Festival Week, part two.
Within the next hour, three more semi-familiar faces showed, and by 'nightfall', the parlor seemed crowded. There was talk, food, drink, gaiety, and laughter, and while I tried my best to 'fit in', I found it utterly impossible to do more than answer the questions put to me, such as they were. I was glad for the kitchen and its table.
The events of the day were such that I was both frightened and worried by what had happened, with Hans' seeming 'inability' to see beyond his understanding one of the most worrying things, especially as I had never seen him act that way before. His persistent thinking that way was especially worrisome.
During a lull in the 'party', however, while I puzzled out matters at the table, he came over and said something quite surprising.
“I think I might have some idea as to what you were doing now,” he said. “I had to think about it for most of the time since we left that town until now before I saw what the trouble was,”
“What is the trouble?” I asked.
“What people do for the pigs and those that go with them hasn't changed much for a long time,” said Hans, “and they are set in their ways. I thought I was otherwise.”
“Is it a lack of ideas, or do people not wish to change, or is it something entirely different?” I asked.
The silence that followed was profound, and while Hans left my presence for the 'party', I had the impression I was no longer 'being left to my lunacy'. Something had changed, and for the better.
“And I still do not cope well with crowds, bright lights, noise or chatter,” I thought. “At least I'm not being attacked for being like I am.”
I still had occasional visitors, however, who promptly left when they saw me 'studying'. One of them was Dirk, and he remained.
“What is it you are reading there?” he asked.
“I shot one of those pigs today,” I said, “and I looked closely at it afterward. I took some notes and made some drawings, and I'm still trying to put it all together, as well as fill these notes in from what I recall while it's still fairly fresh in my mind. There's something going on here, and it's important.”
“Do you know what it is?” he asked.
“No, I don't,” I said. “I can tell it's important, though how important is a good question beyond 'the lives of a lot of people depend on the outcome'.”
“Then I hope you get an answer, as anyone who thinks fighting those people and their pigs is simple and easy is going to get killed when they show.”
“It's neither of those,” I said. “The chief problem seems to be that most people say what you just did while believing precisely the opposite. Hence they don't think beyond the commonplace if they bother thinking, they don't learn from past mistakes, they do as has been done for a very long time with no changes whatsoever, and a lot of people get killed that deserve better. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop soon.”
While I briefly wondered as to what Dirk would say, he too surprised me by what he said.
“Most people don't know much about those pigs,” he said, “as when they see them, they panic and run away. Those that stand up to them tend to be hurt or killed, unless they use their heads. Are you saying that those fighting don't use their heads?”
“That depends on who 'those' are,” I said. “If I go by my experiences at the shop, ignorance tends to be the rule, as is not asking questions, unthinking obedience to those in authority, and an apparent resistance to anything new.”
The recollection of the ancient-seeming village, 'forgotten for centuries' and 'frozen in time' intruded. I wondered if this was that village, or if the idea extended to a wider area. Albrecht's speaking about change made for wondering for an instant.
The 'party' went until nearly our usual bedtime, for some reason, and when the last of the guests had left, I wondered what was next beyond the obvious of bathing and perhaps a late-night snack of some kind. I found I needed both, and once securing them, I went to bed.
My prediction about guests on the morrow, however, became true as well, for several more people from town showed about midmorning. The most I could do was 'show' them what I was working on, then retreat to the kitchen. Anna soon brought by what she was doing for leather.
“At least I can work on this some of the time,” she said. “I think Hans has learned he does not know everything about swine now.”
“I don't know that much about them,” I said, “and I know I'm ignorant.”
“He thought he knew all there was to know about them,” said Anna, “and for people in his position, that is not merely a very common way of thinking, but also a very dangerous one. I thought he knew better until yesterday, but I'm glad he came to his senses.”
“Dangerous?” I asked. “In what way, other than the obvious ones I saw yesterday regarding agility, quickness, and treachery in action?”
“Most people think those things are just animals,” said Anna, “but Hans has spoken of them being unusually intelligent. I wonder if he knows how smart they actually are.”
“He spoke of them finding traps,” I said. “Do the pigs actually use those following them to disarm the traps, and knowingly sacrifice those people?”
Anna looked at me with huge eyes, then said, “I doubt he could have thought of that.”
“It's just an idea,” I said. “By 'sacrifice', I don't mean what witches do with their victims. I mean the pig lets its immediate followers blunder into the trap it has found so as to disarm the thing for the much larger force coming behind it.”
“That was also what I meant,” said Anna. “Hans spoke of how you shot that pig, and under what circumstances. I looked at your shoulder after you went to sleep last night, and rubbed it some more with Geneva. It was badly bruised still.”
Here, Anna paused, then said, “I would not be surprised if we take you to the king soon.”
I collapsed on the spot to awaken on the couch with that accursed tube in my mouth and something being poured down my throat via a funnel attached to its other end. The stillness of the house, as well as much else, seemed appalling, and when the tube began to slowly come back out of my mouth I had an urge to vomit that seemed impossible to ignore. Finally, it came out completely, and I gasped, even as I nearly sprayed vomit all over Anna.
“I saw that,” she said. “The visitors all went downstairs while I was working on you.”
“I did not wish to take a chance on you being sick,” she said. “I used water, a little beer, and some sugar-tree sap. Those swine and those coming with them are trouble, and given how many people try for you, and more, what you see, you need to be watched over carefully – and that on top of being ill.”
“Why?” I gasped. The tube-induced desire to vomit remained.
“What you endure would drive many people into a rest-house,” said Anna, “and you need to be treated as though you have a wasting illness, so it does not put you in one.”
“Uh, I might...”
“Hans spoke of that also,” said Anna. “That possibility had not occurred to me until he spoke of it, as most with that illness tend to look and act much sicker than you do. It otherwise fits well.”
Anna paused, then said, “first, in Westmonster Abbey with those bombs. It was as if you were there when those people were being murdered, then that man with his leg. You had to protect both of us from the witches then, as neither of us were able to do much. Then, the cannibals, that witch in the shop, Old Shuck, and now, an Iron Pig.”
Anna had said a mouthful, and she needed to pause for breath. Her thoughts would not permit a long pause, however.
“Every witch in the world wants you dead,” she said, “and I still wonder about your reaction to church suppers, as you aren't the only one who feels that way about them.”
“What?” I asked. “I know I'm uncomfortable when that's done, and I still see crawling blood on that bread stuff and a bloody face in those cups. I won't touch it save to hand it past.”
“Both of those things,” said Anna. “There are at least five people in town who will not eat and drink that supper because of sickness.”
Anna paused briefly, then said, “I've seen too many people have trouble because of too much swine and those people that come with them, and that alone causes horrible nightmares.”
“How?” I asked.
“The fear and the blood and the pigs themselves,” said Anna. “There is something about those pigs that causes trouble, just like witches do, and that one dark-haired witch...”
Anna looked around, almost as if she sensed the presence of the person she had spoken of. I wondered if that particular witch was in the room eavesdropping, and while Anna did look unusually worried, I did not know if she was actually seeing the woman in question.
I hoped not, as I wasn't terribly fond of that witch or her attitude, and I'd heard enough chants recently to not wish to hear more.
“It is as if you fought people like that since you were small, and it has affected you in some way,” she said. “I think it is worse than Hans has spoken of, almost as if you were dealing with witches, people like them, and assorted thieves and brigands, all of them acting in concert to kill you, and whole towns and kingdoms filled with them everywhere you went. I wish you could consume more beer, as it would help you.”
I was at a loss as to what to say to Anna, so much so that without thinking, I said, “there were a lot of people after me, and that from the time I was very small. They might have been after me before birth.”
“Oh my!” squeaked Anna. “That witch did curse you!” Anna paused, then asked, “who was she?”
“No one I know of,” I said, “even if my mother looked a little like that woman. I doubt much it was her, though, and she spoke of the doctor attending my birth hiding me from her.”
Anna began muttering, then asked, “was that doctor a witch? That sounds likely, as they could cook you and eat you readily that way.”
“As far as I know, no,” I said. “There was another doctor that had a number of animal heads.”
“I knew it!” spat Anna. “Those northern people have these poles, and they put the heads of their enemies on them. I do not know what they call those poles, but most around here call those things death-poles. I've personally seen three of them, and they are said to be found where those people land.”
“I doubt he put those animal heads on poles,” I said. “I think he put them on the walls.”
“That still sounds like a witch's doings,” said Anna. “Where did he get them?”
“Somewhere called Africa,” I said. “He was famous, and supposedly was fond of hunting there.”
Anna resumed muttering for a moment, then said, “did he wear black-cloth and pointed boots? He sounds like a black-dressed witch.”
“I don't recall seeing any 'witches',” I said, “even if there were a very large number of mean, nasty, and unpleasant people. They chased me, tried to hurt me, in some cases wished to kill me, and in a few instances, came after me with knives. One of them came after me with a sword, and he...”
I paused, for I had said a mouthful. I was very thirsty, and I saw a mug nearby smelling of cider. I drained the thing, then resumed.
“He was evil in no uncertain terms,” I said. “He told the truth when it was to his advantage, he lied otherwise, stole when he pleased, and caused me a great deal of trouble when he was inclined, for the world was his own, and he became angry when denied.”
Anna looked at me with huge eyes, then spluttered, “th-that person, if they were here, would be... Was this person grown?”
I shook my head to indicate no, then said, “that was my younger brother, and his father was similar – he seemed a bit smarter, and was a lot meaner. It took me many years to learn he was much smarter, at least in some ways, than he seemed to be at the time.”
“Did your younger brother act like that when he was small?”
“I think he was born that way,” I said. “He hit me in the nose when he was but six months old, and he cried more than any baby I have ever seen. He started getting me in trouble at a very young age.”
“Did he have colic?”
“I doubt he had that,” I said. “Isn't that when they... What is the colic?”
“The baby screams constantly,” said Anna, “and only rubbing seems to help the wind come out. It usually comes from both ends. How old was he when he tried for you?”
“About twelve,” I said.
“Did he have a mark on his forehead?” asked Anna.
“I didn't see one,” I said.
“That sounds like he was the fosterling of a witch,” said Anna. “Now when did he start behaving badly?”
“When he was born, as far as I can tell,” I said. “I wasn't very old then, about nine or so.”
“Seriously, he sounds like the baby of a witch,” said Anna. “Did he eat human flesh?”
“I can speak of that,” I said, “as I had to cook most of the family's meals when not much older. I might have been, uh, thirteen or so.”
“Th-that's when apprentices usually start,” said Anna. “Meals? Were you cleaning dishes?”
“Those, looking after him, doing clothing, setting the table, and in some cases, actually cooking the meals themselves,” I said. “I was cooking with something similar to one of the heating lamps, though, not a stove like here. That was then. I had to stay home alone for a summer the year before he was born.”
“What!” shrieked Anna. “Parents that did that here would most likely be burnt as witches, unless they could prove they would starve otherwise.”
“Now what is this?” asked Hans, as he came up from the basement. “They think that distillery a strange one, and more than one of them asked me why it has no markings on it. I told them about the usual ones and how they are.”
“What did they say?” asked Anna.
“He was right about people treating those things like idols and acting as if they were witches, as Maarten has seen some of those black-dressed witches do all of those things,” said Hans. “So, I told them he does not like idols, and he will not mark those things like that.”
“I did mark it with my stamp, though,” I said. “It's on one of the handles, so it won't contribute to a possible leaking cooker.”
After Hans returned to the basement, Anna asked, “how did you go to school, though?”
“I was doing that also,” I said, “and working outside like a grown man. I started having health problems then, and they were ignored at that time. I lived in fear for my life, every day and all the time, and I was treated like a slave in many ways – and it was no better at school, and it never really stopped. I never figured out why that was the case.”
Anna looked at me knowingly, then said, “I suspect Hans was right. Those people sound like witches, and that place must have been terribly evil.”
“I noticed that when I was older, even though I never heard chanting...”
For some reason, I now heard something I had said every day in class when I was young, when all of the students faced the nation's flag and we said the words as the teacher led us. I had said them as a child, unthinkingly, and as I seemed to hear the voices of children speaking the three or four lines of the pledge, I seemed to hear it mirrored in a guttural rumbling billow of malediction – and when I again looked at Anna, her face was unreadable.
“What was that I heard?” she whispered. “I heard two things, one said by a group of small children, children too young to start school here, and another said by a group of the most evil witches imaginable.”
“Did the two sound alike, or were they in different languages?” I asked. “I recall something called the pledge of allegiance in school, and...”
“That must have been the children,” she said, “and that language was strange. The other one, though... I've heard witches here speak one similar to it. Did you speak to a flag?”
“There was a flag involved,” I said, “but I doubt we were speaking to the flag itself. I think it was a promise, both to each other and to God, and the flag was a reminder of what we were doing and why we were doing it. There were some other strange things, too, including getting under the desks on an instant's notice in case the bombs started falling. They stopped doing both of those things by the time my younger brother was a year or two old.”
“I've heard that those black-dressed witches speak to flags they have,” said Anna, “and I'm not certain what they speak, or why they speak what they do, but I've heard other things about them. Supposedly, when the flag or idol burns, the witches that speak to it burn also, and when they speak to their flags or idols, they put their right hands on the center of their chests, and speak their piece in a group.”
I was glad to be able to 'rejoin the living' by lunchtime, and as I worked on either knives or sheathes for them, I made notes in my ledger regarding the pig and those that had come with it. I still had the intimation that those people did have some kind of weapons, either short swords or axes, and they had a camp of some kind in the area.
Our guests remained until dinner, and as they left, I helped Anna clean up the mess. I was tired, needed rest, and at Anna's urging, drank down half a cup of beer. I managed no more, for I blacked out with no warning at that point.
I awoke the next morning with a feeling of unspeakable terror, and as I fell off of the bed and onto the floor, my hazy recollections were of doing something of such frightful and monstrous evil that to show myself meant dying amid the flames of a burn-pile with the label of arch-witch. I stood up, and was surprised to find myself in 'night-clothing'. For a moment, I had felt the stiff-starched near-metallic coldness of black-cloth, and when I looked at my bare feet, I was relieved to see toes that wiggled.
I was afraid I had discarded the unneeded appendages that garnished my feet, that I might have weapons in their stead.
I was shaking, even as I put on my trousers and shirt, for I could smell the aroma of death in the place, and I could feel the presence of Desmonds without. I poked my head into the hall, where I expected to see one of those tooth-grinding worms, and instead, I saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“So the worms are downstairs in the witch-hole,” I thought.
I counted the stairs slowly, with my head in my hands, and when my count passed thirteen with stairs yet to go, I wondered where I would come down. I could smell blood, death, destruction, and rotten meat, and at the last stair, I hesitated to step upon the floor until I opened my eyes.
I had expected to see a sea of slow-drying blood, with scattered body parts showing as islands and Desmonds as 'sea-monsters', with witches wading amid red-brown dried-blood pathways created by chanted curses. I stepped onto the floor, and all of the nonsense abruptly vanished.
I wished I could speak that way for my fear, and when I came into the kitchen, my first thought was for the privy, and then, for the table. I came out to the latter after my business, and saw both Hans and Anna present. I could tell visitors would be arriving within the hour.
“You were laughing so hard last night you could not talk,” said Anna, “and we had to lead you up to bed. You went right to sleep, and you look much better for it. I wish I could be half as silly.”
I seemed to see through both Hans and Anna, and as I looked, the wall went gauzy to show a darkened subterranean concrete hall. The dim lighting overhead was of a faintly flickering greenish-yellow hue, and the rumble in the background suggested a nightmare of its own, even as one of the multitude of black-dressed figures separated itself from the group and turned.
The focus of what I was seeing seemed to slowly zoom in to show a face that grew steadily more familiar with each second of time, and when I saw the gaunt chiseled-looking face framed by thick flowing dark hair and lips moving slowly in a chant, I knew who I was seeing.
“Where is this place?” I asked. There was no answer, at least one I could use.
The sounds of the multitude of black-dressed beings now slowly separated out into individual voices, and over all of them, I heard the voice of the dark-haired witch chanting a long string of runes. She had control of the multitude; she was its leader, and as she led the chants, one in particular stood out in its endless multiple speakings, and in its endless repetition:
Yet more, the witch in question was not saying it. She, or someone like her, was saying another thing entirely, and my comprehension of it seemed to but slowly grow as it rang in my ears for an instant while what I saw faded to show the wall of the kitchen with its two occupants. I shook my head and knuckled my eyes, and Anna's low mutter jerked me out of my 'state'. It was not a trance, any more than such things had been in the past both here and elsewhere.
“It was that witch again,” said Anna. Her voice was no longer a mutter. “She was all smelling of that smoke, and she was as drunk as a stinker, and she was cursing you!”
“Cursing me?” I asked. Somehow, I had the impression Anna had heard the other thing being said, and I was not certain the dark-haired witch had said it.
Anna looked at me, then said, “if what she said was not a curse, I have never heard one before, and I hope I never hear one like it again. She said,
'Son of a lying snake! You must be as the Great Dragon, and kill all
that you see! You were raised to be an animal, to murder and to kill,
and give me a thousand death-poles! I made you to be so, and my
chanting and curses must not fail. I will have you dead if you do!'”
The strangest thing, however, was hearing Anna speak of a 'Grootjes Draagoonius', and I wondered if she was speaking of what I knew.
“Dragon?” I asked.
“No,” said Anna. “That word is 'dragoon', and I think I know which dragoon she was speaking of.”
Hearing Anna say 'dray-goon' was almost as bad as seeing one in close proximity, and when Hans spoke, I needed to sit down. I nearly crushed the stool when I collapsed upon it.
“That sounds like that bad witch from the north,” said Hans, “but what kind of snake was she talking about?”
“Are there snakes here?” I asked.
“Yes, several kinds,” said Hans. “There are garden-snakes, and farmers want those in their fields...”
Anna looked at Hans knowingly. She did not speak.
“And then, there are the ones that suck on rats,” said Hans. “Rats do not like that, so they stay out of corncribs if one of those snakes is in there. I used to catch snakes when I was young and sell them to farmers.”
“And my mother didn't like it much when your bags went leaky and the house was full of snakes,” said Anna. “At least, she felt that way until the rats and bugs cleared out. Then she minded it less.”
“Suck on rats?” I asked.
“Yes, the snake bites the rat, and wraps itself around it so that it cannot breathe,” said Hans. “Those snakes are said to suck rats dead, and the rats do not like that, so they stay clear of those things.”
Hans paused, then said, “still, I cannot think of a snake that lies, unless that witch was speaking of those things they have in that valley place. Those lie around until someone gets too close, and then they bite as if they have no brains in their heads. I am glad there are none of them around here.”
“What are those called?” I asked.
“Supposedly they are called Death Adders,” said Anna. “I have never seen one, and if I see one, it will be too soon. I don't mind the other kind, and I've bought them from children during the spring.”
“Snakes?” I asked.
“They keep the rats down,” said Anna.
The visitors began showing but minutes later, and throughout that day, I worked on either leather or knives. I finished the latter early in the day, and by that evening and bedtime, I not merely had sheathes for them, but I had well-and-truly begun the construction of a bag for my 'things'. Previously, I had been planning it for the most part.
The next day, however, I wondered if we would travel, and after breakfast, I learned otherwise, for Anna said, “we generally don't go anywhere during Festival Week, in case someone is injured and they need to find us quickly.”
I handed Anna her knife and sheath later that day, during an 'intermission' or lull in the ongoing party.
“Is it normal for people to become so silly?” I asked. I was glad for the conspicuous absence of mean drunks, and indeed, apparent drunkenness itself. Instead, chattiness, laughter, and good humor seemed endemic among our visitors.
“Yes, when they have sufficient beer,” said Anna. “I've needed to dose a fair number with cough medicine, so much so that I hope you could make more of it by the end of the week.”
“Are we running low?” I asked.
“At this time, no,” said Anna. “Then again, I've kept both jugs hidden carefully, so they don't try to drink it.”
I made a third batch that evening, and this time, I didn't nearly spew; I had to run for the privy once I'd begun heating it on the stove. There, I had the dry heaves, so much so that when I came out, I was amazed the stuff hadn't gone up in smoke.
“And the first thing I do when this time is over is make an extractor,” I said, as I returned to my stirring. “If this thing takes off...”
I stopped speaking, as 'if' wasn't the right word. 'When' was closer, and 'it will get out of hand in a big hurry' was closer yet. If I had to mix the stuff up consistently, I would be mixing it – and trying to vomit – daily.
Thankfully, the majority of the visitors seemed to have run their course by Saturday evening, and after church Sunday, I resumed working on my 'bag'. The size of the thing was a marvel to both Hans and Anna, and when I showed them its internal compartments, I had questions to answer – at least until I spoke of organization. I then had fewer questions, even as Anna spent more time working on the belt. I suspected it would take her another week to finish the thing, as 'free time' wasn't something she had much of.
At least, 'free time' that wasn't consumed by attempts toward knitting.
Monday at work saw a 'lull' in the activities, for no one showed earlier than almost noon, and that but for a brief period. I had the impression that town was 'recovering' from a week-long party, and when I asked the man – a customer; I was the only person working on the premises – his answer was one indicating overwhelming fatigue and a fervent desire for sleep. He was altogether surprised I was there.
I used the time to my advantage, however, and made the first extractor, complete with a punched 'basket' and 'cold-finger' for the top portion, as well as an array of forged iron 'wedge-clamps' using levers. I came home while it was still light to find Hans setting up the still on the stove.
“The mash is ready to run,” he said, “and this time, it is drain-mash.”
“Drain-mash?” I asked.
“That is mash using stuff that has run through the distillery before,” said Hans. “I am not sure if it affects the taste or not, but I am wanting to try it.”
“Has anyone else spoken of that thing?” I asked.
“I would expect some orders for these things,” he said, “though how many and when is a good question. I know Paul wants one, and Korn will want one, and some few others will want one.”
“And everyone else wants an idol, don't they?” I asked.
“I doubt that,” said Hans. “Not now they do, as they know how good this one works.”
I somehow had the impression that Hans was seeing what he wanted to see, even as I watched over the succeeding runs of the still and cleaned the extractor carefully. When Anna began setting the table after the still had run its course, she noticed what I had brought home.
“What is that thing?” she asked.
“An extractor,” I said. “Only one customer showed today at the shop, and he was too fatigued to stay longer than a short time. No one else showed.”
“I'm not surprised,” said Anna. “Most businesses in town were open, but they weren't up to doing much. It seems that most people tried your hours and are paying the price for it.”
“Is that why we stayed home?” I asked.
“That helps a bit,” said Anna.