Another stinky witch.
On the other side of my 'favorite' anvil, Hans was standing and staring at what looked like the ruins of an 'idol' distillery, and as I knelt down to look at the dented and torn metal, he began muttering.
As I looked over the jagged rips and tears, I wondered briefly who had attempted matters, at least until Hans brought over a lumpy-looking 'sculpture'. Its newer seeming – the copper showed little age and no corrosion, even if it was nearly as chewed-up as the old piece – was something of a marvel, at least until I saw the multitude of crude-looking brass rivets. I gasped aloud.
“Yes, this is bad,” said Hans. “I think they tried doing something about that thing there before they left.”
“That's s-scrap,” I gasped. “Th-those rivets...”
“Are as bad as any I have seen, and that is for the rivets,” said Hans. “Work this bad would would get mobs going around here, and that is if it was done at another shop.”
“Did they m-make those rivets here?” I asked. “We didn't have any fifteen-line b-brass wire.”
“I think they might have got some,” said Hans as he turned to Georg's desk. He then opened the lower portion.
I paused in my thinking, recalling what I had heard about the latest edition of Koenraad. It was becoming steadily more apparent that he not only needed discomfiture now, but also his agents needed to be discomfited as well.
Hans stood up abruptly, then turned with a folded sheet of paper in his hand. This he opened, and began reading aloud.
“They did not bring all of this stuff,” he said, “as this paper speaks of a lot of iron, and I do not see it in here.”
“What kind of iron?” I asked.
“It speaks of six-line sheet,” said Hans, “and then eight and twelve-line bars, and some 'L' stuff, and then this kind that looks like an 'I' that is common down in the fourth kingdom.”
“Most likely for that one furnace,” I murmured. “At this rate, nothing much is going to happen until the Swartsburg is dealt with.”
“I think you are right,” said Hans. “If that is so, then those things in the buggy are best kept at home.”
“I can work on them there, you mean,” I said.
Hans looked around, then said, “that might be a good idea, at least until I can talk to people around here some.”
“Wake up!” shouted Anna. I could barely hear her, so much so that I wondered if I were hearing her conventionally. “Why are you still in bed, you lazy wretch?”
Fainter yet, I heard another voice, this mingled with yawning, and it spoke of her going away and letting the person sleep for another two hours. She, of all people, had to know the new rules about when to arise and when to resume sleeping.
“The third hour?” I gasped, upon hearing clearly the voice of the sleeper, this a dull monotone, telling Anna to let him be obedient to orders and sleep another two hours. More, he was accusing her of doing evil by trying to awaken him before the third hour – as only arising when the sun was well up and the air had warmed was the soul and definition of god-fear. I noted the lower case 'G' especially well, and it made for questions in my mind.
“That is bad,” said Hans. “That is half-way to lunch.”
“And they probably go to bed at the ninth hour,” I spluttered. “Bedtime in the midafternoon?”
“Not quite that early, at least here,” said the soft voice, “even if what you heard regarding 'the third hour' is accurate for this area.”
While Hans continued to read the bills of lading, I resumed looking at the wreckage of the distillery. A moment's time, and I knew I would need to essentially start from scratch. I then resumed looking around the shop.
“There is rivet-stock mentioned here,” said Hans, “and that in the usual sizes and metals for rivets.”
“Fifteen-line, correct?” I asked.
“That, and what you usually use,” said Hans. “Then, I see some other things here...”
My hearing of Hans' speech had nearly vanished, for I had come upon not just one pump, but two ancient-seeming red-painted constructions. I touched one, and gasped at its chill sensation.
“Leather, for pumps,” said Hans. “Sheet tin...”
Again, my hearing seemed diminished as I wobbled slowly through the stacked mounds of boxes that seemed to have turned the shop into an obstacle course, and the droning words of Hans' speech seemed muted, almost as if they were the noises of flies. The rear of the shop lay but a short distance to my front, and in a seeming dream, I removed the bar from the rear staples, set it aside, and opened the door.
The faint creaking sound spoke of a lack of attention. I had been too busy before leaving to oil it, even if I had done so beforehand on a number of occaisions. What I needed to see lay outside, and with cautious steps, I walked toward the rear of the shop. I passed by the new-laid brick 'plinth' for the furnace amid its smoothly-executed brick 'yard', for I was intent upon the secret things hidden under the rear shelter. Only when my foot caught upon something was the dreamy revery broken, and I looked down numbly.
The numbness vanished instantly when my eyes focused upon what lay to my right, and as I swept my gaze over the huge and straggling mound of ruined metal, I gasped involuntarily.
“What were they trying to do?” I squeaked. “This is worthless!”
I reached out to touch the 'sheet-metal', and again, my foot caught upon something. I stopped and looked directly down to see a part-buried wooden handle at once 'too familiar' and yet strictly alien. I knelt down to look closer.
“Th-the rivet swage,” I gasped, as I pulled upon the handle and the damaged piece came free. “They r-ruined it completely.”
The swage was not merely ruined; it was obvious to me, for some reason, that it had been destroyed in a vindictive fit of rage, almost as if I were being cursed at for not being at the beck and call of those who owned me utterly. As I began to remove the other portions of the tool from under the mounded scrap metal, I seemed to not merely hear faint sounds of speech, but also smell the odor of strong drink.
I needed to move aside some of the scrap metal to completely uncover the swage's parts, and in the process, I started to see a resemblance in these scattered and battered pieces of scrap to what I had drawn long ago so as to show Georg. I also noticed wide and wobbly-seeming chalk-marks; and once again, I smelled strong drink.
“Those m-marks are as wide as my thumb!” I gasped. “H-how could they d-do anything... And th-those h-holes?”
My voice had risen to a new and rare shrillness upon seeing obvious 'punched' rivet holes for the first time, and their contrast with the neatly drilled examples more common to my work was staggering. Not merely did the tool used make a jagged-seeming hole, it also dented the metal surrounding it in an uneven fashion, and it drove jagged lumps and 'strings' out of the other side. I then looked down again, and found a full-sized lump of chalk worn down to a rounded ball fit for stuffing a roer.
Moving aside more and more scrap began to enhance the growing picture in my mind, and in the process, I found 'pieces' of rivets, mangled-looking badly-formed rivets bent into twisted and rusting junk, a broken hammer with a badly mushroomed head...
“Beat an 'obstinant tool' into submission,” I thought. “I'm glad that hammer isn't one of mine.”
And with this thinking, I heard the memory of Maarten's far-to-the-south reply: “hammering on something that is supposed to fit and does not is all most in the house know to do.”
“And home's about as bad as it gets for that rubbish,” I thought. Lukas had spoken nothing but the truth, and now I was seeing it borne out. I stood up, for there was nothing I could do with the scrap at this time, and looked around.
“There's a lot of new scrap back here,” I mumbled. “Where did it all c-come from?”
While there was no answer, I thought to look at one of the smaller 'new' scrap-piles, and there, I saw no less than a dozen rudely-forged bent and twisted crooked rust-streaked iron bars. The crudeness of these things seemed to strike a memory, and with it, strange thoughts grew.
“Too little heat, for one,” I murmured, as I thought once more about the ruined swage. I was glad I had as many 'replacement' parts for it as I did; I could almost assemble two such tools with what I currently had. “And use a big hammer – like that one they r-ruined, and...”
There was something more, and what this something was seemed an impenetrable mystery, at least until Ivo's voice suddenly whispered from memory about Ernst and his vocal tendencies when blackening gun-parts.
“They c-chant,” I gasped. “The heat and hammering isn't the matter? A s-separate curse for each blow, and the curses form the stinking rivet?”
My voice had raised in pitch with each word, such that 'rivet' came out a giddy screech, and steps came running from behind me. I turned around to see Anna running toward me.
“Are you all r-r...” She ceased speaking upon seeing the waste and destruction laying about me to then resume speaking in a muttering undertone.
“I thought they had just left things for you,” she said. “This is horrible.”
“Is it truly horrible?” I asked. “Or did they just attempt something beyond their understanding, and, uh...”
“That stuff is bad, Anna,” said Hans from the doorway. “They tried their stuff once he'd gone, and gave it up after a few days.”
“This is not a few days' work for those men,” said Anna. “They'd need at least a week to ruin this much.”
“Uh, drunk?” I asked.
“Did you find something?” asked Anna.
“No, but I smelled strong drink briefly,” I said. My gorge rose briefly with the statement, and I mouthed the words “El Serpente.”
“I would watch those men, then,” said Anna. “I'd almost search the house here after hearing you speak that way.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“After that trip back?” asked Anna. “You finding all of those things, and guiding them every step of the way, and keeping all of those men safe?” A pause, then, “and that while some of them were acting as if a witch was controlling them?”
“That was trouble, Anna,” said Hans, as he came to where we were standing. “This is bad.”
Hans had found the wreckage of both hammer and swage, and as he knelt down to touch the thing, I asked, “did you hear any 'shouting' while they were working?”
“Nothing beyond a lot of hammering,” said Hans. “They were hammering as if you had taught them, at least for noise.”
“Then it's not likely you heard them speak,” I said. “Did you see what they were doing?”
Hans nodded, then said, “they were making a lot of rivets with that thing, at least when I was watching.”
“Did you see their lips move?” I asked.
“That was strange,” said Hans, “as they were moving around the exact same way with each hit they did on each rivet.”
“As if they were treating what they made like a fetish...”
I gasped, again upon recalling the ways and means of bridge-work in the second kingdom. “Mass graves...”
“Yes, those are common where the swine come much,” said Hans. “Did you see any being filled?”
“N-no,” I spluttered. “There were several bridges... Hot-rivets.... People being burnt to cinders by fetish-grade hot metal, and they were cursed by those still-living because they weren't strong-enough witches to produce the needed pieces and live.”
“I think you're right,” said Anna softly, “and I think you might come home to work there, at least until town wakes up.”
“W-wakes up?” I asked.
“They will not want you waking them up,” said Anna. “It's almost like being in the lazier parts of the second kingdom any more.”
“L-lazier?” I asked. I wanted to scream.
“That's what most think of the western back-country,” said Anna. “They're very poor there, and most people in the first kingdom think only lazy people are poor.”
“That is so, if you are from around here,” said Hans. “It is not like that elsewhere.”
“For thinking, or in truth?” I asked. Hans had already turned to go.
“Both, I think,” said Anna. “Finding work here is easier than almost anywhere.”
We had rejoined Hans, and as the three of us moved through the tall-stacked maze of the shop's interior, he said, “no, Anna, it is not easier than almost anywhere to find work in the first kingdom.”
“Then where is it easier?” asked Anna.
“There is no place easier to find work,” said Hans emphatically, “and that is so, even if you have trouble managing turnips for farming and do bad work otherwise.”
“But bad work draws mobs,” said Anna.
“Yes, if some certain people raise them,” said Hans. His tone difficult to place, even if it lacked any apparent sense of oblivion. “That man Lukas told me about how they do that, and he spoke of how bad it is right now for trouble around here.”
“Uh, the Swartsburg's rebuilding?” I asked.
“I think you are right, there,” said Hans. “I would work at home for a day or two, until we can wake more people up around here.”
I kept silent, even as I walked along side the buggy to the house. Once there, however, I was astonished at what was done, for Hans closed the outer door of the passage with the horses still hitched, and while Anna led the horses around to the 'barn', he began to take in the supplies.
“What has happened here?” I asked, as I came in with a wicker basket. “Have those witches tried to turn this place into an outpost of the Swartsburg?”
“They have not done that,” said Hans, “but they have done much to cause trouble, and I do not like it at all.”
“And we must do what we can secretly,” said Anna. “I am more than a little afraid at how home has become in the last few days.”
“M-mobs?” I asked. “B-burn-piles?”
Anna nodded, then opened the door – and the faint creak acquired a shrieking echo. I came in after Hans and found Sarah sucking down a mug of beer.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was in the bathroom,” said Sarah, “and I'd just put up some clothing to dry, and the door opened unexpectedly.”
“Yes?” I asked. There was more, and the speech I'd just heard but settled my growing suspicions.
“I was afraid it might be a witch,” said Sarah.
“Yes, and I am not surprised much,” said Hans. “I think you should carry a pistol, is what I think, and there are some of those things that came back from that trip.”
“Which ones, Hans?” asked Anna. “There were several kinds.”
“Like what you have,” said Hans. “Those big ones are trouble, and that is for their weight.” A brief pause, then, “they try to escape from the hands when they are fired, and that is no matter how good you hold them.”
“D-dragoons,” I muttered.
“That is what some call those things,” said Hans. “Now we will want to make that shield for the window right off, as no one will understand much about what we do here.”
“It's worse than that, Hans,” said Sarah. “The only place that still keeps its former hours is the Public House.”
“Then we might just wish to keep watch tonight to see what nonsense is being done here,” I said. “It sounds like the witches are not just speaking to people, but they are actually planting fetishes in their houses and on their persons...” A pause, then, “just like those stinking Generals did!”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if observing during the hours of darkness tonight will be very instructive.”
“Uh, are they planting fetishes?” I asked.
“No, and they have no need of doing so,” said the soft voice. “Just because many curses need to be manifested does not mean all of them need such assistance – and while this particular curse isn't the strongest example of those currently in use, it is powerfully aided by what is commonly believed.” A pause, “and that is another of Koenraad's chief strengths.”
“Strong curses?” I asked.
“A few,” said the soft voice. “He's very familiar with what most people actually believe, and he knows well how to use those beliefs to his fullest advantage.”
“He's more dangerous than his namesake,” I muttered.
“In ways that affect you at this time, very much so,” said the soft voice. “While caution is warranted, I would not waste time.” The unspoken portion – Koenraad's discomfiture – I understood implicitly, and that all too well.
I found a stool, and sat, head in hands, for I wished to hide. I felt utterly and completely overwhelmed, and only when chairs scraped upon the floor next to me did I think to look up. My face was the very picture of misery.
“I heard part of that,” said Anna. “Do you know what that witch did?”
“N-no,” I said. “I'll need to watch tonight from hiding so as to see what those thugs are doing, then t-tomorrow I'll need to, uh, spy out the area south of the Swartsburg, then perhaps two more nights...” I hitched, then asked, “what day is it?”
“That's but part of it,” said Anna. “It's the rest-day. Why?”
“If this place has become like the second kingdom's western back-country,” I said, “then nothing happens today. Those in town will not wake up, save to perhaps eat and go to the privy, and then they will do nothing more than go to church on the day after.”
“You're right,” said Anna. “But we need to...”
“That is no good, Anna,” said Hans as he came to sit at the table. “That place has no doctors or chemists.”
“Nor does it have people doing what I do,” I mumbled – at least until I 'saw' the full range of what that location lacked. “They barely have enough tradespeople to survive, and their 'better' carpenters aren't very good!”
“They are also quite rare, due to the lack of custom in that region,” said the soft voice. “The situation is even worse for smiths – very few, and none of them are within spitting distance of 'passable'.”
“They would call that recent scrap salable, almost,” I spluttered.
“That is not so,” said Hans. “Their work is not that bad.”
“It is too,” squeaked Sarah. “You did not spend much time in that place, did you?”
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“I made two trips into that area,” said Sarah, “and that was while I was at school.” A pause, then, “I have passed through it many times since then.”
“So how are their smiths bad?” I asked.
“First, there is their work,” said Sarah. “It is seldom decent, and often it is very bad, and that is if I use the first kingdom's standards for work.” A pause, “and then, they will only do certain things, and those only in a certain manner.”
“Do they chant?” I asked.
“I suspect they do,” said Sarah mysteriously. “I have smelled burning datramonium more than once in a smith's shop in that region.”
“Bringing up forges?” I asked.
“I have heard what they do then,” said Sarah. “I was not able to get close enough to see what they did when they did it, though.”
“They uh, sacrifice people then, don't they?”
“I am not certain they killed people in the shop itself,” said Sarah. “I am certain the fumes smelled too much like burning meat for me to ignore the stink.” A pause, then, “and those people got into some swine's flesh, also.”
“Urgh,” I gasped. “They cooked their meals with the forge.”
“And baptized it with the blood of a recent sacrifice,” said the soft voice. “That region Sarah spoke of isn't 'owned' by witches, even if they do have a substantial level of 'real' control. Hence they killed the person in a nearby witch-hole and brought her flesh and blood to the forge to 'bring it up'.”
“Darkened forges, heaping fires, thick black smoke, loud long bouts of chanting...”
“All of those things,” said Sarah. “I waited until they'd finished before I went inside that place to look, and I did not stay long.”
“Fetishes?” I asked.
“There were those,” said Sarah, “but the remains of that pig they cooked in that thing made me want to spew, and it was a near thing that way. I barely got clear of that place in time.”
“Only certain things?” I asked. “Is this where the person speaks of what he wants and hopes he gets something he can actually use to some extent?”
“I am not certain it is quite that bad,” said Sarah quietly, “but I have seen work coming from some of those shops.” A pause, then “if one is especially fortunate, one can actually use the thing in question.”
“Uh, one knife, as per usual?” I asked.
“Those places do not do knives,” said Sarah, “or anything beyond the simplest and crudest things a farmer might want. Buggy-work is far beyond them.”
“Nails?” I asked.
“They do make nails,” said Sarah. “I have seen them do that, and yes, they do chant while making those things.”
Anna was looking at Sarah as if she had spoken a virulent heresy, while Hans' jaw had dropped. Sarah resumed once she'd drained her mug, saying, “they mostly spoke from the book, but I doubt they knew what exactly they were saying.”
“Uh, praying?” I asked.
Sarah shook her head, then, “I've done that more than a few times when doing something especially difficult.”
“Yes, and what were you doing?” asked Hans.
“Once I was making blasting oil at school,” said Sarah softly, “and I had heard about how that stuff squirts fumes when it tries to turn...”
Hans became utterly silent, while Anna was shuddering as if she'd seen something of especial horror. From somewhere nearby, however, I seemed to hear furtive scratching, and when I looked at the wall, I saw what might have been movement near the floor. I continued looking for a second, at least until I was satisfied I had most likely 'imagined' the presence of a rodent of some kind. I looked at Sarah once more, or rather, looked for her.
She'd gone into the kitchen, and when she returned with a jug, she had an unreadable expression upon her face.
“Yes?” I asked.
“I smell a rat,” she said. “I think they might start earlier than usual this year.”
“How big do those get?” I asked.
“Here, not very large,” said Sarah. “Further south, they can become large indeed.” A pause, then “and those larger rats can be most troublesome.”
I thought then to look out the front window, mostly so as to 'measure' it for size. I would need to do something so as to avoid 'stir-craziness', and when I brought out one of my 'tapes' from the workbench, the 'spell' seemed broken over Hans and Anna. I made out my first measurement, that being for the width of the window, as thirty-three and one-half inches. I paused to write upon a slate, and as I turned to resume measuring, I saw Anna in my peripheral vision.
“Yes?” I asked, as I measured the height of the window. “We'll need an excuse... Perhaps something about Sarah needing quiet so as to rest, and the couch is the best bed for her. Would that work?”
“I think it just might,” said Anna. “I'd leave a small hole near the bottom, so you can look out.”
“That hole will...”
“We can put a piece of tin over it,” said Anna, “and if we cut the hole right, it will look as if it was made by a musket ball.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “It should.”
The leather-cutting itself proved easier than I thought it might be, and by lunch-time, the 'window-dressing' was in place. However, Sarah was not resting upon the couch.
I had taken her place, for fatigue had stolen upon me like a well-hid thug. Only when a tap came from the door did I stir myself, and I sat up to see Anna speaking with someone just inside the door.
“I dug enough shot out of him for him to be dead thrice over,” said Anna, “and he lost much weight on that trip.”
“How?” asked the woman. I'd seen her before, but never really 'met' her formally. “Didn't he eat enough?”
“As busy as he was, most likely not,” said Anna. “All of those men lost weight, with him being the worst that way.”
“They must have traveled hard, then,” she said. “I hope he does better.”
With our visitor gone, I yawned – and only then did I notice her 'tone'. While she had sounded as if very much oblivious, I had expected to hear something far worse; and when Anna sat down next to me on a chair, she seemed to be encouraged.
“I think she's awake,” said Anna, “and if Juli is awake, then the rest of the town is not far behind.”
“Uh, why?” I asked sleepily.
“She came up here from the second kingdom's back country,” said Anna, “and she's about the worst for sleeping of anyone in town.”
“Good,” I yawned. I fell asleep once more but seconds later to awaken to the smell of 'dinner'. I sat up, scratched gently – and then made a line for the upstairs to there find my clothing. On the way down, however, I nearly collided with Anna.
“You had best get your tweezers,” said Hans' voice faintly through the door as I began boiling water. “I saw him scratch some.”
I needed a careful inspection after bathing, but as Anna worried loose the third pellet she had found, I sensed that they had all been removed.
“Now turn over,” she said. “I need to check your front side.”
Two more pellets remained, both in my right leg. I was glad when they were removed, as I could feel the skin clutching at them.
“That's all I can find,” she said.
Dinner had an unusual 'course' that evening, for Anna had prepared a goat-sausage by boiling. The savory nature of the thing seemed to provide an inclination toward voracious eating, and the size – it had swelled more than those I had found in the ravine, and that to no small degree – spoke of a better species of preparation.
“That was a goat-sausage?” asked Sarah around a mouthful of bread. “That tasted good.”
“I think it was done different,” said Hans. “That thing was done like a smoke-sausage, or closer to one of those things than is usual for goat-sausages.”
“Uh, dried goat?” I asked.
“I am not sure what they put in those things,” said Hans, “but they do not use dried goat.”
“I heard about those brick things,” I said, “and I had some dried goat on the way down there.”
Hans looked at me and shook his head, while Sarah's mouth formed an 'o'. Anna, however, seemed nonplussed.
“You did not eat one of those brick-shaped things, did you?” she asked.
“N-no,” I said. “This meat was made in the second kingdom, and looked like common dried meat.” A pause, then, “it was not the best in the flavor department, but it was not bad, either. I ate it while riding, in fact.”
“You what?” asked Anna. “How..?”
“Same as I commonly eat dried meat on the move,” I said. “The flint-dried stuff needs soaking in hot water for a while, and is best made into soup or stew, but the common stuff, especially if it's made with pepper and, uh, Raw-Deal, makes a decent snack.”
Anna looked inclined to erupt, at least until Sarah nodded. “I ate my share of meat that way while traipsing.”
“Dried goat?” I asked.
“Had I found some like you spoke of, I would have tried it,” said Sarah. “Dried meat wasn't that common in the third kingdom.”
“We got this just north of the third kingdom's border with the second kingdom,” I said.
“The High Way, correct?” asked Sarah. I nodded, and Sarah resumed speaking. “That would be where one might find dried meat in that region. We stayed well clear of that road, at least when we were not in a hurry.” A pause, then, “and when off of that road in those parts, one must subsist upon what is available, which is not much for taste or variety.”
Sundown didn't tarry long after dinner, and with one of the softly glowing candle-lanterns hidden upon the floor next to the couch, I took up my place. The other three were laboring somewhere, most likely down in the basement if I went by the sounds I heard; I kept a tinned mug filled with beer, which I drank intermittently as I felt inclined. I was glad for the jug's coolness.
Soft winds blew from without as I slid aside the small tin cover and peered out through the window. I felt a slight draft as well as heard the usual rustling noises common to the parlor when the wind blew, and as I waited, I had a growing sense of certainty.
Something would indeed happen, and I would not need to wait long.
I waited perhaps half an hour, during which time the sense of 'silence' and stillness grew apace in the general region. I now knew the true time of retiring in town was actually sundown, even if many went to bed with the sun still showing.
“The Public House actually determines when a town truly sleeps,” I murmured.
“Here, yes,” said the soft voice. “Where the witches run things, the town never entirely sleeps, and that irrespective of its location.”
“And the Public House is entirely closed?” I asked.
There was no answer beyond what I sensed, that now being a silence and stillness appropriate to a graveyard.
The half-hour came and went, and about halfway through the second portion of time I heard – or, perhaps, felt – the first evidences of a multitude of mules. They were irritable and braying, as was common for Genuine Full-Odor Plugs in 'the frigid north', and the vehicle each eight-mule team dragged was a 'distance' coach, one of extra length and capacity, well-suited to longer trips.
“Aren't those things, uh, all alike?” I asked.
“They vary more than a little,” said the soft voice. “While all coaches are theoretically intended for distance traveling, the shorter ones are better for 'Medieval' locations, while the longer ones are better for living out of.”
“Living out of?” I asked. “Like those people near the north end of the kingdom house the night I went after the first Koenraad?”
The answer and recollection mingled seemed to fit, and I again bent eye and ear to the road. But minutes later, I heard faint groaning wheels and jingling harness, then when I moved away the 'drape' a few inches, I looked out the window to both left and right to see nothing beyond houses and fields.
“The stoop,” I thought, as I silently stood up and walked to the door. “I can get out on it and look that way.”
Slowly and silently, I opened the door, then stepped outside. I remained close to the wall in a near-crouch, while I glanced first to the north, then to the south. As I turned my head southward, however, I felt – with astonishing distinctness – the presence of someone or something nearby, and without thinking further, I scurried back inside and closed the door with a faint and muffled thumping noise. Only then did I understand precisely what I had done.
“A-anything that shows after dark is either a witch or a witch's property,” I murmured, “and...”
“Had you remained outside for a few seconds longer, you would have been shot,” said the soft voice.
“Witches..?” I asked.
“Your neighbors,” said the soft voice. “One of them was sitting out on his stoop with a loaded musket.”
“But I thought everyone was asleep,” I murmured.
“He is asleep,” said the soft voice. “He's also being controlled by the effects of that curse.” A pause, then, “contrary to what Anna believes, Juli is not the worst for 'sleeping' in town.”
“That man next door is?” I asked.
“The worst person is at the other end of town,” said the soft voice, “with Juli being but slightly worse than average.” A pause, then, “your next-door neighbors are the most vulnerable to the curse being used by the witches, as well as being among the worst for 'sleeping'. That is strictly by intent.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Their family received a 'deal' two generations ago,” said the soft voice, “and that deal was brokered by witches, according to a plan laid out long before Roos existed.” A pause, then, “controlling each end of a 'line-town' is nearly as effective as controlling such a town in its entirety, and control of a town's important matters often suffices to make a town fully-owned in function, if not reality.”
“Meaning Roos might as well be an enclave of the Swartsburg,” I muttered.
“Much like the second kingdom's western back-country is controlled by the second kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and in much the same fashion.”
I put my eye once more to the hole in the leather, while outside in the darkness, I could hear plainly the rumbling and groaning of unlubricated wheels and the braying of mules. Voices, these seeming to shift in and out of present reality, came intermittently strong and faint upon the soft winds; and the soft velvet darkness was lit up by lurid yellowish flames coming slow and pulsating from the south. My ears seemed plugged for a second, and then they 'opened' to show an uncommon acuity. I wondered why, until the voices swelled into a thundering cataract of hoarse yells.
“Hail Brimstone, and welcome Sieve!”
And hot upon the heels of witchdom's foremost battle cry, I heard curses, with the chief of these flashing bright colors as the runes forming it pounded their way into my mind and ears:
There were other curses that I heard, even if the first one flashed the most and brightest colors in my mind; I heard the hiding curse and two more of an unknown type. As the first team of mules came within my field of vision, and I saw both coach and driver, I heard the following chant as a deep and rumbling undertone to the curses.
“Brimstone reigns in the Darkness deep,
We curse all of you fools with sleep,
You name us Masters, which we are,
Obey our orders, near and far.”
I then noticed the smell.
“G-genuine Plugged M-mules,” I gasped, as the stench momentarily replaced the strobe-like flashing rune-colors within my mind with its own nauseating runny streaks. I then counted the second mule team, its huge and unwieldy-looking coach, and whip-smashing driver; hot on the rear wheels of number two, came number three. The chants and curses rang loudly in my mind and hearing, so much so that I but half expected dust to sift down upon my head, and with each further example of coach and team, I incremented the number I had started with – until I reached the prime number of witchdom.
I then thought to breathe, and as the last of the thirteen coaches left heading north, I understood.
Or did I?
“Those black-dressed thugs were yelling as loud as they could, and no one heard them,” I muttered, as the coaches rumbled off into the deeper-yet darkness of a cursed realm.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Everyone with ears to hear them heard, and heard them well.” A pause, then, “I would be careful when you go downstairs to wake the others, as they may try for you.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “That thrice-repeated rune at the end?”
“That especially,” said the soft voice. “While that curse does not affect you as an individual, it strongly affects the attitude of those not marked toward those who are.” A brief pause, then, “hence it is one of the curses commonly chanted by witches before mobs are raised.”
I drained my cup, filled it once more, and resumed thinking about what I had just heard and seen while I sipped. I'd about half-emptied my cup when my bladder squirmed, and on my way out of the privy, I thought to listen at the downstairs 'portal'.
The silence I heard was well-beyond deafening, and I cautiously set foot upon the stairs, then stepped down while crouched over so as to be a smaller target. A faint ringing hiss rattled snake-like in my mind, and with each further step the noise grew both louder and more insistent.
As the basement's ceiling became visible, I noted both the lantern's light and the long shadows thrown by the three. A glance at their bodies showed them to be deeply 'taken over', with none-existent muscle tone and stiff-featured waxen faces. Their dulled fixed-pupil eyes spoke of a frightening degree of 'oblivion', and I began slowly – and silently – backing up the stairs one step at a time. I prayed that I would not be noticed, even as that infernal hiss slowly decreased in volume and insistence – and most importantly, I knew what I needed to do next:
Awakening would need to happen with myself being well-hid behind cover in the kitchen, and that with my full 'arsenal' loaded and ready at hand. What I had heard regarding the likely effects of my doing so seemed hopelessly optimistic, and my thoughts as I reached the top of the stairs were these:
“They might try for me? With them looking like that? Might?”
I turned once in the kitchen, and gathered my rifle and a spare pistol. I then upended the table after moving it to the corner, and from that refuge, I checked all of my weapons. Only when I was fully ready did I think to speak.
“Wake up, please,” I said softly.
My answer was 'silence', followed by an eerie sensation – that of a chilled trap and its snake-like cunning as it moved slowly preparatory to snapping shut about my neck. I briefly wondered about such thinking – firstly, at how an inanimate object of brute mechanical form could so readily acquire the attributes of a living soul, and then secondly, about the cold and metallic nature of the trap itself. It was most definitely not alive, at least not in the way I comprehended 'life' to be. I then felt a stirring deep down below in the basement's nether realm and along with this stirring, my mind dredged up a recollection bathed at once in fear and horror:
“...Souls, and hunger, and fierceness...”
Those down below, however, were people, and not cold iron buggy parts; and when I thought to speak once more of awakening, I heard faint and molasses-slow steps moving sludge-like toward the bottom of the stairs. I reached toward my rifle, holding it part-mounted with the butt below my shoulder, right hand upon the wrist of the stock and thumb upon the protruding spur of the hammer.
The steps grew slowly louder, this in some strange fashion; and with ringing cadence, the steps seemed to come from a world populated entirely with beings neither alive nor dead. With each such slow step, I knew the source to not be a reptile, slithering or otherwise; and yet still more, the blank-eyed and brainless aspect of the spirit-moved puppet treading the stairs upward became clearer. The picture in my mind began to form – slow; glacial; vaporous – of a mythic creature, one imported from the magic island of Haiti, a being at once inhuman in its obedience to the call of its master and simultaneously dead to this world; an alive-dead body, rag-clothed, chain-bounded, armed to the teeth and beyond...
Sarah's back showed in the stairwell.
She seemed overwrought with concentration, her feet lifting slowly one at a time to land noiselessly upon the stairs as she walked backwards up them, and her glacial stepping was that of darkness entering unto the realm of light and life – and with slowness borne of an aching nature, she slowly put first one bare foot on top of the stone of the kitchen floor, then the other. I then noticed her feet more fully.
Their dainty nature held my vision as she turned about slowly, and as my eyes swept up her figure, I noticed her movements, these being precise to the point of an automatic mechanism; and finally, when I saw her face, it shook my bones to their marrow, for her eyes were closed in waxen slumber, and her face was slack with spirit-induced paralysis.
As she walked into the center of the room, I moved to its very corner, then squeezed through the narrow gap between table and wall. In doing so, I noted one of her hands holding a half-cocked revolver, her finger along side the trigger guard. The sight made for yet greater care as well as a more-rapid pace on my part, and when I came to the door of the bathroom – she was faced toward the parlor, much as if she expected to see someone arrive there – the door opened silently of its own and I ducked around it as I went inside the bathroom. I knelt down some feet from the doorway behind one of the tubs, the door still partly open; and only once I was huddled next to the wall behind what cover I could arrange did I think to speak.
“Sarah, please, wake up,” I asked softly.
The word 'up' had barely sprung from my lips when an echoing roar sent a hail of splinters and pinging bullets into the bathroom, and as the ringing in my ears joined the echoes from without, I heard a horrible and heartrending scream. I left my refuge, crawling on hands and knees to the doorway amid still-hot mangled blobs of lead and smoking splinters, then moved aside the door before attempting to crawl out into a smoky and smelly wilderness that still rang loudly of gunfire. I then saw Sarah, each hand now holding a still-smoking revolver – I had only seen one previously – and her fresh tears amid sobbing erased my remaining caution. I stood shakily and wobbled out of the doorway to hug her close.
She seemed horror-stricken, and her voice betrayed her loudly:
“Are you a-all right?” she shrieked.
“I think so,” I murmured. “What happened down there?”
“I-I'm not sure,” said Sarah shakily as I unclasped her. She looked more shaken than she sounded. “Someone was speaking into my mind about sleep, and I was busy, so I told him to bother someone else who was inclined that way.” A pause, then “I wish I could say that for Hans and Anna.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I could feel stirring downstairs, so much so that I thought to look in the stairwell. I turned in its direction, all the while trying not to sneeze from the powder fumes.
“They both fell down to the floor,” said Sarah from behind me, “and when I went to see what had happened, Hans tried to poke me with his knife and Anna grabbed my leg!”
I had come to the juncture of stairwell and kitchen, and as I looked down into the darkness, I asked Sarah another question.
I expected more trouble from the basement, even as I turned away to rejoin Sarah. She was still sobbing, and when I saw her looking at the upended table, I brought it back down. She then spoke.
“I got loose somehow,” she said, as she laid first one pistol, then the other upon the table, “and I picked up both of these things here. I started backing for the stairwell...”
I glanced once more in that direction, and saw a faint and slow-moving shadow. Someone was trying to sneak up upon us.
“...And both of them...”
I looked once more at the stairwell. This time, I saw Hans, his face gone slack with oblivion – and in his arms, a fowling piece. With slow and jerky-seeming movements, he began mounting the gun so as to fire it at Sarah.
I leaped at Sarah while yelling. Her hands were covering her face, tears still streaming down, and as my arms grasped her, I 'heard' the clicking noises of two hammers going to full-cock – and as she seemed to collapse beneath me, I smelled fire and smoke in a preternaturally dim room...
And the world blossomed into red-tinted flame and ruinous noise as I crushed her beneath me as I landed upon the floor with a strangely cushioned thud. I hoped I had hidden her completely, even as I seemed to bounce and then roll sideways to land face up in a room now blanketed utterly with thick and choking smoke.
The roaring echoes of gunfire mingled themselves with a long and drawn-out deafening yell that slowly progressed into a horrible-sounding howl. This latter was punctuated by thumping noises that rumbled below, and when it stopped – it seemed to continue on for nearly a minute – it was replaced entirely a deafening scream. I then realized where I was, and in a panic, I rolled off of Sarah.
I was horror-stricken, for I had injured her.
“You s-saved my life,” she squeaked.
I wanted to scream with the evil of what I had done, yet for some reason, the words that came out of my mouth were these:
“Was that why you picked up those pistols?” I asked. My voice seemed from another world; it was the antithesis of how I felt at the time. “They t-tried for you?”
“I think so,” said Sarah. She was facing the stairwell, and still lying upon the floor. I wondered if she was hurt. “I faced both of them down, or at least I thought I did until I came up here and someone told me to wake up.”
I picked myself up from the floor in a shaky fashion, and again, I noticed the evil-smelling thick blue-hazed miasma of powder smoke. I tried to avoid coughing, even as I moved toward Sarah and then helped her to her feet.
And from below, I heard coughing and moans.
Sarah wobbled over to the stairwell, then took a position at its side. From that refuge, she yelled, “are you all right down there?”
Her question received no audible answer, even as I leaped out of the way of an end-over-end tumbling knife that hissed by my head to then bang against the far wall of the kitchen next to my workbench. I turned over, then began crawling toward the knife.
“That thing's glowing r-red,” I muttered. “It must have been planted...”
“True enough, even if it was not connected with 'the curse of darkness',” said the soft voice.
A question then bloomed in my mind, and I silently asked, “is Sarah affected..?”
“She is more resistant to curses than you might think,” said the soft voice, “and while she was affected, she was affected to a surprisingly small degree.”
“T-then why did she look like that..?”
My thoughts paused in mid-sentence to be replaced by speech: “were you entirely awake?”
“I thought I was,” said Sarah. “I'm not that sure any more.”
“When someone told you to wake up,” I asked, “what did you do?”
“I was afraid,” said Sarah, as she once more burst into tears, “and I thought I was hearing the voice of a witch.” A faint scream seemed to ring in both my ears and mind, then, “and I t-thought that wretch was going to sacrifice me!”
“Were you dreaming?” I asked gently.
“I'm not sure what happened to me,” she said. “At least, I'm nowhere near as certain as I was a minute ago.”
I was now but feet from the knife, which was now flaming redly. I guessed it to be a potent fetish, and turning my head away, I spat the single word 'leave'.
The eruption of smoke and noise picked me up and flung me nearly to the opposite wall, and as I rolled across the floor, I heard more screaming coming from below. I then came to myself to hear faint coughing, this coming from both above and below, followed by at first moans, then more coughing. I then glanced at the wall to learn it was but inches from my head, and the stairwell itself but inches further...
And between the two walls of the stairwell, a smoke-stained face wreathed by dirty blond hair. This face – a woman's, though at once strange and yet familiar – seemed on the verge of complete insanity.
“Are you all right?” shrieked Anna.
“I think so,” I said. My voice sounded muffled as well as numbed. I did not have to guess as to why. “You aren't going to try to, uh, kill me, are you?”
“N-not any more,” said Anna. “It wasn't just that curse. That knife was causing trouble also.”
“You knew about that knife?” I asked. To hear Anna speak as she was currently was almost beyond my capacity to believe. Only when she stood up and came into the kitchen did what I had just heard fully sink in – and what she said afterward but cemented matters firmly.
“Someone gave that thing to Hans,” said Anna crossly, “and that wretch said he wanted one like it, only done better.” A pause, then, “and it was unusual enough for looks that both of us knew you would need to actually see it.”
I was about to ask as to how it was unusual when another thought got out first. “Did anyone speak about what it's like at the shop?”
“They did not need to,” said Anna. “Both Hans and I know about what's on those slates.”
“You mean what is not on those things,” said Hans, as he appeared in the stairwell. His sooty mien and grimacing face made me wonder as to what had happened to him. “Now how is it I am all blacked up like a witch, and why am I so sore all over like I am?” He was rubbing his shoulder more than elsewhere.
“I think you f-fired a fowling piece,” I said. “I was told something like this might happen, and I guess it did.”
“That is a bad business,” said Hans, as he pointed with his hand. “Those things usually do not make holes like that there.”
I turned to see a jagged hole 'blasted' in the bathroom door, and the splintered and ripped planks spoke loudly – or so I thought until Anna cut loose with an echoing yell inside my still-ringing ears.
“What happened there?” she screeched.
“I-I th-thought there was a witch standing there,” said Sarah, “and I f-fired...”
I walked over to where the two pistols lay, and picked one up. “All five thimbles here...” The other was the same – it too had been emptied.
“Dear, how fast can you shoot?” I asked.
“I-I'm not sure,” said Sarah. “Why?”
“You emptied both pistols,” I said, once again looking at the hole in the door. “How big are playing cards?”
“They are bigger than that hole,” said Hans. “That thing might take a twenty guilder piece to cover it.”
“No, Hans,” said Anna. “We'll need the carpenters to fix that door.” She then looked at me, then asked, “were you hurt?”
“I'm not sure,” I said.
A brief check on the couch showed no fresh scars or injuries, for which I was thankful, and once I'd resumed my clothing, I went back to the door. I had a strange recollection now burning in my mind, and as I measured the hole – it was easily less than two inches across – that recollection grew stronger and more pungent.
“Didn't that one publican speak that way of Sam Brumm?” I thought. “Something about putting all ten b-balls on a playing card quicker than I can count to five...”
Sarah had fired all ten shots before I could count to one.
“Th-that king in the fourth kingdom spoke of her shooting...” I thought, “and this is...”
Again, it was difficult to believe, especially with that type of revolver. The matter so exercised my mind that the usual measures for sleep at first seemed inadequate, at least until sleep stole up upon me as I lay in bed attempting to pray. That night had no dreams, and after church the next day, Hans paused to speak to Maarten while Katje brought their buggy around. She'd been in church that day, which surprised more than a few people. Maarten's sermon surprised me.
It was not merely organized markedly better, but also seemed noticeably clearer as to what he was trying to say.
“That is because she helped me,” said Maarten when Hans first spoke to him. “As for the second kingdom's western back country, I wish I could speak better of it.”
“Yes, and why is that?” asked Hans. I was looking for Georg, for some reason. He had not shown that morning, and I was more than a little worried for him.
“Very few people go to church regularly in that place,” said Maarten, “and that presumes there are churches they can go to.” A brief pause, then, “there are a great many towns where no place to meet exists.”
“Like around here?” I asked.
“One might have to travel a few miles at the most,” said Hans, “and those miles are easy, unless there is snow on the ground.” Another brief pause, this caused by Anna showing, then, “that place is worse that way, and that for both distances and trouble.”
“They do not get snow there,” said Anna, “so how can there be as much trouble?”
“Mostly due to plain-dressed witches,” whispered Katje, “and this place feels like half the people in town either are witches, or wish to be witches.”
Anna looked at Katje in horror-stricken surprise, then with the faintest of nods acknowledged what Katje was feeling. My thoughts, however, were more foreboding, and what I seemed to see did not help my thinking.
Every house I saw, save the one I lived in, seemed a crypt; and every man, other than Hans and Maarten, seemed a slowly putrefying cadaver animated by hidden strings – while all but the three nearest women were new-minted brides of alive-dead scale-covered creatures. I looked at Sarah to see a face writ large with a sense I could not name. Only once we were safe inside did I think to ask what she was thinking.
“I thought I was in hell,” she whispered. “Every building but this one is a place to store dead bones, and the people walk like...” A gasp, followed by a sudden darting for the seven books comprising the Grim Old Tales. “There is a tale in this book, one called 'Creature of Night'...”
“I would not speak of such tales now,” said Hans. “It is bad enough to hear those things when one is not living in a witch-hole.”
Sarah looked at me, then shook her head. “I think I had best help with what I can, as what I saw out there bothers me too much for words.”
I thought much the same, at least until lunch. Afterward needed but little time for exposition, due to not merely the much-clearer sermon, but also the presence of Sarah.
“I had no idea you were so familiar with this,” I murmured appreciatively, while holding back a tendency to yawn.
“I think you might want a nap,” said Anna. “There isn't much to do in a town this dead.”