HE FELL TO THE LOFT FLOOR and lay still, listening; the wound in his shoulder open and bleeding onto the rough wood of the loft that was covered with grain, straw, and mouse droppings, tiny bones of the owl’s prey, and the chalk stream of pigeon dung.
In the barn below, fighting men, horse soldiers, were laughing and joking in a rough patois of Swiss German about one of the serving girls at the cantina that a sergeant fancied. These men were not Black Robes, he realized, as he listened and absorbed their language, learning yet another language through the aid of the demon’s gift; they were Totenkopf and any fight at the clearing with the Black Robes was over and these men had defeated them through sheer number rather than prowess.
Even though they sounded friendly with their jokes and laughter, a type of prejudicial bonhomie exuded from the interstices of their complex syntax, causing Stern to decide that trusting them would be a mistake; just as he had begun to harbor a suspicion of Birgit and Bleak. As quietly as possible, he crawled to the open loft doors and looked out on the clearing next to the cantina, searching for a way down and an avenue of escape. The horse soldiers had picketed about two hundred horses in two straight lines near the edge of the woods opposite the cantina and its outdoor tables. Twenty or so men worked there with the horses, spreading hay for them to eat and rubbing them down. Across the clearing, on the opposite side, underneath the wooden arbor with its lattice top, fifty or more soldiers gathered in smaller groups, resting and eating, as Carnes’ serving girls scurried in and out of the building, carrying food and drink to the men and simultaneously swatting away the rough hands that reached for their hips and legs. Akna was not among them. He was glad she was not there with the soldiers but he was also worried she was not present.
From the cantina, Birgit, wearing a white cotton shirt, open at the neck, gray jodhpurs, and high-top black cavalry boots emerged with a man he did not know. The man was not in uniform; instead, he wore riding boots, brown cotton pants, a gray shirt and a black short-waist jacket, like those worn by the gauchos in the south. They walked close together, casually bumping together in the intimate way lovers have when they stroll down the street on a Sunday afternoon, as they moved beneath the arbor and headed slowly in Stern’s direction. He pulled back from the edge of the loft, afraid that Birgit would see him, but they stopped at the edge of the arbor, still below the lattice work of the frame roof above the tables, and looked into each other’s eyes as if they about to kiss.
But before their lips touched, as they leaned toward one another, from the open barn door directly below him a tall man wearing a black sombrero and officer’s tunic called out to Birgit in Spanish. It was Bleak and she turned at the sound of his voice and shadowed her eyes with her left hand. She then called out in a sort of a shrill screech, like the warning cry of an ape, and started running toward the barn. Bleak walked away from the door of the barn toward the woman, surprised by her reaction, and noticing her glance toward the top of the barn, turned and looked up to see Stern. Their eyes met and there was some message conveyed; perhaps, a look of relief, thought Stern, or surprise. Then he called out to the men in the barn in German that there was a man in the loft; and, almost immediately, the ladder rattled, as the soldiers climbed into the loft with guns drawn. Stern raised his hands, surrendering to the Totenkopf that now surrounded him.
Bleak soon joined the men with Birgit right behind him. Placing his hands on his hips, he sighed, as Birgit pushed pass him and rushed to Asa’s side. “Gunshot to the shoulder,” she said, pulling him into a seated position. Probing his back firmly with her long fingers, she continued: “And it’s still there.”
Bleak moved closer and asked: “How serious is it?”
She moved toward the ladder and said, “I’m going to get everything ready. Please get him down without killing him.”
Bleak turned to the men and ordered: “You heard her; take him down below.”
Stern said, “If you help me to the ladder, I think I can get there on my own legs.”
Bleak frowned and said, “Heinrich, help him to the stairs.” Then he turned to the young soldier with blond hair, “Muller, climb down the ladder a ways and help him.”
With Heinrich’s and Muller’s help he reached the ground and then walked slowly out of the barn toward to a wooden tables under the lattice work that Birgit pointed to before she ran toward the cantina for her medical bag. Upon her return a few minutes later she spread a white sheet over a table and waited for him with her sleeves rolled up, a black leather apron on, and her surgical tools lined up before her. Next to her, Akna, who had somehow appeared without his noticing her and looking extremely worried, placed a porcelain bowl of hot water and a bar of soap near the end of the table. With a long white towel draped over her shoulder, she stood at the end of the table waiting for Birgit to tell her what to do. As he approached the table, Stern tried to engage her with his eyes but she refused to look at him and he wondered what had happened to her since he had disappeared into the dragon’s cage.
“Cut his tunic and shirt off,” said Birgit to a young man with dark skin, a thick mustache, and large brown eyes, who ran to Stern’s side and took his arm away from the soldier, Muller. As soon as Stern stumbled to the table, the man helped him sit and then instructed Muller and Heinrich to hold his arms away from his body. The young black man then took a pair of large scissors and began cutting away Stern’s tunic. Somewhat helpless and about to faint, Stern looked at Akna, whose eyes where wide with fright. When he finally gained her attention, she whispered, “I’m sorry,” in the Argyll language.
“I will be fine,” he assured her and then felt himself passing out.
Birgit called his name and then slapped him, startling him back to consciousness. “Drink this,” she ordered, and he took the vial of dragon skin she offered him and drained it completely. Immediately, he could feel the elixir warming his body and he remembered the dragon curled in the cave beneath the falls at the mere. He wanted to ask Birgit about the potion and tell her about the dragon; instead, he felt an injunction arise in his conscious mind, forbidding him from mentioning either the dragon or the demon. Secrets were accumulating exponentially and he felt a severe speech impediment foreclosing their discussion to Birgit and Bleak. Had the demon somehow placed a lock on his mind that would prevent him from disclosing their discourse or was his sub-conscious mind trying to protect him from people he did not truly know or trust.
With his clothes cut away, the two burly soldiers helped him lie on his back on the wooden table, as Birgit washed the wound and he black man moved aside to allow Birgit to see the damage .
Drying on her hands on the towel, after cleaning the wound, Akna moved away and Birgit leaned over him and said, “How do you feel?”
“Better, since you gave me the potion,” he answered.
She smiled and said, “You have had a rough go of it the last few months, haven’t you?”
He nodded and smiled wanly.
She reached into her black medical bag, which the black man placed near her, and drew out another vial of elixir; one containing a white milky substance. “This is the milk of the poppy,” she said, handing him the vial. “It will put you to sleep.”
He drank the bitter concoction down in two gulps and instantly felt its deadening effect, as it entered his blood stream. Conscious, but just barely, he saw Birgit open the wound with her scalpel and then take forceps and dig out the mini-ball in his shoulder. He passed out for just a moment and then he awoke to Birgit sewing the wound together; he was thankful for the poppy because he could feel the tug of the needle through his skin, not the pain he would have felt without it.
“Are you back?” the woman asked, as she worked on the wound. “I’m trying to suture this in such a way that you have little or no scarring.”
Everyone but the black man was gone, who stood close to Birgit waiting for her instructions. Stern looked away from the two, trying to distract himself from the ravages to his flesh. A mosquito net had been hung over him to keep away the flies and through it he spied a large moth on the outside against the cheesecloth. Was it the demon’s messenger, watching the surgery?
“Why are they now trying to kill me?” he asked the woman.
“They think you are possessed by a demon,” she said softly. ‘Pandemonium has wreaked havoc on this realm since the last war: dragons from Okeanus, death from radiation and germ sickness unleashed in the far east, then the Argylls, your race, arriving from another galaxy seeking refuge, and finally complete collapse into barbarity throughout the civilized world. Only their belief in the Pope and his God has saved them from total destruction.”
She tugged on the suture and handed the scissors to the black man, saying “Marco, please clean and bandage the wound.”
As the assistant cleaned the wound, she sat on the bench and washed her hands in the porcelain basin.
“Why do you act as if you are not one of them?” he asked.
“What do you mean,” she said with a knowing look. He read it to mean she knew what he was asking but she wanted him to guess or to figure it out on his own.
He did not take the bait and remained silent. Finally, she crossed her legs and said, while drying her hands, “Marco, leave us.”
The black man tidied up the area and left. When he was gone she said, “Bleak, Harpo, and I are not one of them. We are members of the Category.” She paused and he did not say anything, trying to draw her out and talk about what was going on around them. Finally, she continued: “Bleak told you that the night he met you.”
“I don’t know what that is,” he said.
“Bleak was the first one of us selected by the Valkyries over seven hundred years ago.”
He heard what she said about Valkyries choosing a dead Bleak to serve but he didn’t know what to make of the statement. Was she really saying Bleak was over seven hundred years old, died in battle, and then was reborn to serve a god? The Valkyries served Wotan, he remembered from his early classes on mythology. He was about to say that was impossible but he thought about Kokabiel, who seemed very real to him. So, he reasoned, if demons exist, then perhaps so, too, do gods.
“Bleak died in Berlin in 1945 and was reborn. The Valkyries came for him and assigned him to track down Herr Wolf, the leader of Germany. He brought me into the Category in 1992 because of my husband, Jacques Oiseau, the man who discovered the dragons.” She paused and then explained. “He didn’t really discover them, they were already here. He didn’t know that but that’s another story, recorded elsewhere. Bleak needed a liaison with Oiseau so he brought me back from the dead to work with him.” She took a deep breath and looked over at him sheepishly. He smiled, as if to say, “I’m listening. Please continue.”
She nodded and said, “Wolf, after his escape, opened the first portal to Pandemonium with the stone, causing things to go awry on this plane.” She smiled as if she had made a joke of some sort but he was unable to follow it. Everything she said was new to him and he was unable to follow it. It was without context. It was like reading one of those interminably long fantasy trilogies in the wrong order. He cleared his throat and tried to lift his head but he was still weak; instead, he turned his head toward her and asked: “What do I have to do with any of this?”
She stood and handed him another vial of the dragon skin. “You are still very weak,” she said. “Rest and we will answer your questions tonight when the witch arrives.”
He drank the vial and closed his eyes. Suddenly he felt very tired and before he fell asleep, he thought: a witch.
He awoke at twilight. Lanterns sputtered and he could hear the men gathered at the tables, eating and drinking. Unlike before, he felt much stronger. The dragon skin had performed a miracle yet again.
He sat up and placed his bare feet on the ground now covered in fresh sawdust; they had cleaned up the blood and bandages. His mouth was dry and he possessed a great thirst and hunger.
One of two soldiers who helped him earlier sat under the arbor near him nursing drinks. He couldn’t remember their names. Others, not eating, watered horses or stretched out under the tall hardwoods at the edge of the clearing taking a siesta.
Night descended and cicadas rattled in the trees and a slight breeze blew across the flowing river. The remnants of the battle with the Black Robes had been cleansed and purged from the clearing and an idyllic peacefulness lay upon the camp. Gas lamps hanging from the arbor’s lattice roof sputtered. Neither Akna nor any of the serving girls were visible; instead, the patron and two of his sons hurried back and forth among the soldiers, filling steins, causing Stern to suspect the man was keeping the girls away from the soldiers now that night approached.
He rubbed his head and wrapped a sheet around his naked body. He did not feel strong enough to approach the tavern owner and ask for something to drink. He remained standing and surveyed the grounds, trying to remember what she had said. It was something important but now he could not remember it. Something was going to happen tonight, he remembered that much. Someone was coming to meet him. He licked his dried lips and took a step toward the tavern keeper. No one seemed to pay him any attention, which was just as well. If he could have marched out of the camp and back to the river he would. But naked and wounded he felt he should stay put. Besides, he thought, someone was coming to meet him. Someone important, she said. And he was very thirsty and the men were drinking beer.
Carne noticed him walking through the tables under the arbor, wrapped in the white sheet, like a ghoul, risen from its grave. He crossed himself and approached the man, thinking he should reach him before he fell. Stern saw Carne coming toward him and he muttered out a request for water. The man nodded and bowed his head and turned toward the cantina. He had a pitcher of beer in his hand and Stern licked his dry lips again, imagining the cold beer and wondering why he asked for water when the beer would have tasted so much better. He bumped against a wooden bench jutting from beneath one of the long tables, as he waited for the man to return with the water.
The soldiers now noticed him standing there and one of them with corporal stripes on his jacket hurried toward a large pavilion-like tent pitched beneath a wide willow tree across the clearing from the cantina and near the horses. He is running for Birgit, Stern thought.
Somewhere in the south thunder rumbled and he turned his attention away from the corporal and Birgit and, instead, peered through the thick foliage of the cantina’s arbor to the night sky above. Rain was coming and something else too, he thought, as he picked up the distant reverberations of a mechanical hum approaching from the north. And, then, he remembered what Birgit had said: a witch was coming to see him: one of the luna bruja from the stone citadel at the mouth of the Big Muddy, north, beyond the great Anglo wall.
He shuffled from beneath the arbor into the clearing and peered through the darkening haze toward the north to catch sight of the twinkling lights of a flying machine approaching at a very high speed. He had heard about the ornithopters the witches flew and even tracked down pictures of them in an ancient text in the library but he had never actually seen one. Now, even though he was tired and wounded, his curiosity was peeked and he desired to see one of the incredible machines.
Soon the machine appeared: its running lights shed enough illumination to reveal the shimmering feathers of its wings in the night sky. The craft was much smaller than he imagined; just large enough to seat two, the pilot and a passenger, that were visible through the transparent carapace of the insect-shaped machine.
With a sense of awe, he looked over his shoulder, back toward the tent, to see if anyone else had spied the tiny craft approaching the clearing. Birgit, along with Bleak and the other man, the one he had seen her walking with near the cantina, emerged and moved toward the center of the clearing, where the corporal met them, spoke a few words, and then raised his arm and pointed toward Stern, standing beneath the arbor. Birgit nodded and the waved at him; a feeble salute to acknowledge she saw him standing near the table where they had operated on his wound just hours before. Then the four of them moved toward him and he prepared himself. However, as they walked, he realized Birgit was watching both him and the approaching craft. As she moved her eyes from machine and then him, he could tell she was excited as well as nervous at the appearance of the witches. But that did not explain why she alternated her gaze between him and the little airship with the diaphanous wings. Somehow, she communicated a certain trepidation for him. Not many people had ever met a lunar bruja and lived to tell their story so he thought she was trying to gauge his reaction to the meeting. Or maybe she feared he would try to escape. After all, the witches had a fierce reputation for causing mayhem. Some rumors circulated they were vampires that murdered indiscriminately and from time to time turned human men into their slaves, their soldiers, or the pilots of their ornithopters.
As the craft, shaped like a giant grasshopper, circled the clearing several times, Stern could see two figures in the ship’s seats, scanning the clearing and the woods surrounding it. He imagined they were checking the area for the possibility of an ambush. But an attack by whom at night, he wondered. Where did the lunar brujas stand with the Black Robes or the Mexican army for that matter? They were creatures of the north and as far as he knew they had never crossed the great wall. All the stories he had heard linked the lunar brujas with the other monsters that existed north of the Rio Bravo or west of the Rio Concho.
Finally the craft’s engine slowed and the pilot brought it down in the very center of the clearing. From the way it landed softly on the thick grasses, Stern could tell the ship weighted almost nothing. Only the small engine and the materiality of the passengers seemed to possess substance; everything else seemed to be fragile and translucent, illuminated by some inner light and the sputtering gas lanterns around the clearing. From the ship's carapace, a thin, tall woman emerged. Barefooted, she gingerly stepped onto the rough grass and then ran her pale fingers through the thick mass of black hair that hung loosely to her narrow shoulders in a feeble attempt to bring it to order. At first, Stern thought she was nude but then he realized she wore a shear sleeveless silk burgundy dress with a deep V-neck that exposed her pale skin and hung loose from her narrow shoulders and then was cinched tight by a wide belt at her waist that secured a scabbard, supporting a long narrow sword. The dress’ material waned and winked, appeared and disappeared, shimmering as she walked: at one angle it resonated with a deep ruby red hue and then it shifted into a light rosy transparent sheen. Magically adorned, she walked away from the idling machine toward the pavilion tent but not too far; instead, she stopped and Stern thought she waited for the pilot to extinguish the motor, and with it, its running lights. To confirm his thoughts, the man climbed from the cockpit in one fluid, athletic move. He was tall, like her, with black hair cropped close to his head and clean-shaven cheeks. Wearing a semblance of a uniform, which was all black, with a silver dagger as the only weapon on his left hip, he took up a position of defense behind her, on the left. But Stern wondered who protected whom: she stood like a swordsman, with a loose stance, her feet somewhat apart and square on the grass. He imagined her pulling the sword from its scabbard in one fluid move and performing a riposte. They appeared an equal match to the blond Birgit and Bleak. Light and dark, he thought, opposed to one another on a cold night in eastern Mexico.