It is nice to have a home
The noise of the Swartsburg continued to beat upon my body as I jogged amid the cattle-herd, and as I passed the inner wall of the northwest gate itself, 'scales' seemed to fall from my ears and my hearing returned amid a steady high-pitched squalling chorus. The holocaust behind me continued to flare, rumble, and boom; while to each side, cattle trotted six and seven deep. I could see over their tops if I stood up completely, but given the likelihood of witches, I remained 'hidden' as much as I could. For a moment, I wondered just how far my 'escort' would continue.
“Oh, my,” I thought, as several 'border' shops blazed to my left. “Did those rockets land..?”
“Those fires are to the east,” said the soft voice, as the ground once more jolted underfoot. “Watch.”
Two more 'shops', these on the south side of the meandering road, disintegrated in swirling balls of red-orange fire, and those shops next to them ignited within seconds to burn fiercely. I then turned to the right.
“Oh, no,” I gasped. “Grussmaan's is about to...”
“Not yet,” said the soft voice. “They shut their access doors in time.”
“Access d-door?” I thought, as the herd suddenly split into to two groups and I went west with one of them on the Oestwaag. “Secret passages?” A pause, “their workers?”
“A good percentage of them died when that first brothel exploded,” said the soft voice. “They closed the doors then, and those who remained left the building for their homes within the house.”
I then 'felt' something unusual, much as if a great many people had awoken from deep drugged slumber; and when a slow-blooming reddish-yellow flame showed to my right, I ducked down. I then heard someone yell – loud, clear, and sharp. I flinched involuntarily, and my fingers reached for my loudly-ringing ears.
“The witches are upon us,” screamed the voice of a woman. “Turn out! The witches are upon us!”
Faintly, from somewhere nearby, I heard a deep-pitched thrumming; then seconds later, a howling shriek that rose in both volume and pitch until it quit dead with a mind-sundering abruptness. I shuddered upon hearing the horn, with my first portion of dread formed by the recollection of what kind of horn I was hearing; while hot upon the heels of this first nightmare came the second portion, that being the tone of the horn itself. Calling it awful was praise of the greatest magnitude imaginable.
“That thing sounds exactly like...” I muttered. I was not enthused.
“Hawww-Weee!” squalled the horn. “Hawww-Weee!”
“Stinking witch-horn...” I spat.
Miura shot past me on the right as Maasstraat suddenly 'appeared' out of dark and dancing shadows, and I ran out of the suddenly-opening gap left by the onrushing bulls and into the region between the hitching posts and watering troughs on the east side of Maasstraat. Again, I moved fast and kept to the shadows, much as if I had but freshly recalled my designated 'pariah' status; and in my wake behind me, I heard first one gunshot boom, then another like it. The sound said 'number one musket', or so I guessed.
The first witch-horn had acquired echoes, however – I could now hear three distinct horns, all of them blaring intermittently – and when I came to the first street crossing Maasstraat, I froze while still in the shadows. To my right, the nearest door opened with a nerve-shattering crash, and a tousle-haired man – half-asleep still, and wearing bed-clothing – wobbled out with a long and somewhat dented brass trumpet in his nearest hand. He paid me no heed whatsoever, even though he was but a few feet past my reach, and when he came to the junction of hitching post and street, he mechanically brought the trumpet to his lips.
I put my fingers in my ears when he took a deep breath. Witch-horns had their own brand of torment, and this example looked likely indeed.
“Blah-Hee!” rang the horn. It vibrated my mind with its echoing shrillness. “Blah-Hee!”
As if to answer, another gunshot rang out, then a shrill scream behind me was answered by a yet-shriller bellow – and when a door banged open with a crashing sound, I silently turned to my rear to see an obvious miser being chased by Miura.
“How did that one get out here so quickly?” I gasped, as the witch continued to run south with an irate bull hot on his heels.
“Some of those cattle left the Swartsburg before the main body did,” said the soft voice, “and due to the degree of destruction of their 'home', those cattle aren't bothering to wait until morning.”
“Uh, are people 'waking up'?” I asked silently.
Two new horns blew from my rear, then a third new example squalled from somewhere to the left on the road I was about to cross. I had a question, and it needed an answer.
“How am I going to get to the house proper?” I thought. “I doubt Miura is going to escort me...”
Another door banged down upon the boarded walks to raise clouds of dust in the still-quiet street, then as two more witch-horns blasted their dire notes, an obvious black-dressed witch ran outside from where the door had become a rectangular region of darkness. I was about to reach for my revolver when a thunderous roaring red-tinted flash lifted the flame-silhouetted witch clear of the street to fall rubber-limbed and sprawling some four feet to the left of where he had left the cobbles.
“What was that..?” I squeaked.
A man came from the shadows of a shop some three shops to the south on the west side of the street with a huge and smoking musket in his hands, and as he drew closer to the still-thrashing witch with a knife in his hand, yet another witch-horn blew somewhere to the north. This last horn was followed by a crackling fusillade of gunfire.
I turned toward my front, and ran hotfoot across the road as two witch-horns blasted their horrible squeals to my rear, then as I continued between hitching rail and watering troughs at a fast walk, I kept listening to my left and ahead.
“Yes, Miura,” I thought. “That stinky place really needs to be visited...”
A huge flash of red-yellow light came from the northwest, then as I froze in the shadows, the muffled roaring blast of sound made the doors rattle and windows vibrate around me. As the echoes died, I heard from behind me doors bang open, then amid a trio of 'new' witch horns blowing, the 'chant' started.
“Turn out!” was followed by “the witches are upon us!”, and it was all I could do to pray to not be mistaken for a witch as I resumed my moving north. More and more, I could hear – and now, feel – the town awakening; and it was awakening to a sense and feeling it had never known before. Another roaring burst of gunfire came from the west, then three more shrill-sounding witch-horns squalled loudly, and the ending dire notes of the three latest trumpets were eclipsed by the frantic-seeming brays of mules and a torrential volley of nearby gunfire.
I turned left at the next intersection and but narrowly dodged a small group of cattle as they trotted down the street toward the west. Here and there, I saw flickering lights shining from behind still-shut doors and window-shades, and in nearby streets, I heard gunfire, screams, and witch-horns.
“Those things are awful,” I muttered at the now-ceaseless shrilling cacophony, as I crossed another street to find a dead end. “No, wait a minute – there's a space between those houses, and I can...” A pause, then, “just like in the fifth kingdom house and those back lots.”
“Especially tonight,” said the soft voice. “I'd stay off of the town's streets until you're north of Houtlaan at the very least.”
I came to the edge of the 'passage', then ran down it in dead silence. A flash of brilliant yellow-orange eyes showed to my right and near the ground, and I leaped to pass their owner and hit the ground at a dead run. The deep baying of a hound rattled the air around me, and to my rear, I heard fumbling. Someone was fetching both a gun of some kind and a light, and when the narrow passage showed but feet away to my front, I darted to the right as a gunshot roared from behind me and something smacked wetly against the stones of the opposite wall some few feet to my rapidly-fleeing rear.
“Shot,” I thought, as I slowed to a rapid walk some ten seconds later. I was in a weed-lined 'passage' varying in width between five and eight feet. “I'm glad this place doesn't stink.”
“Save where the witches have been dumping bodies, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, you're correct.”
“N-no trash mounds, either,” I thought.
“Save where there are either witches or supplicants living,” said the soft voice. “Those locations will have their trash-middens present.”
“Are those people common?” I asked silently.
“In this immediate area, no,” said the soft voice. “With few exceptions, they went over to the Swartsburg recently.”
“And ahead to the north?” I asked silently.
“Such people are even less common,” said the soft voice. “Witches and supplicants tended to concentrate around witch-run Public Houses outside of the Swartsburg.”
“Tended?” I asked.
“Koenraad the second's coming changed that,” said the soft voice, “and with the demise of the Swartsburg, the situation is changed further yet.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Fully two-thirds of the witches that were inside the walls of the Swartsburg tonight are now where they belong,” said the soft voice.
“Two-thirds?” I asked.
“That percentage will grow substantially within the next two weeks,” said the soft voice. “Most of the survivors have non-trivial injuries.”
“And those outside the walls?” I asked.
“More of them survived,” said the soft voice. “The feuds for succession are already starting.”
“And Miura,” I thought with a measure of satisfaction.
“Miura is still looking for drink, for the most part,” said the soft voice. “He should consume all of the Swartsburg's remaining drink by midmorning tomorrow.”
“And he will begin looking for more, then,” I said with a barely-restrained chuckle. “Doubtlessly he will find it once he starts roaming the area.” A brief pause, then, “Koenraad?”
“He and his coterie were disintegrated when you shot that lantern,” said the soft voice, “and by staying to make that shot after that brothel caught fire, you put a much bigger dent in the witch population than if you had done otherwise.”
“Uh, that brothel's burning wasn't in...”
“No, it was not,” said the soft voice, “and while the Swartsburg was damaged badly in what you saw that first time, it was not razed.”
“Razed?” I gasped.
“No building currently remains standing within its walls,” said the soft voice, “and calling that now-barren ground 'a plowed field' is to speak well of it.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Most of the Swartsburg resembles a soot-blackened charred moonscape,” said the soft voice, “and the remainder looks as if it were conjured from an old tale.”
“V-Verdun,” I muttered.
“Worse than that,” said the soft voice. “It might not be as 'hot' as Hiroshima was after the bomb went off, but otherwise, it's about as flattened.” A brief pause, “and within perhaps three days at the most, that area to the south and east of the Swartsburg will be more or less uninhabited by people.”
“Those pigs?” I asked.
“Got loose when the coaches started exploding,” said the soft voice, “and between the escaped pigs, the still-escaping mules, and Miura's drunken rampage, that area is wrecked and becoming more so as we speak.”
Amid the slow-growing sense of awakening, the horns blew from all corners of the compass while I walked, my eyes continuously glancing side to side. While most of the houses still 'slept', I had the impression that this was now a normal slumber, not one concentrated and congealed by the curses of witchdom; and in those houses where I saw light, I knew that not all of those people were inclined toward assaulting the current crop of witches.
“Most of those people are still hiding near the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice's enigmatic tones.
At the mention of the place, I stopped walking and turned slow and achingly to my rear to see tall and smoldering a vast and darksome flame-sparked black fume – and along with the continuing horn-squalling, I heard a growing yet still-intermittent crackle of gunfire and the still-infrequent bellows of cattle.
“And mules,” I muttered upon hearing a chorus of mule-brays from somewhere 'behind me', as I turned once more northward and resumed walking. I had another mile or more to go easily before I was 'safe'.
“Not until you're inside the house proper will you be truly safe,” said the soft voice. “Even crossing that field is going to be risky.”
“The witches are hiding there?” I asked.
“A handful of surviving witches have gone that far north, yes,” said the soft voice. “Most of the still-living witches not close by the Swartsburg are either hiding themselves in this general region or are heading 'across lots' at the best speed they can manage.”
“Across lots?” I asked. My former question had been answered handily: the witches were meant, not those who were disinclined to 'turn out' at this late hour. I could come up with a number of reasons, 'scarce powder' and 'scarcer-yet lead' being two of the ones I knew about – and I was glad Hans had his sources for both materials. Even so, he spoke of trouble getting lead often at the dinner table.
“And trampling a great many fields while doing so,” said the soft voice as a further rejoinder. “Between that and fouling those fields with mule-dung, the farmers cultivating those fields will be most furious with them.”
“M-more burn-piles,” I thought, as I heard the dying scream of a pig. “Do those things, uh, cause trouble?”
“They will, and in substantial measure,” said the soft voice, “and their foraging will not only result in their deaths, but also the deaths of more witches.” The emphasis upon 'more' implied the escaped pigs would cause great trouble for witchdom – though in what ways beyond the fondness of witches for roast pork and other unsavory dishes involving pigs was a mystery to me.
The 'passage' went more or less straight north for as far as I could see in the darkness. A glance overhead showed slow-drifting clouds that blocked most of the moon's light, and as I continued at my best 'quiet' speed, I noted a smelly region ahead and to my right.
“Bodies and trash,” I thought, as I 'located' the place ahead. “I wonder if anyone's still alive in there.”
There was no answer, save for the steadily growing stench. I moved quicker just the same, for I had endured sufficient 'stink' already, or so I thought. The odor 'peaked' with no untoward signs beyond what I could smell, and as I continued moving, it began to slowly recede in my mind and in my nose.
“I'm glad I have nothing to spew,” I thought, as I passed a narrow jog in the passage. “There, that place ahead...” A pause, during which time I managed two strides, then, “is that the end of this passage?”
With further moving forward, however, I knew better: I would need to cross a road. My hand groped toward my possible bag, for I wondered how many roads I would need to cross.
“Several at the least,” I thought. “At least I'm not staying on the roads.”
The road itself came steadily closer, or so I thought until the weedy nature of the passage petered out but a few feet clear of the actual cobbles of the street itself. The stone walls of a pair of shops hemmed in the trampled dirt and straggly weeds of the passage, while ahead lay the road's twenty feet of cobbled width. Beyond that, another passage like the one I was currently in beckoned loudly. I paused, this to listen – and heard nothing I had not heard in recent memory.
“My ears are still ringing like chimes,” I thought. “I hope my hearing isn't ruined.”
“Not permanently,” said the soft voice. “It won't be as good as it usually is for much of a week.”
After another minute, I darted across the road and continued running for a minute or more. The weeds here seemed thicker, so much so that when I noticed the stink of an obvious pig I gasped, “is someone hiding a pig here?”
“The owner is where he belongs,” said the soft voice, “and his pigs are now causing trouble in that encampment.”
“Then what am I smelling..?”
“Is his formerly well-hidden swine-pen,” said the soft voice. “It had pigs in it until very recently.”
“Gah!” I spat, as I left the worst portion of the stench behind me. “That place stinks!”
“It is much more noticeable now,” said the soft voice. “It will be dealt with within a few days.”
When I came to the next street, however, a fresh spate of horn-blowing rattled my ears and brain, and I came out into the street with dire caution. While I wasn't shot at, the feeling was I had had a close one, and I ran further past the 'threshold' than I had at the last street-crossing. Another burst of horn-squalling ended in a long and dire-sounding bloodcurdling scream. I had a strange recollection, and spoke of it.
“The night of the long knives...”
“That happens tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “Tonight is but a primer for it.”
The next two street-crossings were non-events compared to those of the first example. Houtlaan was somewhere nearby – mostly west, but also north – and when I passed another jog and continued on, I seemed to see at first farmers' fields, and then scattered trees north of them.
“Not many trees, though,” I thought, “and then that wide field...”
“With no trail, and little cover,” said the soft voice. “A straight line through it will give you the quickest passage.”
“And the witches?” I asked. “They'll mostly stick to any trails, correct?”
There was no answer.
Yet somehow, I had one. Any witch heading 'north' was most likely injured enough to not be much inclined toward walking.
“And mules will balk off of trails, unless their riders are familiar with their animals,” I thought. “Those people might manage horses.”
“That one hostler knew that part very well,” said the soft voice.
“About witches having trouble on horseback?” I asked.
“He knows but little of witches, unlike mules,” said the soft voice. “Most of those injured witches will either be using wheeled transport, or riding mule-back.”
“Will those things..?”
“That one mule was unusually bad-tempered,” said the soft voice. “Hans is not a veterinarian.”
I wanted to say 'Duh', but refrained. I had a question, however.
“Did his treatment make its behavior worse?”
“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “He was not inclined toward doing the work, the mule nearly kicked him – multiple times, no less – and his 'surgery' was clumsier than usual for him.”
“How does one 'deodorize' a mule?” I asked.
“There are two small glands near the mule's anus that exude a foul-smelling musk,” said the soft voice, “and their removal is supposed to reduce the animal's smell and calm its behavior.” A brief pause, then, “and if a marked person does so using the proper technique and prays appropriately, that actually happens.”
“And...” I murmured. “Prays appropriately?” I asked. “Is this because mules are thought prime steeds of Brimstone by witches?” Another pause, then, “what?”
“Those appropriate prayers speak of the 'removal' of spirits,” said the soft voice. “That musk might well smell terribly, but it is not the chief source of mule-stink.” A pause, then, “why do you think every witch worthy of the title wants to run mules?”
“They're inhabited?” I asked. “Living fetishes?”
“They once were very much so,” said the soft voice. “The Veldters have bred out most of their worst tendencies that way.”
“While improving disease and drought resistance, no doubt” I murmured.
“That part has also declined, though not nearly as much,” said the soft voice. “The current strain of mule was first bred about a hundred years before that war, and those animals lived more by the action of curses than by all other means.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. I barely stifled a yawn in time.
“Immunity to nearly all sicknesses of that time,” said the soft voice, “and the ability to eat nearly anything of a vegetative nature and survive.”
“Vegetative nature?” I asked.
“Poisonous plants were far more common then,” said the soft voice, “and a draft-animal that could exist upon scarce and unpromising food and water was especially valuable during the latter portion of the war.”
“Scarce?” I murmured. “Unpromising?”
“Also able to travel for days without eating or drinking,” said the soft voice, “and not easy traveling, either.”
“Uh, is this why witches want to travel without stopping?” I asked.
“That black book speaks of the original species of mule,” said the soft voice, “not the grossly denatured version currently bred by the Veldters.”
“Denatured?” I asked.
“One needs to merely understand the nature of mules to successfully ride the current version,” said the soft voice. “Those prior to the war needed a strong hand and a stronger-yet witch.”
The fields had come noticeably closer during the last few minutes, and when I came to the last cross-street before them, I noted its having dirt instead of cobbles. The aspect here was of a darksome stillness, much as if the curses of witchdom still held most-dire sway, and when I crossed the street itself, I was especially careful to hide between stoop and watering trough while I looked around.
“Two houses up,” I thought. “There'll be a gap there, and I can...”
A horn blared loudly from that direction, followed by the scream of a pig. For some reason, I had the impression that this particular pig was being savaged by one or more dogs, at least until a musket boomed.
“El Porko will ignore that,” I thought, as I came to the passage itself. It was barely wide enough to pass my shoulders.
The silence that descended was of such a telling nature that I marveled as I trotted between the two houses and into the rock-rimmed passage running between two fields. Their small size was such that within less than a minute, I had slowed to a steady walk among the lumpy-seeming grass of a vast darkened field.
I could feel a road somewhere to my left some three or four hundred yards away, and to my right – it was easily twice that distance – lay a familiar path. The moon had vanished, and below the thick black soot-lined clouds, I now moved steadily north. But few and straggling copses provided cover, and the darkness was of such a total and oppressive nature that I wanted a light of some kind.
“And to show it would get me shot,” I thought morosely. “I'll get there passably as it is.”
Between fatigue, soreness, and still-ringing ears, I felt as if distracted unduly, and when I crossed a narrow beaten track, I did so with a distinct start. I moved on quickly at a hunched-over run, all the while asking that my tracks be erased; and when I saw a low rise in the distance, I concentrated on heading toward it.
“Maybe I can see the house proper from that place,” I thought silently, as my weary legs rattled and clanged in my mind. Their bearings were dry and needed lubrication, or so I now believed.
My strange thinking jolted me, and I paused to reach for my water bottle. That brought a peculiar thought of its own, and as I struggled with the cork, I faintly recalled the reek of the container's contents. A glance at the rough texture and the lively green stripe of the jug I was now holding told me plenty.
“Deworming medicine,” I thought morosely. “I must be a straight-horned bull filled with leaded worms.”
Yet I wormed out the squirming cork, and began drinking the evil-tasting liquid. The fiery aspect of what I was drinking peaked as I paused to breathe; then, as I resumed drinking – I was thirsty, as was proper for a besotted witch – the aspects of unreality in sight and sensation began fading with muffled metallic-sounding clangs and huge 'gray-sounding' thumps. I then gasped quietly as I looked around. I had dropped to my knees somehow. My hands faintly shook.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You caught it just in time,” said the soft voice. “You will not have to endure that much longer.”
Within minutes, I felt much better, and I knew I had been told the truth of the matter. With a renewed energy and greater alertness, I moved swiftly toward the rise I had noticed but minutes before. My vision seemed clearer, and the darkness less intense; and a brief glance skyward showed more-or-less normal clouds for color at the least.
“They're still thick enough to make for a very dark night,” I thought. “That rise is gone.” A brief pause in both walk and thought, then, “that over there looks like the house.”
I moved with redoubled speed upon seeing a huge rectangular-shaped block of complete darkness silhouetted by a thick yet lesser darkness; and as this rectangular block grew larger in my vision, I noted what might have been faint red flashes now and then. I kept those more or less to my right as they grew plainer and more distinct, and when the verdure underneath my boots and to each side changed abruptly from knee-high and varied in texture to 'a well-cropped lawn', the rectangular block of darkness took up much of the horizon and began directly to my right.
The red flashes were now obviously the flames of the outer watch-fire at the entrance gate, and I moved quickly toward them.
“Do I want to...”
The thought was blatant in my mind: I did not wish to go in the front. I would be shot at.
“Yes, if the guards see you,” said the soft voice.
“Asleep?” I asked.
“Neither of those two men are asleep,” said the soft voice, “and both of them are looking hard for witches.”
“All the more reason...”
I then noticed my actual state, that being a degree of fatigue that I had but little previous notion of, both now and in the past. I wasn't sure I could make it if I went the back way.
“An extra half mile would be most unwise right now,” said the soft voice. “Recall your sword lessons, and act accordingly.”
“I had to work at being seen,” I thought. My fatigue seemed to be growing quickly by leaps and bounds. “If I don't make noise or touch them, then...
“Just duck under the crossing bar,” said the soft voice, “and head straight for the kitchen once you're inside the house proper.” A brief pause, then, “they'll have the beer ready.”
This last speech had somehow grown a perceptible aura of furriness, so much so that I wondered if there were such animals as bears in the area.
“I wonder if they have the fear in there,” I thought, as I came to the 'road' that led to the gate and turned mechanically onto it. My feet had minds of their own, and their steady gliding shuffle brought me closer to the seat of judgment. I was walking in column among a vast group of emaciated beings, all of them dressed most appropriately for their final phase of life.
The itchy 'burlap' of slave-dress was what I saw on those about me, with its narrow black horizontal stripes upon a gray background writhing like hyperactive snakes. I felt instantly chilled and horror-stricken, and when the two guards showed themselves with near-instant abruptness, I nearly froze.
Black-cloth from head to toe, strange hats – I had seen this type in pictures before, if not here – tall leather boots, fixed-ahead glazed-eye expressions, cocked submachine guns in their itching-to-kill hands. My feet paid them no mind, even as the gate I was walking under began changing before my eyes.
I had seen this gate before, complete with its horrific inscription; and the five-walled compound behind this particular gate was a place so vast that one could quick-march under the ceaseless lash of a whip-snapping overseer for the space of three hours and not come to the end of it. It had a name, and as I passed next to the huge bulk of the main entrance 'barracks' – it too had a name, but I could not read it in the prevailing night's darkness – I froze to count and name the five rune-like letters naming the place.
“B-b,” I mumbled through chattering teeth. “E-e, r-R-r, K... I think that is a Y.” The dread word rang still-born upon my lips as I about-turned to the chanted curses of the guards and their yapping dogs, and when I went unto the door of the crematorium – they did not fumigate people like me; they burned them alive as sacrifices to Brimstone – I mouthed its five letters as if a dread incantation, even as the letters I had first seen morphed into their phonetic equivalent runes. The name of the place wasn't merely dreadful in its own right; it was a most-potent curse as well, which was why the pride of center was the rune-curse equivalent of the K-Laager's dreaded name. I had heard of this horrible place before.
“Berky,” I muttered. “This is Berky, and...”
The whole abruptly faded as the candles of the house's main entrance blasted into my night-blinded vision. I was shaking, the walls were beginning to turn strange and horrible pulsating colors, and everywhere I looked, the now-shaking walls seemed ripe for a convulsion of color-stricken insanity. I tried to walk faster, and lurched into a stiff-jointed run. A few sweat-dripping steps, and a shadow appeared upon the wall to my right. I lurched into the turn, then continued on my way past brazen doorways billowing now bluish flames in the eerie silence of looming immolation. My clothing was damp with sweat and growing wetter by the second, and when I turned once more – I could no longer discern right or left – a spectral figure 'showed' and then 'caught' me.
I was too far gone to do much beyond acquiesce to this being's machinations, and when a cup of cool yet smoking liquid – it smelled like distillate, and the greasy taste in my mouth was that of a petroleum-laced nightmare – I drank the poison obediently. Talk rang echoing about my head of guns, then of massive leaden bullets mingled with rivers of sweat.
“That's bad enough,” said a voice at once unfamiliar and yet well-known. “I'm glad we have that stuff.”
“I do not have that tube of Anna's,” said another voice, “so it is this or nothing. Now where did you find him?”
The voices faded out mercifully but seconds later, and when I came to myself, I was not merely sitting at an obvious Public House table, but I had a jug of beer next to me and a chilled tinned-copper cup in my hand. I was drinking as if greatly dehydrated, and my profuse sweating...
“Sweating bullets,” I murmured, as I uncorked the jug with a distinct 'pung' noise to add more beer to the ice-chunked pit of my cup.
“That's the truth,” said a voice I slowly recognized as that of one of the cooks, “and I'm glad he was handy, as I've not seen you get like that before.”
“He?” I asked.
“Lukas,” said the cook. “He's just come back to tell us what happened.”
“Uh, what happened?” I asked.
“Fresh beef, for one thing,” said the voice of Lukas from somewhere to my left, “and then the Swartsburg's gone where it belongs.”
“I'm glad it's gone,” said the cook, who then looked at me. “You obviously had a hand in it.”
“All of him is more likely, if I go by the mess,” said Lukas as he suddenly showed. He looked much the worse for wear.
“How did you get so messy?” I asked. My voice was a weak croak, unlike my first questions. I gulped beer; then I noted my clothing. It was worse than what Lukas was wearing, and that to no small degree.
“Yuck,” I spat.
“Get some more o' that beer down,” said Lukas. “Your bath will keep, and same for your clothing.”
I did no more than do as I was told, and with each further swallow, I noticed a returning sense of 'sanity' that had somehow vanished since I had crossed the town and entered the field. I drank until I was 'full' – and then, I noticed just how bad I looked and smelled.
“My clothing is ruined,” I thought, as I looked at the torn trousers and dirt-stained shirt. Both articles of clothing were liberally peppered with charred places, and my bare skin showed in several locations through rips and tears. “I hope that bathroom has plenty of soap, because I stink like a...”
“No, not a mule,” I thought, though the smell of mule was quite noticeable, as was the 'spicy' reek of Miura and the noxious stench of strong drink. There was another stink, and only when I was in the tub and scrubbing the dirt and itch off did I begin to think as to what it was.
“Burnt human flesh,” I spat. “I stink worse than a burn-pile.”
This revolting thought started a coughing-fit, and I began spitting nasty-tasting blobs onto a spread-out rag next to the tub. I hoped it would not catch fire, for some reason, and when I finished bathing, I put the rag in the privy on the way back to the refectory. Lukas had gone elsewhere – and if I went by the steady and growing warmth of the rag before I tossed it, I was nearly as surprised that the privy did not explode.
“He's doing his own bath,” said the cook I had seen beforehand when I returned to the refectory. “I've no idea where he's got his tub hid, but he and these other men have one.”
“Hid?” I asked. “Why would he hide a tub?”
“Those Generals, most likely,” said the cook. “I've caught more than one of those stinkers sneaking around in the kitchen.” A brief pause, then, “and if witch-jugs weren't so destructive, I'd set one of those things up in those places they like to move around in.”
“S-secret passages?” I asked.
“Aye,” said the cook. “Lukas knows about those, or at least some of them.”
I wondered about 'secret passages' all the way back to 'room 67', and with the disk in my pocket, I made ready for bed. A nap of some hours sounded wise, and my body seemed to agree, for I fell asleep the instant my head lit upon the pillow. I awoke with a start and a full bladder, and left the room hotfoot for the nearest privy.
Once I had done my business and cleared out of room '67', I paused in the hallway. The aspect of 'slumber' I had felt earlier was not merely gone; the place was 'more awake' than it ever had been before in my recollection, and when I came to the refectory, I could almost hear the strident caterwauling of 'a thousand and twenty-two' witch-horns. I was wondering about that particular number when a particularly unpleasant 'brazen trumpet' shrieked from somewhere behind me – and I dove for the floor to 'bounce' and then roll sideways like a spinning log – and then roll into the feet of an apron-clad cook.
“What are you doing down there?” she asked. Her deadpan tone was a marvel, much as if she encountered green-clad lunatics rolling about on the floor after a dire escapade.
“Those horns are trouble,” muttered the voice of Lukas from somewhere nearby, “and trouble ain't half of what's happening in the house.”
I gathered myself up gingerly, still shaking from the nerve-rattling blast, then asked, “who..?”
“One o' those new guards got himself a witch-horn and blew it,” said Lukas, as he came out of the kitchen with a sizable mug of obvious beer. “Between last night and this morning, I'm about due for a jugful, and no mistake.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
Lukas began muttering as if he'd been Anna's teacher, then said, “the house has got feuds going in it right now, same as if the Hedjtfeld and Makooij combines ran things between 'em, and the whole place is hot with gunfire, cattle, and pigs.” A pause, then, “and last night, it was worse.”
“How?” I asked.
“I shot five witches in the turn of a glass, and that was afore the sun rose at night,” he said. “It got hot, then, as if it was going to burn – and it did, too.”
“Hot?” I asked. “Burn?”
Lukas muttered more, then said, “I suspect you know the cause 'o that.”
“What happened?” I asked. “The sun rose at night?” This last came out with a definite screechy tone.
“Aye,” said Lukas. “I could hear that place's noise this side of Houtlaan, then the whole sky to the south goes white with fire, and then the sun rose up out o' that place for a slow count of ten afore it went down again.” A brief pause; Lukas drained his mug. He then continued. “And while the sun still showed, I heard the noise.”
“Noise?” I asked.
“I heard it too,” said the cook. “It sounded like someone was firing siege guns where they do musket practice here, only I could count to ten from when that noise started until it ended. I went outside just after, and the whole sky to the south was red like hell itself had come up to show itself to us.” He paused, then said, “and then, I heard the cattle.”
“Cattle?” I asked.
“Aye,” said Lukas. “I had to put some lead in one o' those things, and my niece finished it.” Another pause, then, “her and that butcher what went with us both.”
“He'll have his papers soon enough,” said the cook. “One of those things is his, and I'll ride money on him downing more of them, same as his niece.”
“The zuurpruef?” I asked.
“Is downing cattle, if you're a butcher,” said the cook, “and I'll know the reason why if the hall doesn't write his papers out before the day ends.”
“The hall?” I asked. “Is this the place where..?”
“I'd not count on that,” said Lukas. “Gilbertus said he was watching that place close.”
I wondered if it was wise to leave at that precise time, even if I did not wonder about the need to check on Jaak. When I came outside, the normally clear sky was obscured to the south by a foul-smelling and slow-rising plume of turgid gray-streaked black smoke, and I stood open-mouthed and gaping for what seemed the space of a minute. Faint steps came from behind, and I turned to see one of the carpenters from the boatwright's shop.
“Now that's a fine mess,” he murmured, as he pointed to the smoke with a glue-streaked finger. “At least the Swartsburg is gone.”
I turned to the right and rear, my heart in my throat with expectation. Someone was coming 'hard' on a horse, and I could hear the winded animal's faltering steps as its rider urged it to the utmost. He did not have far to go, thankfully, as his animal could not go much further.
“About two more minutes,” I murmured.
“What is this?” asked the carpenter. He was still looking south and into the stinky smoke-cloud.
“Someone's coming,” I said. “It's important, and...”
I paused. Somehow, I knew who it was.
“It's Gilbertus,” I said. “He was watching near the west side of the...”
Faint hoofbeats pounded. I could hear them audibly, unlike before. I wondered how I could tell the difference for a second or two.
“Where was he watching?” asked the carpenter. He had turned to face toward the north and west, such that he was to my left and a few feet away.
“In this place near Kokenstraat,” I said. “It seems there's this, uh, shed there...”
“Aye,” said Lukas' voice. I turned to see him coming from the house's door. “I know about that shed.”
“What do you do..?”
“I suspect he's coming here,” said Lukas, “so he'll be telling us what happened.”
“How did you know?”
“You went outside,” said Lukas, “and I followed after, and I knew was right to follow you when I heard you speak of him and that shed.” A brief pause, then, “and if he was in that thing, then...”
A horse and rider showed with such abruptness that Lukas ceased speaking, while I hitched and stumbled forward to catch myself just in time. The animal itself was injured, while the rider...
“It's him,” said the carpenter. “I hope...”
The horse stumbled, then caught itself, while the rider 'lurched' sideways and came off to nearly fall on the ground before catching himself on his feet. I then saw the elongated leather 'pad' in his hands as the horse 'headed for the barn' at a wobbly uncoordinated trot.
“Is that a saddle?” I asked.
The answer, if one was given, was lost in the excited gabble of the three men accompanying me. It was Gilbertus, and his soot-tinged clothing showed burnt places, much as if he'd been playing with a batch of old-time 'extra-strength' fetishes. I could smell smoke and fire coming off of him, as well as the acrid stink of gunpowder.
“And pigs,” I muttered, as the group closed in about him. For some reason, I wanted to look him over for injuries.
“And his horse,” I thought. “Is someone in the stable up to looking after injured horses?”
Gilbertus did not wait for questioning on our part. With a breathless voice redolent of fatigue, he wheezed, “it's clear gone.”
The other two gazed upon his soot-stained visage with bated breath, at least for an eyeblink's time.
“Are the walls of that place standing still?” My question was soft-spoken.
“I saw one big gap near the hall,” he said, “but I know there are more gaps than just the one I saw.”
“Did you see much inside o' that place?” asked Lukas.
“I did,” said Gilbertus. “There's a place below the ground under that wall, and that place is full of witches.” A pause, then, “at least it was that way before the gunners showed.”
“Gunners?” I asked.
“Aye, both city batteries,” said Gilbertus. “The hall had run out two guns, and they were trading shells.”
“What?” I gasped.
I seemed to be unheard, for Gilbertus continued, saying, “and I hope I never see another street run red with blood again.”
“There'll be more o' those afore this mess finishes,” said Lukas. “I know that much.” A pause, then, “rotten cannons?”
“Aye, two of them,” said Gilbertus, “and the witches were swarming out of that place, shells or no shells.”
“Out of the hall?” asked the carpenter.
“Out of that wrecked place in the Swartsburg wall,” said Gilbertus. “The hall's north wall is maybe fifty paces south from the south end of where the wall is breached.”
“The guns?” I asked.
“Those were in the hall's gateway,” said Gilbertus, “and witches were running 'em.” A pause, then, “I got out of that shed just in time, too.”
“They put a shell in it?” asked Lukas.
Gilbertus nodded, then said, “I almost got metal in me, it was so close.”
“I hope someone checks your horse,” I murmured. Lukas nodded, then produced a jug, which Gilbertus started draining. A minute's drinking, then Gilbertus noisily spat. The grass briefly smoldered where the varicolored mess landed.
“I headed toward the nearest battery of our cannons as sneaky as I could,” said Gilbertus, “which wasn't easy, as those witches were shooting as if they had pigs about to climb onto their guns.”
“Were they hitting?” asked Lukas.
“They seemed to be,” said Gilbertus. “I saw two of our guns dismounted before I could reach that battery, and half the gunners on 'em hurt or killed.”
I wanted to hide, and I was afraid my feelings were showing. The last thing I ever wanted to endure was a pitched Civil-War style artillery battle. The border-battle crossing into the fifth kingdom had been bad enough, and I had had cover of a sort then, unlike what Gilbertus was describing.
“And about the time I reached that place, one of our guns got lucky and hit one o' their limbers,” said Gilbertus.
“What did that do?” asked the carpenter.
“That thing exploded like a coach filled with dynamite,” said Gilbertus.
“Those cannons?” I asked.
“They were gone once the smoke cleared, and the gateway was thrice its former width,” said Gilbertus, “and at least two buildings inside o' that place were on fire and smoking.” A brief pause, then, “and then, I heard the cannon-master himself speak.” Here, Gilbertus contorted his voice such that it was a deep growling 'soot-choked' bass.
“More shells” said Gilbertus. “How many of them tipped shells do we have yet?”
Gilbertus changed his voice back to 'normal', then said, “the loader says they have nine and twenty, but he says he wants to keep most o' them for swine, so he speaks of sparing ten.”
Lukas shook his head.
“That cannon-master spoke otherwise,” said Gilbertus. He then resumed that bass-ridden growl. “If those shells get witches, I will call it cheap to use them all today.” A brief pause, during which he spat, then in normal voice, “he then fired his remaining gun, and while it rolled back, he spoke of witches.”
“As in?” I asked.
“All witches serve Brimstone,” said Gilbertus in 'deep-bass growl' tone, “and that no matter where they live.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “I kept my guns warm last night, at least while my powder lasted.”
Gilbertus looked toward the horse-barn, then muttered, “and then, there was the ride back.” He paused, drank more, then said, “I've seen the potato country when the swine come, and I've seen them pigs come up here, and I've ridden through feuds in the fifth kingdom, but the way the house is right now...”
He seemed out of breath, at least until he shook his head.
“A bad business,” murmured the carpenter.
“That ain't no word for it,” said Gilbertus. “I'm of a mind to head north for a few days and hide up until the daytime nightmares shut themselves.”
Lukas shook his head, then stared at 'something' for a moment. I then saw his eyes.
“That looks like...”
Gilbertus' eyes then bored in upon me. He seemed to be staring into a place I had no words for, either to answer or describe, even if I partly recalled the name for the expression I was seeing. I had seen pictures of faces similar long years in the past – and then, I wondered about my face.
“I've wondered about that for the longest time,” said Lukas, “and so has Anna, I suspect.” A brief pause, then, “I know what I got, and he's got it too.”
“What?” I asked. “I've heard of something, uh, called the...”
For some odd reason, I had forgotten the precise measurement of distance. I wanted to say 'thousand yard', but that figure was competing with several other modifiers, two of which involved distances. There were several others that involved locations – while none of them were named hell, they could all be said to be truly 'hellish' – and finally two that involved animals – neither of which were pigs. I then recalled several mentions in the past of 'too much swine' and the effects upon those enduring them.
“Do the pigs cause that?” I asked.
Lukas shook his head, then said, “they call it the two-mile stare in the mining country.”
Speaking of 'the two mile stare' seemed to call for silence, and I began moving through the trees toward the horse-barn. I now had two horses to look after – Jaak, and the just-arrived animal – and I was deep enough in thought to not hear steps coming from behind until the source was at my side. I turned to see Lukas.
“He's gone for his bath and a jug,” said Lukas. “You going to look at his horse?”
“I thought to do that, yes,” I said. “Is there someone...” I'd never looked after injured horses before.
“Hans might, if he's inclined to travel,” said Lukas. “Otherwise, that groom who used to have that mule might be...” Lukas shook his head, then said, “you might have to, though.”
“Remove shot?” I asked. “I've never done it.”
“That, or balls,” said Lukas. “Anna dug two of those things out o' my hide this last time, and they'd been there a while, if I go by what she said.”
The barn's main entrance had two grooms, one of which I recognized as the former owner of Francis, and an obviously injured horse. Both men had tweezers in hand, and a common-looking jug of smaller size lay on the nearest bench.
“Did you give him mash?” I asked.
“First thing,” said the groom I had not seen before, “and then I saw the shot-holes, so I went for my things.”
“You looked after horses?” asked Lukas.
“Two years in the fifth kingdom house,” said the 'new' groom, “and then a few years in the fourth kingdom's market. I got my papers there, in fact.”
“That's the only place that gives those,” said Francis' former owner, “and a good thing, seeing as how this is the fourth injured horse we've seen since the sun rose in the nighttime.”
I shuddered involuntarily with this last statement, then asked, “did some of those, uh, Generals ride over there?”
“They did, and their horses came back without 'em,” spat Francis' former owner. “I'm not inclined to worry much about those people.” I then noticed the 'new' groom had gone.
“He's off to get the rest of his things,” said Francis' former owner.
I barely heard him, for I had gone into the stable proper. The sense of 'pain' I was feeling was enough to nearly drive me to my knees in a screaming fit, so much so that I nearly collided with the 'new' groom. It took some seconds to take in his clothing and bucket.
“That's..?” I murmured, upon seeing an oddly 'shiny' apron. Its stark white color was unlike anything I had seen here. It seemed to prime me for questions.
“What they dress in when looking after horses in the fourth kingdom's market,” he said. “It's the easiest thing to clean I've ever worn.”
I followed him back to where Francis' former owner was looking over the injured horse. Both Gilbertus and Lukas were gone.
“Off to find other horses,” said Francis' former owner. “I expect both of those men are inclined to see Anna.”
“Shot?” I asked quietly.
“That also,” he said, as the 'new' groom brought out a 'rag-hunk' reeking with aquavit. The stomach-turning odor drove me from the area, and as I staggered away, the former sense of pain I had felt suddenly increased, such that I nearly screamed again.
There was no 'nearly' about my legs; they gave way with sudden abruptness to put me crawling on the hay-strewn floor with gritted teeth, and I nearly screamed for a third time. It felt as if someone was probing the hind portion of my right leg with a rust-covered awl, and when I reached where Jaak was stabled, I nearly collapsed facedown.
“Thank God that's over,” I mumbled as my hearing suddenly 'returned' to hear the voices of Lukas and Gilbertus. “Why didn't it feel like that when that stuff was coming out of me?”
There was no answer, and I hastened to leave the premises before more 'probing' was done upon me. I was just finishing shaking out Jaak's blanket when I heard the clopping sound of hooves leaving a stall, then Gilbertus speaking of waiting near the gate.
“Not for long,” said Lukas. “I'm about done here.”
I took the last words to heart and went out of the stall with Jaak hot on my heels but seconds later, and as I cleared the threshold of the horse-barn, a sudden paroxysm of pain 'slammed' me sideways against the door frame with a low and shuddering moan escaping from my lips. A hand went to my gut, and I looked down to see a ghostly pair of huge rust-blackened tweezers seeking to remove 'something'.
“N-no,” I moaned. “P-Please. N-not that.”
The tweezers remained, insistent and agonizing as they dug deep in search for what they wished to find. I could no longer hold the screaming in check, and my mouth opened soundlessly as the blood spurted from a massive wound in my stomach to form a pool in front of me – which I then collapsed into upon fainting from the pain – to then come to myself crossing a green field between Lukas and Gilbertus. We were heading north and slightly west.
“What happened?” I croaked. My voice was the very picture of thirst.
“That man might have his papers,” muttered Lukas, “and they might be signed proper, but he don't know how to do horses.”
“I could f-feel s-something happening to me,” I mumbled. “Something about big t-tweezers...”
“He'll want new ones, and no mistake,” said Lukas with a trace of satisfaction. “Those things he had all went to rust in his hands.”
“They were that,” said Lukas, “and most of his other things were either rusty or covered with dirt.”
I then gasped, saying, “went to rust..?”
“Aye,” said Lukas, “and then it got hot for him, too.”
“Hot?” I asked.
“I've seen smoke come out of wounds before,” muttered Gilbertus, “but this was worse.”
“Smoke?” I asked.
“Both of those men were dodging hot lead when that stuff came out,” said Lukas, “and when they come back to see the horse, all those places were still smoking.” A brief pause, during which I heard swallowing. I turned numbly to see a battered tinned copper cup in Lukas' hand. “That wasn't what scared 'em.”
“Those places were entirely healed,” said Gilbertus, “and the same for every other recently-injured horse in the stable.”
“R-rusty tools?” I asked. “Doesn't he know those are trouble?”
“He does now,” said Gilbertus. “I might not know much about doctoring, but I've been around Anna enough to know nothing o' hers is that way.” A brief pause, then, “I expect him to put an order in where you work, and that dead-soon.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “I'll air out his smelly hide if he thinks to do otherwise.”
We had been traveling around the edges of a sizable woodlot during this time of conversation, and by the time we had reached its end, I was sufficiently recovered to have some idea of where we actually were. While there were no roads in our immediate vicinity, I could feel several within less than a mile. I did not want to be on any of them right now.
“No roads until we're close to home,” I murmured. “Too many witches traveling today.”
“I suspected that,” said Lukas. “Now where you live, that might be different.”
“What, more witches there?” I mumbled.
“There's two families I've been keeping eye on for years,” said Lukas. “One's near where you live, and the other's at the south end of town.”
“You know about those people?” I gasped.
“Andreas told me about how witches control towns,” said Lukas, “and how they concentrate on certain ones more than others.” A brief pause, then, “there might be worse ones for witches, but Roos has had witch-trouble for years.”
“This o-one town,” I gasped, as I pointed in the direction of the town we had passed through while collecting that one batch of medicine. “The witches r-run the place, and...”
“I'd check it careful after dark,” said Lukas. “The Swartsburg going like that is going to put the fear in every witch within a hard day's ride, least for a while.”
“Now there's a spring near here,” mumbled Gilbertus. He seemed to be sniffing the air so as to find it. “Seems I remember...” His voice faded away, and for a moment, I wondered why. I then caught the smell.
“B-burning pigs,” I gasped, as I pointed with my right hand at the apparent source of the fatty burnt-flesh reek. “Th-that town...”
“I'd best try to find that spring, then,” said Gilbertus. “If they're burnin' pigs, I'm not going any closer.”
I could feel a 'spring' nearby, so much so that when a 'hollow' showed in a woodlot some distance away in our path I headed for it instinctively. Both men rode silently beside me, while on the faint mist-dampened winds of morning, I seemed to hear a recurring and too-palpable nightmare: gunshots, the shrieks of pigs, shrieking witch-horns, and the braying of mules. I turned to the side, then asked while pointing to my right, “over there?”
“About two miles to a town,” said Lukas as he looked at my outstretched arm. It pointed to the east; the woodlot we were heading for was north and slightly to our west. “You hear something?”
“Uh, perhaps,” I said tentatively. “I'm hearing...”
A sudden screech came from the direction I had indicated, then from the shadows of a far-distant woodlot a small herd of pigs erupted. Lukas turned, as did Gilbertus, while I slid off of Jaak with my rifle in my hand. I was expecting something to show, though what it would be was yet a mystery, and I went prone on the still-damp grass facing the yet-compact herd of pigs. They were moving closer in no small hurry.
“You see anything?” asked Gilbertus.
“N-not yet,” I said as my eyes scanned the area in front of me. “Nothing except those, uh, pigs.”
“They're too far for me to hit,” said Lukas. “That's got to be five hundred paces easily.”
“To where the pigs are currently,” I muttered as the swine-herd slowed and then stopped. “The pigs aren't the trouble, though – it's what's following them...”
From out of the darkened shadows left by the woodlot's greenery, I saw a darker-yet shadow slowly begin to form, and my wavering front sight slowly moved toward this new black hole manifesting next to where the pigs had emerged from. I twisted my range dial up ten clicks, paused to look, then added two more clicks before settling back into the prone position, where I noted a complete lack of crosswind.
What little wind I could feel was blowing away from me.
The area encompassed by the front sight's hood seemed to gather an aura of shifting haze for an eyeblink's time, then as the haze faded, this darker-yet shadow acquired a further level of solidity and shape. Seconds later, the shape once more became sharper and clearer; and I knew its owner to be a black-dressed thug but lately removed from the Swartsburg's walls. Behind him, however...
“No, not the thug,” I murmured. My lips knew, even if my mind was yet unclear. “There is something further...” The mists remained in the distance, and my lips paid them no mind. “It's a doorway of some kind – it's framed by big timbers, and they've been squared carefully.”
My hands knew their own secrets as well, for as I had spoken, the front sight's halo had moved to the left of the thug. This migration continued, my eyes now intent upon the circled area within the sight's hood, until with an abruptness worthy of lightning, I saw the yellowish-white light of a distillate-fueled lantern glaring brightly within the boundaries of a window – a window, man-tall and framed by thigh-thick timbers. My rear sight captured the front, the front sight now centering into the familiar black halo of the rear peep sight; of its own, my part-expelled breath paused; and the pressure of my right index finger upon the trigger's cold steel increased steadily – until it 'broke' like a glass rod.
The sudden roar of the rifle jolted me out of my state of tunnel-vision, and as I recovered from this interruption, I noted a ringing echo growing steadily. It seemed to come from the region of where the bullet had probably landed, which caused me to wonder as to its cause; while the behavior of the black-dressed thug...
He was trying to overtake the pig-herd, and the animals were galloping as if crazed, while behind them a smoke cloud of raven hue grew steadily as I unclenched my rifle. I was on my knees preparing to rise to my feet when the first billowing tongue of red-tinged flame spat hungrily out through the curtain of smoke. I then heard voices break through my still-ringing ears.
“That witch is...”
Lukas' voice quit abruptly as the sprinting witch came even with the rear of the galloping pigs, then the whole group seemed to vanish as the ground opened underneath them to spit them high into the air under – and then inside as they began falling – a vast and far-reaching billow of hazy red-yellow flame blanketed with thick black smoke.
I made my feet. As I slung my rifle, the soot-blackened pigs began hitting the earth with audible thuds as the new-sprouted hole continued to billow fire and smoke; and as I turned to remount, I...
“An earthquake?” I thought, as the ground heaved and bucked underfoot.
“We'd best ride,” said Lukas, as I came next to Jaak. “The ground's shaking like out of an old tale.”
I wasted no time, and seconds later we were trotting three abreast, our horses heading north toward a nearby woodlot – a place of refuge, one where the spring hid – and as we rode, the ground continued to squirm underneath, while behind us, I could hear the muffled thunder of well-hid explosions rumbling steadily. I dared not look back, much as if Sodom itself lay behind us, for we were still within range of the coming holocaust, and our time passed ticking by the seconds as we came closer to our refuge.
My thinking was thus; and then...
“But a minute more,” I thought, as the trees of the northern woodlot beckoned but two hundred yards distant. “Once we are in that place...”
“I would hurry if I were you,” said the soft voice by way of drawing my attention to a yet-greater issue.
Jaak needed no urging on my portion, for he suddenly sprang into a gallop and left the other horses behind as if he were shot from a turf-stuffed cannon. A neigh came from behind, then another, then the steady rattle of hooves coming from my rear assayed matching the thunder beneath me as Jaak continued to accelerate.
“No, not just a spring,” I thought. “Someone made a stone-walled privy.” The woodlot now showed an open place among its densely-foliaged trees. “About eighty feet inside, I need...”
I ducked abruptly as Jaak entered the woodlot at a dead gallop. I'd nearly been knocked off my seat by a low-lying limb, and but a second later I rolled to my right and out of my seat to tumble and then land on my feet as Jaak began slowing up. I turned to run for the privy's door as thundering hooves drew closer, for now, seconds counted.
“That's a privy?” I gasped, as the massively-constructed low-roofed 'blockhouse' abruptly showed next to a large pond bordered by tall green reeds. “That thing's nearly as big as the horse-barn at home!”
My pounding steps were buried by the surrounding thunder of both hooves and explosions as I reached the hollowed part-buried realm of the blockhouse's threshold but a second later. Unthinkingly, I reached for the rust-crazed doorknob, and the lock clicked as the door swung itself wide to show a part-sunken stone-walled passage nearly as wide as it was tall.
Jaak tried to pass me as I leaped inside, and from an pitch-black interior I turned to see the two men and their lathered mounts pull up perhaps ten feet from the threshold.
“Hurry!” I shouted, as both men jumped off. “Bring them in!”
Lukas came in first, followed by his horse. I was at the door's frame, hand upon the inner knob; then Gilbertus' horse came in with him pushing it bodily from behind. As he crossed the threshold, a massive rumble came from below.
I both felt and heard this noise, and as I slammed the door closed, the light of day was washed out by the brighter-yet yellow-white glare of a massive flame. I held the door shut with all my strength, and at the same time, I prayed that our shelter would endure...
...that it would endure the massive shockwave...
“Shockwave?” I thought, even as my lips still poured forth fevered supplication. Our shelter, while no trench, was still a refuge; and I recalled the statements regarding no atheists being found in trenches. I gasped out the single questioning word “what?” as the rumble from below doubled in volume only to double itself once more an instant later.
The thundering was now coming from all directions at once, while brilliant light shot myriad tiny beams of stark whiteness into the sepulchral darkness of our shelter. I hoped and prayed it would not become our tomb, even as the light from without that showed forth from the cracks in the walls began to slowly 'fail'. Only then did the noise begin to lessen, and I turned my head so as to...
I sneezed, then spat, “my, such d-dust.” The air within our shelter was becoming dusty.
A soft touch to my neck above the shoulder blades. I 'knew' it was Jaak.
“Best let me, uh...”
My words ceased as I bent down towards the region just under the filthy doorknob to search for a keyhole. None was present, and my groping hands and fingers felt in vain for a button while my eyes searched for a gap in the door itself. The light then showed from a pinhole perhaps two inches above and three to the right of the lockplate's upper right margin. I bent my eye to this hole.
A gasp escaped my lips, and it echoed hollowly in the silence of our hiding place. I could hear within my mind a preternatural quaking, this of ancient terror-stricken bones; and then softly, so much so that my still-ringing ears but scarce heard them, I heard footsteps. I turned away from the tiny hole, and my eyes focused slightly to see Lukas' features etched by the feeble flame of a guttering candle-stub. The odor I smelled spoke of tallow and the faint sulfurous bite of a single match, and the sights and smells combined to make for an involuntary startle upon my part.
“Did it burn out there?” he asked.
“Burn?” I squeaked. “It's all smoky outside, and I think...” I paused, then asked softly in a trembling voice of wonderment, “what did I do?”
“Tripled the price of pork in the first kingdom, for one thing,” said the soft voice.
“Uh, how?” I asked. I marveled at what I had just heard.
“That was the first kingdom's main shipping point for 'domestic' pigs,” said the soft voice, “and while witches do commonly grow small herds of pigs near witch-holes, most of the first kingdom's 'domestic' swine are imported from regions to the south.”
“How..?” gasped Gilbertus.
“Swine need ample daylight to thrive,” said the soft voice, “and hence need periodic 'grazing' at the very least.”
“That would get people onto 'em if they did it up here,” said Lukas.
“Which is why most first kingdom pig-herds are very small,” said the soft voice. “It's much easier to hide a handful of pigs than it is to hide hundreds.”
“H-hundreds?” I asked. “Where do they keep that many..?”
“El Jefe grows his share,” said the soft voice. “Then, there are large pig-herds in all of the other kingdoms.”
“The fourth kingdom has pigs?” I asked incredulously.
“You passed within ten miles of three large herds of them while in the fourth kingdom on your return trip,” said the soft voice. “That was the other reason the witches tried to roust you with gunfire.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Pig-thieves,” said the soft voice. “The witches were trailing them in addition to looking for the party.”
I returned my attention to the door, and as I did, I smelled a strong-and-growing-stronger scent predominantly compounded of burnt wood and charred greenery, with a slow-moving overlay of varied species of burnt flesh. I glanced to the side, seeing slow-drifting wafts of smoke in the once-more-sepulchral darkness, then stared once more into the pinhole.
Faint fogs drifted soundlessly across the whiteness of a too-bright day, and the growing warmth within our shelter spoke of heat without. I listened then for the ravenous crackle of flames, and heard nothing of the sort, even as the smell of 'fire' grew stronger all about me. I knelt down, then moved to the side of the door while holding onto the flaking 'rust' of the doorknob.
I then twisted the knob.
Softly the well-worn tumblers clicked under my hand, then with a faint groaning appropriate to an ancient mausoleum, the door 'leaped' from its 'socket' – and from without, light poured into the shelter along with wisps of smoke.
“I smell burnt pigs,” muttered Gilbertus.
I ignored his outburst, for my mind was bent upon learning of the outer world; and my mind found itself blinded, deafened, and altogether senseless. My hand, however, knew what it was doing, for the door opened a crack.
Glaring daylight tinged with actinic fury flooded in, and my right eye blinked as it looked to the outside world.
“The trees are...”
My voice trailed off unto silence, for all that remained of the once-leafy woodlot was a still-smoking holocaust of barren flame-cracked poles – they had once been trees – reaching blackly into the sky amid a dense and fluffy carpet of new-fallen ashes. I pulled the door to, then with a further effort, closed it entirely.
“We'll need to move fast,” I muttered. “It might not be on fire out there now, but those ashes...”
“Are nowhere near as warm as you think,” said the soft voice. “Wait another few minutes for them to cool further, and then you can take your time leaving the area.”
“Take our time...”
I ceased speaking, now certain of at least one thing: the immediate countryside would have its share of important clues, and I would need to both find and note them. I swallowed dryly, then closed my eyes briefly to grit away the dust that had somehow lodged within them.
The slow-ticking minutes passed, each second an aching eternity bound up within a burial-mound of dread. The world outside was a dire mystery suffused with horror, and my frantic-racing mind assayed what preparation it could manage prior to the testing we would endure without. I stood silently, now lost in my thoughts.
And then coughed hollowly.
The smoke which had seeped within our 'bunker' was proving itself to be noxious indeed, and I could tell remaining much longer would be most unwise. I turned anew to the door and twisted the knob once more. Once more, that subtle bare-audible clicking of worn tumblers and unlubricated mechanism followed by the door's 'jumping'...
“That door's sprung,” said Lukas. “We'd best leave.”
I needed no further words, for I opened the door and turned away with closed eyes and part-held breath while a thick gray miasma billowed in among a forest of hacking coughs. Mine was but one of a multitude, and I doubled up and began retching as my face came out of the chest-high smoke cloud. I staggered outside on part-flexed knees while the heaves and coughing continued – and then, on bended knee, I blinked and looked around.
The reeds were now wind-blown ash, and the pond a soot-stained dessicated hole in the ground; and through the swirling smoke billowing thickly about me I saw nightmarish ash-crusted ground streaked with black places for hundreds of yards in every direction – while everywhere I looked stood tall blackened tree-trunks, their deep-charred witness speaking of a most-lethal flame and fury. I then began swinging my focus to my left.
The first of the gaping holes showed itself due south, and from its yawning mouth red-yellow fire still spat high into the air among yet-growing black clouds of smoke. I continued left, and saw that one hole that had first showed still flaming; then another hole further east; and finally, where that woodlot to the east had once been.
“It's gone,” I whispered. “It's gone completely.”
The woodlot had vanished without trace, and in its stead, a vast ash-strewn blackened crater still smoldered thickly with gray and black fumes. I felt reminded of a volcano that had 'blown its top', for the wisps of smoke that still came from the deep ruin had a faintly sulfurous tang, and ruddy light came from below the smoke to add to its sense of spent fury. The sense of 'ruin' was beyond the capacity of my mind to grasp, and only when a voice spoke from behind did my 'funk' break.
“No time for it,” muttered Lukas.
My funk did not merely break; it shattered like bad glass and vanished in the time it took me to rise and turn around. There, I saw Lukas already mounted and Gilbertus climbing up onto his horse. Again, I felt a somewhat chilly and damp nudge at the small of my back, and I turned to see Jaak.
Once I was 'up', Jaak broke into a trot that headed between the still-smoking trees. He was heading 'north', and my nearly panicked eyes looked for anything that resembled a trail. I could not find one among the snowdrifts of still-smoldering ashes, at least at first; and while I scanned the ground to our front, I saw still-smoking trees sending gray streamers of smoke into the stark blue of the midmorning sky.
The appalling silence smote heavily upon my mind, so much so that I started when I saw the first well-charred body of a dead pig lying broken and leaking blood across a burnt-out fallen log, and only when I found a 'trail' – a bleached-white track through the ashes, one so faint I wondered how I was seeing it – a second later did I notice the oily 'burnt-pork' reek of the thing.
“Urgh,” I gasped, as I checked my gorge. The reek of 'roast pork' was thick and growing thicker.
Another dead pig showed seconds later as the 'trail' bent around a shattered outcrop of ash-dusted rock, then a third mostly-burnt example but ten yards further. A glance to the right and another to the left showed several more thoroughly charred bodies of swine.
“How many of those smelly things were there?” I spat. There was no answer, at least regarding swine.
“Now that's trouble,” muttered Lukas.
As I turned once more to the left, I 'saw' in my peripheral vision for the first time the end of the woodlot; and beyond the blackened leaf-vacant trunks of the trees, a scorched region that ended some hundred yards beyond it. The line of demarcation separating still-smoking embers and charred ash-dusted soil from green grass lay blackly ahead, and only when we were out of the burnt realm of death and once more into green grass did I think to ask Lukas as to what he had spoken of. My thinking was that he had seen another smoke-billowing fiery hole in the ground.
I had seen several such small and fuming places in addition to the larger ones, two of which also intermittently spat flames into the air.
“That hole?” I asked, between attempts to clear out my nose from the soot and grime we had left.
“The big one was behind us,” said Gilbertus. “Some tales talk of witch-holes the size of large towns.” A brief pause, then, “I used to think those were old tales.”
“What I saw ain't no tale,” muttered Lukas, “and it wasn't just that hole.”
“Uh, something else?” I asked. My mind felt too overwhelmed to think beyond 'we'd best get home, and that quickly'. I was glad Jaak seemed to think likewise.
“That pot,” muttered Lukas. “I never thought I'd see a witch-pot, but if that wasn't a witch-pot, those tales what speak of 'em are entire lies.”