Orlando Delivers

On the road to Augsburg, late May 1636

 

Stare allerta!” the caravan lookout cried, as bandits boiled out of ravines on either side of the trail. “We are attacked! Robbers! Bandits!”

Orlando Rosales glanced first one way then the other. Neither direction offered escape; ahead of him lay just over half the caravan, behind him the rest. The bandits would arrive before he could get away. From the left he counted four; from the right half a dozen, but those had twice as far to run before they reached him. He concentrated on the nearer group, hearing his father’s voice in his memory.

“When the bandits come, run. When you cannot run, fight.” As a pair of the caravanner’s hired guards stepped up to block the oncoming foursome, Orlando listened to his father’s remembered voice: “Fight just long enough to get away, son.”

The caravan guards’ advance delayed the four brigands. Orlando’s wheel-lock pistol, steadied over the back of his donkey, went off in a blast of choking smoke; he never knew whether he hit the man he’d aimed at or not. He pocketed the empty pistol, out of habit, on the saddle and drew his rapier.

The thickest smoke didn’t so much clear as split open, showing him an oncoming giant bearing a club raised overhead in both hands. If it connected, Orlando had no doubt he’d be driven into the ground.

“Hell, said his father, Adolfo, in his memory, “needs fuel, son. That’s why Adonai made so many Gentiles. When all you can do is die, an angel will guide you home. Take as many of the sons of dogs with you as you can, eh?”

Adolfo, three years ago, had taken four with him.

“I guess it’s my turn to see what an angel looks like, Papa,” the young Jew murmured, stepping quickly forward inside the blow and turning sideways to meet his foe.

The club came whistling down, but by the time it landed Orlando’s head had moved. The blow glanced off its moving target, striking instead the top of his shoulder, driving him to his knees. Orlando thrust the blade of his rapier before him as he fell. It went through his opponent’s belly.

With a cry he fell, his heavy body covering Orlando from view. His club hit Orlando’s thigh with all his weight behind it. But Orlando didn’t feel the pain; he wouldn’t know about that injury, or the slice above his ear, or his dislocated shoulder, until he could be wakened. First the caravan guards had to drive off the rest of the brigands, then they had to find Orlando. Then they had to figure out he hadn’t been killed, and get the body of the bandit off him.

Then they had to wait for him to wake up.

****

“Tell Jano he’s coming around.”

Orlando opened his eyes. Above him stood the owner of the caravan he had joined to cross the Alps. Hostility and anger boiled off a man usually noted as tranquil and uncommonly reasonable. “What did you have on your ass,” he demanded, “that got three of my men killed?”

“What?” Orlando asked, puzzled.

“Three of my men are dead. Once the bandits made off with your ass they fled,” Jano snarled. “What were you carrying? Gold? Gems? Had you mentioned valuables I would have charged you for extra guards. Now your treasure is gone, three of my men are dead and seven more wounded, and it’s all your fault! What did you have?”

“A book.”

“A book? Was it covered in gold and studded with gemstones?”

Orlando started to shake his head. Pain stopped him. He started to shrug. Pain stopped him. He settled for speaking softly: “A rich man, an American up-timer in Augsburg, just bought this book from a dealer in Venice. I’m delivering it.”

“You’re hand-carrying a book to Augsburg, from Italy?” Jano began to yell. “You do not hand-deliver just a book!”

Orlando protested, “It is just a book. In the up-timers’ world something happened to make this book special. Now, here, it is just a book—a beautiful book, and one of a kind, but nothing more.”

The caravan master’s jaw worked. “So much trouble for just a book?”

“Well,” Orlando conceded, “Some people screamed bloody murder because the dealer sold it to a Gentile.” He didn’t add many others had screamed the book should be destroyed, nor how the Doge of Venice had what he believed to be the original safely deposited in his library. Orlando doubted the notion of abomination and blasphemy as surely as he knew the Doge possessed only a copy. “At least two or three cardinals want it. A dozen more people would want it if they knew about it.”

“So you brought this book on my caravan?” Then he glanced at the man treating Orlando’s wounds. “How is it?”

The man laughed. “He’s not cut. Just one whopper of a bruise.”

“Can he walk?” the caravan master asked.

“Sure, he can walk. It’s going to be very sore and he might limp, but not much.”

Glancing back to Orlando, the caravan master said, “I’ve got all the injured I can carry. Walk, or stay here.”

Before the caravan master could stalk off, the guards’ captain came up on a horse. Jano shifted his gaze to this target. “Yes?”

“You’re right,” the man said flatly. “Alfredo’s band attacked us. But you knew to watch for them, when you didn’t find his man waiting in the usual place to be paid off. The party with the ass went one way, the rest of the band another. I got a good look at them going over the ridgeline, Alfredo bringing up the rear.”

“I hoped he’d retired.” Jano sighed. “Move out. We’ve got lost time to make up for.”

The guard looking at Orlando’s thigh helped pull him up. “Here,” the fellow said, handing Orlando the club, “you’ll need a walking stick. If I was you I’d keep the thing as a good luck charm.”

Somewhere in an Alpine pass, a few days later

 

Orlando sighed, sliding from his saddle. He slipped his mule’s bit to let the beast drink, and stepped upstream to dip a pan into the water for himself. Orlando hadn’t stayed with Jano’s caravan. He wanted to follow the thieves’ trail in its freshest hours. He bought a pair of horses from the guards, and took off on an overpriced horse in his travel-worn boots. When his horses wore out, he’d traded for a mule and the other supplies he’d need to travel light. He’d no idea where this trail might lead; a mule did much better over rough ground than a horse.

Orlando glanced at the sky and saw three stars, marking the official start of the Sabbath. He whispered a promise to say a prayer later and spoke to the mule.

“At least you can rest awhile.” He hobbled it to graze while he made himself a meal. Not bothering with a large open fire, he struck a spark from flint-and-steel and teased the frayed edge of charred rag wick in the little brass lamp he had purchased at the caravansary to flame.

While he waited for the water to boil he murmured a prayer. Once the water boiled he divided it, leaving a little in the pan to keep warm against the needs of washing-up.

Orlando finished his meal then cleaned and packed away his gear, and glanced at the moon. Perhaps an hour had elapsed since he’d set the mule to graze. He wanted to give the sentry, if his quarry had set such a precaution, about that much longer to grow inattentive. He opened his saddlebag and drew out his cloak, turned its darker lining to the outside, and wrapped it around himself. He slipped off his boots to rest his stocking-feet among rocks still warm from the cooking lamp.

Some time later he woke, feet now cold. A glance at the moon showed he’d slept longer than he’d meant to; but the night’s clear sky provided enough visibility to find the mule. He undid the hobbles, replaced his saddle, and convinced the mule to accept the bit so he could lead his mount as he approached his target.

****

So, they’d posted a sentry. But Orlando’s patience paid off: the man leaned against a tree, head on his chest, softly snoring. Orlando looped the mule’s rein over a branch. He crept quietly round where the four travelers’ horses had been tied up for the night, and carefully slipped the long rope looped through all their headstalls from its moorings. He’d hoped to find his ass on this picket line, to no avail. Orlando led the picket string down to the creek, pulled off all their tack, and left them to graze or roam as they pleased. Within a quarter hour he’d deprived the horses’ riders of their use and come back to the camp where the sentry still sat, fast asleep.

Orlando studied the fire-lit circle. The sentry’s blanket lay empty on the fire’s far side; beside it he could see another, snugly wrapped over a slim shape. No packages there; the sleeper nearest him had similarly taken full advantage of his meager bedding. The fourth form sprawled, half-on, half-under, a cloak instead of a blanket. He turned to the saddles; the first boasted no bags at all, but a pouch looped over the horn, too small for the prize Orlando sought. The second lacked even so little room for cargo. The third bore a bundle.

Slipping quietly around the camp, Orlando reached the saddle and cut the thin leather string holding the bundle, slipped the covering off, and grinned. A moment later he’d secured it across his back; another moment sufficed to ensure he left nothing valuable on the last saddle.

Orlando slipped away, worked his way quietly back to the mule, and departed in the moonlight, thoroughly pleased. He walked a hundred paces before he swung into the saddle.

Not wanting to attempt the passage over the mountains alone, Orlando turned back. Picking up another caravan or even returning to Venice seemed like a good idea. He did not wish to make another mistake; his last had nearly ended up killing him. He’d stolen back his book from people who’d already shown themselves ready to risk life, limb or prison.

The moon set; beneath his saddle the mule slowed, not out of a normal reluctance to work but genuine weariness. Orlando took stock of his surroundings. Half a mile behind him the trail he rode clung to the edge of the mountain like a burr to a homespun stocking; before him, it narrowed.

On his right the slope spun down steeply into blackness. To his left a fold in the face of the stones led upward. Orlando slid out of his saddle and cinched the strings of his prize more tightly, then led the mule into the defile. A couple of mule-lengths from the trail, he looped the rein over a stubby branch, turning back to check for tracks. With a wisp of brush he erased the marks of his passage away from the well-traveled route. Presently the mule began to reach toward nearby graze.

“It’s too soon. Come on,” Orlando said, and led the mule upward again. When he could see over the peak, at least partially, he drew a breath. No one, canny soldiers of fortune or otherwise, waited there. A boulder twice his height marked the shoulder of the slope; he circled it, silently, one careful step at a time. No one waited on the far side. The view he had from here, of the valley below and the trail across it, would take a man’s breath away in daylight, Orlando thought. By starlight, he could tell only that so far, at least, he and the mule had the place to themselves . . . except for the wildlife.

The boulder sheltered a hollow a little wider than Orlando’s outstretched arms, perhaps twice as tall as a man on muleback; from the hillside wall ran a fast trickle of water, collecting where it had worn away the stone. Overhead a sleepy-sounding bird complained as Orlando led the mule into the space, but finding them harmless, subsided. Past the crevice between boulder and mountainside, a little hollow opened toward the stars; it might reach twenty feet long and half again as wide, its walls barely less than straight-up cliffs. Knee-deep grass covered its floor.

Orlando hobbled the mule, parked himself in the narrowest part of the entryway, unrolled his cloak and murmured a lengthy and apologetic prayer.

****

Twelve days and nights of similar travel, daring difficult passages to avoid roads where ambushes could be set, ensued. Orlando came to think of the mule with some affection; it proved a faithful beast of burden, if not a companionable one. Seeing the valley below, Orlando understood why the longer, steeper, less traveled route existed.

“Well,” he told the mule. “A few hours more, and you’ll have a stall, with water and grain and somebody to brush you. A bit of luck and you might even get to stay there three or four nights, eh?” The mule, after the manner of its kind, did not answer. Fallow fields, vacant towns and weathered bones, presumably left by plague, explained the empty trail. Orlando rode onward. “Might be I’ve mistaken our chances,” he told the mule. “We could have to do without a stall or bed again tonight.”

Crossing two more ridges, he left the devastated valley behind before coming to a run-down inn.

“A Jew’s money spends as well as a Gentile’s,” the gray, work-worn host said flatly. “I’d as lief take yours as not. Custom’s not easy come by, lad. My business has been slow since the last full moon.”

Curiously, Orlando said, “What makes you think I’m a Jew?”

“Cut of your clothes, boy,” the man lied. The tale of the Jew with golden book full of treasure maps, worth a fortune to any prince of the true church, had made its way even here. “Either you’re a Jew or you stole them from a Jew. You don’t have the manner of a thief.”

Orlando left his mule with the lass in the stable, then trod cautiously inward. A group of young men carried on over bowls of stew and mugs of . . . something . . . passing hunks of dark bread to one another and carving thick slices from a slab of cheese in a platter on the bar.

“Buy an ale, stranger,” advised the slightest of the customers. “Bread and cheese come with.”

“All right.”

The crowd studied him a little more carefully after he let a small coin fall on the bar with a chiming sound. A woman who might’ve been the innkeeper’s wife—or sister—picked up the coin. “Help yourself,” she said, handing him a bowl. “Stew’s on the hearth. I’ll bring your ale to your table.”

He nodded, and then used his dagger on the cheese. He cut a triangular slice, broke it in half and tucked it into his bowl. The stew had onions, garlic, and bits of something green in the gravy with the long-cooked, soft white beans. Orlando tore half his fist-sized hunk of bread into bits and stirred them in.

The woman brought him a wooden mug. Cautiously, he sipped; the taste ran like fire down his throat. He ate, sipping as he went, rationing his bread to match the drink and stew, until bowl and mug held no more. Then he set his dishes down.

“Thanks,” he murmured to the stable-girl, now waiting on his table. She dimpled at him, a child of ten or maybe twelve.

“Welcome,” she said. “The mule’s fed and brushed and watered, like you asked.”

“Thanks. Where will I find my night’s lodging?”

“Upstairs,” she said. “I’m to show you when you’re ready. Mika’ll see to the others.”

“I’m ready now,” Orlando said quietly.

The girl led him up a narrow, winding stair to a sturdy planked door, pulled a string and shoved her hip against the edge. One long wall sported three short shelves, ranging up from waist-height; a basin and jug stood on the lowest. The next one up lay bare; the third, not much more than a handsbreadth wide, sported an oil lamp. The girl offered him a candle.

“Haven’t had oil for the lamps for a spell, but the chandler down the way sells these cheap,” she said. Gravely, Orlando thanked her. “The latch works on a string. You’ll need to loop it over this hook if you don’t want anyone disturbing you.” He nodded, watching her demonstrate. “Now if there’s nothing else you need . . . Oh, under the bed’s a necessary,” she said. “See you downstairs in the morning, then.”

With a sketch of a curtsey, she fled. Orlando tied his latchstring tightly.

****

What he wanted most in all the world amounted to a long hot bath and a good night’s sleep, but he doubted he’d have either until he’d delivered the book to his cousin’s buyer in Augsburg. He finished his prayers, hung his saddlebags from the wall-hook, and considered the bed. It actually didn’t have visible bugs writhing in the wrinkles of the blankets; indeed, he couldn’t smell anything vile on the bedclothes. He moved the candle for a better examination, ignoring a knock at his door.

“Faith,” he murmured to the night. “No bugs at all?” He studied the rest of the room’s furnishings: four hooks in the wall by the door, the (for a wonder, empty) necessary vessel under the bed, a curtain he could drop over the window by undoing a string, and what looked for all the world like a washcloth and towel, rolled up neatly on the shelf behind the basin and pitcher. And the pitcher, when he checked, actually held warm water! “Well, well, well,” he said tiredly. “I believe I’ll have a night’s rest, anyhow. A bit of a wash-up won’t hurt, either.”

Another knock came at the door. Orlando sighed. “What is it?”

“Did you want anything else tonight, Mister?” The voice didn’t sound like the stable-maid’s, nor the woman who’d brought ale to his table.

“More water, in a bit,” he said. “I’ll set the pitcher out.”

“All right,” the voice answered. Orlando grinned. She sounded disappointed.

One of the little pouches in his saddlebags provided him a lump of soap the size and shape of an egg, his razor, and a comb. He lathered the soap, then tackled his ablutions, a hint of a reckless grin on his face as he worked, glad he’d first seen the too-young stable-girl and the too-old crone of a common-room hostess. Otherwise he’d have hoped for a little easy company, perhaps.

Twice Orlando emptied soapy water from the ewer and wrung out the cloth before he felt he’d done his best to clean himself. Wiping out the basin with the rag last, Orlando wound the towel around his waist, knotting it at a catty-cornered fold. It flapped against his thighs, eight inches above his knees. He rinsed the basin, put away his tools, and poured the last of the clean water into his own mug. Then he untied the string to set the pitcher on the landing.

Out of the shadows stepped a girl, her eyes as big as saucers. She wore a shift so thin he could nearly see through it. Not the stable-lass, this girl might have been her sister. Now she asked, “Can I do anything for you?”

“I want more water,” Orlando said. “Is there a laundress here?”

“Mika does our washing. Tomorrow is the regular day,” the girl said. “Do you want clothes cleaned? I can take them down to her for you.”

He bundled his slops and hose into his shirt. “These, then, if you please,” he said. “Once they’re dry I’ll be on my way.”

She reached out, running one hand along the muscle of his arm as she took the bundle with the other. “I wish you could stay longer with us.”

He laughed gently. “I am a man working for another. My time is not my own, but if it were I might stay . . . with you.”

She pulled the clothes against her chest. “I might like that.”

He watched her bend to lift the pitcher, the outlines of her body barely hidden by the shift . . . and nearly didn’t see the club whistling toward his head. For the next little while things moved very fast. In the room’s half-shadows, Orlando didn’t recognize the face of the man pushing in, but he couldn’t miss the glint of a blade. The thug’s rush bore him back beyond the bed, where he could not reach his own sword.

He slammed his own head into the face of the man who’d tried to stab him. With a cry the fellow fell back and dropped the dagger. Orlando did not dare look for it, for the assassin grabbed Orlando’s own sword and swung it blindly like a club. It hit nothing but one stone wall of the tiny room; its wielder cursed as the blow reverberated into his hands and arms.

Desperately, Orlando yanked the curtain down from the arrow-slit, swinging the slender pole like a mace on the end of the ragged material; far more by luck than design, the stick struck his attacker in the eye. The man fell toward Orlando, who shifted his grip from the rag to the branch, his motion from a swing to a stab, and drove the end of the curtain rod into the man’s eye. A strangled scream followed; Orlando twisted his grip, breaking the stick. The man kept screaming, unable to do more.

Fueled by desperation, Orlando grabbed his fallen sword and turned to face the new flickering light in the doorway. He found himself staring straight at the innkeeper. The startled man held a light, expecting to greet the triumphant young tough from his dining room. He’d depended on his lamp for light to finish Orlando’s murder. Now the innkeeper’s eyes went wide.

“Please,” the man got out, ashen-faced and white-lipped, “please, good sir, I heard a noise and came to see. That’s all. I had nothing to do with this. You must believe me.”

“Sure. Help me get this—” Orlando kicked the writhing blinded body at his feet. “—out the door to close it. Set the lamp down. You’ll need both hands.”

The landlord stooped to set down the light. Orlando brought the pommel of his rapier down on the back of the man’s head. Still filled with rage and adrenaline, he turned to the girl who’d played the bait. The girl had curled up in a tight ball on the landing, whimpering softly around her thumb.

He jerked a handful of her hair hard; her whimpering ended, replaced with a scream of fear as high-pitched and primal as anything Neanderthals once heard in the caves across the valley. Still she continued to hug her shins tightly with both arms, trying to hang onto the comfort of a fetal ball even though he more than half lifted her from the floor.

She’d played the bait, a knowing accomplice. Had the night’s events gone her way she’d have helped murder him. Yet the fear on her face, the total lack of comprehension in her blank blue eyes, her insistence on retreating into a world he could not see, hit him like a torrent off a mountain glacier.

The girl’s desirability vanished. He dropped her head. She tucked it against her knees, once again found her thumb, and went back to whimpering.

****

Orlando dressed, collected his things and headed to the stable. He saw not a soul anywhere. He saddled his mule while apologizing and promising it a good long rest as soon as a safe place could be found.

“Wait,” said a voice at his back.

Orlando spun, drawing his rapier. At its point stood the lass who’d tended his mule—and by the look of the beast she hadn’t done a half-bad job.

“Whatever for?” he asked with some of the viciousness he had directed towards the older girl.

“If you leave now the men who left earlier will ambush you,” she said. “That’s what they did to my father and brother. Mika is my mother’s uncle’s widow—when he died she hired my father to run the inn. When we came here to work for her, these men . . . killed my father and my brother. I watched them beat my mother to death outside the kitchen when she tried to stop them raping Luna.”

He looked at her. “Luna?”

“My sister,” the stable-girl said. “They made her pretend she wants to sleep with you. They planned to kill you while she had you distracted.”

“The one who came to my room tonight won’t do such things any more,” Orlando said calmly. “I’m sorry about your family.”

The girl lifted her chin. “Call me Salome. You’re Orlando, the Circassian. Right?”

“How do you know my name?”

“I heard them talking about you. Orlando the Circassian and his golden book full of treasure maps.”

“Great. That story’s probably been told in every caravansary in the Alps by now.” Orlando let out a deep sigh. “I won’t be able to show my face anywhere.”

“If we meet anyone,” she said, “best we have some story to tell, that sounds the same no matter which of us they ask. Luna’s sick; I’m taking care of her and you’re helping us get to my uncle in Innsbruck.”

“The truth, as far as it goes. All right, then. My name is Orlando—Orlando Rosales, from Circassia. Son of Adolfo Rosales, the caravan master, at your service,” he said, with a slight, mocking bow. “I still don’t know why I should trust you.”

“Luna cries in her sleep and talks of Father as if he will return any day now. She only gets up when they beat her. She . . . they hurt her,” Salome said, “badly. She’s weak and like a baby sometimes. You’re the first traveler who’s stopped here and lived out the night since my father died. I thought I could get help from the first large group to stop, but there hasn’t been any. The word seems to have spread. Doesn’t anybody care?”

Orlando listened.

“You can get out over the mountain and down to the caravan route by the back way. But I want to go with you.”

“How would you know about the mountain trails?” Orlando asked.

“I don’t. Otto does.”

“Otto?” Orlando asked.

“Here,” a voice came from the hay loft. Orlando glanced up and a boy about the same age as Salome climbed down. “My grandmother is the cook here.”

Salome said, “Before those men killed his parents, Otto’s papa ran the stables here. I found Otto in the hayloft—I hid there too, the night they beat Mama to death. I stole food for him, and for me, until Mika caught me.”

Orlando sheathed the rapier.

“I didn’t tell her he’s here. We talked about running away, but he doesn’t want to leave me behind and I won’t leave Luna here.”

“Why didn’t you go alone?” Orlando asked the boy.

“I don’t think I can make it.” Otto said. “I don’t know how to fight.”

“How do you know the trails?”

“Papa took me hunting,” Otto answered, “a lot of times. After the plague, business got bad. If we wanted meat to eat we had to hunt.”

Orlando nodded. “So what’s different, now?”

“You can fight. If those men come after us, you’ll stop them.” The boy’s complete confidence in him flattered Orlando. Charmed, he found himself not wanting to disappoint the lad.

He said, “I’m leaving now. If you’re ready you can come with me. If you’re not you can stay here.”

Salome interrupted, “I’m ready now, but Luna is still upstairs. It’ll take me a few minutes to get her down.”

“I won’t wait. She helped them try to murder me tonight. You’re lucky—I left her alive. I’m not taking any chances on her.”

“We can’t just leave her,” the girl said.

Orlando said, “She’s . . . not quite right. How will she handle the journey?”

“She’s not dead yet,” Salome said, pleading. “But she will be, as soon as those two men get back with their friends. They’ll kill us both if you don’t take us with you now.”

“Go get her dressed, then,” Orlando said, disgusted with himself for being softhearted. “Let’s go.”

****

Otto chose trails barely visible, when they could be seen at all.

Orlando quickly dismissed all thought of riding his mule. More than once Otto led where even a mountain-goat would not have gone. Salome, burdened by Luna, scarcely seemed aware of where she trod. When Luna stumbled, missed her footing and fell, Orlando lifted her into the saddle. Salome crawled up behind her to hold her in place.

Several times Orlando, despite having a guide, felt sure he would fall off the face of the mountain. Without a guide he would never have found his way even in the daylight; even with one, after the moon set, he feared every step along the precipitous route.

“Are you sure you know these hills?”

“We hunted all over them,” Otto said. “There’s a place ahead where shepherds stop when they move the herds. The trail widens. There’s trees and grass there. ”

“We’ll stop,” Orlando said firmly. “The mule’s tired.”

No knots of livestock dotted the slope when they arrived. Even Otto had trouble staying on his feet by the time they reached the shelter the few dozen thin-trunked evergreens offered. The mule snorted, shoving its muzzle into the pool of water in the middle of the grove. Orlando let the beast drink its fill; Salome sank down in the thick cover of needles with Luna below the nearest tree, dull-eyed and silent.

When daylight woke him, Orlando studied their surroundings. The three children lay huddled together like puppies trying to keep warm. His mule, a few yards away, cropped grass with more energy than the beast had shown for days along the trail.

The youngsters gave no sign of waking. Orlando built a tiny fire, then toasted some of the bread. The smell finally seemed to rouse his companions. Salome took bread out of a bag on her shoulder, then showed him a bota. He shook his head; she shrugged and dripped ale into Luna’s mouth, waking her.

The mule drank and ate again; Orlando cleaned his gear and packed it away. As they started back out, the trail climbed, narrowing.

They stopped to rest often through that day and night at any place wide enough and flat enough, especially if it had a bit of grass. They walked over trails a horse could not navigate. When they stumbled, exhausted, onto the main trail, Orlando turned south.

“No,” Salome said. “We must go north. You’re known to be traveling south and they will look for you there. Besides, I have an uncle in Innsbruk.”

“Innsbruk is out of my way.”

She snorted. “Staying alive is never out of the way.”

“All right. But we stop as soon as we find a suitable spot—my mule is nearly as tired as you. Let’s find somewhere out of sight. We’ll rest until moonrise. Do you have anything to eat?”

“The last of Mika’s bread, from the inn,” answered Salome. “Ale, too.”

They found a small, mostly hidden clearing. By then Orlando himself wanted to rest and eat. They stayed put through the rest of the morning and into the late afternoon. Near dusk Luna woke from a nap, screaming, frightened of the unfamiliar surroundings, alerting Orlando. The younger sister calmed the elder.

“Shut her up!” Orlando said. “And we might as well go on, after all that noise she made!”

But before they could return to the trail, a handful of men went by in a rush. Salome clapped a hand over Luna’s mouth as her sister’s eyes went wide in recognition.

“That’s them,” Otto said, running back from a hiding place near the trail. “They’re looking for us.”

In the next village, the inn sounded rowdy.

Luna recognized the voices of her tormentors, forcing Salome to muffle her sister’s mouth again. When Orlando approached the kitchen door to buy bread and cheese, the innkeeper hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder at the noisy crowd within.

He looked likely to refuse until he spied Otto with the girls. “Otto?”

“Yes, Herr Hess?”

“How are your parents, lad?”

“Killed, sir,” the boy returned. “By the men in your common room.”

At these words the innkeeper hissed to his wife. “A cheese and four loaves of bread. Hurry!”

“Can we buy a horse?” Orlando asked.

“Otto, at the far end of the stable . . . my oldest nag and an older saddle. Quick, now—saddle up and begone.” Again he glanced at the noise in the common room as if he could see through the kitchen wall.

“I can hold Luna on the horse in front of me. You and Salome ride the mule,” Orlando said. “We need to be elsewhere, and we’re in a hurry.”

They went on, traveling mostly by night, resting from daybreak until sunset. Orlando bought provisions along the way, sparingly. Luna burdened the horse a little less every day, just as the pack on the mule grew lighter.

Innsbruk, August 1636

 

As twilight gathered, Salome led the horse through the streets to her uncle’s place. Once there, she handed the reins to Orlando, who had been leading the mule, and went inside. Otto stayed on the horse to hold a half-conscious Luna in the saddle.

The kitchen door burst open and a small crowd poured out.

“Damnation,” a large stout fellow bellowed at Orlando.

“Wait, Uncle Paul!” Salome practically hung off her uncle’s upraised hand as Orlando turned to look at them, dropping a hand to his rapier.

“I came out to cuss you soundly for treating my nieces so foully,” the burly man said. “But I’ve seen men three days dead who looked better than you.”

Orlando blinked.

“Even on a horse, she looks more dead than alive,” Paul went on. “Hermina, help me get Luna down,” he turned to his wife, “and you get her to bed.” His wife, a woman the same age but not so broken-down as Mika by far, obeyed with quick hands and a look of pity at her niece. “Someone get these poor mistreated animals into the barn and looked after! Sarah, take the young man’s gear to the good room upstairs.” Turning back to Orlando, Paul clapped him on the shoulder. “And you, sir, need a meal. You’re as dead on your feet as Salome. We’ll find you a bath and a bed.”

Through bowls of thick stew and stout bread, Salome’s family left Orlando in peace. When he finished bathing, someone else’s clothes awaited him, his own having been whisked away for washing, although the laundress allowed that some of them really ought to just be burned. Dressed enough for indoor public spaces, he let a maid lead him to his room; there he fell on the bed, and did not stir until sometime after noon. Upon waking he found the chamber pot, then the kitchen.

While he ate, Luna’s uncle came in.

“So you’re back from the dead, are you? You’ll be happy to hear Luna’s awake. She’s resting. She even remembers her last visit here.” Paul’s voice grew quiet. “Though she talks like it happened yesterday. She sounds as if she’s still that little girl I remember, as if what happened never took place.”

He paused. “Salome told us everything, including how she thinks you came to be at that inn alone. My family owes you a debt.”

Orlando shook his head. “I’d have never gotten out of that place without Salome’s help. Give Otto a place, send Mika help, and we’ll call it even.”

“I hate to rush you on your way, but I need to tell the authorities about the murders. If you’re still here, they could hold you up. They might take an interest in that book everyone in the carrying trade is talking about.”

Orlando grinned. “I see the rumors are still swifter than I am.”

“Could I see it? Is it really covered in gold?” Paul sounded wistful. “Is it true it’s written in a language only the Americans from the future can read, and that’s why no one else found the treasure maps?”

Orlando snorted. “It’s written in ordinary Hebrew. Doesn’t have any maps in it at all, never mind treasure maps. Of course it’s one of a kind and it’s very beautiful; but if this up-timer hadn’t wanted it, the previous owner could never have sold it for a tithe the price.”

“Why did the up-timer want it, then?”

“My boss says he took a notion for it because, in the world he came from, something happened to make this book very famous, and worth a lot of money. That’s not going to happen now, but the up-timer still wants the book. There, he could never have owned it, even as rich as he is, because of how famous it became, and what a price it could fetch. Here, he can have it for a fraction of that cost.”

Orlando stretched. “I’ll show it to you. Can you find me a good horse and a decent saddle to take the place of the nag that carried Luna here? I’ll pay for the horse, if it isn’t too much; I’m afraid my traveling money is about gone.”

Paul shushed him. “What you’ve done for my brother’s children is pay enough, if you want to leave the nag and the mule.”

“Hang onto the mule for me. I’ll pick it up on my way back to Venice. I’ve grown oddly fond of the beast.”

The innkeeper nodded. “You can leave in the morning. Otto will guide the regent’s men back to the inn to see after the old woman there.”

Augsburg, a week later

 

“Were there problems on the trip?” Avram Ben Rubi, head of the Augsburg firm who handled local business matters for the Abrabanels, knew Orlando’s journey had been anything but smooth. Every caravansary from one side of the Alps to the other buzzed with one tale or another. A good tale travels faster than any other freight. Many tales had taken wing along Orlando’s route.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” a very confident courier answered proudly, refusing to admit that he’d almost lost the package at least three times and nearly got killed twice in the bargain.

“Well, it’s good you’re not early. Word arrived from Venice three days ago. They want you to bring it back to Venice,” Avram said, in a firm, serious, senior-partner voice.

“Back to Venice!” Orlando didn’t, quite, shout. “I’ve been clubbed, stabbed, shot at, and beaten for this book, and now you want me to take it back to Venice? I’ve gone without sleep for more nights than I can remember, starved and freezing! I’ve been robbed and nearly killed in order to protect this priceless relic, this precious, one of a kind book!”

“But it’s a forgery,” Avram said. “We promised the genuine article!”

“Tell the customer it’s a fake, or not,” Orlando cut him off. “I don’t care. He won’t ever see the difference by looking at it.”

Avram stared at his young associate.

Orlando, one hand on his hip and the other on the pommel of his sword, stared right back. His voice dropped to a snarl. “I’d never have left Venice with this book if anyone could tell it’s a fake! You don’t know for certain, either. So I’ll deliver this book into your buyer’s hands, but I’m not taking it anywhere else.”

Avram tried to soothe him. “I cannot take a forgery to our client—it’s a matter of trust and honor!”

“It’s killed at least seven men, Avram, and maimed more than I can count,” Orlando exaggerated. Avram Ben Rubi stepped back. Orlando’s voice rose and kept rising. “I’ve been ambushed, beaten, fallen down a cliff and dragged a girl halfway over the Alps, all to deliver this book to H.A. Burston—your client. Now, you want me to take it back! Are you completely insane?”

Avram’s mouth fell open. Such passionate defiance struck him as completely out of the norm. Orlando looked at Avram’s face. Then he laughed—a laugh half a cry, a laugh he couldn’t choke off until it brought tears to his eyes. When his laughter ran out Orlando gasped, overcoming hiccups, endeavoring a calmer demeanor.

“After I hand the customer the package, you can explain that it is not what he ordered. Then, if he says to take it back, I will. Not until then.”

Eliyahu, Avram’s partner, came into the room at the sound of raised voices. “One of us will go with you to see him, then. Rest, and refresh yourself. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. We go the next day.”

Orlando nodded. “Where will I find a mikva? I’ve time for a bath before sunset, if the mikva is not too busy. Is there a synagogue? If not, where do you meet for evening prayers? Do you know someone who can make room for a guest for shabat dinner?”

Eliyahu scribbled a note. “Take this five doors down, on the left. Ask if they’ll find you proper clothes. You look like a Gentile, ‘Lando.”

“You should see me fight,” he answered, a reckless gleam in his eye.

“No,” Avram put in quietly, “I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t see that, ‘Lando. Do you honor your father in this?”

Memory filled the youngster’s eyes with sadness, rage, and then defiance. “I honor his memory every day I don’t let his only son be murdered, Avram. Every day.”

“Forgive an old man,” Eliyahu suggested. Like Avram, he could be no more than thirty-five. “Forgive both of us, Orlando.”

Orlando shrugged. “Wasn’t you who murdered Adolfo Rosales, stole his goods and livestock, killed his employees and left his son to die in the desert, was it, Avram? You’ve no more to be forgiven for than Eliyahu, here—or your client, for that matter. A man doesn’t always remember the awful things that happen, if they don’t happen to him.”

Ben Rubi bit his lip; Eliyahu bowed his head. They said nothing.

Orlando folded the note. “Will you keep the book here, until we’re ready to deliver it to your customer, Avram? I would rest to honor the Sabbath, and I cannot do that if I’m keeping this book safe.”

“I’ll keep it,” Eliyahu said. He took the leather bag Orlando had worn around his waist for so long, and shook his head. “So small a thing, to cause such trouble.”

Relieved of his burden, Orlando de Circassia smiled. “To think, if one man hadn’t wanted an old book, all this trouble never would have happened.”

He left their office to seek the mikva.

Later Orlando spent the evening and the Sabbath day in prayer and study in borrowed clothes, while his own lay waiting for cleaning and mending, once the Sabbath passed. Avram offered him a bed in a loft both nights, and Orlando gratefully accepted.

H.A. Burston’s home, Augsburg, the morning after the Sabbath

 

Eliyahu, Avram and a younger man arrived at Horatio Alger Burston’s door.

Horatio Alger Burston’s name, bestowed upon him by the unthinking cruelty of his father who considered it heroic, and the inability of his mother to tell the man no, had marked Al Burston for life. As a child he answered to Al; now he signed his name H.A. Burston. His business associates addressed him thusly, or he did no further business with them.

His visitors arrived as he prepared to go to church. While Horatio never dishonored the Sabbath, his business associates knew quite well they wouldn’t disturb him by appearing on a Sunday. Orlando Rosales de Circassia stepped forward at Eliyahu’s introduction, with a beautifully illuminated Haggadah in hand.

“At last,” H.A. said. “Not before time!” After repeated delays and excuses, the book he had coveted for more than a year had appeared. H.A. looked at it and remembered the words of Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

He said as much aloud.

“Yes, it is beautiful.” Avram hesitated. “But, Herr, ah that is, Mister Burston, it is not the book you ordered. This is, alas, but a forgery. As of our last correspondence, the original has been recovered, but remains on its way here.”

“Why,” H.A. Burston asked in the quiet voice a man uses when he’s trying to hold on to his temper until he can straighten out a confusing and outrageous situation, “did you bring me this one now, then?”

Avram paled. H.A. Burston didn’t have to be the noble, angry Gentile who could order a Jew’s head separated from his body or send him with all his family into the streets with nothing but the clothes on their backs to invoke his almost inborn dread. Indeed, both Avram and Eliyahu knew this man would not behave so. H.A. Burston didn’t know how to act like that. Yet Avram’s ingrained reaction to the situation would not bow to mere knowledge.

“As a sign of good faith,” Avram answered, “and because the courier insisted.”

H.A. lifted an eyebrow.

“Yes, he had quite a time getting here.”

“Oh?” H.A. said. “Join me for breakfast and tell me about it.”

Avram glanced at his associates.

“Eliyahu and Orlando can stay. I must get back to the office,” he said. As an Ashkenazi Avram kept kashrut far more closely than either Sephardic Eliyahu, a cosmopolite at ease when eating with Gentiles, or caravan-bred Orlando, who would eat anything with anyone. Avram considered the former highly improper and the latter only dubiously Jewish. Had Orlando not often prayed fervently in his hearing, he’d entertain no doubts at all.

Augsburg, May 1637

 

Orlando came back to Augsburg via the first spring caravan, with the original manuscript H.A. Burston referred to as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Avram and Eliyahu studied the illuminated manuscript with care, comparing it to the photographs in the magazine article H.A. Burston had provided. Neither could find any discrepancy between the article Orlando carried and the book pictured.

****

H.A. Burston’s wife Catharina had finally fallen asleep. H.A. nestled Catharina’s fourth child, their first daughter—their second child and the newest apple of his eye—in the crook of his arm a few feet away from the crib beside his wife’s bed. Once the child, too, began to snore, he raised an eyebrow at Maire, the nanny. She crossed the room on quiet feet and lifted the baby into her own arms.

“Thanks,” he murmured, watching her settle the child next its mother. Standing up, he stretched until his spine crackled, then left as quietly as he could walk to his office; the sun hung half over the horizon. It had been a long night and a difficult labor, nearly nineteen hours of shrieking pain. His daughter presented as a breech birth, with all the complications and dangers such events entailed.

A chambermaid appeared. “Herr Burston, a Jew and an up-timer are asking to see you at the door.”

“Don’t you mean in the parlor, Inge?”

“I will see them to the parlor, Herr Burston.”

“In the future, do that first,” he said firmly. “Then come find me. But in this case offer our guests breakfast. I’ll be down to meet them in the dining room shortly. ”

“Yes, Herr Burston.”

H.A. went to the bathroom he’d had retrofitted into the house. A rich man did not live without running water and flush plumbing. After the night he’d witnessed, he needed a shower. But for courtesy’s sake, he did not dawdle.

At the dining room table, Horatio recognized the “up-timer,” Orlando Rosales de Circassia, whose dress had inspired the chambermaid’s confusion. The young man worked his way through a massive breakfast as Eliyahu sat and watched.

“Good morning, Eliyahu. Please forgive me for keeping you waiting; we had an eventful night. Catharina just gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.”

Mazel tov, Herr Burs . . . ah . . . H.A. Do I have the pleasure of being the first to offer my congratulations?” When Horatio nodded, Eliyahu continued, “You remember Orlando de Circassia. He arrived last evening, from Venice. At last we can deliver the book you ordered.”

Orlando stopped eating long enough to set a carefully wrapped package on the table. As he gave his attention back to what was left of the six light, fluffy, scrambled eggs with just a hint of dill and chives, H.A. stared at the wooden box. Silently, he stood letting that stare linger. Finally Eliyahu said, “So if we could make the exchange, Herr Burston, we will be on our way.”

“No,” H.A. said. “I mean to keep both copies. With the delays in delivery, I expect a good price on the forgery. I bought the original as an anniversary gift for my wife. That occasion has long since passed; but it arrives perfectly for giving to her as a birthing-day present.”

Eliyahu nodded. Orlando smiled.

“I want the copy for my daughter. I will tell her it is hers when she is old enough to understand that she owns a book she cannot touch.”

Eliyahu named a price. H.A. named a much lower one.

They finished haggling just as Orlando finished his eggs, grits, biscuits, gravy and links of the smoked turkey sausage Horatio preferred. Orlando made eye contact with his host. “What your cook does with eggs . . . ” He shook his head. “These are incredible.”

“They had better be,” H.A. said. “He’s a French chef. His cooking should be the best in the Germanies, even if I did have to send him to Grantville to study with someone who does Cordon Bleu for fun.” He helped himself to some eggs and sausages, took a bite, and nodded. “How was your trip? Less exciting than last time, I hope?”

The young man who’d affected the lefferto style of dress since his previous appearance here produced a genuine smile. “The only troubles were the late snow and the cold of the high passes.”

****

A few days later Catharina looked at the two books side by side. “Tio Al, these are exactly the same.”

“No, Mrs. Burston, on that point you are quite mistaken,” Horatio told her, thumping one of the two volumes. “This is a copy, but still worth a tidy sum. Even now the original there is a very old book, unlike any other, written in Spain two hundred years ago.”

H.A. glanced from the newly delivered, beautifully illuminated manuscript past the copy to his wife. She cradled their daughter. His joy of ownership paled a bit, despite the obvious care in the copy’s craftsmanship and the historical significance of the original. When he weighed the book against having a healthy wife and child—a treasure Horatio had feared losing more than once during Catharina’s unbearably prolonged labor—the thrill of owning the Sarajevo Haggadah faded away like a forgotten tear.

He looked at the two hundred-year-old book. He knew he would forever after think of it, not as some national treasure Horatio Alger Burston never could have dreamed of owning in his own place and time, but instead as the book Orlando had delivered on his daughter’s birthday.

“One is yours,” he told his wife as he gathered her in his arms. “The other is our daughter’s. Both are, therefore, priceless.”

****

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About Terry Howard

I have in my life been paid for working as, in or at: lawn care, onion topping, haying, fruit picking, general farm labor, fast food, retail, truck driver, construction, gear stacker, stock puller, truck loader, ice house production, auto body/paint shop, janitorial, tutoring, printer’s assistant, stage actor, plastic extrusion, sculptor, teacher, bus driver, direct sales, title examiner, interior decorating, route delivery, waiter, deck hand, marine engineer, reftan/dairy hand, aluminum extrusion and stamping, kosher chef, ren-fair manager, general contractor, landlord, several other things that I do not care to mention and, now, for writing.

I was born in Michigan City Indiana, where my father worked as a machinist while pastoring a General Baptist Church, which makes me a Hoosier, but in my family a Hoosier is an Ozarky who didn’t make it to Detroit. It has been said, and I attest to the truth, that the Celts are alive and living in the Ozarks under assumed names.

I have lived in nine states and abroad. After dropping out of high school to go to college I have studied formally in two colleges, one university, and one graduate school. I have learned much more from studying informally in other settings. My wife, Lauri, and I currently live in California.