Ain't no place like a hole in the ground... (continued)
Georg did not show the next morning, and while I worked on the now 'usual' things – there was a definite pattern to what I did, at least at the start of the day – Johannes spoke of what Georg was doing.
“He's up on the hill a lot right now,” said Johannes, “and that means strange hours and bad places.”
“Strange hours?” I asked.
“Those black-dressed people might start a bit later than we do,” said Johannes, “but they don't quit at the usual times. I've heard they go long after the sun goes down, and those places they go to stay open until they are ready to go home.”
“Those places they go to?” I asked.
“There are a lot of places in certain parts of the king's house,” said Johannes, “and they stay open late. They aren't like Public Houses that way.”
“Uh, the one here?” I asked.
“They stay open about three hours after sundown, or later if there's business enough. Those places stay open a lot later than that,” said Johannes.
“Talk has it some of them don't close,” said Gelbhaar, “and that some of those places have women who provide services.”
“Services?” I asked.
“That is a bad business,” said Gelbhaar. “Those people have to be witches, to do such things.”
I wondered for a moment as to what was meant, and a minute later, I had an intimation. The women in question were prostitutes of some kind. I resumed going through the cooking containers and making the billets ready for welding.
Georg himself showed about midmorning, and when he 'stumbled' in, he seemed much the worse for wear, almost as if he'd been juggling escaped captive pigeons at length. He looked over a few things, then wobbled off to bed as he stifled a yawn or three.
The next day at work was much the same, and I left but half an hour after the others. There might have been another two hours of daylight left, and I needed that time – and time after sundown – for 'homework'. I was still sorting through my tools, and already I had a substantial list of things that needed improvement or correction. The list of things that needed 'bagging' and 'labeling' was much longer. Exploring wasn't going to happen today; for some reason, it wasn't going to work out. I'd try again next week.
After my bath – I had seen more signs of work around back, with the carpenters likely culprits – I came inside to find not merely a modest bundle of yellow-tinted candles on the workbench, but also a sizable box next to them. I thought to ask about it. Neither Hans nor Anna were home.
The candles were something of an enigma, so much so that when Anna showed, I wanted to ask her about them right away.
“I'd help Hans first,” she said. “We had to get some supplies in town.”
After helping Hans bring in the supplies – several jugs, two bags, and an old-looking wooden box – I began helping him put them away. I wondered if I were going to need to help with medicine-compounding tonight.
“I should need some more things soon,” said Hans. “Most medicine gets made during two times of the year, and the same for most traps I do.”
“When are those?” I asked.
“The first crop is late spring,” said Hans, “and the second happens during the months before and after Festival Week. I do as much as I can during the winter, as things are slowest then. The other time is for making up what is used.”
“When is it busiest?” I asked.
“That depends,” said Hans. “Children come when they come, though they tend to come most just before harvest comes. Sicknesses, those happen when they do, and the swine tend to be most common during late spring or the last part of harvest.”
“Anna spoke of them coming after Festival Week,” I said. “She also spoke of mould blocks.”
“Wasn't that what you were working on?” asked Hans.
“I wasn't,” I said, “at least, not on those. I found them in this one sack in the back of one of the tool-carrier's drawers, along with some other things that I wonder about.”
“Those people come when they come,” said Hans, “though they come then more often than not.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “I would like to see those blocks closer, as I might know something about them. I just saw them on your workbench where you had set them that day.”
After digging out the mould blocks – I had been putting all of the 'questionable' things in one of the empty boxes – I showed them to Hans. Their age and pitted nature was such that I marveled, until Hans said, “these were made in the fourth kingdom, I think, and you might want to keep them handy for ideas. I am not sure they are good for bullets, odd shape or no.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “I've made things like these before.”
Hans looked at me, then said, “I thought you had not.”
“No, I have,” I said, “and to make mould blocks, as well as some other things I'm going to need to make, I could really use that one tool.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “Anna found you some good wax candles, so you have good light, and I found the stuff to put together the stand for that thing. I've needed to have the wood pieces done over, as they were fit for firewood. The other pieces seem passable at the least.”
“Other pieces?” I asked.
“Yes, in that box there,” said Hans as he pointed to the one box on the bench. “That has all the metal pieces that went to that stand. I hope they are right.”
I opened the box, and began looking. The 'greasy-filthy-nasty' aspect of the metal pieces had me reaching for rags, and when I gingerly picked up one of the metal pieces with tongs, I smelled it.
“This is not tallow,” I said. “Is it that tool-cleaner stuff you spoke of?”
“It is neither of those things,” said Hans. “It might be this stuff they make in the fourth kingdom that is good for special tools. It isn't the usual kind of fifth kingdom grease, as that is thicker and stickier.”
“Grease?” I asked.
“That fifth kingdom stuff is like road-tar, only softer,” said Hans. “That stuff there can be wiped off with a rag.”
I tried wiping the stuff off of one of the parts, and the feeling that grasped my hands was such that I nearly fell off of my stool.
“Augh!” I shrieked. “This s-stuff is hor-r-rib-ble!”
Hans had left, and when he came back, he had Anna with him.
“I think that stuff is poisonous,” said Hans, “as he almost had a fit when he touched it.”
“N-no,” I said. “No fit, and I doubt it is poisonous. The feel of this stuff is absolute, uh...”
I was at a loss for words, even as Anna began carefully wiping the 'grease' off of my hands.
“Only soldering flux is worse,” I muttered. “That would drive me into an aquavit jug in a hurry.”
“That stuff is not good to drink,” said Anna. “Why would you...”
“To get it off of my hands,” I spluttered. “I would not drink that stuff.”
“But you use soldering flux all the time, don't you?” said Anna.
“Not the type I'm thinking of, dear,” I said. “The type used for tin and that for jeweler's solder just smell bad and cause sneezing afterward, and perhaps, give a bit of itching. The kind I'm thinking of smells different, looks different, and most importantly, it's absolute torment to get on the hands. This g-grease reminds me of it, in fact.”
“I think you might want to brush distillate on those things, then,” said Hans.
“Not in here, Hans,” said Anna. “The fumes would blow up the house.”
I cleaned the parts under the stars to the rear of the house, and after wiping them carefully – the nasty feeling was much less – I left the small pan of distillate outside. For some reason, I had it in mind to bottle it after it had set for a while, and then try mixing it with candle stubs prior to gentle heating.
As I rubbed the parts further at the bench, I realized that for all the horror the 'grease' had engendered, it had worked well as a tool preservative. Most importantly, the metal pieces were in very good condition. I saved the rags I'd used and put one of them in my 'tool-roll' after wiping down my knives and awl.
Hans came in to look at what I was cleaning, and as I finished wiping what looked like a hinge, I said, “do you know where I might get some sand?”
“What kind of sand?” asked Hans.
“Clean graded stuff, for a sand-bath,” I said.
“Now why is it you want to bathe in sand?” asked Hans. “That stuff will not get you clean, and you get really dirty working at that shop.”
“It's not for bathing,” I said. “You get a pie pan, fill it up with sand, and then put it over your candle. The heat is dissipated and evened out, so you don't get big clouds of stinky fumes when you try to 'cook' distillate, and you can go a lot slower with it. Even 'well-dried' distillate still smells really bad, and that one batch is running low. I need to make more of it soon.”
“Is this the batch you cooked?” asked Hans.
“It is, and I use it more,” I said. “The only time I use the other stuff is when I need to take something rusty apart, as the stink is a lot worse and everyone in that shop complains about it. Besides, that cooked stuff seems to be decent for a lubricant, and nothing I've wiped with it has rusted so far.”
I paused, then said, “that, and 'stinky' tallow-rags using that stuff smell a lot less.”
“I will need to see a mason for that stuff,” said Hans. “I might want to get enough for a wash-tub, as that sounds like something I can use for some things. Then, if you make that stuff regular, I might want some for sale.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“If it works that good for rust and things,” said Hans, “then lots of people who are not farmers will want it.”
“I think I want to test it more first,” I said. “Granted, I haven't seen rust on my tools yet, but I've been keeping the tools wiped down and dry otherwise.”
“That is good, then,” said Hans. “You were right about tallow not being that good for rust, as I have talked with some people about what you said. Most people that use tallow for tools put a little of this red stuff in it, and they wipe them a lot so as to keep the rust off.”
“Red stuff?” I asked.
“You have some in your things here,” said Hans. “It is used for polishing.”
“Is this rouge?” I asked.
“I think it might be that stuff,” said Hans.
“They're polishing the rust off,” I spluttered.
“Yes, I figured that,” said Hans. “Grandfather used distillate when he could, and tool-cleaner otherwise, and he did not have rusty tools. He left the tallow for leather and candles.”
I tried one of the half-circles in back of a wax candle that evening, and the improvement in light was remarkable. I wondered if there were better things yet that night at dinner.
“There are, but they are hard to get outside of the fourth kingdom market,” said Hans, “and there, they are costly.”
“Hans, those lanterns are terrible,” said Anna.
“Lanterns?” I asked.
“There are two types,” said Anna. “One type is so bright they cause people to become dim-eyed, and the other type are almost as bad as some of Hans' traps for fires. At least those candles I found are safe.”
“Lanterns that cause fires?” I asked.
“Those are not found up here,” said Hans, “and getting them, outside of some places in the fifth kingdom, is very difficult. Even there, one must know the right people, and they do business in drink-houses, dress all in black, and act like witches. As for the trouble with fires, Anna is right. Those things cause lots of fires down there.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“They burn distillate,” said Hans.
“No thank you,” I said with an audible shudder. “I'm sorry I asked.”
The next day, Hans and I went wooding, and we quickly filled up the buggy. No deer showed at either woodlot, and on the way home, the sullen grayness of the sky was such that I marveled at the rapid change from clear and mild to 'cloudy and cold'. I suspected Hans was right about a 'hard' winter, and the amount of sticks we had gathered was somehow comforting. Twice the 'usual amount' sounded distinctly low.
I spent much of that day's remainder either 'working' on my tools, helping Hans in the basement, or napping, and the same for the day after, save for the time spent in church and then explaining the meaning of some of what Maarten had said. I had 'jugged' the distillate used to clean the tools, with the thought of 'boiling it down' once I could do so safely.
Georg showed the next workday at his usual time, and seemed much recovered, though he also seemed inclined to sit more at his desk than normally. I surmised keeping up with hard-drinking black-dressed thuggish fiends wasn't easy.
“As long as it looks fancy, it will work,” he said. “That man is a very poor shot.”
“Who looks after it?” I asked. “Does he?”
“Someone else does that,” said Georg. “He might clean it passably when he uses it.”
“What does he use it for?” I asked.
“That one mostly hung on a wall,” said Georg. “When he used it, which wasn't often, he hunted deer.”
Georg paused to sip from his mug, then said, “and the better it works, the more luck he is likely to have. I have heard of people who have trouble hitting the sides of barns if they are inside of them, but he actually gets close to being that way.”
“Does he use shot?” I asked.
“He has a southern fowling piece,” said Georg, “so you can do the barrel with those grooves you like to put in them.”
“And bronze pieces?” I asked. “Barrels?”
“As far as I could tell, those will work for the less-stressed parts of the gun, as long as they look good,” said Georg. “I'm still trying to get information on barrels.”
Here, Georg paused again to sip from his mug. He looked a bit dehydrated, which for some reason didn't surprise me.
“It seems he heard of someone in this area that was especially good,” said Georg, “and he came out this way to try to find out if that was true, and if so, who it was. He most likely was expecting an attitude like his own.”
“Uh, a drilling machine?” I asked.
“I saw something on that list like that,” said Georg, “but I am not certain as to what you meant. You might not talk like some of those people up there, but sometimes you are nearly as hard to follow.”
I fetched the slate which had the most recent version of the device, and as I brought it to Georg, I realized chalk was not only worthless for marking metal: it wasn't much better for drawings beyond the very simplest. I was beginning to desire paper and pencil, and as I attempted to show Georg what I meant, I could tell it wasn't working, or so I thought.
“I hope you know what you drew here,” he said, “as the front perches of a buggy is about as complicated as most can do with chalk and slate, and this looks to be much more complicated.”
“I suspect it is,” I said. “Those pieces left suddenly, and I never learned as to what they went on.”
“Several of those pieces were riveted together,” said Georg, “and I'm glad you fixed that swage. We can sell every rivet we make with it, they're so good, and they work well for what we make.”
“Is this with me doing them?” I asked.
“Yours are a bit better,” said Georg, “and given the choice, the customers want yours rather than what Johannes or Gelbhaar do. At least they are not beating that thing to pieces any more.”
Here, Georg paused, drained his mug, and belched. It somehow seemed 'appropriate'.
“Now with this thing,” he said, “if it comes good, every smith's shop will want one, and if it's fitted closely, there are other places that would want one as well.”
“Other places?” I asked.
“Instrument-makers especially,” said Georg. “If it's good enough to suit those people, one can almost name one's price and expect to get it. You may want to take this over to the carpenter's shop, and ask about the larger patterns.”
“Do they cast iron up here?” I asked.
“Not up this way they do,” said Georg, “and where they do, outside of a few places in the fourth kingdom, the results are usually very poor. Bronze or brass is done up this way, and commonly comes good, especially if you can find a good foundry. Where the sextant parts went is the best one I know of.”
“Larger patterns?” I asked.
“You might do the smaller ones for practice,” said Georg. “Finding crucibles big enough to do large pours isn't easy up here, and smaller ones tend to be safer. The big ones crack a lot.”
I went to the carpenter's shop, where I attempted to explain the larger castings that were needed. The man I had spoken to about the sextant pattern seemed unusually understanding, and as he marked up several slates on both sides, he said, “I cannot complain much, as this is the slow time of the year.”
“When is the busy time?” I asked.
“Good weather, mostly,” he said. “When the weather turns cold and damp, people aren't that interested in carpentry, as a rule, so we do things that aren't usually thought of as carpentry.”
“Uh, what?” I asked.
He pointed to a number of long round wooden 'billets', then said, “about now most years, I'd be spending a lot of time on that lathe making buttons. They might not pay well, but selling them tends to be pretty easy. Every Mercantile wants buttons, and every sewing-person wants them.”
Here, he paused, then said, “the parts for your lathe should be done in a day or so. I hope your watches come good.”
“Watches?” I asked.
“Hans told me that was what those things were usually used for,” he said.
“I doubt I will be doing watches much,” I said. “I most likely will be making special tools, and, uh, sextant parts.”
“Close enough,” he said. “Those are easily as close as a good clock or watch.”
I then noticed one of the small knives that I had made recently.
“How is that working?” I asked, as I pointed to it.
“Same as the awl,” he said. “Both are the best tools I've ever used.”
He paused for a moment, then said, “that drop-hammer will help a lot, especially if it makes more knives and awls.”
“D-drop-hammer?” I asked.
“Georg came over and started it last week,” he said. “we've got the wood needed, so it shouldn't take too long to have it finished.”
Here, he again paused, then said, “I sent word south to a friend I know so as to find out more about that hammer, and I think he told Albrecht about the awls and knives.”
“Albrecht saw the first knives,” I said.
“So that's how he learned about them,” he said. “Did he see the awls?”
“I hadn't m-made those yet,” I said.
“He must have spoken about those,” he said. “Albrecht would like some of both, especially if you put your mark on them.”
“M-mark?” I asked. “But I don't h-have one.”
The carpenter seemed nonplussed. He said, “he might get them copied so as to meet the demand for them. Still, if you do them, or supervise their making, that will do. If you do that work, it tends to be done right.”
The parts for the 'lathe' came two days later, and my 'homework' that night involved setting it up. I had never used a foot-treadle lathe before, and when I began pedaling, I was astonished at how rapidly the 'spindle' turned. The whirring noise of the gears brought Anna in a hurry.
“What is that noise?” she asked. She then saw the 'lathe' and its rapidly rotating 'spindle'.
“I got this one working,” I said, “and just in time, as I need to make some drill bits that don't go dull in a big hurry. I'll need to forge the blanks tomorrow.”
“Didn't you get drills?” asked Anna. “I thought there were a lot of them.”
“Yes, he has a lot of those things,” said Hans as he came downstairs, “and he spends a lot of time sharpening them, as he is not drilling in soft stuff with those things, and dull drills make for much sweat and no holes.”
“And sharp ones aren't much better with that haunted stuff, if I use the ones that came with the tools,” I said. “I'll need to make the bits out of one of those special knife billets.”
I turned my first drill-bits the next night, and the next morning, I built the fire up and quenched them before the first of the apprentices showed. When they finally did show – a bit after sunrise – I was using the first of my new drills. I was very pleased with the results, as I had drilled three holes in the tang of a knife, and my drill was still sharp. Normally, I would be well on the way toward dulling my second bit.
“Why are you working so early?” asked one of the boys.
“Most likely as he needs to,” said Georg. “Be glad you do not have his hours, Klais.”
“But why?” asked the boy insistently. “Why is it you work so much?”
I had no answer for him beyond pointing to the stack of slates indicating the orders that needed filling, then saying, “that is what I need to do, and those are just orders that need me doing at least part of the work. Then, I need to make tools for the shop, and finally I need to do work on tools I need. There is only one of me, so I have to...”
I could tell I wasn't being heard, and I stopped speaking. I returned to what I was doing, because at least the work understood my speech and actions. I then thought to ask about Hieronymus.
“Did that other man work longer hours?” I asked.
“I am not certain if his hours were longer,” said Gelbhaar, “but I am certain he did much less work than you do, and I am certain the shop has more work than it ever has had, even for this time of year.”
Here, he paused, then said, “do not worry over what the boys say about your needing to work like you do. It cannot be helped, the same as the smell of distillate when you need to loosen something that is rusty.”
“Like that last breech-plug?” asked Johannes. “That one was trouble.”
“It came out without ruining the barrel, didn't it?” I asked. Someone had brought in their musket to be 'worked over', those being the man's precise – and only – words.
“No, the barrel was fine,” said Johannes. “I'm still glad you use that less-smelly stuff when and where you can. How did you get it?”
“It was an experiment,” I said, “and it scared me while I was making it. I hope to be able to make more of it soon, as it works better than regular distillate for everything except loosening rust.”
After lunch, I thought to ask about distilleries – chiefly their shape and customary size.
“Those tend to vary some,” said Georg, “both as to shape and size.”
“Can you draw one?” I asked. “I've seen pictures, but those were where I came from.”
“Why don't you make those, then?” asked Georg. “Didn't they work?”
“I never ran one,” I said. “Is this one of those things where if I make something that looks like a big pot with a lid and a...” My impression was that the buyer took what was proffered at the seller's price, and the seller 'made him an offer he could not refuse'.
“That is about as good a description of a distillery as I have heard,” said Georg. “Most of the ones that are like that are easier to clean, and that is something many people want.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “I'm as lost as I ever was.”
I then recalled the boiler, and I drew the thing quickly – and within minutes, began making a small example. I needed a break from filing hard steel for knives and awls.
The central 'horn' of the thing came together rapidly on one of the thinner stakes, while the bottom portion was equally fast to fashion on a larger one. As I began 'pounding' sheet copper so as to get the outer sidewalls into shape, I found I had an audience.
“Now that is strange for a distillery,” said Johannes. “I have never seen one like that.”
I looked at Johannes with questions in my mind, chief among them, “if you've seen them, why didn't you try to tell me what they looked like?” I kept my question to myself, and spoke otherwise. To do so was in some fashion 'bad form' – and beyond my knowing that way, I knew nothing more.
“I need to ask questions about those things,” I said. “This is a water-boiler, and I need to make one so as to try out the basic idea.”
“Is this for Anna?” asked Georg. “She's spoken about boilers for a very long time, as water needs to boil before drinking, and pots tend to be very slow that way, hence most drink beer if they wish to not be sick from bad water.”
“Anna can use it when I'm not heating my bath-water,” I said. “I suspect boilers that get hot water in a hurry will sell well.”
I paused, then said, “can one of you get me an old leaky distillery, or tell me where one is, so I have some idea as to what people want? If I come up with something on my own, I'm really afraid they won't want it.”
The silence that resulted was beyond comprehension – it brought to mind again my previous thinking – and when I began making brass rivets, the pile that rapidly accumulated was such that I heard muttering from all around. It made me wonder more than a little as to why, especially as I had used a draw-die set for the wire before heading them. The swage-blocks that had come in my tools took 'six-line' wire, and the 'eight-line' wire we had was more than a little uneven for diameter.
“Does this have to do with those last wagon parts?” I murmured.
The silence that followed seemed to roll on for an eternity, and it was punctuated only by the steady clicking of the rivet-swage as I tapped out the rivets with a small hammer from my tools. I idly felt the back of my neck, and as I did, I had a flashback.
I had been filing on knives after making a batch of thirty fifteen-line rivets that morning, and as I paused to drink some water from a mug, something burning-hot had landed on the back of my neck. I had come to my senses at the outskirts of a forest some two miles away, with aching muscles and what felt like a severe headache. I had walked home through the fields, and as I came closer to home, I noticed that all that was left of the cornfields were dry forlorn stalks that rustled faintly in the breeze.
I had gone home instead of back to work, as I wondered as to the source of that brief paroxysm of pain, and I had called softly to Anna once I had sat on the couch. She had been busy, which gave me time to wiggle out of my apron.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Something happened to me,” I squeaked, “and I'm afraid I was hurt. Could you look at the back of my neck?”
Anna came over, and sat on the couch beside me while I turned away from her and pointed. As she moved my hair to the side and gently felt my neck, she muttered about a small scar. The touch of her fingers was intensely pleasurable, and I was barely able to avoid moaning.
“There doesn't seem to be anything wrong that I can see,” she said. “There is a small scar on the back of your neck, and it looks like you were burned there. What happened?”
“I was working at the bench, and something h-hit me there,” I said, “and...”
“It was one of those boys, Anna,” said Hans, as he came in the front door. “They were doing some riveting, and that boy tripped over his own feet and lost both his tongs and that rivet.”
Anna looked at me, and shook her head as Hans came closer.
“I thought so,” said Hans, as he looked at the back of my neck. “That burn is from that rivet. I told those people they needed to be more careful with those things, especially those boys.”
“Is it something I'm doing wrong?” I blurted. “Do they think I am evil, so that they want to burn me?”
Anna looked at me, then said, “I doubt that. Burns from hot metal are common in smith's shops.”
“Not like that one there,” said Hans. “He might not teach like most people do, but Georg tells me he is as good as they come for what he does. The other part I am thinking of is hard to prove.”
“That I might be 'pushing' too hard?” I asked. I did not speak of the others' possible resentment, which now seemed quite likely. I wasn't at all good at reading their minds.
Hans looked at me, then said, “that is the part that is hard to prove, as I have seen you teach. You do not act like some I have seen for what you are doing, as while you are not as patient as many who teach school, you keep trying to show them all how to do things.”
“Th-they don't seem to w-want to l-learn,” I said, “so I do what I c-can, and try again the next time.”
“I know that,” said Hans. “Most people doing what you are doing are very picky about who they teach, and you have no choice that way. Do you become angry when those boys do not want to learn?”
“I'm not sure,” I said. “I get frustrated, but usually they tend to be told to do other things then. If not, then I need a break, and I take one. I need to do that with some frequency regardless of what I do.”
I thought, then muttered, “is it something I am saying without speaking? That got me in a lot of trouble where I came from, as I could not hide... hide... hide...”
The flashback abruptly faded, and I saw that I had continued making rivets during the whole of the time. I wanted to anneal the rivets before using them, and I suspected the kitchen stove would work best for them. The forges became far too hot for brass. It needed less heat than copper.
“I never saw such small rivets,” said Johannes from my right. “Where did you get that thing there?”
“It came in my tools,” I said. “I needed to do some minor work to it to touch it up.”
“But why are those rivets so small?” he asked.
“The dies that came with it are for that size of wire,” I said evenly, as if speaking to a child, “and as you can see, the rivets seem fairly good. That eight-line wire tends to be a bit uneven, according to my measurements, and running it through the draw-dies tends to not only give more wire for a given length, but more even wire, and then annealing the stuff before heading the rivets helps more yet.”
I paused, then said, “besides, while I don't know what distilleries look like around here, I have heard of some of the problems they're prone to, especially leaking. This may be a boiler, and it may be small, and it may be a test, but it will tell me if my ideas hold, er, water.” I almost said 'mash'.
I took the headed rivets home in a small cloth bag, and once bathed with my clothing soaking in the tub's still-warm soapy water, I loaded the small cast-iron 'box' that I had discovered the night before with layers of charcoal and rivets. Anna surprised me while I was putting the covered box in the stove among the glowing coals. I put a few sticks in the stove afterward.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Annealing some rivets,” I said. “The forges get too hot for this type.”
“Are these some small brass ones?” asked Anna.
“Yes,” I said, as I stood up and turned around. I was surprised to see Anna holding a large cloth sack.
“Are they for that thing you were working on today?” she asked.
“Y-yes,” I said. “Why, did you see it?”
“Hans came in to look while you were working,” said Anna, “and he told me about not only what happened today, but also those rivets. He plans to take you to Paul's tomorrow so you can see what he has.”
“For a distillery?” I asked.
“Paul has one that he uses,” said Anna, “and then two others that he's gotten in trade that need repairs. Between the three of them, you should get some idea as to what they look like around here.”
“Georg and the others didn't know anything...” I spluttered.
“I am not surprised,” said Anna. “Those people know what they know, and what you do and what they do are two different things altogether. I would not be surprised if you are paying their bills before long.”
“Paying their bills?” I asked. “How?”
“People will want your work, and not theirs,” said Anna. “It was the same with that other man, though I think you already earn more for that place than he did.”
“Do distilleries vary?” I asked.
“They do,” said Anna, “but most people seem to make them to patterns, so how they vary is according to what the customer wants. I know you were asking about the shape of those things, and they couldn't tell as to what you were asking.”
“Did Hans ask them about that?” I asked.
“He did,” said Anna. “Now you need to try on these clothes, as they just came, and the same for those stockings. I think you need a set for every day you work at that shop, as you aren't getting cleaner working in there.”
“D-dirty as a turnip farmer?” I asked.
“That may be a saying,” said Anna, “but I've never seen anyone get quite as dirty as you do, and I'm including small children when I say that. I'm glad you have a set of tools at home, as close work and dirt do not mix, just like with medicine or chemicals.”
As I tried on the trousers, I said, “these seem to fit.”
“You need to try them all,” said Anna. “It should be another week or so before your first set of shoes are done at the shoemaker's. He's already got people wanting copies of what you are wearing.”
“H-hobnails?” I asked.
“I'm not sure about those,” said Anna. “Hans left you a surprise. I think he found another gunflint and an old file.”
“I never asked Georg about those,” I said.
“Yes, and I did,” said Hans, as he came in the rear door. “Those other people there were not inclined to part with those old things, so I had to ask them for the one you had coming. I tried using it and those flints, and it works good, even if it is not broken like old files usually are.”
“I figured out the handles,” I spluttered.
“Yes, I know that,” said Hans. “They might not understand you much there, but Georg knows his income, and he knows how much it has increased. Anna has been keeping that stuff in a bag for you.”
“Are they, uh, angry at me?” I asked. The idea of likely resentment would not go away.
“I think they are wondering why you do what you do, and why you do it as good as you do, and why you do so much,” said Hans. “I doubt they are familiar with the fourth kingdom and what they do down in that place.”
“Uh, what do they do there?” I asked.
“It is like I told them at the shop,” said Hans. “Those people work more hours than is common here, they work harder each of those hours they work, and I think they work with their heads more than is common here, especially if they are instrument-makers. Then, they are expected to do good work, and good down there and good up here are two different things.”
“As good as any I have ever seen,” said Hans, “and I suspect it will get better still, as I have seen a difference in those knives and things since you started doing them. I've only seen a few people do things like that.”
“Who?” I asked. I was trying on the stockings now.
“I think those people were marked,” said Hans. “Now let me get that file and that flint, and we can check your things over.”
While I finished trying the rest of the clothes, Hans fetched a small sack. Within it was an unusual-looking mottled gray 'ceramic' vial with priming powder, a small mottled gray 'flint', and one of the smaller old files. This last had been ground on in some fashion, such that it was smooth, and then coated thinly with wax. I suspected one of 'my' candles had been used. I already had put a tallow candle in one of the 'pockets'.
“How did it get like that?” I asked.
“They do not have a grindstone set up where you work,” said Hans, “so I took the file you had coming, and went to somewhere that did, where I had the file ground all over and its edges smoothed up. Then, I had to buy three of those flint things, so now we have spares of them. I never found that one that I thought I had.”
“Buy?” I asked. “Where?”
“There are a few second-hand shops around here,” said Hans, “and when Anna spoke of where you wanted to go, I thought you wanted to look at one of them, as one of those places is about three miles south of that big steamy mountain.”
“That place isn't very good,” said Anna.
“Which is why I went to the one to the west,” said Hans, “and I know the people there, so I was able to get the flints easy. These are good flints, too.”
“Uh, flints?” I asked.
“Not everything from points south is in Mercantiles,” said Hans, “and not everything in Mercantiles is from the south, and sometimes Mercantiles do not have what you need. So, you need to learn where things are, and who to talk to, and that goes double if you do chemicals or medicines.”
After finishing the clothing, I put it upstairs, and when I came down, I thought to ask for some dried meat. Anna looked at me knowingly, and fetched out a tallow-rubbed leather bag nearly two inches longer than my hand. The thing was bulging full.
“That is some just-dried stuff,” she said. “It isn't flint-dried, so you should be able to eat it as it is, and I added some pepper and Raw-Deal powder when I dried it. It should help the taste some.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You need to eat more,” said Anna, “and any time you go somewhere, you should carry some food, as you have trouble that way. If jugs didn't break so readily, I'd let you have a smaller one with cider in it.”
“Uh, smaller?” I asked.
“The size uncorking medicine comes in,” said Anna. “We use a fair amount of that stuff for one thing or another, so we have some empty jugs of that size.”
“Uh, do you use those for a reason?” I asked. I recalled Anna's speaking of my being 'corked'.
“I make certain to clean them thoroughly before I reuse them,” said Anna. “You go enough as it is.”
Anna paused, then said, “they are just about right for a day's work, at least for cider, so I make certain to get them filled when I can.”
I left out the back way a few minutes later, and as I walked amid the cornfield, I noted the now-dead cornstalks. They rattled in the faint breeze, and as I looked at my clothing, I marveled at its slightly mottled dark green color, its soft feel, and more importantly, the thinness of the yarn used. It wasn't much thicker than the commonest type of thread I had seen here. I thought to pay the woman extra, as the clothing was not merely comfortable, it felt pleasant to wear. I often felt inclined to gently stroke it.
I was glad for the button-flaps on the two front pockets, as well as their capacious nature. Not only did I carry my 'tool-roll', but also my money pouch. I had a few of the smaller silver coins in it.
“And I'm glad they're taking care of the money otherwise,” I thought. Embarrassed was not too strong when it came to money, and 'bargaining' like Anna sometimes did wasn't something I coped with. I paid what the person asked if and when I bought something.
While I walked, I watched for both movement and landmarks, and as I came to the edge of the cornfield, I knelt down and paused to look.
There were woodlots in the distance, what looked like a slightly sunken road, and green meadows. I wondered why I felt so inclined toward caution, then took my bearings. I wondered if it was time for the needle yet. The thought brought forth a recollection.
I had found a small fragment of lodestone in one of the drawers, and had duplicated my 'mending kit' using a piece of sheet brass I had found in a small bag while 'exploring' my tools. The needle had received a number of strokes against the lodestone, and I knew the needle's eye pointed north based on testing.
“Not much for a compass, but it's better than nothing,” I thought. “I wonder if I can make a real compass in the future?”
When I struck the road, I realized it headed in the rough direction of where I wanted to go, and I thought to keep to it, so that I learned the roads in the area. I found that my mind wandered in the direction of work, where I went over both Black-Cap's musket – or rather, rifle-to-be – and also, the sextant. I didn't know much about the latter beyond the patterns had recently gone out. How long they would take, or how many would actually be done, was a mystery.
“I just hope they come back decent,” I thought. “I'd hate to work on them and find sand or porosity.”
The dry dust of the road was such that each step I took billowed up a small cloud of the stuff, and as I looked around, I noted a woodlot was fast approaching. The resemblance to the 'path' of the dream was enough to make for discomfort.
“I hope I don't run into those cannibals,” I thought.
A small 'track' soon led to the left, and I took it. This 'path' was but a few feet wide, and as I looked, I saw what might have been tracks left by horseshoes. I wondered about the shape, for these tracks were not as I recalled horseshoes being: they were a wide 'V' shape, with a rounded blunt tip and curved lines. They were old enough to make me wonder if they had somehow been eroded by the actions of time and wind.
The nature of the encroaching woodlots made for a strange longing, and I wondered how hard it would be to actually make a 'hunting rifle' of some kind. I wondered why I was so inclined, until I looked to my left and then my right.
Long middens of rocks parceled out fields, and I saw another road weave its way through those parcels that headed west and south. I had the impression Waldhuis lay that way, and as I resumed walking, I shuddered involuntarily. It wasn't merely Anna's warning me, nor the repulsively ornate darkened oversized houses of my dream.
“Are there witches there?” I thought. For some reason, it seemed possible, even if the transient population of the place wasn't at all well-known, either for numbers or composition. The extent of my just-discerned knowledge was that there was a transient population, and there was more to that place than the obvious and the conventionally visible.
Faint, far off in the distance, I heard a howl-chorus, and I recognized the sounds right away as wolves. I wondered what they were like here.
“I wonder if there is a town called Bloemfontein somewhere around here?” I thought. “There are lots of Boers, and the preacher likes to speak out of the old testament, and the deer and elk are hazardous enough to make me wonder, and the people act as if they were described in a history book.”
The pathway had narrowed to a degree, and had grown ruts. I had to watch for my feet, as the ruts were treacherous to a small degree, and occasionally I saw another of those strange horseshoe-prints, as well as some odd gray-green splashes that splattered a powdery substance against the sides of trees or rocks.
I was glad those 'territorial markings' were so seldom. The greenery about me was thick and alive, with animals and birds rustling in the undergrowth. I saw a dark reddish-brown bird hop along the ground in its search for a meal, and when it vanished, I wondered what it liked to eat.
“I never saw a knee-high robin before,” I thought.
As if to jerk the bird out of my mind, I heard a deafening chattering noise, and I began looking for the source of the racket. I soon saw movement, and the chattering noise rattled out its challenge again. I recognized the likely source when I saw a gray flash amid the foliage of a nearby tree.
“Is that a squirrel?” I thought. “I hope...”
The movement shook the tree branch again, and a silvery-gray blur nearly three feet long hit the ground and shot across the trail as if lightning, until it hit the trunk of another tree and blasted up the trunk as if a bushy-tailed rocket.
“Squirrel?” I muttered. “Three f-feet of squirrel that moves as if it's electrified?”
The chattering sounded again. It was beyond deafening; it was loud.
“A squirrel that sounds like it's using an amplifier?” I gasped.
The only answer was the deafening chatter of the now-obvious squirrel.
The path had been skirting the borders of a woodlot, and now took a shortcut through the trees. While drop-wood was common enough underfoot, I wondered about water for a moment, until I recalled the 'need' to boil the stuff before drinking it. It made me wonder about a portable fire-source modeled after one of my 'alcohol lamps', as well as a 'ruggedized' bathing dipper with a removable handle.
“Or a small water bottle?” I thought, “Perhaps two pots with close-fitting edges, and then a tube for a cork in the top?”
Such thinking caused a deep longing for pencil and paper, as I now knew yet another pair of disadvantages of chalk and slates: their bulk and their fragility. Paper could be folded into a compact parcel, and it didn't go to pieces when dropped.
“Is that why Albrecht uses paper?” I asked. “Is it the better legibility? I know I would not be able to fit a slate inside of his hat.”
The rutted path showed an irregular upward slope as well as its foot-catching ruts. Now and then, I saw sizable chunks of dark bubbly-looking stone that looked to be pumice amid the clustering trees on each side of the path, and while the animals still were common enough if I went by their noises, they seemed to be scarcer than they once were. I saw another marking by one of the strange horseshoes, this time where it had noticeably scarred the ground as the animal fought for purchase, and I thought to stop and look closely at the area nearby. There was some kind of clue here, and I needed to look for it. The impression was quite strong.
On hands and knees, I began carefully crawling by the side of the road, and I was surprised to find an old-looking mostly-hidden boot-track. I gently moved the pale green grass to the side with my hands, and began to trace out the form of the track with my eyes.
“This is a pointed boot,” I thought. “I've only seen one person with pointed boots so far. Did Black-Cap come up here?”
I thought to look closer, and faint markings on the heel of the boot showed clear and distinct, even though the rest of the track was old, crumbling, and slowly vanishing with the ravages of time. The markings resembled those on the bull's side for type, if not much else. I knew they weren't the same.
“I wish I had some paper so I could record these,” I thought, as I stood to resume walking. “That way, I could ask about them and perhaps find out what they mean.”
The trail began to grow noticeably steeper in places, and as I looked to the sides of the trail, I noted a change in the soil itself. It was becoming more rocky, with more of the dark spongy rock showing here and there. I kept a watch for another type of rock, as where there was 'pumice', there was likely to be 'obsidian'. I knew from history that obsidian could be used for edged weapons, including knives.
A shiny black outcrop soon showed to the right, and I left the trail to examine it. As I came closer, I saw what might have been fresh-looking bare footprints in the loose soil, and near the outcrop itself, I saw sundry flakes and chunks of stone. The outcrop itself held a different clue. Again, I felt a strong impression, one that I could not ignore.
Shattered stone laying piled at the base of the outcrop and rust stains near cracks spoke of someone chiseling off pieces of the rock, and as I picked up a small 'chunk' to put in one of my pockets, I recalled something.
“B-black stone killing knife...” I murmured. “Those are associated with witches, aren't they?”
I thought for a moment, then recalled Hans speaking of witches and their supposed fondness for such blades, then another person speaking of one being found in the presence of other witch-paraphernalia.
“Was that man speaking truthfully, or was he a well-hid witch spreading lies so as to fool us?” I thought. The second possibility seemed fairly likely. “They didn't catch that first witch with much, did they? Did he lie?”
Again, there was no answer beyond the outcrop in front of me, and what I could see. Someone was using iron tools to break up this rock, and they didn't wear shoes.
“That, and they're picky about what they want,” I thought. “They seem to want long thin 'lozenges' of the stuff, if I go by what they've done here.”
I stepped around the other side of the outcrop, and there, I was stunned. I had found a broken-in-three 'blank' with traces of rust on it laying on the ground.
As I put the three pieces together, I saw it had broken along well-hidden faults. I brought out a tallow-rag from one of my pockets and wrapped the three pieces carefully, such that they were carefully padded. I had the impression that I had found 'evidence' of some kind, and as I rejoined the 'trail'...
“This is a trail?” I thought. “What kind of trail?” The sole answer seemed that one boot-track and the strange-looking horseshoe prints – and otherwise, the relative lack of discernible traffic.
The trees began steadily thinning, and with an abruptness that surprised me, they suddenly 'quit'. The trail was much less evident now, and as I followed it, I noted more outcroppings. Most were 'pumice', with some few being more of that glossy black stone. I wondered if those received attention from barefoot iron-carrying individuals. I stopped and looked at the third one I saw, and for some reason, I did not want to go off the trail.
“That stuff is probably loose,” I thought, “and if I got off of the trail, I'd slide until I wrapped myself around a tree.”
The nature of the soil itself was obvious as to its nature, for its dark color – it looked like fine-ground crystalline coffee – and friable nature were astonishing. Dark soils tended to be the norm in the area, and tall crops of corn spoke of rich soils. I wondered if crop alternation was practiced.
“Given the number of four-legged manure-generators in the area,” I thought, “they ought to use that stuff on the fields. Now I wonder if they actually do that?”
The slope steadily lessened. Massive lumps of pumice and gray-veined flaky black rock lay haphazard over the hillside, until I came to a lump of smooth-worn pumice. I thought to sit down and rest, and when I did so, I had the impression I needed to look at the uphill end of the rock. I stood up, walked two steps, and then nearly fell down when I saw the cork.
“What is a jug doing up here?” I thought.
The long cork made for an easy grasp, and as I began twisting the cork out, I wondered as to the contents, even as I tugged and twisted on the obdurate cork. It did not wish to come until I had fought it for nearly two minutes, when finally, with a twist and a wrench, it leaped out of the jug's neck with a stereotypical 'plop'. The stink was so bad I put it back in right away, and I doubled up with the dry heaves as the odor spread like a dread plague.
“Gah!” I spat. “That stuff smells awful!”
The reek resembled that of sour-mash paint remover, and my single long-in-the-past taste of the stuff – and the lengthy spitting thereafter – conjoined with the current vile reek to induce a nightmarish melding of past and present experience. If there was a difference between the stink I recalled and this one, I had trouble discerning a qualitative difference beyond the contents of the jug smelled worse than the stuff I had once tasted.
The lessening slope continued, until I 'crested' the brow of a small rocky plateau about a hundred feet across. In the rough center of this semicircular plain was what looked like a sizable well, and the firm-packed rocky soil bore my weight well. It was time to look around, and test the needle's efficacy as a compass.
I thought to first look at the 'well' itself, and after a minute, I saw what might have been a trace of steam issuing from its black-hole vacancy. I then looked at the ground itself.
The soil was 'firm-packed' due to a preponderance of rocks, and the brow forming the rim of the 'plateau' was a partly-buried rocky ledge that formed the boundary between the greater slope below it and the lesser slope above it. The 'well' seemed the very pinnacle of the 'mountain', for there was easily another two to three feet of rise between where I stood and the hole itself. As if to confirm the matter, another wisp of steam slowly came from the depths below and vanished in the faint wind.
I turned and walked back to the rim proper, and found a 'seat' among the soil. I drew out the roll, and once I had done so, I withdrew the small brass tube with the needle and thread. I'd used the butt end of a wax candle to 'wax' my thread, but for some reason, the wax used for candles wasn't as sticky as that sold as 'beeswax'. I suspected the brownish-yellow lumps sold at the Mercantile were 'raw' beeswax, and the stuff in the candles had been 'processed'.
After tying the needle at its balance point, I held it by a short length of waxed thread. I knew the direction of magnetic north, and now began looking from my vantage seat.
North and west, I saw a green mound of darksome foliage, with a silvery strand of water running east and west in 'front' of it that went under a bridge to the left. I looked closer, thought for a moment, and realized what the bridge actually was: a leaky dam that supported a road running across its top. The realization jerked me back in time and reminded me of what had happened just south of the 'dam'.
“His hand healed up fine,” I thought. “Anna said she could barely see the scar.”
I saw the canebrake to the right of the large tree that had broken my fall upon arrival, and farther to the right – a lot farther – I saw a larger band of bright water. I tried following the 'arrival-stream' to see if it met it, and the latter vanished into a thick 'forest'. It was far too large and thick to be a woodlot.
I now looked to my left, and saw a vast plain. Here and there, I saw fields gone brown and dead, and now and then, a thin trickle of hazy smoke that marked a town. I could see five of the latter, one of which was most likely home. I got up, and followed the ridge until I was sitting west, and there sat down and resumed looking. The sun...
“Why isn't it setting in the west?” I thought. “Did Hans get his directions mixed up somehow?”
I looked back over my shoulder, and saw the sun about an hour before it 'dropped' behind the thick trees. I would need to head home shortly.
There were more fields, towns, and woodlots to the west. One particularly large grouping of fields was unusual in some way, for there wasn't a close-clustered group of homes near its center. While there were homes, these seemed spread out in some fashion, and more, the homes themselves seemed acutely different. I wasn't certain as to the difference beyond its existence.
“Is that Waldhuis?” I murmured. There was no answer beyond my recollection of Anna's speech.
To the 'south' – I was no longer certain if it was indeed south, as Hans might have gotten north and south backwards – I saw more fields and towns, and the same to the east. The seeming monotony of the area was such that when I turned to leave, I wondered as to the hole in the mountain itself.
I moved in a slow and cautious manner, for I had a sense of the possibility of treacherous footing. The number of black glassy volcanic fragments I saw spoke of their likely origin, and within another few feet, I got on my hands and knees so as to better feel the surface of where I was crawling. Somehow, I felt 'safer' that way.
Within seconds, I knew what I had done was wise. Under my hands, I felt the superficial firmness of well-packed gravel, but below it lay hidden shifting sands. 'Loose' wasn't too strong of a word for this treacherous feeling; I saw that the hole lay 'uphill' and 'away' from where I currently was. If the sand loosened, I would slide away from the hole. I would not slide toward it so as to be devoured.
Still, there was an aura of distrust as to the 'plateau' and I got down on my belly with the goal of minimizing the pressure on the soil under me. I then worm-crawled until I was within about five feet of the hole's edge, and there looked at the faintly steaming aperture.
The darkness of the hole hid all details from my sight, and the vague reek of sulfur warned me away from the place. I'd seen enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I thought to go. I began reversing.
I felt firm rocks under my hands, but my eyes seemed to be tricking me, for a thin trickle of sand began sifting down into the hole's flagrant darkness. An echoing recollection – an oath, one Johannes had said after returning from a longer-than-normal stay in the privy – rang in my ears, and 'darker than an unlit iron mine' was his reference to the darkened state of the privy. This hole owned a similar darkness, and 'unlit iron mines' were not preferred places to lodge oneself.
As I continued with my backing, I was satisfied that I was gradually escaping from the call of the hole and its darkness. Mines were said to have shafts, and this hole looked too much like a 'mine' – again, Johannes' oath seemed to echo in my mind – for me to like its nearby presence. More sand continued to slide into the hole, even as I backed further away. My eyes said I had backed several feet. The sand's stealthy whisper as it slithered down the hole said otherwise.
Suddenly, the sand began sliding much faster, and I felt as if being tipped into the hole along with the sand. I was steadily sliding closer to the mouth of the hole, and as I frantically wriggled backwards, I seemed to accomplish little beyond increase the flow of sand.
The hole seemed to have faint ephemeral teeth, as if it were the mouth of a black-hole Desmond, and the sound the sand made in its shifting was a tooth-grinding nightmare. The previous tilt away from the hole had now become something closer to a funnel, and the steepening sides of the thing made for relentless progress toward the mouth of the volcano. It had only dawned on me now as to what the mountain actually was.
I could see rocks near to hand, and I grabbed for them. They came loose in my hands, and then bounded into the hole as I continued my relentless slide. I grabbed for another rock, one that seemed firm – and the ground gave way underneath me. With a shuddering rumble, I fell into the hole amid a thick cloud of sand, gravel, and rocks.
The fear I felt upon falling was submerged in the blackness of unconsciousness, and I came to myself what seemed seconds later seemingly frozen in time amid a shower of rocks and sand. I was amazed at the clarity of my vision, as well as the lack of 'darkness', and as I felt my hands, I felt soft hair. I looked down, and far below, I saw water. I would need to hyperventilate on the way down.
I folded my arms and legs up into a ball, and as I began breathing as hard as I could, I also prayed. For some reason, I still seemed to be dropping in slow motion, much as I had in the stone-walled tunnel of arrival, and amid the dirt cloud below me, I saw what resembled angry red fireflies coming closer. They seemed to abruptly jerk and change motion with appalling suddenness, and I was glad they didn't seem terribly interested in my company.
With each fractured instant of time, the 'fireflies' became more numerous and erratic, and as I traced them back toward their 'nest', I could see reddish blooms of fire that flared and then winked out abruptly. These eruptions soon resolved into lopsided bursts of red-tinted sparkles, then the smaller end separated from the larger to form two distinct explosions. The smaller flame flared initially to be followed by the other an eyeblink of time later.
“Those are not fireflies,” I thought. “They look like...”
An angry 'insect' buzzed by my head, and was chased by its twin a second later. I knew what they were now.
I was glad for being rolled up in a ball, as well as the thick cloud of dirt and rocks I was surrounded by, for the shooters would have a much harder time hitting me. I glanced below, even as I tumbled, and took in a frightening tableau.
Torchlight shed dark and mobile shadows over a sizable crowd of black-dressed gunmen, and the flicker of the lurid red flames seemed echoed by their frantic motions as they loaded, primed, and fired. The thick gray billows of gunsmoke seemed evil portents of what awaited me, and the glaring muzzle flashes seemed mirrored by their savage open-mouthed expressions as they shouted and raged.
The sound of their musketry was a uneven booming grumble, and overlaying the roaring echoes and whistling ricochets were screams, howled curses, and yells of rage that melded together into a deafening cacophony. It only ceased as I flew past them, and I went from hellish torchlight into a darker region of night.
I then looked below, even as the musket balls died out and the screaming behind me became louder. I was closer to the water than I thought, and I took a final deep breath. I closed my eyes, and hit the water an instant later.
The droning roar of impact pounded on my ears explosively, and seconds later, I began unrolling so as to 'scrub off speed'. I was glad I did so, for I suddenly met the floor of the lake with a jarring blow, and when I opened my eyes, I was astonished.
Save for the coarse grainy sand under my hands and knees, all around me was dark, with black water surrounding me, and when I looked at the sand below my knees as I began floating upward, I saw that it too was black. I kicked hard against the sand, which helped my rise toward the surface, and as I floated upward, I began removing first my boots, and then my stockings. The latter went into the tops of my boots.
As I finished this important task, I thought to look up. There, I saw dimly shimmering lights, and I thought for an instant as to their likely users. I began to swim away from the lights, even as I continued floating upwards, and I hoped that my clothing and hair would make me harder to see in the darkness.
I broke the surface with a substantial ripple, and as I began hyperventilating, I heard a splash to my right, then another to my left. I treaded water, and turned around.
Some distance away – easily several hundred feet – I saw a black sandy beach carpeted with various colors of rugs lit by torches and what might have been cooking fires. Some of the rugs were occupied with lounging people, while numbers of musket-carrying black-dressed 'thugs' were joining the still-small firing line. Other more-athletic individuals were on each side of a large wooden 'outrigger canoe', and were carrying the thing to the water's edge.
I turned around, put my bootlaces in my teeth, took a deep breath, and submerged.
I swam underwater as fast as I could, and as I swam, I noticed that my speed had grown noticeably compared to what I recalled in the past. When I surfaced, I turned around and saw the distance to the shore had nearly doubled – and the boat was getting underway, with maddened yells and furious paddling. I heard the boom of a musket followed by a nearby splash, and I submerged again. The splash had been far too close for comfort.
As I resumed swimming, a rapidly-dropping musket ball nearly collided with my nose, and I grabbed the thing as I stroked my arms to get added speed and depth. I slipped the ball in my right pocket without missing a beat, then turned slightly to the right and continued swimming.
The splashing paddles and rhythmic yelling intimated that not merely were these people interested in my demise still, but that they were also accustomed to such chases. I swam faster, and as I began arcing toward the surface, I had a 'better idea' as to how to surface: turn such that my face was up when I came close, 'surface', breathe, turn over, and then submerge – and in every case, change directions by at least twenty degrees in a random fashion.
I hoped my pursuers would be shaken off by such an erratic path, and when I surfaced again, there was no gunfire. I then noticed what else this odd way of surfacing did: I didn't lose much speed, it made barely any noise, and I was exposed for much less time. I turned to my right again once submerged.
With each such 'cycle', I saw the boat further behind me, and after three of them, I paused and turned around while treading water so as to catch my breath. The boat was now broadside to me and moving slowly in what seemed a circle, while several of its crew – the 'watchers' – held up uncommonly bright yellow-tinted light-sources. They were far too bright to be candles, and their flickering – minor and seldom – was less than that of even carefully-trimmed wax candles. I wondered what they were, even as I submerged again. This time, I turned left slightly, as I knew they would be a while giving up.
The boat and its lights grew further away each time I checked. I continued swimming underwater, and wondered why until I recalled how noisy 'conventional' swimming tended to be in comparison. By swimming underwater, I only made noise when surfaced, and if I was careful, it wasn't much.
“And why those people don't hear me when I surface and breathe is a mystery,” I thought, as I came up to surface again. I could see a deep and rocky shore to my front, and to my rear, both boat and encampment were far away.
The shore grew closer with each surfacing, and I began to look for sand while swimming. It took longer than I thought to see sand, and several more such swim-breathe cycles to be able to touch the stuff. I looked up when I touched bottom.
I needed to swim a good deal further, as the water was still too deep to stand.
I tried the next cycle, and when I tried standing, I found that I had somehow misjudged the depth of the water, as the stuff only came up to my knees. I began to carefully wade closer to the shelter of the rocks.
With each slow step, I marveled at the huge boulders piled thickly in front of me. I could see gaps that permitted crawling, or in some few places, walking, and once, I stopped and turned around to see where the boat was. As I did, I noticed my breathing – ragged, raspy, and rapid – and also, the sound. Every sound – especially my breathing – seemed terribly loud. I then looked behind me.
The boat was still very much 'out to sea', and its yellow-blob lights moved fitfully as it continued to search.
“They're not giving up quickly, are they?” I thought, as I turned to resume wading. The rocks weren't much further, and I could rest then.
As I came to the still water of the shore proper, I asked that my tracks be erased. I continued walking, feeling firm moist sand under my feet, and only crawling when I came to the first of the rocks. I stopped then to rest, and in the shadow of a tall overhanging boulder, I dropped my boots into my lap. I had been holding them by their laces in my mouth since I had begun swimming.
I panted quietly, for only now did I realize how 'out of breath' I was. My heaving chest ached, and I closed my eyes. It helped in some fashion, at least with breathing as deeply as possible. I wondered about a nap. I didn't wonder about rest; I needed that.
Some minutes later, I heard faint speech, then the splashes of paddles. I turned to see the boat slowly heading back to its launching point.
“This place carries sound well,” I thought. “I bet they could hear a mouse sneeze at a hundred yards.”
I felt my pockets; their contents seemed intact. I wanted to begin moving soon, and a few minutes later, my bootlaces went back in my teeth as I began crawling among the rocks. I had an impression about the presence of a path near the walls of the place.
I had little idea as to where those walls were, however, and the sand steadily became warmer and drier as I crawled between the rocks. It still remained fairly firm, and when I looked at my clothing during a brief stop to rest, I noted it didn't reflect much light. Dark green sheltered by dark rocks and hidden in shadows tended to merge with them, and the jumbled nature of the rocks tended to dissipate sound. I hoped they would work well enough, and I hoped there would indeed be a path.
Somehow, I knew that I would be heard before I was seen.
I continued crawling. My path was a winding one, and when I came to a space where I could stand, I did so. In the distance – perhaps twenty feet, perhaps two hundred – I could see what might be inward-sloping walls. A brief thought made for dismay.
“Those will reflect sound...”
I then almost laughed. The walls would reflect sound, but the angle was such that they would mostly reflect it down onto the beach to be trapped by the rocks and absorbed by the sand. I would still be hidden passably as long as I was quiet and used judgment. I then wondered how I would get out.
“I doubt they grew that boat in here,” I thought. “Besides, how do they keep themselves fed? They might well grow mushrooms in here, but those aren't that filling.”
There seemed no obvious answer beyond a passage to the outside of some kind, and as I resumed crawling, I put the thought in the back of my mind. I was able to do that much easier than normally, for some reason, and when I felt hard stone under my hands and knees, I was astonished.
“That had to be closer to twenty feet than two hundred,” I thought, as I looked to my right and left before crawling further. I was at the edge of a long and somewhat curving passageway.
I crawled out of the shelter of the rocks, and then stood carefully, feeling with my hands so as to not bump my head. I didn't, for a change, and then noted where I was standing more carefully.
The rock wall to my left was nearly straight up-and-down to the height of my shoulders, and from that point, it seemed to 'funnel-in' in an irregular fashion. The jumbled rocks to my left came to head-height for the most part, with some few gaps that dropped to my waist. The width of the 'trench' varied from four to seven feet, and was hard smooth stone with occasional sandy places. I then noticed my boots.
“I seem inclined to carry these things in my mouth, for some reason,” I thought, as I sat down against the 'outer wall' of the cone. “I had best knot their laces together, and carry them in my hands.”
After doing so, I thought to 'inventory' my pockets. The large buttons had held well, and as I began unloading my 'cargo' pockets, I noted the intact nature of what had gone in there. Once I had a small mound in my lap between my spread legs, I began checking what I had.
My stockings had not 'escaped'. They were still in my boots, and I set them aside.
The 'meat-bag' had an uncommonly tight knot, and once I untied it, I knew that not merely was the contents dry – tallow worked well on leather, if not on rust-inclined metal – but Anna tied knots much better than I did. I then thought to sample a strip of meat.
The taste was not merely 'good', but astonishing, for somehow, the stuff had acquired a faintly smoky taste amid the flavor of 'dried meat' and 'pepper', and upon the third bite, I noted the peppery taste had acquired an added dimension of spiciness and 'heat'. The flavor helped my appetite more than a little, and I ate the strip hungrily. I pulled out another, began gnawing on it, and retied the bag. I was glad there was as much in the bag as there was, even as I slipped it back into my left pocket.
The folded 'blank' was intact in its rag, and as I noted its dampness, I wondered about my tool roll. I checked that next; as I felt the leather, I realized what tallow was good for: “it might not be a good rust preventative, but it does keep moisture away for short periods if it's rubbed into leather.”
After checking my tools – the 'rust-preservative' rag was but slightly damp, and no rust had showed on anything I had – I wrapped up the roll and tied it. I then checked the musket ball I had 'caught', and looked at it carefully. Its rust-streaked, torn and soot-stained surface made for thinking, and as I started out walking, I thought, “how can those people load and fire so fast with dirty rust-filled bores?”
While there wasn't an answer in my thinking, I knew the next part of 'escaping' was to learn what I could of my pursuers and their habits. I began looking for a place where I could observe them better at length. One soon showed – a gap in the rocks to my left, with the tallest ones about chest-high, and many of them less – and I found a rock to sit next to. I then began looking at the encampment.
The boat was being drawn up on the sand, and as I watched its crew heaving on the many poles that held the outriggers in place, I could see details that were a cause for wondering – first, the squared-off bow and stern, then the thick walls of the thing, and finally, the leather-lashed poles themselves. It was obvious that the boat wasn't particularly light.
“That thing's a dugout canoe,” I thought, “though why the ends are blunt like that is a mystery, unless that part's above water.”
As the 'bow' of the boat began dragging on the shore, it became more apparent that that was the case, for there was a narrow line left in the sand by a sharply pointed place near the front of the boat.
The lighting of the camp came from a multitude of red-flaming torches as well as the fires of cooking, and as I counted the number of such fires, I began to notice not merely pots, but also two such fires mounded high with flaming brands. Next to them, I could see several individuals sitting on rugs and next to mounds of what might have been sticks. A brief flash from the hand of one of these people indicated they were using some kind of blades.
While I continued looking, I started noticing details. The pots had people stirring them now and then, and near the pots themselves, there were mounds of sacks. Many of the sacks had dark stains on them, and as I looked closer at the sacks themselves, I seemed to 'know' what the stains actually were.
“Th-that's blood,” I muttered. “They stole those sacks, and killed doing it.”
The cooking fires seemed to burn brighter for a second, then resume their slow steady consuming of the chant-covered fuel. I could hear sounds now, and their jumbled noises seemed to bang their way into my mind. One person seemed in dire need of a privy.
“Pee! Pee! Pee!” screamed the person in question, while in the background, I heard other words, few of which made sense: “Aieeeh! Skrull! Kah! Moont!” This was followed by a long 'chant' of some kind: “Yoh-Chogh-Kah-Kah-Boh! Yoh-Chogh-Kah-Kah-Boh! Yoh-Chogh-Kah-Kah-Boh!”
There seemed no rhyme or reason to this gabble, and I dismissed it as artifacts of a foreign language – though, the impression I had was that this particular language was important in some crucial way.
The cooking fires smoked to a certain degree, though why the smoke seemed to mostly come from a distance away seemed a matter of mystery until one of the fires suddenly became sharper and clearer. I then saw the pot itself, as well as the 'oven' upon which it sat.
“Why does that pot look like a stereotypical 'cauldron'?” I thought, “and how did they get those firebricks in here, and why does that oven have a chimney? Especially one made out of bricks?”
This sharpened perception grew yet more, and now seemed to wander over the whole of the campsite. The 'rugs' now became more obvious: they were of a coarse-seeming cloth, with leather strips woven into their edges to form patterns, while the previous 'dark' surface first became mottled, then showed intricate-looking designs – and finally, the designs resolved down into figures that I recognized, with straight lines, angles, and in a few instances, familiar-looking shapes, ones that resembled those on that irate bull. I then saw the clothing of these people.
Coarse black cloth bound with strips of leather forming shapeless 'messes' for the women and children, and more conventional-looking clothing for the men, seemed the given at this place, and as my vision again narrowed down, I saw that the 'strips' of leather were actually wide leather belts hung with pouches, sheaths, and sacks. The sheaths commonly held old-looking knives, or so I guessed, until I saw one taller-than-common man carrying a broad-bladed hatchet. The rust-tinged blade seemed ancient, far older than the haft, and when the man turned broadside to me, I noted the rust, while plentiful, seemed to be usurped by a yet larger stain of a similar color that covered nearly the whole of the 'sharp' portion of the blade.
“Th-that's blood,” I muttered. “That hatchet has blood on it, and that w-wretch didn't wipe it off!”
I now saw that most of the edged weapons – hatchets, knives, 'spears', and what might have been broad-bladed short swords – had dried blood on them. That red-brown tint seemed the mark of stature among these people, and as I looked further, I could see dark spots among the wrinkled stone walls into which certain individuals now and then vanished.
Next to these spots, I saw what might have been raised wooden platforms, and upon those, I saw mounds of obvious greenery. A faint acrid smell now came to me, and I wondered about its source, even if I didn't wonder as to whether I had smelled it before.
It was the odor I had smelled that one night.
I looked to the right of the camp, and there saw a tall 'promontory' with a flat torchlit platform. I guessed it to be perhaps a hundred feet above the water's surface, and the reddish color of its flickering light spoke of its being the likely watch-point with its many gun-toting watchers.
At the water's edge, however, I saw a narrow sand-strewn path, and as I followed it right, it went around the base of the promontory and vanished. I suspected there was something else that way. I then began looking back the other way.
As my eyes played out over the camp, I noted other details, chiefly the activities of those laying on the blankets. I had thought them 'lounging', but I now saw that most of them seemed to either be whittling or sewing. All of them had sizable satchels of one kind or another, which I had previously thought to be pillows.
The number of people I saw – well over a hundred, I guessed, and three times that many seemed likely – spoke of my needing guile to escape. It also gave a better idea as to how much food they needed beyond the 'ovens' and the bags of stolen produce...
“Did they just steal the produce?” I thought. “Or did they take, uh, livestock with it?” A strange thought bloomed in my mind, and I whispered, “or did they take the previous owners here so as to eat them?”
The latter aspect made for a strange thought: why was there a sizable crowd on that platform just when I fell?
Did they know about my coming, or did they just wait there for people to fall down like I did?
What was the canoe's normal use?
Did they have fish in here?
And finally, why did they have squared-off platforms on each end of that thing?
Anna's mentioning 'cannibals' suddenly jelled: these people were the cannibals she talked about.
“Then why did she speak of them being on the back side of the volcano?” I thought. “They aren't on the back side, they're on the inside – unless, of course, they periodically venture outside. If they do that, then there must be an outlet – and if I go by the produce bags and that canoe, it needs to be decent-sized, fairly straight, and easy to navigate.”
That answer, while it sufficed to put to bed some of my questions, made for several more: firstly, how often did 'dinner' come falling? Secondly, who – or what – comprised this 'dinner'? Thirdly, how did it get to where it could 'fall in'?
The answer to the first question was 'often enough to make mounting a sizable guard worthwhile'. That meant, to my mind, a fair amount of traffic. I hadn't seen any such signs on the top of the volcano, and what I had seen on the trail spoke of little traffic by that path.
“Then it isn't food that they wait for there,” I thought. “What would they wait for, then? Sacrifices? Religious 'omens'? Is that it?” I paused, then continued. “Or do 'certain individuals' come up by other routes, toss in those they dislike, and then rake the surface smooth so as to prevent possible detection by the curious?”
For some reason, both possibilities sounded equally – and ominously – likely. More, they both sounded very likely indeed.
“And the curious?” I thought.
Based on observation, that didn't sound at all likely. Hans might have had his share of curiosity, and Anna sometimes displayed a modest amount – and everyone else seemed altogether satisfied with what they knew. The behavior of the apprentices, and indeed, the others in the shop, seemed to speak loudly of what was a community-wide issue, to the best of my limited knowledge.
“Forgotten for centuries,” I gasped, “and frozen in t-time. N-no curiosity, save for the common things of s-s-socialization. N-nothing ever ch-changes, and they d-don't want to change...”
“This area will change,” said the recalled voice of Albrecht in my mind.
“How?” I asked. There was no answer.
It was time to go, I now knew. I would not escape if I continued watching while not moving. Yet even as I began slowly walking along the path, I had questions, chiefly 'who was doing the tossing', and 'why are they tossing people'? I picked up my boots, and left my hiding spot.
Not a hundred feet from my starting out, the answers seemed to bloom in my mind with a shuddering rumble: witches, or people like them, at least as to who was doing the tossing. The reason why seemed obvious, at least for some people: the witches didn't want to be 'routed out', and they were all too willing to kill to prevent that happening.
“At least that one man was,” I thought. “That dagger of his was no joke.”
However, my progress was arrested by a sign of fire-traced movement along the side of the promontory: the 'watchers' were now coming down, and as I hid in the shadow of a large rock, I watched a long line of torch-bearers come down a zigzag path. I counted five reversals in as many minutes, and I wondered as to the time. Was it dark outside?
I resumed walking, now and then looking to my left. The near-silence of bare feet upon warm stone made for a calm sense that I would not be discovered by being heard unless the listener had keen hearing and was close by, and somehow, I had the sense that the 'cannibals' didn't go far from their accustomed paths inside. Outside, they ranged quite widely.
“How is it that I know that?” I thought. “How 'widely' is 'quite widely'?”
Some few minutes later, I caught a flicker of light in my peripheral vision, and when I turned to the left, I saw another torchlight procession.
This example was somewhat smaller than the 'watchers' atop the promontory, and in the light of their torches, I saw a number of hung-by-the-feet deer carcases swinging slowly from limb-lopped saplings as their bearers walked slowly toward the spit of land directly beneath the promontory.
“Four... Five... S-six... Seven,” I thought. “So they eat 'long pig' when it arrives, and deer otherwise, and if I go by the number of deer, 'long pig' must be a treat.” I paused, then thought, “long pig? Where did that one come from? This isn't Melanesia!”
Still, the term seemed an apt one, as the originators of the term 'long pig' were cannibals.
More importantly, the entrance was on the other side of the promontory, which suggested the obvious: the exit wasn't in the middle of the cannibal camp, but some distance away, and I could get to it without passing through that camp. Leaving undiscovered predicated on not being heard or seen.
I resumed my walk, for I needed to get to the exit, and swimming that distance wasn't a good idea. Finding water seemed a better one, but beyond the ill-tasting water of the 'lake', I could not think of an obvious source. I wondered if there were underground springs or streams.
“Where do those people get their water?” I thought.
The light of the distant flickering torches was the sole relief from the uncharted gloom of the place, and as I walked with my bootlaces in my right hand, I knew I would need to look for the exit when it was light outside – and then travel the rest of the distance until such time as I could escape. That would be best done with a sleeping camp – and the noise coming from that quarter spoke of both mealtime and some time prior to slumber. I still wasn't certain if the sun had gone down.
The nature of the sounds I heard – speech, what might have been the grinding of cornmeal, occasional chopping noises, and the squall of an infant or two – was such that my thinking regarding noise was wise. Sound traveled especially well in this place, and I periodically looked in the direction of the camp as to clues. Each time I stopped to look, I changed my boots from one hand to the other.
“And given I don't know how far this place goes,” I thought, “I'd best rest when and where I can.”
Over the course of an hour of slow and careful walking, I noted the 'angle' to the promontory increasing, as well as a darker-yet shadow to its right. How far in this shadow went was something of a mystery, beyond 'some distance'. It wasn't lit, unlike the camp, so discerning details wasn't particularly easy.
I also noticed that while my 'angle' to both camp and promontory had changed, the distance to both landmarks had grown as well. I paused and swept my gaze from left to right, and noted the interior of the place resembled a lumpy and lopsided circle, save for the place with the entrance.
Over the course of roughly an hour, I could hear further noises from the cannibal camp: obvious 'chants', yells, howls of rage – I could tell someone was very unhappy, even if the reason why wasn't an obvious one to me – and now and then, a horrifying scream. I picked up my pace slightly, thinking the noise in the camp would cover mine.
“I know cooking is frustrating,” I thought, “but I never made that much noise.”
My mental speech was due to the distraction the racket over 'yonder' was making, and when the scream-fest reached its peak to be abruptly cut short, I thought to look over in that direction. I leaned against one of the rocks to look.
The deer were hanging by their forelegs, with the skinning well in progress, though as I counted carcasses, I counted eight instead of seven. The last carcass in the line was receiving a bit more attention than the others from the 'butchers', and as the scene seemed to become steadily clearer, I saw that it wasn't a deer.
Someone had been sufficiently peeved to commit murder, and that last carcass was being being sectioned into pieces for cooking. Before, I had suspicions as to the diet of these thugs, but now, I had evidence – and over the next ten minutes, I saw the human carcass dismembered and conveyed to the cooking pots while the 'butchers' worked on the deer.
The racket continued, even as I resumed walking, and the thought of having seen the result of a murder made me wonder as to the true nature of the cannibals, especially as to their beliefs. The talk of witches, and what they did – and more, the description of 'a pot of human flesh' as being found – made for wondering as to what composed the diet of witches.
“Why was that spoken of?” I thought. “Was that man lying, or was he not? Is the idea of witches cooking human flesh over a fire an especially 'believable' one?”
I paused in my walking, then thought, “I wonder if those 'old tales' I've heard spoken of have the equivalent of Hansel and Gretel?”
A deep sonorous horn-blast interrupted my thinking, such that I muttered, “dinner is served.” I then thought to look and see what was happening.
The whole of the camp had now clustered around the 'ovens', and the loud – and angry-sounding – gabble became yet more frantic with each minute. I could almost see pushing, shoving, and fights breaking out over who would eat what, and the hunters and shooters had to fight their way to the kettles with their bowls in one hand and their weapons in the other.
As the crowd slowly dissipated, the rugs reacquired their occupants, and the camp became much quieter. I wondered for an instant as to why I was watching these people first fight each other for food, then glut themselves – until I saw those who had first fed lie down on their rugs and begin sleeping.
“So that's it,” I thought. “The camp should go to sleep before long, at least for the most part.”
I resumed walking, thinking to stop and watch when I rested, and with each such stop, I noted more and more of the camp asleep, as well as a diminution of light. One time when I watched, I saw someone collecting up torches and waving them out, then walking to a large 'barrel' and dumping them in burnt-end first.
Those other strangely bright light sources, however, were still in use, with one group over near the rear wall of the encampment and others making trips to the left now and then. I saw one of this second group vanish among the rocks that formed the camp's left border, then return some minutes later, followed by another individual or small group. This pilgrimage seemed quite common, and only ceased after I'd stopped twice more.
The sounds I heard now were faint words all but buried by a low-pitched stealthy rumble, and only by stopping and listening carefully could I hear either noise. The stillness of the forms on the rugs, as well as the sense I had of these people wishing to sleep, was such that I barely stifled a yawn of my own, and when I stopped the next time, I could only see one area lit well.
“That must be the night watcher,” I thought, as I looked at the area in question.
As my vision 'cleared' and became more focused, I saw this individual was seated near the corner of a wide fold in the rock wall at the rear of the encampment, with his gun in his hand and an expression of vigilance on his face. To each side of his hard stone seat, there was a head-tall post, and attached to this post were two or three of the bright-yellow light sources. I focused on the left group of these things, and waited for the picture to 'clear' further.
While the picture did clear somewhat, the details of the individual light sources were still somewhat fuzzy. I could see half-spherical bases, oddly tall caps that reminded me of chimneys, and near-spherical glass globes separating the bases from the 'chimneys' I felt reminded of some older 'oil' lamps I had seen pictures of.
“Was Hans speaking of those?” I thought. “If they are, what are they doing up here?”
There was no answer to either question, save what I could see of the night watchman. He was already struggling to retain a measure of alertness, even as the unsteady grumble of obvious snoring became more and more apparent. I turned toward my path, and resumed walking.
For some reason, I now noticed how my surroundings looked to me. The stones on the beach to my left showed as blackest-possible black, while the sand was a slightly lighter color. The walls and 'floor' were a lighter color yet, though the spectrum I saw was ink progressing toward a faded sepia.
I was now 'in the mood for travel', and as I walked, I had some strange words tumbling through my mind. I knew – no, hoped – that there was some way out of where I was, and as the words repeated, I thought, “no, I am not much of a joker, and I'm too clumsy to be a thief.”
Still, the scrap of doggerel fit my current situation well.
I was able to relax my vigilance to the left and rear slightly, and bent more attention to the front. It seemed justified, even as I increased my pace slightly more. I noticed that there seemed an optimum pace, and 'too slow' wasn't all that quiet, especially compared to my current speed. I knew I was walking a good deal faster, and making less noise while doing it.
The steady quiet rumble became progressively fainter, and when I next looked to my left, I had to look noticeably further to my rear. I could not reliably guess the distance beyond 'miles', and as I resumed walking, I wondered if there were other inhabited locations within the volcano. Finding them would force a change of plans.
I stopped in the lee of a large boulder, and dug a small hole with my hands so as to use the hole in lieu of a privy, and afterward I covered the hole and resumed. I felt slightly thirstier than before, but only slightly, and as I walked, I felt a stirring in my bowels. I went to the next large rock, did the same routine, and then squatted. I felt something coming, then to my surprise, I felt rather than heard gas coming out.
“I hope those people don't have a good sense of smell,” I thought as I finished passing more gas. “If they do, I'm in deep trouble.”
Before resuming, I brought out another two sticks of dried meat, and as I walked, I gnawed on the smoky pepper-laced stuff. It seemed moister than I recalled, so much so that I tried feeling the inside of the bag at the next stop. I wondered if the stuff had somehow gotten wet after all.
It hadn't. All I could feel was slightly greasy leather, dryness, and many long thin strips of meat, and I withdrew two more strips. They seemed uncommonly filling, for some reason, much as if four pieces was as good as a meal. I tried recalling how thick the slices were when Anna dried them.
“Those were a bit more than a quarter of an inch thick, weren't they?” I thought. “They seemed to shrink down to about half their original thickness, and they lost nearly a third of their width, and that's for the first drying. I don't know what that second drying does.”
I paused, then thought, “how much did she put in that bag? It had a fair amount, if I recall correctly.”
After another 'hour' – time was hard to tell in the darkness, as was distance and much else – the frightened squall of a baby pierced the brooding and terrible stillness of the cavern. The baby's screams continued until it was abruptly extinguished with a shrill howl of anguish amid a roar of anger, and then seconds later, a vast and muttered malediction arose from the camp as I turned.
The camp was now more or less hidden behind the promontory, but as I watched, I saw a small procession – two torches – move around its base. I looked closer, and with the passing seconds, the scene became clearer.
There were two torches in the lead, followed by someone bearing a sack, and two gun-toting persons behind. I could see a small reddish glow coming from a 'hole' some distance ahead of the party, and as the procession came closer to this hole, I could feel both 'anticipation' and 'terror' steadily growing – and both sensations were utterly alien to me. It was if I had not merely been 'told' of the feelings, but also, their appropriate 'labels' – as otherwise, I could not have named them.
As I stood and watched the procession, I thought about the sense of being 'on the outside looking in' that I had felt almost my entire life, and more, the new insight that I had just received. The 'alien' sensations – the 'terror' seemed simultaneously 'trite', 'vulgar', and 'abstracted', and the 'anticipation' a combination of unanswerable greed, raging appetite, and 'bloodlust' – were such that I wondered about the seeming obliviousness of people where I lived.
Did they have the same feelings as I did?
Were they 'numb', even as the majority of people seemed where I came from?
Were they as these people, with feelings so alien that I had difficulty equating them to what I felt, and only by mixing, adding, and subtracting how I felt could I even come close to understanding?
The group went into the hole, and within seconds after doing so, the hole itself blazed with yellow light, such that the group was now silhouetted. The sack-carrying person was in the center, and behind this individual, I saw what looked like a carved hollow log. The 'torch-bearers', as well as the gun-bearers, seemed hidden from view, until a sudden burst of reddish flame spat from each side. The sack-bearer crumpled in place, and as I began counting, I watched the two persons with muskets suddenly show and scoop up both person and sack. They marched slow and solemn toward the log, and then suddenly pitched both person and sack 'into' the log. Only as they retreated, and the torch-carriers advanced, did I see the hole.
I counted to twenty-seven before I heard the booms of the muskets. I guessed five and a half miles, perhaps six in a straight line.
The hole soon began to show flames, then more fire spouted crazily upward seconds later. I saw that the 'hole' was actually a tall and narrow notch, and the flames not only showed the top of the 'log' – it was at least twenty feet from the hole to the jagged top – but also thick dark smoke that climbed lazily up the sides of the inverted lava funnel.
Within a minute of pitching person and sack into the 'mouth' of the log, the log itself began to faintly glow a dull red. The fire from the top now grew in length and brightness, and as the log itself glowed brighter, the flames grew steadily longer, redder, and smokier. I then knew what the log was.
It was an idol of some kind, and the sack and its bearer had been sacrificed.
As I shuddered, I recalled the name of an old idol associated with the incineration of children. The name 'Molech' seemed to fit what I'd just seen, even if this example seemed less finicky regarding its customary oblations.
Following hard on the heels of my recollection of the name of an idol was Anna's question, and hearing her say “did that witch try to sacrifice you” seemed to conjoin everything I had so far seen. The final statement had just been enacted: there was an idol fed in secret, and until today, only its worshipers knew of its existence and its duties. I had to get out of here, for I had seen witchdom's penultimate rite.
“These people are w-witches,” I spluttered, and as if to answer, the fire abruptly died down. The 'burners' came out of the cleft in the rock, and now moved rapidly with the torch-bearers in the lead back toward the encampment. I wondered why torches had been used for light-sources for but a moment, until I thought about the flames.
“Those people lit the pyre,” I thought. “Those lanterns aren't nearly as good for starting a fire.”
While such thinking didn't help with formulating a plan for escaping, it provided me with a more-potent reason for doing so, as I had uncovered a huge number of well-hid witches. More importantly, I was now inside of a 'witch-hole', and that provided yet another reason to escape.
“And I'd bet few people know what those places are like on the inside,” I thought. “Ignorance is not your friend when you've got an enemy that's this nasty.”
I soon thought to sit down and rest, and while I gnawed more of the dried meat, I began thinking of things that I needed to do: travel cookware, axes, and a 'hunting rifle' using percussion caps rather than flint and priming powder.
While I recalled Hans speaking of 'thimbles', I wondered what they were filled with here. Where I had come from, they historically were filled with mercury fulminate – and while the technological level needed to make it was fairly crude, I knew making the stuff was neither safe nor easy.
“Yes, and that was where I came from,” I thought. “Here, it might be another thing entirely.”
I soon learned another helpful aspect of such rumination: it eased my mind, and the distraction helped with anxiety. I only noticed the latter when it lessened, and as I thought of the things to do, I both realized their importance – it wasn't merely meeting people's needs, it was much more – and how thinking about them affected my perceptions. The shadows seemed noticeably less troubling.
Time seemed nebulous and hard to account for its passing, and the lack of cues in the darkness was such that only hunger, fatigue, and thirst were dependable enough to rely on. At one point, I needed to stop to rest my legs, and as I crawled into the shelter of two rocks that overlapped one another, I made a quiet yawning noise. I leaned against one of the rocks, and fell asleep.
I awoke in a state of astonishment, for I had thought I had had a bad dream while sleeping, and when I felt my face, I noted I had remained as I was. I still had 'bad stubble' and hairy hands, and as I straightened up, I noted not merely a surprisingly small amount of soreness, but also, a thin trickle of light coming from a point to the right of the cannibal camp.
I drew out the bag of meat, and untied it, then began gnawing. After the third stick, I really wondered how much Anna had put in the bag. I was still hungry, and thought to feel the bag.
“This thing is still full,” I thought with amazement. “How much did she put in here?”
Finding a 'full' bag meant for eating more, and I gnawed up another four sticks of meat before I tied the bag and replaced it in my pocket. I felt invigorated, and walked rapidly.
I stopped 'some time' later, and dug a hole in the shadow of a large rock. This time, there was a good deal more than gas, and as I resumed, I wondered where I could find some place to wash my hands. Faintly, I heard what might have been a trickle of water ahead, and when I came to a small 'river' about two feet across, I stopped and 'sniffed'. The stuff smelled faintly sulfurous, and I washed my hands in it.
The water was surprising cool, and it tingled on my hands. I thought to taste it, and to my surprise, it tasted 'clean'. I wondered again if it was safe to drink.
“Is this water safe?” I thought. “Perhaps I should pray.”
I began praying, and my thirst grew with each silent word. I suspected a trap, so much so that I stood up and began walking away from it – and before I had gone three steps, I knew I had misjudged. I turned around, and began drinking.
As I drank I felt much better, and I soon needed to 'dig another privy'. This time, I nearly filled the pit, and I recalled the difficulty in going too long without water. I returned to drink more, and as soon as I had drank my fill, the 'river' began to flow steadily less – and not two minutes later, it ceased flowing, leaving a few small and slowly shrinking pools. I scooped up some of the water, splashed myself – and the remaining water seeped into the porous stone of the 'riverbed'.
Upon resuming, I felt refreshed, and with renewed appetite, I began gnawing a stick of meat. This time, the stuff felt 'dry', and I thought of copper water containers. I recalled what canteens looked like, as well as water containers I had used.
“And I don't have either the machines needed, or the materials,” I thought. “I need to come up with one that I can make – and I need to make at least two or three of these things.”
The water seemed to provide a clearer head, and I suddenly realized how to put together a possible container. First, I would need to fit the three pieces carefully, and then tin them all on the inside. After doing so, I would then wire the neck and upper piece together, flux the joint, and then add a small amount of tin strip so as to ensure there was ample tin, and then drill the holes for the rivets for the neck-to-top joint.
After riveting that portion, I would need to fit the bottom half of the container, wire it in place, and then solder the two portions together. Once the wire was removed, I could then drill the rivet holes.
The first such joint permitted ready access from both sides, but the second would need special tools, chiefly some long tweezers to put the rivets in and a special deburring tool with a bent and sharpened bit. I had used this type of deburring tool many times in the past, and I knew I could make one.
“The tweezers are going to be trouble, though,” I thought, “and tinning those rivets is going to be tricky.”
The secret to the assembly was careful deburring with special tools, sharp drills used carefully, tinned rivets, and only peening a few such rivets at a time, as well as a special stake with a carefully formed head and 'cup' for heading the rivets. It promised to need care and take a fair amount of time.
“And I'd bet that method would work well for distilleries,” I thought. “I think I want a column for those, though – Paul said he normally ran the mash three times through his still before he did his infusion step.”
After what seemed another hour, I saw what looked like another promontory in the distance. I had turned over in my mind some further aspects of copperware, as well as ax-construction, while walking, and as I saw the narrow strip of sand that led around the nearest promontory, I realized it was close enough to the volcano's vent to want dark. I stopped, moved into the shelter of a nearby rock, and looked behind me. I saw what looked like a limitless cavern stretching into blackness, and I knew that was but the seeming. This place may have been 'huge', but it wasn't nearly as big as I had thought it was at first.
I came closer to the wall, and I was glad for bare feet, as I could now hear the cannibals waking up, with much grumbling, yells, howls, and chanting. I got down on my hands and knees, and crawled closer to the 'edge' of the promontory.
Each step led closer to the possibility of discovery, and I looked to my left to see the cover of the rocks where I could hide. I then realized that the 'watchers' up on top of the opposite promontory might well be able to see me, unless I hid especially well, so much so that I might want to head backwards some distance once I had learned what I needed to see. The impression was very strong, so much so that I came to the very edge of the outcropping that comprised the promontory, and then looked around it.
A yellow-tinted 'hole' stood at the end of a deep 'bay', and in the light of this hole, I saw a path on each side of the bay heading toward it. I turned my head slowly, and saw reddish light starting to show across the water.
I reverse-crawled back into the shadows, and there watched the narrow sandy path across the water. While it seemed a 'mile' away, I knew from experience that my distance perception in this darkness wasn't terribly reliable. The actual distance might be as little as a few hundred yards.
The reddish light grew stronger, then the first torch-bearer showed, followed by another such person, and then behind the two 'light-bearers' came several 'gunmen', followed by more torch-carriers.
As the procession grew in length, it became obvious that I was seeing a hunting party, and I knew that I would need to wait until they returned and the 'watchers' went down from their platform – and further, I needed to leave after sunset to have the best chance of escape.
I turned and slowly walked back to a small crevice, and there, I sat down and leaned my back against the rock behind me. I took out the sack of meat, and began gnawing on a stick.
Within moments, a thin glimmer of light came from above and to my right. I knew I had to stay put until the overhead light ceased.