Investing the Abbey: “Such Treasures these, that...”
Perched upon the couch was a near-cubical cage of soldered brass wires nearly two feet tall and the same for width, with a covering of torn-up worn-out rags covering its bottom and a thick and well-clawed wooden 'dowel' setting in holders that were roughly in the middle of the cage. This dowel had a singular occupant: a bird of such brilliantly yellow plumage that it seemed a small and immobile feathered sun. I almost wished I had dark goggles like I used to have, that I could more closely view a bird seemingly made of molten and sparkling gold. It made for a strange word, one which was a tongue-knotting convulsion in the language of the area's common speech.
“That thing's got to be fluorescent yellow!” I gasped.
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. He was once more eating his interrupted breakfast. “That one is the quietest one in town that I know of, and I had to go to behind the Public House to get it.”
“Is that why it took you so long?” I asked, as I found a stool and stared at the bird in unabashed wonder.
“August's wife had just gotten herself out of bed,” said Hans, “and they have two young children, so she was busy feeding them.” A pause, then, “there might be some other birds like that one in town, at least for looks, but they are not like that one for their noise.”
“Noise?” I asked.
“Yes, they think themselves chickens for noise,” said Hans. “That one just chirps some when it does not sing.”
The bird was asleep, or so it seemed, for as I watched it, the stool scraped slightly across the floor under my feet as I shifted my position, and the noise woke the bird up. It abruptly removed its head from under its wing, and as I watched, it slowly extended a tall row of fluffy yellow feathers atop its head to form a 'crest', then fluff out the feathers of its body and wiggle its long tapered tail.
“That is not one of those birds I was thinking of, as it's easily five times as big,” I squeaked. “That thing's bigger than a parakeet, and not a common parakeet, but a really stout one!”
“Close, but no Geneva for you,” said Hans as he came up beside me. “They do not call those things that name you spoke of, and few, other than those who live where they are found wild and where many raise them, call them other than mine-birds.”
“Where they are found wild?” I asked.
“Down near that market,” said Hans. “Those people call them other names than what most do, and I remember one of those names good.”
“What do they call them down there?” I asked. I could tell we would be 'leaving' soon, as the others were working on all three buggies in the front 'yard' of the house.
“They call those things Shriken,” said Hans, “though Shrike is the singular form of that name.” A pause, then, “I think they call them that way because of the noise some of those birds make.”
The bird then looked at me, shook itself, and chirped. The sound was bright, cheery – and totally incongruous, given the description Hans had just given me. Naming a bird 'Shriek-uh' did not sound at all like what I had just heard, at least until steps at the bottom of the stairs preceded another noise...
“No!” screamed Anna. Her voice was an agonized shrieking wail. “No! D-don't turn that thing loose!”
The stairs now thundered with someone running up them, then I heard the slamming of a door and scraping noises followed as Anna barricaded the room. Hans seemed utterly nonplussed, much as if Anna routinely ran away from mine-birds, or as some called them, Shriken. He then gave me the 'real' reason for that last moniker.
“See, that is why those things are named Shriken,” said Hans. “Anna was just making that noise.” Here, Hans turned and went toward the stairs, and from their bottom, he called out loudly, “Anna, it is still in its cage, and it is not loose, so you will keep your hair. You can pull that stand-chest away from the door and come down.”
I had another question, even as the door above me opened a crack and the one at the end of the couch opened widely to admit Sarah. I could tell one buggy was entirely ready, and the others were most likely not far behind.
“Do those birds sit on your finger?” I asked.
“Yes, if you stuff them with grain first,” said Hans, who went to the door and looked outside. “They go a lot then, and they do not like to fly if they are stuffed like that. Then, when they are not stuffed with grain, they fly so much I think they try to keep up with wood-pigeons.”
“When they do not land on heads,” muttered Anna as she came down the stairs. “They especially like to land on my head, and then...” Anna seemed to be enduring an unsleeping nightmare. “And then, they rip my hair out by its roots, and they scratch my scalp raw digging it out.”
“They really bother Anna,” said Hans conspiratorially. “I have seen those things when they are loose, and they swarm her head and fight each other for it.” A pause, then, “I think those birds want to put their nests in her hair, is what I think.”
The bird had resumed its previous slumber, and as I gently picked up the cage to take it outside, I wondered if I would have time to show Sarah the inner workings of the new-found rifle. I thought to take it and put it in her buggy, and I showed her the safety and trigger area, all the while speaking of not wanting the pointer to be on 'R' save in a dire emergency. Our lack of ammunition wasn't the only reason for speaking so.
There were other weapons that were a bit better for 'spraying lead', and we would soon have our hands upon them. This complicated my speech to a degree, for I wondered as to what they looked like.
“Leave it on 'S', which stands for 'safe' until you are ready to shoot, then put that pointer there on 'F' just before you fire it,” I said. “It will fire as fast as you can pull the trigger, but we do not have enough ammunition to use it profligately.” A pause, then, “besides, it has enough rounds in that magazine to make both of us quite sore if we share its use between us.”
“I will not use it over-much, then,” said Sarah. “I think those other things I dreamed about might be best for witches and thugs if they are at distances suited for muskets.” A brief pause, then, “you carry that musket outside then, and I will carry that bird-cage.”
With those two things in Sarah's buggy, I still could not make up my mind as to what I needed to take. I then shouldered my usual load, went back outside, and then knew but one special matter.
“I need that one special 'evidence' key,” I thought, as I went back inside. “There's at least one lock that needs opening at the Abbey that will be an easy matter for it.”
Once I had secured that, though, I came to the door to see the last portions of preparation happening – oiling the 'reservoirs' of the two buggies that needed oiling – and as I came down the steps of the stoop, Jaak showed with a startling suddenness with his blanket in his mouth. I shook it out, folded it, laid it out, and jumped.
And nearly screamed with the pain as my feet left the ground. As it was, I groaned audibly just after landing, and as Sarah led off with the other buggies slowly coming into line in the road, Jaak caught up with her, so that we were moving north roughly side-by-side and out of town. The sun was now finally showing in truth, its dawning a red-hazed tint that spoke of a vast number of smoky fires, and the smell – less than faint, and seemingly everywhere – told me of those fires being fueled with burning witch-flesh mingled with – the nauseating aroma spoke loudly of them – charred swine.
I then noticed what else was in the three buggies among those things we had brought, and I found that being on horseback, I effectively had the pick of the 'readily accessible' supplies of food and drink. I soon was gnawing a long and somewhat 'jagged' stick of peppered dried meat between sips of beer from my water-bottle.
“I did that stuff up especially in the house's kitchen,” said Sepp, “and I've put aside three sacks of that meat for our use.” Sepp meant the coming trip, or so I guessed.
“Three sacks?” I asked. A 'sack' was a good deal larger than the far-more-common 'bag', if I went by what I had seen since coming here. Most bags were small enough to readily stuff in my pack.
“They are big ones,” said Karl, who implied by 'big' that they were close to 'mail-sacks' for size. Dried meat tended to be a somewhat bulky article unless one was careful in first 'sizing' the meat pieces prior to actually drying them – and if one wished a truly compact article, one needed to go further.
I'd heard of using a mortar and pestle, these of stone, to make dried meat into a fibrous powder. That, historically, was one way of reducing its bulk to the absolute minimum. “He was drying that stuff for days in this one oven at the house there, and I had to help get the wood he wanted for smoke-drying it.”
“Sugar-tree wood from the boatwright's shop, and wherever else I could find it, including some that I needed to cut from one of those trees so as to get the best smoke,” said Sepp. “Then, there was the brining, and I used two full handfuls of cleaned salt, a handful of pepper, some 'fresh' Raw-Deal I first powdered in a mortar, and a little Krokus.”
“Two handfuls?” I asked. I wondered why it was still possible to gnaw the stuff readily, as 'days' in an oven implied 'flint-dried' meat.
“Yes, large two-handed handfuls for salt,” said Sepp. “That was the biggest crock I could find, other than the ones my family is using to clean salt with, and I had that thing filled with pieces of beef and that brine in the house's cold-room until we dried all of it.”
The bird cage's occupant was no longer asleep; and while Hans had named it quiet, its chirping, insistent and incessant, gave cause as to why Anna might find the bird's presence a recipe for insanity. More than its noise, however, I saw the bird to be quite lively...
It was hanging upside down from its perch when it deigned to roost there – and the rest of the time, it was using its beak and claws to climb all over the cage like a crazed squirrel. Sarah noticed my staring at the 'glowing' sunshine-yellow bird, and she had comments about it – and perhaps, others like it.
“We had several of these,” she said, “and they were caged but seldom, as that house was bad for bugs and these birds devour them.”
“Bugs?” I asked. “Like those, uh, Hans or someone else spoke of?”
“Those especially,” said Sarah. “I hope we can get one of these for home soon, as this year will be bad for them when it gets warm.” A pause, a sniff, then, “I'd rather hear several of these chirp a lot than hear those small red bugs scream in my ears all night long.” Sarah sounded like she'd endured such bugs before in the manner she'd spoken of.
“Do these birds land in your hair?” I asked.
“Very much so,” said Sarah, “and if they do it much, they are said to like you.” A pause, then, “if you have them on you, then you can figure on not getting bit by flying bugs much, as they will eat any bug that comes close.” A pause, then, “if I came into a house with them flying loose, I soon had them on me, as I usually carried the mingled coarse-ground grains they like in a small sack.”
“Grains?” I asked. “What kind?”
“Those used for porridge, save only rolled between a mill such as we use for beer and not ground with buhr-stones,” said Sarah. “Those grains, a little sand made from limestone, a fair number of insects, and enough water for drinking and bathing is what they need.”
The bird's previous behavior was just a warm-up, for now it was engaging in some truly amazing acrobatics: it swung around its perch like the gone-insane hands of a clock using its claws – rapidly – not less than three complete revolutions to stop bolt-upright and stretched out fully; it then leaped, doing a somersault and twirl about to land on a single leg – and then hopped and spun about like a top for several complete revolutions to then come to an abrupt stop and then as suddenly fall sleep, its eyes closing as if it had been switched off and then its head vanishing under a wing as it fluffed out its feathers, all of this last done with such suddenness that I was indeed shocked.
Sarah seemed aware of all the bird had done, for she then spoke. “These are the silliest things I know of short of having a trained tickler handy, but that is when they are caged. They are stranger yet when loose.”
“Stranger..?” I murmured.
“When I was small, there was one that seemed to think me an egg, for it would wake me up in the morning by landing on my chest and then biting my nose.”
This jolting revelation was enough to make for a sudden and agonized outburst:
“OW!” I yelled. “Didn't it hurt?”
“No, it did not,” said Sarah. “That is why I think it thought me an egg, as it was most gentle. Then, it was very playful, and it went with me everywhere I went – and when it was awake, it was making nests in my hair all the time.”
“Was it inclined toward laying eggs?” I asked.
“It was,” said Sarah, “and once I found an old bucket and put some old rags in that thing, it made a nest in it and laid several of them.” A pause, then, “it needed hand-feeding then, as it did not wish to leave its eggs until the babies hatched.”
“Eggs?” I asked. “How many?”
“Four that I counted,” said Sarah, “and those babies were loud. I have no idea how something so small could make so much noise, but those babies were the noisiest birds I have ever heard close up.” A pause, then, “chickens might make more noise at times, but I've only heard those when they were in pens, and that at some distance from where they were being penned.”
“What do the babies sound like?” I asked.
“Much like the grown birds,” said Sarah. “They're smaller, so their pitch is higher.” Another pause, then, “and while I have gathered many eggs, I have never seen smaller ones than those of mine-birds.”
“How big were they?” I asked.
“About as large as the ball for a number four musket,” said Sarah, “and a light blue speckled with small reddish dots. Quolls have round eggs of an off-white color tending toward a very light brown and twice that size and more for diameter, and then those of chickens...”
“If you can get those things,” said Sepp.
“I have done that,” said Sarah, who spoke as if she dreaded that particular task. “Those eggs, assuming the chickens are the red ones, look like light-brown or whitish swine-shells, and are like swine-shells for size and shape.” A pause, then, “black chicken eggs are bigger yet, or so I have heard.”
“They do not have those things around here,” muttered Karl, “even if someone in that camp to the east of the Abbey keeps chickens, as I smelled someone boiling a pot of eggs, and then I heard one of those things make its noise while I was looking for tools to clear out that Desmond's pieces.”
“They do have those birds,” said Katje. Karl was behind me to the left, and Katje was riding in his buggy, if I went by their voices. “The pen I saw might be small for such birds now, but I suspect another one is being built somewhere in that camp.”
“How is it you know?” asked Sarah.
“I saw what looked to be its foundations being marked out with foundation-poles, and then there were stone blocks being stacked nearby,” said Katje. “They're using those blocks that are too small for the walls once they're squared up with stone-saws.”
“Almost have to raise their own food for all those people, especially with all of them who are coming,” I muttered.
“Those not actually working on the Abbey are doing that,” said Gabriel. “I saw enough older children tending gardens in my wandering of that settlement to speak of the matter.”
“Not small gardens, and but few in number compared to the ones that will be started in the next few weeks,” I said, “and that area behind the Abbey is going to be a sizable town within a month.” I thought for a moment, then asked, “about how hard is it to make glass panes?”
For some reason, the slow-drifting smoke clouds were easier to ignore than beforehand, and I had noticed some of the supplies other than food that had been packed. Some person – who this person was seemed an utter mystery – had found a near-intact swine-spear, and had brought the thing. I suspected they might thing it wise for probing something, as the three brought the day before were worthless as spears.
“If one starts with suitable glass scrap, then it only requires a molten pool of the right chemicals,” said Sarah. “The reason most glass panes are so small is that few locations can make them larger.”
“Because of their tools, right?” I asked. “They have very crude equipment, so they can only make them a certain size or smaller. Correct?”
“Outside of the central part of the fourth kingdom, you mean,” said Sarah. “The commonest windows at the west school are of four panes, and those are not small windows.” A pause, then, “each pane might be the size of a common text, if not a bit larger.”
“From one glass shop in town, right?” I asked. “One that's got some really old equipment they've refurbished and learned to use passably, and... That place uses a lot of coal, also.”
“It also makes a lot of decent 'burnt-coal',” said the soft voice. “Not only does it have equipment able to make the largest single panes of glass on the continent, but it also has more coal-retorts than anywhere else in the five kingdoms – and that location is one of the few in the five kingdoms to make decent glass from scratch, not 'scrap' as Sarah spoke of.”
“It uses the gas for its furnaces,” I murmured. “A lot of coal, a lot of distillate...”
“Gaseous fuel has a substantial effect upon the outcome of such endeavors,” said the soft voice, “and 'best-grade' glass like that place makes demands not merely 'good' materials and correct technique, it also does not need coal-ashes coming over from the firebox and contaminating the surface of the glass – and most places that make or process glass have substantial trouble that way, which means smaller pieces are more likely to turn out 'decent'.” A pause, then, “the burnt-coal that place produces tends to help enough with their bills that they don't have to charge a massive premium for their glass.”
“Still higher priced than anywhere else,” I said.
“Very true, yet still, they get enough takers that the place runs two shifts and their furnaces seldom cool entirely,” said the soft voice. “That is so even if no witch wants any part of what they do.”
“What..?” I gasped.
“One of the other reasons most recent-vintage glass pieces are smaller ones,” said the soft voice, “and most glass-blowers are nearly as bad for witch-authored nonsense as those who mingle and pour brass.”
Sarah had been interrupted in her speech regarding the birds of her former life, for she now resumed her tale: “once the babies were larger and had their first-feathers, they were much quieter, at least until they began flying – and it was loud again then, as they were chirping constantly and devouring bugs as if they were starving.”
“Too busy to sing much, weren't they?”
“The new-fledged birds, yes,” said Sarah. “Once their regular plumage comes in after their first moult, then they sing more.”
“Moult?” I asked – as I then recalled another term used regarding birds. “B-bald?”
“Those birds do not become bald during the moult,” said Sarah. “I only know of a few birds which become bald unless they are dead and hung by their feet for a lengthy period.”
“Chickens?” I asked.
“Those retain some feathers during their moulting, at least if they are the red ones,” said Sarah, “though I have seen some red roosters with so few feathers remaining to them during their moults that I could almost name them bald in truth.” A brief pause, then, “while this summer seems likely to be an exception for bugs in the first kingdom, the west school had enough flying and crawling bugs that one wished these birds in numbers in one's rooms, lest the bugs leave nothing but bones on one's bed in the morning.”
“How many did you have?” I asked.
“At least three adult ones, and usually more,” said Sarah, “and many times, I had egg-bound birds, which needed help to expel their eggs and then hand-feeding until their babies hatched.”
“The noise must have been awful,” I muttered.
“Yes, but I found the lack of bugs welcome then, and the money that came for the birds I sold was more welcome yet, as I had proven birds and a most-hungry market for them among my classmates.”
“How did you feed them?” I asked.
“An old tin plate with coarse-ground grains and a large bowl of water, with both of those things on an old second-hand table, and then a number of old buckets hung on the wall for their nesting.” A pause, then, “save when the place was busy with a clutch of new-fledged birds, I did not need to add much grain to that plate.”
“And the bird-lime?” I asked.
“A large platter with old rags on it,” said Sarah. “I had to change it often, but those birds teach their young where the privy is before they leave the nest, and if you get good ones, they'll use a privy just like a dog or a cat if you make a hole in the door for them.” Sarah paused, then said, “mine usually did.”
Silence, or rather the relative lack of speech, seemed to reign for upwards of half an hour – the drifting clouds of smoke in the distance, as well as the less-than-faint reek of burn-piles seemed a suitable reason – and at the end of that time, I could, at the edge of hearing, hear a furious hum indicating the noise of construction was an ongoing business at the Abbey. For some odd reason, I had the impression that those currently laboring had gone far into the night, and only sheer fatigue and the tired eyes that accompanied it had caused them to cease from their labors in the evening.
That, and they needed to do the best work they could possibly do, which meant a good deal more thinking than was common in 'the unthinking north' – and that with those of the fourth kingdom doing the bulk of that business.
“Did they sleep much last night?” I asked silently.
“No, because the pigs came through their camp also, and several of those 'drunken' people ran away during the resulting uproar and hid themselves carefully until 'morning'.”
“S-several of them?” I asked.
“Three of them went far enough from the camp that they came to another town and were shot by 'mistake',” said the soft voice, “or so the shooters thought until they undressed them and found their ink-markings and wondered just what they had found – as the ink-markings weren't anything they recognized.”
“Those would be witches,” said Sarah, “as no one who isn't a witch has those.”
“Those, uh, thugs across the sea have something like ink-markings, only they're quite small and well-hidden if they have them.” A pause, during which I swallowed more beer, then said, “most of them don't have such markings.” I then realizes what I said.
“Most of them?” I squeaked. “What about those that have them?”
“You'd best be careful if you find someone 'thuggish' over there who's marked-up,” said the soft voice. “While those 'thugs' don't commonly have ink-markings, there are some few less-obvious thuggish individuals in current circulation – who once were such thugs – who do have them.”
“Small, well-hid, such as this small place under the arm some of them have?”
While there was no answer, my just-voiced suspicions were enough that I would check first in that location if I encountered a 'thug' of that stripe – and more, it made me glad another laminated club had arrived. Such marked-up thugs would wish clubs applied to them in a judicious manner prior to checking for such marks.
In my 'travels' about the buggies while sampling their viands, I noted not merely their contents for food. There were clothes, these bagged in travel-worn sacks that had appeared 'by magic' – I had not seen the sacks the day before – a number of ground-sheets, those things I normally carried on my person that I had left off while jumping onto Jaak, more of those cloth satchels I had seen yesterday in another large sack, the previously-mentioned swine-spear, the bathing equipment, and finally, three more jugs of beer than we had taken the day prior. I wondered as to the latter, even if otherwise I didn't think much on what we were carrying.
At least until I heard – this faint, wind-borne, so faint that I wondered if I were hearing it conventionally – a ringing chorus of anvils being beaten upon by sledgehammers. Not even Georg's at its noisiest came close to this racket, and I was glad I had retained my ear-corks from the day before.
“Almost as bad as riveting on Frankie while lying on those rags inside him,” I thought.
“That has but added to the rumor-collection about you,” said the soft voice. “It is known that Roos has no 'evil engines', but also that it has no need of them should any witch think to sample noise.”
“They weren't in the shop then, were they?” I asked. “Close by, watching?”
“Every witch within miles heard that racket,” said the soft voice, “and until they learned otherwise, they thought you had acquired an especially potent 'evil engine' – as those that are used by witches are neither that loud nor do they 'beat' as rapidly as you did when you were driving those rivets.” A pause, then, “and while those people you just 'heard' have more than doubled in their numbers since you last heard them, at least for numbers, and are now far more capable as well, those of them but new-arrived heartily long for fourth-kingdom equipment – or someone like you.”
“Hence orders for the shop, no doubt, and those in the near future,” I thought. “Not just a lathe and mill – we will need a steam-hammer, or a collection of them – to service those orders.”
“They want those also,” said the soft voice. “You might ask a Makinekalé once you return from your trip as to how the Valley runs their hammers.”
“Nothing on those in 'volume three' of those handbooks?” I thought.
“They're mentioned there, though the fifth kingdom runs a poor second to the Valley when it comes to most machining practices,” said the soft voice. “Were you to read through the second volume and extract its meager information of a useful nature on machining, add to it those hints found in the first volume, and then rework heavily what you find in the third volume and combine the three resulting note-piles, you'd have a decent 'treatise on hand-practice' as it is currently 'known' in the five kingdoms.”
“Known, he says,” I muttered. “Those who truly know how to do the work don't tell anyone.”
“Exactly correct, even if the reasons as to why vary greatly,” said the soft voice. “Places like the Heinrich works keep much of their processes and equipment secret so as to avoid trouble from plain-dressed witches and the vast multitudes such witches mislead, while most instrument-makers simply have no secrets to hide – and those that are witches hide everything they possibly can because of ideas written about in that chapter called 'Methods', among others in that second volume.” A pause, then, “that black book's writings but adds to their notions on secrecy.”
Fields and forests alternated as they had before, save that more of the planted fields had people in them than beforehand – and among those people, I sensed a new purpose and an intentness I had seldom before seen in these parts. With the passing of that one foundational witch-hole, it seemed that the damage done to witchdom locally over the past several months had finally borne a measure of fruit; and I was just now seeing the beginnings of it. I wondered once more if those traveling convoys of coaches and the new influx of witches were going to 'enjoy' matters as they thought they would.
“A lot of these people are going to gather black-dressed manure for their fields,” I thought. “I hope those people bringing roers are of a mind for selling their, uh, spare weapons.”
“While they don't have weapons to spare, I would expect further orders from people desiring to freshen-up guns,” said the soft voice. “Georg has been doing his own purchasing of 'battlefield finds', and has been having those pieces 'cleaned up' to a degree in the surrounding area.”
“Cleaned up?” I thought.
“He used what he has seen of your work as an example,” said the soft voice, “but he also said to 'remove no more than the rust and worst crudities' to those shops he's gone to.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “He thinks I can...” I stopped speaking, for Georg's canniness suddenly rose markedly in my estimation. Rather than merely saving money, Georg knew well the community standards for metalworking – both for 'sloth' and for 'crudity' – and he farmed out those portions that could be done with minimal hindrance to my own labors while saving me what time he realistically could. While that was not an especially great amount of time or effort, he also knew that modest portion would help to no small degree.
“Especially as he had someone else write out precisely what was to be done to the parts,” said the soft voice,” and he then copied what they wrote for him word-for-unchanged-word.” A pause, then, “he had to, as that person's handwriting was nearly as bad as yours.”
“S-Sarah's cousin?” I thought.
While I received no answer about who Georg had gone to, the matter did seem plausible: Sarah had said she was living in the area, and if I went by what I had heard, she lived close enough for Georg to find her if he was of a mind to ask around; she worked in an exacting trade; her written expression was said to be especially clear; and finally, I suspected she knew about 'guns' to some degree beyond what Sarah had taught her.
At a range of perhaps two miles from the Abbey, we needed to pause, for now the noises of both forging and other matters of labor were clearly audible to Sarah and myself; and to my astonishment, the two of us were not the only ones inclined toward earplugs. Katje wished them also, and once they were in – and those of us wishing them properly 'dosed' – we continued our progress north.
As the distance to the place diminished, I noted other differences in sounds and sights: there were trowels in use, though less of them than when I had heard them last, and the forging was a near-continuous ringing, much as if several forges were in use so as to keep the hammers swinging and the swages, rivets and otherwise, hot. A low hum, much like a far-distant wasp nest, seemed to gather itself to the place as we closed within a mile; and within the passing minutes, further sonic and visual details seemed to stand out – until as we drew within about two hundred yards of the bridge's southern boundaries, I once more saw the low squat animals I had seen the night before; only this time, the long mounds of mud were much higher and wider, so much so that these yoked creatures were partly hidden, and their long shaggy reddish-brown hair and phlegmatic-seeming disposition – as well as their near-silence while laboring – made for a sudden outburst upon my part.
“What are those things?” I asked quietly.
“Those would be bulls,” said Sarah, “and I think that team of four to be a fresh one.”
“They look like that?” I spluttered, as we came to the edge of the bridge. “I thought they were larger.”
“They may be smaller than any other cattle I have seen,” said Sarah, “but they are among the strongest animals I have ever heard of, either currently or written of upon tapestries, and I suspect some of what is being worked on in that smithy are damaged chains.”
“Snapped chains?” I asked, as we left the oddly quiet animals to their slow and stolid labors.
“I have seen that happen,” said Sarah. “That's why a bull-proved chain is worth three times as much as one that's never been used.”
“Even where your relatives live?” I asked. “They make their own chains, don't they?”
“The fourth kingdom does well to come close to those they make,” said Sarah. “The potato country produces more than potatoes, even if those are their best-known products, and a potato-country chain is as likely to stand the test of bulls as anything made in the fourth kingdom.”
“Especially if it's made of metal that's been extensively worked,” I murmured. “They do that a lot, don't they?”
“They'll be sending orders for metal to the shop soon enough,” said the soft voice. “They're only now learning that they can get better metal than what they commonly use and not pay a witch-ransom to get it.”
As we crossed the bridge, the noise grew in our minds; and once on the path leading into the Abbey's 'demesne', the trees bordering the 'road' – it had grown wider and 'neater' overnight, and the trees bordering it now had 'hangers' where faint tendrils climbing upward spoke of a species of lantern being hung the night before – were both further back and 'thinned out'. I suspected at least a few of the trees had been cut for lumber, as the ax-bitten stumps yet remained.
“They had several woodsmen per tree,” muttered Gabriel, “and they changed teams often to fall them that quickly.”
“They walk around the trees taking swings by the lines of the woodcutter's song,” said Sarah. “I've seen woodcutting done in places where they don't waste time.”
“Th-that haunted forest in the third kingdom?” I asked.
“It is not haunted,” muttered Sarah. “I've been in it several times, and that at night and when it's foggy.” A pause, then, “if you have a good compass and can move quietly, that's the best time to cross it, in fact.”
The passage grew slowly wider, until the trees to each side forming it suddenly vanished to show the wide and grassy field of recollection. Unlike the day before, however, this tent city was not merely substantial in size – easily a hundred yards across in places – but it was utterly real, with its tents scattered in some semblance of rows mingled with sizable and somewhat meandering trenches. These last had a few people working in them uprooting ancient chunks of what looked like 'old' going-to-dust rocks and older-yet scrap-iron. The latter had its share of rust, and was gathering more fast.
“That stuff will be going south for Frankij,” said Sarah confidently, as I counted two large mounds of going-to-rust iron 'stakes' and the beginnings of a third such mound. My eyes roved to the right, and on the bank – another team of bulls was at work on that side, with a strange floating 'thing' passing up mud from the bottom of the stream to then pile itself in the thing's 'pan'; I suspected it to be a dredge of some kind – I saw obvious foundations being dug. The industry, even compared to when we had left the night before, had grown mightily. The foundation on the near bank, however, made for a question.
“What's going there?”
“I think that is for a bridge's landing,” said Sarah. “It does not have its stone yet, and they must build these odd things that keep back the water so as to lay its piles, but those plans show a bridge across that river.”
“That, and a much larger landing at the river than the one to be put there, though it is further east and north,” said Gabriel. “The bridge is to be done first, as it will speed up stone deliveries to a degree.”
“With that other one...”
I ceased speaking, for there was another matter that I now saw. Stone-hauling wagons came from all directions of the compass, and coming in by the usual route for that stone coming from the south and east added several miles and roughly an hour's delivery time to each trip coming, and but little less going. To run a bridge here would easily give another twenty wagon-loads of stone a day.
“Yes, in the immediate future,” said the soft voice. “Once that bridge sets up fully, and those further-away quarries 'get in the mood for work', it will increase the volume of stone per day by a third – and that isn't for the stuff heading downriver, which is why a sizable dock is needed on the Main at the other end of that rapidly-growing 'town'.”
“And a ferry?” I asked. There were quarries on the east side that could readily contribute then.
“There's no time for one,” said Gabriel. “The nearest shipyard worth bothering with is in the fourth kingdom, and a boat of size takes months at the least to build, and then sailing it up here and bringing it up the river...”
“Then how is that one in the boatwright's shed done so quickly?” asked Karl. Sarah had halted within twenty feet of the casement, and while no one was inside the place yet if I went by the seeming silence within, I could tell that situation was going to change after today. Many of those who had just arrived were carpenters, or so I guessed.
“Different design and a much smaller size than what's commonly built in the main fourth kingdom shipyards,” I said, as I slid off of Jaak and stifled a groan as my feet hit the ground. “Then, I think Gabriel didn't spend much time actually watching those people work – either here or there – and finally...” I paused, then turned to Gabriel. I had a suspicion, and I wondered if it was right. “You were told that by a lecturer at Maagensonst, and you didn't bother checking to see if he was right or not, didn't you?”
The silence lasted for but perhaps a second, then in a low voice, Sarah said, “I suspect you are right, as the shipyards aren't places most students bother to go to. I did during my first year, but...”
“That's one of the assigned places at the west school, isn't it?” I asked, as I began to slowly – and achingly – gather my equipment from Sarah's buggy. “You don't go far afield that first year – need to get used to going places and asking questions, and not being laggards for either of those things, and then not wasting time asking questions regarding that which you can learn by other means.”
“I do not suspect all of that to be correct,” said Sarah. “You described both what was written for our instructions, but also what nearly everyone who goes there does, and why they do it.”
“And we had best not be laggards about our business,” said Katje, as she got out of what she had been riding in and jolted stiffly to the ground. She'd somehow gotten her 'exploring clothing' on in the last few miles. “Those people in those tents need perhaps another day to sort their camp properly, and then they will wish to begin their labors.”
“And go see Anna about lead removal, and secure food, and some other things, most likely,” I said. I wondered how I would carry two rifles, as leaving the mottled dark-gray-streaked black one we had found yesterday to be observed unguarded wasn't a good idea among these people. They had their share of 'witch-thinking' in their minds, and they were yet looking askance at the near-round-the-clock labors of the camp. That had to change, and change in a hurry.
“Did those witches curse them? Their death-curses?” I thought. “Such as 'you have come into a land of witches, and you all must either become witches, or become their sacrifices'?”
While there was no answer, I thought to proceed upon my suspicions, seeing as how I had been told that Tam managed as well as he did by such means. I went closer to the tents, then removed my revolver from its holster. Pointing it toward the ground some few feet away from my feet, I fired a round into the dirt.
The sharp crack seemed to make 'some' impression, so much so that I holstered the pistol and unslung the rifle I had found yesterday. I flipped the selector to 'R', again aimed at the ground a few feet away, and briefly 'pulsed' the trigger. I had read about that being the way to keep one's bursts short.
The thundering staccato roar and 'lightning-flashes' that resulted – as well as the muzzle climb; it came up and to the right a lot more than had I expected it to – didn't just startle me; it started a host of screams and yells all around me, and as I ran out of the new-sprung tent city, I could hear – and feel – people leaping out of their beds, cots collapsing as they overturned, badly-erected tents collapsing piecemeal, and over all of this, yet more screams. I made it back to the buggies, there to take refuge behind one of the larger ones. I wanted to hide.
“I think those people need to learn about wine,” said Sarah dryly, “because now I smell that stuff, and it is not Groessfuetchen I am smelling, but common wine.”
“You might as well burn the lot of those people,” said Katje, “as they might be from the fourth kingdom, but they are acting like they came from the dark parts of the second kingdom house.”
“No, not burn them,” I murmured. “Burn the wine out of them, maybe – but not burn them.” I then raised my voice to a shout. “You lazy drunkards, get your rumps to moving and work!”
The yelling utterly 'ceased', and within moments, a small milling 'herd' of men and women began to appear among the now mostly-fallen tents. They had been tired by their long trip, and thought to 'drink up' so as to ease their pains, both the pains of travel and those of wounds; but that trip was but a training exercise for what they were to endure here. Now they would labor – and labor such that 'witch-hours, and witch-days' were but nothing to what they would work.
“Any witches among you people, go to hell!” I shouted.
To my astonishment, several thundering eruptions boomed and spouted flames and soot, and the previous mob aspect erupted anew for perhaps ten seconds as the sooty smoke suddenly billowed thickly among the scrambling mob to then climb slowly into the sky.
“That was the trouble,” said Katje. “They had witches for traveling companions, and those people caused trouble as they could.”
“I think you did more than clean the witches out of those just arrived,” said Sarah – who then pointed before speaking again. “Look over yonder.”
To hear that word meant dread, and as I looked past the now-settling camp – the burst of full-auto fire had started things, but sending the handful of witch-infiltrators among them to hell had 'put the fire under them' – and I found that I needed to move to where Sarah had walked to so as to see what she was now pointing at. I did so, and was astonished, both at the progress of the wall and also what was happening in the area to the east of its boundary.
The wall was now 'head-high', with a pair of iron-bar-reinforced gateposts being erected some twenty feet apart; and while the wall to the north of the gateposts was receiving stones row-by-row at a steady pace over perhaps a length of two to three hundred yards, the realm between the gateposts showed plumes of sooty smoke dotting the trees to each side of the main pathway. I counted over a dozen such drifting clouds as they came up through the leaves of the trees, and my suspicions were such that for each such smoky billow, at least one witch or supplicant had gone where they belonged. I then heard a steady hissing grumble-chorus, and knew that another aspect of labor had either just started, or had now resumed with a vengeance. This meant for speech, and it tumbled softly from my lips.
“Those drunkards especially,” I mumbled. “They were disrupting what was happening in that entire camp.”
“I think so,” said Sarah. “You sent those stinky witches where they belong, and now that whole place back there is awake again.”
“Those people smelled?” I asked.
“Yes, though not of wine,” said Sarah dryly. “I could tell they bathed regularly, as I smelled soap on them, though it was soap like we use for clothing and not people, and then there was this other odor, almost like old sweat, only sharper and more biting.” A pause, then, “almost like a bad blue-dressed thug, one that's got markings hidden wherever they actually put those things.” Sarah screeched, then turned to me with wide-open eyes and a mouth showing hints of teeth.
“What did I say!” she screeched.
“I think that is a clue,” said Karl. “Now that place has its witches such that they can go in the manure-pile easy, and this camp here is getting straightened out so it is fit for work, and I had this weird dream last night that you reminded me of just now with that musket's noise.”
“Weird dream?” I asked. I wanted to ask 'why are you starting to sound like Hans, Karl'?
“What was your dream?” asked Sarah, as the three of us returned to the buggies. I was feeling a good deal less sore, for some reason, and while it was a small favor, I was not going to belittle it.
“I had this strange musket that weighed more than two roers with heavy barrels and brass buttplates,” said Karl, “and it took these long flexible strips of metal filled with what that rifle takes, only I think these were the ones used to make bird-whistles and not those for cats.” Karl paused as he came to 'his' buggy, found a jug with a strip of cloth tied around its neck, uncorked it, and drank. He seemed thirsty, for some reason. “It sounded like how you do when you are driving rivets, or like you just did to wake those smelly wine-merchants up.”
“Wine-merchants?” I asked.
“They like wine in the forth kingdom,” said Karl, “and I remember that, as I could smell that stuff everywhere in that market town, and then every Public House we stopped in while in the fourth kingdom smelled of wine.” A pause, then, “I think we had best get ourselves inside that place and find what it is we need, as the sun is not standing still for us.”
To hear Karl speak thusly was all the impetus I needed, and I finished gathering what I needed to find so as to 'carry my weary load' for our further exploring. Once inside the Upper Alley, however, I glanced to my right into the darkness, then with a lamp that I adjusted for best brightness as I made step after step, I began to see something ahead through the forest of columns. This room was bigger than I thought it was, so much so that I suspected rough dimensioning was in order while exploring it more carefully. It made for a question.
“What was that hissing noise I heard?”
“Those were stone-saws,” said Sarah. “The wagons go along the bank down that one path into a place there where they have equipment for unloading the blocks they quarry, and then there are groups of people sawing on those things with saws similar to what you use for metal, save much larger.”
“They will wish blades of that special steel, if you can make them,” said Gabriel. “They make new blades daily in that smithy, and there were several people just sharpening blades that I saw.”
“Make the blades, or just supply them with pieces of that metal?” I asked, as I continued moving. I was counting my paces, with the goal of establishing the rough size and shape of this room as well as locating what was in this area. I could tell that much: at the least, there were clues of a sort, as well as a possible trap, and dealing with both things was of a dire importance.
“The blades wear as fast as the smiths can repair them,” said Katje dryly, “so if you can supply them with the metal, that will help – at least, once they learn how to work with it.” A pause, then, “until then, though, they might well think it something best done by a 'witch' – meaning they might as well take you a worn-out blade and ask that you make a better one.”
“Better?” I asked, as I saw 'movement' in my peripheral vision and a sudden faint mote of light showed to my right. “Is this like those people at the carpenter's shop wanting 'one of mine' and presuming I could read their minds as to exactly what they wished – even when what little I knew – no, know – of pit-sawing was something I had read about years before coming here?”
“I suspect that would be the case,” said Sarah, “and I never saw that door over there before.”
And as if to provide background 'music', a low-pitched warbling noise turned into a nearly pure tone, one that climbed upward in pitch in an odd stepwise fashion, much as if someone was playing a scale on an instrument – with occasional 'pitch-bends' to lower frequencies – to then end in a trio of high-pitched chirps.
“What was that?” I squeaked. I had stopped in my tracks upon hearing the vibrato-inflected humming tones. They reminded me more than a little of an electronic instrument.
“The bird,” said Sarah. “They sing like that.”
“That thing sounded exactly like a theremin,” I thought. “A bird that sounds that spooky isn't the best thing to hear right now.” Again, the motes of light to my right, and I looked at way as the bird again began its unearthly trilling, this time with several 'bum notes' that dropped entire octaves and more as its 'scale' climbed in pitch. “They're clearing that duff away from the windows in this place.”
The bird's eerie song now seemed obvious to me: it was reacting to the slow dawning of light within this odd 'tomb-like' location, and as it grew slowly brighter inside – the windows, while clear of duff in some few places now, were still uncommonly dirty – the bird's tones became clearer, brighter...
And louder. It made for a desire to comment on 'electric squirrels' and 'electronic birds', but upon first seeing the mottled-gray-painted door Sarah had mentioned previously, I gasped, “how did I not see that thing before?”
“I think you were keeping us all alive,” said Katje. Her dry-as-dust tone was a marvel, even by the standards I had heard recently. “Now that door is fit for a horse, as it's wide enough for a stable-pen.”
“Those things do not have doors,” said Karl. “I have never seen one.”
“Neither have I, Karl,” said Sarah. “I have read of them, and that on tapestries mostly, but I have never seen one – at least, I never saw one until now.”
“A metal stable door?” I asked. “What would they keep... Don't tell me – that door was to a stable filled with true-mules, and they'd kick down anything less than a solidly-built metal-framed door covered with a thinner species of steel plate.”
“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and what lies in that room, once you open that door, will answer a great many questions you and the others have about this place.”
“It's trapped, isn't it?”
“It was trapped,” said the soft voice. “Its trapping was that of curses, and when that deep hole went, those curses 'went to dust' like most of the curses written upon the walls of this place.” A pause, then, “the door's locking mechanism, however, operated partly by curses, so you'll want that key for opening it.”
“Uh, best not speak to it?” I asked.
“That key is a lot less tiring to use,” said the soft voice. “Doors to mule-stalls might not have been built as near heavily as bank-vault doors where you came from, but they were designed to be secure – and that one witch didn't source that door, so it's not only quite heavy, but also very sturdy. The formerly-cursed portions are rusty enough to wish a key that ignores corroded locking mechanisms.”
“It does not look to be rusty,” said Maarten. “Now is that just its' looks, or what?”
“It was carefully cleaned and then painted here using 'seized' paint,” said the soft voice, “and it – and a good portion of what was in put there before the witches died or were killed off – was 'looted' from the surrounding community once the war started.” A pause, then, “doors that good were rare enough by that time that they were heavily guarded and cared for carefully by their owners while those people still lived, and only their deaths made it possible to steal things like that door.”
“Not just keep the mules in, but thieves out?” I asked, as I felt for the key. The door was still easily thirty or more feet away, and I'd counted seventy-nine steps from the transom's bottom step. This room was huge.
“The mules would attack the thieves if they weren't strong-enough witches,” said the soft voice. “If the thieves were strong enough to readily cope with the mules, though – that door would barely slow them down.”
“It would still cost them,” I murmured. “They might get it open quickly, but doing so and then facing one or more of those irate things once the door had opened...”
“You just hit on the chief deterrent factor,” said the soft voice. “That range of witch who could open the door and then deal with the mules could get them readily by purchase, while witches unable to open the door could not endure the mules unaided – and then witches between those two poles of existence could not do both things without something of a respite between the two tasks.” A pause. “Those people would be the witches thinking of such thefts, unlike the first two classes of witch mentioned.”
With the slow-growing light in the room and the door's nearing, I noted not merely the somewhat rough nature of the floor under my boots, but also what lay against the nearest wall, these being the skeletons of common-sized rats in some numbers – and, by its relative absence, the presence of evil I had felt during earlier visits to this room and those near it. I then wondered why we were not having trouble with gas fumes.
“Mostly because that gas 'went to pieces',” said the soft voice. “I would still use that spear-pole Karl brought to put the bird's cage ahead of you as you near that area, as there might be small pockets of gas-reactants remaining – and while they might not be dire poisons, there aren't any functioning privies in that part of the building.”
Several more steps, and I came to the door; and with key in one hand and lantern in the other, I looked for the keyhole. It was directly in the center of the door about waist-high, and as I paused to look the door over, I noted its profusion of rivets, its sizable multiple hinges, its thick round 'lock-plate' attached by more rivets, and then finally, the shape of these rivets.
They were common 'round' rivets. I had been expecting oval-headed ones, for some reason, and as I touched the key to the lockplate, the lockplate shivered, then the crooked-shaped keyhole – one surprisingly similar to those I had seen at several locations in the kingdom house proper – enlarged to pass the key; then without turning the key, I could feel...
And hear, this a sudden and sharp grinding noise with occasional crackling sounds as obdurate cursed and corroded parts broke into pieces and went to dust...
The mechanisms – the door had several – turning in their 'orbits' to permit us admittance. The door then 'hitched', jerked violently in its 'socket' – and slowly, it swung open to perhaps the width of my hand. The odor coming from inside made for first a desire to sneeze...
And then, a desire to spew. It smelled more than a little musty and rotten.
Amid soft mutterings of witches and their varied reeks, I put the key away and began pulling on the door with my free hand. The soft moans of 'massive heft' ground slowly as I moved the door open, then when I shined my lantern's light inside the door, I gasped, “this place is a mess. Are there fetishes in here?”
“None able to cause trouble beyond the trivial,” said the soft voice. “The worrisome ones went to dust recently, while those otherwise that still exist will become dust and rust once you look at them – and you need to look at them, as this room is a type of 'time capsule' of the era just prior to the war. When you next see such things as you find in here, they will not be harmless, but still potent and capable.”
“And there's more than just old looted junk in here,” I thought, as I raised my lantern higher and 'crossed the threshold'.
The room seemed to go to both right and left some considerable distance, and as I looked closer, I could discern a narrow species of meandering aisle down the center. Shelves, these cluttered with dust-shrouded cloths, showed here and there against the walls, while tables and desks lay mounded and in some few cases sheet-covered; and the whole dusty tableau that showed where my lantern shed its light was beyond my capacity for ready belief.
At least until I turned right and touched one of the cloths covering a shelf. The dust vanished at my touch, and I knew then that asking the dust to go elsewhere would erase important clues. I then heard steps behind me.
“It may look a mess, but this reminds me of one of the rooms on the fourth floor of the house proper,” said Sarah softly from perhaps a few feet behind me. “That stink is clearing slowly, as I think that door kept it in here. It is thick enough, and it is shaped like a few of the plug-doors at school, with a seating place to prevent drafts.”
“Hermetically sealed?” I asked.
“Not really, at least by intent,” said the soft voice. “It did, however, prevent effectual ventilation – much as did the doors Sarah is speaking of – and that is now happening to some small degree.”
As I slowly walked down the right aisle, I touched those cloth-covered things that occurred to me, and with each further touch, the dust vanished with faint muted thumping noises. The talk behind me spoke of that which I touched going rotten before the eyes of those watching, and not a minute after entering the room – and perhaps ten or twelve small steps from the doorway – I heard a screeching exclamation burst forth from Katje.
“What is this?” she shrieked. “It's something I've never seen before!”
I reversed course, and found Katje pointing toward the wall. There, I saw an obvious 'print' upon an ancient species of paper, this slowly crumbling into fine dust as I watched, its vertical 'lines' raying out downward from a flaming brown-red-purple-blue ball on a green field flanked by strange figures; swinging arcs divided the area below the 'ball' into truncated pie-slices of increasing area. Each such sector had its number, this being a digit or a letter followed by a slash and two more digits or letters, and as I began counting these 'sectors', I noted the odd format closer.
“How is it I'm seeing letters and digits when there aren't any such things on this, uh, picture?” I thought. I then gave voice to my consternation: “what is that thing?”
“I've never seen or heard of it before,” said Sarah. “I have no idea.”
That was almost as stunning to hear as what I was seeing, at least until I saw the letters and numbers again superimposed over what I was seeing, and with some effort, I began to discern the differences between what the thing was showing visually and what it actually meant. It was a divination device of some kind, or so I suspected.
“What you are seeing was called a Källendäré,” said the soft voice, “or in the current vernacular of this area, a calender – and it both told of days and spoke to the days as well.”
“Spoke to the days?” I asked.
“The witches of that time were said to control their weather, but they lied to themselves and others more than a little,” said Gabriel. “They generally turned the sky various colors when they had accidents of one kind or another.” This was ended in a strangled squawk, then, “what did I say?”
“What those witches actually did,” said the soft voice. “They were not able to write their own weather, even if they tried hard to do so.” A brief pause, then in a drier tone, “they were not of the time prior to the drowning.”
While I had not understood the second portion of what had been said about the accursed printing – it was printed upon 'paper' of a strange and glossy species, this done by the region's ruling clique – on their terms, and as per their inclination of the moment in all other matters of note – I had understood to some degree the first portion. This was a species of calender as I understood such things to be, and what the various colors and markings the thing actually showed when it wasn't being overshadowed by the various coded symbols I was seeing much of the time were symbols of rationing, of permitted activities – the leadership's inclination of the moment, essentially; these were the rules all lesser beings were to follow explicitly and what those in leadership could conveniently ignore when and if they chose; and most of all, which days were especially suited to the destruction of 'the enemy' – this being also 'defined' by that ruling clique. Just who was 'the enemy' varied more than a little, save for certain nebulously-defined groups that had permanent 'enemy' status. For them, every day was 'destruction and damnation', and woe befall those 'subjects' who didn't get that edict right and carry it out consistently.
“Exactly right, and what you were seeing as an 'overlay' were the actual meanings of those colors and symbols,” said the soft voice. “You'll get further insight into that color scheme fairly shortly, even if learning what all of what you are seeing actually means will not happen quickly.”
“And it's important that I learn what all of that means,” I muttered. “It's probably connected with this Curse I've heard people talk about.”
“It is, though indirectly,” said the soft voice. “The witch who issued it used one of the last of these printings to determine when to issue her last commands, as well as how to speak them – and she did not interpret it correctly, which is why her cursing didn't do what she had plotted for so long.”
I left the 'calender' behind, and as I continued on down the narrow aisle as it meandered, I could feel something else ahead. This, unlike the accursed Källendäré, was truly important, and as I felt it drawing nearer, I wondered just what it was. I continued looking, now wary for the presence of the thing, and when I turned to the nearest wall and shined my light upon it from a distance of perhaps two feet, I gasped in shock.
“Oh, no,” I squeaked, upon seeing a name I recognized instantly. I knew this red-hazed scrawled word like the back of my hand – and I looked down and for a second saw my right hand covered with grease and oily grime, while the left hand held a grimy box-end wrench. I'd just been working on that old truck I had once had, and its name rang in my head and nearly escaped from my mouth: “D-d-do...”
“Do not speak that word,” spat Sarah. “It is not what you think it is, even if...” Sarah ceased speaking, then, “no, it isn't the same. It's worse, as a witch actually drew that name on the wall.”
“Name?” I asked. “There was something of that name here?” The 'drawing' flared redly for an instant as if to confirm its red-neon anger at my 'insulting' it.
“Yes, there was, even if that tapestry didn't describe it very well,” said Sarah. “It was either a district in the City of Evil Spirits or something else, and I could never figure out which of those it was.”
“Both of those things, dear,” said the soft voice, “and the witch who wrote that on the wall wanted that 'something else' and was not high enough in the power structure to actually get his hands on one.” A brief pause, then “keep looking in this room. He might not have gotten his hands on the full article in working form, but he did get a few parts to one and a page from an advertisement – and that last is important, as not only were those things fully as cursed as Cardosso's coach, but there still are a handful of them, either in a more-or-less full collection of pieces, or in the case of a very few instances, intact and operational.”
I then noted the 'umlaut' over the 'O', and thought, “was this pronounced the same as I recalled?”
“No, and for good reasons,” said the soft voice. “That was one of those names the witches had to change to avoid going up in smoke when they spoke it, and that for both the district and the device.” A pause, then, “the spirits conjured by the altered pronunciation were bad enough, but they did not hold a soggy fifth-kingdom sulfur-candle to the ones conjured during that time by those speaking that word as it was first learned – which was the precise word you were thinking of.” A pause, then, “your speaking that word in that third kingdom 'inn' was not 'heard', which is why those things connected with it didn't suddenly 'show up' in a huge swarm. Being who you are helped more than a little.”
“Fifth-kingdom sulfur-candle?” I asked. “Gray with yellow streaks?”
“The same,” said the soft voice. “The idea for those came from Cardosso's own notes – and unlike much of what he read from the timeframe of his 'library', he did not understand what the purpose of the originals were.”
“And there's a few of those stinky things in here, also,” I muttered. “Real sulfur-candles were burned while doing sacrifice, and...” I paused, sniffed, then noted the faint yet irritating reek of burnt sulfur. “They went up in smoke when the deep-hole went where it belonged.”
“Yes, the candles did,” said the soft voice. “There's an advertisement showing what they looked like also, and it's important that you see that as well as any other 'advertisements' present in this room – as you will encounter close copies of prewar sulfur-candles in the future, as well as a handful of well-preserved originals in a few select locations.”
I could feel something else related to that dire word 'Dodge', and when I came to another dusty cover, I waved it aside to find an odd-looking 'nameplate'. This had a mottled light blue-gray background and pea-green lines on top and bottom with a 'device' shaped like an unusually thick 'V' over one of the odd-shaped dark blue spike-topped letters. The first one looked like an oddly-shaped 'D', the second a worse-yet 'R', the third an 'A', the fourth... That might have been an S, though the 'V' was directly over it, and I had the impression it wasn't merely a decoration. It altered the pronunciation of the 'name' or whatever the nameplate was depicting, and while the next three letters were easy enough to decipher, I wondered just how one said this word, and more, what was its meaning.
“Find that advertisement and you'll understand how all of what you are looking fits together,” said the soft voice, “and that is the nameplate to the device in question.”
Sarah came behind me, and gasped, “the strangled 'S'! I know what that means!”
“The hiss of a snake?” I asked. “Like, uh, a Fenny-Snake?”
“No,” said Sarah. “The strangled 'S' is pronounced as if it were an 's' followed by a 'h', which is a very rare spelling in what we speak.” A brief pause, then, “it is very common in what witches say, however, and... that... is...” Sarah paused, then asked me in a quiet voice, “how did I know its name like that?”
“Those weird red spikes on the top and bottom of each, uh, letter?” I asked. “The shape of everything on that nameplate?”
“If it was as filled with spirits as Cardosso's coach, then it would want a strange nameplate,” said Katje. “Those might not be runes, but they were nearly as bad then.” A pause, then, “and that name is not one spoken here, not even by witches, as they cannot speak it and endure more than a few seconds.”
“Most witches, yes,” said the soft voice. “Witches of the level of Koenraad the first could speak words written that way, if they were prepared to pay a fairly high price in terms of being debilitated for several days afterward.” A pause, then, “that advertisement is but two shelves over and one down.”
I moved in that direction, found the shelf in question covered with a thin brittle cloth, and removed this cloth with a slow movement, much as if it were hiding a bomb of some kind. Full page, and still unnaturally glossy despite the passing of nearly a thousand years, the 'advertisement' showed itself, just as if it had materialized for our viewing, and as I held my lantern closer to see it more closely, the light of another lantern showed to my right to add to the light shining upon this horrific picture.
“I have only read of such things before,” said Sarah. “I never knew that they actually existed.”
“That one tapestry you spoke of, Gabriel?” I asked quietly. I wondered how I recalled his mentioning it. “Did it show this thing, or something else?”
“It may have showed something like... No, it did not!” Gabriel's tone was one of consternation, which only grew louder and more insistent when he next spoke. “Then why did I speak as I did?”
“Perhaps because you heard about it from a witch-in-hiding?” I asked.
“No, I read this somewhere, and it was said to be on a tapestry.” Gabriel was sounding very confused.
“I think I know where, then,” said Sarah's doom-laden voice. “This was out of a book, correct – a digest of tapestries, the ones they sell bagged, and not those in boxed sets?”
I could feel Gabriel thinking, so much so that I was startled by Sarah's outburst: “those things smell, and not just the ones in those varnished corpse-boxes fit for infants, Gabriel – they've got more errors than some two-doored shops have fetishes!”
“Still, they're very popular,” I said. “If all you're supposed to do is learn to act like 'betters' while out traipsing instead of 'learning by doing', then your visits to look at tapestries are mostly to say you've done so, and not to actually learn anything of note.” A pause, then, “if that is so, then your real knowledge – that which you not only learn at your relative leisure, but also learn the 'correct' interpretation of what is meant by what the tapestries supposedly say – is to be found in those digests.” Another pause, then, “correct, Gabriel? Those lecturers only know what's in those things, and they more or less demand that you tell them what they wish to hear or you're driven out of those schools in disgrace.”
“And such students are then killed before the sun goes down, at least if you go to Boermaas,” said Katje. “Now this thing I see here is fit for a nightmare. What is it?”
The picture Katje was now pointing at, I now realized, showed a six-wheeled truck, this with its various portions painted a mismatched and mottled mixture of blue, gray, and black blotches and stripes. To one side behind the rakish-looking cab jutted a tall and silvery exhaust stack, this black-tipped and billowing faint reddish flames and a thin trickle of black smoke – with the whole vehicle silhouetted by a faint reddish glow, and the dark smoke-tinted windows glowing redly, much as if they shielded the uninitiated viewer from the flames of hell that enduringly dwelt upon their other sides. A sudden thought, and I understood a portion that was unstated yet strongly implied by the smokestack, and more, the smoke itself.
Black smoke meant power, status, and other matters of true importance to witches then and now: then, because the crematoria at Berky destroyed 'the enemies of the regime' by sheer compounded curse-energy to leave nothing as a reminder of their passing save black smoke; and now, because of the past glories of witchdom written about in the black book – and all smoke-billowing things partook of the raw and raging soot-choked power of Berky by their self-same clouds of black smoke, much as those five tall smokestacks once had proclaimed so long ago in the past.
“High status, also,” I thought. “They must have viewed such vehicles as if they were, uh, the witch-version of a Rolls-Royce.”
And for some reason, I knew that while the 'cost of ownership' was definitely in the region of a Rolls-Royce, the type of vehicle implied by that name was utterly and completely wrong. These, while they were among the ultimate status symbols available to the witches of that era, were not meant to be driven in a sedate manner – but in a fashion more appropriate to a truly outrageous 'hot rod'.
“What is that thing?” asked Karl. “There is only the picture, and no words for it.”
While I wondered as to how Karl could not see the title of the thing – it was a 'DRAŠTIC DÖDGE', if I went by the labeled portions in the upper right and left corners of the yet-glossy 'advertisement' – the answer to Karl's question was so hard to believe that I found myself doubting it even as I said it: “the reason there are no words describing it, Karl, is because these things were fetishes. They might not have been built like fetishes as we know of them, but every part to one of these things was cursed, at least nominally – and all of them were built to the customer's specifications, much...” Here my lips stumbled upon learning another searing truth. “Much as... as if... as if they were i-instruments today.”
“So that explains that much,” said Sarah. “That's why there are inducements, and special fees, and a lot of other nonsense needed to deal with most instrument-makers.”
“Uh, not quite, dear,” I said. “Those who think like witches, or who are witches, yes. Those otherwise – it might well have to do with getting a difficult and time-consuming task done with inadequate equipment and personnel that are barely up to the assignment, and then making a lot of special tools, many of which most likely get 'put down in the grease' for years between uses, if my guess is right.” I had spoken predominately from my own recent experience. I then returned my mind to answering Karl's question – and at the same time, I learned some information I could use.
“The purchase of these things, on the other hand, involved a lot of outright bribery, a lot of 'pull' – you had to know the right people, in other words – and a lot of money to buy them, just like some really rare and costly fetishes do today,” I said, “and their cost to purchase was easily enough to build several large houses.”
“Several large witch-houses stuffed with dark 'antique' furniture, and that in the 'hottest' part of the second kingdom,” said the soft voice. “Each of the numerous inducements needed to get one of those 'mobile fetishes' was equivalent to a weighty sack of gold monster coins, and the whole amount taken together to buy one was enough to make all the people of a town larger than Roos misers three times over by local standards.” A pause, then, “that was to buy the vehicle's parts and then have them 'assembled' into a functional assembly. It then needed maintenance.”
“M-maintenance?” I asked.
“A lot of maintenance,” said the soft voice. “Expensive maintenance, much as if it were a racing vehicle – which, in some ways, it was, much like some of those made by that one firm you've heard of that otherwise made tractors and industrial equipment – the one signified by a charging bull.”
“L-Lamborghini?” I thought. I wasn't about to speak that foreign-sounding of a word here and now.
“The same,” said the soft voice. “Given that one of the vehicles shown in that advertisement, if driven hard, could keep up with the most capable vehicles that firm ever made – at least in the areas of top speed and acceleration – it's not surprising.”
“The smoke?” I asked silently. “Evil engines? Did those things use..?”
“No, as these were indeed 'luxury' vehicles, and much like a old Rolls-Royce, they were entirely hand-built to customer specifications – and their engines were also entirely built-to-order,” said the soft voice. “The vast majority of them ran alcohol-based fuel mixtures similar to some old racing cars where you came from, and the smoke trails they left behind them were produced by a combination of a rich fuel mixture and burning oil.”
“Bad rings?” I asked. “Poor assembly?”
“No, a combination of 'a lot of horsepower' and an engine that was set up 'loose' so it would not seize when run hard,” said the soft voice. “The loose fits weren't deliberately sloppy, by the way – these engines needed ample cylinder and bearing clearances to live, given some of the fuel mixtures used – and the oil they used was not synthetic.”
“What did they use, then?” spat Sarah. “Fifth kingdom grease?”
“No, a cold-pressed plant-based oil somewhat similar to uncorking medicine, save much thicker, darker in hue, and conspicuously green-tinted.” I vaguely recalled an oil like that from far back in my past, even if I could not recall the lubricant's name beyond 'it had something to do with castor oil, and it was intended for racing use'. “The synthetic lubricants this place used were eventually developed from it, but until they were perfected during the hottest part of the war, that plant oil had no peers when an engine like what those vehicles had was consistently driven to its limits.” A brief pause, then, “the plants, for the most part, are extinct on the continent. The Veldters grow sizable plots of 'breeding-improved' plants in their underground facilities, as their version of that oil is useful for keeping their engines running.”
“They run engines?” I asked.
“Yes, small ones, for both woodcutting and power generation,” said the soft voice, “with power generation receiving the bulk of such oil.”
“Power generation?” I asked. “How large..?”
“A typical Veldter 'settlement' has two or three generators, with the larger ones having five or more,” said the soft voice, “and while these sets are fairly small in size compared to what's used in the fifth kingdom, they're vastly more reliable – and Veldter generators are secretly coveted in most locations that consume electricity in amounts beyond the trivial.”
“The Heinrich works?” I asked. “Their generators?”
“Are secretly purchased in unassembled form from the Veldters, the parts cleaned carefully, the baseplate cast and machined – with their name on it – the whole assembled, and then sold as their products, much as they do with those special surgical tools.” A pause, then, “more than a few of the really precise parts 'made' in that location are either copied from old equipment or are secretly imported from elsewhere – and the Valley and that one location Sarah had to wear 'their' clothing to visit are but two of those places. There are several more, most of which are even more shrouded in secrecy.”
I could tell there were questions in addition to my own, and I thought to ask them for all: “they can't hold the needed tolerances?”
“They can, at least for most of the parts of generators like the one you saw in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “That type is not intended to be driven faster than a few hundred revolutions per minute, either.” A pause, then in drier tone, “those made by the Veldters could endure one of your engines as a driving source, provided they were appropriately maintained.”
“Andreas?” I asked.
“Does not have a Heinrich generator, or even one from the Veldters, but something much different, vastly more powerful, and far easier to maintain,” said the soft voice, “and his getting it was almost entirely a stroke of luck. He's glad for it just the same, as he's the only person on the entire continent to have one.”
“Then why have I not heard it?” asked Sarah.
“He has it hidden, dear,” I said. “That, and you'd have to be sitting on this thing to hear it, almost.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You'd need one of Anna's stethoscopes to hear it running unless it was being pressed to its limits – and Andreas does have it hidden quite well just the same.” A pause, then, “he needs to, as that device would be considered 'witchcraft' – or its literary equivalent – where you came from.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A fusion powerplant,” said the soft voice.
“N-no,” I murmured. “They were doing research on those, but this sounds like science fiction.”
“It is, where you come from,” said the soft voice, “just like 'thermal recognition seeker heads' and a host of other things that are to be found across the sea.”
And to provide an 'end' to this particular episode, the advertisement vanished with a faint rush of wind and a powdery flashing blush of smoke to leave nothing behind save a faint hint of sulfurous reek and a few crispy wisps of soot – almost as if it were made of a tame species of 'celluloid' that had somehow ignited of its own accord.
“A lot of 'glossy' advertisements like that one were closer to 'tame celluloid' than you might think,” said the soft voice, “and given the chemical processes used involved curses and fetishes at every level, they tended to have 'shelf lives'. That one's was long ago expired, but that deep-hole's continuing presence forestalled its dissolution – until you looked at it.”