“The sun rose at midnight...”
We kept a late night that night, with Hans going upstairs while we loaded the remaining two jugs, then he returned once the fumes had cleared out to help with tying on the dynamite. Again, Sarah and I had to hold the stuff in place while our hands became tormentingly sticky from the tarry string Hans used with such abandon, and again, Hans seemed to not mind.
Or so I guessed until he applied himself with vigor to our new-found stock of clean rags and a jug of boiled distillate, much as I and Sarah did.
Unlike with the last rags we had so dirtied, however, these examples did not end up in the wood-stove for kindling. Each of the eleven bombs received a thorough wrapping with rags and tying with a thin waxed cord, and as I lifted up the last bomb of the first batch we had done, I noted the following changes.
Three turns of copper tubing went on the outside of the device, with one end poking down into one of the sticks of dynamite and the other ending in a small gray metal box with a tin lid. I pointed that out to Sarah, and as she looked at it with unfeigned admiration, Hans came closer. He was still cleaning his hands.
“There is a little stick in that thing,” said Hans, “and about three feet of string wrapped around it. You just need to remove the cover before you take it out, and unroll the string.”
“We'll set that one out last,” said Sarah. “I take it I need to leave that box uncovered, or at least easy to get to.”
“I think you should do that,” said Hans. “Now, I saw one of those decorator things in the cold room, and it gives the worst headaches I have ever had if I pick it up.”
“That stuff looks a little like vlai,” said Sarah, “only it is a very bright yellow. Then, it is a little thinner than vlai for its consistency.”
“Yes, and it gives headaches worse than anything,” said Hans. “You will want to pad it special and put in the back of the buggy, and keep your horses moving so its fumes do not get to you much.”
Sarah had already thought of that matter, and she produced not merely a sizable cloth bag, but also some carefully picked rags as well. “I think we can bundle it up in this stuff.”
“I would leave it in the cold room until you are ready to go,” said Hans. “Now why is it you have all of these empty wine-bottles, and where did you get all of that bad southern cleaning solution?”
“It was in an upper room at the house proper,” said Sarah, “and while it is old, each jug was wax-sealed, so it is still quite fresh.”
We finished in the basement but ten minutes later, and after a bath for Sarah and I, we went to bed. I suspected Hans had already bathed before coming down – at least until Anna yelled at him to take a bath because he was giving her a sick-headache from smelling like blasting oil. I blacked out shortly afterward, and when I awoke, it was due to a full bladder. I glanced at the vents in the privy while I engaged in 'nitration' to see pale moonlight, and when I came out, I noted the 'night-candle' had been joined by a just-lit student's lantern. I looked upon the couch, and while I could still see a hazy outline, I did not know where Sarah was until I heard the privy door open and then quickly close.
“How did she..?” I thought, as I wondered how she could have done so.
“You had eyes for that 'nitrator' only,” said the soft voice, “and she awoke while you were inside 'adding glycerin' to it. She had to go badly, so she waited on the other side of the brown door, which she opened before it closed fully and went inside.”
Sarah came out seconds later, then took up the lantern in one of her hands.
“I'll want the other for jugs,” she said, as I followed her down into the basement. “If I go by the place of the moon, then it's about time for the fifth posting to start.”
“Perfect,” I muttered. “We'll get there during the deadest time that place has.”
As we each made trips between basement and buggy, I noted just how little the buggy seemed affected by the addition of the bombs. Sarah, however, had more than merely bombs: she'd gotten a full beer-jug, and before she went outside with it, she asked, “that one lantern with the shutters. We'll need it tonight.”
I had assumed its likely use and had 'loaded' it appropriately with a thick wax candle stub. I had a small bag with two more candle stubs in my possible bag, and after checking my weapons, I went outside.
And nearly jumped back into the bathroom when I saw Sarah bringing up the first of the two 'nags'. I glanced at the horse as she put it into 'harness', then as she went back for the other one, I thought, “that horse does not look to be even close to visiting a glue-factory – and I'll bet the other one...”
“Is yet further recovered,” said the soft voice. “Given that Sarah gives them almost as much grain as you give Jaak, as well as plenty of hay, they've recovered nicely.”
“And are now almost as good as the gray and the black,” I thought.
“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “They were the equal of those horses within a week of Sarah's return from the forests. They're currently slightly better.”
“And they're not entirely recovered, are they?” I asked.
“No, but they won't get much better than they are now,” said the soft voice. “Those that Hans borrowed are not quite mettlesome enough to need bronze shoes, but only a few 'pairs' in the house's stables are much better.”
“Those we took on the trip?”
“Were among those better pairs mentioned,” said the soft voice. “They were selected for their superior endurance, as Hendrik suspected there might be some trouble during the trip.” A brief pause, then, “he knows better now.”
I came outside once more once Sarah was seated with the reins, and I followed her out on foot after opening both of the buggy-way's doors. Jaak was right behind me, and once I had closed the doors, I mounted – and then caught up with Sarah within seconds. I was glad Jaak was as fast as he was, as the two horses were pulling the buggy with surprising speed.
“They need to loosen up some before I let them out,” she said quietly, “which means about a mile and a half south of Roos.”
“There's a turning place there, isn't there?”
“Yes, one that sees but little traffic,” said Sarah. “I more or less know which roads I want to take to get to that smelly place, but I'm not at all certain about the way back.”
“As the explosion will alert the area's witches?” I asked.
“That also,” said Sarah. “I was more concerned about being traced back to where we came from, actually.”
“Yes, and with a nearly empty buggy,” I said quietly. We were now a few hundred yards south of the Public House, and I could tell all three of the horses were rapidly 'getting looser'. “You said you could go cross-country readily that way.” I paused, then said, “what if I break trail for you then?”
“If you did that, then we could more or less stay off of the roads, at least until we hit the one that goes through home,” said Sarah. “I recall hearing how you did that for the group coming back from the fifth kingdom house.”
“I did,” I whispered. “Now with just two of us, I suspect it will be a bit easier.” I then thought about using the pendant.
“If another one of those blue-lined trails shows, I'll do it,” I thought.
And as if I had 'asked' for one, I knew beyond all doubt that not merely would that happen, but that we would greatly desire such speed.
“Uh, why?” I asked. “How long did Hans cut that fuse?”
“Long enough to suit him,” said the soft voice. “He did not test how confining it in that tubing would affect its burning rate, either.”
“Speed it up some, no doubt,” I muttered.
“Especially as he did not give you ten minutes worth of fuse to start with,” said the soft voice. “He did not go to where you work to get that copper tubing, either.”
“Meaning he got some from, uh... “Did he get this stuff from Andreas?”
“No, he did not,” said the soft voice. “He went to a less-than-reputable second-hand store and bought it cheaply, thinking that because it was not going to a distillery he could cut corners.”
“And get us blown up due to not testing it,” squeaked Sarah. “What kind of fuse did he use?”
“The best he could 'find' on short notice,” said the soft voice. “Again, his ignorance was all-but total – and more, he was sold in the bargain.”
“Don't tell me – he put quickmatch in that tube.”
“No, he knew this stuff was fuse,” said the soft voice. “He even had the seller test-burn a piece.”
“Which was similar-looking fuse, but not nearly the same thing,” I muttered. “Classic bait and switch tactics.”
“That person will sell no more fuse,” said the soft voice, “as he left for where you are going to get drunk in that Public House – and he not merely became quite drunk shortly after arrival, but he received a serious stab-wound from a supplicant thinking to make his bones.”
“So how long do we really have?” I asked. “Enough that...”
“Grab for the pendant as soon as you can once you get a hundred yards out of town,” said the soft voice, “and follow that blueish-white line that shows until you're a good portion of the way home at the least.”
“Why, what will happen then?” asked Sarah.
“This cloud will come down, and we will travel,” I said. “Everything to each side becomes blurry at the least, though the last time... That was something I still don't understand how it worked that way, but I suspect we were moving very rapidly indeed.”
“You won't go that fast with two of you,” said the soft voice. “Still, better than three miles in under a minute gives you enough time to get clear of that place.”
“Th-three miles in a minute?” gasped Sarah. “You did that on the trip home, didn't you?”
“Multiple times,” I said. “It may be tiring, but it's better to be tired and alive than blown to bits by Hans and his bungling ways.” I sighed, then, “then again, Lukas did warn me about his tendencies, and I didn't...”
“Nor did I,” said Sarah, “and I've been around him a good deal more than you have, so I should know how he is for things he hasn't been doing for ages.”
“That isn't unique to him, is it?” I asked.
“There are some few people worse that way,” said Sarah, “but almost all of them tend to either be desiring the life of a witch or under some kind of curse – and Anna told me about how Hans nearly became a miser.” A pause, then, “most people, however, are not that much better.”
“Uh, chemists?” I asked.
“Ivo for one, and Korn for another,” said Sarah. “Both of those men spent long years at the west school, with Ivo spending his whole six years and Korn splitting his time between the west school and Guymus.”
“Guymus?” I asked. “S-sums?”
“I suspect he thought them to be better at such matters,” said Sarah, “but my suspicions are that Guymus is actually worse.”
“Yes, in terms of how much they actually teach,” said the soft voice. “The west school is actually the best for all currently taught subjects, save perhaps the original languages in the book.”
“They supposedly only teach those rigorously at Boermaas,” whispered Sarah. Our turnoff would be shortly indeed, as the stinky clearing was some distance to our rear and I could feel a town to our front but a few minutes away at our current speed.
“If you want to truly learn those languages,” said the soft voice, “your best course is to take the handful of classes the west school offers and then go sit under a professional scribe who knows those languages well.”
“And not a normal scribe, either,” I murmured. I could feel the turn just ahead. “What one wants is an escaped member of the Chosen.”
Sarah looked at me, then said, “there is one of those people somewhere near the kingdom house, and I have heard of her capacity regarding language.”
“And much else, dear,” I murmured. I then pointed with my right hand at a narrow trail branching off between two copses. “Is that the turnoff we want?”
It was, and with our turning, Sarah twitched the reins. The horses seemed to freeze for an instant of time, then their gate changed from a rapid walk to what I thought of as a 'trot'. It was all I could do to keep up with them with Jaak not breaking into a similar gate.
“About how long are they good for that pace?” I asked as Jaak came up alongside Sarah. We were trampling the grass to the side of this 'trail'. It was too small to have the usual roadside ditches. I glanced to our rear, and noted a faint trail of slow-settling dust.
“I would guess at least two hours,” said Sarah. “Our current rate is easily a third faster than that of a postal buggy, and I've had them going like this from where we live to this town about eight miles south of the kingdom house.”
“Stopping for water?” I asked.
“We'll do that shortly,” said Sarah. “There's a woodlot up ahead with a small stream near its edge, and it's not fifty feet from this road.”
“The woodlot, or the stream?” I asked.
“The woodlot is practically in the road,” said Sarah, “but the stream isn't at all hard to get to. I brought a bucket, grain-pans, and a sack of grain, so we can put grain to all of the horses while we check them over for stones.”
“One bucket?” I asked.
“Jaak can go and drink directly,” said Sarah, “and while one of the pair is drinking, the other can eat some grain.”
Sarah proved to be all but prescient, as well as a touch pessimistic, as not merely was the stream where she pointed it out to be – well hidden, in a small, shallow, and narrow ravine – but it had also formed a small pool that was almost close enough for the pair attached to the buggy to come up to it for drinking. We were under way within ten minutes again, and as the road we were on curved to the north, I slowed, then leaped the ditch.
“Follow me,” I whispered. “This road doesn't go where we want, and there's one up ahead that does.”
Sarah slowed also, then carefully she drove into the ditch and out of it – and as she began following me, I heard her softly praying about the matter.
“No, we won't get mired,” I said. “The fields now only have isolated spots that will do that.”
“Yes, for this particular buggy,” said the soft voice. “Had you been taking the larger one from home, you'd need to guide it with no small degree of care to avoid getting bogged.”
“I heard that,” said Sarah, “and I think I know about that road you were speaking of.”
“What?” I asked softly.
“It heads almost due south for nearly two miles, then it turns west for another mile or so, then it starts curving back to a southwest heading,” said the soft voice.
“Which will take us in the direction we want,” I thought. My next thought, however, was spoken.
“Is that the road that goes to that town?”
“No, but if you cut across another field when it goes from due-west to curving toward the southwest, and get on the first road that travels due west once more, you'll come to that town's Public House about twenty minutes later.”
“That will save us an hour's time over that route I had picked out,” said Sarah.
“Yours twisted and turned a lot, didn't it?” I asked softly. I could now both feel and 'see' the road ahead, and when I saw the unusually small roadside ditch, Jaak slowed, then slowly walked over it. I then stopped to watch Sarah – and again, the buggy negotiated the ditch readily. I looked back the way we had come, and as I stared and try to find trace of our path, I noted its seeming lack of even a trace.
“Let our tracks be erased just the same,” I mumbled, as Sarah's team began to resume their former 'excursion speed'.
The near complete feeling of deadness had me searching in an arc from north to south, and now and then, I tried to 'look' toward our rear. I wondered for a moment if we had been followed.
“Yes, but you gave those witches the slip when you turned off the main highway,” said the soft voice, “and they wonder how you just 'disappeared' – as what you left behind went from faint tracks among a host of others to 'nothing at all'.”
“That first road was very hard,” said Sarah. “I could feel every piece of gravel, it was so hard.”
“It also had no dust yet, unlike the main one you first used,” said the soft voice, “and with firm ground under your wheels, you need dust to leave much in the way of tracks.”
“And I asked that are tracks be erased, also,” I thought.
“That will really confound those witches who will think to search for your trail in the days to come,” said the soft voice, “as every track you've made since leaving the buggy-way is now gone.”
“Good,” mumbled Sarah. “When we next cut through a field, I think we should get into some beer.”
The turn to the west occurred but minutes later, and as we completed it – it wrapped around a sizable woodlot, then went through another one of even larger size – I could feel the place to turn off somewhere less than a mile away. At our current speed, we would reach it in minutes, and then our time...”
“Rags for the hooves, then,” I murmured. I was glad I'd put a decent-sized bundle in my pack before leaving.
The seconds ticked off one by one, almost as if that huge nightmare-clock were once more roosting in my right ear, and I was so distracted that I nearly missed the second field crossing. As I led off out of the ditch, I again asked that our tracks be erased, and when I came to an unusually solid spot in the middle of the field, I stopped beside Sarah and dismounted. She already had the jug uncorked.
Two cups each, then a third; and after tying rags around the horses' hooves, we resumed. This 'through-the-field' stretch would be longer and more curved, as it would need to go around two sizable woodlots and then through a wide field hemmed in by other woodlots. I listened for the noises of the night, and heard nothing out of the ordinary: soft rustling wind ruffling the branches and leaves of trees, the tinkle of a well-hidden brook, and what might be an animal of some kind moving as quietly as it could through a woodlot. I could think of two possibilities, and when the animal showed itself seconds later, I gasped.
“That is an elk with fresh horns starting,” said Sarah. “It must be one of the first ones to migrate from the coastal wintering range.”
“C-coastal wintering range?” I asked.
“They head that way once the snow starts falling around here,” said Sarah, “and given how they travel, they usually manage that whole distance in less than a day – and they don't begin to come back until plowing is well underway in this area.” A pause, then, “and that is a younger one, also. The full-grown ones come later, as they were dropping fresh elk earlier in the year and those animals are just learning to eat green stuff about now.”
“When do those show?” I asked. I was speaking of 'fresh elk'.
“About another month or two,” said Sarah, “and when those become common enough around here, then the big ones start coming back.”
The road showed with such suddenness that I involuntarily flinched when Jaak leaped it, and while we waited watchfully in its middle, Sarah gently drove into the ditch and then out of it. I could feel the town ahead, though this was some miles away, and not three minutes later, I noted – faintly – a familiar and nauseating stench.
“Those are pigs,” said Sarah. “I hope those stinkers are penned underground, as if they are around to see us, they will wake those witches up.”
“They are,” said the soft voice, “as they were driven far too hard before arriving this evening and they need to rest for an entire day before continuing on – and even in this town, above-ground penning of swine is thought most unwise.”
“Are there many?” asked Sarah.
“Several hundred,” said the soft voice. “When the town goes, a lot of witches are going to need to give up pork for a while.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You keep killing off their pigs,” said the soft voice. “It's getting so bad, at least according to the witches, that no one with swine to sell points south is willing to send them north past the second kingdom house on speculation.” A pause, then, “if a witch in the first kingdom wants pork, he currently has to pay for both the pig and the shipping in full before anything happens, and then he's got to eat the loss of his animal if it doesn't make it to his domicile.” A brief pause, “and that presumes he can have swine shipped north at all.”
“Uh, the witches shipping the pigs..?”
“Are also becoming scarce,” said the soft voice, “and most of those witches that still ship pigs to the first kingdom either ship them by the secret way at vast cost, or transport them in small groups of four or five animals.”
“By water?” I asked.
“Those now tend to be the smaller groups,” said the soft voice, “as the last time witches tried sending large rafts of pigs downriver, the oncoming stink alerted a town near the river some distance north of Roos, and that town's cannon-master is one of the best gunners in the first kingdom.”
“Hence he ran out his guns...”
“All four three-inch guns, and a pair of older siege guns,” said the soft voice, “and each gun was loaded with cloth sacks filled with larger musket balls. He only needed three volleys from his gunners to clear all of those rafts of both witches and pigs.”
“When was this?” asked Sarah softly.
“About five days after the Swartsburg went where it belonged,” said the soft voice. “So, if witches move pigs in this area, they either move small groups of them at night and hide up during the day in safe-houses with the pigs in basement pens, or they use the secret way – and any more, the secret way is the only reliable means of getting pork into the first kingdom.”
“Which really jacks up the price,” I thought. “El Porko has his price go up by a factor of five or six...”
“That's the price of the pig,” said the soft voice. “That's the grower's price. Then, if that pig is shipped by the secret way, it needs the rental of a very special fetish-grade cage – which costs as much as the pig does, as a rule. Then, there are various 'access fees' paid to the arch-witches on each end of the distance that pig is shipped by that means, and finally a 'transport fee' to the person who's actually transporting the pig – and those fees double the price yet again.”
“You either got to be stinky rich or crazy to want to eat pork,” I murmured as I again caught a whiff of the pigs. “When these animals go, then what?”
“Overland shipping of pigs in large groups stops well south of this point,” said the soft voice, “and those witches operating the secret way in the first kingdom become very wealthy.”
Another mile to go,” I thought, as we passed by a crossroads. I could see where I had hit the road the night before some distance ahead, and I moved to the side of Sarah so as to discuss how we would 'do' the town.
“Go to the far end,” I said, “and then turn around. I'll dismount then, unwrap the decorator, and as you travel at a walk back the way we came, I'll unwrap the jugs, dose them, and then set them down.”
“If this town is the size I suspect it to be, then you'll be putting down jugs every twenty or thirty paces,” said Sarah. “It's a bit smaller than home is, isn't it?”
“A bit more than half the size,” I said. “Now once I set down the last jug, you wait while I pull the string. Once I do that, you start off, and I'll catch up – and when I do that, then we will move.” I then had a question: “will there be enough time?”
“If you use the pendant and get into the cloud within fifteen seconds of pulling that string,” said the soft voice, “you'll have time and then some. If you take thirty seconds, though...”
“We shall ride the smoke with the witches when those bombs go off,” said Sarah with finality. “I am never, ever, ever letting Hans do something like that again.”
“You'll need to watch him closely just the same,” said the soft voice, “at least for the next few months.”
“And after that?” I asked. There was no answer, at least from that source. Sarah, however, had something of one.
“I think something will happen to him by then,” said Sarah.
“More than just 'something', dear,” said the soft voice. “During the Abbey's time, he will become an utterly different person from how he now is.” A brief pause, then, “and I would slow down slightly, as that town is less than a mile away from where you now are moving and you need to make less noise.”
“It must be closer than I thought,” said Sarah. “Now I shall need to drive slowly to the far end, and then stop and untie the cover, while you dismount.” A pause, then, “the rear gate?”
“I'd leave that be,” I said. “You'll want to travel back the way we came at the speed I'm able to walk, and I'll...” A sudden thought bloomed in my mind: I could set out the jugs without stopping, provided I grabbed them from the bed and dosed them while I was setting them down.
“At least, I can do that if I'm careful,” I thought, as we passed the place where I had cut the road the night before. “It's not much further.
Sarah began slowing, first from a slow trot to a rapid walk, and then to a normal walk. The reduction in noise was so great by her doing so that I now noted a number of noises from the town ahead: vast numbers of rumbling snores, an occasional stuttering hiccup, and now and then small blatting sounds that joined with the others mentioned into a dire cacophony.
“Some witch just passed wind,” muttered Sarah.
“Or a pig,” I whispered. “Do those things pass wind?”
“Not only do domestic pigs produce vast amounts of wind, but their wind is peculiarly suited to explosions,” said the soft voice. “More than one fifth kingdom piggery has gone up like a powder-mill due to poor ventilation practices.”
“And those below-ground pens have almost no ventilation,” I thought. “When this place goes up...”
“There will be a vast number of flying pigs,” said the soft voice, “and people will not only see the sun rise once more at night, but they will think they are being invaded by extraterrestrial beings.”
“Comets?” I asked.
“No, people from other worlds,” said the soft voice. “The Grim collection has more than a few tales mentioning such beings, and those flaming pigs falling with bright flames will get people's attention.”
“And I can smell strong drink,” muttered Sarah. “That must be a bad Public House.”
“Which is filled to the brim with drunken witches,” said the soft voice. “Get ready, because you're going to have but a very few minutes to do this.”
With each step, the reek of strong drink became more potent, and mingled with this gut-churning stink was the unbelievably foul odor of cramped swine. These animals were fully as drunk as the witches, and the steady splatting noises I heard made for wondering as to what the pigs had been 'loaded' with. The bushes to each side of the road abruptly fell away, and to the right, I saw the Public House, its doors open a slight crack to show bright-dim-bright lighting amid the thunderous rumble of snoring.
“Well-dried distillate, no doubt,” I thought. “That thing might have ten minutes before it goes.”
And as I thought this, I knew we did not have ten minutes, but perhaps half that; and while the bomb's fuse was too short, that lantern had a short fuse as well. I glanced back over my shoulder, and noted a slight increase in the frequency of the pulsating light. I then looked at Sarah.
While she was not at all calm, her resolve was of such an overpowering nature that she drove steadily at the quietest possible speed down the rough middle of the road. There, the dust was thickest, and the clopping of the horses' hooves was muted to near-silence. We passed a shop, then another shop, both of these having black doors showing clearly with fire-red surrounds; then a 'dwelling' of some kind. This last seemed lifted straight from the lost Swartsburg; then a Mercantile, this imported from the fifth kingdom for stench at the least.
It was otherwise for its size, that being very similar to the one at home, and both of its doors were entirely black, even to their knobs and surrounding boards.
More shops, these clustered closely to each side. So far, every door I had seen was either black entirely or black with a blood-red surround, and carved deeply into many of these doors were sizable red-painted markings that took a second for me to recognize as rune-curses.
In its own way, the town was working on eclipsing both the hall and my recollection of the Swartsburg, and as the house of the long-dead miser hove into view, I turned around where I sat once more.
The pulsating light to our rear had grown both brighter and more frantic. It would go when it felt inclined, and I prayed that we would have sufficient time to do our business before it went. Sarah slowed, then turned around as she passed the now-empty house of the miser; and I slid off of Jaak as she stopped.
With two of us working upon it, the covering all but shot back; and as Sarah folded it, I removed a jug. I set it down, and using the decorator, I squirted a healthy yellow dollop on an exposed stick of dynamite, then walked ahead as Sarah took her seat. She caught up with me in seconds, then as I reached inside the box for another jug, I felt movement below. The swine were growing restive, for their drugged drink was wearing off. I grabbed the second jug, dosed it, and then set it down, all in one smooth motion. Jaak was to my right, and as my stride both lengthened and quickened, the buggy sped up.
Another reach; grab a jug; dose it; and set it down. We were nearly to the Mercantile, and I began reaching and dosing as fast as I could as the buggy horses sped up of their own accord. Sarah seemed transfixed, much as if she was waiting for a sign, and when I reached for the next to the last jug, I whispered, “get ready. I'm going to pull that string as I'm setting it down, then I'll hop on Jaak and head out of town.”
Sarah nodded, then took up the reins to hold her restive horses back slightly as we came up on the Public House. I put the decorator in the bed, reached for the last jug, then as I turned it over, I felt – clearly and distinctly – that at least one witch was becoming wakeful. The bright-dim-bright of the lantern was now such that I wondered if I needed to pull the string, but when I touched the cover, it fell off of its own accord to tinkle faintly in the dust at my feet.
My hand grasped the stick. There was less string than Hans had spoken of, perhaps six inches. I then pulled hard.
A faint snap, then smoke began coming out of the box.
I set the bomb down as time slowed to a crawl. I turned, then leaped to land upon Jaak. Sarah saw me do this, and twitched the reins.
Her horses bolted, and as Jaak began to stretch out into a gallop, my hand began reaching for the pendant.
Another second gone, and as my hand closed upon the pendant, I heard first one shout come from behind us, then another. We were close to a hundred yards out by the time of the second hoarse roaring yell, and as my hand brought out the pendant, I seemed to hear the sounds of a volley of gunfire.
The cloud came down with a sudden abruptness, and I saw clearly in glaring electric blue the path of our escape as I urged Jaak to greater speed; for while Hans had thought his half-baked guess conservative at the least, his fuse – and indeed, all he had done in our regard of late – felt as if he had labored while being ridden by potent fetishes; and even my speaking of 'faster burning while confined' was not enough to do justice to what he'd actually done: he'd essentially fused our 'main' bomb with a sluggish species of quickmatch.
I noted this between the second and third ticks of the clock that now sat upon my shoulder to shovel its thundering ticking noises into my right ear, and as I hunkered down for yet-greater speed, I saw first one, then another two solid-gray objects fly past me as if I were seeing sedated wood-pigeons. For some reason, however, I needed to not wait for Hans' quickmatch-in-disguise to find its cap; no, I needed to act, and act now.
“Explode,” I thought.
With a sudden burst, the sky behind us, from horizon to horizon, went from an inky blackness to a most-brilliant whiteness, and with this abrupt change, the gray objects ceased flying among us as if a switch had been thrown. Underneath, the ground shook violently, then a second such violent tremor hit to be followed hot on its heels by a third.
And yet the blue-lined path remained to our front and center, and that thunder-ticking clock had climbed from its former perch upon my shoulder unto the very threshold of my right ear; and its slow measured metronome-like pounding thunder showed only the still-growing light behind us and the blue-lined trail in front. To our sides, however, violent winds blew, these being the rapid-moving shockwave heading out from 'ground zero', and the thick rumbling dust-streams shooting past us were of dark and foul-smelling brown and black hues.
“Shockwave,” I thought, as the clock roosting in my right ear banged out another 'tick'.
And yet, the trail still beckoned us onward, and the blurred scenery to each side now merged unto blackness and sepia, for ahead lay road and meadow mingled unto a single variegated stripe laid over with blue. My hand acquired a mind of its own, and slowly, patient as time, it began reaching for the pendant.
And yet, however, I knew it was not yet time. Another two ticks of the clock banged out their merciless crackles, and then – and only then – it was indeed time.
My hand, however, was palsied; and in my bent-over and nauseated state, its movement was as slow as a glacier. It took another five ticks for my fingers to even touch the pendant; another six to grasp it, during which the blue-line trail was still strong and we shot along it; and then a further ten ticks to retrieve the thing and hide it in the darkness of my shirt and skin.
And then, and only then, did the blue-line vanish and the cloud lift with a suddenness that seemed to be lifted from the explosion that still lit up the world behind us. I wondered where we were.
“Look,” said Sarah faintly. “Over there.
Slow, majestic as the sun itself, a massive yellow-white fireball of roiling flame made small by sheer distance climbed into the night sky atop a stalk of similar incandescent fire; and rapidly spreading out from its base lay massive gray-black dust clouds that seemed to top the tallest trees. The whole grim and glowing tableau reminded me of pictures I had seen of nuclear weapons.
“W-what did we do?” I asked. My ears were ringing as loudly as they ever had. “That looks like a nuclear weapon.” I then looked at my sleeve. “How did that hole get there?”
“Those witches had lined up in a firing line,” said a soft voice, “and all save a handful of them were firing at you as you fled. That handful occupied otherwise were heading for that first bomb, and when they were about to touch it, you command-detonated that entire batch of them at once.”
“Th-that dirt?” I asked. “Was that those, uh, gray things I saw?”
“I think that was lead,” said Sarah dryly. Only then did I notice we were on an uncommonly wide and well-used road. “I have no idea if we left tracks or not.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“About a mile from home on the main road,” said Sarah. “My ears have more bells in them than a monk's tower.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect we have some of those witches' lead.”
“W-what happened?” I asked. I meant the town's disposition as I glanced at the still-rising fireball, which finally seemed to be fading as it climbed yet higher into the night sky. “How big is that thing?”
“That town is gone,” said the soft voice. “All that is left of it is a town-sized smoking hole in the ground – which should give you an idea what two jugs of genuine Benzina ringed with dynamite is going to do to the hall.”
“Hall?” I asked. “There's not going to be a hall l-left, is there?”
“There was no answer beyond the now-obviously-fading fireball, our loudly ringing ears, and the massive plume of black smoke that looked to eclipse both the fast-fading fireball and the massive and still-growing dust clouds. I then had a question.
“Those witches shooting?”
“Were far too drunk to do more than 'point gun at dust cloud, and pull trigger' – which is why you saw those bullets flying past you,” said the soft voice. “Get your baths when you get home, as that will start what little shot you managed to pick up.”
“D-dust cloud?” I asked.
“Quite a sizable one, actually,” said the soft voice, “and most thick, also – especially once you took out the pendant. It got much thicker then, at least while you kept to that road.”
“What did we do then?” asked Sarah. We were indeed close to home, as I could smell the faint and fading aroma of the 'smelly clearing' – and it was sufficiently faded that it had to be close at hand.
“You went cross-country in as close to a straight line as the woodlots and witches would permit,” said the soft voice, “and your speed was such that the few witches that saw you saw a huge black blur that left 'smoke' in its wake.”
“Did we leave a trail?”
“That was erased as you traveled,” said the soft voice, “and that 'smoke' was mostly a vapor trail.”
“Vapor?” I asked.
“You managed to get nearly half a mile away before you command-detonated those bombs,” said the soft voice, “and the shockwave was of sufficient violence for it to overtake you as you reached the mile's distance you needed for safety.”
“A m-mile?” I asked. “What did we do?”
“Between those bombs, what the witches had themselves for dynamite and distillate in their dwellings, the gaseous emanations of that pig herd, and what that one dead witch had accumulated in his 'access shaft',” said the soft voice, “that blast was larger than that which destroyed the Swartsburg.”
“What of our bombs?” asked Sarah.
“Those, of and by themselves, were enough to turn that town into a shallow smoking hole,” said the soft voice. “The witches' contributions merely made the hole half again as much wider and about three times deeper – and that fireball lasted much longer as well.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Long enough that most of the central portion of the first kingdom heard and saw it this time,” said the soft voice, “and in the future, there will be 'old tales' spoken of that town and its fiery end.”
“At least we are close enough to home,” said Sarah. “That clearing is just ahead, and that means home's just a few minutes distant.”
“Uh, you have a headache?” I asked.
“Good idea,” said Sarah. “That thing needs to be plugged, then covered and bagged.”
After doing those things to the cookie decorator – it was still mostly full – we each had a cup of beer each. In the process, I felt the rear of the buggy itself for small dents, and was astonished to find none whatsoever.
“What was that shot like?” I gasped.
“The witches are finally having to 'deal with' the lead-shortage,” said the soft voice, “which means what shot they have tends to not merely be 'small' – small even for 'common shot' – but also adulterated with old tin plates and brass filings.”
“That would make it harder, though,” said Sarah.
“It also makes it 'cast' poorly,” said the soft voice, “and when it's adulterated to that degree, it not only 'looks' bad for appearance – as it's really lumpy and irregular – but it's also significantly lighter.”
“Meaning close work only,” I muttered, as we reapplied the bed-cover to the buggy.
“Close as in 'they wear the soot of your gun', in the common vernacular,” said the soft voice. “Merely bathing will cause much of what shot you have to remain in the tub.”
“Did they scratch the buggy?” asked Sarah, as she retook her seat.
“I could not feel anything,” I said, as I remounted. I noted an itch in my right arm, and touched the spot. To my complete surprise, a 'lump' fell off – and then next to it, another lump did the same.
“I think that not merely were those witches using bad shot,” said Sarah as we resumed moving, “but also we were a bit far from them.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I saw you rub your arm,” said Sarah, “and I've done the same – and I felt at least three pellets fall when I did so.” A brief pause, then, “and once we sleep, then we must labor upon bottles.”
I could faintly smell – and hear – those starting the day's labor in the Public House, and as its lights came into view, I said, in the most soothing voice I could manage, “yes, dear.”
Sarah looked at me with an unreadable expression.
“We will wish to fill every bottle we can,” I said in the same voice, “as well as make more of that disreputable 'glue' you spoke of. At least five 'glue-bottles', unless I miss my guess.” I then had a question.
“How shall I carry three jugs into that place?”
“I am not certain three jugs will be needed,” said Sarah. “If those things we did...”
Sarah's voice faded with alarming suddenness as we passed the Public House and its lights, and with the succeeding lights of the town's houses and shops, I wondered just how many people we woke up with our escapade. All of an answer I could determine, both for what we would do on the morrow, and what awaited us once home, was, 'wait and see what happens'.
There was a faint light showing from within the frontal window at home, and when I opened the doors to the buggy-way, I could feel at least one person present was semi-awake. I walked inside, noticing again the absence of the regular buggy, and once in the rear, I was astonished at where it sat.
“It didn't move?” I gasped. I then looked behind me.
Sarah was about to close the outer door, but before she did, I could see a faint aspect of lightening in the darkness of the night. As she closed the other door, then put up the 'cleaned stick' that Hans used in lieu of a bar for a 'lock', she said, “dawn is in about another hour or so, unless I guess badly.”
“A bit more than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “That 'glow' you saw is the smoke of that town's burning, and that plume of smoke will remain present to some degree much of tomorrow's morning.”
“While we do church, in fact,” I thought, as I led Jaak to the stable. He still had his own space, even if the other two spaces now had two horses each. At least they seemed to be doing passably, which was my thought as I passed the chest-high mound of chopped hay.
“Where does that stuff come from?” I asked.
“Willem's house does not merely conceal artillery,” said the soft voice. “It also conceals his quite-sizable workshop, and when he's not working on cannons and things related to them, he works upon those things his skills and tools happen to fit.” A brief pause, then, “that hay-chopper needs constant repairs to stay operational, but he makes enough money from operating it just the same.”
“Hay-chopper?” I asked.
“Recall an order for ten square-headed 'close' bolts and nuts you filled about a month ago?” asked the soft voice. “Willem is especially glad for those, so much so that he plans on putting in another order for them and a 'close-fitted wrench' as soon as he can accumulate an adequate inducement.”
“Inducement?” I asked.
“Georg does not object, especially when it comes to your work,” said the soft voice. “His operating expenses are significantly higher than they were, especially regarding supplies – and that cylinder for Frankie was not cheap.” A pause, then, “and once Frankie starts running, and you start teeming crucible steel, I would expect the order-stacks to climb to the roof.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I pushed the regular buggy into the buggy-way. I had asked that all of our tracks be erased but seconds before.
“No one casts iron in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “No one. Then, decent cast iron only comes from a handful of firms in the fourth and fifth kingdoms – and the shipping costs are very high for such parts.”
“And they involve multiple trips, inducements, and more than a little time and effort,” said Sarah as she helped me close the rear doors and 'throw the latch'. It was a recent addition by the carpenters, as Anna had been worried about nocturnal 'witch-invasions'. “That is why that furnace is so important, and what else you do will be more so.”
“Willem's hay-chopper?” I asked.
“Reminds me of an old grain-grinder,” said Sarah. “Such tools tend to be most temperamental, and that thing of his is exactly like that.”
“Yes, but does it, uh, chop hay?”
“When he can get it to run, it does,” said Sarah. “Now I am inclined toward bathing, and I suspect you have the itch for bathwater as well.”
While I had that – Sarah bathed first, and I could hear soft yelps and once a faint shriek while she did so – I still wondered about Willem's hay-chopper. I almost needed to see the thing – as soon as possible, in fact – so as to satisfy my curiosity.
“Once Frankie runs, I would expect him to come as much as he can,” said the soft voice. “He'd like 'tool steel' blades instead of worn-out razors, and iron parts instead of half-rotten wood, and one of your steam engines to run it instead of what he currently uses.”
“Is the that power source cantankerous?” I asked.
“No, but using bad wood when cast iron and riveted iron plate is needed means constant breakdowns,” said the soft voice, “and Willem, if one is speaking of carpentry, 'smells badly'.”
“I heard that,” said Sarah softly as she came out of the bathroom, “and not only is he no carpenter, but I left enough shot in that tub to load both barrels on the fowling piece.”
“Bad shot?” I asked.
“It might work for close rats,” said Sarah.
My bath had shot 'dropping like rain' when and where I scrubbed, and I was surprised at how much I had left in the tub when I got out. I still itched, however, and there were places I could not reach on my back that were bad that way. I then had a question.
“Our clothing?” I asked.
“I've never understood how that happens,” said Sarah, “but most shot, unless it is quite large, seems to part the fibers of fabric and they close back up.” A pause, then, “the shot from that four hole mould would most likely make holes in clothing.”
“Perhaps we can melt down bad shot and reclaim its lead,” I said.
Sarah looked at me strangely, then squeaked “yes, and I know how to clean lead!”
“Best done outside, unless you got the right equipment – or does it take special equipment?” I asked. Going to bed right now was not happening, as I was too keyed up from our most-recent adventure. For once, I now realized, I had faced real danger. It made for stranger-yet thinking.
“The hall?” I asked. “Did they see the, uh, fireball?”
“Those people were probably as drunk as those we just blew up,” said Sarah, “and I have no idea how those stinkers woke up when they did.” Sarah then scratched her 'rear', and I heard a faint rattling noise as something bounced off of the floor.
“I think we both have shot still,” I said. “I wonder if Anna's up?”
“She's not likely to wake before the sun tries to burn a hole in her eyelids,” said Sarah.
“It already did,” said Anna sleepily from the top of the stairs. She was in 'bed-clothing'. “I never thought I would see the sun rise at night, but if ever someone asks me, I can speak of its slow climbing on a pillar of fire to finally turn to thick black smoke.”
“You saw it?” I asked, as I scratched my back – which made for another faint rattling noise on the floor.
Anna shook herself, then asked, “that sounded like shot. Do you two have lead?”
“Get some beer first,” I murmured softly. “At least two full mugs of our latest batch, which has an especially good flavor, and then we can not only be searched for shot and balls, but we can speak of what happened.”
After Anna had downed two mugs of beer, she first got properly dressed, then began to look us over for shot. As I was 'cleared' – I still had a fair amount present, so much so that I wondered where it had come from – Sarah spoke of our 'adventure', including the 'rocket-like speeds' we had managed during much of our escape from the place.
“He'll need to sleep a fair amount, then,” said Anna. I was half asleep already. “That pendant thing wears him out when it does that, or so I've heard from people.”
“Lukas?” asked Sarah.
“Him especially,” said Anna, “and then Hendrik. They told me about that trip back when I and Hans were removing lead from all of those people.”
I fell asleep when Anna finished with my back and started rubbing my head so as to search for shot there, and I awoke with the room-blanket covering me and a small – and surprisingly new – pillow under my head. The sun was just beginning to send rays into the room, and as I opened my bleary eyes, I noted someone was sitting on a stool but feet away. It was Hans – and I could not read his expression to save my life.
“W-what?” I muttered. “I need to visit the privy.”
“You do that, and then I have questions,” said Hans.
For some improbable reason, Hans sounded peeved beyond reason as I emptied my bladder, and when I came back to the couch, I saw that not merely was Hans present, but also a person who took me a moment to recognize.
“Tam?” I asked. “G-greens?”
“Yep,” he said. “That town gone, or is it gone? I saw the sun rise at night, same as everyone in town here did, and I wonder who done it and what they did to get to that place.”
“I am not certain how big the hole is,” I said, “but I was told that where that town once stood, there's now a big smoking hole in the ground.”
“Good,” said Tam. “That leaves that stinking brick-house they turned the hall into. It goes next, right?”
“How is it you, uh, know?”
“I got my ways,” said Tam. He had a chuckle to his voice. “All them years I was crippled, I was a runnin' a Mercantile, and you meet lots of people in those places. If you do right by 'em, they come back regular as turnips, and lots 'a' times, they tell you what's happening where they live when they show themselves.”
“And you had people coming from some distance, didn't you?” I asked.
“There are places that get people from farther away than I do,” said Tam, “but they got things I don't have any way of getting. So I do the best I can with what I have.” A brief pause, then, “now I wish there were more people using thimbles, as I know you people make about the best to be had.”
“Most of those guard people have those rotating pistols now, or want them,” said Hans. “I have one, and so does Anna, and Sarah has hers, and he's got one he carries so it shows and another in that bag of his...”
“Aye, and you make the thimbles for all o' those things,” said Tam.
“I am afraid that what we make for thimbles is somewhat reserved,” said Sarah's voice from somewhere nearby. “Many of them are used in tipped shells.”
“Not 'many' of them, dear,” said Tam. “Manfred says he don't use no others, and same for Willem, and if those two agree on something, you can ride money on every other cannon-master who uses them things is wanting his thimbles to be those made here.” A brief pause, then, “how many of them things you make?”
“That is the trouble,” said Hans. “We do not have the things to make trays of them.”
Tam was taken aback, then said, “no matter, then. If they go on the tipped shells, and the cannon-shooters get their shells to land under the snouts of those pigs when they're a-coming, I'll be glad enough.” A brief pause, then, “now when is it you plan on that hall?”
“Why, sir?” asked Sarah.
“Cause I need some time to get onto the others,” said Tam. “Tonight's about right, as that gives all of us enough time to make sure we got plenty o' powder and lead.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You ain't done much siegin', have you?” said Tam. “Those books there” – here, he pointed at the Grim Collection's volumes – “talk about it all the time, and when you got people trying to hoist bombs on the place, you got to keep the defenders occupied – an' that means getting them to dodging hot lead.”
“That place has got a bad gate and these two towers,” said Tam. “Those need siege guns, but we don't have those in the area, and they aren't easy to move quick.”
Sarah nodded her head, then said, “no, but we do have some most peculiar wine-bottles. Let me prepare one, and I will show you.”
I followed Sarah down into the basement, now unsure of just what she had planned, and as I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard boots thumping heavy on the stairs, followed by the fainter and lighter noises of shoes. Again, I wondered about the boots.
“Try it with your boots,” said the soft voice. “Given you commonly wear your regular shoes now rather than trekking boots, you usually don't make such noises.”
“They're more comfortable,” I murmured. This was doubly true when one walked upon stone floors – and the house proper's floors were entirely stone.
“True,” said the soft voice, “and you ride differently than most do, hence you aren't in need of 'riding boots'.
“Is that what those things are?” I thought, as I came to where Sarah had set up a row of wine-bottles, complete with a nearby brim-full copper bowl of waxed corks, a sizable ceramic bowl of niter, and the jug of that one evil-smelling chemical. I somehow knew the cookie decorator was in the cold room, still wrapped and prepared for using.
“F-feathers?” I asked.
Sarah held up a strange wooden 'thing' that had me wondering what she was planning until she set it on the neck of a bottle and 'darted' in four long ready-trimmed feathers faster than I could count. The slant these had was obvious.
“I had the carpenters make this for me,” she said. “I have a suspicion that a great many wine-bottles will be tossed in the next few months, and hence their preparation must be expedited.”
“Aye,” said Tam. “Now are these like what got to those three witches and those four witch-horses they was driving?”
“Similar as to concept, yet with a much-different filling, sir,” said Sarah. “I am about to load up one of them with our main chemical mixture, and we will test it such that you may see what they can do.”
Sarah then hoisted one of the jugs of 'ersatz Benzina', and I removed the feather-jig. Hans moved quick for the stairs, but Tam stood his ground; and as we poured the first evil-smelling 'dose' of that ghastly chemical, he grunted, then thought to spit. Sarah shook her head as I corked the jug, then as if they'd planned it between them, both she and Tam loosed mighty sneezes.
“That's the real stuff, or I don't know chemicals much,” said Tam. “That powdered stuff niter?”
Sarah nodded, then said, “specially cleaned niter, with the second time using specially treated charcoal to get out the impurities.”
“Mule dung,” I spat. “That place was shoveling mule-dung into its powder tunnels along with the more common types.”
“Hence...” Sarah seemed utterly perplexed by this development.
“Hence its need for 'activated charcoal' to remove that 'essence of mule',” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however, that niter has a higher level of activity than most fourth-kingdom niter.”
“And that one, uh, man who makes the powder I use?” I asked.
“He has his own 'niter tunnels',” said the soft voice, “and he's altogether particular about what he loads in them.”
“Race-horse dung, unless I miss my guess,” said Sarah. “That is said to give the best powder.”
“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “He does not use the dung of horses, but rather that of chickens – with that of black roosters being the most prized – and then he processes the off-runnings in a very special manner.” A brief pause, then, “his best batches resemble niter for appearance, but are another material entirely – and he does not understand how that change happens during processing, even if he does know to set such powder aside for 'shell-filling' and 'double-strong guns'.”
I had measured the niter, and when Sarah uncorked our 'test' bottle, I dumped it in. She corked it once more quickly.
“And now, the portion of this task that smells,” said Sarah. “Hans fainted when he first smelled what is in that jug.”
“That bad, eh?” said Tam. “What, does it smell like squabs left to hang too long?”
“I do not have words for this stink,” said Sarah as she loosened the cork, “but if ever a chemical seemed likely to call flies, this stuff is first upon my list.” She turned to me, then said, “ready with that smallest cup, and one hand on the bottle. When I pull this cork, you catch a dose in that smallest measuring cup and then pull yours, and I'll get ready with the string.”
“You want glue for that stuff?” asked Tam.
“Yes, but it is cooking upstairs,” said Sarah. “This is a most-hazardous undertaking, and open flames are most unwise close by.”
I looked at all the burning candles, then wondered why we weren't on fire.
“Your presence, and that only,” said the soft voice. “That's the only thing that permits loading such bottles as you are doing.”
“I heard that,” said Tam, “and I know why, too. I didn't just get crippled by that one pig” – here, Tam did spit – “but that cursed thing got half my toes afore I put both o' my pistols in its mouth and fired.”
“Was it still aflame, sir?” asked Sarah as she nodded to me and tightened her grip upon the cork in the jug she held.
“It surely was, though the flames had died down some by then,” said Tam. “There anything I can do?”
“Yes, stay close by,” said Sarah. She then yanked her cork.
The smell of the basement instantly went from 'awful' to 'I cannot describe this stink, but I want to spew bad'. I put the cup next to Sarah as I uncorked the bottle, then once she'd filled it, I hurriedly poured it into the bottle. As I rammed home the slippery-feeling wax-impregnated cork, Sarah left at a run for the stairs, while Tam...
He just stood there, still and stiff as a column of masonry, and only Sarah's lithe steps upon the stairs as she came down with the still-bubbling glue pot seemed to 'wake him up'.
“Now that stinks,” he muttered, as I strained to retain the squirmy-feeling cork. I could feel the chemical reaction preceding apace, and the pressure it was building needed not merely careful tying of knots, but also strong string and good glue.
Tam was able to help now, and as we began to actually fletch the bomb, steps thumped upon the stairs.
“That is not Hans,” I thought. “Is it Anna?” I glanced over my shoulder to see someone's face all but hidden by a large ceramic mug. She – Anna – was downing the contents as if dehydrated.
“Now what you doing down here?” muttered Tam. He was an expert 'knot-tier' – his knots were not merely tighter and neater than what Hans had managed, but his speed in tying them was enough to make me wonder about his use of cords of a heavier nature in the past.
“I'll show you the rope-trick one o' these days, if you don't know it already,” said Tam as he finished knotting the string securing the cork. “Now we can put the feathers to that thing.”
“Church is in a glass's turn,” said Anna, “and everyone who can see it is speaking of that smoke.”
“They shall see more of such smoke shortly,” said Sarah. Her voice had somehow acquired a harder edge. “I suspect to no small degree that we were followed somehow by witches, and I would ride money on the location of their hiding.”
“No, not followed,” said the soft voice. “The witches that commonly spy upon Roos were thinking to get closer during the sermon, both so they can look over the town better and report Maarten's treason to the hall.”
“Are they in that one copse about four hundred paces off?” asked Sarah pointedly.
While there was no answer, I had a hunch that Sarah was indeed correct, and as the 'train' ascended the stairs, Sarah led the way with the bagged cookie-decorator cradled in her arms. I followed with the by-now rapidly 'cooking' bomb. I could feel the boiling 'rage' of the mixture as the bottle twitched and shook in my hands, and for some reason, I had an impression: this device had enough power to demolish a substantial house.
“Turn it to kindling and brick-dust, you mean,” said the soft voice. “I would make certain you plug your ears when you toss that one.”
“It going to be a loud one?” asked Tam.
While there was no answer from one source, I could hear Anna's muttering about bombers and explosions as she took up the rear, and once out front on the stoop, I asked, “now where is that...”
I suddenly knew precisely where it was: a green bushy copse in the middle of some farmer's field, his crops finally sprouting solidly in row upon narrow row.
“There,” said Sarah. “That is the copse I meant.” A pause, then, “I'm about ready with the decorator. Tell me when you are going to throw.”
I looked at Sarah, and saw the naked copper and leather of the thing in her hands. One hand grasped the decorator, and the other the cork; and as I 'sighted' on the bush-clump, it seemed to go gauzy and reveal its contents: a sizable group of witches, their number over a dozen, a horse – mostly those 'fat' unhousebroken things that could travel quickly for hours at a time – for each witch, what might have been two small and somewhat battered tables heavy-laden with jugs and bottles of strong drink, and an underground portion, this being a substantial shelter of some kind with at least two levels.
“It's bigger than it looks,” I muttered, as I 'faced' the wine bottle to Sarah. “I'll need to take three steps, so dose it good.”
Sarah yanked the cork, then as the headache exploded in my mind, I felt – or heard; I was not certain – Sarah grunt as she coerced the cold 'vlai' out onto the bottom of the bottle. She pulled it away, then as she began cramming in the cork I leaped from the stoop out into the yard, took another step, and threw the bottle as hard as I could.
The screeching howl of the thing this time was so loud my fingers found my ears instantly, and when I glanced back at the others, I could see that Anna had slumped against the front of the house in a faint and that Tam seemed utterly unfazed. Sarah, however, was crouched low, and as she put down the cookie decorator carefully upon the whitened boards of the stoop, both of her fingers found her ears.
“I'd plug my ears if I were you,” muttered Sarah. “That thing is...”
The bottle seemed to have all but vanished in the still-chilly morning air, but its noise – still loud, still strident, and still irritating beyond belief – was present. By the tone of the noise, however, I could tell it was falling, and as a soft prayer left my lips, the copse suddenly vanished in a massive ball of brilliant white fire.
I turned to Tam, and noted he had his fingers in his ears, and as I turned back toward the explosion, a sharp roar of thunder seemed to stagger me back at least a foot as the shockwave hit. I removed my fingers from my ears, and heard chiming bells; and when I looked for Anna, she was gone.
Where she had slumped, however, had a noticeable brown stain.
I turned back toward the site of the explosion, and noticed that not merely was there no 'huge fireball' climbing into the sky, but that little smoke remained beyond a thin wisp of half-transparent gray that slowly climbed into a cloudless sky. The copse had vanished, and scattered for nearly a hundred yards in all directions, I saw slow-smoldering objects laying upon the ground. Their sheer number was a matter of awe.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Fragments of well-charred witches and witch-horses,” said the soft voice. “It isn't every day when you can hold a device that has that kind of power.”
“Or toss it like it was shot out of a gun,” murmured Tam in awestruck amazement. “That's got to be five hundred paces easy, and it ain't a third of that from the good hiding places we got staked out to the hall's back places.”
And as if matters had been planned, Maarten – and Katje – then showed up in their buggy. Katje looked at me, then at Sarah, and asked, “were there witches in that copse again?”
“I am not certain about 'again',” said Sarah softly, “but there were witches in that place, and now it and they are where they belong.”
Katje smiled, then said, “the hall has become a fortress, or so the witches think it. It never was that, and it shall soon become their tomb.”
All that Maarten did was smile – a smile so brief and faint that I but barely noticed it as I looked upon his face.
Anna was but a minute late, and while she and Hans acted as if 'nothing out of the ordinary' had happened, the rest of the congregation was most 'restive'. Georg – he was sitting at the end of a pew near the middle – for once was smiling, and I wondered as to the why of his expression.
“I'm glad my arm isn't sore,” I murmured.
“Next time you make long tosses, move your arms around some to warm up before heaving things that hit like artillery rounds.”
“Wh-what was that one good for?” I asked.
“About twenty sticks of that dynamite that Hans has nightmares about,” said the soft voice. “It needed another two hours to fully mature, so it was not nearly as strong as it could have been.”
I stared ahead in stunned shock as the sermon started, and through still-ringing ears I heard a soft whisper to my right. I turned to see Sarah, and I bent down.
“It will be most bad for the hall to have fully ripe wine-bottles center their windows,” she whispered. “I heard much of the rest of what was said.” A brief pause, then, “how strong would a ripe one be?”
“About twice as powerful,” said the soft voice, “and given witches have little use for window-glass, those bottles will go inside and detonate against the far walls.”
“Which means each such room becomes an incinerator,” I thought.
“The blast will do far more than that,” said the soft voice. “A fully ripened bottle has nearly as much power as that shell that slaughtered Anna's relatives when she was a young girl.”
“Ooh,” I squeaked. I tried hard to keep silent, but something still came out. Those surrounding us did not seem to mind, for the sermon had acquired an astounding intensity, and Maarten's text was taken from the book of Joshua.
“And as if we needed a reminder,” I thought, “he's talking about what Joshua was told to do to those execrable Canaanites.” A pause in my thinking, then, “those people did human sacrifice, didn't they? Molech and all those other nasty idols, and...”
My thinking stopped, for I now realized – I had never given it much thought before, at least since being brought here – that while 'Canaan' was in another location entirely, where we were could pass for it, in terms of its plentiful food and game; and while we were not Israelites, the witches I had seen did behave somewhat like those Joshua was told to 'deal with'.
“And hence they must be killed,” I thought. “Not most of them.” A brief pause. “All of them. No mercy whatsoever, and no survivors permitted. None.” And in a whisper, I said, “no mercy, no relent, and no tears – and this time, it's for all of the marbles.”
With sudden abruptness, Maarten's voice rose to just less than a shout; and as if my whispering had reminded him of what he was to speak upon, he cried:
“And we are to be as those of Israel were told to be, and not as they did;
we must erase mercy from our minds, should the matter of witchdom come before us;
we must raise war, and do so without relent, until they are destroyed, and that utterly;
and tears must not be shed for them, for all witches declare before Almighty God
that they hate him as implacable enemies, and they do that by their simple existence.”
“Now that is a good sermon, there,” said Hans as the congregation stood to leave a few minutes later. Maarten and Katje were packing their books, for they had to hurry on to their next of three engagements, and as I watched, I noted Katje carefully checking what looked like a revolver before she finished 'packing' the books in her handbag.
“That one she has is decent, even if it ain't one of yours,” said Tam. “Now that sermon was the truth, and nothing that a witch would speak got anywhere near it.”
“He did not plan that text, did he?” I asked softly.
“He did, but he wondered if it was safe to speak it without couching it in careful language when he knew that spies were nearby,” said the soft voice. “When he saw them blown to bits in front of his eyes, he then had his first 'sign'; and when you spoke in what sounded to you like a whisper, he had his second reminder as to what he was told to say.” A brief pause, then, “to his credit, he then did as he was told with but little deviation after you spoke.”
“Will he give the same message in the other two places?” asked Sarah.
“Now he will do so, or die in the attempting,” said the soft voice. “Two such signs in half an hour is not readily ignored.”
“I hope not,” said Anna. I wondered, “does she hope he does not get killed, or is she concerned about him giving the message as he should?”
Anna proved to be concerned more about the state of her clothing than what I had considered, it seemed, for she immediately took charge of the bathroom once we had crossed the street and gone north the short distance from church. Sarah and I had business below, however; and for the space of an hour, the two of us and Tam – Hans stayed well clear, for he was muttering about the laboratory smelling so horribly he would not be able to use it for a week – filled bottle after bottle in spurts of two or three, with a breather between each such spurt to reheat the glue on the stove or over a heating lamp upstairs.
At least at first we filled two or three. We managed four on our third time, and five the time after before Tam said the glue was too cold to 'hold strong'.
“And it needs that,” he said as he set aside the last bottle of the five. “I can feel this 'un here working.”
“Working?” asked Sarah. “Is it like bad mash for Geneva?”
“Don't know what this is like, on account o' I've never felt anything like it before,” said Tam. “I can feel it shake if I hold one, though, and if I listen to it careful, I can hear it boiling like a still that's about to burst.”
Tam stayed for lunch, as he said we had 'important doings' that needed him there, though I wondered as to why he needed to go outside during the middle of dinner. He came back inside shortly, though, saying, “they're coming fast, and they should be in the house proper by dinner.”
“They?” I asked innocently.”
“Lukas, Gilbertus, Paul, and Willem,” said Tam. “All four o' those people are as stiff as they come when it comes to witches an' gunfire – and here, Tam looked directly at Sarah, and then at me before continuing, “though there's stiff, and then there's stiff – and the two of you are straight out of an old tale for that business.”
“Ah, that is why they call him that, then,” said Hans.
“Him?” I asked mildly.
“Yes, those witches call you lots of names,” said Hans. “Most of them are bad, and lots of them are in witch-speech that I cannot speak anyway.”
“That is one of those bad ones,” said Hans. “This one I heard.”
“Where did you hear it?” asked Sarah pointedly.
“In the Public House here,” said Hans. He sounded insulted, while the whole table relaxed instantly.
“It is not a bad name,” said Hans. “You should hear what they say about Hendrik.”
“What do they call him?” asked Tam. I could clearly hear menace in his voice, so much so that his old name – 'Vengeful Tam' – seemed to fit him like a glove.
“Now they call Hendrik 'Iron-Bottom', as he got shot there, and rode on,” said Hans with a chortle, “and then him – here, Hans pointed at me with his knife – “they call him...”
Hans burst into uncontrollable laughter. Sarah looked at me, then at Tam – and then at Anna. The last was at a loss for words, so much so that she said, “I have no idea as to how being named as if one were like a rock wall can be so funny.”
“R-rock wall?” I gasped.
“Yes, as you are said to be as set as one of those things, or so those stupid witches think,” said Hans once he stopped laughing, “and I know that is wrong, as you walk like everyone else does.”
“Perhaps I can answer,” said Sarah. “What are rocks known for?”
“Certain ones are 'specially hard,” said Tam, “and they don't burn, and you can't hardly break 'em, and then if you make a wall out of that type of rock, it don't go nowhere save where it wants to be.”
Sarah looked at Tam in wide-eyed wonder, then slowly nodded while her mouth slowly closed from its full-open position.
“As in 'set your face like flint'?” I asked gently. I had quoted a line from the book of Ezekiel.
The noises of the table came to a complete stop save for the sounds of eating utensils falling with soft clattering noises. Hans was laughing no longer.