Full fathom five, deep water
Once out of the chute, however, the boat slowed, and I found that the smallest movement of the tiller, this of laminated blackwood and a whitish wood nearly as hard, both coated with obvious wood-treatment and then wrapped in the gripping place with a thin species of that silvery gray rope, caused the boat to respond smartly and with vigor. It needed a gentle hand, and as I moved into the 'channel', I said, “Sarah, we don't need to take soundings. I can see the channel, just like I have, uh, this weird way of telling its depth. I'm keeping to the deeper place, as up ahead is that one crossing, one where the witches liked to cross in the past and will try more in the weeks and months to come.”
I paused, then Karl waved with his paddle. The response, while not gunfire, was not one I expected.
A strange song, one sonorous and unknown, came from what seemed a hundred throats; and as I looked in the distance at the eastern side, I learned why: there were over twenty buggies present in a sizable new-made clearing, more coming at a steady pace along a wide-and-growing wider 'road', and a large number of lathered horses being looked over. This was done prior to the river crossing, as water tended to drive lodged stones deeper, and if a buggy had a damaged wheel, the river-crossing was likely to break it.
I also had to 'thread the needle', as this silty-sandy-rocky place had but one region deeper than hub-deep on a common buggy, and once I found it, I had to straighten out in a hurry. Just the same, Karl and Sepp had to maneuver with their paddles, Gabriel watched where my keels were heading, and Sarah was writing so rapidly her hand seemed blurred.
“Twenty seconds the page, and that pen helps your handwriting a lot, doesn't it?” I asked.
“I wished I could have had these things while I was at the west school, as not only is my writing faster, it's much easier to read.”
“Less likely to smudge and smear, also,” I said. “Now, that ink works especially well on inking paper, and Hendrik now has a large stack hid somewhere in his office, does he not?”
“He does, but where it is hid is a mystery,” said Sarah. “It is not under his desk, as that thing was being said as 'fit for the stove', and when I went to find out if that were true or not, I told him it was fit for paper, not firewood – and it wasn't fit for use as a desk when I saw it, as he and Maria were using one of those tables that had been moved from the ballroom. That desk was being cleaned up with shovels and brooms, those fragments of it that were small enough to clear that way, and the rest was going to dust and small fragments as I watched.” Pause, then, “it will be in the blue place before we clear this river. I know that much – it will be dust then, and that entirely.”
“Paper?” I asked.
“It will be bagged up entirely and the place it sat cleaned thoroughly within a few hours, and the bags will go to the blue region on the fourth floor,” said the soft voice. “He finds that paper that is made up on the fourth floor to be especially good, and more, he likes those pens,” said the soft voice. “They write on that paper quite well, as that formulation of ink interacts with that chemical coating to give 'three century writing' – as in it will remain 'good' for at least that long, and longer is more or less a given, given appropriate protection.”
“Better than anything not currently used by a witch,” I spat. “Now will we use paper after the curse breaks entirely?”
“Yes, and much more than you use currently,” said the soft voice. “There will be libraries both large and small, there will be textbooks both printed and otherwise, and there will be a fairly large number of commonplace letters – though those will get where they are going a lot faster than they do now, and the postal fees will be quite a bit lower.”
“How?” asked Sarah.
“Simple, dear,” said the soft voice. “In the first kingdom, the chief source of kingdom funds, until very recently, was postal fees, and hence economy in operation was a needed matter, with those fees being higher than anywhere outside of certain areas that were overtly witch-controlled.” Pause. “What with laundry and other types of soap, fuel for lanterns and stoves, small-arms propellants and other chemicals, ready-alloyed lead for bullets, and a number of other matters that are not yet being worked on, postal fees will be a much smaller portion of the budget – even though the real budget will be much higher, at least for a time. Hence, the postal fees will be lower. Then, those currently running postal buggies will be running much lighter rigs doing local delivery, rather than carrying the mail the whole distance from one main town on the High Way to another...”
“That alone will reduce the costs of sending mail much,” said Sarah. “Much of the cost of the post is the need for upkeep for a large number of horses, and all of them must be just shy of needing bronze shoes and light silver leads.”
“That will no longer be needed, not when 'postal buggies' will weigh a good deal less than yours does, roll freer than yours does, and postal stations will often be close enough to where most live that many people will be able to pick up their own mail at the 'post office' by walking there.”
“Meaning 'running the post' will, as a rule, be a part-time job, with a light buggy and decent team being part of its pay – and by part-time job, I mean our postal driver stops by the 'post office', picks up the mail that did not get collected, and drops the stuff off – and that's for the people who continue to drive horses and buggies,” I said. “Some people will take to these other vehicles which are much faster, but that's to save time more than all else, and not just while running the post.”
“Yes, for 'Rural Routes', where towns are spread further apart, farms are larger, and there is less time available for going into town daily for the average person,” said the soft voice. “When you can get to town in less than an hour, get all of what you need in the time it takes for your horses to get watered and then grained, and then get back home within another hour – an easy hour, mind you, usually one while carrying a rifle, so you can commonly pot dinner on the way home – then it is little trouble as a rule.”
“If you have a largish farm, one which needs a tractor, a good number of your relatives, something for them to live in built like a smaller version of a Valley settlement, and a lot of hard work with few days off other than the one mandated day per week, then finding two and a half hours for a leisurely trip to the postal office every few days is a bit difficult. Most shopkeepers, little trouble, and the same for a fair number of farmers, as they'll work those places they have in partnership, but for a large family like Deborah's – they aren't going to have time to chase mail, and they will still be 'out in the sticks'.”
“Raising 'taters, mostly,” I said. “Not just those, though – that is going to be some spread.”
“Yes, it will, almost a town, in fact,” said the soft voice. “More, it will be sufficiently large to have its own postal code, and sufficiently productive to have its own economic code – and not merely farming, also. They'll be producing a lot of products in general, especially gardening tools and chemicals.”
“Economic code?” I asked.
“You'll learn about those when you get overseas,” said the soft voice. “Now, check your speed, watch the river and its banks, especially the west bank, and speak of what you see. It's rather important for the next hour or so, as this stretch of the river is going to change a lot shortly, and it has gotten a lot of trouble in the past and will get more yet in the months to come.”
“I can speak of some of the trouble,” said Sarah. “Those northern people commonly land north of here, along about a ten to twelve mile stretch along both banks, and I'll know that area when I see it, as I have ridden this river on a raft more than once during my traipsing, with my last ride of it during my long-trip some four years ago.”
“You rode on a raft?” I asked.
“I had to arrange for its making the year before, as it was no ordinary raft, but one like one of these things we are sitting on, with two planks on poles and one to a side, and then a pair of paddles, one for steering and another for paddling, and I had one person put it near the top of the Main and another person pick it up at the north-tip, which is where I received some added journey-money from its sale there. I think I made nearly a hundred guilders on that raft, come to think of it, and I needed every penny I made from it to get back down to the fourth kingdom, even though my donkey followed me to the north-tip along the east bank part of the way, and then along the west one when he came to the furthest-north place where he could cross readily.”
“Penny?” I asked.
“The smallest copper coin I've actually seen that was not on a tapestry,” said Sarah. “I've seen three of them, all of them hidden well at the fourth kingdom house proper, which is about the only place that has coppers that look like coins in numbers, and those things are old. Then, some have no markings whatsoever, while others have markings, but those things are all so old that one can barely make them out.” Pause, then, “those that are in the fourth kingdom house proper have designs you can discern, even if they are old, and I drew those I saw.”
“Perhaps they have designs overseas we can use,” I said. I'd gotten the feel of the boat by now, at least for how responsive it was – responsive to the point of being decidedly twitchy, with an educated hand that felt the current and all else, and a capacity for viewing matters that seemed something I alone had of us five.
“Of the witch-coins used on the continent, yes,” said the soft voice. “Of their old coins, yes. Of what is needed for this continent, and overseas, and in other places that have yet to show – no, not designs. They have 'descriptions', but they're badly written, so either someone here will need to come up with a series of designs, or you'll have to find some coins in good-enough shape that their designs can be used as starting points for the new series of coins that you'll need to make while the Abbey is in the black sack.”
“That one design with the two tablets keeps coming back to me,” I said ominously. “There, dear – that inlet right there. They're dredging it, only that is one weird dredge, and it's not the only one I see in use right now. There are more than the two I can see being dragged by bulls, and a yoke per bank with the dredge picking up its share as it digs its spade deeper in the channel.”
“Three dredges so far, and number four is going together in a hurry, now that the carpenter's shop is being run by people from the Valley, and the smith's shop has been burnt to its foundations and its surviving people recently put in chains as slaves.”
“What?” I gasped.
“Sounds like they turned witch,” said Karl.
“No, but that one construction-leader is taking no chances with 'Cabroni', and when those men did not listen to him when he told them once what he wanted done, he got one of his countrymen's rifles and shot every one of those people that didn't surrender on the instant.”
“He hit many of them?” I asked.
“Most of those people are currently in the large-and-growing-larger manure-pile, their heads on one side, their bodies on the other, and each head with a bit of Krokus in the mouth,” said the soft voice, “and most of the ones that were not put in chains this morning soon will be enlarging that pile, as while they didn't get hit solid, there wasn't a single one of those men that tried to leave that he did not hit.” Pause, then, “the fact that two of them were low-level spies sent from the southern kingdoms had a lot to do with the group's obstinant behavior.”
“Uh, dogs?” I asked.
“That's why I said, 'they soon will be', as one of those people who recently came from the fourth kingdom brought his dogs with him, and all of them are close to that one you saw for scenting, stamina, and gameness,” said the soft voice. “The chief thing those dogs do less well compared to the one that you saw is climb trees, as otherwise, unless the person being followed knows how to give such dogs the slip, or can climb trees like a tree-rat, those dogs can follow his or her trail unless it's a month old.”
“And the dogs are out after those stinkers,” I said.
“No, not yet, but they will be before you go another thirty miles downstream,” said the soft voice. “They're still spading those decapitated corpses into the manure-pile here, and those in chains are being put to work.”
I then looked again to my left, and here, I saw more evidence of 'extreme industry', as here, there were numbers of sun-tanned masons, all of them working rapidly, and I could almost see the cofferdam move downstream as the wharf grew apace under the frantic labor that I saw. The sense of industry was so great that I marveled, and as I spoke of the matter, I pointed with my left finger...
And the cofferdam shot downstream nearly a hundred yards, a massive cloud of dust and spray shot into the air, and as the dust began to settle amid coughs, sneezes, and a few muttered oaths about 'strange northland weather', those vanished as the dust and mist settled further.
Instead, I could hear what I knew to be prayers of thanksgiving, as now, the wharf that was scheduled to take two weird-length weeks would now finish inside of an abnormally prolonged day – as all of the supplies and tools needed to do that work were here now, the length of the cofferdam was sufficiently long to permit constructing a wharf fit for tying up a large craft, possibly long enough to moor a proper-sized ship, and more, there was no mud present where the cofferdam held back the water.
It went down to the rocky bed of the river, and hence once that surface was smoothed adequately, the portions of the wharf's lowest stones could commence laying. The noise of a multitude of picks then became a steady rhythmic clatter by the time we were even with the cofferdam's northern terminus.
“Those people know when they have a good thing,” I murmured. “Now, how much time will that save them?”
“That much of the work done, and all of the blocks needed ready for laying, and all those barrels of ready-mixed underwater-grade mortar?” asked the soft voice. “Hear all of those picks going? Those got changed also, as they're of a better grade of metal than they were, and most of those were made in the Valley – which means they're better than anything to be had in the five kingdoms – and where there was one, there now are four, so every person down in there cutting the foundation is now working, instead of trading off.”
“Good metal, good construction, and a lot more?” I asked, as we came to another area, this showing what looked like another species of wharf being laid, though this location looked to be more a refuse area for sundry lumps of broken stone and what might have been coarse gravel.
“Need to put that stuff in the lime-kilns,” I murmured. “Failing that, break it up and use it for concrete aggregate.”
“None there yet, and that one man just found out about that rubbish about the time you-all launched, so he put a stop to it immediately.”
“What will he do with it?” I asked.
“The children – those of them of size and age currently on site that are able – are to collect up that broken stone, and either bring it to those building the wharf, or mound it in preparation for the lime-kilns he knows are coming soon,” said the soft voice. “There simply aren't that many children on-site yet, though as more families come, there will be – and they will do their share, also, as 'school's out' until the place goes into the black sack, their labor is so needed.”
“Families?” I asked.
“Those that are coming 'for the campaign', meaning they're letting others look after their farms and fields for shares so as to work on this place until it's 'done',” said the soft voice. “They figure to do their share, but when that man gets onto them, they'll mostly wish they had stayed home, especially when he shows them that fresh-inked proclamation signed by both Hendrik and Rolf. It's due to arrive shortly, in fact, as once you got out into the river, your guide rode here at a gallop with it in his message-pouch, and...”
A thundering boom seemed to shake the air, then equally suddenly, five rapid rifle shots split the sky. This weapon was neither a machine pistol – those were loud enough – nor a rifle like ours; but it was somewhere in between the two for range and power, and as I saw the green flashes of tracer ammunition rise high into the sky to then wink out perhaps eight hundred yards up and over two miles downrange, I asked, “they load tracer ammunition mostly in those?”
“No, but that type of round tends to get people's attention on the continent,” said the soft voice, “and the man he borrowed that weapon from had used up most of his other ammunition killing game while getting himself up here, so all he had was about half a magazine of regular stuff, a bag of empty shells, and then a full magazine of tracer and a bag of tracer rounds – which are much used in that part of the Valley.”
“So now we need to get him a rifle, a machine pistol, at least two pistols, and a bin of ammunition for each of those things – oh, and that rifle to be one of those that is especially accurate, with one of those strange devices to permit precise long-range shooting.”
“He will have little time for the rifle, especially at first, but the machine pistol will be much appreciated, and Esther will get him one on the way back from the house proper, which they leave early tomorrow morning,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “all of those buggies that came with your equipment and 'assistants' are now heading for that one area with the lead and dead witches as we speak, and from thence to the house proper, there to remain until matters are further cleared up regarding Hendrik's office and the laboratory region upstairs, as there's a fair amount of work remaining in both locations, the blue zone especially.”
I let that matter rest, as I knew Paul, Esther, Willem, Georg, Hans, and Anna would leave for home shortly after dawn tomorrow, and more, I knew that their horses would need a rest from their most-recent labors. Besides, the area around the house proper and many of the roads near that place would be crowded with people all day today, and the refectory would be jumping for work serving a vast number of ravenously hungry guests. Only as the day grew on would the first of these many visitors who had traveled so far break camp and begin their lengthy trips home.
I kept silent on this matter, for I had been steadily speaking of the 'channel', much as if a deep-water craft would need to tie up at our wharf. There was such a channel, this being perhaps ten to twelve feet deeper than the bottom of the run of stone needed for the wharf there, but when I spoke of that, Sarah said, “that might well ground a common ship, much less those things they run where we are going. Those need deep water.”
“Hence they're going to put their port downriver some distance further,” I said, now moving closer to the west bank. To my complete surprise, I saw clearly signs of obvious dredging, and I asked, this silently, “does that deep channel run up to that wharf that we just passed?”
“Yes, which is the main reason that one man changed the site of that wharf and moved it out into the river nearly thirty feet,” said the soft voice. “Granted, there's currently no room for turning around, but what they have can manage reverse nicely, and up ahead...”
The soft voice stopped, this to show the current edges of the 'settlement of labor'. To say this place was growing quickly was to speak badly of it, as here at the northern 'frontier', trees were dropping at the rate of perhaps one every thirty seconds. There were a lot of people with axes right now moving that boundary northward, and as I heard the steady 'roar' of a multitude of woodsmen showering each other with ax-sprayed chips, I knew another matter.
The fourth kingdom thought it made good axes. The Valley – when it made them; there were a few places that made them in small batches, these mostly for woodcutting – made truly good ones; and these people, all of them used to the northern waste and its need for dire haste so as to secure wood and not get killed, not only had good axes, but could cut down trees with a rapidity only bested by a good-running chainsaw. That was especially so when it came to the eight-to-twelve inch diameter trees one found in this area. I wondered what the trees themselves would be used for, when Karl made an observation.
“They are stacking logs there, and the brush there, and then they have the bulls there – and they have four bulls to the stump, so it comes out in a hurry.”
“Assuming the chain holds,” said Sarah. “That's a lot of bull for a common stump.”
“No, that means your bulls keep dragging stumps for a while, and you feed and water them by the glass, not by the stump, so you drag a lot more stumps in less time,” said Sepp. “I learned that trick from my uncle before the swine came to that town.” Pause, this to shade his eye, then, “Karl, this water looks likely for fish. You have your line handy?”
“Yes, and I got a small tin of that bait of Hans', so if you use that, you should get something quickly,” said Karl. “Mind, I did not get much of that bait, but I doubt we need more than one decent fish, or two smaller ones, and you catch fish better than I do anyway.”
“Then it may be wise for us two to watch for snags or floating logs, and sing out if we should see them,” said Gabriel. “I cannot see the bottom here.”
“No matter,” I said. “It's deepest here, deepest part of the river, in fact, and if they suck the silt up from the floor they'll find places to build another wharf on easily.” Pause, then, “it only gets a bit tricky in places further downriver, and we want to break out of the river about noon or a bit afterward, as then it's easiest to thread those islands they have up that way on the west side of the north-tip.”
“I know about those,” said Sarah. “Now we shall most likely either have trouble look for us there, or we shall need to find it ourselves, and...”
“Both, dear,” I said. “I can hide from trouble passably if I have to, unless there is a lot of especially vigilant trouble – but putting a rocket into that one place has a high priority, as then we can get to Norden as well as where we are going.”
“Why?” asked Sarah.
“Because those ships going to Norden stop there to take on 'full-loads' of fuel, for some reason,” I said. “Seems not only Norden fishes there – those people running that place overseas do also, and fish-innards make good fuel for evil engines, if suitably processed – and their engines are evil, no two things about it. They're a lot worse than the one at the Abbey, and they need lots of black-suited people that look too much like witch-soldiers...”
“Let me write that down,” said Sarah. “Now, these ships are manned by witch-soldiers, or people that look like them at the least. You've seen those of wartime, at least briefly. How are these people different, or are they?”
“They do look similar, and they certainly act like those smelly thugs, and they do try to be trashed all the time, but otherwise – they just look like they weigh four hundred pounds, are clumsy as someone with four thumbs and a finger growing out of the back of their hands, they're really full of themselves, and they act like they need to wear brass cones as a rule.” Pause, then I reiterated the last part, “as a rule. There are exceptions, and those people are trouble.”
“How so?” asked Sarah, as I again traced the deep-water channel by centering it, then looking to each side so as to estimate its precise composition and width. It was as if I were seeing what was below the surface, recording this in precise detail, while the near-non-existent wind made me wonder if we wanted the sail up yet. Our pace seemed maddeningly slow, at least until I saw Karl toss something and audibly count to three.
“We got three on our red-cork,” he said. “Sepp, you got a fish yet?”
“No, because this line is tangled, Karl, and I need to untangle it, then these hooks are bad ones, and...” Sepp was sounding exasperated, and muttered about 'his' line being in good shape, but getting at his line needed more work than he could spare right now.
“Buried good, because he figured we would shoot down this river like lightning,” I murmured. “Don't worry – about another two hours at this pace, and the river widens out enough to catch some wind. We'll raise the sail then, if not a bit sooner.”
“Besides, its shade is welcome right now,” said Sarah. “I'm drawing this channel, as you're steering this thing as if you had a picked leadsman, and then Karl speaking of three by his red-cork... That needs me figuring something, only I do not trust his counting, either for speed or much else.”
“Perhaps let me count for him,” I said, drawing forth the brass cube and opening it with my hands while turning loose of the tiller for an instant. “On my mark, Karl... Karl? You have that thing ready to toss?”
“Yes, in a minute,” he said. “I am getting that bait out. It got into the bottom of my pack, and I put it otherwise.”
“Fine, we can wait a minute, as Sarah needs to get her things out anyway,” I said. As a joke, however, I tried to get my voice 'down' into the region of where Froggy spoke his tone of greeting, hunger, and 'longing' – they all meant the same; Froggy was not known for his smarts, only his ability to cope with unbelievably rough terrain and his ravening ever-present appetite – and said, “mark fathom five, deep water.”
“You do that again and I will soil my underclothing,” said Sarah. “You might not have managed to sound like a toad that first time you tried it, but I think you could manage it now, the way you talked.”
“Sorry, dear,” I said. “I tried to speak of our channel, and... My, it is deep. At least thirty feet deep at its shallowest, not counting the silt. They get that cleaned out decently, and it's closer to forty in this channel here.”
“They need that deep of a channel for their boats,” said Sarah. “Now here is my figurer, here, my compass-sight, here my map-packet, and then... Now where did you put that ship's compass?”
“In my possible bag,” I said, pointing as I did to the thing laying by my left leg. “Right about there.”
Sarah looked inside, found the compass, then opened the lid. The brass thing she put on it, its dulled finish 'tarnished' by sheer use, made for wondering, but when she spoke of 'darkening' the thing prior to her last term, I wondered less.
“Uh, blackened it?” I asked. “Karl, ready with that cork yet?”
“Yes, in a minute or so,” he said. “There. There is the bait.”
“About time, Karl,” said Sepp. “Now, you got some decent hooks, or am I going to have to play these fish like a fiddle so as to get one for a meal?”
“Let me have those things,” I said. “Point-first in some clay, I take it?” Little leather pouch, four of them, a bit of surface rust because they're both made in the fifth kingdom and inherited from Karl's uncle?”
“Yes, that is so, as one cannot hardly get those things up here,” said Karl. “I wanted to have you make some, but you have twice too much work for you, and that is for metal. You have much more yet.”
“No, just let me hold the pouch,” I said. “I just need to hold it for a minute.”
Sepp handed me the pouch, and the instant I touched it, the thing gained so much weight I nearly dropped it. I asked Sepp to untie its thongs, and he gasped.
“Karl!” he shouted. “This thing is full of hooks now, and they're the best things I've ever seen, and there have to be hundreds of them!”
“Get out a medium-sized one with some pincers from my possible bag, Sepp,” I said calmly. “I'll wish samples, as those there, while better than any commonplace hook you're likely to find in the five kingdoms, can stand their share of improvement.”
As if to prove me wrong, Sepp found the pincers in question, dug around with their tips for a minute in the much-larger leather pouch, and produced a bronze-colored hook that looked like one where I came from. The sight of this thing caused Sarah to loose a screech.
“I think not!” she screeched. “Sepp, that is an instrument-maker's hook, and not a common one, but one made to order, and those are used by people who fish for a living!”
“Still could stand some improvement,” I murmured. “Here, let me look at that thing.”
Sepp passed me my pincers while tying shut the thongs to the hefty pouch of hooks, and I suspected he could sell a dozen or two in the third kingdom port, once he'd sorted them out some. Looking at this hook, however, had my eyes narrow, and suddenly, the thing went all gauzy with bluish haze for a count of three. When the haze was gone, no longer was the hook 'bronze' in color.
It was a brilliant silver, its vestigial barb short and broad, its point like that of a well-honed and hand-polished needle, and its metal...
“Now this is a hook,” I muttered. “Won't bend, won't break, won't rust, and it's invisible to most fish, so all they see is your bait.” Pause, then, “put some of Hans' bait on that thing, toss it out in a minute or so, and be prepared to pull in something interesting.”
“What will I get?” asked Sepp.
“Why, a river-torpedo,” I said jokingly. “They called those things 'stir-gone' where I came from, as when one showed, it caused quite a stir – and when it took the bait, then it got up and was gone.” Pause, then, “Karl, now are you ready with that cork?”
“Yes, now I am,” he said. “When do you want me to toss it?”
“On my mark,” I said. “One, two, three, toss!”
Karl tossed the cork, and as I held the brass cube to one eye, I watched the cork. When it passed the first bar of the shelter, I said, “twenty feet, three and seven-tenths seconds.”
“That is not bad for most ships,” said Sarah, as she began to use her 'slide rule' – only this was no slide rule I had ever seen before. It had no less than four sides, was over an inch per side for width of the main bar, had a strange knurled knob at the end, and while three sides were for inputs, each with their own slider, the fourth gave the output – and a minute later, after carefully moving the three input sliders and adjusting the knob on the end of this foot-long brass 'implement', she said, “About three and two tenths of a mile in an hour's time. About right for this portion of the river, given we have our sail down and we are at the edge of summer, when the current has slackened from spring and its' flood-time.”
“A good speed for a ship?” I asked.
“Neither good nor especially bad, even if I have heard many sailors speak of such a speed as a decent one for most ships,” said Sarah. “Now if we should manage five miles per hour, then that is a good speed, save if one is on one of a few ships. Those do half again as much more at the least, and when I was steering Pieter's, I did better yet than that.”
“You did?” I asked.
“Yes, and that with a contrary wind, which meant weaving back and forth and shifting sail every thirty to forty seconds while holding a good course and avoiding trouble,” said Sarah. “When I had the wind close to my backside, though, that was when I did my best speed.”
“That's usual, isn't it?” I asked, as I continued to follow the channel. Somehow, I had the impression that Karl had tossed his cork badly, as we were not going 'three miles an hour'.
We were moving better than double that, as the surface current was a lot slower than that in the 'chute', and we were 'kissing' the surface current. In order to test my theory, I moved out of the channel – and the boat shot ahead as if it had a moderate-sized outboard motor on it, perhaps one good for ten horsepower.
“Now we will not have fish, as they will not catch us, unless that fish you named swims rapidly,” said Gabriel. “Mind, there's a shallow place ahead, as I can see the bottom here, and it has a lot of brown and black rock.”
“Rust,” I muttered. “You could grind up many, perhaps most, rocks found in this river and make iron and concrete of them, and that silt... That stuff you could smelt down in a furnace and get a lot of metal out of it, and decent metal at that, and the slags would work well for concrete once they received further processing.”
“Good,” said Sarah. “I wrote that down. Now, back in that channel, unless you can see it from here.”
“I can, dear, just not as...”
The commotion that suddenly erupted to my right had Sepp spitting oaths and trying to avoid tying his tongue into a knot about 'torpedoes', as he had just gotten his hook into a large example, if I went by the way he was straining to hold onto Karl's fishing line. He gave up on Karl's odd carved wood 'baby rattle', and began hauling the string in hand over hand while using gloves, then when he had the thing close, he brought out his rat-club and thumped something.
He then used my pincers to withdraw the hook, and embedding its tip in a spare cork and tying its shank in place, he showed forth a fish of both uncommon broadness and thickness, and more, a good four inches longer than his forearm.
A fish that in places was silvery, had fins and scales, but over much of the thing, as fat and as broad as it was...
“That fish is a living rune-curse,” I spat. “It's got colors like a bad rune-curse, they're so bright, and...”
“That is not a cursed fish,” said Sarah. “I have had those many times for meals, and that looks to be a sizable one, one large enough for our second breakfast.” Pause, then, “Sepp, you're elected to cook that thing up, as raw fish is not something I like much.”
“Me neither,” I said. “I like mine cooked.”
Sepp soon had his fish gutted and beheaded with his knife, but when he brought out a stove that resembled a canteen with multiple rings, this made of titanium, and then a small folding tinned bronze griddle so as to 'fry' our fish-fillets after drenching them in a mix of 'fresh' quoll eggs and 'cracker crumbs' that Sarah spoke of as being day-old bread that had been oven-dried overnight in a slow oven and then ground in a large stone mortar, I wondered what it would taste like.
“I might like fry-breads a lot, and some other things too,” said Karl, “but if it is trout, then that way is how I like it the most.”
“I know that,” said Sepp. “This might be a three-pound fish now that it is cleaned, but if it gives us a single serving each of a decent size, it will surprise me.”
“You have not caught those, have you?” asked Sarah. “That size of fish, if it was that type, was enough to nearly glut a group of five students, and I was one of those students, and most of the time it was my fish.”
“This big?” asked Sepp, as he began to cut the thing up. “This thing skins like a marmot.”
“That is why you do not waste half your fish with those,” said Sarah. “Now, slice that thing up such that each slice is the width of a finger once you've rinsed it out, put a finger of oil to that griddle, dip your fish first in those eggs and then that dried bread, and then get ready with your fork to turn those fish-pieces. You want them a nice crispy brown color, and that over a low flame, if you're going to use that type of stove there.”
“How many times you cook these?” asked Sepp.
“Myself, perhaps a dozen, but it was a rare trip when we did not eat them with some frequency, as while finding better cooks in a group of students wasn't terribly hard, finding someone better at getting food was – and I caught those things often enough to know of the right and wrong ways of their preparation.” Pause, then, “I hope we can put up ponds for those like Ploetzee has, as they are a most-useful fish.”
“Oily?” I asked.
“No worse than new-herring,” said Sarah, “unless some wretch puts a cup of oil in his fryer rather than the bit needed to keep those slices from sticking. Yes, Sepp, use that small rag like that, warm up your griddle, and then get ready to cook that thing. That type of griddle on that type of stove, unless you turn it down to the point where it wishes to go out, will cook meals faster than a Public House stove stoked heavy with burnt-coal and both dampers open wide.” Pause, then, “only one type of stove cooks faster, and those are noisy.”
“Noisy?” I asked.
“They roar like an irritated mule, only quieter,” said Sarah, “and they need pumping like a lantern that takes aquavit, and then they flame up badly for a minute or so after they've been lit, but nothing beats those for heat, which is why Pieter had a pair on his ship in the room under the piloting house.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“It gets cold up there near the north-tip, especially of an evening,” said Sarah, “and they had a big pot of stew boiling on one of those things, and that all the time, and then there was this second such stove, and that one distilled water. It was a needed matter, as that ship wasn't out two or three days, but much longer as a rule, and hence the crew needed to bathe themselves regularly to not break out in these sores one gets when out upon the sea.”
“Sores?” I asked. I had the impression this was a most-severe rash, one that bloomed rapidly and got worse quicker-yet.
“They are called salt-sores, and they are due to being dampened much with salt water,” said Sarah. “If you bathe regularly, and wear clean clothing, and wipe your face of sweat while out on the water, then you do not get them, or if you do, they clear up readily once you've been on land for a few days. If you do not, though...” Here, Sarah paused for emphasis. “If you do not, then you become as if you spent much time in a drink-house that provides services, and got one of their worst rotting diseases.”
“Rotting diseases?” I asked.
“Yes, one becomes rotten should one avail oneself of such services,” said Sarah. “Now that Sepp is cooking, I would steer back into the channel, as that stove wishes calm water, not this rushing faster than Pieter's ship with a stiff wind at its back.”
“Once that fish is down, though, and he spies out that one place some miles to our front, then we want to get into faster water while yet noting the channel, if possible,” said Gabriel. “We want to run those Islands during the middle of the day, no latter than midafternoon, and with the second kingdom port in flames, they are not likely to shoot at us if we give them plenty of distance.”
“That would be true were that place not full of witches, Gabriel,” said Sarah.
“Sarah, that was true yesterday at this time,” said Gabriel. “Look to the west, over the trees there, and some distance to the south. See all of that smoke?”
“You can see the smoke with the naked eye?” I gasped.
“Yes, faintly,” said Gabriel, as he stood up on his knees and then sat down again. “Good, that fish seems to be coming well. Is it?”
“It is not sticking, and these tools I have here are good ones,” said Sepp. “I always wondered why you scraped the surface of these pans before tinning, then stoned them, and now I know. They don't hardly stick then.”
“That was the idea,” I said dryly, as I slipped back into the channel. Here, again, it was 'full fathom five, deep water', and that was if one counted the yards of silt that would need clearing prior to erection of a wharf. More, since stone was so cheap in the area, and that second boat would bring enough gear for several dozen people to remain here while the other was getting the remainder of its refit, with the goal of making a wharf large enough to tie up two of those boats and several 'shipping containers, it would take them some time. More, they would need to lay narrow-gage track, though after looking closer at the steep muddy riverbank, I realized what they would need would be 'meter-gage' stuff, with a hefty crane, lighting that gave ample light, and a lot of buildings, as well as a number of streets running parallel to their main entrance, and...
“And a runway?” I thought. “How big of one?”
“Two thousand five hundred meters long, and a hundred meters wide, with sufficient depth to its surface to handle fighter planes,” said the soft voice. “Now, get centered in that channel, and start describing what you see. This area is critical, as it's the northern boundary of where the Abbey will be during slow time, and there will need to be two degrees of separation between that boundary and the beginning of what will eventually become a very large spaceport.”
“Uh, towns?” I asked. I meant 'north and west of the Abbey'.
“No towns of consequence within five miles west of the road fronting on that place, and none on the east side of the road and the east side of the Main until you get halfway between here and the north-tip, as that whole region used to be the very 'heart' of Geeststaat, and hence it's named 'accursed ground' to this day. It's almost all densely wooded, it's mostly old-growth timber of unusual size and straightness, and many of those trees are blackwood trees, with the area to your immediate left having the greatest concentration of such trees in the central part of the first kingdom.”
“Big mess of 'em, also,” I murmured, as Sepp handed me one of those odd titanium plates with one of those things that could not make up its mind as to whether it was a spoon or a fork. One taste of the slice of fish, and I was devouring it, though I needed to chew carefully, swallow slowly, and wait for a short time between each small bite.
“Those thugs must have cut you good,” said Sepp. “Anna told me how bad you were sliced up, and now, I know you were.”
“You have not seen the half of those scars, Sepp,” said Sarah. “There are blade-scars, and those of shot and balls, then those of muskets, and then four or five that had to come from roers, and only his last two baths did he not wash shot or balls out of himself.” Sarah's grammar was improving by the hour.
“They'll get the rest when they work on him over there, and they'll fix his innards,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble.”
“What is that?”
“What he's been doing lately,” said the soft voice. “Firstly, that takes a lot more out of a person than conventional meals can cope with, and then, he's got responsibilities that will be the death of him long before the Curse breaks fully without a degree of help that they currently can only partially provide, and then finally, ever realize just how much time he needs to spend eating, recovering from hypoglycemia attacks, being a lot sicker than he looks to be, and stinking up privies 'as bad as if he were covered with black fur and wearing two white stripes from head to tail'?”
“I am not sure about him smelling like a stinker, as nothing smells worse, least no animal that I know of does,” said Sarah, “and he is deathly ill, and I'm not that much better off myself.”
“Precisely, which is why they will do all they can for him now, and more for him as it becomes available – and when they read his mind, they will do all they can for him, and I do mean 'all'.”
“F-full alteration?” I asked, as I suddenly turned my head left. There, something so weird happened that I had no word for it, even if my hand steered within twenty feet of the unnaturally steep riverbank. I was seeing something not there, in movie format, no less.
The first issue was the trees, and here, both of those race-tuned fuel-saws were screaming like deranged dark gray cats. While they needed a lot of attention – topping up each tank for every tree dropped proved wise with both saws – they also cut down trees so infernally fast that two hours had I, Annistæ, Angelíca, and several other recent arrivals tired, sweaty, worn-out, and covered with fine sawdust, with a pair of saws that would need hours of maintenance and enough ground cleared...
“Good God,” I muttered. “Clear-cut? Those things go so stinking fast that you spend more time putting fuel and lubricants in them than you do cutting trees!”
That, however, was the reality: that big 'eight and eighty' could chew its way through a blackwood tree two and a half foot at the base in the time it took to count to three quickly, and while one killed the engine before 'running like a lunatic' as the hundred and twenty-foot patriarch dropped like a falling safe, once said tree was down, the three 'servers' came up, topped the saw, the pair of sawyers ran toward the next one as the fifty-five ripped off limbs with a steady screaming howl that lasted perhaps a minute at a time, and as that saw ceased running to be refueled, old 'eighty-eight' dropped another tree!
The trees were coming down so rapidly that the people with the smaller saw – it needed its servers also – were cutting the smaller trees as well, while some other people, these dressed strangely, had this odd six-wheeled contraption that billowed thick gouts of steam from its rear towing the tree-trunks over to where they were stacked atop a built-on-site trailer, to then be hauled by another of those 'cute' little steam-billowing construction machines.
“Want some of those for that Abbey basement,” I muttered, as I continued, my voice a soft monotone, to describe what I saw happening before me. The dock came first, this in this strange out-of-the-current 'bay' that was deep enough to turn a boat of their common size if they used due caution, and as I looked below as I let our boat drift a bit cross-current, I noted its depth, that being a minimum of 'mark, full fathom five, deep water' – or, in units they understood, about ten meters, that not including the silt.
This bay had a lot of such silt, and it would need regular 'vacuuming' to get the bay's full depth, that being two and in some places three meters more.
“Silt is easily forty percent iron oxide, a lot of other metals, some trace amounts of catalysts, and the balance slags that will work well for, er, moldable stone, or as they name it, concrete,” I whispered. “It seems this place acts as a natural riffle. Oh, one other thing – one to two percent gold, especially this one isotope that they really want, and about four percent silver, especially certain layers of it. A lot of it's compacted silt, and that's especially bad in the channel, so much so that they'll want to mine that stuff if they get the chance.”
“Not at this time, save for this 'bay', as there they want and need the depth, and they can keep those furnaces busy without too much trouble – that, and they can take it back to where they live and separate it there, which means they're running 'double-headed' with silt and sawdust on the return trip. They'll like that.”
The 'bay' continued on further than I had expected, and at its northern end, I saw the remnants of a Norden-ship, this thing so old and decrepit – as well as fire-blackened – that I wondered if Hans' grandfather had had a hand in burning it. I looked backward at the 'bay', and then knew: this was a region preferred by Norden for nocturnal landings and nonsense of all kinds, as was that portion between our launch-cove and the Abbey's 'inlet'; and the latter stretch needed to have its artillery also, so as to keep Norden's people at bay.
“Need a bunker there,” I said, pointing at the spot in question, it being at the northern end of the 'bay' and perhaps a hundred feet more, at the very tip of the jutting-out-into-the-river portion that marked the edge of the channel and the widening of the deepened region. “Big nasty one, truncated pyramid, stone or reinforced concrete, and at least two of those guns, as well as one or more added rifle-caliber weapons, all of them with wide side-to-side and narrow top-to-bottom slits for firing out of and protecting those inside.”
“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “Now there is this jutting point out into the river just ahead, and then it widens out more, wider than it is now for some distance, and while you want to see where the channel is, and keep speaking of it, I think you may wish to get into the current so the boat can move. I've been keeping track of our distance, and either Karl cannot toss worth a rotten egg, or my figures are weird, as I figure we only go that slow when you're looking at something important, and at a good speed for a fast-ship otherwise.”
“Then perhaps we need the sail up now, that and beer,” I said.
The sail was up not three minutes later, and as I tried it out – it needed grabbing to one's rear and left on the right side of the boat to steer the sail, this with a stick that folded up; and one steered with that such that the sail could move forty-five degrees either way from straight-on. Its' top was secured to the rear ends of the pontoons by the thickest 'sailing ropes' I had yet seen, and the bottom of the triangular 'mast' in sockets near their fronts in sliding tracks – the sail was but barely filled, and that part of the time. Mostly it hung in a near-slack state, but when it did fill, even a little...
Things became quite lively then, and the boat moved.
“Do not bother tossing a cork now, Karl,” said Sarah. “At this speed, I must use sights at landmarks and then figure them with this measurer.”
“How are ships measured as to speed?” I asked. I guessed our current speed, with a trace of wind in our sail, at nearly fifteen miles an hour.
“The speed of ships is measured in cables,” said Sarah, “with one cable being considered good for most coast-bound ships, Pieter's manages two with a good wind and all sails hung, and ours... Ours, when we get enough wind to move that sail out so that it looks a bit like a sail and not laundry hung out to dry – ours is closer to three.”
“What will it be when we get wind?” I asked.
“Do not ask me then, as I am likely to be too busy to tell, and near the north-tip, it starts to get strange, even for something such as I have,” said Sarah. “Oh, there, up ahead. That is that one town, the one with the niter. Nothing remains of it, not even its drag. All that is left is ashes, weeds, and sand, just like it was when I made my first trip up here.” Pause, then, “that is one reason why they call this region on each side of the river cursed – no town endures much more than a ten-year in this area, even if it does well and is honest, and few people bother to set their towns along this stretch of river unless they have evil in mind or they have nowhere else to go.”
“It was this far north?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Sarah. “That town was quite isolated, which is why I think those niter-thieves picked it.” Pause, then, “this is the river-road, a place where coaches used to show commonly, and now, if any show, they will show themselves at night.”
“Presuming there are some to show,” said Karl. Sepp was cleaning up his mess, using the river's water, some odd 'cleanser' coming from a medium-sized escape-proof container, and one of those looted-from-the-Abbey scrubbing pads.
“Oh, there are some,” I said. “Granted, they've been coming up here in pieces, and are being assembled – badly, I might add, as those putting them together in that woodlot over there...”
“Do you see where that woodlot is?” asked Sarah.
“Sepp, Karl, someone, handle the tiller and keep the boat straight,” I said, reaching for my rifle. “Hot red tracer, two rounds, coming up.”
I went to the side of the boat, clambering over Karl as he took the tiller, then aimed for what seemed a hollow place in a woodlot. As it came clearer and sharper in the scope, I saw what looked like a squat tarred wooden barrel, a barrel that grew clearer and sharper with each passing instant. I aimed at its very top, then fired at it, then to the left, I saw a blue-white jug. I aimed at that jug's neck – and as I fired, the entire front of the 'scope went red-white with fire.
“You got a bad witch-hole,” said Karl, who gladly exchanged places with me. “Now, as soon as I get some more food and beer, then I can try driving this thing, same as all of us should, as we will need to do so around those islands.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“That telescope changed, if I heard right,” said Sarah. “It became much bigger and heavier, and I suspect more than a little that it will only work for you.”
“Work like that, yes,” said the soft voice. “It, like a number of other things, will only show the fullness of its capacity for him. It will work well for others, provided they are not witches for truth or thinking.”
I then brought the thing out, and began 'scanning' the area with that 'scope' as Karl once more took the tiller. The slack sail made it easier, though when the boat abruptly 'jolted' ahead, Sarah had to advise him how to hold 'the sail-tiller'.
“Keep it as full as you can, Karl,” said Sarah, regarding the sail. It took careful 'feeling' and 'listening', as the wind was still very light this early in the morning. “The wind is coming up. It's gusting now, but give it time and distance, for as we go further north, we get more wind in the daytime compared to around home.”
“Not a lot of wind, I hope,” I muttered, as I continued scanning. I saw another 'hole', handed the scope to Sepp, then took up my rifle, waited, then fired another round into that hole.
The explosion that resulted was so bad that even from five hundred yards' distance I thought our craft would tip over, but another five minutes showed no more 'holes'. During that time, however, the gouting smoke coming from a number of places on the eastern side of the Main showed that my hitting that second example of the two holes was having some major repercussions for witchdom.
Especially as more gouts of smoke kept shooting up in the areas to south, east, and north, some of these on tall columns of fire that spat red-green-white.
“I think they had another witch-grade powder mill here, that, or they were storing a great deal of witch-grade powder in readiness,” said Sarah, as she resumed writing, now and then taking sights and figuring distances, while I ate and drank as if famished.
I then had to 'go', and here I found another issue: someone had fitted a 'door' to the rear, this with well-stitched leather hinges due to their light weight, and a thin latch of brass, this catching on a small brass-reinforced portion of the frame. A small platform was present to our rear, and while it looked flimsy and was held up partly with sailing ropes, it was sufficient to do one's business readily – provided one kneeled to urinate, and then squatted to defecate. I needed to do both, and after wiping my rear carefully and then bagging the used privy-rag in a larger sample bag, this one labeled as 'used privy rags', I returned to the 'cabin'.
My testing the arrangement made for an exodus over the course of several minutes, and as the boat was now moving rapidly, this needed care, and often crawling up the central section. When Gabriel came back from his trip, however, I noted an expression of abject misery upon his face.
“I expected this to happen, but not while still in the river,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I am ill,” he said. “I am not sure if it is the speed of this craft, or its movement, but it seems to gently rock, much as if I were in a cradle, and then it moves side-to-side a bit...”
“Karl, I think you are being too rough with this boat,” said Sarah. “Just let the stick move a bit in your hand. It isn't a mule, nor a bad horse, but one that is like a full-racing mare, one which will tolerate no saddle, and but a thin leather thong, not even a silver wire.” Pause, then, “I think I know why he does so well – he rides a horse that will endure none of those things, and...”
“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “What Gabriel is experiencing, to put it mildly, is mostly a matter of him being cursed, and the balance a matter of him being unusually sensitive to motion-sickness – and while the cursing will go, most likely, the motion sickness will be difficult to manage unless...”
“Unless what, urp,” said Gabriel.
“Unless you receive the full treatment,” said the soft voice. “You might not need it initially to survive, but within a very short time after entering the black sack, you will be glad for it, and later – it will save your life.”
“Save my life?” asked Gabriel. “How?”
“Recall that if you stay there any time at all, you will become marked?” said the soft voice. “How you become marked would normally mean swift death. Being done as is needed to endure a regime of altered space and time makes one vastly harder to kill.”
“Vastly... Oh, a wearable intensive care environment,” I murmured. “Gabriel, that's what's done for people who are hurt bad where I came from, and here, they do better yet.”
“Especially when the equipment is developed to that degree,” said the soft voice. “Recall that one picture where a person done that way had a metal pear detonate in their lap and they were more or less uninjured?”
“There are worse things than hot-loaded metal pears in the black sack,” said the soft voice. “Strange things happen there, including animals and beings suddenly showing that make anything short of huge cursed flame-spewing lizards seem tame – and while no huge cursed flame-spitting lizards will show, there will be some 'big mean critters' showing that need the equivalent of your first rifle to teach them a measure of manners.”
“And, uh... A measure of manners?”
“Yes, if you hit them solid,” said the soft voice. “They tend to be very quick, very stealthy, can hide better than any rat you've yet seen, and pound for pound, take more hot lead than any black rooster ever hatched from a non-rotten egg.”
“And he runs into one, and has to kill it the hard way, and gets chewed up rather badly doing so,” I murmured. “Need that life-saver stuff...”
“Wearable intensive care environments have that material built in,” said the soft voice, “and since they do that and a great deal more, about the only way to kill someone done up like that is to 'hit' them with a big artillery shell.” Pause, then, “encounters with such creatures, however, unless one gets onto them before they get onto you, tend to result in becoming marked – and if one really gets onto you...”
“Yes?” asked Sarah nervously as she handed me her navigation equipment and made ready to try steering the boat. I took a sighting with the compass, then seeming to hear her voice in my ears unspoken, I moved the three sliders, gently twisted the dial, then read out the reading on the fourth side, wrote it down, added the correction factor etched onto that side for the corresponding reading, then moved the fourth slider and read from the second slider.
“Thirty-one point eight miles an hour,” I said. “No sailing ship moves this quickly, does it?”
Gabriel answered by leaning over the nearest pontoon and spewing until his vomit came up a near-fluorescent green, then he darted out the back – where he seemed to be trying to put his gastrointestinal tract in the river, if I went by the noise.
“He's spewing from both ends, dear,” I said. “Best dose him for 'dysentery' like they have in that third kingdom port, then give him a full tube of the bull formula, followed by that other.”
Sarah looked at me, nodded, and not five minutes later, Gabriel was quietly sleeping in the sheltered section, wrapped tightly in a quilt.
“Cursed, indeed,” I muttered. “That's the first time I ever saw someone spew that color of green. Mine is usually darker.”
“That is because what he dumped is due to a curse, as we were told,” said Sarah. “So now we know why us 'commons' are to only go slowly – there are curses upon speeds, curses that need strong witches and chants to exceed, and... Why are we able to go... How fast did you say we were going?”
“Thirty-one-point eight miles an hour,” I said. “You read your positional change off of the fourth side, add the correction factor printed along the side to it for the 'position' side, then move that fourth slider, and read it off of the second. Works quite well, and I can feel some small and rather precise gears in here – gears they gash with some rather special tooling, then touch up with a fine file, harden, then lap by running them with a bronze gear with this special dust that is really hard to get. Polishes those gears right up, and while they need to do about twenty examples to the get the eight or so main gears and the same proportion of racks for these sliders, the end result works very well indeed. Quick, accurate, and easy to use.”
“I needed six months of instruction in the use of mine, and that from a lecturer in mathematics that normally taught those students who were to be instrument-makers.”
“And you did not become a witch,” I said.
“No, I did not, but that was not my course of study,” said Sarah. “I was never told what it was, but if I must guess, I might well one day have stood elections to become a queen.”
“Not just any queen, but a special one,” I said. “Dear, those who wrote that document out for you when you were an infant were not that knowledgeable of the pendants, but they knew you might well be involved with either being owned by one, or helping one who was, and now you are doing that and have a necklace that owns you, and hence they trained you as best they could – or, at least that was those people's intent. What those others did, those you recall less of than you want to right now... I am not sure. They do not sound as if they were fit parents, much less good examples, not if what I can feel about you is right.”
“Yes, and I hope those people overseas can tell me what happened,” said Sarah. “I would not mind losing my hair, if that is what it takes.”
“They might not think that wise, actually,” said the soft voice. “That does not mean they cannot learn a fair amount about her, more than what those who had her bathe did – and not a little more.” Pause, then, “though I will tell you this: in time, your responsibilities will cause you to need a similar level of assistance, so much so that if you do not get it, you will die – and hence, you will spend the whole time in the black sack, and you will have the whole time in that place's medical school, and you will also learn a great deal more, including what Dennis spent so much of his life learning.”
“How to survive living in a place that makes Berky at its smoky worst wonderful?” asked Sarah.
“No, silly,” said the soft voice. “You're going to start with medical school, and progress all the way, but in the process, you'll get the full school of electronics – and by the time you're done in that particular black sack, you'll be marked enough to work on those things safely.”
“Radios?” asked Sarah. She was getting the feel of the boat, and I could tell – next to me, she was far and away the best boat-steerer. She made Karl seem worthless, as I was noticing she was finding the strongest wind and the shortest passage between two points, and that consistently. Our speed was now such that I wondered more than a little just when we would make the north-tip.
“You're on next, Sepp, and I hope you do better than Karl,” said Sarah. “He needs to practice a lot on these things, and if it goes fast at all, he will dump it.”
“I'm not sure downing cattle...” Sepp looked at what Sarah was doing, then touched the sail-steering 'oar'. “Easy movements, right. Got to feel it, don't you?”
“Yes, very much so,” said Sarah. “Now slowly, move to my right, and feel the other. You must work these in a coordinated fashion to get the best speed, and I am glad for this clothing, as there is mist coming back from the bows of this thing – which means we are moving rapidly indeed.”
“Do fast-ships go this rapidly?” asked Sepp.
“No, not even close!” said Sarah. “This is faster than most birds fly, actually, unless one speaks of a quoll, a buzzard, or a wood-pigeon.”
Sarah changed over not ten minutes later, and while she tutored Sepp, I made my own observations of the river. Here, the thing was easily a quarter mile wide by my estimation, though using the compass with its attachment and then Sarah's 'slide-rule' gave me a figure of closer to six hundred yards from shore to shore in most places. There was a definite channel, this for the most part straight, with some places in it wider than others; and a number of deep pools on the west bank, these filled more or less with sediment. Glances at the west bank in the distance ahead now showed towns, small places, these with large drags; with the sun now plainly showing – it was 'daybreak' to these people, as our traveling from where we lived to this location changed the length of the day noticeably – those drags were crowded with men and women, all of them carrying small boats with oars and coils of rope to avoid being swept downstream by the current.
The reasons why, at least to me, were obvious, and when I decided to try my luck at fishing, I found that my bait tended to vanish quickly. The third such attempt had Sepp shaking his head.
“Best let someone else do the fishing, and you do the shooting,” he said. “There are fish here, and plenty of them, but either you're not feeling that line right, or those things are the smartest fish I've ever seen.”
“They use weighted nets here, Sepp,” said Sarah, “and as fish go, the ones here are very tricky.” Pause, then, “out on the ocean, though – those things out there are another matter entirely.”
“What do they do – run off with your bait and your hook?”
“That, and they try to pull you in the water with them,” said Sarah. “There is nothing worse for that business than a frisky sea-run trout with a head full of iron, and I have needed sailors grabbing me so I did not fly over the side when a larger one got my line.”
“Did you ever try a lodestone on those things?” I asked. “You have a small magnet, don't you?”
“Yes, and I put two in your possible bag, each with its keeper of sheet iron,” said Sarah. “They should prove useful, as they make fist-sized lodestones seem worthless.”
“That road on the west bank, there?” I asked, as I watched what looked like a freighting wagon with a team of six horses moving at a steady pace. The scope's 'rangefinder' showed it as being more than five miles distant yet, though we were gaining on it fast. “Where does it go?”
“Up near the north-tip, or it did,” said Sarah – who then shaded her eyes for an instant to cut the glare of the now entirely-rising sun, and recalled that I was using that 'big white thing'. “Try that telescope, if that is what it is, and tell me what you see ahead and a bit to the right of our present course. You might see the sea, if that is a good one.”
I brought the device up, let it 'come up' then as its various dials and buttons came out within seconds, I thought to adjust for 'infrared' emissions. The results I saw were dazzling, to say the least.
“Place is still smoking like a bad fifth kingdom smelter, and it's looking like it's on fire still... What is this? There's this weird thing up ahead and to the right...” Another pause, then as I 'zoomed in', I saw not merely the shape of the thing better, but burning-hot beings running about a flat surface, a tall volcano-like plume of red-tinted 'smoke' that lazily drifted to its rear, and then below that smoke-plume and somewhat to the left of its bottom, I saw bursts of heat, these in a definite quick-moving rhythm that repeated at the rate of perhaps four hundred beats to the minute. I asked, “those engines you stopped, about how fast did they turn?”
“That depended upon the engine,” said Sarah. “There are some smaller ones used by potters that are both rapid and loud, but if they are looked after well, they are not that dangerous. Those used in the mines, though – those are dangerous indeed.”
“How fast do they turn?” I asked. “Their noise – how often do they, uh, 'bang' or 'send flame'?”
“Like a badly-running fire-breather with a small pill, or perhaps when you are driving hot-rivets,” said Sarah. “You drive those slower than the smaller ones, though it still sounds like a fire-breather when you do.”
“Makes you feel as if you're going to go deaf if you do it while inside of a cupola shell,” I murmured. “Now, there are these... Zoom in further... Oh, my. Sarah, I can tell what this is. This is a ship, it's running a big compression-ignition engine, and the thing is absolutely swarming with these big fat thugs that l-look like witch-soldiers.” Pause, then, “oh, here's one – he's really a hot wretch. Now, run a spectrogram on him...”
I glanced at the pop-out screen, and did not believe my eyes. “What? What gives with this thing? Why is it showing this, uh, weird cyclic variation that reminds me a lot of this one drum-rhythm I've heard a fair number of times since coming here – like this bad music witches like, because it's a paean to Brimstone and...”
The main screen then printed a strange – and rather long – chemical formula. I looked at this new information and spat, “I know what that is. That stinker is trashed on that drug that turns people into idiots that follow orders 'because they are orders', and then...” I dialed around, getting another spectrogram, this one showing what looked like an erratic heartbeat, then as I tuned lower, I started getting what looked like brain waves – only these things were so jagged, spiky, and erratic that it was a wonder the person producing them was alive.
“What causes that?” I asked.
“That individual – and indeed, all of those people you see putting out a lot of heat – are taking several different drugs, most of which act in concert to both cause people to act like idiots and become severely inhabited,” said the soft voice. “The result, of course, is absolute, unquestioning obedience, this given without consideration of cost or consequences – which means, at some level and in some fashion, a witch or witches are involved.”
“And those, uh, black-dressed people taking those?” I asked.
“Are, to a man, fairly serious witches, for that ship is one of those which goes to Norden with supplies, information, training, and other things that are part of the larger scheme of things. Figure on not seeing that one close-up this trip – at least, figure on not getting close enough for it to notice you, or you getting close enough to damage it.” Pause, then, “I'd get your radio set up about now, and start tuning around '79' on the main tuning and peak the other tuning controls so as to get the strongest signal. You'll just need a bit of wire to get them at this distance and time of day.”
After putting away the telescope in its waterproof bag and securing it by a cord to a cleat, I brought out the radio, hooked it up, put on the earpiece, and began tuning around. Within what seemed like seconds, I could hear what seemed like a round-table discussion, all save one of these people sounding as if speaking narrow-passband badly distorted speech modulated by dried-out filter capacitors, and within moments, I could tell the following.
Whoever was actually running this mess was either trashed to a small degree, or 'dangerously sober' – and while he still sounded like he was talking through a good quality active filter, and his filter capacitors were still decent – still a bit of buzz on his signal, but nothing like the others – that told me but one thing.
He was not only 'in charge', but he was the most dangerous of the lot; and therefore, the most serious witch, if witch he was. For some reason, I wondered about him – as in he might not be one.
The others, however, were not merely much stronger as to signals, but also, much harder to follow, with a mishmash of code-words, choking sounds, 'cheap-rotten-buzzer-hash', and frequency-ranged distortion, but even narrower passbands were present on their 'filters', such that they sounded like a few vocal prostheses I had heard some people use long in the past.
Those people, I wondered much less. For some reason, I could hear those drugs talking, while with that one person, I was hearing him.
“Ship two-one-A-B, what is your current status?” asked 'Mr. Sensible'. He was definitely thinking for the entire group. I could tell that much.
Mishmash of noise, harsh buzz of dried-out filter capacitors, then suddenly, as if the signal jumped out in the clear, the noises fell away and I heard clearly a rune-curse.
“That was a witch speaking,” I spat.
“Not much of a curse, though,” said the soft voice. “In his case, that outburst was ninety-five percent due to the drugs he was taking, and save for perhaps one or two others of those done like that you might find on those ships, they're in the same or similar conditions – just enough infestation to be called 'witches' if you speak of curse-power, very heavily indoctrinated, very severely trashed, very addicted to power as well as those drugs, and having no common sense at all – and, much of it due to being given those drugs.” Pause, then, “that one person, though, while he is none of those things, is more dangerous than all of the others put together and multiplied.”
“Why?” I asked silently.
“He gave his allegiance to the cause of the current leadership willingly, and while he's too honest and hardworking to be even slightly attractive to Brimstone as a witch,” said the soft voice, “Brimstone takes useful tools when and where he can find them, and that man is a useful tool indeed to those over him, and therefore, ultimately he's a tool of Brimstone.”
“He's inhabited?” I thought.
“No, because again, he's too honest, hardworking, loyal, and believes in doing the right thing to a fault,” said the soft voice. “Give him a good look at some suitable literature, and he'd toss everything he currently believes in a heartbeat and go over to the 'commons' without a second thought or a shred of hesitation. His masters know that, so they do all they can to keep him in the dark about that matter, and they play him like the 'fool' he is.”
“Fool?” I asked. I could hear some distinct quotes about that word.
“He's not nearly the fool they think him to be,” said the soft voice, “and he's a lot smarter than those over him think him to be, and then he's one of a fairly large group of people who are actively looking for that information that would cause him to turn his back on those who 'kidnapped' him, just like many other people who are 'caught' in that installation.” Pause, then, “recall how witches are when it comes to intelligence? How they know how to do curses, and little else as a rule?”
I nodded, this silently, as I continued to listen in to the round-table conversation. I was getting a very definite feeling, so much so that as I listened, I soon knew what the situation was.
“'Mr. Sensible' is being used to do the thinking here, as you surmised,” said the soft voice. “Now listen, as you're going to hear something really useful in short order.”
Two boats, possibly three, were in this one harbor. The one on the horizon heading toward Norden was another. 'Mr. Sensible' was wherever he was – which was not on a boat. He was closeted, much as if he were a slave and did not know it. I then heard another voice break in, and this one...
“That one's a real witch, not some drugged-up flunkeys that have trouble thinking like half-serious supplicants when they're drugged to the eyeballs,” I spat. “He's not on a boat either. So, that means three or four boats at sea right now, Mr. Sensible that's more or less a penned-up slave who was kidnapped, and then this other individual that's got no smarts and a lot of real power – and most of what that stinker does is get stinking drunk, cause trouble, put impossible demands to his underlings, and in general acts like one of those Powers.”
“Essentially correct,” said the soft voice. “There actually are five ships at sea, but one of them is loading 'in harbor', and hence its 'talker' is talking to his 'slaves' and not on the radio.” Pause, then, “the chief area where you are wrong is just what and how much that individual you referred to as 'Mr. Sensible' knows about his situation.”
“He's more ignorant than he thinks?”
“Yes, and no,” said the soft voice. “What he does not know is just how dependent he is for his life upon not leaving where he is currently situated.” Pause, then, “what he does know, however, is that his situation isn't that far removed from that of a slave – again, much like it is in the five kingdoms when you are dealing with high-ranking witches running kingdoms, and all who live under them are their 'property'.”
However, I soon heard 'Mr. Sensible' speaking with another boat, and as I heard him speaking and then the reply, I picked up the telescope, and noted this odd 'similarity' between the spectrogram display and what I was hearing.
“So that's where that one voice is coming from,” I thought. I then began panning the sky to the west, and to my astonishment, I more or less located where two signals are coming from, then a third one in the same area – though that one seemed to be moving at a slow speed, perhaps half that of the one that was speaking of what was heading for 'Port Three-A-B'.
“Some place at Norden,” I murmured, as I once more looked at the first ship I had seen. I thought to try to estimate its speed, and in the corner, I noted an 'estimated' speed of seventeen dot four kilometers per standard time medium-length time unit.
“About ten, maybe eleven miles an hour,” I mumbled. A glance over at the other signals in the round table, and I got solid lock on two, both of them having 'velocity of zero dot zero', while the other was giving a confused signal – but he was moving.
“Probably in a holding pattern, just enough to make steerage,” I thought. “That place can only cope with two ships at a time. Now what are they...”
“Four hundred thousand kilograms of black-hole coke,” said one of the 'witches' – who was then broken in on by 'Real Witch', who screamed, “Five hundred thousand, or I shall have swine drink your blood for my pleasure!”
“Black hole coke?” I murmured. “What in blazes is that stuff?”
“I suspect it's preferred by brass-founders for their worst metal, and I know it's used a lot in the fifth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Karl, slower with that tiller, and keep that sail full. If it flaps much it may dump us in the water.”
“Yes, but we do not have steady wind,” said Karl – who felt he was in far over his head. “If I had steady wind, then maybe I could manage, but otherwise, I might be better used for paddling one of these things upstream.”
“Hence the backside of the continent, where a third of this speed is about average,” I murmured. “He might manage it then.”
“Yes, if he hugs the shoreline and lets someone else do the job when there's anything close to real wind,” said the soft voice. “Gabriel may be worse, but Karl, to put it mildly, has trouble going much over ten miles an hour on this boat.”
“That is not trivial, though, not if it's secure,” I said.
“It will not be secure for long if that is one's maximal speed,” said the soft voice. “The chief ability of these boats is their speed, not their cargo capacity, as they might carry what a twelve-donkey pack train would manage for load, if you factor in that long of a trip.”
“Only sail during the day, also,” I muttered, as I locked onto that 'fourth' boat at sea. It was now no longer 'circling' – it was coming straight into somewhere, and as I somehow 'activated' its relative movement and track, then I had another strange idea.
I'd be able to find this place readily, for some reason. These boats needed a lengthy shutdown procedure to do so safely, some hours, and then the engine room remained as warm as a bake-oven for nearly twelve hours after the engine was shut down.
“More than that,” said the soft voice. “I'd try to find that place in a hurry if I were you just the same.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the reason that one boat is headed in is because another is getting ready to come out, and if you hit that port at the right time, you can get all of them, but if you miss that window by an hour or more, then you're likely to have one come after you – and if the one currently getting ready to disembark is the one which does so, it's the smallest, the fastest, the best-maintained, the newest, and has the best-trained gunners – as its ship-leader is 'relatively sober', and most of his important underlings are in the same situation.”
“Is that why...”
Another dried-out filter capacitor, a narrow passband, but this person was an utterly new entity. Not merely was he a 'real witch' compared to all save that one wretch who had demanded five hundred thousand kilograms of 'black hole coke', but he sounded a bit different.
“Not very trashed compared to the others,” I murmured. “Only 'Mr. Sensible' makes him sound trashed.”
“Mostly because he isn't trashed,” said the soft voice. “He is, however, a fairly serious 'witch', even if in terms of inhabitation he's not much more so than those individuals that sound a lot worse, and he's not even close to that one person – either for how serious a witch he is, or how trashed he is – and he's just barely trustworthy enough to let out as a ship-leader, as if he found convincing information speaking of what the truth is, he'd take but a little more convincing than 'Mr. Sensible' to dump all of what he currently believes, and he'd then side entirely with the 'commons' – and then, he'd try to find me.” Pause, then, “he's more that way than Mr. Sensible, by the way, and only a few among that group would best him.”
“Is what he does an act?” I asked.
“That is the chief issue,” said the soft voice. “His act is so good that it has him convinced, much less his superiors, and the fact that he does a much better job than anyone else currently in charge of a ship causes the people who are actually running things to think he's really inhabited – as in 'if he does that a few more years, then he's going to be kicked upstairs to one day run the place, with the official title of 'Big Brother'.”
“And if we had five years for that to happen, then we would not need to do a regime change overseas, as he'd do it for us,” I murmured. “Trouble is, we might, realistically, have about two, or maybe a trifle more, before we need to get this whole thing done – and the work just starts then, as we're going to have to go out and take a large portion of a galaxy so as to stay alive.”
“Correct, if you speak of breaking the Curse alone,” said the soft voice. “If you are going to get to where you can break that curse, though – it's either going to happen now, or it's going to be never.”
As I put the telescope down, I found that Sarah was trying once more to teach Karl how to handle a tricky boat that was now moving, and when I used the telescope's 'speed-estimation' capacity, it gave me a very good idea as to why.
“Just three people up to it now,” I said. “Dear, if you want him to handle a boat, you're either going to need it to go no faster than a drifting log, you're going to have to get one that's a lot easier to manage, or you're going to need to give him the full treatment.” Pause, then, “Karl, you get a dose recently?”
Karl shook his head, and I got him one.
“Two cups of beer, give it five minutes, and then try,” I said, as I put away the telescope. “I've got what I need here, and I can take it for a while.”
I soon found, however, that while Karl was never going to be close to Sarah, nor close to Sepp, or even remotely close to me, he could handle the boat if he deliberately dropped the sail to about forty-five degrees. While this slowed our speed to perhaps half of what it was, it permitted him to drive, and here, I noted the channel, with Sarah to write down my observations.
“I had a hard time doing that while he was acting like he had a brass cone for his head,” said Sarah. “Now is he cursed?”
I looked at Karl, then said, “no, just... Karl, have you ever been on a boat?”
He shook his head, even as he adjusted his goggles.
“You ever go this fast before?” I asked.
Again, a shake of his head.
“You ever go faster than in a buggy with Lukas?” I asked
Again, surprisingly enough, a shake of a head.
“How about now?” I asked. “Not as tricky as it was?”
“It is tricky, some, but a lot of trouble was I was so afraid,” he said. “Then, I have never been more than twenty miles north of the kingdom house, and up this way, talk had it that one could see Norden – and if you can see them, then they can play with you like a fiddle.”
“You cannot see Norden, not even from the North-tip,” said Sarah. “If you want to see Norden, then you have to sail north in this circular pattern, and until you get close enough to smell the place, it will hide itself from you.”
“Have you seen the place?” I asked.
“No, but I talked to one of the few trustworthy people who doesn't live there who has, and that would be Pieter Huygens,” said Sarah. “I took ship with him, and we went a good ways past the north-tip, but that place is so strange that the only time you can see it, or so he told me, is High Summer, as the rest of the time, it hides itself – and it does that a good part of the time anyway. Then, your compass goes weird, your navigating equipment goes weird, and then if you stay any length of time, those people will give chase, and he used all his shot and shell the last time he went up that way. He isn't inclined to do it again unless he's got better guns with more range, and I do not blame him much, not after he showed me some of their arrows he had from that trip.”
“Not the usual Norden-arrow, either,” I muttered. “Things looked totally different, don't they?”
Sarah looked at me in shock, then nodded. “I've only seen that type of arrow a few times, and they're very rare on land. The other type are common enough if you spend time in the woods, but that kind... I've only seen more than one at a time in his hands, and he had a bag of them, and all of those things had places where they cut rigging, and three had blood where they killed his people.”
“So we know it's up to the north,” I said, as I pointed north with my hand briefly. “Right up that way, about two hundred miles from the north-tip, the current goes circular, and the winds are such that unless you've got an unusually good ship, it's either follow the current, or row – and those people from Norden row, as their ships aren't worth two dead coppers for sailing, even their newest ones.” Pause, then, “the channel's still running more or less straight. Only a handful of places where it's tricky – the place up near the north-tip where one enters the channel, and then where they used to have other docking places, and then finally, this one place where the silt is really deep and hard-packed.”
“That's where a bridge fell in the water,” said the soft voice. “It's documented on their current charts. The only place where you need to tell them about further in detail is the area near the north-tip itself.” Pause, then, “ask Sarah why they speak of 'black-hole coke' in the fifth kingdom, as it's important where you are going also.”
“It's thought especially cursed, isn't it?” I asked.
“Yes, and those curses aren't a joke, as it's what's used to make southern black-cast,” said Sarah. “You've got to be a witch of standing and funds to get it down there, and then, there's what they call those smelly things called coal-ovens down there.”
“What are those called?” I asked.
“They call those black holes,” said Sarah. “I think that's part of why the fifth kingdom is how it is, is the shape of those, as I've seen those shown on several tapestries, and they're done exactly how the ones were on the tapestries.”
“Duh, don't want to recover anything from that stuff,” I spluttered. “Just love all of that black sooty smoke.”
“Because black sooty smoke is the sign of a proper fetish, as per that black book's second and larger section, that which in translation is called 'the book of dead names',” said the soft voice.
“And what we do in our coal-ovens?” I asked.
“First, no black sooty smoke, then you recover all of what's in that stuff, and then your coke is indeed coke,” said the soft voice. “It's going to be a very highly prized material, so much so that only when coal is no longer dug will those ovens be retired.”
“What will we do then?” I asked.
“That will be answered very shortly,” said the soft voice. “Recall that you received a test tube with a sample in it?” Pause, then, “they have wanted that bacteria culture for a long time.” Pause, then, “what they don't know about is the solid form, and you got some of that in a sample bag.”
“Yes, I know, as it showed up in my buggy, and I think Kasper was involved,” said Sarah. “It had his writing on the label, anyway, so we take them that too.”
“And, they put that bacteria culture in a mole-cage, and play games with it,” I murmured.
“Right away, no,” said the soft voice. “They have far less use for that material than the liquid type.” Pause, then, “however, though, expect the medical people there to start 'playing' with that material once they get time to study it.”
“Then we find ways to make it in weeks rather than centuries,” I said. “Carbonize the resulting material thoroughly, then we have synthesis coke, which they really need.”
“True, they do, but getting the modest amounts they currently need isn't that tough, unlike the liquid material called 'distillate',” said the soft voice. “They will, however, recognize the dire need for what you mentioned by the time they have people living in the Abbey – and then, they will find time to get that bacteria culture 'tuned up' and 'smoking'.”
“Smoking?” I asked, as I pointed to a spot some distance away. I could see a thick gray fume of smoke now, this with the naked eye, and as a rough guess, I knew it was within twenty miles. I then took charge of tiller and sail-control, and here, I stuck to the channel
I also had wind, and upon adjusting both rudder and sail, I knew something strange was starting to happen.
“This speed, the sail and rudder start to interact some,” I said. “Sarah, sight on that fume there. Try to tell us how fast we're going, and Sepp, get those beer jugs in and put them in that tunnel with Gabriel. We're going to move.”
“We are already doing that,” said Sarah. “I do believe we could almost keep up with a wood-pigeon now.”
“Not quite,” I said, as Sarah took her sight, then as I let her look at the brass cube, her eyes bugged out.
“No, we cannot be going that quickly,” she said. “I know this is close enough to the north-tip for this thing to act strange, but...”
“How fast did it say we were going?” I asked, as we shot past a stationary seeming train of freighting wagons as if they were not moving at all.
“F-fifty four miles an hour,” she said. “N-nothing on the water goes that fast.”
“Best believe it dear,” said the soft voice. “Even if you did get some errors, you're still moving faster than anything that currently goes on the surface of the water, and your keels are starting to catch air under them.”
“Hence this thing is now developing a significant charge, our drag is lessened, and now...” I paused, then, “we're on the verge of flying, dear. Hang on. I'm going to try this for a moment. Wind, please.”
The sail suddenly bowed out stiff and hard, our speed seemed to increase rapidly, and within seconds, that smoky place on the north-tip was growing closer with each passing moment. I was now finding that I had to steer with the sail mostly, that and weight-shift, and as the speed continued to climb, I noted that to our right, we were leaving a shadow.
A shadow that indicated that not even our rudders were touching the water. We were flying, and the wind-scream in my ears told me enough, especially as there was one section where I would need to turn shortly.
“Best slow down now,” I said, as the boat began to slow and then gently landed with a soft splashing noise to 'run down' to its former speed where it was 'hydroplaning'. “Now, you've flown. How'd you like it?”
“I had no idea it was possible,” said Sarah. “It gives me hope.”
“Especially as you covered half the remaining distance to the north-tip during that few minutes of flight,” said the soft voice, “and here, he needs to go slow enough to carefully mark that channel going into the river, then steer around some of the stuff that got tossed off-shore while staying within a few hundred feet of the coastline for a while.”
“Meaning go out about two miles or so once we leave land behind, then a hard left, one where we almost do a u-turn,” I said, “and then we stay close enough to shore that one person needs to stay near the bow while I bring the sail back perhaps to a forty-five degree angle, at least until we're out of the burnt-over area. Correct?”
“I think so, as this place is something that we need to know about, and it will be important to us when those people from Norden come here,” said Sarah. “I think you will want full sail while you're finding the channel, as the wind goes away once you're out of the river here – unless you ask for it.”
“No, best save that for...” I paused, looked to my left, and gasped. “There used to be towns up here, but they're all gone, not a tree to be seen for miles, and the ground is so burnt and cratered it looks like the Swartsburg when it went completely to hell!”
“Let me write,” said Sarah. “Sepp, get up front, so as to watch for shallows. Karl, watch to our side, in case someone like a witch shows. I've got my rifle in my lap here, so I can shoot if at need.”
The river was now beginning to widen out and become shallower outside of the channel itself, but I remained in the channel. Here, I could only steer, but Karl was speaking of what he saw, Sarah was writing, and Sepp...
He was talking too of what he saw, for the most part to the side, but when I suddenly jerked the boat to the side to miss something, he looked back at me with a worried expression.
“What was it?” asked Sarah.
“I had seen that thing just in time, but he dodged it before I could think to open my mouth,” said Sepp. “That had to be a rotten cannon, only I've never heard of one big enough to put my head in its mouth.”
“That is no rotten cannon I have heard of,” said Sarah. “Those things may vary a line in their bores if one speaks of a given battery, but no rotten cannon...”
“Wrong, dear,” I said. “I've never seen any siege guns, but I suspect that not merely are those guns fairly common in some places, but there are some rather old 'rotten cannons' that are similar as to function to the current variety, if otherwise a lot different. Are they listed upon tapestries?”
“Y-yes, but I thought they had all gone to rust,” said Sarah.
“True for all save a handful,” said the soft voice. “That gun, and several more like it, were in long-term storage up here, and they were both well-preserved and not rotten – as in these guns were not made in the fifth kingdom.”
“Where were they made, then?” asked Sarah. I was still in the channel, though now, I had left the land and the wind more or less behind, and while I could not go with the current, I had to 'coast' – or rather, depend on the faint offshore wind, the wind that would die out within perhaps two miles. Past that point, however, then I would need to turn about, and then it would be needed to paddle back to where I could once more catch wind, this so that I could run near the coast until we'd gone perhaps twenty miles, then out to sea a bit more.
“No, you want to stay close to shore as long as you can,” said the soft voice. “The wind will pick up more, though, so until you're ready to go hunting down that one location, then I'd stay close to shore or go among the islands so as to avoid being seen through the 'clutter' by anything out there with radar or other things with similar properties.”
Suddenly, as if the bottom dropped out of the channel, it vanished abruptly; and as I slowed and then began a gentle turn, I could feel the state of the bottom. “Here is the channel. They need to start here. Now, a wide sweep, so as to find out just where the entranceway boundaries are, and then we can head back in closer to shore.”
For some reason, however, while I had suspected there would be no wind, I was wrong; and while I suspected we would be bucking the current, there too – I was wrong. The wind, while faint enough to barely move the sail, was enough to make headway at what Sarah described as a decent speed for a common ship, while the current wasn't fighting us nearly as much as I had expected. More, with a bit of experimenting, I was able to grab more wind, and here, I was more steering with the sail than the rudders, at least until I came within three hundred yards of the coastline.
I then turned right, this fairly hard, and found that I lost but little time. More, while the wind was still gentle, I found that I could make a steady eight to ten miles an hour while following the coastline.
“Now, Sepp, now you must watch,” I said. “Karl, tell Sarah what you see to the right. Just tell her...”
“He does not have speech for what I see to the south and ahead, and I wonder if I do,” said Sarah. “You just drive. I'll write what I see, that and what you tell me about what happened. I think this would need you writing to do better.”
“Then what is it I do?” asked Karl.
“Watch for junk that we might touch,” said Sepp. “There is likely to be a lot of it in this area, as this place is like the Swartsburg, only a lot bigger and more blown up.” Pause, then, “Right, twenty feet. I see what looks like a coach, and there is a dead mule to my left here.”
I ignored what Sepp was 'seeing', as while there was a lot of junk just below the surface – a lot of that junk was fetish-grade, and some of it was of a fair degree of potency for recent-vintage fetishes.
Some of these fetishes, however, were old, fetishes that were previously well-hidden – and those would screw up everyone, save possibly me. I took my hand off of the sail-tiller, wiped it over Sarah's ledger – she seemed stricken at seeing devastation worse than anything ever depicted upon a tapestry, and when she shook her head, she pulled Karl into the boat.
“You were about to go into the water,” she said. “This place had some serious witches, all right, and they had some bad fetishes. Now Sepp, you get yourself back here, as I think only one person among us is not at least partly controlled by them, and it is not me.”
“No, not just me, dear,” I said. “There's another reason I wiped your ledger, as I do not want to stay in this area longer than I must, and then... No, not quite. There still are some prewar fetishes, they still have powerful curses that work 'well' if you speak of curses and fetishes, and this area was one Norden was going to use so as to 'create their initial region' in, as they know about how no witch save they themselves can endure it.”
“Not quite, even if that is what they believe,” said the soft voice. “What is true, however, is that there were areas up here that had strong fetishes, and they were taking Karl and Sepp over to a substantial degree and affecting Sarah more than a little.”
“Those people there?” I asked, pointing out small groups of impoverished-looking ragged individuals hauling makeshift-looking carts. These wobbly things looked about ready to fall apart, and their charred aspect spoke of them being 'assembled' out of wreckage found wherever it had showed.
“Former slaves, trying to find ways out of this area, and knowing that if they look for a while, they can find enough melted money to 'set themselves up' readily,” said the soft voice. “Note that I did not mean 'like a witch', I meant 'so they can find work further south', as if they were to look dressed like they are and looking like they currently do, no one would hire them – and they know that, as otherwise they'd be long gone and not take any chances on witches showing in this area.”
“Have to go all the way south to the Abbey, practically,” I said. “That's not a trivial distance to walk, easily ten days to two weeks at a steady pace if they move at night when it's wise for people like them, and they need to buy everything they need – at inflated prices, no less – while getting themselves down that way.”
“True, which is why they are scavenging as they can,” said the soft voice. “Note that about all they're trying to find beyond their immediate survival needs and those things they have already located is melted coinage metals, as they can dispose of those at jewelers' shops and get 'money' readily at those locations, with the nearest one being about thirty miles south and a bit west of here.”
“One trouble, though,” I said. “No food unless they catch it between here and that place, and they can only unload so much melted gold and silver at a given location – if they stick to jeweler's shops.” Pause, then, “if they go to second-hand stores, which are a lot more commonplace, and take half of what most jewelers would give in trade, then they can get clothing and other things as well as a little money.”
I soon knew just why they'd have so much trouble getting 'the going rate' – and it was not obvious to me due to having my hands full with the whole of navigating a treacherous region filled with fetishes of no small potency.
“Most of those people that are still alive are also marked,” said the soft voice, “which means that they must live like fugitives until they get onto the Abbey grounds, where that one man will take them.”
“No witches to cause trouble between here and there, or very few of them, at least for a while,” I said, as I skirted about a lot of junk lying just below the surface. I had to pray for everyone on the boat, as until we got out of the burnt-over area with its yet potent fetishes and still-powerful curses, I could do little save drive the boat.
I again wiped Sarah's ledger, and she suddenly 'woke up'. “I know who those people are,” she said. “They've all been living in hiding, or they are escaped slaves, and then the witches ran this entire area, so...”
“There are parts yet undamaged that have strong fetishes in them, dear,” I said.
“Yes, behind you,” said the soft voice. “They were damaged enough when the place exploded that Sarah's affected a lot less now, and the other two will wake up shortly. They'll need naps, though, so the two of you will have to drive the boat for the next hour or two.”
“Big smelly craters all over the place now,” I said. “Look through your ledger, and see how much we need to add to it. The sooner we get ourselves clear of this place, the more I'm going to like it, as I want to nail that one place.”
“You do?” asked Sarah. “I know you have your riveting hammer, and that jeweler's anvil, and both are greased well, but...” Pause, then, “you mean something other than literal nails, don't you?”
“Yes, with the pointed end of a rocket,” I said. “I want to put one of those things in that ignition-improver tank, which means we need to fire from over a mile away, and we will need to do it at speed, as they sited that place specially so there's nowhere to hide while shooting at it.”
“Yes, but there are lots of places to hide after doing so,” said the soft voice. “However, if you want to do things right, then as soon as you finish observation of this area, then go out until you get into open water, use the islands for cover until you get close, and then go by that one place, fire a rocket, go southwest, shoot another into the island where the pirates are located, and then go forty degrees further to the south and then hit that one place where those people from Norden are.”
“What would all of that do?” said Sarah.
“First, none of those people will expect anything of that level of audacity,” said the soft voice. “Secondly, by blowing up that pirates' island, you'll probably have them come after you also.” Pause. “Regardless of what they do, though, they will get in the way of any pursuit by those from the first place. Then, if you shoot a third rocket at this one area on that island that Norden has, you wipe out a chief source of their food and their tankage containers will catch fire.”
“Yes, lots of thick black fish-smoke, so between a hoard of irate pirates, huge clouds of thick black smoke, and that one ship, we make a huge mess,” I said. “So, we go around the backside of that last island, and go in toward the shore again, using the islands and shoreline to hide ourselves from the most worrisome people, and then...”
“No, you put your fourth rocket in that ship that ends up chasing you when it tries to go past you, and down it goes – and then all you need dodge is a fair number of slow-moving pirates with a few worn-out guns firing bad round-shots with worse powder between that point and when you get into that third kingdom port,” said the soft voice. “Oh, and observe the state of the second kingdom port, also. Do that from well out to sea – and then watch what happens when you see it, as they'll try using their other stolen telescope then, and it will explode like a shell from a mobile fortress.”
Sarah had been paging through her ledger, and while this conversation had been going on, she'd been writing. I then began making comments, even as the burnt-over area continued, commenting on just how badly damaged the place was, and then, also, the sheer quantity of scrap-metal present.
“Can't go fetch it now, can we?” I asked.
“No, but scrap metal is scrap metal, and once those fetishes that are present are gathered up by the witches and taken south of here, the place will be safe enough for most people – so then expect the real scavenging to begin,” said the soft voice. “There's a lot of junk lying about to be picked up, not just melted witch-money.”
“And now, another rotten cannon,” I murmured, as Sepp came back to life and nearly flipped over backward to then crawl into the area between the two rows of bags. This space was more than wide enough for Gabriel; it was easily wide enough for two to sleep in – and room for a third to crawl between the two sleepers, if that third person worked at doing so.
I kept that gun between our two keels, watching as I did where the barely-submerged muzzle of the gun was pointing. It went right under my posterior, practically, and as I left it behind, I could tell it was primed and loaded.
More, it was ready to fire, the gun all-too-deadly as it was now after being submerged for days, and it could still fire, were there the corpse of a true-witch handy to rip on the still-present lanyard.
I was more than a little glad there would never be any more of such people being 'made' upon this planet, and as it receded in the distance behind us amid the still smoldering ash-dusted blackened ground to our left, I wondered more than a little about that still-loaded gun.
“Thing's fully as bad as a naval mine the way it is,” I murmured. “That shell will detonate in that gun soon enough, as some fool of a witch loaded that one far too hot to fire safely, and that mixture is unstable with regard to storage.”
“That is – and has been since that war long ago – an issue with certain shell-fillings used by witches,” said the soft voice. “One might wish they usually loaded such shells with the filling that witch used, as then no such gun could be fired safely.”
“Why?” I asked. “Too hot?”
“More like 'far too hot to stand the shock of firing', and the same for the propelling charge,” said the soft voice. “Different fool-witch, similar mistake, identical result – and your hurrying to get out of this area is nothing but wise.”
“Why?” I asked. “More of those things, all of them getting close to 'boom-time'?”
“More than you might think, and that one's going to go before nightfall,” said the soft voice. “The others have either already exploded, or will detonate within days – and each one of those shells will do a very passable imitation of the weapon you were thinking of.”
“How many of those things did they have up here?” I asked.
“Nearly as many as some of the more-populous districts of the fifth kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “You really dried up the supply of those things in the first kingdom when this region 'exploded'.”
“Did many of those witches survive?” asked Sarah.
“If you mean 'did many of the survivors live longer than a few hours after this area went up', then the answer is 'no',” said the soft voice. “Those witches that were en-route by the secret way, or traveling up here overland – if they were far enough away, that is – were either tossed some distance, if they were lucky – or, if they weren't, they were set alight to a lesser or greater degree by the closest thing to a nuclear weapon the continent has endured since the hottest part of that long-ago war.” Pause, then, “those witches able to flee, at least for the most part, did so. The ones that remained in this area for very long died.”
“And now another four or five miles further down, then it's due west, dodging islands, until we're in open water,” I said. I then had a question.
“Norden plans on plugging all of the inlets up here with ships, don't they?” I asked.
“This area especially,” said the soft voice. “They don't yet know you ruined their plans that way, and this area has no cover remaining, so they will need to go further down the coast on either side.”
“East side of the north-tip?” I asked, regarding its landing places.
“Has a lot fewer places to put ships, smaller places to put ships, fewer places to pillage, and less game, so Norden's plans are to put fewer of their ships here, and put as many of them on the west side as they can, that and in the lee of every island that looks likely.”
“Another four to five miles to go, dear,” I said. “Oh, now getting wind. Let me cant that sail so we can move a bit faster.”
I did so, and the boat now moved along at about ten to twelve miles an hour. No longer was it slow enough to be boring, and within perhaps twenty minutes, I looked up at the canopy.
“What?” I gasped. “It looks like it's still early in the morning still. Is it?”
“I'd check that 'brass cube',” said the soft voice. “It's later than you think, it's further to that one location than you think, there's less wind among these islands than you think, and you've got further to go in general than you think.”
I checked the 'brass cube', and to my astonishment, it had been counting since the time we had actually gotten into the river, or so I thought, until I studied it more intently. It was reading 'six hours and forty-seven minutes' since true sunrise', but I then had to guess when that was.
“Looks about time for the morning guzzle,” I thought.
“Were it a normal-length day and were you further to the south, it would be,” said the soft voice. “Up near the north-tip, though, you're starting to get into where Norden's land-mass starts to have an effect upon navigation and other matters, and until you get down about another thirty to forty miles south – about even with that place where those ships are – time's going to be weird, distance is going to be weird, and the sun's going to tell you lies as to what time it is. Recall 'the land of the midnight sun' where you came from?”
I nodded mentally.
“It's not that different up here,” said the soft voice. “Just in the distance from Roos to the north-tip, you get a significant change in weather and seasons, and the summer days are nearly three hours longer and the winter days are a similar amount shorter – assuming a normal winter.”
“That is why it's trouble up this way for navigating,” said Sarah. “At least there's no fog right now.”
“Yes, and that stuff will drop down on us before the sun drops today,” said Karl. He was sounding as if he were talking in his sleep. “Now I hope we will be south far enough that we will not need to worry about traveling in it when it gets dark.”
“We will be,” I said. I had no idea how I knew that, but I knew we would be, even as traces of greenery and trees began to once more show themselves amid the ravages of a blasted wasteland. But perhaps another mile or so, then we would turn west.
That mile took perhaps five minutes by the clock, as then, the burnt area was done. I turned west, and here...
I had to start tacking.