Now it can be told...
The smell of burning flesh rapidly became more than either Sarah or I could endure, and as we made ready to leave the town by the way we had come, I could plainly see stoops that were once barren of all save dim-burning candle-lanterns now becoming crowded with gawking people. I did not wish to remain in the area, and the fact that the traitors would no longer endanger people's lives sufficed for me – or so I thought as we went down the road at a fast but prudent speed. For some reason, however, less than a minute after leaving the yard of the town's Public House, I turned around. We were easily far enough to be hidden from view, or so I thought.
The flames now guttered low and red in the darkness under a slow-growing plume of black smoke, and my ears seemed primed and ready to listen. With no warning whatsoever, one of the men said – it was on the edge of my hearing – a rune-curse; and the dwindling fires of both men, with explosive suddenness, grew red, yellow and blue tints as they rocketed hungrily to the height of a tall tree for a quick count of five.
And as I mentally counted the number five, the fires vanished utterly, leaving behind them nothing save the rumbling echoes of their explosive burning, some few and unpleasant memories, and a slow-drifting cloud of evil-smelling gray-black smoke.
“They were witches,” said Sarah, “as those words I heard were runes.”
“Did those people know what was said?” I asked.
“No,” said the soft voice. I could hear a distinctly emphatic tone. “One of them had overheard some Generals talking while he was still in training, and though he did not understand what he heard then, nor did he have any idea whatsoever as to what he just said, the curse that he had heard then made both of those men noticeably worse as guards and drastically more vulnerable to the 'recruitment speech' of that Thinker.”
“And it seems that curse we heard has consequences, also,” I said. “Was that curse he said one of those curses that demands a strong witch to say it and not die?”
“The way he heard it, no,” said the soft voice. “The way he said it just now, though – there aren't any witches currently alive on the continent that can say that one and live.”
“Transposed the runes?” I asked.
“Exchanged a 'tame' rune combination for a much nastier one,” said the soft voice. “The sound of what he heard compared to what he said is very similar, even if the two curses in question have very different meanings and effects – and the worst thing about what he said is the spirits that 'go' with that particular curse are not merely connected closely with treachery of all kinds, but they lie in wait for every person of traitorous intent to speak that curse just so that they can usher such people straight unto the dinner plate of Brimstone – and 'strong' is no word for what kind of a witch is required to resist those things.”
“Cardosso?” I asked. What little I'd heard about him implied he defined 'strong' in a witch.
“Would have gone up in smoke like you just saw had he said that curse,” said the soft voice. “Since the drowning, there have only been a handful of witches that could say that one and expect to survive.”
“I hope it does not affect us to have heard it,” said Sarah, as she resumed driving.
Without 'witches' – the connection from 'traitor' to 'witch', while still valid, was now somewhat tenuous in my mind – to 'chase', we made better time in a homeward direction; and with a lightly-laden buggy, we crossed meadows when the roads to our front proved to run in directions that were contrary to the roughly north-northwest track we wanted. When on the roads, we moved yet faster; and in a town roughly two-thirds of the way home – it was somewhat out of my usual way, but it was on a road – we watered the horses while checking them over. There was an unmistakable aspect of hurry in all that we did, and when we finally hit 'the main road' that went through Roos, we sped up yet more.
What Sarah had said about Anna's feelings of anxiety making for a desire to devour her own fingers seemed uncommonly likely to me, and we shot through the now thoroughly evil-smelling clearing with a tearing rush and a rattle of hooves upon the now stony-hard road.
I still wanted to spew, and I saw Sarah holding a rag to her mouth, and only when we were actually in the 'yard' at home did she take it way.
“Those witches smell awful,” she gasped. “The entire kingdom house will smell horrible.”
“I'm glad I don't go there often,” I said, while still attempting to hold my gorge in check.
“The next time we set out any distance, it will be to the north,” said Sarah as I opened the front doors of the buggy-way and went around the buggy inside it to open the rear doors. “The Abbey shall be as soon as we can make ready for it.”
Sarah was unharnessing the horses as I pulled the other buggy out, then once she'd taken them and the smaller buggy into the yard and beyond the woodpile, I pushed the other buggy back in. I could hear her unharnessing the animals in the darkness as I closed the inner doors of the buggy-way, then as I went to look after Jaak, I heard steps in the bathroom – and Anna came to the rear door. For some odd reason, I wanted to look at her fingers as she stood haloed by the flickering light of two or more candles.
“What took you so long?” she said. I could not read her tone of voice. “Were there more assassins?”
“Yes, several,” said Sarah from somewhere to my left, “and a number of most-evil traitors, and a Norden-ship, and trouble, and mess, and more trouble, and...” Here, Sarah paused, then said, this time in a much quieter voice, “and trouble isn't going to be half of what happens tomorrow.”
“What happened?” asked Anna.
“It might be unwise for me to speak about it until we are inside and seated,” said Sarah. “Besides, I need to get some information about that ship he saw, as it was said to be a new type.”
Anna began muttering about Norden's swine and how they never changed, and as I heard her slowly close the door in the dark, I thought, “as far as you're concerned, you're right. They don't change – at least when it comes to their inclination toward wrecking towns and killing people.” Steps were coming, though, and when I saw a light come into the horse-barn, I turned to see Hans. He was sniffing as if he smelled something strange about me.
“Now that smell is strange,” he said. “It is like that new soap for bathing, only it is different.”
“Yes, I asked it to acquire disinfectant qualities,” I said, “as I became really messy.”
“We cleaned you up good,” said Hans.
“You did not,” said Sarah reproachfully. “I sometimes wonder if your grandfather's growing turnips like he did affected your idea of cleanliness, Hans, as he may have been cleaner, but he needed a bath then.” A brief pause, then as Sarah brought in the first of two horses, “you did not see him after he got done dealing with those people, either.”
“Now who are these people?” asked Hans.
“Were,” I said softly. “That one thug with the pistol was the first one, but he was not the last to try nonsense in the house proper – and by the time I got done with the domestic traitors...”
Hans made a gasping noise, which was a first. I'd never heard him do that before.
“And then dealt with those people from Norden who were running them...”
“Yes, so that is them,” said Hans. “Now there is some distillate smell, too, and I know Sarah was wanting some of that bad stuff they use for their saws over on Houtlaan.”
“He used some of it on the last two traitors,” said Sarah. She was now bringing in the other horse.
“Yes, and how did he use this stuff?” said Hans. “He does not know its usual use for witches, if talk is right.”
“I think he does now, Hans,” said Sarah reproachfully, much as if he'd taught me at length about that particular use of distillate. His next words, however, made for shuddering on my part.
“Ah, so you lit those people on fire,” said Hans. “I was wondering when you would do a regular burn-pile. Now did you chain those witches up?”
“He shot them in both knees,” said Sarah with a shuddery voice, “then dosed them with distillate, and lit them with a candle-stub.”
“They could still move, then,” said Hans. “They can set things on fire if you do not chain them up good.”
“They could barely crawl,” said Sarah. “You might be able to limp if one knee is gone, but not with both of them gone – and he shot both of their knees with each one of those witches. Then one of them said a bad curse.”
“That is why lots of people sew the mouths of witches shut,” said Hans. “They cannot speak then.”
“That has little effect upon their ability to issue curses,” said Sarah. I had finished looking after Jaak, and thought to bring a bucket of water for Sarah. As I returned with a full wooden bucket, I could tell Hans was now hearing things he'd never heard before.
“Cutting witches open when they're hung upside down is one way of silencing them,” I said, “but if the witch is especially, uh, nasty, you need to inflict 'the curse of silence' upon him.”
“What is this?” squawked Hans.
“I'm not exactly sure what it's actually called,” I said with obvious discomfort at the recollection, “but this involves cutting out the witch's tongue and then having it devoured by the other witches of his coven.” A pause, then, “I'm not sure what that does to common witches, but doing that finally broke that batch down enough that they began to give up information we could use.”
Hans was wiping his face with one hand after another, and as we went inside through the back way, I could tell he was about to erupt. Anna was preparing 'stew' of some kind, or rather, warming it back up. She'd cooked it once the two of them had gotten home.
“There is trouble in the house proper, Anna,” said Hans. “Now you did not read about that stuff, did you?”
“N-no,” I said, “and I really don't...”
The walls of the kitchen vanished in the eruptive blast of a chilly wind, and the smell of food vanished as well. The stones of the floor were gone; those were now blood-caked grass, and the air moving slowly through the trees standing around me rang with the terrible screams of traitors. I was working them over once more, and now, they were eating 'tongue-of-traitor' – and as before, those who balked at eating what I was feeding them felt the razor-keen hunger of my sword. The blood underfoot was everywhere, and its slow-clotting stickiness, like deep-red glue, was omnipresent.
I somehow became disembodied, for now, I saw myself, first from behind; and upon seeing this horrific tableau, I then knew why witches spoke of monsters – for I was not seeing a being but slightly short of six feet of height with unusually broad shoulders any more.
What I saw was not merely not human, but this creature seemed to burn as if made of fire; more, there was talk, this slow, breathy, almost as if spoken by the wind itself: “That's not a person. It can only be Sieve itself.”
The view before my eyes slowly changed, much as if I were a movie camera and was being moved about on a wheeled contrivance so as to see the goings-on from all the possible vantage points. As I came to the side of this incendiary center of attention, the flaming aspect became yet clearer, but as I was moved such that I began to see what the witches saw, I shuddered and nearly screamed out loud.
There were but two eyes, unlike the five that 'Sieve' supposedly had; and while this being had but two eyes, each one of those two blue-burning orbs seemed to be worth all five of those issued to 'Sieve' and then some when it came to inspiring raw terror. The nose seemed buried, or gone, or 'eroded' in some fashion, much as if the skin had been flayed off for a season and the bones and cartilage that gave noses shape had been removed neatly with a series of rasps and files, and not with the crunch of pincers. Then, there was the mouth.
That mobile crevasse was ear-to-ear for size, filled with long and terrible spiky teeth, and at the front, bulging out the frontal portion of the upper lip and protruding well past the lower lip nearly to the pointed chin, were two long and pointed chisel-shaped fangs. The position and size of these two monstrous ivories reminded me of an archetypal beaver – a beaver that had a massive appetite for the raw flesh of man and beast.
There was seemingly no flesh to the face, and the skin was so tight over the protruding bones that the head of this being resembled that of a mummy for appearance; and finally, there was the voice.
The chiming tones I heard seemed the melding of innumerable crystalline bells, these modulated to form words of utmost clarity and brilliant tone – but I was merely an observer, and I was not a witch. I then heard precisely what the witches were hearing; and while the words were much the same for meaning to me, their effect upon the witches was staggering.
The earshattering raw power of this being's speech was like that of an ongoing nuclear explosion, and the sounds of this voice were not merely its sole means of expression: it drew unto itself blinding lights and searing flames which hungrily embraced each witch, and then the words themselves had acquired multiple added dimensions instead of the two or three possible meanings most of them had.
These added dimensions changed the meaning of speech itself, however: and while the language of witches was totally ambiguous, so much so that one needed to be of identical thinking and having a mindset cloned from a single source to understand them, this speech needed no such assistance, for each added dimension created a physical manifestation: the eyes of the witch saw hell; his nose smelled the rank fumes of the place; his skin felt its searing flames; his tongue knew its foul taste; and his mind, above and beyond, perceived before him a being worse than the entire agglomeration of all of the demons of hell rolled into a single unified whole – and this being, truly, was worse than Brimstone. That could only be one 'being', if one were a witch: and the only being of that title known of witches was Sieve.
Yet I knew this was but the lies witches believed, and as I heard the speech I was privy to, it gave comments to my troubled mind.
“Brimstone would soil his breeches if he heard that kind of talk,” I gasped. “What is that thing?”
“Most witches that live today cannot see what you're being shown,” said the soft voice. “They might get some few rare glimpses of portions of it. Mostly, both now and long in the past, they went by outwardly observable behavior.” A pause, then, “recall what you were seeing when Georg was 'smelling swine' and he was preparing to 'go forth' to 'do battle'?”
“Yes?” I thought. I had questions about both him and what was about to be said.
“Something similar happens to you, only it's far stronger, much bigger, and a whole world 'hotter',” said the soft voice, “and while many witches cannot see anything beyond that which is normally visible, they can sometimes feel something of a truly frightening nature. More, nearly every bones-carrying witch can occasionally see intermittent fragments of what you were shown. Between that, talk among certain coteries of witches, and that chapter in the black book called, 'The Way of the Monster' – they know about monsters.”
“Am I a m-monster?” I asked.
“To witches, very much so,” said the soft voice, “and in the months to come, they will learn the truth of the matter.”
“Which is?” I asked. I had some small suspicions, however.
There was no answer given me, however; and then, I 'woke up' with the taste of honey in my mouth and Anna looking at me in a state best described as 'the raving intensity of raw terror'.
“What happened to you?” she squealed. “You were gone for a slow count of five, then you came back all sweating and shaking, and there was no time for a tube!”
“I w-was shown what had happened,” I said shakily. “Why, what happened here?”
I had another tube of the widow's tincture 'dumped' into my mouth, then I was all but bundled up to bed and then 'tucked in'. The tincture had had a stranger-than-usual taste, almost as if it was made of an unusually potent species of Valoris root boiled long in aquavit and then set outside for a week to become more potent yet.
I went to sleep as if clubbed, for finally, exhaustion had overcome me; and when I awoke, the walls were wiggling so insanely that I wondered if I could stand. I nearly fell multiple times while trying to make it to the door, then nearly took a header while going down the stairs. The others were up, but their faces were morphing like silly putty, or so I thought – until breakfast was served.
I then had a problem: the food had become unspeakably lively, and I was finding I needed to catch the squirming bread with both hands before I could put cheese spread – which made a face at me until I gouged out its eyes with my ever-changing green-flame-billowing spoon – upon it. This experience made me wish for hands like those of a being in some faint dream I had had recently, and as I finally touched my mouth with my fingers and felt my tongue to make certain it was not knotted, I could see the room suddenly going hazy like a waking nightmare.
“Oh, no,” I moaned as the room for a second became filled with neat-ranked row upon row of spiked heads and a small blood-running hill made of the bagged and tagged bodies of witches. “They're here.” I then nearly screamed, and then burst into tears to weep bitterly.
“Yes, and I know more, now,” said Hans grimly. His eyes seemed reddened, almost as if he were seeing red in the ever-dawn of chronic sleeplessness. “There was a messenger that came this morning, and he told us what they are doing in town right now with those things you cut up yesterday, and with that many witches hanging to rot in the place, the whole kingdom house will smell like it is High.”
I moaned, then hid my face with both hands. “I murdered them all, and I'm a m-monster. G-God, please, help me, I don't want to be a witch, and the worst of all are those like me!”
“That is not so,” said Hans emphatically. There was but little oblivion in his voice, surprisingly. “There were people from Norden running things this time, and one of those special ones from that place came to the house proper and tried to air out your smelly hide.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Yes, he had one of those bad pistols that holds three shots,” said Hans, “only you cut off his hand and part of his arm as he was reaching for that thing.”
“H-he tried to buy me.” My voice was more a sob than all else.
“Yes, and what did you do?” asked Hans.
“I screamed at him, and I cut off his head!” I shrieked. “Then I stabbed, and cut, and beat on those traitors, and I ripped off one of their noses, and...”
“Yes, and what?” asked Hans.
“They would not answer my questions until I broke them up into pieces entirely, such that they were little more than bleeding dust!” I shrieked. “Why?”
“I am not sure why witches are that way, but they are,” said Hans. He seemed to be speaking from long experience. “Now Anna says you should never do another of those things, and I think she is right, as those things like that are not good for you to do them, and all of us were hearing you speak all night long.”
“W-what?” I asked.
“It happens with too much swine, too,” said Hans.
“No, not like with him this time, Hans,” said Anna. “Hearing about swine and those northern people was nothing at all compared to what we heard last night.”
“What did I say?”
“A great deal,” said Anna. “I wrote down what I could, and Sarah wrote down much more.” A pause, then, “I had no idea she could write that fast, but she can, as I saw her write.”
“Where is she?” I asked.
“On her way to the kingdom house with her notes about what you were saying,” said Anna – who then changed her voice to a tone I had only heard her use perhaps three times before. “You were weeping, crying, and sometimes screaming, and all of that the night entire, much as if you were being ended on a burn-pile by an angry mob of witches and those who wish to be like them.”
“Yes, and Sarah wrote that part down, too,” said Hans. “She would know of it, as she has nearly had that happen to her.”
“Twice, Hans,” said Anna, “but what I heard last night put me in the privy for a glass's turn, and that more than once.”
“W-what did I s-s-say?” I asked.
“Monster,” said Anna. “Another word, or rather two of them, was 'Useless Feeder' – and that was when you were not speaking as if God himself were putting flames to you after spiking you to the floor of a church!”
“What?” I asked.
“You were asking him to forgive you,” said Hans. “It was as if you were on your face and asking him to do that, and he was right there in the room with you, and was about to cut you up with a sword on the spot.” A pause, then, “I have heard you wondering if you were a witch many times, but it was not that way last night.”
“What was I saying?” I asked.
“You were sounding as if you wondered no longer,” said Hans. “You were sounding like you knew for certain that you were one of those things.”
I nearly fainted. I screamed, “no! I don't want to be a witch!”
“You were saying that a lot,” said Hans.
“That and much more,” said Anna. “Some of it Sarah knew, but there were some things that needed prayer to get an answer, and I'm glad we got one, as Sarah wrote all of that stuff down.”
“Yes, and that boat, too,” said Hans. “It was as if you were there in that place again, walking around that thing and speaking of just how it was for shape and size and everything, and that was for the outside of that boat. I have never been inside of one of those things, but you were talking as though that was where you were for near the turn of a glass, and you told how it was in that thing for its work and wood.”
“Not just the boat, Hans,” said Anna. “Those that went with him, he spoke of how they were.”
“Those people?” I asked tearfully.
“Yes, you were talking about them,” said Hans. “It was as if they were all bad witches and how they wanted to sacrifice you, as you were talking about how it would have been better if you had just killed them all while still at the house proper and then gone to that place with the boat by yourself after doing that, as they all were acting like they were witches for trouble, and they all wanted to kill you the whole time, from the time you left the house until the time you all got back to the house.”
“What?” I gasped.
“They needed you to look after them that entire time, and all of them the whole time fit for wearing brass cones for stupid and bad witch-tools for evil,” said Anna. “It wasn't like that trip back from the fifth kingdom, where the witches were trying to kill you the whole way, but worse yet – as this time, the witches were those who were with you, and that was so for every one of them. They were calling you everything witches call those marked in the fifth kingdom, and then worse words yet.”
“That was one of those things witches speak to the south,” said Hans. “Then, they wanted to hand you over to those people that came over on that boat, so they all could cut you up and then eat you like witches eat people, and then you were speaking of how all of those with you were taught to be witches from birth and how they all had lots of expensive witch-tools with them, and how they were worse than fools with brass cones on their heads for trouble, and how you were the only person that could do anything at all to those northern people.” Hans paused, then said, “and, Sarah thinks you are right, so the two of us will go with you tomorrow morning.”
“Uh, what time is it now?” I asked.
“A good hour or more after lunch, I think,” said Hans. “You were given a strong dose of the widow's tincture last night, and we needed to put a wash-tub under you most of the time then so you did not make a mess. Then, there is what Anna thinks was happening to you.”
“What?” I asked.
“You were being tormented,” said Anna, “and not because you did what you did. I think a witch was trying to curse you, actually.” A pause, then, “only one or two nightmares I've ever had were as bad as hearing you last night.”
“What?” I asked. “What nightmares?”
“One of them was being ended in a witch-hole,” said Anna, “and the other was being hunted by witches for sport.”
“That one was bad,” said Hans. “I never thought I would be called a monster, but those witches were calling me one of those things, and they wanted me dead so bad that only certain curses would do for them to speak to me so as to try to kill me.”
“Yes, those things,” said Hans. “You said those witches all tried to say those when you were getting them to tell the truth. Then, what most people do so they cannot speak their last curses is worthless, and because you silenced those witches you killed yesterday for the first time in hundreds of years you were being cursed.”
“Since Cardosso himself died, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and hence every witch that knows of him now has a new name for him in addition to all of those names written in that black book about those marked, and that is the name of monster.”
“Horns?” I asked.
“They blew those to frighten the witches,” said the soft voice, “but everything else you were told and shown was nothing but the truth.”
“Which is why we must first take care of you today,” said Anna, “and then take you to the king tomorrow.”
“Has a lot less work to do with those two traitors dead, now,” said Hans. “Sarah told us about what you did to those witches, and I think that when what happened gets out in the house proper, their people will have no chance for the mobs that will come for them.”
“Mobs?” I asked.
“Yes, because you burnt those two as witches, and they cursed you because of it,” said Hans. “Sarah wrote down that, too, as you were speaking about that last night.”
“What did I say then?” I asked.
“That they had hated you in secret since that Teacher started training them,” said Hans, “and so they did what they did because of spite, not because they were bribed.” Hans paused to drink. “Then, when they knew that you knew they were witches and were planning to kill them, they ran off so that the king would be killed to get their own back at you.”
“Th-that... How?” I asked. I could not believe what I had just heard.
“That is what witches are like,” said Hans, “and that I know, as I've shot and killed my share of those things at the least.”
“Do they act stupid, and play dead, and try to fight you any way they can until they're actually dead?” I asked.
“Yes, all of those things,” said Hans – who again sounded like he was speaking from experience. “That is why most just kill and burn them, but they do not deal with traitors, and they don't need to save the kingdom, either. That is why you needed to get the truth out of those witches, and that is a hard thing.” Another pause to drink, then, “had you not done what you did, and just did what most do, it would have gotten all of us killed, so you needed to take that chance, and you paid for it while you were doing those things, and paid for it last night, too, and then paid some more until you woke up early this afternoon.”
“When did Sarah leave?” I asked.
“When you were done speaking of those people,” said Hans, “which was shortly before you woke up.”
I was too fatigued to remain awake much longer, much as if I had been taken over by fetishes myself – I most likely had been cursed, upon reflection, and this curse was not a joke – and I resumed sleeping to awaken in time for dinner.
Sarah had just returned, and when I asked her about her plans to question me regarding that boat, she said, “I think what you said during your nightmares was clearer than if I had questioned you while awake, as you were describing things that I doubt you could have learned by the usual means. I took down all you said then.” A brief pause, then in lowered voice, “and now, the house smells as if it were the inside of a larger Kossum's packing plant, and that boat burned to the waterline, what there was left of it to burn.”
“Yes, and what else?” Hans was unusually insistent. I suspected he wanted to hear about 'his' traps.
“I think using their drink was a very good idea,” said Sarah, “as that clearing had a lot of those people lying dead in it, and most of them were cut to pie-filling by bits of pottery.”
“A l-lot?” I asked.
“Talk had it that those three traps caught twice as many of those people as there were when you first went after them,” said Sarah. “If what I was told is true, one could not walk three paces in that clearing in any direction without stepping on a body, and in most places, you could use their bodies as stepping stones – and that did not include those that were floating in the water along with the pieces of wood from that boat.” A brief pause, “and that whole stinky place now smells like a bad burn-pile.”
“Did they burn the bodies?” I asked incredulously. I thought, “at least strip them of their tin and other metals before you stuff them into the house's fields, but don't waste good distillate on bad thugs.” I'd burnt those two traitors because they had needed burning, not out of 'custom' or 'retribution' – and I'd not used any more distillate than I had to to satisfy that particular need, due to its still-troubling scarcity.
“That wasn't just drink in those jugs,” said Sarah. “Some of them were filled with distillate, if I go by the talk of how burnt those people were.”
“Datramonium tincture seems to burn very well, dear,” I said.
“Especially that datramonium tincture,” said the soft voice. “Ultima Thule received some new and more-efficient processing equipment from those helping her, but it tends to do some strange things to some of the plant juices when extracting that plant's alkaloid drugs.”
“What?” I asked.
“It turns them into a species of mixed-hydrocarbon fuel,” said the soft voice, “and while that equipment is fairly efficient at removing those impurities, Ultima Thule was so impressed by the reddish-tinted flames of the raw output of the 'kettles' when a jug burst and then burned that she had the sequestered impurities returned to the finished product.”
“They're drinking that stuff?” I screeched. It brought back recollections of siphoning gasoline, and the times I'd compared it to the single taste of whiskey I had once managed. The gasoline had had a better taste, at least in some ways. “It will poison them!”
“Yes, eventually,” said the soft voice. I had the impression eventually meant 'several months at the least'. “In the mean time, however, that hydrocarbon mixture adds substantially to the effects of datramonium when used as a tincture and imbibed.”
Anna looked at me as if utterly mystified, while Sarah had all she could do to not laugh.
“Now what is so funny?” spat Hans. “Those people drink like fish are said to, and...”
Sarah howled with laughter, then screeched, “Hans, that stuff will make them crazier than drinking too much forty-chain!”
“Do those people drink that stuff?” I asked.
“Yes, if they can get it,” said the soft voice. “It tends to be reserved for Ultima Thule's exclusive use, due to its difficulty of procurement.”
“She probably downs a quart a day,” I muttered.
“Closer to three quarts now,” said the soft voice, “and ever since she found out about it about three months ago, her judgment has been slipping with each further increase in its dosage.”
“Increase in dosage?” I muttered. Was Ultima Thule becoming more inclined to that species of potable paint remover, or was something else implied?
“The witches that have supplying her have been slipping all kinds of things into those casks,” said the soft voice, “with the chiefest one being mule-contaminated flower sap, though common-sized dead rats run a close second.”
“Really bad judgment now, I'll bet,” I muttered. “Does she get 'El Serpente', or merely 'common rotgut'?”
“This may surprise you, but the labeling on the Valley-manufactured species of El Serpente jug states that liquid is not for drinking,” said the soft voice. “Given the fact that it's a species of drain opener, that should not surprise you.”
Sarah looked at me, saw my shocked expression – and again, she screamed with laughter.
“It says that plainly on the warning label, though,” said the soft voice. “The people in the mining towns and black-dressed witches cannot read that language, so if they should get a genuine Veldter-made jug, they either ignore what the warning label says or presume such 'drink' to be indeed the drink of witches because it has 'most-powerful curses' written on the container.” A pause, then, “more than a few fifth kingdom 'manufactories' make 'copy' jugs and fill them from bulk tanks of that material or half-baked imitations of it, and those aren't labeled like the Veldter ones. You saw a particularly well-made copy jug, not a true Veldter's version.”
“Alcohol-based drain-opener?” The seeming implausibility of this was a bit much for me, even if 'El Serpente' did make a decent description of the plumber's tool called a 'snake'. I recalled seeing the tool in question more than once in pictures, and knew it was used for opening drains.
“El Serpente uses the alcohol as a carrier for the other organic solvents used to dissolve buildups of fat and other material commonly found in Veldter plumbing. It might not work on the same principles as the drain opener you used where you came from, but if you could endure its penetrating odor, you would most likely prefer its use instead of that granular material you used in the past.”
“Now what was this?” asked Hans pointedly.
“Lye, mostly,” I said. “It may have had some bits of, uh, this silvery material, and some other things, but it was almost entirely lye otherwise. At least, I think it was mostly lye. I recall using lye by itself more than once.”
“Their chemists must be worse than those people at Grussmaan's,” screeched Sarah. “Lye? Lye is worthless for clearing out drains.” A pause, then, “what are drains used for there?”
“Uh, indoor plumbing,” I said. “No one used lead for pipes at that time, though lead pipes had been used hundreds of years earlier.”
“They must have been bad witches then, as most witches have no smarts that way, unless they are like those witches that are in old tales,” said Hans. “The ones in the tales, though – I am glad the ones we have are not like those things, as then we would have trouble.”
The next day, we left just after dawn, and I was riding in the back of Sarah's buggy, a thick knit blanket around my shoulders. I was shivering, much as if I were deathly ill, and I had to use the bushes with unusual frequency, for I also had the runs.
It was almost as if I had endured internal injuries of some kind, for not merely was I sore where I sat from frequent squirts of 'dung', but when I filled the hole with the small long-bladed shovel that had somehow 'turned up', I noted a 'hot' smell, as well as faintly the reek of blood. I wondered if the latter smell was a matter of my nose, at least until I passed by Anna after one of the longer bush-visits.
“I'm thinking you should have beer for the most part of your diet for a while, if not all of it,” she said. “That did not smell good, and had I some of those things we received ready for use, and knew their proper use, I would check you over with them.”
“You need a cardiac monitoring scope, dear,” I thought. “Now anyone who has nuclear submarines is going to have...” I was thinking, “I might be able to make something that would work if they have or can make suitable parts.” I'd built my share of test gear while in school, and had repaired more than one older oscilloscope.
And as I thought this, I thought, “cardiac monitoring scope? Don't they have something better?”
“Yes, and not a little better, even if it's not quite as small as that small and noisy hand-held device in the TV series,” said the soft voice. “It's vastly more capable, also, so don't be too alarmed at its 'conventional' appearance should you happen to see one.”
“More capable than a cardiac monitoring scope, or..?”
“The 'common' devices make those where you came from look to be worthless,” said the soft voice, “and they make that small noisy device that fictional doctor held in his hand while making his diagnoses appear to be a misleading trinket of little real value.” A brief pause, then, “what the medical people there have hidden, though – it makes medical technology shown on that TV series seem about as old fashioned as medicine was when you were a toddler.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Just what I said,” said the soft voice. “They used to do some truly amazing things before the war, and that hidden equipment has seen 'some' improvements since that time. Their medical research, especially that done surreptitiously, has accomplished much more – and the best is yet to come.”
A pause, brief as a gust of wind, to water the horses in a still-waking town, and as we pulled out of that still-sleepy place, I noted the faint odor that seemed to come borne on the faint breezes of morning.
“Urgh,” I muttered as I clutched my stomach. “Ooh, that smell!”
“I know,” muttered Sarah as she removed a rag from her bag to put it in her lap. “It smells worse than the inside of that Kossum's packing plant did!”
“Will it put everyone in town in the privy?” I asked fearfully.
“I doubt that,” said Anna, “but I suspect it will put the fear in those who remain.”
“The river road?” I asked. “I was told there would be a massive northward migration.”
“I told that to Hendrik yesterday,” said Sarah, “and I know at least three guards are headed there to check everyone who passes that way.”
“Three?” I asked.
“One's Mathias,” said Sarah, “and the other is Tam. The third person, I'm not sure.”
“Someone who lost toes on both feet at the wrecking of the hall,” said the soft voice, “and if any of those three has a serious score to settle with witches, that man does. He's recently given oath in church while face-down, in fact.”
“Score?” I asked. Hearing the last made for wondering. Face-down praying was not merely mentioned in the book, but I'd done my share of it in the past – some being since I came here, in fact.
“He's borrowed Lukas' lead-loaded pole,” said the soft voice, “and while he intends to clean it well with soap and lye after he's done with it, Lukas will notice the odor.”
“Odor?” I asked.
“I suspect he's going to be banging heads with it,” said Sarah, “and if I know Tam, he'll make certain your instructions about silencing witches properly will be carried out to the letter.”
“M-more messes?” I asked. “What of that one m-messy wretch?”
“He's been removed to a more appropriate site for such messes,” said Sarah. “He's right on the border between the kingdom house proper and the town, on Huislaan, so that everyone who comes up that road will know what the rules are here.”
“Rules?” I asked. I wondered what they were at times, beyond the obvious ones one could read about in the book. A lot of those were my 'normal' behavior, and I had had to work at going against them where I came from. It had caused me no amount of trouble to not be able to engage in 'social deception' and the other evil behaviors mandated by the unspoken and ever-changing rules of socialization, and I took everything that had been said, casually or otherwise, as if the person really meant it – and more, as if it were a matter of life and death. I still did, in fact.
“What I wrote really got onto Hendrik,” said Sarah. “It was as if he was hearing Charles speaking to him right in the room.” Sarah paused, then in lower voice, “I've never seen Hendrik frightened before, but I was seeing him frightened then – and that was after he came out of the privy.”
“What?” I squeaked.
“I suspect what I wrote – and what he heard while I was reading it – put him in the privy,” said Sarah. “I could tell this much, though – your words were being confirmed to him as being fully as reliable as the book itself, and he was reminded explicitly of some of that pendant's responsibilities.”
“As in 'he had best find out exactly what its work is'?” I asked.
“He's got a good idea of what those duties are already,” said Sarah.
“You mean 'he thinks he does' – or rather, he thought he did,” said the soft voice. “He now knows something of his ignorance.”
“What, that I, uh..?” I was confused.
“He knew the standard material as taught at the west school, and he reviewed what was in that information which was at his ready disposal,” said the soft voice. “He's written a letter, which is being inked as we speak. It will go south by special courier, as that's currently the fastest way to get information in that form to the fourth kingdom.”
“The west school,” I muttered. “Their library...”
“Is as good as you will find on the continent,” said the soft voice, “if you don't include the yet-larger collections here and there of cursed books written by witches for witches. Those don't speak of the pendants, so between the west school's library and the Annals of the fourth kingdom house, if there's something written about the pendants, it will most likely be in one of those two places.”
“Those witch-documents probably do speak something about the ends of those wearing the pendants...”
Sarah looked at me, then said, “I doubt they would speak much of use to us.”
As we drew closer to the house proper – the sun was now showing itself blearily amid high clouds, and the chill of the morning was now but beginning to shake itself off. In addition to meeting with Hendrik, I now had another matter upon my own agenda: discussing the arranging of the rooms of the now-disused armory into a combination 'guard's clubhouse', 'locker room', 'soap-boiling factory', 'noxious experiment' room, and 'guard supply-room'; and I hoped Sarah would speak of how soap preparation would not merely benefit the crown's exchequer directly, but also indirectly by permitting acquisition of needed 'military' supplies outside of 'the usual channels'.
“Those stinking people are so into thinking like witches that all they ever order is fetish-grade non-functional junk that costs a fortune to buy and takes months to get,” I thought. “It might look 'good' to the ignorant 'betters', and work well for impressing the bulk of the yet-more-ignorant 'commons', but that's about all it's good for.”
Finally, I suspected that Sarah would wish to stop at her one of her 'favorite' fabric stores – she had several preferred stores for fabric,or so I suspected, but for what she was after today, this was 'the' store – and secure a supply of fabric suitable for traveling clothing. She needed a lot of it, for some reason, and 'a roll entire' wasn't excessive for what she planned on doing. This knowledge made for a question, one which nestled like a bird upon its eggs in my mind. I left it unsaid for a latter time:
“Do newlyweds travel here?”
“Your doing so will be an exception to the rule for the first kingdom,” said the soft voice, “even if your travel will be in the service of the crown – and that fabric is not merely for Sarah's wear. You need some travel clothing also, especially some with quilted padding for cooler temperatures.”
The unexpected answer – both as to its quickness, and also, as to its nature – was unsettling to me; and as we came to the rise, the stink coming from the south seemed to gather to itself force, depth, and breadth.
“I hope I do not spew from that stench,” I gasped. “Do ravens eat, uh, carrion?”
“Those do not, but rats will if their usual food is not to be had,” said Sarah, “which means that stench, while it is bad enough to make me spew, will endure but a few days.”
“Wrong, dear,” said the soft voice. “Recall the length of those poles you saw? They were cut that length for a reason, and that is to get those heads and bagged bodies high enough to keep carrion-eating animals from getting at them.” A brief pause, then, “the stink will lessen as the body parts become dry with the coming warmth of late spring.”
“Which means they will hang for most of a year,” I said, “as they need to be damp to rot.”
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Until then, the citizens of the town – including those witches that still remain, along with their followers – will be reminded of where witchdom ultimately leads.”
And yet, somehow, I knew that those to whom witchdom manifested more than a slight and fleeting attraction would be but little dissuaded by those sights and stenches. The gap between witches and non-witches, at some crucial level, was widening; this even as witch-thinking was still rampant in the minds of nearly everyone.
As we came to the gate, however, I could feel the change that had happened at the house proper, and to call it 'shattering' was an understatement. We were stopped, and while we were recognized, at some level, there was still a matter of new-implemented procedure that was to be followed; and while there were no 'passwords' demanded, or 'presented muskets' with their dangerous ends pointed at us, there were questions.
“No, Hans,” I muttered. “Do not get indignant with the man. Just answer the questions like you're supposed to, and everything will be fine.”
I then was asked why I was covered up with a blanket. I looked at the man, my teeth chattering as if enduring fever and chills, and said in a weak voice, “I think I'm sick, actually. That mess out back got a curse dumped on me somehow, and I've been needing to visit the bushes a lot on the way here.”
“A curse?” squawked the guard. He was one of those from the batch before the last one. “Is there anything that can be done for it?”
“I suspect this 'curse' is a matter of doing something that needed to be done,” said Sarah, “and the only person able to do it was ill-suited to the task.”
“Then why...” The man was only listening to his own thoughts, and not bothering to listen to what was actually being said. Even in my miserable state, I could tell that much – and that was another thing I needed to add to my ledger on 'how to act crazy and win wars'.
“You did not hear me,” said Sarah sharply. “I said 'the only person'. Had he not done what was needed, we would all be lying dead today, with our blood staining a fresh-made witch-altar out in that field there; the house proper would be swarming with Norden's people; and the first kingdom house itself would be a burning ruin as we speak.”
“He was deathly ill for a week after the bridge,” spat Anna, “and he needed constant watching then.” A pause, then, “and while he could stand a week in bed this time as well, his responsibilities won't permit him doing that now.”
But another minute and a few more 'idle' questions – no rhyme nor reason to their asking, just great suspicion and colossal ignorance in general – and the gate's crossing bar came up. I suspected that someone was 'over-reacting', at least until I stepped out onto the ground to shiver in the blanket once we were 'parked' next to the building's rear 'hitching rail'. I then doubled up, collapsed to my knees, and then spewed until it came up green and horrible-tasting. Anna came running to my side.
“If that wretch thinks you were lying, he needs to come out back here right now and see this,” she spat. “I've of a mind to fetch him and have him see you right now.”
I was led inside by the hand, Sarah leading me like the ancient and sickly being I had become. I wanted a cane for some reason, but upon coming into the main corridor, I felt something – or rather, someone. This person was the source of not merely substantial trouble in the house – and hence, had 'caused' at least a portion of the 'suspicion mingled with ignorance' I had seen out front – but also, this individual was the source of the illness I was enduring. As I seemed to 'lock onto' this source of trouble, my mouth got the better of me, and I spat, this under my breath: “cursed fool, cease with your nonsense and die.”
From seeming everywhere at once – mostly upstairs, but my ears were acting strange, and this wretch was loud – a high-pitched scream burst out to then just as quickly fade to nothing. I looked around, first at ground level: doors were opening like clockwork, so much so that when a stout man in a leather apron came out of the nearest one with a 'short musket' – flintlock, so it wasn't one of the three I'd made for guard work – I barely caught myself in time.
I'd been expecting a man-sized cuckoo.
As the doors continued opening, and the number of musket-bearing men and women exceeded a dozen, I began to hear questions. I had an impression, and that swiftly grew in intensity.
“There was one other person,” I said. “The others didn't know a thing about him, 'cause that stinking Thinker went to that man at least a month before anyone else he spoke to here, and he never told the others a thing about him.”
“He was also the only bones-holding 'real witch' in that whole group,” said the soft voice. “More, he was the one dumping that curse you were feeling and causing much of the other trouble as well.”
“Where is that wretch?” asked the stout man with the short musket. I suspected he'd been visiting someone briefly so as to learn news, as I could smell wood shavings about him, and his apron looked like the kind commonly found in the boatwrights' shop.
“I suspect he's about as sick as I was just feeling,” I said.
“Or in hell where he belongs,” said Sarah. “I would ride money on him being dust and bones, actually.”
“And now, a question,” I murmured. “Why did that Stinker deal with that character at all?” That label seemed appropriate: that Thinker apparently was not fond of bathing, or so Sarah had infered from my description of his noxious body odor during my time of restless nightmares. He wasn't much better that way than 'Jochen the Beard', or so she implied.
“To take care of the 'larger picture',” said the soft voice. “With the destruction of the Swartsburg and all of the other major witch-strongholds in the central portion of the first kingdom gone, he became redundant to the effort beyond his own meager capabilities as a fighter – and hence, he was no longer 'given his due'.”
“Meaning he was well-beyond-irritated at that Thinker, then yet more so at me for 'ruining his chance' to become 'somebody',” I said, “He then attacked the house's people...” I paused, then spat, “a curse?”
“Not merely 'a curse',” said the soft voice. “You just 'dusted' the strongest witch who still lived in the central portion of the first kingdom. I would check his room on the third floor, as you would find some very useful clues there.”
“Which room?” I asked. “His living quarters, or that little especially-well-hid hidey-hole where he kept his witch-gear out of sight – and therefore out of mind?”
Sarah looked at me with huge eyes, then, “he had a witch-hole? Here?”
“Not really a witch-hole, dear,” I said. “It seems this particular character was not merely fair to middling in the curse-dumping department, but his capacity was well beyond Kees' former ability at hiding who he really was – which means he was not merely fairly good at his 'disguise' work, but also, rarity of rarities, he was almost always sober – and never genuinely 'drunk'.”
“Which made him a vastly more capable witch, given his actual level of 'infestation',” said the soft voice. “He might not have been a tenth of the first Koenraad for being inhabited, but he used what he had to the best of his non-trivial knowledge and ability. Hence his 'real' curse-power was actually stronger in certain key areas.”
All I could do was hold my mouth shut. I nearly wanted to use my fingers to do so, in fact.
“And being sober, studious, and hardworking as a rule, at least regarding those matters near and dear to himself, he would have become stronger in a hurry,” said the soft voice. “He would have been instrumental in the 'planting' of the new crop of Generals had he remained alive.”
“Another week and a half without more swarms of those thugs is another week and a half with less to worry about, then,” I murmured. “Now I will have work to do after this meeting.”
“Yes, but first the meeting itself,” said Sarah. “It will be an important one, and a dead witch gone to dust can wait for a glass's turn.”
I had been too ill that morning to notice Sarah's clothing, and as I folded the blanket I had used to try to hide my chilled body from the cool of the morning, I noted her light brown 'smock': long flowing sleeves, a high 'collar' that somehow made her look vaguely like someone out of ancient fiction, and soft ruffling 'drapery' that went within six inches of the floor. A glance down that way suggested bare calves above her shoes, as well as folded-down stockings of light green knit material. Their softness spoke of delicate pink feet and ticklish toes, and I hoped Sarah would wish her feet to be rubbed when we returned home.
“Your clothing?” I asked as Anna and Hans came to join us in the main 'corridor' of the first floor. General's Row was utterly silent, as those who stayed there, if they were present on site, were hiding in the back rooms of the place. I could almost see one of the new 'Generals' – he wasn't enjoying either what he was wearing or what he was drinking, the former being itchy and stiff with starch, and the latter tasting like 'lighter fluid' – and I thought, “you need a crop of real clothes-bugs in that stuff.”
The screams that resulted a second later made for reaching for my revolver, and when I heard quick steps coming toward me from behind the door, the pistol was in my hand, pointed at the door chest-high, hammer fully cocked. The door's lock rattled, then the door just as suddenly opened. The 'General' – no blackened face, no reminders to duty in place, and certainly no datramonium – was in a full suite of full-starch black-cloth, and he was scratching himself so badly he did not notice my taking three steps closer, my pistol at the ready.
He only noticed my approach when my pistol was within a foot of his head – and an instant later, I pulled the trigger and blew his brains out of the back of his head, and the coarse red-gray spray splattered on the floor of the room he had come from.
He seemed to stand there, his eyes gone 'white' with a small black-edged hole between them, and the tableau of his face entirely coated with a grimy dotting of powder-soot; and I shoved him hard in the chest, such that he flew backwards for several feet while I quickly drew the door closed. The lock clicked under my hand, and I turned to rejoin the others.
And as I glanced up at the others, I noted Sarah's expression of stunned surprise but briefly, for my attention was on my weapon and making it 'safe' to carry. I holstered it once more, buttoned the flap, and rejoined Sarah as Hans and Anna then caught up with us.
“What will they do with that witch you just shot?” asked Anna. “He will smell when he goes rotten.”
I then looked behind us to see others coming, their muskets at the ready. I thought some advice was in order.
“The manure pile out back, please,” I said softly in an eerily calm voice – though at the back of my voice somewhere, mostly hidden, I could detect an icy no-nonsense chill. I'd just shot a witch with no feelings about the matter whatsoever, which I found more than slightly disturbing. “We need all of what distillate we have and can get for the coming months, and firewood is sufficiently short in the house right now that you want to reserve it for things that need it – like cookstoves, and those things like them.”
I resumed walking to catch up with the others in a few seconds, and when we came to the bench, there was but one person seated. I looked at him, no questions in my mind beyond wondering just what he would do in response to our presence. Hans reached for the door, but I gently stayed his hand with my own.
“What are you waiting for?” whispered Anna.
I said nothing. I wanted to see what this guard would actually do. Thankfully, Sarah seemed to have an idea as to what I was doing.
Not ten seconds later, the man's partner came at a rapid trot. I could tell he'd just visited the privy, and that he'd wasted no time in his labors there. A most profound odor, one that reminded me of my own most-recent illness, had followed his return. When he did came to the bench to sit upon it, the other man got up and ran down the hall in the direction he had come.
“Yes?” I asked. “Don't tell me – everyone's acquired a tendency to spew from both ends. Correct?”
He nodded, then said, “it's not the food what's doing it, as that's not changed.”
“It is the food, sir,” I said icily, “as that wretch not only dumped a fairly bad curse as local witches go, but he decided to 'manifest its power' by putting something of a deleterious nature in the boiled water containers. Those need dumping and then cleaning with hot lye solution, then careful rinsing with plenty of boiling water – and the same treatment for everything that's been recently used to handle potable water. He might have done more in the kitchens, but I know he contaminated those cisterns.”
“What?” gasped Anna.
“Tincture of dead rat,” I said. “Our witch killed a rat near his rooms on the third floor, put it in a large crock, dumped in some eggs about to turn that he stole from the kitchen, and then added some water to the mess the afternoon those traitors died, stirred it well, and dosed all of the house's water-pots late last night, each one receiving a small amount of the crock's liquid contents.” A brief pause, then, “it's in the black book, or so I suspect. Now is one of those things in his witch-closet?”
“No, because he was reading out of his personal copy when he went to dust,” said the soft voice, “and his book went to dust as well.” A brief pause, then, “what he does have in his witch-closet, especially the rest of his library, will be most instructive.”
“What?” I muttered. I then spoke to the remaining guard: “I'll sit here for a bit while you go to the cooks and tell them what has happened. That trouble is crippling the house, and no mistake.”
To my surprise, the other guard not only did that, but Anna went with him. Sarah sat down by me, while Hans looked utterly mystified by the whole matter.
“A few minutes,” I said. “I don't want to leave this spot uncovered.” A pause, then, “now what is in that witch's library – some decent-sized books, three of them being rather old but otherwise in quite good condition, with red-brown covers?”
Sarah looked at me, her mouth now open, then she gasped.
“About three inches thick for each of these things,” I muttered. “They might not be full-sized tomes, but our witch paid a lot of money for these three books just the same.”
“Are they a boxed set?” asked Hans. “Those things cost as much as two good horses and a good buggy when they are new.”
“No, but the three of these books are about as costly when bought at a invite-only estate sale – one where only witches get invited – as those you spoke of are when bought brand-new at a 'high-class' two-doored bookseller's in the fourth kingdom market's 'hot zone',” I said. “He got those things by some serious trickery, as he wasn't nearly 'important' enough at the time to rate such 'literature'. A brief pause, then, “I'd bet money that those particular mule-skin-bound books are some I've heard about recently.”
“Those?” screeched Sarah. “Those things are almost as hard to get as a big black book!”
“Yes, and those things should be,” said Hans, “as no one will want a book bound in the skin of a smelly mule.”
Sarah shook her head, then said, “my cousin's family has seen those things, and witches fight over them worse than almost anything a witch would want.”
“Anything?” I asked. I wondered if Sarah had any idea of the war that started when I dropped off that one coach in the fifth kingdom house.
“They kill each other for them,” said Sarah, “and I've seen them do that, same as for things like certain really old swords and those big black books.”
“Big black books?” I asked.
“There seem to be two sizes of those, at least for those I have seen,” said Sarah. “There is the smaller, which is the size of a common student's ledger save a bit thicker, and then the larger size, which is about an inch thicker yet, two inches wider, and the same for taller. The large ones are quite rare, while about half the coaches I've gotten close enough to to look inside of have had the smaller ones in plain sight.”
“Now how is it you know about those black books?” said Hans.
“First, there were the times with my cousin,” said Sarah. “We first heard talk about those books when we were still quite small and not much good for digging. Then, later, just before I started the higher schools, her uncle showed us some of their family's ledgers that they keep. I'd never been told about those ledgers before then, much less seen them.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans.
“They would keep records of what they saw, both for pigs and witches,” said Sarah, “and while no one seems to do much thinking about how to fight witches and pigs around here, they aren't that way in the northern part of the potato country.” A brief pause, then, “and my relatives were the leaders for their area, so they had the most up-to-date copies of those journals.”
“Drawings?” I asked. “Descriptions? Perhaps analysis of swine-plate – as in where it's thickest, and where the pigs have little or none? Perhaps just how hard or tough it is, and its slag-content?”
“All of those things and much more regarding Norden's pigs,” said Sarah. “Norden's pig-armor has improved a great deal in the last thirty years.” Hans was about to interrupt, but Sarah all but put her hand over his mouth. “No, it's true. I visited my cousin last summer, and her father came and picked up both of us in his buggy, so we could hide easily under the sheets covering the bed and what else he had in there, and once I was at their house, I had a chance to look at those drawings.”
“What did it show?” I asked.
“Thirty-plus years ago,” said Sarah, “the iron on the pig's sides was at least ten lines thinner, it had a much more open pattern, and it was of much poorer quality, if you go by the tests that my relatives did on it then.” Again, Sarah rounded on Hans. “I know what you're going to say, but it's a good bit different in the potato country. Iron's scarce in that place, and more than a few farm tools there are made from what the pigs and those people happen to leave behind when they're killed.”
“I had no idea that was the case,” I murmured.
“My relatives had their own smithing equipment, and three of them worked as smiths on their holdings,” said Sarah. “Most of the time, at least in that particular area, it was use Norden's iron or starve for lack of tools.”
“Lots of digging means you want tools that actually work, not shiny fetishes,” I said.
“They said much the same, and meant every word of it,” said Sarah. “The newer swine-plate covers almost the entire animal save for its belly, it's a good deal thicker everywhere, and it is both harder and stronger than their older material, with less slag to it as well. The old stuff covering the pigs' sides would only protect against round-shot at ranges greater than two hundred paces, unless the gun was using weak powder, poor shot, or was badly worn.”
Hans could no longer be restrained, and he was nearly foaming at the mouth when Anna showed. “I've got them all washing the pots and pans in that place, and all the food made in the last two days is going out on the manure pile along with that witch he shot.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Dosing the water pots with what you described ruins everything it touches,” said Anna, “as that isn't just drinking water. That's cooking water, also, and this stuff sounds like it's bad for spreading, and the usual means of cooking does little to it.”
“Which is why they were told what they needed to do in some detail,” said the soft voice, “and while that recipe is in the black book, be glad it specifies the use of rats that no longer exist.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Most likely some of those diseases they had back then,” said Sarah. “The tapestries spoke of rats carrying a great many especially-bad ones.”
“And hence that black book's treating 'tincture of rat' as something closer to 'Madame Curoue's finest poison',” I said. “Back then, 'tincture of rat' was a sure killer.”
“Yes, for those not marked who were not able to get good medical care quickly,” said the soft voice. “Current 'tincture of rat' isn't much worse for sickness than some of the food commonly served to 'betters' in the second kingdom house proper.”
Sarah's face turned instantly green, and she sprinted for the privy. The guard that had just arrived took her place on the bench, as he still looked ill.
“That might take a day or so to get over,” said Anna. “I'd drink plenty of beer.”
“That bug doesn't much care for either that kind of boiling, nor the use of hops,” I said softly, “so the beer is safe, even if everything made otherwise in the last two days is likely to have been poisoned.” A thought, then, “now when do we go in?”
“With you, I expect that to be once he's finished with Gabriel,” said the guard.
“Question,” I asked. “Most of those, uh, 'scholars' are thought to be either suspicious in general, downright untrustworthy, or have trouble producing writing that makes sense. Correct?”
Anna looked at me, then said, “I suspect you're right when you speak of those people.”
“And they aren't all that much better – Kees excepted – when it comes to assessing where their loyalties lay. Correct?”
“I can answer that one,” said the guard. “Hendrik don't trust those people much, as they didn't go on that trip with him – and one of them people ain't much good for anything 'cept inking papers.”
“Which leaves Gabriel, complete with his at-times unsettling behavior and often troubling aspect of oblivion,” I murmured. “Kees is only good for inking papers and perhaps minor grammar corrections, the clerks are more or less cleaned out...”
“Close to it, anyway,” said the guard. “There are about three o' them people left that can be trusted, and new ones what know their business ain't easy to get right now.” I turned to see Sarah walking back to where we were standing. She was wiping her mouth with a rag.
“And there are a lot of documents needing to be done in, uh, triplicate,” I said. “Seems we've got trouble, and no mistake – and I bet it was planned that way.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It is possible to make three industrious clerks do the work of two dozen all-too-lazy traitors who treated their jobs like sinecures.”
“How?” asked Sarah, as she came to where the two of us were talking.
“First, write out some rules regarding documentation,” I said. “Those producing it in the first place need to have word-books handy, so they can police their own spelling. Gabriel's writing is decent for grammar, as long as he avoids that stinky written format. Hendrik's, I suspect, is the same – only he avoids that weird writing more by necessity than by choice, as he never learned to do it particularly well.” I then had a question: “Excepting Kees, all those other 'scholars' can only write this weird language that has 'Ye' everywhere it's possible to use that word, and a lot of really weird sentence-structure, so much so that much of what they write makes no real sense. Correct?”
“I never saw any of what they did,” he said, “but I think you might be right.”
“So then not only does it take them forever to obfuscate their information, but it then has to be cleaned up a lot, as those who write that way tend to make a lot of errors of one kind or another and those who read such nonsense tend to be especially picky about the form of what they read, rather than its content. Then, it also needs to have s-s-s...”
“What?” asked Sarah.
“They were marking that stuff up with witch-stamps!” I squeaked. “Those clerks were turning 'decent' documentation into stuff fit for witches only.”
“Most of that mail went out by different means,” said the soft voice, “and those 'witch-stamps' were used by that one 'clerk' who is now a pile of dust in front of his 'witch-closet'.” I had the impression that his 'dust mound' would make his hidey-hole a great deal quicker and easier to find, even if that mound of bones and dust was merely in the same room.
“Those are cursed special,” said the clerk.
“Yes, with high prices,” said Sarah. Hans and Anna were staying well-clear of our conversation. I suspected they had their own thoughts about our speech.
“No, some of those things are fetishes,” I said, “but those like that are really old, really rare – at least, they're really rare now – and really cursed. They need a strong witch to handle those things, and our witch wasn't close to being that strong.”
“Precisely correct,” said the soft voice, “and his stamps, though very high-priced, were both few in number and badly made.”
“Melt them down?” asked Sarah.
“That would clean them up,” I said, “but they'll need documentation first so we know what they look like.” I then lowered my voice, and said, “that too-common attitude of 'ignorance is godliness' is a witch-authored lie that is used to keep us enslaved.”
“What?” shouted Gabriel, as he opened the door like a well-oiled man-tall cuckoo. “What did you say?”
“He said that the witches would prefer us to be ignorant of their devices,” said Sarah, “and those devices are both commonplace and well-liked.”
“No, what he actually said,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik wants you four in here, and he's tasked me with enough work to keep me busy for a week straight with no sleep.”
“Now why did he sound so irritated?” I thought, as I followed Hans and Anna in, with Sarah by my side. I wanted to hug her close, and I soon found out why when my hand brushed against her shoulder: the fabric of her cloth was especially pleasant to feel. I whispered, “what is that cloth?”
“I want the rest of that entire roll,” she whispered back, “as it is perfect for traveling clothing. Why?”
“It feels really good,” I said. “I want to rub it, it feels so good.”
“You can do that later,” she said primly. “We have business.”
“As do we all,” said Hendrik. “Those clerks being traitors can be solved readily enough, so it does not need your attention.” Here, his voice dropped slightly in both volume and pitch, and as it did, I noted what looked like circles under his eyes. “I wish I could speak so for what I endured last night.”
“What was that?” asked Hans.
“First, she shows” – here, he indicated Sarah – “and reads off about fifteen two-sided pages of writing that stood my hair up fit for trimming with a dulled razor.” A pause to drink, then, “and while she's speaking, I'm hearing other words that tell me to pay close attention, as this is as reliable as what is in the book. I made my own notes, and asked to look at it overnight. She then gives me a copy.”
“You wrote that much?” I asked.
“I was not slack in my labors,” said Sarah, “and I knew this was important enough to make a copy once I was done with my writing of what you said. I was able to write the copy a good bit neater, which is why I gave him that one and kept the original.”
“When I went to bed, though,” said Hendrik, “it was as if that document had become alive, and I was living in a witch-world owned by that witch to the north, and that was but the start of it. It didn't end till I got out of bed and started on my own report that very minute, and between the time spent in the privy and the time I spent writing that thing, I did not sleep more than perhaps an hour last night.”
“That is not good,” said Hans. “No sleep means an empty head, and you do not need one of those things.”
“I would say it is better to have an empty head than no head,” said Hendrik, “and some of those nightmares had me getting mine cut off because I'd been slack, lazy, careless, and presumptive – and that is the same for all of us who are not marked, almost.” A brief pause, then, “and that's just for the coming war. I misjudged you.” Here, I was being indicated.
“How, sir?” I asked.
“For one thing, that pendant,” said Hendrik, “and for another, how you were feeling as you were keeping all of us alive by your labors and your prayers when we went after those people.”
“What, that I do not know how to keep my anger in check?” I asked.
“You do that better than anyone I've seen or heard of,” said Hendrik. “Were I in your shoes, I would have done exactly what you purposed to do, and then gone alone to do that which I alone could do.” A brief pause, then, “and what I was told early this morning was nothing more than the bald truth.”
“What was that?” asked Hans.
“Toss that scrap-pile currently thought excellent by those, uh, high-priced idiots that are taking up 'office space' and 'burning money' that could be better used for other things?” I asked. My voice had acquired a tone that could only be named 'acidic'. I continued a second later so as to explain.
“They were wanting to print up that particular manual in such a manner so as to turn it into an unreadable piece of rubbish that was only fit for starting fires, as the only means of warfare they approve of are those that are thought 'good and proper' in the second kingdom house – and to fight that way guarantees the witches of Norden will win, as it means using edged weapons only.”
“T-that...” Hendrik was flabbergasted at my speech, and it showed blatantly.
“Was spoken of in those notes I read you,” said Sarah. “I know there are skilled workmen in the boatwright's shop, and they could easily cut such a screw in a day's time, and given a decent drawing, they could...”
“Like this one?” said Hendrik, as he picked up an inked drawing of a screw-type press. The clarity of this drawing – and the others under it, as it was one of several – was astonishing. I suspected they had 'arrived' in some fashion, just as I'd seen drawings and documentation arrive when it was needed. It also made for a question on his part: “how would it work?”
“The type is on the bottom, in the usual holder – no, scratch that,” I said. “These type-trays would need to be quite sturdy, so much so that I'd almost want to make them of fourth kingdom 'close' bar and sheet, and rivet them carefully, as that type of press puts a lot of pressure on paper and type. Then, you would need a carefully made wooden roller covered with rolled-on cloth for inking the type, and your ink needs the right consistency and sparing application. You could manage a page or so a minute with a bit of practice, and most of those pages you did would be good ones – and that almost from the start, if you were careful.”
“That is as good as a common print-shop does!” screeched Sarah.
“No, better, dear,” I said. “The combination of 'a lot of pressure' and 'light inking' gives a clean, sharp impression – and I suspect a good percentage of that type we have on the premises is salvageable.”
“How?” asked Hendrik. “It is old, worn-out, and looks terrible.”
“When was it last properly cleaned, sir?” I asked. “As in a crock filled with Benzina out of doors for some hours, then carefully brushed with, uh, boiled distillate and dried? Perhaps a bit of careful file-work and a bit of scraping for the worst pieces in those dusty old bags they've gotten hidden in the corners of that room? There is a lot of type like that in there, by the way – easily enough to pick and choose so as to get the best pieces for our needs.”
“What would that do?” asked Hendrik.
“All that dried ink would be gone, for one thing,” I said, “and then the, uh, boiled distillate... It seems that most of the 'common' print shops in the fourth kingdom cover their type with rags dampened with this stuff that's like boiled distillate, only it's a bit thicker and and a good deal slower-drying. It keeps their type 'clean' and 'sharp' a lot longer, and they clean the stuff like I spoke of every so often.”
“They get that stuff from a few places in that market town,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, what he's speaking of makes much sense.”
“Now for a more serious matter,” said Hendrik. “First, the Abbey. I'm putting its clearing in your hands, as it is completely beyond me – and I know that, as I was told that in those exact words last night when I tried once more to sleep and ended up in the privy instead.”
“What else happened?” asked Anna.
“First, the two of you,” he said. By this, I could tell he meant Sarah and I. “You two are indeed a well-matched pair, and the both of you will be going across the sea once the Abbey has been cleared.” A pause to drink, then, “and afterward, I was told what else needed to happen.”
“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans.
“First, Sarah was not the only woman hounded greatly by witches and assorted people who wish to be witches,” he said. “It seems if a woman is forced to become an itinerant tailor by events beyond her control, it usually means there's something different about her.”
“Uh, courage?” I asked. “A different way of thinking, perhaps?”
“Those two things and much, much more,” said Hendrik, “and all of it to the good. That Teacher may think me a fool for training women. Let him. I've a mind to have women guards as well as men, as I know they can fight.”
“Lys,” I said.
“You were not here to hear their full story,” said Hendrik, “but it reminded me of some of the things you do – or like Sarah does, or some of those who she saw in her travels.”
I looked at Sarah, and saw that not merely did she have her hands over her mouth, but that her face, what of it was yet visible, was a most unnatural shade of red.
“Now, once that trip across the sea is done, and you-all are fit for another trip, there was thought that Norden might be investigated...”
“Whose thoughts were these?” said Sarah pointedly. “What maps that exist of that place are worthless, and their speaking of distances in that area neither makes sense nor do their sums add up.”
“Precisely why someone capable needs to go,” said Hendrik. “Knowing all we can about the enemy and his or her wiles will give us a better chance of winning, assuming that information is put to good use.” A brief pause, then, “and of all the people I have seen since I was old enough to remember much, there's but one person able enough to do that.”
“Who, sir?” I asked.
“You,” said Hendrik emphatically. “No one else has any ideas worth bothering with, and while I suspected that much, what I heard yesterday and last night corrected my ignorance to at least some degree.” A brief pause, then, “and that was apart from what you did at that cove and its aftermath.”
“What I did?” I thought. “As in, uh, no one had dared to do such a thing, save perhaps a...”
“The tales and tapestries spoke of such people,” said Hendrik, “but the witches could only speak evil of those who were instrumental in saving our lives.”
“They were called 'monsters', sir,” said Sarah, “and I would bet all of those who went, save Dennis and you yourself, were thinking him to be exactly such a being. Am I correct?”
“That nightmare said as much,” spat Hendrik, “and more, it corrected me as well!”
“Yes, and that means they need to quit thinking like witches, as he is not one of those things,” said Hans, “and I should know about him good, as I have seen him since he came to us, and that nearly every day.” A brief pause on Hans' part, then, “now did those bombs work?”
“They did,” said Hendrik. He seemed to know the truth behind them: Hans may have gotten much of the credit for them, but the reality was he had had a lot of help with both their concepts and their construction. “I think a good portion of their effects could be ascribed to their placement, as that clearing was almost as covered with scorched kindling as it was with dead bodies.”
“That one I put near the bow nearly blew off the front half of that ship, you mean,” I said. “That new type of boat gives up some sturdiness to their old clunkers, or does it?”
“Yes, to explosives,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, it's entirely a better boat, and it uses a lot less wood – as well as about a third less time in general to build and fit out.”
“Meaning that witch can turn out more of those things?” I muttered.
“She intends to do exactly that, if that's what you mean,” said Hendrik, “but if they get those new ones they're working on at this time going, we're going to have trouble.”
“Why, sir?” asked Sarah.
“Because those they're working on now won't need nearly the rowing their old ones did,” said Hendrik. “The old ones needed a decent breeze to move at all, and that one in the cove was likely to be similar, as its sails looked more or less identical to what's shown in the Annals here. Their new ones, though – those things look like they came out of Boeskmann's for their hulls, and their sails will actually work!”
“Meaning they only need to row if they go up the river itself or are caught in a dead calm and can't wait it out,” I said. “Now if I recall correctly, based on what I was shown, a fair number of those people won't go up the rivers when they actually invade, but they intend to plug every port and inlet along the coasts they can get to instead.”
Hendrik nodded, almost as if he'd seen what Ultima Thule was plotting to do like I had.
“Now, with boats that sail passably, that means a much easier and quicker passage to the various ports and other places along the west coast of the continent, doesn't it?”
“It does,” said Hendrik. “Some of our best ones might do better for speed, but many of what we have in the water now will actually do worse.”
“And those people arrive fresh and ready to cause trouble, instead of needing to rest for a day or two once they actually come,” I said. “Drop the gangplank, hoist up the pigs, turn those big grunters loose, and scream whatever those people do when they're ready to cause trouble – and they start causing that in short order.”