The fifth kingdom's mess, part f.
Of a sudden, a long-drawn mournful howling split the night air, and gunshots roared their challenges skyward. The woman did not wait to learn the trouble; she bolted for the nearest road and the brushy refuge beyond it, and I tried my best to keep up with her, even as she dodged potholes in the road and then leaped the ditch on its other side.
The brush was knee-high at the start, but within ten paces, it had grown nearly a foot taller. I caught up with her, then passed and moved at a rapid walk into the gray-green brushy 'murk'. Copses showed nearby, and I set my path for the nearest one.
A faint humming noise shot past overhead, then another. I moved faster, left-right-left, dodge the bush in front and circle 'round, left, left-right-left. A small depression showed, and I led the woman, her hand all but lost in mine, down into it as a thundering roar came from behind.
“Down, dear,” I murmured, as a warbling scream came from the direction we had just come. Someone had dredged up a cannon, and...
The shell howled overhead, then detonated a fraction of a second later. Someone had cut the fuse for an airburst, and the...
Another thundering roar segued into a howling shriek as another shell flew over. Its detonation was not merely a good deal louder, but also perceptibly sooner. The fuse-cutter was getting his fuses 'right'.
“Those wretches have the range,” I muttered. “If only...”
The question put me in mind of the brigands in the third kingdom. I wondered for an instant, then said the dread words as I had recalled them.
“Fire in the hole,” I muttered.
For an instant, I heard silence seem to erupt upswelling from the earth, then a massive white flash lit up the sky like lightning as an earthshaking roar rumbled and sent flaming bits of brush sailing overhead among billows of thick gray smoke. I could plainly hear the crackle of flames.
“Up, dear,” I murmured amid the further explosions that boomed and banged some distance away. “We must run for it now.”
I scrambled up out of the 'depression', then began to walk rapidly west-southwest, or so I guessed. I did not think to use the compass, for the realm behind me was lit by a massive bright blazing holocaust, and smaller fires smoldered and crackled in the area where we traveled. The thick smoke of burning brush added to the fog to our rear, and the uproar and destruction behind drew the witches unto it and away from us as we steadily moved upslope.
The slope, while gentle, made for panting, and I gave my water bottle to the woman to drink, which she drank deeply from before handing it back. I sloshed it, noting perhaps a cup of liquid remaining.
“We need to get home,” she said, “and that quickly.”
I led off again, her at my side. A minute later, I asked, “and how I am going?”
“I doubt your direction is off by much,” she said, “but brush-travel is tiring and slow.”
“Tiring especially,” I added. “It is, isn't it?”
“It surely seems that way,” she said. “Once we reach the top of the rise, we can look to see our best route.”
The route to the top seemed to go on forever, so much so that I wondered if it were wise to go so far out of our way. I could 'feel' the house proper some four to five miles off in the direction I had been initially traveling, and topping the rise meant turning to the north nearly thirty degrees. A brief and furtive look at my compass showed my 'guesses' were surprisingly close.
While the distance to the top seemed interminable, the gradient quickly lessened, and the woman kept up more readily. I thought to pause now and then, or perhaps carry more of the silver, but she did not seem likely to give either suggestion an ear. I stopped once, then turned to her.
“The rise tops itself shortly,” she said. “I can make it that far.”
I again noticed the smoke and fog steadily lessening as we continued through waist-high brush. I was 'breaking trail' for her, and as the fog all-but vanished, the brush thinned drastically and the moon shined brightly overhead.
“I'm glad,” she whispered. “I think I'm going to be s-sick.”
A cough loosed itself within my chest, and as we slowly continued, I began coughing. There was no fog, nor smoke on the top of the 'hill', and I spat several nasty smoldering blobs in rapid succession onto the sandy soil while the woman did likewise. Moments later, she wiped her mouth.
“I always try to find places like this every so far,” she said. “Traveling in the house on foot demands doing so if one wishes to manage distance at all quickly.”
“Is that why our route has been as it has?” I asked, as I moved to the 'crown' of the hill to look north and west.
“Partly,” she said. “Only partly.” A brief pause, then, “traveling in the brush, while slower, is often the only workable way if one must move on foot in the house.”
“And at night,” I murmured. “Daytime would not work.”
The woman nodded, then said, “best to know freighters hauling large boxed freight then.” A pause, steps behind me, a final cough, then, “what do you see?”
I pointed at a dark and unfriendly-looking mass to the north. “That?”
“Is far out of our way,” she said. “It is also most unpopular with witches.”
“Uh, poor?” I asked.
“That, and dirty,” she said.
“This whole place is, uh, dirty,” I said. “Is it worse there, or..?”
“No cobbles, and little stone,” she said. “It's almost like the third kingdom's back country that way.”
“I've not been there,” I said.
“I traveled in it at length,” she said, “and lived in Eisernije for a season before getting on at the house proper.”
“The district's name?” I asked.
“What most call it,” she said, as she began circling left.
Twenty steps in that direction, and I saw a sight both awesome and frightening. The region we had first traveled in seemed to be all-but engulfed in flickering flames, while thick white fumes traveled slowly north and east.
“I think you are right,” I said. “That, uh, smoke is heading...” I then had a question:
“Will that smoke cut us off entirely from the house?”
“Not if you head the way she is speaking of,” said the soft voice. “Those fumes are moving a good deal slower than they appear to be.”
“Toxic fumes, no doubt,” I murmured.
“Especially for those already half-poisoned with datramonium and forty-chain,” said the soft voice. “Non-witches need merely dampen rags and breathe through them while leaving the area.”
The woman looked at me, for some reason. I thought it my signal to 'resume', and did so.
I headed roughly 'northwest' through the brush, and within minutes, struck a narrow winding path. It seemed to head in my initial direction, so much so that as we descended back into the smoky fog, I asked, “is this a goat-path?”
“I think so,” said the woman. “Many of these bushes have goat-hair on their sides.”
The path widened ever so slightly, such that I could walk a bit faster without worrying about the brush making noise against my trousers. The sense of 'dirt' and other filth adhering to my clothing and body had a peculiarly unpleasant effect upon my thoughts, such that all I seemed to think about was how badly I wanted clean clothes and a bath.
“I did bathe, didn't I?” I thought morosely. It felt like I had been out in this darkness for an age and ten years – the last added, no doubt, due to my execrable behavior. Only the faint noise of nearby goats shook me from my mental state.
“Too late for pot-luck,” I muttered. “Besides, the herders are...
“Getting ready for bed,” said the soft voice. “The edge of the herd is over two hundred yards to your right.”
With each minute's progress, the sense of dirt upon clothing and skin seemed to increase. Glances ahead that 'got through' the lessening fog showed a vast collection of buildings ahead, and I was glad for the absence of 'conventional' hurry that had made itself felt during the previous portion of the trip. The sense of dirt and of filth had overwritten it, most likely, and now we needed to get home.
“Get home without further encounters with witches,” I thought. “Running, except for short distances, isn't a good idea.”
Yet still, amid the crawling sensation of dirt and filth upon my skin, I knew we had need of what haste we could manage. The time was such that...
“Uh, what time is best..?” I then recalled what was said to be the 'deadest' time of day for the kingdom house, that being the early hours of the morning.
“We need to traverse that last part about three hours before dawn,” I muttered.
“Which is why you need to make what speed you can,” said the soft voice, “as you will be skirting a bad section on the way in.”
“Full of aroused thugs,” I muttered, as I recalled the fumes.
“Those of them that are still awake and alive, yes,” said the soft voice. “They will be heading out of the area.”
“Hence we will stand out like s-sore...”
I stopped speaking, for a thought suddenly occurred to me about 'underground passages', and I was about to ask further.
“Above-ground will not merely be nearly deserted, but also more or less free of the more-worrisome fumes,” said the soft voice. “Those individuals you do see will not be thugs.”
“Not?” I asked.
“They will be scavenging the dead for valuables,” said the soft voice. “They will leave you alone.”
“And the thugs?” I asked.
“Will be several days in returning to the area in numbers,” said the soft voice. “I would finish up your business in the area and leave before they return.”
“I thought so,” whispered the woman.
With further trudging, the 'schedule' seemed to take form in my mind. I would need sleep; a time of discussion; possible further clearing of the inside...
“That one room,” I muttered. “That, and the rest of...”
“You can get help for all save that one room, the coach, and certain things in that one trash-mound,” said the soft voice, “and while speaking to what remains in that room would work, it would be most unwise with what is currently in the stables.”
“Meaning I need to, uh, take the coach somewhere?” I asked. “That one section we went through coming here that resembled the Swartsburg?”
The sudden chilling certainty I felt was such that I marveled, and I asked, “what would that do?”
“Disrupt that entire district,” said the soft voice. “Starting a minor war in that region would both help your escape and the long-term survival of those in the house proper.”
“That, and the trash-pile,” I thought. “That probably has some, uh, interesting things in it.”
“Including plague spores,” said the soft voice. “Minor wars are not helped by virulently infective diseases.”
“Oh, no,” I squeaked. “It will go everywhere!”
“Not really,” said the soft voice. “While the vectors of 'plague' in the fifth kingdom are rodents and parasitic arthropods living on them, the disease itself is not caused by bacteria.”
“It isn't?” my voice, though silent, was the definition of incredulity.
“Those spores are the only way that single-celled parasite can exist outside of a host,” said the soft voice. “The disease needs physical contact followed by ingestion of the spores or breaking the skin to actually spread.”
“And hence?” I asked. Again, my voice was inward and unspoken.
“The organism will spread rapidly among witches and those desiring contact with them,” said the soft voice, “while those otherwise will find themselves more or less unmolested.” A brief pause, then, “cleanliness goes a long way with that bug.”
“I heard portions of that,” murmured the woman as we walked across a low 'depression' between two soft rolling dust-scoured ridges. “I'm glad we're boiling our water for drinking and bathing.”
“Is that why bathwater needs to be boiled down this way?” I asked audibly.
“One of the better reasons,” said the soft voice. “Boiling also precipitates a good percentage of the water's mineralization.”
“So that's why it feels better,” she murmured. “Someone said our water was nearly as bad as this one town some distance to the north and west where one must distill water before consuming it.”
“You will wish distilling apparatus for drinking and cooking nonetheless,” said the soft voice. “The fifth kingdom house's water comes from the south end of that same aquifer.”
Upon cresting the northernmost of the two ridges, the fog had dissipated sufficiently under the moon's light to show the previously-seen realm of 'dirt and darkness' as being composed of a near-continuous yet formless mess of apparent shanties, shops, sizable open fields carpeted with brush, and what might have been goat-pens. The previous 'buildings' had become clearer as to their nature, and with each further minute's steady walk upon the gently curving path, the details became more visibly apparent.
“No lights,” I muttered. “That place must be dead about now.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “The lights commonly available to the fifth kingdom's 'poor' are not merely much less bright than those commonly used in the more affluent areas, but also those light-sources need to be hid from their betters should those individuals show.”
“Do the witches, uh, come into that area m-much?” I asked.
“They do,” said the soft voice, “and they curse the region's filth while assaying plunder.”
“Unpopular?” I asked.
“Few witches live there,” said the soft voice, “and those that do are commonly hiding from the scrutiny of their peers.”
With each moment's travel – we were on a perceptible downslope now, which helped with the aspect of being burdened – more details showed to our front. I could discern more-plainly the narrow meandering of the frontal road, but also what looked like many side-streets branching northward from it, while the wide rock-strewn mounds that dotted the landscape commonly showed faintly glowing portions. These mounds tended to border the edges of the wider 'fields', and with few exceptions, faint and thin trickles of smoke ascended from their centers. They looked far larger than any mere 'goat pen' I had seen earlier in the evening, and I thought to ask the woman as to what they were.
“Those would be goat-pens,” said the woman. “Much of the fifth kingdom's dried goat is put up in Eisernije.”
“Does it look, uh, all nasty, and, uh...”
“Most of that meat resembles that of the third kingdom's commons,” she said. “If you saw meat in brick form stated as being dried goat, you were most likely lied to.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I am not certain what that meat is,” she said, “even if I am certain that Kossum's is the only place that prepares meat that way in the house.”
“It's not edible, is it?” I asked.
The woman subtly shook her head, then said, “I've heard that to be the case, though some speak of boiling those things down into a tasteless mush and then using it as a soup-flavoring.” A brief pause, then, “I'd just as soon go to Eisernije and eat there.”
“Is their food edible?” I asked.
“It is, though it is worse for flavor and appearance than that of the vendors we passed early in the evening.” A brief pause, then, “it is also much cheaper.”
“Cheaper?” I asked.
“It is like the third kingdom's back country in that way also,” she said. “I was glad I had traveled by that route coming down here, as I became used to eating that kind of food.”
“And hence the food here..?”
“I needed to remain near a privy for nearly three months just the same,” she said. “The food otherwise was like that I had grown accustomed to.”
The boundary which joined the 'open' realm we left with that of Eisernije finally showed itself a
meandering dust-thick narrow road strewn with potholes, gravel and the spattered leavings of mules. The roadside ditch on the field's side, however, showed small neat mounds of 'pellets'. I suspected these to be the leavings of some kind of animal, though what kind of animal was a mystery.
“Donkeys,” whispered the woman. “They often come through this region at night.”
The darkest shadows along the road showed nearer the dwellings and goat-pens, and we used what darkness and cover we could find. Close-at-hand, however, the goat-pens were not merely larger than I had estimated them to be, but also far more substantial in nature, with the glowing portions I had seen earlier showing themselves to be head-high narrow embrasures shielded by coverings of plaited reeds.
“Those who live in these goat pens are the wealthier ones,” said the woman. She then sniffed as if to ferret out the nature of a mysterious 'meaty' scent.
“They must have just prepared a lot of goat meat,” she murmured quietly, as we left the darker shadows surrounding a larger goat-pen for those of the nearest 'dwelling'. “I think there are shops ahead of us.”
The dwelling – long, low, mysterious-looking, and otherwise built much as the goat-pen had been – showed 'open-fronted' mud-and-stone places with thick separating walls apportioning them under a thick and lumpy timber-supported overhang. Each 'shop' had a storefront of crude-looking white-smeared mud-brick, and the shop-doors – crude, unfinished, weather-worn wood checked with dryness – seemed to be strictly notional as to security. A further glance at one of the last examples showed places where a sign had once been affixed with nails.
“Scavenged materials?” I asked.
“Much of Eisernije is built that way,” she said. “The inner portions of places where people live are usually partly below ground for both safety and comfort.”
“Cooler in the summer..?” I asked.
“And warmer in the winter,” said the woman as she attempted to stifle a burst of shivering as we left one shadow behind. “The house has started to cool some.”
There was no further talk for the space of three minutes, for we were moving between two larger-than-usual 'dwellings' and into the shadows of a smaller goat-pen. I was glad we had left the road proper behind and were moving alongside it among darker and deeper shadows. The field next to the goat-pen seemed to stretch far away into the darkness, and its thick 'sagebrush' swallowed light and noise.
“I do not want to be on that road right now,” I thought, as we went from shadow to shadow. Another three of the elongated mounds – 'dwellings' – showed ahead and to our right in a straggly row, with small 'cultivated' areas laying in the darker shadows 'behind' them.
I had suspected these people grew their own food for some reason, and as we went between dwellings along the edges of one such 'field', I noted short rows of small straggly 'vines' attempting to fasten themselves onto threesomes of thin knotted poles.
“What are th-those?” I asked, as we came to the end of one of these 'garden plots'.
“I suspect them to be fourth kingdom red potatoes,” she said. “Most of these dwellings have places where food is grown year-round.”
“Inside their walls, correct?” I asked. “The witches might well cause trouble if they see those, uh, patches.”
“Which is why they are behind the dwellings relative to the road,” she said. “Most witches waste no time when they traverse Eisernije, and those that do tarry are not looking for garden plots.”
“And they do not see them?” I asked.
“Usually they do not,” said the woman. “Potatoes are grown outside because they can survive many of the attacks of witchdom with comparatively small loss.”
“And inside?” I asked.
“Greens, carrots, and things like them,” she said. “I spent much of my first few months raising such vegetables once I came to the fifth kingdom.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect some of our goats came from this area.”
“And further fresh food?” I asked. “Would this location have some to sell?”
“It did when I lived there,” she said, “and I would be surprised greatly if that were no longer the case.”
“Perhaps barter involving grains,” I softly suggested.
“If you speak of grains common to the north,” she said, “they would be most welcome.” A brief pause, then, “especially corn, barley, and rye.”
“W-wheat?” I asked.
“Is not sold in Eisernije,” she said, “and not merely because of its price being too high.”
“What else?” I asked.
“Wheat is notorious for corking people,” she said, “and in Eisernije, being corked is no joke.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I recalled speech speaking of bad food and 'angry worms'.
“I've seen people die that way,” she said, “and not all of them were commons.”
“W-witches?” I asked. Another 'row' of shops stood in a straggly row to our right, and our distance from the road had almost doubled from minutes before.
“I have seen several of them die from that cause,” she said, “and I suspect I but know of that mule's smell.”
A brief glance at my compass after a short breather in the shadow of a larger goat-pen showed our path to be roughly due west as we continued to travel further and further from the 'main road'. The previous 'side roads' I had noticed earlier were actually little more than dusty cleared paths running between the various dwellings, goat-pens, and fields, and as we crossed one of these paths in the middle of a smaller field – the brush looked oddly 'cultivated', for some reason – I saw to our front and slightly left a trio of buildings; and in their shadows, I saw not merely the small garden patches I had expected to see, but also a pair of smallish 'covered wagons' drawn up in 'laager' with a small flickering flame between them. We altered course so as to head more south and pass nearer to what I had seen.
As we came within a hundred yards of the 'wagons', I heard a faint – and high-pitched whinny. This was answered by another such noise, and I wondered as to the source beyond 'thank God it isn't a mule'.
“They use donkeys to pull those things,” said the woman.
“They aren't big enough, are they?” I asked in a whisper. I could 'feel' a change in the distance ahead, and my thoughts mirrored it: “thank God witches are scarce there.”
“A pair of the usual ones can manage smaller and lighter buggies,” she said. “Those tinker's wagons would use four.”
“Why donkeys?” I asked.
“They might not be as large as mules,” said the woman, “nor as strong as mules, but if one must travel, especially in dry places, nothing else comes close to them.” A brief pause, then as we passed within a hundred feet of the nearest such wagon, the woman glanced at it.
“I thought so,” she said. “That one uses special sleeves for its wheels.”
“Special s-sleeves?” I asked.
“They are not the commonplace for sleeves,” she said. “They roll easier and need much less attention compared to the usual type.”
“Where can they be, uh, gotten?” I asked.
“That is something of a mystery,” she said. “You might ask in the fourth kingdom's market, should you have the chance while heading home.”
The feeling of 'difference' steadily grew in my mind, so much so that when I next looked to the south as we passed through a smaller field, the brush on the other side of the main road seemed to have thinned out markedly – and some distance further west, it was replaced by buildings. I thought to go through those buildings, for some reason, and when I mentioned this to the woman, she nodded.
“We've gone far enough to the west to stay out of trouble,” she said. “I'm starting to feel tired.”
With each further minute, I noted the change in greater detail, and I wondered if I was feeling the region but recently vacated by witches – until some minutes later, I could discern a plain difference in the regions to the south and west.
“First that one section that has few witches in it,” I murmured, “and then...”
The realization hit me like a club. Both sections had few witches in them, with the nearest one having few people in general and the other section having its share of scavengers – and furthest away, a small area...
“A very small area,” said the soft voice. “Still, I would watch myself especially carefully there.”
“Where?” asked the woman. I could hear fatigue in her voice now.
“There are three distinct areas ahead,” I said, as I paused in the deep shadow of a goat-pen. A glance west showed but a few more places like it before what I had known as 'Eisernije' became a heavily built-up area. “The first of them is, uh... I'm not that sure about it beyond 'very few people of any kind currently live there', while the one after it has people still.”
“The fumes drove them off, you mean,” said the woman. “The third?”
“That's like right next to the house proper,” I said, “and there are a fair number of people in that area.”
“The fumes did not get too close to the house, then,” she said. “How big is it, or can you tell?”
“Perhaps two hundred paces wide,” I murmured, “and that place does have some fumes.” A brief pause, then, “I think the more-committed witches are gathering up rags and water so as to remain there.”
“Many of those individuals are either deathly ill or comatose,” said the soft voice, “and the bulk of those witches that still live in that area are trying to escape.”
“Hence most of them aren't up to watching much,” I thought.
“Most of them is right,” said the soft voice. “Those that yet remain 'on watch' are among the most committed witches in the house.”
We had come to the end of Eisernije's covering shadows, and now needed to cross the road to the south. I glanced around, wondering as to the disposition of nearby witchdom; and again, I felt the aspect of 'dead'.
“They w-won't see us,” I thought. “Will they?”
There was no answer except what I had just felt. I took the woman's hand in mine, and led off straight from the shadows into the dim light of the moon.
There was but little fog remaining in the area, and I glanced right and left as we came to the margin-ditch, then the road itself. The road had become perceptibly wider and better maintained, and the realm ahead of us looked...
“That place l-looks like parts of the Swartsburg,” I thought, as we scurried across the road. “We'd best stick to the shadows as best we can just the same.”
The shadows themselves seemed to beckon to us, and when we came to them, I noticed stronger than ever the feeling of 'dead'. There were no sounds to be heard beyond faint rattling noises and the moans of the wind, and when we ducked down the nearest side-street, the shops and 'dwellings' seemed to close in with a stunning abruptness. Two hundred feet into the district, and we seemed surrounded by echoing silence amid steadily growing fog.
“The smell,” muttered the woman. I could almost hear her wrinkling her nose.
“Smell?” I asked softly. We were walking with all possible speed in the shadow of the nearest overhanging 'shop-row'; the feeling of 'Medieval' was strong and growing stronger amid the sense of 'dead'.
“Places like this usually smell a lot worse,” she whispered, “and there are no fresh mule-traces...”
“Offal in the sewers?” I asked, as we turned the corner.
The woman did not reply, for planted straight in our path amid ghostly fog and darkness stood a three-pronged sign and symbol, one of a type both ominous and unfamiliar; and the mound of dirt piled high about its base spoke loudly of a horrifying species of burial.
“Premature burial,” said the ghost at the door of my mind. “No cord to grasp, and walled up within the tomb while still alive...”
I wanted to scream with the sense of new-found fear, and only the woman's soft speech brought me from the uncharted realms of nightmare into the chill reality of life.
“That is a plague-sign,” she whispered as we hurried down the now close-crowded lane, and amid the feeling of 'too Medieval for mere words', there were other signs and symbols in my thoughts, chief among them a red-issuing plague of especial virulence, and a duke's retreat from life and responsibility to offer up his people to death and destruction as a hell-bidden sacrifice.
“He was just like a witch,” I muttered, as another such ghostly 'trident' showed centered within its mounded earthen burial plot.
“Who?” whispered the woman. We had turned a corner and were moving again with all possible dispatch. Seeing 'plague warnings' did not make for comfort, and that apart from my recalled past.
“Prospero,” I murmured. That name had come foremost, but its following entourage was sizable indeed, with two sailors in the vanguard of the vast multitude following behind the duke. One of these men was tall and thin, and the other short and rotund; while 'humming-stuff' was the thing they both wished and had no coin to purchase. I glanced to my right, all the while expecting to see one or more members of that august royal gathering the two men had met.
I saw none of those revived corpses that I had once read about, and I mentally wiped my brow at the thought of a meeting with 'King Pest' and his noisome crew.
Instead, I saw another plague-sign. In an instant's time, I took in its faintly gilded aspect, its ancient-seeming wood, its bluish-gray paint trying to hide under a flaking thin layer of 'gold leaf', and the lyre-shaped aspect of the outer prongs flanking the central spear's point.
“Do they reuse those things?” I asked silently. There was no answer save the sight of yet another such sign a short distance away down another winding road.
The winding lanes of the 'Medieval town' led meandering west and south, and we changed roads to stay 'on course' as the possibility permitted. I could feel another such 'change' about to occur, and when we came to a larger cross-street, I smelled smoke and fire.
“The 'plague-ban' only goes but a short distance more,” said the woman. “We will wish dampened rags shortly.”
I rummaged around in my possible bag for rags, and within a minute found two. Nearly half of the water-bottle's remaining liquid went for dampening the rags, and as the combined reeks became stronger, we both tied the rags about our faces. In the process, I again touched soft cloth that covered most of my face.
“How did I get this face cloth?” I asked softly, as we resumed.
“The better cloaks have them,” she said, “especially if they are made to the fourth kingdom's preferences.”
“I did not notice it before,” I murmured. The stink of 'burning' was becoming greater, and at the juncture of two uncommonly narrow streets, I not merely saw the end of the current section, but also a thick whitish drifting fog. The woman looked at me, then nodded.
“It must have been folded up out of the way,” she said as we came to the end of the street we had entered a moment before, “as I could see the pocket it normally fits into.”
Slow-drifting thick whitish fog meandered head-high over the deserted street ahead, and the near-total lack of lights coming from each side's shops spoke of its deserted nature. We crossed the street to dart into the shadows, then went west while staying under the overhanging stoops of a row of shops. A few hundred feet of varied shadows, then an intersection; and once at the corner in the dark shadows of a large and ornate-seeming building, I looked around the corner after kneeling.
For what seemed nearly half a mile heading almost due south, I saw slow-moving 'furry' blobs amid thick foggy clouds. I turned back to the woman as if to ask her 'which way' – and she looked at me once more.
“Best to hide ourselves among the scavengers,” she said. “This area is normally full of witches.”
I 'oozed' around the corner, still hugging the shadows, the woman's hand in mine. I seemed to have acquired an eye for such hiding places now, much more than I had had earlier in the evening; and my scurrying was as if I had received advanced lessons from rats: for I not only moved quickly, I made but little noise and less sign of my presence. The woman commented upon this but three minutes later as we crossed a narrow side-street amid clouds of mingled smoke and fog.
“I wish I had had you with me when I did this in the past,” she murmured, as I led along a row of watering troughs and around mule-traces. “It would have been much less frightening.”
“The stink has gotten bad again,” I muttered, as I came upon another big 'mess' left by an obvious mule. “Now what is that over there?”
The smoldering mass became steadily more apparent as we hurried along a street that ran mostly south and partly east, and at a distance of perhaps a hundred yards, I knew it to be a burnt-out and partly-scattered coach minus its team of mules. With each step closer, however, I knew something was different about what I was seeing, for when we came opposite the ruined vehicle, I noted not merely drag-marks churning up the muck covering the cobbles, but also thick congealed masses of blood and scattered scraps of darkened stiff cloth.
“They cleared off the bodies and valuables from that one,” whispered the woman. “We should see more wrecks as we come closer to the house proper.”
Our route now began 'jogging' to the right and left intermittently as the streets permitted, and within another few minutes, another such ruined coach showed. This example had two near-naked charred corpses lying in its wreckage, and faint tendrils of smoke wafted skyward from the bodies.
Another turn, this one left so as to head south, and a still-flaming coach billowed black smoke and bright red-orange flames into the night sky. I wanted to give the burning mess a wide berth, but as I turned to go further west, I noted furtive movements in the shadows thrown by the flames.
“Scavengers,” said the woman. “I suspect they're finishing with that one.”
I led down the side of the southbound road, still keeping as much as possible to those shadows I could find. Moments later, I saw a furtive shadow separate itself from the coach for a moment prior to rejoining it, then another such shadow on the other side. Faint noises spoke of labor, at least until my straining ears heard the crushing sound of a door being forced some distance away.
“Scavengers?” I whispered.
“Yes, those that wish to become witches,” she said.
I needed no further urging, and I continued listening for more sounds of 'breaking and entering' – and when the next west-heading street showed, I turned onto it.
More wrecked coaches showed, these still burning briskly; and commonly near them, the prostrate and immobile bodies of witches lay shadowed by the reddened flames of their burning conveyances. Gunshots banged faintly in the distance, and my hearing made them out to be south and west.
“Where we are heading, no doubt,” I thought. “It's about another mile and a half or so.”
“Less than that,” said the soft voice, “unless you wish to entirely avoid that one last portion.”
“How much extra distance?” I asked.
“Enough that you will want to try to go through that last portion if you possibly can,” said the soft voice. “Not doing so would add another hour's traveling at the least.”
“Which I doubt I can endure,” said the woman. “I can manage another mile, but not much more.”
Another few minutes, and two wrecked coaches and over a dozen dead witches showed still-smoking in the middle of a wide intersection. These people looked to have been recently 'gone over', for much of their clothing was absent and the remainder blood-stained and reeking of gore.
“Why no mules?” I asked.
“They were either taken first or they escaped,” she said, “and the more-successful scavengers commonly take dead animals first if they find them.”
“Glue?” I asked.
“That or Kossum's,” she said, “and I'm not certain which is more popular among such people.”
“Does Kossum's make glue?” I asked.
“I have suspected that to be the case for a long time,” she said, “but if they make glue, it would be of the cheapest type.” A pause, then, “no one puts their name to such glue.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. We were moving in darkened shadows again, this time behind waist-high watering troughs surrounded by thick accumulations of mule-dung. The stink of 'mule' was intense and growing.
“People do not buy such things for their names,” she said, “and both buyer and seller wish to conceal their portions of such business as much as possible.”
With each minute, I could feel another change coming, even though the fog and fume still remained thick. The coaches and corpses remained commonplace, while more and more, I could hear the sounds of 'breaking and entering' amid the more-frequent roars of gunfire. This last now was coming from the south as well as the west; and now and then, glancing ahead showed flickering reddish flashes silhouetting the more-distant houses and shops.
“The house proper is over there,” I thought. “They must be having some kind of pitched battle.”
There was no answer save what I could sense, and I continued to scurry from shadow to shadow on the darker side of the street. There were but few lights still showing through the myriad cracks and crevices of each individual building or shop, and those that showed were neither especially bright or pulsating in nature. I suspected them to be candles of some kind, and when a narrow space showed between two shops, I took that west-heading path.
We were back among mounded trash and reeking refuse, and here open sewers crowded with stinking offal were commonplace indeed. I wove my path around each building while stepping cautiously from shadow to shadow, and when I saw a street ahead, I wondered more than a little as to its significance, even while I continued to the right around the rear of one building before coming to another path between two buildings that allowed me to advance.
Two more such jogs, and the street was but the length of a single building to my front, and with the woman's hand grasped in mine, I crouched down and moved slowly amid the dark and growing shadows around us. I could now hear gunshots with some frequency, and the clarity of hearing I had first labeled them pistols and fowling pieces – and then, further subdivisions, with the sharp cracks of common revolvers, the deeper-pitched crashes of dragoons, and now and then a furtive pop making up the noises common to pistols; while the long guns all roared loudly and with fervent crashes, save for a few instances where a 'gun' of some kind made an especially loud noise.
I suspected these last to be the fifth kingdom's equivalent of roers, and as we drew closer to the margin of the street, I began noticing disturbing features of the street itself – and that over and above the noises and sights of nearby conflict. We came to the threshold, and there, I stood up cautiously while still mostly hidden – and then, looked out to scan the street.
While there was no one visible within perhaps two hundred yards in either direction – I could see no further from where I was – I could plainly feel the presence of people closer to where we were hiding. I then looked directly across the street, and could not believe my eyes.
“B-bushes,” I murmured softly to myself, “and th-that's the house proper, unless I'm far wrong.”
We had come to the northeast corner of the compound, and the bushes lay perhaps a hundred feet distant at a slant from our hiding place. I then glanced upward, and heard – audibly, or otherwise, I could not tell – the tramping of the true-step and the spoken runes of a curse I had never heard before.
While I was not blinded by the strobing colors commonplace when I heard runes, I knew any witch saying such things was neither an amateur nor a dilettante when it came to the practices of witches. Recalling what I had earlier heard about the commitment of the remaining witches made for a revery that was only broken by the sounds of deep bloody coughing followed by a muffled echoing thud – followed by dust sifting down slowly atop our heads.
“Now?” I asked wordlessly.
While there was no answer in the form I wished, I had the feeling that 'now' was as good a time as I would have soon, and I moved out into the street from my hiding place. An open street showed directly to our front, while on the corner, the house proper showed its entire northern wall to be thickly clad with a tall and well-groomed hedge. This hedge continued around the corner to the east side, where it began to thin after perhaps two hundred feet and peter out entirely by the time it reached the halfway mark.
And, for some reason, I knew we wanted to get into that hedge.
At the corner itself, the hedge seemed to have a dark and hollowed place waiting, and I paused at the opening to let the woman enter first. She leaped inside, and I followed after her hotfoot as she darted down into the 'undergrowth' – or so I thought until I saw the long and ragged stone steps leading down into what looked like a chest-high stone-walled trench.
“There are steps here?” I thought, as I leaped down them two at a time.
As if to answer, a thundering roar sent something hot and hissing but a foot above my head, and I ducked down instinctively – which then proved providential, for the entire street became a red-flashed roaring maelstrom with shot and bullets ricocheting off of the wall overhead.
“I'm glad for the trench here,” I muttered with my head still ducked down. “Now can we get in this way, or not?”
The instant I thought this, I knew something important was back this way, and when I caught up with the woman – the trench had gone steadily deeper, such that I could stand normally and remain below-ground – I could feel something like a small alcove a short distance to the front. This was so much the case that when she 'disappeared', I was neither surprised nor distressed, and I ran the last twenty feet to the end of the trench.
The small 'room' that showed to the right was but little more than a stone-walled overhanging region with two thick stone posts, a pair of disused brass candle-lanterns, and an ancient-looking door of black-strapped varnished wood. The right margin of this door was secured by a trio of thick hinges, while the middle of the left boundary owned an elaborate-looking lockplate and a single – and sizable – rounded doorknob. The woman was carefully feeling the thing as if trying to coerce it into revealing its deepest secrets to her.
“Is there a button?” I whispered.
“I cannot feel one,” she said. “This thing feels locked.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but instead came to the door. The gunfire had died out in the street, even if I could plainly discern 'several' witches keeping watch over the area.
“And why they do so is a great mystery,” I thought – until I recalled the nature of witchdom and its few yet important scruples.
“Are they watching the h-house..?” I asked mentally. I was reaching for the doorknob.
“The house proper is always kept under close watch,” said the soft voice, “and witches watch their property closest.”
“And those of their neighbors?” I asked.
“They watch that also, assuming the neighbors are as they are,” said the soft voice. “'Mutual gain and protection societies' are common in witchdom.”
“The fortune hundreds?” I asked, as I touched the doorknob and drew my hand back. The thing was well past the 'dirty' status, and I began to look for a rag to wipe it with.
“More than them,” said the soft voice. “The largest such organization has members all over the continent, and they are marked accordingly with the requisite symbols.”
I could find no rags free, and I removed the one from my face. I was surprised to find it still damp, and as I wiped the doorknob, I felt it gently. I wondered if it had a button, and so far, I had not found one.
“There are two types,” said the voice of recollection. “One has a button, and the other type does not. Those without the buttons are the strangest ones, and they call those marked doors.”
“Is this one of those doors?” I asked.
“While it does have a small button,” said the soft voice, “it is deflected down and hidden under many layers of dirt, grime, corrosion, and grease.” A brief pause, then, “the inner mechanism is still intact, which is why the door has held for the last fifty years.”
“And..?” I thought, as I continued wiping the door.
While there was no answer, between recent experience and recollection, I suspected what it was. A final cleaning wipe, a glance at the woman's face – she looked worn out utterly, so much I thought I might need to carry her the rest of the way – and finally, another look at the lock.
“Open,” I whispered.
The lock clicked with alacrity, and the door itself groaned feebly as dust sifted down from the joint between door and jamb. I pulled slightly, and the door opened wide.
“After you, dear,” I murmured. The woman slowly walked inside.
I went in after her, and pulled the door closed. The hollow booming seemed to emphasize the clicking of the lock, and I wondered if I wanted to repair the lock before leaving.
“Bathe and sleep first,” said the soft voice, “and then dismount the lock if you have time.”
“Dunk the thing in distillate, then boiling water,” I mumbled, as I took the lead with the woman's hand in mine. She seemed to be shuffling as if sleep-walking, and I thought to ply her with the last of my water-bottle – until as I came to a darkened 'jog', I heard faint voices and saw the ghostly flickering of candles ahead.
“But a short distance further,” I said softly. “Then, we can bathe and sleep.”
“Who's there?” said a man's voice from ahead.
“It's us,” said the woman's voice. She sounded completely spent.
Faint discussion, then, “Liza? Is that you?”
“It is,” she sighed, “and I hope there is beer and warm water for a bath.”
“Did you get splattered again?” asked another voice. This one was female.
“No, but I stink like a Genuine Plug,” she said, “and he smells as badly as I do.”
“He?” asked the voice. “That one...”
“Yes, him,” said Liza. “We dodged enough mules and hot lead to last me a year.”
It was as I had suspected, for less than ten seconds later I could see the keg and sign. Shadows beyond it spoke of people waiting for us, and when I came out into the hallway, I saw both speakers armed with fowling pieces, single-shot pistols, and large knives. I then saw the hallway itself.
The floor was now passable for cleanliness, with but few remaining traces of blood upon it; the walls were mostly cleaned of bloodstains and the markings made by shot and bullets; and candles now bright and cheerily flickered behind cleaned glass sheets.
“Has anything been done to the walls?” asked Liza as we came to the doorway.
“You might want to speak to them working on them,” said the woman's now somewhat nasal voice. “I'd get a bath first so's they don't call you a stinker.”
I turned to see the speaker, and was not surprised to see both her and the man with her both holding their noses and making shooing motions with their free hands, and as the two of us slowly wobbled past stalls crowded with snoring individuals, I heard sleepy voices jolt themselves awake to speak of stinkers, bugs, mules, and dead pigeons.
“Yes, I know,” I muttered. “I stink like I did when I went into the Swartsburg.”
I was astonished, however, to find not merely two tubs – one was mine, obviously – but also long lines of hanging clothing dangling from the upper supporting beams. While the woman left for elsewhere – I suspected she wanted clean clothing – I went to the buggy to find my 'clothes-sack'. It was where I had last left it, and when I reached toward it, the realization struck me with sudden abruptness.
“Who did my clothing?” I spluttered, as I undid the thin rope ties holding the bag closed.
There was no answer beyond the obvious one in front of me, and the 'bleached' aspect of what I removed did not dawn upon me until I found my soap-bag.
“What did they do to these clothes?” I asked.
“Fell's soap, most likely,” said a sleepy voice that I could not recognize. “You might want to use some on you, given how you smell.”
I wobbled back to the tub amid faint comments about 'Genuine Plugged Mules' and 'Bugs', and when I came, I was surprised to find the thing part-full of water. I looked around, then touched the water itself.
“Th-this is warm!” I squeaked.
“I'm not surprised,” said Liza's voice from somewhere behind me. “I asked to have boiled water ready in both tubs for our return, and if I go by the hanging clothing, they did so at the end of the washing.”
“Hence?” I asked.
“A boiled bucket on that one lantern should suffice,” said Liza, “and while it boils, we can put up the sheets for bathing.”
“The second tub?” I asked.
“I suspect people have begun retrieving their things from inside,” she said. “There were two tubs in the laundry that were in regular use that I know of, as well as at least one spare – and I know there were more tubs than the three in my area.”
The water boiled quickly, and with half of the bucket in my tub, the water was warm enough to help with the aches and soreness I now noticed fully. I used the usual type of soap, scrubbing much as I had done when coming from the Swartsburg, and at the end – I smelled clean again, thankfully – I tossed my dirty clothing in the still-hot water remaining in the tub. I suspected it was causing much of the stink.
After draining two mugs of beer and visiting the privy, I thought to find Liza so as to deliver up my bags of coin. I found her in 'her' corner of one of the stalls with a cloth spread before her and several leather bags piled to her right – and on the cloth, a sizable pile of coins.
“W-what?” I gasped, upon seeing obvious gold slugs among the large silver pieces. “Did those people put th-that many g-gold m-monsters in our b-bags?”
“I doubt it,” she said. “This is out of an old tale.”
“We won't need to...”
She dumped out the rest of that bag, and amid a flood of silver slugs, at least one coin in three was a gold monster. I then heard muttering, and turned to see Blackbeard. He looked more asleep than awake.
“That feud started back up,” he said, “and now I see this. What happened?”
“That was not the only feud,” she said. “The Hedjtfeld combine is again fighting with those of Makooij, and that's for them.” A brief pause, then, “we had witches after us most of the way.”
“Including a drunken thug that tried to hold us up,” I muttered.
The woman nodded, then said, “I suspect I won't need to do that business again, and I'm glad of it.”
“How did you get so much?” he asked.
“I'm not entirely certain,” she said. “Every scale was especially generous, and that irrespective of what the weigh-men did to cheat us.” A brief pause, then, “has there been trouble here?”
“None beyond three Shoeten that were hiding inside,” said Blackbeard. “I think there might be a few more pigs still alive in the inner house.”
“Witches?” I asked.
“I doubt you will find live ones in there,” he said. “Those two older men went in there after you two left and checked everywhere except that one room.”
“One room?” I asked. “The room with the cloth?”
“I doubt much it has cloth in it now,” he said. “A bomb of some kind turned the door of that room into kindling, and the stink therein speaks loudly of death.” A brief pause, then, “that's for the inner house. The stable is another story entirely.”
“How?” asked Liza.
“I did enough work on it to know mason's work is not for those disinclined toward hard labor,” he said, “and that inner wall was good practice.”
“And the outer?” I asked.
Blackbeard grinned, and while I wondered as to why, he gave further indications a second later.
“That was why I spoke of that feud,” he said. “It seems someone's powder mill went up in the area.”
“What would that do?” I asked.
“About a glass's turn after the first big explosion,” he said, “the first freighting wagons began coming by with what the scavengers had begun to dig up.”
“Broken stone?” I asked.
“Bagged neatly,” he said. “It works well for wall-reinforcements, supposedly, which is a very good thing.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Two more turns of the glass,” he said, “and first one door shows, and then the other one, and behind those two, all of the other things.”
“Other things?” I asked.
“They were still usable, or so one of those older men said,” said Blackbeard. “He said the doors came from a powder mill's main vault, and the same for the frames and other parts.” A brief yawn, then, “and I'd best get back to bed. Tomorrow's a busy day.”
The money went back in its bag, and the whole of the mounded sacks of coin went in the corner next to where Liza had her bed. I wobbled back to where I slept with eyes heavy beyond measure, and I am not certain if I fell asleep prior to laying on the cot or not.