In Which the Aid of a Good Doctor Is Sought
Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open,” said Douglas, casting a critical eye over his accomplice. The soup-bowl haircut was good, a little lopsided-Snipe refused to sit still beneath the shears-but seemed all the more convincing for that. And Snipe’s sullen demeanour seemed especially well-suited for the portrayal of a grudging medieval lackey.
“I’m giving you a knife, and I want you to keep it hidden, right?” He slapped the youth on the cheek to centre his attention. “Look me in the eye and listen-the knife is only to be used in extreme emergency. I do not want a repeat of last time, hear?”
The lad ran his thumb along the blade, drawing a bead of blood, which he licked off.
“Yes, it’s sharp enough,” Douglas continued. “Keep it out of sight. I do not expect trouble, but you never know.”
He released his servant to finish preparing for the leap and turned to his own disguise. He pulled the coarse-woven robe over his head, adjusted it on his shoulders, and knotted the simple corded belt. His enquiries into the dress and manners of his hoped-for time and place had led him to believe that impersonating a travelling priest accompanied by a junior brother would be unlikely to raise comment or suspicion from the locals.
Douglas felt, as he always did, a rising sense of anticipation, and wondered if all the Flinders-Petrie men experienced the same sensation when thinking about their impending interdimensional expeditions; certainly his father and grandfather had intimated as much. For him it was like the turning of a tide, a feeling that events were no longer stagnant but beginning to move in a single, inexorable direction towards an inevitable destination, a surge that in this particular instance would carry him to a long-forgotten time and place: Oxford in the year 1260. If he had marked the positions along the ley correctly on previous fact-finding trips, he reckoned they had a decent chance of fetching up a month or two either side of October when the university would be active and the object of their quest easiest to locate.
This journey was the most ambitious he had made to date, necessitating a lengthy and elaborate research process including, among other things, the rental of a town house on Holywell Street to serve as a staging area while he studied, prepared Snipe, and gathered the sundry materials they would need for their assault on early medieval academia.
He had hired theatrical seamstresses and outfitters to provide him and his assistant with the necessary costumes; he told them he was auditioning for a performance of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays- Cymbeline -and wanted sturdy, serviceable clothing that not only looked authentic but could stand up to hard wear, as he anticipated many performances. He also demanded hidden pockets concealed in the voluminous sleeves and ample hem of the garments. He engaged a medievalist from King’s College, London, for a series of private coaching sessions to perfect the forms of address and chief customs of the day. Diligent practice and unstinting repetition had led to a flirting familiarity if not a complete mastery of the conventions of that far-off time-at least, so far as could be determined with any accuracy at a remove of six hundred years or so.
The clothes and manners were the easy parts; an outward appearance could always be made to correspond, however roughly, to an acceptable norm and modified as necessary. Communication, however, would be much more difficult in that it unerringly revealed the thought processes of the individual and the society of which any man is part, and these change over time. A nineteenth-century businessman does not think or speak like a seventeenth-century farmer, much less like a thirteenth-century priest. Thus, communicating with a living person from a distant era would be most taxing. To that end, Douglas had spent three years steeped in the study of early medieval Latin.
Happily, experts in that arcane subject were thick on the ground in the university just now, and he had no difficulty pursuing the rigours of the language as far as his own considerable intellect could carry him.
He had also taken great care to assemble an unassailable cover story to explain any glaring discrepancies or oversights on his part-mistakes in his preparations which could not be foreseen, but were sure to crop up-and in this he schooled himself and Snipe until both could recite it in their sleep: they were visiting monks from Clonfert in Eire, and had come to Oxford to consult with scholars regarding some of the finer points of various doctrinal issues such as transubstantiation and angelic hierarchy. Such rustic monks, while steeped in learning, eschewed the ways of the world and were, on the whole, ignorant of current fashions and opinions, maintaining, as they did, lives of semiseclusion and freedom from financial necessity.
On the other side of the equation, Douglas placed much hope in the assumption that the average Englishman of the early medieval period was sufficiently uninformed of the world beyond the shores of England that any anomalies, discrepancies, or irregularities perceived in either himself or Snipe would simply be accounted to the fact that they were strangers in a strange land.
Snipe, of course, was the weak link in the close-forged chain Douglas had so painstakingly constructed; the young man could not read or write simple English, let alone Latin, and it was always an open question whether the youth fully comprehended even the most basic points of human interaction, or whether he just did not care to accommodate any manner of civilised discourse. This was the reality of working with Snipe, and Douglas had taken it fully into account. Accordingly, he proceeded on the premise that if anyone should happen to overhear them speaking to one another, the eavesdropper would simply conclude he was hearing some dialect of thirteenth-century Irish, and not modern English. Should the need arise, Douglas stood ready to assist this false impression in sundry ways.
As for the various creature comforts, he had provided himself with a small personal cache of silver and gold-cast in tiny ingots or sticks as described in old manuscripts-which he kept in a kidskin bag in the satchel. But, as common priests were not expected to carry much in the way of worldly wealth, he would keep that out of sight and resort to it only as needed. For most things, he would depend on the kindness of strangers and the largesse of Mother Church.
The last, but by no means least, item to be secured was the location of the ley that they would employ to make the leap into medieval Oxford. Initially this had posed an intractable difficulty. Try as he might, Douglas could not find any reference to a ley that had Oxford as its destination, or even south-central England in the early Middle Ages. None of his father’s papers or books, none of the usual sources upon which he relied, had so much as a mention of where such a ley might be found.
To be sure, he did possess that portion of the Skin Map he had liberated from Sir Henry’s trunk in the Christ Church crypt. This was, at present, virtually worthless to him because the map was in his great-grandfather’s peculiar code, which he could not read: the very reason he aspired to 1260 in the first place.
Douglas had begun to suspect the problem was insoluble when he remembered Alfred Watkins’ book, The Old Straight Track. In the pages of that book he found not only a reference to an Oxford ley but a simple hand-drawn map of it as well. Ordinarily he would not have looked twice at this. For, after all, ley lines always led to other places and times… did they not? The idea that there could be a ley in a certain place linking that same place to its other-dimensional counterpart had never occurred to him.
Could there be self-connecting leys?
He did not know. Yet it was a very simple theory to test. All he had to do was find the Oxford ley and try it. And this he did.
One morning before dawn-and before the traffic virtually consumed the road-Douglas, armed with a diagram he had copied from Watkins’ book, walked out onto the High Street. A few false tries, a lot of pacing, retracing, and sidestepping, but he eventually sensed the tingle on his skin that told him he had located a ley. After another attempt or two, he achieved a successful crossing-a fact not completely realised until he reached the crossroads and saw torches burning outside Saint Martin’s church.
Douglas hurried to the crossroads he knew as Carfax and paused to search for any clue that might establish the date of this particular iteration of Oxford. The buildings were mostly the same ones he recognised, but of more recent age; the streets were not paved with tarmac, but with cobblestones; heaps of dung mouldered at the street corner. There was no one else around, so he could not derive a guess from clothing. He might have been able to delve a little deeper into this mystery, but the sun was just rising and he knew that he must either depart again at once or spend at least one day and maybe more in this place. He was not prepared for that, so he ran back to the ley and made the jump back to the home world-albeit, three days later by the calendar.
Over the next few weeks Douglas made many more excursions, calibrating by trial and error the distance coordinates along the ley that corresponded with what he thought of as the Otherworld timescale. In the end, he succeeded in locating the era that formed the centre of his search, as confirmed by the Roll of Vicars plaque on the wall of Saint Mary the Virgin church.
Satisfied that he had done all he could to prepare, Douglas pulled the hood over his robe, settled it on his shoulders, and stepped to the mirror. The image reflected there was of a healthy and well-nourished man of middle height and weight dressed in a good, serviceable robe of a country priest. The newly shaved tonsure on his head completed the effect. He smiled at his reflection.
“Come along, Snipe,” he said, stepping quickly to the door. “It is time to go.”
They walked out from the town house and proceeded towards the centre of Oxford. It was just before daybreak, but being a busy modern city, there were already a few people about. They passed a milkman and his mule and some black-gowned students asleep in doorways. At Broad Street, a rag and bone man with his pushcart trundled along, and on Turl Street the lamplighter with his pole was putting out the last lights. If anyone marked the strange apparition of a pair of medieval monks flapping towards city centre, they did not show it. In a place like Oxford, where students still wore the vestiges of medieval robes to tutorials and their professors still addressed formal assemblies in Latin, things that might have been considered an oddity to be remarked upon anywhere else were merely too common to be afforded attention.
They followed Turl Street to the end and turned onto the High, joining the ley line as it ran towards Carfax. Here Douglas paused. “Ready, Snipe?” he asked. “Do not be afraid, and do not make a fuss. You have done this before. Remember?” When this brought no response, Douglas gave him a light slap on the cheek. “Remember?”
The surly youth shook his head.
“Good. Then hold on.” He extended his hand to the lad, who gripped it tight. “Here we go!”
They began walking very quickly along the street, and Douglas counted off the steps. As he fell into the optimum stride, he looked for the marker he had chalked on the base of Gill the Ironmonger’s shop a few meters from the corner. As they approached the crossroads, a gaggle of students-either hastening to their studies or returning from the night’s revels-straggled by. Douglas’ first instinct was to turn and flee-to have his sudden and inexplicable dematerialisation publicly witnessed seemed far too risky. He wavered on the brink of abandoning the attempt.
That impulse was swiftly jostled aside by another: What did he care if a passel of bleary-eyed scholastics got an eyeful? What did it matter if they talked? What difference would it make?
He saw the chalk mark and stepped up his pace. A sound like a banshee howl reached them, falling through the upper atmosphere. In the same instant, a stiff wind gusted out of nowhere, driving a sudden rain shower. The street and buildings, the bus and its passengers, all the world around them grew misty and indistinct. Then they were falling through darkness-but only for a moment, the fractional interval between one heartbeat and the next-before striking solid earth again.
Snipe stumbled upon landing and went down on hands and knees; his lips curled in a curse that was interrupted by a gagging sound as his stomach heaved. Douglas, too, felt the incipient nausea. Bile surged up his throat, but he swallowed it back down. Resisting the urge to shut his eyes, he tried to maintain contact with some physical object, fixing his gaze on the steeple of Saint Martin’s church rising like a dagger blade pointing towards the heart of heaven.
The queasy sensation passed, and he drew fresh air into his lungs. “Breathe, Snipe,” he advised the heaving boy beside him. “Don’t fight. It will pass.”
He glanced quickly around. A pair of figures moved among the shadows a short distance away-too far to have seen them arrive, he thought. Indeed, the only living thing to have seen the translocation was a scrawny dog standing in the road a little way off, its head lowered and hackles raised. Douglas kicked a dirt clod in its direction, and the animal scurried off.
The light was dim-but was it early morning or evening? He looked to the east and saw only darkness, yet the western sky still held a glimmer of light. Nightfall, then. “Stand up, Snipe,” he commanded. “Wipe your mouth. We made it. We are here.”
The youth climbed to his feet, and the two moved slowly on towards the church. Douglas paused at the crossroads to look both ways up and down each street, getting his bearings. Much of the town that he knew was here-in a general sense, as old Oxford of the medieval period remained in the outlines of the modern city-and he recognised it. He knew where he was, now to find out when. That was the first item of business-to find out the exact date and time.
As the two travellers hurried across the road, a monk carrying a large candle appeared in the doorway of the church. The fellow proceeded to light the torches in the sconces either side of the door. He turned, saw the strangers, and called to them in a language Douglas assumed was some local dialect. He had his reply ready. “Pax vobiscum,” he said, folding his hands before him and offering a small bow from the waist. Summoning his practised Latin, he said, “May grace attend you this night, brother.”
The monk responded likewise. “Peace, brothers.” He made to retreat into the church once more. “May God be good to you.”
“A moment, brother,” called Douglas, striding forward. “We have just arrived in this place and have need of information.”
The monk turned back and waited for them to come nearer. “Have you travelled far?” he said, his Latin tinged by his broad, oddly flattened accent.
“Far enough,” replied Douglas. “I am charged with a duty to find one known as Dr. Mirabilis-a fellow priest, I have it, whose writings have reached us in Eire.”
The monk rolled his eyes. “You and all the rest of the world!”
“Am I right in thinking that he reside hereabouts?”
“He does,” replied the monk without enthusiasm. “He has rooms in one of the university inns-I cannot say which one.” He turned and started into the church.
“Perhaps you can tell me how best to find him?” Douglas called after him; he put on an expectant expression in the hope of coaxing more information from the reluctant fellow.
“I must beg your pardon, brother, but no,” replied the monk over his shoulder. “However, that is no hardship, for unless you are supremely blessed, you cannot safely avoid him.”