The road more traveled, part y: the death of Sam Brumm and its repercussions.
I took a fresh dose of the tincture before we resumed travel, and I found myself feeling as if impaired to no small degree. As I tried to recall the last instance of prior dosing, I muttered, “wonderful. I feel as drunk as a skunk.”
“There are no such animals here,” said Gabriel. “There are stinkers, and one lies ahead in yon malodorous city.”
“City?” I asked innocently.
“Some call it Kraag,” said Gabriel. “At least we possess things to wake that wretch up.”
“Stinkers?” I asked.
“He is not one of those strange animals you were mentioning,” said Gabriel. “It would be an improvement if he were.”
“Stinkers?” I asked again. “His attitude may well stink, but what is a stinker?”
“If you ain't seen one, then you ain't missed much,” said Lukas. “They're solid black save for a pair of white stripes, and they like drink.”
“And they cause more trouble than anything,” murmured Gabriel. “That wretch ahead of us acts as if they instructed him as to his manners.”
I looked to both right and left, and noticed changes in the 'desert'. It had become perceptibly greener, so much so that I suspected we could graze the horses briefly at our next stops, and when a small group of goats abruptly galloped across our road, I noted their larger size and better-seeming health compared to those I had seen in the previous days.
“Now those goats would do a third kingdom herd proud,” said Lukas.
“Do they herd goats here?” I asked.
“Some few might,” said Lukas, “but I'm more inclined to think market-hunters go after them. They start getting common down this way, more so than where we were.”
“What else is down this way?” I asked. “Birds?”
“Quolls and fool-hens, mostly,” said Lukas. “Turkeys tend to stay out of these parts.”
The moon was still well west of overhead when I felt the presence of the first town some distance ahead, and as we came closer, I heard a rhythmic clattering banging. Gabriel was jolted out of what looked like a sound sleep by the noise, and his lips moved slowly without sound as he mouthed the words 'evil engine'.
“No, not that,” I said calmly. The town was still some miles away, and a watering stop was just ahead. “That other part. What is it?”
“I suspect it's a place where they mill ore,” said Lukas. “It might not be Kraag itself, but it might well be a place we want to go through quick.”
I needed to apply myself to the pump when we stopped, and once again underway, I heard plainly the rhythmic crashing amid the obvious sounds of another 'piano'-sized 'engine'. The two rhythms were palpably different, with the engine noise having a faster and more irregular tempo than that of the 'hammers'. I then noticed the irregular grating noise that 'coupled' the other two.
“Gear-driven, and bad gears to boot,” I muttered.
I was answered by a faint-yet-sickening crunching sound, followed by an explosion of such frightful magnitude I ducked involuntarily. A massive and hellish red-tinted fireball erupted some distance away directly to our front, and Gabriel grunted.
“It burst,” he said, “and I'm glad.”
Amid the banging I heard the horrible crunching sound again, this time in a clearly audible fashion; and then a low rumbling roar that continued for nearly three seconds. The red flames ahead still billowed high and crazily amid faint intermittent whitish flashes.
“Uh, a distraction?” I asked, as the flames slowly died down.
“I expect so,” said Lukas. “Those things are trouble, and they have a lot of 'em down this way.”
The outskirts of the town showed a short time later, and the aspect of 'liveliness' was astounding. Glaring lights pulsated from inside numbers of bright-lit 'shops', and the high-octane stench of strong drink seemed omnipresent. Numbers of plain-dressed men wobbled drunken-seemingly up and down the board 'sidewalks' under the conjoined stoops of the many buildings to each side of the uncommonly wide 'main street', while to right and left, more houses glowed brightly with more pulsating lights. Down one side street, however, there were still-burning red-tinted flames dancing among a massive pile of rubble thronged densely by a sizable crowd. I could hear the crowd's jeers, catcalls, and what might have been curses.
“What?” I murmured. “They aren't trying to, uh, rescue anyone?”
“Those running that engine chose knowingly the time and place of its bursting,” said Gabriel, “and those dead and dying are now learning of Brimstone's hunger.”
“What?” I gasped.
“That is what is commonly believed in the fifth kingdom,” said Gabriel, “and I think such beliefs are likely to be the case wherever such engines are used.”
Gabriel's talk was a near-complete mystery to me, and I set it aside as we went deeper into the town. I could tell we were being watched, so much so that I felt as if on-edge, and only when the town's lights were a mile behind us did I think to relax – or so I thought until I saw what looked like a long row of poles approximately twice my height running parallel to the road.
“Wires?” I thought. “Have they sent the message yet?”
“No, which is why you may wish to cut them,” said the soft voice.
I indicated a need to stop, then rode over to where they were. For some reason, I felt emboldened to try shooting the wire. Accordingly, I drew my pistol, aimed, and fired – and the flash that came from the wire as it parted spoke of it being electrified. When I returned to the column, I could tell there were questions.
“What did you do?” asked Gabriel.
“I cut the wire,” I said dryly. “Why?”
“I'm glad he did,” said Lukas. “That town was worse than I recall it being.”
“Worse?” I asked. “In what way?”
“They didn't used to have services in that place,” said Lukas, “and I counted three places that have those. Then, there were some groups of people wearing black, and they were pointing at us.”
“Meaning..?” I asked.
“I'm surprised they didn't try to hang us out to dry,” said Lukas, “and when you shot that wire, it had juice to it. That means someone was tapping on the sender.”
“Will they come?” I asked.
Gabriel shook his head, then said, “not during the dark.”
The ready dismissal of what seemed all-too-likely worried me more than anything I'd heard in the last few hours, and I was glad for our seemingly greater speed; the downgrade was still noticeable. At another watering stop – we were stopping at every second example that showed – I looked hard to our rear. I could neither see nor feel anything unusual.
“They think that message made it,” I thought, “and those they called up down the road will do their work for them.”
“Which will not happen,” said the soft voice, “and by the time they learn otherwise, you will be in the kingdom house.”
“The thugs there?” I asked.
“A different district,” said the soft voice. “They would need to fight the thugs in the kingdom house before they went after you.”
Another hour passed, then a second. The moon was nearly directly overhead, and I felt a town some distance to our front.
“And after that one, there are no further towns of consequence between it and the beginnings of the kingdom house,” I thought. “Perhaps another twenty miles, if that.”
“The distances are somewhat greater than you thought,” said the soft voice, “but still, you will be at the kingdom house at or near dawn.”
“How big is that place?” I asked.
“Wide enough to need three hours to traverse between the north entrance gate and the southern seaboard,” said the soft voice. “That town is narrower elsewhere.”
“How big is that place?” I spluttered.
“Large enough that ninety percent of the fifth kingdom's populace lives within its boundaries,” said the soft voice. “The city proper is nearly fifty miles wide.”
“That big?” I asked.
“Save in certain areas near its center, it's as much or more spread out as the towns you've seen thus far in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “The central 'core' is closer to the second kingdom house for density, as are several areas to the east of that location and two to its west.” A brief pause, then, “and that does not count the coastal region that follows the High Way to the west and then north.”
I sat dumbfounded at what I had just heard, and thought carefully. Cover was going to be a rare commodity there.
“Yes, outside of those built-up locations,” said the soft voice. “Inside those places, you would easily find cover, at least for yourself.”
“Would provide ample trouble that way, if you had to 'sneak' them out,” said the soft voice. “Your unannounced arrival will cause enough consternation that getting to the house proper should be relatively easy.”
“And afterward?” I asked.
There was no answer.
The town ahead drew steadily closer, and as we came within a mile, I knew it was more or less 'dead'. The moon had started heading east from overhead by the time we actually came to the place, and the darkness – and stillness – of the place was a marvel.
This was such that no one of our party spoke as we went past the myriad darkened buildings amid what might have been faint snoring sounds. I could smell a faint scent of strong drink mingled with the concentrated reek of mules, and I held my breath in some fashion until the place was well behind us. It was nearly fifteen minutes later that Gabriel jerked awake.
“Yes?” I asked. I could feel a definite aspect of humidity in the air, and the brush to each side was more green than gray. Trees – stubby, stunted, and somewhat lanky – were no longer rare. They were becoming steadily more common, in fact.
“It feels somewhat sticky,” he said.
“Greener pastures?” I asked.
“Those, sicknesses, and vermin,” said Gabriel. “What?”
“The brush seems fairly green,” I said, “and those trees might be small and scrubby, but they are not scarce.” I paused, then said, “where on the coast do they, uh, attempt to grow food?”
“Wherever they can,” said Lukas.
Gabriel slowly nodded, then said, “decent food is very rare in the fifth kingdom, so much so that a basket of good first kingdom corn brings thrice what it does at home.”
“Aye, and I've brought my share,” said Lukas. “Lots of freighters do, in fact.”
“And they have 'eating money' thereby,” said Gabriel.
“What?” I asked.
“Recall the basing of most freighting firms?” asked Gabriel.
Vaguely I recalled the second and fifth kingdoms being mentioned, and I was about to speak of the matter when Gabriel continued speaking.
“Those with their own teams tend to be based where they live, and with few exceptions, they are desperate enough to run on the Low Way.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “That, and little time in Public Houses.”
“While those whose teams are held by others find themselves somewhat less desperate,” said Gabriel, “it is not at all uncommon for such food to pay more than their usual wages.” A brief pause, then, “given the nature of many freighting firms regarding niggardly wages, late wages, and often no wages, a few bags of corn and potatoes often means the difference between survival and starvation for those in their employ.”
I was about to speak when Lukas said, “now that is the truth. Where did you hear that?”
Not only did Gabriel seem unusually 'talkative' compared to the last few hours, he was making more sense than usual for him. I was about to speak of 'no wages' when he resumed.
“Many second and fifth kingdom freighting firms issue drafts collectible in 'supplies',” said Gabriel, “and either the supplies are fit for manure-piles, or simply are not where they are supposed to be.”
The sense of stillness was appalling, and before I could interject, Gabriel resumed.
“The latter situation is more common, especially in the fifth kingdom house,” he said.
“C-can anything be done?” I asked softly.
“No,” said Lukas flatly. “I might have been desperate at first, but I'm still glad I had my own wagon and team.” A brief pause, then, “now what is that mess over there?”
The rumbling roar of another lightning-hare's start washed over us, and amid the shaking and quaking, I noticed a thick and growing cloud hanging in the air as the rabbit's wake steadily grew longer. At least this example was traveling away from us. Gabriel, however, still shook like a tree in a hailstorm.
“I wonder about those not frightened of that noise,” mumbled Gabriel.
“Were they baiting those things?” I asked.
“I am truly unsure,” said Gabriel, “even if I am sure about the lecturers in question. They tended to be the more unpopular lecturers, and they seldom remained long on the premises. One of them was said to be unduly fond of lecturing on rats.”
“Rats?” I asked.
“He was before my time,” said Gabriel. He sniffed, then said, “I cannot yet smell the kingdom house, for some reason.”
“Smell?” I asked.
Within seconds, I wished I had not asked, for while I could not smell the location to the south conventionally, I was smelling something, and calling it 'bad' was a gross understatement. The stench seemed the confluence of the following:
One large and primitive sewage treatment plant.
An even larger and more-primitive paper mill.
A witch-run foundry pouring tons of gray-metal every day.
Somewhere that dealt with vast numbers of skunks.
And, the Chicago stockyards on an especially bad day.
I looked ahead to the south, and now saw again that pall of mist. Somehow, the silvery tone acquired an added depth of color, and within seconds, I saw the mess clearly. The dirty gray-brown smoky cloud was the worst air pollution I had ever encountered, either in person or vicariously, and as I struggled to breathe, I felt as if being smothered – as if I could not breathe – as if I were dying.
I reached for the pendant tucked within my shirt, and seconds later the sense of asphyxiation vanished abruptly.
This spoke loudly of my likely illness when immured within that stench. As if to answer, a sixth heading added itself to the list of five stinks:
Bad chemicals straight from Grussmaan's main storeroom.
“Not even that wood treatment of Hans' smelled like that,” I muttered. “I've never encountered such, uh, pollution.”
“What type?” asked Gabriel. “Do you speak of that cloud that blankets the area to the south, or do you speak of the type which makes invisible poisons?”
“I can see the one,” I said, “and I can really feel the other. I'm glad I've only a few of those bombs left unfinished.”
At our next watering stop, I cleaned and reloaded my pistol, then checked over Brumm's weapons. They were both bagged, with five chambers loaded; their 'as-received' workmanship was as good as any such weapons I had encountered thus far. Their caliber had indeed proven to be the same as a number one musket's, and I had replaced all of the thimbles and the fired loads from my supplies. Just the same, they had no takers, myself included.
As I wiped them again with an oily rag, Sepp came up to where I was. I smelled beer and bread.
“Do you know of a city called Watervliet?” I asked.
Sepp shook his head 'no', which did not surprise me. Only when we had resumed our southbound travel did I get an answer.
“Watervliet is one of the districts in the fifth kingdom house,” said Gabriel. “There are a number of other ones.”
“Number?” I asked.
“I'm not sure how many, or even what their names are,” said Gabriel. “They are said to change with some frequency.” A brief pause, then, “the fifth kingdom, even during its initial existence, was quite unstable.”
“C-Cardosso?” I asked.
“He might well have taught the place its behavior,” said Gabriel, “but he is not currently present. Instead, there are assassins, murderers, slaves, and a great deal of evil behavior.” A pause, a faint cough, then, “there are few churches in the fifth kingdom.”
“Why is that?” I asked, even as I received an overwhelming impression regarding profound dislike and a very unpleasant attitude.
“Only those too poor to escape have any use for church in the fifth kingdom house,” said Gabriel, “and the pfuddaarn think that those who go to such places are stupid, foolish, and worse. All others either work hard at leaving, have left, or desire to become as the pfuddaarn themselves are.” A brief pause, then, “while the pfuddaarn work at devouring each other and all else.”
“They don't call themselves that, do they?” I asked.
“To name them pfuddaarn in their hearing is thought an especially grave insult,” said Gabriel. “They speak otherwise of themselves.”
“What?” I asked, even as I heard two words joined, and I softly spoke the phrase 'fortune hundreds' but a second later.
“That is their name,” said Gabriel, “and their most common title outside of certain central portions of the fourth kingdom.”
“And those we have heard calling them...”
“Probably came from that location, or spent much time there,” said Gabriel. He then looked around, much as if he expected a small swarm of black-dressed thugs to suddenly materialize from nearby. “The fortune hundreds view money, power, and influence to be life itself, while they think the absence of those things the greatest species of evil.”
“But that's crazy,” I spat. “Life is not how much money you have.”
The silence that descended remained unbroken until our next watering stop, where I needed to spend much of my time pumping. When Hendrik came for his half-dozen pump-strokes, he said, “the fifth kingdom house is an anomaly compared to the rest of the continent, even if one includes the balance of the fifth kingdom.”
I was speechless, and could only listen, both to his talk and the sound of the pump steadily losing its prime.
“Even the mining country is normal compared to that city to the south,” he said.
Here, there was a lengthy pause while he worked the pump. Once it began groaning, I switched over to the handle, and as I pumped, I heard swallowing and smelled beer.
“Here, every smelter does its job...”
I strained my ears. Faintly I could hear singing about the ways and means of smelterhood, and it sounded like a nightmare made tangible amid billows of smoke and rivers of fire.
“Every workman bleeds in the dirt...”
Again, I heard singing. The subject matter was still fixated upon a smelter.
“And every owner is a cruel and vicious fiend who would find Brimstone prime company for attitude, if not appearance.” Another brief pause, then, “the most successful individuals in Kraag own hundreds of slaves.”
“Slaves?” I asked, as I recalled them being mentioned briefly in the Swartsburg. Someone was still singing about a smelter, for some reason, and the phrases...
“Black smoke come a-choking,
Black-cloth a-coming steady.
Give me a smelter,
Give me a smelter.
River of slag, lake of fire,
Give me a smelter.
Charred flesh of a Useless Feeder,
Sacrificed to Father Brimstone,
Lord of fire, our Smelter-leader,
Give me a smelter...”
“Slaves are commonly marked as such,” said Hendrik. “Elsewhere, such markings tend to be well-hidden.”
Within another hour, the stink of the city to the south became noisome and rank to my nose, and as the 'fog' covering it moved to and fro in an erratic fashion, I could faintly hear a intermittently audible hum. We came to another watering stop shortly thereafter, and as I pumped – the pump only worked for me; it would not work at all for the others – the exertion of pumping caused a growing tightness of my chest. It made cause for muttering when I finally finished pumping, and I said the following:
“Must we breathe this mess?”
Within seconds, a gentle wind began to blow from the north, and the tightness of my chest, as well as the feeling of asphyxiation, began diminishing. I was able to breathe easier, thankfully – until something began rising in my throat. I turned away from the trough and began coughing and retching.
With each such hacking cough, I felt weaker – and the urge to spew grew stronger – until a thick blob of 'iridescent' material flew from my mouth. It landed amid a hillock of grass, where the grass began smoldering with faint acrid tendrils of thin wispy smoke.
“W-what was that?” I gasped, amid further attempts to cough up more such 'messes'. They were not inclined to come, for some reason.
Once back under way, the sense of pollution steadily diminished with the continued breeze coming out of the north, and the humidity seemed abated as well; the breeze had an invigorating aspect, as well as a cooling nature.
“That wretch will not choose to hear that warning,” said Gabriel darkly, “but still, some few might see what it means in this area.” A brief pause, then, “Blackbeard hides down in the midst of that fume, and he knows it hides him well.”
“Huh?” I thought. Gabriel's speech had more than resumed its mystery.
“The fortune hundreds hide well in hides of their own making, save when it suits them to spring their mines.”
“I was not thinking of that, cough,” I muttered, then spat to the left. I'd felt another nasty-tasting blob coming up. “We don't need, uh...”
I had come to an area where there seemed no word available, and as I racked my brain to find one that might work while spitting blob after blob like an enraged cobra, I drew a complete and utter blank.
No word existed able to describe the effects of air pollution; and given its near-total absence elsewhere, I did not wonder why – until another, unrelated concept came to the fore as the blobs ceased coming. I was glad those horrors were finished.
“Is there a word used to describe the process of smothering vermin?” I asked.
Gabriel looked at me; he seemed to be tormented, and in grating voice redolent of corruption he intoned the dread word “fumigation.” He paused, looked away into the velvety darkness to my right, then continued, saying, “that is a most-uncommon word with a number of possible meanings – and you had none of those meanings in mind, correct?”
“I felt as if smothering from those fumes,” I gasped, “and if I felt like I was smothering, I thought others would have trouble also. I've had trouble that way in the past, in fact.”
“While all of that may be true,” said Gabriel in now 'haunted' voice, “what is written regarding the approaching day of retribution speaks of several things.” He paused, counted something on his fingers, then continued.
“One of those is 'the king of the south',” he said, “and another, 'the choking fume'. That tapestry passage then describes how that fume leaves for a time prior to his own day of judgment.”
A brief pause, then “'but he will not notice it then'.” Another pause. “He will, however, notice matters when it happens in his own courts, and 'there, he shall turn himself entire from his evil ways, or he shall burn'. That wind but confirmed what that tapestry passage spoke of.”
“G-gack,” I spluttered in terror. “B-b-burn?”
Gabriel nodded, then to my surprise, someone came up on the left side. I turned to see Hendrik.
“It is his choice, and his choice alone,” he said. “Long ago, such burning was the rule when witches were told to sup with Brimstone.”
“The witch, or evil person – in those times, no distinction whatsoever was made – would burst into flames upon hearing the command, and such flames could not be extinguished,” said Hendrik. “There were few indeed who wished to extinguish them, and most...”
“Most?” I asked.
“Most doused flaming witches with flammable liquids so as to hasten their demise,” he said. “That was the usual then – to kill every evil person when and where found, and to show no mercy whatsoever.”
The king's voice developed an ominous tone, as he continued with low voice.
“Either one lived right, or one died, and one proved the absence
of evil by living rightly in word, in thought, and in deed, and
that without cease or stint. All instances of wrongdoing,
no matter how trivial-seeming, were treated as hating God
and serving Brimstone, and punishment happened on the spot.”
A pause, then, “the commonest phrase was spoken thusly: 'with no mercy, no relent, and no tears'.”
“Which is precisely what I thought,” said Gabriel. “Those in the council chamber were warned with those precise words, and the rest of their warning – in fact, nearly all of what they were told – was far too close to be the result of coincidence. The differences could be readily accounted for by the vagaries of translation.”
My voice reeked of terror as I squeaked out the single word “what?”
“What you said at the last, just prior to that flaming hole opening in the floor so as to swallow them alive into the pit, was a nearly word-for-word accurate version of what is written on several tapestries that deal with the day of retribution.” A pause, then, “that, combined with the events that have happened since we left home, speaks loudly of what is to happen, and more, who wishes it done.”
The terror of what lay ahead robbed me completely of speech, for Blackbeard and his army of thugs were as nothing compared to what might be demanded of me. I barely suppressed a scream just prior to my whispered question.
“What will I need to do?”
There was no answer, and the recalled versions of various cryptic remarks implying I would have such answers...
“Both possess and implement such answers,” said Gabriel archly. “The larger situation is now such that much will depend upon your actions, both here and in the future.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I have but little idea, beyond what I have read on the tapestries,” said Gabriel. Hendrik had returned to his 'place' in the column. “The accounts there speak of a war against evil involving great bloodshed. Much else is implied, and that on both tapestries and in the Grim.”
“R-ruling with d-drawn s-sword?”
I gasped, and not merely at what Gabriel had said, but also the monstrous evil of what I had spoken. It was not my place to rule, that much I knew, and when Gabriel spoke, I nearly collapsed.
“I would keep that in mind,” he said, “though I most assuredly would not limit myself to edged weapons.”
The moon was now well to the west of overhead, and as I looked around, I noted what looked to be ruined buildings here and there among the sea of brush. The edges of the road were furred with clumps of 'green-enough' grass, and the watering stops now had close-gnawed grassy 'yards'. Here and there, I saw plainly the broad round-tipped 'V' of mule-shoes, and the evil-smelling gray-green squirts on the road marked plainly the route southbound.
The trees were still quite common, though in places, all that remained of them were short well-chewed stumps. I suspected firewood, for some reason.
“Do they cut wood for fires here?” I asked.
“They do, though it tends to be dear compared to what they mostly burn,” said Lukas. “They use stoves here like those things in the third kingdom house.”
“Often those used here are a good deal smaller,” said Gabriel. “Fuel, even part-burned coal, is not cheap in this area.”
“Aye, which is why some burn their rubbish in those things,” said Lukas, “and some cut brush and make it into charcoal, and the same for scraps of wood.”
“And what they eat?” I asked.
I was answered with silence. Ahead lay the answer's border not ten miles away, and with each metronome-like clop of a hoof upon the hard-pounded rutted dirt of the road, I seemed to hear time passing inexorably. There were to be deaths, and sacrifices, and losses, and I would be one of the losers – and how I knew all of this was a dire mystery.
But then, such knowing always had had that aspect. Even years prior to coming here, it had been been that way.
There was silence, and indeed stillness, at all points of the compass. Now was the time of slumber, no matter who the person was in the fifth kingdom. Even witchdom needed some sleep, no matter how they spoke of their unsleeping ways.
The brush to each side of the road began to give way to clumps of grass dotted by the rotting stumps of cut-down trees. Fresh examples – too small to be useful for firewood – dotted the grass, and copses grew thick, green, and bushy. The humidity was such that I was glad for the breeze at our back and its faint chill, for between the humidity and the sense of warmth, I was reminded of memories of steamed-up rooms.
“And where those rooms were is a mystery,” I thought. “They weren't present here.”
There was but one last watering stop prior to the beginning of the kingdom house's region, and as I worked the pump to 'build prime', I noted faint lightening to the west. It would be dawn within an hour, or so I guessed, and upon our resumption of the road, I noted the deep blue-black of night had progressed to deep and darksome blue in the west.
It remained night to all of the remaining points of the compass.
With each passing minute, the color to the west lightened further, and faint yawning noises around me spoke of 'awakening'. I could almost hear the countryside surrounding us – not quite barren of life, even if I saw no habitations – awakening with the day, and as the shadows grew long with the coming of light, I looked to the front.
Not two miles further. Perhaps twenty minutes at our current speed.
I looked again to the west, perhaps for a final time prior to descending into an earthbound version of hell, and checked both pockets and my possible bag. I'd made certain I had squibs in several places on my person, along with the two remaining cast-iron-cased bombs, and the spare revolver lay capped and ready to hand in the top of the possible bag.
“Eleven shots, and five bombs I can get to easily,” I thought, “and no one else can even picture the need to...”
“They will wake up shortly,” said the soft voice.
As if to answer, Gabriel yawned, then shook his head as if awakening from a long night of darksome slumber. He looked around him, then jolted in the predawn blue-gray light and reeled – mentally, if not otherwise – when he saw the slow-moving mist carpeting the ground.
“I hope those excise-takers mind their manners,” he said sleepily.
“Excise-t-takers?” I asked. I could not keep the teeth-chattering portion of speech out of what I said.
“Yes, up ahead some distance,” said Gabriel. “Hendrik spoke of matters being arranged, but with these people, I wonder if that will mean much.”
With each minute's time, I heard more of the sounds of 'awakening'. To our rear, I heard faint booming noises, much as if someone fired several fowling pieces one after another, and to the front, I heard faint whines, groans, screeches, and thrummings. I then realized the truth of the matter in the fifth kingdom house.
“It really is that way,” I muttered. “That place never does entirely sleep, and...”
“It is day all day in the daytime,” muttered Lukas, “and there is no night in Kraag.”
I gulped upon hearing that doggerel phrase repeated, and I looked once more to the front. The fog was thicker there, almost as if it wished to hide all of the place from us, and the darkness ahead seemed greater than that which we ourselves now endured.
“Not a half mile off,” I thought. “There lies another world...”
Ahead stood a red-and-white painted crossing guard with a red-brick 'outhouse' next to it. With each second, details manifested: the bricks were coarse, sloppy in dimensions, mired in crude yellow-tinted gray-white mortar, and unevenly burnt; the single lead-joined window stood proud in a wooden surround, and was hinged such that it could swing outward. It had a latch, and that was undone.
The building had a roof of thin 'varnished' shingles, and its foundation, gray-blue stones set in more yellowed mortar. The crossing bar was wide, uneven, sloppily painted...
Greased with black slime, and weighted with a crude black-cast weight...
The whole looked somehow gaudy, and when we came to within a hundred yards, I heard voices and smelled strong drink. Ahead lay a different world, one separated by an invisible 'line of demarcation', and the 'toll booth' was merely its most-visible outpost. It meant to keep out those who had no business there, and the rules of the realm beyond were altogether different from those where we now traveled, much as if...
“Prospero,” I thought. “He cared little for his kingdom once he'd gotten his guests in his castle. There, he thought them safe, even as the Red Death held sway in his country...”
And like that dread contagion, we were come unto 'his' border.
As if to provide answers, the voices I had heard previously became clearer, if but barely more audible. Faintly I heard what might have been a curse, then with a sudden 'flourish', someone showed, followed by two more men dressed likewise. They took places behind the crossing guard to there stand stiff as statues.
Our party began slowing, even as time seemed to hang still in the air. I noted these three men, and the details began cascading into lists in my mind with the passing of seconds.
The cut of their clothing reminded me of a cross between that of Sam Brumm and a Swartsburg miser's: stiff, dark can't-make-up-its-mind-if-it's-brown-or-black color, sharp creases; well-hid hats; wide leather belts of the same color as the clothing; stiff pointed boots. The whole ensemble seemed inhuman.
All three men were armed, and that heavily. Each wore a large revolver that reminded me of Brumm's weapons; a sizable knife of the 'Bowie' species – again, like Brumm's; a shouldered musket of dark blue-black metal, polished brass, and dark varnished wood; a sizable and ornate 'sporran' hung to the opposite side of the revolver and knife; a wide over-the-shoulder strap to hold up the belt and gear.
Their ostensible work was collecting 'excise', and their real work was a mystery beyond it bore an uncomfortable resemblance to theft of some kind.
Clopping noises came from behind on my right, and when Hendrik showed, he motioned to Gabriel and myself. While the others remained at their current location – at least fifty feet clear of the crossing bar – the three of us went on closer. I could feel an acute sense of danger; I expected 'nonsense' of some kind, and I put my hand to the flap of my possible bag so as to free it. I'd already made ready the flap to my revolver holster.
With each further second's time, I noticed more. The reek of distillate became more potent with each step, and the light from within the 'outhouse' glared brighter with a sudden smoky flourish. I blinked for an instant, even as it grabbed my attention.
One of the men had gone inside, and as the light from within began to pulsate in intensity, I heard the hard ringing footfalls of the true-step...
His feet raised high and projected straight out, he 'marched' to the middle of the first two. His walk was too much like that of a sword-dragging black-dressed thug to be a coincidence, and when he about-turned in place with leg lifted high, I noticed his expression.
He wore a pleasant-seeming mask. I could see the enraged miser's scowl that lay below it just the same – and I then knew what the 'game' was.
“This is a shakedown,” I thought, “and these thugs are fancy-dressed brigands.”
We took our places but six feet on the other side of the bar. I looked at this center man. His eyes narrowed as he shifted them about 'craftily' while 'taking our measure' – and then, with a hard-edged voice that brimmed with arrogance, he snarled, “a tenth of all you possess to pass this way.”
“By whose word?” snapped Hendrik. “You take what you feel inclined above the posted amounts, do you not?” A brief pause, a reach toward a part-hidden 'pouch', then with a rustle of paper, Hendrik brought forth a folded letter marked with a red waxen blotch.
“I have here a letter from this area stating that we were to have modest passage,” said Hendrik. His voice was unlike any time I'd ever heard him speak. “Look at this.”
This last was issued in a tone I could only speak of as a 'command imperative', and the center man came from between his two compatriots. Amid the flaring-and-subsiding light of a distillate lantern, he came around the weight of the crossing bar to the side of the king.
While he was no longer 'marching', my nerves all but screamed 'trap'. I reached into the possible bag to touch the smooth roundness of a corked ink-globe. The man was but feet away, and stepping 'slowly'...
I drew out the squib with entire subtlety, and as I felt the stiff waxy rope of the fuse, I whispered, “please, into the guardhouse.”
The squib twitched once in my hand, then twice, and I dropped it in alarm. It fell to the ground.
No, not quite. It came within an inch of the ground, where it moved with the speed of a frightened rat toward the place in question. It shot between the legs of the rightmost official, did an abrupt right turn...
I saw a flash as it came from behind his leg, and a trailing puff of smoke spoke of the fuse's ignition. Faintly greasy gray clouds began to billow out of the hidden doorway, even as the two thugs remaining on the crossing guard had eyes only for what their leader was doing.
The 'leader' now reached for the red-sealed paper. Once it was in his hands, he fumbled with the waxy clot, then drew a smaller knife so as to slit the paper open. I could see a thin trickle of smoke coming out of the part-open window – and as I watched, I saw a shadow move furtively within the 'outhouse'. I felt inclined to turn away, but for some reason, I did not. Another second...
A titanic flash disintegrated the window amid billowing smoke, and the echoing roar mingled with the shrieking shards of the roof as they shot aloft amid a billowing red-orange fireball. Brilliant yellows and reds showed from previously hidden cracks in the building, and the thug who had taken the letter...
He forgot about the letter entirely as it fell toward the dirt, and he ran like a frightened hare after his compatriots. They had already 'vanished'.
I went forward to reach down for the crossing bar, and as I lifted it up with a smooth motion, the column moved forward. I rejoined it as it came past, as did Gabriel and Hendrik. We did not waste time, for the flames billowed steadily higher, and I heard sharp-sounding snaps and pops that might have been ammunition cooking off.
“Hurry, please hurry,” I thought, as Jaak ambled into a near-trot.
The others, for some reason, seemed inclined to follow Jaak's lead, and as we headed into the still-thick darkened murk, I thought to pull out of line and watch our tail. I pulled out of line, even as the others continued on at their present pace; Jaak wheeled about, and I looked behind us some hundred yards distance at the brightly burning 'outhouse'.
The three thugs were returning at a near-run...
“Come on,” said someone from behind me. I ignored them. This was important.
As the head-thug reached the threshold, the building vanished in a brilliant white flash that had Jaak all but rearing as he turned about unbidden. Chunks of flame-trailing bricks fell like smoky rain all about us, and when I returned to my usual position, I glanced back over my shoulder.
The flames were extinguished, and all that remained of the 'outhouse' was a soot-palled shallow crater under a massive cloud of black smoke. Someone came rapidly from behind and the right, and I turned to see Karl. His face was unreadable.
“I saw that squib,” he said with a barely suppressed trace of glee, “and we want those things for witches. It was as strong as a jug.”
“S-squib?” I muttered. “That was no s-squib.”
“Then what was it?” asked Karl.
“That was a s-stinking grenade,” I muttered. “It was not a nuisance.”
“And a good thing,” said Gabriel. “There was a thug hiding in that place with a fowling piece, and he was about to poke it out of the window so as to shoot us.”
“And those fancy-dressed brigands got theirs,” said the voice of the king from back in the column. “They were almost inside that building when that fire got into their dynamite.”
The previously barely-visible buildings to each side of the road were now far more visible. Each minute shed more light upon the fog, and with the coming of light, the thick murk went from a bluish-black mire into a thick and malodorous gray. The sound from below – harsh, cold, almost metallic, with a rumble and grind from the wheels of the buggies – spoke of the surface of the road.
No longer was it dirt with a modicum of gravel; we were on a cobbled road, and the intense smell...
“Just like the Swartsburg,” I thought, as I glanced to see a long greenish-gray squirt of obvious mule-dung. “Mules everywhere, none of them housebroken, and the... What?”
I had spied a stone-lined ditch between two dirty gray 'storefronts' still shuttered amid the slow-dissipating fog, and a further glance spoke of its likely contents.
“An open-air sewer,” I muttered.
We passed our first side-street, this heading to the left. It went on for what seemed miles, and the buildings I saw lining it – single-storied for the most part, with some few of two and three stories – were either stone or brick.
“F-fireproof,” I muttered.
“The fifth kingdom house has its share of fires,” said Gabriel, as his horse 'cavorted' around a thick and noisome mess in his path.
“Does anyone live in this area?” I asked, as we passed what looked like a huge 'shop' of some kind. The paint above its entrance spoke of 'metalworking'. “That place does no such work.”
“What was this?” asked Gabriel.
“That building,” I said, as I pointed it out. “Their sign lies.”
“Those might be agents, then,” said Gabriel. “As for people living in this area, I am not certain.”
“I am,” said Lukas. “Most of 'em are poor enough to want to live where they work.”
The abnormal 'quietude' of the area we were traveling through seemed to speak of another trap to me, at least until we came to a side-street to our right. There, I saw a vast tract of still-smoldering ruins with a small army of ragged men picking through the rubble and placing broken bricks and shattered stones upon decrepit-looking two-wheeled handcarts.
These 'scrap-pickers', however, were not the only beings present on that street. A faint tramping sound seemed buried amid fog and distance, and when I did not see its source, I turned away from the street and began looking around. There was another street somewhat ahead and to the left, and as I listened, I discerned the source of the sound, even as its volume swelled steadily.
“That sounds like soldiers on a p-parade-ground,” I thought, even as I continued looking.
As we came even with the street in question, the fog took on spectral shapes outlining greater darkness, and the head of a long two-abreast column suddenly emerged with high-lifted feet slammed down into the pavement in the fashion of the true-step.
With each second as I sat frozen in horror, I saw more details. The shabby gray clothing of the marching men had narrow black horizontal stripes, and the clink and rattle as they marched spoke of chains and leg-irons. The column came to 'our' street, then to the shouted commands of a still-invisible 'leader', it wheeled abruptly such that it marched on our street.
“Oh, no,” I thought. I was about to faint.
Shouldered between each pair of men was a long jointed iron bar festooned with thick black chains, and attached to each such chain were manacles and weighty iron collars. The rhythmic clinking, smashing steps of a multitude marching the true-step, and steadily louder shouted cadence spoke of but one thing to my mind.
“C-convicts?” I asked.
“Those are slaves,” said Gabriel darkly, “and they are being driven to a slave-market. Only the fifth kingdom house has slaves.”
“What?” I thought.
“They are found nowhere else,” said Gabriel. His voice reeked of surety, as if his words superseded all evidence to the contrary. He then paused in his speaking.
The shouted cadence became louder and clearer, then suddenly the end of the slave-column showed. Riding along to its side on an emaciated horse was a tall thin black-dressed thug. All about him I had seen before many times, save for one single matter.
“T-that's a...” I stammered.
“Slavery is a symptom of the worst type of witchcraft, especially as it is done here,” intoned Gabriel. His 'oblivion' was troubling. “The house proper is the sole dealer in slaves.”
“Dealer?” I asked. I could not get my mind off of the hat I had just seen. Andreas' description rang clearly in my ears, and a tin whistle wasn't good enough to warn people off of the hat and the ideas it conjured.
“Slaves are branded accordingly,” said Gabriel.
“Branded?” I asked. We were coming to another cross-street. The slaves were marching some two hundred yards behind us. “Where? I do not see any brands.”
“Cardosso's slave-brand showed a crowned serpent,” said Gabriel, “and all of his slaves were branded upon the forehead to show his ownership.” A brief pause, then, “they were chained in that fashion, and marched the same way.”
“Where is this listed..?”
“Both Grim and tapestries,” said Gabriel. “Given his past as a lecturer, it is likely he learned of such matters thereby.”
“And that h-hat?” I asked.
“A pot-and-saucer hat,” said Gabriel. “Why, did you expect it to look otherwise?”
“T-the s-sh-shape,” I said. “Those are t-taller, t-tapered the other way, f-flat-topped, and with a n-narrower f-flat brim.”
“No one makes hats such as you describe here,” said Gabriel. “Pot-and-saucer hats tend to vary but little.”
“S-snake,” I muttered. “H-hat.”
The buildings to each side of our passage – it was slightly past dawn, and the fog had begun to dissipate; it was still thick enough to obscure conventional vision to no small degree – were older than those we had first seen on the south side of the excise booth. Unlike those, which might have been a few years 'new', these looked to have an age closer to centuries – and among these buildings, I noticed noises I had not heard prior.
Hammers hammered upon wood and metal, while a myriad of 'dry' bearings screeched and rumbled amid the sounds of grinding, filing, sawing, and forging. A steady growling coming from both sides resolved seconds later into drink-tinged swearing, while the whole cacophonous mess was eerily seasoned with a steady snapping crackle.
“Whips,” I muttered, as I recalled the lash of the miser who was angry with Hans and I being in 'his' road. “Now what do whips have to do with industry?”
There was nothing remotely resembling an answer, save for a faint shout to our rear. I turned to see someone – Sepp – pointing at a wall across the street. I looked to read a slogan I had heard before.
“It is day all day in the day-time,” I murmured, “and there is no night in Kraag.” A brief pause, then, “what do they mean?”
“They write much upon the walls in this place,” said Gabriel, as he pointed at another building front. “See, someone is speaking of caps.”
“Jakob's Caps,” I muttered. “What is this? Advertising?”
Again, no answer, save the odd mingled colors of near-psychedelic hue that ran ragged down the walls of some of the older buildings.
“The colors?” I asked.
“They do much with chemicals in careless fashion here,” said Gabriel.
“Pollution,” I muttered. “It's so bad it makes acid rain look like a silly joke.”
Yet as I said this, I knew even my estimate was profoundly low. A short distance further, then:
'Grimwoeld's Medicinal Wash', 'N.I.T. Files', and 'Kossum's Tinned Meat' showed on further storefronts.
“That Kossum's stuff is bad,” said Lukas. “I've seen it, and smelled it, and it...”
A terrified shrieking squeal rang out, followed by the crack of a pistol, and I turned to see a pair of obvious misers arguing over a foul-smelling dead pig. Both men wore pot-and-saucer hats, stiff brown clothing, pointed boots, and expressions that defined evil so well that I was not surprised when one of them handed over a small leather pouch to the other prior to 'marching' off toward an open door – which slammed shut upon the one miser's entry. The remaining miser looked at the pig, then grasped a stiffening hind leg so as to drag it into his 'shop'.
I wanted to spew, and would have had I not smelled strong drink. I turned to see a trio of black-dressed thugs wobble drunkenly into an open doorway.
“A drink-house,” said Gabriel.
“They don't close, do they?” I asked.
“Aye,” said Lukas, “and they serve but a few things in those places, and all of them bad.”
Rattling noises came from behind, and I began moving over. I'd barely managed two feet when the bray of a mule triggered a host of such brays. I turned to my left to see an eight mule team drawing a rumbling 'farm wagon' at a trot.
The reek of 'mule' was so intense I nearly saw colors, and as the wagon passed, I noted the dusty visages of the freighters and their cargo. Blood-soaked bags reeked powerfully of death, while barrels, less-messy bags, and boxes hemmed in the obvious raw meat. I then saw the 'guard' hiding among the cargo.
“Who are they?” I asked, as the shotgun-toting guard dismissed us as 'out-of-town fools'.
“Those would be market-hunters,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect they are in a hurry to make their deliveries.”
We had been within the city nearly an hour, and the place had begun 'awakening'. Thugs of sundry stripes showed here and there, and freighters, 'common workmen', 'salesmen', and persons of trade mingled so as to produce overflowing board 'sidewalks'. Hitched mules seemed to appear with no warning at 'hitching rails', while now and then an emaciated horse showed itself.
The 'farm wagon' had been a harbinger of a change, for now, wagons and buggies were indeed common. With but few exceptions, all of them had sloppy black-smeared hubs and spokes; and nearly as common, they groaned loudly as if their axles were well-worn into the meat of their unlubricated hubs.
More swine, these examples hidden, squealed and shrieked, while a man came outside in blood-soaked nondescript clothing with a shortened sword in his hand. An older boy, perhaps an apprentice, accosted him as he looked around; then with a sudden lunge, the man swung on the boy, who turned and ran screaming with the man in hot-blooded pursuit. The boy ran into another building, the sword-swinger followed – and then a fusillade of gunshots roared out a challenge amid terrible screams – and then low, guttural, and brimming with malice, I heard the chants begin.
“Underworld German, and that openly?” I gasped, as the chants grew louder. They were speaking of sacrifice.
“Those would be witches,” said a voice that took seconds to recognize as that of Gabriel's. I then smelled a sickening odor.
“They're roasting a pig,” gasped someone from well-back in the column. “Urargh-Ptttaaah!”
“Who was that?” I gasped, as I checked my own gorge.
“Now I'm sure of it,” said Lukas. “That was Kees.”
“He, uh, spewed?” I asked.
“That also,” said Gabriel. “I seem to recall that odor...”
Gabriel then began retching, and as I watched, he leaned over and began heaving.
“Must we endure that smell?” I asked.
A muffled explosion came from behind amid shrieks and squeals, followed by scattered shots. I turned to my right to see a small armada of 'bacon-sized pigs' rushing out into the street some hundred yards in our wake.
“Shoeten?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Lukas. “This place has enough pigs to give me nightmares in the daytime.”
We had traveled from darkened sky unto fog, and now as the fog began its final vanishing, our eyes were darkened anew by the area in which we were to enter. Here, I saw buildings transplanted from the Swartsburg; dark, noisome lanes; open-to-the-air sewers; and...
The sky seemed to swoop down like a falling brick as the two and three story houses crowded in upon the suddenly narrow-seeming road. I looked to right and left as panic welled up within me, even as first one doorway, then another, showed tall black-dressed thugs glaring amid increasing darkness...
I half-expected to see shiny black faces smeared liberally with face-grease.
The aspect of industry vanished, and that which took its place was a distinct and potent 'medieval' air. Faint scraps of sing-song speech...
The former 'freighter's twang' had vanished, and its place was taken by 'the written format' spoken aloud and in profusion. Here, that wasn't an affectation espoused by a few.
It was needed to belong, and failure to use 'ye' and 'sore' and all the other 'written mysteries' was regarded as the chief symptom of treason.
The pounding noise of an 'evil engine' started with sudden abruptness, and was answered by yet another such horror. I passed a dark brown-going-to-black shop's yard crammed with heavy-looking ornate buggies and coaches, and as I stared in a state of fixation, another tall 'ship of the road' rumbled noisily past heading the other way behind a long column of 'Genuine Plug' mules.
The driver of the coach was encased in stiff black clothing, and topped with a pot-and-saucer hat, and his passengers were arrayed in like fashion. A faint crash of broken glass followed seconds after I turned to the front. I glanced to my rear, and did not believe my eyes.
A billowing fire encased a trio of slow-staggering beings that fell clumsily to the roadbed to there lie still amid the whitish glare of...
“Southern cleaning solution,” muttered Lukas.
I nodded, even as I put my face back to the south. We had another hour's travel at the least, and a stop for water seemed wise between now and arriving at the house proper. For some reason, I thought again of road-signs.
“Has anyone seen s-signs?” I asked. My voice reeked of fear.
For a moment, I thought that the darkened region we now traveled in had engulfed all such matters, for to ask for 'directions' was anathema to a witch. One was supposed to know, and that in absolute detail such as to not be fooled, and with prayer – and prayer alone...
“What?” I gasped.
My past had melded with this current present to form a tangible form of nightmare well beyond my understanding, and I was speaking of what had been expected of me. No instructions, no encouragement...
“That is the witch-way,” said Gabriel. He had gone from 'oblivion' to 'obtuse' – or perhaps, he had been taken over entirely. “Witches think that they know everything that is important for them, and to ask aught of others is a sign of weakness.”
“What?” I asked.
“So Freek wrote in his ledger before he and the others left,” said Gabriel. His voice seemed to have learned an echo.
And yet, his speech fit my past perfectly, such that...
Garbled speaking spoke of perfection achieved as per choice and by moral effort, with true servants being fully and without reservation conformed to the will of their master; and the whole done with such rigid and unyielding perfection that speaking, or even issuing commands, was utterly unmentionable. This was so much the case that but one 'individual' actually existed....
“And my name, and the name of all that exists...”
“No!” The word came out as a mostly-suppressed scream. “I do not want to be a witch, and this place is a witch-hole, and the whole of the population is one great coven!”
And as if in a dream, the darkness now lit up with red-orange flames, much as if I were caught within the glassy boundaries of a neon sign. All that I saw flamed redly, and the glowing mounds of formerly hidden trash and broken wheels seemed aflame with the fires of hell.
Looking to right and left showed tendrils of black smoke that billowed tall and noxious from the burnt-out remains of 'dwelling quarters', while every painted sign I saw was but the seeming: the true messages – runes carved deep with knives, just like those of the signs we had passed on our way south – showed such deep and dark curses that I struggled to not faint in terror upon seeing them.
As the 'vision' faded to show the current darkened realm and a brighter one a short distance to the south, I looked again to the sides of the road.
“What?” I gasped, as I looked square upon a wooden 'sandwich-sign' parked next to the door of an obvious drink-house. Seeing 'Death to all Useless Feeders' writ plain in obvious Underworld German did not make for calm nerves on my part.
Gabriel turned, then mouthed slowly without speaking the obvious 'curse'. He shook visibly, then moaned softly. I looked to the right to there see a black-dressed thug foot-pound into a shop...
And the shop's glass sprayed outward amid a sheet of gunfire amid screams and howls. The shop-keeper ran to the door with bloodied clothing and dripping hands, then screamed loud and long as he slid slowly and with tight-clenched hands to the weathered planks of the 'sidewalk' to there lie thrashing in a pool of his own blood.
This came from somewhere that I could not pinpoint. Who was labeled thusly was a mystery, even as another voice repeated the same word in different tones. A third voice but added to the description.
This seemed a watchword to the realm in which we traveled, for within seconds it became a low and mocking chant coming from a multitude of throats. I could still not pinpoint the 'target', nor could I locate those speaking thusly.
“At least the 'border' is but a short distance away,” I thought.
The number of 'fifth kingdom thugs' wasn't in the low two-digit range, however. There were hundreds of them in the vicinity, and that number was likely to be low. I could not count upon the effects of shooting one or two of them; that had been demonstrated at the border.
I would need to kill most if not all of them.
Running would not work, either, for I knew their attitudes. Upon seeing anything that could be labeled as cowardice, they would all join in in their efforts to shoot at us. More, I could feel the rocks and bottles being readied. They would begin tossing them shortly.
The crash of glass came from far behind, then a rock or other missile whizzed overhead. Faintly, I heard a gunshot, then another. A second rock flew, this one closer, followed by a third. I began to pray silently.
Another bottle, this one much closer. I dared not turn around. But another hundred feet to light and 'safety', or such as it could be found in this area. Another gunshot, followed by a whizzing noise as 'something' – most likely hot lead – flew some distance over my head.
For some reason, I could tell the chief target was I myself – and for some other reason, I thought of glue. A terrible scream came from behind, then as I glanced over my shoulder, I saw the smoke-trail of an obvious fuse.
“Take that back into your house, please,” came unbidden in my mind, and the smoke-trail reversed its direction hurriedly.
“We'd best hurry out of here,” muttered Lukas. “Some wretch was going to blow us up...”
Lukas was cut off by an explosion of such magnitude that Jaak – and the other horses – sprang into what looked and felt like a mad gallop without any urging. The flames billowed high and crazily on all sides amid screams, hoarse yelling, and the shrieks of pigs. Safety lay just a short distance ahead.
Behind us, however, had devolved into a species of hell, for the gunfire that erupted amid the crackle of flames was a copy of my escape from the Swartsburg. Unseeing nightmares climbed bodily out of their depths as smoke billowed thick and noisome about us, and flames...
“River of slag, lake of fire...”
Flames trickled slow in a sluggish river on the right as Jaak went to the left. The other horses and their riders followed after, even as the black smoke rose up like a once-hidden brigand.
“Black smoke come a choking...”
No, not yet. My thoughts seemed to have fled to a far-off refuge, and I could not find them.
“Give me a smelter...”
A swarm of hot lead flew too close for comfort to disintegrate the window of a shop across the way. The shop erupted in flames, and burning misers ran out crazily bundled in reddish billows of fire.
“Lord of fire, our Smelter-Leader...”
Screams came from our rear, screams I at once recognized as shouted curses. I ignored them, and that pointedly, for I had people counting on me.
“Give me a smelter...”
As the dark region finally ended its reign of blood, I pulled off to the side so as to 'guard' our flanks. The others came past at a rapid trot amid thick and growing clouds of dark-gray-mingled-with-black-smoke. A plain-dressed man came out of a shop to my right as if to look at the happenings. The second buggy came out of the smoke, followed by two riders. I counted seven men, and myself the eighth. Our column was safe.
“Give me a smelter, indeed,” I muttered, as I retook my place at the head of the column. “That place could pass for one.”
And as if to confirm my judgment, a muffled rumbling roar erupted to our rear. I turned to see a street utterly walled off with smoke, while a slow-growing crowd came from shops so as to marvel at the black billows licking with reddish flames.
“Won't that place light the rest of the town on fire?” I thought.
Amid muffled 'crump' noises, I heard a soft voice speaking of the importance of continuing southward, and I accordingly left the 'burn-pile' to its 'witches'.
“Now that was an escape,” muttered Lukas. “I've heard of places like that, but never been in one.”
“S-Swartsburg,” I moaned. “W-witches...”
Gabriel looked at me in horror, then shook his head. He then spoke.
“It was like that?” he asked. I could hear terror in his voice, which was not oblivious.
“In some ways easier,” I said. “I was hidden for the most part, and there was just me to deal with.”
Jaak went to the side amid my 'coming to myself'. The reek of 'mule' intruded hotly.
“That was a fresh mule-trace,” said Lukas. “This place is bad for 'em.”
A short distance further, and another coach showed, this one with six mules trotting. As it passed, the driver passed the long black 'snake' of his whip over our heads before returning it to his animals.
I heard cold laughter at his doings come from within the coach, and a face rimed with filth and traces of darkness came to the coach's window. Its stupid expression – drunkenness seemed a likely cause – as well as its red-hazed eyes, made for shuddering; and I was glad when its owner retired back unto the realm of darkness in which he and his compatriots...
“Gah!” I spat. “Paint-remover!”
“I have heard strong drink called many things,” muttered Gabriel, “but I have never heard it referred to in that fashion.” A pause, then, “does it remove paint?”
“It does, and forty-chain is the worst that way,” said Lukas. “Some of these painted buggies show where that stuff got to their paint.”
From a region of shops, we came into a region of larger buildings of more-substantial nature, and here, the rattle-and-clang of 'manufacturing' seemed at a fever pitch. Numerous windows, each crudely framed with wood, brass, and perhaps lead, tried to let light into the interiors of these buildings. They failed utterly, for the small glass pieces comprising each window were filmed over thickly with grease and congealed filth. I looked up to see a morning sun becoming reddish and dim with the smoke of innumerable coal-burning fires, and all around us, if one made the effort, one could see many tall and haphazard chimneys that waited for an excuse to topple.
While there was but little traffic now, that could not be said for the recent past, for elongated mounds of gray and green slimy muck had attracted crops of flies. We passed numbers of 'farm wagons', each with its team of mules, and at one cross-street I noted a small handcart with two men laboring with shovels to scoop up what manure they could.
Their dress named them slaves, as did their chains, and the shovels they wielded were also chained to the cart. The whole seemed a Mecca for flies, and the chief noise of this grim twosome was the 'old outboard' noise of the insects.
“S-sanitation?” I asked.
“Finally you speak a question I can understand,” said Gabriel. “Those dung-men are collecting manure for the powder-tunnels.”
“Powder-tunnels?” I asked.
“They have miles of them under the city,” said Gabriel. “There, they put manure, old niter, dirt, and ashes, and they let it rot for months before extracting the niter.”
“Old niter?” I asked.
“Niter keeps poorly,” said Gabriel, “and fifth kingdom niter is said to be the worst that way.”
“It's decent for seeding,” said Lukas. “I've seen some of those lumps.”
“Lumps?” I asked.
“Crude-niter often forms lumps,” said Gabriel. “Much of it remains dissolved, hence washing with hot water is the usual for extraction.” A pause, then, “after cleaning, it is made into powder and...”
“They name that stuff wrong,” said Lukas. “It leaves twice the soot of anything else, it rusts guns in a hurry, and you need two measures where you'd use one of decent powder.” Lukas paused, then added, “that's fourth kingdom powder, or the common for the first's.”
“Common?” I asked.
“This one man makes unusually good powder that I know of,” said Lukas, “and he's careful who he sells to, especially certain batches.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I've heard tell it's stronger,” said Lukas. “Like most powder, it varies some, so he tests it.” A pause, then, “the strongest stuff gets held for bombers, or so talk goes.”
“A fair amount of the fifth kingdom's niter goes for aqua fortis,” said Gabriel.
Gabriel's speech was interrupted by a huge and brilliant flash to the right followed by a 'wiggle' in the air. Seconds later, a massive roar seemed to make the air itself run and hide, and I turned to the right to see a huge column of reddish flame mingled with white flashes.
“What was that?” I squeaked.
Gabriel looked, then turned to me prior to deadpanning the words, “powder mill.”
“What?” I gasped.
“That was a powder mill,” said Lukas. “It opens up some up ahead, so's we might find a place to stop and water.”
I had been so 'overwhelmed' by the events of the morning that I had not noticed the changes before their actual happening, and I looked some distance ahead. As I did, I noted not merely a change in the nature of our road, but also the rough proximity of the kingdom house proper.
“That place is but a mile or so from the coast, isn't it?” I asked.
“If you mean the house proper, then you are right,” said Gabriel. “I will be glad for a rest once we are there.”
“Rest?” spat Lukas. “Rest doesn't happen in this place.”
Gabriel shook his head before speaking. “I visited that place several times, and rested well each time.”
“With the current occupant?” I asked.
Gabriel's seeming composure vanished with such abruptness that I was shocked, and he looked at me with drawn face.
“I suspect rest might happen there,” I said, “but only after substantial labor on our part.” A brief pause, then, “I hope that coastal route isn't like this.”
“I commonly took it,” said Gabriel, “and while food tends to be scarce and expensive, that is the chiefest of one's worries.”
“That and the distance,” said Lukas. “It's twice as far.”
“Hence freighters seldom...”
“More than you might think,” said Gabriel. “This is the cooler season for the fifth kingdom.”
“It gets hotter?” I asked.
“It does,” said Gabriel. “The coastal road has its attractions much of the year.”
“As in it is cooler?” I asked.
“Have you not noticed the cooling since we started?” asked Gabriel. “We are within ten miles of the sea.”
I was about to reply when Lukas said, “aye, during high summer this place smokes like a bad oven.”
“And on the coast..?” I asked. The 'open' area was but a short distance ahead.
“It's noticeably cooler,” said Gabriel. “The High Way runs within easy sight of the water nearly the entire distance in the fifth kingdom.”
The sudden 'falling away' of the businesses to each side of our road was a marvel, and in the 'more-open' country we now traveled, I found myself looking around much more. Some distance ahead, perhaps two miles, the built-up aspect resumed, and some few miles further, the whole ended to be replaced by blue-green water dotted with small white mobile objects.
The close-packed shops had been replaced by tracts of land walled high with stone, and their tall and black iron gates were the picture of forbidding. Every such place had its gate-sign, its yard, its 'hitching posts', and pumps. Some were listed as 'Laageren', while others seemed huge industrial complexes, and yet others, I could not determine.
We pulled out of line in front of a barren example with the name of 'Kurzsnaaps' printed large over its frilly iron gate-frame. I first topped-up the oil reservoirs, then as the horses were checked and watered, I began to hand out squibs.
I soon learned I was not the only person distributing fireworks: both Karl and Sepp were handing out small tins of matches. Karl had something else, however, and when I came to where he had his materials, he seemed secretive – until he lifted one of his bags to show a varnished wooden box.
“Karl!” I squeaked. “What..?
“We might have gotten our first matches in that market,” he said, “but that was but the start of it. We bought more of them at that last place we stopped at.”
“Matches, and caps, and fuse,” said Sepp, “as well as some weaker dynamite.”
“W-weaker..?” I gasped in horror.
“The sticks looked fresh,” said Karl, “and they were a lot smaller than the usual stuff. The clerk said that kind was commonly used by those looking to start mines.”
“M-mines?” I asked. I could just see our party being blown to atoms.
“And farms,” said Sepp. “He said that kind was commonly used in the fourth kingdom to remove stumps.”
I gave both men a pair of squibs each, and three each to Lukas and Gilbertus. Kees looked askance at me before shaking his head to indicate 'no thank you', while Gabriel flatly refused. Hendrik took one, even if he looked ill-at-ease.
“Uh, is it that big of an issue?” I asked softly.
“I'm not certain,” said Hendrik, “even if I am certain I may need to toss this thing in the house.”
The same situation went with the caps, to my surprise, and here, I learned why Kees wanted nothing to do with them – as well as why he wanted cover for changing his clothing. I had to warn Karl off to avoid his harassment.
“N-no, Karl, I don't blame him much,” I said quietly, as Kees did his business between the wall and one of the buggies. “Had I known he was frightened of explosions, I would not have asked him...”
“More than that,” mumbled Kees. “That place going up may have put me in the privy, but what happened years ago nearly put me in the grave.”
“Uh, is it true about guns?” I asked. “They go off if you..?”
“I'm not sure any more,” said Kees. “They used to, though, and if this wretch is as bad as he seems to be, then I'm not inclined to chance helping him by accident.” He paused, then said, “and given how you are, I'm surprised you needed to ask.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You didn't light that squib, did you?” asked Kees.
I was truly tongue-tied, and nodded 'no' prior to retrieving several more caps. These were from my box; and once fortified with more explosives, I felt marginally better.
Still, there were no takers for the dragoons, no matter who I asked. I therefore left them lay, and as I returned to where Jaak stood, I heard Gabriel speaking of his shooting in response to Gilbertus' questioning.
“I do well to hit the side of a barn from the inside with pistols,” said Gabriel.
“Muskets?” asked Gilbertus.
“If I use shot, and the game is close and not moving,” said Gabriel. “I do somewhat better with fowling pieces.”