The long-awaited aftermath.
Again, the question remained, even as the black winds of a blazing holocaust seemed to flow over us and shut out all light for a slow count of three. They passed, and then, I once more asked:
“Where am I?”
“This is Kokenstraat,” said a voice to my right that took nearly two seconds to recognize as that of Hans. “I never ran that far that fast before, and then this big wind picks me up so that I fly like a bird.”
“A quoll, you mean,” said Sarah's weak-sounding voice. “We flew like quolls, and then we crashed like those things do.” A brief pause, then, “at least I landed in a horse-trough with water in it.”
“Yes, so you have had your bath,” said Hans. “Now we are all as dirty and stinky as if we had had a fight with those swine from Norden, and I would like to know who that wretch was that was shooting that roer, as he did not do it just once.”
“Who was that?” said a staggering bedraggled figure. I looked to see Anna, only now – Anna was as dirty and bedraggled as anyone I had ever seen. She looked as if she'd collided with a wall covered with a mixture of pig-dung and soot – at a full run, no less.
“Who?” I asked.
“Someone must like being sore,” said Anna crossly, “as that wretch almost made me deaf with that thing. He shot it again, and again, and again...”
“What?” I asked. My ears 'had bells in them' – only these were the worst bells I had ever heard, as well as the loudest. I wondered if I would ever hear again right again.
“You will,” said the soft voice. “It may take a week or so, but you will hear again normally.” A brief pause, then, “however, if in the near future some people you know ask for repeats of what you say, especially if they were taking part in this escapade, don't be surprised much.”
“P-permanent hearing loss,” I muttered. “Gunner's ear.”
“That is not the only trouble,” said Hans as he stumbled closer. “Now I hope our buggies are not wrecked, as that thing that went up was worse than living in an old tale.”
That seemed to be the constant refrain I heard among ringing ears, as well as 'gossip' about the business – specifically, things I hadn't had time to notice that others had seen clearly. As we began to slowly – and achingly – cross Kokenstraat, I recalled there being a 'bad' Public House somewhere nearby. Tall and menacing flames came from a place somewhere ahead and to the left, and when I asked – my voice was almost gone, and I coughed constantly – Dirk said, “I think that bad place is on fire.”
“B-bad place?” I asked.
“I think it was taking a shipment of distillate,” said another voice gone soft and coughing, “and that explosion not only crushed the jugs, it sprayed them onto the place.”
“T'ain't no fire, then,” muttered Tam. “That stuff exploded, and that place is 'most gone as the hall is.”
“Or these houses,” I muttered, as I began picking my way through the shattered homes on my way back to where we had 'parked' our buggies. I knew Jaak had escaped, though where he was was a mystery, or so I thought until a short sooty person came up along my right side.
“The horses are safe,” said Sarah between coughs. “I emptied my pistol coming out of that place, there were so many witches in it, and I think they tried to toss what we had set.”
“That would have blown them things to hell right then,” said Tam. “Besides, that fuse was buried good in them rags, so all they'd know is these things are smoking and they got these bottles next to 'em.” A brief pause, then, “and I hope my horse isn't hurt, as I am not walking far tonight.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I was shootin' them witches,” said Tam, “and every shot I made, I drilled one, but there's someone who was about two houses down with a roer, and he was shootin' that thing as if he was drilling roosting elk.”
“Roosting elk?” I asked.
“When they stay around here and yard up,” said Tam. “Not many o' those things do that.” A pause, then, “if I can find that person shooting that roer, I want to talk to him, as he should be twice too bad for sore.”
“There are some people who can shoot roers,” said Sarah. “I've known three in the potato country, and two were among my relatives.”
“Recoil-proof,” I muttered. “Mine...”
“I'm not about to try yours,” muttered Sarah. “Once with a roer was twice too much for me, and Anna's told me about how yours bruises you.”
“That sounds about right,” said Tam. “I'll be wanting Geneva for rubbing, though this time it ain't just my shoulder that needs it.”
The talk ceased as we came even with the backs of the houses, for here, the walls were now the only things that still stood. The reek of 'blasted privies' was profound and nightmarish, as most of these houses had had the detached examples; and when we came to the buggies, I was utterly amazed.
“Nothing happened to it,” I exclaimed, as I looked to see the rocks that had been dislodged from the yard-thick walls lying next to the walls. None of the rocks were near the buggies that I could see.
“That's 'cause them houses caught the worst of it,” said the rough-edged voice of Lukas. He coughed, then spat twice. “Those things are fit for scavenging, and that only.”
“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “The upper portions, for the most part, yes. The basements, though somewhat damp and dark, are still useful for sheltering the homeless.”
“Ain't no witch going to want those places, either,” said Lukas. “Now how we going to get through a place what looks like someone's been shooting siege guns at it?”
It turned out that there were a few 'alleyways' remaining passable between 'tracts' of houses, and as some of our people found those and began moving toward Hallstraat – or rather, what was left of that street; I would look at it again soon enough, but I was worried more about getting where we could be looked at and looked after – I began looking our buggy over. I was surprised to no small degree to glance upwards and then see horses coming up the pathway from the north, however.
“Good, that's them,” said Sarah. “I knew Jaak and Tam's horse would tell them where to go.”
“What?” I asked through ringing ears. “Now where do we go?”
“First, to the house proper,” said Sarah. “I've got a bathtub hidden there, and I know one is reserved for your use, and that's for the ones that are well-known.” A pause, then, “those cooks have an easy-half dozen they use for their clothing alone, then there are those tubs they use for their larger dishes.” And in darker voice, “and Karl had best turn loose of some of that Fell's soap that I know he's got, as I will thump him good with my rat-club if he does not.”
“Does he have much?” I asked.
“Three whole stinking bags of that stuff,” muttered Sarah. “I told him he should have gotten three bags of cooking fuel, as we will need that stuff for both the Abbey and that trip.”
“He wasn't thinking that far ahead,” I muttered. “Now, those people that went with us should be prime subjects for the Abbey.” I had meant what we had done tonight, and especially those who had shot their way inside the place to set the bombs – to then shoot their way though the massing witches on their way out.
“Agreed, especially after this mess,” said Sarah. I wondered if she meant just the Abbey, but also the trip afterward. “Karl and Sepp went in with us, and each of them carried a sack of bottles and shot at least one witch.” A pause, then, “and then, we need a king's officer, and that worries me.”
“Why?” I asked. The horses were taking their time to come closer, seemingly.
“Because they are either entirely ignorant of trouble,” said Sarah, “or they are most untrustworthy, and a fair number of them are both of those things.” Another pause, then, “of that whole lot, I would take Freek, but he's still got a very long stare, and he's needing to take tinctures by the clock. Then, Kees would be troublesome, as he still has trouble with guns.”
“They go off on him?” I asked.
“Yes, but not like they used to,” said Sarah. “If ever a man reminded me of an old joke, save for perhaps two others who are worse yet, he's prime for it, and no mistaking.”
“What is this old joke?” said the voice of Hans. He sounded as if half-choked with soot. “That place is a mess out there, and they will be months clearing it, or so people are saying.”
“What?” I asked amid ringing ears. I could barely understand Hans for the 'ear-noise'.
“That hall place is a big hole in the ground,” said Hans, “and it is still smoking and burning. Then, there is the wall of the Swartsburg, and a lot of that is not standing no more.”
“It fell down?” I asked.
“No,” said Hans emphatically, after coughing and spitting. “That place was full of witches and dynamite, if I go by how it is scattered and all the bodies that are laying everywhere. A lot of those houses on the other side of Hallstraat are crushed into dust by those big blocks that thing had, and then, there are a lot of two-doored shops that are burning.”
“Two-doored?” I asked.
“They were next to the Swartsburg,” said Sarah, “and that's a location only the most desperate...”
“Those individuals were driven out long ago by witches,” said the soft voice. “The situation was worse than Hans describes, as not only were those houses and shops full of witches, they also had the last large stores of dynamite remaining unto witchdom in the central part of the first kingdom – and those bombs exploding detonated all of that stuff as secondary explosions.”
“So that part of that wall is gone,” said Hans. “Then, there are pigs.”
“Live pigs, or dead ones?” asked Sarah.
“The ones around here are dead or hurt bad,” said Hans, “but the ones those witches were hiding in their places more to the north are all out in the town now.”
“Lively with pigs, no doubt,” I muttered. “Every one of those stinkers is likely to rout out a witch before it dies.”
“Yes, I think so,” said Hans. “There are not many witches in town, or so most think, but I have heard tell that they are still around here, and they hide good.”
“From people they might,” I muttered. “Not from pigs.”
“So they will be found out that way,” said Hans. “Now here come our horses, and we must be off, as there will be much work at the house proper tonight.”
The column began forming up within what seemed like seconds, and as I found the rest of my things in the bed of Sarah's buggy – how they had gotten there was a mystery – I mounted Jaak. Sarah followed after, and as the 'creaking' train set off, I could not only see uninjured-looking horses coming toward us single file, but I could hear soft – and sore-sounding – words of consternation. The chief refrain was 'why isn't this buggy kindling?' though competing with it was 'I am so sore. Fighting pigs and those northern people was never this bad'.
“I can answer the first question readily,” said Sarah. “Those houses fronting on Hallstraat took up most of the force of the blast, and then look at these walls.”
I did so, and again saw them as unremarkable, save for their height and thickness. They were almost as thick as they were tall, which struck me as odd proportions until I recalled no mortar was used.
“Those walls do not move easily,” said Sarah, “and hence they caught almost all of the rest of the blast, as far as the buggies were concerned.”
“Rock wall?” I asked.
“The witches have new speech to go with that now, I suspect,” said Sarah. “Now there is a cross-street, but it is some distance away; and then we must go through the bad part that remains of Kokenstraat.” I could hear a chuckle in what Sarah said. “Is your arm still good?”
I moved it about, then said, “I don't think it's hurt badly. Why?”
“Because I found a liquid bottle I had missed,” said Sarah, “and we will pass by the worse of the two bad Public Houses that remain. Do you wish to toss it?”
“As long as we don't get blown up or shot at, dear,” I said softly, “I'll try it.”
It was easily another fifteen minutes moving at a slow walk down the narrow grassy lane, and that whole time, the reek of burning flesh seemed to become steadily more potent. The first instance of nausea I felt, however, was when I found the broken and charred body of a bacon-sized pig laying atop the wall to my right.
“Eew,” said Sarah. “That thing stinks bad.”
“Dead pigs usually do,” I said. “That fifth kingdom house was full of those things, only most of them weren't quite that big.”
“Shoeten?” asked Sarah. “They really stink. Only the big ones smell worse.”
“There were lots of them things,” said the voice of Lukas. “Now if the hall going where it belongs don't tone down them witches what are in General's Row for at least a month, ain't nothing going to do it short of hanging them out to dry.”
“Speaking of which,” I murmured. “There are three witches that remained of those that took down that head and sack of body parts.”
“Those people are still alive,” said the soft voice. “They left the hall when you hit the first tower, and they got into the below-wall section and ran north as far as they possibly could.”
“That's about to the northwest corner,” I said. “There's a poorly-known escape route there.”
“There was one, you mean,” said the soft voice, “and those three barely got out of that two-doored shop alive when that underground section went up and set all those places on fire.”
“All of those places?” asked Sarah.
“Every two-doored shop next to the Swartsburg wall, if it was a shop of any consequence, had its own access to the underground place that formed that wall's foundations. Most of those places used it for 'secret' storage, with a lot of them having locked 'vaults'.” The tone of the soft voice was again chilling. I needed to go after those three survivors and take them back to that one clearing – and there, I would need to deal with them. “Those people are now headed west on foot along the Oestwaag, and if you hurry, you should be able to catch up with them before they leave town.”
“Easy,” said Lukas from behind me. “They'll keep if we tie 'em and cork their mouths with rags, then once we're done at the house, we take 'em to where you-all live.” A question, then, “you going to do them up like that one witch?”
“I wrote what I did, and I meant every word,” I said quietly, “which means chopped witches, bagged and hanging, and three spiked witch-heads – and those stinkers will stink like hell itself until they fall rotten to the ground on their own this time.”
Hearing that, I resolved to stay with the column until that one troublesome house on Kokenstraat was dealt with decisively, and when I held back slightly, I noted that Sarah had not merely reserved a bottle; she'd reserved one of those cloth satchels that had been used.
“I needed one for my things,” said Sarah, “and besides, those you call 'boom-bottles' will keep longer than those others.”
“As in 'use it one way or the other within three days of loading it, or it will go on its own'?” I asked. “Seems those liquid-filled ones don't keep terribly well at all.”
“All the more reason to toss it, then,” said Sarah. “Now as we come within range, I can stop and put that sick-headache-inducing yellow stuff on the bottle once you dismount, and then you can toss it. That's a big place, so it should make an easy target.”
“And them witches will be too busy fighting the fires...”
“No,” I murmured as an answer to Lukas. “They'll be too busy giving Brimstone his just due, as that place is going to be nearly as gone as the hall is.”
“Why?” asked Sarah.
“That's a Public House,” I said, “and not a fortress like the hall was. More, it is not a normal example of Public House, but a witch-built one that has lots of distillate-fueled light-giving firebombs that will add to the blast.” I paused, then, “and guess who's been doing the distillate importation for the area's remaining witches outside of the place we just wrecked?”
No answer, save Sarah's soft voice: “That place?”
“Precisely,” said the soft voice, “which means it's a ready-primed bomb as it sits now. You'd best make that toss a long one, as the sun will rise twice tonight if you plant that bottle right.”
“And that other Public House like it will burn tomorrow for certain if you do that,” said Lukas. “I've been hearing talk, and when the sun rises at night, people think it's a sign from God his-own-self about what needs to happen to witches.”
“All the more reason to trash that place,” I said. “It should buy us another week or two of peace and quiet.”
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Those people have a lot of connections, hence their demise will cause witchdom to need to rebuild entirely from scratch in this area.”
“Them Generals, though...” Lukas wasn't so sure about what he'd just heard.
“Most of those people were at the hall,” said the soft voice, “and those that didn't go are clueless without the leadership of their elders. With no pre-existing organization in place to bring up more 'old masters', and no nearby supply of such knowing witches to provide example and guidance, they'll be weak for quite some time.”
“And they will tend to mind their manners,” said Sarah. “Here is that one cross-street just ahead.”
“And our three, uh, thugs are heading toward that stinky place,” I murmured. “Toss the bottle, the place goes to hell...”
“And stuns those three witches,” said the soft voice.
“Stun?” I asked.
“As in you can just go and pick them up from the cobbles without any trouble,” said the soft voice. “Have Lukas tie and gag them securely, and put one in your buggy and the other two in the one behind you.”
“Sounds more like they'll be out cold,” I thought.
“Recall how you were tossed by some of those bottles?” asked the soft voice. “These people aren't going to be protected, nor will they have nice soft corpses to land on like you did.”
“Yech,” spluttered Sarah. “I hope that mess will wash out.”
“Yes, dear,” I said softly. “We turn left here, don't we?”
And as I asked, however, I had a distinct idea. I reached into my possible bag, and found the cold hard lead-filled wood of a rat-club. Our three witches were 'stumbling' along in a half-drunk haze but a short distance ahead, and I thought to go after them and not wait. I felt it unwise, however, which educated my next question.
“We'll alert those people, won't we?”
“Not really, as long as you go slowly,” said the soft voice. “Remember, your horses still have rags tied on their hooves.”
“Who did that?”
“Sarah and Lukas, among others around that pond,” said the soft voice. “Sarah's recollection of its use was much more recent, but Sarah has used that old Veldter trick many times while she was at the west school. Then, there are a few others that have heard of it but never done it, and finally, there's Tam, Gilbertus, and Willem.”
“Willem?” I asked.
“He's done that to sneak up on swine,” said the soft voice, “and while Iron Pigs do hear especially well, even fifty yards closer means a better chance – and only a few currently-alive cannon-masters know more tricks about 'blasting swine' than Willem does.”
“That smell,” I said, as we turned onto the cross-street. We would make a right turn shortly, and at that juncture, we would get ready and toss the bottle at that one Public House.
“Go about a hundred yards north on Kokenstraat before you do,” said the soft voice, “and move your arms around some before you toss that thing.”
“That's about three hundred paces,” said Sarah. “Are you sore?”
“Some,” I said, as I began moving my right arm. It had some definite knots in it, and with further movement, it seemed to free up and become limber again. I glanced to our rear and saw that we were forming a train again, only this time, those riding horses – more than I thought there were – were coming up alongside the buggies. I could feel the aching soreness of the whole crowd, and as I turned back to face Kokenstraat, I thought, “wonderful, another area full of stinky witches.”
“It won't be by tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those pigs that are still alive will root them out quickly enough, and it's a rare person in the house now who doesn't know what seeing pigs in an area means.”
“Load up your guns and wait for the witch or witches to show, right?” I asked softly.
“They do more than that as a rule,” said Sarah. “If one of those stinkers starts sniffing at someone's door, that place gets its door kicked in and every witch inside sups with Brimstone in short order...”
Sarah suddenly ceased speaking, for turning the corner some hundred and fifty yards ahead of us she'd seen three furtive-looking figures. I sensed they were our three witches, and I smiled at the thought of 'scooping them up' so easily.
“So then what?” I thought. “Toss them out at the house proper and leave them tied up until we're ready to leave? Perhaps questioning them to learn what they know?”
“Yes, if you thump them liberally before starting and do so the entire time you question them,” said Sarah. “I have heard of third degrees, and that is usually the start of such doings.”
“No, dear. I'm after information, not slaking my blood-thirst,” I said. A brief pause, then, “where did you learn of that?”
“It's in many tales, especially those written about the time between the war and the Curse,” said Sarah, “and while I wonder some about those, I do not wonder about the tapestries – and there aren't many of those things that do not speak of third-degree sessions and what they were used for.”
“Which was?” I asked. “That teacher said but little, even if he implied much more than he said.”
“Questioning witches,” said Sarah. “It seems that asking them questions like you would of common people only irritates them, but if you pound on them good, they actually speak.”
“When they don't curse at you,” said Lukas. “I've heard about your sessions that way.”
“Uh, too drastic?” I asked.
“I'm not sure if that's the right word,” said Lukas. “I saw them three stinkers you were talking about, and I heard about scooping 'em easy. How you going to do that?”
“Recall the effects of a large explosion?” I asked. “About a hundred paces after we turn this corner up here, I'll dismount. Sarah saved a liquid bottle, and when our witches get close to the yard of that Public House, I'm tossing it.”
“That place has more distillate than anywhere in the house, supposedly,” said Lukas. “I've seen them take deliveries recent.”
“Fat horses, right?” I asked.
“Them things especially, and big long fifth kingdom freighting wagons,” said Lukas. “They commonly do so about this time o' night.”
“So if we get really lucky, we get more witches,” I murmured. “Now what is that up there?”
“That's a delivery,” said Lukas. “We'd best hang back some, as those people like to shoot if you get too close.”
“So much the better, then,” I said. “Give them a minute or so, let our witches get a ride 'cause they're witches and those pointed boots hurt to walk in, then I and Sarah go ahead slow while the rest of you hang back around the corner here. When the explosions calm down some, then come up fast with your string out and ready to tie them up, and we'll get those thugs easy.”
“I got my pole, too,” said Lukas. “They might need thumping to get them to behave.”
“We do also,” said Sarah. “Now there goes that smelly thing, and we should give it two minutes.”
Sarah was not exaggerating, for the eight horses were dropping loads as if they'd had especial lessons from mules, and the stench – it wasn't that of mules, but it wasn't amusing to smell – was thick and noisome. I counted off a minute, then another – and then slowly, I led off, with Sarah by my side, while Lukas held up the rest of the column. I could hear whispers to my rear, at least at first.
We kept to the darkest shadows, and as we came up slow, Sarah drove around the foul-reeking messes left by the 'ersatz mules' the two freighters were running. The reek of strong drink was intense and nauseating, and the smell of distillate, equally potent. The wagon stopped for a moment, and as we came to a stop, I noted three people speaking briefly and then getting on the wagon. It resumed movement then, and as it continued at its slow speed – now was not a good time to wake people up with noise, as the witches were talking quietly of what they'd just escaped from, and the freighters – witches also, for I heard at least one rune-curse – agreed quietly as to their danger.
“Then again, witches court danger,” I thought. “It's part of being a witch, generally speaking.”
“Especially here,” said the soft voice. “But a short distance further, then dismount on the right side of the street and start 'warming up' while Sarah gets that bottle ready. It's a good thing it's getting tossed, as it's about to turn.”
“Turn?” I asked.
“That ersatz Benzina may make the strongest bombs you can do right now,” said the soft voice, “but what you did up is so volatile that it keeps very poorly.”
“I thought so,” said Sarah. “This one feels like it might go on its own.”
“Not for another day or two,” said the soft voice. “It's at its very peak right now, which means not merely is the blast going to be at its very worst, but it's also sensitive enough that merely a small dab of that yellow material will be ample. You were squirting a fair amount on those bombs.”
“We have enough?” I asked.
“Yes, for this one,” said Sarah. “There might be enough inside that thing to fill a few more squibs.”
“Enough to tide you over until the Abbey, anyway,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to use up what you have made up to that point to clear it, however – and then, you'll get some real squibs.”
“What would those be?” asked Sarah.
“I'm not really certain, dear,” I said. “I am certain that we want to wait until that wagon pulls into that Public House's yard and those witches are told to either help or get clear.”
And faintly, an arrogant-sounding drunken voice growled, “now it's time for work, you lugs. Either you hump it, or you get out of our way.”
“Did I hear that, or what?” I thought, as Sarah reached into the bag and brought out the last of the liquid bottles. There were two more remaining, but a glance at those said they were filled with 'boom-mixture'.
“Save those for the Abbey,” I thought. “They'll keep long enough if we keep them in the cold room.”
As I began moving my right arm once more, Sarah unwrapped the decorator, then as I came to where she'd laid out the bottle in question, she asked, “you ready?”
I picked up the bottle, then held it as if to toss it. My arm felt like it had 'loosened up' enough for one more toss. I put the bottle such that it was next to the decorator, and with a faint grunt, Sarah squeezed.
“There,” she said, as the yellow-tinted migraine climbed rapidly into my brain. I began moving out of the shadows, out into the width of the street, and as I did, I could feel watchers...
“No, not them,” I thought, as I neared the other side of the street. I pointed with my other arm, then took a step, then another – then the hop and leap that went with throwing for maximum range.
The hideous scream as the bottle 'launched' high into the air was of such deafening proportions that my hands found my ears instantly, and I ran hunch-backed back to the shelter of the buggy. There, I found Jaak getting his muzzle wet in a watering trough, and as the supremely irritating noise of a high-climbing bottle seemed to fade, I could feel the bottle seeming to 'sniff out' its target. I could almost see it upon the gray and wobbly screen of my mind: a stubby chimney, one that led to the main meat-roaster of the place; and as I saw this sooty grave become steadily larger and clearer in my head, I could 'feel' the surprise of the formerly unwitting freighters and the witches helping them. There were a lot of these people, and a vast number of jugs, almost all of them filled with heavy distillate
“They've heard that noise before,” I thought, “and now they're running...”
A massive flash of brilliant white light seemed to blot out the night sky, and a second later, a thundering roar seemed to blow hot black sooty winds over us. I moved out into the soot-dusted road with Jaak following me, and as I turned to mount, I saw the massive quick-rising yellow-white-tinged-with-red fireball in all its glory. I wanted to salute the thing, but there were pressing matters in regards to collecting a trio of witches, and I mounted and rode forward. Sarah let out a piercing whistle that overloaded my ringing eardrums, then as I led off, I could hear – and feel – several riders approaching from behind at a trot.
“Seems Lukas spoke to some people,” I thought, as Jaak broke into that oddly rapid trot he had. I could see the massive tower of fire that engulfed the entirety of the Public House and most of its yard, and the stink of distillate as the flames roared like hungry lions seemed a potent backdrop to what I saw. I came to the first witch as he lay sprawled on the cobbles, arms tumbled amid tattered black-cloth and face-down, and as I dismounted, the other riders rode past me. Sarah clattered up in her buggy, then leaped out, a club in her hand. I had my revolver out with my thumb on the hammer so as to cock it, but as I gently nudged the witch with the toe of my boot, I knew he was unconscious.
“Tie that wretch up,” spat Sarah.
“My knots stink, dear,” I whispered. I did not wish to wake the witch before he was 'secured' for transportation, and for some reason, whispering seemed appropriate, even with the roaring fire nearby.
“Oh,” said Sarah. “At least you have string, don't you?”
I did, but I was loath to cut my rope, and as I began to bring it out, a tall familiar form came up. I looked up to see Karl.
“I can tie the knots if you run that stuff,” he said. “I've got raw-leather, and it is dampened good.”
Between the three of us, we had witch number one trussed and 'gagged' – Karl used his 'raw-leather' for that portion – in less than a minute, and as we tossed him in the buggy, I saw that the other two groups were dragging their bound and gagged thugs as well to the buggy that Anna was driving. Hans spoke softly about how to put them in so as to not disturb his jugs.
“Jugs?” I asked.
“Beer,” said Sarah. “I borrowed two of your copper things, and I've drained one and most of the other since we left.” A pause. “Now you must have the third one. Do you?”
“Yes, and it's dry, and so am I,” I murmured. “Now we can go.”
The light of the destroyed Public House was still intensely bright, with crackling flames tall and menacing in their lurid yellowed redness, and the heat of its burning was such that we had to pass single file on the opposite side of Kokenstraat. I could tell by the scanty remains of the place amid the roaring blaze that there wasn't going to be enough left for the witches to rebuild it readily, or so I thought until Sarah looked with a practiced eye, and spat, “that place is gone.”
“Gone?” I asked.
“As in they will need to start entirely over if they redo that one,” said Sarah. “Even the stone portions will be dust and gravel, and its metal portions will be entirely melted.”
“And those freighters,” I murmured. “I presume that bomb, uh, got them?”
I could see but a few traces of what might have been a wagon, and the horses – they, like most of the bodies that lay around, were blazing as they quickly burned to bones and ashes. That seemed the lot of the whole: bones, ashes, sand, gravel, stink, smoke, and flames.
“And a sizable pit for them all to fall into when that fire finally goes out in a few hours,” said the soft voice. “That ground is sufficiently unstable now that all that will remain of that place will be a soft soot-blackened depression by tomorrow morning.” A brief pause. “Forget scavenging that place unless you like playing with bad quicksand.”
Once past the fire's heat, however, the wide nature of Kokenstraat made for a noisy and somewhat slow-moving mob of people, with groaning buggies carrying three and four people each. All of these passengers seemed to but add to the noise with their own groaning, and as we continued, I wondered as to how late it actually was.
“Earlier than you think,” said the soft voice. “You tossed the first bottle about an hour into the fourth posting, and it's now about two hours later, so figure the start of the fifth posting for when you come to the house proper.”
“All of these people?” I asked.
“They'll go as far as the east end of Houtlaan, where those with buggies will set up their 'camps'. Those that are 'sorest' will continue on across the field to the house proper to be looked after – and there, Anna will be most glad of that 'Sun' lantern.”
“It was packed?” I asked.
“Yes, by Sarah,” said the soft voice. “It and some medicines beyond the chest that Hans usually brings to swine-battles, and then she also brought some 'cooking' gear.”
“Hot water?” I asked.
“That especially,” said the soft voice. “While most people have bruises and minor cuts, there are some injuries bad enough to need careful cleaning and then bandaging.”
“Will I be expected to, uh...”
“Yes, after you bathe and get a nap in one of those rooms,” said the soft voice. “Anna might be able to work now, but she did little during most of that battle beyond watch what happened.”
“Hans?” I asked.
“He took his turn in the firing line when he saw you and Sarah had the bomb-tossing under control,” said the soft voice. “Only when it was time to 'deliver the goods' did both of them get involved – and then, they were both carrying bottles in satchels and shooting witches on the way in and as you-all went out.”
“Sh-shooting?” I asked.
“They each shot their pistols dry, and Anna is going to be surprised when she bathes,” said the soft voice.
“Did she get some lead?” asked Sarah pointedly.
“Yes, a few pellets from a dirty fowling piece fired at 'long range',” said the soft voice. “You have some also, though not very much.”
“And I must be a mine for the stuff,” I muttered.
“Dirt, yes,” said the soft voice. “Blood, gore, and mess – yes. Your clothing will need some serious repairs. Lead, though – this time, you didn't get any lead, just like when you did the Swartsburg the first time.”
“I was sore for a week afterward, though,” I muttered.
“Same thing this time, I'm afraid,” said the soft voice. “It should provide a very good reason to get another infusion still started for the potato country's version of liniment. Sarah knows that one man's exact recipe.”
“Geneva?” I asked.
“That stuff is for rubbing, not drinking,” said Sarah dryly, “and I'm most familiar with it, given I helped compound it a number of times.”
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Common Geneva is better than nothing for modest injuries,” said Sarah, “but I usually got the stuff Paul makes when I was sore – and I wished for what my great-uncle made when I had that.”
“Your great-uncle?” I asked.
“Georg had me read that last note,” said Sarah, “and I recognized the handwriting. It was my cousin's, as no one in that place can write half as clearly as she can for expression, even if her handwriting is very hard to read.” A pause, then, “the person who was speaking, though – that was my great-uncle, and I've helped him with running those stinking things that only a witch would like.”
“Hard to clean?”
“Those things plug all the time unless you but part-fill them and run a very slow fire,” said Sarah. “That recipe wants a slow fire anyway, but when it's time to deep-dig in that area, people are crying for that stuff – and I know about that, as I recall being one of those moaners more than a few times.”
I soon found my small vial of liniment, and as I rode the rest of Kokenstraat until Sarah spoke of turning left, I rubbed some on the sore places I could readily reach.
“Left?” I asked. I only now knew the true length of Kokenstraat, and it was about the longest north-south street in the entire town.
“Onto Houtlaan, then left again on Huislaan,” said Sarah. “We'll have a much shorter column within about ten minutes, as most of these people have smoked wheels if I go by the noise those things are making.”
“And that means new, uh, hubs at the least,” I said. “Lots of busy wheelwrights tomorrow.”
“And axles,” said Sarah as we actually made the turn. The smell seemed to change instantly, and within two minutes, Sarah pointed out no less than four shops that worked on buggies.
“That place is the best one, and I know they have a fair number of close-cut axles and hubs ready and waiting for fitting,” said Sarah as she pointed to another. “They use marmots in that place.”
“Marmots?” I asked innocently.
“They would like to use a damp-motor like the big fourth kingdom buggy-shops do, but they cannot get those things up here – at least, they cannot get one of those they make in the fourth kingdom up here.” A brief pause, then, “they are not ready for your damp-motors.”
“But why do they use marmots?” I asked.
“To turn their wood-lathes,” said Sarah. “A busy shop that services buggies much typically has several of of them, and they put them on the treadmill turn-about.” Here Sarah paused, “and nothing, save for those bombs when you toss them long, is worse for noise than a marmot-driven wood-turning lathe.”
“Why?” I asked. “Bad bearings?”
“Those they must make right to get any work done,” said Sarah. Her voice reeked of dread. “The treadmill the marmot turns sounds like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that the book speaks of as being the lot of evildoers in Hell, and then the marmot itself makes a great deal of noise, especially if it is urged to its utmost.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Carrots, usually,” said Sarah. “I've but seen two marmot-driven lathes, and both times, I wanted both tinctures so as to not go out of my mind after hearing their noise.”
“Those things are bad,” said Lukas as he came up beside us, “and about half the shops on Houtlaan use 'em.” A brief pause, then, “and I've been tempted sore to go on a marmot hunt in this place, on account of their noise.”
“You've shot marmots before,” deadpanned Lukas. “They screech then.” Lukas paused, then, “when they're running a wood-lathe or old-type grain-grinder though, and that fiend runnin' em has hung a lot o' carrots...” Lukas paused again, swallowed dryly, then said, “that's when those things screech.”
“Without ceasing, also,” said Sarah. “Only a hard-tossed bottle is worse.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Bottles may be worse for noise, but their noise is a slow count of five before it finishes.” A pause, then, “those marmots, though – they keep it up for a full glass and then some.”
The road to the house proper had a much shorter procession, many of whom were on horseback. There were only a few buggies beyond the two we had brought, these having less-worn axles and hubs, while a vast and whispering multitude, these bearing slow-swaying candle-lanterns of some kind, began crossing the wide field separating the town from the house proper. Our path, while longer as to distance, would have us arriving much quicker; and my 'suspicion' proved nothing short of absolutely correct. There was but one problem.
“Who are them what are bound and gagged?” asked the sentry as we passed. He was an older man, and his voice said he'd 'seen the hare' in times recently past.
“Witches,” said Sarah. “They are those who remain of a large group that took down a body left to hang a bit south of Roos, and they are to be dealt with as that placard stated.”
“Good that it's to be done, then,” he said. “Go on in and get into some beer. You-all look like you need it.”
He was right, and I was dry; and I was not certain if I wanted a bath first, or if I desired refreshment. It turned out to be possible to do both at once, and once ensconced in the tube surrounded by mounding white-progressing-toward gray soap-suds, I drained cup after cup of dark beer between instances of scrubbing with rag-hunk and handled-brush.
And I was glad Sarah had pried some Fell's soap out of Karl's hoarded supply, even if the smallish lump I received was more than a little charred around the edges. It still cleaned well regarding grime.
“What did he do to this stuff?” I thought, as I scrubbed off the vestiges of soot and smoke from my back with a long-handled arrangement using a stick and my rag-hunk. I'd figured on getting dirty, as was the usual for dealing with numbers of witches – but this was worse by a substantial margin than any time previously.
“He's been trying to burn it,” said the soft voice. “While what he was sold is Fell's soap, they stinted the distillate in that batch.”
“Cleans good enough for me,” I thought. “It's getting this soot and crud out of my hair just fine.”
“It is less effective for mining dirt, however,” said the soft voice, “and the mines are the chief market for Fell's soap at this time.”
“Add more boiled distillate?” I asked.
The smell of what I was using abruptly changed, and as I washed, I noted a profound difference; not only did the 'soap' clean better, but the effect upon my skin was that of a harsh and abrasive material similar to sandpaper. I was glad I was already mostly cleaned up, and when I set the stuff aside in the soap tray, I noted a yellow liquid dripping out of it and collecting in a puddle.
“So that's what it needs,” I thought. “If we get Karl's stuff, and boil it up good with some boiled distillate, it will then...”
“Remove heavy grease, 'serious' grime, and the outermost layer of your skin as well,” said the soft voice. “What he currently has, as well as your 'imitation', is best suited for non-mining filth – and you will have an abundance of that in the Abbey and during your trip overseas.” A pause, then, “best to fetch Karl some cooking fuel so he won't waste his time trying to set fire to soap.”
There were snores rumbling steadily in that one hallway as I wobbled sleepily to number sixty-seven, and once inside, I collapsed upon the bed once I'd removed my shoes. I awoke some time later, when I could not tell; and when I came outside, the smell of cooking spoke of 'the main breakfast' being served up.
“That's running about two hours early,” said the soft voice. “Two instances of the sun rising at night has really shaken up the house proper.”
“Including those Generals,” I thought, as I went in search of beer.
“What few of them that still live, you mean,” said the soft voice. “There are only about five of those people left in General's Row – and they're keeping their heads down and not showing themselves save to a few select visitors.”
“Which they go elsewhere after dark to visit,” I murmured as I came to the refectory. I was glad for the beer, and gladder yet to see Sarah.
“Hans and Anna have been most busy,” she said, “and I was too tired to be of much help, so I went to bed. Now they are tired, and we need to be about our business.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Mostly checking people after they bathe,” said Sarah, “and I'm glad there are people to look for me, as I cannot endure nakedness in others as well as in myself.”
The process of 'inspection' was most peculiar, as I found myself 'feeling people over' – at an inch or more distance; there was no actual touching – with groping outstretched hands and tight-shut eyes. More than once, I needed to pray for an injury that needed more than time and rest; and after two hours of doing such work, I found myself utterly exhausted.
“You're banged up a fair amount yourself,” said one man. “Now why is it you cannot look nor touch, and how is it you still can tell what is wrong with me with your eyes closed?”
“I'm not sure of that, even if I am sure I cannot look at you without at least bed-clothing on,” I said. “Now that bump there needs to drain, as it will get infected otherwise. Where did you get it?”
A brief mumbled response, which I could not decipher; then I said, “get out of there, and go bother the witch who shot you.”
The scream that resulted – short, faint, and fast-fading – was only exceeded by the thankful murmurs of the person I was 'inspecting' as the lump 'popped' and began oozing blood and serum. He asked, “what was it?”
“Blood-shot,” I said flatly, “and unlike some I've heard of, this was the common version, not what some witches do in the second kingdom that's bad trouble.”
“Hendrik was shot with that kind,” said Sarah. She was nearby, though with a screen separating us I did not know exactly where she was beyond 'on the other side of that cloth'. “Now this person needs to get in a bed and stay there until they are not sore.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Was this the person shooting a roer?”
“No, but whatever he was shooting had either a very bad fit for him or he was dumping some very strong powder down its barrel,” said Sarah flatly. “These are bruises like Anna said you got sometimes.” Another question, this one directed to the bruised person: “what size musket were you shooting?”
“A number four,” he said, “and it's heavier than the common, but it does get witches and deer if I do my part.”
“And a large powder measure, also,” said Sarah. “This is the long species of musket, not the short one?”
He answered in the affirmative, then said, “I heard about those things from Paul.”
“Did he tell you what he did to make his fit?” asked Sarah pointedly. “Those are not like the common muskets up here, which do not bite shoulders much. That type is much worse for its bite, and a poor fit and much powder makes for injuries like this.”
“Yes, and what's worse than what I have?” he asked. I wondered at his question more than a little, as even I had seen and touched at least one roer, and my rifle was known for being dangerous at both ends.
“There are roers,” said Sarah. Her voice had acquired an 'exacting' edge, and sounded almost menacing; “and then, there are guns that can be worse yet – and while I have fired number four muskets before, I made certain they fit me – that, or I used padding between the gun and my shoulder.” A brief pause, then, “when I fired that roer, though – it was that witch or me, and that thing was all I had.”
“And there are things worse than roers,” said Karl's now 'too-familiar' voice from nearby. “That fellow who was tossing those things last night has one, and I know about how it is with his usual load.” A brief pause, then, “I hope I never need to shoot it or something like it at swine, as it is said to make shooting a roer seem as if nothing when full-loaded – and if you do not believe me, you can speak to Hans or Anna.”
Our stint finished up an hour later, when Hans and Anna returned; and about noon or thereabouts, the 'sick' had retired to their camps and we could leave. The bound and gagged witches were now most definitely awake, and their struggles against their bonds and gags were both noisy and smelly. More than one had soiled himself already
I thought to use my rat-club to quiet them down, but decided against it – at least until one of them tried to kick me as I looked him over while he thrashed in the buggy. A swift reach into my possible bag, then a light rap against the front of his right knee caused a terrifying convulsion in the man and stifled hoarse screaming – and a horrible reaction in myself. My screechy voice – I was terrified at what I had done – was such that it brought a familiar voice like a magnet.
“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans. “That witch is trying to make trouble, and he is bad for it. Did you try thumping him with one of those clubs?”
I nodded slowly, then said, “but he started thrashing badly when I did so.”
“Where is it you hit him?” asked Hans pointedly.
I pointed to the knee I had 'tapped'. Hans used a club of his own – it looked similar to mine, if much older – and pushed against the now horribly swollen place, then he turned to me. His expression was unreadable, at least until he said, “now did Lukas speak to you about that place there?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “I'd heard he told Sepp about it, and I've heard of it being done before.”
“I do not think he needs to speak to you of such things,” said Hans, “as I have seen people shot there, and what you did is worse. That witch will never walk on that leg again, as his knee is mush.”
“Aye,” said Lukas from behind me. “I see that talk spread, or... Did you hear?”
“I heard Sepp speaking of shooting a witch in the knee to get him to talk,” I said. “I-I-this wretch tried to kick me when I was looking at him and trying to learn something, and I tapped him with my rat-club so he would not try it again.” My last words had faded; I had meant to do something closer to a slap on the wrist rather than a painful crippling injury. Lukas, however, seemed impressed more than anything else.
“This one of those things Gilbertus did up?”
I nodded as I tried not to sob.
“Then I think I'd best watch you do that sort of thing if you do it again,” said Lukas, “as that's a new one on me. I've always shot their knees, but that 'un is busted up as bad as if you shot it with what you use.”
“No, that is not so,” said Hans. “The way that thing is, if you shoot someone's knee, it will take that part of his leg off if you are at all close.”
I was loath to use the rat-club again, but as we made ready to leave, Sarah turned to the witch in the bed of her buggy and drew her revolver on him. I rode over to help, then as the witch made a gesture with his fingers, I reached down with the rat club and with a quick flick of my wrist smashed his arm down into his chest. I meant to 'sprain' his hand so he'd not make such signs at Sarah again.
The witch twitched, then suddenly, he began screaming and coughing blood around his gag. Sarah looked at me, then said, “what did you do?”
“H-he made this bad sign,” I spluttered. The witch had 'given Sarah the finger', and while I didn't know what it meant here, I knew exactly what it meant where I came from. “The middle finger.”
Sarah wavered a moment, then said, “bad is no words for what he did. I'm glad you're doing him up the way you said, as that sign is out of an old tale for evil, and what you spoke of is the only way to break such an evil cursing.”
On the way home by the usual 'shorter' way, however, the witches were quiet; and when we came to the clearing itself, I first looked for rope, bags, and stakes. To my complete surprise, someone had indeed been thinking about what would need to be done, and as I brought the supplies out, I wondered the following question:
“This was really messy the last time. How do I avoid making such a mess?”
My thinking, however, was nudged somehow by the hilt of my sword as it touched my elbow, and when I dragged out the first witch out of Sarah's buggy, I grabbed his neck rope and dragged him to the exact place where I had cut apart the first witch months prior. There, I swung at his elbow with the sword, and removed his arm at that joint; then his leg, this stroke striking at mid-calf. The sword cleaved through the bone and flesh of the screaming and thrashing witch as if they were little more than soggy newsprint.
Though the witch was bleeding and 'pleading', my mind was set; and I cut his other arm off at the elbow with another lightning-flashed swing of the sword. A grim methodicism took hold of me, and slowly and systematically, I began cutting his limbs off a small piece at a time. His sweat-beading shock and moans made no impression whatsoever upon my resolve; and as I trimmed his torso of all that remained of his arms and legs, I suddenly had an idea as he lay bleeding upon the meat-littered ground: I kicked up his head violently with my boot and swung at his midriff as his torso came to a near-upright position.
His lower section toppled over a second after his upper part sprayed blood and flew off to land face down; and there, I wiped my sword and sheathed it before retrieving my 'ax' – which I used to cut off his head with several ragged-looking strokes. I then turned from my bloody work, and looked at the others; and I saw them, standing still with frozen faces. I turned away from them, and once more with the ax, I began to cut apart the two pieces of his torso. I wanted three-to-five pounds gobbets of blood-soaked meat and bone, as those would be easiest to load into the bags and then hang. I finished that business, then turned; for I had something to say:
“Let us plant the three poles, so those other two can see what shall happen to them,” I said in a grim and metallic-sounding voice.
The other three now labored, and the poles were planted in a crude and wobbly line. Once the first one was solid, I took that first head, and with both hands, rammed it down upon the knife-sharpened pole. My doing so, had a marked effect upon the others.
Before, they had seemed 'dull' and 'lethargic'. That sense was now gone, and that entirely.
The second witch was dragged out, this time by Hans and Anna. I kicked him around such that he was in the same place where I had cut apart the other body, and while he attempted to scream around his gag – I had no use for his screams, for this was a matter of principle; I had made a promise, in writing no less, and these people – the leaders of that group, in fact – had made themselves liable to the statements I had written by their knowing choice; and as I slowly and methodically chopped him to bits over perhaps a matter of minutes – the sword was a devastatingly effective weapon, and though I took my time, the strokes came every few seconds – I could feel the quick-building terror that the third witch was now enduring.
I turned from my labors, with blooded clothing, bloodstained sword, and bloody hands; and when I saw the expression upon the face of the third witch as he lay propped upon the sacks and rope, I knew then that I wanted...
No, I needed...
To have that precise expression show upon his face. Without a single further thought, I leaped from where I had been slicing the second witch into pieces, and as I came down at his feet like a hunting cat, I swung and removed his head with a single crosswise slice of my sword – and then I caught his head as it toppled from his neck and held it up by his long and greasy hair.
That expression was now frozen for all time, and as I rammed his head down upon the sharpened pole, I said, with a voice seeming to grate upon the hinges of time because of its grimness, “let all of these faces show the exact same expression of terror, and let that fear become that of the Almighty, for they cursed him to his face every second they lived, and they now burn forever in Hell.”
As I resumed cutting apart the second body, I found myself growing tired; for while my sword remained sharp as ever, my thinking was growing progressively fuzzier. I began to question what I was doing, my thinking thusly: 'was I evil in doing what I had written that I would do?' A finger then tapped me, and I paused in mid-swing to turn and see Hans.
“I think you need some beer,” he said. “I had no idea killing witches like this was such hard work.”
The first cup of beer helped, as did the second and third cup I drank; and when I resumed my gory labors, I did so with a fresh and re-hardened resolve. I wanted to see this done, now; before, I had wondered, but now, there was no wondering at all in my mind. These people knew what they were doing during the whole of their criminal activities, and now the ancient law of this world regarding witches must and would be enacted.
It was not 'do not let a witch live'.
No, it wasn't. That was the grossly diluted form. This law went so far beyond that trite-sounding 'rule' that it was genuinely difficult for me to express it with words. It could only be truly expressed by violent action, and I was doing those actions that it commanded; and when I finally wrote the placard about these three witches – I named them that, because they were indeed witches – needing to hang and rot until they fell rotten of their own accord to the ground, I signed my name, this in dread capitals half an inch high; and with this stark challenge to those who would do evil now spread abroad in the land, we returned to our home, there to finally rest.
Or so I thought, once I had carefully cleaned my sword and my ax. I needed to bathe once more, for I had become blood-spattered in some few places and blood-caked almost everywhere else upon my body and clothing in the process of hacking apart three witches and then spiking their heads with grimaces frozen in pain and terror; and as I bathed, I wondered once more if I had done the right thing.
It was important to me, as while the rules were different on the surface, they were the same as always in my heart; and while the book had said in multiple places that witches were evil, there were those taunts I had endured as a child.
I was not a witch, for in that place, naming me to that level of evil was calling a filthy rag spotlessly clean and a Useless Feeder a prime and capable laborer. I was worse yet, and here...
“Witch-thinking,” I muttered. “The witches labeled me thusly.”
And as I went to bed, there to rest properly, I still wondered. Was this truly what I was supposed to do? Was I supposed to bathe in blood – much as I had done in the clearing – and trample raw man-flesh into the ground, and subject to utter destruction that and those which were named evil here? And who named them that? The witches – and those who found their lies pleasing to the ears – named those like me evil incarnate.
And, I had demonstrated that exact thing multiple times in the course of a single day. It meant tinctures, and rest, and...
I collapsed into a deep and dreamless sleep, and only when I smelled herring did my famished body rouse itself. I came down the stairs, thumping in my bare feet like some creature lifted piecemeal out of a horror show, and when I sat at the table with the others, their at-once bland and lifeless faces suddenly changed.
I was now eating with a pack of green-and-black alligator-shaped spirits, all of which had huge appetites and cooked the smoked and salted fish with long sooty tongues of flame before gulping them down whole. I had no such capacity – no, not even close to what these things did – and used knife and fork to eat slowly that single fillet which was alloted to me, and as the crock emptied – these things had bottomless gullets – I could see them looking hungrily at the few bites that I had remaining to me, and then, also, possibly at me as a meal.
I set down my fork, then tossed the plate at the nearest monster and leaped up on the table. The first creature that grabbed at my leg I kicked such that it flew backward head over heels, then as another tried for me, I leaped and kicked as I came down to crash the table to the floor. The third was hungriest, and when his jaws clamped shut on empty air where my leg had been an instant before, I grabbed his snout, flipped it up with a jerk of my wrist – and gutted him like a fish with the knife I had used on my meal, such that I was sprayed with blood that turned to smoke in the blink of an eye as he and the other creatures vanished in thick dark smoke of a choking blackness and foul aroma. I then opened my eyes.
“Where am I?” I asked, as I heard what might have been a soft and long-lasting scream. I sat up, slow, stiff, sore beyond words. Again, I heard what might have been a scream. I stood, and nearly fell with the pain that was the price of warfare. A third time, I heard what might have been a scream, and I staggered to the wall while gritting my teeth. I'd aimed at the doorway and missed it by several feet.
“I'm coming,” I murmured. My voice was a rough scratchy thing, and I felt more than a little ill in all my body. I stumbled my way with contrary limbs to the doorway, then half-fell as I turned the corner while bracing my aching body against the wall. A thrashing and screaming commotion was coming from behind closed doors not ten feet distant, and while I did not like the idea of 'entering without leave', this was an emergency. I tapped once, then twice – and a fourth time, I heard a scream.
“No, dear,” I said softly between racking coughs. “It's just me.”
Again, a scream; only it ceased in its middle, and shambling feet came pounding to the door. It opened to show Anna, her face frozen in a rictus of terror and pain, and she hugged me and sobbed as if heartbroken.
“What, dear?” I asked.
“Th-those witches,” she said. “They were all coming for us, all of them with knives, and they wanted us all dead.”
“They cannot do that, remember?” I said softly. “I said that I would do what I did if someone...” I paused, then said, “is this more than me merely keeping my word?”
“Those three planned and led the removal of those body parts while they were yet callow supplicants, and when they came to the hall but hours prior to your arrival, they made a pact among themselves unto Brimstone, a pact sealed with their blood; and their purpose in making that pact was to do that very thing Anna is speaking of,” said the soft voice. “More, as they each died, they spoke their dying curses, and unlike the vast majority of witches of their apparent stature, their death-curses actually did something of significant effect.”
“Nightmares,” I muttered. “I had one also.” A brief pause, then, “and what I did? Was it the right thing to do?”
“It was far more than you merely keeping your word,” said the soft voice. “Recall how this last batch of witches” – here, Anna relaxed perceptibly – “has many 'strong' witches being raised up?”
I nodded slowly, and my aching neck seemed to radiate waves of agony into the rest of my too-sore body.
“Those three 'leaders' were on the fast track to real 'strength',” said the soft voice, “and each of them became an arch-witch when they made their bones less than a week ago.”
“Oh, my,” murmured Anna.
“What they did while yet supplicants was a sign to all other witches and supplicants, as well as a direct and personal challenge to you,” said the soft voice, “and you dealt with both those witches and their accursed challenge in the only truly effectual manner possible.”
“And their curses?” I asked.
“Be glad you did not wait to deal with those three,” said the soft voice, “as they would have each become as bad as Koenraad the first within another few weeks.”
“And then become as Cardosso was,” I murmured.
“No, not that powerful,” said the soft voice. “It takes more than mere infestation to become that powerful of a witch and live any length of time at all. They did not have Cardosso's intelligence, for one thing, even if their ardor for the cause of Brimstone approached his.” A brief pause, then, “the level of Koenraad the first, however, is almost entirely a matter of fervent desire and becoming 'heavily infested' – and those people were getting worse that way, both for desire and infestation, by the day.”
“Can we eat now?” This from the bottom of the stairs; and the speaker, Sarah.
With our meal, the words of the nightmares we had all endured came out; Hans had had his own trouble that way in a fashion similar to Anna, while Sarah spoke of horrors beyond mine; hers also involved 'alligators' of huge appetite and strange dark colors, but instead of the ravenous things sitting at the kitchen table and devouring herring as in my dream, she herself was the crock and its contents; and they ate her slowly, passing her between each other, much as if she were a heavily smoked Karpfen impaled upon a well-charred stick.
After dinner, however, Sarah looked at the parlor window and the steadily growing shadows it shed upon the mortar-rimmed flags of the floor, and then at me. She seemed to have a question, and I went to the couch. She seemed to approve of what I had done, for she came over and sat beside me close enough to be touching.
“Now about my boots,” she said softly. “I suspect they will be ready tomorrow, or at least ready to check them for fitting. Do you wish to come with me?”
Upon hearing that type of an invitation, the only answer I could give was the one I did give:
“Yes, dear,” I said, in the most soothing tones I could muster. Sarah wanted me, and I would go with her; and when she had her boots, I would be most glad. Why, I was not sure; but I was certain of the matter.
I would be most glad of her having them.