Frankij Lives, continued.
I left the shop a bit early compared to my usual 'an hour or more after sundown' leaving time, my shoulder laden fully with a weighty bag of tricks, and once bathed, I set up at my workbench. There, I would not merely be turning parts on the lathe, but also making tools; and then, as a break from those close-working endeavors, I would be dismantling, measuring, and reassembling the engine. I was suspecting the dirty atmosphere of the shop was not a suitable environment for a piece of 'precision equipment', and after dinner, when I began dismantling the engine to check certain fits, I was astonished at the dirt present as I cleaned out of the thing. The parts and tools were ready for heat-treating, thankfully. I would not be able to do that much more that evening, given the engine's need for total disassembly and cleaning.
“This almost looks as if someone put dirt off of the floor in it!” I spat. Steps came quickly from almost directly behind me, and I turned to see Anna. Her face was an unreadable mystery. I still could not decipher facial expressions to save my life, and that extended to those I lived with.
“I can speak on that matter,” said Anna softly. “I suspect someone did just that.”
“Who, though?” I asked. I could think of no one so inclined, given the paucity of witches in the area.
“Sarah's been watching that shop, and she might know,” said Anna. “I have no idea, beyond possibly those that work with you.”
“As in they don't like being around something screaming as if it's imported from hell?” I asked.
“Sarah told me about why it did that,” said Anna. “She said those gears, while decent, were not meshing correctly, and hence they were noisy.”
“More than that, Anna,” said Sarah as she emerged from the bathroom. Her sleeves – she was wearing a new-looking 'dress' of a type similar to Anna's usual wear – were up past her elbows, and the steam coming from the still-opened door spoke of washing in progress. “I put up another batch of that soap like you did for syrup, or I hope I did,” she said.
“You hope you did?” I squeaked.
“I followed both my notes and recollection,” said Sarah, “and I received the same outcome, at least for the syrup itself. I jugged that, as we might need to make more blasting oil.”
“That stuff is also good for dry skin,” I said, “especially if the skin is that of infants.”
Sarah's face suddenly changed expression, then she whispered, “Liza. She said the same thing, even though that's a rare thing down in that place.”
“It is not rare up here,” said Anna, “which means I will want some for new mothers.” A brief pause, then, “those gears, Sarah. Speak of why they are so noisy, please.”
“They have poor teeth,” said Sarah, “and though they are hard enough for a file to barely touch them, they...”
Sarah paused, then asked, “when did you do those?”
“Quite some time ago, actually,” said Anna. “I know he had no end of trouble with them, especially given what he had then for tools. I suspect he could do them better now.” Anna's speech ended with an unspoken question, hence I wondered yet more.
“Are they becoming worn?” I asked.
“No, they aren't,” said Sarah. “That metal is neither soft nor brittle, especially that of the smaller gear, and had I not known better, I would have sworn you used metal teemed by one of a very few firms to cast those things.” A pause, then, “their shiny spots speak of poor mesh, however, and they might wish stoning.”
“Or the bearings are worn, or something else,” I murmured. “Would someone put dirt from the floor in this thing?” I pointed to the engine with the screwdriver I was holding.
“Beyond those at the shop, I doubt it,” said Sarah. “Most of those speaking about such things in town think them to be like a witch speaks of fetishes...” Here, Sarah paused to drink, then continued, saying, “but those people tend to farm, and that entirely. Those otherwise speak of things like navigating timers, sextants, and expensive chain-watches, like Georg has.”
“Yes, and those are all quiet,” I said.
“I spoke of why that one engine was noisy those times,” said Sarah. “Based on what Anna said, it was being abused when she was frightened by its noise, and the same thing happened to those two men. I spoke to the publican, and told him it was much like a horse is that way, and the new one is likely to be the same.”
“Horse?” I asked. I wondered as to the parallel between a 'horse' and a small steam-engine.
“If you do not abuse them, they are quiet and show good manners,” said Sarah, “but should you mistreat them, then they are otherwise – and the better the horse, the greater the change toward ill-temper when abused.” Another pause to drink, “and I have heard that engine enough times when it is not being abused to know how it should sound.”
“How is that?” asked Anna. I was afraid her tampering with the buffing wheel setup that one time had overwritten all else in her memory.
“Much like those of the fourth kingdom, save quieter and smoother,” said Sarah, “and then, those gears 'sing', almost like a violin's music.”
“As in a faint, uh, whirring noise?” I asked.
“That, and a noise like a line of donkeys traveling in the dust of the second kingdom's back country,” said Sarah. “Those engines of Machalaat sound much the same, only they are slower and noisier, especially if they are well-loosened, and their hissing...” Sarah paused, then, “I have wondered sometimes if their builders have had Death Adders in their dreams.”
I then asked, “those on Houtlaan are not ready for my engines? Have they heard tales of their hellish screaming?”
“I am not certain if they have or not,” said Sarah, “but I seriously doubt their lathes could endure the speeds those things turn when they are not being abused.”
“Are these the lathes that run marmots?” asked Anna.
Sarah nodded, then said, “an abused engine like yours would most likely scatter their metal parts and turn their wood into kindling, and that in a very short time.”
“How would one of those others manage to not do that?” I asked.
“Because those turn about as fast directly as a well-fed marmot does when it is fresh and on a good treadmill,” said Sarah. “Yours would either need gears like you have...”
Sarah suddenly stopped, then spat, “I did not think of that before. I thought those things had to run directly, or drive overheads, because that is all I have ever seen! I did not realize you could use such gears to reduce speed.”
“I think that drilling machine uses a leather belt,” said Anna. “I've seen him use that thing with that engine running it.”
“And hence those, uh, smaller engines could drive wood-lathes, if suitably geared,” I murmured. I then noted I had a fresh quarter-sheet of paper on the small brass 'clipboard' I commonly used for pencil-and-paper calculations, and idly drew that one infernal bird I had 'seen' earlier that day. My drawing, while 'close' to my recollection, left out a fair amount of the fine details. I had some difficulty recalling those anyway.
“What is that?” asked Anna.
“The symbol used by witches for the commonplace way of thinking and being, supposedly,” I said. “One of the pendants was given to dealing with it, and its name is unwise to speak – especially with those, uh, markings over both of the vowels in that word.”
Sarah looked at me, then slowly mouthed the word 'Kultur'. I nodded.
“You know about this word?” I gasped. Anna looked at Sarah, and her expression... This time, I had some idea of what she might be thinking. I suspected she was 'in shock' or something like it.
“It is very old,” said Sarah, “and I cannot speak it, both because it requires special speaking and also because it is an especially evil type of curse. I have seen it on tapestries before, and it is associated with a picture of what might be a buzzard.”
“A turkey?” I squeaked.
“No, this was a true-buzzard, or perhaps a captive pigeon, one used for squab-setting,” said Sarah. “I'm almost certain it was a buzzard, as this thing had the tail those have.” A pause, then, “given that you traversed the place where they are most commonly seen during the night-time, I'm not surprised that you did not know of them.”
“I'm glad one can no longer smell those birds around here,” said Anna. Did she mean 'buzzards' or 'squab-producing captive pigeons'?
“That is not because they are gone where they belong,” said Sarah. “Most who raised those things have gone miles to the west, and they took their stinky birds with them.”
“They are not around here, though,” said Anna.
“Such that they may be readily smelled, no,” said Sarah. “I suspect those who raise them now ship them in wax-sealed crocks drowned in vinegar mingled with a substantial amount of salt, much as they used to sneak High Meats into General's Row.”
“Kills the 'High' aspect, doesn't it?” I was thinking of the nauseating smell common to such food. I was glad that 'well-hid' crock seldom kept meat longer than a few days, and gladder yet that such meat now commonly sat in much stronger brine using cleaned salt. I'd added the stuff surreptitiously more than a few times when I suspected Anna had stinted her usual 'handful'. I wonder if she knew of my 'perfidy'.
“Yes, though that returns upon removal from the liquid,” said Sarah. I wondered if she knew of my salt additions to the crock. “Once meat is High, it remains so, no matter what you do to it, and that method does little beyond help it keep better while being transported and be harder to detect prior to its consumption.”
“Which is why witch-run kilns are currently staying warm,” said the soft voice, “as not only are High Meats and Squabs readily shipped that way – most of witchdom's preferred foods lend themselves to such packaging, and doing so simplifies the seller's life markedly.”
“His products take longer to go 'off', then” I murmured.
“Much longer, in fact,” said the soft voice. “There's but a narrow window of 'best flavor' with conventional processing of High Meats, and that method works quite well at widening that window, especially when they use as much salt in their vinegar as you tend to prefer in that meat-crock of Anna's. Then, they can be readily transported with little fear of discovery, and then, such packaging permits much in the way of adulteration and outright theft. Finally, barring breakage, those packages are reusable.”
“Much like, uh, Kossum's Tinned Meats,” I muttered.
Sarah looked at me in what might have been shocked horror, and when she put her hands over her mouth and sprinted for the kitchen while making 'odd' noises, Anna took her place. I suspected Sarah was heading for the privy.
“Do I stint the salt for that meat?” asked Anna pointedly.
“Sometimes your, uh, handfuls are on the smaller side, especially when you think we will use what's in there quickly.”
Quick lithe steps spoke of Sarah's return, and when she had finished wiping her mouth with a rag, I noted the sharp aroma of 'vomit' had followed her somehow.
“So it was you,” said Sarah. “I was wondering why that meat tasted better and smelled less than it used to.” A brief pause, then her voice changed to a squawk. “Kossum's? That place is horrible!”
“Why?” asked Anna. She was now looking at Sarah.
“They tin everything from large rats to dead escaped slaves, and all of that meat hangs for a ten-day before being tinned.” Sarah's voice was still a bit loud and high-pitched compared to her usual.
“Did you learn of this by talking to people?” I asked.
“N-n-no,” said Sarah. Her voice had a distinct shudder. “I went inside one of those places after the witches had become too drunk to continue working and had collapsed to the floor, and...”
“Where?” asked Anna.
“N-near the house proper in the fifth kingdom, a trifle south and a bit to the east,” said Sarah. “It had a big sign on its front, and you could smell it a mile away on a clear night.” A brief pause, then, “and it was not one of those nights when I got inside that stinky witch-hole to look around. The smoke was bad then, and so was the smell.”
“What did you see?” I asked.
“More or less what I spoke of,” said Sarah. “It was a most-near thing, as every one of those stinky blacked-up witches woke up while I was still in there, and I barely escaped with my notes and my life when they started shooting at me.”
“And that account is not going to ever see the light of public day,” I muttered. I wondered how witches too trashed to stand up had suddenly 'woken up' minutes after Sarah had gotten into their fortress-like packing plant. “If that goes into the Compendium...”
Sarah marched over to the book-row, then returned with one of the volumes. Inside of a minute, she had not only found the 'Ko' heading at the top of the page, but was rapidly leafing toward 'Kossum's'.
“They're in there?” asked Anna. Her voice seemed tinged with hysteria.
“They were the last time I checked,” said Sarah, “and that was my article. Yes, here it is.” Sarah then began reading aloud; and as she did, I found myself more than somewhat inclined to spew.
Not only did 'Kossum's Tinned Meats' have a number of 'packing plants', but its products were both widespread in their selling and of surprisingly high price; and when Sarah began rattling off of the names of the towns where such 'putrid viands' – the text said that precise phrase – could be found, I asked, “how did that get into those books?”
“First, they were printed in that market town, and not at Boermaas,” said Sarah, “and then, I myself checked the type when that page was pressed.”
“You did more than check it, didn't you?” I asked. “You did a little, uh, after-hours composition.”
“That also,” said Sarah. “The printers were gone when I did so, and they did not notice the change until the books were all out and ready to ship. They could not just toss those things, so they had to leave my article in as I had written it.” Sarah paused, then said, “what they had put in there when I checked it that night was not even the carefully worded submission that the school had sent to that place. It was closer to a witch-authored advertisement for that stinky collection of fifth kingdom witch-holes.”
“Mostly because what they had originally set was a witch-authored advertisement,” said the soft voice, “and when a massive bribe failed to dissuade that printing firm from printing the text the west school had submitted about Kossum's, the witches threatened to burn that entire printing-shop down and then commit a great-find-crush-kill – which is witchdom's equivalent of being 'outlawed to the ultimate degree' in this area.”
“What?” I asked. The word that occurred to me was of such awful nature that I dared not think it, much less say it – as the word 'Grossfahndung' beat 'Weidmansheil' by a great distance in Underworld German. I could tell that much – that, and it was worse than Kultur thought with two umlauts.
“The literal meaning of that Underworld German word that was shouted at the assembled-at-gunpoint printers by those plain-dressed witches that 'stormed' their shop during their lunch break,” said the soft voice. “Recall the word those in the fifth kingdom would shout while those horns were blowing when they were 'hunting'?”
“Weidmansheil?” I murmured. Sarah looked at me and shook her head.
“This word is a much stronger one, just as you suspected,” said the soft voice, “and both of those words are found in the same chapter of that black book.” A brief pause, then, “unlike 'Weidmansheil', this other word is not merely a special witch-term, but is associated with a vast number of curses, some of which are still effectual at the present time.”
“Hence it must not be spoken or thought,” I murmured. “Now I take it that word is not merely spelled conventionally, but can also be expressed in runes – and what we heard was the way it's spoken when it's expressed using runes. Correct?”
“The sound of that Underworld German word is quite close to the old pronunciation of those runes when formed into a curse, which is deliberate,” said the soft voice – whose tone then changed to a more insistent one. “Why do you think 'Underworld German' has umlauts where they don't belong, and odd spellings for a fair number of its words?”
“So that witch-language is better for cursing?” asked Sarah.
“That also,” said the soft voice. “The main reason is so that such curses can be more readily committed by runes.”
“And those odd markings I've seen actually turn an otherwise 'commonplace but hard-to-speak' language into a witch-language,” I murmured.
“Very true, and very perceptive,” said the soft voice. “Those things you call 'umlauts', while they do affect the pronunciation like you were taught, also have symbolic meanings, and the same for some of the odder spellings, which do much the same thing.”
“They look like the fangs of a snake,” I spat. I was recalling with especial clarity my most-recent instance of viewing them.
“That's their main meaning, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and not just any snake, but the worst ones to be found prior to the war.”
“'Fenny snakes'?” I asked.
“No, much worse than those,” said the soft voice. “Those were simply 'very common' and 'very deadly' then – with an aggressive nature and continual irritability thrown in. They were not cursed. The worst ones were unlike any mere 'reptile' you'd ever encountered in person or in print prior to coming here, and were conjured by a handful of very strong witches.”
“Pure curse-energy?” I gasped.
“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “They needed something to start with. Recall that 'snake' you were fighting when dealing with Kees? They were like that when fully manifested.”
“That thing was awful,” I muttered.
“I know,” said Sarah. “He told me about it after you came back, and showed me which tales spoke of that type of snake.” A brief pause, then, “and while I did not know at the time as to why those stinky witches woke up like they did, I've learned something about that since I came up here to stay.”
“How?” asked Anna. “Is this like that one miser that came out drunk as a stinker when we were off to collect those medicine-roots?”
“I think so!” spat Sarah. “That one town was bad that way, as half the witches that went after me were so drunk they would normally be dead to the world, if not preparing to sup with Brimstone.”
“And it was not the first time, either,” I muttered. “At least those people are either staying hid well or are no longer present in the area.”
“They are where they belong, you mean,” said Anna. “Or did you?”
“Both that and 'they've moved out of the area to the west or north',” I said. “The area north of here, while it's poorly populated compared to this region, is most popular with witches who wish to do what they will easily and with little danger.”
“So that's why so many witch-holes are well away from towns,” muttered Anna.
“That depends upon the witch-hole,” said Sarah. She sounded as if she thought Anna should know better, given how she needed to travel. “If a witch-hole is in a woodlot, it is there for a reason, and that reason, especially if the witches involved have substantial funds, is not because they wish to do as they will undisturbed.” Sarah paused, then said, “I know of several such woodlots within an hour's ride of here, and those places are not merely especially well-hid, but also heavily guarded. I've little idea of what they did in them, or at least I did until recently.”
“Yes?” I asked. “That one place that turned itself into a big hole in the ground?”
“I've gone by that area more than once in recent days,” said Sarah, “and those witches were transporting or storing much more than just a vast number of pigs. They were transporting everything a witch could conceivably want, and a great deal more besides.”
“What?” asked Anna.
“I suspect some of the cheaper things that are found in Mercantiles might be shipped that way,” said Sarah, “as I found some of those things going to rust among the ashes of that place, and those scavengers that dare to approach it have found much to sell.”
“Melted tin?” I asked. “Scrap-metal?”
“And a fair amount of money, also,” said Sarah , “though that tends to be well-scattered.” A pause, perhaps for emphasis. “A witch is not much to his fellows if he does not carry substantial coin upon his person, as money has great meaning among witches, more than it does among those who are not.”
“Not a little more, correct?” I asked. “Wealth is one of the chief measures of witchdom, isn't it? Almost as much as power and the number of slaves one owns – real or 'figurative' slaves?”
Sarah looked at me with shocked eyes, then gasped, “you're right.”
Anna gently touched one of the connecting rods, then said, “it looks like you need to be cleaning this thing up, and I know Sarah's clothes-water is going to need more hot water to get her clothing clean.”
“I wish I could do my share of that stuff,” I muttered.
“I cannot do chemistry,” said Anna, “and Hans is a poor cleaner – and I suspect you are too.”
“Yes, for walls,” said Sarah. “For things like this here that is not so.” Then, muttered, “and I do well to get my clothing clean enough to have people in town not point fingers at me and speak badly.”
“Perhaps use a bit more lye,” I said. “Those long thin bars may well be 'clothing' soap, but that presumes said clothing isn't particularly dirty. We all know it works passably on people – even if it leaves their skin feeling unpleasant to the senses now and then.” I then wrote out a strange 'recipe' on the paper I had present for notes. This involved 'cleaned niter', potash, 'laundry soap', and 'cleaned lye', with a semi-legible scrawl regarding the lye. Sarah picked this up, then said, “c-cleaned night? What is that?”
“Niter, dear,” I murmured. “This recipe basically turns 'nice clothing with a little bit of dirt and a sweat-stain or two' soap into 'farmer's soap' – and while it will not eat your skin like that stuff with the herbs, it isn't something you want to use for bathing.”
“Is this cleaned lye?” asked Sarah. She was pointing to the entry above that one, that being 'laundry soap'.
“No, dear,” I said. “The one below that line is 'cleaned lye'. That means you take the stuff that Hans calls cleaned lye and recrystallize it using that charcoal like we did the second time with the niter. That step removes whatever that stuff has in it that reduces its cleaning power. The potash – can't say whether it needs such treatment or not. Grussmaan's isn't able to adulterate that stuff much without it being really obvious to their non-witch customers.”
“How?” asked Sarah.
“Grussmaan's usual adulterants tend to be white or off-white powders,” I said. “Decent potash is not white, but rather a very pale blue color.” I found this pronouncement quite surprising, as I expected something along the lines of 'white or colorless crystals of a specific shape'.
“Then you had best tell that to Hans, as he thinks that stuff is white,” said Sarah. Anna had vanished, and steps coming up the stairs from the basement spoke of her quick return. She seemed breathless when she came to my workbench.
“Here is that stuff,” she said. “This is from Roesmaan's.”
“Note the wax seal, dear?” I asked, as Anna began removing the crock's lid. “That means that this chemical is either fond of escaping, or it does something strange.”
“Potash does not escape,” said Sarah. “It tends to be thirsty. At least, that is what Ivo said.”
“Hygroscopic,” I murmured. The word was a tongue-twister for me in the language we were speaking, even if otherwise I managed it decently.
“He could not say that word,” said Sarah, “and neither can I. Now... Twist gently, Anna. You do not want to damage that wax more than you must.”
Anna needed help from Sarah, but when the lid finally came off, there was a chorus of shocked intakes of breath.
One of them was mine, and I squeaked, “it's blue!”
“That is potash, all right,” said Sarah. “Hans was sold, most likely. Now how much of this must I use?”
I wrote out my 'half-baked guesses' as to proportions, these being:
1 part 'cleaned niter'
1 part potash
1 part 'cleaned lye'
12 to 20 parts laundry soap, depending on desired strength.
“Would Roesmaan's lye serve for the cleaned lye?” asked Sarah.
“It might,” I said, “but should this material prove popular, we'll want to get the commonplace species of lye and clean it ourselves, as that will be much cheaper – and the same with that niter. The potash, good question – that most likely will need cleaning also, if it's bad stuff.”
“While Hans was sold regarding the potash he bought, it too can be readily cleaned,” said the soft voice. “First, use a dilute solution of 'sulfur-acid' to dissolve the material, then recrystallize it – and then use that material, along with perhaps half a part of additional cleaned lye in that recipe.” A brief pause, then, “I would be careful with that stuff just the same, as calling the resulting cleaner 'farmer's soap' is calling a roer a commonplace weapon of surpassing weakness.”
“What will it do?” said Anna.
“Get your clothing genuinely clean,” said the soft voice. “It might not be Fell's soap for mining filth, but the resulting clothing is going to cause no end of trouble once it is seen in public.”
“Why, will it wash the colors out of the cloth?” I asked.
“No, but common 'soap' does a poor job of cleaning real dirt,” said the soft voice. “Most farmers, unless they are very poor, have 'work clothing' and 'meeting clothing' – as it's impossible to get their work clothing beyond 'marginally wearable' with what's usually used – and that for it's appearance.” Pause, then, “it would feel horrible still to some people.” Sarah looked at me, then seemed to pick her sleeve off of her arm and shake her head.
A brief pause.
“The usual is to take great pains to not get that meeting clothing dirty with anything, much as if the farmers in question were witches wearing black-cloth and the Swartsburg still was intact – and then once it's deemed 'too dirty for public consumption', it becomes 'work-clothing' and it is replaced with new clothes – which is both a witch-nurtured practice and the chief means of living for those like Sarah.”
Anna shook her head, then muttered, “that's impossible.”
“While what you say is true – and doubly so for you – that is the common practice,” said the soft voice. “Try that soap on your clothing – and then be ready to run when the women of the town see you.”
Anna looked at me in horror, then gasped.
“No, dear, no burn-pile,” I said, “even if I'm glad that mob will be trying to ask you questions rather than me.”
“That will be so at first,” said the soft voice. “Once the secret gets out about that stuff, you will have people trying to get you-all to set up a sizable soap mill on the premises.”
“Perhaps add the extra ingredients to regular soap?” I asked.
And as I said this, I knew that was no good. The added material needed to be added to soap that had been ground up into a species of coarse 'meal' and then mixed with boiling water; its lye-fat imbalance corrected, if possible; the added materials stirred in thoroughly; then the resulting 'brew' 'cooked' for a substantial period at low heat prior to being 'laid out' for drying and curing. There was but one good thing about this process.
“Those added chemicals kill the stink!” I spat.
“More or less,” said the soft voice. “More, this process is suited to 'volume' production.”
“Volume?” I murmured. The others seemed 'absent' – I could not 'feel' them nearby – and I wondered where they had gone.
“Potfuls at a time,” said the soft voice, “and not small potfuls either. Anna could easily do the boiling portion on the back of the stove while she's engaged in 'household matters', and the smell would be mild enough that she'd not mind it much.”
“And then we would need a number of wooden trays, and part of that upstairs part of the house, and cutting the stuff out when it cures to make it into, uh, bricks,” I murmured.
“Given that you're starting with a mostly cured material,” said the soft voice, “that might take a week or so if those bricks are kept less than an inch in thickness.” A brief pause, then, “and while you would not 'clean up', 'laundry soap' will generate a steady income for the household.”
“Which is not...” I paused in mid-sentence, then gasped, “that's one of Anna's chief – no, her main worry.”
“With you present, not really,” said the soft voice. “However, she does worry about you becoming injured in the shop, or similar things. That rivet-burn you received months ago scared her more than you realize.”
“Or when I'm traveling,” I murmured. I did not begrudge the use of 'my' income, as I was indeed part of this household; and I understood implicitly that what I earned was part of the whole. However, I did worry about Anna's fretting. I could feel it most-clearly at times while working at home, and calling that sensation 'a distraction of massive proportions' was an understatement.
“You aren't merely carrying the shop,” said the soft voice. “You are also carrying this household a fair portion of the time.”
“Sepp,” I murmured. “Karl. Mathias. Some of the new crop of guards. Lukas and Gilbertus. That one room at the house proper.” The former speech had been quiet. My voice now rose to a rat-like screech – a screech where said rat was being mashed with a steamroller, and the rat was both sizable and loud. “We can get our own supplies then, and those apart from the stinking witch-controlled system!”
“Best not tell that to Tam,” said the soft voice. “He's been longing to do something like that since before he was hurt, and hearing such a suggestion will get onto him.”
While Tam was not present in the house, Sarah was; and she seemed to 'show' with such sudden abruptness after hearing me 'screech' that I wondered if she'd been hiding behind the workbench. I thought to look in the hollow of the 'desk' where my legs normally went, but her attention was such that I knew that was unwise.
“What was this?” she said.
“That armory,” I murmured softly as I finally 'got back to work'. “I bet the house proper could use a regular income too, especially as this isn't the second kingdom where the house proper has more area under cultivation for wine than any single grower.”
“That house also taxes anyone who grows more than a very small plot of grapes,” said Sarah. “That place keeps its fingers in every pie it can, and it tastes all of them most-regularly.” A brief pause, then, “was this about that soap?”
“Let's see... “'Hendrik's own' – no, too flashy,” I muttered. “'Double-clean'? Help me, I'm at a loss for what to call this stuff, and that back portion where they used to have those forges in that armory is about perfect for a process that needs slow steady boiling. Oh, it will heat much of the house nicely, also, and then there's lots of room to 'cure' the stuff in that place.”
“He will desire it, then,” said Sarah with finality, “and I know that Karl and Sepp...” Sarah paused, then spat, “Karl! He'd be perfect for that kind of a job!”
“He could use a bit of extra coin, couldn't he?” I asked.
“Him and every other guard,” said Sarah. “I would watch that Teacher, though. He might want to jump into such a pie with both feet and attempt to devour it.”
“Perhaps give him his own pie,” I muttered, as I removed the front crankcase side-plate and put the bolts to the side in a shallow tray filled with boiled distillate. There, they joined a number of other bolts. Keeping my bolts all the same size of thread, with but two or three variations in length, was a real plus.
“How?” asked Sarah.
“Let that rascal be...” I paused while I thought for a moment. “No, he would not be able to sell the stuff, as he's not very personable – and then his reputation is such that he'd most likely be hung out to dry if he tried anything that smelled dishonest.”
“I am not certain of that smell,” said Sarah as she turned back toward the bathroom, “but that man walks on thin ice now, with Hendrik holding chains and distillate in readiness for him.”
“He what?” I asked.
“That would normally be a figure of speech,” said Sarah, “but I saw the jugs, and I touched the chains, and he said he would set fire to anyone who thought to act like a witch.” Sarah paused, then said, “that of course presumes you or one of the other guards does not do that first.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought. “No distillate needed – just think, 'that witch-collection needs to sup with Brimstone', and they go up in smoke!” My wry thoughts were more joke than all else – at least for the time it took for me to blink twice and reach into the engine's partly-disassembled crankcase to remove a connecting rod.
A sudden low rumble that shook the floor and tingled my feet segued to a thundering roar that seemed to tear apart the very air, and I stopped what I was doing with a frozen body and a blistered mind. In shock, I turned my head – aching, slow, now remorseful; I had 'done it again' by making a dumb-seeming comment – and my eyes looked out of the parlor...
Across the road...
And into the fields behind the house directly across from us. The place itself was dark, for no one lived there; but behind it, I could see a widely-spread and smoky fire that seemed to pull the deserted house straight into the mouth of hell. I stood, steps wooden and slow, and walked toward the window to get a better look; and as my shins numbly thumped against the edge of the couch and my knocking knees gave way so that I caught myself against the rear cushion, more sudden thunder came from behind.
Only this thunder was the sound of running steps. It broke me out of my unreal mind, and forced me back into reality. I turned, now moving normally, and saw Sarah come flying out of the bathroom. As she came past the downstairs stairwell, Anna shot upstairs, her legs scrambling frantically to nearly collide with Sarah, then as the two women turned to face me and advance as one, now scrambling as one, Hans shot up out of the basement and missed the two women by mere inches.
“Where did you come from?” I asked, as the three came to crowd the window so as to look at the nearby sea of fire. I meant Hans.
“I was down there working on these old iron stands over in the corner,” said Hans, “and I felt the ground shake like when you were tossing bottles at that hall place, so I drop my hammer and chisel and I come up here after Anna.” Hans paused, then said, “and what she is doing cooking soap is something I cannot figure, for we have three kinds of it, and Sarah has put up a new batch of that nice stuff.”
“Our soap is bad for washing clothing,” said Anna, “and I think he was given a recipe. I wanted to try it out.” A pause, then, “now why is that field on fire out there?”
“I was speaking about the distillate and chains Hendrik has reserved in his office for those who would act like traitors,” said Sarah, “and as I went back to my washing, I heard something about not needing distillate.”
“Yes, and there was more,” said Hans. I wondered if he knew about my thoughts. I'd seen people react that way before. “Now were there witches out there?”
“I did not know of any witches in the area,” I murmured. I was frightened now, and it showed in my voice. I needed to keep closer guard upon my thinking, for even my joking had lethal consequences. “I was jokingly thinking about how I needed no distillate to cause witches to go up in smoke.”
Hans looked at me with a seriousness that I had but seen perhaps twice since I came here. “Did you tell those things out there to sup with Brimstone?”
“This was a joke, Hans,” I said pleadingly. “I don't have to speak... No, just think about witches...” I was having a bad flashback: that one fifth kingdom guard going up in smoke so fast that his rifle landed upon his smoldering ashes and shattered fragments of bone. “I just have to think that phrase, and they go up in smoke!” My voice was now closer to a scream of agony.
“That is what happens if the talk is right,” said Hans. His face was still utterly serious. “Now with this, I think that talk was saying the kettle needed a wipe with a rag and a rinse when it was full of stew turned to charcoal by a bad cook.” Hans then sniffed. “I can smell distillate, and a lot of it.”
“You can?” I gasped.
I then noticed the 'petroleum mingled with rotten eggs and bad chemicals' reek.
“What were they doing?”
“A trio of just-made witches were coming to burn you out,” said the soft voice, “and each of them carrying a jug of heavy distillate stolen from the town whence they came. They are now where they belong.”
“But I thought we would have no trouble,” I squeaked. This was nothing but trouble.
“I do not think you had trouble,” said Hans. Again, he was utterly serious, both in his expression and his tone. “You did not need to go outside, and you are as clean as you usually are when you are working at home. So, I think there are three less witches and a lot of soot on that field.”
“Will that happen again?” I asked. My thoughts were of horror, and my voice showed it.
“No,” said the soft voice's emphatic tones. “Recall how most witches in the area will be, at least for a while? Really foolhardy, or really cautious? The former type is well-nigh extinct, and they will become fully so in the area before the latest batch of pigs are 'entirely' shot out.”
There was a pause as my ears strained to hear the dire squeals of pigs, and Hans broke this 'revery' or whatever it was with his speech. Again, he was rooted to the ground by reality.
“There are enough of those smelly things running around these days,” he said, “and each of them is getting powder and lead should someone see it.”
“Witches?” asked Anna. I wondered for an instant if she knew how badly witches sometimes reeked.
“They are getting their share of hot lead,” said Hans. “Now we have not had pigs here yet, but that does not mean we will not have some, so I have every gun in the place full-loaded and ready for those things.”
Again, I strained to hear swine, and in my odd state, I seemed to hear at first faint upon the winds the shrieking squeals of pigs, then without warning an ethereal pig half as big as the couch seemed to roost upon the doorstep of my mind and scream as if in the pains of hunger. I jerked, and nearly screamed myself. I then noticed I was speaking, and the words that came out shocked and staggered me.
I customarily kept all of my weapons ready, but I was not mentally ready for a porcine invasion; and the last thing I wanted to see right now was a witch.
“It's tomorrow,” I gasped. I had trouble speaking. “The pigs will come then, and they'll flush at least one witch in the process.”
Anna looked at me in horror, and her gasp was troubling. “I thought all of them were gone.”
“Those here, yes,” I said, as I shook my head to rid it of a daytime nightmare of monstrous proportions. “This, uh, witch was hiding up, and it got, uh, unsafe, so he's leaving the area for less dangerous parts.” A pause, then, “no compass, and no coach, but he knows where the sun comes up, so he's heading that way and bearing to the right as his sore feet tend to lead him.” I paused once more, then said idly, “in fact, he's lying on the couch of one of those empty houses right now.”
“Yes, the 'ranking' witch of that group is on the couch,” said the soft voice. “The others of his party are crowding the parlor floor and are laying where they can upstairs.” A pause, then, “those pigs you heard are 'hot' upon their too-obvious trail.”
“So where are these witches?” asked Hans.
“I'd just wait until tomorrow,” I murmured. “I have work to do, and the witches will show when those pigs decide they want to be fed.”
I had packed all of my weapons that next morning, the rat-club included, for I suspected my words would be prophetic; and when Georg came back into the shop with the usual jug for the morning guzzle – my tinned copper cup was waiting, and I was thirsty from hard labor upon the tools for Frankie – he softly muttered about smelling swine in the area.
My ears pricked up, and I thought, “he's smelling pigs?” This segued to speech.
“You are smelling pigs,” I said flatly in a near-whisper. I could almost hear the things myself, and this wasn't just memory. I spoke to the shop: “I hope you-all have something to shoot with, as we will be shooting witches and pigs shortly.”
Dead silence reigned, and when I looked around, I saw an absence of apprentices, and an absence of Georg. Thumping steps coming from outside, however, spoke of the latter's return.
Georg was hefting a club, this nearly four feet in length and its thick end studded with thick and stubby wooden pegs. The other end had a sturdy-looking brass cap. The thicker end, however, had my attention. It looked distinctly lethal.
“Now that looks fit for a cave-dwelling inhabitant of nightmares,” I thought. Gelbhaar interrupted me, however, with his speech. I but partly heard him, for I was staring at Georg's club.
“...Messes those make... Clubs are like that, and Georg...” I heard no more. Instead, I shook off the 'fixation' and asked softly, “do you wish one of my pistols? I have two with me.”
Georg turned to me as I straightened around, and he moved his club. The thing had to weigh twenty pounds, and he hefted it as if it were made of hollowed-out balsa wood. That movement, and the expression he'd but partly managed to hide made for wondering on my part. Was Georg a cave-dwelling thug? Did he have strange forebears, ones that lived in caves and shouted 'Oog!' or whatever cave-dwelling thugs with arms like tree-trunks and the everlasting strength of giants yelled when embattled?
“People have made jokes about guns not working around me,” he said, “and those jokes must be true, as I have yet to try a musket and not have it miss fire.”
“One of those I worked on?” I gasped. “Did you ever try one of those?”
“No, because I have trouble cleaning guns, also,” said Georg. “I did fine with cannons, but anything smaller was nothing but trouble in the past, and I suspect it is so today.”
Faintly, upon the edge of my hearing I seemed to hear the ringing squeals of a massive swarm of pigs, all of them at full 'pig-gallop'. Georg then spoke once more: “clubs, though – I have always done well with those when I went after something.”
“Th-that pig?” I asked. Further reports had filtered in, and what I had first heard was an understatement. Georg had all but beaten that pig to mush, and it bordered on miraculous that it had kept going after he'd hit it once.
“I did not have this one with me, so I needed to use what was ready to hand,” said Georg matter-of-factly. “This one has mashed more than one common pig, and it is my third such club. I broke the others on the heads of swine.”
“Mashed?” I gasped. I could almost see the blood and gore dripping from the thing – and more, Georg's face once more seemed to change – to change into the face of a slobbering lunatic, a person who but lived for one thing: to turn pigs into mush.
“Clubs like that one are bad for that,” said Gelbhaar. I wondered what he meant: bad for breaking, or bad for..? “They are messy.” He then changed his tone, and rubbed his shoulder. “Now I am sore from shooting, and I needed Geneva yesterday for rubbing after that trouble. Johannes is in bed from it still.”
“Why, what happened?” I asked. I was still listening for pigs.
“I put lead in at least two swine yesterday,” said Gelbhaar, “and that was for those things. Then, there was a witch, and I put soot on that wretch when he tried for me with his knife.”
“You what?” I gasped at the thought of getting close enough to a knife-clutching witch bent upon mayhem to burn his clothing with powder. For some reason, what I had done – repeatedly – at the hall didn't quite count.
“He went nowhere except down,” said Gelbhaar. “I centered his chest, and that drops them quick.” he then quickly added, “or so it usually does, if talk is right.”
“Usually, he says,” I muttered. I then turned to him and asked, “you ever hear of hard-witches?”
“Not until recent,” he said. “I have heard those people ignore lead unless you use something like what you have on them.” A pause, then, “and I think Sarah should have you make one for her, as she used a roer on one of those things and he ignored being shot.”
“He did not ignore it for long,” said Georg. “I've had talk with some people who were there, and they said that witch was a walking dead man once she had shot him, and he did not know he was dead.”
“So that wretch ignored a roer's lead,” said Gelbhaar.
As Gelbhaar spoke, however, my straining ears once more heard the screaming of pigs. This time, it was loud enough that I not only heard it clearly, but I knew beyond doubting that I was hearing it conventionally.
“He looked to ignore it, yes,” said Georg. “They said that after that, he did not manage more than thirty paces before he dropped dead as a stone, and during the whole of that time, he did little – and I have heard elk are much the same when they are hit solid with roers.”
I laid down my tools, then stood and shook out my apron. If anything, the cleaning the tanner had managed had made the thing take and hold dirt better than before, and calling it filthy was an insult to that word. My shaking hands had trouble untying the thing, but as my fingers found the the folds of the knot, I could feel something. A sudden 'snap' then occurred within the recesses of my mind, and the change was mind-sundering.
I could clearly feel the oncoming troupe of pigs, and their trot – a rapid one, one urged on by hunger – made for wondering, at least until I noted their sense of direction. They seemed to have noses beyond those of 'pure-bred' scent-hounds, for they knew exactly where the witches were hiding in their alcohol-sodden slumber.
I then blinked, and looked at the workbench, much as if I were looking at a clear glass window, and the wood vanished to see a clear reflection of the rear of the building in question. I saw a fair-sized pig easily leap the back wall of the place, then another such animal, this one bacon-sized; then an entire wave of the foul-smelling filthy animals flowed over the four-foot wall as if it were but a minor obstacle to them.
“I had no idea those things could jump like that,” I murmured. “Do either of you have one of those awful-sounding horns?”
I turned to Georg, and in gasping slow-motion, he drew out a long and somewhat dented brass trumpet from a half-hidden area behind and to the side of his desk. As he did so, again, I seemed to see a glint of insane wildness in his eyes, and as he walked toward the door with his club shouldered and the trumpet in his other hand, I could almost see hair sprout from under his too-tight clothing...
That was gone now. What I saw instead was animal skins, the clothing of a barbaric savage. Long blond hair, this braided into a waist-length pigtail. Shoulders so huge they dwarfed mine. The strength of a giant – a giant that could roar loud enough to burst my eardrums – and having strength beyond my understanding.
He entered the doorway, and shouldered its too-close embrace to each side. He was almost wider than he was tall now, and somehow, he'd gained at least a foot in height, if not two. His shaggy mane of blond hair brushed the top of the doorway.
“He's got to weigh seven hundred pounds, and all of it muscle,” I thought. “He's not going to 'mash' pigs – he's going to grind them into powder with that thing.” Georg then put the trumpet to his lips, and I plugged my ears. I just knew the noise would rattle my brain.
Georg paused, seemed to settle himself, then blew. The noise of his horn, while still squalling and horrible in tone, was at least two octaves lower than the usual shrill racket made by such implements, and as the dire blaring echoed in my mind, it reminded me of one thing.
The supposed call of a moose.
Otherwise, it was beyond awful, and into a realm that I could not muster words or thoughts to describe. Above the massing squalls of the pigs, I could clearly feel the ire aroused by the horrible tone of that horn – it carried for miles, and even inside the Public House, it rattled brains in people's heads – and as I watched, Georg slowly set the horn down upon the ground, open end down. His slow-seeming movements...
“He's gotten bigger yet,” I thought. “He could take on Goliath and crush him like an ant!”
I could now hear doors opening in town to both north and south; and where that was not happening, rushing feet were flying in the search for their guns. I thought to shoulder my equipment, and was astonished to find that I was 'ready', with my rifle in my hands, capped and its hammer at half-cock. I walked toward the door, now wary, and my thumb found the hammer and full-cocked it as I reached the doorway. There, I paused to look around.
The trumpet still lay where Georg had set it, but Georg – and his larger-than-life phantasm – was gone. I then passed the threshold. The place seemed un-naturally quiet, even as I walked first out into the hard-pounded dirt-and-gravel of the shop's yard. I paused once more to look carefully, and as I came to the edge of the street, the flapping doors of an uninhabited house seemed to all but burst from their hinges as a bacon-sized pig shot out into the street to there screech like a ruptured locomotive.
No one answered its 'hog-call', and I understood the matter at some deep level: the pigs were the forerunners. The witches would follow, and once they were outside in clear view, and well-clear of the house, I would shoot at them.
The pig did not wait for my thoughts, for with another screech – this one was higher-pitched, sounding like the smallest horns of a calliope – it leaped into the air and reversed direction while airborne and landed with trotters flailing. It was heading for the door of the house, and while nowhere near as fast as the semi-fabulous speed of an Iron Pig, this animal was not slow – and when it came to the steps, it leaped them in a single bound, gaining enough altitude for it to be waist-high to me...
I began running closer, but seventy yards distant and gaining fast on the oncoming pig-wreck. The door, when struck by the crushing bulk of three hundred lard-ridden pounds, went to wreckage and kindling as the pig smashed it down and off of its hinges. It was gone from my sight, and it was crashing through the house like a four-legged wrecking ball in its efforts to stop and find its 'feeders'.
The witches cursed, shouted, and yelled at this sudden 'exposure', and I thought as I slowed, “now they will show.”
I mounted my rifle, then went to a kneeling position about forty yards distant from the stoop of the house. Kneeling would help steady my aim, as 'collateral damage' was the last thing I wished to inflict upon the townspeople – and in respect to those individuals, I wondered where everyone was. I hoped they would show soon. I did not wish to tackle this rubbish alone.
“Where are they?” I thought, as the muzzle of my rifle wavered slightly. I was keeping it 'close' to the doorway.
Another deafening yell came from inside the doorless house, and as I heard the hard and sharp tones of guttural Underworld German being shouted, I heard under that a rushing noise; and then, a stumbling and yelling 'mass' of cursing full-blackened thugs – full face-grease, full black-cloth, pointed boots, and bad smells – crowded the doorway in attempt to 'break on through to the other side' as per the speech of that black book they so treasured.
They but barely managed to make it through the narrow passage, and then in a too-solid 'area target' they stumble-tumbled down the steps. Two steps away from the last step, then three staggering and clumsy bounds – and I began lowering my sights down from the general region of the chest as the witches slowly moved out into the house's yard. I wanted a clear target, but one was not showing, at least on the outside of this dense pack of fiends. One man brandished a long fetish-dagger to wave it drunkenly overhead, while another drew a pistol. A dull glint showed part-hidden about near the waist of a mostly-hidden thug deep within the group, and I instinctively lined up on it and fired.
A thundering 'boom' erupted among this dense pack of smelly thugs, and while none of them dropped on the instant, the whole 'mob' was blanketed with thick gray smoke that hid everything about them from the knees up. It also spread them out slightly; and as I began dumping powder down my rifle barrel, I noted that first one thug fell out to stumble and fall sideways to the road; then another thug, this one backwards; then two more. All of these people looked more than a little the worse for wear with ripped-up clothing that smoked in many places; and of those witches which still stood among the slowly dissipating smoke, one by one, they were dropping to their knees to then collapse face-down.
I then noticed movement on a stoop, this some ten houses down from where I still knelt with busy hands. Four men came out of the door in single file, their faces set like carved granite and large muskets in their hands, and once clear of their stoop, they advanced at a steady trot toward the fallen witches. One of these black-dressed thugs had 'woken up' enough to try crawling, and one of the four men split off from his fellows and ran toward this one witch
He came within perhaps ten feet, skidding to a stop as he mounted his musket, then with a thundering roar, he blanketed the witch with powder smoke at a range close enough to spit. The witch flew to the side out of the cloud, and the echoing boom seemed a tocsin of dire anger that broke the hold upon the town; for several stoops suddenly crowded with shooters, and as one, the stoops billowed smoke and flame and the air hummed with bullets for perhaps a second and a half and dust-spots spurted around the witches close enough to shower them with dirt and gravel. Only some of the bullets actually struck flesh, if I went by the reactions of the witches.
Another boom rattled my brain, then two more. The first of the 'four musketeers' was finishing the reloading his piece, and as he came to another witch – this example laying still upon the ground – he put his muzzle within a foot of the witch's head and blanketed the fallen thug with sooty smoke.
My hands had had remained busy the whole time, and as I thumbed the busted cap off of my rifle and slipped on a new one with practiced hands, I saw another stoop become crowded with men. Again, these people had large muskets, and as a trio of witches began crawling slow and achingly north, these men – as one, almost as if the Teacher of Guards had drilled them for weeks, each day for hours at a time – leveled their heavy guns, and then fired as one man.
“Volley fire,” I muttered, “and those sound like roers.”
The three crawling witches all dropped to the ground to lie still as death.
Save for those witches that 'wore soot' and the three that had just been shot, the remaining witches paid the gunfire directed toward them no mind whatsoever. They all were crawling, most of them quickly, and as I watched, I noted the crawlers usually left blood behind them. Two more men then showed, these on different stoops in the central portion of town, both of them looking around in utter and complete confusion – until a witch crawled slow and aching to within twenty feet of where one of them stood on the steps of his stoop. He – and his neighbor – then saw the trouble; and as one man, they aimed and fired. The witch screamed like a cat being ripped apart, then fell thrashing to the ground as if he were practicing the art of epileptic convulsions.
For some reason, I could only think of the 'four brothers with the big guns', and my thoughts were of questioning them as I 'finished' with my rifle. I wondered as to what they had used, and while my rifle was ready and I was still kneeling, I looked around, not so much for targets – those seemed scarce, as no more witches were crawling nearby – but for added help, and possibly, further eruptions of witches. Two more men showed, their faces showing a waxen blankness, on the same stoop. Both had loaded guns, and as they looked around nervously, I wondered if they would need to have a witch crawl within spitting range for them to act.
Unlike those two people, I could feel and sense a great deal. We had seen but a portion of the pigs, and those that were still inside – a decent-sized herd of the things, varying in size from three-foot-long Shoeten to bacon-sized 'screamers' – were harassing the witches with abandon. The pigs were hungry, and their accustomed feeders were witches like those who remained inside: fully blackened, with black face-grease, full suites of black-cloth – starched underwear included; that was a black-book mandated matter – full ceremonial gear, with all of their reminders to duty firmly clenched in their appropriate places by a near-lethal dose of datramonium tincture.
The pigs were most insistent, and while such swine did not normally bite, these were were very hungry animals. I then heard a deafening scream, then clumsily running steps coming closer to the doorway. I pointed my rifle at that darkened aperture – and my preparation was rewarded by the sight of a black-dressed thug, his face shiny and black as night; and as I looked at him in shocked horror, my rifle seemed to mount of itself and the sights began to line up on the witch of their own accord.
And for some weird reason, his eyes seemed 'fogged' in some manner, and his nose looked strange.
I was distracted by this for perhaps half a second, which gave the witch time to mount his weapon.
My rifle, however, had found the place where the stock nestled into the shoulder, and the full-cocked weapon had my finger caressing the trigger. The witch seemed painfully slow to me as he moved jerkily to 'make ready'; my front sight had found the center of his chest as he began to get the butt of a cut-down roer near his armpit; the rear sight was lining up as he started to mount the thing preparatory to actually aiming it – and when my sight picture was right, his chest centered – my finger squeezed the trigger.
The blast of my rifle alone seemed to paralyze the witch, for he slammed hard against the door-post, slowly turning to his right as his now-nerveless hands turned loose of his weapon. The gun itself turned somehow, such that as it fell slow as a snowflake, the barrel began to raise slightly from its previously horizontal position and the butt go lower; and the thing was about ten degrees from the horizontal when the butt's tip struck the boards of the stoop but inches from the tips of his pointed boots.
The flared muzzle of his gun was pointing into the house through the open door. I was not prepared for what happened, even if my hands knew their business when it came to reloading.
The hammer went home, the cap 'popped' with a lurid flash, much like a bad fifth kingdom match – and the gun fired with a roar worthy of a small cannon, with a long billowing red-flamed muzzle flash and a cloud of smoke to match. It shot out from the stoop, then once off the boards it began spinning; and as the witch began collapsing boneless and slow from the effects of my shot, the still-smoking gun came to rest in the middle of the street.
Tormenting screams came from within the house, these being the mingled screams of men and swine; as the screaming continued pounding its way into my mind, the prevailing shrieks became those of a vast multitude of various-sized pigs. A second later, even as the high-pitched screaming reached a crescendo, the first example of a torrent of Shoeten cleared the door with its trotters flailing some three feet off of the floorboards.
“When it rains, it dumps the hard stuff,” I muttered, as I slung my now-loaded rifle and drew my pistol from its holster. The torrent of pigs looked to be long in ceasing, and as soon as they cleared the doorway of the house, they leaped over the fallen witch and spread out in a very wide pattern. I then saw some serious trouble headed north.
Three not-so-little pigs were coming down the path normally reserved for residents of the town, and as the line of nose-to-tail bacon-sized stinkers passed me at a range of but perhaps twelve feet, I fired my pistol at the middle one. The bullet hit the pig just behind the ribs a hand's-breadth above its belly, and the pig screamed like a damned-to-hell soul. I knew from my work at the fifth kingdom house that shooting a pig in that place took its time in actual killing, but the pig usually did little after getting shot.
And suddenly, as if he'd learned the business of hiding from Sarah, Georg 'materialized', complete with his club and his larger-than-life 'caveman' shadow figure. I felt reminded of trolls as Georg stood transfixed, his eyes bulging and his chest heaving, then suddenly, his club rose...
And he yelled, his roaring bellow worthy of a 'mountain troll' as he broke into a blistering charge at the leader of the three 'bacon-sized pigs.
That pig seemed to ignore his bellowing onrush until its snout was almost touching his knee, and when he leaped and swung at the pig, I wondered if he'd played golf, at least until he bashed the pig near the shoulders.
The pig launched into the air, spinning like a top and screaming the whole while, and as it continued to fly like a badly-made boomerang, Georg saw the next pig while still airborne. His club was on the return stroke, or so I thought until he did some impossible-to-fathom maneuver that caused the club to show in a near-vertical position as the first pig he'd hit landed to tumble and roll, thrashing and screaming. It came to rest next to the watering pump, where it continued to scream and wave its trotters insanely.
The pig I had shot was too busy 'screaming' about its newly implanted lead to notice either Georg or his blooded club, but Georg, I now realized, was 'on a mission' – and his eyes only saw the pig directly in front of him. He swung his club downward with the speed of lightning and the force of an avalanche.
The pig was crushed to the ground by the force of his blow, and brains squirted from its ears as he leaped over it and gathered his club up for another blow. He'd seen the third pig, which had only now seen the carnage inflicted on the two in front of it; it had turned tail and was running for all it was worth.
No matter: in three gigantic strides, Georg had overhauled that pig, and with a massive crushing downward strike to the animal's backbone just above its hips, he smashed it to the ground amid squirting blood and a spray of dung from its shattered rear. He leaped over that pig and rushed on, heedless of anything but the swine before him.
He seemed completely out of his mind, and the word 'Baresark' intruded upon me. I stood up from my kneeling position, then spat, “holy Toledo! He really does go after pigs!”
I ran after him, gun in hand, my near-exclusive goal now keeping the witches that were still present and able to shoot from trying to shoot him. There were some who'd recovered enough from being 'blown up' to have retaken their feet, and as I closed upon Georg in his frantic rush – he'd struck another three pigs by then, each one of them crushed to the ground or flung sideways a good distance – a witch shakily stood, gun in hand. Georg would pass within feet of him, and as I aimed at the witch, Georg, with a roaring yell and a motion too quick for me to follow, leaped, turned and swung his club at the witch's chest.
The witch launched spinning into the air with his weapon flying end-over-end, and Georg came down to rest within feet of a pig. He switched hands on his club, and swung one-handed at the pig. His 'weak' hand, and that backhanded.
The pig flew nearly as far as the witch had done, and the screams the thing made as it flew and then tumbled spoke of but one thing: it was hurt too badly to do nothing beyond lay down and die.
A farmer had come out from his stoop with a musket and had shot the witch that Georg had 'smashed', but as I looked around while running – and shot a handful of still-moving witches, my shots hitting them in the head as a rule – I noted a near-total absence of the previous gunners. They'd all hidden themselves, for some reason.
I shot my revolver dry, and holstered the gun and reached into my possible bag for the spare. Another witch showed, this example looking 'fresh', and he ran for Georg, his knife out in front of him as if he intended to use it like a spear. His vigor showed himself relatively unhurt, the only signs of injury being a few small dark spots on his torn black-cloth clothing. He lunged at Georg with his knife
Georg was far faster than the witch, for he switched his club from one hand to the next, then one-handed, he swung his club at the witch's left knee. The witch had his legs blasted out from under him as if hit by a cannon-ball, and as he screamed and crumpled to earth – Georg had rushed on, for he still saw pigs to his front, and he was after them – the witch's 'Arkansas toothpick' dagger shot high into the air. The knife described a tall and tumbling path as it flew higher and higher.
I hoped and prayed it would spike the witch, and in the blink of an eye...
The 'Arkansas toothpick' seemed to acquire a malevolent gleam in the morning sun, and intelligence to match; and the witch, its proper target, lay sprawling upon the ground, rolling, cursing like a hell-spawned fiend. The dagger reached the top of its tumbling house-tall arc as the witch came to a stop next to a watering trough. He'd rolled and tumbled an easy fifteen feet; and the dagger, now scenting blood, shot down like a bolt of lightning to spike the witch in the gut and pin him screaming to the ground.
I let the screaming witch lie, for I needed to save the three remaining rounds in my spare revolver for witches that were able to cause trouble or pigs inclined similarly. When Georg stopped suddenly, I did as well.
Well to his rear, and out of the reach of his club. Baresarks were supposedly inclined to hit anyone who looked like a target.
A quick look to the sides and behind me showed no witches that looked up to either running or fighting. Those witches that were 'dead' of that first group I had 'blown up' were now being dragged off out of sight by small groups of farmers. I presumed these men needed more manure for their fields. The pigs that Georg had thumped – over a dozen solid strikes, and two glancing blows that had dropped both pigs with alacrity – lay, without exception, on their sides or bellies, all of them making slowly-decaying squeals and shrieks that spoke of slow but certain death. I suspected someone would collect them up once they had expired and then inter them in their fields.
I was very glad I did not farm.
That one witch whose knife had pinned him down like an insect in a collection was still cursing loudly, but he did not look inclined to either shooting or going anywhere. I suspected that 'someone' would deal with him soon enough.
And yet, as I finished this survey, I noted still the presence of witches and pigs in the area, and as I felt these creatures still within their lair, I wondered: why had so few people 'come out to help'? Was it my presence, or something else entirely? I then sensed movement behind me, and I turned to see Sarah. She had the fowling piece, and seemed ready for business.
“I did not think this could happen,” said Sarah, “so I was not ready for it when it happened, just as you said it would.” I could hear honesty in her voice, and perhaps a trace of contrition.
“And everyone else?” I asked. My question was that of curiosity. I wanted some kind of an answer, if only to settle my own mind.
“They should be ready as soon as they find their powder and lead,” said Sarah. “I was far from the only one to think swine and witches could not show here, and not merely because 'all the witches in town are gone'.”
“They did not realize we might deal with migrating witches, didn't they?” I asked – and as I thought to continue on that note, my voice abruptly acquired a hard-edged snarl as I spat, “they think I spout lies so as to cause them trouble, don't they?”
I nearly put my hands over my mouth, for not merely had I no idea where that speech had come from, but its very tone seemed the definition of evil. It made even the cursing of witches sound 'good'.
“I am not sure if people here believe that,” said Sarah – though I could tell by her tone, for some odd reason, that she herself wondered more than a little if what I said had an aspect of truth. More steps came, these from another direction entirely, and I saw Anna with a still-smoking revolver. I suspected she'd emptied the thing, as it was filthy – and she wasn't much cleaner. She then spoke, and her tone made for wondering.
“I am,” she said. Her tone of voice so reeked of surety that I wondered if some witch had surreptitiously slipped a fetish in her clothing. “You were right about what you said when you spoke of swine and witches showing today, and you are just as right about what you just spoke.”
“What?” I asked. “How can that be?” I wanted to add, “I was wondering if I was hearing right, and I really wonder if what I said a minute ago is true.”
As if to provide a most-positive definition of truth, I heard – this faintly, much as if I were dreaming – the sounds of a rune-curse, this being repeated over and over. It was one I heard before, this multiple times in differing places, and as its strobing colors...
Hearing the repeated 'Tagh! Tagh! Tagh!' over and over told me but one thing even as the runes blazed brilliant colors in my mind as if intended for a distraction.
“That's directed at me,” I muttered. “Stinking witch, go to hell!”
The cursing ceased; and an instant later, a pinpoint flash blazed red light that then erupted out of every door and window in the house. I began to turn, my mouth open as if to scream, and as my eyes squinted shut and my back faced the oncoming holocaust, the darkness behind my eyelids became blotted out with a strobe of brilliant actinic white light as the thundering roar of a massive explosion knocked the three of us sprawling to the ground. I scrambled to my clumsy feet, grabbed Sarah bodily up from where she lay, and then sprinted for the safety of the shop as the myriad whistles and hums of falling projectiles gathered to themselves strength and noise.
That explosion had launched at least twenty pigs and an unknown number of witches, and as the pigs and mangled bodies of witches began to hit all around me with muffled thumping noises amid clouds of blazing splinters trailing black smoke and other pieces of smoking 'trash', I raced back into the shop to there set Sarah on her feet. But seconds later, Anna came in the door after me, and not a second later than she had come into the shop, the mangled and torn-to-ribbons body of a witch landed but feet from the door with a resounding thud. It was still raining garbage, and the roof of the shop roared like an abused bass drum for several seconds.
“What was that?” gasped Anna.
“He told that witch that was cursing him – and him alone – to go to hell,” said Sarah dryly, “and I suspect that not only is that particular witch now supping with Brimstone, but all those witches in that place that were with him as well.”
“And several large bags of potent fetishes that those witches had brought with them so as to sell on their passage to the north and west,” said the soft voice. “They'd run out of 'eating money' as they traveled on foot by night, and their sore feet forced upon them the need to 'rest up' for a day before continuing on. Roos just happened to be in their path, and they knew of the vacant houses here.”
“But that house?” asked Anna. She seemed to be speaking to me, and me alone. “It's gone.”
“Yes, it is,” said the soft voice – whose tone then acquired a sudden and brittle hardness. “It will remain as a reminder of just who is speaking when you are told information like you heard yesterday.”
“Besides, there were no heirs left for that one,” I said. “It seems the witches had learned of the plans to locate those people, and they thought, “if we cannot have our fondest desires for our-own-selves, and that to ourselves alone, then no one shall have anything at all.”
I paused, then said, “hopefully, they will have more trouble locating those other potential owners.” I began cleaning my rifle after removing its cap, and then the 'dry' revolver, with the still part-loaded one kept close to hand on a clean rag in case we had pigs or witches show close by.
“They've already located most of those people,” said the soft voice, “and they are plotting to sacrifice them and their families when and as they are able.” A brief pause, then, “their recent losses of the area's 'capable men' does not make that job easier.”
“How?” shrieked Sarah. She seemed hysterical. “If it takes us so much time and effort to find those people, how can the witches do so much better?”
“No, they don't do things like out of old tales, dear,” I murmured; and as I did, I recalled how I tended to find things so readily. In the time written of in many old tales, that being before the war, witchdom's 'cheap imitation' actually worked fairly well. Freek's speech regarding the current-day capacities of most current-day witches gave them credit they did not deserve, at least in the spirit realm.
They did not need such capacity. They had other methods: slow, laborious in the extreme, and very manpower intensive – but in the end, those methods were just as effectual at finding people out as the methods used by witches long in the past. They merely required more time.
“Think, dear,” I said. “The witches and supplicants might be scarce around here, but they are not scarce in most of the first kingdom. Then, because those witches are out in the hinterlands and more or less not employed at a useful trade – save, perhaps, as camouflage – they have lots of free time.”
“Witches and most supplicants, you mean,” said the soft voice, “and 'lots' of free time is an understatement for nearly all of those people.”
“And finally, I suspect they've been looking for those who might receive those houses one day – with all possible diligence – for a very long time.”
“Years,” said the soft voice. “Recall what you just said about how witches feel about that which they think to be their just due? It's not only spoken of at length in many portions of the black book, but those sections also speak of planning ahead in careful painstaking detail so as to make all parts of that statement a full-blown reality.”
A brief pause, then, “the current version of witchdom seldom thinks very far ahead when left to its own devices, but if someone else did the required thinking for them long ago, you may depend upon them attempting to act upon those ideas if they are aware of them.”
“And that black book has much such 'old-headed' thinking in it,” I muttered.
“Yes, mostly in certain portions,” said the soft voice. “It is not the only book used, however. There are a number of decent-sized libraries filled with books that speak of matters useful for witchdom, and nearly all of those books date from before that war.”
“Oh, my,” gasped Sarah. “They have all of those? Then why aren't we living in a witch-hole like this place used to be, like it was written about on those tapestries?”
“Because most of those books have powerful curses placed upon them,” said the soft voice, “and no currently-alive witch in the five kingdoms is able to read them and survive for any length of time.” A pause, this brief yet pregnant with possibilities, then, “Cardosso's notes on those books, however, are not cursed – and while the entirety of his voluminous writings are not readily available for reading, a certain portion of those writings are both well-known and widely read by 'discerning' witches.”
Anna looked at me in wide-eyed wonder, while Sarah had an expression of unreadable nature. She seemed infuriated, but I knew I was most likely wrong in my guess.
“Those three plump red-leather-bound Boermaas-printed volumes are collectively known as 'The Red books of Cardosso' – and those books are treated as potent fetishes and priced accordingly.”
“Those, uh, 'discerning witches' are currently 'extinct' in this area, aren't they?” I murmured.
“That species of witch only goes into 'the uncouth north' when he has business that requires his presence,” said the soft voice. “and during your trip across the sea, a small but crucial number of such people will decide there's money to be made up here due to the absence of any 'real' witches – at least, in their estimation. While they will be entirely correct in that assessment, the reasons why that is the case is beyond their current understanding.”
“Yes, in the central part of the first kingdom,” I muttered. I could no longer feel witches or pigs in the area. They were either where they belonged or headed elsewhere – and I personally cared very little as to where they were, as long as they weren't in town causing trouble. I had cleaned and or reloaded both rifle and main pistol by now, and wondered if I could start on the spare. I began breaking it down, thinking to damp-swap it and then oil it lightly as I had done with my rifle before full-loading the thing once more.
I could feel Georg, however, and he was down at the Public House. To call that place crowded was an understatement of the greatest magnitude, and every person present was 'getting into as much beer as he or she could stand'. A lot of people had hung back from the witch-induced danger, and now I suspected why: Georg, when he had his club in his hands and was on the hunt for pigs, was thought – with justification – to be as dangerous as a small army of tinned spams or a smaller Iron Pig. I wanted to ask Anna about him and his insane-seeming behavior after work. I was jolted back to the central issue an instant later.
“In the entire first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “While you can find plenty of witches outside of this area, they tend to be 'small timers' for the most part. The saying was in the ever-spiraling circles of the first kingdom's witches, “the kingdom house is the big-time, and if you want money and power, the Swartsburg is the place to be' – and it was that.”
“And now it is gone,” said Anna. “I read somewhere about wind traveling to places it was not, and it seems witches are much the same.”
“They are, which is why this peace will not 'last' much longer than the time it takes you” – here, I understood myself to be referred to – “to return from that trip,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you'll be better protected then, as you will both desire and need that protection.”
“You?” asked Sarah. She meant me. “Or all of us?”
“He will be better protected,” said the soft voice, “and you all will both need him to be that protected – and you will be glad of it.” A brief pause, then, “those newcomers will not be amateurs.”
“Uh, neither Koenraad seemed an amateur to me,” I murmured. “Will these people be worse?”
“No,” said the soft voice. “They will not be like the people you've been encountering of late, either.”
“Like those stinkers that hid themselves in the second kingdom house,” I thought – and as Sarah suddenly looked at me in horror-stricken recognition, I knew I'd guessed correctly.
“I hope not,” said Anna. “You've not been in that place much, have you?”
“Which place?” I asked. “The second kingdom house, or the house proper?”
Anna nodded, then said, “there might not be as many witches in that place as there are in the fifth kingdom house, nor are those people as forward as they are further south...” Anna needed to pause, then as she looked around, she seemed to speak to the walls. “I wish I could say they were their equals in trickery, but they are not.”
“Uh, less tricky?” I asked.
“The witches of the second kingdom are the worst for that business,” said Sarah, “and those of the kingdom house proper are the worst of the worst.” Another brief pause, then, “the fifth kingdom may have had its poisoners, but they never had anyone that was the equal of Madame Curoue.”
“As to notoriety, yes,” said the soft voice. “On that matter, she was the worst in several hundred years, and only a witch cultivated by Cardosso himself was her superior since the war.” A pause, this one of several seconds. “That plague your husband-to-be unleashed wasn't the only thing he did in that stinky witch-hole. He also used poison.”
“I confiscated several vials from Kees,” I murmured, as I went to the door. Things felt a good deal safer now. “I, uh, dosed some witch-food and some really bad strong drink with it.”
“You what?” asked Anna. She seemed to have a hard time believing that I could do such a thing.
“He dosed them,” spat Sarah. “Was this arsenic?”
“It was originally some of Madame Curoue's finest,” said the soft voice, “but what he poured out of those little vials did not merely grow substantially in volume.” A brief pause, “it also grew drastically in lethality.”
“What?” I gasped.
“That one combine-head 'tasted' the faintly metallic taste of 'arsenic',” said the soft voice, “and he had Madame Curoue's 'effectual antidote', which he took post-haste once he'd spewed.” A brief pause, then, “it had no effect whatsoever, unlike those times he had used it in the past.”
“What was it he used?” asked Sarah.
“Something that makes arsenic, even that stuff Hans keeps well-hid in a corner of his 'inner sanctum', seem worthless for killing,” said the soft voice. “Only some of the nastier chemical weapons used in that war were worse than what he spiked that food and drink with.”
“That...” I gasped.
“You'll get the formula for it when you have the facilities to handle such lethal materials,” said the soft voice. “There isn't anything in Hans' laboratory that could successfully contain it for any length of time – and you don't want that stuff getting loose in this area.”
“Why is that?” asked Sarah.
“Think, dear,” said the soft voice. “Common arsenic is a deadly poison. Hans' 'improvements' make 'common arsenic' into something that can be handled with relative 'safety' only if one is very careful. This stuff would ignore that level of 'careful' and wipe out entire villages in the space of hours.”
“That sounds like some, uh, stuff at the Abbey,” I said. “Remember how I said we needed to leave that one time? How that one, uh, rodent dropped and started to thrash?”
“It isn't quite that deadly,” said the soft voice, “even if it needs a similar level of protection to handle safely – and unlike that gas, this stuff retains its potency for years.”
“What?” gasped Sarah. “Arsenic...”
“Madame Curoue's formulation lost much of its potency once it spent any real time out of its package,” said the soft voice, “which is where Hans' formulation has a clear – and decisive – edge. His stuff will remain powerfully lethal for months if it's left laying around. What your husband used is still killing witches as we speak, and will continue to do so as long as anything that it has touched remains in use.”
“That, uh, servingware,” I muttered.
“And the clothing of the witches who died after consuming that food and drink,” said the soft voice, “and those things that they handled with poisoned hands while they were dying, and the locations where they spewed and then died,” said the soft voice. “That chemical is but slowly degraded by mere 'time', and it migrates worse than some liquid death compounds. More, it needs a hot fire or strong boiling-hot lye solution to truly render it harmless.”
“Just like some nerve agents,” I muttered.
“This is not one of those,” said the soft voice. “Only a handful of chemical weapons used in that long-ago war were harder to stop than this stuff is – and none of them were as enduring.”
“That stuff sounds like it would clean out the entire fifth kingdom house,” muttered Anna. “What did you do?”
“That one combine is nearly wiped out by that poison,” said the soft voice, “and its customers and competitors are slowly becoming food for Brimstone as we speak due to the spreading effects of that poison, courtesy of witchdom's tendency to retain 'potent fetishes' as long as possible.”
“Just like that one coach killed witches for centuries,” I muttered. “Same idea – or am I off on that one?”
“That thing's still killing witches also,” said the soft voice. “Now, once Georg gets enough beer and tinctures down that he's his own self once more, and Gelbhaar returns from whence he hid himself – he is not in the Public House, but in someone's horse-barn where he thought himself safe from Georg – you-all can desist from this witch-induced irruption and can resume important matters.”
“What?” asked Sarah. “I cannot speak that word.”
“I think it meant we can get back to what we were doing shortly,” said Anna, “and at least one person thinks witches to be prime nuisances.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “You're right.”
Anna left for the front door, all the while muttering about about 'rest-houses'. Sarah, however, remained.
“As in I belong in one?” I asked.
“I think she is wondering if she needs to hunt one up for a while,” said Sarah. “I think I might understand somewhat better, as I spent enough time in the potato country – and my relatives there seemed to think much the same about witches as what I just heard.”
“They're annoying?” I asked.
“Very much so,” said Sarah. “That seems to be a most-common attitude among my relatives, and I must confess I think that way more than a little.” A brief pause, then, “and that is especially so when witches are hungry in one's dreams.”
“That sounds scary,” I murmured.
“It was that as well,” said Sarah, “but that was later. Before, they were chanting like that one place did when they were mixing ink.”
“Sounds annoying to me,” I said.
“I found it very much so,” said Sarah, “as they would not cease from their yelling during the whole of their time of compounding the stuff, even at night – and that place is not far from the west school. Students, at least at that school, treasure their sleep.”
“I remember that part.” Insomnia was a constant companion during my most recent attempts at 'higher education'.
“I was one of the worst for that business,” said Sarah, “and I was the worst for tossing things at that place when I could not sleep because of their noise.”
“The worst?” I asked, as I finished gun-cleaning.
“I was not the only person tossing things,” said Sarah. “Sometimes there were lecturers tossing things also – and I know for a fact that the king currently sitting down there plotted long and hard regarding that place so as to silence it during his time at the west school.”
“That place could stand up to a battery of siege guns,” said Sarah dryly, “or so I was told. I was not able to get my hands on one of those guns, otherwise I would have tested the matter.”
“And your cousin?”
“She wanted to try dynamite, once I had told her about how that place was,” said Sarah. “She really disliked chanting when we got into that place, and I suspect she has learned greater dislike of it since.”
“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “Witches that show in that town tend to have distressingly short lives once she learns of their presence – and dynamite, often the supplies thereof which the witches bring with them, tends to figure in their demise.”
Sarah left shortly thereafter, and once I'd finished my revolver cleaning, I resumed work. Georg and Gelbhaar arrived at the shop about lunch, and the smell surrounding Georg, as well as his wobbling walk, spoke of both being rubbed with Geneva and being dosed with both tinctures.
“Did you see Anna..?”
“I did,” he said, “and I needed too, both for the soreness and so I did not need to live in a rest-house for a few days.” A pause, during which he drained his mug, “and then, I must speak to the carpenters.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I need another club,” he said. “The Father of Swine showed as I was walking toward the Public House, and I cracked his head and made his brains squirt, but I cracked more than just his head.”
“The F-Father of Swine?” I asked. I was very confused, and flatting the surfaces of a boiler on a surface plate did not respond well to confusion.
“You should go see that thing,” said Gelbhaar as he came in the rear door. He looked at Georg carefully, then noted the lack of his club.
“You broke it,” I murmured.
“No, but I heard it crack when I bashed that pig,” said Georg. “Tam said he'd never seen such a stroke before, and he finished that thing off with what he shoots.”
“How big was this pig?” I asked.
“It was not a Shoet,” said Georg, “but much larger. It did not have plate, and it had no black to its hide, and its tushes were like my thumbs for size, but otherwise, it was not much smaller than one of those pigs I shot guns at in the past.”
I was still thinking about 'the father of swine', and wondering about seeing the animal, at least while I 'flatted the halves of the boiler. I estimated two more postings, and possibly three more days and nights of labor, and then, it would be time to test my labors as to wind.
I was off: I needed four days and three nights of labor, and but one posting. I'd underestimated the time it would take to bring the engine to full completion – and I had overestimated the likelihood of continuing witch-trouble. Georg's bashing of a county-fair-prizewinner sized pig – the thing was too huge to bury, and Hans spoke of that size of pig putting whole towns in the privy for days if they were burned – meant trouble, or so I thought until the thing was said to have vanished between two days. Hans, however, was grinning whenever I saw him, and when I came home late and filthy with a finished engine and boiler setting covered with a large rag in the shop, I asked as to why.
“Because I knew that there are lots of witches that are traveling north and west,” said Hans, “and I heard about how you dosed that food and drink in the fifth kingdom house. So, I get up some of that arsenic stuff I have, and I dose that stinky thing good with it.”
“You what?” I asked.
“Anna is not the only person with a tube,” said Hans. “I have lots of that tubing, all different sizes, only there is this one tube that I have that is twice hers for wide and nearly that for long. So, I get a good load of arsenic, mix it up with some oil of vitriol diluted with rainwater, shake the stuff good, and then go and tube that pig and load it up with a jugful of poison.”
“What will that do?” I asked.
“I think there are going to be a lot of sick witches when that thing gets put up like talk says witches are doing now,” said Hans, “as I saw the tracks left by that farm wagon and those fat horses witches like to run when they cannot run mules. They like to drop their turnips all over, and there were lots of horse-turnips laying around, so I knew it was witches that took that pig.”
“Oh, my,” I murmured. “Potted pork, seasoned with especially soluble arsenic. I wonder how many witches will eat that stuff?”
“Enough that witchdom's fortunes just took another strong downturn,” said the soft voice, “and those escaping witches that still live will be the ones most frequently dying from eating such food.”
“Ah, so they will like such swine,” said Hans with relish. “So, when Georg loses his mind again, I know just what to do.”
“Georg loses his mind?” I gasped. “You knew about this?”
“Yes, as he has had too much swine,” said Hans. “Such doings are not rare with such people.” Hans paused, then said, “now I have spoken with those carpenters about making bad clubs, and I have asked for the ones at the house proper to make him up three of those things, all of them just the way he likes them.”
“I had Sarah do up a drawing for me,” said Hans. “They said they would make clubs that he could not break, as they will make those things of blackwood alternated with sugar-tree wood, and the sticks to be glued and clamped for a ten-day before they turn those things.”
“Blackwood?” I asked.
“That stuff is really hard and strong,” said Hans, “and that other wood is the same way.” Hans paused, then said, “now if you make another gun like the one you have, you should use blackwood for its stock, as then it will not break no matter how many pigs you shoot with it.”
A brief pause, then “and, I think you should make both the caps and the knobs for those clubs. I would make those knob things of bronze, with a good point to them, as then it does not matter what that pig or witch is wearing when he swings on them.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“One of those witches was wearing these scales of sheet iron sewn to cow-leather under his black-cloth,” said Hans, “and while Georg knocked him down hard enough for him to cough blood, those kept him from getting killed.”
“Are people afraid of Georg when he is like that?”
“You are not, Sarah is not, the Publican is not, and neither am Anna or I,” said Hans. “I think most people in town are, though, as they think he will swing on them if he sees them when he is like that. I have told them he is like a bull that way.”
“Uh, bull?” I asked.
“Yes, bulls will charge black anything, so you do not put black stuff near them,” said Hans, “and the common ones up here will kick you to pieces if you are wearing black. So, if you do not wear black, and you move slow and easy when they are near, and then they will not bother you.” A pause, then, “now, he did not go after you, did he?”
“He had to go after Georg to keep the witches off of him,” said Sarah. “It took me a while to find that fowling piece, so as soon as I had it, I went after the two of them.” A pause, then, “and I put lead in three pigs and two witches before Georg stopped pounding on them that first time when he was using his club.”
“Yes, and there were a lot of those things, especially when that place went up,” said Hans. “I have never seen it rain swine before, but that was what it did – and if it rains swine on me again, it will be too soon. One of those stinky things almost got me when it came down.”
“The father of swine?” I asked.
“That house going up may have done for the witches, but that trail those first pigs made must have been a good one, as more of those stinkers came later. Georg thumped several more of them, until that one big one showed near the Public House and he cracked his club on its head.”
“And we dosed it that night,” said Sarah. “I'm glad I did not spew, as that thing was awful.”
“You?” I asked.
“That job takes two people for part of it,” said Hans. “One of them holds the jug, and the other holds the funnel, and she held the funnel.”
“And now, we have eight hundred pounds of arsenic-laced pork...” I paused, then said, “what does oil of vitriol do to that arsenic?”
“It kills much of the bad taste and makes it work faster,” said Hans. “It is not as strong then, nor does it keep as good, but those witches will most likely eat enough of that thing to get sick at the least.”
“Sick enough to die, most likely,” I murmured. Tomorrow, I would test the blower; and then... Then, I could not say. All I had was a hazy long-ago dream to go by for what it might do.
My sleep that night was filled with dreams: the sand-house was all-but finished; the blower, gleaming in copper, bronze, and cast-iron, mounted on its hold-downs; the masons, busy as bees, with three more of their countrymen in training, or so I guessed; and then the internal portions of Frankie and a host of strange wailing noises that made the furnace sound like an angry wasp-nest in some fashion. Somehow, I suspected that portion would happen quickly, if somewhat noisily. The blower – that was a mystery, at least at this time. It would not remain so much longer.
I came early in the morning, long before sunrise, and I lit the titanium lantern once inside with the doors closed. The blower, all set up, took 'center place' in the unused portion of the shop. It was covered, again, with a sizable cloth. After lighting the long forge, I thought to go to the rear of the shop and look out the door and upon the furnace.
“Oh, my,” I gasped. The mounds of supplies had grown mightily in size, the sand-house foundations had been more or less laid to nearly the height of my knees, large stacks of varicolored tiles stood neatly next to the boards of the fence, a pile of cut-to-size lumber lay next to them, and behind the furnace and to one side, I saw strange-looking bricks, these oddly curved. This raised a question in my mind. “How could I not hear them working?”
“Mostly because they've learned some modest secrets from Sarah,” said the soft voice. “That narrow region behind the walls that was once a path is now a well-developed road, due to their comings and goings with their hand-carts; and Georg's rear wall is now well-cleared of brush, about a foot taller, reinforced in key places with mortar, and has a proper gate, not merely a collection of rotten boards waiting to fall down.”
“But where do they park their, uh, buggies?” I asked, as I went outside into the night and began to look around. The whole rear area where sparse grass once showed in bunches showed white lines laid in chalk, which I avoided carefully; and when I drew near the gate, I saw not merely its careful construction – it looked to have been built by either the carpenters in town or those at the house proper – but also some chalk scrawls which I 'recognized' as 'this gate will need to be moved in the near future, so make its mounts easy to move when it is time'.
“Sarah drew them a map of the back way from here to the kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and now they routinely save over two hours a day in travel time. They often come into town using that path in fact, and park behind the shop – and they put that extra time to good use.”
“The materials?” I asked. I would need to stoke up the long forge shortly with its first load of charcoal. The kindling had given off the bulk of its smoke, and now was sending short reddish flames up into the air but a little higher than the bricks of the forge.
“When those people come, they're going to be mostly laying bricks, as they've located three of their countrymen who need 'temporary work',” said the soft voice. “Hence the noise of the trowels, while being especially vicious in its intensity, will be of short duration – and Georg does not mind paying extra for those men's work. Those witches have already eaten into his exchequer enough for him to notice it.”
I returned inside, secure in the knowledge that I would be able to run 'crucible steel' within a few days, and Frankie would run within a week; and as I began work on copperware – I was increasing the size of the batches for the common things, so much so that I wondered if I could 'spin' the bottoms of measuring cups and mugs at the least and then roll the rest, with riveting to join bottom, cylinder, and handle, I thought, “what if the whole thing could be spun and the handle formed in a press-die on the drop-hammer..?”
I dropped what I was doing and looked long and hard at the buffer. The smaller engine was belted up – it had been getting regular use in finishing copper pieces for sale – and by the time the first of the apprentices showed, I was using the thing like a wood-lathe to turn a piece of wood. They left me to my 'lunacy', at least until Georg showed and asked me what I was doing trying to fasten a sheet of copper onto the buffer.
“We do enough measuring cups for me to think of a faster way,” I murmured, as I began the process of 'throttling up'. “Now, if you could just hold that board there against this copper sheet, I can try this.”
The spinning copper, once caught between the greased pressure of Georg leaning against the form with all his strength, seemed to all but flow over the form as I ran the round-headed drift up and down its sides. The result, after about two minutes, was sufficient to tell me we needed a real spinning setup, with proper tools and a dedicated engine and boiler. The time saved in spinning articles instead of the current means would pay off mightily, and the products would be a substantial improvement upon our current output.
Georg to looked as if he might faint when I pried the mostly-formed piece off of the 'form'. It took him nearly a minute to find words.
“Th-that's incredible,” he said. “I've never seen that done.” A brief pause, then, “why is that thing over there covered with that cloth?'
“Because that's the blower,” I said, “and it has two main pieces, both of which are heavy enough to want two people when the thing's taken apart. The way it is now, you can slide it across the floor on its skids, just like our two tool-racks.”
Georg walked over to the blower, bent over, then picked up its cover. He whistled, then said, “this looks like some things they do in the fourth kingdom. Have you run it yet?”
“No, because I finished it late enough last night that I took my bath when I got home and went to bed shortly thereafter,” I said, “and I'm not about to run something that might make noise that late at night.”
“How is it fueled?” asked Georg. “This is not like the smaller one, is it?”
“It uses charcoal, or cooked coal,” I said. “Normally, it's not run up and down like the other one is, but at a more or less steady speed.”
“After the first break, then,” said Georg. “Everyone who is going to wake up will do so by then.”
The show-moving hours passed one by one with Georg's ominous statement occasionally banging away in my head, while my frantically busy hands continued with their labors. Once annealed, the crude-spun measuring cup but needed a brief stint upon the stakes and then a minute's buffing prior to receiving its half-dozen rivets to hold on the handle, and when the other two men came in – they'd both had 'business' where they lived the day before, and their 'late' return, as well as their scarce-hidden moans, spoke of but one thing. I asked Johannes as Georg went for the morning's jug of beer.
“Did you need to shoot much yesterday?”
“Yes, a lot,” he said, “and I got a week's worth of meals in town.”
“What, quolls?” I asked.
“A bag of those things, and two fresh marmots,” he said. “I've brought my musket in case some more of those things show.”
“It's not a number one musket, is it?” I asked.
“It takes a number four's ball, but it wants a greased rag then,” said Johannes. “It has been freshened up twice, so I think that is why it is loose for balls.”
“Uh, gone over?” I asked.
“The second time that was done was just before you came,” he said, “and I was using the spare musket I have then. He” – here, he pointed to Gelbhaar – “has but one, but it is in need of work.”
“And if I could get thimbles easily, I would have you redo it so as to take them,” he said. “Those things are not easy to find up here.”
“He has plenty, but they make those things,” said Johannes.
“No, I actually do not have 'plenty',” I said. “Most of what we run goes to cannon-masters for tipped shells. What we our-own-selves use is to stay alive, and guard-work involves a fair amount of shooting at times.” A brief pause, then, “I'm not sure if the Mercantile here can get good ones.”
“They can get those things, but they put a lot of soot on your gun, or so people say,” said Johannes. “That is why most use flint-muskets, or did.”
“And the witches almost never use that type of lock,” I murmured. “Of course, most witches outside of certain places don't shoot very much, and if what Hans tells me is right, thimbles keep fairly well if you keep them in a tight tin so they stay dry.”
I had ceased speaking, for I had heard the steps of Georg returning; and with a full copper mug of beer, I began checking over the blower. I filled the boiler with water from a small brass funnel with a strainer inside – it was much-needed practice for the two 'jug-size' powder funnels I would soon make for Hans – checked each of the many fittings, filled all of the several oil 'sumps' with 'motor oil', and began to slowly arrange wood scraps and shavings in the firebox. I was going to use some of my personal 'stash' of cooked coal for fuel, as I had a hunch I could get more of it easily, and I wanted a long period, at least an hour and a half, of run-in time.
“And not from Andreas' cookers, either,” I thought, as I tossed a lit stub of a tallow candle in the firebox. The shavings began to burn within seconds. “Here goes nothing.”
The first sign of life from the blower was the lifting of the pressure gage 'arm' off of its stop. I'd added a small amount of cooked coal but a minute before, and as the granules slowly 'took fire', I could feel a slow-moving gathering in the area. I looked around and saw that all activity in the shop had ceased, and from seemingly every point of the compass, nervous-looking faces seemed to glare down upon me.
“No, it won't make noise like one of those bad fifth kingdom things,” I muttered. “Georg, tell them how that other engine sounds, please.” My voice was pleading a little.
“I had trouble staying awake,” said Georg with a trace of a yawn. “Only pressing with that board helped with that.”
I wondered for a moment if Georg had been dosed that morning, then with a sudden jolt, the water feed pump briefly 'pulsed' with its 'hiss-took' sound. It was just like the other boiler feed pump, in fact, and as the pressure 'arm' went to three notches on a scale of ten, I began to slowly open the throttle valve.
At first, nothing happened, then suddenly, the engine jerked – and from the open flared mouth of the blower inlet, I heard a low humming noise. I went to the side and saw the fan turning rapidly, then walked to the blower's outlet. The air coming out of that part was astonishing. I motioned to Georg, who came over.
“Feel that wind,” I murmured. “Now, how loud is this thing?”
Georg felt the wind – the engine was slowly 'loosening up' – and nodded. “It would easily blow a forge to welding heat.”
“And that furnace over there?” I asked, as I pointed.
“I suspect that would work well for all save that special iron,” said Georg. “That might want...”
Georg paused, for now the blower's humming had grown louder; and while still at a low pitch, I could feel the building faintly vibrate. I felt the engine's casing, and it was not shaking; I felt the blower's quill. No shaking there. I then went to the outlet of the blower...
And was nearly 'blown away'. It was putting out a lot of wind now, and the humming now had faint overtones that only my ears seemed to hear. Long ago, I had once heard the noises of jet engines while they were being run as part of an aeronautical training program; and this sound seemed to bring back memories – memories of thundering roaring mingled with diabolical screams as the engines in question were run up to full power by students. Distraction didn't come close to those evenings.
“Do you know how much blast it takes to run one of those furnaces?” I asked.
“No,” said Georg. “Those masons might want to see this thing, as one of those new men they have said he'd help run one for a period.”
“New men?” I asked.
“That one stonemason had best know my club waits for him should he think to misbehave,” said Georg darkly, “as I thought those people did not know how to lay stone. Sarah came over, talked with them some, and they laid those foundation stones as neat as I've ever seen done.”
“Stone is rare and costly where they come from,” I said, as I turned once more to the blower and stirred the glowing granules of fuel with my poker. The pressure gage was showing five notches now, and the hum of the blower was both higher pitched and louder. The previously inaudible – was it, or was it not? – overtones were now much more prevalent, and Georg was looking at the blower with eyes open wide. He came closer.
“I do not think that one will scream like that other does when it is being abused,” said Georg. “I do not know what it will do for noise, but I do know it will make a sufficiency of wind.”
It was doing that now, for putting my hand in the blower output now blew it out of the way with substantial force, much as my hands had been blown back by the force of the wind outside the car window when my parents were driving on the freeway when I was a boy. I opened the engine throttle valve slightly.
The engine and blower noises increased in volume; and while the sound remained as smooth as before, it was no longer quiet in the slightest. The hum was now hungry-sounding, with a distinct howling tone that was but partly hidden; and the overtones, these being strident, high-pitched, and piercing in nature, were now very noticeable. I felt reminded of engine-driven air-raid sirens.
“It has not fully heated or loosened up, either,” I thought. “Best let it run at that setting for a while.”
Over the next minute, however, I realized that not merely was it 'loosening up' rapidly, it was gaining heat as well; and with each second, the previous hum – it was now like the thicker strings on a larger species of viola, perhaps – was growing louder, more insistent, and strident-sounding, with the overtones – there were more of them now – becoming steadily more prominent. I had a distinct feeling that at a certain speed, the overtones would take over entirely, and then...
I looked at the engine, noted the force-pump working steadily, the pressure gage climbing slower, and thought, “why not?” I then gently touched the 'throttle' valve. It might have gone a tiny bit wider.
The engine responded instantly with an abrupt increase in speed, and the hum vanished – to be replaced with a deafening screaming howl that rattled my brain and made my teeth wish to hide. Mad scrambles ensued for the front doorway as the engine now billowed gouts of steam and the intake devoured it to blast it in a thick and roaring fog out of the air outlet and into the outdoor regions to the rear of the shop, and the shop shook and rumbled as the engine 'sang' its 'song of power'. On the edge of my tortured hearing, I could hear gunfire: first one shot, then two, then several in a rapid string, followed by an explosion that, while still faint, was much louder; and as the gunfire continued, I could hear once again the screams of pigs.
“This thing drives pigs out of their minds,” I mumbled, as I wondered how to 'turn it off'. “It is doing that to me.”
“It does much more than drive pigs out of their minds,” said the soft voice as I began to shovel some of the glowing coals into the forge so as to 'kill the afterburner'. The resemblance in sound to a jet engine was not trivial, and by the time I'd dumped most of the coals – I wanted it to run in properly, but at that lower speed where it did not induce deafness or insanity – I was wondering what, exactly I had done.
“Driven every hiding pig within five miles out into the open, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and you flushed no less than three well-hid witch-parties resting in cover on their way out of the area.”
“And I probably drove half of the people in town out of their minds,” I muttered, as the engine slowly spooled down. “How are we going to run Frankie if this thing makes the dead leave their graves in droves?”
“It will be much quieter when it is blowing into a furnace,” said the soft voice, “even if 'full blast' will still make for a fervent desire to wear ear-corks and a need to shout one's questions.”
Once the engine had returned to its former semi-pleasant hum – those overtones were still present, and that ear-shattering howling noise was but barely suppressed now – I refilled both the water bucket and added a scant spoonful of the cooked coal. I moved the assembled blower such that it ran into the long forge, and the heat that billowed up from the thing frightened me such that I pulled the blower back from the vent to 'throttle' it. It still made for a very warm environment around that forge, and the coals themselves now glowed a brilliant yellow-white. It was a welding heat for certain, and but little less blast meant ready forging of both swords and other things of a long and thin nature.
“Need to really turn it down for that one,” I thought. “Would I need more blast than this to, uh, get crucible steel?”
“But slightly more blast than what you currently have,” said the soft voice, “and that presumes use of charcoal only for the furnace. A small amount of cooked coal inside it would make for less blower noise, but getting a decent grade of that material up here in the needed quantities to run that blower regularly will require you to use 'devious methods' or cook it yourself.”
After perhaps an hour, I dumped all of the remaining coals into the forge, and as I did so, I noted the others had returned. For some reason, they all looked a bit the worse for wear, and as I went back to the front of the shop to see how they had endured the 'scream-test' of the blower, I noted steps drawing close to the door. I thought it was a customer, but it proved to be Hans.
With a still-smoking musket cradled in his arms, and smell about him that spoke of burnt powder.
I was about to ask him a question when he pointed at the still-turning blower as it used up its remaining steam, then said, “what is that thing?”
“The blower,” I said. “Did you, uh, flush..?”
“Yes, two pigs and a marmot,” said Hans. “Now I have heard that Charles blew horns, but now it looks as if you have him beat with that thing there.”
“He does,” said Georg. “It is not bad like it is now, but should he turn it up, it makes hell appear before one's eyes, and every witch that hears it blow thinks Brimstone is after him.” A brief pause, then, “it needed to run in, or so I heard, and such tests are said to be noisy with blowing barrels also.”
“Those things are noisy no matter what you do to them,” I muttered. “At least this thing will be blasting into a brick-lined muffler in the future.”
That workday ended just after lunch; and as I walked home, tired yet otherwise thankful, I chanced to turn around. Coming up the road were two buggies, and while one of them I recognized as that of the three masons, the other behind it was a mystery – at least until I heard the mournful-sounding singing accompanied by what sounded like a tinny-sounding banjo.
“At least they are not beating a piano to death,” I thought as the faint twangs of the instrument made for wonderment at the musician's dexterity. “That's twelve time Valley music, unless I guess wrong.” I then hitched, and shrieked, “trowels!”
I picked up my bag of tricks from where I had laid it in the road, and ran home like a frightened hare. I wanted tinctures and ear-corks, and when I'd thundered down into the basement to disturb three 'amateur soap-boilers', Hans turned from where he was purifying one of the ingredients and asked, “now what is your trouble?”
As if to answer, faintly – and this amid ghostly singing and the twangs of that banjo – the scraping noises of trowels started.
“Does that answer your question?” I squeaked, as the trowels became plainly audible. “Those people aren't just temporary, Hans – they're masons too, and every one of those men has his trowel and they are...”
“Scraaaape!” sounded the trowels in ragged concert. “Scraaaape!”
“Oooh!” screeched Sarah. “Where are those corks, Hans? I need some in my ears before I wish to climb the walls like an angry white rat!”
Hans doled out the carrot-colored 'boogers', and after they were stuffed home – Sarah needed a dose of the widow's tincture, and Anna helped herself shortly thereafter, as did I – peace once more settled upon the slow-boiling 'soap opera' that carried on in the basement. I'd be home the rest of today, and tomorrow the same, most likely; and then it would be the rest day, and 'church-day' after that – and then come the first day of the week, we would see Frankie in all his new-found glory.
“And teach him to smoke, too,” I thought. “Nasty habit, unless you're a cupola.”