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Stories from the Verse
Old Verses New
Chapter 30: Brown 10
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Previous chapter: Chapter 29: Hastings 53
It was difficult work, slogging through the swamp with a loaded bicycle; and it wasn't long before Derek realized the sun was setting. He plugged on in the darkness, getting wetter, being bitten by unseen mosquitoes, sinking in mud, and sweating in the stifling humidity. It was only hours but seemed like weeks that he struggled forward.
Abruptly the ground rose. At first he was too tired to think clearly, and considered skirting whatever hill this was; then he realized that high ground meant dry ground and vantage–it could take him out of the mire and show him the countryside. With some effort, he scrambled up the side with his cycle.
It was not a natural hill; whether it was a raised road or a dike the top of which was well traveled he didn't know or care. It curved across the marsh, and although the origin was not within sight, the destination was visible. The stone block he had seen lay only a few hundred yards distant. It was a castle.
There was nothing else to see; just the castle, the dike, and the swamp. As tired as he was, the dike was an easier road than the swamp, and he pushed onward. "Sleep when you're dead," he muttered to himself. Then the irony of that rang in his mind.
He reached the castle before sunrise, and banged on a heavy wooden door. "Is anyone here?" he shouted.
His voice fell dead in the swamp; he heard nothing. Still he stood there. Perhaps everyone was asleep, and it would be a while before they heard him. Maybe no one was here. If that was so, he would find a way inside–there was nowhere else to go. For the moment, he waited by the door.
There was a noise within; at first it meant only that there was movement, but soon Derek realized that a wooden bar was being moved away from the door. It took some time yet, but eventually the door swung open, and he peered into a candle-lit hallway.
"May I help you?" The voice was raspy, breathy, but human; the body from which it came was hidden between the door and the shadows, but was at least the right size and shape.
"Pardon me," he said, and hesitated, not certain whether "ma'am" or "sir" was appropriate. "I seem to be lost, and was hoping I might...you might...." He realized that he had no idea what he hoped; he had been so intent on reaching the castle that he hadn't considered what to do once here. Another voice spoke, more human in its rich tones, and yet at the same time cold, icy, lacking emotion. He looked toward the sound.
"Invite the boy to stay," it said. "We'll have him for dinner, if he'll join us. Meanwhile, let him get cleaned up and rested."
The man who spoke was tall, handsome in a way, but very pale, with dark lips–or at least that was what Derek saw in the flickering candlelight.
"Yes, master," the raspy voice answered.
"Thank you," Derek said, stepping inside. "That's very kind of you."
"It's been a long night, and day is upon us. I'll be downstairs getting some rest," the tall man said.
"Yes, master," the raspy voice answered, and the door swung closed. The tall man walked with long strides down the hall, almost as if he were in a hurry, and rounded a corner.
A moment later sunlight pierced the windows, brilliantly lighting the castle. At the same instant, all the candles, no longer needed, were extinguished.
The man who remained by the door was the most deformed approximation of humanity that Derek had ever seen. Its left arm looked bulging and powerful, its right lithe and agile, and the discrepancy spread through its chest and shoulders, putting its body out of line. The left shoulder was considerably higher and broader than the right, such that even though the creature's neck was centered over its hips it appeared unbalanced, and while upright looked cocked toward the larger shoulder. The deformity was accented by a wealth of scars, so many it appeared the creature had been cut to bits and sewn back together. The words that came to Derek's mind were construct, flesh golem, Frankenstein's monster, Morbius–a creature pieced together from body parts and brought to life by alchemy or magic or some arcane science.
"Follow me," it rasped, and the awkward shuffle by which it moved accentuated the total impression. Derek was caught between pity and fear, but followed.
What have you stepped into now, Derek Jacob Brown? he wondered. The master could be a mad scientist, or worse; servants such as this attended vampires at times. Don't jump to conclusions, he told himself. Don't assume the worst. But why not? Every time he awoke, he assumed the worst, and the worst happened. This probably was the home of a vampire or a mad scientist or something, and the servant was to lock him up until later, when they could have him for dinner–that was what was said, wasn't it? He should kill them both and get out of here, as fast as he could. His instincts were always right, and he kept ignoring them.
That wasn't entirely true, he reminded himself. After all, he had been afraid of Carlo, had come very close to attacking Carlo in a misperceived need for self-defense. Carlo was on his side, or would have been had he lived long enough to know what was happening. Just because the whole thing seems creepy and you're frightened doesn't mean you instinctively know who's who or what's happening. He would need some evidence, something to tell him who to trust and who to flee. He didn't have that yet. Maybe this poor deformed servant was a good guy; maybe the master was just a kind eccentric. Maybe he should be patient, and not jump to conclusions.
The servant was leading him down a flight of stone steps; the candles here were already lit, and no sunshine reached the basement.
"I'm Derek," he said. His voice echoed in the narrow stone stair. "What do I call you?"
"Call me?" the raspy voice replied. "Call me if you need anything."
"No, what's your name?"
"Name?" The servant paused, as if pondering the question.
"What does the master call you?"
"Master calls me. There is no one else to call."
"You don't have a name."
"Name," it said, and again it paused, as if trying to remember something from years before.
"O.K., so what do you call the master?"
"Don't call master. Master calls me."
"No, what is the master's name?"
"He is called master."
"What do other people call him?"
And again, the servant looked like he was trying to remember something from long ago. Then, as if the answer no longer mattered, he said, "Other people called him master. You can wash here." They were standing in a dimly lit dank basement room in which there was an empty stone tub built into the floor, and a well beside it with a bucket on a rusty chain.
"Thanks," he said. "That was helpful."
Any hint of sarcasm was lost on his guide, who said, "I am glad to help. I can draw water for Derek."
"Thanks; I'll get it," he said. A cold bath in a damp basement seemed less appealing than what he had imagined.
"Call me if you need anything."
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with eight other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #86: Novel Conflicts. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: