The last mile
While we were within easy distance of home, there was still travel that needed us doing it; and with each mile upon our current road, I noticed my fatigue more and more. Drinking beer helped but little, even when I could recall the need to do so; and when the High Way itself came closer, I wondered if it were going to sweep over us like a tidal wave and then crush us down into darkness.
I hoped it would not play games with my vision, but that was not to be. I could not accurately determine the distance to the road until Jaak hesitated at its very edge. I dismounted, and stepped up from the dirt of the road to the top of the rock and tar matrix – and once I was walking north along the road, the final 'spell' of our lengthy excursion seemed utterly and completely broken.
Once remounted, I found that I had company, one person to each side, and while the three of us rode slowly northward, I yawned and tried to stay awake. There were towns ahead, that much I knew; and when one of them showed, we stopped to water both the horses and ourselves.
My thirst was all-consuming, and my hunger but little less, and I wondered briefly if I would be thought to have learned my manners from some of the freighters we had encountered. I burped once, then another time, and finally, a third.
“I think you are making up for those months of no beer,” said Karl. “I never saw anyone...”
“Hist, you,” murmured Lukas. “I've no exact idea as to what he's been doing takes out of a man, but I suspect it's as bad as working in a haunted mine.”
“No,” said Gabriel. He sounded peculiar, almost as if he'd forgotten how to be oblivious. “That pendant acts like an upper millstone, and I am not certain as to what forms the lower one, at least for him – but I am certain of one thing.”
“Yes?” I asked gently. “What is it?”
“No witch in his right mind would wish that pendant, assuming he could wear it and live,” said Gabriel.
“Why?” asked Kees. I heard genuine curiosity.
“It would devour him, and that such that he would much prefer the teeth of Brimstone,” said Gabriel. “I believe a common phrase that fits it is 'they grind exceeding small' – and that phrase is but a primer compared to the current ability of that pendant.”
“Current ability?” I asked.
“Its teeth are but newly sprouted,” said Gabriel, “and when help arrives, you will be glad for it.”
While Gabriel no longer sounded 'oblivious', he had regained a portion of his former mystery, and our slow and weary route home wound its way along the remainder of the High Way. The road ended roughly an hour and a half later, and as the sky in the west began to change from black to blue, our paths split.
The group turned east in silence, while Jaak and I continued on north, now but the two of us; and faint on the wind, I could hear crowing. I felt reminded of the terror-inducing aspect of roosters, and smiled inwardly toward myself, thinking as I did that no mere bird could be so frightful.
And in my mind, I heard two lines of a nonsensical rhyme:
“If I were a Cassowary, on the plains of Timbuktu,
I would eat a Missionary. Cassock-band and hymnbook, too.”
“No, those aren't Cassowary birds,” I thought.
“Get too close to a peeved rooster, and you will wish they were,” said the soft voice. “Think of a forty-pound bird with the attitude of an irate gamecock, the ability to absorb punishment of a cape buffalo, the overall shape and flying capacity of an eagle – and the claws and beak of a prehistoric creature.” A pause, then, “oh, and add the aggressive tendencies of an angry African lion.”
“That does not sound like any rooster I have heard of,” I muttered.
“That is for a red rooster,” said the soft voice. “The black ones are substantially worse.”
“Those... Gamecocks?” I asked.
“Those called that where you came from are nothing compared to these birds – and that presumes parity in size.”
“Oh, my,” I asked. A coworker far in my past had once spoken of gamecocks and their behavior.
“Be glad there are no six-pound black roosters there,” said the soft voice. “Cockfights would not happen.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“The birds would get loose and kill every person they laid eyes upon,” said the soft voice, “and they would continue to do so until they were blown to atoms by artillery.”
“Artillery?” I asked. “What?”
“Lukas was demonstrating a dangerous degree of overconfidence when he spoke of using a dragoon,” said the soft voice. “More than one rooster has needed pounds of lead in its body before it acquired anything remotely close to 'manners'.”
“P-pounds,” I asked. I was beginning to 'get the fear'.
“Ask Sarah when you see her,” said the soft voice. “She saw one continue to attack with beak and claws until it was cut apart with an ax.” A brief pause, then, “before that point, though – it stopped no less than twenty-three musket balls from 'large' muskets, two bullets from a heavy caliber fifth kingdom rifled musket, and five roer-loads of stiff shot.”
“Oh my,” I squeaked.
“A red rooster,” intoned the soft voice. “Like that one you heard crow in that town.” Another pause. “The black ones are fully as bad as Lukas implied.”
The talk I had heard had kept me awake, and as I looked from side to side when I passed by farms and fields, I could see that planting had either just finished or was still underway. Long narrow furrows, these seeming to go to the range of my vision and beyond, filled every field; and with some of these fields, I discerned long straggly lines of slim green sprouts.
I was glad the witch-clearing seemed to have erased all sign of what had transpired there, and as I passed through it, I could but barely discern the smell. Home wasn't half a mile further, or so I recalled, and when the Public House showed itself, I was surprised greatly.
I could hear several people inside preparing food for the morning. I then looked to the west.
It was no longer a dark and dim blue, but a much lighter one, and I recognized the color as being that just before actual sunrise. I passed the shop, noting its abandoned-seeming aspect – that seemed the usual, for some reason, even as I tried to recall what I had last done inside the place – and when home itself showed, I nearly fell off of Jaak.
“No, best not, yawn,” I thought. “I'd best go in the back way so he can rest properly.”
Getting Jaak through the fold was easier than I thought it might be, and after a quick check – no rocks – I made sure he was adequately supplied with hay and grain. There was plenty of both things, though not in his stall. It took several exhausting minutes for me to put 'enough' of both things where they belonged.
The rear door to the bathroom beckoned, yet for some reason, I did not want to try that door. A hand on it spoke volumes; it was steamy and warm, as if people were drying clothing...
“Or bathing,” I thought. “I hope I can bathe, as I'm past due for a bath.”
With each step toward the front of the house, the sun seemed to show more of itself, and once on the stoop facing the door, my shoulders seemed to be outlined in fiery yellow. I tapped once, then twice – and then listened.
Steps came, these seeming to take forever to get to the door. I heard a click, then a scraping noise – and Anna opened the door.
“N-no,” she muttered. Her voice was barely audible. “It cannot be.”
“What?” I asked. “I'm here.”
A faltering arm reached out to touch the hem of my sleeve, and fingers played along my forearm. I wanted to ask a question.
“Can I come in?” I asked. “I really need a...”
Anna abruptly grabbed my arm, then with a strength beyond my reckoning she pulled me inside. The door closed behind me with a snapping bang as I stumbled and fell to my knees upon the floor.
“What happened to you?” she shrieked. “It's as if I see a ghost!”
“N-no, no ghost,” I said. “I'm really itchy, and then I could use some food.”
“F-food?” squeaked Anna.
“Now who is that down there, Anna?” It was Hans.
“H-he's back,” shrieked Anna, “and he's thin enough to pass for a ghost!”
More thumping steps, these from upstairs, then Hans suddenly showed. Upon seeing me, he nearly flew to my side and began 'feeling' me all over.
“How is it you are so thin?” he asked. “Did those people have you run around like that messenger?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Had I not known better,” said Hans, “I would say were sick that whole time from eating bad food.” A pause, then, “you did not eat anything that was High, did you?”
“Uh, no,” I said. “There were times where people tried to serve me that stuff, but no, I did not eat anything like that.” I paused, then, “uh, why?”
“You are thinner than Anna spoke of,” he said. “Now there is nothing to do for it, as without beer, you will die.”
“Die?” I asked.
“It is better to act like you are sick than be dead,” said Hans. “Now come into the kitchen, so we can get you some food.”
I wondered for a moment if I would be stuffed, at least until Anna opened a crock of herring. I instantly had a raging appetite – and an intense thirst for beer. A cup appeared – this being full of dark brown 'tea' – and I drained the thing in a trice.
I then looked at Anna, who looked at me as if in shock or horror. I could not tell which.
“Why aren't you acting like you usually do?” she asked.
“This is how I act, dear,” I said. I was momentarily befuddled, and wondering what she meant. “Oh, you mean the beer?” I then barely suppressed a belch.
“Now that is a good sign,” said Hans. “He has the upper wind.” Hans paused, then asked, “now how is that lower wind?”
“That hasn't changed much,” I said, between mouthfuls of herring fillet. I suspected I could eat two of them readily. “Where is Sarah?”
“She is around here,” said Hans, “but I have not seen her.”
“Other people have seen her,” said Hans, “and they live around here, and I know them good.”
I finished eating – two more mugs of beer, which had Anna muttering like her old self – and I was ready for a bath. I then realized I only had the clothing I had on, and spoke of it.
“That is not true,” said Anna. “There is a set of greens here to replace those that got burnt.”
“Thank God,” I spluttered. “Where are they? I feel inclined to scratch, I'm itching so badly.”
Anna fetched not merely the clothes, but also one of those delightful pink bars of soap, and as I bathed, the odor of roses seemed an intoxicating scent – until I emerged from the tub and saw numerous new scars dotting my skin.
“What happened?” I squeaked. “I never saw these before!”
While there was no answer from one source, I heard tapping on the door from behind me, and I put most of my clothing on before opening it.
“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans.
“All these n-new scars,” I said. “I never saw them before.”
“That is because it is hard to bathe decent on those trips,” said Hans. “Now those things usually take a lot longer, but you went in a smaller group, too, so that makes sense that you took less time.”
“It does?” I asked.
“Those big groups are like mobs for moving,” said Hans. “They do good to manage ten miles a day when they move.” The implied ending of this statement was a repeat of the last three words, with added emphasis upon that word 'when'. Hans' implied speech suggested that might be one day in three when there was no pressing business and the group's leaders were in what passed for a hurry.
“Uh, no,” I said. “The usual group would not have worked for us.” A brief pause, then, “not with the route we took home.”
“Yes, and what was this?” asked Hans. I was heading for the couch, and I wanted a pillow and blanket – and perchance, I wanted to suck my thumb while sleeping there under the room-blanket.
“We had to travel at night nearly the whole way back,” I murmured, “and most of that distance without using common roads.”
“Albrecht says that is his usual now,” said Hans. “Those black-dressed witches are after him a lot.”
“We had to dodge those wretches from the house proper in the fifth kingdom to within thirty miles of here,” I spluttered, “and they were s-shooting at us...”
I was at the couch, and sat down. In the process, my trousers leg came up briefly, and Hans saw it. He fetched a chair from around the table, then sat down before pulling up my leg.
“I'm really ticklish...”
Hans ignored my speech, and began looking at my leg. He shook his head.
“I hope you are not planning on working in a mine any time soon,” he said, “as I think you got some more lead in you.”
“L-lead?” I asked.
“These are from shot,” said Hans as he tapped on my leg. “At least they did not get infected.”
“What was that, Hans?” asked Anna. “Did you say...”
Anna now 'flew' down the stairs, then sat down on the floor by Hans. She grabbed my other leg, pulled up the cloth – and squeaked like a crushed mouse.
“What did they do to you?” she squealed. “You look like a buzzard!”
“That is shot, Anna,” said Hans. “Now is there more of that stuff?”
“Y-yes, all over,” I said. “I never saw it before... Ooh, that tickles!”
Anna was doing something with my toes, and I nearly convulsed with laughter – at least until she began 'picking' at something.
“What is that?” asked Hans.
“I think I need those larger tweezers,” said Anna. “This looks like some shot coming to the surface.”
As Hans left, I asked, “will you have to dig it out?”
Anna seemed wrought in concentration, then with a particularly difficult effort – which tickled greatly – she 'yanked' something out of my leg. She then looked at the dark gray sphere.
“That is shot, all right,” said Hans as he returned, “and it is big shot, too.” He then looked at me, and said, “you said those witches were shooting at you a lot.”
I was tongue-tied, so much so that when Anna tickled my leg again, I nodded.
“Hans, you'd best fetch a bowl,” said Anna. “This stuff is coming up as I'm watching it.”
“Does shot usually do that?” I asked.
“It usually gets infected,” said Anna. “There, that's another one.”
“But if not?” I asked.
“That depends,” said Anna. “I'm going to be most careful about who I speak to about this, as most people would...”
Hans returned with the bowl, then said, “that is out of an old tale, Anna.”
“I know,” she muttered. “I think you should stay home until this stuff is gone.”
I had no small amount of trouble enduring 'shot digging' once I was on the couch, for sleep stole up upon me abruptly once I lay there. I did not waken until late afternoon – and once awake, I wanted to use the privy right away. On the way out, however, I saw a sizable bowl filled with sundry-sized dark gray spheres.
“Where did this come from?” I asked.
I heard steps coming from below, then Hans showed.
“Those witches must have been trying to air your hide out a lot,” he said, “as that there is stuff we dug out of you.”
“Dug?” I asked.
“I think you might want to be looked over again tomorrow,” said Hans, “as that stuff keeps coming up, and that is for the shot.”
“Shot?” I asked.
“Some wretch was trying to drill you with a pistol like you have,” said Hans, “as I got five of those things out of you myself.”
“Uh, shot-filled roers?” I asked. I then felt my arm.
“Why does my arm feel more like it usually does?”
“I think that is because you are no longer full of lead,” said Hans. “Now you need to eat some more, and then for dinner we have some people coming.”
“Uh, who?” I asked.
“Maarten and Katje,” said Hans, “and then, someone came by from the kingdom house.”
“My, uh, things?” I asked.
“They should have those here before it gets dark,” said Hans. “If you are as full of lead as you are, then Anna will need to see everyone else who went to see if they are that way.” Hans paused, then said, “that person from the house said some people from there would come for dinner also.”
I wondered who these 'some people' were, and more, their reason for coming, but I had an appetite that would not cease with its hunger. I devoured two more herring fillets, two slices of bread, and two more mugs of beer.
I wished more sleep, and went back to the couch so as to get it – and while asleep, I felt multiple instances of being softly 'tickled' everywhere over my body. It felt pleasant, and I laughed softly in my deep 'swoon'; for I was more than normally asleep.
I was paying the price for a month's overwork and lack of rest. I could rest now.
I would not be able to do so much longer, I realized – it wasn't merely the Swartsburg rebuilding, but much more.
I awoke in a famished state at dusk to a house at once busy and bustling. Bright lighting, these of student's lanterns stoked with thick wax candles, came from some distance away; while closer, I could see neatly-stacked rows of boxes and mounded bags. One person, perhaps two, were looking these things over.
And someone else was much closer yet. My eyes then opened, and I truly awoke. I saw Anna's face, only somehow, it seemed faintly hazed with bluish mist for part of a second.
“What is that thing on your chest?” she asked.
“My, uh, chest?”
“I was looking you over for more shot,” said Anna, “and I filled a measuring cup with it.” A brief pause, then, “and I saw what you were wearing this time.”
“What am I wearing?” I asked. I then recalled what she was speaking of, and gingerly reached for it.
“No, this is not my precious,” I thought. I wondered for a second, however, if the pendant felt that way about me.
“What is it?” asked Anna. Her voice was at once both curious and insistent. I thought to look around first.
“I was, uh, given t-t...”
“Given?” asked Anna. “Is this something I should know about?”
Her last tone was utterly unsettling, so much so that I squeaked, “it gains weight when I take it out.” My hand had had its own thoughts, for only then did I notice the pendant's position.
Not merely was the thing outside my shirt, but it was weighing ounces, and it looked utterly 'normal' – at least, as normal as a barbaric-looking chunk of jewel-encrusted gold could look. I felt as if terror-stricken, for now...
“That's ridiculous,” I muttered. “Anna does not like jewelry.” A thought, however, came after: “or does she?” I had to ask.
“Uh, do you like jewelry..?”
“That thing is out of an old tale, Anna,” said Hans. He had come up to Anna's side without my noticing it. “Gabriel is looking for it in those Grim books.”
“G-Gabriel?” I asked.
“I have yet to check him,” said Anna, “but if I go by the way he is scratching at himself, I might get some lead out of him too.”
“I will need to look at him especially,” said Anna. “Him and that other man. I've dug shot out of both of them before, and that several times.”
“And Hendrik, and Karl...”
Anna nodded. I then noticed she was sitting on a stool.
“Uh, chairs?” I asked.
“Those are being used,” she said. “We kept these for company.”
Hans sipped from his mug, then said, “there is a lot of stuff they brought for you, and that is for you.” A pause, then, “there is a lot of dynamite, also.”
“Dynamite?” I asked.
“Most of that stuff is good dynamite,” said Hans, “as it is in the smaller sticks, and they are a dark brownish black for their outsides.”
“His is marked good with chalk,” said Hans. “There were five boxes of that stuff, and someone knew about the caps, too, as they were separated good.”
“G-good dynamite?” I asked.
“Yes, it is fresh,” said Hans, “and it is a type I have used before.”
Anna looked at Hans as if to reproach him.
“This stuff will not scatter you, as long as you are careful with it,” said Hans, “which is a good thing, as there is talk about them doing the Abbey, and that means they will want dynamite for that place.”
“Oh, my,” said Anna softly.
“Most of that stuff?” I asked.
“There was some mining dynamite,” said Hans, “and that needs using soon, and then there were some of these things that look like ink globes...”
“I would be most careful with those,” murmured Gabriel. “I have seen what they can do.”
“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans.
“They explode as if they were witch-jugs,” said Gabriel, “and not weak witch-jugs, either.” A brief pause, then, “I managed to find that one tale, and can read to you all before they come.”
“They?” I asked.
“Maarten and Katje are supposed to come,” said Gabriel, “but due to both distance and the state of their current domicile, they need to leave most discretely, and then arrive here after dark.”
“The state of their c-current...” I asked.
“That is bad,” said Hans. “It was better for a while.”
“And, they also need to leave here while it remains dark, and travel as we did until they are home once more,” said Gabriel. He then sat down, and opened one of the huge Grim volumes.
“This is the story that speaks of the Day of Infamy,” he said, “and it concerns the death of witches and that of those opposing them...”
Over the course of the ensuing minutes, my 'preconceived' notions regarding this 'tale' vanished one by one. While Gabriel 'skipped' large parts of the text – this was not a short tale – he did read the important portions aloud, and answered questions as they were put to him. It soon became obvious that he had read the 'tale' in question many times before, almost as if he were intending to commit it entire to memory.
It also became obvious – to me, at least – that what he was reading was a mixture of transcribed 'oral history' and prophecy, with both components having bearing on the current day and its events.
“Are all of these tales like this one?” I asked.
“These tales are fairly trustworthy, for the most part,” said Gabriel. “At least half are nearly as accurate as the tapestries, while the rest vary substantially as to how much is known to be truth and how much is questionable.” A beer-sipping pause, then, “I thought the tale that speaks of the Horned Dragoon was mostly made up when we left, but I wonder about it now.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans. “I have yet to see one of those things.”
Gabriel shuddered, then said in a high-pitched voice that reeked of fear, “you did not walk behind him on the grounds of the fourth kingdom house. I did, and I saw that thing, and I measured the depth of its footprints with my hand!” A shocked intake of breath, then, “and that was there. There is another creature at the Abbey, and it...” Gabriel put his head in his hands, shuddered more, then looked up as if in the grip of a nightmare.
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“There is a large reptile at the Abbey,” I said. “It currently is hiding itself.”
“Yes, and what will you do?” asked Hans.
“That creature, as well as some others, will need eviction prior to the Abbey's use,” I said. “I hope that does not happen soon, as...”
“I know,” said Gabriel. “That place is going to need ample preparation, and you will be involved.”
As Gabriel resumed narrating the tale, I could feel not merely Maarten and Katje coming, but also Sarah. By some means, she had learned of my arrival. I was then interrupted in my thinking.
“I never understood that tale particularly well,” said Anna. “What is this cleansing fire?”
“You will learn of it soon enough, dear,” I said. My tone was more than a little serious. “Maarten and Katje will also learn, which is good.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“They will need to help with clearing the Abbey,” I said. I was now entirely serious.
Anna, however, was less so. She then asked, “I'm glad for all the spices you brought back from that trip, and I'm yet gladder my recipe cards are still readable.”
Gabriel looked at her with an expression of unchained misery, and squeaked, “readable?”
“Why, could you not read them?” asked Anna.
Gabriel shook his head, then said, “Lukas could understand what was written on those. I could not.” A brief pause, then, “the Hot Pot came out decent, as did the buzzard.”
Hans all but slapped Gabriel, and grabbed his sleeve, saying, “what is this?”
“A large one showed down in the fourth kingdom,” said Gabriel, “it was shot...”
“Yes, and with what?” asked Hans. “Those things ignore balls unless they are hit solid, and one wants a large musket unless you get close enough to put soot on them.”
“It was,” said Gabriel. “It was also cooked and then partly eaten.” Gabriel paused, then said, “that shot was hard to believe.”
“The smell of that thing was harder to believe than the shot,” I muttered.
“Yes, and how did it smell?” asked Hans.
“Like a leaky distillery,” I muttered. “I felt really sick until it was cooking on skewers over an open fire. The smell went away then.”
There was silence for perhaps a few seconds, and I again 'heard' Maarten and Katje. They were closer than I had thought – and, I could say the same for Sarah.
Or rather, I had underestimated how fast she could travel, even on foot – and at night. She was not slow.
“Have you seen a certain dark-haired woman in the area?” asked Gabriel.
“No, not since Sarah left,” said Hans. “Is this her?”
“This woman is the tallest I have ever seen,” said Gabriel. “Also, she's the thinnest healthy woman I have ever seen.”
Anna looked at Gabriel as if to reproach him. Gabriel seemed to ignore her glance.
“No, no one like that, either,” said Hans. “Why is it you ask?”
“I suspect she started north when we did,” said Gabriel, “and she is coming from the second kingdom house.”
“Yes, and how is that?” asked Hans. “I hope she is riding the post.”
“Manfred mentioned that,” said Gabriel. “More importantly, she is a very formidable instructor, and that for anything you might imagine.”
“Then what is she coming up here for?” asked Hans. “Does Hendrik want to start one of those schools?”
“Uh, I am not sure,” I said. “She spoke of the Abbey.” A pause, then, “have you seen any freighting wagons heading north?”
“Yes, lots of those things,” said Hans. “All of them have stone blocks on them, and that is for them.”
“Them?” I asked.
“Then, there are the buggies, and those have people and their tools, and finally, there is lye...”
“Lye?” I asked. I recalled its vile smell and nausea, and but little more.
“That was spoken of, also,” said Gabriel. “The Abbey is overgrown with weeds and vines, and lye makes them readily disposable.”
“Yes, because it kills them dead,” said Hans. “I think they are using bad lye, as...”
“Do not speak of lye, Hans,” said Anna. “I can barely stand the fourth kingdom's lye as it is.”
“There is some of that stuff in those chemicals,” said Hans, “and a lot of other things, too.”
“For blackening iron,” I said. “I received a recipe for that process in the fourth kingdom.”
“There is a lot more than what you will need for that,” said Hans. “We will need to speak of it later, as tonight has plenty for talking already.”
I looked over those things that had come for a few minutes so as to separate my tools, then wiping them down with an oily rag prior to replacing them in my workbench's drawers. I could now 'hear' Maarten and Katje coming, and as I recalled the 'Sun' lantern – it was still well-hid, though I suspected I knew where it was hiding – I wondered briefly.
Would that bluish-white fire show tonight? And if so, then when would it appear?
“Best forget about that thing tonight,” I thought. “There will be enough happening without it.”
My candle-lanterns, however, were well-stoked with candles, and as I finished putting away the tools I had used during the trip, I heard – this time, audibly – the sound of a buggy's arrival. I turned to see shadows upon the stoop and Anna heading for the door as someone began tapping on the other side.
“Maarten and Katje, no doubt,” I thought, as Anna opened the door.
Six people made for a most-crowded kitchen, and every stool and chair – save one – was in use. The air was redolent with the salty-smoky-fishy smell of herring, the yeasty odor of beer – two jugs were in use, and Hans was muttering about needing to build a brew-house to handle the increased consumption of beer – and the 'vegetable' smell of minced cabbage topped with crumbled hard-cheese.
With part-loaded stomachs, the talk began. I remained silent, save when I had a question put to me, which was surprisingly infrequent – or so I thought, at least until talk turned to subjects I found frightening.
“There have been strange rumors,” said Maarten darkly, “ones which speak of the coming of the day of retribution and the fire of cleansing.”
The table went silent, much as if it waited for a sign.
“It has broken out in many places,” said Maarten. “It has not come where we live, nor, it seems, has it come into this area.”
“Perhaps it needs to be prepared for,” said Anna. “Still, if it should show, I will jump into it. I made up my mind when I first heard of it many years ago.”
As the talk continued on this subject, however, I found myself more than merely scared. Some other emotion, one which I could scarcely place, had seemed to take over my mind; and I stood up absent-mindedly so as to walk to the front of the parlor. I did so, not knowing what I might see, but knowing more that what I might see would be especially important if I saw it. Silently, I opened the door, then went out onto the boards of the stoop in my bare feet.
I was glad for smooth-painted wood and a lack of splinters, and yet more glad for the brightness of the moon and stars. They had been cheering companions in the last weeks, and I had grown especially appreciative in the last few days of their stable and subtle light.
“And their lack of light at times, also,” I thought, as I recalled the numerous times we had been hidden by darkness. “I never thought I would have relished the darkness that much, either.”
And as if to remind me, the moon slowly elongated, much as it had on another night in the recent past, and slowly went to two moons for a second before rejoining into an elongated circle once more. Seeing the moon split and rejoin made me wonder about 'luck', for some reason.
The soft sounds of night spoke of peace; a peaceful town and peaceful fields; a place long separated from the nightmarish gunfire and witch-sparked flames of recollection. Faintly, as if wind-borne, I heard soft delicate steps some distance away, and I crouched down upon my knees to both partly hide behind the stoop's railing and concentrate upon what I was hearing.
The steps suddenly stopped. I looked for their source, and suddenly, I saw a barely-visible – its outline was more than a little diffuse – shape crouch down about two hundred yards distant in the middle of a yet-unplowed field.
“They'll be plowing that one soon enough,” I thought.
And again, the strange emotion returned, this time stronger. I sobbed softly, and whispered to the darkness in hopes it might yield the secret to me.
“Where is she?” A pause, pregnant or otherwise. “I miss her.”
Soft steps came from my rear, and I turned while yet kneeling to see Gabriel. I hoped he could not see my tears.
“I suspect that is what is holding matters,” he whispered. “Katje is fearful, and so is Maarten.” A pause, then, “we most likely need another person, someone who can convince both of them, and then it will happen.”
While Gabriel made entire sense this time – it was waiting – he did but little to disturb how I felt.
“Out there,” I whispered, pointing with my right hand as I stood up partly while blinking away my tears. “Not two hundred yards off.”
Gabriel came out onto the stoop as I moved to the right of the nearest support-beam.
“See her?” I asked softly. “She's right there.”
Movement, this time furtive and quick as a frightened rat, boiled out from under my outstretched fingertip and shot to the side. Again, the quickness I saw portrayed was astonishing.
“I do not see her out there,” said Gabriel. “I see movement, though.”
He then pointed to another region. It was in the middle of the field next to where I had been pointing.
“That's a marmot traveling from one area of forage to another, Gabriel,” I murmured. “She most likely will come in the back way, as she does not wish embarrassment.” A pause, then, “I am not embarrassed for her. She is worried about frightening the others.”
I stood to go, then walked slowly back to the kitchen with Gabriel walking behind me. I wondered if he were copying my stride and footsteps as had been done at the second kingdom house, at least until he retook his seat.
I did not retake mine, for I yet had work to do. I went into the bathroom, there to unlatch the outer door, then once back in the kitchen, I pushed the inner door to such that a crack of light showed from the kitchen into the otherwise-darkened bathroom. I then turned to see Anna facing me.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“She comes.” My voice was at once 'authoritative' and 'mysterious'. “It will come soon after.”
And as if my 'clairvoyance' needed confirmation, I heard soft furtive steps at the rear of the property, then a leaping sound followed by a cushioned thump. Anna noticed nothing, nor did the others, who were still eating and drinking. I found the last mug we had, fetched a jug of beer, filled the mug close to its top, and left it, the jug, and a plate upon the nearest portion of the counter. I then heard the outer door of the bathroom close, and I silently returned to my seat to watch.
The inner door seemed to faintly shake, then it began to slowly open. A slim hand, long-fingered and delicate, reached inside, followed by a graceful arm hidden mostly by thin and slightly travel-stained cloth. A pause, brief as a heartbeat.
The others saw nor heard nothing, and it was time for me to speak.
“I knew you were coming, dear,” I said softly, “and I filled a mug for you just now.”
Sarah shrieked, then the door flew open to hit the wall with a bang as she flew into the kitchen. I heard a gasp, then frantic swallowing, followed by a demure yet prolonged belch just before she showed. I was astonished to say the least.
“I wanted to surprise you all,” she squeaked. “It was time to come back, and I am back, but...”
“Yes?” I thought. “You are back.”
“That forest was strange,” she said, as she took a furtive-seeming step toward me. I then noticed how she had changed.
Her walk spoke loudly of it: much less fearful, far calmer – and, perhaps, a bit forward, for she turned around suddenly in front of me, and then...
She sat in my lap!
Her agility was astounding, with a catlike grace; and once she had set her mug down, she put her hand upon my chest prior to hugging me.
“I missed you greatly, and longed for you,” she said, “but there is work, and it needs doing, and they” – here, she first pointed at Maarten, then at Katje – “need convincing.”
Her emphatic speech reminded me of her name's meaning, and her boldness – that too had increased. Sarah leaped off of my lap to 'materialize' in front of Katje. I felt reminded of Liza's agility.
“You gave your word, Katje,” she said in a tone I had only heard a few times in my life on the surface of two planets, “and so far as you knew at that time, you meant it.” A pause, ripe for unspoken speech, then, “but then, you did not know that Maarten has as much choice about his duty as you have about the color of your hair.”
Sarah's tone now grew higher-pitched in a fashion that I poorly understood beyond, “I'm glad she isn't a witch!”
“Refusing such a summons as you have received is unrelenting misery,” said Sarah. “and that is where you have lived the whole of your married life.” A pause, then, “do you wish to continue to abide in misery, or do you wish to give up on it?”
That last phrase, I understood, was not a question. It was a command; and its meaning: 'repent of your evil'.
Sarah then turned to Maarten, for she had words he needed to hear as well.
“You desired to see the future.” I could almost feel dust sifting down upon our heads, so powerful was her speech. “This is the future.”
Maarten looked at her as if dumbfounded.
“And it is now, and all of you who are not as you should be, become as you will, and be changed!”
I now realized I had felt a harbinger, and I looked up to see faint motes sifting down amid echoes both sonic and beyond the range of audible sensation. The ceiling's thick beams vibrated like massive tuning forks, while the plaster-hid planks above them shook like reeds in a hurricane, and the plaster...
It showed a thousand cracks, each one of them filled to bursting with fire; a crack shook down a little dust to scatter soundlessly like sleeping sheep...
And the whole ceiling blew away in an eyeblink to be replaced by torrential blue-white fire amid sounds appropriate to an erupting volcano the size of a planet.
There were no questions, only shouts that came from all around me. I glanced at Anna as she left her seat, then as she left the floor, Hans tried to overtake her. Both vanished into the clouds overhead with brilliant and sparkling eruptions of light.
“Both of you,” shouted Sarah. “This is what you have longed for! Up with you!”
Maarten, to his credit, needed but Sarah's words to leave his chair and 'launch', while Katje sat still upon her chair, tears rolling down her cheeks the whole time. She turned to me, much as if I were someone entirely not here, and said in a tear-racked voice, “but I wished otherwise, and...”
No time for delay. I needed to act.
“That rubbish is firewood,” I spat. “If you are going to build, build that which will last, not garbage that goes up in smoke!”
Katje shook her head, denying that which was now entirely too obvious, and she tried to speak, even as her chair shook as if gripped by an earthquake. Her hair stood on end, now being sucked upwards by a hole that had appeared in the raging clouds of fire, and the rest of her began vibrating, much as if she were about to endure a convulsion as the updraft above her now began to moan and howl. She grabbed at the table, but the updraft grew stronger and louder; she kicked as if a mule, and it availed her not; she screamed – loudly – and it was not heard; and she cried, even as she rose slowly from her chair.
Her tears were ignored, and that completely.
Her head touched the cloud, and she beat against it with frenzied fists as she 'went under' slowly, inch by inch – until when her neck became engulfed, she jerked upwards as if someone had hooked her like a fish and pulled her up.
Up, and out of this world; and into the next one, where being late was never a good idea. Sarah looked at me from the other side of the table, then somehow 'flowed' back into my lap. She seemed to have a question.
“I think she got drafted,” I said softly. “Now, as for your question, dear...”
A pause, one long anticipated.
“My answer is yes, and that without qualifications or restrictions of any type.”
A brief pause.
“There is a necklace I need to finish, and a small golden ring for your finger...”
Sarah held up her right hand, and I touched the finger in question. I was more than a little surprised at the lack of a spark as I touched her.
“And in the mean-time, while those things are readied,” I said, “there is a building that needs attention. That will need a group of people, weapons of some kind, and much more.”
Sarah looked at me with large eyes and an unspoken question on her lips.
“I think it should begin to rain people shortly,” I said. “Don't you?”
As if she knew the best possible answer, Sarah snuggled further into my lap and gently tweaked my nose while softly giggling.