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In High Places
A Novel of Crosstime Traffic
By Harry Turtledo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
Wolves howled in the woods south of Paris. The wind wailed through bare-branched oaks and chestnuts and elms. That nasty northwest wind carried the threat of rain, or maybe snow. Winter didn't want to leave in the year of our Lord 2096 — or, as it was more widely known in the Kingdom of Versailles, the year 715 of the New Revelation.
Jacques the tailor's son trotted through those woods. He hoped the howls would come no closer. A sheepskin jacket and baggy wool trousers held out the wind. He was bareheaded, and had to pause every few minutes to shake straw-colored hair back from his eyes. At not quite eighteen, his beard was still scanty — more orange fuzz on cheeks and chin and upper lip than a proper man's growth.
When a twig cracked not far away, as if trodden underfoot, he slipped off the track and behind the rough-barked trunk of an old oak. His right hand fell to the hilt of his sword. The leather that wrapped the hilt was smooth from much use. The weapon had belonged to Jacques' father, but he'd been using it for the past three years and more.
Worse things than wolves were liable to lurk in the woods. Scouts from the Berber Kingdom of Berry might be spying out Versailles' defenses. Muslim slave raiders might be on the prowl, too. When they could, they seized believers in the Second Son and sold them in the great markets of Marseille and Madrid and Naples.
A doe stepped out onto the track, not fifty feet upwind of Jacques. He could see her nose twitch as she tested the air. Then a swirl of the breeze must have brought his scent to her. She snorted. Her liquid black eyes widened. With a flirt of the tail, she bounded away.
He didn't break cover. He thought she'd stepped on the twig, but didn't want to take the chance of being wrong. Patience paid. The priests always preached that, and Jacques believed it. People had been patient when God sent the Great Black Deaths, hadn't they? Of course they had, and their patience had been rewarded. After a generation and more of unending disaster, God sent Henri, His Second Son. And, thanks to Henri's prayers, the plagues finally stopped. He'd died a martyr like His older brother Jesus, but He'd saved the world.
At last, Jacques decided no scouts or raiders hunted anywhere close by. "Thank you, Henri," he murmured, and sketched the sign of the wheel on which the Second Son had been broken all those years ago. They followed the New Revelation over in the Germanies, too, but they spun the wheel backwards. Even stupid foreigners like the Germans should have known better than that.
Down the track Jacques went. His rawhide boots thudded on the hard ground. It was packed hard now, anyway. If the wind brought rain instead of snow, everything would turn to mud. Some of the streets in Paris and Versailles were cobblestoned like the ones in the big Berber towns farther south. That showed how modern and up-to-date the Kingdom of Versailles was. The idea of paving a forest track, though, had never crossed Jacques' mind, or anyone else's in the kingdom.
How much farther to the fort? The thought had hardly crossed his mind before the forest thinned out ahead of him. There it was, on a swell of ground that dominated the view to the south. Like other forts on both sides of the border, it looked like a many-pointed star. The thick earthen ramparts soaked up cannon balls that would have smashed stone or brickwork.
A sentry on the ramparts spotted him. The sun flashed off the man's helmet and back-and-breast as he turned. He shouted out a challenge: "Who comes?"
"I'm Jacques. I'm down from Versailles with a message for Count Guillaume," Jacques shouted back.
"How do I know you're not one of King Abdallah's spies?" the sentry said.
He couldn't have been any older than Jacques. He took his duties very seriously — too seriously, as far as the messenger was concerned. "I've been here before," Jacques answered, as patiently as he could. "Plenty of men in there will know me. The seal on the letter I carry will show I am what I say I am. And if the count decides I'm a spy, he won't let me go. He'll bash in my head."
The sentry chewed on that. After a moment, he shouted to the gate crew. A drawbridge thumped down over the moat that kept attackers from getting too close. Jacques hurried across it. His boots thudded and boomed on the timbers. As soon as he'd crossed, it rose again. Heavy iron chains creaked as it went up.
Stone- and brickwork lined the inside of the passage through the rampart. Heavy iron grates could thud down to block the way. A man at a murder hole set into the roof leered at Jacques. He could pour boiling water or red- hot sand on invaders, and they would have a hard time hurting him. Every other way in was just as strongly warded. Jacques wouldn't have wanted to try to take a place like this.
But he knew why the sentry had sounded nervous. Treachery could do what strength of arms couldn't. Up till a few years ago, the frontier had lain on the Loire. Then two of Versailles' fortresses there fell within days of each other. Nobody fired a shot at or from either place. Now the kingdom had to scramble to find a new southern frontier it could defend.
When Jacques came out of the tunnel through the rampart, he blinked against the bright sunshine — his eyes had had time to get used to the gloom. He waved to an underofficer he knew. "Hello, Pierre," he called. "You can tell anyone who doubts me that I'm a regular messenger, right?"
"Who, me?" the gray-bearded sergeant said. "How can I do that when I never saw you before in my life?" Jacques' jaw dropped. Pierre pointed at him and laughed till tears ran down the gullies of his weathered cheeks. "Sweet Jesus and Henri, the look on your face was worth twenty francs — maybe fifty." He'd never seen fifty francs together in his whole life, any more than Jacques had.
"Funny. Very funny." Jacques tried to stand on his dignity. Sergeant Pierre thought that was funnier yet. Sometimes Jacques thought the best thing old people could do was dry up and blow away. This was one of those times. "Can you take me to Count Guillaume, please?" He made the last word as sarcastic as he dared.
He could have done worse, because Pierre went right on laughing. But the sergeant nodded and said, "Come on, then."
The keep at the center of the fortress lay behind a ditch. It was of stone, and looked more old-fashioned and more impressive than the rest of the work. When Pierre led Jacques to Count Guillaume's office, the commander was writing something. He set down his quill pen. "What's this?"
"Messenger, your Grace," the sergeant answered.
"All right." Guillaume was younger than the underofficer. He had a clever, foxy face made foxier by green eyes and red side whiskers. "What is it, young fellow?" he asked Jacques.
"I bring a letter, your Grace, from the Duke of Paris," Jacques said.
Duke Raoul was an important power in the Kingdom of Versailles. Some people said he was the power behind King Charles' throne. Even so, the fortress commander looked unimpressed. He also looked to have practiced the expression, perhaps in front of a mirror imported from the south. After a small yawn that also seemed practiced, Guillaume said, "Well, let me have a look at it."
"Here you are, sir." Jacques handed him the rolled-up parchment.
Guillaume did carefully inspect the seal pressed into the wax. He nodded. "Yes, that swan's Raoul's, all right." He used a pen knife to flick off the wax and cut the ribbon that held the letter closed. Unrolling it, he held it out at arm's length to read.
"Anything the men ought to know about, your Grace?" Sergeant Pierre asked.
"Well, Raoul says he's got word some kind of way about a Berber plot to take this place." One of Guillaume's carroty eye-brows quirked upward. "I don't know what he was drinking when he got that word, but it must have been plenty strong. Or do you think Abdallah's getting ready to try to bite us again, Sergeant?"
"I'd say the odds are against it, sir," Pierre replied. "Things have been pretty quiet lately." He paused and tugged at his beard. "Too quiet? I didn't think so, not till now."
"I didn't, either." Guillaume's gaze swung to Jacques. "What about you, son? See anything strange on the way down from Paris?"
Jacques needed less than a heartbeat to decide he wouldn't want to be Count Guillaume's son. He would be richer than he was now — which wouldn't take much — but a lot less comfortable. To have Guillaume always looking over his shoulder, never happy with anything he did ... He shivered, down inside where it didn't show.
But the count had asked a good question. "Sir, everything was fine till I got close to this place," Jacques said. "Then I heard a stick break. I ducked behind a tree and saw a deer. No real sign of anything else. The deer spooked when it took my scent. I guess it was my scent, anyway."
"How far north of here?" Guillaume rapped out.
"Maybe two miles," Jacques said after thinking about how long he'd needed to get to the fort. "Yes, that's about right."
"Send out a patrol, Sergeant," the count told Pierre. "We don't want those people sniffing around this place. Tell our boys not just to look for men, but for tracks and any other signs we've had visitors we don't want."
The underofficer saluted. "I'll take care of it right now, your Grace." He hurried away, shouting for men as he went.
Guillaume gave his attention back to Jacques. "I don't want you heading back till the patrol comes in. If Berbers are prowling around, they might grab you. Or you might scare them off, and that wouldn't be good, either. Why don't you go over to the buttery and get some bread and sausage and a mug of wine or beer or whatever suits you? If the cook squawks, tell him to talk to me. That should take care of it."
"Thanks, your Grace. I will." Jacques didn't think the cook would bother the count. He could no more imagine taking Guillaume's name in vain than he could taking the Lord's.
As it happened, the cook recognized him from earlier visits. Jacques drank sparkling cider with his food. It wasn't as strong as wine or as heavy as beer. He didn't want to curl up and fall asleep under a tree before he'd gone very far. When the cook offered to fill his mug again, Jacques turned him down.
The cook clucked in reproach. "Never say no to anything free," he advised. "It may not come your way twice." When Jacques explained why he didn't want more cider, the cook sent him a sly look. "I'll give you a mug of water instead, then."
"Henri on the wheel, no!" Jacques said. The cook laughed — he'd been joking. Oh, you could drink water. People did it all the time. But nobody with any sense did it by choice. Nothing was more likely to give you a flux of the bowels than bad water — and you couldn't always tell whether water was good by looking or even by smelling. People went around in misery for weeks at a time with an illness like that. Or they died of it — it happened all the time. Little children suffered most, but anybody could come down with a bloody flux. Whole armies had broken up when half the men in them or more got sick.
Pierre's patrol didn't come back till late afternoon. They hadn't found anything out of the ordinary. "Must have just been that deer," the sergeant told Jacques. "But you made out all right, didn't you?" He winked. "You won't want to head north now — too late. So you'll get supper here, and a bed tonight, and then breakfast in the morning. Not bad, eh?"
"Could be worse," Jacques allowed. Sergeant Pierre laughed and clapped him on the back. That must have been the right answer. Adults often used a language of understatement and saying the opposite of what they meant. It had baffled Jacques when he was younger — and, no doubt, it was meant to baffle him. Now he was learning it himself. Whether he'd wanted to join or not, he was turning into a member of the club.
In the Paris in this alternate, Annette Klein was known as Khadija the oil merchant's daughter. She was slim and dark, well suited to play the role of someone up from the south. In the home timeline, she was on the short side. People weren't so well nourished here — 163 centimeters made her taller than average.
In the home timeline, she was Jewish. Here, she played a Muslim. Christianity here was vastly different from what it was in the world where she'd grown up. Even so, the people of the Kingdom of Versailles hated and feared and persecuted the handful of Jews who lived among them. They hated and feared Muslims, too. They didn't persecute them, though — their Muslim neighbors were too strong to let them get away with it. Islam here wasn't the same as it was back home, either, but it was less different than Christianity.
And Paris ... The Paris she saw from above her veil only made her sad. In the home timeline, Paris was one of the great cities of the world, and had been for hundreds of years. In this alternate, it was the most important town in the Kingdom of Versailles — which wasn't saying much.
Horses clopped on cobbles or splashed through nasty-smelling mud. Knights in shining — or, more often, rusty — armor rode them. A good back-and-breast would stop a pistol shot, and even a ball from a matchlock musket if it wasn't fired at close range. Pigs and chickens and stray dogs ate garbage in the gutters. So did rats, some of them almost as big and sleek as the local cats.
Rats ... Annette couldn't look at them without wanting to shudder. Rats had made this alternate's history split away from the home timeline's almost 750 years earlier. In the home timeline, bubonic plague — the Black Death — had killed about a third of the people in Europe, starting in 1348.
Here, the plague went on and on and on. By the time it petered out at last, four out of five Europeans were dead. What had been a thriving civilization was mostly dead, too. Not enough people were left to keep the Muslims, who'd almost been pushed out of Spain, from retaking it. They'd eventually conquered southern France, too, and Italy, and the Balkans. The Turks had also conquered the Balkans in the home timeline, but they did a more thorough job of it in this alternate.
No wonder the European Christians, or what was left of them, thought the end of the world was at hand. No wonder God acquired a Second Son here. Henri preached patience in the face of suffering. He promised a better life to come, and gathered a large following. When he said he was God's Son, the King of France and the Pope — who was living at Avignon, inside the country — ordered him put to death. And so he was broken in front of a large and sorrowful crowd, broken and then burned.
The very next day, the King of France and the Pope went into a church to thank God for being delivered from the sinner. For no reason anyone could see — an earthquake? a crucial beam breaking? — the church collapsed. Both men died in the ruins. So did most of their chief followers. After that, the Kingdom of France was never the same again. Neither was the Papacy.
And the miracle — who then could have believed it was anything else? — made the cult of Henri spread like wildfire across almost all the lands where Christianity still held sway. The Bible here had a Final Testament that spoke of the Second Son's life and deeds. Churches in this alternate had two steeples, a shorter one in front topped by a cross and a taller one in back topped by a wheel.
Even Notre-Dame de Paris, begun long before the plague broke out, was finally finished in the new style. Above the veil, Annette's brown eyes swung toward the great cathedral. As far as she knew, it was the only building her Paris and this one had in common, and even it wasn't identical in the two different worlds. Without the Eiffel Tower, without twentieth- and twenty-first-century highrises in this alternate, the cathedral's great and soaring bulk dominated the skyline here in a way its sister couldn't in the home timeline.
"What is it, my sweet?" Annette's mother asked. Tiffany Klein — here called Aisha — was only a centimeter taller than her daughter. Her eyes were the same warm brown as Annette's, and full of sympathy now. "Does the veil trouble you?"
Excerpted from In High Places by Harry Turtledo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2006 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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