Late December 1633
Near the border between France and Spanish Netherlands
Sieur Chretien de la Roche awoke in misery. The bolster under his throbbing head seemed particularly hard this morning, and for some reason it was damp. A timeless interval passed, and it came to his attention that the entire bed was hard, much harder than he remembered it being. More eternity passed and, against great resistance, he managed to force open his eyes. It slowly dawned on him that he was not in his bed in the family hôtel. In fact, he was not in bed at all. He appeared to be sprawled on a floor—and a not particularly clean one at that—with his cheek resting in what seemed to be a puddle of drool.
The sieur contemplated moving for an age, and finally mustered the energy to drag his hands up level with his shoulders and place the palms on the floor. At long last, he exerted himself to arise from his hard bed, but no sooner had he raised himself from the floor than a white-hot spike of pain shot through his head, and he collapsed back to the floor, on his back now.
“Mon Dieu,” he gasped hoarsely, “if I must be crucified, could it not have been done through my hands and feet, like normal?”
More moments passed, and suddenly de la Roche became aware of pressure, of waves, of mounting rebellion in his body. Head forgotten, he rolled back to his hands and knees and scrabbled for the chamber pot. Reeling, he noted that apparently he had used it for its normal purpose sometime during the night, then his mouth locked rigidly open and it seemed like everything that had ever passed through his mouth during his entire life now spewed forth. Finished—at least for the moment—he huddled on the floor, misery compounded; head feeling like that of Sisera when Jael pounded the tent stake through it, cold, sweating, shivering, mouth tasting of hot sulfur.
Finally, he managed to sit up, back on his heels. He wiped the splatter drops off of his face with a sleeve that, in keeping with his surroundings, was also noticeably less than clean. The agony in his head had dwindled to a dull throbbing, although it still felt as if his eyeballs were being pushed out of their sockets. Looking around at the unfamiliar room, de la Roche deduced that he was in an inn, and a remarkably unprepossessing inn at that. For an instant, he was puzzled as to why he was here, but then the memories came cascading back: gambling with his friends and a couple of strangers; one of the strangers accusing him of cheating with dice (he didn’t think of it as cheating, simply as an unusual skill); his perforce challenging the stranger to a duel, only to discover that the stranger was the son of the comte de Rochefort, one of the deadliest swordsmen in Paris, nay, all of France.
The remaining memories were a jumble—fleeing to the family hôtel in a panic, gathering together what clothes and funds he could find, telling one of the stable boys to saddle two horses and fleeing Paris as fast as he could with Luc, the stable boy, riding right behind him as a servant. In his mind he thought to go to Antwerp. Surely he could persuade (or bribe) the Spaniards to let him pass through their lines. He didn’t remember how long they had ridden before they found this small insignificant inn in a small insignificant village. He did have a vague recollection of drinking a great quantity of appallingly bad brandy last night, however.
Looking down at the chamber pot which sat in front of his knees, he determined that its current contents was even more noisome in composition than it had been before he deposited what remained of his dinner and the brandy. His stomach lurched again, and he looked away hurriedly.
Luc—why wasn’t Luc here, tending to him? Angry, de la Roche tried to call out, but all that issued from his throat was a sound reminiscent of the caw of a crow. Crawling over to the bed, he laboriously climbed up it and managed to gain his feet. Leaning heavily on the walls, he lurched around the room until he found the door and almost fell through it.
Harry Lefferts and the members of what everyone in Grantville now called “The Wrecking Crew” looked up from their mugs to see an apparition stumble down the stairs from the second floor of the small inn. They had paused in their trip to the Channel long enough to grab a meal and make sure they were still on the right road. If I didn’t know better, Harry mused, I’d swear that one of the actors from those awful Grade B zombie movies me and Darryl used to watch when we were in high school just materialized. He snickered. In fact, this guy looks more like the real thing than any of the movie characters ever did.
The haggard figure stood wavering at the foot of the stairs, until one of the serving wenches approached him. His thin, bony face creased in a snarl, and he took a swing at her and shouted in French that he wanted to see Luc, before his knees gave way and he dropped into a chair at a nearby table. Harry frowned. He didn’t much like folks that abused women, but when the wretch remained seated he turned back to his mug.
“Mein Gott,” Paul Maczka muttered, “I’ve seen three day corpses that looked better than him. Mind you, I’ve been hung over enough before that I felt like he looks.”
A thought fluttered at the edge of Harry’s mind, but it wouldn’t settle yet. He looked up as the zombie began to shout again.
De la Roche was still concentrating on keeping his stomach in place when Luc appeared from the rear door of the common room and hurried over to stand before him. “I am here, master.” The zombie started to berate the boy for not addressing him properly, but just at that moment his aching head gave up the fogged memory wherein he had told the stable boy to not call him sieur or lord. So instead he began to rant at the boy for abandoning him in the room.
” . . . and you left me lying on the floor!” he ended with a final snarl, nose to nose with the lad and watching the boy wince away from the breath he knew all too well was foul.
“But master, I could not move you. First you hit me, then you grabbed me and called me Madeline.” Luc was cringing now. De la Roche’s temper flared, and he slapped the boy across the face.
Harry broke off his conversation with Paul in mid-word as the boy sprawled on the floor. His muscles tensed as he started to rise, only to stop as the boy scurried upstairs and the zombie collapsed back at the table with a moan audible across the room. He waved the serving girl over as she came by.
“What’s with the walking corpse?” He nodded in the zombie’s direction.
“Him?” she sniffed. “No one knows. He arrived from the south late last night, complained about everything, wanted the best room for the price of sleeping on the floor in the common room, and insisted on brandy. Our wine . . . ” She spread her hands in a balance scales movement. “Eh, not so bad. Our brandy . . . ” The moue of distaste on her face was expressive. “He drank enough to kill a Spaniard.”
“Is he anyone important?” Harry fingered the lapel of his coat, where the other man had a bit of lace showing.
“Him? Non, only in his own mind. We see nobles on this road from time to time. He is at best a court hanger-on, or someone’s second cousin who drifts around the fringes of the court hoping to receive a plum.”
Harry waved the woman away with an order for another ale. As he observed the Frenchman, the fluttering thought settled and a slow smile crossed his face. The wrecking crew ostentatiously moved away from him slightly, as that particular evil smile usually didn’t bode well for someone within arm’s reach.
“What are you planning, Harry?” Gerd asked. “Need a boom toy?”
“Not this time,” Harry said. “I’m just thinking that poor soul over there needs a helping hand.”
“Low profile, Harry,” Paul interjected amidst the laughter of the rest of the crew. “We’re supposed to be low profile.”
“I can do low profile,” Harry replied as he pulled a couple of items out of his saddlebags. He showed one of them to his friends. “But I do think he needs a bit of the hair of the dog that bit him.” Grins blossomed all around. Harry handed his bags to Paul. “Go get the horses ready. I’ll be out in a minute or two.” Still grinning, they finished their ale and followed the orders.
Walking across the room, Harry could hear the Frenchman muttering curses to himself, most of them invoking doom on some son of a whore, but more than a few of them dragging up every French obscenity Harry knew, and a few words that he didn’t know but from their context must have been very vulgar. Harry made careful note of those. He dropped into the chair opposite the man, jarring the table as he did so. This caused the monologue to be interrupted by a heartfelt moan.
“Sorry,” Harry said. “You look like you’ve seen better days.” The Frenchman’s head rolled up from staring down at the table top. Harry got a glimpse of eyes that were more red than white, and a whiff of breath that was truly foul.
“Who are you?” the zombie creaked out. “You are not French, or even Spanish. Where are you from?”
Harry grinned cheerfully back at the baleful gaze. “I’m from way east of here. A little town you’ve never heard of.”
The zombie’s head lowered back down. “Go away,” he said in a tone that would have been a snarl if it hadn’t been so pained.
“Looks to me like you need some of die alte Katerheilung,” Harry said. “Guaranteed to fix you up. After you drink it, you won’t even remember how you feel right now.”
Harry was now the focus of the bleary-eyed Frenchman’s attention. It took several tries for the word to come out, but eventually he said, “Truly? You can produce this . . . ancient hangover cure?”
“Oh, sure.” Harry patted his pockets. “I’ve got the ingredients right here.”
“And it works?”
Harry looked affronted. “I use it myself all the time. Great stuff.”
The Frenchman took in Harry’s size and obvious good health, eyes widening just a little. “How much?”
“Today, nothing,” As the Frenchman’s face began to cloud with suspicion, Harry leaned over and said softly, in the manner of one imparting a confidence, “The old Hungarian wit . . . wise woman I got it from said that as long as I gave it away I would have good fortune, but if I tried to make coin from it the fortune would turn evil.” The Frenchman’s expression cleared, and Harry smiled to himself—got him. That little bit of superstition just absolutely hooked him.
“As you will. I confess that I feel as if I have already died and missed Purgatory. I would willingly bargain with the Devil to be free of this.”
Harry had to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep from laughing, but after a moment he could speak with a straight face. “Bear with me a moment, I just need a little wine to mix this with.” He went to the bar, and collected a cup with an inch or so of wine in it, tossing a silver piece to the innkeeper ” . . . For your troubles.”
De la Roche watched as the very jovial stranger returned to the table. After he sat down, he took a silver flask from one of his coat pockets and poured a clear liquid from it into the cup. “First, we add some special water.” The now-empty flask was returned to the pocket from whence it came. Then a small glass vial was produced from inside his coat. “Next, the herbal mixture.” The stranger very carefully removed the cap from it and just as carefully poured the contents into the cup. Restoring the cap to the vial, he picked up the cup and swirled it around. “Now we blend the wine, the water and the herbs.”
“There are no words to speak, no incantations to utter?” De la Roche was getting a little queasy as he watched the cup go around and around.
“None.” The cup was set before him. “Just drink it all, and drink it quickly.”
He reached out his shaking hands, managed to grasp the cup, brought it to his lips, and swiftly drank the contents. As the cup fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers and a red haze covered his vision, he remembered his rash statement earlier, and it somehow didn’t surprise him that the stranger was gone.
The screaming began as Harry closed the door. Chuckling, he made sure his empty flask was back in place—last of the moonshine, he’d have to make do with brandy from here on out—and jogged across to his horse. He gathered the reins and mounted up. Time to get out of here. He started to slip the glass bottle back into a pocket, when Gerd asked, “Well?”
Harry grinned that same evil grin. “Like I said, just a little hair of the dog.” He showed them the now-empty bottle. They began laughing uproariously, as they had all either been had with the same trick or had seen it done before. Harry slipped the empty bottle of his beloved habanero sauce into a pocket and put his horse in motion. “‘Course, it was a junkyard dog.”