The fifth kingdom's mess, part e.
The narrowness of the river's passage – perhaps twenty feet wide at the most, with most sections half that – and its tall brushy banks seemed to provide a haven of peace amid the sounds and smells of the city. In the distance to the west and south, I could hear scattered flurries of gunshots punctuated with distance-muffled explosions, while ahead of us, I could hear faintly other noises, ones which I but vaguely recalled for some reason. I knew I had heard such noises in the recent past.
“The end of this district?” I asked. I felt oddly safe where we were, and had but little desire to leave the river's sanctity.
“Is another glass's turn to the north, unless I am far wrong,” she said. “The riverbed may be one of the safer places in this portion of the house, but it makes for slow and weary traveling.”
“This p-portion?” I asked.
“Kossumveldt,” she said. “At least, that is its common name.”
“And ahead?” I asked.
“Is named differently,” she said. “Its name changed but a short time ago.” A pause, then, “its danger did not change in the slightest.”
The river pooled wider at one portion, and its depth there meant for walking along the steep rock-strewn sides of its banks. There, I saw signs of recent habitation, with the obvious remains of a campfire showing chilled gray ashes amid the shadows of the overhanging trees.
With the wider section behind us, the river slowly narrowed down again, and its brushy banks formed once more a bower over its top. I could faintly see the darkened sky through the spare leaves and branches, and as we walked, I was glad for the slight cooling effect of the water underfoot.
“This is about the quietest way to travel in this part of Kossumveldt,” said the woman. “Otherwise, we would be dodging mules and gunfire.”
“Mules?” I asked.
“The northern half of Kossumveldt has a great many warehouses,” she said, “and for every three such places, there is a drink-house.”
“Much as that witch was,” she said, “and that regardless of dress.” Here, she dropped her voice lower, then said, “and finding people who are not witches for behavior is most difficult in that portion of the house.”
The riverbed had been sloping gently uphill for the entirety of our travel, and when the trees to each side abruptly thinned out, I ducked down involuntarily at the thought of being 'unmasked'. I then looked around to see the 'walls' of the riverbed had fallen away markedly.
“Is this the starting place of the river?” I asked.
“There is no spring,” she said. “Supposedly, there is a cave from which the water issues, but I have not looked for it.” A brief pause as she glanced around the ground near her feet, then, “I am looking for the path.”
I moved head-down in a crouch to her side, then began looking. The rocks remained underfoot where we stood, but instead of the places between them being darker with moisture, I saw deep-green grass. I knelt down, touched the grass gently so as to reassure myself it was indeed real, then looked up to see a faint 'furrow' show ahead and to the right. I then stood back up, this time no longer hunched over.
“There,” I pointed.
“I hoped you would,” she whispered, as she walked carefully forward. I had the impression she was consciously avoiding a 'trap' of some kind, and for an instant, I thought to ask about it. I then knew this was a portion of our travels where quiet was a requisite.
Her feet made almost no noise as she walked up the 'furrow', and as I walked behind her, I noticed the nature of what I had pointed out to her. The 'furrow', and the ground to each side of it, was no longer rocky; instead, it was 'grassy', and the furrow was an area, perhaps twice the width of my hand, where the weeds and creepers underfoot were either interwoven or subtly matted down by traffic of some kind. A glance to my left showed a knee-high bush with a few coarse 'guard-hairs' on its straggly foliage.
“Goats, unless I miss my guess,” I thought, as we continued noiselessly climbing. “They must get water here.”
“They and those slaves that manage to successfully escape,” said the soft voice. “When you come to the top, pause and look around carefully.”
“Why would he speak thusly?” whispered the woman. My suspicions were 'proven' by her barely-audible speech, and I bent down to speak next to her ear.
“It's important,” I murmured. “I know that much, if but little more.”
The riverbed 'walls' had now nearly entirely vanished, and we were steadily climbing up a low broad hill covered thickly with knee-to-waist-high 'sagebrush' and liberally dotted with head-tall copses. The odor of the surrounding city seemed muted and distant, as did its noise; and the sense I had was of very few humans in the immediate area, and a vast number of intermittently-migrating goats. Sideways glances, however, showed nothing remarkable beyond an endless-seeming 'sea' of brush.
“How far does that stuff go?” I thought, as I glanced once more to the sides. “It looks as if it goes on forever.”
I wondered as to 'optical illusions' for an instant, then thought to look behind me. I felt reminded of the story of Lot and his turned-to-salt wife, then blanked it out of my mind. I stopped, then looked.
A vast sea of faint lights lay tossed upon a sea of dank and growing fog, and as I returned to my pacing uphill, my eyes saw the fog steadily thicken. It blanked out all signs of life about a third of the way around to the front.
“The fumes are especially bad tonight,” whispered the woman. “I suspect they are running the smelters where we are going.”
“Smelters?” I asked. Again, my voice was a barely-audible whisper.
“Those near the house proper are but the smell of the mule,” she said. “Those in the district ahead are the mule itself.”
The path continued its steady slow fogbound climb, and our limbs continued their inhuman plodding. I breathed somewhat deeper than normally, choked, and then quietly coughed. The woman turned around mid-stride with a finger to her lips. I gathered her message to be 'not now'.
Minutes further passed, and the slope underfoot lessened, or so I thought until I looked over the head of the woman to see the ground climbing still. I was more than a little surprised the next minute to see a faint white shape looming ahead in the darkness. For some reason, the fog did not think to hide it.
The woman 'relaxed' noticeably as I pointed to the thing ahead, then turned and said quietly, “we're safe, at least for a while.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“These are the border-lands,” she said, “and we are at the end of Kossumveldt.”
“And into a new region,” I muttered, as I strained my eyes to see what the shape foretold. My squinting eyes could not yet make it out, even if I understood the sign proper to be 'the top'.
“Close enough,” said the soft voice. “The best location to look is about a hundred paces past it on the trail.”
The shape gradually added dimensions with each second, until I could make out the pole of an obvious 'sign' of some kind, then the beginnings of letters. Finally, I could speak the dread word itself.
“K-Knaakekrans?” I muttered. “What is that?”
“The southernmost portion of the disputed realm between two districts,” said the soft voice, “and while you are in no-man's land, this isn't some place in a hypoglycemia nightmare.” A brief pause, then, “you might see a goat-herder's camp or two if you look for such.”
“No-man's land?” I gasped in near-silence. “Don't they fight over it?”
“Yes, but they do not fight in the disputed territory itself,” said the soft voice. “They prefer to 'take the fight to the enemy's realms, and there do battle'.”
The sign past, I began 'counting' my steps and glancing around. For as far as I could see, there was nothing beyond 'sagebrush' and copses, and those melded indissolubly with meandering and ghostly fog. My count passed fifty, and continued.
At 'ninety', I slowed. The fog was clearing, and at ninety-five, we came up from out of it to see clear and far-reaching darkness punctuated by brilliant overhead pinpoints of light and the rounded orb of the moon. I coughed again, and then spat.
The woman did not turn back toward me, for some reason, and when I resumed breathing, I noticed she had acquired a similar indisposition. Between her spitting and my retching, we made a pretty pair.
“I'm glad we're here, and not down there,” she gasped, between noisome-seeming expectorations. “Coughing isn't a good idea down there.”
“Uh, attention?” I asked.
“That comes eventually,” she said. “Were you to have begun there...” She turned, then spat, and returned to me while wiping her mouth. “You would have continued coughing for a very long time.”
“L-long..?” I asked.
“I learned my lesson early,” she said. “I was glad I could hide, as my cough did not stop while I retained wakefulness.”
I spat up another nasty-tasting blob, then asked, “and here?”
“The fume is below us,” she said, “so one can clear the material and not breath in more of it at once.”
“So that's why,” I thought, as I brought out my water bottle and rinsed out my mouth. “Do you..?”
“I wish I had one like it,” she said. “I have a small glass bottle padded in rags.”
“Small?” I asked.
“It might contain half of what that looks to hold,” she said. “I'll be thirsty enough when we get back.”
Once we had ceased coughing and spitting, I counted the last five paces, and to my surprise, a 'bald spot' showed amid the brush. Trails led from it, and their narrow width and barely-visible aspect was truly astonishing – chiefly, as I could not merely see them for a substantial distance, but also how they seemed to faintly glow a ghostly bluish-white in the darkness.
“There,” I said, as I pointed to one particular trail heading north-northwest. “That one.”
The woman looked along my outstretched arm, then murmured, “supposedly, there were three of them.”
“Three?” I asked, as the number burned its way into my mind. “Why..?”
I then swept my vision eastward, and roughly twenty degrees past 'north' – perhaps north-northeast – I noted another trail; and then further east, there seemed nothing, until I had gone well past 'northeast'. There, I saw the third trail she had spoken of.
“Who uses these, uh, trails?” I asked. There was no answer, at least while we stood where we were. Once we had continued, however, I asked, “did we take one of those trails?”
“This one is not one of the three I saw,” said the woman. “Those trails are not visible to the common eye, or so it was said of them.”
“And you s-saw them?” I asked.
“I did once you had found them,” she said, “and that gives me great hope.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“I will have a piece of that answer very soon,” she said. “I knew it had come when your party arrived.”
Her mysterious language piqued my brain, even as we began descending down into the fog once more. The thickness of this fog, as well as its pungent and acrid odor, made me wonder as to its precise nature; and when a faint gust of putrid wind blew, I again heard that one peculiar rattling clangor I had heard in the recent past.
Only this time, it was not one such device making noise.
“They are smelting,” she muttered. “They are blowing a great deal of wind.”
“At night?” I murmured.
“One does not pause when smelting ore,” she said, “lest the charge under fire be ruined, and the furnace burning it be severely damaged.” She paused, then said, “that is why all smelters deserving such labels have two or three such machines for each furnace.”
“And the fires burn for...”
“I have heard some smelters burn for days at a time,” she said, “and two gangs are put to each furnace turn-about.”
Our steps down the hill gathered to themselves thicker fog and taller brush with each passing minute, while the smell of the city once more reasserted itself. Among these mingled reeks, however, I smelled a distinct and new aroma, one that reminded me of the times I had poured bronze and iron in the shop – and among the noises of fifth-kingdom industry, I heard other, more-disquieting noises.
“Bang, bang... B-b-bang.”
“Wonderful,” I thought. “More gunfire.”
“We shall need to be at our most-careful,” she said, as we passed on the 'wind' side of a sizable copse. “I believe tonight to be...”
A faint roar was followed by another such eruption, then seconds later a brilliant flash seemed to flicker on the northeast horizon. The woman jolted.
“Tis certain,” she muttered, and under her breath, I heard something that sounded like 'Hatfield'.
“McCoy?” I asked.
The woman did not hear me, for some reason, and as we continued downslope among the thickening copses and brush, I marveled when I did not feel inclined to choke on what I was breathing. I hoped and prayed I would not begin coughing, as I knew beyond all reason the steady hacking I would then be inclined toward would get us both in great trouble. I prayed accordingly in the silence of my mind.
The fog seemed to be slowly thinning as the downslope began to moderate, and after another few minutes, I could see what looked like uncommonly barren trees of unusual straightness. Our path went by one of them, and upon reaching it, I looked hard at first the 'tree', and then, what it bore.
“That's a telegraph pole,” I thought, as I glimpsed through the swirling fog to see another such pole some fifty feet away. “They ran these things across...”
I paused in my thinking, for but a few hundred yards away on the other side of a shallow dip lay an obvious street, and to the right and left in a wide arc another obvious built-up area showed. It was at least a mile in width, or so I thought.
“Knaakekrans is not a small district,” said the soft voice, “and while there are a good many more than five districts, no one dare name more than the five most-prominent examples – and that in the company of commoners.”
“I knew there were more than five,” whispered the woman, “but I did not know of their current names.”
“One district per combine?” I asked.
“That depends upon the district, or so rumor has it,” she said. “Larger districts often have more than one combine laying claim to the same area.”
“As is especially true for Knaakekrans,” said the soft voice. “I would watch closely while traversing the region ahead.”
“Dangerous?” I asked.
“No more than usually,” said the soft voice. “The example you see will provide guidance regarding your further travels in the region.”
The street and what lay beyond it drew steadily closer with the passing minutes, and the pungently foul smell increased as well. At the verge of the field, the woman paused to look carefully up and down the fog-shrouded 'street'. The absence of traffic was but superficial, and more, the shops on the other side were not quiescent. They merely seemed that way.
The woman scurried across the road, and I trotted behind her. Between two shops, I saw a narrow passage, and the woman headed straight for it, much as if she had been there many times in recent memory. As we came to the end of the first row of shops, she paused to turn to me. I bent down to hear her whispers better.
“The next place is perhaps three hundred paces further,” she said, “but we will need to be very careful and quiet to reach it.”
Her speech but confirmed what I had felt, and when she turned right up another narrow passage, I walked behind her.
The tall walls of this passage were the rearmost portions of shops, and the narrowness of where we walked was more than the minimal space the builders had deigned to leave; for each and every shop had its trash-midden amid piled-high old packing cases, and between these messes grew rank knee-high weeds. Often, we walked as much upon rotten garbage as all else, and when the dead bones of an animal protruded up into the air from one such pile, I shuddered.
My nose, however, did not join the rest of my body in its appalled state, for the reeks of death and destruction mingled had overwhelmed it bodily. My gorge wished to climb from the pit of my stomach and usurp the space deeded to my mouth and nose, while the fog drifted slowly overhead to form a dank dark haze-filled 'roof'. A brief glance upward had its fumes begin but an arm's length beyond the top of my head.
Two shops, then a third with a somewhat wider 'aisle' to the right, and a glance therein showed a decrepit-looking 'farm wagon'. The green leavings of mules added their color and odor to the juncture of the two passages – and I hoped fervently those animals were not nearby.
Another shop's run, this one a bit wider than the usual twenty-some paces, and the woman turned left to go down another 'passage'. Like those prior, this meant walking over and dodging around vast and tall mounds of moldering trash – and I was sufficiently involved in doing so that the sudden sense of cobbles underfoot was a complete and total surprise.
The narrow lane we now found ourselves walking in was perhaps ten to twelve feet wide, and the reek of 'mule' was mind-bending. I could feel the animals in the area, and when we passed a long and low structure that reminded me of the horse-barn at the king's house at home, I turned to look closer.
“Koolmaan's L-livery stable?” I thought. “Mules?”
A faint chorus of gaseous eruptions seemed to answer my question as we hurried past the greasy lit window of the place. The stable's door seemed to be elsewhere, thankfully; and when we came to the end of the stable, I was more than a little surprised to find a 'yard' between it and the next building some fifty feet away.
What was in the yard, however, was no surprise, and the woman halted at the corner of the stable to turn her head back my way.
“There are coaches there,” she whispered, “and that means witches.”
“Awake witches, or..?” My voice seemed 'present', even if it was not audible to my ears.
Her face suddenly 'changed' to show a vague hint of 'craft', and she led off quietly. I followed close upon her heels, and kept silent amid the reek of a vast number of mules. Faint among the mule-noises, however, I heard deep-pitched and rumbling snoring.
“So the witches are asleep,” I thought, as we passed from the yard's dark shadow unto the still-darker one of the next building.
Another shop passed. Faintly from some place nearby I heard a pair of voices speaking harsh and angry words to one another, with first one voice shouting and the angry reply a deeper-pitched growling snarl. Amid these words of displeasure, I heard threats and oaths, and at one point, an evil-sounding guttural burst of obvious Underworld German.
All this I heard in the time it took to pass perhaps half the width of a shop and the whole of another, and with the second shop's ending, the woman turned right down another such narrow 'street'. As we turned the corner, I saw the tall spare poles and drooping wires of telegraphy, and as we came past the front of the corner's shop, I looked left to see the poles end at the border of a small 'yard'.
This yard housed a small stone-and-timber building set as if an island in a sea of hoof-churned filth and gravel, and collapsed next to the building's stoop under the overhang of the tile roof lay a mule. The animal looked to be mired in death, and its non-breathing nature was mirrored in the immobility of the saddle resting atop its beginning-to-swell midriff.
I then saw the places where the animal's flanks had been flayed by the lash of its rider. The faint odor of blood amid the intense reek of mule-dung made me halt just prior to nearly clouting the woman's back with my knee.
“Why did you stop?” I thought, as I looked closer at where we actually were. “How did I s-see all of that, then?”
The woman turned to me, and put a finger vertical cross her lips. She then wished to speak, for some reason, and I bent down so as to give her an ear.
“There are at least two witches in that place,” she whispered, “and they seem much inclined toward killing.”
I knelt at the corner of the building's deep shade and glanced around it. The darkness was accentuated by all that I had previously 'seen' with such clarity, and added to greatly by the grease-and-grime-covered window of the small 'shack'. The light that came from this window varied rapidly.
“A light-giving firebomb lantern,” I thought, “and it looks about ready to boil over.”
The argument had already done so, if I went by the shouts and oaths of the two drink-sodden men I heard. The dirty lead-framed window seemed to vibrate with both the men's shouting and the bright-dim-brightness of the lantern inside.
“We'd best run for it,” I murmured. “The gunfire will start if that...”
The woman needed no further talk from me, for she sprinted with a sudden alacrity that surprised me, and I had all I could do to keep up. With each frantic step, the pulsations of the lantern grew stronger and faster, and the argument within more heated; the drunken voices were now shouting continuously. I could hear the clicks of pistols and fowling pieces being cocked as we ran.
The safety of darkness beckoned ahead. Ten paces, eight, five...
Time was slowing to a crawl. I knew beyond all reason that we needed to continue our running well past the quickly-approaching haven, for the explosions that would come...
The darkness engulfed first the woman, and then myself. My nightmarish anticipation had not lessened; rather, it had grown mightily, for the explosions to come would be the signaling war-cry tocsin of two grand armies arrayed to do battle...
A corner showed, and I followed her around it. She began slowing but seconds later. I nearly ran into her again, and as the two of us came back to our previous walk, I stretched my aching ears as if to hear the sound prepared for them.
A massive eruption of red-tinged light flared from behind us amid a thundering roar of such magnitude our screams were but seasoning for its rumbling drawn-out racket, and as the echoes died away, I heard another sound, one composed of worn rusted gears, sweat, oaths, and exertion; and over all of these commonplace noises, I heard the beginning of a siren-like roaring howl.
As the howl increased in pitch and volume, screams from ahead and behind merged with a scattering of gunshots. I looked fervently for a place to hide, as did the woman; and from but a short distance ahead, a door creaked open with astonished alacrity, then banged shut amid the measured tramping of the true-step.
I counted first two, then three gun-toting thugs as they emerged from a hidden hideaway, and their starch-stiffened black-cloth and grease-blackened faces, as well as their potent gut-churning stink, spoke of a state of oblivion well-past the commonplace for drunkenness. I found a darker place next the wall of the nearest shop, and took the woman's hand as I led to it and there crouched down – perchance to watch, and much more to hide.
The lurching stiff steps of the thugs as they 'marched' down the middle of the 'street' was uncanny, for somehow, I had seen the malevolence of their black-hole eyes and the solid rictus of hate their faces had become. They passed where we hid, their slow measured stepping the sound of a devilish metronome, and when a gunshot roared from above and behind to strike the ground near their feet, they gave it no heed.
A deep-pitched 'hunting horn' blew long and tremulously amid further shouts and gunshots, then the irregular clattering bounds of an obvious hard-ridden mule mingled itself with the previous noises. A faint yelling shout rang in my mind, and when the mule and rider turned the corner to blare out another horn blast, from all around us, I could hear the voices of a multitude chanting...
“Go forth, and slaughter all that you see,” said the inner voice of understanding, and as the shouted challenge began billowing forth audibly, I took the woman's hand in mine and scurried like a rat into the darkest shadows I could find.
“Weidmansheil,” was the scream-shout-roar-yell I heard, and its echoing repetitions melded into the hideous roaring melting-pot of witch-bred warfare. I paused at the juncture of two streets, darted my eyes around, then scurried past the bright-dim-bright flashing that came from a second-story window across the street and into what looked like a black hole walled with soot-colored bricks.
My rat-like frantic running continued past three shops, then four, then another quick dart down the garbage-choked regions between the fourth shop and the fifth. I leaped over a crumpled mound of barrels with the woman's hand in mine – and I was unprepared for the massive chain of explosions that happened when I returned to earth. I jumped toward the nearest wall with my heart in my mouth.
“That was close,” whispered the woman. “Now how did you know where I was planning to go?”
“I, I d-don't know,” I murmured. “Why, where is it?”
“Two more shops this way and a turn to the left,” she said. “I'm glad you know about palming coins, as this place has two men for its doors.”
“And each of those men needs a gratuity,” I murmured, as she led off again amid the beginnings of an obvious battle to our rear.
“I might manage that word, given a mug of dark beer and a glass's turn of time,” she said. “Bribes partly erase the gulf between commons and betters in the fifth kingdom.”
Her pronouncing of 'bribes' had an eerie and hollow ring to it, for I heard the word as 'broooiiibbs'. It was as if one needed a new way of speaking to adequately describe the ways and means of the witch.
Upon turning the corner spoken of, I smelled briefly an odor of what might have been Geneva, and as the woman led down another trash-strewn 'alley', I palmed a large silver piece. She stopped abruptly next to a doorway, then stepped toward it to then feel on the wall with her open palm. I suspected a string was being sought, and the faint tinkle that I heard next confirmed the use of a bell.
In this instance, a faint creak seconds later meant a door's opening, and the woman warily went inside with me behind her. The door thumped closed, and in the vague and dim flickering candlelight I saw a shadowy figure drawing steadily closer.
“Crude-gold?” was the gruff question, and the rustling of the woman's clothing spoke of her drawing forth another hefty bag. I wondered about the bags she had given me to hold, until I saw an empty palm and placed the coin I had palmed upon it.
“Now... Aye, so 'tis,” said the gruff voice. “That feud has lost us custom, and this will help my meals.”
“Feud?” I asked.
“Those of the Hedjtfeld clan have settled down, or so I hear,” he said, as he led us up another dark-paneled candle-lit hall, “but them of the Makooij clan won't settle for anything less than the entire district.” He paused, then continued, saying, “that, or their proper place in hell.”
“I think that might be otherwise, as I saw three Hedjtfeld men walking,” said the woman, “and they were all blackened entirely and fully armed.”
“Shows how much good talk is for truth, then,” said the man. “I'll be going inside with the two of ye, just so as to make certain there's no trouble.”
“Trouble?” I whispered.
“We've been having trouble with rats lately,” he said. “Those big ones need a fair amount of lead put to them when they must learn their manners.”
I remained silent, even while we traveled a down-sloping corridor of nearly a hundred feet. Unlike the previous place, there were no jogs to provide shelter for defenders; and when we came to the 'landing' at the bottom, the doorman said, “it's harder to find this place than most of 'em, so we don't do the commonplace things.”
I thought it wise to continue my silence as he tapped at the door. Furtive-seeming steps came from behind it some seconds later, and the door opened abruptly to show a leather-clad man with a short-barreled fowling piece held at waist-height. He seemed peeved.
“They're warm,” said the doorman, “and decent, I suspect.”
The leather-clad fellow relaxed but little, and I palmed a large silver piece in his hand. That made for a trifle more relaxing on his part, or so I thought when I heard the faint grinding noise of metal against metal when he moved.
“Did you start with a chicken-plucker's suit to make that?” asked the woman.
Our second 'doorman' now entirely relaxed, or as much as he could in a leather-bound set of 'armor plate', and the two doormen led down another hallway with the two of us sandwiched between them. The candles grew in number and smokiness, and when a third door showed, the first man tapped four times, then gently pushed the door open.
The room that showed seemed a decent copy of the previous money-changer's lair, and the balance itself, similar as to outward appearances. I soon knew it was otherwise as to function, however, for the thing not only came to 'rest' quickly, it also moved in faint jerks when the weights were adjusted. It was contrary enough to make for a feeling of irritation on my part as I watched it in use.
And like before, the weigh-men muttered as to 'heavy' gold.
“Glass-blower's metal?” I asked. “Mixed acids?'
“Those we have,” said the 'senior' of the two weigh-men, “and this looks heavy enough to make me wonder how we can sell off that stuff.”
“The acid-works,” murmured the woman. “They always want glass-blower's metal.”
“There are enough of those places nearby,” said the first doorman.
Once past the entrance corridor and back in the 'street' – I had thought it an 'alleyway', but the woman named it a 'street' once we had passed two buildings and were midway between the start and finish of a third – I wondered as to where we would go next, and more, those bags I was carrying.
“The third place I thought to try is some distance to the west of here and somewhat further north,” she said. “It will take us closer to the house proper, which is good.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as the sounds of the feud increased once more in the background.
“We've easily traveled three Laengen,” she said, “and five of those of a night while carrying such weight is most tiring.”
“Those bags you gave me?” I asked.
“In case we were robbed and I had to deliver up what I had,” she said. “I suspected you would be able to hide in places that would not conceal me, and gave you half of the gold so as to not make the evening an entire waste should such theft happen.” She paused, then said, “and if we change that stuff, we will be burdened indeed.”
“Must we?” I asked.
“If we can do so, it might be the wisest,” she said.
We turned left at the next juncture of buildings, then right a few hundred yards further. In the faint distance – how far was a good question, as the 'fog' was especially close and clinging – I could see tall multicolored pulsating billows of fire and towering clouds of smoke, while all about us I could hear the booms and bangs of weapons amid the rattling roars of a vast number of 'evil engines'. The whole cacophony seemed intended to tunnel into one's head – and once there, to take over one's mind. I hoped we would leave the region of back-of-building trash-mounds behind soon regardless.
With each such jog – right, then left, then right again – the noise of the feud diminished and the sense of safety increased, until as we passed from the shadow of one shop's rear area to another, I saw clearly a fog-shrouded street lined with 'conventional' shops. When the woman next stopped, I whispered in her ear.
“Do we remain back here as long as we can, or do we cross that road over there soon?” I asked.
“The former,” she said. “At least until we resume the brush.”
Another shop crossed, then a second. I paused briefly at the space between shops to look at the dead-seeming street, and then caught up with the woman as she moved around a particularly large and foul-smelling midden of trash. Once on its other side, I looked once more ahead.
Far in the distance, I could see the whitish 'smoke' of obvious 'fog', and the woman turned to me. “That would be the brush I spoke of,” she said. “We'll be safer there.”
Another two shops passed, then a third, each having its billowing back-alley mess, and at the juncture of shops 'three' and 'four', I looked right and toward the parallel-running street. There, I noted a region both utterly different and much less dead as to appearances, and while I kept silent at the current time, I knew I needed to ask about what I had just seen. Knowing all that I could would be very important in the near future.
The fog to our front had grown thicker with each shop we traversed, and I could now readily count the remaining examples. The stink of 'trash' seemed to hang upon our persons, so much so that I marveled at it, even when we came to the end of the shops. Here, the woman paused, and I knew I needed to look 'into' the fog.
With the noise and reek of smelting to the north, and the explosions and gunfire of the feud to our rear, all sounds to our front seemed buried beyond retrieval, while the sense of 'people' seemed thrown off as well. I tried consciously to learn if anyone was close enough to discern our presence, and it was no good.
All I could do was pray. I dare not wait long; I knew that much, if but little more – and when no answer came, I looked at the woman.
“I cannot hear anything,” she whispered in my ear, “and that frightens me.”
I glanced ahead, and the fog seemed to part to a degree to show another broad hill liberally peppered with copses and thickly crusted with brush. Before reaching it, however, there was the road, and a region of some hundred or more paces readily visible...
“In this fog?” I thought. “Trashed witches who have trouble seeing their hands in front of their faces when the sun goes down – and that when there is no fog?”
I led off with quiet steps and the woman's hand in mine. For some odd reason, the fog to my front seemed to thin to a degree with each step, while that which lay to each side grew steadily thicker; and the darkness overhead and beyond acquired an aspect of impenetrability. I listened carefully, even while I reached and then left the nearer margins of the road; and to our rear, I heard shouts and screams as well as gunfire – and for some reason beyond the mere word 'odd', I sensed that we had a 'posse' of sorts upon our trail. A brief glance to our rear, and all I could see was darkness and fog so thick and complete that I wondered as to the cause.
The road seemed wider than any such thoroughfare that I had yet seen, and the stink to both left and right spoke loud and long of the presence of mules. I expected to hear braying and flatus, so much so that when I saw a rock wall going past my head in height I shuddered and hurried on.
The wall ended, and the brush to our front began. From a knee-high start, it went to waist-height on each side within fifty steps, while directly in front of me a narrow dirt path gently meandered. The brush clutched at our cloaks, and the path took a steady upgrade. Left and right, copses showed with increasing frequency; while to our rear, I could hear voices strange and ghostly amid the fog. I wondered if they knew of the mule-pens, so much so that I said softly, “the mules?”
A massive bray-chorus erupted with such volume that both I and the woman broke into a run, myself in the lead and her hot behind me. The gunfire I had heard before now increased markedly in intensity, and merging with the braying mules I heard the frantic screams of men.
The path branched, and I led toward the right. The copses grew thicker and closer together, and after perhaps two hundred yards down the path, I slowed. Behind me, faintly, I could hear running feet.
“We'd best go off of the trail,” I murmured, as I walked between two clumps of brush on the left and moved sideways to dodge a third. “I have no idea how they're following us.”
There was no speech from the woman, and no time to speak of the matter, and I continued heading uphill at a steady plodding walk. Copses appeared to left and right, and I moved such that we were in their shadow as much as possible. A gunshot from behind sent a whizzing bullet some distance to our right, then another a further-yet distance to our left, while behind us, the mules continued to bray – and, perchance, buck and cause trouble.
“They are doing all of those things,” said the soft voice, “and while there is a 'posse', they are not after you two.”
“Who were they after, then?” asked the woman. I could scarce hear her amid my relentless moving.
“Your tracks crossed those of a group of notorious thieves,” said the soft voice, “and in the darkness and fog, the witches thought they were chasing those individuals. They've known about the trails for a very long time.”
“Wonderful,” I thought. “We have thugs...”
“You had, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Between a vast number of escaped mules blotting out all semblance of a trail and your going off of 'the beaten track', they have lost all hope of finding those they were chasing.” A brief pause, then “proceed due west about half a mile, then turn north.”
The brush-clumps ahead seemed to subtly move aside for me as I continued plodding through both fog and brush, and the thick murk seemed intended to hide both of us from the outside world's hatred. The noises of mules and gunfire now precipitously declined, and I recalled but faintly my question about the sudden change of 'scenery' just prior to our crossing the road. I stopped to 'get my bearings' a minute later.
“That last portion of those buildings changed abruptly,” I asked, “and...”
“I saw that, and it worried me,” she said. “Another combine seems to be moving into that area.”
“Oh,” I murmured. “I wonder if we should head back toward a trail now, or..?”
“You do not seem lost to me,” she said. “I'm keeping up so far.”
I had but little idea as to how much of 'a half mile' remained, and as to my walking, but little more. My strides were constrained by brush and 'unfamiliarity' with the surroundings, as well as a sense of foreboding that I seldom experienced at home, and then...
“That foreboding is better labeled 'caution',” I thought, “and this place isn't much less dangerous than the the worse portions of the kingdom house at home.”
“Where you currently are, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Another three hundred paces, and then turn right about seventy degrees.”
“S-seventy?” I asked silently.
“Your path wasn't perfectly straight,” said the soft voice, “and had you gone 'straight' as far as you thought you needed to, you would have come to the place you wanted unexpectedly.”
“While getting in more trouble than I want, no doubt,” I thought. I then recalled what would have happened with a short-cut on the way to the second kingdom house.
“No, not exactly,” said the soft voice. “You would have encountered a sizable goat-herd on the way, as well as the goat-herder's encampment.”
“And?” I asked.
“Staying for pot-luck would be expected – and quite unwise,” said the soft voice. “You dare not waste time at this juncture.”
Counting paces amid the fog simplified matters markedly, and when '300' came, I felt inclined to count off another thirty. I paused, wondering if it was wise, until I recalled my steps being shorter than usual.
“He'd know that, wouldn't he?” I thought, as I tried my best to 'measure' seventy degrees where I stood. “Or is it really that important?”
The faint cry of a goat came on my left, and I stepped forward in the direction I had turned. I hoped it was 'north', so much so that I reached for the compass as I walked – and when I touched the thing, I suddenly knew... I wanted to scream with the sense of evil at my 'unbelief'.
“No, bring it out,” said the soft voice.
I did so with trepidation, and flipped open the lid. The needle, faintly glowing with an electric blue-white, was dead centered upon 'N'; and with each stride, it wavered with my movements. I shut the lid, then returned the compass to my bag. I then had a question.
“Why did I hear that goat when I did?” A brief pause, then, “did I need reminding?”
There were no answers to either question, even if the 'uphill' portion of our track became 'level' for a brief period, then transitioned to 'downhill' with a sudden abruptness. The copses became fewer with each minute, while the 'sagebrush' remained thick and waist-high.
I was still finding something resembling a path, however, and the downslope moderated steadily until it once more became 'level'. The fog was thinning, and to our front, perhaps a quarter mile off, I could see strange things – lengthy and long black holes that alive-seemingly writhed at their visible ends, with each such hole hemmed in and bound by tall and wobbly walls of mortar-crusted bricks. A question came to my lips, and I turned to both show the woman what I had seen and whisper the question.
“Those would be alleys,” she said as she drew up next to me. She sounded like she needed a breather. “The great-alleys are in or near the port itself.”
When we continued a moment later, however, another question upsurged, and I could not dismiss either it nor the following thoughts.
“Brick?” This came first, and echoed soundlessly in my mind. It brought forth another question like it:
“Why is brick in use for those, uh, places – especially when everywhere else in this stinky place seems to use stone for building?”
The question remained unanswered, even as we crossed the remaining distance, and while I continued in my wary plodding, something urgent was continuously trying to come to the forefront from the halls of recollection. At the 'border' signified by the road, I saw the tall thin 'trees' of the telegraph stretching above our heads, and across the wide and rutted road, but partly hid by fog, the alleys in question. Seeing them seemed to help the recollection, and as we crossed the street hand in hand, I 'saw' it.
The small brick 'outhouse' of the border-station, with its crudely-made and mottled red bricks, flashed brightly within the realm of vision; and the photographic detail of recall spoke of its dynamite-borne destruction. The aspect of realism in what I saw was so great that I could nearly feel its fragments of brick and mortar falling about me like heavy and too-solid rain... And hot upon the heels of what looked – and felt – far too much like a flashback came the following recalled comment:
“...no, no bricks. Witches use bricks...”
The abrupt lightning-flash to the right mingled with a thundering roar and billows of smoke, and I ran the other way with the woman to my front as fragments of brick and mortar began to pelt the road around us. I wanted to speak, but the woman yelled amid the echoing rumbles and the pelting bits of rubble:
“Another feud, unless I guess wrong – that, or some dynamite turning.”
The 'fallout' subsided over the next few seconds, and amid the ringing in my ears, I again heard familiar noises: the pounding clatter of 'evil engines'; the low-pitched rumbling roar of 'blowers', the brays of mules, and the cracking of gunshots. The fog cleared abruptly as the night went 'bright', and all around me, I saw tall billows of multicolored fire issuing from smelters and 'coal-ovens'.
The brightness then vanished with the turning of a switch – or so it seemed – and the fog vanished as well. It had as its replacement long slithering billows of choking fumes, and their snake-like travel...
No, not a common snake, but a reptile from beyond the grave; a spirit still housed in flesh, entirely brainless in death, yet still animated in some horrible fashion. My mind mouthed the word 'undead', and that word echoed languidly like a dread curse amid the sounds of coughing and choking I heard encompassing us roundabout.
And, just as suddenly, all of this vanished to be replaced by the former thin and somewhat patchy fog. We had left the fragments of brick and mortar behind us; to my right, the 'alleys' remained in their black-hole splendor; while to the left, the telegraph drooped its wire from pole to pole on the other side of the road – and beyond that wire-shaking boundary, an undulating sea of brush and fog.
This 'revery' was short-lived, for at the juncture of a narrow street and the broad one we trod upon, I heard the braying of mules; and at the very margin of the last of these things named 'alleys' – coarse indeed was its mortar and brick, and the adjective 'sloppy' gave undeserved credit to its builders – I stopped and knelt down prior to looking around the corner.
The dark shadow was most desirable as a refuge, and I was loath to leave it behind.
“Not with that many m-mules...” I thought, as the braying increased in volume by the second. I then ducked my head lower, moved forward to the precipice's edge, and then looked right.
Amid ghostly fogs the street moved crazily some distance away, while over the head-high and thrashing pavement ghostly lightnings crackled and hissed. Reddish blooms of fire now and then erupted amid this display, and amid the brays and 'roars' of mules, I heard yells, shouts, cracking whips, and deep-toned roaring gunshots.
I ducked back to see the woman's concerned face. Her mouth moved soundlessly for a quick count of three, then amid the oncoming rumble of thundering hooves, she spat, “mule-thieves!”
“We'd best hide, then,” I thought – at least until I realized just where we were.
The alley I had 'selected' had something resembling a very short 'stoop' with an overhanging second story, and I had stopped at the end of a very thick 'column'. A quick second's back-crawling, and three feet of darkened shadow beckoned. We assumed it immediately, and huddled cloak-covered in the corner as the rumble of hooves became an overmastering cataract of sound.
The first of the mules turned the corner at a dead and frantic gallop, and the wildly-flailing hooves struck sparks from the road's embedded gravel as they conjured a dread nightmare; for anything that could be labeled 'slow' or sluggish, this animal had left far behind. Now, its speed...
“C-comet,” I mumbled, as the first mule slid to the far margin of the road as it accelerated away from the turn with a sea of similar animals following fast and gaining speed in its wake.
The crazed mules flung vast clouds of dust, such that within a slow counting of three numbers, I had trouble seeing the animals furthest away in the herd; and as for the thieves themselves...
A massive roar punctuated by red-flashing flame lit up the darkness but ten feet away, and as the echoes died away among the brick walls encompassing my mind, I knew the source.
“A dragoon,” I thought, “and the thug wielding it...”
He was gone amid the gray pounding dust-sea. Seconds later, a second such thug showed, followed by a third. I watched transfixed as these human-shaped black holes waved massive pistols while grasping the long leather thongs controlling their hideous steeds, and the roaring rumble of the cataract to our front drowned out all coherent thought, save for this:
Was there an end to this madness?
My hopes seemed dashed eternally, for amid the mule herd I saw more thugs. Their numbers seemed as minutes among the sands of time, and the mules the individual grains of sand, while the whole congealed mess passed before the isthmus in front of our reddened dust-clotted eyes. The noise of their passage was now a steady rumble amid a ringing within the ears, and the red flashes and white snaking lines of whips passing over the hugely tall heads of the mules were now but artifacts of vision only.
And of smell, for the reek of 'mule' was of such strength that truly, this time, I saw brilliant strobing colors that dappled the hides of both mules and thugs; and amid these near-fluorescent hues, I could almost discern the horrible shapes of dark angles and straight lines forming rune-curses.
The hand near mine twitched, and I turned to see a cloth-covered face with two bright eyes shining from a narrow slit in the fabric face-covering. I wondered if I had such a thing, then reached up to touch my face.
“H-how did this g-get here?” I asked.
My speech was drowned by the tail-end of the onrushing mass of mules, and as the last of the frantic animals passed in stentorian rumbling thunder, I waited for the chief drovers. When the echoes began dying, I waited; when all that remained was the echoing and clangorous chimes within my ears, I waited. Only when the woman began to stand did my desire to remain submit to questioning.
“They've done, and now we must do,” she said.
Yet still, I waited; and as I thought to move against that desire, a flurry of gunshots roared out amid a torrential streaking of green flames that bounded and leaped with abandon into the southern regions of dust and fog. I still held the woman's hand; a faint braying noise...
Then a thundering cataract of sound once more usurped the corner as a yelling fog-clad mob rode around the corner at a pounding mule-gallop. Their cries were high-pitched, warbling, and alien-sounding, and their riding...
These last were born to ride, and their animals bred for speed.
“Now we can go,” I muttered, as the 'desire' to remain vanished like smoke and I stood amidst the thick choking dust left by the last group. “Who were those people?”
“Drovers from the valley,” said the woman, “and I'm glad you remained here.” A brief pause, then, “and those were not the common for drovers, either.”
As we left our 'sanctuary', I asked quietly, “drovers from the valley?”
“They have tribes there,” she said, “each of them named such that their symbol is an animal of some kind.” Another brief pause, as she stopped to look down the way the men and mules had gone. “Those were men of the mule's tribe, I suspect.”
“Why do you s-suspect so?” I asked. My eyes were looking west and seeing nothing but brush, the road, and more 'alleys' – and the whole of what I saw deeply obscured by fog and dust.
“Their hair was as that of women,” she said, “and while long hair in men speaks of disgrace among those west of the red mountains, that is not so east of them.”
“Long hair?” I asked. “Disgrace?” I wanted to add, “did someone get sideways into that part in the first letter to Corinth?” I then felt my hair under the hood, and shuddered at both the grit gathered to it and its increased length. It made the phrase “Schrijven tud' Koerinthij Erst” ring like a chime.
“No, not as yours,” she said. “Hair such as mine.”
“Yours?” I asked. I then realized I had noticed little beyond its color – and, perchance, its likely softness if handled.
“The commonplace for women,” she said. “Only men of that one especial tribe have hair of that length among those of the valley, and it marks them.”
“The fiercest of their kind,” she said. “One of their chiefs, or so talk has it, is named P-p-pan...” Her voice faltered and sank at the difficulty of speaking an uncommon word.
“Pancho?” I whispered.
“Thank you,” she said. “Tales of him and his troupe are most common in the house.”
The dust had mostly fallen to the ground by now, and I went from our refuge to the corner once more. There, I but paused for an eyeblink prior to darting my head around the bricks to there see unnatural darkness and a slow-gathering murk that did not look likely to flee before dawn. I looked back at the woman; she grasped my hand. I then led off across the road.
Our pace was now a furtive mingling of rapid walking and brief sprints into the darkest shadows at the merest sound, and that irrespective of its direction or nature. The place seemed to becoming more alive, and not less, which made for my asking as to the time. The woman paused, looked at something she had hidden deep within her clothing, then resumed walking.
“An hour before the first post,” she said, “or as some would say, 'before the hours of the witch'.”
The noises I now heard – their sources some distance to the north – were such that I nearly 'sang' what I was recalling. I did not speak of them, however, for I was horrified at the mere recollection. It was that rhyming horror-song that spoke of smelting, black-cloth, sacrifice, and Brimstone.
“No, I do not want a smelter,” I muttered. “Especially not one in this area.”
There was a reminder about how wealthy those who ran smelters were, and...
“To hell with the money,” I spat wordlessly. “I want nothing to do with smelters.”
The woman's hand in mine, I continued past two long lines of 'alleys'. The third run of these tall wobbly brick buildings was drastically shortened, and I could now not merely feel the presence of smelters, I could hear their powerplants and blowing equipment. The rhyming 'curse' had 'conjured' them in some horrible fashion.
“It's north of here,” said the woman, as I set out across a dead-seeming street with a massive cloud of 'fog' blocking my sight a few hundred yards north of our passage. “I hope we will not smother in that fume.”
“More smelters?” I asked. I wanted to spit, cough, and vomit at the same time.
“I suspect so,” she said, “though not every place that runs engines smelts ore. Some are foundries, others places of manufacture, and some, I wonder about.”
“As to what they do?” I asked. The mule-theft was drawing attention to the region behind us, hence quiet talk was less dangerous in the current region.
“That also,” she said, just prior to turning around. I paused, then as she caught up, she muttered under her breath. “It isn't just a feud and the theft of mules back there.”
“Do you know what it is?” I asked.
“I do not,” she said, “and that worries me.”
The last of the 'alleys' finally arrived, and this example was arranged as our hiding spot had been. Beyond the road to the west lay an area that seemed but sparsely built up, while south lay the same brush that had shadowed us for upwards of half a mile. I paused, thought, prayed – and then turned the corner.
I had not had a chance to estimate the length of those buildings named 'alleys', and the long side of this example was such that the fog blocked forward vision prior to its ending. I silently counted my strides, and the end of the building – it was still some distance away – showed when I reached a count of thirty-three.
The tall windowless walls of this building made me wonder as to the uses of alleys, while I continued to count my steps. As the number 'sixty' came and went, I plainly saw the actual end of the building, and as my foot rose from the sixty-sixth step, I froze and glanced down.
Plain as daylight, I saw a marking cut into the road under my feet, and I shuddered to perceive it.
“That looks like a mule's head without the ears,” I thought, as my mind slowly processed the number spoken of. I was too tired to 'add up' the archaic ordering quickly, and only after I'd left it some ten paces to the rear did the dread number 'engage'.
“No, I don't want to be a witch,” I thought. I then glanced to the right.
Another road, this one somewhat narrower than the one we had just left, ran into the distance to the point of being buried by the fog. Prior to that, I counted three buildings, all of them arranged like the fronts of the alleys we had just left. Alleys, whatever they actually were used for, had two doors showing plainly to the world.
“And both doors used for the purposes of witches, no doubt,” I muttered to myself.
Once across the street, we scurried past rows of shuttered shops. While the doors were closed, the lights showing from behind drawn shades and through cracks spoke of activity, while the pulsating bright-dim-bright nature of many of these lights spoke acutely of danger. Those lights that did not pulsate, however, I wondered about, and after passing the third such 'brilliant' light, I thought to ask.
“Are pressure lanterns commonplace?” I softly asked. “Especially distillate-fueled ones?”
“Among those wealthy enough to secure them, they are,” she said. “Where we are going has more of them than this section does.” A brief pause, then, “and this section is not poor.”
“Uh, the lights?” I asked. Shadow ahead beckoned, and I was hurrying to occupy it. The woman's hand was in my own.
“Those especially,” she whispered. “This section both makes and consumes much strong drink.”
“These people are trashed,” I muttered. I then recalled some of the comments I had heard regarding witches and drunkenness. “So that's why...”
There was but little time for an answer, as I recalled the desire of the third money-changer to quit early and our need of hurry. Rat-like frantic scurrying was the current need, and I kept close behind the woman when not by her side.
A narrow passage between two buildings on the right, and we took it, running past old moldy boxes and barrels, then leaping over a trash-midden and into another building's 'realm of decay'. I wondered again what we smelled like as I followed the woman's zigzag path through the back lots of buildings and across small trash-mounded fields. These latter were fairly commonplace, and their trampled margins spoke of mule-teams being 'parked' while waiting to load or unload their wagons.
The woman turned left onto a narrow 'street' of uncommonly foul odor, and I walked beside her in the darkest shadows I could find. Buildings to each side; small trash-mounded lots; a stink beyond anything I had smelled anywhere on the face of two worlds; and to the side...
I went closer, and then saw the source of the stink: an offal-filled open sewer churning steadily with its too-lively vermin.
“Those only seem to be found in the wealthier sections,” said the woman.
The street's 'walls' had a tall and at times overhanging aspect, one that I had not seen in some time, and the grime-smeared cobbles reeked of muck and mule-dung, while the street itself had somehow gone from perhaps twenty feet in width, and more or less straight, to at most twelve and meandering. Another such street branched off at an obtuse angle to the right, then twenty paces more, yet another on the left. A tall and somewhat 'wiggly' signpost showed at the latter interjection, and I paused to look at it. It seemed important.
The 'wiggly' aspect proved to be the grain of the post itself as the fog drifted around it. I turned to continue on – until a faint reddish tint showed forth upon the sign itself, and I returned my attention to read what it said.
“S-secret Street?” I gasped silently upon reading a signpost writ in blatant Underworld German. The holes torn by bullets and shot did not help my consternation in the slightest. “What?”
The woman had paused, for some reason, and as I hurried to rejoin her, she seemed to question why I had paused – or so I thought when she ducked into another of the crazy-branching streets.
This example was even narrower than the one we had just walked upon, and the grim and cluttered sensation underfoot was but mirrored in the front of each shop we passed. There, all was darkness; the dark wood mirrored in the blackness of night, with nothing – not even a crack – showing forth a single ray of light. I wondered for a moment as to how I could see until I moved out from one shadow on the way to the next.
There was light amid the fog coming down from the overhead moon, which had risen some time ago, and the fog-diffused dimness provided sufficient light for night-adapted eyes to see by.
“Yes, your eyes,” said the soft voice. “She is staying close by for a very good reason.”
I continued on, her hand in mine. The clutching nature of the dark-faced shops was enough to conjure claustrophobia, and each darkened post and weathered walk-board seemed to grin face-like, much as if each such thing was the skeleton of a spirit-riven tree. A glance to first the left, then the right, showed no gaps present, much as if we were walking in the Swartsburg's past, and I wondered greatly if this location had back lots similar to those once present in 'the dark side of town'.
“It does,” said the soft voice. “Those building there currently have duplication of this region in mind.”
“And they are not wasting time,” I muttered. “That place must crawl with...”
“Slaves and hired workers,” said the soft voice, “and they all labor to the limits of drink and datramonium.”
“What?” I spluttered. There was no outward sound, or so I hoped.
“The hours and days of the witch,” said the soft voice. “Perfection, even if it is illusory, has its price.”
“And to cease from their labors means disgrace,” I murmured silently. “Hell neither sleeps nor rests, and its followers seek to emulate its ways.”
Yet my speech ceased unbidden, both mental and outward, for I then knew my 'once-home' activity-list had grown longer. There was neither time nor space to do more currently, for a small narrow passage showed between two shops, and the woman turned down it. As I followed her past two narrow intersections teeming with trash and offal and hopped over several evil-reeking open sewers, I wondered as to the tendency of money-changers to be so secretive.
“This last man must have had lessons from Koenraad,” I muttered. “All these people hide themselves...”
“For much the same reasons as Koenraad did,” said the soft voice. “Given he was once one of these people, it should not be much of a surprise.”
“Him?” I asked silently. “Here?”
“He started here,” said the soft voice, “and within three years, he branched north to first the second kingdom house, and once established there, to the Swartsburg.” A brief pause, then, “the place where you are going next is the precise location where he both made his bones and earned his first suit of pure-quill black-cloth.”
Hearing our next destination described as a witch-hole did not help my nerves in the slightest, so much so that when the roof overhead went suddenly dark with a pattern of red-tinted rectangles, I nearly jolted – until I recognized where we were to be a money-changer's entryway by the alternating candles.
“Th-those last places?” I asked.
“Were also witch-holes,” said the soft voice, “and similar things had been done in them.”
The downward slope ended in stairs, same as the first such place of the evening, and the rounded floor was again of raked sand. The woman paused at the door, then looked at me.
“Both bags?” I asked. She nodded.
I had to ring the doorbell for her, and my gentle pull upon the string meant for the faintest bell-tinkle yet. Steps came slow and lumbering, and the two of us each retreated a step. I palmed a large silver piece in my left hand, while steadying the mass of the possible bag with my right. The shutter hissed open to show a seemingly bloodshot eye, then clacked shut; and with creaking hinges, the door opened to show a man who looked to be at once comical and dangerous.
His chief danger, however, made for wondering, as his bloody hand still dripped as he wrung it. A faintly smoking 'pistol' hung from a lanyard to his front, and as he seemed to wait for our request, I noticed a smell...
Dank, decay, old books, perhaps mold. It made for a desire to sneeze.
“Rats?” asked the woman, as she 'struggled' to clear an obviously hefty pouch.
The man nodded, then said, “I hope you are armed.”
After 'greasing' the man's palm with the coin, he looked at it idly, then dunked it in a small trouser's pocket before turning to lead us further in. I thought to ask about his hand.
“Did a rat bite you?” I asked.
“I drove it off,” he said, “but someone must have used valley powder in that pistol.”
“And..?” asked the woman.
“The lock is ruined,” he said. “At least, I think it is. I'll need to find it first.”
“F-find it?” I asked.
“The pistol burst at the joint of barrel and breech,” he said, “and the lock flew across the room.”
“And what you have on your neck-string?” asked the woman.
“I used that to drive the rat off,” he said. “It wanted both barrels.”
“B-both barrels?” I asked. “That r-rat...”
“Was a larger one,” he said. “Talk has it that Kossum's tins those things up should they run short.”
The second door was larger and thicker than the first, and again, raked sand provided its floor. The second door opened with a man dressed and armed as the first, though his pistol didn't smoke and his right hand was not bloodied.
I smelled burnt powder and blood in the air as I followed the woman into the shop, and remained slightly to her left and right while the two weigh-men weighed out the gold of the first bag. As the third pan's gold went into the leather pouch brought to receive it, she said quietly, “I have more, should you be inclined.”
“Normally, I would not be,” said the older of the two weigh-men, “especially with gold as heavy as this is.” A pause while he looked again at the scale. “I'll need to have this scale gone through, though, which means more expense than the usual, and then there's been much call of late for both gold and glass-blower's wire in the district.” He looked at her, then obliquely, at me. “I'll weigh it out.”
Unlike with the first bag, the older weigh-man did all of the work while his partner watched. His twisting of the 'tare' adjustment was both harder to spot and more aggressive than the man before, and more than once, I saw the furtive movement of his hand underneath the pan containing the gold as he pushed upward.
The pointer still indicated 'heavy'.
He was sweating when counting out our coins, for the last bag of gold had needed no less than three leather pouches for our silver. The one before had needed but two, and I felt burdened indeed with the knowledge we were carrying so much – or rather, that she was carrying so much.
It wasn't right, and I feared for her health and safety.
The money was given out, finally, and I waited for the woman. I could feel something amiss in the area, something alive; and I began looking at the walls. I suspected I looked nervous, even as I reached to touch my rifle...
The curtain shook, its faint vibration unnoticed by the two weigh-men. They were both engrossed by their new-won sacks of crude-gold. Greed ruled their lives at that moment, which worried me.
Neither 'guard' saw the moving curtain. I wondered as to the propriety of action on my part.
A soft hand in mine signaled a question, and I knew not how to answer it beyond, “any second now.” I tried to point to the curtain's wriggling with my eyes, and no one seemed to understand.
The curtain now shook violently, and my right hand turned loose of my possible bag as my mouth opened to speak. The eyes of the older of the two weigh-men began to widen. He turned to his right slightly so as to possibly speak with his partner, while the curtain...
Had that gotten his attention?
The curtain now came loose of its upper mooring and began falling. Something big and gray...
“Look out!” I yelled, as I reached for my rifle while taking a step backward.
'Slow motion' wasn't even close to how these men responded, while in the shadow of the hallway I saw something dark and unpleasant-looking flying closer. My fumbling hands brought up my rifle half-cocked to my shoulder, then the hammer went to full cock as the 'something' grew larger while taking on shape and meaning. The dark gray mass was like a rabid...
Old Shuck? That hound was gone.
The mass filled my front sight; the rear sight lined up. A sudden concussion, and I staggered backwards to...
The echoing roar pounded on my eardrums as something huge and gray tumbled to land on the counter next to the scale, where it slid and thrashed and hit the ground like a sack of wet cement. Amid ringing ears, I saw further red-blooming flashes, and dove for the floor...
And jumped aside as the woman beat me to that refuge.
“Boom, boom, B-boom, boom...” Gunfire echoing in the room. Smoke-signals from warm guns. Stink. Bloodshed. Hot irons.
Dark gray, the size of a Shoet. The mass lay inert but feet away, and its silent stillness was appalling as it lay inert in a small and growing pool of blood.
“Did I shoot a pig?” I asked weakly amid the now echoing silence. Someone was coming.
A hand took mine, then began pulling. I weakly followed it upward into a room that stank horribly of powder and death. I could smell the intense and nauseating reek of Geneva.
“S-some liniment?” I asked. I was uncommonly sore.
There was no liniment for me. Someone's hand took mine, and led me to the door amid coughs and spitting noises, then the door opened silently to permit our leaving. A gust of smoke-tinted wind followed us, then some distance behind, thumping steps rang.
“Must we hurry so?” I asked. My ears were still ringing like chimes.
Only slow walking between light-sources helped with the befuddled sense I had somehow acquired, and when the woman and I reached the all-consuming brick-ceilinged darkness outside the doorway, I finally heard comprehensible speech.
“That was a close one,” said a soft feminine voice.
“Aye, and dear, too,” said another. It took me what seemed minutes to recognize the voice of the first doorman. “At least that rat will trouble us no more.”
“Uh, what r-rat?” I asked. My voice was shaky, and it seemed mired in confusion.
“That rat tried for us,” said the man's voice, “and I don't know what that gun is you used, but it stopped that rat cold as a dead hammer.” A brief pause, then, “what is it, a roer?”
“It is not one of those,” said the woman's voice, “even if its back-thrust is fully as bad.”
I only gradually came back to myself entirely as I followed the woman out of the 'medieval' section and into 'town'. Something had changed drastically in the last few minutes, or so it seemed, for I could feel an 'electric' tension in the air. In the distance to the south, and somewhat closer to the west, I could clearly see fog-misted brushy regions, and I longed greatly to be found once more upon their meandering trails.