Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Matthew Mantrell leaned forward across the little table in the campus coffee shop and tapped the sheet of rune-covered parchment before him. He tried to put some of the urgency he felt into his voice.
"I tell you, Paul, this is important!"
Paul just sighed and shook his head, reaching for the last of his coffee. He didn't even glance at the parchment.
Somehow, Matt never had been able to make others take him seriously. He was tall enough, he thought, over medium height, and fencing practice had kept him lean and wiry. But his eyes were an honest, warm brown-like his hair. His nose was out of Sherlock Holmes-but from Watson, not Holmes. He looked, unfortunately, good-natured, friendly, and kind.
Across the table, Paul put his cup down and cleared his throat. "As I remember it," he said, "you're supposed to be working on your doctorate. How long since you did any research on your dissertation?"
"Three months," Matt admitted.
Paul shook his head. "Then you'd better get on the stick, man. You don't have that much more time."
It was true. He had a month of the spring semester left, plus the summer. After that, it was out into the wilderness of two-year college teaching, with little or no research time, probably never to emerge into the light of a Ph.D. and eventual professorship. He shuddered at the thought, but screwed up the remnants of determination and declared, "But this is important! I feel it in my bones!"
"So what are you going to tell your committee? That you dropped everything because-so you say-this piece of manuscript fell out of an old copy of the Njaal saga while you were poking around in the library stacks?"
"So how come nobody else ever found it? They've been sifting that library for fifty years. How do we know it isn't a hoax?"
"It's in runes..."
"Which you-and who knows how many others-can write." Paul shook his head slowly. "One scrap of parchment, with runes spelling out words in a language that sounds like a mess of German, French, maybe Old Norse, and probably some Elvish and Barsoomian worked in."
"Yeah, but I feel it's a real tongue." Matt managed a tight smile. "The words just don't make sense-yet."
"So you've been trying to translate it from root words for three months, without a bit of luck." Paul sighed. "Give it up, man. June's next month. Your fellowship will be up, and none of your dissertation done. There you'll be, without a degree, and not much chance of getting one, either."
He looked at the clock and got to his feet, clapping Matt on the shoulder. "Gotta run. Good luck, man-and pull your head back to reality huh? Or as close as we can ever get."
Matt watched him shoulder his way out of the coffee shop. Paul was right, from the hard-headed, practical point of view. But Matt knew he was, too. He just couldn't substantiate it. He sighed and pulled out his silver ballpoint pen to have another try at playing acrostics with the speech sounds in his manuscript.
He looked down at the parchment, and everything else dropped from his mind. He felt, illogically, that if he just stared at the black brush strokes, just repeated those alien phonemes again and again, they'd start making sense. Ridiculous, of course! He had to reason it out, starting with the root words and locating their place in the family of human languages.
He caught himself repeating the syllables again and stared at the blank notebook page beside him. Start with root words. Lalinga -- the first word of all. Well, lingua was Latin for tongue or language, and la was the feminine article in the Romance languages. But the next words didn't seem to fit the pattern. Lalinga wogreus marwold reigor ...
He leaned back, taking a very deep breath. He'd slipped into it again, chanting the meaningless symbols ...
No, not meaningless! They would make sense! He was sure of it. If he could just find the key ...
Dangerous, some remote, monitoring part of his mind gibed. Very dangerous; that way lie dragons. And insanity ...
Matt buried his face in his hands, thumbs massaging his temple. Maybe Paul was right; he had been working this over too long. Maybe he should just drop it ...
But not without one more try. He sat up straight again and took a firmer grip on the pen. Now, one more time.
Lalinga wogreus marwold reigor
Athelstrigen marx alupta
Harleng krimorg barlow steigor ...
Pull back, the remote part of his mind warned. You're in too deep; you'll never get out...
But Matt couldn't let go-underneath it all, somehow, the weird words were beginning to make sense. He head filled with roaring-and beneath it, like a, harmonic, the noise seemed to modulate into words:
You, betrayed by time and space,
Born without your proper grace ...
The whole room seemed to be darkening, with only the scrap of parchment lighted; and even there, the runes were writhing, blurring, starting to run together...
To a world befouled and base.
Feel your proper form and case,
Recognize your homeland's face.
The page darkened, left him enveloped in a formless, lightless limbo. He lurched to his feet, then sagged against the wall, squeezing the hard, cool cylinder of the silver pen like a talisman; but the words thundered on in his head:
Cross the void of time and space!
Seek and find your proper place!
Worlds whirled, suns swerved across limbo, wheeling him about like a dervish. Nausea struck as the floor swung out from under his feet. His knees tried to give; Matt clutched at a beam in the wall, holding himself up, trying to force his eyes open.
It passed; the spinning suns slowed, his feet touched hardness, then pressed up. Bit by bit, the churning universe ground down toward a halt...
Matt leaned against the wall, taking deep breaths, letting the dizziness pass and the nausea ebb. Paul was right; he had been working too hard ...
A hand clasped his shoulder. "Here, countryman! Stand away!"
Matt looked up, irritated-at a florid, beefy face with a full beard, a puffy beret, and a fur-trimmed woolen robe over a linen tunic.
The hand shook his shoulder, almost knocking him down. "D'ye hear me? Stand away from my shop!"
Matt stared, unbelieving. The meaning was clear and familiar, but the words weren't English.
They were the language of the manuscript fragment...
He looked around, dazed. How had he. gotten outside? Especially this outside-a narrow street, half-timbered houses with second stories sticking out over the cobblestones ...
Where was he?
"Alms, goodman! Alms for the poor!"
Matt looked down into a grimy, grease-stained wooden bowl about a foot below his nose. There was a hand holding it-a filthy, scabby, dirtcrusted hand. The arm attached to it went with the hand perfectly, scab for scab and crud for crud. He followed it down to a motley collection of rags and a hideous, emaciated, grizzled old face, with a filthy woolen strip tied across the eyes.
The beggar gave the bowl an angry, impatient shake. "Alms, countryman! Give me alms! For charity's sweet sake, goodman -- alms!"
The man went with the scene. The gutter was filled with garbage and sewage, a magnet for mangy dogs and scrofulous pigs.
While Matt watched, a rat shot out of a pile of garbage, and a mutt leaped on, it with a happy yelp. Matt shuddered and looked away; a sudden wave of dizziness swept him, and he clutched at the wall again, leaning against it.
"He's ill!" The beggar sounded as if he were on the verge of panic; definitely overreacting, Matt thought dizzily.
"And he leans against my shop!" The beefy type didn't sound too solid, either. "Stand away, I say!"
Matt remembered something about medieval plagues and people accused of carrying them. He staggered upright, fishing in a pocket. "No, no, I'm all right." He pulled out a quarter and dropped it into the bowl. "Just a little dizziness; it was a hard trip, you understand.. ."
Why had he thought of medieval plagues?
The beggar's other hand closed on the quarter, scooping it out of the bowl with a satisfied hiss; but the tradesman spat an oath and snatched it out of the beggar's hand. He held it about two inches from his eyes, staring at it, his eyes bulging. Then he looked up at Matt, his eyes wide with a sort of horror, and maybe loathing. Matt suddenly realized he wasn't exactly dressed for the occasion. The others he saw all seemed to be wearing the same sort of basic outfit, with variations-a short tunic over hose, with some sort of cloak over it. It was the variations that gave Matt heartburn; they ran the gamut from about the seventh century to the fourteenth.
Most of them went barefoot. Some had cross-gartered sandals. Some wore shoes, but they were pointy at the toes. And the hats ran from a simple hood to the beefy individual's puffy beret.
"What manner of man is this?" a new voice growled. It belonged to a muscle-bound type in cross-gartered hose and a leather apron, with an interesting assortment of soot smudges and singed hairs in place of a shirt, and an even more interesting hammer-a squarish block of iron with an oaken handle. Now that Matt noticed it, there were two more members to the group, one with a quarterstaff and the other with an adz. And they all looked hostile.
"He's an outlander, isn't he?" Quarterstaff grunted.
"Mayhap," Puffyhat answered, "but he appeared in front of my shop when I had scarce glanced down at my counting-board. And look at his coin-have you ever seen such?"
The quarter passed from hand to hand, to the accompaniment of rumbles of amazement and suspicion.
"'Tis too polished," the blacksmith opined. "'Tis as if a king's statue could be shrunken down to the size of a coin."
"And such exactness, such precision!" Matt recognized a professional tone in Puffyhat's voice; he must be a silversmith. "'Tis in all ways wondrous. He who cast it must have been a wizard!"
"Wizard!" The knot of men fell totally silent, staring at Matt.
The ridiculousness of it hit Matt suddenly. He felt the tender glow of his own twisted humor and straightened slowly, fighting temptation. As usual, he lost.
He flung his arms straight up and started chanting in his most orotund tones, "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers set forth upon this continent a new nation..."
They backed off like kids in a dentist's office, arms up to protect their faces. Matt shut up, hands on his hips, grinning around at them, waiting to see what happened-which was nothing, of course.
Slowly, the townsmen lowered their arms and looked up, unbelieving. Then their faces reddened with anger, and their arms came down the rest of the way with fists on the ends. They moved in.
Matt stepped back and back again, till the stucco wall pricked his back. The mob started shouting, "Vile, impotent wizard!"... "We'll teach you to curse your betters!" ... "Foul sorcerer!"
Sorcerer? Somehow, that had an ugly sound.
But "wizard" was another matter-and so was being used for a punching bag. Matt stabbed his forefingers at them, one after the other, right, left, right, chanting:
"To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away, dash away all!"
There was a loud pop! Matt found himself facing an empty street, with a handful of gawkers on the far side.
He blinked and shook his head. It couldn't be. But where had Puffyhat and his friends gone? Matt looked around for a porch.
There wasn't any in the vicinity, but there was a low wall about fifty feet down to the right across the alley, with four huddled, moaning shapes on top of it.
One of them looked up-the blacksmith. He stared at Matt. Matt stared back.
Then anger wrenched the smith's face, and he jumped off the wall with a howl, running straight for Matt, his hammer swinging up.
Puffyhat and the boys jumped down to follow him, bellowing gleefully.
So did everyone else on the street-letting the smith lead, of course.
There was no time to think. Matt stepped back, curling his left arm as if he were holding a book and thrusting up an imaginary torch with his right.
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free!"
They kept coming-a howling mob, charging the stranger who chanted in an arcane language.
"The wretched refuse of your teeming shore!
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me!"
They were twenty feet away and still coming, but he had to catch a breath, because he was suddenly working uphill, pouring sweat, feeling as if he were, trying to twist some huge, invisible field of forces that had suddenly enveloped him. He blurted out the last line:
"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Thunder split the alley, and men screamed. Matt squeezed his eyes shut.