The Water's Edge
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As Adric regained consciousness, a tangled black and white blur resolved into Susan’s snoring visage, and he yelped as he realized he lay beside her with his arms wrapped around her. He rolled away. The ground squelched and covered him with mud before dropping out from under him, sending him tumbling into water. He gasped at the shock of cold, taking in a mouthful of the Rhine, but by then, his panic had woken Susan, and she grabbed him by the back of his shirt to haul him back ashore.
“Where are we?” she snapped as she set him down on the bank. “The last thing I remember is you getting snatched by tentacles and me running through the woods after you.”
“That’s the last thing I remember too!” he replied. They contemplated their mutual amnesia in silence before Adric suggested, “Maybe the tentacles got you too.”
“I have never heard of anything with tentacles capable of wiping people’s memories.” She looked around, reminding Adric to take in their surroundings as well. They stood on a mix of sand and mud that angled into the river. To the left, the Schneider castle stood on a cliff, separated from them by water. As the Rhine seemed to flow between them and land on his right as well, he concluded they were on an island, albeit a large one, as trees grew up further back from the water’s edge and land extended far enough that he couldn’t guess at the shape of its boundaries. “Besides, how did we get onto an island? Something must have happened and someone doesn’t want us to know.”
“By saying you’ve never heard of tentacles capable of wiping people’s memories, that suggests you’re familiar with tentacles.”
“We’ve already established I come from a strange world.”
Adric kicked a pebble into the rushing water. “I don’t know if we can swim back. The current looks strong.” Then he realized his foot didn’t hurt. “Hey, my foot’s better!”
Susan grabbed his shirt and lifted it. “You should be bruised after those tentacles dragged you through half the forest. Nothing.”
They didn’t have time to ponder the implications, though. “Eeeeee! There they are!” a woman’s voice cried out, causing Adric to jump. Susan pointed at a dark shape moving toward them through the water, their features vaguely visible beneath the pink dawn.
“Ah, my friends! Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!” Siegbert waved at them from atop Beatrice as the cow dutifully paddled toward the island with her two owners on her back. Although she seemed to be struggling a little, she covered the remaining distance in less than three minutes and clambered ashore looking characteristically bored. Adric held out a hand to help Edwynna off, and she bounded over to the grass where her shoes wouldn’t sink into the ground.
“How did you two make it to Unicorn Rock?” Edwynna asked.
“Oh,” Adric replied, “is it shaped like a unicorn?”
“No. Should it be?”
“Never mind that,” Susan said. “Can the cow fit four?”
“I doubt it,” Adric replied to her.
“What?” Edwynna asked.
“She asked if Beatrice could carry four,” Adric explained.
“Oh no, no, no,” Siegbert protested. “Beatrice stayed up all night! It’s time for her to rest.”
He patted the cow on her head, and she mooed, the sound trailing off as her eyes closed. Though she remained standing, it was evident she was no longer conscious. A thin line of spittle dripped from the corner of her mouth.
“Great.” Susan turned and stalked off.
Adric didn’t follow. “Where are you going?”
“To build a raft!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It is a perfectly sensible notion.”
“I’m tired too,” Edwynna remarked, stretching her arms into the air and yawning. “Siegbert?”
Her husband pulled a blanket out of his pack and unfolded it on the grass. “Here you go, my dear.” The two of them settled down and fell asleep cuddled together.
“Wow, our heroes,” Adric said before wandering off in the opposite direction from Susan, figuring that would be the fastest way of exploring the island.
After about twenty minutes of walking, he concluded it was a wholly unremarkable island. There weren’t even unicorns present, for ridiculous as that notion might be, it could not be discounted, considering the other ridiculous things he took for granted. At that moment, he looked up from picking his way across a minefield of broken branches and froze. About a hundred yards away, the TARDIS spun slowly above the river like an ornament suspended from the sky. The ‘Police Box’ light was dim compared to the rising sun, but it drew his attention as if it shone a thousand times brighter. He’d never seen the Doctor park his TARDIS like that, though, just floating there, not moving, not disappearing, not materializing. It was as though it were... lost.
I guess I didn’t imagine the sound before the duel, he thought. But what could be going on inside, so close yet out of reach?
“I ‘ink you boke my nose,” the Doctor protested, flailing in place on the floor of the TARDIS. Finally, he retrieved the sonic screwdriver and activated setting three (it was an important setting), pointing the tip at his nose, and, taking a deep breath, snapping the cartilage back into place. “Aaaaaaaaaaaauugh!” he exclaimed. He sniffed loudly a few times and declared: “All better.”
His assailant didn’t respond, continuing to work the controls on the console.
“I’m impressed.” The Doctor wandered over, standing close enough to observe the intruder--well, intruder wasn’t strictly the proper term as the Doctor had been the one who brought him on board--but out of reach. True, the hooded figure moved with inhuman speed but now that the Doctor expected it, he didn’t think he’d be duped twice. “The TARDIS indicates you’re an excellent pilot, and that’s saying something considering most humans can’t drive at all. You are human, I’m pretty sure. BRAIN-enhanced, but that’s been naturally occurring in 0.07% of the population since at least 8000 BC.”
“Even so, these controls posed a significant challenge.”
“I can imagine. I’m the Doctor, by the way.”
“I’m the vampire.”
“Oh, I love names that start with ‘the.’ Don’t you, Rainart?”
Rainart groaned near the Doctor’s feet.
“Get up, boy,” the vampire nudged him with a boot. “I didn’t hit you that hard.”
“I beg to differ,” Rainart muttered. He raised a hand, which the Doctor used to pull him to his feet.
“A good punch in the abdomen never hurt anyone,” the vampire replied.
“Killed Houdini,” the Doctor noted. When the other two stared at him, he shook his head. “Sorry, after your time.”
“Despite the difficulty, I did figure out what you were doing. I apologize for reacting so precipitously, but one can never be too cautious. In any case, my presence muddled your tracker. I filtered out the distortions caused by my energy patterns and found your signal.”
“It appears you did.”
“I had a dream where someone who looked just like you was killing unicorns and drinking their blood,” Rainart told the vampire.
“Harry Potter,” the Doctor said. Again, the stares. “Even more after your time. I need to stop saying things like that.”
“Your comment is uncanny in its relevance,” the vampire said, “considering we are parked above the Rhine beside the island your sister likes to call ‘Unicorn Rock.’”
“You know Edwynna?” Rainart said. His eyes narrowed behind his spectacles, as though he’d just realized the specimen under examination was poisonous.
“I know everyone. Go ahead, Doctor, take a look.” The door swung open, and the view outside stopped on a castle.
“The Schneider castle,” Rainart said.
“Where’s Unicorn Rock?” the Doctor asked as he walked over. “Does it look like a unicorn? I love things that look like other things.”
“It is out of sight behind us, and it does not.”
“Nor is it a rock,” Rainart added. “The topsoil is immensely rich and the sedimentary rock layer is in fact under water. Edwynna thinks Amorphous Blob Attacked By Acid Island doesn’t have the same ring, though.”
“It really doesn’t.” The Doctor dropped onto all fours and stared into the muddy water. “Could you lower the TARDIS twenty centimeters? Er, I mean, down another foot, please.”
As the TARDIS descended, the water level appeared to rise, like the world was filling with water. The Doctor ran his screwdriver over the surface, leaving a trail of minute ripples. “You’re right. The signal is right beneath us.”
“It’s underwater?” Rainart exclaimed.
“Quite right.” The Doctor turned his head to look at the others as he spoke. As a result, he missed the cause of a loud splash. Something tugged his arm, and he pulled his hand back as a sharp sting tore across three of his fingers. “My screwdriver!” he screamed, staring at blood running from bite marks on his fingers. A wake of bubbles surfaced as a fish-like shape dashed away into the murky depths, the sonic screwdriver doubtless lodged in its stomach. “Why would it want my screwdriver?”
“You’re bleeding, Doctor!” Rainart dashed over and wrapped a handkerchief from his pocket around the Doctor’s hand.
“I’m going after it!” The Doctor scrambled forward but Rainart grabbed the collar of his coat and pulled back with all his strength.
“I like my screwdriver. Without it, I might actually have to work to get out of tight situations!” He attempted another dash toward the water, but this time, he was thwarted by the head of a wet and naked woman rising out of the Rhine. She was gorgeous, thick folds of skin draping over each other like luxurious velvet curtains. Gleaming, emerald eyes peered out of an alabaster face inset with ruby lips and gold hair. When she smiled, her entire body wobbled, promising an opulent production being set up behind those stage curtains, soon to be revealed for all the world to see. The water lapped against her breasts, but further down, the Doctor saw human skin transform to fish scales, ending in a fin that paddled back and forth.
“Who are you?” the Doctor asked. Being a Time Lord, he had the presence of mind to see through her alluring appearance, but Rainart was frantically patting down his hair and tucking in his sweater. Part of that attraction had to be BRAIN-generated; Marilyn Monroe might have evinced this sort of reaction from most men, but never the Doctor, and even the Doctor could feel parts of his body quivering to be closer to the mermaid. That hadn’t happened around Marilyn Monroe except for the time Elvis sprayed her with an alien aphrodisiac. The Doctor still wasn’t sure why it affected only Time Lords and kangaroos, but after the incident, he and Marilyn both vowed never to visit a zoo again.
“Call me Toots.” The mermaid smacked her lips.
“I’m the Doctor. You, um, did you, perchance, eat--”
“Are you impressed I swallowed your tool? It was very long, and for a moment, I didn’t think it would fit in my mouth, but then it just slid down my throat and oh, it was magnificent and delicious.”
“I feel rather emasculated without it.” The Doctor took in her girth. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’re bulimic?”
“Trust me, the street inside me goes one way. Anything that comes inside, well, it’s a very tight system.”
“I think Rainart has a question for you,” the Doctor said.
“Wibble-nibble,” the young man croaked. He tugged at his throat and swallowed. “How... does... you know, work?” he managed, making a circle with his left thumb and index finger and shoving his right hand at it. He squeezed his eyes shut and squeaked, “My inquiry being purely academic interest...”
“It doesn’t,” Toots replied. “The curse of being mermaids. Of course, we have pleasure centers in the back of--”
“Deep Throat,” the Doctor cut in.
“Meep?” Rainart asked.
“Oh forget it.”
“The image is kind of hard to get out of my mind.”
“She’s just toying with you,” the Doctor said. “The number of problems with that physiological setup is enormous.”
“Are you sure? Oh, look what I did to your poor hand. Let me make it better.” She unwrapped Rainart’s handkerchief and stuffed the Doctor’s fingers into her mouth, sucking hard on them. “Mmm, nom nom, yes, oh YES! Wiggle that nom nom!”
Rainart fainted, and the Doctor tugged his hand back. His fingers slipped out of her mouth with a pop. Toots pursed her lips as she surveyed the fallen German. “Men are weak.”
“That was a particularly unfortunate joke,” the Doctor admonished her.
“In beauty lies the seeds of great cruelty,” the vampire remarked, not moving from the console. “I think you’ve seen enough.” The vampire shifted a lever, and the doors slammed shut in the Doctor’s face. A shudder ran through the machine as the central column rose and fell.
“But my screwdriver!” The Doctor threw open the door, ignoring that he would likely find the time vortex waiting for him. Instead, a village awaited him, and the sun was markedly higher in the sky. Panic gripped him, turning his breaths fast and shallow. He couldn’t pilot the TARDIS accurately enough to get back to the right point in time, and who knew where the mermaid had disappeared to by now. She was doubtless on the lam, knowing he’d be hot in pursuit. “You!” he pointed his finger at the vampire. “You’re in league with them!”
“You have an unhealthy fixation on your screwdriver,” the vampire said. “I am not in league with the mermaids, but you should know they exist. That is all.” Robes swished by the Doctor, and the vampire dragged Rainart out of the TARDIS. “Now, I believe someone should be passing through the village about now whom you will be interested in meeting.”
But the Doctor was through listening to the vampire. He had gotten the Doctor’s screwdriver lost for good. The only thing that’d make him feel better would be to find the nachtis and convince himself the trip hadn’t been a complete loss. He dashed to the console and slammed the doors on both of them. As the TARDIS dematerialized, he heard frantic pounding on the frame, but he ignored it. Not until he landed the TARDIS back beside the Rhine to search for the nachtis did he realize the bite marks on his fingers were gone.
When the TARDIS stopped spinning with the doors facing away from Adric’s direction, he knew there was no point in waiting for the Doctor. Besides, the Doctor had told him that their paths would diverge. He trusted the Doctor to look for him when the time was right, so he didn’t call out for the Time Lord. Part of him protested, stamping its foot and demanding he grab the Doctor’s attention. He forced that voice away and turned from the blue box. As he did so, the sun glinted off a line of turbulence that was too straight to be natural. It extended to the island from a point on the shore between the two castles.
Curious, he circled back the way he’d come until he found the point where the line hit the island’s shore. “Huh,” he said. The turbulence came from pillars of rocks that rose to just beneath the surface. It wasn’t a sandbar but a porous system of stones that formed a flat if somewhat perilous path of steps perfect for an adult with average stride. There was little chance the formation was natural; more jagged, and he might believe, but this was a highway of sorts. Who would want to build such a path and why they’d want easy access to the island were questions Adric didn’t have sufficient information to answer, but he wasn’t about to wait half a day to get back to the castle.
Water streamed over his shoes as he took a ginger step onto the first rock. The current tugged but wasn’t enough to threaten his footing. In fact, the height of the pillars struck a perfect balance between usability and visibility, allowing someone to walk across while hiding the means unless the sun was at the perfect angle. Nodding to himself, he went to find Susan.
She waited back where Edwynna and Siegbert slept. “Did you find anything?” she asked.
“I found a way back.”
“You mean the stepping stones?” Edwynna said. Her eyes remained closed, but now that he knew she was awake, Adric could see her breaths weren’t quite as even as would be normal for someone sleeping.
“You know about them?” Adric knew he should be annoyed, but somehow, he didn’t even feel surprised. Susan sighed and leaned against the cow.
“Yes, I was going to tell you about them, but then I fell asleep, and when I woke up, you were gone.”
“We didn’t think you’d wake up so fast.”
“I’m very good at power naps.”
“We all are,” Siegbert said, his eyes closed as well.
“Are they all awake?” Susan asked. She smacked the cow, who mooed and continued drooling.
“How do you know about the stones?” Adric asked Edwynna, feeling upstaged by her statement.
“I saw someone use it, but I don’t think she’d be happy if she knew I knew.”
“We should go now, but Beatrice can’t use the steps. Can you swim her across after us?”
“She’s ready to go now!” Edwynna opened her eyes and jumped up. Her husband and her cow followed suit.
“Are we sure Siegbert is the reason she got disowned?” Susan asked as they set off.
“Don’t be mean.”
Torchlight was terrible for the eyes. Karin didn’t understand why her mother wouldn’t let anyone read at night but had no similar qualms about embroidering. On the other hand, the two of them weren’t awake at five in the morning because they loved needle and thread. If anything, the torches needed to be dimmer--their true mission was keeping watch until all the Schneiders had returned from the forest, and it didn’t help that the light affected their night vision.
“Good,” Rosa said, shifting her chair closer to the parapet of their turret, “there’s uncle Viktor. I didn’t even see him leave; a man his age shouldn’t be wandering in the forest at night, but I suppose if your dead sister’s husband gets murdered, honor calls.”
“He could be sleepwalking,” Karin said. “I’m out of red thread again.”
Rosa sighed. “Darling, maybe if you just started out with red cloth--”
“The texture wouldn’t look right.”
“Mother! These are roses spurting out of the elk.”
“So that leaves Huey, Gauthier, Susan, and Adric.”
“Gauthier never left the castle. Ula knocked him out after she discovered he got blood on her dress.”
“Then you should go to bed. The others can take care of themselves.”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Our cousins are that resourceful?”
“Adric defeated Abelerd von Lahnstein in a duel.”
“So your father told me, though it sounded like an accident. What’s your opinion?”
“They can take care of themselves.”
Her mother studied her, then nodded. “Good enough for me.” She stood and patted Karin on the shoulder. “Come, you need rest too.”
“Ow!” Karin sucked on her index finger after her mother’s sudden contact caused her to jab it with the needle. Several droplets of blood spilled onto her cloth.
“Now you don’t need any more red,” her mother said cheerfully.
“You go on ahead. I’ll put the chairs away.”
“The chairs can wait. You’ll catch a chill up here.”
“I’m still perfectly awake.”
“You’re not fooling me, Karin. I used to be a dancer--I know the limits of even a robust young lady.”
“Hildegard’s slept enough for both of us tonight.”
“Your sister fainted.”
“Which is just a deeper form of sleep.”
“All right.” Rosa sighed. “Sometimes, I don’t know who’s more headstrong, you or Ula.”
“Ula is far more wicked than me.” Karin planted a kiss on her mother’s cheek. “Good night.”
“Good morning.” Rosa strode toward the staircase.
Karin watched her go, but before she could close the door, she called out after her. “Mother?”
Rosa peeked back out. “Yes, Karin?”
“Did grandfather ever go to sea?”
She smiled. “Oh, yes. Father may have been wealthy, but he wanted adventure more than money. He was a sailor in his youth, explored the whole world, yet the only keepsake he ever gave me was a pendant shaped like an anchor. I assume the rest of his trinkets are still with Conrad on the family estate; nothing of great worth, but they have sentimental value, especially now that he and mother are both gone.”
“Perhaps Uncle Conrad can bring them when he comes for the funeral.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea. It’d bring back good memories. I’ve always meant to share more of my childhood with you.” Rosa opened the door wider, stepping back through. “But whatever prompted such an unexpected question?”
Karin shrugged. “I was just thinking about him, and how little I knew about him, and it just struck my fancy that he might have traveled. It seemed... romantic.”
“Romantic. That’s something Ula would say.”
“Well, we are both trouble.”
“Yes, dear. Get some rest.” Her mother disappeared down the stairs, leaving Karin alone with her thoughts, and troubled thoughts they were, for unlike in the real world, that pirate flag still burned in her memory, and nothing she did could extinguish it from her mind.
“Grandfather, what did you do?” she whispered.
“Come on.” Ula stamped her foot against the dirt path. “Hurry up!”
Gauthier staggered under the weight of seven wicker baskets stacked eight feet high in his arms. “I swear, if I hadn’t trained to run away to the circus, I’d drop these boxes on you right now. What the hell is in them?”
“Fish? Why are you making me carry a hundred pounds of fish to the village at five in the morning?”
“There’s also vegetables and milk. In many parts of the world, it is customary to perform acts of charity for the less fortunate as a memorial to a dead family member.”
“We don’t live in any of those places, Ula.”
“Don’t you want to honor grandfather’s life? Wait, of course you don’t.”
“Actually, I found my own way to remember grandfather.”
“Really?” She wondered if Gauthier had some soft spot of properness under that disheveled exterior.
“You wouldn’t approve.”
“Really...” Guess not.
“Want to know how?”
“No!” Knowing him, he’d probably dressed all the scarecrows in the shooting range as Imre. Let’s commemorate his death by killing him again! “Just focus on carrying the fish. It’s expensive halibut.”
“Not that I oppose feeding the poor, but did you have to steal from mother’s expensive stores? She’ll throw a fit.”
“It wouldn’t mean much if we didn’t sacrifice something important!”
“You could promise the mayor your firstborn.”
“He already has seven children!”
“Sixteen, actually. He has four mistresses. You’d be the fifth.”
“You thought bringing me along would punish me for throwing you into Imre’s blood and knocking you out, but you’re only hurting yourself.”
“I’m not talking to you anymore.”
“You just did.”
“Did it again.”
Siegbert skipped alongside Beatrice, belting out a dreadfully cheery folk song in time with the jingling of his bells. Edwynna hummed in harmony with him, swaying her dress side to side as they proceeded down the forest path. They’d crossed the river about half an hour ago, and the couple promised to bring Adric and Susan to the village where they lived. Once they were refreshed, they’d send them down the road to the Schneider castle.
“It is not normal to be so cheerful this early in the morning,” Susan said.
“But it’s not abnormal,” Adric replied.
“Say you define normal as everyone within one standard deviation of the mean. Even if sixty-eight percent of people can be considered normal, a value high enough to be considered a supermajority, that still leaves thirty-two percent of the population, or sixteen percent on either end of a bell curve, neither of which is a small number. While traveling with the Doctor, I’ve found that a behavior is usually limited to less than four percent of a population before people think of it as abnormal, and often, that range is less than one percent when a society is more tolerant of eccentricity.”
“Let’s make a deal. You stop breaking everything down to logic and mathematics, and I stop trying to convince you that the world doesn’t operate that way.”
“While friendly discourse is a good way of promoting interpersonal relationships, it is not sensible to focus on irreconcilable opinions.”
They walked in silence for a while. Silence filled with yodeling. “I like clouds,” Adric suddenly said. Susan stared at him. He returned her look with wide-eyed sincerity. “Do you like clouds?”
“I suppose. They provide shade.”
“I agree!” He paused. “You’re right, Susan, I feel closer to you already.”
“That’s a trick I’d expect from an eight-year-old.”
“Do you like shoes?”
“Ok, fine! We can talk about whatever we like.”
“You don’t like people confronting you.”
“But you’re fine confronting other people.”
“Isn’t that a little hypocritical?”
“It is not hypocritical to take control of a situation.”
“Oh, look!” Edwynna pointed. “We’re here!”
Adric and Susan were a ways behind the other two. They’d fallen back because it would look weird if Adric kept talking to his supposedly idiot sister. Now, they sped up to close the distance, and they approached a bend in the path. Rounding the corner, the trees opened up to reveal a well-worn path leading to a cluster of wood and straw buildings too large to be considered huts but hardly the epitome of civilization.
At first glance, Adric counted some seventy structures, most of which appeared to be homes, though a few larger ones farther away might be the village center, assuming they had their own government rather than answering to the nobles. He was certain there were more buildings beyond, as he couldn’t find the church, but the existing structures blocked his view.
Wagons rolled down the streets, streaming out of the village as farmers headed for their fields. Siegbert let out a ringing yodel as they approached, and one of the drivers reined his horses in. “Traugott!” Siegbert exclaimed.
The farmer tipped his hat. “Ah, the Neufelds! Did Beatrice run off again?”
“I’m afraid she had to bring us home this time.”
Traugott shrugged. “I’d love to chat, but I need to get going. The Lahnsteins are watching me.”
“I thought you’re on track to produce surplus this year,” Edwynna said.
“I am.” He grinned. “Finally. But you can never have too much of a good thing.” He snapped the reins, and the wagon moved on.
“Traugott missed his quota the last two years,” Siegbert said, shaking his head, which Adric supposed answered the question of whether the village was independent or not. “If he doesn’t grow enough this year, the Lahnsteins will confiscate his land.”
“That’s horrible,” Adric said. “The Schneiders don’t do that, do they?”
“They haven’t had such a situation yet,” Edwynna replied. “Oh, Siegbert, if only they’d listen to you.”
“Nonsense, your brother’s the visionary behind it all.”
“Rainart’s a bookworm. You, my dear, have charisma.”
“What are you talking AAH!” Adric said as Susan’s fingers dug into his shoulder.
“The vampire’s here,” she said in a low tone.
“I sense him. He’s... coming around that corner, there!” She pointed, and at that moment, a figure did appear, but it wasn’t the robed form of the vampire.
“Speak of the devil,” Edwynna said. “Susan’s spotted Rainart!”
A disheveled young man staggered into the street as though pushed. Adric thought he recognized him from the duel yesterday; he’d been wearing that same maroon sweater and read a book through the entire affair. His utter disinterest in the fight was what had made Adric notice him.
“Oh, hello,” Rainart said as Siegbert ran up to him, grabbed his arm, and dragged him over. He looked dazed, but Adric didn’t think it had anything to do with his bookishness. Susan dashed to the intersection where he’d appeared but shrugged when she found no one.
“I’m Adric,” Adric extended a hand, hoping Rainart wouldn’t remember him.
Rainart snapped his fingers. “The Schneider cousin! Adric! That’s your name! Ugh, it was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t remember! Where’d he go?”
“Where’d who go?”
“Never mind that,” Siegbert said. “We were telling Adric about your brilliant plan for liberating the village from the greedy grip of aristocrats!”
“Ah, that,” Rainart brightened. “I’m working on a treatise, On the Importance of Relations Between the Noble and Peasant Classes. It’s about how the peasants must be allowed to own land, rather than just lease from the aristocracy. I also elaborate on the theory of collective bargaining, whereby labor contracts are negotiated by representatives of both parties, those hiring and those working, for all members of the group, rather than on an individual basis, which opens the process up to corruption and intimidation. Of course, the legal system must also reform to uphold the sanctity of contract and recognize the rights of all citizens as equal.”
“I see...” Adric said, though he knew he didn’t have the background in Earth history and sociology to understand.
Rainart mistook his hesitance. “It is perfectly natural for you to be wary of such significant change; my own family considers my views as bordering on heretical, and that’s because they aren’t yet aware of the bulk of my work. I daresay I’ll be joining Edwynna in the village once they know. However, the reforms I propose benefit both classes, and if the nobility would just give it a try, I’m sure they would find peasants much more productive. Elevating others to our social station doesn’t limit our opportunities, it expands them for the entire empire.”
“Perhaps if our families came into the village more often and saw the peasants as more than production quotas,” Susan prompted Adric.
He repeated her words, and Rainart grinned. “Exactly.” His eyebrows shot up. “Have you been making your views known to the other Schneiders?”
“No, why?” Adric turned to follow his gaze and saw Ula in the doorway of a nearby house, dressed all in black save for white gloves, handing a bundle to a stunned-looking woman. From the portions poking out of the cloth, the contents appeared to be fish and carrots. Beside her, Gauthier scowled from behind a stack of baskets piled so high only his arms and legs were visible when he stood straight. In stark contrast with her mourning colors, his outfit was daffodil yellow.
“Ula?” Rainart called.
The housewife retreated back into the house, and as the door slammed shut, Ula looked over. “Rainart!” Her high heels forced her to pick her way carefully along the road, but she had an easier time of approaching than Gauthier, who nearly got run over by a wagon. “How’s Baron?” she asked breathlessly as she arrived. With a huff, Gauthier dropped the boxes at his feet, causing a single fish to slip out of the top basket and plop onto Ula’s hat, the brim catching and securing it in place. She squealed but regained her composure almost instantly. “Ah, good idea, Gauthier. It will let the peasants know I am distributing food.”
Adric found the pair of eyes staring at him from the flat fish disconcerting, especially since they jiggled every time she moved her head. Rainart paid it no attention. “What are you doing?”
“Mourning my grandfather.”
“By giving out food?”
“Charity is the highest calling,” she said, throwing a hand against her forehead. The fish went cross-eyed.
“While I agree completely with the general sentiment, one might say there’s an even higher calling than that. Charity might nourish the body, but freedom nourishes the soul.”
Ula blinked. “I don’t follow.”
“Liberty. Equality! Can you not see how the peasants chafe under our rule?”
Two men walked past, laughing loudly. “Look at that sunrise!” one said. The other nodded. “It’s a beautiful day to be alive!”
“Not really,” Ula replied.
“In their hearts they do!” Rainart insisted.
She shrugged. “If you say so.” Her gaze moved from Rainart to the next house. “Oh, look at the abominable condition of those shutters. How poor they must be!”
The others stared at the whitewashed shutters, gleaming under the sun with nary a crack in the paint or the wood. “Those shutters are fine,” Rainart said.
Ula hit him on the arm. “You heartless man! And here I thought that all your talk might eventually make sense because you had kind-hearted intentions. I mean, just look at those shutters!”
“I am!” Rainart protested.
“Can’t you see how they’re swinging about?”
“That’s the wind.”
“They should be bolted to the wall!”
Rainart buried his face in his hands. “Ula, peasants use shutters in place of curtains. They’re supposed to swing loose so you can open and close them.”
Her jaw dropped. “That’s preposterous.” The halibut’s eyes took that as their cue to fall out and bounce onto the street. Adric jumped away as they rolled toward him.
“The shutters on our castles are decorative, but these are put to use.”
“How horrible! No one should be so poor that they have to use their shutters as curtains! It’s so, so unfashionable! We must help them immediately!” She stalked toward the house, but Gauthier had used the conversation as an opening to escape. “Gauthier! Where’d you go!”
Rainart grabbed the baskets and ran after her. “I’ll help,” he said, wobbling under the weight.
“Oh, Rainart, I knew you were a proper gentleman.”
Susan grabbed Adric’s shoulder again. “Ow! Stop that.” But before he could protest further, he caught sight of a flash of brown in his peripheral vision. A gust of wind was followed by a thump as the vampire landed behind him. Edwynna screamed.
“Why are all of you never where you should be?” the vampire asked. Seizing Adric’s arm, he threw him onto his back and leapt into the air, carrying him off at superhuman speed back toward the Rhine.
Baron von Lahnstein whistled as he approached the river. His arm whirled, spinning the bundle that was his shirt and coat in his hands, its motion adding to the breeze that ran the chill morning air against his bare chest. It felt good, especially after the heat of his encounter with Huey Schneider. There was a crisp feeling to the air that left no doubt autumn was coming, and he liked that too. All the leaves changing colors brought a feeling of change and movement that none of the other seasons possessed, and while he didn’t consider himself easily given to fancy, there was something appealing about the idea of falling away from the family tree and starting over.
Nevertheless, it was just a passing fantasy, and there were some leaves that he hoped would continue to cling to the tree for some time. One such leaf waited for him by the water, her pale hair and skin glowing under the morning sun, a stark contrast against the rushing black Rhine.
“Put some clothes on!” Annegret snapped when she caught sight of him. “Honestly, one would think you’d be more discreet about your affairs.”
“I could say the same about you, auntie.”
Her eyes gleamed as she pulled some woody chips out of her knapsack and popped one in her mouth. “Pah, mine’s younger than yours.”
“Cramp bark?” He eyed the pieces as she chewed.
“I don’t think I need it.”
“Neither do I, but I like the taste. Dear lord, do I look that young to you? Maybe compared to your lover.”
“You men can’t take any jokes. Except maybe that Doctor of Rainart’s, he didn’t seem too scared when Rainart told him you’d shoot him if he got near the river. Good old dependable Rainart.”
“Rainart’s professor from the university.”
“Why would he be interested in the river? You didn’t show him the nachtis, did you?” Baron laughed when Annegret’s cheeks reddened a little too much to be a side effect of the sunrise. “Oh auntie, you and your men. I don’t know how you ever went for Lysanne.”
“Lysanne’s manly in her own way. More manly than your Huey anyway.”
“If your insults continue to be so pathetic, I might think you approve.”
“Who says I don’t approve? I just think you could do better. Someone with a brain, maybe? Someone who won’t trip on his own sister’s ice cube during a duel. You need to stop throwing fights just to avoid hurting your beloved’s feelings, or people will get suspicious. Besides, I’ve found men behave better with a good beating every once in a while. I still have some rope--”
Baron threw his shirt at her. “There’s such a thing as too much good advice.”
“Men can’t tell the difference between good advice and bad advice.” She unfurled the balled up item of clothing and began washing it in the river.
“Why’d you call me here?”
“Because I don’t want Addi eavesdropping on us. People’s ears aren’t supposed to get sharper with age.”
“She has lots of practice.”
“Lots of time and nothing to do. That one really needs a man, if you ask my opinion.”
Baron grinned. “Everyone needs a man.”
“Naughty boy!” She splashed him. “In any case, I want you to keep people away from the river, and that includes Huey. There are dangers we should not tempt.”
“Has Galæsia nachtis developed a taste for live human flesh?”
“No,” Lysanne said, sauntering out of the woods and slapping him across the back. He glared. No maid should be able to move so quietly in the forest, not with that massive white bow affixed to her waist anyway. “Got a match?”
Baron pulled a box out of his pocket and handed it over. She removed a pipe from between her breasts and lit it, the tobacco clearly already inside. A heart-shaped cloud of smoke puffed out of her mouth into his face. A few waves of the hand dispersed it, and he refused to cough even though she used the most abominable stuff he’d ever seen or smelled. “It’s from Montmartre,” she’d told him when he first asked.
“These are so handy,” she said, groping her own bosom, the pipe between her teeth.
“That’s not being manly,” Baron remarked to his aunt, “just seductive.”
“If you find it seductive, then it must be manly.”
“I don’t. I’m commenting.”
Lysanne gave her breasts a good thwack and watched them jiggle back and forth. “It shouldn’t concern you why you need to keep people away. It should be enough that Lady Lahnstein asks it.”
Annegret put on that wicked smile she used when the conversation was over. “She has a point.”
“It concerns me if I’m the one who has to patrol the river.”
Lysanne and Annegret exchanged looks. “He is not,” the maid said forcefully in her thick accent.
Annegret cackled. “He’s pretty enough.”
“He is not,” she replied flatly.
“I know.” Annegret shrugged. “Let’s go before Rainart catches me out of bed.”
“You want him to catch you in bed?”
“The Doctor did, which is close enough. I’m sure Rainart was close behind.”
Baron was amused to see Lysanne’s jaw drop. He didn’t think being caught in flagrante would faze her, but he guessed appearances could be deceiving. Very deceiving. When she caught him grinning, she slapped him across the face and sauntered away arm-in-arm with Annegret.
He sighed. Even considering that most of the aristocrats he knew were a little strange, his aunt was the strangest by far. That was part of why he liked her, but it also made for a rather frustrating relationship at times. Taking a seat by the river, he picked up his shirt, which Annegret had left drying on a log. He’d barely had time to dip his toes into the water when the rustling he’d been waiting for drew his attention.
Schneider pushed through the foliage. “Is the old bat gone?”
“Be polite when you talk about Great Aunt Annegret.”
“What are you going to do, challenge me to a duel?”
Baron tightened a fist, then unclenched it, but he did it on the side of him that Huey couldn’t see. Beyond that, he didn’t respond.
“The silent treatment, eh?” Huey picked his way across the slick, moss-covered ground. “You’re such a girl sometimes.”
“You heard what she asked me.”
“So I’ve got to stay away from the river because she thinks I should?”
“No, you need to stay away because I’m asking you.”
“You believe her? She probably just wants you to clear out the place so she can have a romp with Frenchie.”
“Will you respect the request or do I need to make you?”
“All right, all right! I’ll stay away. Happy?”
Baron eyed him suspiciously. “You’re just saying that because there’s an hour before you have to get back to the castle.”
“And what about tomorrow? See, Baron, I do have brains. Enough to think ahead twenty-four hours, anyway, and I’ve got to be really thick if I’m going to let some old lady get in the way of my play time.”
“When you put it that way, I almost want to leave you to the mercy of the river.”
“Come on, stop taking everything so seriously.” Huey unbuttoned his pants and let them fall. Baron rolled his eyes but grabbed his arm and pulled him onto the ground beside him. Huey grinned. “That’s more like it.”
He’d been tricked. The Doctor was certain of it. The TARDIS had run scans along the entire shore of the Rhine, both sides, for five kilometers each direction, and there were no unusual energy signatures other than that of the mermaids and the vampire. Galæsia nachtis did not exist here.
“Of course,” he muttered to himself. It was unlikely Annegret had made an elaborate fake, but why would she tell someone she’d never met before the secret of where it could be found? Perhaps she had gotten it secondhand and didn’t know herself. Yet, why lie? Humans could be tricky at times, deceitful as well, but assuming he was a good judge of character, and he liked to think he was a good judge of character, Annegret would at least be tricky and deceitful in a logical manner.
For now, he was crouched by the water’s edge, staring into its depths and wondering if Toots would appear. His recent companions would think he was moping, but the Doctor didn’t mope. He was just intense. Yes, intense and deep, like the water. His screwdriver was probably undergoing intense digestive pressures deep inside the mermaid’s formidable body, and that thought brought him close to moping, but he didn’t, because that was simply impossible for a Time Lord to do.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” a voice screamed from above. Leaves dropped all around the Doctor, and he looked up in time to see a figure plummet through the canopy and fall on top of the Doctor.
“Oof!” the Doctor grunted as the impact sent him centimeters into the mud. His eyes focused on the face of the man lying on top of him, and he was stunned to recognize it. “Adric!” Instinctively, he threw Adric off himself, sending him tumbling meters on end. The Doctor scrambled to his feet, both hearts racing. “You’re supposed to be dead!”
Adric’s brows twisted together, and he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. When he finally spoke, it was in a calm, flat voice. “Which one are you?”
“What? Oh. I’ve regenerated five times since you... since you died. Or so I thought.”
“And you don’t remember.”
“Then...” Adric glanced up into the sky. “If you’re going to listen, then at least do it openly.”
The vampire dropped out of the trees. “I suppose you had something to do with this,” the Doctor snapped.
The vampire snorted. “I don’t bring people back from the dead, but I did bring him here to meet you. The two of you are connected. I can sense that. A sort of common energy that binds you together whenever you are close together. I figured you two would want to talk.”
“That we do,” Adric said coldly.
The vampire glared at the Doctor. “You ran away when I took you into the village where he’d be.”
Adric stepped forward, adding his glare to the vampire’s. “If you don’t remember saving me, then you left me to die.”
A human would have argued that his statement made no sense, but to the Doctor, it could only mean one thing, and it sent chills down his spine. This was bigger than an alien invasion, then, and Singapore was more than an isolated event. The things he’d discovered here in Germany should’ve confirmed it, but Adric. Adric being alive, that had ramifications far beyond Earth. It had consequences for the entire universe, past and present. The only way Adric could expect him to remember saving him would be if some time prior to his fourth regeneration, he had saved Adric before ever meeting him. Yet he didn’t remember that event, and that meant his past was in flux. Something had tampered with time, and now that his own history had crossed with Adric again, that meant there was something waiting for him in his future, something that posed a threat only Time Lords could resolve. There were no more Time Lords.
“I didn’t leave you to die,” the Doctor said, trembling as the memories of Adric’s death came flooding back. “You died before I could save you. I failed you, and going back in time to save you would’ve violated laws so deep that it would threaten the universe itself. The day I died, that is, the day my fifth incarnation died, the last thing I saw in my head was you. There isn’t a single companion I meet that doesn’t make me think of you, make me think twice before inviting or allowing them to come along with me, because I lost you. That doesn’t make right what happened, that doesn’t mean I deserve forgiveness for not showing up when you needed me most. Maybe I should’ve tried to return you to E-Space that day, maybe we should never have gone to Earth, but that’s my curse. It’s my past, and I can’t undo it. I’m a Time Lord. The universe--past, present, and future--it’s all there for me to see, to explore, to experience. But despite all that power, there are laws even I can’t break. I can never go back to save you, and I will have to live with that until the day I run out of regenerations.”
Adric’s expression softened. A hint of betrayal still shone in his eyes, but it wasn’t overwhelming. “You don’t have to go back. Jamie McCrimmon saved me.”
Not me. Jamie. Yet the Doctor couldn’t help but grin. “Of course it’d be Jamie.”
Somehow, that response was the right thing to say, and Adric gave him a tentative smile in return. “Why don’t you remember?”
“That’s the problem.”
Adric nodded. “Of course. You explained it before I left with Death.”
“Left with Death?” His hackles rose again. Something was still unsettling about Adric, but the Doctor was always suspicious about things he didn’t understand. Well, not all things--most of them were puzzles he enjoyed--but this was tampering with timelines, danger on a large scale.
“The Death of Discworld.”
“Discworld? Discworld is a myth, a legend. No one’s ever been able to find it! And it's utterly absurd anyway.”
“I guess someone did, but that’s not important. Death said there is a force pushing the universe off its proper time track, and I have to travel with his granddaughter to stop it. And you, that is, the second you, explained that the time was not right for you to enter the equation, but that eventually, you would. I didn’t expect it to take eight regenerations.”
How different Adric was from the uncertain boy he’d known. From his appearances, he hadn’t grown much since that fateful day over prehistoric Earth, but he had gained maturity far beyond his age. The Doctor supposed that could happen to anyone who died and came back to life--regardless of what had happened, Adric looked like someone who had faced death and not the Discworld variety. “I don’t think it will. Events like this frequently involve more than one of my incarnations. In fact, I’m already on a mission with the Fourth Doctor that, with your information and things I’ve seen, looks like we’re being pulled into events beyond our control. In either case, because history is in flux, I will not know what any of us do, because it has not happened yet, until it does.”
Adric grimaced. “The mathematics of time is beyond my abilities, at least at the level you’re talking about, but I think I understand.”
“So you’re on a mission yourself?”
“You’re mixed in with the Schneiders and Lahnsteins?”
“You’re going to need all the help you can get.”
Adric raised an eyebrow. “I know. I guess that doesn’t include you?”
“Singapore just blew up in my timeline.”
The Doctor paused. “Do you forgive me?”
Adric frowned. “I thought you weren’t asking for forgiveness.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t want it.”
Adric looked down at his feet. Seconds dragged into a minute, but at last, he looked the Doctor in the eye. “From the moment I stowed away on the TARDIS, I put my life in your hands. I’ve lived and died by your actions. In the end, I wouldn’t trade what I’ve seen for anything.”
“I’m not sure that’s a sentiment I’d agree with.”
“I’m not saying I wanted to die, but the chain of events that put me on that freighter with you unable to save me, that was a product of my actions as much as yours. To blame you is unfair. If it’s forgiveness you want, you have it.”
“Thank you,” the Doctor whispered. “You know, I’m not sure I ever appreciated you as much as I should have.”
“I’m just a boy.”
“No, you’re not. You’re brilliant, you are. Now tell me, there are three mysterious phenomena existing in this region, but only two unidentified energy signatures. What does that mean?”
Adric thought a moment. “Either the third signature isn’t actually here, or it’s mixed in with one of the other signals.”
The Doctor clapped his hands together. “Excellent!”
The vampire lunged, putting the Doctor into a chokehold. Adric let out a cry of dismay and leapt forward. Instead of reaching for the vampire’s arms, he went for the hood. As soon as his fingers touched cloth, the vampire roared, letting go of the Doctor to strike Adric in the face. He went flying, but the Doctor took the opportunity to stumble into the TARDIS and trigger a force field over the entrance. It would drop at a moment’s notice if the vampire went after Adric and the Doctor needed to go to his aid, but the vampire just stood before him, chest heaving and hands shaking.
“Why’d you do that?” the Doctor demanded.
Adric staggered to his feet, covered in mud but otherwise unharmed. The vampire glanced at him, and the Doctor’s hand inched toward the field release, but the sight of Adric actually calmed the figure down.
“I, I,” he paused. “I’m sorry. I--” He stiffened, his entire body freezing in place, straight as a board. From the corner of his eye, the Doctor saw the energy readings from the vampire surge due to a flood of foreign power crashing into him. “Leave!” the vampire roared, “Investigate the river and die. Flee back to your companions before the army crushes them like bugs.”
“Do you really expect me to run at your command?”
The Doctor made a decision, and it wasn’t because of the vampire’s words. Adric had heard the admonition against the river, and for whatever reason, this place was his mission. Unseen words passed between them as the Doctor looked over the vampire’s shoulder at Adric. The young man nodded once. They’d just repaired the foundation of their broken trust. If anything would ever be built upon it, the Doctor had to hand this responsibility over. “All right,” he told the vampire. “But know this: I have time on my side. Eventually, I see everything.”
As the TARDIS faded out of reality, the vampire sank to his knees. Adric could still feel the force of his punch. His face would begin bruising soon, and he was lucky his nose hadn’t been broken, yet the figure looked so despondent he found it hard to fear.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked, taking a few steps forward, watching the vampire for any sudden movement. “I know Susan is wary of you, but she seems to think you’re on our side, so I’m willing to believe that too.”
“I... don’t know.” For the first time, the vampire sounded shaken. Gone was his confidence, his cynicism disguised as insight. His voice was hollow, drained. “I felt so angry. The river is none of the Doctor’s concern.”
“You didn’t need to be so demanding. What’s in the river?”
“Why should I tell you?”
He shrugged. “It was worth a try to ask.”
“I should return you to Susan before she hunts me down.”
“She’ll do that eventually. Monsters never escape Susan.”
The vampire turned to examine him from the dark shadows beneath his hood. “Is that what you think I am?”
“I don’t know who or what you are.”
“Perhaps you’re right. Maybe I am a monster. I thought I knew myself, but now... I’m not so sure.” The vampire glanced at the forest, then up at the treetops across which they’d arrived in such a harrowing manner. Adric could understand the rush if the vampire wasn’t sure when the Doctor would leave, or whether the Doctor would think to explore the river, but there was no call for throwing him down like that. Maybe the vampire agreed, or maybe he didn’t trust his abilities right now. “Perhaps we should walk back.”
“I’m in no rush. Susan isn’t coming after me with a poker.”
“We shall walk.”
They left in silence, and Adric knew the vampire wouldn’t respond to any further inquiries. Still, he’d let slip crucial information. Something was indeed in the river. The tentacles had been real, and something happened to Adric and maybe Susan during the night. He was closer to the answer than the Doctor. Even as they drew away from the water’s edge, Adric felt the pull to return. He would find out what was there. He had forgiven the Doctor for his near death experience, but maybe, if he could do this, he could forgive himself as well.
To Chapter 25: Sometimes a Strange Longing
Back to Chapter 23: Part 2
Summary: There comes a point when characters keep falling into water far too often for it to be anything but some strange fetish on the author’s part. At that point, the author can make a conscious decision either to stop getting people wet or to embrace the fluids. Or, the author can write about mermaids, which is the best of both worlds.