1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 45:
Hillerød, Kingdom of Denmark
The more he saw in the workshop that his father had built in a new wing of Frederiksborg Castle, the more appalled Prince Ulrik became. By the time he got to the worktable at the end, with its dully gleaming centerpiece, Ulrik felt as if his stomach was residing somewhere below…
Best not to think about that.
He turned his head to examine his guide. More precisely, to gauge how much he could confide in him.
Oddly, there was something about Baldur Norddahl’s rather piratical appearance that was re-assuring. Perhaps it was because Ulrik had concluded the appearance was by no means skin deep. He’d spent enough time with Norddahl, since he’d returned to Denmark from Schwerin a few days earlier at the king’s command, to get a sense of the man. Even that portion of the Norwegian’s history that he’d been willing to divulge—and that usually took several mugs of good strong beer to wheedle out of him—made Baldur Norddahl an adventurer with few equals. Ulrik wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover that some of those adventures had included piracy. Where else would the Norwegian have learned Arabic but from the Algerine corsairs? He was rather fluent in the outlandish tongue, although he claimed he couldn’t read it except bits and pieces of the aljamiado script.
Spain, Norddahl claimed, was where he first learned Arabic, along with several dialects of Spanish itself. His proficiency in the Muslim tongue he’d gained in parts beyond, when he spent some time with Morisco traders—plunderers and slavers, too, one got the sense—in caravans crossing the great desert to the fabled city of Timbuktu.
If there were a camel in Denmark, Ulrik would be interested to put the matter to a test, and see if Norddahl could ride one of the grotesque animals. On the other hand, he probably could, even if the rest of his stories were false. To use one of the many American expressions that were spreading all over Europe, Baldur Norddahl was a man of many parts.
True, most of those parts wouldn’t bear close examination, taken one at a time. Even his name was suspect. Baldur was most likely accurate. But Norddahl simply meant “of the north valley”—which could be just about anywhere. Norway had a thousand little valleys in its northern parts. Most Norwegians didn’t use farm or location surnames, in the first place, they used patronymics. But a father could be traced a lot easier than a valley somewhere “to the north,” should someone go looking.
Nonetheless, that there were a lot of parts to the rogue, the prince didn’t doubt at all.
“This strikes me as madness, Baldur, now that I’ve finally been able to see it myself. Tell me the truth.”
The Norwegian took a few seconds to look around the immense workroom. It was deserted now, except for the two of them. Norddahl had ordered all of the workmen to take a break from their labors while he guided the prince about.
“It depends how you define ‘madness,’ prince. All of these devices—their descendants, at least—will work. Even the submarine.”
“Even this?” Ulrik picked up the huge bronze helmet with its bizarre glass visor. With considerable strain, since the thing was very heavy. He tried to imagine himself fitting the ghastly device onto his head, and then lowering himself into water with it.
“Oh, yes. Actually, the problem with this particular enthusiasm of your father’s isn’t the diving helmet. I’d be quite willing to trust my life to that. It’s the hose”—he swept his hand down the long table, indicating the canvas and wire contraption that lay sprawled across it in great coils—“and the pump and the rest of it that makes the project so close to suicide that I told His Majesty I refused to test it myself.”
Ulrik winced. Given the risks Norddahl was usually prepared to take—for enough money—the fact that he considered this one almost suicidal made it suicidal indeed.
“Did you ask the American lieutenant?”
Baldur smiled. “Does a bear shit in the woods? As God is my witness, I would forgive the up-timers just for their delightful sayings alone, even if they hadn’t brought such wonderful gadgets with them. Yes, prince, of course I asked him. Pried him rather, over the many beers I bought the lad.” The smile expanded a bit. “Which I charged to your father’s account, you understand. Being, as it was, clearly a research expense.”
The prince smiled back. He couldn’t help it, even if one of the things about his father that aggravated him was the king of Denmark’s ability to shed money like rainwater. But he was unable to get angry over Baldur’s amoral cheeriness. Ulrik had come to realize that the Norwegian adventurer lied about very little, except his past. That was something of a relief, for a prince who’d been acquainted with courtiers all his life.
“And what did Eddie say?”
The smiled left Norddahl’s face. “He said it was very dangerous—all of this—although he claimed that he couldn’t provide me with many details beyond depicting what he called ‘the bends.’”
Ulrik grunted skeptically. “I’m surprised you got anything out of him—or that he didn’t regale you with the outlandish claims he tells my father. [NOTE: Insert here a sentence or two bringing in the stuff Kathy Wentworth covers in her story, “Eddie and the King of Denmark.”]”
“Oh, it’s not hard. You simply have to know the trick of it.”
The prince cocked an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“The lad’s squeamish. You wouldn’t think it, of a man who drove what the up-timers call a ‘speedboat’—and isn’t that an appropriate name!—into a Danish warship. But he is. Eddie Cantrell will lie through his teeth without hesitation, if he thinks he’s deceiving his enemies.” Norddahl shook his head. “Meaning no disrespect, prince, but your father is far too gullible when his enthusiasms get the best of him.”
Ulrik chuckled. “To say the least. Yes, I know. But you still haven’t explained ‘the trick.’”
The Norwegian shrugged. “Eddie’s not a cold-blooded killer. If you make it clear that someone’s life depends on what he tells you—depends directly; immediately; soon, not as vague later possibility—he simply can’t bring himself to keep lying. He’ll get vague, evasive. If you press him—beer helps—you can eventually pry some honest warnings from him. Even details, if he knows them.”
“But he doesn’t, I take it?”
Baldur shook his head. “No, not really. Not about this business, at least.” The last, he said with another sweep of the hand at the contents of the workshop. “He came from a mountainous province, far inland. I think the only time he started learning anything about ships and the sea was after he came here through the Ring of Fire. So most of what he knows is what he calls ‘book-learning,’ and spotty at that.”
“What are these ‘bends’ he warns about?”
“I’m not entirely sure, prince. Eddie couldn’t really explain it—and much of what he said didn’t make a great deal of sense to me to begin with. But if he’s right—I’m sure he’s not lying here, he simply may be wrong himself—it seems that if a man goes deep enough into the water various parts of the air enter his actual blood. One of them is supposed to be particular dangerous. Niter… something.”
Ulrik had been feeling slightly dizzy ever since he arrived in Denmark and his ebullient giant of a father had immediately placed him in charge of what the king was pleased to call “our secret navy projects.” The dizziness increased slightly, as he tried to wrack his brain to pull up what he’d managed to learn in hasty perusals of up-time texts.
“Yes, I remember. Nitrogen, they call it. The up-timers claim that air”—the hand-wave the prince now made took in everything about them—“is not really ‘air’ at all, but a mixture of several airs. What they call gases. Oxygen is the one we actually use to breathe. Most of it is nitrogen. Four parts in five, if I remember correctly.”
He frowned. “But they also claim that nitrogen is harmless. ‘Inert,’ is the word they use.”
“Most of the time, maybe. But Eddie insists it’s dangerous underwater. At least, if you go far enough down. He says what happens is that the—‘gas,’ you call it?—saturates the blood. Then, when a man rises back to the surface—if he rises too quickly, that is—the gas boils back out of his blood. That’s what they call ‘the bends.’ Does terrible things, apparently, especially to the joints. It can even kill you.”
Ulrik grimaced at the image. As if there weren’t already enough sickening ways to main or kill a man!