Under Siege, continued
Dinner was a silent matter, even with five people eating slower than usually, and as the dishes piled in the soaking bucket, I wondered if I would ever see mealtimes quite the same way again. The parlor, however, was a scene replete with danger, for there, all the members of the household were checking their weapons. Tam's weapon surprised me, for his 'musket' was not merely modified to take 'thimbles', but its form was such that I was looking at what I normally used in a new light.
“No, I did not copy what he has,” I muttered.
“I know that,” said Tam. “This 'un has been in the grease since I hung up my greens.”
“Yes, and what does it use?” This was from Hans.
“These things like what his uses, I suspect,” said Tam. “It might not drop elk like that one does, but I've seen what it does to those northern people, and if I can see 'em, I can hit 'em.”
“Yes, and does it drill through their plate?” asked Hans.
“If I'm within a hundred paces, and those people's plate isn't especially good, it does,” said Tam. “I've had exactly two of them thugs ignore being shot, and both of 'em was at a good range for one o' Willem's guns.” A pause, then, “witches, though... Those people near-always drop right off, unless they're especially hard or they're wearing iron under that black clothing they wear.”
Here, Tam produced a bullet, and I was astonished: it was shorter than mine, and a trifle larger in diameter, but otherwise, it looked outwardly similar as to shape. I then passed him one of mine – which he looked at with a practiced eye. I wondered how the dark grease in the grooves sat with him.
“I guess I'm going to need to put in an order for a bullet mould, as your's are better than mine,” he said. “Mine I got used, same as the gun, and it was off a marsh-man, and he said his kit was getting tired.”
“Tired?” I asked. “As in it needs its rifling recut and the bore lapped?”
Tam looked at me as if I'd spoken 'the magic word' – the one that meant a black-hole-bound shortcut to Eire's pot of gold – and then said, “now that would probably help. It's getting thin in places, and then...” A pause. “Did you cut yours straight pitch, or does it gain spin as it travels?”
“I think it does the later, sir,” said Sarah. “I've run a patch down that gun, and it's much faster near the muzzle than it is near the breech.”
“When?” I asked. My lower jaw was dragging at this revelation.
“When you were in the basement with Hans not long ago,” said Sarah. “I removed the thimble, so as to avoid trouble, and then I assembled your cleaning rod and put a lightly greased patch upon it and ran it down the barrel.” A brief pause, during which she finished greasing her revolver, then put it away, “and I can tell that no one – and I mean just that – cuts better grooving than what I saw.”
“There are people who do that?” I gasped.
“Yes, in the fourth kingdom's shops,” said Sarah. “I've seen a few done at the Heinrich works, and those come very close to yours.”
“That place does that, and about two other shops,” said Tam. “One's in the fifth kingdom, though you got to be a black-dressed thug with sacks 'o money to talk to those people, and then this one shop somewhere near the fourth kingdom house.”
“Not Ernst,” I muttered. I really doubted he knew of rifling, much less had the equipment to do so.
“No, not him,” said Tam. “This place is in this little town near this shop of this man named Bart, and I heard tell he set up the machines and advised them doing the work. Since he got killed, I'm not sure if they do much o' that work any more.” A pause, then, “and of course, whatever they actually do in the Marshes beyond grow and work with linen.”
“They do that?” asked Anna.
“That's most o' what they sell,” said Tam, “but I know they sell a lot more than just linen. Albrecht might know more.”
“Presuming he's inclined to speak of the matter,” I said. The word 'discretion' came to mind, and how it had been mentioned regarding the man. “Now, how are we going to get over to that place without being seen?”
That proved a problem that not even Tam had considered, and I soon learned that because I had recently gone there – at night, no less – I was expected to 'find' a way. As the buggies were loaded – we would be taking both of them, with Tam riding his horse and I riding Jaak – I began to formulate a plan of sorts.
The chief trouble was Hans had become absolutely balky about going his usual way in the dark. Now, the only way he 'knew' – it was 'dark', shortly after sundown – was 'the long way', and while I knew there would be no witches watching that route, the term 'witch' in my case did not include those stinkers at Waldhuis.
“They will be watching, and they will get notice to the hall,” I muttered.
“Yes, about two days after it's a smoking hole in the ground. “Go the way that seems best to you, and let Hans squawk all he wants.”
That proved to be but little, as after one particularly obnoxious outburst – we were just about to leave the house – Anna set upon Hans as if an infuriated Valkyrie, and between her and Sarah, he was gagged with a bow-knot tied atop his head. Not only could Hans now not speak a word, but Sarah told him to not attempt to untie his gag until we were within actual sight of the hall itself.
“And then, I dare you to squawk,” said Sarah acidly. “Those witches will bury you in hot lead then, you wretch.”
I did not take the southbound road out of town as I led off. I went north slightly, then went between two fields, until they ended – and then somewhat to the right through an unusually firm grassy field and then onto an unusually narrow road that had seen but little recent use. Sarah was right behind me, and as I turned onto another path but barely wide enough for the medical buggy Anna was driving, Sarah whispered, “how did you know about this way?”
I turned around, and said softly, “I'm not really sure, but this route is not merely one Hans doesn't know much about, but the witches – what of them there are in this area – more or less ignore it. Then, we'll be coming from the back side of the house, so they really won't expect to find us there.”
The silence that came back as a rejoinder was an impetus to my efforts, and when we first stopped for water – I had 'smelled' a small stream at the edge of a woodlot some three miles east and two south of home – I brought out the 'small' lanterns I had packed to check the horses' hooves. One of them was my shuttered lantern, while the other two were the small ones we had used on the trip. All three had fresh candle stubs, and once they were hung out on the buggies, I could feel Hans and Anna relax drastically.
Tam had never been 'worried', at least not to the degree I was, and I could tell Sarah had been in this area before.
“Now those will help,” said Tam, “especially with her.” Here, he indicated Anna. “The two of you up front might as well be cats for how you see.”
“More by familiarity than by sight, at least for me,” said Sarah. “I've traveled most of the roads in the central part of the first kingdom, and I suspect the route you're taking is one I've used many times when I had to go around the kingdom house without being observed.”
“At night,” said Tam. “You did most of your distance-traveling at night in this area.”
“That's usually the best time,” said Sarah. “I usually stayed off of the roads, though.”
“This route was a rare exception, correct?” My question was driven by curiosity alone.
“Mostly it was,” said Sarah. “Look at how little use it gets, and how narrow it is in places.”
We resumed once the horses had drank their fill, and as I traveled in a now more southeasterly direction, I could feel that infernal volcano with its cannibals. For some reason, however, even as I led along the paths that ran southward near its base, I was relaxed; the cannibals were 'at home', inside their warm-as-a-stove home, and therefore, as long as we did not go too close to the entrance, we were safe.
“What?” I squeaked as I saw the faint bluish-white traces. “We're on a marked trail? Here?”
“I thought so,” came from somewhere to the rear. “This is one o' those special roads that goes north and south that no one else knows about.”
“No, others do know about it,” I said, “its just that they, uh, tend to find it once and don't find it again for about five or six years, and then they don't recognize it when they do find it again.”
“Yes, in the daytime,” said the soft voice. “After dark, you either need to be an expert night-runner like Sarah, or you need to be marked to stick to this road.”
“And Sarah's about as close to being marked as you can be without having externally visible markings,” I thought.
“Which is one of the reasons why she can manage it passably,” said the soft voice.
And yet, with that statement, I knew something would happen to Sarah in the future. She would be hurt, and hurt badly – and that bothered me greatly.
“No, not that badly,” said the soft voice. “Her life will not be endangered.” A brief pause, then, “however, the resulting injury will turn all the rest of those 'marked' switches on, and she will be quite surprised at what happens then.”
“What?” I asked silently. “Will, she, uh, become m-marked?”
There was no answer, at least in audible form. For some odd reason, however, I seemed to see a strange hand, one with a peculiar little budding near the smallest finger; and as I watched, this budding grew until it was nearly half an inch long.
“Her feet, they get injured,” I thought.
“She does lose one of the smaller toes, yes,” said the soft voice. “Or rather, that portion does not grow back, unlike the rest. The other parts, though, sprout at the same time, which means special protective hand-wear will be needed for her from that point on.”
“And the rest?” I asked.
“For the most part, but little outwardly visible change at first, save where she changes to meet the challenges ahead, much as her cousin did at Boermaas.” A brief pause, “and that girl gets unleashed before the Abbey's business truly starts.”
“Unleashed?” I asked.
“Much as Liza was unleashed when you prayed for her,” said the soft voice. “Six years at Boermaas caused Sarah's cousin more harm than anyone realized – herself most of all – and then, once that happens, you will be astonished as well.”
With the volcano now some distance to our rear, I seemed to hear the Main river somewhere to our left, and I kept along the narrow path where it showed traces of light-blue glowings. Now and then, I asked that our tracks be erased, at least for shorter distances, for I did not wish to take any chances beyond those most necessary. Tonight would have ample danger as it was, and when we attacked the hall in a few hours, the witches...
“Will be having a royal set-to in that place,” said the soft voice. “Most of those not actively involved will either be watching those fighting, betting upon the outcome, or getting as drunk as possible.”
“Most of them,” I thought. There would be watchers, however; each guard-tower would have its people, all of them with numbers of primed and loaded fifth kingdom muskets near to hand, while the witches elsewhere...
I then contrasted that with my experience of the night before last. The place had felt dead then.
“It has more people in it now, and because of those providing covering fire not being accustomed to late hours, it needs to be attacked much earlier.”
“A couple of dozen...”
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “That many came from Roos. Remember, four people went on ahead of you on horseback, and they signaled ahead to more people, so there are over a dozen others in town already preparing their 'troops'.” A pause, then, “you won't have a few dozen. You'll have so many people shooting at the hall that they'll need to take turns at their posts – which means more like four or five shots a minute per position, instead of perhaps one or two.”
“True, they aren't accurate enough for sniping,” said the soft voice. “Suppressive fire depends upon volume, not minute-of-angle accuracy – and when you have that much hot lead flying, some of it's bound to hit the target. Couple that with liberal use of those bottles, and you'll be be able to meet that objective in a matter of moments.”
“Busted up bad and at least half – or in this case, closer to eighty percent of those witches dead and most of the survivors badly wounded – before you assay being a sapper? That sound about right?”
“Bad?” I asked.
“You'd best have everyone clear out or take cover when you-all come running out of that gateway after setting those jugs,” said the soft voice, “as the sky is going to rain bricks for a while when those things go.”
The resulting conversation, to the best of my knowledge, had not been heard by the others, or so I thought until I next stopped for water. This was at a small pond near the edge of a woodlot, and while Tam and I were able to water our horses readily, the others needed buckets. I was glad we had a pair of decent-sized ones in the medical buggy, and while we shuttled them back and forth, I could hear faint speech between Sarah and Anna. As I came to investigate, Sarah said, “I've never seen it rain bricks before, but I doubt I will forget it soon when it does.”
“What?” I asked.
“When that place goes up in smoke,” said Sarah. “I hope those people shooting have enough sense to start pulling back or finding cover when you come out of that place, as they might have three minutes before it starts to rain pieces of that witch-hole.”
“Might?” I asked.
“If the witches get too close to those things, then you might need to set them off as soon as you get clear,” said Sarah. “I hope the witches that are still alive then are too badly hurt to do much.”
“That or trapped,” said the soft voice. “Those fires will be burning too fiercely for any witch to get to the jugs in time.”
“Assuming I nail all of the ground-floor entrances,” I murmured, as I made ready to remount.
As I rode, however, I seemed to recall what Sepp had said. There was one 'main' entrance, and a couple of smaller ones present when he'd gone after his papers, and I suspected the 'main' entrance was indeed that: the smaller ones gave entrance, or rather, communication to the towers, and they weren't big enough to pass real numbers unless those going through them went in orderly single file.
“The main entrance to that place isn't that much bigger,” I thought. “It might have been before Sepp went after his papers, but now it's smaller so as to be easier to defend against attack.”
“That was another change to the bad,” said the soft voice, “and while there were a number of other entrances, the witches blocked those so as to make the place more secure and easier to defend.”
“Sounds like they made it into a deathtrap instead,” I said.
“Given what it's going to get hit with, you're precisely correct – as they only considered what was currently available to the 'commons' in the first kingdom house.”
“Muskets and a few smoothbore cannon,” I said, “with limited ammunition for both.”
“Exactly,” said the soft voice, “and both are direct fire weapons, not 'mortars' – although if you're only tossing those bottles those distances, you can throw them in nearly a straight line.”
“Hit a thug in the mouth?” I asked. I still had a hard time believing the matter.
“Try it if one shows himself,” said the soft voice – and as I heard this, I had a sudden impression: not only would several thugs show silhouetted within the framing of brightly-lit windows, but I'd have multiple chances to 'nail' such individuals; and most importantly, those people would be the current 'leadership' or as close as the witches had managed to come to such positions. Dealing with them would cause a lot of trouble – as they would be trying to direct matters from 'positions of invulnerability' and their deaths would cause great demoralization among the howling crew milling about beneath them.
“And shower that swarming enemy below with flaming bricks and mortar,” I muttered.
“And flaming distillate,” said the soft voice. “Remember, witches tend to keep their lantern fuel close to the lanterns in which such fuel is burned – and those people have really stocked up on light and heavy distillate, especially those with Infernal lanterns in that place.”
“Dynamite?” I asked.
“Some small caches of older stuff,” said the soft voice. “That one pig-shipping point did not just transport pigs – it transported a lot of supplies witches want, with dynamite being one of the biggest sellers behind swine.”
“So the supply of dynamite is drying up in this area,” I thought.
“I thought so,” said Sarah softly. “Those thugs ship that stuff up by the secret way.”
“And in coaches, dear,” I said. “I'll bet at least two out of three coaches that goes where that stuff is sold in the fifth kingdom come back with more than what the owner of the coach wants for his-own-self.”
“That, actually, is the most common way for the average witch to get dynamite,” said the soft voice. “Granted, it's usually not as fresh, and it costs a lot more, but it is – or, rather, was – available from those running coaches in the area.”
“And now coaches are scarce in this area, and hence no more explosives come up here that way, either.” A brief pause while I consulted my compass, then I looked at the moon. Low in the west, it had risen a near-round disk, and the few and thin clouds I saw spoke of a clear night with good vision.
“For those not drugged and drunk, you mean,” said the soft voice.
The road now widened a trifle, such that I could ride besides Sarah, and I fell back enough so as to do so. The winding nature of the path – there were woodlots to each side of the path, with close-by trees and the faint noise of a sizable river coming from the east but a mile or two away – was such that I felt uncommonly safe. Sarah seemed relaxed, but when I glanced at the cargo of explosives in the rear of the buggy beside me, I knew that was not a matter that permitted less than a high level of vigilance and care.
“They are not primed, at least most of them,” she whispered. “Those that are would be the jugs.”
“Those are the worst ones, dear,” I said. “If one of them goes, we all go up in smoke.”
“At least there will be no lingering,” said Sarah. “Now, this occurs to me. There will be watch-thugs, but they will mostly be dicing in those towers, or drinking themselves drunk on those walkways they have near them, and the remainder of those thugs will either be in the hall itself, or in its central open area.”
“Have you been in there?” I asked.
“Yes, some years ago,” said Sarah. “I was a student then, and I was in close disguise.” A brief pause, a slurping noise, “and based on what Sepp told me when I questioned him at length, the place hadn't changed much for its layout. I doubt it has changed that much outwardly, as that would mean tearing down the place, and you don't do that to a large structure and build it back up again in hours.”
“Uh, these people had a huge gang of slaves, and they ran them in three shifts.”
“I've seen how fast work can proceed in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah, “and I do not care if they had slaves on that work all the hours of the day. You cannot tear down a major structure, not the way that place was constructed, and put it back up overnight.” Another pause, then, “perhaps in a few days, but not overnight.”
Uh, a few days?” I asked.
“I have seen that done,” said Sarah. “That takes several large gangs of expert workmen, plenty of good lighting for night work, good tools, and ample materials, and a very good person or group of such people in charge. Then, a building can be torn down one day, the ground leveled the next and cleaned and marked up for the new foundations, and on the third day, the outer portion of the building goes up – and not a small building, either, but one almost as big as the hall itself is at its current size.” Another brief pause, “and the way those witches built that place to start with, it would take work-gangs like I saw in the fourth kingdom longer than three days to do it even close to decent.”
“What if they, uh, just did it for appearances at first, then redid it piecemeal?” I asked. My voice was close to a whisper.
Yet as I said this, I knew Sarah was more or less right. The witches – or even their most-skilled slaves at their most numerous – were not up to doing what she spoke of. What they were up to doing was repairing their damaged existing structures in a 'quick yet slovenly' fashion, then while that facade 'held the ground', they worked on it from the inside and redid as much as they could while under the cover of that facade – and then, they 'added strength' by laying courses of bricks on the inside of every wall they could.
“Which is more or less what they actually did,” said the soft voice, “even if some of those slaves were kidnapped fourth kingdom workmen similar to those Sarah described.”
“The original structure?” I asked.
“Was done according to methods laid out in the latter chapters of that black book,” said the soft voice, “which meant that the existing materials were used in an extremely wasteful fashion to construct a building that was barely able to support its own roof.” A pause, then, “they did not realize those building rules supposed high-strength building materials of a type considerably more advanced than bad mortar and cheap crack-ridden limestone.”
“Concrete?” I asked.
“Similar as to appearance, but a good deal stronger and tougher – and that without reinforcing,” said the soft voice. “When amply reinforced with welded wire, the stuff in question became far more durable and no small amount stronger.” A brief pause, then, “why do you think those peculiar roads you took on the way back from the fifth kingdom were still usable, and those ruins still stood nearly a thousand years after they'd been centered by some very potent missiles?”
“And that, uh, bridge...”
“Was made of a grossly inferior grade of material,” said the soft voice, “and sabotaged during its construction as well by those slaves building it. Otherwise, it would have been nearly intact.”
We passed by that field where I had shot that one tinned thug ages ago. I could still smell the death that lay among the trees where the skeletons of spams yet rotted. In doing so, I could tell we had some distance yet to go.
“There is a town near here,” said Sarah. “Do you wish to stop there?”
“Somehow, it seems unwise on the way to the house. The way back – possibly, assuming we take this way back – though somehow, I suspect we're going to want to take the quickest way back we can so as to get an early start on tomorrow.” I paused, then said, “we've wasted enough time on these foul-smelling witches, and we need to get onto some work.”
“I know,” said Sarah. “That furnace, and those orders, and then those guards need training better, and then the Abbey, and finally our trip.”
“Yes, dear,” I said softly. “You left one thing out – or did you?”
Sarah looked at me, then her face broke up. I was not sure what that meant, at least until she gasped, then said, “I was so wrought up with what we were doing that I forgot about that.”
“I did not,” said another soft voice from further back, “and I've been spreading the word quietly.”
“That silver!” I squeaked.
“Andreas came by and collected it up quite some time ago,” said Anna softly. “I know how busy you two have been lately, so when I found your latest drawings of the necklace, I took your ledger over to the house proper so as to show him what it needed to look like.”
“Drawings?” I asked. I had had but little time to work on them since our return from the trip.
“I have no idea how you took those from where they were when you showed them to us to their finished state, but when Andreas saw them, he said they were amply good for him to fill in the few small details that remained.”
“Finished?” I spluttered. “I did not.”
“I think I know who did, then,” said Sarah. “I suspect this is like how your ledgers have had drawings show up overnight. Anna has spoken of that happening more than once, and...” Here, Sarah lowered her voice, then said, “and once in recent days, I saw you fall asleep at your workbench with a writing dowel in hand, and you continued working on your drawing in your sleep.”
“What?” I squeaked.
“You seemed to know what you were doing,” said Sarah, “so I came close and watched. It was when you were working out the details for that furnace – and it was the most amazing thing I've seen in a very long time.”
“Why, what happened?” I asked.
“You were moving that dowel so rapidly that I have no idea how it kept so sharp, but it did,” said Sarah, “and you finished that whole page in about five minutes and started on the next one. It normally takes you longer to do that much, so I think I know what happened.”
“N-no, I don't want to be a witch, and that's automatic w-writing,” I moaned. “Only witches do that.”
“Not like this,” said Sarah. “That writing dowel was glowing a very light shade of blue, as was the drawing itself, and I've seen things like that before, once or twice.”
“What, a witch was writing out curses?” I moaned.
“No, this was with someone in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “She had to fix something done badly by another workman, and I know for a fact that this woman was marked. She prayed with the parts in her hands, there was a glow coming from where her hands showed darkness for about a slow count of five, and when she unclasped her hands, the parts were utterly changed.”
“How?” I asked.
“Before, they were not usable,” said Sarah with obvious distaste, “and after, they fit that thing perfectly, just as if you'd made them to fit while doing your very best.”
“What were these parts to?” I asked.
“A navigating timer,” said Sarah, “and this navigating timer was a special one, not a common one. It was for a man who does charts.”
“Pieter Huygens?” I asked.
“How did you know?” asked Sarah.
“I have to do a sextant for him,” I said, “one with, uh, three rings.”
“T-th-three rings,” gasped Sarah. “Those have not been made since Cardosso cursed the last one known to exist and it went to dust in his hands.”
“What do you know about them?” I asked.
“I would look in those navigating books,” said Sarah. “Have you?”
“Y-yes, and there's enough in there to maybe figure out how they work,” I said. I almost needed to see one with a ledger in hand, or better still, see one used at length.
“If I recall correctly, though, what's there describes the two-ring type,” said Sarah. “Those work strangely enough, but that third ring involves two extra mirrors that transmit but a portion of their light, some strangely-shaped metal rods that are jointed, three special 'close' gears with their rotating carrier, some teeth cut on that third ring, and then more gear-teeth cut on the largest ring – and all of this work is especially close.”
“Where did you s-see this?” I asked. I was still sobbing a little.
“That one tapestry I had to bathe for,” said Sarah. “I took notes on what I saw, but I think I can draw it from memory.” Sarah paused, then said, “and that picture was as strange as anything I've ever seen.”
“Picture?” I asked.
“This thing had these cords and things coming off of it, and those went into boxes of some kind, and then the telescope was long, thin and covered with odd tubes and special markings of a kind I've only seen in a few places. They had words associated with them, but I can barely speak them – and no, they were not witch-scribbling.”
“What were they?”
“Pictures, though very small, and then words beside them that spoke of them,” said Sarah. “One of the words was 'Sanchú', and it was associated with a riding animal of some kind.”
I now adjusted our course such that we were heading due south, then a little west of south. I again looked at my compass, and to my complete astonishment, I now noticed the numbers that Sarah had been speaking about when she had looked at it.
“Ten degrees west of dead south,” I murmured. “Will we hit where we need to go?”
The sense I had was 'if we stick to where this trail is going, we'll get close enough'. I suspected it hit the Oestwaag about a mile east of the edges of the kingdom house, which meant we would need to go through the forest some short further distance, then begin heading progressively toward the west until we hit the Suedwaag...
“And right into the field where those people should be waiting,” I thought.
“They've got about another hour to go, as do you,” said the soft voice. “You'll get there a little ahead of them, so they can meet up upon your lanterns.”
“Paul? Willem? The others?”
“Are in that one house as we speak,” said the soft voice. “They were waiting in the forests just below that one place where Hans told those of Roos to meet him, and as soon as the sun went down, they started moving and got into that house about the time it got fully dark.”
“How I wish for a radio,” I thought. “Even just a little thing, something that could manage Morse code for twenty miles or so.” My first transmitter – one I had built from scratch – would have easily managed that.
And yet, while not tonight, I had a distinct impression; we would have such things in the not-too-distant future.
“And those vast swarms of shooters?” I asked.
“Are currently moving into position,” said the soft voice. “Karl, Sepp, and Mathias are among their leaders, and Mathias has been working overtime getting them ready for tonight.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Recall how they will need to take turns at each position?” asked the soft voice. “Three men for each spot, one firing, the next man in line priming his piece, the one who just fired swabbing his bore and getting ready to dump his powder – just like how the old British squares maintained high rates of fire. Figure one round every ten to fifteen seconds from each position – and there are going to be well over a hundred firing positions shooting at the hall.”
“Mathias was actually fairly selective,” said the soft voice, “both with who he picked to shoot and whose muskets are being used – and he made sure the best shooters got the best muskets out of a sizable pool of 'recruits'. In many cases, he taught them about the things he's learned from people like Lukas. Expect a lot of orders to 'go through' muskets after tonight.”
“Uh, failures?” I asked.
“Five muskets for every three shooters,” said the soft voice. “Lukas told him about things like that, as well as using fresh-knapped flints, dust-powder for priming, and 'close-gaged' balls fitted with tallow-soaked pre-cut cloth or leather patches to take up the windage.”
The forest narrowed down upon the trail once more, and we were forced into single file. The silence seemed absolute, so much so that I was relaxed – until suddenly, from seeming everywhere at once, a low guttural moan progressed slowly into a deafening howling noise mingled with the screech of a bird of prey that ceased as abruptly as it had begun.
“What was that?” I gasped.
“A Howl,” said Sarah from behind me. “They are night-birds, and act most strange should they find cabbage.”
“Why?” I asked. A bird that sounded more than a little like a Stuka dive bomber about to unload a bomb on me was not what I wanted to hear right now.
“Because they not merely have an appetite for such food, but they scratch up the hard-trodden ground where they eat,” said Sarah, “and I've wondered what their scratchings mean for many years.”
“Scratchings?” I asked.
“Some of them appear to be mathematics,” said Sarah, “though of a most peculiar sort, and then there are neat rows of their scratchings, almost as if they were trying to write something – and then, sometimes, they make drawings.”
“Those are more common when they get into carrots,” said Anna softly. “These are Howls you are talking about, aren't they?”
“I hope that bird doesn't do that again,” I muttered. “Howls are birds – or are they?”
“The ones I have seen are most definitely birds,” said Sarah. “That one we heard was of a type only found in the northern half of the first kingdom, and is called a Great Northern Howl.” A brief pause, “and witches try to kill those things as if they were marked.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Howls, no matter what kind they are,” said Sarah, “do not like witches, and while wolves might bite witches should they encounter them, they are not even a shadow of Howls.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Firstly, their claws,” said Sarah. “A Great Northern Howl is almost as large as a full-grown red rooster, and the two are most similar for their claws – and while roosters are noisy when they are not asleep, Howls, save when they are inclined to make noise, are altogether silent.”
“And they fly at night,” said Anna's faint voice.
“Do they, uh, go after witches?” I asked.
Sarah laughed, then said, “witches might not load for Howls in these parts, but I've heard they do in the second kingdom. Those birds are everywhere down there, and when one of them goes after a coachman, that coach usually does not do well.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“The bird flew away unharmed, but I can not say that for the coach,” said Sarah. “The coachman fell off his seat and out onto the High Way, the mules bolted once he'd turned loose of the reins, and the coach ran off the road while crossing a bridge.” A brief pause, then, “and it took them most of a year to repair that bridge after that coach exploded.”
“Right, typical rolling powder mills, complete with light-giving firebombs of one kind or another,” I muttered. Again, the trees were all but brushing our sides, and the silence seemed total. I felt utterly safe where I was, with a softly glowing bluish-white line to our front fading away in the distance unto utter blackness, and thick stands of trees to each side to absorb the noise of our travel. I also felt distinctly not merely the location of the kingdom house, but also these locations:
Firstly, the house proper. The place was busy at this time of night, as there was important labor that needed doing, and that post-haste. Several scribes, Kees chief among them, were attempting to ink documents – and the ink being used was a thick sludgy material that liked to suck itself up into the quills and then drop out onto the paper all at once during the middle of a line. That tended to ruin that piece of paper, which made me think of the ink Sarah had done. It was clear and utterly fluid, a lovely blue-black color worthy of the best penmanship, and possessing a hard-wearing permanence. It seemed perfect ink for 'official documents'.
“Were we sold?” I asked.
“At first, no,” said the soft voice. “Further orders, however, were diverted from where you got your ink and paper to another shop entirely – and that shop makes 'fetish-ink' utterly unlike the stuff Sarah did up. The paper, while similar in appearance, is nowhere near as good for inking. It's decent for pencil work, however.”
“Trying to get us to buy the special presentation-grade stuff, correct?” I thought. It did seem likely, as that stuff felt slicker when I'd touched it, and that was an 'inking' surface, unlike the 'pencil' surface of what I bought. I only now realized that particular advantage, and how its extra cost was actually worth the money – and with the use of Sarah's ink, it made such writing 'stand out' all the more. I resolved to attempt to get my hands on some and deliver it to Hendrik personally.
“They're trying to get you to purchase fetish-grade witch-paper, actually, as that shop is witch-owned, witch-run, and witch-staffed – and they do a deal of business with the second and third kingdom houses, as well as a small amount with the fourth. As witch-run shops go, it's run intelligently.”
“Meaning they intend to stay in business, if not actually expand their operations, and both of those things by seemingly honest means,” I thought. “Careful bribery, hard-to-trace subterfuge, 'misplaced shipments' that need tracking down so as to extort more money from those they think 'stupid', hints to buyers about 'deals' and 'bargains', corrupting such buyers utterly so they only do what that shop wants them to do when it comes to what they sell...”
“All of those things and then some,” said the soft voice, “including 'expedited shipments' using 'the secret way' by 'special messenger' for certain clients.”
Secondly, I felt the activity of the town itself. Hearing what I had just heard seemed to but briefly cloud the issue; and with some slight effort, I seemed to 'penetrate' beyond the mists of distance and the dark of night. Here, many houses were lit, still mostly by tallow candles, but wax was once more on the ascendancy; and furtive movements, these by small groups of musket-bearing individuals, seemed to scurry along the grass-clumped back-ways between long rows of houses at a rapid walk. The utter silence of these groups was a marvel, and their determination yet another matter that caused gasping on my part; for they had heard of the hall, and seen its evil, and the pictures painted within their minds by Mathias' firebrand speech was enough to build a cold and calculating fury of lethal hardness within their minds. They were getting what they came for – the hall's utter and complete destruction – or they were not planning on coming back.
To perceive this almost gave me qualms, for these people were fully as bloodthirsty as the most evil witches imaginable; and they longed for nothing more than the blood and bones of witches upon their hands and under their feet. I shuddered at the perception, and I asked, “have they killed before?”
“Who do you think shot all of those pigs and witches?” said the soft voice. “Who sent the smoke of dozens of burn-piles skyward in the house recently?” A brief pause, then, “the inculcation of such hardness among the common people, while it is originally witch-spawned and curse-nourished, is also easily turned toward witches by people such as Mathias. He's already earned a price upon his head, even if there are few witches inclined to collect it at this time.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“He's already got one entire row on his notch-stick,” said the soft voice, “and he was killing witches frequently before he became a guard.” A brief pause, then, “you didn't know about his missing toes, did you?”
“Missing toes?” I asked.
“The two smallest ones on his right foot,” said the soft voice. “He called the loss of two toes cheap when he learned of that pig's dropping but half a mile from where he tossed his jug at it. He burned that swine good.”
“He was burned?” I asked. I seemed to hear – either audibly or by recollection – speech about getting close enough to not miss when tossing jugs, as well as the likelihood of burns when doing so.
“Both legs up to the hips, and they were more charcoal than all else,” said the soft voice. “He's quite surprised at how they healed so fast with no attention beyond the bathing he managed before attempting to sleep that night.” A brief pause, “he's not amazed about either his missing toes or the attempts of the witches to kill him since then.”
And finally, I could feel the hall itself. Calling that place a madhouse was calling it wonderful; the place absolutely reeked of strong drink, for the hall had long and deep darkened cellars filled with both 'aged wine' and high-octane drink, and the rowdy throng within the place was cursing, swearing, and calling one another unspeakable names – chiefly in Underworld German, though low-budget slurred rune-curses weren't rare. In places, a fight had broken out, and it looked likely to spread widely.
The sentinels, these in substantial numbers – the witches set large watches at this time of night, as they were expecting mobs of musket-firing citizens, and there had been 'sniping' during preceding nights in addition to the occasional jug-tossing ride-by-at-a-gallop horseman – were well-beyond bored, and were working on getting trashed on forty-chain brandy and deworming medicine. Their own amusement, this being dice made of human knuckle-bones, was now in full force; and while the 'crap games' or whatever witches called such gambling occupied the majority, there were some witches still relatively sober. Those people worried me – as not only did the hall have full-loaded fifth kingdom muskets ready-racked for each tower's loopholes, they also had a pair of 'large' swivel guns primed and loaded with bagged pistol balls for each tower – and several more such guns set up upon newly-erected second-story balconies overlooking the main court. Each of the tower guns had at least one person alert and near the piece, if not actually holding the gun's 'training lever' out and downward toward the yet-hidden 'enemy'.
“And hence I need to nail those people first,” I thought. “Where did they get those things?”
“They had two of those guns in long storage in the hall's deeper rooms,” said the soft voice, “and while most of what those freighters were bringing up were supplies intended for the Swartsburg, the hall made sure to get its own supplies in as well – including more powder and lead along with the rest of those swivel guns you just saw.”
“They usable?” I thought.
“For a few shots, yes,” said the soft voice. “Such guns are more for show as they are for defense, as both guns and mountings are fetish-built.” A brief pause, then, “however, for that handful of rounds they will manage before they burst or toss their breech-blocks, those guns will be trouble, and your goal regarding disposing of them first is a very good idea.”
And now, direct to our front, I could feel the Oestwaag. It might be as much as a mile away, if that; and then beyond it, the trail continued south and slightly east as it followed the Main. We would continue on the trail for about half a mile, then take the side path that would show...
“How do I know this?” I thought. There was no answer.
And then, that side path would cut the Suedwaag at nearly a right angle, minimizing our exposure to the sight of others. It was most needed, as someone – who, I wasn't sure – had actually arranged for a group of people to come from the nearest town to the south. This contingent – roughly a dozen buggies, each with at least two people – was now on its way; and for some reason, we did not wish to meet up with them.
“Why?” I thought.
“Because those people are supplicants, and they were hiding in that town and causing trouble when and where they could – and with few exceptions, they are coming to the hall with the goal of making their bones.” The soft voice had never sounded so cold as then, and I wondered as to what to do about these new-come thugs – and more, just who was the wretch who had called for more witches.
“Their fire will be answered when they come north on Hallstraat by the right-flank firing teams,” said the soft voice. “Use a liquid bottle or two to settle them down.”
“Will... Do these people have buggies with sheet-metal interiors?” I asked. “Those 'thick' horses that make messes in the road?”
There was no answer beyond what I had heard, and when we came to the Oestwaag – the road suddenly showed to our front, much as if it materialized from nowhere amid an abrupt thinning of the forest – I led out quickly across the first roadside ditch, with the goal of a rapid crossing and then sheltering once more among the trees and upon the narrow trail. As I crossed, however, I could see lights some distance away to the west, which I assumed meant a still-awake town.
“Those are people moving away from the battle zone,” said the soft voice. “Those that stay plan on fighting as if they were dealing with swine – and those less committed will only get in their way.”
“Those moving away?” I asked, as Jaak moved across the ditch and into the trees once more.
“Are mostly women and younger children,” said the soft voice, “along with those too ill or still hurt from that artillery battle between the hall and the city batteries.” A brief pause, then, “one of those gunners is planning on being in the firing line just the same.”
“A cannon?” I asked.
“No, just his own weapons,” said the soft voice. “When Gilbertus spoke of 'dismounting' cannon, he didn't mean 'the guns were damaged but repairable'. He meant 'those guns were destroyed'.”
“The barrels were wrecked?” My voice dripped with incredulity.
“Both of those guns were scrapped,” said the soft voice, “and their bronze sent south to the only foundry that is currently thought to still cast guns.”
“Where, in the second kingdom?” I asked.
“No, but that foundry is now witch-owned and witch-staffed, so they sent good metal and good money to a bad end unwittingly,” said the soft voice. “They'll never get replacement tubes from that place.”
“What will they get – fetishes?”
“They'll get nothing,” said the soft voice. “Not even an excuse – as that place is on the skids and sliding fast and deep into debt due to the witches running the place, and their goal in purchasing it was not to cast metal.”
“What was it then – preventing the north from rearming?”
My question had no answer, but what I was told before it made my last question seem a plausible answer. I'd heard of hostile takeovers where I came from, these often being done to eliminate competition, and this practice sounded likely indeed.
“More than merely what you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “Bronze, while it does not rust, is fairly soft, and hence cannon-tubes – especially the way they are commonly loaded in the first kingdom – tend to wear rapidly. Ever wonder why that gun you saw didn't use trunnions?”
“Frequent barrel replacement?” I asked.
“That's one of the reasons,” said the soft voice. We would need to turn right shortly. “The other reason – the main reason, in fact – is that attempting to cast tubes with such projections causes a weak spot in the tube at that place. A hot-loaded cannon tends to burst quite violently when it has such voids.” A brief pause, then, “and the better gunners load their guns as hot as they can when they're facing pigs.”
“Maximum muzzle velocity,” I muttered. “They're shooting at four-legged tanks, so I'm not surprised.”
I was also not surprised when the bluish-white line 'forked' at the side path, and I led down the right branch. Here, the path was sufficiently narrow that the horses pulling the buggies made 'odd' noises as the mist-damp foliage of the plants to each side rubbed their sides, and both Sarah and Anna needed to speak to their animals. Water, it seemed was an issue, or so I wondered.
“There's a pond near that field,” said the soft voice. “It has fish in it, as well as some flax around its edges.”
“Non-edible fish, correct?”
“No, they're on the list, even if most people thoroughly dislike their flavor,” said the soft voice. “The usual name for them is Karpfen, though a lot of people call them 'turnips that swim'. They're fairly common in ponds large enough to support fish.”
“Eew,” whispered Sarah. “I hate those things.”
“What things?” asked Anna. Her voice was but slightly louder.
“Karpfen,” said Sarah. “They taste like mud.”
“Where did you try them?” asked Anna.
“Several places in the first kingdom and two in the second,” said Sarah. “You need to be starving to eat them, as calling them finned turnips is calling them tasty – and Karpfen are not tasty.”
“I've had them before also,” said Anna, “and while I will roast trouts if they show, and even stew up Grossmoend fish, I'll only eat Karpfen if they are slow-roasted over a smoky fire after setting in steaming salt-crusted water for half a day. Then they're passable, if you're hungry enough.”
“If Karpfen is plural, then what's the singular form?” I asked. The trees seemed to be closing in steadily, and I could now feel the Suedwaag some distance ahead. I hoped we would cross it safely.
“Karpfen is both singular and plural,” said the soft voice. “It's one of a handful of words where the concepts of 'singular' and 'plural' are determined by context – and of those words, it's about the only one you might hear with some frequency. The others are seldom used on the continent, even in places like the west school and monk-houses.”
As we drew closer to the Suedwaag, I could feel the 'supplicants' – witches that did not have their bones yet, essentially, as these people were fully as committed as those in the hall – some distance further away. They'd been getting progressively drunker as their 'thick' horses lazed along, and more than a few of the 'drivers' were actually nodding off now and then. When this happened, the horses – they were indeed dense, or rather, gave the appearance of stupidity – would come to a halt; and only the shouts of the witches behind the stationary vehicle would jolt the mostly-asleep drunkards into jerking their reins and putting an end to the horses' incipient rebellion against their masters.
“Stinky things are as inhabited as anything,” I thought.
“Those, no,” said the soft voice. “That's normal behavior for those animals – and like with some of your relatives, that 'stupidity' is entirely an act. Those horses are anything but stupid when it comes to getting what they want – and unlike the late unlamented Francis, they're sly, manipulative, and very treacherous.”
“The entirety of that pack-train was blown to hell by the Veldters,” said the soft voice. “They had dealt in good faith, as is the usual for Veldters, while the witches running it thought 'Pancho' was too stupid to realize he had been deceived – and hence, some days later, a group of 'long-hairs' laid an ambush and killed both witches and animals.” A brief pause, then, “and then, 'Pancho' retrieved what the witches had stolen, along with their other valuables.”
“Including the shoes from the mules,” I thought.
“Those they left, as they didn't have hours to pry them off,” said the soft voice, “but otherwise, if they could load their vehicles up with it and make it back to suitable cover before dawn, they took it. The Veldters don't believe in wasting anything, which is why if they were able to, they would have taken the dead bodies of the men and animals as well.”
“W-why?” I asked. The Suedwaag was but a hundred yards distant.
“Fertilizer and fuel,” said the soft voice, “with both of those things being very important in the Valley.”
“Fuel?” I asked.
“That 'lamp oil', for one,” said the soft voice. “There are 'thinner' grades that are somewhat more volatile, and those are used as 'safety solvent' and 'range-oil' for cooking stoves.”
Like the Oestwaag, the Suedwaag showed with a suddenness too abrupt to do much more than leap the ditch and trot across, then wait on the other side for Sarah to slowly drive down into the ditch and then out the other side. As she cleared the ditch – the suspension of the buggy was truly a marvel, as now I saw what was meant by the thing loosening up – she whispered, “only another few minutes to that field.”
“I know,” I said, as she went down into the other ditch and Anna drove into the first one.
With the east branch of the Suedwaag passed, I knew that there might be its western branch to pass shortly, but when it did not show within a few minutes, I knew we'd gone far enough south to miss it. I also knew that the trees would end soon, and when they did with an astonishing abruptness, I nearly fell off of Jaak, I was so startled by the change.
And in the distance, I saw lights coming east, slow and steady, these showing at the edge of a wide field where we now were drawing up into a compact – and quiet – group. Hans still had his gag in place, which was much of the reason for our quiet. I could feel the close-by pond some few hundred yards to the south.
“Will they come to our lights?” I whispered.
“These small ones, no,” said Anna. “I brought one of the student's lanterns, though, and once I light that, they should.”
“You bring one o' those reflectors?” whispered Tam. “There's witches coming north on the Suedwaag, and we don't want 'em to see us.”
“Yes, but not for that reason,” said Anna – who then jerked and barely suppressed a shriek. “Witches?”
“These don't got their bones yet, so they think themselves strong in Brimstone when they don't yet know that lizard's smell,” said Tam. “Now there's a plan for 'em, and I can smell drink and a lot of it coming from that way, so those people are pickled.”
“They will be poor for fighting, then,” said Sarah. “Witches might fight passably when pickled, but that is when they have their bones several times over. Those otherwise tend to be less good unless they are closer to sober.”
“How'd you know that?” asked Tam.
“I've had enough of them chasing me or my cousin over the years,” said Sarah, “and then, there was the talk around their farm.” Sarah paused, then, “that family” – by this, Sarah meant 'extended family' – “has more marked people in it than any group of people I've ever heard of, and they've been having bad trouble with witches and pigs since long before I was born.”
Anna needed help with the reflector, and once I'd dismounted and installed it, she lit the lantern. The glaring aspect of the light from the thing seemed to shine far out into the close and narrow darkness, and as if to confound the witches to north and south, the light of the moon overhead at once began dimming.
“That's just clouds,” muttered Tam. “Those witches are too drunk to notice much.”
“Will it cause trouble for our side?” I asked.
Sarah glanced to the north, then said, “not with the way those witches have that place lit up. Look!”
I looked to the north, and saw what looked like a sea of dancing red flames with brilliant yellow-tinted white points of light glaring out far into the darkness. While some of these whiter lights pulsated in an uneven yet deadly rhythm, the brightest ones were steady in their glare; and by that, I knew their sources to be turned-up 'Infernal' lanterns running light distillate. There were lots of light-giving firebombs in use.
“How many of those things do they have?”
“Quite a few, actually, hence the amount of light distillate present,” said the soft voice. “Wick-lanterns, while more common yet, are a good deal less visible from where you're looking, while most of what you see producing red flames are torches dipped in the tallow of those they recently sacrificed.”
“If you got it, flaunt it,” I thought.
“The speech of witches is nowhere near close to the brevity of that statement, even if it does describe well their challenge to all not as they are,” said the soft voice. “Those at the hall are now drunk enough to be yelling rune-curses as loud as they can.”
“Who?” asked Anna.
“Those on 'guard' duty,” said the soft voice. “Those 'sober' witches are merely 'relatively' so – they are still fairly drunk.”
“Ain't a sober witch in that place,” spat Tam. “Good. Witches lack sense when they're sober, and they lose most o' what smarts they got when they're pickled.”
“And slowed reaction times,” I thought. “Now they're also going to be heedless of danger, which means they aren't going to think before doing what Brimstone's lies dictate.”
“Precisely, which makes a drunk-but-less-than-unconscious witch more dangerous and not less so,” said the soft voice – and those sentinels are just about at their peak that way: too drunk to have any 'common sense', but still sober enough to fight well – and these people are about as battle-hardened a bunch of witches as you're likely to find north of the fifth kingdom house.”
“Swartsburg survivors,” I thought, “and then those that survived that battle with the city batteries.”
“And dodging burn-piles and mobs for a fair number of them, in addition to the long and cruel years of the hall's internal power-struggles,” said the soft voice. “Most currently-alive witches north of the fifth kingdom's borders are amateurs compared to these people when it comes to fighting.”
And yet still, while I felt fear – this would be war, and of a kind that made clearing the fifth kingdom house of swine and thugs seem safe and easy – I also knew we had weapons the witches had no knowledge of. I then wondered aloud if it were wise to trap the oncoming supplicants.
“No, let those wretches eat some hot lead afore they go up in smoke,” said Tam. “Now as soon as those people down that way get close enough, we need to form 'em up in column quietly, and then you-all can lead them to where that one house is. It'll have some people already in it, so I'd put the bombs and such you ain't planning on using right off in the back area just under the eaves.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Those swivel guns?”
And as if to answer me, a red-orange flash erupted among the lurid flames of the torches, and a second later, we heard a dull rumbling boom that seemed to echo in both ears and minds.
“That was a cannon,” said Tam. “Probably one of those two-inchers they got on top o' their walls near the gate-house.”
“I was told they would be liable to bursting within a few rounds,” I whispered, “but until then, they'd be trouble – so I need to get them first.”
And for some reason, the thought to ask them to 'burst' now was clearly 'vetoed'. I could tell, much as I could commonly when something was 'wise' and when it wasn't; and when I could feel 'no', I went no further with such ideas. The bottles had been spoken of, and hence they were the 'right' choice.
Waiting was making me 'fidget'; waiting for the slow-groaning buggies coming from the east, and waiting for the witches coming from the south: they were certain to see us, or so I thought until I tried to see the Suedwaag from where we were.
“That woodlot screens 'em off from us unless they look though the trees just right,” said Tam, “and then there are farmer's fields for distance between us and them, and they'll need to look behind 'em some – and it takes most witches years o' hunting to learn those kind of tricks.” A brief pause, then, “I got plenty of notches stalking those stinkers while they was out at night looking for people to kill, and I hung those fools out to dry with the rope-trick.”
“What is the rope-trick?” I asked. I suspected it involved strangulation from behind.
“That's when you make a special knot in your rope, one called a choker,” said Tam, “and you get up close behind that witch and rope his head. You set the choker when you jerk the rope back, and he don't make no noise or nothing, on account of he can't breathe. You drag that wretch backwards to a tree quiet-like, then you hoist him up and make him fast so he's hung out to dry.”
“By the feet or by the neck?”
“The neck's easiest and quickest,” said Tam, “but if you do it the other way – oh, does that get onto those people. I've seen riots start when a witch is hung out to dry the old way. Only one thing worse.”
“What is it?” asked Sarah.
“First time in over a hundred years in these parts, and a ripe witch for it, too,” said Tam. “That one I saw done, and him right there” – here, he indicated me – “did it up. Just like out of an old tale, and those witches were crowding the privy for a ten-day.”
“I've got to find the witches that still live among that group,” I muttered, “as that pack of stinkers took those remains down, and they need the exact same treatment as what that fool got.”
“The three that still live are in the hall right now,” said the soft voice, “but finding them will be quite difficult.”
“Why, you going to hang them up the same way?” This question from Tam.
“He wrote the usual things for it,” said Anna, “and those who took them down need the same treatment...”
“And that's to hang in the place and in the same way until they fall rotten to the ground,” I muttered. “For some reason, that's really important to me, and if I have to, I'll drag their bodies behind horses and buggies from wherever I catch them all the way back to that stinking clearing and then chop them apart with my sword – and finish up by spiking their heads as mute witnesses to my word!”
“That your word is law, or that you keep it?” asked Tam.
“I wrote what I did, and I meant every word,” I murmured, “and I will do as I said I would do on a matter of principle – and that is enough!”
“Those witches had best get ready to dine with that lizard, then” muttered Tam, “as if ever I heard someone speak out of an old tale, I just did.” A brief pause, then, “and them people to the east had better hurry, as those stinkers out of Knockenplats will get there afore they're ready. Them people got them fat horses, and those aren't slow.”
“Perhaps their obstinacy needs help, then,” I said softly. “Let every such horse toss its shoes.”
For an instant, there was silence; and then, as if a switch had been turned, there were the screams of horses – these thick, brutal-sounding, and most of all ravenous, ravenous for flesh and blood – a scattering of gunshots, several yells – and then a crashing noise, followed by more such crackling smashups.
As the 'pileup' noises continued, I heard more gunshots, and finally, a massive billowing 'whoomph' that brought the screams to a new level, these being not merely the screams of a group of horses, but also those of a small crowd of men.
“Now what happened?”
“Someone's light-giving firebomb fell out of a buggy and broke open,” said the soft voice, “and as the thing was turned down low and running boiled distillate, it did not explode.” A pause, then, “however, it did set fire to that buggy, its horses, and the three men riding in it.”
“Which means an easy half-hour delay,” I murmured.
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Every one of those horses is now most thoroughly lame.”
“Lame?” I asked.
“No shoes for most horses causes them to be 'tender-footed' on hard roads,” said the soft voice. “Those of that strain, though – should they lose their shoes, they are far worse that way.”
“They leave blood on the road then,” said Sarah. “I've seen what happens to those things when they toss shoes, and it's not pretty.”
“They get nasty, don't they?” I whispered.
“That, and they often refuse to move unless you set fire to their tails or poke them sharply in the rear portion of their body with knives or spears,” said Sarah. “If you're careful as to where you travel, and rest often enough, you can still get home with a regular horse, but not those things. They're really dependent upon those thick shoes.”
“Those cursed shoes, you mean,” I said. “Such horses first become inhabited during their initial shoeing, and with each succeeding adjustment to their footwear, they become more so.”
“And need thicker shoes,” said Sarah. “A well-tested one of those things is as dumb as a brick and as fat as a fool-hen in the middle of harvest – and the thicker the shoes, the dumber those horses get.”
The phrase 'dumb as a brick' seemed to get echoes among the slow-moving horse train that was somewhere nearby, and when I felt it drawing near, every single horse was limping as if it had raced on a mile track sown liberally with barbed calthrops of an especially nasty type. I could almost see the cursed pointy things showing up some distance ahead of where the flung shoes had fallen, and as I looked once more to the east – the front-runners were but a few hundred yards distant to the west, and the groaning of unlubricated axles spoke of a far-too-long trip for what many of these people had – I heard a hoarse shout in the distance, then a deafening scream – then several more such harrowing screams that echoed in my mind for seconds.
“What gives with those thugs?” I asked.
“Those thrown shoes have traveled ahead and become a sizable number of 'especially nasty calthrops' – and the witches are stumbling over them and getting hurt.”
“Slow them up more, then,” I thought with satisfaction. “How many of these people I see coming here going to need buggy repairs?”
“Enough that most of the businesses on Houtlaan that do such repairs are going to be quite busy for some weeks, and that field close by the northwest end of that street is going to have droves of 'campers' for a while.”
“They must have smoked their wheels, then,” muttered Sarah. “That's a full day's traveling for a common buggy, especially if they do not stop.”
“Hans told them to stop at his usual places,” said the soft voice, “but those towns are fit for two buggies watering their teams in ten minutes' time, not ten times that number and more. Hence they proceeded as if the pigs had shown in the area.”
“Pigs?” I asked. “Casualties?” I knew those tended to be severe when dealing with Iron Pigs.
“Will be far lower than most of these men think they will be,” said the soft voice. “They know little if anything about those bottles, and a lot of them were thinking they'd do well to return to their homes in the beds of their buggies to be buried in their own cornfields.”
“What did Hans say to them?” I asked. I kept my voice down, as I could now plainly hear the blowing of the horses of the first buggies. They'd come at their 'pigs in the area' speed, and 'axles be damned, horses can founder and go to dust, and let the hubs burn' was the rule then. I heartily wished he'd given them more time.
“He gave them the time he usually did,” said the soft voice, “and while Hans is not a good speaker, this particular type of speech is one that he's said dozens of times. More, it's been in his family nearly unchanged for several generations.”
“He didn't get them, uh, fired up like Mathias, did he?” I thought.
“No, and he didn't need to,” said the soft voice. “That 'bomber's speech' tends to hit a very responsive chord in most able-bodied men in the first kingdom – and while they're not going to yell and cheer like people did at the start of some wars you might recall in your recent history, they're just as 'enthusiastic' and 'bloodthirsty' as anyone was in 1914 Europe – and unlike those people then, these individuals have a clear idea of what can and might happen. They know fighting means killing and dying, and they're going to do their best just the same.”
And in the background, faint upon the wind, I seemed to hear a deep-throated and guttural roar of the single word 'Banzai!'. It seemed to ring with echoing rumbles that faintly shook the ground.
“What?” I gasped.
“Now who of you is to lead us to the place?” said a voice I had heard several times before but could not put a face to it. “Hans said to meet us here, and we are here for the hall's destruction – and we shall see that happen, or we shall have what is our due in hell or heaven.”
“He was being troublesome,” said Anna softly, “and we have enough trouble with those witches. Wait until the rest come up, and then we can form up in line and go in.”
Two more came up as Anna spoke, and though the men in question were tired, and their horses 'flat' – I just learned another portion of vernacular; a flat horse needed a roll in the hay due to exhaustion – they would go the last mile. The last of the group would come up within another minute or two.
I proved myself wrong, for the group seemed to draw itself up even as I thought them 'laggards', and within less than a slow count of ten, they were all here at once. I wondered if my night-time distance vision had gone weird like it had in times past.
With the last of the group to arrive, there was soft speech that spoke of watering the horses.
“Yes, quickly,” I whispered. The sound of my voice carried surprisingly well. “We've no time to waste. There are witch-reinforcements coming on the Suedwaag, and though they've been slowed up considerably, I want to get into position and set up before they arrive.”
This put an uncommon speed into the latest arrivals, and while I led toward the 'lake' walking 'softly' into the darkness, the noise behind me of quick yet quiet movements spoke of either uncommon familiarity or someone providing lights. I turned around as I came within twenty feet of the shore, and saw that not merely was Jaak right behind me; Sarah was leading her team behind him, Anna hers behind Sarah, and an orderly line was forming on the tails of Anna's two animals. I wondered where Hans was until I heard Tam faintly, or so I thought.
“Not unless you whisper,” he said. I wasn't sure if I was hearing with my ears or otherwise. “If you speak louder than that, I'll cork you with this knife here and hang you in those trees over there as a witch.”
The shores of the pond were surprisingly firm under my feet, and as Jaak began drinking from a spot I indicated by pointing and then testing it with my own weight, I moved to his right. Sarah's horses found a place quickly without such help, and as I continued circling around this pond and finding such places by 'knowing' and then 'testing', I noted its size – it was actually closer to a lake, in reality; it was easily a quarter mile across – but the 'reeds' went out a good ten to twenty yards from the water's edge. Beyond that, they faded out and then stopped, and while I could feel the swarms of 'evil-tasting' Karpfen in the place – they were algae-devourers, which kept the 'pond' from stagnating and badly affected their flavor – I also knew there were a few Grossmoend fish as well in the 'pond'.
“Those things are not that common, though,” I thought. “Those other fish might taste like turnips...”
“Yes, if you use dirty salt and clean them wrong,” said the soft voice. “If you ever must eat Karpfen, don't bother gutting them. Remove the heads and the tails, then carefully fillet them such that the internal organs are not touched, then put the scaled fillets into rapidly boiling salted water for a few minutes. After that, they can be smoke-cooked, much like herring – and they will more or less taste like herring, also.”
“Cleaned salt, right,” I whispered. I was still leading horses to water, and I'd dropped off another three pairs.
“The combination of 'bad salt' and 'clumsy cleaning' is much of what makes Karpfen taste like mud,” said the soft voice, “and what Anna spoke of, if that boiling water was nearly saturated with clean salt, would make the taste tolerable, provided someone like her or Hans carefully cleaned the fish.”
“And Sarah?” I asked.
“Did her fishing at night while on the run headed north from the second kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and while Sarah might clean fish as well or better than either of the other people you live with, that presupposes she has enough light to do so and the appropriate tools. She had to clean those things with a dull stub of a 'tosser' knife in the dim light of a tallow candle-stub, and contaminated the fish in the process – and then, she could not use an open fire, so she ate them raw.” A brief pause, then, “she had had no food in nearly thirty-six hours, so it was eat raw muddy-tasting fish – and be sick for a while afterward – or starve.”
“So that's why those things taste so awful,” whispered Sarah. She was right behind me, and I'd just tested a spot upon the shore with my feet. It felt uncommonly firm, compared to some other places I'd trod upon in the last minute or so. “Klaus, here's a spot.”
“Why aren't you..?” Consternation wasn't half of what I felt.
“Those horses will stay until I come and get them,” said Sarah as she came up to just behind me. “This pond has bad spots where they'll sink in, so while you're finding those places where horses can drink, I can point them out to the farmers.” A pause, then, “you might know the names of a few of these men, but I more or less know all of them.”
“That is because he is too busy with his work,” whispered another familiar voice which I could not pair with a face. “That spot there?”
“You'll mire them if you try to drink there,” said Sarah. “I might not have done night-fishing in this pond, but I've gone by and around it enough times to know where most of the firm places are and where the mud is usually like forth kingdom grease.”
“It is?” I asked. I was more than a little surprised.
“You might not notice it when you're walking on it, but I can feel that stuff out this far with my feet,” said Sarah. “I've taken my shoes off to feel it better.”
“I don't?” I asked.
“You barely leave any tracks,” said Sarah. “Even when the stuff that sucks at my feet is under them, you barely seem to touch it.”
“N-no tracks?” I thought.
And yet I knew it was more than that. A brief glance to my rear showed a 'short' line of perhaps four farmers remaining, and as I dropped them off one after the other, I wondered silently how they would all go back. Faint noises, however, told me that was already happening with the first groups I had 'dropped off'.
“Were they that dried out?” I asked.
“They had to to ford a small river that you've managed to consistently avoid,” said the soft voice. “Hans' map looked 'good enough' to him, but he's a very poor cartographer – and these people got lost more than once on the way here.” A pause, then, “anything less than that speech they heard and the custom for pigs, they would not have left Roos, much less not continued on by compass bearing and keeping the rising moon on their right.”
“Compass?” I asked.
“More than one farmer in town has an old student's compass,” said the soft voice. “They occasionally turn up in some of the better second-hand stores the area, and then, there's night-travel.” A pause, then, “that rule about the 'night belongs to witches' tends to be overruled by the squalling tones of witch-horns or people yelling 'The Swine are Coming'.”
“And those are nearly the only things,” I thought, as I led to the last spot needed. With those horses drinking, I moved out away from the shore and out of reach of the horses' hooves, then circled back toward where we had 'parked'. I could see the crushed spots in the grass clearly under the wheels of a chaotic-looking mass of buggies parked in disorderly scattered 'clumps', and as I continued at a slow but steady walk through the knee-high grass, I could hear – and feel – a train gathering behind me. I looked over my shoulder between steps, and saw groups of horses coming away from the lake with their 'leaders' ahead of them.
And suddenly, I was nuzzled in the back. I jumped and nearly screamed, and when I turned, I saw Jaak.
“Tis time,” I thought – and then, a silly-sounding joking refrain based upon the original lines of that one play that I yet recalled came to mind. Only this time, the witches were to get the short end of the stick instead of them speaking the lines:
“Round about the burn-pile go,
In the nasty witches throw,
Time to make the ground to shake,
And the witches screech and quake.”
“They'll do more than 'screech and quake',” said a soft voice that I recognized as that of Tam. “Now lead on, and we'll stick close behind you.”
“At least he did not call me 'Macduff',” I thought. “Thank God for small favors when I'm trying to make a joke to avoid screaming in terror.”
“Only a few more weeks,” said the soft voice. “After tonight, it will be quiet until the Abbey's trouble, which is mostly one day's work – and that trip happens within a ten-day after the Abbey.”
“And then it gets strange,” I thought, as I tried to brush aside the distraction as I led between the orchard and that one field. “Single file, please, this path is a most-narrow one,” I whispered.
Over the road, only this time we had to slow markedly as we crossed it and its ditches. I prayed we would not be seen by witches, but faint booms in the distance to the south, as well as an oncoming mass of dancing lights far away in the darkness, spoke of something entirely otherwise.
“They're too drunk to know who we are,” said an urgent-sounding yet carrying whisper. “They're shooting at shadows.”
“That is common for witches, isn't it?” asked a question. This person's curiosity was refreshingly genuine.
“They're dumb that way, 'specially when they're drunk – and I've only seen two witches worth anything that weren't drunk at least some o' the time.”
“Then there are sober witches,” I thought. It was reassuring to hear confirmation, even if 'sober witches' were a nightmare I didn't otherwise want to contemplate.
“He shot those two,” said the soft voice. “Tam's 'vengeance' comes from an oath he took in church as a boy after his family was killed by a group of witches while they were out hunting at night in the first kingdom house, and while the neighbors did take him in, they were not his family.”
“Uh, bad parents?”
“He ran away within weeks of his 'adoption' and lived much as the latest guard-students did for years,” said the soft voice. “It turned out it was wise that he left, as the mother of the house became a witch not two months after he left – and she and her coterie were responsible for the first notches he cut on his first notch-stick.” A brief pause, then, “and hence, from then on, his 'name' was 'Vengeance' or 'Vengeful Tam'.”
“And I wonder what mine is?” I mused, as I watched over the last of the crossers of the Suedwaag from the middle of the turnip field. “Goofy? Joker? Silly boy?”
“You don't have one, at least among non-witches,” said the soft voice, “and your name is accounted a dire curse among those inclined favorably toward witchdom and its goals.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Recall that other person named Dennis?” asked the soft voice. “There were at least two others of that name during the war living on the continent – and both of those people were dread terrors to witches then, much like the last person having your name was. Only hearing the name 'Charles' rankles them more.”
I was about to relax when, “that difference, at least in the minds of the witches, has been eroding since shortly after you came here – and in the months to come, they will wish, and that wholeheartedly, that they were dealing with the Charles of their very worst nightmares and not the reality of you.”
I moved through the column – somehow, Jaak missed trampling the turnips – and again took my place at the front as the first of the buggies crossed the other ditch bordering the turnip field. The path through the woodlot beckoned, and I led through it with Sarah behind me. The long string of buggies was now oddly quiet, and only the rag-muffled thumping of a multitude of hooves came to my ears. After the woodlot, we would have a long period of exposure, this in the middle of a field, and when I again strained my ears, I asked, “why now no groaning wheels?”
“Hans may still have his gag in place, but he did something useful while those buggies were left in that field,” said the soft voice. “He oiled every hub he could find with 'motor oil' from that latest batch.”
“Is he still cleaning that glassware good?”
“Yes, though Sarah reminds him every chance she can,” said the soft voice. “He's about got it ingrained now: clean it good, and that as often as possible, or you will get sooted up.”
“His version of 'clean', or..?”
“He would have you check it as well as clean it for him, but you're commonly busy,” said the soft voice, “so he has either Sarah or Anna go over his work – and neither of them is sparing of him should he not do a less than near-perfect job, Sarah being worse than Anna by a substantial margin.”
“Hopefully that's good enough to keep him out of trouble,” I thought.
I now realized the point of this type of distraction: my mind grew worried apace when it was not occupied, and I often needed such occupation to not 'wish to live in a rest-house'. I had a job that no one in their right mind wanted, me most of all; and I had the overpowering impression that there was no one I could hand it off to. I'd heard enough about failure not being an option for me that I suspected that 'come hell or high water', I would need to carry on relentlessly until the whole mess finished up or I succumbed in the process – and I was thankful I did not hear a confirming answer.
One was not needed. I knew this deeper than any truth I had ever known.
The long and wide field had me watching nervously for nearly ten minutes as the farmers moved at their best speed, this in single file as they drove through it, then at the wide part of the 'footed' Suedwaag, I saw that nerve-racking sight once again: oncoming lights, some blazing up and down in the infernal rhythm of wick-lanterns fueled with heavy distillate; some brighter yet, yellow-toned and steady in their glare, which spoke of Infernal pressure-lanterns; the near-silence of bleeding 'heavy' horses; the faint groans of axles slimed thoroughly with the fifth kingdom's black-as-night-and-messy-as-coal axle grease.
“That stuff isn't a good lubricant,” I thought. “It's a runnier version of tar.” A question, then, “that fourth kingdom grease?”
“Is somewhat better than earthly petroleum jelly for a lubricant, unless you get an unusually good batch from one or two of the smaller suppliers,” said the soft voice. “Their grease commonly uses 'imported' ingredients, hence it's actually a species of 'grease' similar to some where you come from.”
I had the impression that the grease in question was of a grade common to a time in my infancy, if not prior. It was not 'red-paste', or even the 'cheap' grease I had used for non-critical applications in the shop where I came from. It might work in a worn-out 1939 Ford truck with a overly-parsimonious owner who only cared about how his truck worked when he trundled the smoke-belching thing down the narrow main street of his home town. He needed a good working over – as did his truck – whenever he went to market: the truck beforehand, and himself afterward.
“And that 'torment-grease'?” I asked.
“Is a carefully 'refined' version of 'fifth kingdom axle grease' with some melted wax added,” said the soft voice. “While it's often used as a lubricant, it's not much better for lubricating than that black goo used by most witches.” A pause, then, “it is a decent preservative, so much so that if it wasn't absolute torment to get it upon your hands, you would do well to rub it on your tools.”
“Who makes that stuff?” whispered an irate voice at my back. “I want to boil those witches in their own grease!”
The source of the voice was Sarah, and I said soothingly and quietly, “no, not them, dear. We have other witches to boil tonight – or is that 'smoke up'?” I then nearly laughed with the idea of a huge mob of sooted-up witches running down the road.
“Those coming on the Suedwaag are quite sooty,” said the soft voice, “though their 'soot' is that face-grease commonly used by hunting witches.”
“Oh, I have an idea,” I thought as I led the way into the 'hall's' woodlot. “That grease needs to really irritate their skin.”
“It does that already,” said the soft voice.
“No,” I thought. I knew just the thing for irritation, and that from personal experience: “like it's got finely-chopped fiberglass in it.”
From what seemed miles away, the first low-pitched moans came on the wind that filtered through the trees, then those moans grew vastly in number and raised themselves in pitch, unto the point of throat-raveling screams; until finally, among the chorus of screaming I heard in the distance, I heard low mutterings about the damned burning in hell and witches burning while filled with distillate.
“They sew their lips shut so they do not speak their dying curses,” said Sarah's voice. “Supposedly, the curses spoken by a witch as he or she dies are the strongest that witch will ever speak, and it has been thus since long prior to the Curse.” This sounded like a quotation from somewhere.
“Is that true?” I asked.
“Thus was the Curse itself spoken,” said Sarah, “and every tapestry that mentions that thing and what she did says that – and more, my cousin's family said so many times.”
“And those people would know about witches dumping curses,” I thought.
“They do,” said the soft voice, “and while death-cursing takes a witch nearing Cardosso's standing to make it truly work in the manner Sarah spoke of, some of the worst curses ever uttered here were spoken on deathbeds, including the one commonly known as 'The Curse'.”
“And now we are in a forest owned, groomed, and most likely cursed by witches,” I thought. I kept silent, as I did not wish to spook our people about 'cursed forests' after hearing something similar about the 'forest crossing' in the third kingdom.
“True, but the strength of those feeble curses died when those making them did,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to hurry when you cross that field, as then those witches at the hall can see you.”
“And they will start shooting at us,” I thought. “They'll burst those guns then.”
“No, they'll save those for closer shots,” said the soft voice, “and while their muskets can shoot that far, they're too drunk to see where their shots are landing.”
“Meaning pure luck if they hit us,” I thought.
“You'll need to get within fifty paces of those people for them to actually stand a 'decent' chance of hitting you,” said the soft voice. “Beyond that, even those few relatively sober witches are going to be depending upon curses rather than aiming well.”
“And I can throw further than that,” I thought; and then morosely, “our farmers are shooting from the limits of their range.”
“No, they can hurt and wound witches at that distance,” said the soft voice, “and they'll drop their share.” A pause, brief as a breath. “Besides, their role is keeping the witches busy dodging hot lead while you toss bottles.”
“I thought so,” came a woman's voice from behind me. “They can fire from cover at those thugs.”
“That's the idea, dear,” I murmured. I then raised my voice slightly – which sounded loud enough to startle me. “Now comes the crossing. Bunch up on me, nose to tail, and go at your best speed when we break into the open. Pass it on!”
The voices behind me swelled to a murmuring tumult, and as Jaak broke out of the trees, I could see – or rather, feel – the attention of the witches. It was, for nearly all of them, directed inward; and the witch-watchers upon the walls and in the towers were watching a massive gang-war in the courtyard of the place, where hundreds of drunken witches swung swords and stabbed at one another; and for each drunken thug that was sliced or poked too badly to continue his portion of brawling, there were two more waiting to take his place – and overlooking the whole raging mess, dozens of drunken 'lords' lolled upon balconies and cheered on their 'teams' with thrown half-consumed drink-bottles as the battle raged madly among the drunken throng.
I was within perhaps twenty yards of the second cross-street when the first bullet flew overhead, then another hit the ground with a thud and flung dirt perhaps thirty feet to my right. Another whizzed overhead, then two more flew past 'somewhere'. None were particularly close, but the speech about bunching up on my tail now seemed to gather force and substance. My goal was to minimize our exposure to such shooting from the time perspective, and to my rear, I could 'feel' people putting out the candles in their 'journey-lanterns' as the bullets continued flying. They were coming two and three a second now.
“About three or four sentries see us,” I thought.
“While they do see you,” said the soft voice, “they are mostly 'having fun'. They don't realize they're about to be attacked.”
“That's fun I can do without,” I muttered. “Hot powder for those muskets, please.”
In the distance, the lit-up mass of the hall now flashed brightly once, then two more times in rapid succession – and as if by magic, a fire then erupted on one of the high-points. The bullets ceased immediately.
“What was that?” I asked, as Jaak leaped the ditch on the far side of the street and passed into the narrow grassy way. I could feel people in the houses to both right and left; those to my right, if the houses were abandoned...
“Those who were living in those places have left them,” I thought.
“If they're not actually ready and waiting for the signal with loaded guns,” said the soft voice. “Your farmers are mostly going to need to park in-line, starting at where that one house is located, with about five paces between each buggy and the horses turned into the nearest house-yards to shelter under their eaves. They can water properly then.”
“They don't know that, do they?” I asked silently.
“Hist, you,” said a voice I did not recognize. It was to the rear somewhere close by. “Spread them things out and load up your guns. The hall goes where it belongs tonight.”
A soft murmur sprang up in my wake, and amid this, Sarah's soft voice said, “we'll need to put the buggy behind that one house, and then carry its things in.”
“We will have help, dear,” I whispered back.”
“I know,” said Sarah. Again, her voice was soft. “Tam's right behind me, and Anna's behind him, and then there are those that are already there.”
“Which number over a dozen,” said the soft voice. “You'll be able to toss those bottles almost as fast as you can throw them – and I would toss the first few quickly, then select your targets with a goal of eliminating the main trouble spots as you find them.”
“And the extra bottles?” I asked.
“If any remain, have those who go with you – you will not be alone carrying those jugs – carry them and lay them against the main jugs,” said the soft voice. “The two jugs are enough to bring the place down if you bust it up properly, but any added blast will just spread the damage further and break it up yet more.”
“Not just the hall, right,” I thought. “Those farmers will need to take cover or back up.”
While there was no answer, I knew this to be absolutely factual, as that talk of 'raining bricks' was only the dire truth – and most of the houses fronting on Hallstraat would be severely damaged by either flying debris or the blast itself.
“Both of those things,” said the soft voice. “Hallstraat will be near-impassable for months, so have everyone go to the rear of the houses or behind their walls and crouch down as low as they can at the absolute minimum – and further yet is very wise, if it is possible.”
“I heard that,” said Sarah. “That place is going to go to hell, and no mistake.”
“I hope our people...”
I stopped speaking, for I could see the house but a short distance away; and lining the fences shoulder-to-shoulder on my right were musket-bearing individuals of grim mien. All of these men – there were a lot of them – had soot-streaked faces, and their clothing looked as filthy as anything I'd ever worn. For some reason, I was uncommonly glad – both of their numbers, and of their 'camouflage'. Someone was thinking.
“When is it?” asked one.
“Right soon,” said Tam. “We got us some surprises for them things in that place, and they ain't going to like it much.”
“What?” asked another. “Witch-jugs?”
“No,” said Tam emphatically. “Each of these things is worth a buggy-full of jugs, and we got plenty of 'em – and that's for the bottles. We got jugs, only those ain't like anything you've seen before.”
“Unless you saw the sun rise last night,” said Sarah's clear – and now carrying – voice. “It will happen again tonight, and I would take cover when it is time, just as if that witch-hole were Sodom and Gomorrah being crushed under the vengeful foot of God.”
“Vengeful 'foot'?” I thought, as I dismounted. The house was just a stone's throw away, and my 'signal' needed time to circulate back through the line. Within seconds, I was joined to my right by an uncommonly small and very quiet buggy, and Sarah's whispers came to my left ear.
“They saw you dismount,” she whispered, “and between that, and what those men along the walls have been saying, they know it's close to the time for beginning. Now where is this house?”
“Here, dear,” I said as I crossed the 'border' of mystery and came once more upon familiar territory. “The fold is just up ahead...” A brief pause while I walked, until I came to the fold; then, “It's here.”
That seemed to carry as if I'd shouted instead of but barely whispered, and as I led Jaak through the fold, the door to the house ahead of me opened without a sound to faintly silhouette a familiar voice.
“Them people in that witch-hole have no idea what's happening,” said Lukas. “Now you tested those things, or what?”
“They have been tested, sir,” said Sarah as she came up with her two horses. There were nearly a dozen of them in the yard, all of them quietly standing near the walls or 'grazing' quietly. “Will you help us bring our things in?”
Lukas came out, and after him, Gilbertus; then two men who I did not recognize, then Paul, and another three who I had never seen before. There were more men yet inside, and when I came indoors, the faint flame of a candle in the corner and on the floor showed several watchful men near the edges of the hole in the wall. One of them turned his face, and I recognized Willem. His soot-smudged visage and blackened hands were a marvel. Only his filthy clothing was more 'tormenting' to see.
“Wh-what?” I gasped, as I knelt down next to him.
“This is the usual for swine,” he said, “though I'm usually this dirty after the battle, and not before it.” A brief pause, then, “I'm not sure which of those two gaffers came up with the idea, but they spoke of such doings being spoken of on tapestries, and that means it's almost as good as the book for truth.”
“Well, soot and things like it does work at night,” I murmured. “Now things will start as soon as, uh, the signal goes up and we get our little operation situated.”
“It will be soon,” said Sarah quietly. “I've told them to handle those bottles with utmost care, and Paul is speaking of the matter.”
I then heard Hans speak, though he was speaking softly – for him. His voice still sounded like he was 'yelling' to me. “Be careful with those things, as they are glass, and they break easy.”
“Anna loosed his gag,” said Sarah. “I have that decorator with me. When will you toss the first one?”
“Uh, soon,” I said. “I'm going to either need a bottle-handling brigade, or need to return back inside between each toss – and at least for the first few tosses, that's going to cost us far too much time. I need to toss about five bottles as fast as I can count them off, and then I can start picking off those thugs a bit slower.”
“Good,” said Sarah. “I can arrange that.”
And with that, she left my side as the house became deathly quiet. Someone was laying out what looked like uncommonly large and bulky rags over against the far wall, and as I watched, the bottles began to be laid upon them. Someone was whispering – Lukas – and he said, “them things are worse than anything dug out of a farmer's field in a hundred years, so be careful with 'em.”
“They that bad?” whispered another.
“They are fully ripe,” said Sarah. “I have seen what a freshly-made one does, and to say they would turn a large house, one an especially wealthy arch-witch would desire, to kindling and dust is naming them weak indeed.”
“Those things are not jugs,” muttered Hans to someone else. “They are so strong I do not know what to name them, and how he throws them like that is something I do not know, but I have seen him do it twice, and both times it was further than Roos is for long.”
“That's near the range of a gun,” said a third whisperer.
“And then, he makes a rotten cannon look bad for aiming,” said Hans. “I heard tell he could plant a bottle in a witch's face if he is at all close.”
“I just might try that,” I thought with a hidden yet mischievous grin. “Now when do we start?”
Sarah nudged me, and I took up a liquid-filled bottle and went toward the door of the house. She followed, and behind her, others came, their movements furtive as they carefully sheltered what I was to throw amid dark shadows and darker-yet soot-camouflage. I came off of the stoop and out into the yard, all the while keeping to the shadows of the place, and then 'faced' my bottle toward Sarah.
The chemical smell of gelatin raced into my nose, and as the headache bloomed 'slowly', I turned, the bottle clutched strongly in my hand and ready to throw. A glaring searchlight seemed to blind my eyes, and the nearest wall-topping tower all but blazed with glaring light. Its parapet and floor were covered with witches, most of them past caring and well into 'drunken stupors'; and those otherwise had their backs turned as they yelled and gesticulated at something or someone below. They were 'wavering in an unseen breeze', they were so diabolically drunk.
The noise of 'war' then hit me instantly, this being the battle going in the courtyard beyond those tall and glaring walls; and as I saw once more the nearest tower, I saw one particular loophole. Suddenly, the curtain drew back from this narrow keyhole-like embrasure imported from the second kingdom house to show a glaring distillate-fueled light coming from within. I leaned back, then with a surprisingly easy throw, I flung the bottle.
The screaming howl of the thing as it shot toward the tower seemed to sunder the night and its formerly death-like silence; and as I watched, thunderstruck at the screaming racket the thing made, a face appeared at the widest place in that particular slit in the thick walls of the tower.
A face that my just-flung bottle had an obvious date with, for its arrow-straight path seemed to be zeroing in on that face. A sudden hush of deathly silence gathered round me. I averted my eyes.
The face did not see the bottle, nor did I, not until the gelatin crawled up the witch's nose and flung him backwards as it flew on to then detonate against the far wall of the tower.
The flash and roar was of such blazing magnitude I went blind and deaf instantly, and as I turned, my eyes opened and I reached numbly for another bottle. As I turned, wooden, mechanized, primed for death, I saw the massive eruption of light blink out as if switched off and the top of the tower launch into space as the swivel-guns flew like badly-thrown boomerangs and bodies sailed far and crazily into the air. I then flung the second bottle.
Again, it flew like a bullet, this time in a low arc; and as a door opened at the juncture of the left tower and the parapet it sat upon and a witch 'flew' outside with a pointed boot-print blazing redly on his rear, the bottle shot inside that door and the still-flying witch disintegrated in mid-air as the tower 'launched' skyward and I turned to reach for another bottle.
I sprinted out of the yard, and as a smattering of gunfire began to come from each side and to my rear, I came to the open 'funnel' of the hall's alcove – and tossed the bottle in a low arc that just cleared the top of the gate. As I ran back to my 'chain', I yelled, “boom-bottle next!”
I was handed another bottle, and as flames raged up high and crazily from the courtyard of the hall, I could hear yells and screams as the musketry from my back now increased in both sound and fury while I ran back toward the gate. This bottle was a good deal heavier, and it needed to fly flat – which meant I would need to brave the gunfire coming from the ambush-walls on each side of the gate.
The gunfire from behind me now was 'coming through in waves'. Someone had given the command for 'volley fire', and from behind me, I could hear what sounded like the entire 'Army of the risen-from-the-grave Potomac' lined up twenty deep and firing by the numbers amid shouted commands. I made the entrance of the funnel, and furtive noises, these coming from ahead, spoke of the witches being primed for sallying forth to 'carry the opposition'. Another ten yards, then twenty; and at a range of but sixty feet – the 'alcove' was deeper than I thought it was – I hurled the bottle, then turned and dove headlong for the mule-slimed pavement.
The blast was so ferocious that I found myself flung upright and into the air downrange amid a blaze of fire and sooty smoke, and I hit the ground running as a wall of fearsome fire chased me nearly all the way back to my refuge; and as I was handed another bottle, I seemed to hear – and somehow, hear clearly – someone shouting. I took two steps, then flung the bottle hard and high – and as the scream of its flight seemed to vanish, the musketry to each side and my rear crashed once more. I then turned to my right.
Coming up Hallstraat was the slow-moving 'head' of the rescuing witch-column, and as the right flank musketry began firing at them, I was handed another bottle. I sighted through squinting eyes, the bottle in my hand; then I took two steps and threw. As the bottle left my hand in an astonishingly flat arc, I prayed earnestly that it would find the spot where it would do its greatest execution – and as I closed my eyes, I was buffeted, first by a rumbling blast from the left, then another from my front; and I staggered backwards under the combined blows. I then opened my eyes, and turned to Sarah.
“Another bottle, please,” I asked. My voice sounded strained and soot-choked, which did not surprise me, and when I threw that bottle, I threw once more at the witch-column come to 'rescue' the hall. This one, however, I lofted higher. I wanted to catch the rear of that group, such that they were stranded where they stood and the right-flank musket-firers could turn the survivors into bullet-riven sieves.
And as the bottle left my hand and another volley of musketry crashed to each side, I turned to see a seething mob of sword-waving witches begin to boil out of the alcove. Amid a now-bursting headache, another bottle was in my hands, and I launched the thing at the far wall of that portion of the alcove I could see from where I stood. The howling of the bottle seemed to stop the charging witches in their tracks, and as those in the very front began a hot retreat to 'clog' the witch-swarm's progress, the bottle hit the alcove walls just above the heads of the front-ranking – and most 'important' – witches.
The blast was of such magnitude that not merely did I see it clearly through closed eyes and stagger backwards two or three steps, but the screaming jumbled mob the witches had turned into upon the order of 'commence thou ye retreate' were disintegrated.
“They're gone,” shouted Sarah, as bits of smoking flesh began to fall about us like putrid and too-solid rain. I was handed another bottle, and for this one, I had no answer, at least at the instant I was handed it.
Another crashing volley of musketry blazed forth, and this time, I actually saw what most of the farmers were aiming at, these being the gun-toting witches climbing to the tops of the nearest walls, these being the ones that fronted on Hallstraat. That left them not merely much closer to our people – and hence far more vulnerable to musket fire – but also entirely exposed; and when the next volley crashed out, I saw those witches that had showed themselves topple one after the other back into their refuge amid the screams and shrieks of a multitude of frightened pigs. Not a single witch remained visible, which gave me an idea. I then knew my target, and I took two steps to then launch the bottle high into the air.
Just like a mortar, and I had a very definite target on the hall's roof. There was a certain place there...
No, not the roof. There was an unusually large brick-walled chimney there, one that led down into the bowels of the hall; and from thence, into the local version of Hell, where the witches' versions of Dagon and Molech had their thirst slaked with the raw meat and steaming blood of daily – no, hourly – sacrifices.
I did not see the bottle fall, but the ground shook underfoot seconds later, much as if I was once more enduring the destruction of that one shipping point; and amid the still-falling bits of smoldering flesh and bone, I began to hear – and feel – the impacts of sundry things having a more solid nature. I turned a sooty face to Sarah, who was also soot-faced. I wondered how she'd gotten so dirty.
“Another bottle, dear,” I said. “A solid-filled one. I'm going to close that rat-hole's way of escape.”
I was handed another heavy bottle, and I looked carefully at the smoke-shrouded fuming wasteland I would need to traverse. I looked down at the bottle, its painted label smudged thickly with soot and grease, and I shot out of my refuge, dodging smoking hot bits of bodies and fuming chunks of rubble as I first ran north, then turned abruptly as if on a coin to then run into the alcove amid another crash of musketry from my rear.
At the very end of this smoky portion of hell, its cobbles now slick with blood and paved thickly with scattered chunks of masonry and bodies and heaped-high mounds of corpses forming islands in the sea of corruption, I found a hole. Slumped mounds of masonry clotted it partly, such that I would need to scamper up and over them, and then beyond that, a scene of such horror and smoky flames awaited that I knew I would be running into the very mouth of hell.
I ran on, crisped bodies to each side and guts and gore underfoot, my steps rapid and sure-footed. I went past my former line, and then I saw the flames, these blazing hot and forming walls of billowing red fire reaching high into the sky. I came to the cleft in the mounds of shattered masonry, and as I paused, arm cocked and ready to toss, I saw a witch...
...A witch above me, standing on the still-standing remains of his balcony, his swivel gun loaded and primed. He was bringing his port-fire down in an achingly slow arc. I flung the bottle, it leaving my arm in a flat arcing trajectory, and as the witch paused, I turned and dove for the refuge in the cleft of the fallen mounds of sharp-edged masonry.
A massive blast, this one worse yet than the last bottle of that type, picked me up from my refuge and flung me high, legs flailing, into the air. I had gone further than I thought I had within the courts of the hall, for as I flew bolt-upright through the air in aching slow-motion, I paused to look to my right as I passed head-high over the tops of the parapet where the now-destroyed tower once stood.
The place was awash in blackened and smoking 'varnish', and muskets and corpses lay piled thickly atop its ruined stones, while gaping cracks showed here and there the poor quality of its witch-directed and slave-wrought construction; and as I fell back within the burgeoning smoke clouds, I wondered where I would land. I hoped it would be softer than the blood-slicked pavement.
With legs still thrashing at a run, I came down hard on a spread-out mound of piled corpses, and as I tumbled and rolled, I became encased in their gore. Somehow, I continued rolling until I fell off and then out of the body parts, and as my messy hands found cobbles, I jumped upright and ran. Another volley of musket-fire crashed out, and I leaped to the side as a witch staggered backwards and did a header to crumple on the cobbles but a few feet to my right. As I ran, I seemed silhouetted by massive walls of thundering multi-colored flames that reminded me of a burning fifth kingdom chemical factory, and as I left the alcove, I was bracketed and buffeted by several thundering explosions that came from behind me. One of them nearly flung me to the pavement as I scampered across Hallstraat, and when I returned once more to the shadows of refuge, I was met by Sarah. Her filthy hands held another bottle, this one already primed. My head was bursting, and not merely with headache.
“That almost dropped the back part of that place,” she yelled. “Here, toss this one.”
She handed me a liquid-bottle, and as I stood with potent fumes wafting slowly higher, I began walking out into the yard of the house. I was deaf as a post, with smoke now drifting high and thick all over the landscape, much of it blue-gray from musketry and the bulk of it an oily black. The smell of a massive burn-pile was roosting stalwartly within my nose, and suddenly, I had an idea. They would not expect this nonsense that had suddenly dawned upon me; and once more, I ran across Hallstraat, dodging two falling witches and a third that thrashed crazily upon the pavement amid hell-wrought screaming that seemed to come from underfoot instead of his bloody mouth.
I dodged the former messes as I ran inside, then at a range of but thirty feet from the destroyed gate, I tossed my bottle. It flew like a bullet, flying in a low arc that vanished inside the black hole I had made of the entrance to the hall; and as I turned my head, the flash erupted all around me; and from below, and seemingly all sides, a low and thundering rumble that jarred the earth and caused me to look about like a kaleidoscope.
Every window in the place now billowed thick gouting tongues of reddish yellow-tipped flame, and again, I could hear plainly that low groan of the earth below and to the sides. I could almost see the sudden-blooming fires roasting the witches still caught inside the hall's many brick-lined chambers – and as the bricks became once more blazing hot – they were cheap once-kilned bricks, these mostly gleaned from among the Swartsburg's rubble – the steam within them caused them to erupt like a million razor-edged squibs and cut everyone close enough to feel their bite. Panic was not the word for the hall's still-numerous survivors; the place – and themselves – was going to hell, and most important of all, they now knew it to be the truth.
And above all, a lush and deadly serenade: the screams of trapped swine about to be roasted. I ignored these last – there would be good hunting for the house proper as they shot the escaped pigs, and they made good witch-bait anyway – and I came back, my feet still running as if they had a hundred miles yet to go, and skidded to a stop in the yard of our refuge. I had words to say.
“The jugs, please,” I said in a husky croak. “It's time. Bring them and the rest of the stuff.”
And as if I had yelled this last sentence, a low guttural cheer seemed to come from everywhere around us, and as I first panted like a long distance runner, then began coughing, and finally began spitting up blobs of nasty-tasting 'goo' that looked like the blackened leavings of Desmonds, I saw first a jug, then heard, and this clearly, the voice of Sarah. She was speaking as if this kind of nonsense was what she lived for.
“Wait,” she said. “You're going to need help with carrying those things.”
“No,” I shouted hoarsely. “Not just the jugs. The rest of the bottles, too.” Then, pleading, this in a near-scream: “hand me one, I need to toss it.”
A bottle was rammed into my hand, and I bolted from the yard and then into the street, I could feel its heft. It was a 'boom-bottle', and as I turned the corner and leaped the corpses that now seemed to wall off the entrance of the alcove from the rest of the world, I saw a sight that I could not at first believe: among towering clouds of dense smoke and ruined bodies piled in mounds, among ruins falling even as I watched, amid the crackle of tall and menacing flames, a witch-army was forming up, its rows even and its columns spaced as if for a parade, with its muskets at 'slope arms'. I had seen this before in the kingdom house, and I knew beyond reason that these people needed killing – as that was what they had given oath to do: to kill, or be killed. That indeed was the law of the witch, and these people were the hard-witches, those who had given oath to fight unto the very portals of hell itself.
Another two steps, a jump over a mound, and I flung the bottle hard in a tall and wobbling arc that still screamed like a damned soul. I came to earth, then ran for the wall's shelter amid mounded corpses...
And straight into a crossfire, with our people firing muskets at the now marching witches, and the marking witches firing a ragged volley of heavy – and un-aimed – musket slugs back. I dove for the pavement, then slid across the dirty blood-slicked stuff...
Over a ditch like a log in a watery flume...
To then collide with the solid and reassuring wood of a recently renovated watering trough. I leaped up and dove headlong into the icy water as the gunfire grew hot and heavy and the bullets buzzed like angry wasps – until I came up for air and the earshattering roar rang my ears anew and the raging shockwave made the watering trough spring a substantial leak – while its water gouted up taller than I normally stood.
“That one was close,” I muttered. “Now those witches in there are...”
“They are where they belong,” said the soft voice inside my aching and ringing mind. “If you hurry, you can place the jugs with little opposition from the hall. Go!”
With aching slowness that seemed at once a nightmare and a horror-show, I climbed dripping from my refuge, much as if I were an unclean corpse being driven out of hallowed ground. This water would not have me, and as I reached the others, I saw but one jug left untaken, this rag-bundled thing alone on the ground. I picked it up, seconds ticking with rapidity as I moved with aching slowness, then, much as if I were nothing more than a stolid thug, I turned and ran.
My feet seemed slow, for some reason, and I had time to dodge the corpses of fallen witches and the fragments of rock and body parts that now all but covered Hallstraat. In my wake, there were others, all of them seeking to emulate the ways and means of Finuegen in the tale I had not read but heard of, and as the jug tried to act like a ball and chain...
“This thing is cussed heavy,” I thought. “It's twice what I remember it weighing, if not more.”
The volley fire lifted to give myself and my equally insane companions, their number near a dozen if I went by the sounds of their booted feet, passage through the roaring storm of lead. I reached into my possible bag, now unsure of not merely how it had gotten on my shoulder, but also its contents. As I reached the first of the still-smoking corpses laying in mounded heaps upon the messy cobbles of the alcove, I turned, and this time, I yelled loudly: “follow me.”
From the rear amid the rumbling and echoing sounds of muskets being swabbed and primed, there came another low and rumbling 'bloodthirsty' cheer. This sound was not the 'Hurrah' or 'Rebel Yell' or whatever seemed to fit what we were doing, but something far more ominous and deadly: it was a call to death and destruction, and if the place went to hell and those cheering followed it there, so much the better. It was almost the sound I expected of Vikings gone stark-raving-Baresark-mad in their fury, and when I heard it once more as I leaped over a clot of bodies in my rapid trek amid corpses and mounded gore and blood and smoke, I heard soft whisperings...
Tales of gore, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses. The street of the Hall would never be the same.
Horror that would make the most bloodthirsty people I'd ever heard of – even the Zulus of T'Chaka – blanch in terror. What I was hearing now was the rumbling snarl of a wild animal, one hungry for death like a two-ton razor-clawed weasel with a bad attitude and a long-pondered score to settle.
There was not a second left unto me for delicacy, for I had a jug in one hand that weighed too much, and a cocked revolver in the other; and as I came to the yet-more-crumbled ruins of the gate, I shot a witch trying to rise up from the fallen masonry enough to fire upon me. Another such witch showed amid the cleft in the fallen rocks, and I shot him in the head so close he actually 'wore the soot from my gun' as I trod him underfoot an instant later in my onward rush. There was but a short distance to go, and as I passed over a fallen column of masonry that lay in a long and broken mound upon the ground, I saw my spot; and there, I set the bomb down. I then paused to look as the others came along my new-blazed trail. Gunshots echoed in my mind as they came on slow as molasses, or so it now seemed to me.
All around me, I saw tall and invincible walls of smoke-billowing red and yellow flame; underfoot, the ground shook, quaked, and rumbled, as if it were about to give way at any moment. Mounded body parts, these burning steadily with deep red and yellow flames, shot smoke into the air like hell-spawned funeral pyres, this smoke black and thick so as to choke the darkness of the night and its hidden moons into brute and unintelligible submission.
As I watched, first Sarah came, then Lukas. Sarah had the other jug, and as I looked for the pull-cord that lay hidden among the unbound ink-streaked rags of the bomb's top, she set it down beside me, and began doing likewise. My fumbling fingers seemed to have minds of their own as first one clinking 'satchel' was set near my feet, then heavy boots came and draped another such satchel by the first.
“Here,” I muttered, as I found the loop I had asked Sarah to tie. “Here it is. That one?”
Sarah held up the loop to her jug, even as more people came with satchels that clinked unmistakably. I began to mound these satchels between the two jugs, and as Sarah helped me, the cracks of revolvers came two and three a second. Paul came up with a satchel, which I took and piled into the growing mound, then Willem with another. He seemed somehow hazy, indistinct, almost as if he were a phantasm of an overwrought imagination.
“I'm going to pull,” I shouted. “Put your bottles down...”
They had done so, and yet more were coming. Satchel after satchel arrived, and those bringing them piled them against the jugs. The mound was still growing, even as those who had come fought with pistol and knife against those few witches still alive enough to contend with us amid the crumbling ruins and the towering flames.
My voice was not heard, until I saw the last satchel placed near the base of the mound. I yanked my cord, and the pop of the igniter segued into the sizzle of two fuses, then as I took a step so as to reach for the other jug, I saw Sarah rip the cord of the other jug, and her face became wreathed with powder smoke from the fuse-igniter. I tried to yell, but all I managed was a wheeze.
“Run,” shouted Sarah. “Run!”
Time once more slowed, and I turned in slow motion, my usual revolver now in my left hand and my right hand reaching for the spare. A witch showed at spitting distance; I shot him between the eyes. Another person – Lukas, possibly – shot another witch with his revolver, then as those who had most recently arrived among our group began turning, I passed them, much as if I were carried by the wings of mighty birds. Behind me, I heard shouts, some high-pitched and strident, some coarse and hideously drunken – and above all of this shouting, the death-hungry roar of distillate-fueled flames and the slow juddering rumble of falling masonry seemed a proper prelude to the gates of hell.
I then cleared the gates of the hall, and with my right hand, I shot another witch, this time straight in his open curse-spewing mouth at a range of less than a foot.
But two shots in the left pistol and four in the right now remained as the witch in question dropped 'like a hot brick' onto the flaming mess that he was standing on. I wondered why, until in my slowed-down mind's eye I saw that he was mostly charcoal already, and he did not comprehend his late unlamented death. To my right, and then my left, I heard more shouting, then as I cleared a mound of smoking bodies at a single leaping bound, I saw two groups, these composed of the others, flow around me somehow in the manner of water. I continued running, clearing bodies and chunks of them every step of the way, and near a mound of corpses but yards short of the alcove's entrance, a lump of charcoal stood with a fowling piece. I shot that witch between the eyes, and his brains spattered the wall behind him as his gun dropped and he followed it down to once more rest among his dead and dying brethren. Two more steps, these long and slow-seeming, and I was out of the hall's realm and in the middle of rock-and-corpse-strewn Hallstraat.
“Run”, screamed a hoarse and distorted voice from somewhere behind me, and as I did so, I knew that I had once more outstripped the others. When I came to the house, however, the crowd gathered in its yard seemed solid and immobile. I threw a fist at one, then someone grabbed my right hand and pulled me through the huge round hole in the wall...
...Into a huge and darksome empty room, one walled with soot and peopled thickly with the too-solid ghosts of the multitude I had killed that evening. I understood this place to be a witch-hole, and the person who had grasped my hand led me at a stumbling run to the back door of the house, where I tripped and fell to slide on something too horrible for words to describe. I slipped yet more, then slid against a too-solid log; and while someone sat upon me, another person mistook my mouth for a borehole and slowly dripped blasting oil down it.
They left out the cap, however, and as the night grew deathly quiet, I sat up with ringing ears. That person who had been holding my hand had somehow vanished, and all around me, faint murmurs, these of migrating beasts that covered the ground like hares in the pitch darkness made by an absent moon and thick billows of dusted charcoal and smoke, seemed all about me, then a strange voice – one I recognized – spoke of moving ourselves and our animals further back. I stood up, wobbling like a sick man, then with two steps, I crossed the yard and hurdled the stone wall; and as I did, my mind returned to me with a sudden rush. I understood, now.
We had to get back further, as those bombs we had set were the real thing, not a decent attempt at its imitation.
I landed next to a leaping horse, and as he once more leaped, I did as well. I was now moving rapidly indeed, and with each pounding stride and strident hacking breath, my mind was returning yet more to me. A hundred yards from the hall's outer boundaries wasn't nearly enough for safety. We would eat rocks at that distance, and that without the usual means of chewing meals.
“Benzina!” yelled a high-pitched shrieking voice. “It's real, and those thugs are going to hell!”
That voice abruptly faded out as a massive and thuggish mob, one wearing the thick-caked filth and the deeply-entrenched soot of war, flowed over and around those houses as we were going 'through' them. We needed the distance of another entire street's width, and even at that distance, we would be dodging bricks and bodies as they fell.
“Let your bullets fly like rain,” rang in my head. I could hear rain coming, and while it wasn't a rain of actual bullets, it would be a rain indeed, one at once sudden and supremely heavy.
I came to the buggy-way of the house to my front, and with a flying kick, I blasted the rear door into shattered splinters and waving bat-wing pieces. Another lunge, and I found no buggy – and someone blasted past me like a wayward rocket and crashed hard into the door as its flimsy latch fell to the door in fragments. The doors flew open, and now...
Now, we could run.
The cobbles of the street to each side of us suddenly sprouted a vast army of filthy men and women, all of them running as if they were about to be plucked from the earth by a nuclear weapon; and as the far side of the unnaturally wide street neared, a sudden eruption of blazing white light showed to our rear.
Sound, this sudden, violent, and savage, ripped the night air into bits and set them alight to burn to ash in an instant. Our ears imploded, and bodily, all of us who ran abruptly took to the air like quolls for a slow count of three to crash-land in crumpled heaps upon the slick and nasty cobbles or slide across the grounds of more-abandoned yards. Some few, however, were lucky.
They bathed in horse-troughs with titanic splashes and second-story waterspouts, and while I was not such a one, I but barely missed the pump at the end of such a trough. I hit the ground, tumbled, rolled like a barrel...
And from where I lay with gritty eyes in reeking filthy splendor upon the ground, I looked up from below into the fire-glazed eyes of a man and wife both dressed in bed-clothing as they stood open-mouthed upon the stairs of their stoop. I could see the massive fireball still riding high in the glassy shine coming from their eyes.
“Where am I?” I asked quietly amid clangorous ears and the slow-falling rattle of smoldering body parts mingled with fire-blackened broken stone and still-flaming fragments of bricks that went out as they bounded and bounced on the stone-hard ground around me.
“The house proper,” deadpanned the woman as the rattle increased to a steady pounding roar and I crawled up unto their stoop to wait it out. “The sun rose at midnight, and the hall...”
“And its witches, Gertrude,” said the man as he turned to see me and several others also seeking refuge from the storm of falling firebrands and raining debris. “They are gone too.”
His wife did not hear him. Instead, she continued, much as if such massive eruptions of light, sound, and color were everyday events for her to see in the dead of night:
“And now, the hall is where it belongs.”