“When it rains, it rains hard.”
We assumed a meandering single-file path as we came closer to the gate, and seeing me in greens caused both of the 'armed' guards to raise the gate without comment. Trying to imitate someone like me, someone riding 'a big black one' without harness or saddle, tall, broad-shouldered, long dark hair....
“I really doubt those stinkers could pull it off,” I thought, as we left the reek of burning flesh behind us. The stink of hundreds of still-burning witches would most likely drive Gabriel into the nearest privy, there to hide himself until the place became quiet at night.
“That, or he'll be bathing a lot,” I thought. “Probably the best thing for him to do is to get in a tub and scrub himself as well as possible, and do three instances of that one after another so he doesn't get 'too sick to travel'. I then realized a certain matter.
“Of course he'll be 'too sick' to travel,” I thought. “We are not waiting on him to be healed enough for easy traveling, so we'll need to dose him thoroughly...”
Sarah looked at me as Jaak turned the corner at the northeast corner of the building, and I knew our time here would be a bit longer than we'd planned – as while I could most likely dragoon Karl and Sepp into weapons-demonstrations, I really wanted to try part of a brick of that gray explosive so as to 'uncover' that one sizable buried cache of mingled gold and silver witch-coins.
“Make a heck of a noise, no doubt,” I thought. I wondered just how big that cache would be, in fact.
Again, Sarah looked at me, and I leaped off of Jaak's back and removed the 'saddle-blanket'. This I folded over the nearest 'hitching rail' so as to air it out, while Jaak ran for the barn.
“Most likely after a mare,” I thought. I then knew that was wrong, and I thought to ask Sarah as she dismounted.
“I suspect he wishes to roll in the hay, as is common for horses,” said Sarah. “It does them a great deal of good, as I have seen witch-horses covered with horse-bugs, and those don't do any such things.”
“Horse-bugs?” I asked. “What are those?”
“Something you do not want getting into your horses,” said Anna as she dismounted. “Hans, we need to let these loose so they can do their hay-rolling and move about some without these collars.”
I tried to help Sarah unharness the two horses, but my clumsy aspect with harness had me muttering more than a little. I was glad she was familiar with it, and I wondered briefly if she could help me harness two horses later today. As if she'd read my mind, she nodded, then said, “I think you'd best plan on one of those noisy things if you can get one, as I can tell you'd be lost doing this here.”
“What kind of noisy things?” asked Anna, as she came over to help Sarah. “You may be better at this than he is, but I've never seen him do it before now.”
Sarah looked at Anna, then her mouth opened wide as if terrified. “I didn't know that. Didn't you teach him?”
“You did not see him when he first got here, Sarah,” said Hans. “I did, and if anyone was afraid of horses, it was him then, and I think he is still afraid of them some.”
“I am,” I said. “I'll need to 'drive' a buggy some distance today, so I thought I might try to learn this part.”
“I doubt he can do it the usual way,” said Anna. “Now what are those noisy things you spoke of?”
“He used to have some,” said Sarah. “I've seen pictures on at least two tapestries, and I heard from Lukas how he'd ridden them before coming here.” A pause, then, “I hope I can endure flying like a wood-pigeon, as those things travel as fast as one of those birds, and I suspect I might need to learn to ride one also.”
“Yes, dear,” I said. “If we get such things, I think you'd like one – a quiet one, one that, uh, travels about twice as fast as a postal buggy with a fresh team and a light load.”
“If one shows, then I wish to learn its use,” said Anna. “If they travel that rapidly, then it might help with medical travel, as having one would save me a great deal of time.” Anna then unslung her machine pistol, checked it over carefully, then sniffed.
“No, he's not around here, dear,” I said. “He's either in a privy, or soaking in a tub – as that shot Hendrik put in his hide isn't coming out at all quickly.”
“It will come out faster if he stays in a tub,” said Anna. “If I see him again, I will air out his smelly hide.”
“You and who else?” said Lukas from the doorway. “Now them witches out front is stinking up the house worse than having a big burn-pile inside o' it, and that wretch found himself a tub and is taking one bath after another, and he's got a lock on that place.”
“Lock?” I asked. That phrase had at least two meanings that I could think of.
“He thinks he has the only key to it,” said Lukas, “but there are keys that open a fair number of doors in the house and outside o' it, and I've got one, and I know two other people who have others.”
“Oh?” I said slyly. “Key?” I almost said, “I don't need no stinking key, I can walk up to any door in the house and open the thing by putting my hand on it – and if it's one of those few doors in there which has a tricky aspect, then I have the key for it.”
“You don't need no keys,” said Lukas. “Now you all look about due for some beer, and I know I'm due for some, and it'll take us a bit o' time to get those what want good weapons together enough...”
Anna said, “Half a turn of a glass, Lukas. We have much to do, and little time to do it, and I speak of Hans and I.” A pause, then, “I do not envy what they will need to do today, as it is more, and not a little more.”
“Least they got decent animals and a good buggy,” said Lukas, as we followed him inside. The aspect of 'there are no witches in this place' was very strong, and while I could find Gabriel easily...
“I know right where he is,” I whispered to Anna as I located his precise location in 'the blink of an eye'. “He thinks he's hiding good, but if you can find me a rotten egg, I know just what to do with it.”
Anna looked at me in utter shock, then said, “why? Is he unconscious from too much wine?”
“No, but he does need egg on his face,” I said, while silently marveling at Anna's swiftly-growing vocabulary. She'd never used the word 'unconscious' before, at least in my hearing. I pushed that matter aside, then resumed speech regarding Gabriel. “Perhaps some egg in his hair, also. He could use some, uh, pomade – put a shine to his hair. Eggs are supposedly good for that, though I'm not sure about rotten ones.”
“Now that word I know,” said Sarah, “and if you put rotten eggs to him, they will cause trouble.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I knew about the smell portion, which was what I was thinking about.
“He will drop his hair within an hour if egg-stuff gets on his head,” said Sarah, “and everywhere that egg-stuff lands, it will be as red as a tin-burn for several days.”
“I will get some eggs in the kitchen here, then,” said Anna. “Nothing speaks loudly of a man than to see him completely without hair, and that goes double in much of the third kingdom.”
“You got that right,” said Lukas. “If you see someone with no hair down that way, then either that wretch is an escaped slave or a bad witch, and with him, they probably won't be able to tell which o' those things he is.”
“They'll try for him a lot, you mean,” I said. “It isn't like that fourth kingdom market, where some people are willing to hide such persons until they look 'decent' again.” I then squeaked, “escaped slave?”
“Yep,” said Lukas. “I've seen plenty o' them people down that way, and they all either try to head for that market town, or they hide good until they can get themselves up here.” A pause, then as we turned the corner into the candle-lit main hall of the ground floor, I walked quickly to a 'locked' door, felt the knob – which clicked in my hand, and then softly closed the door.
Only then did I notice the stink: stink from behind the door, and stink in the main area. I wasn't sure which was stronger: the reek of obvious horse-dung, or the stench of burning flesh. Both odors made my gorge rise. I was brought back to the present by others, those with less-sensitive noses.
“He's in there?” asked Lukas.
“It's not easy to get to that place from most locations in this part of the house,” I said, “and that tub most likely needed some real scrubbing before he could use it, as it's normally used to clean, uh, bed-clothing – or, leastways, it used to be, back when there were a lot more clerks and such living here.” A pause, then, “it's not been used much lately, so he thinks he's 'safe' in there.”
A soft muffled groan reached my ears, then a soft intake of breath. Whoever was in there behind those multiple layers of 'locked' doors was in substantial pain.
“That is that wretch, all right,” said Hans ominously. “I put enough stripes on his back to make him good and bloody yesterday, and only this one man stopped me from emptying my pistol into him.”
“Better to use rotten eggs,” I muttered. “We'll need to look at that 'finery', also – we'll want a bit of time to look at that stuff.”
“What, his special clothes?” asked Lukas, as we resumed walking. Gabriel would get egged in short order, I knew that – and that would cement his fear, as then he would know he could not hide from me, even if he would wonder as to the sense of my tossing a few rotten eggs at him.
“Only thing better would be to write on his 'door' or whatever when we get back, 'we know where you live, El Stinko, so you'd best behave yourself',” I thought. I then had a question.
“What would we write it with?”
“You'll get plenty of such materials overseas, and 'graffiti' is a good way to deal with witches and those who are inclined to their ways,” said the soft voice. “That will help your reputation no end, by the way.”
“El Stinko?” I asked silently. I then heard Sarah suppress her laughter – or try to, only she didn't quite manage it.
“You would have done well at the west school,” she said between part-suppressed bouts of laughter. “Most likely you would have carried the ribbon the whole time, but after what you just called Gabriel, and what you plan to do to him, I know you would have done well there.”
“What did he call him?” asked Anna pointedly. We were roughly half-way to the refectory, and while the house was 'awake', it was only partly so, due to its sleep being interrupted multiple times during the night by gunfire. I then thought to look at the wall, and over perhaps three seconds' walking, I saw no less than five deep and sizable bullet-pocks, all of them at an astonishingly uniform height – and obviously fresh, also.
“How did those get there?” I asked, as I pointed to the bullet-pocks.
“I got to ask him how those things work,” said Lukas, “'cause I want to get something like that, even if it is out of an old tale for looks and working.”
“Who would that be?” asked Anna.
“That butcher, Sepp,” said Lukas. “Hendrik wasn't the only person shooting at Gabriel – he shot at him too...” Lukas then did a double-take, one that nearly put him on the floor.
“You got one of them things like he had,” he said, this with 'bated' breath. “You use it yet?”
“Yes, I did,” said Anna. “I dropped seven quolls with it, and we had soup of them.” A pause, then, “I'll need to tell the cooks here of that soup, as we had some last night, and I found it to be most-helpful, especially if one is ill or injured.”
“You did,” said Lukas – who had eyes only for Anna's machine pistol. “You hit them things...”
“All seven, and that faster than I could count, and each bird was both fresh and missing its head,” said Sarah. “She was not using the frightening setting, though I doubt she needs it.”
“He was shooting that thing fast enough to suit me to a turn,” said Lukas. “Now we turn here, so as to get into that refectory, and I'm due for a jugful, and no mistake.”
“Odd, he didn't notice me and what-all I'm carrying,” I thought. “I'll want a lined cloak down at the third kingdom port so as to hide this stuff better from eyes that don't need to be seeing it.”
“You will have one, and you will want it for almost all of the trip,” said the soft voice. “You're 'not all the way here', so Lukas is seeing what Anna's carrying more than anything else.” A pause, then, “Sepp was warning Gabriel, as all of those were 'deliberate' misses on his part, and Gabriel knows that.”
“I think so,” said Hans. “Now I am dry from that trip, and I think I got some dirt up my nose from all that stuff that went up on us, so I need to get some warm water with salt in it so as to clean my nose out in the privy here.”
“You what?” asked Lukas as we actually came into the refectory. The place was having its candles 'replenished', as it would receive numbers of people shortly. “Time's all mixed up here, on account of that wedding the day after tomorrow.”
“How is it you know?” asked Anna.
“Messenger arrived last night about an hour before those two buggies did, and I got told by Hendrik his-own-self,” said Lukas. “Those people coming up here have been traveling like they were students at the west school, and all of 'em's been dodging witches and gunfire as if they were students going to that place.”
“Makes for a desire for real hurry,” I said softly. I was dry myself, and I needed to use the privy. I then sneezed hard – and put a sizable mess on the floor. Thankfully, it did not attempt to catch fire.
“Your nose wasn't about to wait,” said Anna. “You were riding through all that mess, or just ahead of it, so you caught more dirt than any of us.”
“These all the explosions that woke people up in here an hour or so ago?” asked Lukas, as Sarah and I took our place at one of the smaller tables. Only now did I notice their substantial variance as to size, and when I looked closer at this particular table, I noticed another matter.
“This one is n-new,” I squeaked.
“It surely is, and it's smaller, too,” said Lukas. “'Bout half o' these things have rotten places in 'em since you-all did your first day's work at that Abbey place, and the same for a lot o' stuff around here suddenly showing itself gone bad.”
“That was the deep-hole, sir,” said Sarah. “I think I want both beer and dosing, as I'm seeing nightmares in the daytime speaking of what we did in there.”
“That bad, eh?” said Lukas. “If it's doing that to you, then I'm not sure I want to hear about something worse than a bad old tale.”
“You did not deal with Iggy,” said Sarah darkly. “I put a bomb to that lizard's bottom, and it did little to him, and you can ask both Karl and Sepp about both the bomb and that lizard.”
“N-no,” I squeaked, recalling as I spoke what I had needed to do to 'shut him down'. “That thing was awful, and...”
“You need your dose, also,” said Anna. “Lukas, come. We need to get things out of the kitchen, starting with beer...”
Hans pulled up a chair so as to sit at our table, though the creaking noise the thing made when he sat on it caused Sarah to look at the chair with some alarm. Hans saw her expression, got up and looked at what he sat on for a moment, then said, “this thing is about due for the stove, it is so bad. I think I had best find another one, one that will not dump me on the floor.”
“Put that rotten thing aside for those people's shredders,” I murmured as I 'saw' the picture in my mind. “I might be able to build something that might work...”
Sarah looked at me and nodded, this before getting a dose from a vial marked as being 'bull-formula'. I was surprised that she'd made up a vial of that drug.
“This vial was one Hans had,” she said, before she washed the vile-tasting tincture down with beer. Several swallows, then, “I hope I do not need enough that things get strange on me.”
“Strange?” I asked. The word seemed to have echoes.
“I think you want some of that stuff, even if she put some water to it,” said Hans. “About five drops from that dropping tube there, and then some beer, and I'd head for a privy soon, as I can smell your fumes.”
“I know,” I muttered. The soft hissing sounds of gas were now almost omnipresent, and I wondered for a moment if I smelled worse than Gabriel had when he was covered in horse-dung.
“I think not,” said Sarah. “He was put to dung so as to mark him, while that smell is that of a very sick person.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. His grave tone was astonishing. “Now if you get decent medical books in that place, Anna will not be the only person reading them. I will be too, as I will need to learn what I can.”
“Oh, and mathematics, real grammar, a proper vocabulary...”
Sarah shook her head, then murmured, “I hope I can learn enough to understand what those people say, as I tried reading one of the books for those rifles before I went to bed, and it was awful.”
“Awful?” I asked.
“Those shiny folded things that come in the boxes are much simpler for their words,” said Sarah. “The books need something like a Gustaaf, only missing none of its words for their definitions, and all of the entries in that book half a page or more with pictures!”
“I heard that,” said Anna. “If Lukas wants a demonstration of how a machine pistol works, I can show him much of it, and the same for these rifles.” A pause, then, “they have some eggs gathered from the nearby woods, but they are quoll-eggs and not those of chickens.”
“Those are better if you plan on tossing eggs,” said Sarah. “They might not be nearly as large, but their shells are a lot thinner.”
“I know,” said Anna. “They're checking their eggs now, and they will fetch out the basket with the bad ones shortly.”
“Want to toss eggs, dear?” I asked innocently. I was looking at Anna.
She wasted no time: I got my 'dose', then a full cup of beer. As I drank down the latter, though, the walls began to get slightly 'strange' for a moment, almost as if the clock were about to once more roost in my ear as the cloud came down... This time, though, had a difference: it was dark, and we were in that darkness, surrounded by it, held by it, a darkness at once alive, total, and filled to the brim with fear.
A ghostly voice, this soft as the wind, spoke the most-dreaded phrase in the world: “Purple Haze.”
Sarah gulped her beer as if crazed, then once she finished, I saw her face. It had gone as white as a sheet, and she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “did you hear that?”
“I heard something,” said Anna – who then got her own dose. “If this spoke of purple, then it is not witch-purple, but another kind, the kind witches dreaded long ago in the past.”
“Why was that?” asked Lukas. “They found three stinky eggs so far, and they're due to find at least that many more.”
“Because if they walked into that place, they found themselves in the belly of Brimstone most-quickly,” said Anna. “It was thought by witches to be a world filled with monsters, and hence only those marked the witches named monsters could enter it and expect to return.”
“Thank you,” said Sarah. “I did get my dreams mixed up, then, as there were more than one of them that spoke that pair of words.”
“And..?” I asked. I could tell the eggs were being looked over. It seemed quoll-eggs, when they were in season, were much in demand at the house proper. I wondered for a moment as to why they were so desired... And then, I did not.
“Vlai,” I spat. “Crowded privies that stink worse than anything Hans has yet dealt with.”
“That's if you get into that stuff,” said Lukas. “I like it, and it don't cause me trouble, but I know it does that for the two of you.”
“That is but the smell of that privy,” said Anna darkly. “You have not gone into the privy after either of those people when Vlai was causing them trouble.” A pause, then, “I have, and I'd bet a stack of silver coins both of them are ill.” Anna then sniffed, and said, “not just quoll eggs, unless I miss my guess. That stink smells like a hen's egg.”
“They just started dropping eggs again,” said Lukas. “Leastways, up here in most places they did. They were getting those things from down south earlier this year.”
“Most places?” I asked.
“Most places that have chickens in this area don't run enough wood to keep those things laying good for the full season,” said Lukas. “I know of one place that does, and that family has three buggies out fetching drop-wood to keep their fires burning, and they need stoking regular so as to keep those places they have warm enough to suit those birds.”
“What happens during High Summer?” I asked. “They sh-shed feathers?”
“They moult then,” said Sarah. “One does not wish to encounter chickens during the moult, as then they are most-irritable – and the fewer feathers they have upon their bodies, the more irritated they are.”
“They're that way all the time, if you speak of the black ones,” said Gilbertus as he came out of the kitchen. “Now who's getting today's rotten eggs?”
“I think that would be Gabriel,” said Sarah. “If there is a hen's egg, it needs to make his hair slimy, as then he will shed all of it.”
“He'll need to wear a cloak all the time so's he don't get shot down in that third kingdom port, then,” said Gilbertus. “They get bad witches down that way, and the third kingdom's nearly as superstitious as people around here are.”
“Nearly?” I asked. This was a first.
“I didn't think that was so until Hendrik told me of what he got from your notes,” said Gilbertus. “People up here are trained to be witches bad.”
“Or is that 'bad witches'?” I asked. That reek of 'rotten egg' was getting stronger by the minute, almost as if every egg in the cold-room was being checked over to see if it had 'turned'. The shells were weaker, this being especially on quoll eggs, while hen-eggs – those were an entire mystery.
“How big are those things?” I asked.
“Eggs?” asked Anna. “Quoll eggs you've seen, I suspect. Have you?”
“He et some in the second kingdom house,” said Lukas. “They didn't have chicken eggs there, which made me wonder some, as that place likes those things.”
“Those are common in the refectory where the commons eat,” said Sarah. “I take it you ate in that stinky place where food for 'betters' is served?”
“We did,” said Lukas. “That place is so bad it needs cleaning with lye, and the people what eat there need drowning in lye.”
“Anna, get ready,” I said. “They're nearly done fetching the eggs, and we'll wish to hurry, as that one greens-wearing man I've never seen is filling Hendrik in on what he saw while he was after this one stinky witch that's really tricky.”
“Joost,” said Lukas. “You never met Matthys yet, did you?”
“N-no,” I said. “Is he out in the field mostly?”
“He does that,” said Anna. “Will this take long to find Gabriel?”
“Not really,” I said. “I know where he is, and I know both ways to get to where he is – and I'm taking the back way, so we'll surprise him and drown him with eggs.” I did not need to speak of the privy, as the stench of the eggs was 'getting to me'. I left the table at a near-run.
“That will wish three of us tossing them,” said Sarah as her voices faded to my rear as I ran for the nearest privy. “I can be quiet, and Anna can watch me, if she needs to learn stealth.”
“If?” I asked. I'd caught the emphasis on that word, as I made the door of the place and hooked my hand around the door-frame as I 'rounded' it. I quickly went to the stool, this in the near-total darkness; and once done, I not merely wiped myself, but I found the container of rags – and then ran out of the place, this in a doubled hurry.
Someone was putting lye in the privy-buckets, and while the stink of this lye was muted and it reduced the reek in the small room, I'd been told about the effects of lye upon me. I made it back into the refectory in 'record' time, and the conversation seemed to resume without any delay whatsoever.
“She has learned something of it, I think, but she has not gotten into as many places as I and my cousin have.” Sarah then asked, “how long did it take you to find that place in that woodlot?”
“Less time than I thought possible,” I said softly, as the reek of rotten eggs suddenly jumped four and five-fold to overwrite the stink of lye and privy utterly. I then turned to see a pair of 'cooks', both women – one of them was Lukas' niece, who had now had her butcher's papers, and was a better-than-average butcher as well as a more-than-passable cook – and each woman was carrying a small 'cheap-looking' wicker basket.
At least I thought they were carrying one basket each. The trailing woman had two 'cheap-looking' baskets, and as soon as she put one of those baskets down, she did as Lukas' niece was doing: her other hand found her nose so as to hold it closed.
“These are the smelliest eggs we have,” said Lukas' niece. “Most of them are quoll eggs, as many egg-gatherers have been fetching those, but some are those of chickens, and those...”
“They're bad,” said the other woman. “They're not just bigger. When they turn, they're terrible for stench.” A pause, then, “wh-what will you do with them?”
“Mark someone who thinks himself to be fully owned by witches,” said Sarah. “I am glad I have ear-corks, as I will put them up my nose for these things should I need to carry them far.”
“No, dear,” I said. “Perhaps a hundred feet or so, and that quickly.” A pause, then as I picked up the 'fullest' basket – all quoll eggs that I could tell – I asked, “do I need to return this basket?”
“It is not required, as they are cheap enough things,” said Lukas' niece. “Why, do you think these things might ruin...”
“Why do you think I picked these particular baskets?” said the other woman. “Some of those eggs might well leak, and then the baskets will smell fit for the manure-pile, and we will not be able to burn them in here.” She then looked at me and smiled slightly. “Will you dump them on that man who smelled of manure when he came back last night?”
I was at an utter loss of words, so much so that she said, “I've had trouble with witches before, but the day before yesterday, I was surprised by them as I was getting ready to come here, and one of those stinkers ruined my shoes.”
“Ruined..?” asked Anna in a voice that could be best described as 'cosmic dread' – or something close to how 'the fear of the lord' was commonly described here. I'd learned about that many years ago; it was based on the nature of who you were dealing with – as in he was GOD, one who was too good to be anyone else – and not on what he would do to you if you failed him. The latter was a concept best reserved for Brimstone – or a great many people, most of my family included, where I came from. I then finished Anna's question with a quote from a very old poem: “as in 'how awful goodness is'?”
“I received several bullet holes, and lost three toes,” she said. “The bullet holes healed overnight, even if the pain was terrible that day, and one toe on my right foot grew back by morning, leaving me two missing, one on each foot.” A pause, then, “and what I dreamed that night would have been fit for a nightmare, save for the one who held my hand through it all, and in seeing him in my dream, I learned something about goodness – as in how it can be both very nice, better than anything you might hope to meet in this world, and then very terrible – and when it is terrible, it is worse than meeting Charles as a witch when his face was like a bad storm and he had a new-made sword in his hand.” Another pause, then, “it is worse than seeing Brimstone in person, and that as dinner.”
“Do not speak of that smelly lizard,” squeaked Anna. “I've seen that thing, and it was awful!”
“And I was certain to meet that lizard, and that without hearing a single word upon the matter,” I said. “I knew it as surely as the sun rose, and when I was offered the 'chance', it was if it were my only hope – as if there were a loaded gun put to my head, one with a most-evil witch holding it and wishing to sac-sacrifice me...”
I did not speak of my instance of seeing Brimstone. I was most glad I'd only had a short time in that reptile's company; I was not wishing to encounter that thing again under any circumstances. It made that portion of 'Yo-ab' – the book of Job was spoken of in two distinct syllables here – regarding 'Leviathan' look altogether too plausible for me.
“That is what is said to happen to those whom God chooses,” said the woman. “It was what happened to her, or so I was told.” Here, she indicated Sarah. “Those so chosen do not have a choice in the matter, and that entire.”
I could tell we did not wish to wait, as the room would become crowded in a very few minutes, perhaps two at the most, and I took the nearest wicker basket, that which looked fullest, and I led off at a rapid walk. I could hear the startlement of those behind me, for my steps were not merely rapid, they were as if I were absolutely certain of where I was going.
“Mostly because I've not only explored that part of the house where Gabriel is, but I can find him by his smell alone!” A pause in my thoughts, then, “Gah, I am not sure which smells more – these eggs, or that stinky f-fool.” This, spoken: “come, we have eggs to deliver!”
I heard rustling behind me as I passed the privy where I had gone but moments before, then, “didn't you need to use that room there?”
This question was spoken by Sarah.
“Yes, and I already did, though I was quick about it,” I said softly. The stink of the eggs seemed to be growing, as was Gabriel's stench. “They had lye in there for the privy rags, and while it may well keep the stink down in there, it was making me deathly ill.”
“The lye would do that,” said Anna quietly. “I think you need something much like you wore last night, as you looked better while you were using it.”
“I looked better?” I whispered.
“Your breathing,” she whispered. “We must be quiet, as I can tell he's not too far from here.”
“You can smell the manure,” I whispered. It was a comment, not a question.
“No, not yet,” said Anna. “I suspect you can, but only a scent-hound has a better nose than you do, and...”
“They have those at Ploetzee,” whispered Sarah. “I can smell manure, and bad manure, and more than manure.” Sarah paused, then, “he smells like that one room did!”
“Hist,” I whispered. “He's very close, now.” A pause, then as I went into the 'realm of darkness' where but few flickering candles burned, I murmured, “I'll unlock the door, then you two follow me in. This will be a very rushed business.”
“I thought so,” said Anna. “We all toss our baskets?”
“If there is time, throw your eggs as you're inclined, but after I plant this basket, then things will get lively and smelly.”
This last I had thought, and the term 'rushed business' would be likely to be something of an understatement. Gabriel, to put it mildly, while he was getting into some wine, was in enough pain that the dulled aspect of wine-soddenness he was courting wasn't near enough to deal with his pain. He had none of the widow's tincture handy, none of that for pain, wine was scarce in the house...
“Wine he can get to, anyway,” I thought. “They've locked that stuff up, as someone knows about tailor's antiseptic, and how the wine on hand has become a critical resource.”
“Hence he is limited to the few bottles he has remaining unto himself,” said the soft voice. “He already went through two of them since he's gotten in the tub, so while his pain is but barely touched, you will have time to 'egg' him most-thoroughly.”
“And confiscate the remaining wine hidden around here for the house's use,” I thought. “Getting more of that stuff, especially once those where it is jugged...” I then snickered: no, we would not get wine from the second kingdom.
We would get it from the fourth, and that 'dehydrated', so distillation would happen quicker.
“You do not wish that wine, but the usual jugged material that is deemed unfit for table use,” said the soft voice. “The best wine – for both tailor's antiseptic and for cooking purposes – is that in jugs used by cooks down there.”
“And it is cheaper, too,” I thought, as I led into the 'maze', this a place where Gabriel had never gone. I was astonished to not merely hear the two women behind me as they hustled to keep up, but also, faint moaning noises. My nose, however, was becoming irritated, and the remainder of my senses were becoming outraged.
The 'maze' turned right and left, now and then under a smelly tallow candle about to drop a mess under the floor, past open doorways and doors yet closed. This was a place where things were stored, as well as a place of 'secret passages' and little nooks and crannies where a well-set trap could – and in the past, did – catch witches now and then.
“When Karl isn't poking them with his knife,” I thought. “This is a perfect place for silenced pistols – plop, plop, thud, thud, now this witch is a dud...”
I could clearly hear snickering behind me, and when I turned the next corner, I saw in my peripheral vision Sarah with one hand clasped over her mouth. She'd obviously caught the hint about using a silenced pistol.
“Given that she's 'whacked' witches in the second kingdom house proper with a flail, she ought to appreciate such humor,” said the soft voice. “She'd gladly use one of those pistols instead in conditions like these.”
Gabriel was but two turns ahead, or so I thought until I turned right and went down an unlit passage. He was ahead, for I could see a black-hole doorway, its rim all but blazing with light. Only the door blocking it was keeping my eyes from being blinded, and as I went closer, I sniffed.
“Why is it so bright in there?” I thought. “Is he sooting up the ceiling with a trio of light-giving firebombs running boiled distillate?”
“No, he is not,” said the soft voice. “It's darker here than you realize, and he's confiscated every one of those student's lanterns out of those five offices where those other 'stinkers' once did their business.” A pause, then, “given that the keys he has unlock those doors, among others, he had an easy time of getting those things and the candles those witches had laid aside for their own use.”
“In addition to their other supplies,” I thought. “Probably trying to sell them at a second-hand store, and getting no takers.”
“Oh, they're willing to buy them,” said the soft voice. “They just aren't willing to pay him anywhere close to what he thinks they're worth.”
I put my hand on the door, then with closed eyes, I carefully 'asked' the lock to neither make noise, nor the hinges creak. I then looked at the hinges themselves.
“Oil cups,” I thought, as I then reclosed my eyes, or rather tried to – until I thought, “all lights out, save for one – the one furthest from this door.”
The lighting behind the door suddenly went dim, and I opened the thing silently, then found a curtain. I went to its side, this at a near run, then two steps more...
I came upon Gabriel, his back a running mess, still seeping blood from beneath a multitude of leaking scabs. I ignored that, and taking the basket, I slammed it down upon his head with such force that he was instantly 'stunned' – and the stink of manure was eclipsed by rotten eggs!
I leaped to the side; in slow motion, eggs began flying at Gabriel; then as I reached the curtain, the thing dropped to the floor...
And the eggs flew faster.
I went to the side next to the junction of door and wall, and now marveled at just how fast both women could throw these missiles. While many of the eggs were the roughly spherical things I recalled seeing in the second kingdom, some were much larger, oblong, and varied in color, these delicate tints of yellow, brown, or in a few cases, green. The reek of these things was awe-inspiring, and when the two women suddenly tossed their baskets at the now-slimy man in the tub, they turned and ran out the door – and I ran hotfoot on their heels as screams ripped the dark apart behind us.
Ahead of me, I now heard a storm of laughter, and once we were back in the refectory, I noted with some small satisfaction that while none of us were particular dirty, we had left the stench behind us.
“Phew,” Anna said. “He smelled bad before we tossed those things, and now he smells worse.”
“He will need to clean himself for the rest of the day,” said Sarah, “and continue to do so for some hours into the night – and that after he cleans up that room and tub.”
“Did you miss?”
“No!” said Sarah. “Anna went to the side like you did, but I knew about that room and its curtain, as I've been in it twice recently, and I pulled the curtain down so as to toss my eggs.”
“What were those big stinkers?” I asked.
“The eggs of hens,” said Anna, “and they were new-eggs, as they were on the small size for chickens.”
“New-eggs?” I asked innocently. They were the largest eggs I'd ever seen here.
“Either the bird has just started its first season, which is when they're the smallest the bird will ever lay,” said Sarah, “or the bird has not laid for some time and is resuming. They take about four weeks to become as large as they will if the bird is resuming, or two months or more if the bird has never laid before.” A pause, this to drink, then, “that is for red chickens. The black ones do not lay until their second year, or sometimes their third.”
“Those things dump rotten eggs, Sarah,” said Anna. “I've seen those eggs, and while what we just tossed might stink, nothing in the shape of an egg is as smelly as a rotten egg fresh from the nest of a black chicken.”
“Then the source of that stench must be in the shape of a man, and not an egg,” spat Hendrik. “First the house smells of a witch who had bathed himself in horse-manure, then it stinks of a burn-pile worthy of Charles himself, and now it smells like eggs that need to be tossed!”
“We just did that,” said Anna. “Gabriel will drop his hair within the hour, and you may rely upon that, as I saw what he did!”
“Yes, and what did he do?” asked Hans. He seemed to be hiding a grin worthy of a Cheshire Cat.
“He flung that whole basket of rotten eggs straight down onto Gabriel's head, and stunned him proper,” said Anna. “That gave Sarah and I plenty of time to toss ours, and they were ready to toss, all right, as several of them had started to leak their contents.”
Hendrik looked at Anna, then looked at her feet. For some reason, while I knew she had changed bandages before leaving, and her foot was no longer particularly sore, she needed to pad her shoes carefully.
Women's shoes tended to have thinner leather, I now realized – though up here, that difference was smaller than further south.
“If they are made locally, there is no difference,” said the soft voice. “What she's wearing was made in the fourth kingdom, and there the difference is marked.”
“Go in and buy shoes?” I thought. “Made to sizes?”
“In her case, no,” said the soft voice. “They have equipment down there that speeds up shoe manufacture enough that if one comes in one day, one can come back two days later and receive one's shoes – which is what she did the year before last.” A pause, then, “that, however, makes for less-durable shoes – as a rule, anyway.”
“Hers are something of an exception,” I thought.
“More than she realized at the time,” said the soft voice, “and less than you thought.” A pause, then, “expect her to wish for newer shoes shortly.”
“Yes, I was fighting witches yesterday,” said Anna. “We will need to speak today, as there is much we must do regarding that wedding, and much more besides.”
“I know about some of that,” said Hendrik. “Matthys had to use the nearest privy, and Tam is getting some food, and...” Here, Hendrik did a double-take, then asked me, “now why is your hair so long? You look like one of those men of the Mule's Totem now, and the last time I saw you, your hair was but a little longer than mine!”
“That is part of what we must speak of,” said Sarah. “I take it you wish to hear gunfire and explosions?”
“I heard plenty of both things already,” said Hendrik. “I may wish to see what was making the noise, but I have heard plenty of gunfire, both in the house and to the north.” A pause, then, “I take it you were involved?”
“We were that, and were nearly scattered by the camps of the witches,” said Sarah. “They had a great many such camping places, but the worst were hidden below-ground, and now those stinky places are gone, and the same for their powder-mill.”
“What?” squeaked Hendrik.
“Now that I can talk about,” said Tam. “There was rumors about them witches having powder mills to their own selves, but there was one 'specially good one up this way, and them niter-thieves was selling their take to that place, 'cause it paid twice the usual rate.”
“And cleaned up their niter yet further,” I said. “That was one reason their powder was better...”
I then saw Sarah writing at the nearest table. I knew I needed to speak more. Matthys was getting himself 'uncorked' and would be a while longer.
“Then, they melt – no, boil – their sulfur, and catch its vapors, and then the charcoal is gathered specially...” I paused, then spat, “grape-vine prunings, peeled carefully by masses of slaves, packed carefully in cast-iron retorts, sealed up with clay, and then roasted in hot fires.”
“That sounds like a good powder mill, all right,” said Sarah. “Now, did they use wine, water, or strong drink for their grinding, and did they grind the stuff especially well before mingling it all together, and then did they use a wheel-roller, and if so, how large was it?”
“All of those things, though the wine and strong drink commonly went into the witches and not into the powder,” I said. “They put their forward leavings” – namely, their urine – “into the powder, as they thought that added to its strength, and...”
“Thank you,” said Sarah. “I have wondered about witch-grade powder for a very long time, and now you speak of their practices beyond what I have learned of it this morning.”
“That does not help the stuff,” I said. “They think their chants and curses turn their water into wine...”
I then noticed Anna was gone, and in her place, an individual had shown who I had never seen before. He looked altogether 'commonplace' – like a lot of people in I'd seen in the first kingdom, he was blond and several inches shorter than myself. As I scanned his visage, I noted nothing out of the ordinary, save for a sword that I instantly recognized as being one of the very first batch I had done.
“T-that?” I asked while looking at the man's scabbard. My eyes were pointing, as solidly as if I'd extended my hand, first finger outstretched as if reaching into the receiver of an old shoulder-mashing military rifle in order that it might assay 'biting me'. I'd done that very thing once, and only quick reactions had preserved my finger intact. I'd given those rifles the name of 'Mousetrap mark one' then.
“Took some right doing to get it,” said the man. “The man what sold it spoke of having to dodge witches while bringing it, and having witches wanting those things, and that to such an extent that it tempted him sorely,” said this new man. “It works well, though.”
“Well?” squawked Sarah. “I have not seen better, either on tapestry or in real life.”
“I've used good ones before,” said the man. “If you get onto the right people down in the fourth kingdom, you can get ones that take and hold a decent edge – or so I thought until I made my last payment on this thing here and got it.” A pause, then, “it made those things I had bought before at witches' prices look to be worthless for use, and that entire.”
“Yes, and that is why I hope that man Georg delivers up mine before we leave,” said Karl. “Now is Anna here, or is she still hurt?”
“She is here,” said Sarah, “and she is much better.”
“She looked bad yesterday, least when I first saw her,” said Karl. “Now Sepp should be along quick enough.” Karl then came close to me, and asked in a whisper, “did you bring it?”
“It?” I asked quietly.
“Yes, one of those things which spits fire like a dragoon,” said Karl. “Those blue-dressed thugs were in my dreams again last night, and we want two of those things, as those thugs will get the fear then.”
“Like you did?” I asked innocently.
“No,” said Sepp, as he showed suddenly to my right. “Karl knew but the scent of their mule, and they will be riding that stinky thing.” A pause, then, “Gabriel is stinky again, so I put a bucket of lye next to his door – his innermost door, not the outer ones.”
“Innermost door?” I asked.
“My key would not manage its lock,” said Sepp. “That is one door that key will not open, and I did not wish to open it, as he smelled bad enough to make me spew while putting down that bucket of lye.”
“Speaking of stinkers,” said the 'new' man, “I suspect you-all want to hear the latest news 'bout that wretch Joost.” A pause, then, “he runs two or three horses, and he changes 'em off regular enough to set a clock by.”
“So he keeps moving rapidly,” I said, as I made to move toward the rear door of the refectory. I had no idea just what Hendrik and the others wanted to see, even if I knew where to plant my half-brick charge of explosive.
“No, best try a smaller amount first atop that chest, and dig the deepest hole we can,” I thought. “Don't want to make everyone deaf with something that's stronger than drippy mining dynamite.”
I had included the witch-grade stuff when I spoke of dynamite, as well as that which frightened Hans. Only one material I knew of currently available beat 'Moldy Kuchen Dough' for power and 'speed', and that was that sunshine-yellow 'Vlai'. Matthys then spoke of where Joost tended to 'crash' when he wasn't moving.
“When that stinker rests, he hides up in woodlots,” he said, as I came to the door and paused. There was something I needed to hear, and that prior to opening this door. It needed to stay inside, among trusted people. “Not many people know about how this door works.”
“He does,” said Hendrik, “and needed no teaching on the matter, if I go by what I've been told.” Here, I knew: Hendrik knew this matter from a number of people – people he trusted, people he knew well. He had many sources of information, I now understood. “Keep speaking of that witch, as I think it would do him good to hear of him.”
“You sending him out after Joost?” asked Gilbertus. “It might come to doing that for that stinky witch.”
“He smells?” I asked. My curiosity was genuine.
“Like a mule,” said Gilbertus – who then made me wonder just what he meant. “He might want to run mules, and mules would do good where he tends to ride, but he's not running those things, leastways when I went after him.”
“He running 'em now?” asked Lukas.
“No, and I doubt he's ever run those things, leastways up here he ain't,” said Matthys. “He might have run them down south if he learned to be a witch down that way, as they're common in the fifth kingdom.”
“Mules, he says,” I muttered, as I actually opened the door, this without bothering to use a key. It needed no such thing in my case, and that for both 'going' and 'coming' – and as far as I knew, it was not normally possible to get inside from the outside, even if the door did have a handle.
It did not have anyplace to put a key, and I wondered if the handle substituted for one of those rare yet otherwise well-known 'marked' doorknobs.
“If he goes into a town,” said Matthys as he and the others followed me outside, “then he hits them a bit after sundown.”
“Most towns out that way are dead then,” said Lukas. “He get into Public Houses?”
“No, 'cept if he wants to rob them,” said Matthys. “That smelly wretch likes to do that, and the two places I checked over when I was after him this last time had floors covered with blood where he'd knifed people in their beds.”
“Uh, anything else?” I asked. I was moving slowly toward our two buggies.
“He's got pointed boots, though how he stands those things is a mystery,” said Matthys. “I've seen lots of that type of boot, but most witches wearing 'em have bad feet, and he don't.” A pause, then, “you can always tell it's him doing the walking, though.”
“How do you tell?” I asked.
“Not only does that stinker kill like an Iron Pig,” said Matthys, “and he wears them pointed boots, but those boots he wears have something like bad hobnails.”
“B-bad hobnails?” I asked. For some reason, I was getting a distinct impression: these were not the stubby pyramid-shaped things I had on my trekking boots, but something a good bit longer, much sharper, and more pointed; more, they were made of a decent grade of 'steel'; finally, Joost had those boots, which were what he wore some of the time; then some 'regular' pointed boots that had been made specially by a certain shoemaker in the second kingdom house. This person dealt with witches only, and made a fortune making pointed boots that didn't cause undue pain or toe-rot if one wore them much.
The chief trouble with that shop was paying for its products, as they needed not merely a long-worded invitation done properly in 'Ye Writtenn Formatte', but also a sizable bag of gold monster coins to 'get them interested' – and two more such bags to secure one's footwear once they 'deigned' to stoop so low as to actually measure the foot of the witch in question 'beseeching them'.
“They're closer to real nails, only they're like those things called witch-nails spoken of in old tales,” said Matthys. “What do you have in those buggies?”
“Weapons, sir,” said Sarah. “I think he plans on a demonstration, as we were told some would wish them here.” A pause, then, “both of us are sore from much shooting, as we had to 'shoot our way in' through masses of witches.”
“All of those things were full-loaded and black-faced, Anna,” said Hans. “Now that there is the dough you heard about, though that type is stinky and wants these special gloves for handling.” A pause, then, “let me get a cap and some fuse, and these crimping pliers I found downstairs last night.”
“You what?” I asked.
“They were in the medicine chest,” said Anna. “I have no idea how they got there, as neither of us had ever put anything like that inside, but these are decent ones, or so they look to be.”
“Uh, bronze?” I asked.
“Yes, and decent, too,” said Hans. “They were a bit old-looking, but putting vinegar to them overnight got the dirt and stuff off decent.” A pause, then, “you might use them for ideas so as to make up your own once you get back.”
“Hans, I think they need to take those things with them,” said Anna. “Get him” – here, she pointed at me – “to crimp some caps with them before they go, and then put those things in your desk.”
“Not the one at the southeast corner of the basement?” I asked, as I found the gloves.
“He has two desks down there, and one of them was covered with so much stuff that I had to find it last night,” said Anna. “Now, while you're putting on those strange-looking gloves, I think the rest of us need to hear more about Joost, as we might well encounter him sometimes in the future.”
“I think he might have to fetch that wretch's head,” said Hans. “You need a big black one to keep up with a witch that uses three horses and rides...” Hans then turned to Matthys, and asked, “how much does he travel a day, and when does he rob people at night?”
“About two hours after midnight, when he robs people or places,” I said, “and if he doesn't do at least thirty miles a day, he's hiding somewhere.” A pause, then, “I'd bet money he has a map of where one can get access to the secret way, if it goes up... No, it does go into that area, it's fairly extensive, and he knows many of the access points on the northern portions of the Main's east side.”
“That, and you underestimated just how much he uses the secret way – both to hide and to travel on,” said the soft voice. “The chief reason Matthys had so much trouble keeping up with Joost is that not merely does Joost have uncommon cunning, but that he's also a fairly strong witch by today's standards.”
“Then he needs to be dealt with,” I said. “He sounds very dangerous – or does he?”
“He would be much more dangerous than he is were he inclined toward a more-common witch-life,” said the soft voice. “Witches of his 'power', cunning, and intelligence have never been common in the five kingdoms, and he's currently in the top ten that way.”
“For the first kingdom?” I asked. Witches were scarce in the first kingdom now.
“For all five kingdoms,” said the soft voice, “and if he were inclined that way, he could easily become the Power.” A pause, then, “go on. Everyone's getting information they need about Joost, as Matthys had no small amount of trouble trying to keep up with him.”
“Trying?” I asked, as I began to slit open the plastic package with one of my knives.
“He shot two of my horses from under me, and nearly got me with what he shoots,” said Matthys. “It hits like a roer, only it shoots further, and only one weapon I know of shoots further that isn't a cannon.”
“What would that be?” I asked mildly. The stinky brick was now making my eyes water. Only a fresh Goben was worse that way, and the stink was such that the gray brick was turning wavering colors right before my eyes.
“What you use,” said Matthys. “I have heard of what it does, but I have never seen...”
“If you have not seen that thing,” said Hans, “then I can speak of it, because I have, and what we received in the last two days is worse for noise and killing, especially this one...” Hans conferred with Anna for a second, then said, “I think that one big thing is a rifle, as it has grooves in the barrel, and they spin these long thin copper-colored things so they go a far distance.” A pause, then, “and that thing is no cannon I have seen, neither for its noise or its range.”
I was now desiring a larger knife, and I reached into my possible bag for that one knife I had confiscated. The instant I brought the thing out in the early light of 'just-after-dawn', I heard a faint muttering, then Lukas said, this at my shoulder as he watched what I was doing, “now where did you get that rigging knife?”
“I removed it from the equipment of a dead witch,” I said mildly – until with a sudden screech, I gasped, “what?”
“That's 'zactly what that knife is, and I ought to know about 'em, 'cause I got one,” said Lukas. “I'm surprised to no end you didn't know what it was when you saw it.”
“It was dark in that woodlot, sir,” said Sarah. “I went to its very edges, and he came out of that place with the sky still dark, so I doubt he had much chance to look at it.”
“I was told it was a good one,” I said. “It seems to be good for cutting this stuff. Perhaps I do have a use for such a, uh, huge knife.”
“Yes, for that,” said Hans. “Those things...”
“He just got done doing a batch of eight knives for the trip,” said Anna. “Sarah, fetch one out...” Anna then wondered if it was wise – though with this group, I doubted we would be in trouble.
Sarah went to the other side of the buggy, as I replaced the remainder of the explosive in its wrapping and then back in the zippered bag, and then wiped off the 'huge' knife with a rag. The 'dirty' rag – it was smeared slightly with the explosive – I thought to 'wrap' about the explosive, at least until Hans came up with an obvious 'stiff' cap, this crimped twice using his crimping pliers. He put the pliers in my possible bag, then held the cap by a yard-long length of fuse, the fuse in his hand and the cap waving slightly some few inches above his fist.
“That the good stuff?” asked Lukas warily.
“It is,” said Hans. “It is fresh, and came up from the fourth kingdom by donkey this last week, and this length is enough for me to walk three hundred paces if I take my time.” A pause, then, “I do not have a watch, so I cannot count how long it burns, and a glass is not much good if you want to count seconds, so I held it with these things Anna has once it was lit, and I walked the street with it while counting my paces.”
“Good,” said Lukas. “Now when you put up caps, you'll want to dip the cut end o' that fuse in beeswax softened with a little tallow, or so I learned from my time in the mines.”
I was kneading the gray material with my gloved hands, my eyes watering steadily due to its stench and its fumes, and a headache was beginning to bloom, this just above my eyes. Hendrik began to ask a question, then thought better as I inserted the cap, kneaded the material around it so that the cap was thoroughly 'buried', then wrapped the gray 'mess' up in the rag prior to taking off the gloves.
“Here, this is another rag so you do not touch that stuff,” said Hans. “Touching it with your bare hands is not a good idea.”
“I know,” I said through gritted teeth. My headache was not getting better. “Why, did you try it?”
“Yes, while it was still wrapped up, I touched some,” said Hans. “It gives a headache like mining dynamite, only less strong.” A pause, then, “like that, its headache is probably worse yet.”
“It makes up for its lesser headache with its stink, Hans,” said Anna. “Now where will you put that stuff?”
“The shooting range,” I said calmly, as I turned to go toward the area in question with the rag-wrapped charge in my right hand. “Could someone fetch me a s-spade? I've got to p-plant this charge, and it wants a deep hole.”
“That wretch Joost needs planting,” said Matthys. “He seems to know where money is hidden out where he rides, and that almost as if he's marked.”
“That's because not merely is he especially cunning,” I murmured as I walked slowly down the covered 'pavement' next to the house's wall, “but he's been a thug for quite a few years – that, and he actually watches a lot while he's traveling and w-writes down what he sees in a ledger of some kind.”
“That sounds like some lecturers I have seen or heard about,” said Sarah. I could hear writing. “What else?”
“His spikes are made in the fifth kingdom's deep places, which means he not only travels a lot out of his usual area, but he's got a lot of money, as those things are not cheap.” The scratching noises of my hobnails seemed a potent reminder of just how much such boots as I wore cost to both make and buy.
“Cheaper than you might think,” said the soft voice. “After all, they are made by deep-slaves laboring under the lash.”
“Then, he is like S-Sam Brumm,” I said. “He might be a roving brigand, but otherwise, he's closer to that stinker Brumm for all save his appearance and where he does what he does.”
“Now who dealt with Brumm?” asked Matthys. “He was said to have killed as many as Joost, if not more yet.”
“He did,” said Hendrik, “him and his four companions. I saw him shoot Brumm, and I think someone else saw him...”
“He did,” said Karl flatly. “I was watching from the doorway then, and I saw him use dragoons to drop those four witches.”
“You must not have seen him afterward, then,” said Lukas. “He was shaking bad.” A pause, then, “what was that smelly gray stuff what looked like moldy Kuchen dough?”
“You – and the rest of us – will learn about it shortly,” said Sarah. “We were told it was similar to drippy mining dynamite for power, but I am wondering something.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“Is that stuff as strong as mining dynamite done for commons,” asked Sarah, “or is it like that for witches?”
“Stronger than both types, dear,” I said. “Only that yellow stuff we blew Iggy's door up with is stronger, and I'd just as soon not make any more blasting gelatin any time soon.”
“That is for the gray dough,” said Anna. “There is one that looks like solid white-thread, and has but little odor – and I am not sure as to what to name that odor, if it has one.”
“Little, or none?” I asked, as I went past the door while still treading the stones of the walkway, and then turned onto the grass. I could feel the cache of witch-coins now, and I was astonished to learn it was but a few feet deep.
“Closer to three feet from the surface of the ground to the top of that strong-box,” I thought. “If I dig a hole deep enough to hide this stuff and most of the fuse, then will that blast uncover it?”
I looked at the lump in my hand, and wondered: while it was weaker than 'Vlai', I wondered just how much the difference was; and in looking at it, I could discern something like an odd molecular structure, this with various groupings of color-coded atoms formed into a strange spiraling 'chain', with 'links' to each portion of the adjacent turns in the six-to-twelve-turn spirals. It was a very high-energy material, so much so that I knew no earthly explosive came close to its power.
It would uncover the cache – which was both sizable and quite old, older than the house proper by a substantial span of years. It made me wonder as to the siting of the place, in fact: did those witches of long strands of years ago have a say in where this place was located? Did those papers I had 'confiscated' speak of the siting of this particular building?
Finally, these witch-coins would actually have noticeable remnants visible of their designs, such that we could get some idea as to what the ancient accursed coins of witches actually looked like; and while these weren't coins from prior to the war, they were decent copies of them, copies commissioned by Cardosso himself.
“They still use his, uh, molds,” I thought. “They do waxes from them, and... Do they still use his molds?”
“Yes, but those are not merely 'poor' molds,” said the soft voice. “They're made of a gray-metal alloy, so those molds can still form 'good' waxes if used correctly.” A pause, then, “but one trouble, at least from the standpoint of the witches.”
“What?” I asked. “There aren't many such molds?”
“But few good ones remain,” said the soft voice. “Gray-metal, especially as commonly used by witches, is not merely soft but also quite brittle – and hence things made of it do not endure rough handling.”
“Which it usually receives when witches use those things,” I thought, as I came to the 'outer hedge' of the 'shooting gallery'. I'd only been here twice before; the Teacher of Guards didn't place much store by common muskets. Given his status as wishing to be a bones-holding witch and the poor performance of most muskets, I now partly understood his tendencies that way.
I personally was going to use the house's property for initial shooting instruction – as in 'this is what these things sound and feel like when you fire them'. Real shooting would happen outside the walls, in the real world, against real targets, and the outcomes of such shooting would be life or death – again, as it would be in real life – and all of such shooting would be with live rounds.
“Just like it was supposed to be in Infärnu,” I thought. “This area might not be a full-bore jungle...”
“That happens later,” said the soft voice. “You'll have people wishing heartily they were in that jungle-overrun place for a breather then.”
As if to remind me, Sepp came up with a narrow 'tunnel-digging' spade, one that looked remarkably like those we'd found in those long rooms. He then spoke of it.
“This one turned up in the buggy I was driving,” he said, “and Karl and I used it to dig deep in that manure-pile so as to bury Gabriel in that smelly stuff.”
“It, and some others?” I asked, as I took the spade and entered the roofed-over fold of the 'shooting gallery' with the others 'hot upon my tail'. It made for an unpleasant reminder: that one witch had had three 'tail-guards', and I'd killed them so rapidly they had had no chance whatsoever.
Unlike that pair of times earlier in the year, the close-cropped grass was now a most-solid green; and a glance near my feet showed, for the very first time, a deep and darksome green, not the former emerald color of mid-spring. This was the real color common to spring here: a deep dark green, symbol of thirsty and hungry life, and it was showing itself against the boot-darkened stones of a now-blatant pathway.
To each side, the close-cropped walls once more seemed to be closing in, only now, I noticed that aspect much more than the two previous times. Sarah was behind me, and I could hear both her and Anna muttering about 'witch-walls' and 'there has to be a bad fetish around here'.
“There is, dears,” I said. “I think this charge here will, uh, deal with it.” I then reached my hand through the hedge and found a thick stone wall, this well-built with carefully-laid stones set in thick gouting 'splats' of mortar.
“They figured the hedge would hide that stuff...”
I instantly knew that was wrong. The builders had no reinforcing rods handy, hence 'splatting' mortar like they had done gave the wall some much-needed additional strength. I then came to the doorway.
This time, unlike the other times, the doorway was actually locked. I touched the knob with my right hand's index finger after laying aside the spade. The knob itself was tarnished beyond measure, and its chill 'dirty' touch had me spit these words: “dung, go find the mouth of a witch, and roost there.” I then turned to Sarah, and whispered, “dung? Why dung?”
“That would be a witch,” said Sarah emphatically. “Dung is mentioned as being a portion of many curses on both a number of tapestries and in many tales, and we both heard of how that one smelly wretch used to lay his dung in those places he wished to destroy so as to own their ground for his purposes.”
“Who is it you speak of?” asked Anna. Again, Anna was speaking in a tone of voice unlike her usual.
“A most-serious witch of the time before the war,” said Sarah. “His name is not written correctly on any of the tapestries where I saw it spelled, and until the day before yesterday, I had no idea as to why that was so.” A pause, then, “to speak his name, or merely write it as it was to be spelled correctly, could cause him to show unannounced and ready to kill the person who disturbed him.” Another pause, then, “in the past, it seems that actually happened, or so we were told.”
A faint wind seemed to carry the rest of Sarah's speech away as I once more turned to the door. The knob was now the usual hand-rubbed somewhat polished brass tones amid slow and growing brown-streaked with hints of red and green that spoke loudly of rapid corrosion, and I had a distinct desire...
A desire that I squelched mercilessly. There would be a later. Hendrik's exchequer needed a sudden infusion of cash now, and I'd unearth a hefty one in the next few minutes. I grasped the door, squeezed tightly as if to force its obedience...
And the knob itself crunched with a frightful groan under my hand into a mingled mess of rust, dust, and a faint red haze of curses, these barely audible upon the wind that seemed to be blowing in this region of time and space.
“Aye, it's a cursed thing showing itself,” came a voice from behind. “First it smells like dung, and now it's a gone-rotten mess.”
“And no more witches will be locking this door,” I muttered, as I swung the door open amid faint groans and muttered shrieks from disused hinges. The weeds ahead were tall, near waist-height, and also accursed. Here, I needed to walk alone, wary for traps, wary like an animal...
“Furtive, like an animal forest,” I muttered, as I stepped among them, the bomb in my left hand, and for some reason, that huge knife in my right, its blade held outward, crouched forward slightly, much as if I expected something like a huge rat to charge out of the jungle-like undergrowth. I then shook my head and straightened up slightly.
“What am I thinking?” I asked softly, as I walked slowly forward. I was still wary. This place felt like it was trapped. Only when my leg brushed up against a thin tar-saturated rope did I freeze in place. As I knelt down to follow it, I asked, “when was the last time this place was used?”
“Since your class used it that second time,” said Hendrik. “He's been afraid to come here since.”
“He?” I asked, as I followed the thin and slightly droopy tarred string to what was beginning to look too much like a double-ended bomb of some kind – something involving that one particular witch who'd tried blowing me up before. Twice in fact, until I'd caught him and then killed him – that while he was 'full-loaded and black-faced'. I'd not known about that portion of witchdom then, even if I'd seen the black face-grease.
“That Teacher,” said Lukas. “It's trapped, ain't it?”
“It looks that way, sir,” said Sarah in chastened voice. “I've seen him deal with traps a great deal in the last few days, and I think Hans needs lessons from him and not the other way around.”
“He can listen now, you mean,” said Anna. “Sarah, remember all of what you see, and write it down shortly, as all of this thing is part of a whole, and Hendrik needs to hear the whole of it today if there is time to speak of it.”
“Why?” said a faint voice.
“Because it bears upon our survival as a people, just like our own survival right now needs him disarming at least one trap,” said Anna. A pause, then, “I knew it, that smelly wretch of a Teacher saw that cursed lock and stopped going here entirely a few months ago.”
“Then where did they practice musketry?” asked another voice, one that vaguely reminded me of Tam's.
“They didn't.” This was Tam's voice. “That wretch sold those things he reworked off, quit teaching weapons entirely unless they were swords and things fit for witches, asked for more spears...”
“So that's where that order came from,” I thought, as I followed the string to the hedge, then began to carefully use the 'huge knife' to clear the branches of hedge-plants away from the string. This person had not stinted time or effort to put his 'bomb' up, and when my hands touched first a jug, then a witch-grade friction igniter hidden under an old copper cup, I removed the cup, then slowly pulled out the jug after cutting its lard-greased hide bindings to the trunk of one of the hedge-plants.
The jug had four sticks of dynamite on its back, and the faint 'fumes' I was clearly seeing spoke of the stuff being 'old'.
I slowly turned the jug around, keeping the dynamite away from my fingers, and seeing vast numbers of sweating beads of maroon-colored nitro amid damp-with-explosive 'sticks' covered with brown and streaked with red-hazed maroon spoke of but one matter. I cut the cord, letting it fall, then went out into the grass, a prayer upon my lips as I set the bomb atop the berm, then laid it down behind it.
The berm covered the hidden place, and the whole 'shooting range' was showing itself for the witch-authored mess it truly as. I went to the other wall, this at a run, knife held in front of me as if I expected an attack, and there I cleared away the brush with the same rapid care.
“These things work well for trimming brush,” I murmured, as I found another bomb like the first. Again, I could clearly see fumes, these smoky and brown-tinted, and the same 'drippy' mining dynamite was present on the back of the jug. I carefully 'sloshed' the jug, and that told me plenty. I'd want these to detonate well clear of anyone, myself included, and I wondered for a moment if I should merely walk away to the buggies after 'setting' this one down by the other.
There was then no wondering: this I needed to do, and with silent prayer upon my lips and pleading in my heart, I did so, then forced the others to go back out ahead of me; only then did I close the door. I knew what would happen: all of the witch-authored mess would be gone, burned away by the blast and following fire – and possibly even this 'shooting range', a site that had been made strictly to 'hide in plain sight' this and possibly other caches, would no longer be present.
“Keep moving,” said Sarah. I could hear an edge of panic in her voice – unlike Hans, whose speech clearly showed outright terror, which his words then confirmed. “That dynamite is old enough to go on its own! I've never seen stuff like that before!”
“Because it would have scattered him had he seen it before being warned about it?” I thought. “Was that stuff what Tam was speaking of?”
“It was,” said the soft voice, “and you herding everyone back to where the buggies are, as well as having them lie down there, is a very good idea.”
“I won't get to plant this thing?” I asked.
“Oh, you will,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one shop that needs 'livening up'?” I nodded mentally, knife still in hand, now backing away from the shooting range as if the pair of bombs were about to go up, and only my presence and prayers were forestalling that event. I was still praying, now whispered: “P-please, not yet. Do not go off yet.”
That was the portion that was vocalized. The unvocalized thoughts were 'dig out everything witches have put in that ground which they thought themselves to own, and then cause it to either be destroyed or show itself.” I then had a question.
“Did we bring some, uh, of those nails?” I asked, as I reached the stones of the walkway, yet crouched down partway, knife held at the ready and still moving rearward one slow step at a time.
“Sarah did bring some samples to show Hendrik, yes,” said the soft voice, “and she suspected something about that one shop, which is why she secured a modest-sized bag of that one size of nail.”
“Just stick a fair number of them into this thing, and between the blast and the nails, that place...”
I turned to the others, this quick as a flash, and urged them to move back further – and faster – with my eyes. I once more turned; I had to face the enemy, the red-hazed and long-accursed enemy, that trap 'activated' by the witches so recently gone from the house proper and 'cemented' by a well-skilled imported witch, their thinking, “if we cannot get he himself, then we can kill those thought important to those close to him.”
Only one trouble: that type of bomb was not well-known in witchdom at this time, and but barely known of outside of it.
“That was the case until the word got out about what you did for that first trap you killed witches with months ago,” said the soft voice. “Hans now knows that he must be far more careful in speaking about you and what you do in general, as many well-hid witches and and hordes of supplicants – until very recently – were usually listening to his speech.”
“And now we must pay the price of his carelessness,” I thought.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That trick is mentioned in that large black book, among a fair number of others of similar nature – and those who knew of it in local Public Houses in this area are more or less extinct.” A pause, then, “now, get behind the buggies, lay down flat on the pavement, and then ask that thing to 'dig its fire deeply' rather than do otherwise.”
“Gets to the coins?” I asked.
“And much else,” said the soft voice. “That 'shooting gallery' hides a lot more than merely a sizable cache of long-hid witch-money coined during the last years of Cardosso.” A pause, then, “it was also the Generals' main bank, as well of those they knew well, hence there are a lot of commonplace coins in that area as well.”
“In crocks, buried deep enough to need to know where to dig and...” I nearly laughed, then turned to the others as we passed the buggies. I motioned them to all lay prone with my hands, this waved side-to-side and moved slightly up and down. I then took the prone position myself, and with my new rifle in my hands and the knife and bomb in my possible bag, I noticed how both pack and possible bag actually worked when going prone.
The bag tended to shift to the ground on its strap and then lay beside me of its own accord, while the pack was a matter of taking my arm out of one strap as I lay down – and it went to the other side. I then saw Sarah watching what I was doing as I put the sling around my arm as I had been taught long ago.
“That is why I want one of those bags,” she said. “The other thing you have there I will probably receive today.”
“They work good, don't they?” said Lukas. “That some bad dynamite in there?”
“I th-think s-so,” I spoke through chattering teeth. “Lots of purple drops of 'oil' showing on the outside, purple streaks in among dark brown for the sticks, smoky...” I then said softly, “now dig deep, and not flatten the place while doing it...”
A high-pitched roar gouted smoke and thunder up and out of the shooting range, and amid the billows of smoke, towering flames, and clouds of various foul and noxious odors, I could hear the sound of hail coming. I was glad we were under cover, as we were now seeing the first of many such 'hard rains' due to come.
The first coin I saw was a gold monster, this hazed briefly with red as it bounced in a low arc next to the walkway and skittered onto the stones to then roll to the wall and lay 'dead' with a hideous clattering 'clang'. I stayed put, as that was merely the earnest upon this example of rain; and when the stuff started striking the roof overhead in earnest, I heard pings and whines as if bullets were ricocheting off of the walls of the house proper. Slugs struck the wall as if red-flaming tracers, then fell to the stones of the floor to there slowly smoke as their lard burned off in small trails of thick black smoke.
The whole region to our left now had many such arching trails of gray-black smoke, and as the echoes of the blast died away and the 'hard rain' ceased, I heard Hendrik say, “Andreas said we would have our money given to us in large measure, and I think that has started sooner than either he or I thought it possible.”
“Yes, for common money,” said Sarah. “I am glad I have my ledger, as I will need to draw many of these coins...” Here, Sarah knelt by one, and asked, “could someone get me some long wooden tongs? This one here is a witch-coin, and it looks like one off of a tapestry.”
“That, or a very good copy of one,” I said. “Those things are a lot older than this house, and they were planted sometime after Cardosso died.” A pause, then as I looked at this weird-looking blood-hazed 'lump' of gold, I could plainly see both its design and its 'legend' – that of both sides, and that alternatingly.
“That's a witch-coin, all right,” I said, this in normal volume of voice – for me. “Everyone, look around on the ground. Look slow, look carefully. If you see a common coin, it will be darkened with grease and soot and smell like burnt l-lard, and those will just need cleaning in lye and then tumbled in sawdust for a while.” A pause, then, “Anna, look at this, then find the other ones like it.” A pause, then, “I hope someone's gone for both Andreas and several pairs of wooden tongs, as he's going to have his hands full with what we've just unearthed.”
“There is likely to be much more in that place,” said Sarah, as she rapidly drew the designs upon the coin that showed. “If you doubt what you will soon hear about how the witches have claimed this place to be their own, and that only, then look you here and see what is laying here. This is a real witch-coin, and it has witch-writing upon it, real witch-writing, not the more-common types you might have seen before.” A pause, then, “had we no need of gold and silver here, and had Andreas no means...”
“Sample pouches,” I said. “Ample cover flux, along with some reducing materials like burnt coal, and, uh, fine sawdust. Slow-roasting, much as if he were smelting a peculiarly rich species of ore, one seldom found today – and then casting into ingots while saving the dross that floats off of these things.”
“Is there a market for such metals?” asked Hendrik. He seemed both hypnotized and frightened beyond measure, at least until he heard somewhere a dozen paces distant, “so this is where that bag what went missing went!”
“Bag?” I asked.
Hendrik said, “what bag do you speak of?”
“Recall that bag of coins you sent down for that far-seer before we left on that trip?” said the voice. I only now recognized it as Lukas. “Those stinkers got ahold of your letter, and sent witch-writing and witch-money after it, or I'm a plugged mule.”
“Rather less and rather more,” I murmured, as I prayed silently. The device before us was a potent fetish, and it and those like it needed more than just slow-roasting. They needed to be spoken to, this quickly; and more, they needed conversion into 'bullion' before I left the area.
Not even Andreas could endure a fetish this potent.
“Two more coins to draw for their appearance, and then I need to speak to them,” I whispered. “Over here, once you're done with that one.”
“You'd best stay right close to her,” said Gilbertus. “If that's an old witch-coin, then not only does no one know about 'em that I know of, but that thing will ride us all as if we were smelly mules.”
“I know,” I said softly. “I can find the three or four 'unique' examples, and then I'm going to use the broom on them.” I gasped, then said, “what did I just say.”
“You will put us all in the privy if you do that,” said Sepp warily. “I think you packed it. Did you?”
“I did,” said Sarah. “It may make piles of bird-whistles in a great hurry, but it got rid of that bad wolfram quick enough down in the Abbey's cellar.”
“It also left me very sore,” I said. “I'll need to shoot it a fair amount shortly, and it, uh, breathes fire as bad as anything we have.”
“There,” said Sarah. “I have all save the writing on this thing, and I dare not write that. I know that much.” She looked up at me, and I knelt down, my fingers hovering over the coin, and I whispered, “no hiding now. Show what you truly mean...” Here I reached for the ledger, and using the blade of that large knife, it in my right hand – the explosive charge yet remaining in my possible bag – and the rifle in my left, I waved the knife over the visible page carefully, this back and forth twice. I was not prepared for Hendrik's gasp and Sarah's shriek.
“What happened?” I asked.
Sarah flipped the page, then another, then two more, this while looking quickly. “I have all parts of that type of witch-coin now pictured, and the back of each of these sheets has writing indicating what all they say actually means and who made them and where and when it was done.”
“More than that, even,” said Hendrik shakily. “Two more pages, Sarah. They've got writing upon them, and I have never seen that happen before, nor read of it upon tapestry or old tale.”
“That's 'cause you're living in an old tale,” said Lukas from but a few feet away, “and the one with that knife is what them witches called a monster.”
I shuddered, then said, “some of them supposedly still name me such a being.”
“If they do, and what is writ about such people is but partly true, then that changes everything,” said Hendrik shakily.
“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “Now once he speaks to that stuff that looks something like money and might as well be called a bad fetish from before that war long ago, we can speak inside in your chambers so as to let you know just what we have found and what you have seen just now.” A pause, then, “you will have those people to the south tied hand and foot upon the back of the stinkiest mule to ever be thrown in the valley with these papers, and then finding these coins on your property only gives the papers more starch among those to the south.”
Another pause in Sarah's speech as I waved the others back and we resumed our former prone positions, she murmured “starch? No, not that stuff. I think you will have all of them in iron cages, just like those cages that are shown upon these witch-coins.”
“Yes, I know,” I murmured. “Every such coin that has shown that was made by and for witches, and they all need to burn – yes, burn – and then their melted substance gathered together in bars upon the grass, bars that flame as their taint burns off of them, and then those bars to have nothing in them other than what should be in them so they may be properly coined anew.”
At first, nothing happened: then suddenly, the world was filled with gouting smoke, billows of fire, and a roaring thunder that continued for half a minute; and then, amidst a now fog-shrouded wasteland, I raised myself up, knife still in hand along with my rifle, and I began walking, this slow and watchful. Every slow and cautious step showed a crude-looking oblong ingot to the right or left, this either of gold or silver, all of them still blazing hot, the ground about each ingot smoking as the redness of new-molten metal quickly faded; and with each further step, I found more and more of them. There were hundreds of such small ingots, and that easily.
“How many of these stinky things went up?” I asked.
“Enough that there will be people gathering them with tongs for the rest of the morning and the first part of the afternoon, and Andreas will have his hands full for the next two months running them, even with what help shows for him to use.” A pause, then, “you'll still wish that broom, however.”
I reached behind me to feel a familiar cold chill, and as I put the knife away and slung my rifle, I shouldered arms, much as if I were a member of the Rooster Totem; and somehow, I could hear fragments of a very old song, at least old to those people I had just thought of. It had once played ofttimes in translated form in Vrijlaand; and the witches of that time had hated it and all it stood for, for it spoke of war against a foreign enemy done in the realm of that enemy, and what those fighting in that enemy stronghold had endured there and in their homeland so as to try to bring that enemy down.
“They spit on me in my own land,” I muttered. “I may not be walking tall, but this thing acts too much like a machine-gun to make any difference regarding the remainder...”
Something moved to my right, and I pivoted yet faster and fired a short burst. The roaring 'howl' that erupted spoke of a gun firing well beyond twenty rounds a second, and the scream as the witch was ripped in half and then into bloody rags by a swarm of bullets was so astonishing that only when Hendrik himself gasped did I marvel.
I held my weapon on target just the same, scanning around to the front and sides to see if more witches would show.
“What was that?” he squeaked.
“The broom, sir,” said Sarah. Her voice was a whisper through my ringing ears. “It flames like lightning, it leaves piles of bird-whistles everywhere, turns poisoned metal into stuff fit for a crucible, and it looks to kill witches as well.” A pause, then, “we have others like it, but I think that one is special in some way.”
“Bottomless magazine,” I said slowly, as I advanced into the forest beyond us. We had a handful of witch-infiltrators hiding back here among the buildings and brush to the rear of the house's property, and now I knew why they were hiding: they'd hidden their money in 'the witch-bank', and were coming to dig it up before 'lighting out for the territories', this in the 'too early' hours of the morning when those in the house supposedly seldom stirred out of doors.
More movement, a pivot to my left and another short burst, this a 'burp' that caused two screams that died out in the course of seconds. I broke from my crouch and ran, then as another witch showed, without breaking stride I turned as I ran and fired, then somehow landed back on my feet and continued running forward. The remaining witches were hiding in this weird bower at the back of the shooting range, and when I came to the end of its stone and earth ramparts, I pivoted, turning more than ninety degrees, then fired a long and raking burst into the thick brush that flushed a swarm of witches.
I went to ground, skidding sideways upon my knee, then with short bursts, I scythed down every witch that showed over a period of what seemed to me like nearly a minute and was closer to a second in real time. I then gave the bushes one last burst, this down lower to the ground – and the bushes themselves erupted in billowing red-yellow flames. I ran back the way I had come, knowing that the witches' supplies included dynamite – and when the blasts erupted in a conjoined roaring thunder, I flew through the air to land and then plow through a shin-high mound of smoking hot shell cases with my face and shoulders. I leaped up, then turned, crouched once more in the 'guard' stance, gun at the ready for whatever the witches could throw at me.
“The whole property,” I said, my voice hoarse and more than a little 'edgy'. “It needs searching, carefully, as that last explosion tossed more coins for some distance and they're now smoking hot bars of gold and silver.” Pause. “Just follow the smoke, people – they'll be there.”
“Aye,” said Lukas behind me. “I'm not sure I want one o' those things like you have there, as I near filled my underwear when you used it the first time, and I'll need some time in a privy for certain.”
“That is the usual, sir,” said Sarah. Her voice was surprisingly gentle. Then to Hendrik, she spoke – or rather, she tried to.
Hendrik was gone; and by the odor he had left behind him, he wasn't about to waste time speaking of why and how when he needed to use the privy.