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"Every page is saturated with wickedness and mischief. Bullington's fans will be happy to see him bring his trademark dark humor, gritty detail, and loopy characters into a new gruesome landscape."—Publishers Weekly
"Delightfully grim"—Interzone (UK)
"This is both a cleverly entertaining story and a fascinating exploration of the human psyche."—britishfantasysociety.co.uk
The little boat slowed, both rowers setting their oars and kicking up amber water as they came to the willow wood bordering the village of Oudeland. In all directions the meer stretched flat and cold, but here at last the smooth expanse yielded to what lurked beneath it. The craft brushed the treetops, the few dead willow shoots that broke the filmy surface snapping like old rushes as the boat drifted through them. The two men peered over their respective sides, murmuring to each other where larger boughs threatened the belly of their vessel. Gray bream huddled in the rotting nests of their former hunters, eels festooned through the branches like Carnival ribbons.
The boat slid between the last fence posts of dead limbs, and then the town itself was beneath them. It was a shadow village, without thatch for its roofs to keep out the wet and the cold, without paint or color for its disintegrating shutters and doors, without any sun at all, only a vague, shimmering moon, never waxing, never warming. The mill had kept its blades but the great fan felt no wind in the ever-gloaming depths, yet all clotheslines and carts and even the well house had long since blown away. The boat scudded over Oudeland, quiet as thieves in a church or leaves on a lake, and there at last rose the old elm, what had once been the tallest tree in thirty leagues now only a tangled, naked bush pushing out of the water like a mean clump of blackthorn on the edge of a canal.
It had been a grand tree for climbing, if one could get a leg up to the lower branches, and one of the two men recalled the feel of rough bark against rough palm, the sound of laughter above and below, as close to flying as any could come in this life. Yet here they came, like unquiet spirits returning through the air, and with wonder they saw a figure balanced there in the boughs of the elm, waiting. They coasted past the bell tower of the church, a wide mooring post with a thorny crown where four herons had recently come of egg and age, and then the nose of the boat nuzzled the branches of the elm, the men staring at its keeper.
Much of the ram’s hide had come away in greedy beakfuls, but enough had hardened in the sun to lash it to the boughs, a sunbleached and waterworn puppet tangled in the treetop. Its bare, eyeless skull was tilted upward with jaw agape, like a child catching snow or rain, and its forelegs were spread and caught amongst the branches, as if it were falling into flight or rising to crucifixion. The two men in the boat stared in silence at the ram, the vessel motionless upon the face of the deep, the moment seeming to stretch on and on, longer than all the roads and rivers in the world, and behind them, beneath them, the wheel of the mill mutely turned, kicking up silt as a great shadow slid past its mossy blades.
Heaven bled when they took Sander from his cell, the condemned man scowling into the East as if offended by dawn’s decision to attend his execution. In Dordrecht the harbors would be turning to molten gold, the walls of the city transforming into the gossamer white robes of angels, but here in Sneek the first light of morning shone only on shit, and all the alchemists in the witch-riddled West couldn’t turn a turd into more than what it was. These were the thoughts Sander harbored as the cart he stood in squelched through the muddy square to the gallows-tree, and not even the rotten apples and clods of filth the mob hurled at him could detract from the thrill of anticipation. They were going to hang him, and Sander grinned as he spied the thick hempen rope. A ball of horse dung struck him on the teeth, the thankfully dry clump leaving an earthy taste in his mouth as he spit into the cheers of the crowd. He focused on the noose, trying to secure the burgeoning erection already firming up in his breeches—he was going to enjoy this.
Sander assumed that most people in his circumstance dreamed of escape, reprieve, something, but he would not allow himself the indulgence. Nor did he dwell on the life that had led him to this doomed place as surely as if he had followed a path without fork or intersection, much as men in his place are thought to. Were he to hang, the vast conspiracy he had carefully navigated, like a man creeping over an uncertain fen, would never be fully understood; the countless secret enemies who had orchestrated this farcical display would go unpunished… but he did not deign to give them his ruminations. No, Sander thought only of rope, coils of it wrapping around his ankles and thighs and balls and waist and chest and arms and elbows and wrists and, especially, his neck. Itchy, tight, sinuous rope constricting him until there was nothing left but braided, bloody knots.
That thought was what helped him fall asleep on nights when the dream-countries proved elusive, but now was not the time to linger on such fantasies, and he knew it. His heart beat faster as he looked around the town square, saw the hundred contorted faces of the crowd, lit for a moment on the desperate thought of Escape! like a horsefly flirting with a butcher’s apron, and then settled back on rope. Cord was what bound his hands behind his back—also hemp, thick as his thumb, tied in his cell before they led him to the wagon. Sander flexed his hands, confirming the make of the knot he could not see and smiling all the wider. He let his fingertips curl up to stroke the knot a single time and then spread his hands again; a gull’s wings taking flight, an overbloomed rose falling apart.
A pair of guards with crude pikes waited at the stairs of the gibbet. As the wagon jerked to a stop, each hopped into the bed and grabbed one of Sander’s elbows. He thought he recognized them as militiamen from some other town, some other setup, but quickly calmed himself. Bland, halfwit boys like these were a pfennig a bushel, and so odds were they were local muscle, which would legitimize it all as far as Sneek was concerned. Fools. A priest and the hangman waited on the platform, and the guards brought Sander forward, their tugging on his arms causing the binding cord to cut into his wrists. His cock throbbed from the sensation.
There was no trapdoor awaiting the convict, only a shove off the edge of the cramped platform, and the guards stayed on the final step as they delivered Sander to his death. The hangman wore no hood, only a stupid-looking feathered cap, and the edge of the priest’s habit was powdered with dry dust instead of wet muck—he must have raised it like a noblewoman careful of her skirts when he left his church. A man in the crowd swallowed from his bottle too quickly and choked on it. The things Sander noticed as the hangman slipped the noose around his broad neck and yanked it tight.
“Sander Himbrecht,” the priest said without raising his voice, and it took several moments for the tide of elbows and hisses to work its way back through the crowd until the morning was as quiet as it should have been had men never learned to speak. Sander couldn’t properly converse in the garbled garbage-tongue of the Frisian, but like many people of the South, he usually got the thrust of what was barked at him by the stiffheads. The priest said something like, “Sander Himbrecht, you stand here a dead man, but need not fall a damned one. It is established you shall serve as an example to what wages a blackguard and killer is paid in Sneek, but here at last is a chance to also demonstrate the power of repentance, of salvation at the cusp of ruin.”
Something like that, only like as not less pretty-sounding—priest or no, Frisians were not known for their eloquence.
“Hang the dicksucker!” said a straw-haired, wheat-mustachioed man at the front of the crowd. Sander understood that bit perfectly. “Don’t let ’em off, Father!”
Sander licked his lips, the man’s outburst a confirmation that they knew much more than they should, each and all of them. That this was inevitable as sin, that he was flat-out lucky they weren’t having him quartered instead. Sander rubbed his wrists against the rope, eyes flicking to the blond heckler and back to the priest, breathing deep to better feel the noose against his throat, his cock positively aching up against his breeches like a drowning man kicking his last to break the surface of the water. He knew the priest was waiting for him, but he also knew the hangman had an unobstructed view of his back, and so he turned a bit to better put the clergyman between himself and the executioner as he stalled. The old boy had a strip of red cloth in his shaky hands, and Sander smiled at the realization that in Sneek they must have the priest do the blindfolding after the last rites and all—funny, that, and a far cry from the communion he was expecting.
“It’s like this,” Sander said quietly, not even trying to ape the stiffhead dialect. “I would if I could, but I’m not, so I can’t, yeah?”
“Not what?” said the priest in proper-talk, evidently a learned man who knew a real language when he heard it.
“Look.” Sander nodded down. Behind him, he relaxed his aching wrists from the strained position he had held them in all morning, before they had even bound him. If they had used baling twine or something thinner, he might have been in real trouble, but—
“What is it?” The priest blinked at the condemned man’s damp, diaphanous tunic, as if Sander were trying to point out an especially interesting stain. Then Sander knew the older man had found it, his eyes opening wide as silver double-groots, his lips pursing tighter than the strings on his purse. To seal the deal, Sander bore down a little, making his cock nod upward at the priest through his thin breeches and thinner tunic. There was a moment of silence on the platform as the ancient stared at Sander’s unmistakable bulge and Sander grinned over the priest’s shoulder at the hangman.
“He’s getting loose!” someone in the crowd with a vantage of Sander’s back shouted.
In response, Sander bit the priest on the face.
Brown teeth met brown stubble and were proved the victor, bumpy cheek yielding to smooth enamel, and Sander tasted blood. His left hand came free of the amateur knot, loosing its twin in the process, but before he could properly grab hold of the priest, the hangman lunged forward and shoved Sander. A lesser executioner might not have dislodged him from the priest, but the hangman had a smith’s arm, and Sander came away with but a flap of skin and meat as he pitched from the platform.
Sander’s left hand caught the rope as he fell, and an instant before it went taut, he flexed all his muscle, saving himself a snapped neck at the cost of a dislocated elbow. His arm immediately dropped limp and the noose clamped tight around his throat. Sander did not let the glorious distraction of being hanged consume him, and as he was strangled, he kicked his legs in the air to spin around. It worked, and he twirled in the air almost too quickly.
Almost, but not quite. As the chest-level platform swung into his tear-blurring vision, he saw the feet and hands of the sprawled-out priest. More importantly, he saw the hangman’s heel coming down to stomp his shoulder and affect what the drop should have, had he not caught the rope in time. With his right arm Sander snatched the hangman’s boot and jerked him downward, which tightened the noose even more. The startled lummox tumbled from the platform, lamely slapping the air as he fell past the still-spinning Sander. The familiar black wheels were spinning larger and faster in Sander’s vision, and though it pained him, he reflexively heaved his injured left arm to his crotch and rubbed himself as the platform came back around.
Slapping his right arm down beside the half-prone priest and focusing all his strength, Sander arrested his spin. Clawing his arm forward, he dug his fingernails into the platform until he could verily taste the oak splinters through his quick. His right elbow set beside that of the doubled-over priest, Sander heaved himself onto the platform. The hangman knew his business well, however, and so the noose did not relax even as Sander scrambled to his feet on the wooden deck. Before he could get his fingers under the rope to save himself, the two guards on the stair shook off their shock and rushed forward, jabbing at him with their pikes. Sander hooked the elbow of his good arm under the now-wailing priest, hoisting him upright in the nick of time. The clergyman accepted both spear points in his chest as easily as he accepted the more exciting confessions from the young women of Sneek. One pike became entangled in the priest’s ribs, but the other broke clean through the man, nicking Sander’s left shoulder.
Even without the dying priest grinding against him from the impact Sander would have come then, the noose too tight, the hemp too coarse. Delicious. Even as he grunted his satisfaction, he got his fingers under the rope collar and jerked it loose, gasping like a landed herring from more than the release in his breeches. He had dropped the priest, but the guards still held the man aloft with their weapons, neither sure what to do given the circumstances.
The tunnel of Sander’s consciousness expanded to take in exactly what had happened, and he tried to laugh but gagged instead. Pulling a face as he widened the noose, he slipped it over his head just as several crossbow bolts whizzed past him and the fallen hangman regained the platform behind the horrified guards. Sander kicked the priest in the back, driving him deeper onto the pikes and managing an actual laugh through his dry retching fit. He had known it would be a grand day but could never have anticipated such a glorious fiasco.
That said, getting out of the ropes was the easy part; getting out of town was where things got tricky. What kind of savages held their executions in the main square, instead of outside the village walls like civilized folk? Stiffheads. Going on the wave of furious peasants crashing below him at the edge of the platform, his killing of their priest was not liable to make his escape any easier—even those who hadn’t been actively involved in the plot to hang him would certainly want him dead now. There were only a few streets leading out of the thronged square, and even the one behind the gibbet was a good fifty paces off. Tempting though it suddenly was to simply give up, Sander knew they probably wouldn’t still be satisfied with a hanging given the recent turn of events, and he would be damned before he went to his maker in any other fashion.
Well, then, he had to do something. Sander jumped from the platform, landing feetfirst on a fat man. They both hit the ground hard, but Sander rolled forward and onto his feet as his human cushion spit blood and teeth.
They were on him then, the edge of the mob washing over him, but Sander was a dirty son of a bitch’s bastard’s whore, and what’s more, he knew it. The citizens of Sneek should have suspected that a man willing to bite a priest would not shirk from snatching a scrotum or poking out an eye if he could, but in their fury to catch him they failed to consider this. Thus, the first man to lay hands on Sander had his testicles crushed and twisted by thick fingers, and the second had his left eyeball hooked viciously with a thumb, the entire orb popping loose of its socket and bouncing against the poor fellow’s cheek.
Three fists and a knife connected with Sander. The knuckles bounced off his leathery skin, but as he twisted away, the knife carved a neat little flap in his already bloodied, dangling left arm. Then he saw it. Saw her. The pommel of his beloved had appeared just beside him, and he caught a glimpse of brown hair and brown eyes, a handsome face he loved more than jellied herring or fresh beer materializing from the mob—
—But then the weapon was in hand and her hooded deliverer swallowed back up by the crowd, and Sander howled with joy to once again wield Glory’s End.
Her blade had been recently whetted, and in bringing the sword up to put her between himself and the crowd he clipped off three of a man’s fingers. Before Sander could get a proper swing across, the crowd had already fallen back, and he used the moment to catch his breath. He had a clean break to the side street he had been making for, but then he saw three militiamen with crossbows atop the platform, their weapons leveled at him. Before he could blink, the bows fired.
And, incredibly, all missed. One quarrel whipped through his long, manky hair, the other two splashing into the muck at his feet. Sander stared at them for a moment, grinned, and ran away. The crowd recovered its courage at the sight of his back and followed after.
Sander gained the side street… and ran directly into four more militiamen, likely shirkers late to the execution. Their pikes were not leveled, praise to the appropriate saints, sparing Sander an end similar to that of the priest. Glory’s End flashed in the shadows of the alley, and before the first man realized he was disemboweled, the second was hacked to the collarbone, both falling in a welter of gore and blood as their stunned compatriots stumbled back. Sander kept moving, tagging another on the knee as he fled down the street. The man shifted his weight the slightest bit and immediately pitched forward, gasping as the thin red slit in his beige leggings split into a yawning fissure of wet muscle and exposed bone, and the fourth militiaman stared aghast after the demon who had butchered his friends.
The alley opened onto a lane between rows of squat, tightly packed houses, and glancing back over his shoulder, Sander saw the mob only half a block behind him, the hangman now leading them. Sander turned left, booking it for all he was worth down the narrow street. Left turned out to be a rather poor decision, as another group of militiamen rounded a bend before him, but he only ran faster, making it to another alley just before the new crew reached him. This avenue was clogged with low-hanging laundry, the lines of which Sander cut as he ran to bring the drying clothes down on his pursuers. Sander laughed to hear the shouts behind him become angrier still, and then burst through the last row of dangling sheets and toppled into the canal into which the alley terminated, Glory’s End flying from his hand as he struck the gray water and sank like a millstone.
A hush fell over the dingy, cramped tavern. Such an occurrence was not particularly rare, requiring little more than a dirty joke, even a bewhiskered one, but quiet the place did, and the handsome stranger smiled at the staring faces surrounding him. The fisherman he sat across from smiled back, an easy, dangerous sort of smile, and nodded.
“Settled, then.” Pitter extended his hand. “A double-groot.”
“One double-groot,” agreed the handsome man, shaking on the wager. It had taken them longer to come to terms on how many Brabant mites and Holland pfennigs added up to a Holland groot, and from there a double-groot, than it had for the stranger to make the acquaintance of Pitter, get him drunk, and share a plate of early chèvre with him. As they ate and debated currency with the unsolicited help of their fellow patrons, the barkeep apologized for the ferocious saltiness of the cheese—the kid had been born too early and lived but a week, and the tears of its mother must make their way down through her teats. The stranger was the only one who laughed at this, and he quickly withered it into a cough under the dour stares of the locals.
The handsome stranger’s name was Jan and he was from the Groote Waard in southern Holland, but he had told everyone he was a riverboat pilot named Lubbert down from Sneek. This deceit had instantly endeared him to the tipsy Friesland transplant Pitter, who had bought him a drink. The local beer tasted like a respectable brew Jan had sampled in Haarlem, if said beer had been filtered through a drunkard or two and returned via piss-stream to the barrel, but then Jan had not come to Aalsmeer for its ale.
It was a pretty enough village, small groves of alder and willow spotting the outskirts like patches of peach fuzz on the cheeks of a young man impatient to grow a beard. The quality of the lakes had inspired Jan’s decision to try the place instead of pushing onward to the sea, for they were dark, muddy pools carved from the peat by villagers in generations past and left to languish like bloody gouges in the earth that would never clot. The water might not burn the boy’s eyes the way the sea would, but Jan knew from experience a peat-pool would have enough silt swirling around to make things comparably difficult, and if he never had to ride his horse over another dune he would die a happy man.
The wager set, Jan followed Pitter out of the smoky common room and through what passed for streets in Aalsmeer to the fisherman’s house, half a dozen of the patrons accompanying them. Pitter had told him to leave his horse at the tavern, but Jan had insisted, his Frisian stallion clopping along beside them. They came to the willow-and-mud hovel Pitter shared with his family and an Urker down from the islands to visit kin, and Jan waited in the alley with the other tavern-goers while the strawberry-nosed gambler went inside.
The huddled locals said nothing, which suited Jan just fine. He had not come to Aalsmeer for the conversation. Pitter soon emerged with his eldest boy. The handsome stranger nodded at the youth, whose gangly arms and legs reminded Jan of a willow’s shoots, his olive eyes bringing to mind a certain stream outside of Papendrecht—if ever a lad symbolized the harmony between water and land it was young Wob. Besides that, his face was not as bad as his father’s, and Jan allowed himself a slight smile at the boy, now hoping more than ever that he would soon be out of a double-groot.
The procession traveled the rest of the way through town, picking up a few more spectators, which displeased Jan but could not be helped. If a next-time proved necessary, he would adopt a different strategy. Pitter blathered on about his son’s prowess, comparing him to an otter, an eel, a fine, fine fishy; father’s furry hand on son’s bare shoulder. Jan admired the sleek, bronzed skin of the lad, whose chest was only just beginning to show a few pinfeathers of hair; his chin smooth; his eyes, green as catkins, refusing to meet Jan’s bark-brown ones. Jan imagined those eyes brimming with tears, those tan cheeks roasted to a fine pink, and nodded to himself. The tone of the group had become celebratory now that young Wob was with them, the double-groot good as won.
Heaven burned in the west, as is its custom, and the merry troop came to the largest of the lakes nudging the outskirts of Aalsmeer. The water shone the color of cider before them. Jan tied his horse to a post set in the shore, and they marched onto a long dock jutting over the meer. Father slapped son lightly on the back and arms, Pitter’s face beaming with pride and eagerness. Well he might, reflected Jan; he wasn’t the one to be diving into a lake at sunset with the blooms of water lilies still only a promise of the pad-scaled shallows.
“Da,” Wob said, “are ya sure—”
“Good lad,” said Pitter, cuffing his son. “The sooner you’re in, the sooner you’re out, eh, Lubbert?”
“Hmm?” It took Jan a moment to realize he was being addressed—bitter the beer might be, but strong. Not unlike old Sander, whose ill-executed escape attempt in Sneek necessitated the whole affair Jan was currently undertaking. “Aye, that’s right, boy. Your father’s staked a double-groot you can win a swimming trial, and I’ll tell you here in front of all that if you win, I’ll give you a few mites yourself for the trouble.”
That earned a few huzzahs, and another one of those dangerous smiles from Pitter. The boy still would not meet Jan’s eye. He wondered if young Wob was a virgin.
“Now, Lubbert, we said he’s to dive for a shoe, then?” Pitter took an old iron horseshoe from his pocket and held it up, the rusty metal dull against the shining water. “You want to toss?”
“Indeed,” said Jan, taking the shoe and drawing the dagger he kept at his belt. The way Pitter’s lip twitched as Jan began scraping several bands in the rust confirmed that the fisherman had meant to cheat him. He wondered where the boy had secreted the shoe’s twin, or if one of Wob’s siblings had run ahead and dropped the double off the end of the dock. No matter. The shoe was soon striped, and Jan winked at Pitter. “Just so the boy’s not confused by any old piece of metal he feels down there. This one’s rough then smooth then rough again from the rust, aye, Wob?”
Wob looked even less comfortable than he had before, a light breeze skating across the water, and Jan stepped forward, making a show out of hefting the horseshoe. Then he slung it side-armed, the shoe skipping across the surface four, five, six times before sliding into the water. One of the tavern-goers whistled, another sighed, and a third spit. Pitter opened his mouth to speak, but then Wob was in after it, and seeing him come up a short way out, Jan chided himself for letting the boy strip unnoticed. Wob treaded water, gasping and paddling and looking as if he were trying to crawl out of the lake, up into the air.
“Farther on, yet,” Pitter called, but his son did not immediately proceed. “Go on, then, you’ll warm yourself directly!”
Wob threw himself ahead, the slapping of warm, hard skin on cold, hard water bringing a prolonged wince to his father’s face. Several of the spectators came forward to stand at the edge of the dock with Pitter, and Jan let them by, content to move backward on the pier. It was not as if his watching would impact the search, and he was happy to stand in the rear as useless suggestions and encouragements were cast out after the boy. It was growing dark, and the wind was picking up. Jan frowned.
Two of Pitter’s friends went back to the tavern, neither congratulating Jan on his impending victory as they passed. Again and again Wob surfaced, sometimes spitting, sometimes coughing, but always diving back down. Jan imagined that the boy’s skin was quite numb by now, and that must make it even more difficult. Worst of all, any light that might have stretched to the bottom would have long since been reeled in, leaving Wob blind and fumbling through the muck for a horseshoe that would have instantly sunk into the mud.
“The devil you will!” Pitter shouted. “Go back a bit, then, I told you, farther back!”
Wob’s voice came again but Jan could still not make out the words, warped as they were by wind and water. Pitter might have heard and answered with his shaking head, or perhaps his gesture was based on intuition for what complaint his son would lodge now that the sun was nesting in the cattails. Perhaps he was simply mourning for coins lost.
“If we come out in the morning—” One of the other men spoke for Pitter, but Jan cut him off.
“The bet was what it was. Was it not, Visser?”
“Stay the fuck where you were!” Pitter shouted again. “There, right there! Again, lad, again—that’s the spot!”
Squinting between the capped heads of the Aalsmeerers, Jan saw Wob gulp the air and sink again, bubbles rising to mark his descent, and Jan wondered if there were weeds down there, the sort that are both slimy and scratchy. He hoped so, envisioning the boy snared in long emerald strands, his hands digging in the lakebed for an arc of iron, eels weaving between his fingers, a faint glow shining on his bare skin from some sunken moon…
“Been down too long,” one man said, and Jan realized he was right.
“He’s got it now, is what,” said Pitter, but his voice was strained, a fishing line about to snap.
The surface of the lake was still save for the wind scratching along it. Pitter began to strip, but by the time he was naked one of his friends had stepped between him and the water, shaking his head. Pitter Visser screamed then, and spun away from the black lake, ready to fight Lubbert of Sneek, naked or not. But the man was gone, the post where he had tied his horse at the end of the pier barely visible through the spreading night, as if the lake had risen from its bed to cover the earth with its bitter, unrelenting darkness. When Pitter was absent from the tavern, which was more and more in the days and weeks and years to follow, the men who had stood with them on the dock whispered that the handsome stranger’s failure to claim his double-groot before quitting their company was further proof that the devil himself had come to Aalsmeer.
It was still far too early in the year for anyone to be on this stretch of strand, but Jolanda nevertheless put the better part of a league between herself and the trail that led through the dunes before undressing and walking into the surf. Partly it was to get her heat up before entering the brutally cold water, and partly it was to avoid getting her tunic stolen by one of her shitbird brothers or the village fisherboys—if one of them were to be sent after her, or shirk his responsibilities as she had, he could appear atop the dunes and sprint to her wad of hemp cloth before she could gain the shore. Out here, though, she would see anyone walking the beach long before he arrived.
She slapped her lower arms with opposite hands, her indigo fingers leaving ivory stripes on the violet skin, and then the sea was washing over her pale feet. Breath-stealer, flesh-scalder. A cold neuking day, but she always preferred the cold to the hot—even winter nights in the crowded hut were too much like sleeping inside a panting mouth, the warmer waters of Snail Bay too much like bathing in fresh blood.
Jolanda turned and ran from the sea then, the skin of her feet breaking shells instead of the reverse, her breath returning and burning as she charged up the dune. Her run quickly degenerated into a back-sliding climb, and then she spun again, running back down, sand sticking to her sweaty body, settling in her short black hair. The water shone before her, the afternoon sun beckoning her onward. If she fell there, the shells would be merciless, but she had not taken a tumble in the sand for some time, and then she was past the tide-cast ribbon of pink and gray and white shells and was back in the surf, the water splashing and slowing her, a chill cousin to the snatching sand of the dune. Then she did fall, half on purpose, and the shock of the icy sea struck her dead for several moments, the girl forcing herself to stay pinned to the floor of the shallows as the waves pushed and pulled at her, coaxing her upward with the promise of an honest gasp of air. Down she stayed, then whipped herself up with a cry, on her knees in the sand, the breakers crashing over her chest and shoulders, the salt stinging the countless cuts and abrasions she suffered from smashing snail shells all the days of her memory.
More than anything, she wanted to dash from the sea, to pull her tunic over her wet body and run home, to lie down amidst the purple pots until she was smoked like a herring. Instead she clumsily fought the sea and herself and gained her feet, the wind burning her slick skin almost, but not quite, worse than the waves had, and she faced not the dunes but open water. Meeting the hard eye of the North Sea made her feel like Griet from the tales her brother Pieter had told her, Mad Griet, the housewife who harrowed hell itself, afraid of nothing, ready to wrestle the devil and tie him to a pillow if he gave her trouble. That was how Jolanda would always be, she told herself, fierce enough to face hell itself, and so a chilly day at the beach presented no substantial challenge.
In she went again, keeping her head underwater as much as she dared, the inevitable discomfort of her teeth chattering as much a deterrent to surfacing as the frigid water ought to have been to entering it in the first place. Soon she lost the bottom, and knowing full well how foolhardy it would be to swim on, she dove again and kicked her legs and shoved apart the endless curtain of water over and over again, deeper and farther. At last she came up spluttering, the odor of burning shellfish that had dyed her nostrils with its permanent stink as surely as the purple had dyed her arms now forgotten, her shitbird siblings and father forgotten, everything lost in the rush to breathe after being crushed so tightly by the ocean.
Jolanda did not notice the rider until much later, when she was swimming back in. Her skin was wrinkled and deadened, her heart pounding even when she floated languidly on the surface, and when she finally saw him she paused, much as her frigid body wailed at her to keep swimming and quit the sea as soon as possible. She treaded water, wondering if the rider could see her amidst the waves, and then his arm came up in salute, a small brown flag flapping in the sea breeze. Her tunic. Jolanda cursed.
The horse did not move, but the rider dismounted, walking toward the water and calling to her. She could not hear what he was saying and swam closer, knowing her best hope would be if he came into the water after her—she could outswim anyone, and if she happened to be exhausted at the moment, then no matter, for the cold would cripple him worse than weariness hobbled her. Reassured, Jolanda swam to shore.
She stopped when she was able to set both feet on the sand, the relief it gave her beleaguered arms and legs nearly carnal, like fingernails on a long-neglected back. The waves necessitated that she occasionally kick up and float, but she had no intention of coming any closer until she determined who he was—for he was definitely a man, she saw that now—and what he wanted. Part of her supposed she already knew, that it would be what the neighboring fisherboys were always pestering her for, but she told that part to hush.
“You’re all right, then!” The man had thick umber hair and a handsome smile, and he stood just beyond the reach of the waves, holding her tunic in one hand.
“Yeah!” Jolanda shouted back, wondering how best to get him in the water so she could steal his horse. She had never ridden a horse before, but had once goaded the man-child Luther into mounting a peddler’s carthorse outside the tavern to fine result, and if the idiot could ride a horse, then so could she. She squinted at the man, trying to determine if she knew him or not—the older men of the village all looked the same to her, which was to say they all looked like sand-caked arseholes.
The stranger did not respond other than to stare out at her, and the longer they looked at each other, the more certain she was she had never seen him before. His high hat and clothes were obviously well worn, but none the poorer for it, with the garnet hue of his padded doublet and the fur trim on his cloak implying he might be a nobleman of some standing. But then, she had never seen a nobleman of any standing at all, and so couldn’t say for sure. He didn’t look like a sand-caked arsehole, in any event.
“How long have you been out there?” he finally called, cupping his hand into the sunset that wreathed Jolanda’s head.
“Long enough,” she answered, her teeth chattering worse than ever now that she was close to stationary, wave after frigid wave lapping over her. When he did not respond to that, she sighed and swam a little closer to shore, fatigue truly beginning to set in, and she raised her voice even louder. “My father come out. He just run back to start the fish. He’ll be back soon. My brothers too, surely.”
“No.” The handsome stranger shook his head. “You’re alone. No other tracks. The beach is always honest.”
Jolanda cursed herself for a fool, and swam even closer so that she could fully rest her legs and still flash him some tit. It had worked well enough to lure in any fisherboys whose belt pouches she had a mind to rifle, but the stranger stayed where he was. This presented a rather sizable problem—if he didn’t enter the water, she couldn’t very well give him the slip and beat him to the shore. She glanced down to make sure her oceanic bodice was still giving up glimpses of her nipples between the waves, and there they were, dark as wet sand and jutting out hard as shells, given the cold neuking circumstances, but still no move from the stranger.
Then, success. As his hand fell to his waist, she considered whether she would risk riding his horse back to her hut to retrieve what food and supplies she could steal, or take the safer path and immediately ride north, sell the beast somewhere along the way, and with that fortune start a new life somewhere far from hair-pulling brothers and switch-happy father. Then she saw he was not loosening his codpiece but drawing a dagger, and Jolanda chose to take a deep breath rather than uttering the curse that pushed at her tongue.
She dove and swam south, staying down as long as she could. She kept close enough to the shallows to give her legs the odd respite, but stayed underwater as much as she could bear. She only looked to shore after she had dived, quick-surfaced, and dived again over fifty times, which was as high as she had ever needed to count. The line of dunes were as familiar and distinct to her as her brothers, and she saw she was making good progress to the trail despite her exhaustion.
She also saw the silhouette of the rider pacing her along the beach. She dived deeper, swam harder, surfaced briefer, but always he was there. The sun had nearly gone under when at last she recognized the gap in the dunes where the trail ran to her home, and she stopped fighting the sea, letting it hold her steady in its half-tender, half-cruel embrace. The rider waited between her and those dunes, as if neither she nor he had moved a jot from their original positions.
He turned and looked at the trail, then dismounted and approached the water’s edge. Jolanda sunk deeper until only her eyes and nose bobbed above the water, but he looked directly at her, and while he still held her tunic in one hand, he also gripped that long dagger in the other, its edge catching the last light of day and burning like a brand. Jolanda knew from the many drubbings she and the fisherboys had exchanged by the trailhead that no screams would reach her hut, but before she could settle on another strategy, the man’s arm cocked back and the knife was spinning high into the air, a twinkling pinwheel that flew to her left and then past her, disappearing into a wave without a splash.
She didn’t look back to see his reaction at having missed her, and so pathetically—she knew that she already stood little enough chance of finding the weapon without averting her eyes from the spot where it had sunk. She had only swum a short distance before a part of her protested at the impossibility of finding the knife, of swimming back into the colder, deeper water when she was so close to home and might break from the sea, evade the man, and gain the trail. At this point, however, he owed her at least a knife for her trouble, if not a horse as well, and she would need the one to take the other. And so she swung her arms harder, kicked fiercer, staying to the surface so as not to lose sight of where the dagger had fallen, an ever-shifting patch of sea like any other save that she had put it at thirty strokes away, and now she was but ten.
The tide was coming in, pulling the bottom even farther away, and the sun was only poking over the edge of the waves. Jolanda dove. She was winded and barely brushed the sand before she had to surface. Resisting the push of the jostling waves took what little strength she had, but she dived again, her leanness carrying her down. Even with eyes hardened against the brine she saw little, the sun too low, the bottom too deep, and as the tide shoved her backward, she ran her hands over the rippled sand, a blind woman seeking out a single loose thread in an endless quilt. She came up gasping, dry-heaved twice, gulped the air, then went down again.
Lights were coming to her, bright sparks inside her skull, and still she dove, her fingers dredging through the sand. Her hands were too numb to even recognize that they had found the knife until the salt intruded into her sliced right palm. She came up bloody-handed and howling. And dove again, brushing the bottom slowly, carefully, and then, finally, wrapped the fingers of her good left hand around the hilt, a smile not even the dwellers of that deep could see hidden behind her thin lips.
The girl was only a few paces out when Jan found her again, the sneaky bitch having escaped into the liquid shadows after diving for his knife. She was crawling more than swimming, the breakers barely cresting her back as she dragged herself from the sea like some beast of legend. He walked toward her, and she must have realized she was spotted, for she flung herself to her feet and dashed out of the water, charging him with his own dagger.
Jan felt his stomach lurch at the sight, marveling that she could even stand, and then she couldn’t, her legs giving out and sending her sprawling in the shells. She gave a cry, and then commenced vomiting with such vigor that Jan half-expected her organs to appear in the frothy stew. She kicked her arms and legs, drowning on dry land as she retched uncontrollably.
When she stopped heaving, Jan approached her, the girl rolling onto her back and revealing herself to be older than he would have imagined from the size of her tunic, perhaps fifteen or sixteen. Her stomach and small breasts were striped red from the shells, and as he appraised her, the deeper cuts began to weep. Oddly, from the elbows down, her arms were almost as dark as the rest of her was pallid, and he saw that the sand coating her right hand was sloughing off in small red clumps. In her left fist his dagger jutted out, black as burnt sugar in the gloaming.
“Get!” the girl managed, brandishing the knife, her accent thick but certainly no poorer than those of the people of Aalsmeer, or worse yet, the Frisians. She would do.
“Are you mad?” Jan asked pleasantly. “You could have drowned.”
He tossed the sandy tunic onto her and turned around, his practiced nonchalance belying the ear he cocked for the sound of feet pounding beach behind him. Only the rumor of sand dancing in the breeze. She wasn’t moving.
Mounting his horse, Jan looked back at the girl. She stayed where he had left her, the tunic draped over her like the victim of some worse crime, her plain face staring at him with a look of stupid confusion. Jan had hoped it would be a boy.
The trail wound through the sandy hills and ridges, and though he saw the lights of a village ahead, he stopped at the first hut he came to, a rather large, sand-blasted hovel set back in the blackthorn that coated the dunes. The bouquet of rotten shellfish, charred bone, and old piss permeated the place, and there were several rusty cauldrons set in the sand between him and the hut. Jan nodded, remembering how stained the girl’s arms were. This would be easier than he had thought.
It wasn’t, as it turned out. They slunk from the shadows of the sloe, half a dozen lads between the ages of ten and twenty, all wearing the dull, tongue-lolling expressions of sleepy wolfhounds, their arms dark with dye, their eyes dark with suspicion. He would have taken any one of them over the girl, but she was the swimmer and so there was nothing for it.
“Is your father here?” Jan asked them, but none spoke, and the tallest of them began to stroke the nose of the stranger’s horse. Jan reflected on how much easier certain things had been when he rode with Sander. Then sand-warped wood screamed in its frame and a man stood silhouetted in the doorway of the hut, a fire blazing behind him, and Jan dismounted with a sigh.
Inside, the handsome stranger sat on one side of the fire and the father sat on the other, his six sons fanning out around him. It was silent, other than the popping fire, and hard to see through the haze of smoke—judging by the greasy violet stains surrounding the central firepit, the cauldrons weren’t always used outside. The shellfish they apparently used to manufacture the dye were kept in damp sacks that insulted the single room like sandbags protecting an island from flood, and the odor of marine decay was much stronger inside than it had been on the trail. One of the boys whispered in his father’s ear, and the man nodded.
“Whadja say your name is?” said the father.
“Lubbert,” said Jan. “And yours?”
“A Frieslander?” The man scowled. “You a herring-fucker, Lob?”
“No,” said Jan amiably. “But I’ve been known to lay the occasional eel.”
“Only fish long enough,” said Jan, demonstrating with his fist. Several of the boys brayed at this, but the father remained unimpressed. He had heard dirtier.
“Verf,” said the father. “You call me Verf. You said business. What business, stiffhead?”
“A proposition,” said Jan. “I’m traveling back to Sneek, to my family and business. I’m a cloth-seller. I need a servant to help my wife with our new son, but, riding by, I thought—may I drink?”
“If you have enough for me,” said Verf.
“Certainly,” said Jan, taking a gourd of brandywine from the satchel he had brought inside. He wouldn’t have left his saddle untended in these parts if he could help it, but so things went. Taking a pull, he stood, hunched, and moved around the fire, bumping his head on the low ceiling and catching a lungful of wood smoke. He coughed. A boy snickered. He sat back down.
“Ugh,” said Verf, grimacing on the drink, but swallowing anyway. “It’s spoilt.”
“It’s supposed to be sweet,” Jan explained, which got an even deeper frown from Verf. The man passed it to his eldest son, and away it went into the shadows. “As I said, I’m a cloth-seller—”
“Lookin for a slave,” said Verf.
“Looking for someone to help with my wife, yes. I would pay them, of course—”
“Apprentice them,” said Verf, and again Jan palpably missed Sander’s scowling countenance. People hadn’t interrupted him so much when Sander was around.
“I have sons for that,” said Jan. “And obviously can’t have a tyro who’s helping my wife. Can’t have a man helping her at all, yes?”
“No,” said Verf.
“Exactly,” said Jan, eager to get it all out before the girl came home. If the girl came home—he hadn’t looked to see how bad the cut in her hand was. “I need a young woman who can—”
“No,” said Verf again. “They look like girls?”
One of the boys got into a crouch, the brandy gourd in one black hand. The kid actually growled at Jan, and he had the sudden, intense urge to murder every one of them and burn their hut to the ground. Rubbing his watery eyes, Jan pressed ahead.
“I saw your daughter on the beach. Swimming. Just the age to help my wife, and—”
“Saw her?” Through the smoke Verf’s face looked as purple as his fingers. “Wager you fuckin did.”
More of the sons were rising in the miasma, and Jan bit the inside of his cheek. Not good at all. “Listen,” he said, “I saw her arms and knew her for a purple-maker. So I came to inquire after hiring her—I can find a servant anywhere, but one who can help with the dyeing of my linen is something—”
“You sure you don’t aim to have her dye somethin else?” Verf breathed, his sons now edging around the fire like crabs moving in on a beached mackerel.
“Dyeing some—” Jan began.
“Like the front’ve your breeches with her fuckin maidenhead?” said Verf, and then, as if concerned he had spoken over his guest’s head, elaborated, “Her fuckin cunt blood?”
The revulsion on Jan’s face doubtless helped his cause as he spit into the fire and said, “Christ’s cross, no! If I wanted that, I’d take it on the strand and not come knocking, don’t you think?”
The eldest two boys were now on either side of him, and Jan saw they held shell-hammers aloft, ready to crack his kernel—he wondered briefly if dye could be made from human remains, but then Verf called them off.
“Back, boys,” said the father heavily, as if it pained him not to have his guest murdered. “Want Jolanda to tend your wife and help you in the dyein, eh?”
“Yes,” said Jan, trying not to reveal his relief as the sons retreated back to their side of the hut.
“No,” said Verf, but then another of the boys cupped hand to ear and whispered to his father, who nodded and amended himself. “How much?”
Jan dumped his purse of fake groots on the floor of the hut. He had no concerns over Verf recognizing the money as counterfeit—the cross-stamped coins were convincing enough that the dye-maker might circulate the lot of them without anyone being the wiser. They were thus just as valuable as genuine currency, and after Jan eyed Verf and confirmed from his host’s expression that the girl was as good as his, he returned the bulk of the coins to the pouch, leaving only three on the floor. Jan had no idea how much dye-makers brought in, but if the state of their home told him anything, they didn’t earn much. Unexpected, that, Jan mused; considering how infrequently he saw purple clothing, he’d have thought they would turn a pretty pfennig for—
The door screeched and the girl, Jolanda, stood framed against the night, her left side hidden behind the doorframe, her hair jutting out like a hedgepig’s quills. She must have fallen several times along the trail, for thick scabs of sand clung to her face and arm and leg and tunic and bound hand, and she stared at Jan, motionless, eyes shining. She would have seen his horse, but came in anyway, he reflected, and again he took a chance on her not stabbing him in the back. Turning back to Verf, Jan saw that the dye-maker wore an inscrutable expression as he watched his silent daughter—sad or wrathful, bored or amused, who could tell on that driftwood-twisted face?
“I—” Jan started, but was cut off by Verf.
“We ain’t heatin the dunes, chit. Shut it and meet Lob.”
“Lubbert,” said Jan, but no one cared.
Jan heard her drop the knife in the sand before her sandy left hand slid into the light, and then she closed the door behind her. Her already too-high tunic was shorter than when he had returned it to her, the edge ragged from where she had cut it. If her father noticed, he did not say, nor did he comment on the binding that had already soaked crimson on her right hand. Instead Verf told her to get her arse to cooking for them and their new friend, Frieslander though he may be, and turned back to the handsome stranger. She made a lewd gesture as soon as she was behind her father, and Jan was unsure if it was directed at him, Verf, or all concerned, and then she disappeared into the thicket of siblings filling that side of the hut.
“Three groots hardly seems—” Verf started, but then the girl gave a furious shout, one of her brothers presumably snickering something of import to her.
“Sell me like a whore to that arsehole?!” The girl reared up before her father, the boys parting like some mythical Purple Sea around her. “Sell me?! To him?! You know what he did to me, on the goddamn beach?”
Jan felt a sudden surge of nausea, like a ghost had reached its spectral hand into his stomach and set to rooting around in his guts. The ghost of avoiding an ass-beating at the hands of her brothers, Jan supposed, a possibility now dead as young Wob Visser of Aalsmeer. He didn’t move, however, recalling one of Sander’s provincial expressions about the difference between beating a man within an ell of his life and out of it altogether being a matter of how much the blighter fought back.
“What he did.” Verf nodded, the question not one at all, his eyes now focused on the dripping bandage wrapped around her hand. “He did that.”
The boys were rising, not unlike the heat in the room, but Jan stayed where he was, trying to find the girl’s eyes through the smoke. When he did, he could not read them. Her face looked almost beatific, and he supposed they both knew the game had changed and that now she stood between him and a safe shore. This had not been a very good idea, after all, Jan reflected, but even as he saw shell-hammers glinting in the light on either side of him, he found no room for regret. He never did.
“Nah,” said the girl, shaking her head. She was still watching Jan instead of her father. “Cut it on a shell. But seeing him gave me a fright—why I fell. Suppose it ain’t fully his fault. Suppose.”
“Jolanda,” Verf said sharply, “I’ve told you—”
“The devil it matters!” she shouted in her father’s face, the shift from calm to furious even more startling to Jan than her lying on his behalf. “You selling me to that poncey poot, eh? Three goddamn groot—”
Verf slapped her in the face. One of her brothers sniggered. She didn’t back down, and for a moment Jan expected her to leap on her father, possibly bite him.
“We haven’t fixed a price yet,” said Verf, and she nodded, gnawing her lip. Then she spun away and with a great deal of cursing set to packing her things. Turning to one of the thuggish lads still looming over Jan, Verf said, “Make sure she only takes a shift beyond what she’s got on. And a blanket, she can have one blanket.”
The haggling that came next was pitiable, and Jan would have been ashamed of himself if he were the sort of man who ever felt such emotions, but he wasn’t and so he didn’t. Four false groots later, he had an indentured servant named Jolanda, though the sealing of the deal was not without its odd wrinkle—the girl got into a fistfight with the brother overseeing her packing, and in addition to catching a black eye, the young man would have fallen into the fire if his father hadn’t snatched him from the brink. After saving his son Verf waded into the row, which by this point involved most of the siblings, and Jan took the opportunity to go outside.
The wind whipped sand into his eyes as soon as he opened the door, and he banged his knee on one of the piss-and-char-stinking cauldrons in the dark, but it was nevertheless a marked improvement. Oh, to see the house burn, and to hear the whole miserable family scream—but the fewer bodies the better, an expression he had tried to bang into Sander’s pate. His anger flitted up and died out like the embers leaving the hut’s smokehole, and then the door squealed a final time. Verf booted his daughter down the stoop, blood dribbling from her nose and shining between her teeth as she landed in a crouch, sneering up at Jan. He was genuinely taken aback.
“I’d put a leash ’round her neck,” said Verf by way of good-bye to his daughter. “She runs off, it’s your fault, herring-fucker.”
The door shut, leaving them alone with the moon and the sand and the twisted sloe girding the trail. He waited for her to spring on him, but instead she exhaled a long breath and touched her bloody hand to her bloody nose. That was that, then.
“Don’t forget your knife,” Jan told Jolanda, and she pawed around in the sand where she had ditched it beside the door. He walked on to where his horse was tethered among the blackthorn, his back exposed, his gait steady, the night swallowing him like it takes all those who seek it. Finding the knife, she followed him.
A dream come true, to be bound in blackness, to be constricted at every joint, to have the air turn to something thicker, heavier, hotter. To be noose-drowned, once and for all. Except drowning, really drowning, was altogether different from hanging, and from the pressure on his clouded skull and the scum slithering across his open, blind eyes, Sander realized he wasn’t on the end of a rope. He was underwater.
Canal. Drowning. Arms and legs wrapped in chains.
No, not chains. Clothes caught on something, trapping him down in the filth. Too dark to see.
Total bullshit. Not like this. Not without rope.
Sander fought his own garments, tearing through the membrane of his ancient tunic. Still snared, somewhere lower. Wriggling out of the tacky sheaths of his breeches, or trying to, his boots complicating the attempt. Really fucking dying down here, only a few moments from passing out again, and for good this time. One leg free and bootless, but the other held at the ankle. All his bones shrieking under his skin, belly feeling like he’d gobbled a plate of hot coals, dead fingers fumbling over dead flesh to get at the boot mooring him to the canal floor like a barnacle’s root.
The worn-out leather boot felt like jagged stone, cutting his fingertips as he blindly groped around for the buckle, the slimy webbing of his ruined clothes tickling his face as they floated away while he—
Release! Though, yeah, there was no way of knowing if his foot had come free or if he’d gone and died on himself. Erring on the side of life, he wheeled his arms and legs, but there was fuck all means of telling which way was up in the black water. Funniest joke of all, to free himself from the bottom but drown for want of a top. Funny.
In darkness that was absolute on both sides of the water, Sander surfaced with a spume, which almost immediately became a significantly thicker sort of discharge. It is no easy thing to tread water and vomit simultaneously, but Sander had pulled the trick before and did so again now. The feat would likely have been impossible if the elbow he had pulled in the hanging hadn’t somehow righted itself during his panic-propelled thrashing at the bottom of the canal, or perhaps he had simply overestimated the injury when it had occured; Sander wasn’t the sort to question his luck in the best of times, let alone when the devil was clearly still kicking his balls. He couldn’t see shit, which was a problem, and he had no idea how long he had been down or where he might have come up, but as another eruption yanked his spewing face beneath the oily water, he tried to concern himself only with the present—it was black as sin, he was still in the canal, and he was puking his guts up like it was Ash Wednesday after a Shrovetide bender.
When his retching trailed off, the coughing began, but finally that passed, too, and Sander took stock of things—first and foremost, he felt like he was dead, which, to date, had always meant he wasn’t. Second, the citizens of Sneek couldn’t be close or they would have heard his ruckus and nabbed him. Third, where the fuck was he, anyway?
Sander awkwardly swam in the direction he was already facing, trying to stifle the anxiety that any reasonable swimmer might suffer at finding himself alone in black water of unknown depth and distance to shore. There were no stars above him, or anything else for that matter, which was supremely goddamn creepy. He told himself he had floated downstream and gone under a building. That didn’t explain how such a thing could come to pass, unless the Frisians were so goddamn stupid they built their towns over water instead of channeling canals through them, but then with Frisians he supposed anything was possible. Better that than his having somehow gone blind, which was too dreadful a thought to entertain.
The black, aquatic experience was unpleasantly nostalgic for Sander, reminding him keenly of the well his father had tossed him in whenever the old man had caught his son sucking cock or stealing coins. The cocks invariably belonged to the other boys in the village, whereas the coin always came from whatever ineffectual hiding place Sander’s drunk begetter had settled on that particular day. Regardless of the crime, down into the well went Sander, and down slapped the lid over its mouth, blotting out the world above. At least the well had been full of water; the short freefall into the dark pool was the only part of the ordeal he remembered with fondness, and that would have been far less pleasant had it been followed by a dry landing.
After all the long days and nights spent treading water in perfect darkness with only slimy leaves in the autumn and tadpoles in the spring to keep him company, Sander had done his best to avoid similar situations. And, it must be said, up until this point he had enjoyed some success in that regard. If ever there was a hell built especially for him, he knew it would be just this: cold water, no light, and, worse than the well, no walls to cling to until his fingernails gave out.
Compounding matters, the demon it had taken Sander years of well-paddling to vanquish had evidently regenerated itself, growing strong again in his absence from black water—the unavoidable, obvious fear of what might be underneath him in all that darkness, watching. Sander always supposed his serenity in even the hairiest of hairy fucking situations he owed to his father and that watery pit—nothing was worse than not knowing what was beneath you.
The strategies he had honed as a young man to keep those thoughts at bay had deserted him, or perhaps simply fallen into disrepair, and try as he might, he couldn’t stop worrying. The farther he swam, the more he wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off being hanged, and with that thought came the dreadful realization that this could have been their plan all along, staging an easily escapable execution only to drive him here, into whatever abyss they had prepared. He kicked harder, trying to get angry about it all instead of disheartened, and, as if by Providence, the canal became warmer, a sure sign he was approaching either shallow water or the wrong side of a latrine. Which wouldn’t be the worst place Sander had crawled from, if it came to that.
Almost safe now, Sander told himself. He must be under a building, surely, or the streets of Sneek, somehow. Where else could he be, to not have a hint of moonlight or starshine or—
His hand bumped something solid and he recoiled with a shudder, finding the unseen object far too long, yielding, and slippery for his liking. Then he smelled it, a pungent stench like frogs and fucksweat. Sander got his legs under him to swim back the other way—none of whatever the fuck that was, thank you kindly—when his feet brushed the mucky bottom, arresting his flight. Letting his weight settle, the squelching of canal filth between his toes made him wish he hadn’t shed his boots before coming to whatever midnight shore he now gained. He was naked and blind, and there was something awful in the dark with him—any two of those in tandem would be bad enough; all three was simply depressing.
Extending his fingers with the trepidation of a man seeking to pluck a golden ring from its unlikely position around the tooth of a dog of unproven disposition, Sander prodded the bobbing object. He felt a puckered rind give beneath his overgrown fingernails. Sliding his hand down what he was hoping was a soaked-to-softness tree branch, he located what could only be a clenched fist. He confirmed this by running his fingers back up the length of the arm to a shoulder, and gave it a push.
A corpse was nothing to worry about, and Sander relaxed as it rocked in the water. Then the water exploded all around the body, and something small bit Sander on the wrist. It held fast, whatever it was, scratching bone, gnawing flesh. He clumsily took a step back and tried to snatch it off but slipped in the muck and flailed about. He found his balance, the water churning under his woolly chin, and another bite struck him, this time a sharp, gravelly pressure closing over the thumb of his free left hand.
Sander gave a hollow little scream, hoisting his right arm from the water and whipping himself in the face with the serpentine horror that had attached itself to his wrist. He made his left hand into the exact sort of fist you should never make if you value your thumbs, with that digit clenched to the palm by the fingers, and bore down on the greasy, mouth-tipped cable coiling around his hand and gnawing his thumb. He felt alien skin and bone give beneath his pressure, his thumb burning worse than ever as he crushed its attacker. The ropy creatures seemed thin enough, and so he brought his right arm to his mouth and bit the one latched to his wrist, which his mind was now calling eel, even if the rest of him was not of a mood to hear whatever it was his mind had to say at the moment. The thing was slimy and salty and his teeth went clean through it, a bitter, burning blood flooding his mouth as the length of it fell back into the water. He spit frantically, the numbing liquid convincing his mouth what his mind already knew, for every Low Country boy is taught that eel blood is pure poison.
The unseen surface of the water was roiling all around him, and he felt them butting their heads against his chest and legs, struggling to find a grip with their small mouths. He turbulently abandoned the bottom and made a swim for it. There were several terrible moments when Sander realized he had no idea if he was swimming in the direction of the shore that might not even exist or back the way he had come. Then his palm slapped down into mud and the bottom rose up to slide against his chest. Salvation, but before he could slither onto dry land, an eel nosed against his pouch, coiling its length around his very balls.
Dragging himself out of the water, Sander gave little strangled noises somewhere between barks and sobs as he snatched the monster from his privates and mashed it in his fingers. He was yanking the other eels off him then, a dozen of the snake-fish clinging to his skin and hair with their curved jaws. Spray was still reaching him from the agitated water and he scooted backward in the muck, shivering and slapping himself down to see if he had missed any of the creatures. He had never heard of eels biting much of anyone, say naught of being so fucking vicious about it, but he supposed he had ired a swarm or nest or whatever the fuck you called it. As his heart calmed, he felt around in the muck to retrieve any he hadn’t thrown back into the water in his rush to be rid of them; he only found four, and they were small ones at that, but if he could drain their nasty blood, a free dinner was nothing to pass up.
“Grue ruin ger drinner,” a voice said far too goddamn close for Sander’s comfort. It was a sticky, rattling sort of voice, the sound like a farmer trying to get a wagon wheel free of a muddy pothole.
“Get the fuck away from me,” Sander whispered, his tone hard for its softness. He rolled up onto the balls of his feet and twisted around to face the voice in the blackness. Glory’s End was at the bottom of the goddamn canal, but the eel bites, while stinging like the devil’s own kisses, had nowhere near incapacitated the arms and legs of a man who had recently killed a lippy Frisian barkeep using only his forehead and a running start.
“All grite,” said the voice, and a flopping wet sound punctuated the retreat. “Shrudn’t ruin tit, ish all.”
“Who’re you?” Sander wondered what sick fucking jerk-off hid under buildings, tactfully forgetting the many occasions where he had been obliged to do the same. “Where am I?”
“Bell-djrin.” It was more of a croak than anything else, come to think it. “Arm Bell-djrin. Grue Bell-djrin.”
“Belgium? No, Belgian? Your name’s Belgian? Or we’re in Belgian? What the fuck does it mean, Belgian? Where. Am. I?”
“Yarsh!” said the voice. “Bell-djrins in Bell-jic-an!”
“Listen here, Belgian, we’re under Sneek, yeah?”
“Yarsh, sneak. Sneak undrer Bell-jic-an.”
“Fuck. Me.” Sander gritted his teeth. Whatever passed for speech with this Belgian made Frisian seem like a coherent, lyrical language. Even if Belgian wasn’t a stiffhead working for whoever the mastermind was that had been hiring men to watch Sander and set him up and try to kill him all those times and everything else, well, even then this cunt was taxing Sander’s patience.
“Shrow mush,” said Belgian. “To trell, to shrow, shrow—”
“Light,” said Sander. “Windows, a trapdoor, a goddamn spark on a godloved flinty—light. Understand, Belgian?”
“Grite, grite,” Belgian said. “Un momen.”
There was the sound of metal scraping on glass, and a faint glow began to emerge in the darkness, a hovering marshlight that blinded Sander as it grew brighter and brighter. He turned away, shielding his eyes with his palm, and as the shadows were shoved back across the softly lapping water, he saw there were dozens of corpses floating before him, windblown leaves on the surface of a well. Beyond the dead men, the far wall of whatever cavern or tunnel he was in rose up into deeper blackness. His eyes were streaming and he rubbed them hard, too hard, milling his muddy palms into the sockets. What in the name of the devil’s favorite whore was going on?
There was another flopping noise in the mud behind Sander and, taking a breath, he clenched his fists and turned to Belgian. His host held up the lantern, which, try to puzzle that out, looked to be a small glass jug filled with glowing liquid and writhing eels. It was blinding to look at straight on, but the man’s webbed fingers partially blocked out the light, and besides, Sander’s attention was focused far more on Belgian than on his mysterious eel lamp. Belgian was naked, and rather knobby and bent-looking, but that wasn’t what captured Sander’s attention—it was Belgian’s face.
The man was all chin, the wrinkly, mustard-colored prominence jutting straight out past the rest of his features, which fell progressively farther back as they went up, like a face set in the side of a triangle. Sander immediately realized the word man was out of order given the circumstances. Lips that looked like overcooked sausages bursting from their skins stretched around to where Belgian’s ears should have been but weren’t, and then it smiled. This revealed a dozen twig-thin teeth seemingly placed at random in the nightmare maw, with two fangs the width of Sander’s thumbs at the forefront. Above its horrid mouth were two little black slits, and just below where the lumpy forehead arrested the backward slide of its face were a pair of bulbous eyes. They looked like cracked hard-boiled eggs webbed in pond scum.
It took him a moment, but Sander realized with deepening horror that he was looking at whatever it was he’d always supposed was under him in the well. It was even worse than he’d imagined.
“Grite!” said Belgian, holding up a long, crooked piece of serrated bone or shell in one hand and waving the lamp with the other. “All grite?”
It was most certainly not. Sander was far faster than the demon, and before Belgian could use the weapon, Sander had closed the distance and sent his right fist into that giant goddamn chin. The horrid thing started to shriek even before Sander had beaten it to the ground, and as he punched it again and again in the face and throat, he heard its call returned from the darkness. Even with his light-burned eyes watering to the point of blindness Sander could not deny the monstrousness of his foe, the sharp bones too close to the surface of Belgian’s cold, clammy skin. He, no, it, had gone down hard in the mud, Sander riding it all the way, intending to sit on its chest, pin its arms with his knees, and pound its face until it stopped moving… But like a lazing souse dunked in a rain trough, Belgian suddenly began to thrash and fight back.
The thing was fucking stronger than it looked, and fast, and its backward-jointed, froglike legs were evidently suited to propelling itself out of the mud; before he could stop the tables from turning, Sander was the one on his back in the muck, Belgian chirping and spitting atop him. It reared back, its jagged weapon held in both hands, and there came a desperate moment where it paused, blathering unintelligibly at him. Sander used that moment to gamble on monsters having genitals.
Aided by the slick mud, Sander jerked his lower body toward his chest, his knees popping out from under the squat Belgian, and then he sent both feet hammering into the shadowy gap between its half-folded legs. A ridge of bone or spine caught between the toes of his right foot, cutting deep, but his left connected with something dangly and soft. Belgian gave a strangled gasp and collapsed in the mud, dropping the bone knife. The weapon was in Sander’s hand before he was even on his feet, and he would have ended the monster right there if he hadn’t put his weight on his gashed foot. Sander toppled back in the mud beside Belgian, cursing along with the wet noises his incapacitated opponent was making.
Sander rose again, more carefully this time, and, favoring his good leg, leaned over the crying demon and cut its throat. The handle of the knife-thing was flat bone, and slippery for it, and the serrated teeth of the blade caught on something halfway across, but it did the job, and monster or no, Belgian evidently wasn’t shrugging off a sliced gullet. It made sloppy hiccupping noises as it bled out, and Sander realized the light was dying, too—in the struggle the luminous jug-lamp had fallen and tipped over in the muck. The glowing liquid faded as it mixed with the filth, the luminescent elvers leaving shiny trails on the shore as they abandoned the vessel and squirmed back into the water.
Before the light dissipated, Sander saw that in addition to the very wrong legs and head Belgian had a stumpy, finned tail, the sight of which made Sander want to throw up all over again. This was what had been in the well, this was what had harried him all his life, the villain orchestrating the whole let’s-get-Sander scheme that just about every cunt he’d ever met was somehow in on, from his father all the way down to the judges of Sneek, this was it: Belgian.
Probably. Sander knew he wasn’t thinking straight, and time would learn him if this was indeed his hereto-unidentified nemesis or just some godforsaken monster or demon looking to do him in, but for now he had to find his way out.
Tearing himself away from the bested fiend, he saw a small table fashioned of rock or coral, its surface cluttered with strange bone instruments. Before he could give the gear a proper going over, something large splashed behind him, and he wheeled around. Squinting into the quickly deepening darkness, Sander saw that rather than a bank proper he had come ashore on a tiny island of muck, black water stretching in all directions, water that winked and blinked and shone with countless stars.
Eyes, he realized as the light failed entirely, not stars—eyes.
The darkness took Sander, as it takes us all, whether we like it or not. He settled into a crouch, planting the heel of his wounded foot as best he could as they squawked and splashed at each other, at him. He may be in hell, but at least he knew where he was, and when you’re at the bottom you know there’s nothing beneath you.
“Right, then, you Belgian plaguebitches,” Sander called into the busy darkness. “Let’s fucking do this!”
The day after Jan bought Jolanda, the girl kicked him in the balls and stole his horse. It was not the sort of blow that one can easily shake off; she knew her business well and connected with the tip of her foot, her toes curled slightly back, rather than the kind of amateur ball-kicking where the top of the foot hits the scrotum, spoiling the thrust of the attack. She had bided her time, not attempting her assault when his codpiece was merely unhinged for a piss but instead waiting until their second night together, when the armament was entirely down to facilitate his dropping a deuce.
She must have been watching him, which was downright foul, but at least affirmed her dedication to a task, once she had set her mind to it. He was still squatting when she ambushed him out of the blackthorn, and before he could straighten up she’d taken the fatal step forward that set her foot and grounded her for the kick. It was one of the worst assaults he had ever suffered. At least he didn’t land in his shit when his mind decided that he didn’t really need to be conscious of the sensation in his loins.
He wasn’t out long, but even after he returned to his senses, he couldn’t stand, his legs shaking uncontrollably, and he had to lie very still for quite some time, teetering on nausea’s edge. Finally he was able to squirm around and stretch his legs out, confirming that, yes, indeed, his balls were in an incredible amount of pain, and on top of that she had stolen both his purse and his sword from his belt. By the time he had gotten back into his hose—and unhooked the codpiece, which was now uncomfortably tight—he was in a black mood.
The whole point of going so far away to relieve himself was to give her ample time to steal the horse, whereupon he would catch her again, straighten her out, and they would establish the pecking order once and for all. The only real surprise was that she hadn’t tried the trick the night before, when they had slept for a few hours on the beach after leaving her father’s house. Well, that and the whole ball-kicking, which was wholly unwarranted, and showed a cruel streak in young Jolanda that Jan found distressing.
Limping out of the sloe, he saw that while she had taken his camping pack, his blankets and rucksack remained. This only relieved him until he caught the vinegary whiff of piss emanating from them. With a sigh, he rooted through the wet pack until he found a small length of iron, the bar perhaps two fingers wide and half an ell long. He knew from experience that hurling it into a running person’s back or legs had a way of flooring the runner without the risk a knife brought to things. Leaving the rest of his gear, he followed the tracks back the way they had come from the bole in the dunes, the setting sun in his eyes.
Mackerel, his horse, was exactly where Jan expected he would be—munching the patch of marram grass they had passed at the edge of the dunes. He hadn’t fed the stallion precisely to ensure that Mackerel’s stubbornness was even further exacerbated, and wasn’t surprised that an equine-ignorant child hadn’t been able to move him once he locked his head down and set to eating. What did surprise Jan was that instead of a young woman’s footprints leading off he found the young woman herself, sitting halfway up a dune, watching man and horse. His sword was unsheathed and buried in the sand beside her, which restored a good deal of the animosity Jan had lost upon seeing he wouldn’t have to spend all night chasing her after all.
“You’re hurting the blade, doing that,” he called, the metal bar in his right hand tucked back behind his forearm.
“What you want, stiffhead?” Jolanda answered, not moving. She was clever, sure enough—she had climbed the dune and then strafed over to where it was even steeper, meaning he would exhaust himself before he reached her if he made a charge.
“With you?” said Jan.
“What else I care about?”
“You’re going to help me with something.”
“Tell me what, then,” Jolanda said, standing up. “Could’ve cleaned you while you were crying in your turds back there, so fess up what you want—could’ve killed you shell-dead and taken it all, aye? Still can, you lip me.”
“Come down here so we don’t have to shout,” said Jan, which earned him a laugh. “All right then, stay up there. What I want is a good swimmer to retrieve something for me. I know where it is, but it’s at the bottom of a lake and I can’t swim. You come with me and I’ll feed you, see that you’re taken care of, and if you dive down and bring it up for me, I’ll give you a hefty reward, as well as your freedom. Fair?”
“Freedom I got, and this purse of yours seems a hefty reward already,” said Jolanda, and Jan hoped his disgust wasn’t writ as plainly across his face as it was his heart. He had bought the little bitch instead of trying to kidnap her from the beach on the hope that she would relent to his authority that much easier, but apparently her father was correct—a collar and leash might be the sounder plan. Still, from her current vantage it couldn’t hurt to try scratching her behind her ears a little more, and Jan sighed.
“The coins aren’t real,” he said. “Counterfeit. And rest assured that my offer is limited by my patience—if you don’t do as I say, you’ll find the only metal of worth is buried in your heart. I’m prepared to let this whole incident go with only the mildest of repercussions if you come back down here and give me your oath to not try this kind of shit again, and then we can make supper.”
“Big talk for a stiffhead with a sore sack!”
“Jolanda,” said Jan evenly. “I am a man of means, and you’re a girl with nothing but what you have stolen from me. Even if you were to evade me tonight and sneak away into the dunes, where would you go? I would be back here with men and dogs in short order, and on horses we would find you, and then we would kill you. If you inconvenience me by forcing such a route, then I will do everything in my power to make your death as—”
“Aye, I get you,” said Jolanda. “Big man, big man. But if I don’t, that’s me in your service, not a slave, and when I get your thing I’m free to go, and with some coin?”
“Yes,” said Jan, very tired with the whole affair.
“That’s us sorted,” said Jolanda, yanking his sword out of the sand. He noticed she wasn’t straining to hold it aloft. “I wanna learn how to use one of these. You show me that, we’re good.”
“So next time I need to sort some neuking ponce, I’ll just poke his bacon ’stead of kicking his eggs.”
It was a sound point, and Jan nodded. Jolanda began sliding down the dune, but stopped halfway, cocking her head in Jan’s direction. He wondered if she would ask, and she did.
“What’s that mildest repercussion you said?” The sunset made the sword in her purple hand glow a deep red.
“You kicked me awfully hard,” said Jan with a smile. “So I’m going to break your fat nose, and then we shall be, as you say, sorted.”
“Break my nose?” Jolanda smiled back. “Would’ve been smart for you to leave that part out till I was down there with you, wouldn’t it?”
“I won’t lie to you, Jolanda,” said Jan, twirling the bar he had cupped in his hand and tossing it into the weeds next to Mackerel’s lowered head. “I won’t lie to you, I won’t rape you, and if you do right by me, you can expect fair treatment. That’s better terms than you’ll ever hear, and a busted hook as payment for bashing in my privates seems a light price compared to what most would charge.”
“And I just take it?”
“I’m not stupid, nor do I suppose you are. You come here and try to give me another kick, and if you land it, that’s a lesson hard earned for me, and if I make good on my promise, where your—” But Jolanda was already barreling down the dune again, dropping the sword as she came. She was favoring her right foot, and he wondered if she had broken a toe on his groin. He hoped so. Then she was in the air, leaping the last few ells to land on top of him, and Jan sidestepped her, shooting out a fist as he did.
The blow caught her in the stomach and her pounce degenerated into a plummet, the girl landing on her face and gasping for air in the sand. Although it brought a queasy pinch to his crotch and a wince to his face, Jan gave her a sharp kick in the exposed armpit, rolling her over. Before she could move, he dropped down onto her chest, knees-first. Her eyes bulged, and from where he half-sat atop her, Jan considered the angle. Then he cocked her chin with one hand, nodded, and punched her flat across the face, snapping her nose—if he had hit her dead-on, he might have driven it into her brain, and that wouldn’t do at all, not after what he had gone through on her behalf.
The cracking of cartilage brought some movement back to the girl, and she spit blood on him as he darted out his hand again and snatched her broken nose. It took several sharp twists to get it set, and she didn’t make things easier, writhing underneath him like a landed shark. Finally her nose was straight as it was liable to be and both his hands were covered in sticky blood the color of the sea at his back, and he released her. She didn’t crawl so much as slither partway up the dune she had attacked him from, her noises not quite the sobbing he expected. No, he realized as he fished his sword out of the sand and retrieved his throwing bar from the weeds, she was cackling, clutching her face in her hands and honking with laughter, threads of viscous blood dangling from between her fingers.
“I’ll set to cooking supper,” Jan told her as he took Mackerel’s reins. “When you’re ready, I’ll take a look at your hand, see that cut from yesterday doesn’t need tending.”
Leading his horse back to the bole in the dunes, her deranged laughter at his back, Jan reflected that things could have gone far worse.
The light was blinding on both sides of the water, and then Sander realized he wasn’t bobbing in water anymore at all; it was his eyelids flickering, the sun driving nails of burning fire into his brain. Someone was pushing on his stomach, and he punched the Belgian, which sent the fucker rolling down the bank. He tried to sit up and vomited again, remembering with a start that this had happened several times already, and recently, save for the punching of the… fisherman?
The man was kneeling on the bank, clutching the ear Sander had struck. A small boat was dragged up on the grassy break in the reeds beside him. There was a net in the boat, and a length of willow with a line wound around it, and two oars—not a Belgian, then, but, yeah, a fisherman.
Belgian? What? Where? The details were already sinking back down in the murk of his headache-echoing skull, and wiping his mouth and peering around, Sander saw only the narrow river slicing through teeth-achingly green pastureland. No Sneek, or Under-Sneek or wherever, and, most thankfully, no slimy monsters. They had come out of the dark for him, and he had fought them all, the bone knife sticking in the first and leaving him empty-handed, hard knuckles hitting harder skin, the chirping Belgians mobbing him, driving him down into the muck, burying him alive, until—
“You’re welcome, then,” said the fisherman, scowling at Sander.
“Yeah,” said Sander. “Where’s Sneek?”
“Yeah, fucking Sneek,” said Sander, mildly less annoyed to realize the man was speaking proper Dutch instead of Stiffhead. “This river comes from there, yeah?”
“Dunno,” said the fisherman. “Maybe? Sure.”
“Heh.” Sander chuckled. “All right, then. Fucking stiffheads.”
“Frisians put you in there? I seen you floating in the rushes an—”
“Who the fuck else?” said Sander. “Think I jumped in?”
“Think they tried to hang me?” said Sander, his tone suddenly severe. The fisherman glanced at his boat, perhaps regretting his good deed. “Think they tried to do me in on account of my not fitting into their little fucking schemes, that what you think?”
“I don’t know,” said the fisherman, slowly standing up. “I—”
“No, you fucking don’t,” said Sander. “So don’t look at me like that, you value your billy-goat eyes, you—where the fuck are you going?!”
The fisherman didn’t answer, darting to his boat and shoving off into the water. He hopped in without a backward glance, and Sander scrambled up, wondering just what the fuck this so-called fisherman knew, if maybe he had been the one to tow Sander all the way out here in the sunshine, and if he really thought he could get away with the river so languid. But then Sander put his weight on his injured foot and toppled back over.
He lay cursing in the grass, grabbing his ankle and pulling his leg up to inspect the stinging sole. The cut wasn’t deep, but it hurt like God’s disfavor, the wound starting between his big toe and its neighbor and stretching a finger’s length down. That gave him pause, and by the time he’d remembered the fisherman, the plaguebitch had already nicked off down the river. A perfect time to assess the situation.
Tunic and breeches? Gone. Boots? Gone. Glory’s End? Gone gone gone, gone as the devil’s graces. At least it was warm, the sun feeling right nice on his pruned skin—that was something. That, and the only real bits of him that hurt, aside from his pounding head, was his foot and the odd eel bite, so again, groots in his favor. And assuming the fisherman wasn’t lying, Sneek was a long way off, meaning the river had taken him far from lynch mobs and Belgians. Again, something. He was famished and needed clothes, but these were minor dilemmas in the overall scheme, and would be righted whenever he found whatever house or village the fisherman had run back to. So yeah, not so bad a state of things, as it went.
Being careful to step using only the heel of his right foot, Sander began hobbling downstream along the reed-skirted river. It was the direction the fisherman had gone, and if the current had delivered Sander from Sneek, then this was doubly the right direction to travel. As he walked he reflected on the state of the day and reckoned he must be far south indeed, given the warmth and greenness of the fields, which were all gray and dead in Friesland. It was one of life’s sweet wonders, to stroll naked on such an unseasonably warm day, the breeze drying your hair, the sun roasting your bottom, wildflowers tickling your toes even as their fragrance reached your nose… Then Sander paused, the water gurgling, the birds singing, and stared incredulously at the grassy meadowland that stretched to a border of darker green and brown, where a forest ran parallel to the river. Not good.
Sander resumed walking, limping along even quicker than before, as if he could somehow put distance between himself and the unsettling realization he had come to. Losing a few days for Sander was like losing an hour to daydreaming for anyone else, hardly the sort of thing to read too much into, but this was something else entirely, and boded exceptionally poorly. The farther he walked and the harder he tried to not think about the crocuses and cranesbills he stomped underfoot the more sense it made, in a very tragic sort of way. He came to a willow leaning over the bank, its leaves full and long, and gave a little groan to see young sparrows wheeling though the branches. It was autumn, late autumn, saints knew, it was probably winter, and they had tried to hang him, and now, immediately after all that, here was some, some tree, flaunting its leaves, encouraging these stupid birds to wheel around and chirp as if that were acceptable, as if it were spring, late spring, as if snow wasn’t imminent, as if…
Sander sat down in the shade, the spongy loam itching his ass as he dangled his feet in the water. It was shockingly cold, which meant he wasn’t dreaming. If that other place, the dark with all the Belgians, if that was hell, and he had bested the demons and escaped, was this heaven? That made some kind of sense. But who was the fucking fisherman, a saint? The Lord God himself? No, that didn’t wash… But neither had the Belgians, and they had been real enough.
Rubbing his temples, Sander lay back in the scratchy grass, the river hurting his calves with its chillness. What if, he speculated, what if he hadn’t actually died and gone to hell, what if he’d simply jumped into a canal and floated away, dreaming about Belgians? Good…
But what about his foot? Could have cut it on a rock, a root, anything. Good.
But why the fuck was it early summer—no, late spring, he corrected himself, as if that made a lick of difference, late spring… But still, he couldn’t very well have floated downstream, asleep, for half a bloody year. Could he?
Well, no. But he had lost days before. Usually where drink was concerned, but sometimes they just went away on their own and he would awake to find himself in strange places. Often bad places. Once he had come to floating in a well—that had taken some explaining when a farmer finally fished him out, wells in the Low Countries being exceptionally shallow but nevertheless easier to enter than exit. Could he really be sure it had been autumn when he was hanged in Sneek?
Well, probably. But what had happened in Sneek?
He remembered a barkeep saying something that had set him off, but the memory wasn’t as clear as it should have been for having happened so recently. Whatever it was, the fucker had deserved what he got, though now that Sander was sober and seriously considering it, he couldn’t rightly say what had convinced him the man was working for his enemies. Hell, Sander couldn’t recall exactly what had made him think he had enemies in the first place, beyond the obvious enemies one makes by virtue of not being a stupid asshole like most people you meet in taverns. He grimaced.
What had happened, Sander surmised, was that he had gone off a little. Not a big deal if it only involved a few days out of sorts, a few fights, some mild convictions that everybody was out to get him… But killing bartenders, being publicly executed, and battling demons down in a giant fucking well were not the sorts of things he wanted to experience, real or dream, for any period of time, to say fuck all of blackouts lasting whole goddamn seasons. He was getting worse.
No, he had been worse, but now he was better. He might not know where he was, or even when he was, but he was himself, and he wasn’t mad. Like a sleeper shaking off a nightmare, Sander kicked his feet in the water and smiled to recall the Belgian fancy he had taken so seriously.
“Ho, friend,” came a voice that wasn’t as gruff as it probably aspired to be, and Sander sat up slowly, turning to meet the man. Men. Three of them, two leading horses and the third standing behind the others; the third was the fisherman, but Sander didn’t recognize the other two. That was probably good, he thought as he got to his feet, there was no reason he should recognize them, no way they could know him or he could know them.
“How is it, then?” said Sander, eyeing them more closely. The two with horses had dusty riding gear, and the one who had spoken wore some sort of garish bronze medallion over his linen mantle. They both had swords drawn, and were quizzically staring at the nude man who had come from the river.
“David here says he rescued you from drowning, only to have you attack him,” said the man with the medallion. Some kind of rural militia-type, a warden or something, Sander supposed, the sort of cunt who came from the same fields as everyone else but got airs, got all important, got all fancy, taking graaf money to do graaf fucking business, as if the graaf really cared about protecting the men and women who worked the fields so long as he got his cut, as if his bullyboys were anything but that, as if—“I’m talking to you, loon!”
Sander came back to the moment, back to himself, and saw some underfed punk pointing a sword at him in the shadow of the willow. No, not a sword—her. The tip of Glory’s End winked at Sander even in the shade of late spring, and he answered her whisper with one of his own.
“What the hell you say to me?” the warden demanded, passing the reins of his horse to his companion and stepping closer.
“I said you’ve got my fucking sword, boy.” Sander’s grin shone more dangerously than the blade between them. “You give her back now, nobody gets hurt.”
The warden stared incredulously at the naked man. He did not hand over the sword. People got hurt.
On the night the handsome stranger bought her, Jolanda had wondered just what kind of vile shit he intended to do to her. She’d gripped his dagger in her uninjured left hand, but he made no move to take it from her, and not knowing what else to do, she stowed it in the bundled shift and blanket under her arm and let him help her onto the horse. She had often daydreamed of finding a waterhorse and riding it into the waves, never to be seen again save by drowning sailors, but bouncing on an actual equine back through the dunes, Jolanda felt something deep and cold and black as the night sea soak her insides. They left the trail and rode up the beach, back to where she had first seen him, the stars glittering above like the witchfire that sometimes shimmered in the wet sand after a summer wave had broken and fled.
“That’s good for tonight,” the stranger had said, stopping the horse. They’d traveled farther than Jolanda had ever gone, but the dunes here looked the same as those of her home. He dismounted the horse first, and then helped her down. As he did, she remembered the knife tucked in the cloth in her arms, but it was very late and she was very tired, only the strangeness of the night and the discomfort of the ride and her throbbing hand keeping her awake. Her legs gave out underneath her as he set her down, and she stayed where she lay in the sand, the last thing she saw the silhouette of the Frieslander looming over her.
She was not a dreamer by custom, at least not when she was asleep, but that night Jolanda dreamt of the sea, dreamt she dwelt there the way she had dwelt in the dunes. She and her eldest brother, Pieter, who wasn’t a shitbird like the rest and had run away when she was very young, were swimming over the black waves toward some distant, rocky isle. They talked as they swam, as if they were strolling on the beach and not sliding over breakers, and though the sea was dark as the sky, she could see almost as deep below as she could above, and yet was unafraid. She realized they had both changed, and wondered if the man who had bought her was her brother from the sea returned, and so he changed in the dream to the Friesland stranger, but still was Pieter. Only when the dream shifted and they were crouched in the smoky gloom of their father’s hut with the purple pots boiling did she realize she was asleep. Still she dreamt on, but when she started awake to a crab pinching a scrap from her bloodied palm she remembered nothing beyond the purple pots.
The crab scuttled into a hole, clutching what she hoped was a scrap of the torn tunic she had bound the wound with and not her skin. She blinked into the hazy dawn, the sand swirling over her like the thinnest silken sheet ruffled by the softest summer wind. She was cold, and she hurt all over, and sand was caked in her eyes and ears and nose and lips and worse places still. She sat up and saw that the stranger was staring out at the ocean, his horse beside him, and Jolanda had the brief but discomfiting notion that they had been conversing just before she awoke.
“I don’t know if you caught it, but my name’s Lubbert,” he said. “Of Sneek.”
She didn’t say anything, glaring at him.
Excerpted from The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington Copyright © 2012 by Jesse Bullington. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 26, 2012