My previous excerpts from my novel Atterwald have introduced the three major point-of-view characters. Brendis the lovelorn mouse-man has transformed into Baltasar the sorcerer. Meinrad has seen visions beyond his sick-bed. The outcast rat-child who calls herself “the Dying One” has been adopted by respectable mouse-woman Ricarda and given a name, Nicht Naught Nothing, or “Nichtel.” In the following scene, the three come together for the first time.
Tall unshuttered windows lined the upstairs corridor Nichtel and Baltasar walked along. White-gold sunlight flooded the hallway, singing of the pleasures to be found outdoors. Restlessly she quickened her pace. She grinned at the fiddle-shaped bundle under her arm, anticipating the melodies she might find once she took her violin out into the garden. Intervals already filled her fancy.
But first she had to make someone’s acquaintance. She recited silently all the rules Ricarda had taught her about making a good impression.
“Here we are,” Baltasar half-sang as he reached a door marked with gold-gilt letters, M-R. He turned the knob and stepped into shadow, beckoning for Nichtel to follow.
She could tell at once that light and fresh air were strangers to this room. As Baltasar pulled the door closed behind her the meager glow of his candle revealed faded green walls, an ebony writing-desk topped with books and a bottle of ink, dust-dappled green plush chairs, and a four-poster bed with sheer white drapery. A window hovered over the bed, its blinds drawn fast. Tiny fingers of light struggled through the swirling dust-mites to fall upon the bed’s occupant.
A man — or was he a boy? — lay propped on a mound of pillows, a thin hand dangling over the bedside. He lifted his eyelids to acknowledge the newcomers. His thin lips tightened, as if their intrusion displeased him.
“How are you feeling this happy hour, my boy?” Baltasar asked, his voice so gentle that Nichtel hiccoughed in surprise.
The boy drew his head up straight and said, “I feel as if a tree has fallen on my chest, my throat is raw and dry, my feet are swollen, my head longs to drop off my shoulders, and I haven’t slept in nearly two days. Will that do for a report?”
Baltasar’s lips crinkled. “Leoda said you were improving.”
“Leoda is an idiot.” The invalid straightened himself on the pillows as his half-closed eyes fell on NIchtel. “What is that supposed to be?”
“This is Nicht Naught Nothing, a medicine-maker from Wennhalt. I have brought her here to see if she can make you well. This is my son Meinrad, young rat. You will spend your afternoons caring for him.”
Nichtel curtseyed and greeted Baltasar’s son. Her gaze took him in and wondered. He was in every way the reverse of his father. Baltasar had no scent, yet Meinrad’s mouse-scent was distinct. Baltasar was small and round, yet Meinrad was lank, all angles and edges. The father’s face bore a healthy red tint, while the son’s sunken visage was deathly pale, crowned with a mop of frowsy light blond hair.
“Nicht — Naught — Nothing,” Meinrad echoed. “You have brought Nicht — Naught — Nothing to make me well. That is precisely what can make me well. Night — naught — nothing!”
His gray eyes opened wide as he spat her name, and she started at the venom that brightened them. When she pulled back, trembling, Baltasar took her arm and drew her forward. “You must excuse my son’s rough manners,” he said. “He isn’t accustomed to company.”
“Whose fault is that, I wonder,” Meinrad returned in a harsh whisper. “Perhaps the one who sealed us up in this fortress so that we never see or hear anything of the world outside it, except in books? The one who invites no visitors here, except crabbed old soothsayers and milk-faced rat-brats? Look at her, all swathed in black. Come for my funeral, have you, my lady vermin?”
“Were I you, my boy, I would not be so quick to dismiss ‘my lady vermin,'” Baltasar returned, still gently. “Her talents may surprise you. For one thing, she can hear the wind.”
“Everyone hears the wind — save those of us shut up in sick-rooms.”
“Not as she does.” Baltasar cast a side-long grin at Nichtel. “She hears its secrets, and they may lead her to your cure.”
“You mean she’s a magician? Splendid! Since one of that lot has pumped and prodded me with all manner of spells that have only made me worse, I’m quite eager to endure the ministrations of two.”
Baltasar forced a laugh as he turned to Nichtel. “My lad prizes magic and magicians very lightly, I fear — though were he well I suspect we’d soon see he has abilities of his own.”
“All-Guide, I hope not.” Meinrad sniffed. “I’d throw myself from a bridge. And as to this one having the power to cure me, you know that’s rot.”
“You have so little faith in me,” Baltasar murmured, reaching out to rest his hand on his son’s forehead.”
Bristling with rage, the boy drew back. “Why should I have faith in you?”
Baltasar drew an obliging step backward, his fingers trembling as if they’d been burned. “You see how it is, Nicht Naught Nothing. I would cut off my own hand for his sake, yet he hates me. Boys his age blame everything on their fathers.”
“Boys my age,” Meinrad echoed, his lips curling into a sour smile. “Come a little nearer, rat.” When Nichtel ventured a step closer to him he said, “Try to guess my age.”
She centered her gaze on his face — the angular chin, the hollow cheeks, the gray eyes with their curdled-milk expression. How could one pinpoint the age of such a face? She found it simpler to consider Baltasar’s age, and how old his son might be, and so settled on an estimation. “Seventeen.”
“Crows and vultures!” cried Meinrad. “She got it right! And here I thought my condition had aged me past recognition.” He relaxed on his prop of pillows. “I don’t talk in the manner of most lads of seventeen, do I? Of course I have only books to go by.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, sir,” she admitted. “I’m not much used to company either. One good lady and her children in one small cottage — that’s been my society.”
“Indeed?” A spark of curiosity flashed in the lad’s washed-out eyes. “How old are you, rat?”
“Sixteen, I believe.”
“I’m not exactly sure when I was born.” She drew still nearer the bed. “I had my first birthday present when I was nine, and that was an actual birthday. Ricarda’s twins saw that while they always had cake and presents on their birthday, I never did. ‘Why doesn’t Nichtel — that’s me — have a birthday?’ asked they. Ricarda turned to me like a queen with a scepter and asked, ‘When would you like to be born? The autumn or the spring?'”
“The autumn,” Meinrad put in, reflexively.
“I’d suspected that of you. You’re an autumn sort of person, that’s clear in your eyes.”
“Why?” The lad’s voice sharpened once again. “Because I’m dying?”
She tensed, struggling to bridle her tongue, yet her next words slipped out carelessly, prodding the dangerous point. “No, sir. Because your eyes have an autumn melancholy. When I look at you I see a tree shedding its leaves.”
“There, you see? Dying,” he snapped, folding his arms.
“The tree doesn’t die,” she pointed out. “It merely waits. For my part, I love spring and autumn nearly equally, so it took me a minute to choose.”
“But you chose spring at the last,” Meinrad guessed. “You’re a spring sort of person. That’s clear in your eyes. How long will we have the pleasure of this rat’s society, father?”
“That depends, ” Baltasar replied. “So now that you’ve met my son, what’s your diagnosis, my medicine-maiden?”
Nichtel stared up and down the length of the bed, feeling her inadequacy as Ricarda’s apprentice like a stinging slap. She could only offer an obvious statement. “He should eat more, and he needs sleep.”
“Sleep!” Meinrad groaned. “Yes, I do believe that sleep indeed might do me more good than anything — and as much good as nothing,” He cast Nichtel a brief smile and nod. “But the pain won’t let me rest. Have you some trick up your sleeve for that?”
“Perhaps, my boy,” suggested Baltasar, “what you need is a lullaby…. Take up your fiddle, Nicht Naught Nothing, and see if you can play my son to sleep.”
Nichtel gnawed at her lip. She heard and felt no music in this stifling room. “I’ve never played indoors,” she told Baltasar.
“Then I suggest you try,” he returned.
With lead-heavy fingers she drew her violin and bow from their cloth cover. The fiddle did not quiver at her touch, as it always had before. Nonetheless, she tucked it under her chin and set the bow in place.
Closing her eyes, she cast the net of her memory around the happiest moment she had known so far — the morning when she’d found a cake and a birthday crown at her place at the breakfast table and afterward had rushed out into the spring and played her fiddle with such merry abandon that the sunlight itself had danced. Play that moment, she urged herself and set her bow and fingers in motion. Her heart raced, jubilant, as the jig-like strain rushed forth. She could make music indoors, as long as she remembered the wind’s whispers and touch. Her playing grew louder, stronger, until she imagined herself back in that first birthday, under the fahrian eln with Hulbert and Adelyte kneeling beside her. At any minute Ricarda would call them in to lunch. Her eyelids fluttered as the music slowed, then stopped.
The emaciated face stared up from its pillows. “Father,” Meinrad whispered, “where did you find this rat?”
“I told you before, at Wennhalt,” Baltasar replied. “A lovely strain, young fiddler, but hardly a lullaby. Play something calmer.”
She expected Meinrad to snap that as ill as he was, a change in the tempo could hardly matter. But he kept silent, his gaze expectant.
Once more she closed her eyes, calling other images to mind: soft moonlight falling through the curtain upon Ricarda and her youngsters as they slept, the curtains stirring in a faint breath of wind, the steady whirr of crickets, even a house’s tiny creaks when all is peaceful. From these threads she wove a nocturne.
A hand touched her back. She turned lazily, half-expecting to look into Ricarda’s careworn face. Instead she found Baltasar, beaming. “Behold,” he said, with a wave of his hand toward the bed where Meinrad lay, fast asleep. . .
“If you can heal my son, I swear to you all the treasures I possess save one are yours for the asking.”. . . Shadows loomed in his eyes, black as shrouds. “If you fail, you will wish you had not seen the light of day. For your own sake, Nicht Naught Nothing, make him well.”