In Which Wilhelmina Learns the Ropes
Before Egypt, long before travelling to that time and place-or any other-became even a remote possibility, Mina had paid her dues. Haltingly, painstakingly, maddeningly. Transplanted entirely on her own and completely unexpectedly from her twenty-first-century London home to seventeenth-century Bohemia, and having no Cosimo or Sir Henry to guide her, she acquired her knowledge and skill through hard graft and a long and exhausting process of trial and error. It was an exacting apprenticeship, and it began back in the Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus in Prague on the day she took delivery of the device her friend Gustavus Rosenkreuz had made for her using the plans given him by Lord Burleigh. It began the moment the young alchemist placed the curious object in her hand.
Now, as she stood alone on a hilltop north of her adopted city, Wilhelmina studied the odd device; neatly rounded like a stone and of a similar size, shape, and heft. It reminded her of just that: a surf-tumbled cobble whose edges have been blunted and streamlined by the endless wash and worry of the waves. That, however, is where the similarities ended. Stones were not made of burnished brass; their surfaces were not chased with a lacy arabesque of filigreed lines; wave-tumbled rocks did not feature a curved row of tiny holes along one side, nor sport a knurled dial. Moreover, beach stones did not possess a central aperture that resembled a squinting eye from which radiated a gently pulsating indigo light-at least, not in Mina’s experience.
This last she had not seen herself, but had it on Gustavus’ authority that it was so. “The substance inside gives off light when it comes into contact with certain ethers,” the young alchemist had told her. Mina had no idea what these ethers were, but how the device was to be used was another matter.
As she pored over the peculiar instrument, she mustered the scant facts she possessed and tried to imagine how they might be applied to the task at hand. The instrument had been made according to a design supplied by Lord Burleigh to be employed by him for what the alchemists called astral exploration. If her hunch was right, the earl’s explorations were connected in some way to ley travel: the peculiar phenomenon that had plucked her from the twenty-first century and dropped her so rudely into the seventeenth. From what she could recall of the information Kit had imparted-fractured and confused as it was-and her own limited experience, ley travel was a thoroughly unpleasant and wholly unpredictable exercise that nevertheless could yield serendipitous results, and she was determined to repeat the procedure and, if possible, master it.
Although she no longer wished to return home to London-a lack of desire that she could not explain, even to herself-as an unwitting transplant in an alien world she felt it something of a duty to learn more about the means and mechanisms by which she had come to take up residence in another time and place. Burleigh’s device, she supposed, had something to do with facilitating such leaps, or calibrating them in some way, and this was where she would start.
She had decided that her experiments should take place in solitude, reasoning that whatever happened, it would be best if it happened out of sight so as not to alarm any casual passersby. So, after thoughtful deliberation on how to safely embark on the venture at hand, she had told Etzel that she wanted to go breathe some country air and perhaps collect some wildflowers. It was, after all, in the country that she had landed following her first and only ley jump. Leaving the coffee shop, she took the wagon out of the city and up into the surrounding hills. The day was bright and fine; an unseasonably warm spring was swiftly melding into summer-as good a day as any for an experiment in ley travel.
Holding the device in her hand, she puzzled over how to start. As she recalled, her first leap had been made simply by walking with purpose, so Mina began striding along the hilltop, holding the device before her as if it were a flashlight and she was trying to find a darkly hidden path. She stepped off fifty paces, turned, and walked back. When the expected result failed to materialise, she did the same thing in another direction and obtained the same disappointing result. The mechanism remained happily inert and uninvolved in her efforts. Undeterred, she took herself to a new spot farther away and tried again.
This went on for some time, and with no different result. After a while, Mina began to feel discouraged-not that she had expected to conquer the device easily, but she felt her efforts entitled her to some small reward for her determination, if not for the considerable effort she had made to obtain it in the first place.
In the end, she slipped Burleigh’s gismo into the pocket of her smock, collected a large bouquet of wildflowers, and bundled them into the wagon for the drive back to town. Over the next few weeks, she would try her experiments again in various locations around the outskirts of the city. Each time she returned better for the exercise, but no closer to unravelling the mystery of ley jumping.
Then one day it happened. Quite by accident, and on another errand entirely, she was walking along a sunny open stretch of the Moldau, the river dividing the city. She strolled through the lower town and out into the fields and farming hamlets of the countryside and, as always, had thoughts of the coffee house percolating away on the back burner of her mind. She had an eye peeled for a new source of honey for the bakery; her city purveyors all bought theirs in bulk from rural sources and offered it to her at a price that included a tidy profit for themselves. Well and good, but Engelbert’s recipes were using more and more sweetening as their patrons demanded pastries to compliment the natural bitterness of the coffee. Honey was the costliest ingredient, and Mina had begun thinking about contracting directly with country beekeepers to supply the commodity fresh from the source. By cutting out the middleman, both she and the beekeeper would get a better price, and she could guarantee a constant ready market.
She walked along beneath a sky of bird’s-egg blue, past fields of ripening barley, beets, turnips, and beans; small herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and geese. The river rolled away to her right, its long, slow currents barely ruffling the quiet jade-green surface. Mother ducks surrounded by a flotilla of half-grown ducklings paddled among the weeds growing long at the banks, the little ones dibbling for insects and bits of edible flotsam.
A dairyman walking beside his donkey cart approached on the lane that ran along the bank; he tipped his hat as he passed. The air was momentarily filled with the slightly sour, milky scent of the dairy, and Wilhelmina was instantly plunged back into a time and place she scarcely remembered ever having been: a farm in Kent when she was barely six years old. It was a school trip, and her class had visited a farm that produced the milk she and her classmates drank every day from little bottles. The farmer had shown them into the separating room to see the huge machines at work dividing the raw milk from the cream; the smell of the room-strongly pungent and steeped in the sharp rancid odour of fermenting cheese-had so overwhelmed her young senses that it remained with her ever after.
She greeted the farmer and then paused to watch him on his way, breathing in the scent as he passed. Mina was still thinking about that school trip, so long forgotten but vividly revived, when the lane turned to follow a bend in the river and passed into a beech wood copse. The sunlight through the trees threw dappled shadows on the path, and she was looking at the pattern as she walked. She happened to slip her hand into her pocket and brushed Burleigh’s device. To her surprise, it was warm to the touch.
She looked down and saw a deep blue light burning through the fabric of her smock. The thing was glowing.
She stopped and with trembling fingers drew out the brass-encased device. A strong blue light streamed through the little holes that lined the curve of one side, and through the central half-moon aperture as well. Something had stirred the instrument to life, but what?
Mina gazed around her. She noted the trees, the leaf-shadowed lane, the wide sweep of the river, and even the cloud-spotted sky above and the birds soaring there. She regarded everything, yet saw nothing she supposed might trigger the sudden awakening of the curious little gismo that was even now filling her hand with an appreciable warmth.
Slowly, keeping her eyes on the object, she began walking again. The lane curved as it followed the river, and gradually the light in Burleigh’s object faded. She kept walking until the last little glimmer of blue light died. She turned and retraced her steps. As she half expected, after a few steps the glow rekindled… a few more steps, and the glow grew brighter.
She marched a dozen swift paces along the lane, moving out from the shelter of the copse. The softly glowing blue light slowly faded once more, and the device cooled in her palm.
She stopped and, certain that she stood on the brink of discovery, made a slow about-face and moved once more into the copse. The deep indigo light returned, and this time she imagined she heard a small squeaking sound-almost like the chirp of a baby bird. Still walking slowly, she held the device to her ear and confirmed that yes, indeed, the thing was speaking to her. Instinctively, she put her finger to the tiny knurled nub on the surface of the device and gave it a twist: the peeping sound grew louder.
“’Hello!” she muttered to herself. “It’s a volume knob.”
Still walking slowly, she noted when the blue glow began to fade once more, then instead of waiting until it went out altogether, she spun on her heel and headed back the opposite way, still holding the instrument out in front of her. At the exact place where the light was brightest and the sound the loudest, she stopped.
Burleigh’s mechanism was obviously marking the place, but try as she might she could not see why. She stood perfectly still and gazed at the little woodland glade around her. What was different or special about this place? What was the gismo trying to tell her?
She cast her mind back to the first time she had made a leap. Something that Kit had said about lines etched on the landscape came drifting back into her consciousness, and she looked for anything that might resemble a line. Although it took a few moments, the realisation finally dawned on her that she was, in fact, staring right at it: a perfectly straight course through the beech copse, a thin trail with trees on either side and the merest trace of a path on the ground like that wild animals made-a fox run, perhaps-but straight as an arrow until losing itself in the deep shade of the little wood.
Wilhelmina swallowed and found that not only had her mouth gone dry, but her heart was beating very fast. “This is it,” she said to herself. “This is one of those leys.”
Her feet were already on the path before she had even decided what to do. Walking steadily into the grove, her eyes fixed on the stone-shaped instrument, she noted that the glowing light began to pulse gently with every step. The faint chirping sound did not grow louder, but the squeaks came faster; she stepped up her pace and the chirps came more quickly.
A breeze stirred the nearby leaves; the branches overhead moved with a sudden gust, and darkness descended over her-as if she had moved into the deep shade of a large tree. Just that. Nothing else. Three more steps carried her out from the shadow of the tree and into
… a broad sunlit glade.
The beechy copse was gone. The curving riverbank was gone too, along with the surrounding fields and hills. Instead, she stood in a pool of bright sunlight at the bottom of a deep canyon. Behind her stretched a long incline etched into the cliff face leading to the grassy sward on which she stood. Towering over her on every side were high limestone cliffs, and directly below her a shallow river sloshed around the huge stones and boulders littering the valley floor. She heard a ragged screech and glanced up to see a hawk soaring through the cool, bright air.
“Mina, you’re not in Bohemia anymore,” she whispered, her voice falling softly in the silence of the glade.
The device in her hand still glowed softly but was no longer sounding. What a clever little thing, she thought; and then, What shall I call you? Ley lamp, she decided on a whim, and the name seemed to fit.
Curious about where she had landed, Wilhelmina proceeded to look around, taking care not to wander too far lest she lose her bearings. She tucked the ley lamp into her pocket and continued down the path to the bottom of the canyon. Around the next bend, the valley widened; the limestone walls receded. Someone had planted fields of corn on the rich flat ground either side of the river. A short distance ahead she could see a few stone and timber buildings, but there was no one about.
As Mina approached the buildings, the riverside trail became a twin-track road that ran through the tiny settlement and on, through the little farmyard and around another bend. Since no one seemed to be about, she paused to look inside one of the buildings as she passed; it was a simple animal shed with straw covering the floor and an empty manger below a squared hole in the wall, which served as a window. She moved on, following the road as it wound ’round the bend. In the heights above her another hawk had joined the first, and both soared in slow wheeling circles.
Just around the bend she saw that someone had made a dam of river rocks-a primitive construction of stones heaped one atop another across a narrow part of the river. The water pooled nicely behind this simple barrier, forming a wide, placid pond. On a rock ledge just above the pond stood a stout stone building, which on closer inspection turned out to be a ruin. The roof was gone, and two of the four walls had tumbled into rubble, but the remains of a great wooden wheel and several grindstones lay amongst the jumble of wreckage.
“A mill,” Mina surmised. The thing had long been derelict; weeds grew in the rubble and grass had seeded itself on the upper courses of stone and the ledges of what had been windowsills. But someone still used the pond, for she saw a rope tied to an iron ring in the wall overlooking the water, and on the end of the rope a wooden bucket.
She stood for a moment wondering where she was, and when. So far as she could tell, she could be anywhere at nearly any time; the things she saw around her certainly had an antique air about them, but little more than that. The surrounding landscape gave almost no clue to her whereabouts; it was nowhere she had ever been, but it could have been in any number of countries. Still, something about the construction, rude as it was, seemed European rather than, say, South American. Definitely not Asian.
What to do now?
She raised her eyes to the sky. The light had taken on the golden sheen of late afternoon, and the already faint warmth in the air was fading. The shadows of the canyon walls were lengthening and deepening towards evening. She did not care to be caught wandering around in the dark, so she turned and hurried back the way she had come.
Upon reaching the spot where she had entered the valley, Mina pulled the ley lamp from her smock and, holding it as before, started walking quickly up the long ramplike trail angled towards the top of the canyon walls. After a half-dozen steps, the bronze-cased instrument began to glow with its eerie indigo light… a few more steps and she heard the faint chirping sound. She kept walking. The path rose between two rock stacks, which stood as pillars on either hand. Wilhelmina passed through this crude gateway and into a shadow. For an instant, all was darkness and an absence of air. Her breath caught in her throat, and she stumbled forward and into the little beech wood with its narrow fox run of a trail.
She stood blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. The air was soft and warm, and sunlight streamed through the leaves in shafts, which dappled the grove around her.
She was home.
Halfway back to the city, it occurred to her to wonder if she had returned to the same time she had left. Was it still the seventeenth century? Was Rudolf still on the throne? Was the bakery still there? Would Etzel be waiting for her?
Her heart sank, and for a good few minutes she entertained a wild variety of frightening thoughts about all the things that could have gone wrong; she kicked herself for how stupid she had been. What, after all, did she really know about this ley line business?
But then she heard church bells. The sound rang out, filling the streets and echoing across the river and beyond. The familiar sound called her back to her senses, and somehow she knew that all was well. She quickened her steps as she passed through the city gates and hastened to the old town square. When she saw the good green-and-white facade of the Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus, she smiled.
Etzel was there in his flour-dusted apron, just as she had left him. He looked up as she came in, his round face beaming as she bustled into the shop. Although there were several patrons lingering over their afternoon coffees, she went up and gave the big baker a fat kiss on his smooth cheek. “Mina!” he exclaimed, cupping a floury hand to her face. “I thought you were going for a walk.”
He regarded her askance. “But you only left a moment ago.”
Mina shrugged. “I changed my mind. I would rather be here with you.”
“But you are with me all the time,” he pointed out.
“I know.” She kissed him again and went upstairs to her room. There, with the door closed, she removed the ley lamp from her pocket and crossed to the large chest where she kept her clothes and the few valuable things she owned. She unlocked the chest and wrapped the brass instrument in a stocking.
I wonder, she thought as she tucked the bundle under her spare nightdress at the bottom of the chest, what else can it do.