The Big House, part 11: Koenraad's Head.
I suspected the party had been planned at some length, for within minutes of our arrival, a pie showed. The noise, flickering candlelight, joviality, and singing conspired to induce a sense of overwhelm in my mind, such that I barely noticed a rolled-up 'thing' put next to my plate until Anna spoke of it.
“I finally finished that belt,” she said, “and I needed a lot of help. You want to look at it.”
I needed to be shown where the thing was, and when I began unrolling it, I noted a difference immediately. The color had changed, as had the thickness of the leather, and when I found the buckle, I gasped. It gleamed suggestively, even if it was brass and not silver. I vaguely recalled working on it.
“This is a different belt entirely,” I said.
“Yes, and it is better than that thing she was working on,” said Hans. “That one I had done at the house. Now, when you are ready for them, there are other things.”
“No, Hans,” said Anna. “Remember what Andreas said?”
Hans looked at her, then seemed to dismiss her 'attitude'.
“Was he speaking of 'showy' or gaudy things?” I asked.
“Hans wanted you to have a silver belt-buckle with that belt,” said Anna. “I have no idea why he did, as I know you would not want to wear one, and Andreas spoke of such things as being dangerous for you to wear.”
“Advertising?” I asked. “As in 'he's done up like some kind of a miser, so that stuff has to be good'?”
Anna put her hand over her mouth and blanched, then said, “I never thought about that.”
“Does my presence and behavior reflect back on the two of you?” I asked.
“It does, and not a little,” said Anna, “and it goes further than just us. It goes to the entire town.”
“Hence if I look 'showy', what people do here is thought to be better?” I asked.
“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “I have done a lot more business...”
Anna looked at me with saucer-eyes, then at Hans, then at me again, and then around before speaking.
“I had no idea it worked like that,” said Anna.
“Hence 'showy' clothing worthy of a miser, a four-horse team and 'fancy' buggy, a big stinky house and shop, and a lot of witches showing up constantly, because they not only 'respond' to all of that stuff, but they have the money to spend on what I would make... Oh, and I'd have to act a lot different, too.”
I could feel the eyes of all and sundry boring in upon me, almost as if I had spoken of an absolute verity, and I moaned, then sobbed. I did not want to be a witch, and...
“No, I don't want to be a witch,” I sobbed.
“Now how would you be a witch if you did as was right for you?” asked Hans. He sounded oblivious to all save his own thinking.
“How do such people behave? How do they think?” I asked. “Arrogant, prideful, calculating..?”
Anna's face changed expression, such that it seemed drained, and she said softly, “oh, no...”
“Chanting – perhaps from the book, and perhaps from another source entirely?”
For some reason, I knew that while I would get nowhere with most of those present, I needed to continue. It was important.
“Well-hidden dark brown 'severe' clothing, that donned in secret and worn only at night... Long drunken orgies... Secret meetings in the Swartsburg with black-dressed thugs... Becoming a lover of money...”
The last phrase seemed to galvanize Hans, such that he all but shouted, “now what is wrong with money?”
I paused, then said softly, “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and one cannot love both God and money. One will hate the one, and love the other, or serve the one, and despise the other.”
“What is it you said about hating and loving?” asked Anna.
“If you love money, you hate God,” I said, “and hating God means serving Brimstone, and that as a witch. Hence, the common term 'miser', and its better-known equivalent of 'witch'.”
I then turned to Hans, and asked, “now why would you want me to be that kind of a person?”
Hans was not merely silent, but seemed asleep, and Anna looked first at me, then at him, and then back at me.
“I think you're right about where such behavior would lead,” said Anna. “Hans? Hans!”
Hans jolted, then said, “I went to sleep.”
“You are very fond of money,” I said softly, “money, influence, and power, just like a miser.” I paused, then said, “and if you think like a miser, you more or less are one, irrespective of your income or appearance.”
“How is that?” asked Hans.
“Your manipulative behavior is a dead giveaway, especially lately,” I said. “You think of me as an object... No, not an object. A fetish.” I paused, then continued. “To you, I'm a fetish, something you use to 'conjure' wealth, power, and prestige; and also a slave, your bought and paid-for slave, with my sole reason for existence being to gratify your inclination of the moment. Hence, I could be ripped from one area of responsibility and delivered unto another at your whim, and then beaten when I did not perform as per your unstated wish, and that because you felt like doing so, and for your own reasons.”
The silence was deafening, and I knew I had to go on.
“When I said I do not know how to reply to such behavior,” I said, “I did not finish what I was going to say, mostly because I don't understand what happens then, or much else beyond how I feel and what I tend to do.”
“Is this..?” asked Anna faintly.
“It is,” I said softly. “I don't like killing people, even if they are witches.” I then paused – and my voice abruptly changed in both pitch and volume.
“Confess your evil, witch!” I screamed. “Confess it now!”
Hans rolled off of his chair and fell to the floor in a dead faint.
I leaped to his side from where I sat – I somehow 'flowed' up from my stool and over the table – and drew my revolver while cocking the hammer. I put it in his face and yelled, “quit shamming, witch!”
Hans woke up with such abruptness I was stunned – or so I thought until I saw his burning-red eyes.
“I'm right,” I thought. “He is a stinking witch.”
The whole of recent history scrolled by in a blinked shuddering rush behind my mind, and as I recalled the behavior regarding that one 'coin', I suspected the root cause – whatever it actually was – was buried deep and lay yet untouched.
Hans attempted to grab the revolver with clumsy grease-scrabbling hands. I jerked it away – then slapped him along the side of the head with its barrel.
“Confess, witch!” I screamed.
His obdurate nature made for an even stranger reaction on my part – I began tearing off his clothing with one hand while still covering him with the revolver, until I removed his shirt.
There was another of those accursed 'coins', only this one was on a chain around his neck. He'd been wearing it for some time, I now knew, and he'd kept it well-hidden.
I grabbed the thing and bodily ripped it off of him, with the chain snapping like a wire whip, and I left him lay inert as I took the thing up and laid it on a stool. It was important that I examine it, so much so that when I heard faintly the voices of a multitude seem to crowd in on me, I said, “not too close. This one is really bad.”
“Why was he wearing that thing?” asked a voice.
“I'm not certain yet,” I said. “I need to look at it.”
From somewhere behind me, I could tell Anna was keeping the swarming crowd of the Public House clear of where I was kneeling. I wiped my greasy-feeling hand on my trousers, then noted the color of the 'medal' – it had that peculiar sense – that being a deep and tarnished-feeling silvery color that gave the impression of great age.
“When did he get this?” I thought, even as I drew my knife and used it to turn the thing over. The front side was 'blank', and so was the rear side.
“No hiding,” I spluttered.
The reddish glow that suddenly erupted was exceeded only by the clear yet shallow impression that 'materialized': a tall and bloody sword of the 'standard' pattern embedded point-first in the bloodstained ground, with a long, thin, and vicious-looking green snake coiled around it. Above and below the sword I saw 'realms' overawed with obvious rune-curses, and overshadowing the whole was a thick and intense gray patina that spoke of great age.
I had seen neither curse before, and as if to prove matters, the upper one sprouted a small black-lettered tag that said, “getter of wealth, power, and prestige,” while the lower one remained unidentified.
“Leave,” I said. The medal's redness grew darker as it was infiltrated with bluish sparks, until it vanished with a flash and a roar.
The explosion was of such violence that I flew backwards and landed on several soft and yielding bodies, while the flying stools that bounced off of the walls with loud barking sounds seemed fit for a nightmare. I came to myself with someone's elbow in my face, and I gently moved it to the side.
“What happened?” asked a faint female voice.
“Th-that thing went up like a swine-shell,” said another voice. This second speaker was male.
As I staggered to my feet, I became aware of an argument somewhere in the area, and when I shook my head, I was astonished to see Anna lecturing Hans in no uncertain terms. Her language, however, was astounding.
“Hans!” she shouted. “Why did you decide to become a witch?”
He had no answers for her, and when I returned to the table, I nearly collided with the wall. I was not doing well.
“You nearly blew him up with that thing, Hans!” shouted Anna. “Now where did you go to get that thing, and who was the witch who gave it to you?”
“He wanted something, dear,” I said, “and he was willing to do – no, not quite. He wasn't quite that willing.”
“Willing to do what?” asked Anna, as she turned toward me.
“There was something he wanted especially bad,” I said. “I'm not certain what it was, beyond it was a really strange type of table.”
“But we have a table,” shrieked Anna. “We do not need two of them, so why would he want another?”
“This isn't a dining room table, dear,” I said. “It looks really strange, as it has eight sides.”
The abrupt blooming in my mind suddenly showed where the acquisition of this strange table led. First, the table wasn't cheap, and that was for the table itself.
The table then needed transportation, which mightily increased its price, as it came from the fourth kingdom and needed a 'first rate' freighting wagon, complete with two freighters, a special 'fast' team, and a good deal else of an unusual and seldom-seen nature.
It also needed a place to be put, and that meant a non-trivial addition to the house.
And finally, its presence meant frequent, heavy, and regular entertainment of a sizable crowd of people, with the resulting crowd providing a very lucrative income for the owner, and that apart from any wagers.
“So a two-hundred guilder table thereby grows to a much larger amount,” I said. “What are such tables used for?”
“What are what tables used for?” snapped Anna.
“Those tables with eight sides,” I said.
“I've never seen such a table,” said Anna. “Besides, we have one.”
“Not like this one,” I said. “This table isn't used for eating, but another activity entirely. I think it is used for some kind of, uh, gambling.”
“Gambling?” shrieked Anna. “He never was inclined that way.”
“With him it isn't much of a gamble,” I said. “It seems he's pretty good at whatever this is.” I paused, then said, “oh, it involves a number of wooden balls with numbers on them.”
Anna's face changed expression with such stunning abruptness that I felt as if I'd said something too evil for words, and when she turned to Hans, she said, “I thought so. Hans, we don't have the room for one of those things, and I doubt we want to build a hall for one of them next to the house.”
“Hall?” I asked. “Is this a big place where the table is put?”
Anna nodded, then said, “the nearest place with one is about twice the distance to where Paul is, and that place is a Public House for crowded and a busy Mercantile for income.”
“Is it a gambling parlor?” I asked.
“No,” said Anna. “It's a billiard hall, and Hans beats everyone who tries for him.”
“Uh, gambling?” I asked.
“If money were wagered up here like they do in places to the south, he could go in one of those places with five guilders in the morning and come out with five hundred in the afternoon, assuming they'd let him play.”
Anna paused, then said, “given how he is, I doubt they would let him near the table, much less take it.”
“Would he make a lot of money running a hall?” I asked.
“In this area?” asked Anna. “I doubt it. The money in those places up here is in selling food and drink, and he is no publican.”
“No renting the tables?” I asked.
“There is usually but one of those tables,” said Anna. “The other tables in the halls I've seen are like those at the Public House.”
“Put that table in here?” I asked.
“No!” shouted Anna. “The place would be too crowded, and it would never close!”
“Is that true?” I asked softly. The Public House was returning to its previous state.
“I'm not sure,” said Anna. “Now I hope he's given up on being a witch, as you have enough witches outside of where you live causing trouble. You do not need him adding to it.”
Anna paused, then said, “where did you get that thing?”
“What thing?” asked Hans. “I think I must have been dreaming, as everything looks strange now.”
“You were wearing a well-hidden witch-tool,” I said, “and I suspect you had it for quite some time...” I paused, then said, “so that's why that one 'coin' was so attractive. What he was wearing was messing with his head, so he saw a big sack of gold monster coins instead of a nasty fetish.”
“I still think I have been dreaming,” said Hans. “Now why is it you are looking at me strange like that?”
“You wanted him to be a witch,” spat Anna, “and that because you'd decided to become one. Now where did you get that thing?”
“Dear, let me ask some questions, please,” I asked. “How long have you wanted a billiard table for home use?”
“For a long time,” asked Hans. “I wanted one of those things for years.”
“And you'd been scheming to get one since before I came,” I said. “True? Is that why you have those three little pouches hidden in that one box in the basement?”
“What three little pouches?” asked Anna. Hans began wiping his face, as he'd been 'caught'.
“There are three money pouches in the basement,” I said. “I'm not sure how much is in them, but the total amount is not trivial. He didn't start saving recently.”
“Hans, why?” asked Anna.
“I want one of those tables, and I was going to get one,” said Hans.
“Is it true those tables need special 'express' shipping?” I asked. “Something about the manufacturer insisting that be done?”
Hans nodded soberly.
“So the table's costs double right there,” I said, “as the builder owns three of those teams, and does 'express' hauling on the side.”
“Why?” asked Anna.
“There might be a market for such tables, but it isn't big enough to keep a shop of that size with people of the requisite skill in steady employment,” I said. “Hence, the person owning it has diversified into a number of areas. Express-hauling is but one of them, and 'precision woodworking' is another.”
“But that's...” squawked Anna.
“It's done with good reason, dear,” I said. “The usual means would cause the table to arrive in pieces due to carelessness, and that's if they picked someone they knew well and trusted.” I paused, then said, “those tables tend to be a bit on the fragile side, at least in some aspects. They aren't like normal furniture.”
“That is the rock they have in those things,” said Hans. “It will not stand dropping or trouble.” Hans paused, then said, “now how is it you know about those things?”
“Part I just knew,” I said, “and the other portion, I knew about. They have billiard tables where I came from, and they have stone pieces in them – or, at least the better ones did at one time. I recall reading about them.”
I paused for a moment, and sipped from a mug. I was surprised to find it filled with grape juice.
“Then, the table would need a special addition to the house, correct?” I asked. “It might not need to be the size of a hall, but it would easily be the size of the parlor.”
“That also,” said Hans. “I knew that would be a lot.”
“So your accumulation of money continued at the same steady rate, and you were patient with it, until I came along,” I said. “That didn't change things much at first, did it?”
“No, it did not,” said Hans. “At first, you were helpful enough, but then when the blessings started, that was different.”
“Was that thing you found one of those?” I asked.
Hans nodded soberly, then said, “it showed during Festival Week. I wondered what it was, and I knew you had no use for it, so I put the thing away in one of those bags I had hidden. I thought I might trade it to someone.”
“Hans, you didn't,” said Anna. “That's stealing.”
“It was not money,” said Hans, “and I knew he didn't want it.”
“Did you ask?” asked Anna.
“I did not need to ask,” said Hans.
“While that is true,” I said, “had you asked, you would have saved yourself a lot of grief and me a great deal of trouble, as I would most likely have known what it was.”
“You would not have been able to deal with it then, however,” said the soft voice, “and it would have caused nearly as much trouble as it did. Be glad it is gone.”
“Did this have to do with Koenraad?” I asked.
Hans looked at me with narrowed eyes, then said, “I never thought of that. Now why would he have put that thing there?”
“When did I deal with that stinky magistrate?” I asked.
“Just before that time,” said Hans.
“Did the two of them know each other?” I asked. “No, don't answer, they did, though more in a 'professional' manner than otherwise.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “They were good friends as well as business associates, and that gap between the two was not nearly as wide as you thought it was.”
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“It seems that smelly wretch saw Koenraad with some frequency,” I said, “and when Black-Cap spoke of his death, Koenraad found out in a hurry. So, his initial thoughts are something like, 'I'd best gift this new and stronger witch appropriately so I can use him', and he sends someone over with that stinking disk after hiding its true nature so it wasn't obvious as to what it was.”
“Close, but not quite,” said the soft voice. “That was an old 'medal' and its ability to hide was imparted when it was made. Koenraad 'activated' it, however.”
“Which makes him a very serious witch,” I murmured. “So when did you decide to start wearing that accursed thing?”
“I am not sure,” said Hans. “I think it might have started soon after it came, as I had been getting more and more money from what I was doing, and I had more coins for my hiding.”
“Was this thing, uh, speaking to you?” I asked. “Something like 'you are getting more money because you have it, and if you put it on, you will get more money more often'?”
Hans nodded, then said, “it did that while I was sleeping, and I think I put it on then, and I only woke up a little while ago.”
“That sounds about right,” said Anna. “Now do you still think he needs a silver buckle for that belt, and all of those other things?”
“That would be trouble,” said Hans. “Why, does he want one?”
“No, I don't,” I said. “Now why would it be trouble? Tell me.”
“That is the start of being a miser, is things like that,” said Hans, “and it is hard to stop if you start that way.”
“No oversized fancy house and separate shop?” I asked. “No four-horse team – no, not normal horses, special ones, with bronze horseshoes?”
Anna's eyes grew huge, then said, “those are a lot more, and we could use those.”
“Four of them?” I asked.
“No, just two,” said Hans. “Those are what you want when you must travel and go fast doing it, like when someone is hurt bad.”
“That was why I said that, Hans,” said Anna. “They might need thrice the grain, and careful stabling, and a lot more, but if one person's life is saved by having them, it would be worth it.”
“Thrice the grain?” I asked. “What kind of horses are those?”
“Bronze shoes are for racing,” said Hans. “Such horses will not stand iron, and they need much more grain than is the common.”
“Is this some kind of fable?” I asked softly. I had heard about 'monsters' not liking iron, and this sounded similar.
“No, I think it is how those are,” said Hans. “The bronze shoes are easier to fit to their feet, and they do not attach the usual way with nails, but with special clips.” Hans paused to empty his mug. I was glad he seemed 'normal' now. “Then, they will not endure the usual things for saddle and harness, and the better they are, the less of that stuff they will stand.”
“Uh, in what way?” I asked.
“The more common type do not take the usual stuff,” said Hans. “Those want a thin braided silver wire or a soft leather thong, and a special padded saddle that is small and light.”
“And the less-common?” I asked.
“Those I am not sure of,” said Hans. “I know that the better ones will not endure harness, and those that ride them do not use saddles.”
“Bareback?” I asked.
“Those use blankets,” said Anna. “Usually, their riders are older children.”
“Older children?” I gasped.
“That has to do with their weight,” said Hans. “The fastest ones are girls, and I think Sarah might have done that when she was younger.”
Thankfully, the remainder of the celebration passed off with little moment, and we were able to leave an hour or so later. On the way home, I asked, “how long do we usually spend in the Public House?”
“At least three turns of the glass,” said Anna. “We can afford that at the start of the rest-day, if seldom otherwise.”
“I think that is for the two of us,” said Hans. “It might not be that way for him.”
“That wasn't why I asked,” I said. “I had the impression we spent about that amount of time, and the time commonly spent is much more, especially when traveling. I was told I might be doing that in the future.”
“When we trek, you will,” said Anna. “Why, do you think there will be other times?”
“I'm not sure,” I said. “I am sure it will be hard to make decent time when three and four hours is the rule per stop...”
I then recalled the instructor speaking of frequent stopping at such places.
“You will need to stop for food and drink, and that several times a day,” I muttered.
“Who said that?” asked Anna. We were near the house.
“The instructor,” I said. “He was speaking of how maps aren't very accurate, and how people had to ask directions all the time – those, and ask a lot of questions, almost as if one were an agent of the Inquisition.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans, as he walked up the stairs of the stoop.
“Uh, treat everyone encountered as if they were a possible traitor or witch?” I asked. “Get really probing and personal with one's questions, with drawn pistol or sword to 'help them along'?”
“That sounds about right,” said Anna. “Now what did he mean?”
“I'm not sure what he meant,” I said, “as I doubt he had a full understanding of what he was teaching. What I spoke of were my impressions at the time I heard him.”
I paused, then said, “and kill people if they don't give you the answer you want to hear? Only evildoers have anything to hide?”
“Them and those marked,” said Hans. I was glad we were inside the house. “Now who was speaking that way?”
“The instructor,” I said. “It was the last of his lectures, and I wondered if there were a zuurpruef at the end of the thing.”
“You were not going on to the higher schools,” said Anna, “so why were you thinking that?”
“Uh, those were common where I went to school,” I said, “and I usually dreaded them.”
“I think that is what the swine do,” said Hans. “Now I need to dig up that money I have hid, and give it to Anna, so I do not get in trouble that way again.”
While Hans left for the basement, I went into the privy, and when I returned to the kitchen, I was surprised to see Anna yawning. I wondered what was next for her, even if I knew what I needed to do. Bed was calling loudly, and I went up to my room and slumber came but a short time later. I had my share of work on the morrow, and it wanted an early start.
That start happened before either of the others were up, and I was at the bench working when Anna came down making yawning noises. I wondered about wooding more than a little, so much so that once I'd set down the revolver parts I was working on, I went into the kitchen. Anna opened the stove and screeched, which jolted me awake.
“This thing still has a good fire in it,” she said.
“It must be working better, then,” I said. “Do we need to go wooding?”
“We might do that,” said Anna. “Do you have a posting today?”
“I do, and a late one,” I said. “I'll need to leave late in the afternoon, and I have things I need to do before I go.”
“Including a nap, I hope,” said Anna. “Those late posts are bad that way.”
“Especially given what happens afterward,” I said.
Anna looked at me, then mouthed the words, “that witch?”
I nodded, then said, “I started some small noisemakers that I'll need to finish up before I go, and I remember Hans speaking of some powder.”
“I think that came some time ago,” said Anna. “Hans spoke of a smaller keg.”
“K-keg?” I squeaked.
“I think he might have ideas for some of it himself,” said Anna. “I know he's been grinding powder for witch-jugs when he can.”
“Setting more of them?” I asked.
“He's been waiting for you to finish with your training,” said Anna. “I think I know why, too.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Remember the last time you went out with him, and some of the other times recently?” asked Anna.
“I think that was closer to the usual than he wanted to admit,” said Anna. “The only time it wasn't like that was when those people had landed in force and had camped for the night, and they were hard to miss for the noise and the stink.”
“You went into their camps?” I gasped.
“No, we didn't,” said Anna. “Those people make enough noise to make the dead jump out of the ground when they march, so if you watch them for part of a day, you can usually figure out where they are likely to head and string up your jugs in front of them. We did that more than once in recent memory.”
“Did Hans ever string up jugs near the river hoping he'd get lucky?” I asked.
“I think that was the usual when those people weren't actually here in numbers,” said Anna. “That's better than most do, actually.” Anna paused, then said, “most do well to rig the paths of those people when they're here and on the march.”
I went to the shop before breakfast, and as I came to the shop's door with the bagged 'grenade-housings', Hans met me with one of the small candle-lanterns. I suspected he was interested in wooding, or so I thought until he asked about what was in the bag.
“Those are for something to cause trouble in the Swartsburg,” I said. “Did that powder come?”
“Yes, two weeks or so ago,” said Hans. “I got some too, which made for a smaller keg.”
“Dust-powder?” I asked.
“That too,” said Hans. “I'm glad for those bronze grinder things you did.”
“Which ones?” I asked. “I did two sizes, a large and a small.”
“The big one is best when you grind up powder, and the small one for making cough medicine,” said Hans. “I know Korn wants a set of those things, and Paul might want one too.”
Hans was astonished when he saw the shells of the 'grenades', and as I began grinding the fine-grained powder in the keg – it was bigger than I thought it would be, as I had had pictures of something roughly a foot tall and a bit less wide, and it was six inches larger in both dimensions – he asked, “now what will you do for the cork?”
“Those will need a wooden plug, unless we can get corks that fit unusually tight,” I said. “I'd like some short pieces of fuse, also, if it is to be had.”
“Fuse?” asked Hans. “Are you planning on tossing these?”
“I may want one or two for tossing,” I said. “I know I want at least two for placing, though the placing is going to be a hasty affair, most likely. I'll be putting these things behind me to slow pursuers.”
I almost said 'in my wake', and my thinking that followed was “no, my name is not Finnegan.”
“Now that is a strange name,” said Hans. “I cannot say it, but it sounds likely enough for a troublemaker. Now who is it?”
“F-Finnegan?” I asked.
“Yes, that wretch,” said Hans. “Now what was this about him setting traps behind him so as to cause trouble?”
“Uh, bad joke,” I said. “The book did not speak of him doing that, as far as I know. I never read it, only heard of it.”
“Still, you might keep his doings in mind,” said Hans. “That one witch was in trouble from that thing you did with the medicine vials, and these are likely to be worse yet.” Hans paused, then said, “and if they work decent, and you make more, I'd like a few of them.”
I used cloth for a sieve while grinding the dust-powder, and as the silvery dust accumulated, I began to wonder as to where I would get the wooden plugs needed. I was more than a little surprised to see Hans showing with what looked like a thick dowel.
“I think this will work if you saw it up right,” he said.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“This is one of those wooden pieces they use for making fuses for shells,” said Hans. “I do not have a wood-lathe, but I have loaded those fuses, so I have one of the wooden pieces here.” Hans paused, then said, “and I am glad you have not made a wood-lathe, as then we would be buried for work worse than it is.”
“Uh, fuses?” I asked.
“A lot of those things burn strange,” said Hans. “The ones Korn does are wanted much, and mine were the same way for those I did.”
“Meaning we would be making shell-fuses all the time,” I said, “and I, or someone, would be making a good deal of sawdust making their casings.”
“That sounds about right,” said Anna, as she came down the stairs. She then came to where I was, and picked up one of the 'grenade' casings.
“It isn't Harvest Day for months, so why are you making squibs?” she asked.
“What?” I gasped. “Squibs?”
“These are a bit smaller than the common, and the usual case is wooden,” said Anna. “Otherwise, these look to be decent cases.”
I was about to speak when Hans said, “those are for causing trouble in that place full of witches, Anna. He will not be able to carry the regular jugs, so he is making these smaller things.”
“Is that fuse-dowel?” asked Anna.
“It is one of those things, and he will need to bore fuses for those,” said Hans.
Anna was about to speak when I asked, “is there some way to make these explode harder than normally?”
“Not with powder,” said Hans. “There are ways to make the fires worse, and the flash brighter, but doing that does not make them explode harder.”
“No, Hans,” muttered Anna. “You do not need to try blasting oil again.”
“That would work better,” I said, “but I've heard about that stuff and want little part of it for this time. Besides, it takes a few days to get it to turn out so that it can be used.”
“It didn't take him that long,” said Anna. “He tossed the stuff the day he made it.”
“And spent the rest of the day filling the hole,” muttered Hans.
I spent the time before lunch filling my bombs, with three made for 'tossing' – they had fuses wrapped in rags on the outside, with friction-igniters tied on with string – and three made for placing. These last had separate wooden pieces with thirty feet of string on each of them, and as I carefully wrapped the bombs in rags preparatory to bagging them, I wondered just what would happen in the Swartsburg.
Nothing came to me except a desire for sleep and a raging hunger, and I took a long nap after lunch. I awoke late in the afternoon, and after bagging some added food, the best of the yet-to-be-worked-on revolvers, and a refilled water bottle of cider, I set out for the king's house.
Darkness descended thickly within half an hour of my leaving, and as I walked south and east, I looked around where I was walking. Faintly I could hear animals moving in the trees, and when I stopped to look, I noted the true sprouting of buds and the beginnings of leaves. Spring was just beginning, and while it was most likely too cold to plant yet – I had to guess on that matter – the trees were now coming back to life and greenery, and the animals had taken notice of it. I then resumed walking.
I was again surprised at the 'abrupt' showing of the rise near the house proper, as well as the watch-fires when I came to the gate. There were two such fires, both of them blazing in iron 'pots' on tall iron stands, and after being 'looked at' – the guard-presence was two people, not just the one person of the day – I was let inside. I had a dry water-bottle, and it needed filling in the refectory.
It wasn't the only thing that needed filling, however, as the refectory itself had a decent crowd of hungry people devouring food as if starved. I wondered about a small bowl of soup or stew, and thought to ask the cooks.
The usual individuals were present, thankfully, and after getting such a bowl, I went to 'my' room to both eat and change. I managed both within a short time, and as I went back to the kitchen with my bowl, I nearly collided with Karl. I noticed something different right away.
“He showed with that knife, and I have it now,” he said. “I just have one more payment I need.”
“Payment?” I asked.
“Why, don't you know about those?” he asked.
“Uh, no,” I said. “I don't handle that part of the work.”
“Why is that?” asked Karl. “Gabriel said such as you did not use others...”
I was speechless, save for a low moan of “no, I don't want to be a witch.”
“How will money make you a witch, though?” asked Karl. His 'oblivion' – it was honest ignorance, and not the usual type, much less what Hans had manifested recently – was still troubling.
“M-miser,” I gasped. “Loving money means hating God and becoming a witch.”
While Karl did not reply, the impression I had nearly brought me to my knees. The relationship implicit in what I had said was clearer here than where I came from, and that to no small degree; if one truly 'loved' money, that love tended to be gratified, and in the process, one became what was locally named a miser.
“And not much of a gray area,” I thought. “It's more or less one way or another.”
“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and with higher position comes both greater peril and greater responsibility.”
“What does that mean?” asked Karl.
“I think it has to do with money,” I said, as I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “It's almost as if the stuff is so tainted that if you like it to any real degree you're in great danger of becoming a brown-dressed witch.”
“Those people wear black,” said Karl.
“Uh, what is called a miser?” I asked. “I've heard the clothing is the big difference.”
“Are those people witches?” asked Karl. “They show more often than those black-dressed people do.”
“You saw that thug try to shoot me,” I said.
“So that man was a witch,” said Karl.
“I've seen enough of them lately to suspect most of them are that way,” I said. “First, those three stinky tailors act nasty, then one of then drives a big team and snaps his whip at us because we're in his way, then I see one driving a wagon with stinky birds on it, and then another driving a team of mules – and that's on top of that one wretch.” I paused, then said, “I think Hans was right about the biggest difference being the clothing.”
“If he said it, then I believe it,” said Karl. “That person that tried for you was the first time I'd ever seen people dressed like that.”
“They show more often?” I asked.
“I asked about it the next day,” said Karl. “Everyone I talked to said they were more common than those black-dressed people, but no one came out and named them as witches.”
“What did they call them, then?” I asked.
“They called them misers, same as you did,” said Karl. “I had no idea they meant they were witches.”
“Perhaps the difference is bigger than I thought,” I said, “but if I go by the examples of both I've encountered, I don't care to be around either type of individual.” I paused, then said, “oh, misers are very common in the Swartsburg.”
“Then they are sure to be witches,” said Karl, “as that place is full of those.”
“Including Koenraad,” I muttered. “Now I hope the shift is quiet tonight.”
Unlike the previous postings, this one involved two on the bench. The third, I found, was to wander around the building's ground floor on an intermittent basis and see if anything unusual was happening, and when I asked those who were leaving, one of them said that was the usual for such posts. I had a 'bad' feeling, for some reason, and when it was my turn to 'walk', I did so with unbuttoned holster and a longing for a reworked fowling piece.
“And I'd best get to working on those things once the backlog at work lessens,” I thought. “I have a suspicion that having at least one of them in working condition will help greatly.”
While my walk had been uneventful – I stopped at the refectory at the end and fetched a jug – when I returned to the bench, I found Sepp wiping his knife. I set down the jug next to him, and began unbuttoning my possible bag. I had his mug therein, along with my 'oil-rag'.
“What happened?” I asked.
“One of those black-dressed people came, and he was drunk as a stinker,” said Sepp.
“Yes?” I asked.
“He looked likely to cause trouble, so I waited for him to leave,” said Sepp. “He wasn't inclined much that way, so I had to help him along.”
“Help him along?” I asked.
“He was going to beat Hendrik's door down,” said Sepp, “so when he started with his yelling, I poked him in the gut. He left then.”
“With your knife?” I gasped.
“He was not inclined to listen to talk,” said Karl, “and I was coming back from the privy, so I was not close enough to do my share.”
“Uh, how hard did you poke him?” I asked.
Sepp looked at his blade, then said, “I had blood most of the way to the metal piece here” – here, he indicated the hilt – “so I doubt he is doing well.”
“Uh, no blood on the floor?” I asked.
“His clothing caught that,” said Sepp. “He went into one of those doors in the main hall, so he is leaking in those rooms there.”
“Figures,” I muttered. “That one guard spoke of getting bloody, and we get that happening on the job.”
“I know,” said Sepp. “Now I hope Karl knows enough to use his knife right if one of those smelly thugs tries to cause trouble.”
“Knife?” I asked. “Oh, being a butcher...”
Sepp nodded, then said, “cattle can be especially troublesome that way.”
“Cattle?” I asked.
“Fresh beef,” said Sepp. “Straight-horn bulls are bad enough, but those black ones are worse.”
“How is it they are worse?” said Karl.
“They are a lot quicker,” said Sepp. “Were they not so dangerous, I'd think they'd be better training than those poles were.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You've been charged by elk, haven't you?” asked Sepp. “Those black cattle are like that all the time, and the same for the bad straight-horn bulls.” Sepp paused, then said, “I did most of the killing for the shop.”
Recollections of that one straight-horn bull intruded, as well as what I had done to it, and I mumbled about an ax and slicing the bull's neck open.
“That one was rumored to be one of the worst,” said Sepp. “The black ones might be as mean, but they aren't nearly as large. I'm not sure if they're quicker.”
“And, uh, sticking them?” I asked.
“You might not have done as neat of a job,” said Sepp, “but based on what I heard, you would have had few complaints from most. Besides, they burned that one.”
“I r-ruined the meat?” I asked. “I wasn't worried about doing that at the time, and it was marked with runes.”
“It wasn't edible, then,” said Sepp. “I might not have known what those things were called then, but I remember being told about hide-markings and how no hide-marked animal was fit to eat.”
“Were they described?” I asked.
“I was told to know the difference between the common marks and what people did,” said Sepp, “and if the markings were done by people, that meant the animal was cursed. He showed me several such animals before we burned them.”
I then handed Sepp his mug, saying as I did, “you'll want to speak to Georg when you next see him. I don't know what he charges for these.”
“You don't set the prices for what you do?” asked Sepp. Again, I heard genuine curiosity.
“I might do a lot in that shop,” I said, “but I do not handle the money. There's something about that stuff that feels awful.”
“It would make him feel like a witch,” said Karl.
Sepp thought for a moment, then said, “that reminds me of a sermon I once heard. The preacher was talking about misers and how they loved money.”
“And h-hated God?” I asked.
“He spoke of that happening,” he said. “I've heard enough about misers to know anyone who has a decent income can easily become one if things go well for them, and the greater the income, the more danger that way. I've seen it happen more than once.”
“G-greater peril and greater responsibility?” I asked.
“The sermon spoke of that,” said Sepp.
“Is that what happened to Lambrecht?” asked Karl.
Sepp nodded, then said, “don't you remember him leaving like he did?”
“Leaving?” I asked.
“He left between two days, and left his family behind him,” said Sepp, “and when Lys tried to run the store without him, they took it away from her.”
“They?” I asked.
“Three men dressed like that wretch that tried for you,” he said. “They came in a fancy-looking buggy with a four horse team, and they drove her and the children out behind fowling pieces. I stayed clear of that town afterward, and I had to warn Karl more than once, as it started turning bad after that.”
“Did you or y-your family tried to help?” I asked.
“We did, but it was not much good,” said Sepp. “Not three days after they came, she went outside during the night to go to the privy and disappeared, and both children vanished the next day when they went to school.”
“That was strange,” said Karl.
“I thought so at the time,” said Sepp. “I know better now.”
“Footprints?” I asked. “Strange-looking and barely visible?” The boots of that one dream returned to me such that I could nearly touch them.
Sepp nodded, then said, “talk has it witches have special hunting boots.”
“That are much quieter than those pointed black things, and leave fainter-than-usual tracks,” I mumbled. “That wretch made his bones by killing his own family, and he went to live in the Swartsburg thereafter.”
After checking my 'usual' revolver, I cleaned and loaded up the spare. It received a rag for wrapping, and as I put it back in the bag, Sepp asked, “are you working on those?”
“Yes, when I have time for them,” I said. “I have one I'm doing parts for right now, and it should be done shortly.”
“And that one?”
“I thought I might need a spare,” I said, “so I have one. I'll start on it soon enough.”
I made another circuit during the remaining time of our posting, as did the other two, and when the three came to relieve us, I left Karl and Sepp to their yawning way. Both of them seemed so overwhelmed with sleep that I marveled, and when I left out of the rear of the house proper, I wondered for a moment as to how I wanted to head over to the town. I didn't want to alert the gate-guards to my presence, especially at this time.
“The back way?” I thought. There was no answer.
I moved back through the trees until I came to the first clearing, then went left so as to skirt the horse-barn. I went nearly to the hedge, then walked along it until I came to the small alcove that led to the rear door. Its quiet and darkness made for caution and slow stepping, and when I opened the door, I marveled.
There was no moon. I had not noticed it before now.
After carefully closing the door, I went east until I came to the edge of the hedge, where I turned right and slowly moved along the narrow 'gap' between the beginnings of the surrounding area and the hedge. As I did, I noticed just how big the 'yard' of the place was, and only when I came to the edge of the hedge minutes later did I learn the 'yard' of the house proper was easily as wide as home was long.
A wide and nearly treeless 'plain' showed ahead, and as I moved slowly onto the grass between the copses, I wondered if I would be observed between where I was now and the trees some distance away. The feeling I had as I walked across the 'grass' was that this area was 'tended' in some fashion, and when a shadow abruptly shot across the ground headed toward the nearest copse, I jumped involuntarily.
“Was that a marmot?” I thought, as I moved toward the copse in question. Again, there was no answer beyond what I had seen and what I knew of marmots.
The trees ahead grew steadily larger, and after I'd gone perhaps half of the way, I struck a trail of some kind. This one saw regular use, as it was beaten into the ground nearly four inches from the sod to each side, and its width spoke of a fair amount of traffic. I paused briefly to look at it, and noted an abundance of worn 'common' shoes, a few somewhat better-condition ones, and now and then, what might have been the rounded hoops of horseshoes.
The trail led straight into the trees, and I kept on it, for I made slightly better time. The hour was indeed late, and I had need of haste, at least to a certain degree.
“Less than you might think,” said the soft voice. “The current state of the Swartsburg is such that Koenraad is keeping later hours than is usual for him.”
“Later hours?” I asked.
“In his case, not much later,” said the soft voice. “He has been living in the fast lane for some time.” There was a pause, then “his underlings are now trying to keep up with him.”
“Trying to keep up?” I asked.
“They aren't liking it much, and the added hours of work aren't helping their alertness,” said the soft voice.
“Uh, what kind of hours?” I asked.
While there was no direct answer, the impression I received was enough to make for wondering: it was as if the people at the shop suddenly tried to equal my hours and days, both as to time spent and effort expended per unit of time.
“The jump isn't nearly that large for his people,” said the soft voice, “even if it is substantial. A good portion of those involved are very fatigued.”
“And the remainder?” I asked.
“Are mostly exhausted, with a select few unconscious due to overindulgence in drink,” said the soft voice.
Upon coming to the trees themselves, I noted that the path ran more or less straight through them, and within a minute, I saw the end of the tree-belt. There was more grass and copses on its other side, and in the distance, I recognized what looked like houses or shops. I also had another intimation: I wanted to turn right on the first road I came to, and head west for at least two hundred yards before resuming my southward path.
Prior to that road, however, I came to a wide row of fields, some of which were 'in process' with fresh-looking rows and mounds of piled stones here and there, and others, closer to the edge of town, that were 'organized' already. I could smell faintly what might have been dung.
“That hasn't been spread out yet,” said the soft voice.
“Then why am I s-smelling it?” I asked.
“One of those 'bad' Public Houses is almost directly ahead,” said the soft voice, “and a 'delegation' from points south has been camped near it for three days, hence the odor.”
I wasn't certain I wanted to turn right on the road after hearing that, and as I came closer, the odor of dung – it was now mingled with strong drink and rotten meat – became steadily stronger. The fields were near their end, and the road mentioned – dirt, somewhat narrow, and badly rutted – was going to both right and left, while ahead and angling right was the beginnings of cobbles.
“That Public House is on the cobbled way...” I thought.
“And has all of that 'delegation' inside it,” said the soft voice. “Hence, they will not see you if you turn right on the road.”
“Will they notice my presence?” I asked.
“Only if you tarry or show interest in their 'things',” said the soft voice. “They are watching a knife-fight among two local witches, which is a potent distraction.”
I turned right on the road, and moved as rapidly as I could while not making undue noise. The smell was so intense I nearly gagged, and only when I saw the tethered horses did I realize the 'delegation' had usurped the space between the fields and the road proper. I counted no less than five coaches, with two of them stacked up on mounded rocks with missing wheels. The stillness was almost as appalling as the smell.
“The drivers?” I asked.
“Are in a nearby drink-house,” said the soft voice. “Each of those 'bad' Public Houses has at least one well-hid 'captive' drink-house near it.”
“Captive?” I asked.
“They are fully controlled by the Public House in question, and both places sell the same drink,” said the soft voice. “That witch with the mule-drawn farm-wagon was delivering supplies to one of those locations when you saw him.”
“Do they do a lot of distilling in the Swartsburg?” I asked.
“They do,” said the soft voice. “Much of the locally-consumed strong drink is made in that location.”
I continued at a steady speed until I was out of 'smelling distance' – I could still smell the coaches and their horses, but the stink was no longer illness-inducing – and then turned left. Within a minute, I had the intimation that I was heading toward another 'bad' Public House, though the place was far enough away that I could head further west in time. I did so at the next street – and again, within less than a minute, I knew I was heading toward a third such stinky location. I suspected this last was on Kokenstraat, and I'd seen it before.
“Left turn two streets down,” said the soft voice, “then go three and turn right. Follow that road until you smell the orchard, then turn left. You'll be on familiar ground then.”
I did not tarry in the slightest, for I had the impression I was being watched, and I moved at a rapid walk. The two streets passed quickly, where I turned as instructed, then the next three came in as many minutes.
The road I was now on was hemmed in with shops, and while their appearance was 'conventional', that appearance was often deceiving. I passed first one, then another, then a third in the space of two hundred yards that had witches involved, and only when I came close to a broad – and familiar-looking – street did I know why.
“That's Kokenstraat,” I gasped.
“And you were noticing that one place's hidden drink-houses,” said the soft voice, “as well as some of the witches' 'second' businesses.”
“Second?” I asked.
“Like Grussmaan's,” said the soft voice. “The first portion, which they show to 'commoners', and the second portion, which they show to witches.” A brief pause, then “a two-door shop is the commonest means of achieving the status of miser in this part of the first kingdom.”
“Lambrecht?” I asked.
“Had a two-door shop,” said the soft voice. “Those three people that came bought it from him weeks before he left. Otherwise, it is as you said – save that he is now wearing black openly, not brown in secret, and is much wealthier.”
“Uh, misers aren't commonly 'made'?” I asked. The distraction helped more than a little.
“That depends on the miser,” said the soft voice. “Some are, some aren't. The chief issues are time and opportunity, as such people have chosen, and they will act upon that choice when the chance presents itself.”
On the other side of Kokenstraat, however, I now noted a strange location, one I had no previous knowledge of. Long musty-smelling buildings on each side seemed to waft thick and odorous vapors into the street, such that a fog seemed heavy on the air. It took several seconds to recognize the smell as that of drying malt.
The long buildings continued, even after the malt aroma dissipated, and only when I came onto a familiar-looking street did I realize where I was. The turn toward the orchard was the second large street ahead, and from there, I knew the route.
As I walked past the orchard's trees, I marveled at the lack of traffic compared to the previous time, as well as the stillness of the night, and when I looked to the east and a little south, I understood why.
“Every stinking witch in the area has gone into the Swartsburg,” I gasped.
“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “There still are some freelancers out in the less-populated regions.”
“Otherwise, that statement is fairly accurate,” said the soft voice. “Those out-of-town people went there earlier today, and some others did as well, and there are a fair number of supplicants asleep in various parts of town.” A brief pause, then “I would watch carefully on the way to where Koenraad is holed up, as you may be surprised.”
“As to who is there?” I asked.
“That also,” said the soft voice. “You'll get a lot of answers.”
I hustled down the road that went between the fields, then darted across the Suedwaag and ran into the trees. Within seconds, I heard the muffled jingling of chains, the dull thumping of hooves, and the snorts of tired horses. I stopped within twenty feet of the trail, and then knelt down behind a tree as first one horse showed, then another, followed by a long string of horses laden with tied-in-place bags.
“A pack-train?” I thought.
“The deliveries have increased since you last came,” said the soft voice, “and those gate-guards are much the worse for wear on account of dealing with them.”
“The other gate at the south end?” I asked.
“Is a lot further, has less business, is much better known by non-witches, and has more and better guards,” said the soft voice. “This gate only passes witches, unlike the others, so the 'guards' tend to be much less vigilant.”
“It only passes witches?” I asked.
“Watch the gate for a short time, and you'll see,” said the soft voice.
I now hurried through the trees so as to beat the pack-train, and as I came ahead of it, I was astonished to find another similar string of horses burdened with bags and bundles. I slowed slightly in hopes of seeing the people leading them, and when I saw a telltale dark brown tint, I moved slower. I now smelled rotten meat and strong drink, even as I came to the head of this second pack-train, and I took cover behind a tree. I did not believe my eyes when the leader of the pack-horses showed.
An obvious miser – dark brown 'severe' clothing, pointed black boots, black brick-hat, black gloves, and much else of an obvious 'witch' – was lifting his pointed boots high in the true-step as he slowly led his long weary string toward the gate. I wondered as to the point of his doing so when I saw another much-dirtier individual stumbling forward behind the first horse of the string.
This second individual had long filthy hair, dusty garments, an emaciated figure, and trail-worn shoes, and his hangdog aspect made for marveling, especially when I saw others like him following the sleek well-fed horses. A faint jingling sound came from his feet, and as I resumed moving toward the gate itself, I noted the 'bend' in the trail ahead – and also, how I had approached the gate itself.
I continued north until I came within about forty feet of the wall, then turned right. As I moved between the trees, I could see the faint reddish flickering of the torchlight ahead growing steadily stronger, and along with what I saw, there was what I heard and smelled.
“There must be a bunch of deliveries here,” I thought. “Now where are they all going?”
I received no answer, but upon reflection, the matter was at least potentially obvious: Koenraad had called in his 'keys', he was planning something big, and he assayed trouble. That much, I knew. It also provided a plausible reason for increased deliveries.
I kept this in mind as I drew closer to the recalled place of the gate, and when I actually saw the thing, I was indeed surprised: the doors were wide open, and at least ten black-dressed thugs were checking over two obvious pack trains. The 'cursory' aspect of the search – a quick once-over, with touches here and there among the bags and sacks – became obvious, and when the first group of horses went in, I was astonished to see another 'miser' marching at its head.
“Is there a special reason for that behavior?” I asked.
“Only witches can own significant property in the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice, “with the term 'significant' meaning 'anything a witch might conceivably desire'. Hence, all pack-trains must be accompanied by witches.”
“And those, uh, ragged-looking people?”
“They actually did the work of transport,” said the soft voice. “They are not witches, even if the witches own them.”
“They're s-slaves?” I thought. “That's horrible.”
“And beloved of witches,” said the soft voice.
The pack-trains continued for what seemed an hour, with others showing as the 'witches-in-charge' led each 'checked' example in. Finally, the gate swung shut with a slow shuddering groan and closed with a rumbling clunking noise. I left my hiding place, and as I moved, I was conscious of a very brief respite, as another two or three pack trains were coming up the trail.
“And each one with a witch leading it,” I thought. “I'd best hurry.”
I came to the gate in question from the west side, and when I came to the door itself, I noted its many layers of sloppy-looking varnish – it had runs and other crudities that didn't show at the first glance – and also, its scarred surface. Near the edge of the door, I saw what looked like a peephole, and after pressing close to the gate itself, I knocked three times.
Each time, the sound seemed to reverberate with a dull thudding boom, and the cursing I heard from the other side was only equaled by the slow-growing sounds of the coming pack-trains. I could hear the swishes of the lead-witches' clothing as they marched the true-step, the steady thuds of the boots as each scarred foot came down hard enough to shake the ground, the faint patter of running feet on the other side of the gate, the screams...
There were people on the other side, now pausing to look out the peephole. Their ire was aroused, and they were cursing.
“It's spirits, you wretch,” I thought. “A big-deal witch from elsewhere has come, and he's hidden himself so as to test your obedience to his unspoken command.”
The strangest thing then happened: it was as if the thoughts of the witches were compelled to believe what I had thought, and the cursing vanished – or rather, the cursing based in anger at being interrupted.
The witches were now mouthing rune-curses in fear, for their master had come, and they did not wish to be turned into...
“Do witches believe such fairy tales here?” I thought. “Do they believe... Are there such things, as, uh, toads?”
There was no answer regarding 'fairy tales', even if the gate was being unbarred with alacrity. The witches manning the gate believed themselves to be in trouble, and it showed.
The doors began creaking open, and I followed the one I was next to out as it swung to the former wide-open position – and, much as if planned, a loud rune-curse came from the trail and several much softer ones came from the guards.
“Yes, that witch,” I thought. “He's a big-high-muck-a-muck from somewhere else, and he came...”
To my complete astonishment, the witches ran down the trail as if crazed, and when I came from behind the gate, I was even more astonished.
They'd left the door wide open, and the yells I now heard spoke of trouble behind me. I turned to the entrance, and saw a torchlit roofed-over tunnel, which was the trouble ahead. I prayed silently, and walked inside the passage while keeping next to the west wall.
The tunnel had a smooth-rolled dirt floor, with obvious signs of regular raking, and as I walked rapidly, I noted its length. It was easily fifty feet long, and its crude-looking yet 'sturdy' masonry spurted mortar with raw and brutal strength from the multitude of joints.
The sounds coming from behind spoke of a huge and violent argument, with yells, shouts, and more curses. These sounds were heavily laden with anger, and came from both parties. I came to the mouth of the tunnel, paused, and stepped from raked dirt onto cobbles.
And from the familiar into another world.
The sense was that of a medieval city, with tall buildings to each side and dark noisome lanes separating them unto themselves, and as I glanced to each side, I saw first the 'dark noisome lanes' and then the tall buildings just beyond them. I then ran across the alley on my left, and nearly slid on a tall mound of dung.
The differences between the 'familiar' world and this 'place' were mounting fast, as the reek on my boots spoke of 'mule', and as I continued walking, the gooey gray stuff seemed to leave tracks in the darkened red-tinted shadows. I came even with the front of the 'house' on my left, and stopped in my tracks.
The darkness about me seemed near-total, save for a tall and strange-looking 'sign' that made for wondering at its meaning, and as I stood to assay deciphering it, I could hear the first of the pack-trains behind me being searched. I then read what it said, and gasped silently in awe.
The multitude of small holes at one end spoke of a wayward charge of shot from a fowling piece, and the name – 'Knokenmaas' – made for wondering. I neither wondered long, nor did I stay there much longer, for on the side of the sign was an indicator of the desired direction.
“Maarlaan that way,” I thought. “Good.” I hurried on across the road in front of me as the shouts of inspection filled the region to my rear.
The cheek-by-jowl aspect of the various darkened houses and shops spoke of space being at a premium, and their 'tall' aspect – these buildings tended to have more than two stories, unless my guess was wrong – made for further wondering, as did the uncommonly small 'yards' to their fronts and narrow 'alleys' between them. Otherwise, the aspect of the place was familiar, at least superficially – or so I thought until a squat wide tile-roofed one-story building showed all to itself along on the right.
The smell of this building was beyond the bounds of language to describe, and its dark exterior seemed to but add to both its odor and sense of 'mastery'; and as I paused to look at it, I noted not merely its relatively large yard, but also what might have been a 'back alley' aspect to its sides and rear.
“Is that where they 'park'?” I thought. There was no answer, and I hurried on.
The other side of this huge building provided a plausible answer, for there I saw what looked to be one of the previous pack-trains. Several pulsating firebomb-lanterns spilled ragged reddish-yellow light upon the scene of frantic labor amid the curses of several black-dressed shotgun-toting thugs, and as the ragged laborers all but ran with their loads, I saw what might have been a lamp-lit coach in the background.
“Every square foot of the Swartsburg has its price,” said the soft voice, “and with few exceptions, two or more individuals that desire its use. If a location has frontal 'parking', its price of use is much higher than that of the 'common' areas.”
“And those back areas most likely swarm with thieves,” I thought.
“Among other 'trades' common in the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice. “I would keep those areas in mind for your escape.”
The smell of strong drink grew steadily stronger, and as I came to another crossroads, I looked around. The feeling I had was I was very close to a drink-house, and when a door creaked open to bang noisily to a halt, I froze – until three drunken black-dressed thugs stumbled and fell down in the ruddy halo of light framed by a hazy-seeming doorway. It was as if I were seeing the escaping vapors of alcohol once imprisoned by the four close-walls of the place.
I did not remain there, as I could hear a pack-train coming, and I turned to the left while crossing the street to the right-hand side. There were more houses or shops closing in on each side of the narrow-seeming street, and this effect was but added to by the overhanging second and third stories above my head in this death-house of a city.
There were no trees to be seen, nor grass, and the slimy gray streaks that fleshed out the cobbles in lieu of the more-usual mortar common in the larger city seemed to create a low and drifting miasma that hovered ghost-like about my knees. The sense was that of wading in an open-to-the-air sewer, and when I came to a narrow stone-lined trough sunk in the ground that showed at the edge of the street, I gasped.
The thing was filled with offal and dung, and only the chill of the night air seemed to confine the mind-bending stink to its borders, and when I looked further, I noted it traveled between two houses. The vapors it gave off formed a slow-rising and ghastly cloud of diaphanous white and clinging gray.
Another street now showed to my right, and when I stopped at its corner, I mentally gasped again.
I had found Maarlaan.
The bullet-ripped sign seemed to have an unholy significance, and when I turned to follow its pointed portion, I smelled a distinct reek. This odor was unlike anything I had ever smelled before, and seemed the polar – and moral – opposite of sanctity.
“If evil had a smell peculiar to itself,” I thought, as I moved past another house, “it would smell like that.”
The smell grew stronger with each passing house. I could hear faint rustling noises to my left, then suddenly the night erupted with a sound unlike anything I had heard in my life:
“Schreeeek! Schreeeek! Schreeeek!”
I stopped in my tracks, and turned toward the horrid nails-on-chalkboard sound, and as I opened my mouth in silent questioning, the answer came with equal abruptness so as to submerge the former call:
“Bwoop-Whoo... Oh! Bwoop-Whoo... Oh! Bwoop-Who... Oh!”
“Th-those s-stinky birds,” I gasped.
As if to disabuse me of the matter, I heard the tramp of the true-step behind me, and I moved to the side. I dodged another of those reeking narrow ditches, and as I came into the shadows of the nearest building on the right, I turned around and looked to my left.
A miser marched at a rapid walk, with boots lifted high and slammed down in a steady crashing rhythm. His stiffness was equaled only by his stink, and this last seemed to cut through the smell of mule and sewage that I only now recognized as being the prime smell of the Swartsburg. I then heard him speak.
“Hyah! Mule! Move your hindquarters, slave! Hyah!”
His pronouncement was a mystery, but that only for a moment, as he resumed his former chanting seconds later; and his loud ringing yells as he chanted seemed a fitting backdrop to the nighttime reign of darkness in the Swartsburg:
The horses came up behind him, and beside each of them, I saw another of those ragged individuals. Each of them jingled furtively with each step, and when I watched the first one move, I knew the reason why.
All of them were wearing manacles and leg-irons, and the clinking sounds seemed to sound loudly the hellish notes of the witch-tocsin common to money.
“Slaves are not cheap,” said the soft voice.
“How can they...”
“They don't wear those while working out in the community,” said the soft voice. “They wear them here so as to remind themselves of who they are and remind other witches of the consequences of theft.”
“Theft?” I asked.
“Witches prefer to commit theft,” said the soft voice. “Victimization by thieves is synonymous with disgrace in witchdom.”
“They ch-chose to be victims?” I thought.
“Their precise beliefs,” said the soft voice. “Witches kill indiscriminately when they suspect someone might steal from them, and take extensive precautions, both to prevent theft and the thoughts that proceed with such actions.”
The pack-train – twenty heavy-laden horses, and as many jingling hobbled slaves – passed in its fullness but a minute later, and I cautiously stepped out of the shadows and into its receding wake. The cobbles beneath my feet were all-but submerged in filth and grime, with worn and broken stones showing as depressed locations buried deep under the muck of mules. Now and then, the filth showed still-present fibrous places, and I narrowly missed a steaming mound of obvious horse dung.
“I n-never saw this before,” I muttered, as I stepped to the side. The horses of the outside world were all but 'toilet trained' in their seeming neatness, I now realized, as neither the gray nor the black dropped 'loads' while actually on the road. They tended to do so when being watered, or at home, and the contrast of these sleek well-fed unhousebroken things ahead of me was too hard to miss.
They reminded me of where I came from more than a little.
The distraction of avoiding the steaming mound vanished in the increasing stench of un-sanctity, and when I looked up, the steady reddish glare coming from ahead made for thinking of a huge fire. I continued walking while still wary for the mounds of dung, and when I passed the edge of a long and narrow-seeming three-story shop-building, I silently gasped in horror.
A huge three-story building, one nearly as large per floor as the Public House I had passed earlier, was ringed round with coaches and fancy buggies, and its stoop was packed solid with black-dressed thugs, misers, and plain-dressed individuals, all of them milling around restlessly in a deep reddish 'haze' shed by a dozen or more uncommonly bright red lanterns. The term 'red-light district' definitely fit this location, and I seemed to hear an endless chorus of tormented female screams hidden darkly within the boundaries of this monstrous building.
The various thugs on the stoop of the place were in obvious queues of some kind, and as I gazed upon them, the number of 'conventionally-dressed' men was a matter of astonishment. While the black-dressed thugs and misers were fully as drunk as I had expected, the plain-dressed people were equally so, and their behavior, speech – in fact, all save their clothing – was as evil as those of their neighbors. All of them seemed of a piece, indistinguishable in their filth, and as the lines slowly moved inside, I continued walking – until with a sudden jolt, I came to see a carved wooden 'stele' usurping the juncture between the yard of the place and the road.
The shape of this thing was at first unclear, for it was gnarled and weathered, with a pair of boulders flanking its base, one on each side of the carved round tree-trunk that pointed skyward. Its rough-cut rounded tip made for a sense of dry heaves, and when I saw what looked like paint, I shuddered and nearly ran – at least, until I saw the sign. I then restrained myself, for I did not wish to get caught.
“What?” I gasped. “Where do they come up with 'hail Brimstone, and welcome Sieve'? Especially with something like that?”
There was no answer, at least at first. I then made an association, one partly from memory, and partly otherwise.
“B-both of them are..?”
“Mentioned in that black book, and in that context,” said the soft voice, “and such 'swords' are the most common signposts of brothels.” A brief pause, then “Koenraad's location is the street to the right after the one just ahead.”
The next street, true to form, had a road-sign, though the label it appended to the road was bloodchilling to read. A road called 'Murderous Run' was a bit much to read of, even in the Swartsburg, and the blasted portions of the sign but added to its supernal chill.
“Are witches bad shots, or what?” I thought.
“They tend to be unusually free with gunfire,” said the soft voice, “and they seldom worry as to where their shot or bullets land outside of those they are trying to kill.”
The reek of the brothel now competed with the smell of strong drink, and as I came to another bend in the road just past 'Murder-run', the stench of strong drink seemed to grow apace. Pain seemed to well up from the area of my stomach, and when I saw a billow of flame to the left, I turned toward it. The front of the building seemed to fall away, and behind the gauzy veil I saw an obvious distillery, complete with 'hungry' firebox and chanting witches yelling at the top of their lungs.
“The 'dark side of town' consumes and makes a great deal of strong drink,” said the soft voice, “and that distillery is but one of many.”
“I hope I do not get sick from it,” I gasped, as I gently rubbed my stomach area. I wanted to spew.
The pain lessened as I drew away from the site of the distillery, and with the passing of shops on both sides, I became aware of both an unsteady banging rhythm mingled with faint but obvious 'anvil-music'. It was coming from the region that lay ahead and to my right, and amid this noise, a choking fume arose, one of such magnitude I marveled, even as gray-shadowed 'light' seemed to flicker crazily off of the walls of a small 'hut' that lay almost straight ahead.
The 'hut', however, had an open door, and the billowing pulsations of light coming from within spoke of one or more light-giving firebombs in use. Someone came unsteadily to the door, and when I was about to turn right, I paused briefly to look.
The black-dressed patron was wearing black face-grease, and his weaving-in-place was a marvel to behold – at least, until I saw the latest sign. Not only did it look new, but it showed no signs of gunfire, and its stark black lettering seemed to shine in the darkness apart from the white paint of the sign itself.
“Neerplats?” I thought. “What is making that, uh, light?”
The obvious source was nearby, and when I turned right on Neerplats, I had the distinct feeling that Koenraad was but a short distance ahead in a larger-than-usual house on the left side of the street. However, that knowledge was swallowed up by the distraction that lay around me and all sides.
Every alleyway and house-yard showed either a coach or fancy buggy with still-hitched mules, and while the animals seemed quiet enough – at least, quiet enough for mules – their stench was beyond belief, and their restive natures showed forth crazily. The vehicles seemed unoccupied, for some reason, and when I glanced to my right, I had an intimation as to why.
I had found the source of the grayish 'light', and as I peered into the bright-lit cavernous 'shop', I saw a milling mob of chanting black-dressed thugs surrounding several flaming 'cauldrons' that erupted intermittent vaporous yellow-tinted flames amid thick and choking gray fumes. Now and then, one of the thugs poured something from an old-looking bronze dipper into one of the cauldrons, and when the last-dosed cauldron jerked aloft and began moving, I followed the thing with my eyes.
The black-dressed thugs now showed their true colors, for all of them had glossy black face-grease forming black holes where their faces once had been, and when the 'cauldron' stopped and began tilting, I marveled – at least, until the bright silvery liquid cascaded out in a molten stream amid further choking clouds of 'light'. The 'light' was now obvious: the molten stuff was vaporizing and forming metal-fumes.
“Th-that's a foundry,” I gasped. “What is that stuff?”
“What is commonly called 'gray-metal',” said the soft voice. “Its use is very popular among witches for fetishes, among other things.”
“Black f-face grease while pouring?” I asked.
“Full ceremonial dress is thought a requisite for the making of good castings,” said the soft voice, “as are sacrifices. That dipper you saw was full of fresh human blood, and that foundry floor is also a killing floor.”
The tableau before me had drowned out all other stimuli, and as I jerked myself away from the witch-foundry, I again became aware of the noises I had heard before. As I scanned the sky ahead of me, I saw black against the darkness a thick and billowing mass of soot mingled with a pulsating jet of reddish flame, and amid the noises, I could hear the steady rapid banging sound once more.
The banging noise, however, was all but buried deeply amid other sounds, and as I paused to listen, I heard a great deal: the ring of hammers upon anvils, the coarse-cutting sounds of metal-saws, the scraping of files, the duller sounds of the softer metals being beaten unto submission, and cutting through the resulting mess, I could hear a vast array of rune-curses mouthed steadily and a steady volley of snapping whips.
The chief rune-curse, however, was a familiar one, and as I seemed to hear it as an undertone in my mind – “Yoh-Ki-Hogh! Yah-Gogh-Nagh!” – I resumed moving ahead. I heard an occasional screech, or perhaps a tormented screaming sound, and as the banging increased in volume and tempo with a steady rushing rumble, I looked again over the now-obvious smithy.
The sooty clouds had markedly increased in volume, and the pulsating reddish flaring jet now shot nearly thirty feet above the peak of the shop's roof.
This jet seemed a matter of fascination on my part, and I paused in front of the open maw of the shop. It was larger than the foundry by a substantial margin, and when I came to stand in the street bordering its yard, I was astonished to see in the far rear of the place what looked like an upright piano made of metal next to a tall and riveted steel drum. The rumbling roaring seemed the sound of a constipated lion, and the banging sound was loud, intense, and frantic. It seemed to come from the piano-shaped object, and when I looked closer at the thing, I seemed to discern plainly its shape.
“Th-that isn't a piano, it's an engine,” I gasped.
The clouds of smoke shrouding the thing seemed to be conjured specially, much as if those who had made it wished it to be hidden from all save its all-knowing tenders, and those people – black-dressed thugs, complete with black face-grease – clustered around it, much as if they were guarding an exceedingly jealous idol. The banging – now ear-destroying, with an aspect that seemed intended to conjure hell especially – seemed to mute in ferocity for a moment as two of the thugs now 'dosed' the things with huge long-spouted 'oilers', then the noise renewed itself with added fervor. I then saw the two upright 'pipes' next to it glowing a dull red.
“Exhaust p-pipes,” I gasped. I then looked up.
The jets of flame were synchronized with the banging noise, such that with each metallic explosion, the flame jetted upwards amid thick and billowing fresh clouds of soot, and amid the steady rumbling roar of an obvious blower – a man-tall blower – I again heard the noise of a very busy shop. As if to convey the true meaning of what was happening, I recalled the thinking of the witches in that dream:
“They must not cease,” I thought, “for all who are perfect labor without cease, even as hell never sleeps nor rest; and to cease from those labors means disgrace.”
“Exactly,” said the soft voice, as I resumed my walk east along Neerplats.
With each step, however, the noise of both foundry and smithy seemed to recede into the background to be replaced by the sounds of a vast multitude, and as I looked around, each such shop or house had a stoop crowded with various thugs. All of them seemed drunken and uncommonly noisy, and the chief matter of conversation seemed to be the getting and consuming of high-octane liquor.
“Full roar, indeed,” I thought. “Half the people in here are trashed, and the rest not far behind, and they're all roaring for drink!”
While black-cloth and the dark 'severe' brown of misers predominated, the number of those with common clothing was still substantial, and as I glanced at the faces of those around me, in all cases, their eyes shown with a lust too feral for mere language and too concrete to be believed by the action of one's brain upon mere visual evidence. Reddish tints seemed to wash over all of the vast crowd in thick and bloodthirsty waves, and my wondering as to their numbers grew steadily until I saw what was present in one of the alleys.
Three long and deadly-looking artillery pieces lay clustered about with sundry thugs, and while some of the plain-dressed people showed the others 'the care and feeding of cannons', I paused to watch for an instant. To contemplate just how far Koenraad planned to go to ensure my demise was a marvel.
“It isn't just you now,” said the soft voice. “It goes a lot further than that.” A brief pause, then “those are not the only guns, either. There are three more batteries of the same size in this area.”
“In the Swartsburg?” I thought incredulously.
“In this small region,” said the soft voice. “There are more elsewhere in the Swartsburg, and all of them are receiving such attention.”
The thugs grew steadily thicker, until I came to a larger-than-common three-story 'house' with a wrap-around stoop on the corner of Neerplats and another yet-unnamed street. The pulsations of distillate-fueled lanterns seemed to strobe down from the crowded stoop, and as I turned onto the small side-street, I noted the partial continuation of the stoop for some distance from the front. I thought to check the back side of the place, as for some reason it seemed important.
The east side of the place had rows of parked buggies, but unlike those I'd seen earlier, these had no animals. A glance at the cargoes, however, intimated why, and the faint headache-inducing smell seemed to grow stronger with each step. I paused at the buggy at the end, and lifted the covering cloth.
The bed was filled with boxes of dynamite, and the instant exacerbation of the headache I was enduring was sufficient to make for near-staggering until I got clear of the stuff. I then saw where I was.
A long thin alley went behind this house with a coach-packed space beyond it, and the alley itself continued across the road between two more long 'thin-seeming' shops. I had the intimation that the another such alley continued further, right up to the base of the wall, and that alley...
“Continues all the way to the gate with few detours and interruptions,” said the soft voice.
“And this dynamite?” I asked.
“Will not be helped by fire,” said the soft voice. “Much of it has started to 'turn'.”
The rear of the 'house' – it wasn't a normal dwelling, I knew, nor was it a shop, but otherwise I was at a loss – had a much smaller stoop piled high with barrels. The smells coming from these containers – rotten meat, strong drink, and perhaps sewage – reminded me of a garbage dump, and as I went to the area between the 'house' and the one next to it, I saw numbers of sundry thugs drinking and arguing. I reversed direction, and went back toward the dynamite.
I gave those buggies a wide berth, and as I did, I noted more coaches taking up the property that remained on this side of the unnamed street. Their lack of animals was astonishing, until I paused to look between two of them and then across the way.
There was another shop, and here, I saw a seething mob swirling 'around' a coach raised clear of the ground and resting on pilings. The thing was in the process of a complete overhaul, and the frantic aspect of labor nearly took my breath away.
“Th-they do th-those things in hours,” I gasped.
“The dark side of the Swartsburg is known for its 'rush-jobs', said the soft voice, “and while their work is not as good as that done in some other quarters of this region, it is done very quickly.” A pause, then “wheels are commonly redone nearly as fast as you did with that farm wagon, if not quite as well.”
To hear such matters was indeed staggering, and as I came even with the front of the 'house', I had an idea, one that seemed so crazy and brazen that I marveled at it. I almost dismissed it out of hand when I heard, “no, try it. It will work as long as you avoid undue noise and actual physical contact.”
However, as I looked at the crowded stoop, I wondered for a moment as to how to avoid touching the thugs, even as I came closer to the stairs. I stopped at the bottom, then waited for an opening.
The thugs were drinking evil-smelling potable paint remover from sizable jugs, and the dull glint of silver shot-glasses moving from jug to mouth seemed to conjure a constellation of glinting stars. There was a narrow path of sorts up the stairs and across the stoop, with an added space surrounding the door itself that was barren of thugs. I then wondered as to how to open the door.
“If they don't see anyone...”
“They will think a spirit is present,” said the soft voice. “These people aren't rank beginners, unlike those at the gates. They will need no such hints.”
I took my first step upon the stairs, and was astounded at their lack of noise beneath my feet. There were two more, and once at the top, I twisted around between two rank and stinky black-dressed thugs and behind a third that was getting a drink from a malodorous jug. A fourth thug was walking my way, and when I moved around him, I found myself within three feet of the door. I reached the door, touched its knob, and the lock clicked open. The door followed soundlessly.
The steady gabble of noise on the stoop ceased with such abruptness that I marveled, and when I looked to see the pulsations of distillate lanterns within the 'house', I did not hesitate. I went inside, and slowly pulled the door closed until it locked behind me.
The hallway was empty of people, and as I walked down the dark 'paneled' passage, I marveled, both at the color – obvious wood, though it looked as if rubbed at length with a brown species of tar – and also, the smell. The reek of distillate was of such intensity as to induce retching, and that was but one stink. There were a host of others, and when I came to a doorway to both right and left, I paused to look.
To the left was a 'posh' dining room, with sizable tables and a number of meals in progress, while to the left, I saw steam and smelled an evil species of cooking.
“Th-this is a Public House,” I gasped.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Public Houses are for the masses.”
“A restaurant?” I thought.
“Closer,” said the soft voice. “Think 'high-class restaurant', country club, ultra-secret military installation, prohibition speakeasy, and the home of a Mafia kingpin, all rolled into one.”
I glanced back in the 'dining room', and looked around closer. While all of those within wore either black-cloth or the dress of misers, there was an aspect of rank present in these people, and as I began looking, I had the impression that I needed to move aside. I did so, and not a second later a true-stepping 'steward' – dressed as a black-dressed thug, no less – brought in another platter.
The stink of platter and bearer seemed to have an especial effect upon the diners, and as I resumed watching, the eyes of everyone in the room seemed to follow this platter. I had but little idea as to what was on the platter beyond it wasn't a good idea to eat it, and when it went to the far corner to then come down in front of an older-looking black-dressed thug, I marveled.
The thug had eyes but for his repast, and when he growled a curse at the 'waiter', I suddenly knew who it was.
“That's him, the wretch,” I thought. “Now how do I cause trouble...”
The pulsations of light coming from above spoke of a likely distraction, and as the 'waiter' came back toward the doorway, I moved aside and down the hall a step. Silently my hand unbuttoned my revolver holster, and as I moved the hammer to full cock and myself back to the doorway, I wondered which lantern to shoot. I wanted to get a huge fireball that would go out quickly enough to allow me to 'get' Koenraad and get out afterward.
For some reason, the center lantern of the roughly dozen or so flaring things seemed to garner the most attention. I aimed carefully at its tank, and then fired while simultaneously jumping back around the corner.
The crack of the revolver was swallowed up in an explosion of such magnitude that I was tossed back down the hall halfway to the door, and as I turned over, I saw the thick sheets of reddish fire burning hotly above me. I crawled crazily back toward the doorway as the screams and yells came thickly from the dining room amid thick volleys of gunfire, and when I came to my knees, the fire went out abruptly. I stood, and charged inside the smoke-shrouded room to meet with an insane-seeming melee.
I swapped hands on the revolver and drew my sword, and when a witch came out of the billowing smoke, I slashed at his midriff. He seemed to buckle backwards as his guts spewed from his middle in a squirming mound, and I leaped over his thrashing body amid further screams and crackling gunfire.
I ran to the far wall amid the thick and noisome clouds of smoke, and I nearly tripped over the body of another witch amid the yells and screams. Someone was yelling 'louder', however, and as I moved, I ducked just in time for some wretch to fire a 'roer' of some kind just over my head. I continued back toward the rear corner an instant later.
Another witch came out of the thick smoke, and I removed his head with a backhand slice that sent a thick spray of blood shooting deep into the sooty smoke-filled room. I could feel Koenraad ahead, perhaps another ten feet, and when I felt someone coming at a run while yelling hoarsely, I stood to the side with sword at the ready. The smoke coalesced into the shape of a witch, and suddenly, he 'showed'.
My sword went to work with a sudden rush, such that its tip seemed to be in multiple places at once. The surprise I effected was so complete that only when Koenraad's pistol – along with his hand and forearm – was falling toward the floor did he realize he was under attack, and when he reached for his sword, I sliced his sword-arm off just below the shoulder. The blade of my sword had bitten deeply into his rib-cage, then with a draw-cut, I drew back, and then plunged the tip deep into his chest. He shuddered, even as I yanked it out and disemboweled him with a slash that dumped his guts all over the floor – and then, with a sudden slash, I sliced off his head and sent it tumbling into the sooty fog that still blanketed the room.
I sheathed my sword and went to my knees amid the blood and mess that now cluttered the floor, and when I found the smoke-stained head of Koenraad, a fresh sheet of gunfire ripped the air overhead. The smoke was just beginning to clear, and as I holstered my pistol, I noted the further yells that were now ringing the room. I looked to my side, then up to see a still-burning lantern. It was pulsating brightly, and faint rays of light were beginning to come into the room from it.
I dug into my possible bag, and removed not merely a bag for Koenraad's head, but also one of the 'tossing' bombs. I pulled the 'ring', heard the pop of the igniter and the sizzle of the fuse, and then threw it as hard as I could at the doorway while diving for the blood-slick floor.
The explosion was of such magnitude it dwarfed the noise of the firebomb lanterns going up, and I caught the falling lantern just before it hit the floor. I threw it as well at the hallway, and the 'Whoomph' as it went up was all but buried in screams. I could feel the heat of burning distillate drawing closer, and as I scooped up Koenraad's head and bagged the thing, I could feel the fire almost at my back. I stood while twisting upwards, and faced a near-wall of flames.
I went back toward the wall amid the crackle of fires and the screams of burning witches, and when I came to what might have been a door, I didn't hesitate. I opened the thing, and amid billowing smoke, I ran out into a trio of witches clogging the hallway.
I ducked under the frantic screaming witches as I moved near the wall, and as the flames billowed out into the hall behind me, I saw a sea of flames in front. I leaped into them and ran at a dead run down the hall, then crashed into...
A door and into a storeroom. The screams and yells of the witches were now reaching a crescendo, and when I saw a large green-striped jug handy on a shelf, I didn't hesitate. Hellfire and witches belonged together, and I picked the thing up and threw it down the hall as hard as I could, then turned and leaped for the crack-outlined door at the rear of the storeroom.
The explosion was of such magnitude it seemed to blow the house to pieces around me, and I found myself flying through the air to land on the ground where I tumbled crazily. I rolled several times, such that I rolled under one of the coaches parked in the rear across the 'alley', and as I lay there stunned, I saw and heard running feet seeming to swarm around me amid yells, shouts, screams, and curses.
I clutched at the bloody bag and scrambled to my knees, then crawled to the front of the coach. A glance to the side showed a fully-involved house immured in flames, and the swarms of witches running around it were a marvel. I knelt at the front, prayed, and then stood.
I wasn't seen.
I went from out between the coach and the one next to it, and angled toward the third of the three long buildings. I wanted some room between myself and Koenraad's hidey-hole, as not merely did it have an abundance of ordnance near it, the 'restaurant' had more inside, and when it went up...”
“I would hurry if I were you,” said the soft voice. “You do not need to be in close proximity to a powder mill when it goes.”
“Powder mill?” I gasped, as I broke into a run across the street as lanterns began to flare and pulsate all around me.
“There's enough old dynamite handy to imitate a large one,” said the soft voice, “and it's not merely the stuff you saw, but that and a great deal more.”
I ran past the sides of the places I had noticed, and as I came to their ends, I turned right just in time to miss a pair of mounted witches galloping past on mules. The fractious natures of the animals seemed subsumed in the destruction-to-be, and as I shot across another road in between another two houses or shops, I could hear masses of witches coming on the run toward the scene of destruction.
I came to the wall itself and then turned right, and as I ran through the weedy growths and around dumped mounds of offal and other things, I knew I had but a handful of seconds to get clear of Koenraad's 'funeral pyre'. Time seemed to be slowing with each step, and as I came to a wide place between two houses, a massive white flash, one of such magnitude that it seemed to light up the whole sky like a wayward sun, silhouetted my fleeing form against the wall. I dived for the earth and slid against a mound of muck as the house next to me vomited stones that landed around me.
I waited for a count of three then stood and began running again. I could smell and hear the shrieks of pigs, and when I looked to my right into the ruins of the house next to me – it had been almost blown flat, and the area to the west for a considerable distance was a blazing holocaust mingled with intermittent white flashes – I saw mangled and butchered bacon-sized pigs laying in squirming mounds of mire and muck.
I resumed running, which proved wise, as a smattering of gunfire began to hit the wall in my wake. I bent over while running, then as I came to less-ruined houses, I stood straighter and ran faster. The gunfire had ceased – in my direction; it had not ceased otherwise – but as I continued running, I could see sense people 'getting onto' my trail, and I ducked into the narrow space between the ruins. There, I knelt down and removed one of the 'placing' bombs.
I undid the thing in seconds, and tossed it gently across the way, where it rolled into what looked like a pile of rubbish. The rubbish cleared, and I then saw what it really was.
I ceased with my mental speech upon seeing three cached jugs of light distillate, and put the string between the cracks of the stones of the wall next to me, then went around the front of the house and turned right along the road for an instant. I saw my shadow silhouetted against the fire, and as the gunfire directed toward me resumed, I ducked back down into the alley between two near-intact houses. The road had jogged but a hundred feet away, and I sensed that I was fairly close to the south wall.
As I made the alleyway, I heard more yells, then another sudden and brilliant white flash erupted to my rear as reddish-yellow flames billowed crazily skyward. The shooters were distracted, and I ran yet faster past first one small 'house', then another, and a third. There was a fourth one, however, and when I darted between numbers three and four, the wall of hot lead that shot past me was met with screams of rage and curses – which then segued into a gunfight of such magnitude I wondered what had happened.
At least, I marveled until I came to a vast number of still-saddled horses, and as sundry plain-dressed thugs ran past with fowling pieces and muskets, I hid myself among the animals. Only when the thugs became scarcer and the 'gunfight' had swelled into what sounded like the battle of Gettysburg did I escape my equine shelter.
The dark side of the Swartsburg was no longer dark in the slightest, and the raging fires I had started were now spreading madly, much as if they were completely out of control, while massive white-flashed blasts and titanic eruptions of fire shot hundreds of feet into the air from hidden magazines and other places of like intent. I reached the rear wall, and now moved at a walk past the hinterparts of near-intact houses. Bullets hummed and buzzed nearby, but I could tell they weren't specifically shooting at 'me'.
Gettysburg, both where I came from and the local version, had a lot of indiscriminate hot lead flying.
I came to the edge of the portal, and to my complete surprise, I found it closed, the passage unoccupied, and the doors themselves barred with a thick varnished wooden beam. I went in cautiously, then came to the barred place and lifted the bar from the door. I laid it against the wall, withdrew one of the 'placing' bombs, and wedged it under the bar. I tied the string to the hook of the nearest door, then two feet more of to the one next to it – and then cautiously pushed the door open.
The place was empty, and I wormed my way outside into the darkness. I still had the messy gore-stained bag in my left hand, and as I pushed the door closed, I heard the sounds of an approaching pack-train. I left where I was and leaped off of the 'road' and into the trees, then moved quickly eastward.
I went deeper into the trees compared to the last time, and this time, I made no pretense of quiet. I moved as quickly as vision permitted, with Koenraad's bagged head in my hand and the sounds of warfare in my ears. Night had been turned into day, and the booming roars from the west spoke of a battle undreamed-of, either by witch or commoner.
“And which of those I am is a good question,” I thought. “I hope those people mind themselves in the future.”