Getting the Fear
I resumed my exploration of the house after the end of my shift once I had 'given my charge' to the two men taking over. Sarah had left about an hour before the end of my shift with the promise to find a suitable bludgeon for rats, while Mathias wobbled off to the refectory in a state of complete exhaustion at the end of our time. Between being new to the job and being around two of the archest 'old hares' – he called Sarah that once, and her glare only cemented his opinion of her – he had yet encountered, I could well comprehend his fatigue.
The remaining fatigue from travel and 'lead' was fading fast, and I betook my trips into the darkness with a will and a fresh wax candle stub in my lantern. I was burning enough 'candle stubs' that I seriously contemplated making a mold for them while riding home in the gathering darkness, and once home – Gilbertus and Lukas were both 'gone for home', while Sarah was still 'out' and Hans and Anna were getting ready for bed – I bathed in the silent flickering of a student's lantern. Hans had the 'Sole' lantern in the basement still, as our supply of wax candles was still perilously low. Anna was out hunting for them as she was able.
My dreams that night were few, and mostly pertained to the morrow; I had no posting that day, with the third post again the day afterward. I was most glad for the consideration as I slid under the single thin linen cover sheet I used due to the growing warmth of 'spring' and blew out the small candle-lantern.
“Now what did that messy curse mean?” I thought, as I awoke to go to the privy at night. “It spoke of fire, and something called a Chauldron that was deep...” An electric thrill burst full-grown and abrupt into my mind, and I hurried my business quickly, then once finished, I lit the candle-lantern in the kitchen, grabbed my current ledger, and began writing.
“The first phrase involves a circle made with a sword,” I wrote, “and there's something about a fire in the middle, while the second line speaks of a particular type of sword.” I then thought for a moment, and gasped, “Toledo?”
“A name to conjure with, should one speak of swords used by witches,” said the soft voice. “The name comes from prior to the war.”
“But that name?” I asked. There was no answer to that question, even if others were acquiring them in a great hurry. 'Well-honed bright blade' was fairly obvious – it dealt with the status of the sword – and as I wrote this down, all of the speech by the Teacher on the nature of swords and the predominate shape of the things suddenly made much more sense.
It also had me spitting in a fit of pique, and I felt inclined to spit oaths as well.
The next line, however, was a mystery, save for the single word 'Disgrace'. I presumed that meant sacrifice – and suddenly, as if a door opened from this world and unto hell, the flat paper of the ledger went gauzy. I watched, raptly attentive, as the vagueness of gauze began to form lines and shadows within a quickly darkening realm, and as the picture took upon itself substance and dimension, I gasped aloud.
“T-that's a c-c-ceremony,” I softly said, upon seeing a slow-moving picture of near-photographic detail. “The severed head is in the middle of the flames, and its fire boils what's in that big stinky pot – no, not merely a big stinky pot, that's a specially made fetish-pot like Lukas was speaking of when we were leaving that place that blew up and turned to ashes.”
“Hence its name,” said the soft voice. “While the ceremony is diluted from long ago, the terms are more or less those used prior to the war.”
“Weed d'doul?” I asked. The picture remained upon the page, and looked disinclined to leave.
“It, along with all of those other plants and herbs, are extinct on the continent,” said the soft voice. “Some mutated forms still exist in parts of Norden.” A brief pause, then, “weed d'doul is currently thought by witches to be Veldter Weed, while spice d'mille is translated 'finely chopped sun-dried datramonium' – and 'Gary Owens'...”
“What?” I gasped.
“'Gary Owens', like much of 'the written format', has multiple possible meanings. In this instance, it's thought to mean a special mixture imported from the Valley.” I could hear a distinct titter, then, “they don't have a clue as to its real use, even if that material smells bad enough to suit them.”
“It's real use?” I asked.
“A burnable insect repellent,” said the soft voice. “It's the most effective fly repellent currently available.”
“Fly repellent?” I gasped.
“Flies have sensitive noses, much like scent-hounds,” said the soft voice, “and while an overdose of 'mule' drives most scent-hounds out of their minds, the scent of certain flowers affects flies even worse.”
“Flowers?” I asked. “Bad smells?”
“The flowers are related to those which produce 'flower sap',” said the soft voice, “and while the pain-relieving qualities of those flowers are lessened, the stench is drastically intensified.” A pause, then, “not even the most jaded manure-fly can endure that stench for long, and the same for firebugs.”
“Sounds useful, then,” I murmured.
“The Veldters also find it repels thieves,” said the soft voice, “which is why it's used in their warehouses and not where they live.” A brief pause, then, “they use other means in their dwellings.”
“And the witches buy that stuff?” I asked.
“Its chief market outside the Valley, in fact,” said the soft voice. “There may be formal titles for 'crazy people' in the Valley, especially if they are of certain Totems, but the common terms, among other epithets, are applied to those witches who pay so handsomely to purchase such commonplace supplies.”
“Ten full fathom wine,” I muttered as I wrote. “Most likely Amontillado. Correct?”
“Not just any vintage of that wine, but one aged specially for a long period and especially cursed during its lengthy preparation,” said the soft voice. “The other strange terms, such as Jongae and 'copas', as well as 'fathom', indicate the quantities used.”
“And that whole mess, if done right, does something really awful,” I muttered.
“If the witch is strong enough, yes,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, the witch or witches involved are escorted forthwith to the plate of Brimstone by the spirits that curse conjures.”
I finished writing down my impressions, then put the ledger away and blew out the lantern's candle and wobbled tiredly up to bed. I awoke with the sun beginning to show, and found Anna in the kitchen slicing bread. I suspected some of it was for 'bag lunches', as a bread-bag lay next to the platter.
“They're back,” she said. “They came last night.”
“When?” I asked.
“August said they pulled in about dinner time,” said Anna, “and three hungrier men he never saw.”
“Whole pies each?” I gasped.
Anna shook her head, then said, “August said they wanted whole pies each if he went by their hunger, but they seemed terrified of eating more than a small snack.” A brief pause, then, “if those men do not have the fear now, then I have a house filled with rats.”
“I would not speak that way, Anna,” said Hans as he came up from the basement. “I have seen rat-sign in the fields here recently, and that means they are freshening themselves up.”
“Uh, I saw something move over behind my workbench,” I said. “It was dark then, and...”
“How big was this something?” asked Hans pointedly. “Was it dark and hairy, with a long tail?”
“I'm not sure,” I said. “I see things in my peripheral vision all the time, and have for many years.”
“I will check behind your bench while you are at work today,” said Hans. “Did this thing move fast?”
“It did,” I said.
“I had best check today, then,” said Hans. “The rats might be starting, even if it seems a bit early for those things.”
I left for the shop with a full bag of tricks, and when I came to the doors – they were closed – I was surprised to hear familiar voices behind them. I tapped at the right door; heavy – and rapid – steps came. The door shot open – and nearly closed again before Georg realized who he was seeing.
“Oh, it's you,” he said nervously as I walked into the shop. “I had no idea so much had arrived...”
“Yes, and we had to clean that stuff up for you all,” said the voice of Hans from the doorway behind me. “Now it is time for you to work, and work hard, as there are lots of people in town who wonder about you.”
“I know,” muttered Georg. “I heard enough in the Public House last night to last me for a year, and were it worse, I am not sure what I would do.”
“You would not do much if it was worse,” said Hans, “as you would be supping with Brimstone. Now it is time for work, and you must not make trouble for him.” Here, Hans indicated me. “I would get those forges going, as there is a lot of work on those slates there.”
With that, Hans left, and I felt alone and afraid, almost as if I was the chief witch of the shop's 'coven'. More, the aspect of 'deference' I received from the two men was enough to make me squirm inside, and when I went to work on the three guns – I was needing to bore the barrels tapered, which meant jacking the rig out of shape with shims and then careful honing – I felt as if I had to tell them what to do and when to do it, and that in minute minute-by-minute detail. I finally put vegetable fiber in my ears so as to settle down, and when it came time for the morning guzzle – I had 'rough-bored' all three barrels, and now needed to 'finish-ream' them before lapping with grits of increasing fineness – I found that not merely had the usual for beer had arrived, but also Anna along with it. She showed next to me as I was taking the white stuff out of my ears.
“I see that they're working,” said Anna.
“Uh, I thought...”
“Georg needs to do his share, and so do those men,” she said sharply, “and Hans came by here once already.”
“Uh, he did right when I came...”
Then he came by twice,” said Anna. “He showed them this drawing out of your things, and that seemed to help.”
“Drawing?” I asked.
“Of that new furnace,” said Anna. “It seems Georg had tried to do it from your first attempts...”
“That was no good,” broke in Georg. “I thought I knew how those things went together, but when we started...”
“I had not worked it out completely,” I said, “and I've still got some work to do on it.”
“I saw that drawing, though,” said Anna, “and that's as complete a drawing as I've ever seen.”
“You have not seen Heinrich drawings, Anna,” said Hans from the doorway, “and I know that one is not finished, as his are like those things.”
I was about to speak, when Anna said, “still, it should give them some ideas.”
“Yes, as to what he will need,” said Hans. “There are a lot of numbers missing on that thing.”
Georg was now looking utterly dumbfounded, and he softly said, “numbers? Why?”
“The dimensions, for one thing,” I said. “Also, the angles for those pieces which must go that way, and then finally some of the shapes.” I paused to sip beer, then said, “there are some of those shapes I really cannot figure out at this time – and that's for the furnace itself.” I did not mention the blower, as I needed the practice of the infusion-still before being able to do much thinking upon how it was to be assembled.
“Why is this?” asked Hans.
“Mostly because I'm not entirely certain how to form the wind-belt so as to minimize the pressure drop to the, uh, blast-vents,” I said. “A lot of it depends on just how soft that new sheet metal is.” I paused, then said, “that other stuff?”
“Wasn't near as good as what just came,” said Georg. “This new stuff is a lot more even, even if it is softer than what we had then.”
“I'll need to play with it some, then,” I said, as I turned back to my beer. I then recalled something.
“Uh, did you need to make a lot of rivets for that thing?”
“Some, but mostly we used those we had done already,” said Georg. “I had a decent-sized sack saved in my desk, and the other two had their own sacks, but we used those up before we'd gone too far and had to make more. Why?”
“That rivet swage was ruined,” said Hans, “and it was ruined deliberately.”
Georg's face went abruptly white, then he shook his head, saying, “it's bad enough about scrapping so much metal, but we didn't... Where did you find it?”
“Out back, in pieces, with a broken hammer next to it and a lot of bad scrap,” said Hans. “I took the pieces of it to Andreas so he could look at it, and he says the rivets were pounded cold with a hammer twice as big as is good.” A brief pause, then, “and I have seen you-all do rivets that way more than once since he started here.”
“That would account for some of what I saw,” I interjected, “but not all of it.” A brief pause, then, “too-cold stock and a too big hammer would beat out the swage-blocks and wear out the bushings, and I have several spares for those because those parts wear in regular use.”
“Then what was done to it?” asked Hans.
“Whoever hit that thing was using something bigger than any hammer I have,” I said, “and they were battering it with the goal of its destruction.”
“Yes, and that is what they did,” said Hans. “Now it is destroyed, and they did that.”
“No, Hans,” I said. “Did you remember how the wooden handles were beaten off, and how the main hinge pin was broken?” A brief pause, then as I walked over to the drop hammer, I said, “you'd need something about this big to break that main hinge pin...”
And as I looked carefully, I saw a deep scratch mark on the lower die. “Come here and look, all of you.”
As the others gathered around, I asked quietly, “the apprentices?”
“They're cleaning up the mess around back,” said Georg. “I have no idea how it got so bad while we were gone, but they're working on it with a will.” A brief pause, then, “what happened there?”
“Someone used the drop-hammer on the rivet-swage,” I said. “They used an old hammer, but the hammer broke before the swage gave up – so they used this thing, and they banged on it until it finally did break.” A brief pause, then, “I've got some improvements in mind for the parts I need to make for a new one just the same.”
“I thought you had enough parts to make one,” said Anna.
“I have enough to nearly make two whole rivet swages,” I said, “but I don't have the iron pieces of handles or some of the linkage pieces. I'll have to make and fit those.”
I resumed working minutes later, and whenever I straightened up to either take the kinks out of my back or drink beer, I noted the others working 'with a will'. While their 'quality' wasn't improved over before – I still had to watch them closely and remind them with some regularity – their quantity was increased more than a little, and when the normal 'quitting time' came, they were still working hard. I asked why during a brief 'afternoon guzzle'.
“The town thinks us witches,” said Gelbhaar, “and because we were not here to get hung out to dry or burnt, they think us needing both of those things.”
“I'm not certain what most people are thinking,” I said. “I am sure several people were dealt with in town, and I saw at least one of them go up in smoke.” A brief pause, “and no, I did not kill that wretch, nor did I set fire to him.”
“Talk has it you do not need to do that,” said Johannes.
“I did not say anything to that wretch,” I spat. “Anna shot him when he tried for her, and the poor woman was shaking like a leaf, and I...” I gulped, then, squeaked, “that witch tried to light her on fire, and I had to protect her.”
“Did this witch have a jug?” asked Gelbhaar.
“No!” I spat. “Those stinky wretches tend to catch fire if they die when I'm anywhere nearby, and I need say nothing whatsoever!” A brief pause, then, “I had enough weird things happen on that trip to scare me into a jug of the bull formula!”
While the others stayed over an hour later than the usual time for them, they still left earlier than I; I remained behind finishing the barrels for the three 'short muskets', then I took the locks home to finish their 'soft-fitting'. I would 'cook' them in the furnace tomorrow morning before heading off to my posting.
When I arrived just before dawn at the shop, I was more than a little surprised to see piled sticks and bagged charcoal next to two forges, and when I went to the oven so as to load it, I found that it too had fuel near to hand. I reloaded it with a small load of fuel, setting it to burn slowly once I'd loaded it. I was just finishing up the oven when Georg himself showed.
“I tried that thing again while you were gone,” he said as he came near where I was standing, “and it tried to bite me.”
“Bite?” I asked.
“Not just flame, nor growling,” said Georg with the trace of an oath. “May I bathe in hard rain and freeze solid if it did not try to bite me, and it was a near thing just the same.” A brief pause, then, “I came back after you left and made certain there was fuel nearest the forges you use most and that oven.”
“Uh, did anyone ask about swords?” I asked.
“No, not to me,” said Georg. “I suspect they either ask Hans or Anna, actually, as talk has it that speaking to you directly about those things is a quick and certain road to hell.”
“And that furnace?” I asked softly, as I removed the oily rags I had wrapped the musket barrels in. I'd need to 'profile grind' them before I left that morning, assuming I had time.
“That we tried for a few days,” said Georg, “but I could tell by the middle of our second day it was no good.”
“Did they, uh, want to keep on?” I asked.
“Some, but I could tell they were wanting to head out by the end of that day, and the third day around lunch, we were done,” said Georg. “I came on the morning of the fourth day, and no one showed, so I knew I needed to do what I knew how to do best, which was get orders while I could.”
“Did you speak of when you expected me home?” I asked.
“Yes, though no one believed me,” said Georg. “Those trips usually take months, and while I did speak of months, I said it was likely your trip would move faster than the common on account of urgent matters.”
“Did you know we left with but eight people?” I asked.
“I had heard the number was a good deal smaller than is usual, but eight is news to me,” said Georg. “I imagine you were traveling like students and not like rich men, then.”
“I am not certain how students travel,” I said, “as I have heard a number of stories from different people – but no, we did not waste time, and I kept close watch on those buggies the whole time.”
“They worked well,” said Georg. “That much I learned upon your return.” A brief pause, “and now, the Swartsburg is no more.”
I was surprised exceedingly when Georg turned away from me and spat violently upon the ground, then turned back while wiping his mouth with a rag. “I'm glad that place is gone.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “I'm curious, as I have my own reasons, chief among them being it was impossible to work in a town that was only awake a few hours a day due to being cursed by witches.”
“Those stinking wretches were costing me money!” spat Georg. “It got so bad that everyone who wanted a sword wanted one marked up like a witch-tool, and I want nothing to do with those, and then the knives!” Georg spat again. I'd never seen him so angered before. “No common knives, nor the ones you like, nor even those little ones you use to carve wood. No! Everyone wants one fit for murder, and if it isn't one of those long triangular things that only a witch would want, they want one like those things fifth kingdom thugs use to fill their private graveyards!”
“Uh, I made one of those once,” I said.
“There might be a few orders for 'butcher's knives' in that stack,” said Georg. “No fifth kingdom thug would wish one of yours – they're too long, too thin, not enough point to the blade, and the fittings and the handle are a lot different.” A brief pause, then, “were they a trifle longer and thinner, and this were harvest-time, you could sell them as corn-knives, in fact.”
“Corn-knives?” I asked.
“For harvesting corn and other vegetables,” said Georg. “Most farmers have at least three knives for each person harvesting, and had you come a few weeks earlier last year, you would have been sharpening those things all day long.”
The other two men came in shortly thereafter, as did the apprentices, and the talk before I left was of the empty house in the middle of town. The door was blocked closed and a sign was posted upon it, which I read as I rode out of town to the south on the way to the king's house.
“Witch-house?” I thought. “There isn't any witch in it now, is there?”
“No, but there are fetishes,” said the soft voice. “They might be weak fetishes, but enough people in town are sufficiently vulnerable to that species of fetish that it's unwise for them to go inside.”
“Meaning I need to clear the place,” I said. “What then?”
For some reason, I did not think to ask about Sarah and I using the place, as I wasn't certain if I wanted to live in that particular house – and more importantly, I suspected there were still-alive relatives that would wish its use.
“There are, and they're being contacted,” said the soft voice. “You will most likely either be getting ready to leave for your trip, if not actually embarked upon it before much happens regarding those people.”
“Uh, that soon?” I asked. I was wondering about our timetable for the next journey. I knew it was more than two weeks, and less than six – and the Abbey would be cleared but days before our leaving.
“That slow,” said the soft voice. “Their precise whereabouts are not currently known, so they're being looked for.”
“What if I speak about where they are?” I asked.
“Andreas already has,” said the soft voice. “Between being so short-handed at the house, and it being planting time, there aren't many people who can be spared to make such a lengthy trip.” A brief pause, then, “thankfully, that telegraph line on the east side is now humming steadily.”
“Meaning someone will start looking shortly, no doubt,” I said.
“Several someones,” said the soft voice, “and they're looking now.” A brief pause, then, “still, asking less-than-knowledgeable people in Public Houses isn't the quickest way to get information about a person's whereabouts.”
I had a different trainee at the post rather than Mathias, for which I was somewhat glad and a bit more exasperated. He seemed disinclined toward 'hero-worship' and much inclined to wander about the premises, which made for a note in my ledger about 'always have at least one person at the bench, save in dire emergency', and when he wasn't looking up and down the hall with the goal of wandering off, he was looking at my ledger.
I had to explain everything therein to him in considerable and at times exasperating detail, as well as provide elementary grammar lessons, and I was glad when the shift ended and I could leave the post to another pair. I was as worn out by this shift as Mathias had been the last time, while Jurgen was still as fresh as a new-hatched quoll.
“And speaking of quolls,” I thought, as I headed home in the shadows of late afternoon, “I'd expect those things to start with their noise soon.”
I had another day off upon the morrow, as my backlog was well-known and understood; and when I checked at the shop on the way home, I noted numbers of 'in-process' pieces laying in neat piles. These were chiefly stove-pipe sheets and rough-forged 'blister-billets', and as I checked the in-process pieces of stovepipe over, I noted a new-seeming level of care in execution. I cleaned up the few mistakes and chalk-marked the good ones as being ready to continue working on.
The next few days went by in a blur between stints on the bench at home, travel, and labor at the shop and house proper: the muskets were approaching completion; numbers of knife-blanks were being forged out; I had marked out the pieces of the 'infusion still' from recollection and some ideas regarding possible improvements; and I'd made some progress on the buggy irons.
I'd also gotten a lot of comments about their unusual size, and I spoke softly of 'a buggy for Sarah'. This made for knowing looks and perhaps strange thoughts, at least until Anna showed and spoke quietly to Georg for some minutes during the morning guzzle.
The looks redoubled, even if their nature was subtly changed.
During one of my explorations, I'd asked about the 'museum' and its location while stopping at the refectory; and at the end of my shift – I would be due for another upon the morrow – Hendrik handed me the key.
The shape of the thing – a long brass barrel, a wrinkled brass ferule, an age-stained round wood handle the shape of a doorknob, intricate warding with pierced holes in those portions for 'lightening' – was enough to make for wondering on my part, and the map drawn by Maria but added to this sense of wonder – for the museum was in an out-of-the-way location on the third floor. I wondered as to the 'why' of using the third floor until I came close to the area.
“Not only does hardly anyone go here,” I thought, as I dodged a wayward column that had suddenly 'jumped in front of me', “but there are very few 'secret passages' nearby.”
“And no witch currently alive knows of them beyond a hazy notion of their existence,” said the soft voice as I brought out the small shuttered lantern and lit it.
“Did the witches know in the past?” I asked.
“Yes, but the passages were so tight and twisting that more than one witch died in them when he became lost,” said the soft voice. “Only one passage in the whole of the house is worse that way.”
“Where is that one?” I asked. I wanted to stay clear of it.
“On the first subterranean floor near the southwest corner of the foundation,” said the soft voice. “Andreas knows about it, but he has never gone there.” I turned left, then the lighting went from 'dim' – a few tallow candles burning with traces of smoke, though at long intervals between them – to dark in less than a minute's careful and slow walking. I opened the 'forward' shutter on my lantern slightly.
“Any witches go down there recently?” I asked. The door to the museum was but a short distance further.
“No, because the local witch-gossip confuses it with another subterranean passage not on the property, and that gossip says the one under the house proper leads straight to the lair of Brimstone.” A brief pause, then, “the fact that no witch who has dared that passage has returned to life and sanity adds much to such talk.”
“Why?” I asked as I turned right and came to 'the narrow passage' drawn and labeled thusly on Maria's map. The door to the museum was at its end. “Is it like a sewer or something?”
“Less smelly and a lot narrower,” said the soft voice, “with many sections ankle to knee-deep in standing water.” Another pause; “then, there are the vermin.”
“Don't tell me – the mother lode of rats.” I could almost hear the varmints themselves crowding the opposite side of the door ahead, and I opened the 'forward' shutter wider. I was not looking forward to wading through another 'rat mine'.
“Not quite that bad, at least for numbers,” said the soft voice. “Sarah might well cope with such 'friendly' rats, and you would endure them readily...” A brief pause, during which time I came to the door itself and listened. I could hear nothing on the other side of a rodent nature. “The black book speaks of 'special rats' used to raise plagues, and every witch worth his fetishes who knows about that passage thinks those rats to be the ones spoken of.” Another brief pause, then, “the fact that the place is poorly ventilated doesn't help much.”
“Do they use torches for lighting?” I asked as I felt for the key. I wanted to try the thing in the lock, for some reason, as speaking to this door might result in a surprise.
“They commonly use pressure lanterns fueled with light distillate,” said the soft voice, “and that type of lantern, especially when turned up, evolves more carbon monoxide per unit of time than any other combustion light source available on the continent.”
“Meaning they smother,” I said, as I found the key. I'd tucked it away carefully in my possible bag.
“After first experiencing hallucinations beyond anything you've endured,” said the soft voice. “Between carbon monoxide poisoning, the effects of datramonium and other drugs witches commonly ingest, general poor health, and then the usual drinking binges before engaging in 'matters of importance', the result tends to be insane witches that either never regain their sanity or – far more commonly – dead witches that are later fished out of one of the passage's underground pools.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Usually by rope,” said the soft voice. “Witch-spelunkers commonly tie long thin ropes to themselves so they can readily return whence they left, and hence their 'tails' are convenient for others to retrieve them should they expire.”
I tried the key, which needed careful insertion into the tight-fitting keyhole, then twisted it with caution. The sense of precision was astonishing, and the soft muted 'click' of the lock another. I pulled the door open cautiously, and then felt along the jamb near the lockplate.
“Another pin,” I thought, as I opened the door slowly, now wary for trip-wires and the like. “Someone rigged this thing really good.”
“Yes, long ago,” said the soft voice. “The jeweler two men prior to Andreas was also marked, and he'd suspected witch-incursions when he found the museum door mysteriously open one day with no sign of tampering. Hence, he put a trap similar in concept to what Lukas recently spoke of next to this door.” A brief pause, then, “now close the door, lock it, and then speak to it.”
I closed the door with some trepidation, then softly whispered 'open' while grasping the knob. Again, the soft click, only with a very subtle difference – one I scarcely heard.
“That pin,” I said. “It bears upon the key, and this time it did not release.”
“And had that roer on the inside been 'loaded',” said the soft voice, “and you been less cautious...”
“I'd have been shot had I just 'walked inside',” I murmured, as I slowly opened the door with my foot while kneeling down to the side of the doorway.
Nothing happened, and I put my lantern unto the threshold.
A thin shadow lay upon the dust of the floor, and when I went to my knees directly in front of the doorway, I saw the dust gathered upon the string. Only by looking carefully and directly at the string itself could I see it, and I stood to walk over it. I then knelt down once more, and saw a second string about eighteen inches further inside the door.
“Those would have been broken anyway had I walked inside,” I asked, “but the pin would have prevented...”
“Walk between the two strings,” said the soft voice, “and then take another longish step, then turn directly around and look to the right of the door.”
I did so, wary for traps beyond those spoken of, and when I turned, I was utterly astonished.
“That's a...” I gasped.
“About as tricky a recent-vintage trap as you are likely to find in a kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “Hans wishes he could do as well.”
“It requires precise workmanship,” I murmured, as I touched the varnished wooden 'stock' of the huge gun and its brass-sleeved pivot point, then the grease-covered steel trigger-piece at the butt with its lever. The mechanism used a trio of levers as a force-multiplier, much like a set-trigger on a weapon, and when the roer itself – a percussion weapon, with a shorter-than common blackened barrel – came roughly level to my shoulder, it would fire, assuming the weapon had indeed been loaded.
“It isn't, though,” I murmured thankfully. The hammer was down on a blank nipple, and the coating of dust was nearly as thick upon the weapon and its 'trigger' mechanism as it was upon the floor.
“That's because you're the first person to actually enter the museum since the last days of that jeweler's presence in the house proper,” said the soft voice. “When Hendrik last spoke of 'the museum', he meant a small 'false bookcase' next to a 'closet' in his office.”
“That isn't nearly as hard to get to, and nearly as secure,” I murmured. “Makes sense to me.” I then looked around.
The emptiness of the room was a marvel, and the long-disused brass candle-lantern fixtures were another. I showed my lantern into the corners, and all I found were numbers of cloth-shrouded display-cases pushed against the far walls.
“This place has nothing in it,” I gasped.
“Nor has it had anything of value since that one jeweler's disappearance,” said the soft voice. “The current arrangement, while a bit cumbersome for all concerned, does have its advantages.”
“Especially when the place all but crawls with witches,” I said. “It isn't doing that now, and...
“It will do that again in the future,” said the soft voice, “and more than you might believe possible.”
“That jeweler?” I asked. I was not surprised at all by the last pronouncement, for some reason.
“Left for parts south and west,” said the soft voice. “It got too hot for him here.”
“Hot?” I asked.
“The Swartsburg's master at that time,” said the soft voice. “He might not have had the money of either of the two Koenraads, but he had more 'curse-power' than both of those men put together and a bit more besides – and more, he was very tricky.” A brief pause, “he was the closest thing the first kingdom has ever had to a witch of Cardosso's power and sagacity, and his reach was substantial.”
“And the king of that time all-but matched him for trickiness, if not evil,” I murmured.
“Hence his jeweler made it safely to his chosen refuge,” said the soft voice, “and until the murder of that king some years later, the witches were quite stymied in this region.”
“Murder?” I asked.
“The witches put all their efforts inside the walls of the Swartsburg for a ten-year after he died,” said the soft voice, “as it was certain death to wear black-cloth or miser's dress in public during that time, and to be suspected of being a witch meant torrents of gunfire followed by a burn-pile on the spot.”
“Like now?” I asked.
“More so yet,” said the soft voice. “That king inspired a level of loyalty well beyond what Hendrik is beginning to achieve – and only the king of the fourth kingdom currently comes close to having – and his murder was long remembered in the region.” A brief pause, “and when the witches were once again able to show themselves in public, the Swartsburg was much like it was when you first visited the place.”
“In public?” I asked.
“At night, and that with due caution in certain well-chosen locations,” said the soft voice. “It wasn't until the years just prior to Hendrik's election that they began to become as they were recently.”
“Election?” I asked.
“Kingship seldom passes down by heredity,” said the soft voice, “and in all cases it must be earned by well-tested and proven ability in a number of key areas.” A brief pause, “that is so even in the second and fifth kingdoms.”
“The second kingdom's 'elections' have been more or less 'rigged' for well over a century, with some being more so than others,” said the soft voice, “and 'elections' in the fifth kingdom have been a matter of 'who you know' and 'how much money you have ready access to' for longer yet.”
“So one must earn the privilege among the electors in those kingdoms,” I said, as I carefully closed and locked the door to the museum.
“That is the rule outside of the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “There isn't any real concentration of power in this kingdom, which explains Hendrik's apparent 'impotence'.”
“His former impotence, you mean,” I murmured. “He's gained a lot of power since that trip.”
“The state of his backside raised it a good deal,” said the soft voice. “While it may be good for a lot of jokes, it has also gained him no small reputation among the first kingdom's people.”
“And those witches who still live within a fifty-mile radius of the house,” I murmured, as I began retracing my steps. “Now when should that, uh, armory be looked at?” I almost said 'witch-hole'.
“Give that batch of new guards a chance to settle in a little more,” said the soft voice. “You'll want those new guard-muskets close to being in their rack, loaded and ready to go, before you assay checking out that mess.”
“Is this because Andreas needs to get ready also?” I asked.
“That, and there are things that need your attention first,” said the soft voice. “Compared to the Abbey, that place is a sideshow.” A brief pause, “even if it is an important sideshow, and even if it needs to be done before you attempt the Abbey.”
“It needs clearing,” I said, “as its existence will give the new crop of witches 'power' when they learn of it.”
“The power of belief, mostly,” said the soft voice, “which is no small matter among most witches.”
I became slightly lost while retracing my steps, or so I thought when I found a strange door with no keyhole in its lockplate. I felt under the knob for a button, and found no such thing there; yet when I began turning the knob, I could feel long-quiescent tumblers moving freely. I opened the door carefully, and saw behind it a surprising large room – it was easily eight feet wide and twenty feet long – a room whose white-painted walls all but shown with newness and whose ground-smooth floor was utterly and completely free of dust. It almost seemed polished, in fact, which made me wonder more than a little.
“Was that a marked door?” I asked, as I quietly closed the door and once more 'found' my way.
“It is, and that room's fitting was done by that jeweler with the king's knowledge,” said the soft voice. “He found it useful when the witches were trying for him.”
“He hid himself in there?” I asked.
“He and his 'bug-out' supplies,” said the soft voice. “It took him nearly a year to hide enough money and supplies to make that trip, and it was a near thing for him just the same.”
“Left between two days, didn't he?” I asked softly.
“In a borrowed donkey-cart behind a team of grain-stuffed donkeys,” said the soft voice, “and he moved only at night until he was well clear of this area.” A brief pause, then, “he traveled almost half that distance during that first long night, and made the 'gate' to the marshes two nights later.”
I suspected that not merely had the man needed to do that very thing, but that he also had needed the use of a 'donkey-cart' much like what I was currently working on. As I headed home – I had left the key with Maria, along with much thanks – I knew that I would be finishing it soon.
“Which is a most-good idea,” said the soft voice, “as Sarah has need of it.”
“Before we visit Maarten and Katje?” I asked. That was to be tomorrow afternoon, with our arrival timed just prior to sundown. Maarten was still concerned about witches, and I did not blame him much.
“It won't be done by tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “If you work on it mostly after the guns finish up, then it should take at most two days from the time the metal parts are delivered up to the carpenters.”
“As in they've got their own work?” I asked.
“Refurbishing furniture, mostly,” said the soft voice. “The floor above the ground floor also has a suite of guard-rooms.”
“Larger, and better suited to actually living in, correct?” I asked.
“Slightly larger,” said the soft voice. “There are other rooms on the third and higher floors that are genuinely suited that way.” A brief pause, “and those rooms are next on the list for renovation.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “That third floor might have a few people on it right now, but most of them are just, uh, clerks.”
“True,” said the soft voice. “While there are more clerks on that floor than you think there are, they all live near their offices during the week.” A brief pause, then, “and for each of those twenty or so clerks, there's at least three similar sets of unused living quarters buried thickly in layers of dust on that floor alone.” Another brief pause, then, “and Hendrik feels inclined to have people in those quarters.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Or rather, who?”
“Mostly replacement guards,” said the soft voice. “He's realized that 'homeless people' have few of the common loyalties, and hence are more likely to be genuinely loyal when and where it counts.”
“Homeless?” I asked. “Uh, Freek?”
“Is now heading back toward the house,” said the soft voice, “along with the other counselors who survived their time of hiding.”
“Survived?” I asked.
“Those who were not marked lasted but a matter of days once Koenraad the second 'took over' and he learned of their 'perfidy'.” A brief pause, then, “you might have an idea as to how the marked ones survived.”
“Hiding,” I said. “Hiding in plain sight...”
“And moving constantly, and that only in the darkness of night, and praying continually, and using every trick and subterfuge that was suggested to them,” said the soft voice. “That pack of scent-hounds that followed you wasn't the only one brought from the south by those witches, and those dog packs earned their keep while they and their masters lived.”
The next posting was the second shift, and here, there were two people accompanying me. One was Mathias, and the other Sepp.
“He's expecting business this morning,” said the latter, “and I'm glad General's Row is so quiet.”
“Not many people in it, is there?” I asked.
“I think Karl counted two witches where there was one,” said Sepp, “and these people aren't much for witches, either.”
“Aren't m-much?” I asked.
“Mostly their clothing and what they drink right now,” said Sepp. “They'll get nasty enough in the future, but right now, they're not much.”
“Quiet, also,” I said. “Are they plotting deep plots?”
Sepp looked at me, then gulped.
“Perhaps I need to go by that one place,” I murmured. “I've been doing exploring as I can, and working on this one map...”
“I heard about that,” said Sepp as Mathias looked over the three full-sized sheets it took up currently. “You'll want to put it in your book.”
“Book?” I asked. “Oh, the Lunatic's Manual.”
“Sounds about right for guard work any more,” said Sepp. His tone was the picture of 'dour'. “I've got my papers, but I'm staying here till this mess is done, and no mistake.”
“You went to the hall, correct?” I asked. “Could you describe that place?”
“Dark, close, stinky, and dirty,” said Sepp. “Talk has it only the Swartsburg was worse.”
“Mules?” I asked.
“I could smell those and swine,” said Sepp. “They have signs over every door, and the square...”
“Almost like a much-smaller version of the Swartsburg,” I murmured. “How many wrecked coaches..?”
“Three that I saw, and there were burnt cobbles that spoke of several more,” said Sepp. “All the windows are busted out, and the inside looks like some pigs were running around in it.” A brief pause, then, “smells like it, too.”
“So you came armed,” I said, “and you... Oh, my,” I gasped. I nearly giggled with the idea. “You kicked that main door in...”
“And tossed a round squib in front of me before I went inside,” said Sepp. “That got the screaming started. So, I cock both barrels on the fowling piece and check my pistol as I go in the door, and when a witch points his finger at me while I'm going down the hall I shoot him in the head with the pistol.” Sepp sounded as if he was enjoying himself, at least at first. “That got the other witch talking in that room, so I cover him and ask him for my papers.”
“He said he was ignorant, didn't he?” I asked.
“I shot him in the knee for lying to me,” said Sepp. “He told me the truth after that.”
“He did?” I asked incredulously.
“When he was not screaming,” said Sepp.
“The knee, eh?” I asked.
“Lukas told me about doing that and some other things like it during the trip,” said Sepp. “I left that wretch, and went down the hall to where they inked things.”
“And tossed another squib on the way,” I murmured.
“No, no squib,” said Sepp. “I'd gotten an old swine-shell from a gunner I know and tossed that.”
“That got your foot in the door, I imagine,” I said in deadpan voice.
“It got three more witches, too,” said Sepp. “I'm glad I cut that fuse long, as it burned fast and I had to toss it in a hurry.” Brief pause, “and if they didn't do their walls up solid, it would most likely have gotten me, too.”
“One of the troublesome things about some bombs,” I said. “Those round squibs lose their deadliness fast, unlike some others I've heard of.” A brief pause, then, “was this a cast iron shell, or one shaped like a canister?”
“He said it was for those people, and not the pigs themselves,” said Sepp. “I told him what I was likely to do with it, so he did it up for me.”
“Including dumping the usual balls and putting a larger number of smaller ones mingled with cut-shot,” I murmured. “Hans recently found a mould for stiff shot, so we...”
“I'll take two pounds of that stuff once you have it,” said Sepp. I then saw his 'short musket', which he had on a leather strap. He pointed to it, then the cap under the half-cocked hammer. “I had to load with mingled shot, because those gaffers won't turn loose more than a spoonful each of the good stuff, and shot's scarce and expensive around here.”
“Mingled shot is better than no shot,” I said. “Now, when you got to where they actually signed the papers, the chief thug was in a foul mood, with traces of black grease still on his face...”
Sepp nodded, then said, “he had a helper in the room with him, but I drilled him in the gut with my pistol.”
I looked at Mathias, and he seemed about green as a new-sprouted corn plant. I sighed, then muttered, “witches. They never listen to calm words.”
“They listen to hot lead, though,” said Sepp, “and I had both barrels on that witch until he signed our papers.”
“And then?” I asked.
“I ran out of that place as fast as I could,” said Sepp, “and it was a near thing for me just the same.”
“Uh, emptied your pistol and the fowling piece on the way out, didn't you?” I asked.
Sepp nodded, then said, “and I had to poke the last witch when he tried for me with a sword.”
“Poke?” I asked.
“Those bulls were harder to stick,” said Sepp. “I got him in the gut, then sliced the side of his neck open so as to drain him of blood.”
“Just like some birds,” I murmured. “I imagine the hall is not pleased to lose a third of their current number so quickly.”
“There were a lot of dead witches lying around in that place,” said Sepp.
“I meant 'of those who remained alive',” I said. “If Gilbertus speaks to the right people in the next week, that place is going to be wrecked good and proper.”
“How is that?” asked Sepp.
“The morning after the Swartsburg went up in smoke,” I murmured, “the hall and two of the city batteries were shooting at each other with shells.” A brief pause, “and while the hall's gunners were good, they sent more than a few shells into the area behind and to each side of those batteries.”
“And those people are mad enough to jump up and down,” said Mathias. “If he does not speak to them, I will tell them myself.”
“Uh, decent-sized mob, just after dark, chains, torches, distillate...”
“And full-loaded guns, swine-shells, and corn-knives,” said Mathias. “I still have both of mine, and they've been decent knives for me.”
“You want one of his, then,” said Sepp. “They might need strapping twice a year, if that.”
Mathias looked at me, then said, “you do knives?”
“And a lot else,” said Sepp. “Best to speak to either Hans or Anna, or Georg if you can run him down.” A brief pause, then, “he doesn't come up this way much.”
“Uh, lost business?” I asked.
“He tends to stay out of the house,” said Sepp. “He doesn't go much south of Roos, nor much north of that Abbey place, least according to what I've heard.”
“Mostly to the west and a bit to the east, then,” I said.
“So I've heard,” said Sepp. “Karl might know more, as he goes home more often than I do.”
“Your large pot?” I asked.
“Is getting done now,” said Sepp with a veiled scowl, “and the same for the other things I put on order before we left.” A brief pause, a long drink at a tinned copper mug, a soft belch, then, “stinking witches stopped almost everything in that town.”
“And it's just woken up,” I said. “How many, uh, witches?”
“Three that I heard,” said Sepp. “That wasn't the trouble, though.”
“First, those cattle showed,” said Sepp, “and they drove out all three witches, as well as two men with strong drink in their houses.” A brief pause, then, “and all five of those people were shot. Then, once the cattle left, it got bad.”
“Bad?” I asked.
“The place was worse for pigs than the inside of the fifth kingdom house!” said Sepp emphatically, “and it sounded like two of the worst of those combines they have down there were fighting for all the gunfire.” A brief pause, more beer, another burp, then “it was two whole days and nights before the pigs were done, and then they were going to burn those things...”
“You do not want to burn swine,” said Mathias, “not unless you are badly corked and have no uncorking medicine.”
“And want to spew from both ends,” said Sepp. “I think someone came to tell them that, as when I came to the potter's place, they were digging this huge trench with the pigs piled next to it.”
“A mass grave,” I said. “He's got a backlog to catch up on, and a cold kiln, also.”
“He hadn't made a run since before we left on the trip,” said Sepp. “His oven is the size of some rooms I've been in here.”
“Meaning he normally runs it about once every few weeks,” I said.
“Not now he does,” said Sepp. “His oven stays warm, he's so busy.”
Hendrik's business involved several 'scholars' – Gabriel was one, Kees another, and both of those 'scribes' – as well as a travel-stained individual who I did not recognize beyond 'he's ridden a lot recently, so he's most likely safe' and 'he's got something of dire importance that Hendrik needs to hear'. This man remained roughly twenty minutes, and not two minutes after he left, Hendrik himself came to the door.
“I was afraid of that,” he said. “While the immediate area is more or less clear of witches born on the continent, the same cannot be said of the area to our north.”
“Imported witches,” I said. “I've wondered about them more than a little.”
“You should wonder less, then,” said Hendrik, “as that man was a messenger, and he came with word of a small landing about twenty miles north of the junction of the West and Main rivers.”
“Some distance south of the North-Tip, then,” I said. “No towns within ten miles of the place on either side, and small towns to boot. Not much for farming, so they do orchards mostly. Lots of woodlots, few open areas of any size.” A brief pause, then, “they didn't land to invade, but to receive information. Correct?”
Hendrik goggled at me, then muttered, “what he guessed at feebly, you spoke precisely – and those boats remained for several days in that shaded cove.”
“Where they met up with a number of small groups who had been watching for their arrival for some time, and that mostly at night,” I said. “There's more, and it's important, but I'm not sure what it is.” I paused, then, “two new guards for each man with experience, as this means desperation measures.” A pause, then, “doesn't it?”
Hendrik nodded, then said, “I take it you knew?”
“Somewhat,” I said. “I'd been told this would happen soon, and it would be a matter of dire necessity.”
“It is that,” said Hendrik. “More, there's talk of seeing sign of those people in woodlots recently.”
“Meaning more sign is present than there was beforehand, and more visible sign,” I said. “They're less active during the winter, but now foraging is easier and they're...” I paused, then said, “longer days. The longer days tell them it's time to get busy.”
“Not like you or other people respond to longer days,” said the soft voice, “but closer to the response of animals or birds.”
“Hence forest work?” I asked. I suspected it wasn't a good idea right now, but did not speak of it.
“There aren't enough guards to do that and train the new men,” said Hendrik. “I'm not sure if the current rate of teaching is enough.”
“More than one person training?” I asked.
Hendrik blinked, then again nodded before saying, “that had not occurred to me as an option until you spoke of it just now.”
With that, he closed the door, and I hitched as my voice rose to a high-pitched screech. “What?”
“Precisely as he said,” said the soft voice. “You gave him more answers – and better answers – in two minutes than he's gotten in the last three days.”
“See, I told you to listen to him,” said Sepp to Mathias. “Now you know why, too.”
I worked in the shop for roughly an hour prior to heading home for a bath, and on my way out of the bathroom I was met by Sarah. She obviously had similar ideas regarding bathing, and when I sat on my 'work' stool looking at the jig I was using to hard-fit the gun-lock parts, she came up with one of the Grim volumes.
“We have the use of the buggy this afternoon,” she said. “If you wish, I can show you how to drive...”
“Best have him watch out for you,” said Hans as he came up from the basement. “Talk has it there are swine showing between here and there.”
“Herds of them, you mean,” I said, “and where there are herds of pigs, there might well be witches also.”
“That too,” said Hans, as he laid the fowling piece on the table. “I have kept that Heinrich mould warm some lately, so there is shot for that thing in that bag there.” Here, Hans pointed at a small and bulging leather pouch that looked suspiciously heavy.
“That is not the only bag of that stuff,” said Sarah. “I ran that mould myself for at least three turns of the glass, and that today.”
“That is why there are three bags of that stuff,” said Hans. “One for Gilbertus, another for Lukas, and the third one is that bag there.”
“And there are people at the house asking for it, also,” said Sarah with a sigh. “So much to do, and so little time for it, and that's just for the clothing I'm needing to finish.”
“Yes, and you should have a buggy for that soon,” said Hans. “I have seen those irons, and they are coming good.”
“I may need to spend this rest-day on those,” I said. “Georg might not be fetching orders right now, but there's enough of them piled up to keep us busy for a long time.”
“And that big oven thing, too,” said Hans. “He is wanting to start that, but he cannot until your drawings are done.”
“Hence I need to take my ledger tonight, and not merely for our notes,” I said.
The buggy had a surprisingly large amount in it when Sarah drove out into the middle of the afternoon, and the two baskets that lay under the cover of the blankets were a matter for me to wonder about as I sat by her. The two horses seemed 'fresh' enough, and the wheels were oddly silent.
“I helped Hans put red-paste to them,” said Sarah. “I borrowed a small amount from Lukas while the two of them were here.”
“I brought some oil just the same,” I said. “That stuff tends to slow down oil consumption markedly when it's used in sleeved wheels.”
“Once it sets, it does,” said Sarah. “You can check the oil-pots when we stop for water.”
The oil reservoirs were but slightly down when I checked them at the first town Sarah stopped at, and once she resumed driving, she said, “we left a bit early as one of those baskets needs to go to someone on the way.”
“Chemicals?” I asked.
“Korn will be by that place the day after tomorrow to pick them up,” said Sarah. “I know some of those things are friction igniters for guns.”
“And thimbles for tipped shells, also,” I said. “I've been doing the copper parts for those as I've been able.”
“As has Korn, and those people who make the parts for the nubs, and certain powder-mills,” said Sarah. “I've heard some of the parts to those shells have been coming up this way by donkeys, and others in hidden places in people's buggies.”
“Fewer witches to cause trouble?” I asked.
“Yes, in this area,” said Sarah. “There are still enough of them in regions to the south to make any land route troublesome for a smaller group traveling southward.”
“Hence travel by water,” I said.
Sarah looked at me in utter shock, then mouthed, “I had no idea it was possible.”
“Not a big boat,” I said. “The Main has enough shallow spots that those people don't go much further south than the Abbey.”
“That is true most of the year,” said the soft voice. “Right now is one of the very few times of the year when they can go some distance past that point.”
“Uh, flood stage?” I asked. “Thaw?”
“The rivers are impassible then,” said Sarah. “I think he means that as the rivers are coming back to their usual levels they're higher than normal but not full of downed trees and other floating debris.”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “This year's 'first' high-water period is a bit longer than usual.”
“Uh, that window of time?” I asked. “How wide is it?”
“About another two weeks this year,” said the soft voice. “Normally, there's about three or four weeks like that in the spring, and about two weeks at a certain point in early winter.”
“That invasion must have had them chopping ice,” said Sarah. “The West river was otherwise thick with it then.”
“Which is the chief reason why that one group with the pig remained behind,” said the soft voice. “There were a number of other groups dropped off on the way up during the 'second' high water period, and the ones encamped more to the north were to remain present so as to keep a path cleared for that invasion fleet when it finally came.”
As the sun dropped lower and we traveled west, I could feel the town where we would need to drop off the one basket. As we passed by the long green-gray shadows of a woodlot, I asked, “are any others expected?”
“Gabriel is supposed to be there,” said Sarah, “and supposedly he left on horseback about the time you left the house.”
“Meaning he's already there, most likely,” I murmured.
“Presuming he recalled his geometry,” said Sarah. “Given he is not limited to roads, and that horse is one of the best the house has, he could easily run close to a straight line, and that at a good speed.”
“No compass?” I asked.
“Ride toward the rising sun from the house,” said Sarah, “and bear a bit right for a few hours, then start asking at the first town you come to.” A pause, during which Sarah brought out a jug, uncorked it with one hand, then filled a cup between her legs and returned the jug to its place prior to drinking. “That is what I would do, failing the use of a compass.” Another brief pause, during which she mostly drained her cup, “I have mine still.”
“You do?” I asked.
“I might have had to leave much behind when I was forced to leave home suddenly two years ago,” said Sarah, “but I made certain I retained that.” Another pause, then, “a compass, especially when one must move at night, is most helpful.”
Sarah looked at me, then reached into her sewing bag. A minute later, she brought forth a small wooden box about two and a half inches square, which she then handed to me.
“Open that, and speak our direction,” she said with a trace of sharpness.
I pinched one half on one side of the barely visible seam, then did so with the other, and with a slight 'jerk', the wooden 'box' opened to show a round brass 'dial' with eight points, a needle that wavered and 'twitched' as if alive, and four inlaid blackened letters. We were heading west-southwest, and I said so. Sarah glanced, then said, “good, you understand those things.” A brief pause, then, “Anna said you have one of your own.”
“I do,” I said, “and it's a bit smaller than this one.”
“Once we stop, I wish to look at it,” said Sarah. “Anna spoke of it being unlike any she's seen.”
“And that one?” I asked.
“It may look to be a common student's compass,” said Sarah, “but it is no longer one of those things.” A brief pause, during which she drained her cup, then, “I had my student's compass 'worked over' by an instrument-maker during my fourth year at school.”
“Because of the journeys that followed?” I asked.
“Those especially,” said Sarah. “Mine has a freer needle which is close-balanced, so it gives a closer direction to true, and then the scale is to within one mark, not four or five as is the usual for student-compasses.”
“But eight markings total?” I asked.
“There are small dots made with a punch on the brass,” said Sarah, “dots of such small size that they need a modest lens to discern them, that and good light.” A pause to look around, then, “with those, I have thirty-two points, or as many as a common ship's compass.”
I waited another minute, then asked, “and if he stayed upon the roads?”
“He would still be on his way, assuming he were alive and uninjured.” A pause, then, “Hendrik told him to stay clear of all roads as much as he could, and that much I know.”
“Today?” I asked.
“He, and all of the other 'ministers' of the house, received notice that the roads in the area were unsafe and needed to be avoided when and where possible,” said Sarah, “and that the day after the Swartsburg went where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I should know, given I was the copyist.”
“You what?” I asked.
“Maria was in a town to the north with those two girls,” said Sarah, “and I was in the house then, so Hendrik spoke to me and I wrote down what he said.” A pause, then, “and Gabriel was the first of them who I found in my rounds of delivery, so I know he saw and read it.”
“Who did you carry it to afterward?”
“I did not do so after I gave it to Gabriel,” said Sarah. “The notice said for the recipient to mark it and then pass it on to another of the listed people, and the last one was to return it to Hendrik with a full roster of markings.” Sarah paused, then, “I suspect Hendrik learned that at the west school.”
“Uh, that's done there?” I asked. That one town would 'begin' on the other side of the woodlot we were bisecting. The road here was but barely wide enough to pass the team, and its rutted and dusty nature spoke of an unusual volume of traffic.
“I was the first in my class to receive such notes when they circulated,” said Sarah, “and I suspect he was when he was there.”
The first houses of the town showed as the sun was but an hour's time above the horizon to our rear, and while I had no idea where the house in question was, Sarah knew it to be on the west end of town. The house looked older than its neighbors, if otherwise well kept-up, and as Sarah drove into the 'yard', I felt and heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels.
“I'll need to check the horses also,” I said, as Sarah dismounted. “Will you need help with the basket?”
Sarah did not answer, and when I turned to look I was astonished to see her pick up the basket as if it had but two loaves of bread for its contents. She walked to the stoop and up the stairs, and there tapped as I stood agog. I then recalled what I needed to do, and began doing it – and when I had finished both horses and checked the oil reservoirs, I noticed Sarah was sitting in the seat waiting.
“H-how did you..?”
“You were most busy with those horses,” said Sarah. “I now know why Anna says to be quiet about you when you are working.” A brief pause, then, “and then, I learned to walk quietly while at school.”
“Yes, dear,” I said with a sigh of contentment as Sarah twitched the reins.
The sun continued dropping, and as it seemed about to 'vanish' in the greenery to our rear, I noted our location. We were about five to seven miles from Maarten and Katje's place, which meant perhaps forty-five minutes further travel at the outside; while Gabriel...
“He stopped and ate,” I said, “and not beer and bread, either.”
“Did he keep to roads?” asked Sarah.
“I'm not certain,” I said. “He was rather loose in his interpretation of 'as much as is possible' – as in he used the roads as much as he could.”
Sarah sighed, then, “I'm not surprised. Now is he alive, or did some witch take his head for amusement?”
“Oh, he's alive, all right,” I said. “When he chose his route, it seems he chose those roads which are most commonly traveled.” I paused, hitched, then said, “he did not learn from that trip that the safety in numbers is often a matter of belief rather than reality.”
“Where did you hear that?” asked Sarah, as I recalled her wish to see my compass. I was digging the thing out, and when I brought out the small brass cylinder, she was silent for a moment. Then, she spoke.
“Where did you get that?”
“I had to toss a bunch of witch-gear,” I said softly, “and that the first day of guard-training.” I paused, then said, “and Gabriel got taken over the worst by that stuff.”
“So it is gone, but he's still affected,” said Sarah. “I wondered about that when I first heard of what happened, but now I wonder much less.” Another pause, then, “did this compass 'arrive' with the other things Anna spoke of?”
“It did,” I said, “and it's been rather helpful. Here, let me open it.”
I did so, and showed it to Sarah. She seemed 'transfixed', then seconds later she looked up with a faint gasping noise.
“That thing is restricted,” she said. “I saw the markings on the inside of the lid.”
“It only has, uh, eight...”
“No, it has more than that,” said Sarah. “I have no idea how those letters and numbers are glowing like that, nor how that needle is so steady, but that's no compass I have ever seen before.”
“G-glowing?” I asked.
“Yes, a very faint yet noticeable blue,” said Sarah. “That color works especially well should you need to read in darkness.”
“We had to do that enough coming back,” I said. A pause, then, “there. Over there, about two miles to our front and three to the south.”
“Who?” asked Sarah.
“Gabriel,” I said. “He... No, he did not get a whole pie, but he did order a 'better-than-average' Public House meal.”
“Hence he will have no teeth for dinner,” said Sarah.
“This was well over an hour ago that he finished,” I said, “and he thinks otherwise about his appetite, as that was the first 'decent' meal he's had today.”
“Still, he is likely to have little tooth for dinner,” said Sarah.
“And if he does?” I asked.
“Then I shall wonder yet more about him and his tendencies around fetishes,” said Sarah. “I doubt him to be a supplicant, and I know he's not a witch.”
“Uh, on the trip?” I murmured. “He was acting more 'taken over' than anyone else, and that both going and returning, and we had to tie him up for a good portion of the return trip so he would not call the witches unto us.”
“That was why I said 'I doubt' regarding his status as a supplicant,” said Sarah, “as such a person would demonstrate far more cunning in such situations.”
“Act like he's asleep and try...”
“That sounds more like he's cursed,” said Sarah. “I've seen people like that before.”
“And more often than not,” I said softly, “the curse works out its fury upon them by the person being named a witch and then being killed by a mob.”
“Yes, quite often,” said Sarah. “It was a near thing for me, as more than once I was named a witch and I had to run for it.”
“By well-hid misers or supplicants, correct?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, then said, “they are the most common raisers of mobs, actually.”
The last town before our destination showed and was left behind after watering, and as we left it, the shadows of late afternoon grew slowly longer. The sun again popped up out of the greenery to our rear for a few minutes before descending again, and to our right and left, the wide meadows began to accumulate faint traces of mists. I marveled at the lack of pigs and witches.
“Gabriel cannot say the same,” said the soft voice. “Part of his slowness was due to encountering a pig-swarm.”
“Did he meet up with witches?” asked Sarah.
“He now wishes he followed Hendrik's missive more closely,” said the soft voice, “as he will need to bathe shortly after he arrives.”
“He smells like a pig, no doubt,” I muttered.
“And his clothing is splattered with pig-slime,” said the soft voice. “He missed the witches trailing the pig-swarm.”
“Where are they?” asked Sarah.
A thundering boom came from the south, followed by two more amid long and moaning whining howls.
“About six hundred yards down-range from a battery of three guns engaged in gunnery practice,” said the soft voice, “and the pig-swarm, along with the witches, is now enduring shellfire.”
A trio of bangs echoed as punctuation, and faint on the wind, I heard a chorus of screams. The guns fired again, this time in a near-perfect volley – and again, the whining howls preceded the blasts of the shells. For some odd reason, however, I only heard two shells detonate, not three. I chalked the lack of a third blast as a dud. Sarah, however, was a bit more forthright.
“Are they cutting their fuses right?” asked Sarah.
“They are,” said the soft voice, “and those shells were bursting right over the witches' heads.”
“Hence the witches are most...”
A massive flash of light came from the south, followed by another such flash, then two more more eruptions of white light.
“Dynamite,” said Sarah. “Those witches must have been in coaches.”
“Those were a good deal further away, and the witches had thought them well-hid,” said the soft voice as the rumble of the multiple conjoined explosions began to pound upon us. “One of the gun-crews spied them, however, and put a hot-loaded round-shot into a coach.”
“Which set off the coach's dynamite, and the other coaches blew up as secondary explosions,” I said. “Dumb witches – no coach ever travels without at least half a box of that stuff and... They don't use farmer's dynamite, do they?”
“Witches commonly purchase dynamite with an eye to its fetish-value,” said the soft voice, “and the stuff that 'leaves the mill bad' is most highly prized.”
“I have seen dynamite like that once or twice,” said Sarah. “It keeps poorly.”
“The witches think their chants control that aspect,” said the soft voice,” and they are ignorant of the action of strong drink upon their explosives.”
“Ooh, dynamite that's just waiting for an excuse to go off,” I said. “A stray bullet would do it.”
“A round-shot is much larger,” said Sarah, “and much warmer as well.”
With the passing minutes, I could smell smoke and fire, and a glance to the south showed a slow-rising column of black smoke. I heard again two more volleys of artillery, each time followed by the explosions of shells; and as the silence descended once more, again, I smelled the pungent aroma of burning. A look to our west and a trifle north showed in the distance what might have been thin trickles of faintly gray smoke.
“We should be there directly, such that you can see what that town is like,” said Sarah. “Even if it is most-burnt, there should be decent pickings for scavengers.”
“You've done that?” I asked.
“Many times,” said Sarah. “The life of an itinerant seamstress is a poor one, even if one has ample custom, and most of the women living that life sew when they can and gather when and what they must.”
“And that town, especially in certain areas, will be rich pickings,” I murmured.
“One wishes to scavenge burnt-out witch-holdings most carefully,” said Sarah, “as any lesser witches that know of such places think themselves to have first choice of what is found, and they commonly back their inclination that way with ready mayhem.”
“Then that town is possibly a ripe field for trapping,” I murmured. I could not merely feel Gabriel, but also the town ahead and its sole still-habitable dwelling. It was close to sundown, our stated time of arrival.