to the right place." She returned my smile. Glory! "Did your mummy give you a shopping list?" She was wearing a light print blouse and was definitely without a bra. Nothing in there but healthy Polish girl!
"Well, no. Actually, she was pretty vague about it. I was hoping to get some friendly expert advice."
"I think I qualify as a friendly expert. Where does she live?" She was still smiling, a good sign.
"We have a house just outside of Katowice."
"And what sort of soil do you have?"
"I don't know. It stays on the ground and is reasonably polite about it."
"No, silly! I mean is it sandy or clay or loam? What color is it? What's growing there now?"
"Well, it's sort of brownish. It doesn't stick to your shoes like clay, and we are presently harvesting great quantities of prizewinning crabgrass." I set my pack on the floor, using it as an excuse to edge a little closer, still smiling. She didn't retreat.
"Okay. That's something to go on. Now you have to decide on what you want."
I knew exactly what I wanted. But patience was still needed.
"I thought we might get a little of everything and let her do the choosing later."
"Sensible. Do you like strawberries?"
"I absolutely love strawberries." Strawberry blondes even more.
"Then these are definitely for you." She reached across to one of the stands and gently bumped me with her hip. First contact! And she had initiated it!
"Now, this variety is perfect for a home garden. The strawberries come in all during the growing season from early spring to frost, and it's a perennial." She wore the slightest hint of perfume.
"You've talked me into it."
"And these are great if she wants to do some canning-they all come in at once."
"Sold." She wore a skirt and nylons. None of this modern pants nonsense.
"And this is a new climbing variety."
"The wonders of modern science."
And so we went up and down rows, throwing seed packages into a brown paper bag. Following her was a pleasure. She was as perfect behind as she was in front.
"You're certainly enthusiastic about your job. Do you make a commission on all this?"
"Of course not, silly. This is a state-owned facility. But sales do count toward my efficiency rating."
"Well, we wouldn't want you to get a poor efficiency rating ... uh, what is your name?"
"Anna. A lovely name."
"Hmm ... Conrad has such a strong, masculine sound." She was still throwing seeds into the bag.
"Anna, what do people around here do when they're not selling seeds?"
"Not much, once the tourist season is over."
"But there must be some place where you folks hang out."
"Well, the group here at the station usually stops for a drink at the Red Gate Inn." She was still smiling.
"And where is this wonderful establishment?"
"Oh, it's not all that wonderful. But it is sort of quaint. It's been there for hundreds of years, and they've never even built a road to it."
"Then how do you get there?"
"You came in by the trail, didn't you? Then you must have come from the south; you would have passed it coming from the north."
"An inn on a hiking trail?"
"About half a kilometer down. You know, that trail is ancient. It shows up on the oldest maps. Once it was the only road through here. Caravans used to travel on it."
Caravans? Zakopane is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the Carpathians. Unless you travel by the modern, dynamite-blasted road or you are a mountain climber or a helicopter pilot, there is only one way in or out-north. Within a hundred kilometers-to both the east and the west-there are ancient mountain passes into Czechoslovakia, but this area is one huge cul-de-sac. Nothing medieval would have traveled through here. The area's only natural resources are good hiking, great skiing, and magnificent scenery-none of which are particularly transportable by caravan mule.
However, I did not want to spoil her romantic notions. I wanted rather to encourage them.
"Amazing. I really must see this place. Is there any chance that you would be by there this evening?"
"There is an excellent chance." She winked. "I live just beyond the inn."
The world was wonderful. Anna was wonderful. And yes, I was wonderful, too, so my mood wasn't seriously dampened when she figured up the bill. It seems that while the price of a pack of seeds was trivial, 342 times trivial equals substantial. Actually, it took a fair bite out of a week's pay.
But I wasn't going to let that bother me. Not when there was an evening with Anna to look forward to.
The trail to the Red Gate Inn wound among pine forests below the High Tatras.
I had earned my engineering degree in Massachusetts, studying at the expense of a wealthy American relative. My summers had been free, and I had spent one of them hiking in the Appalachians. They were good mountains, but somehow they were never mine. These Tatras-this Poland-is my country, and I love it.
The Red Gate Inn was a surprisingly large place. Besides a restaurant and a taproom, it had rooms for rent and housing for its workers.
It was about four in the afternoon when I arrived, and I realized that I hadn't asked Anna about her quitting time. Well, she would get there when she got there.
The restaurant was tempting, but a meal with Anna was more tempting, so I went into the taproom, a lovely old cavern with huge oak beams and polished ancient furniture. Only the lighting and the taps themselves were modern.
They brewed their own beer, a rarity not to be passed up in these days of commercial fizziness. It was an excellent beer, and I was into my third stein by five-thirty. Also my tenth cigarette. I kept looking at the clock on the wall because I wasn't wearing my watch.
I owned an excellent watch, a solar-powered, solid-state, digital thing. It had a calculator with trig functions, and it played Chopin to wake me in the morning. But I was on vacation, and the whole idea of a vacation is to get away from things like clocks and timetables and delivery schedules and factories.
Not that I was complaining about my job. I worked for a healthy organization and had a decent, competent, understanding boss who generally let me do things sensibly, i.e., my way. Designers are all prima donnas.
We designed and built specialized industrial machinery, normally one-of-a-kind things to perform some industrial task-assembling carburetors, for example. My end of it involved designing the electronic and hydraulic controls for the machines, usually little more than specifying off-the-shelf components and programming a simple computer to run them. As a result, I rarely spent more than a few weeks on any one project, which kept things interesting. I got into all sorts of unusual processes. My job also involved a pleasant amount of business travel, finding out what the end-user really wanted and then making the machine work for him.
I asked the waitress about the workers at the station.
"Well, sir, it's hard telling. Those scientist people, they don't keep regular hours, you know. Another beer, sir?" Her Polish was quite bookish.
The restaurant was doing a surprisingly good business-I was checking it about every fifteen minutes-but only one other customer was in the taproom, another male hiker whom I certainly didn't want at my table when Anna came. If she came. I lit another cigarette.
Despite the considerable amount of beer I had drunk, I was getting irritated by seven o'clock. To give myself something to do, I decided to repack my knapsack and put all the seeds at the bottom. This got me to reading the labels on the envelopes.
For one thing, most of those seeds did not come from the Zakopane station. Half of them came from the Soviet Union, and at least a quarter of the envelopes read "Printed in U.S.A." That seed store was purely a commercial operation!
For another, I got to looking at what I'd spent half a week's pay on. Five kinds of strawberries, okay. Six kinds of lettuce, fine. Blueberries and raspberries, maybe. Seven kinds of potatoes? Perhaps. But that redheaded bitch had sold me six packages of wheat! Can you imagine my mother growing wheat in her tiny subdivision backyard? Not to mention rye, oats, barley, and four kinds of maize! And sugar beets. Bloody-be-damned sugar beets! And flowers. Fully a hundred varieties of flowers. One envelope read "Japanese Roses. Nature's fence. Absolutely impenetrable to man or beast. Grows to four meters in height and breadth. Caution: Do not plant on small properties." And trees. I had fifty kinds of trees! Next year I wouldn't have to come to Zakopane. I could plant my own damned forest!
The next time the waitress came by, I asked her again about the group from the station.
"Well, sir, it's going on eight o'clock, and I'd guess that if they're not here by now, they won't be getting here. They don't always come. Another beer, sir?"
"No. No more beer, please. Vodka. A large glass."
I repacked my knapsack, seeds and all, and settled down to a monumental drunk.
Eventually the waitress got fairly adamant about my leaving-we were the last ones up-so I settled the surprisingly large bill and walked for the door with my pack on my back. I then decided that another trip to the rest room was in order. The rest room was in the basement, and I had made the trip quite a few times that evening.
But this time there seemed to be a lot more steps than before, and the lights were out. I must have stumbled around for twenty minutes without finding either the rest room or a light switch. I sat down to rest.
For the past two weeks, I had been sleeping in meadows and on rock piles. I could be comfortable anywhere. I relaxed, laid down, and fell asleep. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Conrad Starguard by Leo Frankowski Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.