My name is not Finnegan...
That night was a late one, and in the morning, faint creaking noises within my mind seemed to mingle with the scrapings of trowels and other matters involving bricklaying coming faintly from the south. Hans was missing when I tried to find him, and as I went for a second circling of house and property, Anna intercepted me.
“Half the town's men are at the shop raising up that thing,” said Anna.
“Should I be there?” I asked.
“Georg is doing his job for a change,” said Anna. She seemed both 'fierce' and 'glad' at the same time. “He came to say that the place would be shuttered today while the furnace goes up, and tomorrow the same, and then it's the rest-day.” Anna paused, then said, “and then, you have postings at the house of added time.”
“D-double shifts?” I asked.
Anna seemed to blithely dismiss my strange speech for a second, then she screeched “what do you mean by a shift?”
“Two postings, one after another?” I asked.
“No, just the one,” said Anna. “The third today, and then the third tomorrow, and while you're gone today I'll be fetching a few more empty wine bottles.” A pause, then, “it seems those Sarah found were things Hans had been saving for years to remind him about what was important to do and not to do while in the fourth kingdom market.”
Anna shook her head, then, “I doubt anyone who has consumed Groessfuetchen can ever forget it. I know I won't.”
“You tried that stuff?” My voice was an utterly incredulous squeak.
“Yes, during my first trip to the market the summer after we were married,” said Anna. “I thought it was unfermented wine, and it was cheap enough, and everyone in that place was consuming it, and when I drank my first mug and Hans did also, we...” Anna shook her head, then said, “all that I recall clearly of that entire day was how sick I was after we left that place. I remember but little otherwise.”
“Spewing at both ends?” I murmured.
“Hans and I both lived in that privy turn-about from the time we came to where we were staying until noon of the next day, and we arrived where we stayed with fouled clothing,” said Anna. “I am not certain calling it 'evil in a jug' does justice to that stuff.”
I was alone during my shift that day, and when I was not 'listening' to General's Row and its slow-brewing danger, I was watching those coming up and down the hallway in front of Hendrik's door or writing in my journal. As I sat, however, I could both feel the progress of the 'new' guard-trainees – they were out in the field, with the Teacher attempting to teach them 'his' version of woodcraft – but also, the state of the surrounding area, including that of the town. If anything, my 'reach' seemed to be growing, as I could almost feel the unoccupied houses in town, once they had been gone through by scavengers, being stealthily reclaimed by the still-living witches.
“They're dressing up like, uh, 'bums',” I thought.
“Given the renewed mood of the first kingdom's central area toward 'witches' showing, that is the only safe course of action if they cannot move out of the region 'between two days'.”
“They'd need to move at night if they did,” I thought, “and do so very quietly...”
“Which few of them can do in commonplace clothing,” said the soft voice. “The stock of readily accessible 'hunting boots' is severely depleted.”
“Fuel for burn-piles, no doubt,” I thought.
“Or abandoned and then confiscated by scavengers, or lost in the process of attempting to escape with their lives,” said the the soft voice. “Most scavengers have no idea as to what they have when they find such boots, hence they're worth more to junk dealers cut up into pieces.”
“Patches?” I asked. I was thinking of repairing leather articles or wear-prone points of clothing.
“And hinges for boxes and privy-doors also,” said the soft voice.
On the way home, however, I recalled that particular conversation, and in the back of my mind, I seemed to recall an unusual emphasis upon one word.
“Witches?” I asked. “As in 'those suspected of engaging in', or desiring, or...”
“The net is spread a bit wider than that,” said the soft voice, “and more than one preacher has spoken of those things that set apart witches and those desiring that life from those wishing no part of witchdom or its trappings.”
“Undue covetousness, consistent exhibition of bad attitudes...”
“A common text is 'if a man is not blameless, and that entire throughout the whole of his being and life, then he must be put to the test, and tested until he shows his true colors plainly,” said the soft voice.
“Sounds like suspicion and the crime are being treated as being no different from one another,” I said.
“To a significant degree, yes,” said the soft voice. “Still, it is not like that time spoken of in the tales, where one had to daily prove the absence of evil by doing good without cease or stint in all areas of one's life – and that publicly, for all to see and judge.”
“That sermon-text seems to be speaking of that latter state of being,” I murmured silently.
“It does,” said the soft voice, “but the hall has not lost the entirety of its reach.”
“Sounds like that place will continue to cause trouble until it is gone, then,” I muttered.
My muttering, while seeming unduly pessimistic to me, had the profound ring of complete truth; and as I struck the main road about four miles south of home, I thought, “I wonder if Frankie is up yet?”
“He is, and the masons have been at work around those 'erecting him' arranging their supplies,” said the soft voice. “They will be using their trowels tomorrow at some length, which is why everyone at the shop is scheduled for time off – that, and Georg needs to head down to this one foundry some distance to the south and east.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“The name-plate is ready,” said the soft voice, “and so are the patterns that remain for what you need to do.”
I almost slapped myself in the head, then thought, “not just an engine, but a larger boiler, the cast parts for the blower, and all the other small castings that are needed.”
“And then fitting them,” said the soft voice. “The time after dealing with that one town and the hall will be unusually quiet in this area, more so than when you first came.”
“Until Frankie runs, that is,” I thought with a mental smirk, while recalling the sounds of Knaadelmann's 'blowing barrel' when they were pouring.
While I had no castings yet for the new engine, boiler, or blower, I did have parts for all of those things needing forging; and I spent the time from my arrival at home until an hour after sundown working on those parts alternating with work on the sword-blanks. As I worked, however, I was becoming aware of the need for giving the swords my undivided attention while working upon them; and more, I needed to finish not just that particular batch, but possibly another similar-sized batch before we attempted the Abbey.
“And before all of that, we need to deal with that one stinky town and the hall,” I thought. “Those places going where they belong will...”
“Will finally put true fear in the witches of the central part of the first kingdom, and a measure of fear in many witches a hard day's ride further away,” said the soft voice. “They will learn that nowhere are they truly safe within your large and ever-growing 'territory', and nowhere – save resting in the bowels of their master – are they truly out of your reach.” A brief pause, “or so they will believe while you are present here.”
“Uh, the trip?” I asked.
“Your absence from the area will embolden them somewhat,” said the soft voice, “especially as the days pass one by one.” A brief pause, then, “that level of fear is not easily forgotten by 'lesser' witches, especially when those over them are not handy to constantly remind and goad them on.”
The next day, the harbinger of trowels I had heard prior was now not merely a harbinger, but an utter and firm reality; and I was glad for fresh ear-corks, as was Anna. All of that day, I worked at home upon steel parts for the new engine or tools to make those parts; and after an early dinner, Sarah, I, and Hans began to ring the eight jugs with dynamite, Sarah and I holding the stuff in place while Hans first wrapped the jugs with the brown-black distillate-reeking 'tarred string' and then knotted the string in a long and troubling series of knots.
More than once, I received a dose of tar upon my skin, and I learned a new word in the vocabulary of torment; for the sensation of tar was not that of torment-grease.
It was worse, and soundless screams poured from my mouth and tears came from my eyes as I held the sticks in place while Hans, mindless of what was going on with myself and Sarah, took his time...
His fully owned time, time for him and him alone; time he alone possessed, and that to the full.
And tied first one knot, then another, and finally a third among the yards of blackened 'torture-grind-punishment-death-hangman's-cord' he handled with such consummate ease. His hands were now blackened with handling the stuff, and as soon as he finished the jug, I began wiping my hands and arms with boiled distillate and rags.
As did Sarah, and her grimaces as she dirtied first one rag, then a second, and finally a third were enough to make me a believer as to its effects upon her.
Hans, however, was oblivious, or so I thought until he finally tied the last knot upon the last jug. He then sought the jug and rags to clean his tar-clotted hands – and while ample distillate remained in the jug, Sarah and I had used up a small mound of rags between us. Hans began using the cleanest cast-off examples to wipe his hands, and as he finished, Sarah said, “how can you stand that stuff?”
Hans said nothing, only yawned – and as he went up the stairs, I wondered more. I thought to follow him, but Sarah held me back; and not a second later, I heard Anna screech as if she'd encountered an overly friendly rat the size of a Shoet.
“I thought that would happen,” said Sarah.
“What?” I asked, as I recalled just how 'good' of a job Hans had done with our used rags. “He, uh, played with her hair and got some of that stinky stuff in it – right?”
“I'm not certain if it is her hair he touched,” said Sarah, “but I am certain that Anna does not much care for anything remotely resembling tar upon herself or her clothing.”
“Uh, is it torment to her?” I asked.
“I'll be a year washing my hair, Hans,” screeched Anna. She sounded as if she had become an amalgamation of all three Furies of mythological Greece. “That stuff will never come off!”
Sarah looked at me, shrugged ever-so-slightly, then said, “I guess he did touch her hair.”
“Not itching, correct?” I asked. “It's not like it it feels awful, but that it looks bad.”
Sarah nodded the slightest of nods, then carefully picked up one of the bombs by its handle with a clean rag she had somehow found. “These are best kept in the cold-room, now that they've dynamite upon them.”
“And I need to make up a batch of gelatin,” I thought. “Stuff needs to, uh, set a day... Can we load it in a dispenser the day before we use it?”
The sense I received was not merely was that wise, but that allowing the material to 'chill' while resting in such a dispenser would only help matters. Accordingly, while I began to find those things I would need for a full-sized batch of 'yellow meringue', Sarah went in search of Hans' 'decorators' – and by the time I'd gotten entirely ready – a full dose of bitter-tasting fever-bark powder; an old copper bowl, well-cleaned with aquavit; an old brass spoon that could stand re-tinning; that one wooden spatula reserved for the making of 'headache inducer'; and as much prayer as I could manage – Sarah had not merely found the devices in question, but had also located a suitable 'rubber' plug for the nozzle of one of them.
“These assemble thusly,” she said, as she indicated the metal clip and its screw-clamp, “and they fill from the open end.” Here, she pointed at the end not encumbered with a sewn-on screw fitting. “I'd best plug the closed one first, then once you fill it up with a likely dose, squeeze the leather tube such that all of the air is expelled and then reinsert the plug.”
“Have you used one of these..?” I asked.
“Many times,” said Sarah, “and not merely with Anna.” A pause, then, “I used one at school.”
“Uh, cookies?” I asked.
“No, for foundry work,” said Sarah. “They had a small foundry at school where we poured gray-metal and this strange stuff that looked a lot like tin.”
“Was this, uh, 'tin' really light?” I was thinking of aluminum.
“No, it was nearly as heavy as silver,” said Sarah. “It melts at a slightly higher temperature than gray-metal, and if your mold is not perfect, and that in all respects, that stuff will show where you did wrong.”
“Gating, shrinkage...” I murmured.
“All of those things, and if your pattern is wrong, also,” said Sarah. “It's chief advantage is its burns are much less severe than those of brass, and it does not fume like brass. Otherwise, it makes brass look to be easily cast.” Another pause, then, “and brass is not easy.” Sarah was assembling the decorator as she spoke.
“And gray-metal?” I asked.
“Has much dross, and is tricky to pour without including dross in what is poured,” said Sarah, “but if you can get a clean pour, your casting will nearly always come good if your mold is even close to decent – and your patterns need not be particularly good, either, which is why it was usually one's first castings.”
“Uh, easier than lead?” I asked.
“That depends upon the lead,” said Sarah. “Musket's lead is slightly easier than gray-metal, while shot-lead is about the same.”
“And printer's lead?” I asked.
“It is closer to that silvery metal,” said Sarah. “I have no idea where print-moulds are made, as those making them are as secretive as anyone I've ever heard of who lives today.” A pause, then, “they do not do that work in instrument-making shops. That much I know.”
“No such shops in the fourth kingdom, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Most print-molds are very old.”
“Does anyone make them at this time?” I asked.
“Wait a few months,” said the soft voice. “You'll start seeing orders for such molds then.”
“Very old?” I asked. I was about to start making 'lemon meringue', and not relishing the thought in the slightest. Such conversations were a 'useful' delay.
“Almost all of the currently-used print-molds, at least those for the common language,” said the soft voice, “date from many years prior to the start of the war.”
“I thought so,” said Sarah. “Those I have seen look to be older than time.” A brief pause, then, “how is it that they are still good, though?”
“They don't get much use, dear,” said the soft voice. “That place that you went to that casts type is one of but three such places on the whole of the continent.”
“Three?” screeched Sarah. “They said they were the only ones!”
“They are the only ones known by non-witches,” said the soft voice. “The other two type-foundries are not only far smaller, but are owned and operated by witches – and they produce type exclusively for witches.”
“And one of those places cuts type-moulds,” I muttered.
“Yes, execrable ones that are worthless for their intended function,” said the soft voice. “Witches prefer to use type made before the war, as it is better for printing and much stronger as a fetish.” A brief pause, “and that's for the commonplace witch-type. The 'good stuff' tends to need a very strong witch to make it properly 'manifest' its ink upon paper – and witches of that strength willing to do printing do not currently live.”
“They were said to be common prior to the war,” said Sarah. “Now it is time for our headaches to begin, and I hope I can help you.”
“You took a dose of fever-powder?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, then handed me the corked jug of 'nitro'.
I uncorked it, and as I watched, in slow motion the fumes erupted as if the jug were a constipated volcano but newly freed of its blockage. I then smelled the distinct 'chemical' – and slightly sweetish, I now discerned – odor of the explosive within the jug, and with this smell, the headache bloomed full-grown within my head as my vision slowly went black from sheer pain alone.
And yet still, I saw, though all was tinted in tones of screaming chromium-based yellow; and as the molasses-thick yellow clear 'syrup' slowly crawled worm-like from its lair unto the bowl, the headache grew in intensity; and yet it grew – and grew yet more.
My 'vision', if vision it was – there was pain-started salt water trickling down my cheeks in slow steady-running streams to stain my clothing with salt, and the yellow of the scene before me was now growing tints of blue, green, red, and brown here and there – showed a slow-growing pool of death laying before me in the slimy-seeming dinged and battered copper 'sea'. That was the term used to describe an edifice in the temple of Solomon, and it too – of cuprous alloy – spoke of sacrifice born as the fruit of judgment. My payment was that of sharp and still-growing pain, and as I set the jug of nitro down with slow and aching movements, I knew that I did not wish to either cork the jug right away or immediately add the nitrocellulose.
Cold nitro, while less sensitive to shock, was both as thick as molasseses and as cunning as a snake; and to deny it its due before it had reaped its fill of suffering was to court disaster. Therefore, I would need to cork the jug in a few minutes once the stuff had entirely slipped down back into the waiting pool at the bottom of the jug, and only after corking and removing the jug could I add the other and then mix the two.
A minute passed, then two; I corked the jug, then stood slow and shaky with the jug cradled in my arms as if it were Sarah in the grip of illness. I moved, cautious, slow, foot by foot between light and shadow in a room composed of swirling lines that tried to straighten themselves out and dark hollows filled with bogeymen, witches, and horned dragoons, and when I came to the 'lair of boom'...
Only for some reason, instead of 'boom', I was thinking the names of two people I had once known long ago, and this time – for a change – each mind-picture face was clearly and explicitly connected with a name. I found the latch by feel, opened the door by speech, and walked slowly inside the chill cavern to there deposit my weary burden in its former resting place.
As I closed the door, the names came once more to me again, and I knew for some reason that I dare not give tongue to them. I sat myself down, my eyes now closed and leaking fiercely, and I wondered for a moment if I would remain blind and in pain.
“Not once you load that applicator and leave the room to air out,” said the soft voice.
“And those names?” I asked audibly.
“Are not merely the names of people you knew where you came from,” said the soft voice. “Ask Sarah about them once you can see and she can hear.”
“She's upstairs, isn't she?” I asked.
“She stayed as long as she could,” said the soft voice, “but there is grit, and there is grit – and yours, while not lacking to any great degree before you came here, was 'enhanced' during the trip – and it has but grown since to no small degree.”
My mouth had grown glued lips, for now, the pain in my bursting skull was such that I could neither speak nor see conventionally. The nitro, in warming, gave off more fumes of still greater potency; and as I added each small scoop of damp nitrocellulose, the fume-clouds grew in number – and the fumes themselves acquired a deeper yellow-tinted density and shadow. Finally, it was the turn of the spatula and small doses of urea and salaterus; and with each slow rowing motion of the carved cherry wood – I could feel its grain, and thereby knew not merely the type of tree, but knew much of the nature of the very tree itself – the mixture became less clear, more opaque – and more and more like lemon meringue. For some reason – an obvious one, to me at least – I made a peculiar association.
“Pie filling,” I thought. “Very bad pie – causes blindness at ten paces, severe migraines at thirty, smells weird, detonates violently if baked in an oven, tastes horrible...”
“All of those and then some,” I heard. “Be glad you'll only have to do this part one more time without adequate protection.”
“There is protection?” I asked. The 'meringue' needed a bit more mixing before loading into the tinned-copper and leather pie-crust-substitute.
“Yes, but not here at this time,” said the soft voice – with 'here' being unknowable beyond the obvious I was enduring. “Be glad plugging that thing up will permit handling it without headaches – at least, no headaches until you actually dose the jugs.”
“And those, uh, rigging devices?”
“There won't be time for them when you deal with the hall,” said the soft voice, “and there won't be a need when you do that town.”
“No need?” I asked.
“Were they to remain for much longer than the time that fuse will take to burn, I would rig them,” said the soft voice. “Given that no witch can 'cut' that fuse when snaked through copper tubing without breaking the jug and causing detonation, anti-tampering mechanisms aren't needed for matters of minutes – and the tubing will hide both the flame and much of the smoke.”
“So they won't see it in the darkness,” I thought.
“Those witches that are still awake will be seeing about as well as you are seeing now,” said the soft voice.
It was now time to 'load' the decorator, and as I checked the thing over by both feeling and 'sight' so as to not miss anything, I was mildly amazed at the precision of the device. I found the open end, made certain the closed end was indeed plugged with its 'cork', and then used the old brass spoon to begin 'loading' the 'meringue'.
Each spoonful seemed to take an eternity to slowly ebb and flow its way down into the thing, and when I scooped out the last of the 'meringue', I noted stickiness seeming to cling to bowl, spoon and spatula. I was very glad I had not gotten the stuff on me.
As I clamped the open end of the decorator closed, I wondered silently how I could 'clean' the spatula and bowl without wasting the explosive. I thought to use a mixture of cellulose and niter, only this time using enough of both materials to have a nearly dry mixture. I was glad the two chemicals were nearby still, and as I mixed them in the bowl using all the utensils I had dirtied with gelatin, one after the the other, I wondered just what I was making.
“Add a bit of that stinky liquid Sarah distilled once you get the mixture 'mingled', then stir it in,” said the soft voice. “That stuff cleans gelatin off of wood and metallic surfaces.”
“What else does it do?” I asked.
“It drives the explosive mixture into the cellulose, and coupled with well-mixed 'purified niter', you have something similar to one of the Valley's stronger smokeless propellants.” A brief pause, then, “fitted with a cap, it makes a 'splendid' species of squib filling.”
“Cap?” I asked.
“It's nearly as strong as farmer's dynamite,” said the soft voice. “You'll have enough 'meal' to fill several squibs.”
“And it takes less time than my grinding up dust-powder, also,” I thought as I continued to 'clean up'. “Perhaps a little more, uh, urea?”
“They'll keep better then,” said the soft voice.
With the use of the stinky liquid, the powder-headache lifted with such abruptness that I nearly fainted, and that from its absence, if not the stink; and the fumes of the evil stuff seemed to not merely 'dissolve' the cellulose and gelatin mixture, but turn it into something resembling a grainy species of glue. I quickly added the niter, stirred like mad with the spoon amid drifting wafts of fumes, and then added more niter as needed to soak up all of the 'glue' and entirely 'clean' the utensils. Finally, I spread the 'bomb-filling' out on a trio of large tinned copper plates to dry.
“If only that niter was powdered,” I murmured, as I began cleaning up my mess.
“It loads into those globes more readily in its current state,” said the soft voice, “and then it compacts easily as well. Just tap the globes gently with your finger as you fill them.”
“Perhaps a bit of distillate?” I asked.
“If you do that,” said the soft voice, “you'll wish to add but a pipette-full of boiled distillate just before cap-insertion, and then wax the ink-globe well so as to seal it.”
“What will it do?” I asked.
“Somewhat more blast,” said the soft voice, “a lot more smoke and soot, and a much bigger fire.” A pause, then, “those will work especially well for dealing with entrenched witches.”
“Like in, uh, bunkers?” I asked.
There was no answer, but for some reason, I knew 'bunker-blasting bombs' were going to be helpful in the near future. General's Row, while not a bunker, did have an ongoing need for smoke and soot.
“I would not be too certain as to its non-bunker status,” said the soft voice. “Some of those witches have erected sheet-iron shields – and ink-globe splinters don't do much then.”
“The blast and fire...”
“Those will negate the witches' iron shields nicely,” said the soft voice, “and the shards of ceramic will fly off of those shields and cut other witches.”
“And cause infections,” I thought, as I began loading ink-globes. For some reason, the stink was not making me see colors, and I wondered why.
“It has been 'sequestered' by the gelatin-cellulose mixture,” said the soft voice, “and its use drastically reduced the fume-making and headache-inducing aspect of the stuff.”
With still-weeping eyes I vented the 'decorator' of air and then replugged it, and as I walked to the cold-room, there to let the stuff 'age' for its day and a night, I noted not merely an odd-looking wooden box, but also what looked like a box of caps. Coming back to my finds, I found that not merely had I located some rag-wrapped ink-globes of a slightly larger size compared to what I had just filled, but the other box was older than time and filled with fine and somewhat 'wormy' sawdust. I needed two trips to carry them, and when I brought both back to the table, I could clearly 'feel' the presence of a few caps in the bottom of the sawdust-filled box.
“All I need is fuse, then,” I thought, as I moved toward the stairs.
The upstairs realms showed me an empty house, or so it seemed until I checked my room. There, huddled under the blanket was a slow-moving lump, and a gentle touch said this lump was most likely Sarah. I then went down the hall toward the other bedroom to find a closed door. Listening at it discerned at least one faint 'sawmill'.
“Now I wonder who snores?” I thought as I turned away from the door and headed back toward the stairs. “At least my head no longer hurts all that much.” I then had a question.
“Sarah can hear?” It seemed most unlikely, given her current state.
“Hans went to the Public House,” said the soft voice. “He's had more experience with powder headaches than you might think. Then, both Anna and Sarah took doses of both tinctures – and while Sarah can hear now, she won't wake up for at least another hour.”
“The Public House?” I asked.
“With the witch-supplicants, witches, and those wishing no part of the war against witchdom gone,” said the soft voice, the remaining people are not merely more 'awake', but also further inclined toward industry – which means not merely longer hours, but also more business for the publican. He's glad, too.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“His patrons are somewhat less fussy about the taste of their meals, and more inclined toward beer,” said the soft voice. “He's wanting one of your grist-mills, in fact. His existing grain-handling equipment is having trouble keeping up with the increased demand, and his grist is the worse for pushing his existing grinder to its limits.”
“Mine?” I gasped, as I got the coil of 'good' fuse from its bagged refuge.
“He knows about yours, both by talk and reputation,” said the soft voice, “and he knows about the severe and growing difficulty of getting anything as capable up here from the fourth kingdom.”
“Hears all the gossip, doesn't he?” I thought.
“Not all talk in Public Houses is gossip,” said the soft voice, “which is something most of those inclined toward news are well aware of; and in a location without radio, television, newspapers, or even town criers, marginal literacy, and scarce printed matter of any kind – this is not the fourth kingdom, or even the fifth – how else are you going to learn anything of 'news' other than your own thoughts?”
“Is it true the first kingdom is the worst that way?” I asked. I meant as to those able to read and write.
“It is,” said the soft voice. “More, taken as a whole, it warrants the label the witches have applied to it of 'the backward north' – and that chiefly because of the commonplace attitudes of the majority of those living here.”
And as proof, I could count the empty houses in town. We had sheltered more than a tenth of our number in terms of witches, supplicants, and witch-sympathizers, though I was not entirely certain about the last category. I suspected it was by far the largest.
“That category does not exist,” said the soft voice. “Indifference to witches and an unwillingness to give one's all in accomplishing their true and lasting destruction is but a short step away from making one's bones – and while 'loving money' tends to be gratified here, an indifference toward witches is worse that way.” A brief pause, then, “there is no 'gray area' regarding one's attitude toward witches – and by extension, evil in general.” A brief pause. “None.”
I was now arrived at my four ink-globes: and each of them, in turn, received a dose of boiled distillate with a pipette, a short-fused cap – I was wanting crimping tools now, and resolved to make them at the first opportunity – and then rubbing the globe with candle-softened wax. This last I built up to a tacky thickness over the whole of each bomb, including twice-dipping the cut end of the fuse; and once I had done so, I went upstairs to my workbench with a quartet of replacement 'bombs' for my possible bag. All that remained, I now knew, was waiting; and I sat upon the couch to 'rest'. I was tired.
“And reconnoitering the enemy's positions,” said the soft voice. “I would check both places tonight, and that after a nap.”
“This late?” I asked. My question was but faintly spoken.
“It is only late if you think this to be the second kingdom's back places,” said Hans as he came in the front door suddenly. “Now are you done with that bad vlai down there, or are you just up here setting on the couch and getting rid of your headache?”
“I'm done with the headache,” I said softly with a trace of weariness, “and I need to check that one town and the, uh, hall.”
“Then I think it would be best for you to be getting a nap before you go,” said Hans, “as that is a long trip, even for you and that horse you ride.”
And as if 'turned off' by Hans' speech, I collapsed to a reclining position from where I sat upon the couch, there to awaken with the softness of the room-blanket draped over me and my 'traveling things' at my feet. The house lay awash in true stillness, for some reason, and as I slowly stood to then walk stiffly toward the privy, I yawned long and silently.
“The privy first, and then beer,” I thought. “I'll want plenty of beer, and then my water-bottle filled...”
“I'd get all three of those containers filled and put them in your pack,” said the soft voice, “and I'd pack a bread-bag and a cheese-tin, as well as some of that dried meat. Hans was not exaggerating in the slightest when he said you had a long ride ahead of you, and you'll need to eat while riding.”
Jaak seemed uncommonly frisky as we headed out half an hour later riding south on the road through town. I'd not been through this region, save by infrequent road-travel, and within a minute of leaving the road but a few hundred yards south of Roos, I knew our course to be roughly south-southwest. There were high clouds, these but somewhat veiling a brilliant 'moon', though within five minutes of first noting the sky overhead, I noted a thickening of this veil; and by the time I'd come to our first watering stop in an unfamiliar-seeming town, that veil had shut out much of the moon's light and I was having to provide visual cues to Jaak on a fairly steady basis.
“Good,” I thought – until, for some reason, I seemed to 'smell' my first destination. I then wanted to spew up the beer and morsel of bread I had just eaten.
“Yech,” I thought. “I could almost navigate by the stink alone.”
The stink – I had not noticed it the first time I had gone through the place, which seemed ages ago – was sufficiently potent that I wondered if I was smelling it in truth. There was but little breeze in the area, and when I cut a road between two woodlots while crossing a meadow some time later, I suddenly knew exactly where the place was. Before it was a matter of 'it's in this direction, and it's not that far away'.
“And there aren't any fields plowed this year as camouflage,” I thought. “Half the place is dead, and the other half...”
“Fifth,” said the soft voice. “You left out the most recent casualties.”
“Fifth?” I asked.
“Some of that town's populace died opposing your return from that trip south,” said the soft voice, “and the resulting recriminations and squabbles among the witches resulted in further deaths. That was a fourth of the initial populace. Then, well over half the remainder died the night the Swartsburg was destroyed, and while the remainder was bolstered to near full-strength once more by Swartsburg casualties, many of those people died of their injuries within a week's time. That left the town at a third of its former strength – and of those people, more died than just those who came to where you live.”
“Uh, what Gilbertus spoke of?” I thought.
“Is most common in witchdom, and happened at length before and after each of those events,” said the soft voice. “The current population is mostly survivors of the Swartsburg's last night, mostly wounded – some of those wounds being freshly inflicted – and entirely drunk.”
“And not the usual for drunk, either,” I thought. “They're mostly past the trashed state.”
There was no answer save the now-intense reek of strong drink, and as I turned onto the road, I wondered if I needed to muffle Jaak's feet before arriving. I'd brought rags just in case.
“His, no,” said the soft voice. “I would do so as a precaution with the other horses, especially when you try for the hall.”
The town in question was about three quarters of a mile further down the somewhat winding road, and the nature of the woodlots, at least as I recalled them, precluded cross-country riding in the general region.
“Meaning I'll need to stick to the road until we pass where we got the plants,” I thought.
There was no answer save that of recollection, and as the stink worsened, I thought, “this place must have its own distillery, and that with multiple stills.”
“Distilleries,” said the soft voice. “Back when the population was at 'normal' levels, the chief 'occupation' of this town was the production, aging, jugging, and then shipping of strong drink.”
“The cellars are still quite full,” said the soft voice. “Proper forty-chain brandy takes some years in the cask to become 'suitable for consumption'.”
“C-cellars?” I thought, as I passed by an abandoned-looking field. It had been plowed the year before, perhaps, but was rapidly becoming overgrown with weeds and the shoots of new-started trees.
“The witches were a good deal more aggressive in this town compared to where you live,” said the soft voice, “and had been here far longer as well. Between what those people did and what was already present before the town existed, the underground regions beneath the town are quite extensive.”
“Is this a shipping point?” I asked.
“A small one,” said the soft voice. “The witch who had the keys to the 'secret way' died when the Swartsburg was destroyed, and no one else can unlock the door to his house.”
“His house?” I asked.
“Has a very deep basement,” said the soft voice. “More, it was the first house built – and this town was intended to be an above-ground witch-hole from the very beginning, unlike where you live.”
I ceased mental speech at the sight of that one Public House, and as I came closer, the reek of strong drink seemed to double in intensity, then double itself once more. Ragged snoring seemed to come from all points of the compass, and the aspect of the place seemed to demand application of the word 'trashed' to all of its inhabitants.
However, as I continued to pass through the town – it was smaller than I recalled, though otherwise my memory was accurate – I knew that the term 'trashed' applied to far more than the current inhabitants. The sense of neglect – and more, decay – was so great that it seemed the whole accursed town was about to destructively implode upon itself.
“It's really gone downhill since I was here last,” I thought, as I came even with the now-empty house where I had shot the miser earlier in the year. “About half of these houses are empty, and most of the rest have squatters in them, and then that Public House...”
“Is the source of most of the freshly inflicted wounds,” said the soft voice. “You can currently count the number of individuals who aren't seriously hurt on the fingers of one hand.”
“And that number will be smaller tomorrow?” I asked mentally.
“Yes, it will,” said the soft voice. “It will be zero.”
Jaak sped up without my urging once we'd cleared the last house, and as the road curved around with woodlots to each side, I noted the nature of the road. It was narrow, bumpy, rutted, and nearly impossible to drive a buggy at speed over, and as the woodlot with the 'quinine' plants came and passed and the country once more opened up, I took a course heading southeast.
As Jaak moved quickly through the meadows and past the woodlots under a slowly brightening moon, I worried but little about trying to stay in the shadows. I could feel no witches in the area beyond the drunken individuals to my rear and left, and for an instant, I wondered if I were becoming overconfident – overconfident in 'my' capacity to sense the presence of enemies, and overconfident in other ways as well.
“Or is this merely an increasing awareness?” I wondered, as I recalled being able to 'sense' the state of the town while seated at my post in the house proper.
Again, I truly wondered, even if I did not wonder as to the need to make the best time I could while staying off of the roads as much as possible.
“Witches are less common in this area, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and your ability to 'sense' them is increasing.” A brief pause, then, “witches know that few travel distance upon horseback in the central part of the first kingdom, and hence concentrate their watches upon the most-used roads.”
“Hans tends to stay off of those when traveling in areas familiar to him,” said the soft voice, “and Anna does the same – while Sarah, unless she must travel upon roads, tends to avoid their use when and where she can.”
“Has she tried that buggy?” I asked.
“Yes, and she's learned that it copes far better with off-road travel than anything she's used before,” said the soft voice, “even if it does try to toss her out of the seat and onto the ground now and then.”
“It would leave tracks off-road, also,” I thought.
“Which is why she thinks to use the less-traveled roads when she can,” said the soft voice. “Hans may know the area's roads well, but Sarah knows those of this area better still – and more, while Hans would be utterly lost at night, Sarah would not be.”
“L-lost at night?” I asked silently. We were passing a dark-shadowed woodlot.
“She's done a lot more nocturnal wandering than he has,” said the soft voice, “and Hans has not had witches after him.” A brief pause, then, “she has.”
“And speed, concealment, and darkness are requirements so as to survive,” I muttered. “She's lived the life of a pariah, hasn't she?”
There was no answer, save my recollection, and I wondered if 'markedness' was a recessive or dominant trait.
“In nearly all cases, the gene is recessive,” said the soft voice. “In your case, however, it's dominant.”
“Nearly all cases?” I asked.
“The last person on the continent having dominant marked genes was killed during the latter portion of that war,” said the soft voice. “Then, there's the 'quality' of dominance.” I had the impression I was hearing something of great importance. “Recessive and dominant genes for 'markedness' are modified heavily by other related genes.” Another pause, then, “Sarah's genetic code has most of the marked switches turned 'on', so much so that she was nearly born with six-fingered hands. Yours, on the other hand...”
A pregnant pause.
“Yours, on the other hand,” said the soft voice, “has all of them turned on.”
“What?” I gasped. This time, it was audible, though barely.
“The term used in the past was 'substantial markings', or 'strongly-marked',” said the soft voice, “and where you are going across the sea has many records of such people dating from prior to the war.”
I was glad I could eat and drink while riding, as this next leg was far longer than the first. I located a town to my front and slightly south, and altered course so as to intercept it – and while Jaak drank his fill and then ate from a smuggled-out tin plate piled with grain, I munched my own meal of bread liberally smeared with cheese followed by a long and somewhat stringy strip of dried meat.
The taste of this last was subtly different, much as if it had come from an animal of unfamiliar nature, and I soon recognized it as being 'dried beef'. For some odd reason, drying meat muted the differences that were obvious when the meat was still 'fresh' – and more, I wondered just how I could tell what I was eating.
I continued with my eating once under way again, and I crossed back into familiar territory – that east of that one main north-south road – a short time later. I was between two of the towns that straddled it, and I needed to go roughly another five miles south before I hit the Westwaag a bit south of the Crow's Foot.
“You can stay off almost all of the roads until the very last part if you cross the Westwaag and move through the fields and orchards and come out onto this one street.”
“A street fronting on some of the few trees the witches didn't cut down, correct?” I asked. “Kokenstraat ends on it, as does this one closer to the hall... That's where Gilbertus was hiding!”
“And he marked that house,” said the soft voice, “so the scavengers will mostly stay out of it.”
“Good for launching bottles?” I asked.
“Right into their windows,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to toss more than a few when you try for the hall.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“The witches weren't the only ones laboring,” said the soft voice. “They also had sizable gangs of slaves laboring also – and unlike those Swartsburg survivors who repaired to that one town, many of those witches that went to the hall have thus far survived their injuries.”
“Meaning it's packed to the rafters with witches,” I thought. I was glad I could speak thus while eating, as I was now truly noticing my real hunger – and it wanted something more substantial than mere bread. I needed protein as well, and I recalled that – somewhat vaguely – to be a wise choice of food for staving off the effects of hypoglycemia.
I struck the Westwaag shortly thereafter near a narrow trail that passed through wide meadows, and as I continued southeast, I skirted about a group of farmer's fields some distance to my left. For some reason – this wasn't familiar territory – I wanted to keep either such fields in sight, or the uniform rows of orchards, and when they petered out, I was glad I did not panic.
“No, keep heading due east or thereabouts,” I thought. The clouds had almost hidden the moon entirely again. “When I come to a narrow run of orchard trees, I need to turn abruptly and go between that orchard and this one irregular shaped field...” I paused in my thinking, as I could now see the very end of the trees in question roughly two hundred yards away.
“That's a decent landmark,” I thought.
“Which is why Gilbertus used that path,” said the soft voice. “It crosses the Suedwaag, but the crossing is a quick one from orchard to a path through a farmer's field and then into a woodlot after crossing another road.”
“And that woodlot has a path, also,” I said. “I'll need to, uh, dismount?”
“You won't, unlike Gilbertus,” said the soft voice, “and also unlike him, you won't have to do nine tenths of what he did.”
“He was moving during the day, though,” I thought.
And yet I knew it wasn't just that. There was a lot more, much as if I were attempting the border of the fifth kingdom alone versus with the group. I recalled what I had been told, then what we actually needed to do; and then I thought, “they're not going to see me, are they?”
“Not at this hour,” said the soft voice. “The town is now truly 'dead' during the wee hours of the morning.”
“Scavengers?” I asked.
“Tend to be most busy during the first few hours right after sundown,” said the soft voice, “as many of them have 'day jobs' of a sort.”
I'd caught the last phrase and asked, “poor paying, or irregular in nature?”
“Usually both of those things,” said the soft voice. “While Lukas was indeed right about it being easy to find work in the first kingdom, he meant 'for normal-looking able-bodied men of working age' – and scavengers tend to not fit that description in one or more aspects.” A brief pause, then, “more than a few 'itinerant tailors' and 'teenage boys' are glad for the new-found shelter of abandoned homes.”
The path between the orchard and field – fresh-plowed, with obvious shoots spiking up fresh and green from the rows – was narrow yet well-trodden, and crossing the surprising narrowness of the Suedwaag was utterly without drama, as was the narrow and well-trodden passage through the middle of the one field that followed the road-crossing. What was not 'easy' were the shapes of the plants to each side of where I now traveled: thick bushy mounds of obvious broad leaves seemed to run on forever, row upon knee-high bushy row, and I seemed to recall the last instance of these particular plants with especial potency.
“Yech,” I spat. “Turnips.”
“These are not bad as turnips go,” said the soft voice. “That example you tasted grew on the verge of a most prolific and well-fertilized field, and hence tasted a good deal worse than is usual for such roots.”
The field – triangular shaped, and hence unpopular with 'common' farmers – was also fairly narrow, as was the road I crossed to head into the woodlot. There, I clearly saw a path, and as I guided Jaak in near-total darkness through the trees, I felt utterly and completely safe for the first time ever in this particular area. I recognized it, however, as but lately more or less 'cleared' of witches.
“It isn't quite 'cleared' even if hunting parties don't go out in the town any more, and witch-shipments tend to be well-hidden small parcels coming as part of larger legitimate shipments,” said the soft voice. “Still, however – outside of the hall, there aren't any real 'bastions' of witchdom left in town.”
“Well-recognized places?” I muttered soundlessly.
“No, those bad Public Houses are known of,” said the soft voice, “and their owners know of ready-formed mobs just waiting for a half-baked excuse to burn them to the ground with their patrons inside.” A brief pause, then, “more importantly, they also know that these mobs aren't witch-raised – and hence, they can neither bribe nor 'influence' them.”
“They can only keep a low profile if they wish to live, then.” Here, I paused, as I could see the end of the woodlot approaching, and long narrow fields awaited. These would leave me exposed were I crossing during the day, and when I crossed another narrow road, I was once more astonished to see that the path led between two such fields – and more, that it was well-trampled and beaten inches below-grade by the sheer volume of its traffic.
“Hence tracking me would be difficult,” I thought, as Jaak sped up crossing the field. Just the same, I knew that to be in open areas, even under the cover of darkness, was a time of especial vulnerability; and for some reason, in contrast to my former lack of concern, I now fervently desired total darkness and deep shadow so as to hide in – and at the mid-point of the field, I looked left to see where a frontal road met another much wider road, one which ran far off into the night and – perchance – fog.
“Kokenstraat,” I muttered. “No wonder I felt like that.”
“It's not what it once was,” said the soft voice. “Most of its houses and more than a few shops are abandoned.”
“Fetishes?” I asked.
“Those were looted by escaping witches headed south,” said the soft voice, “and the smarter ones hid themselves in those houses until the worst of the furor died down.” My current impression was 'it's revived in large measure since Sarah was hurt, and when the hall goes, it will grow greatly from its current state'.
“How many of those people..?”
I came to the end of the field and here, the road was wider. I recognized it as a branch of the Suedwaag, and once I crossed it and its ditches, I was in another woodlot. The sense of danger now increased with every further step, as I knew this woodlot – and the utter lack of the usual sticks upon its raked-neat and well-groomed floor told me all I needed to know about who 'owned' it.
“Those thugs 'own' this place,” I thought. “Please, my tracks...”
I began to 'lead' Jaak gently to the left in a slow-curving arc until a glance at my compass confirmed my sensing that we were now heading north. The lack of undergrowth helped add silence to our travel, for here, there were no paths, only the usual distances between trees under a thick canopy of greenery; and as I moved around a tree in the near-complete darkness, I again glanced down at the ground.
“It is raked,” I thought. “Just like a fifth kingdom money-changer's stoop, except it isn't sand.”
“Those people tended to use spent molding sand purchased cheaply from foundries,” said the soft voice. “It holds impressions better than what Jaak is currently walking on. Still, asking for erased footprints is most-wise.”
Again, I asked that our footprints be erased, and when I saw the end of the woodlot, I saw not merely the meeting of several roads, but also a narrow green-way just west of this meeting place. It would lead behind the first row of houses and shops that fronted upon what I guessed to be 'Hallstraat', and as I seemed to look further ahead, I could somehow 'see' not merely the nature of the green-way itself – it had lost much of its odor since the bulk of the witches living next to it had left the area – but also, the abandoned house Gilbertus had spoken of. It would be a perfect place to observe the hall from, as it was almost directly across 'Hallstraat' – the street was fairly narrow, perhaps twenty feet – from the place.
“About a hundred yards from its actual front-wall to that house,” I thought. “Could I really nail a stationary thug from there?” A pause. “Sarah said I centered that wagon. Did I?”
“She was slightly exaggerating when she said that, but yes, you did land that bottle square in its bed – and that while it was moving.”
I still found the idea utterly hard to believe, so much so that when I broke out of the woodlot I was momentarily distracted. I rode around the 'hooked' part of where the streets met on the cobbles – Jaak made some typical clop-clop noises then – and then into the green-way without thinking. The sense of 'dead' was now unnerving, chiefly because I knew it was mostly a seeming – and more, this seeming was indeed truly well-done, unlike previous attempts in this area.
“The reason it seems 'well done' is that those witches in this area outside of the hall are in what they think of as 'deep hiding',” said the soft voice, “and more, they are those witches that have survived not merely multiple swarming mobs, but repeated house-by-house searches by mob members while yet remaining in the area.”
“Tricky wretches, no doubt,” I thought.
“Yes, but at such a price,” said the soft voice. “They're having to live the lives of scavengers, more or less – and 'real' scavengers tend to deal summarily with witches when they find such and can deal with them.”
“Summarily?” I asked. “As in, uh, hang them out to dry if suspicion even taints them slightly?”
“And air out their smelly hides,” said the soft voice, “and that's for those scavengers who aren't marked.”
“M-marked scavengers?” I asked.
“Some of those 'teenaged boys' lost fingers or toes when their homes were destroyed and their families slaughtered,” said the soft voice, “and usually, one of two things happens – they either operate alone, or they lead groups.” A brief pause, then, “the loners tend to do things out of old tales when they encounter well-hid witches.”
I could now 'feel' the house that Gilbertus had hid in, and after crossing a narrow dirt 'lane' barely wide enough to pass a buggy's team, I knew it was close by. I could smell the reek of 'burnt wood', 'blood' and 'powder' yet hanging in the air, and when I glanced ahead and to my left, I saw a region so totally devastated that I marveled as to its cause for a second.
“That artillery battle?” I asked silently.
The sense was I was indeed correct, and as I came to the fold in the chest-high wall of that one house, I dismounted and led Jaak in. The tall stuff growing in the back smelled 'strange' to me, then as I knelt down and felt it carefully with my hands and smelled it, I thought, “is this grass?”
“The non-witch owner left on horseback due to a witch-raised 'counter-mob',” said the soft voice, “and he regularly sowed his back area with 'horse-seed' so as to feed his animals.” A brief pause, then, “the witch who raised that mob is now where he belongs.”
“Uh, how?” I thought. I was still wondering how the owner had kept horses in such a small area as I first looked for and then found the watering trough. It still had water in it, and as I knelt down and crawled around the long wooden trough, I noted tracks in the grass that I felt out with my hands. “Gilbertus hid his horse here!”
“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “I would be careful with using lights in that house, though.”
“Uh, why,” I asked. “Don't tell me – a stray shell from a rotten cannon nailed the place.”
“While a shell did hit the front wall, the thing misfired and 'low-ordered',” said the soft voice. “It set the couch on fire, so the main floor is pretty well sooted up.”
“How did Gilbertus...” I then saw the soot-stained cloak hanging on a dead tree next to what was obviously a detached privy, and I cautiously opened the rear door to the place.
The first thing I smelled was a surprising 'freshness', much as if the place had been thoroughly aired out, and when I looked out the front into the parlor, I saw why it smelled that way.
“Low ordered?” I thought, as I contemplated a jagged-edged hole nearly four feet across that had taken out the usual window. “What would have happened had it not misfired?”
“The house would have collapsed into its basement,” said the soft voice. “The shells fired by 'rotten cannons' are generally a good deal more destructive than those fired out of guns like Willem is familiar with, and that presumes similar fillers are used.”
“And witches use stronger fillers as a rule,” I thought, “so they're even worse yet.”
“That depends on who is loading those smoothbore shells,” said the soft voice. “Willem commonly fills his with shell-powder from that one man who makes your powder – and he's got multiple notches in his notch-stick.”
“Blown-up spams?” I asked.
“Downed swine,” said the soft voice. “He's got one gun that's unusually accurate, and he's put tipped shells under the pigs where they've no armor.” A pause, then, “he thinks it breaks the animal's legs.”
“It probably does that and then some,” I softly muttered.
“It usually rips the animal open as well as amputating two or more legs,” said the soft voice, “and while an Iron pig can sustain serious injuries and still charge, they don't last very long when they're hurt that bad.”
“That one pig?” I asked. “The tipped shells?”
“The round-shots punched through the pig's thick frontal armor first,” said the soft voice, “and while those wounds were mortal, they weren't in the same class as those inflicted by the shot Willem favors.” A brief pause, then, “Willem's preferred shot either misses the pig entirely – or it stops the pig in its tracks.”
I crouched down next to the hole, being careful to stay in the shadows, and then looked out.
The moon once more shown down with but a thin and hazy veil of cloud, and but twenty yards to the left lay what looked like the opening of a long and deep alcove of sorts. The opening of this alcove was easily seventy feet in width; and like the street, it was paved with cobbles. From my viewing point, I could see the head-high stone walls reaching into the deep 'bay', as well as at least one long knee-high watering trough flanked by a row of red-painted iron posts. I surmised these to be for hitching animals, and by the smell that yet endured, I knew not of those animals were common horses.
And to what I saw, my sensing added more: the walls grew in both thickness and height as the 'bay' narrowed, until they met corners and formed another wall to 'plug' the funnel. The center of this 'plug' – thick gray stone piers and a tall wooden gate topped with an iron arch – was the actual beginning of the place, and to the right and left of the gate, taller yet square towers replete with firing slits...
As if in a dream, I turned to the side to peer into the darkness, and saw one of the towers. Its thick gray stone sat upon mortar both very old and very new, and its embrasures secure against all attack...
I looked outside once more, and saw further details. The horse troughs – there were more than the one I saw – were of thick reddish brick and had a red-painted 'fetish-pump' at each end. Unlike most fetish-pumps, these were not merely in good appearance, but they actually worked passably. These pumps needed to, for in its most-recent prime the hall had received vast numbers of impatient imported witches, all in long 'ships-of-the-road' drawn by Genuine Plugged Mules of full odor, and such animals tended toward undue thirst when they showed.
“Not just those things,” I thought. “Those horses, also. They both drink like camels were reputed to drink if there's water in front of them.”
I wondered for a moment if I could steal out of my refuge and give the place a closer look; and without more than the merest of thoughts, I leaped from where I was kneeling in shadow and out through the hole made by the shell. My feet fairly flew across the yard and the narrow street, and from there, I found the actual chill-cold walls of the place. Its aura of strength seemed uncommon, as this, I now knew, was not an egg about to turn.
It was not even close to an egg, this good, bad or indifferent; and I began sneaking along the wall while keeping my head down. At the corner, I paused, then looked around the corner.
There were indeed more watering troughs, for I counted three of them on the far side of the 'funnel', each at least twenty feet in length and flanked by two pumps. The one closer to me had its share of watering troughs also, and at the end of the funnel, I saw clearly the gate: iron-bound timbers liberally varnished, these thick boards new and imposing-looking, taller by twice than my head – and looking to be stolen, if I went by their size – from the southeast entrance of the Swartsburg. The iron inscription over the gate, however, was a dead giveaway.
“The same accursed inscription,” I thought. “The very same one.”
And flanking this gate, I saw narrow slits of a type imported from the second kingdom, these blinded by thin cloths and lit from behind by the faint smoky glows of shielded tallow candles. I then looked up, and saw the towers.
They were at least twenty feet taller than the top of the gate, and each of them had more firing slits pointing at the courtyard of the place. Their roofs were of tile, and new-looking, and their stone... Some was new-looking, while other blocks were older by far, and some few looked broken and 'glued together' with mortar.
And too, these slits were also blocked with cloth and showed faint flickering glows.
Behind all of this, however, I could discern the rear portion of what might have been a 'compound' of sorts, and faintly, I saw what might be windows. I still thought it impossible that I might 'nail' a witch standing in one of them, but as I cautiously returned to my 'rat-hole' at a scurrying run, I had but one thought in my mind, and only when I was once more crouched in relative safety in darkness behind solid walls did I dare to think much on it.
“That place looks ripe for an ambush,” I thought, as I once again surveyed the seeming solidity of the many – and now obvious to my eyes – hasty repairs. “Just how did those slaves and witches work? To the limits of drink and datramonium?”
“The drink was shorter than the witches liked, so much so that some of them thrashed in the local versions of delirium tremens,” said the soft voice. “Those people died on a fresh-constructed altar in the regions below the hall, as did the slaves once their work was done to the satisfaction of the witches.”
“Did those wretches attempt to hold the ground first, and then proceed to rebuild things?”
I was thinking of how the Swartsburg had been done: first crude buildings barely able to endure strong winds, then rebuilding into something more permanent, then another cycle of rebuilding at the least. It seemed silly to me, but the witch-world was obsessed with appearances – and more, certain species of 'magick' where I came from were said to work on the basis of outward appearance as well.
“Not merely attempt this time,” said the soft voice. “The witches may have initially built something 'to hold their territory', but once there were enough slaves present – a fair number of them were imported from regions to the south to bolster those the witches managed to catch or retain on their own – they redid matters nearly from the ground up – and that for not merely the damaged aspects of the hall.” A pause, then, “they turned the place into a fortress in truth as well as in appearance; and to confuse the issue, the slaves were dressed in old and salvaged black-cloth clothing so as to fool any who might be watching.” A pause, then, “what Gilbertus saw were the witches 'going through the motions' so as to maintain the pretense of internal destruction and disarray.”
“Sepp's foray was only possible while the place was newly wrecked, then,” I murmured. “Soften it up, indeed – place needs to be busted up bad and half its people killed off before I even think to try acting like a stinking sapper.”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice, as I turned to leave – and as I did, I wondered just what was down in the basement. Perhaps there were bottles worth tossing, and it seemed worth a try.
“If you wish to leave and not be seen, I would go now,” said the soft voice.
I left forthwith, suspecting Jaak would be glad of the brief respite; and as I retraced my tracks down the green-way, I was conscious of the need to not merely hurry, but to head back through the trees and then trot...
And hustle through the burnt-out region until I was behind what was left of the Swartsburg walls, where I would not be seen by anyone of note.
“That would be most wise,” said the soft voice. “You can take your time, relatively speaking, once you reach the back side of the house proper.”
I hoped that Jaak would be up to 'hustling'; and when we broke out of the hall's woods into open ground, a faint path seemed to show through the appalling morass of sodden ashes and charred timbers dotted here and there with the stark white of rotting bones. Jaak's walk slowly increased in both rate and stride, and I now realized my limits when traveling by moonlight: I might see fairly well, but I wasn't at all inclined to the speeds Jaak was capable of when I had to provide 'guidance' to any real degree – and it was indeed dark enough for me to worry about him becoming injured were he to go faster than he currently was managing.
Yet still, the desolation seemed to spread from where we now traveled at a rapid walk among the remains of animals and men laying thick amid the cast-off junk – and then, I glanced to my left.
But two hundred yards distant lay the walls of the Swartsburg; and where a gate of some kind had once stood, there was now a wide and gaping ragged-edged 'hole' nearly fifty yards across. Blocks of stone lay tumbled at the base of that once high wall, and with further travel to the north and east, I saw that the southwest corner of the Swartsburg wall was once nearly as high as the walls I had encountered on my second foray into the place.
Beyond those walls, however, lay a region so destroyed that the dread name 'Hiroshima' seemed to trivialize what I was seeing, and only when movement cut off my sight of the realm within the still-standing yet slow-crumbling walls of the place did I recall the need to look as far ahead as I could among the soot-blackened ground to my front and left.
“The bad area is ahead,” said the soft voice. “This portion is where the freighters were unloading when the shockwave destroyed the gate and detonated the explosives and distillate most of them were carrying.”
“M-more explosives?” I gasped.
“They were not merely from the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “but also working hard with the goal of one day riding in coaches – and hence they had their personal supplies of dynamite, distillate and strong drink hidden under their seats.” A pause, then, “the chief difference between many fifth kingdom freighters of long standing and black-dressed coach-riders is their dress, their income, and the quantity of strong drink, distillate, and high explosives they tend to carry.”
The 'bad' area was now becoming obvious, and that first by the less-than-faint 'burnt-fatty-roast' reek of pigs burnt to now rain-dampened crisps. Their bodies lay thick in drifts about the fallen stones and charred timbers of one of the swine-pens I recalled hearing of, and as I passed between the walls and a vast ruin of charred timbers, I recalled what that place was, also.
“One of those big, uh, drink-houses,” I thought. Speech was yet unwise in this area, for some reason.
“There is still much to be salvaged here, but you are right about speech,” said the soft voice. “Some few witches are finally heading south to 'where they belong', and those people commonly pass through this area at night in hopes of finding things they might use.”
“Heading south now?” I asked.
“They've had sufficient of 'the backward north', and realize its 'golden opportunity' was that of what passes for fool's gold here,” said the soft voice. “More, most of them were utterly 'stripped', and they've had to acquire those things they need to both pass as 'tramps' while traveling, as well as traveling gear.” A brief pause, “and when you've learned to live as a robber and thug, and done that while existing upon High Meats and strong drink, it is not easy finding labor for your hands.”
I could now see the southeast corner of the Swartsburg, and to my left, I noted not merely the nearly intact nature of that portion of the wall, but the complete absence of its gate and overtopping iron proclamation. I wondered again as to where it had gone.
“That example was recently cut up for scrap-iron,” said the soft voice, “and it was copied from the hall's gate-topper – which is also a copy of a much older gate-inscription.”
“Cardosso?” I asked.
“He had a copy also,” said the soft voice. “The original dated from many years prior to the war, and is thought to be long gone.”
“It isn't?” I asked, as I guided Jaak past the corner. There was an even bigger mess ahead, if I recalled, and the wall to our immediate left put that entire area in deep dark shadow. For some reason, the moon's light was shining strangely, as the moon was well to the east and the forests had been cut back further since I spied upon the place.
Or had they? There was no answer.
Negotiating the mess itself required a wiggly path and uncommon vigilance upon my part, for to call it a wreck was calling it wonderful. I had to dodge broken bits of coaches and their rusted metal many times, and the destroyed pig-pen provided its own 'land-mines' in the form of the rotting skeletons of pigs. Those were seemingly everywhere, and I was surprised at the lack of dead mules.
“Those mostly escaped,” said the soft voice, “and more than a few of them are back in the Valley.”
“Uh, how?” I asked. “Veldters coming here?”
“That's the other reason to be careful in this area at this hour,” said the soft voice. “More than one Veldter mule train has come into this region and scavenged for iron, and the usual of as of late is to leave the Valley with fewer mules than they return with.” A brief pause, then, “some of the northern Veldter settlements are short of both draft animals and iron – and purchasing such by the usual Valley routes isn't particularly cheap.”
“Especially iron,” I said. “That stuff is scarce in that place.”
“The southern third gets plenty from the fifth kingdom, while the middle third of the Valley has a handful of small mines. The northern third is dependent upon imports and scavenging – and it tends to have little to sell beyond what the individual settlements actually make and raise.”
“Not much, I guess,” I thought. The end of the 'mess' was in sight, as was the Oestwaag, and that road... “It's dead, also.”
“It will start getting traffic shortly,” said the soft voice, “which is why you need to hurry once you're out of this particular mess. The house proper's staff typically starts about this time of morning, if they need to walk.”
“And I'll need to dodge them,” I thought.
“Dodging 'normal' traffic at this hour isn't hard if you're quiet,” said the soft voice, “as firstly, it tends to make some noise, and secondly, it tends to travel in small groups with at least one candle-lantern for light.”
“Should I crash at the house?” I thought.
“No, because you're expected at home,” said the soft voice, “and if you give Jaak his head once you're past the house proper and on familiar ground, you'll arrive well before dawn.”
I drew steadily closer to the Oestwaag, and as I moved past steadily thicker mounds of refuse, I began to see obvious signs of scavengers – for when I came to the edge of the Oestwaag, I saw not merely a fair number of cart tracks, but also small piles of sorted debris.
Jaak leaped the wide ditches of the dirt road, then walked across as if he were assaying silence. To both right and left, I could see dim flickering lights; and when I came to the edges of the fields bordering the house, I saw more of them.
And heard voices, these soft, mingled with yawns, and of both genders. They were obviously heading toward the house proper, which meant staying off of the trail I'd used before.
Yet within minutes, I found another such trail, this one much less used and but little wider than a fifth kingdom goat-path, and once on it clearly, Jaak sped up. He showed but little signs yet of fatigue, as did I; yet I knew there were but a handful of hours before darkness fled against the coming of the sun.
“You've got perhaps two hours before it starts to get light,” said the soft voice as I came closer to the back side of the house, “and Jaak's on familiar ground.”
He was, too; for as soon as we struck what looked 'familiar' to me, I seemed to see a faint blue-hazed line leading into the darkness to vanish far ahead. I communicated what I saw to Jaak, and he spontaneously sped up, first to a rapid walk, and then into that odd 'trot' that I had last endured when we were missed in the second kingdom house.
I had to feed him information constantly, for now the woodlots seemed blurred, and I wondered about the use of the pendant.
“Try it,” said the voice.
I brought it out – and instantly, as if there were nothing holding matters back – the cloud materialized and I fell down upon Jaak's back as if I were wearing a Dietrich-102 anvil about my neck. The familiar droning ticks of the clock banged thunderously within my right ear, and I had to both count the ticks and follow that blueish line.
Ten, twelve ticks. My hand is reaching for the pendant like an old and patient snake. Fifteen, and the pendant is in my hand, moving it back to its hiding place. Eighteen...
The cloud lifts with a near-explosive rumble, and Jaak is still 'trotting' – only I can smell clearly the reek of that smelly clearing ahead, and it's coming up fast. We pass it in a sudden blurring, and then suddenly the dim flickering lights of Roos' Public House are on the right.
“They're just getting up,” I thought as Jaak began slowing to his more usual walk. “What did we do?”
“About eighteen miles in a time you'd have trouble believing if I told you,” said the soft voice. “There are more than a few people who were sleeping and now awake, though.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
A soft rumble seemed to grow in the distance, then suddenly it segued to a noise at once roaring like an ongoing explosion mingled with the sound of a lighting strike – to then as suddenly vanish with but the faintest trace of a single echo.
“What was that?” I gasped, as we came to the end of town. I'd go around back and in the back way, much as I commonly did when arriving at night from a posting at the house proper.
“It has not been heard since the start of that war,” said the soft voice. “Not only will you hear its like in the near future, but you'll be intimately involved in making that noise.”
And deep within my recollection, I recalled what normally made such noises, those being jet aircraft scrambling with long and luminous flames sprouting from their hindquarters as they raced skyward. It was a rare occurrence during my last years in that place, but when I was a boy and living in Southern Hell, it was not at all rare to hear such noises. Jet fuel was cheap then, the Cold War was hot in the minds of the jet-jockeys, and 'burner' was just a reach away and its use encouraged by those in charge so as to give their fliers experience of what it felt like to accelerate as if shot from a cannon and reach missile-like speeds.
“Breaking the sound barrier,” I muttered, as we reached the fold in the wall. “S-sonic booms.” Then, a question.
“Did I just do that?”
There was no answer.