Orginally written for the Yuletide Rare Fandom Story Exchange
Disclaimer: "Courtney Crumrin" and its characters belong to Ted Naifeh. No copyright infringement is intended or implied.
Notes: This story takes place after "Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom" and will presumably become AU on the release of the next volume.
I realize people in the pagan community have a specific definition and a very negative meaning for the word "warlock." However it is the word used for the magic-using males in Courtney Crumrin canon and I have used it here.
I would like to thank the "Little Details" community at Live Journal for enormous amounts of help with the details of this story, especially the atmosphere of the city of Prague. I'd also like to thank my friend "wtfsad" for editing help.
Courtney Crumrin in the Old World
Courtney began to complain to her uncle on the way over the Atlantic. She was exhausted, and had never been on a trip this long before.
"You're a warlock; can't we just fly there or something?"
"We are flying, Courtney. Now be quiet," Aloysius Crumrin replied.
After hours of silence and boredom the plane landed and they retrieved their small suitcases.
"Now we have to take a bus, too?"
Her uncle glared at her. "I brought you to Prague with me under the impression that you were not a whiny brat like so many others. Do not disappoint me."
Courtney stopped talking then. She knew better than to get on Uncle Aloysius's nerves too much. When they got off the bus her uncle silently began walking and she followed him, rolling her suitcase behind her.
The sidewalks were made of small squares, set in black and white patterns. The cars on the street were parked so close together Courtney could barely see space between them. But when she stopped staring at her uncle's back and looked up, it was the buildings that struck her. There simply weren't buildings like this where she came from.
They were made of stone, with beautiful ornate carvings, and small multi-paned windows. People had made these buildings centuries ago, with love and care. It was like something from a fairy tale. "Or the Twilight Kingdom," she thought to herself.
But the people she saw were just people, dressed in ordinary clothes like hers and looking almost out of place among the storybook architecture.
It was close to evening now. Uncle Aloysius made a right turn into a side street and brought her into a small restaurant. She had realized by now that he was very familiar with this city.
"Was this place here the last time you were here?" she asked him as they sat down.
Her uncle narrowed his eyes a bit as he looked at her. "Not this exact place. But the city hasn't changed as much as I thought it might have. It wasn't badly hit in the last war."
Courtney added up numbers in her mind. "How old were you when you--"
Her uncle, who was of course really some generations removed, shook his head at her sharply.
They sat silently looking at menus for a minute, then Courtney said, "You aren't just going to sit there like a rock this whole trip are you?"
He looked up, his face softening slightly in a way she had seldom seen since he had announced the trip as her birthday present.
"No, I'm not. I brought you here for a reason, though I do have my own business as well."
She asked for his help with the menu. He claimed little knowledge of the language, but pointed out several dishes to her. "Order whatever you like. Food is very affordable here."
Money was the least of Uncle Aloysius's problems, but she decided not to bring that subject up now. But when the food came, she tried to make conversation again.
"Ms. Crisp told me we should see someone's house… Frank something…"
"Franz, I imagine. Franz Kafka," replied her uncle. "Is his house a tourist site now? But you're too young to know who he is."
Courtney shrugged. "She said someday I'd want to be able to say I saw it. And a bunch of other stuff here."
"Ms. Crisp is a sensible enough woman," her uncle said.
"I don't think that's what she says about you."
He looked angry, then gave a short bark of a laugh. "As I said, a sensible woman."
As they finished their meal a group of three older men approached the restaurant. Courtney's uncle made a gesture toward the men through the window and paid quickly. He brought her outside, and introduced them to her, giving Russian-sounding names that Courtney almost immediately forgot. The men spoke rapidly to her uncle in another language, but to her, they merely nodded silently. She knew they must be warlocks, and his friends, but beyond that she wasn't certain.
"We'll be staying with them," said her uncle to her curtly.
"I thought you didn't speak the language," she said.
"These men speak German also."
She hadn't known that he spoke German either. One of the men picked up Courtney's suitcase and they walked to a large car. She sat in the back seat, next to her uncle, and spent her time looking out the window. As they left the center of the city, the beautiful old buildings were interspersed with ugly blocks of apartments. She saw the occasional fast food restaurant or storefront also, but this place still didn't look like the United States.
The men spoke among themselves occasionally in low voices, in what sounded like more than one language. Uncle Aloysius would speak seldom, but it was clear to Courtney that he could understand everything they said. She had just opened her mouth to ask her uncle how far they were going when the car stopped in front of an apartment building.
Eventually Courtney found herself in an apartment that, while clean and furnished, seemed disused.
"How come we're not staying in a hotel?" asked Courtney. "I saw some nice ones on the way over."
"Those places aren't as nice as they look from the outside, Courtney. And this is bigger and more convenient than any hotel room."
Courtney decided not to argue with logic.
Her uncle showed her to a bedroom and told her to unpack the few clothes she had brought with her. When he said good night to her she insisted she was staying up. He shrugged and told her mildly that she could suit herself, and said nothing further when she settled down on a couch in the living room with a book.
One of the men had left, and returned now with a few basic food items. They all stood in a group then and spoke at length. Some of them produced old-looking books, and seemed to make excited declarations about the contents. Uncle Aloysius was shrugging and shaking his head frequently. Courtney thought to herself that this was much like the activities of the coven at home, and for that matter almost everything else he did. He was not going to be co-operative.
When they finally left Courtney looked up at him.
"I hope the whole trip isn't going to be like this. You having meetings with your boring warlock friends while I just sit here."
"As I recall, no one asked you to sit there," he said. "But no, they'll be busy for the next few days and we will see some of the sights."
"OK then," said Courtney
She thought a moment. "I guess you'll just get mad if I ask you who those men are and what you're doing."
He didn't look angry, but he shook his head. "As you may have guessed, they're warlocks from among the local equivalent of the Coven of Mystics, highly respected men. I'd rather not discuss our plans, but I'm sure you'll find out eventually if they work out. I doubt I could stop you from knowing anything, even for your own good."
"Why are they all men? There are no witches with any power here?" asked Courtney.
"I haven't asked after everyone yet," said her uncle. "But things have always been different in the Old World."
In the morning they ate bread and cheese, and her uncle paid for a taxi to take them to various tourist sites.
Courtney saw the inside of some of those impressive old buildings now, including a beautiful church that was all pink marble and gold leaf. They did see the building Franz Kafka had lived in. It was actually pretty in itself, with carvings on the outside, but she wasn't sure what she was supposed to want to remember about it. Uncle Aloysius went with her into every building but showed little interest, mostly nodding at her comments and being his usual taciturn self. She asked several times if he had been to these places before, but he mostly claimed not to remember, though he did at one point tell her a little about Kafka's books.
"They sound crazy," she said.
"Crazier than your own life?" he asked.
"Not much," she admitted.
They walked through cobblestone streets to the town square, where she saw the Astronomical Clock, which told not only the time but the zodiac. She watched the glittering face and shining wheels for a long while, until the hour changed and she saw the parade of moving apostles and dancing skeletons.
She looked at her uncle and saw he was gazing at it also. When the mechanical procession was over he turned to her and said, "I admit I always like to see that clock. People make amazing things, though sometimes for no particular reason."
"Why skeletons, though? And that thing that looks like Death, ringing the bell?" Courtney asked him.
"With time comes death, obviously," replied her uncle.
"But why act so happy about it?" she persisted.
"One had just as well act happy about it, when there is no hope."
"You never act happy about anything anyway," muttered Courtney.
"You'll understand someday," he replied.
"Don't say typical grown-up things at me," she retorted. "I expect better from you."
"Grown-up things?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"You know, the stuff grown-ups tell you to get you to shut up? Remember that from when you were a kid?"
"What makes you think I was ever a kid?" he asked. His tone was severe, but when she looked at him she saw that he was almost giving one of his extremely rare smiles.
They began walking away from the Town Square, and Uncle Aloysius said, "If you think those dancing skeletons are interesting perhaps you'd like to see the ossuary tomorrow."
"It's a crypt, the burial place of a chapel, and it's decorated in bones," replied her uncle.
"Bones from dead people? No way."
"You'll see," he replied evenly.
They had no visitors that night, though her uncle spent some time talking on the phone in English. He shooed her out of the room and she was about to protest that she had a right to know, but in the end she let it pass.
When she heard him hang up she went back in, and saw him sitting at the table with a tiny gray object in front of him. He was hunched over, clearly doing painstaking work. She watched, and was about to open her mouth to ask what he was doing when he spotted her himself and gave her another of his looks.
"Do you need something, Courtney?" he asked.
"A glass of water," she said, heading for the kitchen.
She tried to speak to him again when she saw he had put his secret project away, but he was in a silent and grave mood yet again. She went to sleep early.
The bone chapel was in a place called Kutna Hora, which was a day trip from Prague. Courtney was cranky as usual on the trip but when she got there she was not at all disappointed. She had never seen anything quite like this place. It was covered in artistically arranged bones, with piles of skulls, bone towers, and bone murals.
"This looks like something a few creatures I've met would do," she whispered to her uncle at one point.
"These were people, and they didn't capture living victims to eat," he replied dryly. "These are all just bodies of those who died and were buried here, long before the monks decided to use the bones."
"Did those people know this would happen to them? Someone messing around like that with their skulls?" asked Courtney.
"They knew they would be a pile of bones someday. Does it matter what happens after that?" he asked.
Courtney shook her head. "I think it matters. But at least they got made into art. Even if it's weird art."
They went back to the apartment that night, both in a somber mood. Uncle Aloysius said his business would leave them another day free for sight-seeing if she wished.
"What are we going to see now?" asked Courtney.
"I thought we would see the castle, and perhaps the old Jewish quarter," he said.
"Jews had to live in a special place?" she asked. "But now they can live wherever they want, can't they?"
Her uncle gave her a look of reproach. "The ones who do live here. Doesn't Ms. Crisp teach you anything in regular school?"
Courtney remembered a lesson about the war then, and understood his look. "Yeah, sometimes, when the kids shut up for a while."
"School can be useful, however much you may hate it," he replied.
Her uncle went to make more phone calls then, and she stood in the hallway this time and tried to listen.
She heard him speak to someone on the other end in English.
"Yes, they say it tried to come out to fight them," he was saying.
There was a silence, and eventually Uncle Aloysius replied.
"That's ridiculous. If it were merely buried under a pile of books someone would have found it long ago. But if there is another protection involved—"
Her uncle saw her then, and pointed to her room. She shrugged her shoulders, cursed under her breath, and went off to sleep, still looking forward to the next day in a small way.