|CHAPTER 8: Of Love and Magick
Doc's eyes fluttered open. He felt weak as a kitten. A sore muscle in his neck throbbed with a dull pain that eased as he rubbed it. A quick glance at his watch jerked him upright. It was nearly noon!
He searched his memory...the last thing he remembered was last evening in the garden. There was also the dream, of course. It had obviously robbed his sleep of any of its restorative powers. It had been pure wish-fulfillment, that dream. He blushed as he remembered it. Well, if he could never have Orlonda, at least he could dream about her! He dressed and went downstairs. As he entered the dining room, he was greeted by five of the silliest grins he'd ever seen!
"What's wrong with you birds? Something's up...what do you know that I don't?" he queried.
They all exchanged puzzled looks.
"Uhhh...you look like Death warmed over, Doc...how do you feel?" Monk barely restrained another silly grin.
"I'm hungry...I don't remember having dinner last night."
He watched with growing unease as they all broke into raucous laughter. He suddenly felt light-headed, so he grabbed a chair and sat.
It was Renny who noticed that Doc had gone several shades paler. "Knock it off, you guys," he rumbled. "Doc, are you O.K.?"
"I think so. What is so uproariously funny this morning...and why did I sleep so late?"
"Well, we weren't about to wake you," sniffed Ham. "Supposing we had barged in on...something!"
"Barged in on something? What are you talking about?" Doc was beginning to be annoyed. Either they were all crazy, or...
"Uh oh..." Monk's grin faded. "Doc," he said, softly, "What do you remember about last night? This is important!"
The urgency of Monk's tone was unmistakable. "I remember going out into the garden to do some...thinking...before dinner. That's all! The rest of the evening's a blank. I had a weird dream...and woke up a few minutes ago...feeling...odd."
"What was the dream, Doc?" Monk's voice was deadly serious.
Doc blushed. "I'd rather not say."
"Oh boy..." Monk decided that beating around the bush would not help. "Doc...it wasn't a dream! It was you and the Countess, and it wasn't a dream! The last we all saw of you was you carrying her up those stairs, and the way you two were looking at each other...well..."
He searched their faces. They were all deadly serious! Johnny reddened as Doc's gaze swept over him.
"Well, my room's next to yours, and if the walls are thick enough to be soundproof, that connecting door isn't! I spent the night with Renny!"
Doc sat back in his chair, stark disbelief written on his features. Rarely did Doc show his emotions, but this revelation had taken him completely by surprise!
"Not...a dream...?" His men wouldn't lie to him -- not about something like this! "I ...we...really did.....?" A faint reddish tinge began suffusing his features.
Five heads bobbed slightly amused affirmation. They had never before seen their big, bronze leader so nonplussed.
"An' about time, too!" Monk chortled.
"Shut up, Oaf!" Ham's elbow jabbed Monk's ribs.
Doc's men had been watching with great interest the play of emotions across their leader's face. It was not often they got a peek into the bronze man's mind. Even as they watched, they saw the look of dismayed naiveté replaced by one of fulfilled satisfaction. The fifteen year old kid in Doc had suddenly gown up -- and liked it!
He looked up to see them watching him, and the old, impassive mask they were so familiar with once again shielded his inner thoughts from them.
"O.K....if we can assume you've sorted this thing out..." rumbled Renny, "What now, Doc?"
"I...don't know," Doc murmured, his mind still elsewhere. "I suggest for the time being that we concentrate on the mystery that brought us here."
One of the maids brought in lunch, and curtsied to Doc as she would have to the Countess.
"Wait..." Doc stopped her. "Have you seen your mistress this morning?"
"Yes sir, I passed her in the hall as I came in...shortly before dawn."
"Did she say...anything...?"
"She gave us our usual instructions for the day, sir."
"Hmm...then why...?" Doc indicated the formal curtsey the girl had made in his direction.
The girl colored prettily. "Oh, sir, I am sorry...I have been too forward! But...but, I assumed when I saw the look on Madame's face...Oh dear!"
Doc put aside his own mental turmoil to quiet the flustered girl. "Take it easy, child, now...what look did you mean?"
"Oh, sir, surely you know that when a woman is satisfied with a man, she gets a certain look in her eyes that any other woman can read immediately. Cannot you tell when your own men are in love?"
She had him there. He nodded assent.
"Well, if you don't mind my saying so, sir," the girl smiled, "From the look on Milady's face this morning...you must be...marvelous!"
A thunderbolt could not have done a more perfect job of destroying Doc's aplomb! It was all his aides could do not to laugh out loud. They had learned of the European casualness in some areas of interpersonal relations on their stints in Europe during the war. Apparently Doc's wartime education had not been quite as broad as theirs had been! They sat there with hands covering grins and shoulders trembling in barely restrained mirth.
The girl gazed at the effect her pronouncement had made on Doc. "Oh, dear," she eyed his fiery countenance. "Have I erred? It is your likeness she keeps in her rooms. Are you not our new Master?"
"Yes...yes, I think I am. Thank you, child." He dismissed her after extracting a promise of silence. "Your mistress will probably make a formal announcement soon. Until then...let it be our secret." She curtsied again, and departed...her eyes shining.
"Thus do the mighty fall...have some lunch." Johnny chuckled. "Y'know, Doc," he changed the subject, "Monk and I found some rather interesting things yesterday. There seems to be two distinct types of ridge formations to the local terrain. One type is fairly solid with few possibilities of caverns, while the ridges to the northeast, near the border, are of the type that is virtually honeycombed with caves. This is where the spies are probably hiding out!"
"That could be the answer!" interjected Ham. "in the village, I learned that the people native to this region don't venture too far into the mountains due to wolves and local superstitions, but have occasionally formed hunting parties to wipe out insurgents from the neighboring country. They were always puzzled about the spies' abilities to simply vanish. They must have hidden in caves the locals knew nothing about!"
"That ties in with what we found out, too," boomed Renny. He pulled out a topographical map of the area, across which line in red and black ink had been traced. "The ridges to the southeast are little frequented, with few backwoods trails and only moderately used deer-runs. This area to the northeast is loaded with well-concealed but distinct back trails and overly heavily used deer-runs. This is where our spies are! You can bet on it! We mapped as much as we could of those trails before nightfall closed in. The red lines are the definitive trails and back roads. The black connecting lines are the heavily traveled deer-runs that obviously men have been using as paths."
"So...we've got the area of operations pinpointed. If we can somehow destroy the caverns and hiding places, the locals can police the rest of the territory." Long Tom smiled.
"You're going to have to be careful about that," Johnny interposed. "There's bound to be natural gas pockets in a cavernous area such as this. You could bring the whole ridge down on your heads if you're not careful!"
"The problem," said Doc, "is not quite that simple. There is another aspect that, I must admit, is puzzling. The spies have been turning up dead! I examined several yesterday. The throats of every one of them had been mutilated!"
"Wolves, Doc?" Monk shivered.
"No. While a wolf will often attack the throat area, they have a very distinctive bite pattern. Wolves didn't do it."
"Similar to the spies that were attacked outside your reception room, eh Doc?" Ham queried.
"With two exceptions. These local bodies showed odd puncture marks on the necks, and very little blood loss from the massive throat wounds which were the obvious cause of death."
"Just like the bodies in the cave!" blurted Monk.
"Yes," said Johnny. "Doc, while reconnoitering the cavernous area, Monk and I located several caves. One particularly large one...with a well-concealed small opening...was full of dead men with the same conditions evident. The most mysterious thing is that some of those bodies were hundreds of years old! Doc...I think I know what killed them, but you're not going to like my hypothesis...or even believe it!"
"We've got a vampire! I'd bet my life on it!" Johnny always bet on sure things...and he'd never been known to lose!
"I think that's one bet you'd lose," smiled Doc. "If there were a...um...vampire...around here, the local people should be terrified. They're not! They're happy, prosperous, and only slightly superstitious...which we can chalk up to the fairly secluded area this fiefdom comprises. Or do you have an explanation for their lack of fear?"
"No. You've got me there, but..."
"Booga, booga," grimaced Monk. "You been putterin' around tombs too long. Yer gonna get brain-rot!"
Everyone laughed...except Johnny.
"Great!" he muttered. "I knew I shouldn't have said anything about this without more proof! But if it's proof you want...it's proof you're going to get! Those books in there hold the key, and I'm going to find it!" He got up and marched towards the library.
They watched him go. Johnny was usually fairly correct with his hunches, but when he was wrong...he was totally wrong! That wasn't often, but his friends were willing to wager this was one of those times.
After lunch, Renny and Long Tom indicated they had some more mapping to do. They were finding the Moldanian countryside quite a challenge to their excellent woodsmanship. They were, quite frankly, enjoying themselves thoroughly.
"Be cautious," Doc warned them. "It is odd that we have not seen any activity as yet. It's almost as if they've been warned of our presence, and are laying low!"
"Think I'll tramp around on foot an' see if I can turn up anything that Renny and Long Tom have missed on horseback. Wanna come with me, fashion plate?" Monk grinned at Ham.
"And end up looking like you? That brush would make tatters of anything but your filthy rags...which are tatters to begin with!" Ham sniffed. "No thanks, Ape! I think I'll cultivate some of the local lassies."
Monk gritted his teeth. It was just like Ham to make for the feminine side of an adventure! Monk wished he'd thought of it first! He looked at Doc and chuckled. Well, there was one lady the ol' shyster wouldn't get!
A second look brought concern to Monk's eyes. His chief had once again gone pale. "You, on the other hand," he said, "Are going right back to bed! You may be the biggest lady-killer around, but it looks like you finally found one that's gonna kill you!" He chuckled lecherously.
"Much as I hate to agree with anything the baboon says, Monk's right, Doc. You look terrible!" Ham offered. "I guess when you're not used to this sort of thing it can throw you for a loop!"
To their surprise, Doc did not object. He knew when his body needed rest, and it needed it now if it ever had. All through lunch he'd felt weak and dizzy.
As they watched him wearily climb the stairs, Ham observed, "This has really hit him hard, hasn't it?"
"Yeah...Doc thought he had everything worked out! No ladies, no troubles!" Monk sighed. "If he didn't have a heart as big as all outdoors hidden under that facade he shows the world, he'd have been safe. As it was...it was only a matter of time till someone tripped him up! Thank goodness it was a dreamboat like the Countess. Hey, does marrying a Countess make you a Count?"
Doc listened to them from the shadows at the top of the stairs. Monk was right! This had hit him hard...very hard! He had to talk to Orlonda! He mounted the stairs to the third floor where he had noticed her rooms the first night, and knocked on the door he knew was here.
Silence answered him.
He tried the knob and found the door unlocked. He walked into the candlelit room. She was not there. It was obviously her room; exquisite personal touches...as well as the open ledgers on a desk...told him this. One small alcove held a nearly completed full-sized painting of himself. It was an excellent likeness. The woman kept surprising him!
Doc pondered. If she was not here, she was probably in her hidden chamber. he turned and retraced his way downstairs. He moved silently through the kitchens and cellars till he came to the tombs. Crossing to the southeastern wall, he found the catch, pressed it and watched as the portal swung open.
He stopped. That was her 'private place'. She had not invited him there...merely told him of its existence. He would not violate that trust. He would wait and speak to her later. He released the catch and the portal closed.
He left the tomb and returned to the upstairs, unaware that a hidden pair of eyes had watched his every movement.
"Fascinating!" murmured a voice from the shadows. The shadow became a figure...it followed Doc back upstairs.
* * * * *
"Awwww...Crud! I'm lost!" Monk had been wandering around in circles for hours! It was beginning to worry him. If he was caught out here after dark...alone...there were wolves in these hills!
The smell of a campfire swung him around. "Oop! Spies, I'll bet!" Monk made his way as silently as possible towards the source of the smell. He came upon a small clearing. A campfire burned at the entrance to a small, dark cave. Across the clearing was a tiny, immaculately kept cottage. Stirring the bubbling cauldron on the fire was an ancient crone.
She looked up. "Come out, come out," she beckoned. "Come, youngster. Simonetta vill not hurt you. Come, have dinner mit an old voman."
The savory smell of what could only be venison stew, rich with onions and carrots, made Monk's mouth water. He was hungry! He considered...this could be a trap! The smell of the stew beckoned, teased, tormented. He was starving! It could be poisoned! That old crone looked like a witch if he'd ever seen one...not that he ever had.
"Sniff..." He couldn't stand it any longer. He stepped into the clearing fully expecting a barrage of gunfire. he had been ready to leap for cover, if necessary.
The crone waddled over and looked him up and down with a bleary eye. "Nice...vat a handsome young man! You make der ladies hearts go flutter, yes?"
A large grin split Monk's face from ear to ear. The old bat wasn't half-bad if she could see that! He just hoped she didn't entertain any romantic notions! She was old enough to be his grandmother.
By the time they finished the stew, they were fast friends. He asked her about the infiltrators and if she had seen any.
"Oh, yes...dey do not hurt old voman. Dey come...dey go. Der Lady protects us. She makes dem go 'vey."
"The Lady...The Countess, you mean."
"Yesss...der Lady...our Voevod, our warrior Lady...she giffs us protection...she giffs us justice...she even giff me dot nice cottage over dere. Just between you und me, she giffs too much. Vhen she comes to visit, I liff in der cottage. Vhen she not here, I liff in my nice, cozy cave!"
"You mean the Countess gets rid of the troublemakers and spies? But...I thought General Tepesh..."
The old woman hissed and drew back. She made a sign, used by peasants all over Europe, to ward off the 'evil eye'. "That one! No! Not him! He is evil...evil! He seeks to take our Lady from us! He vants her, und her vealth! He vill not get her! She luffs der fair one from across the sea!"
"Yeah, Doc loves her, too!" Monk grinned.
"Goot! It is time ve had Master in dis land! Der Lady's eyes shine when she tells us to help him all ve can. Dey vill rule long centuries...dey vill protect der people...I am content!"
"The old girl is great...even if she is a little batty," thought Monk. "But that reaction to Tepesh...think I'll tell Johnny about that! It may be just the thing he's looking for!"
"Speaking of help," Monk looked at the darkening sky, "You couldn't point out how to get back to the castle...uhh...could you?"
"Ach, to tell you how...no. Der trail I know, but it is too late for old bones to stir far from my cave. Vait here...I can help anudder vey." She waddled to the back of the cottage and returned in a few moments with a donkey. She was whispering in the donkey's ear.
"Here..." she led Monk to the animal and indicated he was to climb on. "Now, Buska vill take you to der castle. Vhen you get dere, turn him loose, he vill return to me."
Monk's eyes got big. "D-d-did you just tell him to do that?"
"Are you a-a-a-a witch, or something?"
She cackled toothlessly. "Uff course...GO, Buska!"
The donkey took off with Monk holding on for dear life! He looked back over his shoulder.
The old crone had vanished!
|The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast. All text and images are © 1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.|