The Laughing God Chapter Two
Bedtime for us came early that night, though we are as a group typically nocturnal. It was at my suggestion that we begin to travel more by day, in an effort to discourage any covert activities on the part of enemies real or imagined. I could not shake the feeling that we were still being watched (at least from a distance), and the others concurred with my opinion. We took turns in two hour shifts of staying awake and keeping watch in case of trouble, but nothing of note happened that night, as had been the case for a few days now. My watch began at the second hour after midnight, and through a combination of hunger and boredom, I took it upon myself to raid the overflowing larders of the hotel for pickled beets and cheese, though I did make reparation by way of doing a few mundane housekeeping chores not normally assigned to paying guests.
I also made it a point to take a breath of night air outside, and I circled the streets around the Drunken Dormouse, and to my relief there was not even a shadow of any suspicious persons. I had to wear an extra layer of clothing, as everyone had been wont to do this spring. Though the time was in early May, winter had been unusually harsh and lingered late this year, and there were still patches of unmelted snow in narrow alleys and sheltered doorways. Word was that crops would be late in planting, and until recently it had remained cold enough for some of the poor or sickly to freeze to death. Luckily I stayed warmly wrapped within a heavy cloak made from the off-white fur of some large beast (to this day I don't know what it was, but it was several times my size and very hungry, and I turned the tables on it by killing and eating it in northern Russia in 1763).
In the morning we took our leave of Bonn, but not before we had a final conference regarding our respective courses of action. We didn't know how many of the vengeance-seeking pirates from Blood Island were tailing us, and it was Deutsch's idea that we split up. Josef would accompany Deutsch back home to make a safe deposit of the treasure and acquire necessities for a long sea voyage. Narrinda would accompany myself southward into the Mediterranean coast of France in order to procure a worthy vessel, where we would meet in one week.
It is at this point that the reader must be pondering the question, "How to move throughout the length of Europe in only a week?" The simple answer is, because we can as an innate ability of our race, travel a shorter path through the mortal world. We don't actually bend space or time, but we somewhat ignore its laws, and may move a greater distance in the same amount of time than those living permanently in the human lands. Sea travel, however, confounds our power to circumnavigate it, and so we are forced to settle for the same scenery as everybody else.
Now another point that must have the reader stymied is, "What to do with Narrinda?" Admittedly, her presence in gentile company can be rather difficult to explain since she stands out in her own special way. Sometimes she keeps herself cloaked and hooded (though that often raises suspicions in this day and age), or she is kept hidden in a trunk (which she finds to be claustrophobic). It was by this latter method that Josef, Deutsch, and myself were able to bring her into the inn the day before. The problem this time was, somehow word got around that we were hiding a body. I don't doubt that the tale got started by our enemies (some of whom came to fully understand Narrinda's nature in time) for no better reason than to get us out of town and into the wild where they could move against us more freely.
The humans already look upon us somewhat askance, until we tell our stories of traveling shows and tricks, and how thirty of us manage to pop out of a single man-sized box as part of our act. Then we are treated more hospitably (and a little condescendingly) by the locals. I frequently resent the inordinate attention paid to our small size, but one thing it does accomplish is to disarm the suspicions of the humans, and coupled with Deutsch's natural charm they soon "overlook" our height, if you'll pardon the wording. On this occasion, we passed ourselves off as workers recently returned from a profitable scientific expedition, as our small size was advantageous for operating in narrow underground spaces at dig sites.
The four of us were in the middle of a conversation, and were just finalizing our plans regarding who was to go where and do what, when our door unlocked and opened unceremoniously, whereupon entered the owner with three of the staff and a constable. Out of habit, Narrinda immediately assumed the position upon hearing the lock click, and as the door began to open she managed to crumple to the floor into a heap of anatomical fragments and laundry. There were of course immediate questions regarding the "body", to which Josef's reply was a story about an archaeological dig (embellished by his display of some of the pirates' treasure that we kept in bags), and the procurement of the ancient remains of an Arabian child princess (which we nicknamed "Fanny"). All items would be catalogued and arrangements made for transport to various institutions in the region for further study and eventual public display. The constable even went so far as to physically examine Narrinda (who, to her credit, lay quite still even as the officer touched some of her more ticklish spots). Even to his eyes it was obvious that the body had been decaying for centuries, and was not a recent homicide. It was soon after that our hosts decided that a mistake had been made and an apology was in order for disturbing us so early in the day, and we got the promise of a free room on our next visit. The inspector rubbed the back of his head and muttered to himself, as he gave us a last dark glance before he left.
Their voices were still audible in the hallway when Narrinda's form seemed to resurrect itself from the jumble on the floor. "Whew, that was close" she chimed, as she ran to lock the door. "I thought I would slap that perverted man when he touched my breastbone."
"Oh don't worry about it, no harm done. Its not like you have anything worth groping" I retorted dismissively.
"I don't think that was so funny. But now everybody in town will know that I'm here, so how will I get out without being hunted down?"
Josef began packing his things, but it didn't stop him from running his mouth. "But they don't know that you're up and walking, and that's the way it needs to stay. We have no choice but to play this thing out. To the trunk you go, little lady!"
Narrinda jumped away from him and bounced onto the bed with a screech. "Oh no, not the trunk again. I can't stand it anymore, it feels like I'm in a coffin. Can't we just wait until tonight and sneak out without anybody seeing us? I'd really like to go out on the town and do some shopping anyway."
But a night of shopping was not to be in her cards, and after much protesting an agreement was reached. She would indeed get to play the part of an Arabian princess, and we managed to find some spare cloth with exotic patterns to dress her in, but she complained about the sheerness of the material and how it would compromise her sense of modesty. But in the end it didn't matter because she was to be stored in another trunk anyway, although it was more roomy and we even cut out part of the top so that her facial features could be seen.
As we put the last of the luggage onto the top of the first carriage, we had some misgivings about her effectiveness at remaining perfectly still for any curious passers-by. But to her credit, she managed her role well. Of course by now it was no secret that we had her, and more than a few people stopped and stared at the remains of the "child princess" as we began to lift the trunk up to Deutsch, who waited on top. As he settled the box down and tied it in place, he couldn't help but to stop and wipe his brow, cock his head while looking down at her face which peered back up at him blankly from the opening in the box, and mumble "You know, she sure does look natural." A low but loud growling could be heard to emanate from the trunk. Quickly he jumped from the top to the street below and ran to another loaded carriage just behind, where Josef was already inside and waiting.
I settled myself into the carriage just as Josef and Deutsch pulled around and rolled down the street, to make a lefthand turn towards the center of town, and ultimately northeastward to home. The Rhine river was in that direction, but I didn't get to look at it while we were here, and now I would be heading back to the south. Within moments, my own carriage began to move. I pulled the curtains closed to bring on a little darkness. A nap would be good right now, since I didn't have anyone to talk to and it would be a long journey. I wondered how long Narrinda could stand to keep still in her box without moving or speaking. It must have been so tormenting, I just had to crack a twisted smile, but the smile was wiped back off my face when I realized that if she decided to have one of her childish fits and come to life while we were stopped somewhere in public, it would be disastrous. At the very least I would have to play the part of the hero and subdue the "ghastly apparition" in some ingenious way. I just didn't feel like giving a performance like that any time soon, and I felt the need to get back into my nocturnal habits, and so I laid back on the cushions and gave my saber a good cleaning before I attempted sleep.
I don't remember much about the first few days of the journey. I stayed hidden during the day as much as possible and I had almost no contact with the drivers (they were replaced at different posts and small inns that we passed every few hours). The old town of Bonn and its outskirts gave way to rolling woodlands and deep green shadows of budding spring. As I said before, winter was still hanging on for all it was worth, even though we had been graced with almost a week of relatively tranquil weather. The temperature was warm enough that my breath could not be seen, but the road south was made soft and muddy by day. In places passing traffic had left ruts so deep that it was hard to keep the carriage from listing violently to either side, and at night the air got down to freezing which made me bring out the great white fur cloak. Creeks and streams still retained crusted ice along banks and overhanging roots and branches. I don't recall that we passed anyone on the road, either on foot or horseback, and neither did we pick up any passengers. There was one young human female, handsomely formed but immodestly dressed, on the evening of the third day who attempted to board while we were stopped outside a small tavern for necessaries, but the driver (the sixth such since Bonn) refused her money on the grounds that this was a private touring coach (I gave no such instructions, but I did not intervene). She then attempted to offer him, in exchange for his service, some other of her own services. But my man was adamantly against taking on more passengers, and after a few coercive words with her in private, he was left in peace and apparently much relieved, whereupon he literally leapt back onto his perch like a man half his age, and just as the sun grazed a low hill, we were back on the road.
It was well after dark and we were enclosed by a forest of evergreens with almost no underbrush. Having nothing better to do, I was yet again vigorously polishing my sword without any fear of an accident since the way had been maintained in this vicinity and there had been no sudden jolts for several hours. The daytime had been somewhat warmer, but the air was chilling fast since the sun went down, and there was a hint of fog off to either side of the road.
Without warning, there was a sound of softly grating metal, followed by a feeling of loose lackadaisical movement regarding the carriage. I wondered for a few seconds why we seemed to be slowing, and I undid the frilly blue curtain and put my head out the window to see what was the matter. To my shock, in the very spot where for three days two horses had been accustomed to share, there were now none, and the driver was also gone. Lost in the fog on the road ahead could be seen the swiftly retreating figures of the horses, one of them topped by a stooping figure of a rider, never to be seen again.
Well, here I was, stranded in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing new about this situation I hadn't dealt with before, I just wasn't expecting it now. Of course I could find civilization- at the very least, the road ahead would lead me somewhere. I wouldn't starve since I was accustomed to hunting and because I had some food supplies on me anyway. But I had to think about how I would manage the luggage (even the useless package).
But as it turned out, I didn't have much time to do any thinking. The unmistakable sound of a twig breaking underfoot instantly alerted me to a predator. Wolves were not uncommon in this part of the country, and winter had been long and hard for all. My sword was already in my lap, and I held it up with the point off to the side, intending to ram it through the window at anything foolish enough to attempt making a Cuxhaven into its dinner. I waited with bated breath, and the steady beat of multiple feet against old fallen leaves became apparent. Now I heard more pacing off to the left, but as I peered through the curtain, the fog was too dense to make out much of anything except vague shadows, except to reveal the fact that these predators walked not on four legs but on two, and the odds of their numbers to be mastered in a fight were challenging, even for me.