by Geron Kees
The Second Tale
© 2016 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.
And then, there was life.
Coby had jumped back into it with both feet, making every attempt now to fill the void once occupied by needless guilt and self-recrimination with new and beautiful things. The world had ceased to be a woestenij - ceased to be a place of vast distances and frigid temperatures, and once again had grown warm and close to his heart. There was Uncle Geroit, so dear to him now, all the family he had left in the world, and eager to share life with Coby. Coby had come to love the man as closely as his own parents. That Uncle was his mother's brother and privy to family matters was a link that Coby could establish with no other. Coby's rebound into life had been rapid due in no small part to Uncle Geroit's patient attentions.
But it was not only Uncle Geroit who had helped to place Coby back onto the tracks of daily living.
Now there was also David - close, warm, and loving in his own special fashion. Dropped on Coby's doorstep with a smile and a hug by the soul of Damsko, city suspended in time, David was the keystone to the breadth of the new happiness that consumed Coby's days and nights. The love that had been kindled by Mooi, a phantom in boy's clothing - that clothing being the body of David, still unmet, still a part of Coby's yet-to-come - had now bloomed into something that tugged Coby along into each new day with all the force of a tsunami rolling ashore onto a quiet stretch of golden beach.
I am in love, Coby had marveled, one day. Verliefd.
It was not unexpected, given how Coby had been energized by Mooi. David was unlike the spirit that had inhabited his likeness that very mysterious night; and yet, he had much in common. His smile, the spark in his green eyes, his sense of humor, the caring he expressed in his touch - all mirror images of the Soul of Damsko in human form. Except that David was real, a person, with no magic about him save that which is born into every human loved by another.
They had become friends first, and lovers next; and now they went through each day with a satisfying blend of both of those things on their plates.
Coby had tried to tell David about the night he had first met him - met the soul of the city masquerading in the flesh of a boy that Coby had yet to meet - which the city, in it's omniscient view, had dashed ahead in time to sample; but David was understandably skeptical. David didn't believe in ghosts, or spirits - or anything supernatural. But he had gone, over time, from grinning about the whole matter to a kind of quiet understanding that Coby believed with all of his heart that it had truly happened, and that it was not a subject to be made light of. There was a thrilling romantic aspect to the idea that appealed to David, and so he had decided to allow Coby his dream, and to appreciate the whimsy of the idea along with him.
Coby was not completely fooled; he knew that David didn't quite believe, but that his affection for Coby was more important than the plain truth of whether or not the night with Mooi had actually happened. So they existed in a pleasant silence now about the subject, with David's disbelief suspended in favor of his new love for Coby.
David's family had moved into De Pijp, a neighborhood within easy cycling distance of Coby's flat in Indische Buurt. In the middle between them was their school in Frederiksplein, and they would meet each morning at the bicycle rack and trade a little kiss. At first David had been a little shy about it, still not used to the openness of pure Dutch society. He had lived the best part of his life in Nederlands in ex-pat communities, where even though Dutch and English were both spoken, and the transferred American culture was overlaid with new Dutch attitudes, the underpinnings were still rooted in The States, and carried some baggage that had yet to be lost. Gay culture was still viewed by some there with hooded eyes, and David had been far more circumspect about his sexuality there - although he was out to his parents, whom, he would smile and say, loved him anyway.
Their weekends, beginning immediately at the end of the Friday school day, were their own. Coby's summer employ at the coffee shop where his Uncle Geroit was a cook had finally ended with the waning of the summer tourist crowd, and as the fall coolness had set in and the trees had begun their turn to amber and flame and vermilion, and the sunsets had edged back to before seven o'clock, they took to spending their evenings exploring the town together - something new for both of them.
For David it was excitingly intriguing, a land beyond the diluted Americanism of the little ex-pat neighborhoods in which he had been raised. For Coby it was just new. Too young to have explored the adult life of the city on his own prior to his parent's deaths, the last two years had been spent mostly in a fog that did not inspire much in the way of exploration for the sheer joy of it. Now, with David at his side, the joy of the hunt was quite apparent.
This Friday began the All Hallow's weekend - the last days before the Halloween holiday. On the rise in popularity of late, Halloween was an event absorbed from American and British cultures. The Dutch had their own version - Sint Maarten's Day, which was celebrated on November eleventh, and during which children would circulate the neighborhoods dressed in masks, and sing songs for their free handout of candy. It was a less-than spooky event, however, and the Dutch, finding a good scare just as enjoyable as the next fellow, had been embracing the idea of a frightening little holiday in the past few years. Coby had absorbed some of David's enthusiasm for the scary evening, and had been looking forward to experiencing his first one.
They had looked about online and discovered that all sorts of events were scheduled up to and on the actual Monday holiday - from the Halloween Party at the Hotel Arena club near the Oosterpark to Fright Nights at Walibi World out in Biddinghuizen. But in the end, they had decided to cycle about town and see what others were doing for the first evening of the holiday.
"It will be leuk, man," Coby said, grinning. "Fun. You will get a chance to see how your neighbors like this new thing of yours."
"It's not mine," David had returned, grinning. "It's just one of those things that's fun and appeals to people. In the places I grew up we always had Halloween. The Saint Martin's thing we didn't do."
"Ja. It was the reverse for me. I have heard of this American thing, but I have never experienced it." He had smiled. "Trick or treat, mijn liefste?"David had leaned forward and kissed Coby, and Coby had closed his eyes and drawn in the warmth of the other boy's closeness. "It will be fun just because we are together, ja?" David had told him.
Ja. Anything done with the participation of his new friend was a blessing, Coby had decided. He had dropped a hand and gently massaged the other boy's crotch, and then they had been closing the door to Coby's room just in case Uncle Geroit had an early day.
Coby had never thought that much about his sexual preference. It simply was. The subject had not had time to come up properly with Coby's parents before they had died, but he had never once considered that they would have a problem with it. It was Coby's business, they would have said, and then they would have stepped away from it unless Coby seemed to be having problems with it. Uncle Geroit knew what Coby liked, and simply bid him to be careful in his evening explorations of the gay life of Damsko. Uncle Geroit also knew that Coby, at a month shy of seventeen, and David, just four months older, were both too young to enter the clubs; but he was not nearly so naive as to fail to understand the particularly boyish concept of waar een wil is een weg.
Where there's a will, there's a way.
Coby had eventually confided his experiences with Club Samen and Mooi to his Uncle; the man had listened quietly and only smiled at the end of the tale.
"Damsko has a will of her own, Coby," he had said. "She is old and she is experienced. I place no feat beyond her. If she spoke to you, I believe you."
And that had been it. That his Uncle actually meant what he said was plain to Coby, and it took away some of the doubt he had been nursing in his mind about the things he had experienced that very strange and wondrous night. Amsterdam was, and would always now be, a place of some mystery for Coby, and he would always wonder how many others walked the city's streets each day knowing more about those mysteries than they were telling. Uncle Geroit, certainly, seemed to know more - but he had not volunteered his experiences, and Coby was not going to be asking him.
So for Friday evening, Coby and David pedaled into old town and locked their bicycles, and walked about Leidseplein, watching the rock and techno club crowds as they moved outside Melkweg and Paradiso, and the young jazz cruisers frequenting Sugar Factory. There were people in costume, and those with painted skin and colored hair. Everyone seemed in good spirits, and smiles and laughter were everywhere.
"Colorful," David noted, his eyes full of curiosity.
Coby smiled. "These are just the regular clubbers. We could go back to Kerkstraat and see the gay leather crowd, if you like."
David's eyebrows went up. "You've been there? Oh, right. Samen."
"Ja. But also I have seen Church. Some interesting saunas that way, too."
David eyed him. "You haven't."
"No," Coby admitted. "Only from the outside."
David took Coby's hand and laced their fingers together. "I have a rowdy for a boyfriend. I think this will be a fun relationship."
Coby squeezed the other boy's hand as they walked along. Above them, a feast of stars crowded around the rim of the night sky, competing furiously with the lights of the square. Only highly visible because of the new moon, the stars cast a cold yet beautiful halo about the milky lamp lights crowding all else out of the sky directly above. They walked slowly about the perimeter of the square, taking in the sights, the sounds, the people.
Life was in bloom here. The crowds were mostly young; but everywhere the boys looked there also seemed to be older faces, smiling and laughing in the same way as their younger counterparts, joining with the others in the small magic of a warm October evening in the colorful glow of the square. Coby and David grinned as they walked, their eyes bounding everywhere about, each new scene and each new face a new stroke on the slowly emerging canvas of this new reality.
They were passing Melkweg again when a young woman, walking towards them, suddenly swerved and bumped into Coby. She had green hair with a streak of pink in it, and turquoise slashes across her cheeks beneath her eyes.
"Vergeef me, alsjeblieft," Coby said immediately, stepping back. "Your pardon."
The girl smiled, stepped forward, and kissed Coby.
Coby's breath went out, so stunned was he at the suddenness of the event. Beside him, he heard David grunt in surprise.
Coby meant to push the girl away, to step back - but something about the kiss stopped him. It was warm and passionate, with a gentle yet talented tongue, and somehow so familiar that Coby's mind went blank at the feeling that he had been here and done this before.
The kiss lasted all of fifteen seconds, and then the girl stepped back and smiled at him. "Hallo, Coby."
Coby knew then. "Mooi," he gasped.
The girl's smile went radiant, and her painted face lit with a beauty that shown from a source deep within.
"You remember. So sweet you are, Coby."
"You know this girl?" David asked, giving Coby an obviously curious stare.
Coby laughed. "This is she," he said, pointing at the girl. "The soul of Damsko, I told you about."
David looked skeptical. "You said it looked like me."
"Then, yes." He looked back at the girl. "But...I think that Mooi can be whomever she wishes."
"You don't know me, David," Mooi said, turning now to face the other boy. "Not yet. But I know you. Your sweet and gentle heart I have visited before."
David's jaw dropped, and Coby laughed. "She knows everything, I tell you."
"You are the soul of Damsko - of Amsterdam?" David asked. "I don't believe it."
The girl looked into the sky, smiled at the stars. "No moon tonight. No watcher. Or, it is there, yet cannot be seen." Her gaze lowered, and her eyes fastened onto David's. "I am the city that has lived a thousand years. I have been loved, and I am loved now. I return that love. The me you see before you is from your yet-to-be." Her eyes moved to Coby. "From both of your yet-to-be times."
"Why are you here?" Coby asked, reaching out and taking the girl's hand. "Are we to play again?"
Mooi smiled. "No, sweet Coby. I am here to ask a favor - I need your assistance."
Coby stared into the painted eyes, saw that Mooi was serious. "If I can help, I will, of course."
She nodded. "I knew that that would be your response." She smiled at David. "Just as I know that this one will assist you."
David crossed his arms, looked first at Coby, then at the girl. "You two are serious, aren't you?"
Coby released Mooi, went to stand close to David. He looked into the other boy's eyes and nodded. "Yes. What I told you before was the truth."
David's mouth opened, even as his eyes searched Coby's. Coby simply smiled, holding his gaze upon his boyfriend's. A small moment of time passed, as their eyes talked with each other and sent the results to their hearts.
David smiled. "Okay." He reached out and grasped Coby's hand again. "I'll go along for the ride."
Coby looked at Mooi. "How can we help?"
Mooi closed her eyes a second. "So much love have I seen. But also so much darkness. Souls tortured by the Inquisition in my squares, others burned as witches in my plazas. Things beyond my control, for while I can watch, I cannot act. I must have hands." She sighed, opened her eyes. "I need you to be my hands, Coby."
"I will. What must I do?"
Mooi smiled. "Go to Rembrandtplein. Talk to Rembrandt."
David gaped. "Does she mean Rembrandt van Rijn - the artist? He's been dead forever, hasn't he?"
"Three hundred and forty seven years," Mooi supplied. "He has much to say now."
Coby stared at Mooi, trying to understand. "Rembrandtplein?" He shook his head. "I do not --" But then he took a sharp breath. "You mean the statue?"
"Statue?" David repeated, looking at Coby.
"Ja." Coby nodded. "Rembrandt Square is the home of the statue of Rembrandt. Well - one of them."
David looked at Mooi. "You want us to talk to a statue? Seriously?"
The girl nodded. "A simple thing. You walk up, introduce yourselves, and ask the man how he is." She gave David a winsome grin. "Certainly within your abilities, from what I know of you, David."
A slow smile spread across the boy's face. He looked at Coby, gave a little nod of his head towards Mooi. "This one has some mischief in mind, I think."
Coby shook his head. "No. If she says we should talk to the statue, that's what she means." He frowned. "Rembrandt's house is there, too. Does that figure in this?"
"I don't know," Mooi admitted. "I do not know what he intends to say to you."
"I thought you could see the future," David said immediately, his eyebrows going up as if he'd caught Mooi in a lie.
The girl smiled. "The future of the living, yes. The future of the dead, no."
David closed one eye. "But if you know our futures, then you must know what the statue will say to us. So you don't need to know the future of the dead."
Mooi smiled again, and held up one hand.
An immediate stillness overtook the square, as all motion ceased. Coby gasped as the blinking lights by the clubs froze in an on or off state, just as all the clubbers and partyers about them ceased movement in mid-step. A silence deeper than any Coby had ever experience assailed him - he could hear David breathing. Even the air seemed to have stopped in its flow, and Coby felt a stale stillness in what he was able to take into his lungs.
David gaped about at the sight of hundreds of people frozen solid. "What did you do?"
Mooi cocked her head to one side, as though trying to understand this piece of magic herself. "I exist within the flow of my own time. For the moment, I have stilled it." She stepped to David and took his hand. "There are things I may do, and things I may not. When I say I do not know what Rembrandt wishes to say, I speak the truth. For he has no mouth, and I have no ears. I hear you, and you hear me, only in thought."
Coby realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out slowly. "If he has no mouth, then speech may not be involved. You're saying he has a message, is all."
"Yes. I knew you would understand, Coby. Seek out Rembrandt. Ask him what he cries about. Do it for me, please."
Coby nodded. "Will you return the plaza into time now?"
Mooi raised her hand again, and the world was once again alive. The club lights again blinked and changed colors, and the crowds ebbed and flowed about them.
"I believe you," David suddenly said, looking at Coby. "Holy shit."
Coby laughed. "Nice to know that your boyfriend is not krankzinnig in the head, eh?"
David smiled, came closer and put his hands on Coby's waist. "I never thought you were crazy, Coby." They exchanged a kiss.
"You've convinced him, Mooi," Coby said. He turned to look at the girl. "Now --"
She was gone.
Coby stared; then he and David both turned to look about them. There was no sign of the girl with the green and pink hair, and the turquoise slashes beneath her eyes.
"Whoa," David said, his eyes coming back to Coby's. "Pretty good disappearing trick."
Coby considered that a moment, then just smiled. "I guess she told us all she needed to. It's up to us now."
David looked about a last time, drew closer. "This is creepy, Coby. I hate to say I kind of didn't believe in any of this before now."
"It's okay. I was aware that you had misgivings."
David sighed. "So - what? Now we go talk to the statue?"
Coby grinned. "We were going to check out Rembrandtplein on the way back anyway - right? We will just pass up Kerkstraat until another time."
They walked back to their bicycles beneath a sky now made satiny with light clouds. Again, the streetlamps looked strangely golden to Coby, as though he existed in the wake of Mooi's passing, and saw a little bit of how the spirit viewed herself, the city of Damsko.
Mooi. Beautiful. People smiled at them as they walked hand-in-hand, and other couples of both straight and gay composition seemed unusually attentive as they passed them by.
"You feel people are staring at us?" David asked, as they neared their locked bicycles.
Coby nodded. "Yes. I was thinking the same. It is something I noticed before - when you are with Mooi, people either notice you and smile, or they cannot see you at all. For a time after you leave Mooi, you exist first one way, and then the other before returning to normal."
They gathered their bicycles and pedaled over to Leidsestraat, and followed that to Reguliersdwarsstraat. By the time they reached that road, the streetlamps had seemed to yellow, and people seemed not to notice them at all as they passed.
"Zeker vreemd," David breathed, noticing the change. "Odd how they do not seem to see us now."
"It will pass," Coby reassured him. "You are invisible now - every boy's dream. Enjoy it while it lasts."
David laughed, and experimentally made a bizarre face at a small crowd of partyers as they passed. No one noticed. "Aw, leuk, man."
Coby could only smile. That David was now enjoying the experience of being privy to Mooi's world only pleased him.
They were in no hurry, and it took them nearly fifteen minutes to pedal the slightly better than kilometer distance to Rembrandt Square.
There were people here, too, strolling and standing about, in groups and alone. The night was warm for October, and people were enjoying themselves. Coby and David found a spot to lock their bikes, and walked in among the people.
The statue of Rembrandt, cast of iron, stood above the crowds atop a gray granite pedestal with the artist's name on the front. The granite apron about the statue was itself set into a long rectangle of green grass guarded about by the tall forms of trees and metal poles carrying lights that illuminated everything.
The square pulsed with life. To one side stood club Rain, and to the other club Escape. Escape's immense, dynamic LED screen, poised above the entry door, glowed with life, displaying commercial ads and uploaded videos from a queue supplied by clubbers and passersby. The lights of cafes, restaurants, and other businesses created a colorful border around which circulated the crowds.
"Wow," David said, looking about like a child at his first circus performance. "Never been here at night. Awesome."
Coby could only smile at the other boy's enthusiasm. "Mijn lekker vriendje."
David smiled, and snuggled closer.
They moved through the crowd towards the statue of Rembrandt, coming up upon the first of the Watchmen.
Almost a decade previously, a bronze accompaniment had been commissioned to stand before the famous artiest. The core characters from Rembrandt's great work, Nachtwacht - The Night Watch, had been crafted in metal by two skilled Russisch sculptors, set on their own moveable bases, and placed upon the granite apron before the statue of the great man himself. The set had traveled about Europa on display; but a common clamor had arisen to have them placed back in front of Rembrandt, and a fund established to keep them there.
Nederlanders looked after their own, and the Watchmen were now a part of the life of Rembrandtplein, and a tourist attraction in their own right.
People stood among the bronze figures, some in an obvious state of drunkenness; others looked a little stoned. Their friends were taking photos of them with their arms draped about the shoulders of Capiteijn Frans Bannick Cocq, his Leutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, or perhaps the ensign of the colors, Jan Vissher Cornelissen. The bronzes did not seem to mind, wearing their patient expressions with the tolerance that only metals can manage.
"How are we to speak to the man with all these others about?" David asked, stopping to look about them.
"I have a feeling it will not matter," Coby said, giving David's arm a small tug as he stepped forward.
They went to stand directly before the statue of Rembrandt and gazed up at him; the statue returned the gaze, its eyes looking down at them with all the years that separated them plain to see. The eyes were appropriately contemplative for someone with vision; yet there was also something amazingly companionable about the look, as though the sculptor had known that many people would study the artiest just as he had studied those he had painted. Rembrandt looked accessible in his greatness, and it was one reason that people seemed to love him.
David smiled. "Some pretty nice art here on the part of the sculptors, too."
Coby nodded, looking about them. No one was directly by them at the moment. He looked back up at the face of Rembrandt. "I am Coby, and this is David. How are you? We have come to hear your message."
For a moment, nothing happened, and Coby felt a little foolish. Mooi would not play a trick on them - he felt certain of that. Yet the statue seemed exactly that: solid, inanimate, and utterly silent.
But then Coby was suddenly aware of an odd feeling, as if the hairs of his neck stood up; and he noticed immediately a change in the lighting around them as the yellow-white light from the lamps above them turned golden. David came to stand beside him, and took Coby's hand, obviously sensing the change as well.
The statue's hands were crossed - the right atop the left. There was something in the right hand, between the fingers, but Coby was not certain what it was. A stylus, or a short brush.
Another odd silence seemed to settle about them, but the square did not freeze into immobility. Rather, the voices of the people on all sides seemed to fade into a great distance, while no one came near to Coby and David, and seemed actually not to see them.
Above them, there was the slightest of movements - and the statue's right hand lifted.
David gasped, and leaned hard against Coby. Coby instinctively placed an arm about the other boy and squeezed him closer.
The hand continued to lift, and then the arm, accompanied by the rustling of fabric, as if the statue were clothed instead of all of one casting. The arm straightened, the hand came up, and the forefinger pointed directly at Coby and David. Both boys took an instinctive step back...but the arm continued to move. It drifted slowly to their left, until it was pointing out into the crowd of bronze statues. Both boys turned to follow the line with their eyes.
At the front of the ranks of musketmen and burghers, all the way over, was a smaller figure, dressed in baggy clothing and wearing a steel helmet. It appeared to be a boy, one leg lifted behind him as if he was running.
Coby went over by the statue, aware of David closely following, and looked down at it. The boy was carrying what looked to be a powderhorn in his hands, and wore a fluttering cape at his back. His gaze was cast to his left, over his shoulder as he ran, and there seemed the hint of a smile on the aged patina of his features. Coby examined the figure, unsure of what he was supposed to do next.
The statue answered that question for him. There was the briefest sense of blurring about the front of the bronze boy as the details of his uniform seemed to flow and change from metal into cloth, and then one small hand moved slowly from the end of the powderhorn. Coby stared in amazement, unable to move, aware that David stood close and watched as well.
The statue's arm flexed and the hand rose, slid inside the front of the uniform, and reemerged as a fist. The hand turned towards Coby, and the fingers partially parted, revealing the glint of gold within the small palm.
Coby raised a hand...
"What are you doing?" David asked, his voice sharp with anxiety, as he raised his own hand to stop Coby.
"Obviously, we are meant to take it."
David looked at him, licked his lips. "Well --"
Coby smiled. "Mooi will not have us harmed," he reassured.
David released a breath, nodded, and withdrew his hand.
Coby reached down between the upraised fingers - and for an instant his skin touched the flesh of the statue. It was soft as velvet yet cold as ice, causing Coby to take a startled breath. But he closed his fingers about the glittering thing within the hand, and felt immediately what it was.
"A ring," he said softly, withdrawing it and holding it up to the light.
Just as they both looked to examine it, there was further movement from the boy statue. The figure's mouth - a slit beneath the visor of the steel helmet - widened into a smile. At the same moment the head tilted back, and a face looked up at them from beneath the helmet's visor.
It was not human.
Coby simply stared, frozen, hearing a sharp intake of breath from David.
The small face had eyes, but they were large and perfectly round, looking like old-fashioned aviator's goggles. The irises of the eyes were vertical, and there were no lids. The nose was small - impish - and the grinning mouth was full of sharp-looking pointed teeth. With all that said, the face was neither ugly nor sinister - just very, very different. The smile even looked friendly - if the grin of a wolf could be described as friendly.
Coby opened his mouth to speak, to ask David if he was seeing this, when a shadow rippled past them, as though a large bird had flown over the moon. In the same instant, the light from the lamps above the square lost its golden sheen, and the voices of the surrounding crowds came back to them.
Coby blinked. All was as it should be. The boy in the steel helmet was again frozen in running, his gaze cast to his left, his mouth a mere slit visible beneath the helmet's visor. His eyes, when Coby bent down to look, seemed normal. Coby turned, looked to the statue of Rembrandt - but once again the famous artiest stood in elegant contemplation, his hands crossed in thought before him.
"What just happened?" David asked, leaning against Coby's shoulder.
Coby held up the ring, which glinted in the bright lamplight.
"I think we just received the message that Mooi told us about."
They reclaimed their bikes and pedaled to the FEBO on Reguliersbreestraat, just over from the square. Coby liked uit de muur eten - eating from the wall. The FEBO held rows of self-serve vending machines - automatiek - integrated into the serving wall, containing food of every kind - all of it great for a quick snack. Coby had a hot beef kroket, while David had a bacon cheeseburger, and they shared a serving of Kaasoufflé.
A few others were already there, but got their food and left. Only the server, preparing food in the little kitchen to the rear of the food compartments, remained.
They stood near the door and examined the ring as they ate. It looked to be made of gold, and bore the likeness of the head of a knight or watchman in helmet, etched deeply and finely into a polished black stone of some kind. The band was engraved with odd-looking figures that neither boy could quite make out. The ring was in good condition, if a bit dirty; but the feel of it was somehow ancient, and Coby was sure that it was something from the deep, dark past.
The most unusual thing about it was its size: the band was large enough to fit over the tips of two of Coby's fingers - far too large to be worn by anyone they could imagine. That so large a ring had been offered up by the smallest of the bronze Watchmen was a contrast that filled both boys with wonder.
"Couldn't have been his, unless he wore it on a toe," David pointed out, grinning. "And with that face --" He suddenly sobered, his eyes searching out Coby's. "What the duivel was that, Coby? Not a boy, certainly." He laughed, a little nervously. "At least, not one of ours."
Coby paused in chewing his kroket. "I don't know," he said carefully. He examined David, his eyes searching the other boy's face. "Are you frightened by this?"
David frowned. "Um - no. I'm not scared by it - it's just a little weird." He smiled. "More exciting than anything else. I'm having fun - so far."
"Okay. I wanted to make sure before we go any further with this." He leaned towards the other boy, smiling. "Want to stay the night? Uncle Geroit won't mind. We can talk more of this thing."
David looked at Coby a moment before leaning in and kissing him warmly. "I would love to stay over with you. Let me call mijn ouders, okay?"
Coby nodded, and went back to examining the ring while David pulled out his cell and called home.
A mystery, this one. The ring was like no other that Coby had ever seen. It was weirdly beautiful, but its size made its wearer problematical even to imagine. Who had fingers of this girth? Coby could not begin to envision the hand this ring must compliment.
He turned it, admired the way it caught the light. He was unable to identify the dark stone - but then he was no gemologist, either. He held the ring up and looked inside the band - and squinted.
There was a slightly crusty coating born of time inside - but Coby thought he could make out lettering beneath the grime of ages.
An inscription? If so, surely a clue.
The ring would have to be cleaned - carefully. That could be their next project, once they returned to Coby's flat.
David came back. "All set. They just said call them sometime in the morning."
Coby sighed, puckered his lips slightly. David grinned, leaned in and kissed him.
They finished eating, unlocked their bicycles and headed back down Reguliersbreestraat and went back through Rembrandtplein. The square seemed as normal, thronging with nighttime clubbers, the hypnotic motion of the giant screen above club Escape's doorway obviously slightly mesmerizing to the faces turned up to it. The boys looked at the statue of Rembrandt and the Watchmen as they pedaled past, but all seemed normal there, too.
They reached Amstelstraat and followed it to the Blaubrug and crossed the Amstel, then took Weesperstraat to the s100. This would be the longest portion of their journey, about ten minutes.
"A lot of people out this evening," David noted, eying the many couples and small groups that walked the streets around them.
"Start of the creep season," Coby returned, grinning. "Good start, too."
David grinned at him. "I'll say. I still can't get over the face of that little imp back at the square."
"Ja. It was like nothing I've ever seen before. Did you get the impression he was smiling at us?"
"I did. And not in an unfriendly fashion. Still - with a face like that it's hard to tell. Would the devil look charming if he smiled as well?"
Coby was about to make a smart retort when something caught his eye and he braked to a stop. They were passing the Tropenmuseum, near the Oosterpark. Coby had visited the beautiful building many times as a boy, fascinated by the museum's exhibits of cultures from around the world. The structure was comprised of a wide central section, with tall towers at either end, topped by steep, spired roofs. The peak of the long roof of the central section was highlighted against the city-lit sky. For just a moment, Coby could have sworn that he had seen someone running along the peak out of the corner of his eye.
David stopped immediately, looked over his shoulder at Coby, then drifted back on his bike to stand next to him. "What happened?"
Coby was staring at the museum building. He gave a short laugh. "I though I saw someone on the roof of Tropenmuseum."
David turned and gazed at the building. "Way up there? They'd have to be gek. That's probably twenty meters off the ground."
Coby shrugged, then sighed. "Just thought I saw someone --"
He broke off as he again saw a large figure scuttle across a backlit section.
David made a small noise, his head canting forward. "I saw that, too."
They watched a moment longer, but the figure did not reappear.
A couple walking past noted them looking and slowed, following their gaze. When nothing appeared, they looked at each other and raised their eyebrows at the two boys, then moved on down the street.
"We look dom standing here staring at a closed building," David finally said. He let his eyes move to Coby's and smiled. "The night keeps getting better."
Coby shrugged. "Perhaps a worker, doing something."
"Ja. Now, that would be dom, running about the rooftops in the dark."
They watched a moment more, and were about to turn to go when something reappeared on the roof. For just a moment it looked like a very large man; but then, incredibly, they saw the outline of massive wings spread, and then the creature dived from the roof and was lost in the night!
Both boys reacted as one, thrusting their feet onto the pedals of their bicycles and racing for Indische Buurt, their only thoughts of flight.
Coby's mind slowly came back to him as he pedaled furiously. His legs were pumping away and his breath came in long, labored gasps.
What do you run from? The thought echoed throughout his mind, until he could no longer ignore it, and he slowed. Finally, as they reached Zeeburgerdijk in the Eastern Docklands, he stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. Nothing was chasing them.
David had gone ahead; but he immediately noticed Coby's disappearance and circled around to come back to him.
"There is nothing there," Coby said quietly, as he finally caught his breath. "We run from shadows."
David took a deep breath and then gave a nervous laugh. "That was no shadow that flew off the roof of the museum."
"You saw it?" Coby asked pointedly. "Or the dark outline of it?"
David licked his lips. "Okay, just the outline of it. Scary enough, wouldn't you say?"
Coby nodded. That the mere sight of the flier had spurred them to mutual flight said much of the way their senses had interpreted what they had seen. The complete otherworldliness of the apparition could be felt as well as observed. There was no explanation for such a creature within the pages of their normal days, and that they had experienced something from outside that diary of everyday life was plain.
It was something unknown.
But that had not been what had been so frightening. It was the way that their bodies had reacted, leaping into flight with the sure instinct of the rabbit beneath the eyes of the hawk, that had been so electrifying. The sense of the thing they had seen as a predator had been marked - and overpowering.
"I nearly pissed down my leg," David said, smiling with a bit of relief. "Something about the sight of that thing scared me pretty good."
Coby had to laugh. He nodded, reached a hand out and squeezed his boyfriend's arm. "Let's go on. But at a more reasonable pace. It will not do us any good to crash into something and be hurt."
They went on. They were close to Coby's flat now - less than five minutes away. Above them, the sky appeared to churn with wisps of clouds, obscuring the stars wholesale as as they traced their ways across the darkness. Lightning briefly flashed on the horizon and then was gone. A small breeze seemed to accompany them now, and Coby felt a bite to the air that signaled a coming chill. A faint, eerie whispering permeated the air about them somehow, like the voices of a million spirits contesting their fates. The wind - yes?
The night had become close, as though it crouched before them, flowed around them as they passed, and then followed closely in their tracks, pursuing. The lights along the road appeared dim, unable to do proper battle with the darkness, and the buildings along the way looked almost foreshortened, as if they had all been stretched back off the road and into themselves. The people they passed seemed vague, shadowy, as though they walked beyond a window smudged and dirty, rendering them remote and somehow less than human. None looked their way as they passed in the night.
Lightning again flashed off to the west. The sensation of something strange afoot was unshakeable, and though both boys pedaled at a more reasonable pace, they stayed close together, and they kept their eyes moving, prying into shadows as they passed, examining everything. Fear rode with them; only Coby's stubborn, deliberate pace kept David in check - there was no force he could imagine that would cause him to abandon his friend.
But the feeling that there were things out there in the dark with them was almost tangible. Coby could feel his heart beating - pounding - in his chest again. He was scared, and he didn't know why.
They turned into Molukkenstraat, and in just a few minutes arrived at Coby's flat. They snatched up their bicycles and took them inside, and hurriedly closed the door and bolted it behind them. They stood the bikes against the wall and moved together, their arms automatically encircling each other.
"Something out there," David whispered, looking at the door.
Coby licked his lips. "Maybe"
"I felt it, Coby. Felt them."
Coby let out a small breath, feeling the pounding in his chest slow. He gave David a squeeze, and smiled at him. "I think we were meant to feel this. But I don't know that it was real."
The other boy frowned. "You mean - it was in our minds? Only in our minds?"
Coby wasn't certain. The fearsome feeling following them through the streets had carried some of the same flavor he tasted when he was with Mooi. Perhaps he was in some way sensitive to that now. Mooi only existed in the mind, and the fear that had chased them felt much the same way to Coby.
Imagined, with purpose.
Coby sighed, gave David a kiss. "I do not know. A feeling I have. Like what happened out there crept in around our eyes and ears, instead of through them."
One of David's eyebrows went up in surprise, and he looked at the door to the outside again. He nodded. "It felt real to me. But I will trust in your instincts, Coby."
Coby nodded, said no more. Instead he started moving, taking David with him. They moved together down the short hallway, past the closed door of Uncle Geroit's bedroom, and to the door of Coby's room across the way. Coby guided David, now smiling, into the room, and shut the door behind them.
"My Coby," David whispered, pressing close.
They kissed, hearts reaching to be together, thoughts entwining within the warm glow of skin against skin. Coby had already learned that David was not a copy of Mooi - rather, it had been the other way around. The spirit of ancient Damsko had looked forward into Coby's yet-to-come to find his salvation, stepping briefly through time to return with the essence of someone that Coby had yet to meet, and using that form to bring to Coby's tortured inner workings the relief of understanding and love.
Touching David was like touching the first Mooi; David's skin held the same warmth, the same soft caress; his lips touched in the same sweet and gentle fashion; and the reassurance he brought when he held Coby in his arms was the very same as the one that had first captured Coby's heart on that dreamy night beneath the interested eye of a watchful moon. The night that Coby had walked with the soul of Damsko through streets of gold to a bridge where a kiss was eternal, a bond forged in time.
But that it had always been David that Coby had felt, always David's sweet and loving presence that had touched his heart, Coby now knew. The spirit of the city had moved David, and placed words into his mouth; but it was David that had captured Coby's heart and stolen his imagination, and it was David that he loved now, and whose very touch took his breath away.
David also felt it - felt it in the return of Coby's insistent press against him, fitting so well with the need he himself had carried unfulfilled for so long. Never in his life had another caused him to feel the way he felt now - prized, desired, needed, and wanted. Coby had brought to David an equal measure of reassurance and love, and that they traded forces both potent and necessary to each other's happiness had become readily apparent. David had never loved in this fashion - but now that he had it, he wished with all his heart to keep it.
"I love you, Coby."
Coby nodded. "You are my heart, mijn geliefde."
They undressed each other, slowly, carefully, touching gently and kissing the whole time. Forgotten now was the strange journey they had just made from Rembrandtplein to Coby's bedroom. Coby's mind had no room for both - was so full of David that there was not a square millimeter left to hold fear. David was equally absorbed, and as they crawled into bed together the world beyond the walls ceased to be. The night was held back, and made no move to disturb them.
They kissed for a long while, immersed in the warmth of contact and the comfort of sharing. They made love, fiercely and then gently in turn, and then descended from lust and desire to a quiet kind of embrace made of touching and caressing and a sharing of senses. They talked quietly, kissing and nuzzling, until both of them grew sleepy and their thoughts went silent, and all that remained was the immensely comforting touch and closeness of their bodies wrapped together.
And then, as the rumble of thunder crept in from the west, and the quick flash of lightning outside the window painted the walls of the bedroom in stark white bursts, they slept.
Coby knew he was dreaming. He stood high upon a tower, just by the waist-high stone wall that was all that stood between him and the depths below. The streets of Damsko, alive with movement in the golden afternoon sun, laid out in profusion all about him, interlocked with the glittering waters of canals in a relaxed symmetry that brought a smile to the soul. A small breeze ruffled his sandy hair, and made suggestive murmurs into his ears.
"Do you fear the height?"
Coby looked over, and David stood beside him. But he realized immediately that it was not David, but only had his appearance. He sensed immediately that strange quality that only Mooi seemed to possess.
Mooi smiled. "The height? Does it bother you?"
Coby shook his head. "No. Behind this small wall, I am fine." He smiled. "But to stand upon the wall would be another story."
"Fear does not always provide the safety of walls, Coby. We do not always get to select." Mooi gazed out over the city a moment, then smiled. "So much time."
Coby moved slightly forward until he could lean upon the wall, and looked down. The drop was at least seventy meters. "Where is this place? I do not recognize it."
"It does not exist - not really," Mooi said. "It is the place I come to when I wish to examine myself."
The view resembled the one available from the church spire of the Westerkerk - yet that was not Prinsengracht below. The view was approximate of many parts of the city, yet could be placed exactly with none that Coby knew. "I do not understand."
Mooi turned and smiled, and came to push himself against Coby. Coby automatically circled an arm about the other boy and pulled him near. Mooi kissed him - a warm and satisfying thing that stole Coby's breath from his lungs.
"Sweet Coby," Mooi whispered. "I am old beyond your understanding. I exist across the centuries, and how I view myself is tinged with the colors of time." He turned and waved a hand out at the view. "Some of what you see exists in your now - some exists in your past. Some exists in your yet-to-be. It is all the same to me, no matter how different it seems to you."
"Why are we here?"
"I am contemplating, and wished your company. I wanted to know your thoughts on fear."
Coby sighed. "I dislike to be afraid, if that is what you ask."
Mooi smiled. "No one wishes to fear. But what I ask is, what do you do when faced with it?"
Coby closed his eyes, remembered another day. "I have run from it for a long time. My parents. Myself. I was afraid, even, of your strangeness when I met you."
"Guilt is not fear," Mooi said kindly. "Especially misplaced guilt. No, I ask what you do when faced with the unknown fear. Like the fear you and David found in this very night, on the way to your home. Things just at the edge of sight, sounds heard at the bottom of the well of your hearing. Mysterious things - unexplained things." Mooi leaned closer. "Fearful things."
Coby nodded. "I thought they might not be real, the things you refer to. Fantomen. I thought they might be placed inside my head, rather than have entered through my senses."
Mooi watched him a moment before nodding. "They were placed, but not by me, as you suspect." Mooi gazed at him with eyes that had seen eternity. "I brought you here, because something has changed. What I thought a simple task to find the reason for Rembrandt's discomfiture has evolved. A new player has emerged, quite suddenly, from the darkness." Mooi gave what seemed a small sigh. "You have an enemy in your mission, Coby. One who would stop you from taking the ring to its destination. You must be wary, for fear is his weapon. He will use that fear to try to have you give up the ring."
Mooi linked his arm with Coby's and squeezed him close. "Your safety lies in keeping the ring until delivered. Never give it up, do you understand? Not until you place it where you find it must go."
Coby stared at the image of the boy he loved. "Who...what is this enemy you speak of, Mooi?"
The soul of Damsko looked reflective. "My past has many dark moments, young Coby. Times bleak and despairing. Witch hunts, the Inquisition, the city wars before we were a nation. And the occupation of the Nazis, also not to ever be forgotten." Mooi laid a hand upon Coby's shoulder and rubbed it fondly. "Dark times for my people."
"I know my history," Coby said slowly.
"Yes." Mooi smiled. "But in addition to dark times, my past is full of dark souls - men and women whose hearts were of stone and whose consciences never troubled them. Your enemy is one of these. Zwart Matthew."
Coby gasped. "Black Matthew? But...he is just a legend, a ghost story to frighten the small ones."
"He lived, Coby. He was real."
"But he died eight centuries ago," Coby pointed out.
Mooi nodded. "Yes. He died. But...not all the way, Coby."
Coby closed his eyes, recalled what he knew of the legend of Black Matthew. The man had lived in the 13th century - a highwayman, a robber, and a gambler.
And, legend had it, a magician, as well.
Black Matthew had used his dark arts to ensure that he never lost, be it on the road against honest travelers, or in the games of dice he loved so much for his evening entertainment. And each time he would win, he stole a little bit of the essence of the loser - some small and irreplaceable part of the soul. Black Matthew would get stronger, his dark arts would become more powerful, and his winning streaks longer and more profitable. He was unstoppable, it seemed - until one very dark and very lonely night on the road, when the moon was hidden behind clouds and the stars were looking the other way.
Black Matthew met a traveler, whom he waylaid and robbed. And then he had struck flint and lit a wick, and placed it on the earthen road, and studied his catch, to see what he had. The victim was small, and weak, and pleaded for his life. Black Matthew, in a fit of sport, had grinned, and told the fellow that they would roll the dice for life.
"You win, and you go free."
"And should I lose?" the traveler had asked, his small face somehow dark despite the light from the candle.
Black Matthew's smile had gone away. He had waved the sword he used to keep the stranger at bay. "Then you die."
The traveler had nodded. "I offer you the same odds."
The highwayman had roared with laughter. "Hazard is my game. We'll throw for privilege first." They had squatted across from each other in the flickering light from the candle.
Black Matthew had thrown, and rolled a seven. The stranger then thrown, and rolled a five.
"I am high, so I roll for main." Matthew had explained. He then cast the dice again, and rolled a nine. "Bets?"
"You must roll a nine again to nick," the stranger had said, showing a sudden knowledge of the game. "To win, that is." The stranger had smiled, but Black Matthew was not worried. The Arts would guide his dice faithfully as they had done for years. He could not lose.
The highwayman had nodded. "I throw chance, you live for another round. I nick, you die on the spot."
The stranger had smiled. "And if you throw crabs, or eleven, or twelve, I win."
"Yes." Black Matthew had grinned. "But don't expect it, my scrawny fellow."
And then the highwayman had concentrated, and said within his head the incantation which would guide the dice to a nine.
And then, he tossed them. They bounced across the packed earth of the roadway, struck a few pebbles, and came up...twelve.
Black Matthew had gaped in astonishment. Never before had his arts failed him.
"It would appear that you lose," the stranger had said, rising to his feet.
Black Matthew had surged forward, intending to plunge the point of his sword into the stranger's skinny breast.
But he was not there.
Struck dumb, the highwayman had looked about, and too late felt the presence behind him. Black Matthew had spun - and stared. That which stood behind him was taller than any man, and dark as pitch, and gazed down at him with feral eyes of red.
"You've played my game too long," the creature said then, in a grating voice like stones dragged across a granite shelf. A dark hand had come forth and snapped the sword blade into halves. "Time for me to collect my winnings."
That was the night, legend said, that Black Matthew met the devil - and lost.
"He did not die?" Coby asked Mooi.
"His body - yes. But not his spirit - not that which lives within. The evil one preserved that, so that Black Matthew would suffer for all time."
Coby almost could not believe. If it had been anyone but Mooi that had shared this story - but it was Mooi. "What does this spirit of Black Matthew want with the ring?"
Mooi sighed. "I do not know. The ring means nothing to me - but it means much to Rembrandt - and apparently, has meaning to Black Matthew. But what that meaning is...I am sorry, Coby."
"I thought you knew everything," Coby said then.
Mooi smiled sadly. "Only the Creator of all things knows them all, Coby. I know myself and I know my people - the ones that live, like you and David. I once knew the ones that no longer live - but once they pass into the other realm, their motivations move beyond my ability to view them. I only know that Rembrandt cried because he allowed me to see - and made it plain that he wanted my assistance. But what motivates Black Matthew he does not share with anyone - except perhaps the dark one that holds his spirit in his hand. Black Matthew plays a game again, and gambles with the lives of others. That is why I must warn you, Coby, my sweet little love."
Coby looked at the boy who looked so much like his David. "Are we in real danger, Mooi? I thought you would not place us into such a position."
"Coby." Mooi looked sad. "You are in no physical danger. No matter what happens, nothing can actually harm you. I will not allow it, and it will not happen while you are in my service. So you will not be harmed - unless you give in to fear. Never give in to fear, do you understand?" Mooi gave Coby's arm a squeeze. "Your physical bodies are safe. But that which lives inside your head - and that which lives inside David's head - those parts of you are in danger. Very real danger. To give in to fear is to give in to vergetelheid - the weapon that Black Matthew has brought to bear. Do you understand me, Coby?"
Coby felt a nervous wash run throughout his body. Mooi looked deadly serious.
"I understand, Mooi."
Coby rolled over in his sleep, his thoughts troubled.
David, in his own sleep, reached out a hand and found Coby, and drew him nearer. Coby rolled back against the other boy, into his warm embrace, and relaxed. The dream he had been experiencing faded, the last thought of it once again causing him to frown in the dark veil of sleep.
A warning, some not awake voice said within his mind, but a voice which would be heard and memorized. A truth.
No one knew the cavernous reaches where time ceased and the light of the world never reached. No one knew the journey there, and no one knew the path back. Such was the place that Mooi had warned of, such was the place that Coby must not tread. For to go would be to give in, to fear, to defeat, to unreason. To go would be to place foot upon that very last step on the path of life, the start of the tunnel, the path to the land that was vergetelheid.
The land that was oblivion.
The night rumbled with sound as black clouds cloaked the sky overhead, while the lights that men had placed to ward off the darkness quaked in nervous apprehension below. Occasionally they would dim, or blink off and then back on, as great strokes of lightning pummeled the horizon, disrupting the flow of power. The dawn was still hours away, and the night held dominion over the world.
Coby blinked awake, looked automatically at the clock on his nightstand. It was just after four, still a long time until breakfast. He was unsure of what had wakened him. His was not the normal, semi-conscious awareness that came when the body prodded one to turn over in the middle of sleep and assume a less stressful position - this was wide-awake, and quite suddenly.
It was raining. The patter of droplets striking the window sash was normally comforting; but tonight it sounded somehow strident and annoying. The drops seemed to whip against the glass of the window with great force, leaving tiny echoes in their wakes that built upon each other, creating a continuous roar that was somehow very disturbing.
Beside him, against him, David slept peacefully, one arm thrown protectively over Coby, the other boy's face pressed comfortingly against Coby's breast. For a moment Coby turned his head and rubbed his cheek against David's hair, and then his forehead, absorbing the warmth and the scent of the other and savoring it deeply within.
They had been to bed together many times before, but this was their first night sleeping together, and Coby had the feeling that he wanted it to last forever. He breathed in quietly, smelling David's hair, and the clean scent of his skin. David's body was comfortingly warm, and his skin soft against Coby's. Coby lifted a hand and rubbed his fingertips gently along David's ribs, then laid the flat of his hand on the other boy's flank. He could feel David breathing: slow, relaxed, peaceful. Faintly, another sensation came - the beat of the other boy's heart. Life.
Coby smiled in the dimness of the room, enchanted by this special moment.
There was a great flash of lightning outside, and then a considerable roar. The building around them reverberated with the power of nature as somewhere close by a section of ground briefly came to grips with a section of sky with an opposing charge.
Coby looked over at the window. The flat was on the ground floor - beyond the pane of glass was a small hedge, a strip of grass holding a few small trees, and then the parking area outside. There were thin white curtains in the window, and Coby could see shadows through them cast by the criss-cross flows of light from several streetlamps at the curb.
There was another flash and then a boom, and Coby could see in the brief flare of light...a shadow. It looked like the outline of a person, standing outside the window.
But then the shadow grew. There was another flash, and the shape of head and shoulders seemed suddenly large...but grew further still.
Coby felt like he was holding his breath, but was unable to stop himself. He realized now that the form that stood just beyond the glass was large - much bigger than a man. And as another flash lit the world outside, there was a brief flutter about the shoulders of the visitor, and mighty wings unfurled for a moment in the night.
Coby knew then what stood outside.
Briefly, something cold and sharp tapped against the window glass.
"The ring," a voice whispered. It was a soft voice, a quiet voice; but Coby knew instantly that it was the voice of the tiger dressed in the costume of a lamb. Beneath the quiet words, beneath the deception of fine soft wool, were sharpened points of deadly steel, ready to cut and slash - the claws of a predator, ready to strike.
"Give it to me now."
For one panicked moment, Coby did not know where the ring was. But then he remembered: it was in the pocket of his jeans, laying on the floor by the bed. Somehow, he unfroze himself, carefully disengaged from David, and leaned out and down, and found his pants on the floor. He pulled them up into the bed with him, felt the material carefully, his eyes never leaving the window.
He found the ring, pulled it from the pocket, and slid it on over one thumb and squeezed his hand into a fist.
"You cannot have it," he whispered back.
There was a blast of thunder that shook the world, and underneath of that detonation of ionized air was the roar of something red-eyed and angry.
"Give it to me," the whispering voice returned, "or I will come and take it from you."
Somehow now, a memory of the dream with Mooi came back to Coby, not in vision, but in knowledge. "You cannot take it."
Again, there was a flash of incredible power, followed by a bellow that shook the building.
"I will have it. You will give it to me, or I will take from you the thing you love most."
For a moment Coby was frightened beyond speech. He reached behind himself, and, with his other hand, he found David, and held onto him. "You will not."
Again, he was visited by the spirit of the dream in the night with Mooi. Or parts of the dream - the important ones, the ones that mattered. To give in to fear is to give in to vergetelheid. Do you understand me, Coby?
Strength comes from a fountain, a well. It is within, and it is often a capricious thing, foaming mightily at the wrong moments, and then going dry when we require it the most. But for once that well seemed ready when needed, and Coby reached for it - and found the stream.
"You can take nothing from me," he said quietly. Most of the lack of force in his voice was sponsored by fear; but that disquiet was ebbing now, and Coby was feeling stronger with each passing second. "Go away from here."
For a moment the rain whipped against the window, and the shadow beyond seemed to grow smaller.
"The ring is of no use to you. It is mine, by right. You will give it to me and I will go away from here."
"No." Coby shook his head. "I will not."
The next flash of lightning seemed beyond comprehension, and the roar that followed shook the planet to its very core. Coby gulped, squeezed both hands more tightly - one on the ring, the other on David.
"What's the matter?" David raised himself to an elbow at Coby's back.
The rain, until then pounding upon the window, suddenly eased into a restful murmur. Coby stared at the curtains in the window - the shadow was gone.
David leaned forward, put an arm protectively about Coby. "Are you okay?" The other boy laid his chin in the crook between Coby's shoulder and the side of his head. "The way you grabbed me I thought maybe you were having a nightmare."
Coby continued to stare at the window a moment longer - but now there was only rain.
He nodded. "I think I was."
The morning, when it finally came, was peaceful.
Coby and David made love again, laughing and smiling, as if some new store of as yet undiscovered love had somehow been found in the night. After, they went into the shower and washed each other, and then held each other beneath the warm flow from the shower head.
"I couldn't have dreamed this before I met you," David said quietly, his eyes closed and his lips against Coby's ear. "To think you might have jumped from that train platform just breaks my heart, Coby."
Coby licked his lips and nodded. "I was close, I think. Mooi saved me."
David pulled back and smiled at him. "I think Mooi just helped you to see some things, Coby. I think you saved yourself."
Coby smiled, liking that idea. "Well, it was Mooi that showed you to me. Had I not felt I already knew you, we might never have connected in class like we did."
"I think we still would be together now, Coby. Mooi showed you your future, and I was already in it. So you see? We are meant to be."
Coby smiled, kissed David and squeezed him closer. "However it happened, it is wonderful."
Coby had brought the ring into the shower with them, unwilling to leave it unguarded in the bedroom. He had laid it in the soap dish, and now he retrieved it and held it up between them. "I need to clean this. There looks to be an inscription inside."
"My mom uses room-temperature sparkling water and dish soap to clean her jewelry," David said, critically eying the ring. "That doesn't look too dirty. Just inside the band, huh?"
Coby nodded. "Just a crust over the writing, down in the engraving. Enough that I cannot make out the words."
They got out of the shower, dried each other, and could not resist coming together again for a warm hug. The feel of David's skin against his made Coby's nervous system happy in a fashion he had never experienced before. Such an amazing thing, the touch of another. Skin apparently craved its own, was never quite as happy as when it was in contact with the covering of another soul.
David smiled. "Something poking me down low, I think."
"I have trouble controlling him," Coby said, grinning. "He has a mind of his own, and he likes you so much, you know."
They went back to the room and made love again, just because they could. Uncle Geroit had already left for work, and this time, they did not even close the bedroom door.
After breakfast, Coby dug out a bottle of sparkling water and poured some into a small bowl with a few drops of dish detergent, and placed the ring into the mix. Then they sat at the table in the small kitchen and talked and drank tea while the ring soaked.
"I am still amazed by all of this," David said, smiling at Coby. "Cities with souls, and things that go bump in the night. A better Halloween I have never had."
Coby nodded. "I am glad you are here to help me with this. I think I might be scared if it was just me."
David's smile slowly withdrew, and he leaned forward. "What happened last night?"
Coby gave a little laugh. "I had a bad dream."
David cocked his head to one side like he did not quite believe that. "And a little more, I think."
Coby sighed, and told David about what he remembered happening in the small hours of the morning - first the dream with Mooi, and then the one with the shadow at the window. "I think it was the thing we saw fly from the roof of Tropenmuseum," Coby concluded, finishing the tale.
"I didn't see anything," David said, frowning. "I woke up when you squeezed me, and looked at you - but I think I would have noticed something standing outside the window."
"It went away the moment you spoke to me," Coby said, thinking back. "Not only that, but the storm, which was hard and furious at that point, suddenly turned mild." He nodded to himself. "Again, I think this was in my mind, and not real."
David looked unsettled. "It can be argued that it was as real as you thought, even if it was just inside your head."
Coby closed his eyes for a moment. "When I spoke with Mooi, and he told me of Black Matthew, he was you again. He told me that fear was my enemy, and not to give into it." Coby looked pointedly at David. "Mooi said that under no circumstances are we to give the ring to any but the one for which it is intended."
"I have never heard of this Black Matthew," David said. "Are you sure this is a real thing?"
Coby smiled. "I heard the tale as a boy, so yes, it is - as a legend, at least - real. Mooi would not make up anything to harm us - I told you that already."
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry. I am still trying to grasp all of this. It's just so --"
"Halloweenish?" Coby supplied, grinning.
David laughed. "There you go. Yes." He frowned. "Mooi gives good advice, then. If we are being made to fear by something that visits our thoughts, then I can understand that rationale." David looked thoughtful. "The ring seems real enough."
Coby looked over at the small bowl that held the piece of jewelry. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if all of this was simply in our heads, we could expect that the ring would not be real, either. Yet it seems to be so. So I am wondering what it's true function is in all of this. If it even has one, in fact."
Coby pursed his lips. "You mean...it may just be a symbol? A prize, to be contested, with no other value save that he who holds it at the end is victor?"
"Possibly," David said, nodding. "It may truly represent something important; but it may have no physical worth in itself. Of what value is a ring to the dead, or to a spirit that is the soul of a city? I cannot figure it."
Coby considered that, and understood David's thinking. But there was more to this than the simplicity of a ring having no value to those unable to wear it. The ring had come from a statue - not one that had worn it, but one that had held the ring in keeping. Of what purpose in this was the small Watchman who had held the ring in the first place - and what of his strange appearance? And was there a significance to that appearance, or was that also more mindplay?
Coby had come around to the view that the experience with the statues had all been within his mind - but that idea did not hold water if a true and physical ring had been passed to him from the small Watchman. So what, really, had happened?
It hurt to think about it. "All of this trying to sort out what is real and what is imagined in the mind is giving me a headache," he said to David, grinning. "I propose that, for the moment, we just get used to the idea that the ring is real and everything else is not, and go from there."
David made a frown, but nodded in agreement, and reached out and slid the small bowl to him. He looked down and could see the darkening that had taken place in the liquid in which the ring was immersed. "Looks like the grime has been loosened."
Coby stood and plucked the ring from the bowl, and went to the kitchen sink and ran warm water over it. He dried it carefully with a soft dish towel, then held the ring up to the overhead light.
Within the band, engraved around its inner circumference, was a tiny line of print. Coby squinted at it, read it out:
"Van hand tot hand, en weer terug."
David gave a small laugh. "That's it? Not exactly material for an epiphany, is it?"
Coby nodded, read the inscription again: "From hand to hand, and back again." He looked up at his boyfriend, trying to sort it out. "It does make a weird kind of sense. If it refers to the ring itself, it is now going from hand to hand."
David shrugged. "But what about the last part? Does it mean we have to take the ring and give it back to the little statue?"
Coby closed his eyes in thought. "I...I don't think so." He opened his eyes again and smiled at David. "I don't think that the little Watchman is where the hand-to-hand part originated. I think he was carrying it, and handed it off to us. It obviously never fit him. We are looking for someone that the ring will fit - that is who we are to give it back to."
For a brief moment a horrible thought came to him: the thing that had stood outside the window of his thoughts and demanded the ring had been large. Truly, if anything he had seen up until this point could have fingers large enough to accept the ring, it was that very frightening being. Had this been Black Matthew himself? Or just some horrible vision that the highwayman's dark spirit had conjured to frighten them?
He wants it, but the ring does not belong with that one. Of that, Coby was sure.
He examined the ring again. The face carved into the black stone wore a metal helmet, much like the one worn by some of the Watchmen standing about Rembrandtplein before the statue of Rembrandt - including the small one that had given them the ring to begin with. Did the ring belong to one of them? A sudden thought came to him, and he looked at David. "A statue might have fingers large enough to wear the ring. Do you think this fits one of the Watchmen?"
David shrugged. "I don't know. A possibility, surely."
Absently, Coby slid the too-large ring onto a finger and closed his hand. "I think we need to do some research now." He stood, and David got up, too.
"Internet to the rescue?" David asked, grinning.
Coby grinned in return, and led the way back to his room. He had a laptop on his small desk, and here was his link to the world. He sat in the chair, and David pulled up a small stool and sat beside him.
The first thing they looked up was the great man himself: Rembrandt van Rijn. Born 1606, died in 1669. Considered one of the greatest painters in European art and the most important artist in Nederlands history. He had started life in a family of some small means, had studied with respected painters and printmakers of his era, shown an obvious and considerable creative talent, and had become a leading portrait painter of the old Republic. His later life had been marked by tragedy and financial failure, and there were many myths about why he had fallen from grace. In truth, history seemed to verify that it was the artiest's extravagant lifestyle - beyond his means - that had caused him to eventually fall to ruin. But he had never ceased creating, even in lesser accommodations and somewhat poorer surroundings; never lost his talent, nor the respect of his peers.
There were numerous articles on his life and works, but Coby was looking for one subject in particular: Nachwacht - The Night Watch. Coby had seen the famous painting countless times in the Rijksmuseum, and had always thought it strangely compelling. That it was deserving of its masterpiece status he had never once doubted. But he realized now that he knew very little about either the man or his most famous creation.
So he was surprised at what he read. The painting had been commissioned by a militia unit as a group portrait - a common occurrence in the old Republic. At that time, such portraits were more or less static representations, and Rembrandt's vision of the men as energized in assembly had been revolutionary. Also, the painting was not a night scene, but rather had darkened over the centuries due to the many coats of protective varnish applied to it by zealous protectors. Once cleaned properly, the painting had proved to be vibrant with light and life.
Originally titled The Company of Frans Bannick Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, the painting obtained the name The Night Watch nearly two centuries after it was painted due to the false assumption that the by then darkened painting was a night scene. The painting had had various homes, and had eventually wound up in the city hall, where some part of the majestic painting was actually trimmed away to have it fit the available wallspace! Three characters deemed not important had been removed from the left edge of the portrait - a scandalous idea that would have inflamed the entire world today. The great work now hung in a place of respect in the Rijksmuseum.
Next they looked up the statue of Rembrandt now located in Rembrandtplein. Cast in iron in 1852 by sculptor Louis Royer, the statue was moved from the perimeter of the then Boetermarkt to the center of the square in 1876, and the entire square renamed Rembrandtplein. For the artist's 400th birthday in 2006, central figures from The Night Watch were cast in bronze by a pair of Russich artists and placed before the statue of Rembrandt in the square.
For many years, the names of only a few of the characters could be placed with faces. At some point after the original Rembrandt work was painted, another artist had painted in a shield with the 18 names of the Watchmen - but which man was which was unknown, save for a few of the central characters.
Then, in 2009, a Nederlands historian, through painstaking work, had managed to place a name to each of the 18 Watchmen that had commissioned the original work.
But some of the characters remained unidentified - including the boy Watchman that had given Coby the ring.
"There seems to be nothing here that might point to an owner for the ring," David said, scanning the last lines of print in the latest article they had pulled up. "No mention is made of a ring at all, in fact."
Coby nodded, feeling a small disappointment. "I guess it would not be a mystery if it was easy."
He looked down to where he had placed the overlarge ring upon one of his fingers. Because it was so loose he had been playing with it, sliding it back and forth on the finger. His eyes focused on the ring, on the dark stone in the setting - and Coby gasped. "Look!" he whispered.
David leaned forward and joined Coby in gazing at the ring.
The Watchman was gone.
In it's place, staring out at them, was the engraved likeness of a young man.
David shook his head in wonder. "It's you, Coby."
It did seem to be so. Coby recognized his own features plainly. "Oh! Ongelooflijk!"
David looked excited. "Coby, do you see what this must mean? The ring takes on the likeness of the bearer."
"But I have had the ring with me for a time now. It did not change before this."
David looked unsure. "Perhaps it takes time, then. This is the first you have worn the ring for several hours."
"Maybe." Coby looked down at his image, for the first time wondering if they were going to solve the mystery of where to take the object next. He looked up at David. "It could mean that the previous likeness of a Watchman was simply due to the boy statue possessing the ring for so long." But he immediately saw a problem with that. "No - wait. That statue is but ten years old. Somehow, in the moment in which the ring was passed, we were linked somehow in time. Perhaps with the real boy on which Rembrandt based the portrait. Mooi has told me that she exists across the centuries as one, and that time interconnects for her. Maybe --"
It was enough to give him a headache. David looked at him, his eyes wide, and then grinned. "A mystery within a mystery within a mystery, Coby. Are we having fun yet?"
Coby grinned. Mooi had certainly handed them a puzzle worthy of the name!
"From hand to hand, and back again," Coby repeated. "It sounds to mean that the ring could have been passed around for a long time, with yet more passing in its future. But...somehow I think our part in this has to do with the back again part of that phrase. We are meant to give it to someone in particular. To return it."
But David wasn't listening. His eyes were narrowed in a thoughtful squint. "Is there a picture of the Watchmen statues online?"
"I'm sure there is...wait a moment." Coby turned back to the laptop and Googled the statue of Rembrandt in Rembrandtplein. A series of photos came up, and Coby clicked on one of the bronze Watchmen standing before the statue of Rembrandt.
David leaned forward to gaze at it. "Possible, I think."
"What?" Coby asked.
David shrugged. "I was thinking of the words engraved inside the ring: From hand to hand, and back again." He looked up at Coby. "Could it mean that this ring has been passed to each of the Watchmen over time? Maybe even when they were all living, and not statues? Maybe the last one to have it is supposed to give it to the one that started the whole process."
Coby rolled out his bottom lip, considering. "To what purpose?"
David shrugged. "Well, now you've gone beyond me. I can't give you a why for it." He frowned. "Sounds unlikely, doesn't it?"
But Coby was smiling. He looked at David, and his smile grew. "Who was the first to point us at the ring?"
David frowned. "Well --" He suddenly grinned. "The statue of Rembrandt."
Coby's mind was buzzing now, as he reviewed everything that had happened. "I am recalling what Mooi told us when we talked to her in Liedesplein. She said to seek out Rembrandt. She said to ask him what he cries about."
David made a small face. "You think the ring should go to Rembrandt?"
Coby felt a small excitement now. "The statue pointed at the boy Watchman, to indicate that he had the ring. But perhaps the message that Rembrandt was saying was much simpler than we thought. Perhaps he was not saying "go there and get the ring"; perhaps he was saying "go there and bring me my ring!"
David looked at the ring on Coby's finger. "The statue of Rembrandt has big fingers. The ring would fit him, too."
It seemed far too simple, actually. That they might have accepted the ring from the little Watchman and then simply carried it back to the statue of Rembrandt and slipped it onto the outstretched finger while the statue's hand was still pointing seemed far too much like easy.
"But what about the winged one? Black Matthew?" David said then. "How does that one figure into this?"
Coby could not answer that question. "I don't know. He may just be a late-arriving opportunist. But --" He looked pointedly at David. "Suppose this ring is not just something that concerns Rembrandt or the Watchmen? Suppose that many know of it, or are aware of it, and want it - but did not know where it could be found? It has been in the keeping of the small Watchman for - who knows how long? In all that time, it may have been completely hidden from any others that sought its whereabouts."
David nodded. "But now it is out in the open again."
David nodded. "Well, then, it seems smart that we go back and see if Rembrandt has anything else to say, at least."
"We'll go this evening," Coby said. "I just feel this is better done at night."
David leaned close and put an arm around Coby, giving him a fond squeeze. "By moonlight found? You are a romantic, my love."
Coby laughed, nuzzling the other boy fondly with his cheek. "Practical is more like it. If we are to be off talking to statues, I'd just as soon not do it in broad daylight when the square is full of tourists and layabouts on the benches. Too many eyes, you see."
"Hmm. A point. So...what shall we do with ourselves until later?" David's eyes were bright.
Coby turned and kissed him. "Well...I can think of several things."
David laughed. "And I wish to do them all!"
They pedaled into town just at sunset, again accompanied by the uneasy feeling that things crouched just out of sight all about them. When they passed Tropenmuseum they had to stop to examine the building's rooftop - but no dark figures lurked there. The still-light sky did much to fend off the feeling of watching eyes, but both boys were aware that they now marched into the shadow of the demon. That this journey would eventually end in a confrontation of some sort seemed clear to them both.
The streets were again dotted with walkers - others out to enjoy the pleasant if slightly chilly evening. There were a great many couples walking, arm in arm, and cyclists everywhere about. The sun dropped low in the west, seeming to be in a hurry to get gone, and to bring on the night and all the things that lived within it.
"Feels odd," David said, as they cycled along. " Like someone is watching us."
Coby agreed. The building night had the same feel to it that had accompanied their journey home the previous evening. Almost as if the world, usually focused on so many millions of other things, had taken a moment to gaze at them exclusively. The night held an undercurrent of danger - a feeling that Coby felt was born inside his mind instead of coming from without - but a feeling that was just as real no matter its origins.
He opened his mouth to respond to David, when his bicycle suddenly stopped. There was no warning, and Coby did not hit anything. It was as if someone had thrust a length of stout wood in among the spokes of the front wheel - the bicycle simply stopped moving.
Not so, Coby. He hurtled across the handlebars, having only a blind second to gather himself for impact with the street. He landed on his back, having the wind momentarily knocked out of him, and lay there, gazing up into the sky. And as he looked upwards, night was upon them, the stars arriving wholesale and darkness dropping like a curtain all about them. A tiny sliver of moon appeared, low, looking more like a livid scar on the face of the night than a welcome watcher above.
Coby heard David's bike brake, and then the other boy was down on his knees beside him. "Coby, are you hurt?"
Coby shook his head and sat up. "I don't think so. Just stunned a bit." He looked about them. The streetlamps were lit, but appeared dim, having scarcely any impact on the darkness about them. The night looked deep and ancient, the lights of the city about them shut down as though cloaked.
"It got dark awful fast, didn't it?"
David nodded. "Yes. No good to that, I'm sure."
Both boys looked about them. The couples and groups strolling, the other cyclists - all were gone.
"Where did everyone go?" David whispered.
Coby shook his head, his eyes moving about the now quiet world about them.
He became aware then, of a droning sound, in the distance but moving towards them rapidly. "What's that?"
David simply shook his head. Both boys stared into the darkness ahead of them on Mauritskade, trying to see the cause of the new sound.
Far off, but rapidly nearing them, was a massive, dark shape. It was hard to make out, but rolled upon the road like a tornado laid upon its side, a churning, twisting mass of darkness with highlights that glimmered in the faint moonlight.
"Quickly," David said, getting to his feet and pulling on Coby. "Out of the street."
Coby scrambled to get his feet underneath him and lurched upwards. David pulled on him, trying to draw him over into the lee of a large tree. Coby followed - but then became aware of something - something that stole his breath away with dismay.
The ring was gone from his finger.
He stopped suddenly, and David also jerked to a halt. "We have to move, Coby!" the other boy hissed.
"The ring! I've lost it!"
David looked horrified, and glanced about the ground around them. Coby, too, sent his eyes quickly scanning - and they finally settled on a dull gleam by the opposite curb ten meters away.
Coby did not hesitate. He shook off David's hand and plunged for the ring, even though it meant going straight into the path of the dark thing that charged down upon them.
The droning was loud now, the voices of a million bees, or a million angry spirits, caught up in the dark whirlwind afoot in the road. The ground rumbled beneath Coby's feet as he ran, and he was aware that it was a race now between him and the dark thing bearing down on him.
Coby's legs pumped with all of their might, and he reached the ring only moments before the whirlwind could sweep it away, bent, and closed his fingers upon it. At the same moment, he was hit from behind and propelled from the road, and out of harm's way.
Something dark and massive hurtled past, grinding the cobbles of the road and polishing them to a shine, the angry voices of a thwarted multitude within screaming their fury into the night.
Coby turned as he felt a hand upon him, realized that it was David that had pushed him out of the path of the destroyer.
"We have to get to our bikes before it comes back!"
Coby nodded, pulled the ring onto a middle finger and closed his hand into a fist, and scrambled to his feet beside David. They ran for their bikes, even as the monstrous whirlwind slowed far down the road, as if turning to come back.
Coby's bike lay flat by the roadside, no longer held in the grip of the force that had stilled it. He grabbed it up, threw a leg over it and pedaled off, aware that David had also reclaimed his own bike and was moving up beside him. They flew through the night, listening for the sound that would signal the return of the whirlwind, their legs pumping frantically and their breaths coming in short bursts of desperate haste.
They had passed two strolling couples before that fact registered with Coby. He suddenly slowed, his mind withdrawing from fear with a nearly audible pop. David's head whipped around and his eyes met Coby's; and then he, too, was slowing.
"Nothing's after us," Coby said slowly, when they drew together again. "The dark wind does not seem to be there."
They drew to a stop and looked behind them again, but all that was there was a long line of streetlamps fading back around a curve in the road. People walking and those on bikes were again all about.
"That doesn't make sense," David said, his voice sounding a little hoarse. "I would have bet that that thing could catch us even on our bikes."
Coby shrugged. "Who knows how much effort it takes for this ghost or whatever to do what it's doing. Maybe short bursts of activity is all it can handle."
David grinned, despite the situation. "An economy evil spirit, it would seem."
Coby laughed. "Something we can be thankful for, I think."
They caught their breaths and went on, at a much more leisurely pace, glancing backwards over their shoulders now and then, just to be sure.
But nothing else came at them, and they arrived at Rembrandtplein without further trouble.
The well of night had grown deep by the time they locked their bicycles at the edge of the square and walked in among the crowd of partyers and clubbers. It was still early, but the night seemed old somehow. The sky above the square gleamed with stars around the edges, and the tiny slit of the moon had risen higher to better watch the world below.
The square was packed. The mood of the throng was jovial, with laughter and conversation all about. The sense of a shared experience was tangible.
Again the crowd was dressed for the season, with often bizarre costumery highlighted by painted faces and colored hair. Coby was reminded of the old American rock band, Kiss, and the comic book character outfits in which its members appeared for concert. There was an abundance of leather here, and make up, and hair colors and styles lifted straight from the scenes of a science fiction film.
The giant LED screen above the door into Escape was again lit and brilliant, currently displaying a furiously active ad for BMW. People stood all about that side of the square, their eyes focused upon the screen as if hypnotized.
David laughed. "Imagine coming all this way just to watch TV. I would be more comfortable in my own living room, I think."
Coby gave him a fond push. "It isn't the watching they enjoy. It's the sharing."
David leaned over and kissed Coby's cheek. "Always the romantic."
"With you, yes." Coby took one of David's hands and gripped it tightly with his free one, while keeping the other clenched tightly to hold the ring on his finger. Still, it moved about as he walked, keeping itself always at the edge of his attention.
The statue of Rembrandt stood at the other end of the square. They moved towards it slowly, their eyes aware of everything going on about them. They had relaxed, but were not relaxed, still feeling the tension of the encounter on the road into old town. They walked slowly, hand-in-hand, as if to move too quickly might draw some unwelcome eye.
Coby was aware of the chill even before the lights about them darkened. David obviously felt it, too, and suddenly prodded Coby to speed up. They began to walk quickly, and were just to the cluster of bronze statues about the larger one of Rembrandt when the square about them went still.
Something flowed up from the ground before them, causing them to freeze in mid-step. A dark mist, a cloud, it slowly gathered form, and revealed the figure of a tall, broad-shouldered man.
His face was dark and bearded, with intense blue eyes above. He wore mail and malÏenkap, a beaten yet serviceable basket helmet, couters at his elbows, a dark brown surcotte belted at the waist - from which dangled the sheath of a sword - and calf-high leather boots tied to leggings above. One mailed hand rested upon the pommel of the sword, while the other raised to wave airily at them.
The man smiled. "Surprise."
Around them, the square had grown distant. The clubbers and partyers still thronged in all directions, but now it was like an invisible barrier stood between the boys and the rest of the world. No one came in their direction, as if the attraction of the statues had vanished from their awareness. The voices and the music emanating from the clubs had grown distant and subdued.
It was just Coby, and David, and the statues.
And Black Matthew.
Coby felt almost like he had swallowed his tongue. He worked it in his mouth, until he found his voice. "I will not give you the ring."
The fellow smiled. "Oh, I will have it." He pulled the sword from his waist and stepped forward, pointing the sharpened tip of it straight at David's face. "Shall I remove the features from this one's head, mijn kleine vogel?"
Coby took a deep breath, recalling Mooi's words: you are in no physical danger.
"I do not think you can." But Coby moved slightly to one side, to stand more protectively in front of David.
Black Matthew's lip curled, but he lowered the sword. "Bah. The living pain me to the depths. Such noble actions have no place here. You will give the ring to me or you will suffer the consequences."
Coby reached behind him, took David's wrist, and edged the pair of them closer to the Watchmen.
Black Matthew's arm whipped forward, and the sharpened edge of the sword smacked the granite before them, sending tiny splinters of stone in all directions. Coby froze, and gaped at the slash in the apron at his feet.
Mooi had said they could not be hurt. And yet, Black Matthew's sword had struck stone, and damaged it.
The sword was real. Or - was it? Coby realized that at this point he no longer knew what to believe - what exactly was real, and what was only in his mind.
The highwayman grinned at them. "Thought I had no bite, did you?"
It was David who found his tongue first. "Why is the ring important to you?"
Black Matthew seemed to consider that before smiling. "A fair question. What is it that we are fighting over, you ask? I will tell you, mietje." The big man leaned forward. "The ring is a talisman. A charm. It is ancient, and it is powerful. It provides the bearer with...peace."
Coby turned to look at David in surprise. The other boy shrugged.
Coby's eyes went back to meet the highwayman's. "I wore the ring. I did not notice any special peace."
"Of course not. The ring does nothing for the living. It provides peace only for the dead."
David made a startled sound, and Coby grunted.
Black Matthew smiled. "And now I will have it and be done with this curse that keeps me from enjoying my rest. Simple, no?"
Coby again edged closer to the bronze statues - until their new company waved his sword again threateningly. "You really are a difficult little fellow. I simply do not understand your reluctance. The ring matters not to you."
Coby licked his lips. "It belongs to another."
Black Matthew roared with laughter. "The artiest? He could not hold it, and now he cries for its company. But it was never really his. It belonged to the family of his wife." The big man leaned forward. "So, you see, he has no real claim to it, anyway."
David put out a hand and squeezed Coby's shoulder. "He cannot take it or he would have done so."
The highwayman narrowed his eyes. "You I will have linger a bit before you die."
Coby felt that David was right. If the bandit had been able to take the ring, he would have already done so. Again Coby reached back and took David's wrist, and edged them closer to the bronze Watchmen.
"Must I remove an ear or two to convince you two to stand still?"
Coby did not believe that Black Matthew could do that, but stopped anyway. David bumped into him, and pressed against his back.
The big highwayman smiled. "Very well, you cannot be threatened. Just yet, anyway. What say we wager for possession of the ring. A little game?"
Coby nearly smiled, remembering the legend. "Didn't learn from the last time you did that, huh?"
Black Matthew leaned towards them and bellowed, a deep and frightful thing that echoed with the sounds of dungeon doors slamming and the blades of guillotines crashing into their stops. Despite feeling that the ghost could not harm them, Coby gulped.
But the big bandit quickly regained his composure. "You try me, saucy boy. We will wager for the ring, and you will abide by the dice. Or I might just end your little friend's life right now."
"You cannot do that," Coby managed.
Black Matthew grinned. "Are you certain? So certain that you will bet on it?"
Despite everything Mooi had said, Coby was not sure that the bandit ghost could not hurt David. He licked his lips, ready now to accept nearly anything for the moment that might buy them some time.
"Very well. A bet."
"Ah!" The highwayman grinned from ear-to-ear. "My game is Hazard, then. We roll for privilege. Come and squat here."
Black Matthew sank to his haunches, pointing a finger at the stones before him. With the other hand he dug at his belt, and produced a pair of beaten wooden dice, the tiny numbered spots upon them worn but still recognizable. The bandit shook them in his hand, tossed them out onto the stones. They landed, rolled, stopped.
"An eight. Now you."
Coby nodded, sank down and picked up the dice. They were cool to the touch, hard within his fingers. He took a breath, closed his eyes, jiggled the cubes within his hand, tossed them out. They rolled onto the stones, stopped.
Black Matthew chortled in delight. "Five. My pleasure, lads."
He picked up the dice again, shook his hand. "We establish main point now. I must throw between five and nine. If not this first try, then I throw again until I do. Understand?"
David reached down and squeezed Coby's shoulder, and Coby nodded.
The ghost threw the dice. A seven.
"My main," Black Matthew explained. "Bets?"
Coby thought back to what he knew of the legend. "You have to throw a seven or eleven now, correct? A nick? In order to win, I mean."
The ghost chuckled. "Surprising little fellow, aren't you? Yes."
Coby nodded. "You nick, I give you the ring, and we go free. You lose, we go free - and keep the ring."
For a moment, Black Matthew frowned, as though feeling a sense of deja vu. But then he grinned. "Very well. But I tell you now - I never lose."
Coby frowned. "Never?"
The highwayman leaned forward, his expression turning grim. "Not to the likes of you, anyway."
Coby took a breath. "You throw crabs or twelve, you lose."
Again, the bandit stared at them. But he shook his head, as if to convince himself of something, and grinned. He shook his hand, threw the dice.
They rolled across the granite stone, and one die immediately showed a six. The second continued on a second longer, came up five - but caught a corner of another stone and immediately flipped to a another six. Twelve.
Black Matthew stared, as if reliving the worst moment of his life - which, to some small degree, he was.
Coby came to his feet. "Looks like you lose."
The highwayman surged to his feet, bellowing a sound that contained the fury of the world within.
There was a blur of motion and a taut singing sound that seemed to come from the very air around them, and darkness closed in upon them in a suffocating wave. Something cold and filmy wrapped about Coby's body, immobilizing it; touched against Coby's face, cutting off his air. He could not help but to scream in horror as the coldness tightened about him, and as he struggled the footing beneath his shoes suddenly went soft. An odd sensation began to creep up his legs, and as he fought to breathe he suddenly understood that he was sinking into the stones of the granite apron.
A hand stabbed through the darkness from behind and Coby grasped it, knowing that it was David, and feeling certain that they were about to die together, and that Mooi had been wrong.
The sensation of sinking intensified, and came to Coby's waist, even as he gasped and felt himself losing consciousness. He pulled at David's hand, felt movement - and then David was there beside him, and there was a momentary bubble of air between them.
"It cannot be real," David gasped, pushing his face against Coby's. "This cannot be happening."
Coby sucked in a great breath, and fought with all his might against that which seemed to draw him ever downward into stone. Somehow, he knew that if they were to become immersed, there would be no coming back. He would die. David would die.
Coby remembered then, the well inside of him - the one from which strength and courage emerged. He reached for it with his mind, groped in a darkness so intense it tingled against his skin - and found a strong cord suddenly within his grasp. He pulled it, and it pulled back - and suddenly he stopped sinking. The cord grew taut in his hand and Coby held on with all of his might, tightening his other arm about David, who gripped him back with all of his strength.
"I believe in you, Coby," the other boy whispered, and then his face was close. They kissed in the darkness, squeezed their bodies together.
"Help me pull," Coby whispered, straining with every fiber of his being to drag their combined weight upwards, and away from vergetlheid.
And then Coby felt David's hand crawling up his arm, across the muscles that strained to hold onto the cord, the link, that kept them from sinking. David's fingers crossed Coby's - and then David had hold of the cord, too. Together they pulled, and the cord pulled back - and they began to move upwards, the clammy sensation of oblivion sliding back down their bodies, down their thighs, and then from their feet.
Suddenly, the darkness about them tore in lines, as though cut with the blades of knives, and strong hands reached in and had hold of them, drawing them upwards. The black veil about them continued to tear, to slide from their bodies, and suddenly was gone.
Coby found himself laying with David on the cool granite stones, as many booted feet stood about them. Coby stared upwards - into the goggle eyes of the small Watchman. The little one offered his toothy, sharp little grin, and pulled back.
And then they were being helped to their feet by men in steel helmets and great brimmed hats; and a girl with green hair with a pink streak in it, and turquoise slashes beneath her eyes, was beside them.
Coby gasped and looked about, and saw Black Matthew in the grip of a half-dozen Watchmen - real, flesh-and-blood men, it seemed, who held the big highwayman immobile, his face a mask of hate - but a face into which the first lines of hopeless despair were also creeping.
"You lose," Coby could not help whispering. "And for the second time, ja?"
But then David had hold of him, and they were wrapped in each other's arms, and the kiss they shared held equal measures of relief and wonder.
"Oh, Coby," David said softly, as they finally let their lips part and their cheeks come together. "I thought we were lost."
Coby clenched his jaw together a moment, felt the beginnings of tears in his eyes, but sniffed and warned them away. "I will not lose you," he whispered back. "Not ever."
"Coby and David."
It was Mooi who spoke. The boys looked at her, and she smiled. "Welcome back."
Coby felt a flash of anger at what had just happened. "You said this one couldn't hurt us, Mooi. He very nearly killed us both."
The smile slipped from the girl's painted face. "No, Coby. The darkness you felt consuming you was not death. It was fear. Dark, blinding fear. Yet it did not conquer you. Not either of you. You did not allow it to do so."
"City spirit," Black Matthew hissed, from within the grasp of the Watchmen. "Evil wench. I've the sense you've tricked me somehow."
Mooi's face grew stern. "You have been a nuisance to my people for seven hundred years, Matthias Roggeveen. Selfish, frightening thing you are, even in death. It was time to end your hold on the fears of my people."
Black Matthew's eyes narrowed. "And the ring?"
Mooi smiled. "Has no power to give peace. Not to the living, nor to the dead. It's sole magic is a fondness for the wearer - if that wearer has a good heart."
The big highwayman growled. "I have heard the legend of this ring for centuries. How can this be?"
The girl with the turquoise slashes beneath her eyes smiled. "It was I, myself, who put forth that legend, so long ago. Just for you, dear Matthew."
Coby and David gaped at each other. "You set this up - all of this - centuries ago?"
Mooi reached out a hand and caressed Coby's cheek. "I told you, dear Coby, that time is all of one thing for me. A century, or a minute - all the same."
The boys looked at each other in amazement. "But what of us?" Coby asked. "You used us to lure this one out?"
The painted girl moved closer. "I asked for your help and you granted it. You were in no danger, just as I said. I could not tell you the exact nature of my problem because our Matthias has a gift for exploring the trails inside the heads of the living. For exploiting their fears. Herein lies his power - his only power, I may add."
Coby looked at the big bandit. "I thought the legends said he was a magician, too."
"Magic is for the living," Mooi replied. "There is none for the dead. What dark powers this one had in life were taken back from him by the Dark One when he claimed his spirit. The only powers that Matthew has are the powers to act on the fears that all living things already carry within them." She smiled sadly. "As you have well seen. I am sorry you and David were frightened so. But you assisted me just as you promised, and you both have done Damsko a great service by allowing us to finally apprehend this one."
David looked at the Watchmen in amazement, and grinned at Coby. "Cops. They're cops, Coby."
A dignified, efficient-looking man in a wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a walking stick cane-sword, heard the remark and bowed to them, sweeping his hat off with a flourish and smiling hugely beneath his Van Dyke beard. " Capiteijn Frans Bannick Cocq, at your service."
Coby felt his eyes grow huge - they were in the presence of history!
"But...but..." he stammered, his eyes going first to Black Matthew, and then back to Mooi. "You could not catch him all this time? How is that possible?"
Mooi reached out a finger, gave Coby a playful poke. "To capture him we needed for him to appear in his true form. All along the roads of time, he has appeared as a dark phantom to those he has preyed upon - just as he appeared to you that night at your window. Or on the road this very evening. A manifestation, not a true appearance. Our Watchmen are good at what they do, but not equipped to capture phantoms. Only when Matthias Roggeveen appeared as himself, could they bind him."
Black Matthew shook his head. "Brought low by a glamorous wench and a pair of sissy boys."
Mooi raised a hand, and a crack of thunder broke over the now starlit plaza. "These two have twice your courage, Matthias Roggeveen." She smiled then. "In fact, we will see how your own courage fares, when we send you back to your Duivel."
If a ghost could show fear, that was the emotion that burst upon Black Matthew's face. "You cannot!"
Mooi smiled. "Tell me why I cannot." The Soul of Damsko's eyes grew fierce. "Seven centuries you have preyed upon my people. Without remorse, without care, stirring their fears in the cauldron of your hatred for your fellow men, just to torment and to harm." Mooi leaned towards the big bandit, her false smile suddenly vanishing. "I searched through time for the combination of circumstance and participants to finally lure you out, and saw that your quest to end the misery placed upon you by your own hand and the Dark One's whim could be used to advantage by these two gentle boys, here, in this moment. They, and the myth of a ring that would grant peace to the dead." Mooi leaned back. "And it just became a matter of..." her smile returned "...time. Time to wait for the confluence of these events. Quite simple, actually."
David moved over and put a hand around Coby's waist. Coby looked at him and smiled. "You get all that?"
David laughed. "Did I tell you I was convinced that your tale of Mooi was true?"
Mooi smiled, and waved a hand at Capiteijn Cocq. "Remove Matthias Roggeveen from our presence. Forever."
The Watchman nodded, and waved his hand at his men. The remainder turned as one and converged on Black Matthew, who began to struggle - to no avail.
The crowd of bronze men circled about him, pressed close. Coby and David watched in silence, unable to speak, unable to move. The Watchmen became a formal circle about their captive, and drew tight.
For one brief moment, the small Watchman with the impish, frightful face turned to grin at them - and wave. Coby and David both waved back, smiling.
A dull blue luminescence sprang up around the assembled Watchmen, creeping up from the ground, slowly brightening, crawling resolutely up their bodies. Black Matthew squirmed silently, his eyes wide with amazement - and fear - until the light consumed them all. The glow became immense, and the boys held up their hands to shield their eyes - and then the brilliance simply faded into the night.
Coby blinked away the afterglow, and he and David looked around. Nearby, the bronze statues of the watchmen stood once again before the man whose brush strokes had immortalized them and preserved them through the ages. Mooi was all that was left, standing beside them, smiling.
"Such a beautiful night. The moon has returned to watch us again."
Above them, the tiny, new crescent of light stared down, wondering at the antics of the small lives beneath her gaze. Mooi inhaled a great breath, let it out slowly, came and took each of them by the arm. "Walk with me.'
They moved over to the bronze Watchmen, moved among them, until once again they stood before the statue of the great artist. Mooi looked up at him, and smiled.
"Thank you, my dear Rembrandt. You have done your city a great service."
Coby and David moved together, linking arms as the lights of the square seemed to intensify and fill the granite apron with light. The yellow-white illumination from above once again turned golden, and the head of the statue turned marginally to gaze down upon them.
"Give the great man his ring, Coby." Mooi waved gently at Rembrandt.
There was further motion, and the sound of cloth flexing, and the statue's arm swung out slowly, the middle fingers extending towards the boys. Coby withdrew the ring from his finger, held it out. The statue's hand moved towards him and stopped.
Coby looked at David. "Help me."
David smiled, reached out and laid his hand upon Coby's. They raised their hands together, and Coby slid the ring onto a middle finger.
It fit perfectly.
The statue seemed to gaze at them a moment longer, and then it slowly went back to its original position.
"I can't see the ring," Coby said, peering at the hand of the statue.
"It is there," Mooi said, smiling. "In time."
The Soul of Damsko moved closer, leaned in and kissed Coby. He closed his eyes, feeling the wonderful and warm emotion behind the exchange, and thinking again that kissing Mooi - even in girl form - was just like kissing David.
"I know what you're thinking," Mooi said, pulling back to smile at him. "And it is true. I had to learn to kiss somewhere, so that I could share that with you on the Skinny Bridge." She extended a hand and squeezed David's arm. "Always find the best instructor you can, Coby. It's worth the time."
Coby laughed, linked his arm with David's. "You get that?"
David smiled. "Yep. I always say, though, it's who you kiss that brings out the best in you." He leaned in and kissed Coby, as if to prove that assertion.
Mooi raised her head and looked into the sky. "A night to remember, don't you think?"
Coby gave David a little poke, as if to say watch this.
"Mooi, are you going to tell us who the girl you are wearing is? I mean, you said she was from our yet-to-come."
The girl with the green hair and the pink streak through it smiled. "That would spoil the surprise, Coby."
David laughed. "The mystery is not quite done, I see."
Mooi shook her head. "Oh, no - it isn't. I may come back to you boys for help again - if you are willing."
Coby looked at David, and they grinned at each other.
"You have but to ask," David said. "Scared a couple of years off the end of my life, but was pretty fun right up to the last part."
"Yes," Coby agreed. "Scary as it was, this was quite an exciting trip."
"You will do better next time, I think, now that both of you have faced your fears and survived them."
Coby nodded - but then a thought came to him. "Just one more thing, Mooi."
The Soul of Damsko peered at him, as if she already knew what he was going to ask. "Yes?"
"That little Watchman - the one with the ongelooflijk face. What was up with him?"
Mooi smiled and looked at the moon again. "Yes, a beautiful night for frights and scares, my little ones. You think you are the only ones with the spirit?'
Coby and David looked at each other. "What does that mean?" Coby asked.
Mooi came and took their arms again, and with a last look at Rembrandt and the Watchmen, they moved off towards the crowds and the lights and the excitement of the night.
"The little Watchman is a child," Mooi said then, as they neared a crowd of people dressed wildly and singing loudly, with a slight group drunk to their movements. "And for children, a mask is the perfect disguise, to hide behind, and to delight in, and to pleasantly shock all those who pause to take a look."
"You're saying it was a mask? It seemed so...so real."
Mooi laughed - the most pleasant sounds of a city full of life.
"Why yes, my dear Coby. Even the dead have a sense of humor. And an even better sense of the macabre. The boy was only playing, and having fun - and being the child that he will always be." She squeezed their arms as they neared the crowds celebrating the night. "It was in fun, you see - a child's delight in mischief. That is something that never changes, across even the long expanse of years, and the great gulf that separates the living from those that have passed on. The boy was having fun with you." Mooi smiled, as if the night were her own creation.
She gave them a last fond squeeze as they merged into the crowds of witches and ghouls, and painted demon faces. "It is, after all, my sweets, soon to be Halloween."
And that was all she said, and then Coby and David felt the absence of her touch, and when they looked again between them, Mooi had gone.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]