Michell crossed the street to the Dirty Apple. There were more bars further down, he was sure of it, but he was equally sure that he hadn’t walked that far on Saturday night. To start with, his feet hurt in ways they had never hurt before.
In fact, now that he noticed the pain in his heels, it was the only thing he could think about it. That, and his sore knees.
Maybe he should skip all the bars on this side of the street. He was sure that bar before had been on the right. Maybe he should head straight back before someone stabbed him.
If falling down was this painful, he didn’t want to imagine what getting stabbed felt like.
He staggered into the bar and collapsed onto the first free barstool. Before he could say anything, the bartender dropped a mug of ale in front of him.
“It looks like you could use this.”
Mitchell took a sip and was about to complain that it wasn’t cold enough, then thought better of it. “This really hits the spot.”
He turned around. The bar was nearly empty and there were no waitress in sight. He sighed. Well, he hadn’t expected this to be the place. It didn’t look even remotely familiar.
He turned back to the bartender.
“Why are there so many bars here?” he asked. “I’ve walked down this street and saw at least five. And I just started with the ones on this side.”
The bartender shrugged. “Nothing else to do, I guess.” He checked off his fingers. “No media to watch or listen to. Not much in the way of books and periodicals. No refrigeration, so folks don’t cook at home much, those who even know how. And no aspirin, so you have to stay a certain level of drunk just so you can tolerate being here.”
Mitchell rubbed his knees. So he wasn’t the only one.
“In a bar,” the bartender continued, “you get food and drink, entertainment, cards and dice, whores, fights. Everything you need.”
Mitchell’s stomach growled.
“You have food? What kind of food do you have?”
“This time of the day, whatever’s left over from lunch.” The bartender left for a few seconds and came back with a plate of… a plate of something.
Mitchell peered at it. It seemed to be a plate of thin, stringy, gnarled brown carrots.
He picked one up and smelled it. “Are you sure it’s safe to eat?”
“It’s deep fried skirrets,” said the bartender. “We cover up the taste with the salt and grease.”
“It’s like a parsnip. It’s the closest thing we have to French fries.”
Mitchell took a bite. It was cold and awful. But also salty and greasy. He pushed the plate away. “Why not just have potatoes? Didn’t the British love potatoes?”
“They didn’t have them yet in 1500.”
Mitchell ate another skirret. Maybe it was just the salt and grease, but they were growing on him. “Anyway, I’m here looking for a waitress. Blonde. White dress.”
The bartender shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. But if you find her, and she’s looking for work, tell her to come see me. We’re always hiring.” The bartender took one of Mitchell’s skirrets. “Everybody wants to go out to a bar, but nobody wants to work at one.”
The food and ale helped. Maybe there was something to what the bartender said about the pain relieving benefits of alcohol.
He paid for his meal and and continued on.
Three bars later, Michell could now see the main square at the end of the street, a couple of blocks away.
He hadn’t found Donna. He hadn’t seen any crystal stores.
The day was a bust.
He sat down on a stoop and pulled off his right boot. There was a giant skin bubble on his heel. He touched it and could feel liquid inside. His dropped the boot. He must have caught the plague. That’s what everyone died of, back in the old days. Mitchell knew his history. The Black Death was the scourge of medieval Europe.
That must be why the air smelled so bad. It was the stench of death.
He felt bile rising in his throat and leaned back until the feeling subsided. Only a little further to go and he’d be home. He closed his eyes and tried not to breathe too deeply.
“Hello, again, young man.”
Mitchell looked up. The peddler was back.
“Norbert Hawking, at your service.” Norbert tipped his hat again. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, a busy gentleman such as yourself…”
“No, no, of course I remember.”
“You were looking for a woman and for a crystal. Have you been able to find either?”
Norbert bent down and peered at Mitchell’s foot.
“That’s a nasty blister there.”
“Is it the plague? Am I going to die?”
Norbert tilted his head, reached for Mitchell’s foot, then stopped himself. “Better not touch it. It looks extremely contagious. But you’re not going to die.”
Mitchell sighed. “Thank…”
“Not yet, anyway.”
Norbert sat down on the stoop next to Mitchell, keeping a couple of feet of space between them.
“You’re going to start feeling a little lightheaded. Then you’ll fall down with a fever, and it will drive you to seek shelter in an alleyway. There, you will lie, racked by pain, for several days, while boils erupt all over your body.” Norbert shook his head. “It’s an awful, awful way to go. The pain is excruciating.”
Mitchell suddenly felt cold. His head was already spinning a little bit. And didn’t he just feel nauseous a minute ago?
“But don’t worry.” Norbert reached into his coat. “I never leave home without an anti-plague poultice.” He took out a small glass bottle and a white cloth square, then folded up the cloth and poured a few drops of a sticky liquid into its center. “Here. Wrap this around your foot and you’ll be good as new in no time.”
“Does it work?”
“Well, I haven’t died of the plague yet.” Norbert chuckled. “And my customers swear by it. Really, everyone on Krim keeps some on hand at all times.”
Mitchell wrapped the bandage around his foot, then pulled the sock back up to hold it in place.
“How much is it?”
Norbert waved him off. “I’m just doing a favor for a friend.” He patted Mitchell on the shoulder and stood up. “You should be feeling better within a couple of minutes.”
Now that the danger was past, Mitchell suddenly felt very weak and alone. He wiped away tears. “Thank you. You saved my life.”
Norbert placed his hand on his heart and bowed slightly. “I feel as though I’ve come to know you. Your struggles — they are now my struggles. In saving you, I feel I was, well, I was saving myself.”
Mitchell pulled his boot back on. It was a little too loose before but now, with the bandage, it fit snugly.
Norbert turned and stepped away, then stopped. He looked back at Mitchell and stroked his beard. “After such a close call with death, I feel reluctant to leave you alone, with neither your woman nor a present to give her. Since I saw you last, I have gone home to fetch my crystal. I was going to suggest that if you were still interested in purchasing it, we could stop by the central bank so you could get the cash.”
He would have a crystal after all. Mitchell suddenly felt awake, rejuvenated.
“But now I find I am reluctant to sell it to you, even at a fair price,” Norbert continued. “I wouldn’t feel right taking so much money from someone I have come to regard as my brother.”
Mitchell sagged down. “Please…”
“I’ll sell it to you for just the ten golds you have,” said Norbert. “It’s the least I can for a friend. And I was able to find one crystal. I’m sure I’ll be able to find another one.”
“Really?” Mitchell felt himself tearing up again. His hands trembled as he reached inside his coat for the money pouch. “Here, take all of it.” He stood up and held it out. “Please, I insist.”
Norbert took the little bag and poured the coins into his hand. The ten gold pieces, the silvers, and a few copper pennies. “It is too much.”
“No, no, keep it,” said Mitchell.
“Well, if you insist.” Nobert put away the money and took out a folded up piece of black velvet. He pulled back the corners, exposing a cloudy, irregular piece of quartz.
Mitchell felt a lump in his throat. “It’s beautiful.”
Norbert gingerly wrapped the crystal back up and, with two hands, handed it to Mitchell.
“I hope it serves you well.”
Mitchell took the crystal and tucked it inside his shirt. That seemed to be where people carried things on Krim. He wiped his face. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Don’t even worry about it.” Norbert paused. “But I’ve just thought of something. I remember seeing a blonde waitress recently. And yes, I believe she was wearing a white dress.” He tilted his head, looking up at the sky. “Now, where was it?” He snapped his fingers. “I remember now. It was at the King’s Arms. It’s a tavern right on the main square. If you come in through the central gate, it’s the first one you see.”
“No, I’m certain that’s not the right bar,” said Mitchell. “I remember that we walked past it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Norbert. “I was so sure… but maybe.. could it be that she is working a second job?”
“You’re right! She wants to open her own shop, so maybe she’s saving up!” Mitchell suddenly felt a rush of energy fill his body. “I’ll go there right away.”
Norbert pointed down the street. “Keep going down Banking Street until you’re at the main square, and you’ll see it on your right.” He tipped his hat again. “I wish you all the best.”