The road more traveled, part v.
The jug had a light mottled blue background, and inch-tall purplish-red letters of strange shape, with smaller green letters underneath the main inscription.
“Four... S-spear – no, that's a 'T' – and then 'eight'?” I thought.
The links of the last reddish character straightened out, such that they became clearer, and my error became obvious.
“Forty-chain!” I spat. “Now what... El Serpente? What?”
As the jug passed, I noted a definite hierarchy among the black-dressed imbibers. All of them wore strange domed hats of near-shapeless consistency, with droopy brims and rounded peaks. The resemblance to stereotypical 'hills' was astounding, and the drunken 'ardor' of these men was more so. 'Trashed' wasn't nearly a strong enough adjective to describe their alcohol-sodden state.
The 'chief' – he was known thusly among his familiars – then turned toward me. His menacing glare was mostly hidden by his droopy and dark dust-stained hat, but still, I could feel his irate rage. This man would not bark like a dog when drunk, I knew; instead, he would behave as an unreasoning enraged amalgam of every mean drunk I had ever encountered.
Unlike those people, however, this man was armed to the teeth. Two revolvers, one dangling from each hip in heat-checked leather holsters, were supplemented by a slung large-bore rifle and a huge knife hanging from a belt-scabbard. I then looked closer, and saw those were the man's obvious weapons.
He had more – and less obtrusive – engines of death and destruction hidden in his clothing.
After another pull on the jug, he brought forth a dark colored 'stick' about four inches long. This lumpy object gave off a profound aura of crudity, and when he licked it carefully with a long and snake-like tongue, I wondered if he was admiring the flavor.
“That thing looks a little like the leavings of a dog,” I thought.
The man went with his dampened 'dog-turd' toward a smoldering campfire, and knelt down near the glowing coals. The 'stick' in his hand, he reached toward a reddish-orange flickering mound and placed one end of the stick amid them. A faint plume of smoke came from first the lit end, then the other – and then slowly, with exaggerated care, the man brought the unlit end toward his smoke-hidden face. He then turned.
“He's s-s-smoking that thing,” I gasped.
The thick gray billowing clouds that enveloped his upper half seemed a call to all the creatures of the night, for as I watched, the darkened sky turned a hazy shade of red streaked with a darkened 'no-color'. This last invaded first the 'chief's' eyes, then the eyes of their followers, and finally, the eyes of their foul-smelling mounts.
“M-mules?” I gasped.
The reek of these animals was beyond imagination, and their fractious nature seemed subsumed by the odors of what might have been another jug of forty-chain applied liberally as an equine lubricant. They rode off to the north in the night down a gravely 'road' perhaps wide enough to cope with a freighter's wagon, and their near-soundless travel seemed to hide them amid the darker secrets of the land in which they were traveling.
Here and there in the velvet-like darkness, I saw small 'accumulations' of hazy lights, most of which were stationary, and a few of which moved in a slow fashion. There was little noise, at least at first, until the 'road' came closer to one of the sources of stationary light.
The first intimation of peculiarity came when a green flaming streak flew up from the light-source to arc high into the air before falling slowly some further distance away. As the streak vanished, I heard the bang of an obvious weapon, and I waited.
Something else of important nature would happen very soon.
Another such flaming green streak shot skyward, then a third – and as the second gunshot came to my ear, a veritable torrent of green streaks shot up in a crazy fountain over the course of several seconds.
“What am I seeing?” I thought, as I heard the third gunshot.
The answer came but a second later as the roar of an obvious automatic weapon pounded on my ears. The column of horsemen seemed to give it no heed, or so I thought until one man spoke in a low whisper that carried far beyond my ears.
“Crazy Pancho,” he muttered.
Yet the attitude of the others, while mouthing a similar sentiment regarding 'Pancho's' profligate expenditure of ammunition, thought much otherwise as to the weapon firing it – and only Pancho's unwillingness to sell and maintain such weapons kept them from owning one or more examples.
“Is that it?” I thought, as the dream began to 'fade' unto a deeper and darker shade of blackness. “Does Pancho...”
I blacked out entirely, and only awoke when my bladder truly nudged me.
“What was that dream?” I thought, as I wiped myself after using the 'privy'. “Who were those people? Did they ride n-north, or was it south, or was it even here?”
I had gone to the privy barefoot for some reason – an over-full bladder figured heavily into the maelstrom of thoughts in my sleep-shuttered mind – and when I returned to where my boots and stockings lay, I noted something profoundly different about them.
“They seem to be moving,” I thought, as I reached for my revolver. “Did something get in them?”
With revolver in hand, I nudged the nearer of the two boots. A faint hissing noise came from inside, and I drew back. I looked around, and wondered if there were snakes in the area. The boot resumed moving, and I went around to retrieve my sword.
I used the flat of the unsheathed blade to knock over the boot, and this time, there was no hiss. The boot shook, then with a sudden bounding spring, a hideous black-striped scarlet 'bug' leaped out with claws held high and stinger whipping around crazily.
“Oh, my,” I gasped, as the boot shook further. “What is that thing?”
The 'scorpion' - familiar as to shape, if not color or size – then saw the blade of my sword and lunged with its stinger thrashing side-to-side. I twitched the blade, and the bug fell thrashing to the ground in two pieces. It continued thrashing for some seconds, even while I nudged the boot again.
As if nothing had happened, another 'scorpion' lunged out. This time, I did not waste time; I sliced it in half mid-body, and tapped the other boot.
“How many of those stinkers are there?” I thought, as a third 'scorpion' lunged out of my other boot to nearly impale itself upon the blade of my sword.
After cutting the third such 'bug' in two – bug number one lay still, number two was still thrashing feebly, while number three had barely gotten the message and was still trying for all it was worth – I used the sword to nudge both boots and stockings out to where I could pick them up.
I had to slice two more 'scorpions' once I had done so, and now wondered if my boots were safe to use. I sheathed my sword, then used pincers to grasp the boot nearest me, thinking to upend it carefully over the fire. I was about to begin shaking it out when I heard yawning from the tent behind me.
“Cold boots?” asked Gilbertus.
“N-no,” I said. “There were these big nasty red-and-black bugs in them, and...”
“We're in the waste, then,” said Gilbertus. “I told the others to tie their footwear off the ground so those things don't get in them.”
As if to admonish me toward greater care, another example of bug dropped out of my boot and flew into the smoldering coals of the fire.
“Now watch,” said Gilbertus. “They call those things firebugs, and not just on account of what they have in their tails.”
The 'bug' moved perhaps two inches, then curled up in a ball and burst into flames with such virulence that I leaped back to dodge the distillate-like fireball and pall of black smoke.
“What gives?” shouted Lukas.
“He left his boots on the ground,” said Gilbertus.
Lukas stopped in mid-sentence, then said, “he'd already gone to bed afore you went to tell him.” A brief pause, then, “how is it you knew about those things?”
“I had this weird dream,” I said, “and when I got up, for some reason I used the privy without putting on my boots. I come back to them, and notice they're twitching...”
“That's firebugs, all right,” said Lukas. “Now how many of those things were in or on them?”
“Uh, five before I brought this boot over,” I said. I held it by the heel with the mouth down, and slapped it hard.
Three more 'scorpions' fell out, and this time I backed away in time, or so I thought when a fourth one flew out and jumped toward the nearest tent. Lukas had his knife out and impaled the bug the instant the 'scorpion' landed, then pitched it into the fire to add to the smoke-billowing holocaust.
“Are these things even safe to wear?” I asked.
“That one should be,” said Lukas. “If you have some Geneva, put a small cup in that boot and put it on the buggy-seat for a little while, then shake it out good when we leave.”
“Uh, the Geneva poisons the bugs?” I asked.
“I'm not sure if those things can be poisoned,” said Lukas. “I am sure they don't hold on very good when they're pickled.”
I doused the boots in Geneva after shaking them both out a final time, and when we were about to leave, I shook them out again.
No less than four more 'trashed-looking' 'scorpions' fell out.
“How many of those things did you get?” asked Karl, as I doused my boots again. I would ride barefoot for a while, as I did not wish 'scorpions' in my boots.
“Uh, I'm not sure,” I said. “Why, do you know about them?”
“Only what my uncle told me,” said Karl. “He said that they were common in the mining country, and one wanted to tie one's shoes and boots off of the ground.”
“And put strong drink in them,” muttered Kees. “That's the only good use for forty-chain brandy that I'm certain of.”
“What does that do?” I asked.
“It makes them turn loose so you can shake them out,” he said. “Only burning kills those things.”
While there were questions for Kees before we started, there were none for me and why I was riding with stockings only. About half an hour out, I heard a muttered oath from behind, and turned to see Lukas dumping more 'scorpions' out of my boots.
“Do we need to get some forty-chain?” I asked.
“I am not certain,” said Gabriel. “I meant to tie up your boots last night, but I fell asleep before I could do so.”
The woodlots that we now encountered seemed positively dessicated, with sparse grass showing gray-green in clumps in the areas around watering troughs. This grass seemed uncommonly well-gnawed, as did the yet-sparser greenery in the wide heath-covered 'swales'. These last gave the terrain an undulating character, and the gentle rolling of the High Way but added to it.
Farmsteads seemed scarce, even if traffic-rutted side-roads were not, and about two hours after setting out we were passed by a postal buggy. I suspected we would see but few more of such vehicles, and when we came to a small town about an hour later, I noted the buggy jacked up with its wheels off in the shade of a tile-covered alcove next to a postal hostel.
I tried shaking my boots once we stopped, and nothing came out. I was about to put them on when I felt a strong 'hitch'. I went for my tub, and reached the aquavit jug.
“Now I did not think o' that,” said Lukas. “I dosed those things with enough Geneva that Kees is hunting some up in that Mercantile.”
“Uh, there's still something in there,” I said. “Are those firebugs poisonous?”
“Aye, they are,” said Lukas. “That's the other part what gives them their name, is what happens if they plant that spike in their tails.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“The pain is terrible,” said Lukas. “I've heard tell it can kill, it's so bad, and more than one person has entered a monk-house when they got over being spiked.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“They thought they were being cooked fit for Brimstone,” said Lukas, “and when they didn't go up in smoke, they thought they'd been warned twice too many times.” A brief pause, then, “it isn't like it was long ago, when one had to live a blameless life without cease or stint.”
“They had to, uh, prove their..?”
“Aye, and there isn't much that goes further that way than becoming a friar, or so most think,” said Lukas. “I know better now.”
“What is it you know better?” asked Karl. He had two full jugs, and both of them smelled of beer.
“What's a better proof of good living,” said Lukas. “I thought living in a monk-house was until we came out of the second kingdom.”
“What is better, though?” asked Karl.
“I would not speak of it as being better,” said Kees. He had two jugs also.
“What, then?” asked Karl.
“Being given to that pendant,” said Kees. “I am not sure if I can compare it to much else, and I doubt if it is all that wise to do so.”
“Those jugs?” asked Lukas.
“They had some Geneva,” said Kees, “as well as some aquavit. I purchased some of both.”
“Uh, forty-chain?” I asked.
“I'd try dousing those things with aquavit first,” said Kees. “I'm not certain what has happened to me, but I seem to be learning things I was never taught, either at home or at school.”
I poured a small cup of aquavit in each boot, then put them in the front of the buggy prior to remounting Jaak. Within moments of resuming travel, I heard muttering coming from behind, and I turned to see Lukas tossing another 'scorpion' using his knife.
“Is it working?” I asked.
“I have no idea how those things keep coming out of your boots,” said Lukas, “but that aquavit is getting to them. This is the second one I've poked since you last dosed your boots.”
“Is that a curse?” I thought.
To my complete astonishment, I knew beyond all reason it wasn't but seconds later. There was something about sweaty footwear that firebugs found very attractive, such that it drew them from considerable distances; and more, such bugs were fond of each other's company, so much so that they 'broadcast' their finds of a boot nature.
“Hence, if one bug finds a sweaty boot..?” I thought.
“Every such bug within 'hearing' distance comes 'running',” said the soft voice, “and the same for food, shelter, and water.”
“Broadcast?” I asked.
“Firebugs have well-developed olfactory senses,” said the soft voice, “and more, they have a wide variety of pheromones with which to communicate with one another. The 'smelly boot' pheromone is especially potent, with only 'fresh meat' and 'water' having greater range.”
“What kind of range?”
“Your boots had about half the firebugs in that woodlot,” said the soft voice, “and a goodly proportion of those of the surrounding area were in transit. Miners, though – those people have especial trouble.”
“Near-unending darkness in the mines provide firebugs with almost unlimited opportunities for travel, and hence they are not limited by their lack of speed,” said the soft voice. “There were bugs two miles away that smelled the pheromone emissions, and those first bugs smelled your boots at over a hundred yards.”
“And the bugs?” I asked.
“The 'die-hards' are finally being overcome by the fumes of aquavit,” said the soft voice. “Another dose in an hour, and by noon the bugs will be entirely gone.”
I was glad of the frequent stops, even if a lack of footwear made for 'tender feet', and when I poured a fresh dose of aquavit in each boot, Lukas was glad.
“They've been mighty scarce the last half hour,” he said, “and I've been thumping those boots regular so as to get them out.”
“You spoke too soon, Lukas,” muttered Gilbertus, as he shook out a dampened 'scorpion' of unusual size and then trod it thoroughly into the ground. “That one was about ripe.”
“For exploding?” I asked.
“Those don't explode,” said Gilbertus, “but they can start fires on their own if they're ripe enough.”
The idea of 'incendiary scorpions' upwards of four inches long was not a pleasant one to contemplate, and at our next watering stop, I thought to shake my boots further. This time, nothing came out, even when I used Lukas' pole, and I thought to put them on.
The cool damp sensation I felt upon my toes seemed an uncommon harbinger of hell's arising in the form of burning pain, and I thought to remove my foot and pray first. I put my hands around the lower portion of my right boot, and 'aimed' its open 'mouth' out away from the others and toward a dessicated copse across the road.
Within seconds after beginning prayer, I felt as if not completely present, and the boot squirmed crazily in my hands, much as if it were alive. It bucked like a pistol repeatedly, even when I continued praying, and only when it became 'still' did I notice the heat. I then opened my eyes.
A narrow fan-shaped area stretching nearly fifty feet in length was blackened with soot, while several small fires blazed furiously amid a faintly oily scent mingled with the nauseating reek of aquavit. I looked at my boot, and now knew beyond all doubt it was clear of vermin. I then looked around.
“Where did everyone go?” I asked feebly.
“Behind the watering trough,” said Sepp. “I had no idea you had fireworks in your boots.”
I did the same with the second boot, and when I opened my eyes, I had trouble believing what had happened.
“That c-copse is gone, and the whole area looks like it was burnt to a crisp,” I murmured.
“'Taint half of it,” muttered Lukas. “I've never seen such bugs as what came out of your boots then, as they were trailing fire and smoking like falling stars, and that was the bugs. There were other things, too.”
“Other things?” I asked.
“I seemed to see some bad men I once heard of,” said Lukas. “I hope it ain't them.”
“Uh, who?” I asked.
“One's named Hecht,” said Lukas, “and the others, except for one, I disrecall. All of 'em have prices on their heads.”
“That one person?” I asked, as I shook my boots a final time.
“He's named Sam,” said Lukas. “Sam Brumm.”
I was glad to be shod again when we resumed, and gladder yet for dampened clothing and hat. Ahead, past perhaps one more small town, lay the border; and beyond it, lay a mystery. I looked around at the now dessicated remainder of the fourth kingdom, and saw gray-green 'heath' all-but unbroken, with occasional groves of scrubby trees or copses showing a trifle darker above the brushy 'sea'.
“At least most of these pumps work,” mumbled Gabriel, between gulped beer. “There isn't much out in this area.”
“A town ahead, perhaps an hour away?” I asked. “The border..?”
“That's just beyond the town,” said Lukas. “The border has its share of trouble out this way, and...”
A brilliant blast of light came a few hundred yards from the left, and as the thundering roar washed over us, I noted the thick black smoke billowing lazily up into the sky.
“That was a...”
Gabriel's speech was cut off by a reek of such intensity I began to see colors, and behind me and to each side, I heard the sounds of nausea coming to the fore. I turned to the side and began retching myself, and only after a few seconds did I think to ask that the stink go elsewhere.
It left with such alacrity I was alarmed, and I ceased retching. I asked a question but seconds later.
“I'd think that likely,” said Gabriel. “I take it you asked the stink to leave. Did you?”
I nodded nervously, then shaded my eyes with both hands, and ahead saw what might have been a bleached-out town far in the distance.
“Are we on the top of a hill of some kind?” I asked.
“There are hills to the south of where we are,” said Gabriel, “but beyond that, I am not able to say. It is almost as if I never came down here.”
“Did you?” I asked. Heat-waves shimmered crazily on the road ahead. They seemed to yell for the company of water.
“Eight or nine times,” said Gabriel. “While spinner parlors aren't worth much in one's reports, the waste was a very seldom subject at Maagensonst. My best notes came from those trips, in fact.”
“Seldom subject?” I asked.
“No one would go there,” said Gabriel. “I heard talk more than once that the west school had lunatics to spare, and they could go down into the waste to die.”
The word 'lunatic' seemed to seize a part of my being, and I recalled the vague thoughts I had had regarding guard training and notes speaking of them – as well as the comments of at least one person.
“...I wish you could write down a lot of the stuff you know, rather than what that stone-headed wretch spoke during those lectures...” came the voice of recollection.
“Perhaps that would be a title for such notes,” I thought. “The Lunatic's Manual.”
There was but one further watering stop prior to the 'border town', and upon reaching its outskirts, I could feel an aspect of 'mourning'. The 'main street' – easily half a mile long in this sparsely-settled 'town' – seemed awash in dust and reeking with the scent of blood, and the side-streets branching off every hundred yards or so seemed dead to the world and all else.
While silence was not present, the usual 'hubbub' common to fourth kingdom towns was also absent, and I thought to stop at a Public House if one showed. Faint speech came from the rear now and then, with words I could not decipher, and when a Public House actually showed, its roofed 'parking lots' were jammed with horses, buggies, and wagons.
“Is it lunchtime?” I asked, as I came to a small less-crowded region on the south side of the massive stone-walled building.
“It is that,” said Gabriel. “Somehow, I doubt that to be the cause of this town's silence.”
“Do you..?” I asked.
“I'd bet someone was shot,” said Lukas. “Talk had it there was trouble down this way recently.”
The somber sensation did not diminish noticeably when we went inside, and while the others went to the rear 'bar' of the place regarding beer and bread, I stood and listened. Faint upon an unseen wind I heard people similar to those of my night-before dream, and as I paid attention to such matters, I heard a faint thundering seem to come from the south.
I ducked down, even as a hissing whiz came steadily closer, and I was deep in the sawdust on the floor by the time it passed over. It continued on for some distance, and then came to earth with a crash and roar that made the ground shake.
I came to myself with someone's hand upon my arm, and I looked to see an open door ahead. I tried to speak, and could not, at least until I was 'ready' to mount. I then squalled out a warning.
“Down!” I yelled, as I dove for the dirt.
“What are you doing?” asked Karl, as he came from the buggy-seat. “We need to leave this place, as the brigands are causing trouble.”
And as if to punctuate what Karl said, a howling scream flew just above the roof of the Public House to detonate but a second later. I tried to dig deeper in the hoof-churned dirt for a second before 'coming to'.
“No time for it,” said Lukas, as I got off of my knees. “They're closer than those people thought.”
I now had to 'mount up' in the face of one of my worst nightmares, that of being under artillery fire, and once I had done so – with a face gone white with terror – I nearly screamed. I could feel another shell being rammed home into the breach of the gun, and I led off at a near-trot. I wanted a yard-thick concrete bunker to hide in, and nothing even close to that status was handy.
As we came to a gap formed by the joining of our road and a side-street heading to the right, I heard the muffled roar of the gun firing, and I had all I could do to not hunker down and let Jaak have his head. He was restive...
“You don't like gunfire much, do you?” I asked.
The answer I received was of such intensity that I nearly fell off into the dirt, and I began to pray – not merely for myself, but for the group and Jaak.
He didn't cope at all well with artillery shells landing close by, no more than I did.
The shell screamed overhead so close that I involuntarily ducked, and the window of the shop across from me vanished in a blinding red flash and billow of smoke to scatter bits and pieces all over our party.
“Ow!” yelped someone to the rear. “That hurt!”
“Best get a move on, then,” muttered Lukas. “At least he's got the right idea.”
Another hundred yards, then the road bent to the right. A wide-open stretch to the right showed more heath and copses for perhaps several hundred yards. A copse some distance away erupted billows of smoke, and now, I could no longer restrain Jaak.
He bolted as if crazed.
I now wondered what was happening, so much so that when he darted behind a tall mound of stone blocks on a 'vacant lot' I was surprised. I 'fell off' as a wet smacking sound came from the other side of the stones, then another, then a third – which was followed by another howling sound that seemed impossibly close. I huddled down next to Jaak, who was laying on the ground behind the piled stones, and as I unslung my rifle, the howling...
And was subsumed by a titanic eruption of fire and smoke that billowed around me in a thick and noisome fog.
The reek of powder was unmistakable, so much so that as I went to my knees, I watched carefully for shell-splinters laying hot and sharp to catch the unwary. I spotted my first instance but a second later.
“C-cast iron,” I muttered, as I brushed the sizzling smoldering thing aside. It was not a small fragment.
I came to the edge of the stones just as another howling shell brushed the top of the stones and pinged off into the air crazily as if a massive rifle bullet. Its warbling note spoke of a loss of true, and as I tried to bring my rifle up to bear, I heard a volley of distant gunshots.
Their deep-toned roars reminded me of the handful of instances I had heard roers fire audibly, and the sounds of lead impacting mingled with the shrieks of ricochets spoke of the shooters not merely having the range, but also being good shots. I gave up the idea of standing or kneeling, even as another cannon shell came screaming downrange.
I flung myself to the left as the thing came danger-close, and the blast tossed fragments of stone crazily into the air. I came back that way, now even more wary than before, and when I did, I came in crawling.
“Th-there's a tunnel here,” I murmured, as I brought my rifle forward.
The copse was still billowing smoke from its latest volley, but as I watched, I saw movement both within. Faintly, I saw what might have been a darkened hole some distance away in a second and larger copse, and in a third such copse, I saw what looked to be another such 'hole'.
The furthest away copse seemed to be the most active, for some reason, and when I began aiming at it, I wondered briefly as to why. The eruption of red flame that came from it soon spoke as to why; I could almost see the shell flying my way. I hugged the dirt for an instant, then knew what I needed to do.
“I need to shoot those copses,” I thought, as I lined up on the copse furthest away.
This shell flew wide, for some reason, even if the scream of travel followed by the blast seemed terribly close. I began looking closer, until the foliage seemed to thin where I was looking to uncover a familiar-looking varnished box.
“Dynamite?” I thought, as I drew to full cock and aimed about three feet above it.
The rifle fired almost before I was ready, and I wormed out of my 'hide' to the sound of gunfire. I barely got clear in time before first one bullet flew but inches past my leg, then another came 'too close' as several more bullets made eerie pings and whines that were swallowed up seconds later in an eruption of such massive quality I expected to see more rocks fly.
I began reloading, and as I thumbed in a bullet, I heard more gunfire. This was of a different tone compared to that of the thugs; more importantly it was to the north referenced to the copses. A faint scream came from some distance away as I removed the ramrod, and then another booming roar sent a howling shell downrange.
Only this time the shell was intended for someone else, not me.
I wormed my way back into the tunnel, and at first, I did not believe what I saw. The furthest-away copse was billowing thick black smoke, while the two nearer ones were frantic with activity. I aimed at the larger of the remaining two, only this time I aimed for a spot near the ground just under the place where that one 'black hole' had been. It was no longer facing me.
I was ready for my rifle when I fired this time, and while I was not surprised at the stab of recoil, I was surprised seconds later at what happened to the far-off copse.
The first thing I saw was a small whitish flash, then a billow of red-yellow flame that engulfed the copse. I then recalled the need to move, and jerked out of the way as a spattering of wet smacking sounds hit all over the stones, then more hideous noises erupted to the west.
“They're rattled enough that their aim has gone south,” I muttered, as I dumped another load of powder.
“True, though you underestimated the degree,” said the soft voice. “Losing those guns didn't help much, especially as that members of that first crew you shot were leading the attack.”
“And those other people shooting?” I asked.
“Are people living in town,” said the soft voice. “The last group doesn't have 'high-value' targets handy, so they will need greater care than the artillerymen.”
“High-value?” I asked.
“They loaded their shells with a semi-smokeless small-arms propellant,” said the soft voice. “In shells such as they are firing, it gives about twenty percent more blast with the same amount by volume. Then, there was some dynamite.”
“You shot a box of it that first time,” said the soft voice. “The second time, you hit their friction igniters, which started a fire that got into both shells and cannon-powder.”
I came back to my hiding area amid the continuing scattered shots, then looked at the third and last copse. Faintly, I could see numbers of black-dressed thugs loading and firing, and I waited until I lined up on one before drawing to full cock and then firing.
The roar of the rifle seemed to echo in my ears, and when the copse suddenly billowed smoke, I jerked to the side. I was quite surprised to not hear the sounds of bullets hitting my hiding place, and when I came back with a reloaded rifle, I was more than a little surprised to see two black-dressed thugs lying stationary on the ground near the last copse.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You hit the first thug in the neck,” said the soft voice, “and the bullet struck the second thug's weapon near the hammer. It misfired and spat its breach-block in its firer's face.”
“The other thugs?” I asked.
“Will continue shooting unless dealt with,” said the soft voice.
“Do they have, uh, strong drink?” I asked.
While there was no answer, the growing sense I had was 'it's worth a try'. I reloaded, crawled back to my 'hide', and began looking carefully.
Within seconds, the brush of the copse seemed to go gauzy. I counted four thugs still effectual among the near-dozen that had originally occupied it, with several laying still on the copse floor in slow-growing pools of blood, and two other wounded thugs passing a jug between them.
I centered on this jug, and as one of the two thugs set the thing down, I fired at it. The abruptness of recoil and report pounded upon my ears until the copse erupted near-colorless flames.
The screams of burning thugs grew louder as the frontal wall of the copse came down, and the thugs within came out swinging their weapons upon each other. A gunshot came from the west, then two more, and one of the black-dressed thugs stumbled and fell. His flames went out forthwith.
“What are those people shooting with?” I asked.
“Most of the townsmen have better-made larger muskets,” said the soft voice, “while two in that group have weapons similar in concept to those of the fifth kingdom.”
“Hence enough range?” I asked.
“That added range does but little good for people who seldom practice,” said the soft voice. “They are not fifth kingdom thugs.”
I had reloaded by now, and I aimed at one of the still-standing thugs. While his flames had died down markedly, he was still on his feet and fighting with his fellows. As I got comfortable with the sights, I noted a small mob of people swarming toward the still-standing thugs, and when I fired, that seemed a signal of sorts. The thug I had aimed at dropped like a stone.
The remaining thugs broke off their fighting and began running for the safety of their copse, with the 'citizens' in hot pursuit and firing their weapons. The two fallen thugs were left behind, and when the citizens came upon them, two paused to fire at the fallen at 'powder-burn' range before rejoining their swarming fellows.
A third thug dropped but feet shy of the copse, and as he staggered to his knees, the 'frontal' portion of the copse went back up to provide concealment for the refugees. The fallen thug crawled to the copse and weakly slapped the brush with his hands.
“Do those people think they can hide in there?” I thought, as the weakened thug still slapped at the now-obvious 'hide'.
The 'citizens' came rushing up to the copse, and while the fallen thug was shot and killed immediately, the location of the remaining thugs seemed such an imponderable mystery to the citizens that I myself was shocked. The thugs had 'hidden themselves' quite well, if I went by the reaction of the citizens; only one reason occurred to me to account for such an obvious ploy actually working.
“Is that a curse?” I muttered. “If it is, it needs to go to hell where it belongs.”
The copse abruptly ignited with explosive force amid enraged screams, and the 'citizens' fired their weapons into the burning holocaust again and again, until the screams died away to be subsumed by the soft crackle of flames.
I retreated from the 'tunnel', and as I lay flat against the stone blocks, I noticed Jaak was now standing. I stood up with my rifle in my hands, and looked around. Nowhere did I see the others, and as I began cleaning out my weapon, I wondered just where they had gone.
“Clear to the other side of town, no doubt,” I thought, as I removed a filthy patch and dampened a clean one with spit. “I don't blame them much, actually.”
By the time I'd finished cleaning and reloading my rifle, however, the aura of 'dead' in town seemed to be slowly vanishing, and when I mounted Jaak, I noted slow movement to the north along the 'main street'. I turned to see the group coming up slowly with exaggerated caution.
I waited, now turning toward the scene of battle to the west. All three copses still smoldered, while the 'citizens' dragged numbers of black-dressed bodies into several piles. I could almost smell the reek of distillate on the slow-moving winds, and the whole tableau seemed to burn but one thing into my brain.
Even here, many people, perhaps most, were such that they lay in thrall to the will of witches, and only witch-nurtured thinking, goals, and behavior existed in their minds. I had seen the evidence plainly, and that with my own eyes, and I sat lost in thought while the others came up.
“It was you they were shooting at,” said Gabriel. “Are they all dead?”
“What?” I gasped. “How?”
“They left us alone once you had gone ahead,” said Gabriel, “and...”
“No, it isn't that,” said Lukas. I could hear a plain reproach in his voice. “We got under cover, same as he did, only his was a lot more exposed. Then, he drew them onto him by shooting at them.”
And, muttered softly, “a good thing, too.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I took my place in the column. “How was it good?”
“None of us have weapons with that kind of range,” said Lukas from behind, “and neither do most of the people in town.”
“No buts, Gabriel,” said Lukas. “What I have might manage two hundred paces if I hold steady, and the other things we have are worthless at half that distance.”
“And what I have shoots much further,” I said. “I knew I had to put those people out of commission before we could continue traveling, and they were shooting at me.”
“At you alone,” said Gabriel. “Jaak left just in time, as the bullets nearly hit the rest of us.”
“That's to be expected,” said Lukas. “Those brigands might shoot fairly good, but at that range, they do well to call individual people.”
The impression I now had – Gabriel was not listening to anything remotely plausible; he had become fixated upon his thinking, and would not give that fixation up – was sufficiently troubling that our arrival at the border proper amid scattered buildings came as a near-complete surprise to me.
The 'border' had two sizable stone and wood buildings with a sizable crossing guard, and this weathered 'log' raised silently to let us pass. We had come from 'the land of enchantment' – not witch-enchantment, at least for the most part; this was mostly a matter of one's mind and senses – and into an area that seemed to have well-hidden brigands / pfuddaarn / black-dressed thugs hiding behind every scrubby tree and dessicated copse I could see.
That was for the portion that lay above the surface of the ground.
Below lay long weary drifts compounded into mines; and there, one found floods, cave-ins, deaths, and destruction. The upper and lower levels mingled had a distinct aura, one best described as being violent, bloody, and most of all refined cruelty; and this was so much so that I was reminded slightly of the ways and means of Norden.
I quickly learned I was not the only one, for out of a mire of oblivion, Gabriel spoke at length.
“This kingdom shall not desire news of retribution,” he said, “and while Cardosso died when his chief city burned, his attitude migrated south. This area acts as if it was taught at his court.”
“And..?” I asked.
“And it was a very poor learner,” said Gabriel. “Cardosso commonly used poison, but he knew enough to not ingest it. That cannot be said of those in the fifth kingdom.”
“The miners?” I gasped.
“They might well be different,” said Gabriel. “They endure things nearly as bad as swine, hence they might well give ear, especially if they work or live near haunted mines.”
“That special, uh, iron..?”
“There is that mine, and possibly others,” said Gabriel. “I am not certain how such mines compare to the cellar.”
A brief pause, then with outstretched arm, Gabriel said, “I am certain that is the beginning of that freighting road.”
“How?” I asked.
A low chuckle came from behind, then “look to your left.”
I did so, and nearly fell onto the road.
A weathered wooden sign topped with a crude-forged iron arrow specified the distances to three towns, these being 'Kraag', Ersenbach, and Meerburgh. The distances spoken of were not in miles, however; they were listed in Laengen, a term that at first eluded me.
“Laengen?” I asked. “Leagues?”
“Only the fifth kingdom uses that old unit of measurement,” said Gabriel, “and there are three miles to the Laeng.”
“Now I would not say that,” said Lukas. “I've heard that spoken in the second kingdom's back country, and a few places in the third.”
The High Way began to curve gently to the west as we came to the turnoff proper, and once on the gently rutted dirt track before us, I noted the surrounding territory. We had indeed left the fourth kingdom behind entirely, if I went by what I saw.
While the road itself was softer and looser than most roads at home, I knew that was but the seeming. Our current road headed roughly south-southeast, with rounded hills showing in the distance ahead and to the right. Much further away, more hills showed to the left and front, where a narrow gap permitted passage of our road.
There were no towns close by, and the dry and dessicated 'heath' around us looked more and more like 'sagebrush' with each passing minute. I could see 'copses' dotting the otherwise monotonous landscape here and there to each side, and the few and scrubby trees commonly had either birds perched in them, or what might have been animals under them.
“Is that a goat over there?” I asked, when I pointed to one of the shade-bound creatures.
“Aye, it is,” said Lukas, “and it looks to have escaped from the valley.”
“Unhealthful to eat, and seasoned with flies,” muttered Gabriel. He sounded as if enduring a nightmare. “Spices bring their weight in dust of gold to hide the taste of such evil meat.”
“What?” I asked.
“Flies are rare at home,” said Gabriel. “They are not rare here.”
“Flies?” I asked.
“They'll show soon enough,” said Lukas.
“Towns?” I asked.
A brief spate of silence, then, “those tend to be scarce, and what's in them tends to be scarce, too.”
“Really small Public Houses?” I asked. “Huge Mercantiles?”
“Aye, both of those things,” said Lukas. “Only the fifth kingdom has true south-style Mercantiles.”
“True..?” I asked.
“The ones we've seen so far that way were but the stink of the mule,” said Lukas. “Here, they have the mule that makes the stink.”
“And no greengrocers, correct?” I asked.
“I've not heard of any,” said Lukas. Gabriel seemed to have swooned, for some reason, and only his remaining upright made for wondering.
“I hope he doesn't have heatstroke,” I thought. “I don't begin to know how to treat it.”
“Do these Mercantiles sell nearly 'everything'?” I asked.
“They don't sell bugs,” said Lukas, “nor do they sell dirt. Otherwise, if people will buy it, they seem to have it.”
Our first watering stop was nothing more than a wide place in the road with fresh ruts and a long watering trough made of reddish-brown badly laid brick. The pump – larger and cruder-looking than anything of the sort I had seen yet – was faintly tinged with rust amid its peeling yellow and red paint, and as I looked over the buggies, I noted faintly the odor of mules.
I had to cease with my labors once the pump began groaning, however, and only my working it until it regained prime was enough to permit pumping water. I returned to the buggies, only to hear the pump once more groaning less than a minute later.
“Wonderful,” I thought, as I swung the weathered handle through its long arc again and again. “I'm not going to get much checking done.”
“Karl, come here,” said Lukas. “He's got to stay near that pump.”
I overheard scraps of conversation between the two men about what to look for when checking hooves while I continued pumping, and after a minute, I let Kees try. He seemed to manage, the pump continued belching water, and I went to finish the buggies.
I barely finished the 'oiling' before the pump began groaning again.
Once I had 'reprimed' the pump, however, I heard a faint buzzing noise to my rear, and I looked out over the horses to see which of them needed attention while Sepp worked the pump. The noise drew nearer, and I turned to see what it was.
The source of the noise first proved elusive, for it seemed inclined to hide amid the 'sagebrush'. I waited, both for the pump's groaning and the other noise; and when a strange creature arose to draw slowly nearer, I wondered as to what it was. It was making the buzzing noise.
Three globular portions of increasing size from front to rear were joined by thin threadlike stalks to one another, while the whole was suspended from near-transparent panes of 'glass' that rapidly moved. As I watched this slow-moving thing drone closer, I noted the front portion had two glossy black rounded protrusions and a long 'poker', and the rear portion, a long and curved 'tail'. The central part had, in addition to the rapidly moving 'wings', a sizable number of legs.
The finger-long creature seemed suspended as if to defy gravity – it looked far too heavy to fly – for it moved in a lazy and aimless fashion, and its thick and uneven noise reminded me of an ancient outboard motor in dire need of maintenance. It turned around in mid air, all the while buzzing as if stupefied, then slowly it 'flew away'.
“What is that thing?” I asked. I could not restrain the hint of hysterical laughter.
“A fly,” said Sepp, as he finished pumping to the sound of the pump's grating croak. “They're a lot more common down here because it's always warm.” He paused, as he went for a jug, then after pouring a cupful of beer, he said, “home is seldom warm enough for those to show, and I'm glad.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Flies are trouble,” said Sepp. “I've shot them before.”
“With what?” I asked.
“Small stones from a slingshot,” said Sepp, “and I've heard of people using muskets filled with lead-filings.”
“Especially that type,” said Karl. “That was a manure-fly.”
“Is that why I smelled mules?” I muttered. “I hope those are not going to be overly common.”
As we resumed travel, I had the impression that 'manure-flies' were very common where we were heading, and the drearily rolling hills that had 'materialized' seemed a fit harbinger of dryness and decay. There were trees – small, stunted, single or in small groups, and dust-gray for color – but beyond those, the 'sagebrush', the road, and the faint high clouds overhead in a blistering light blue desert sky, there seemed no life to be had.
I was surprised at the road's near-silence and lack of dust, and the muffled clop of the horses' hooves mingled with the faint dry hissing of the buggy wheels seemed an appropriate backdrop for trouble. I was looking for it constantly, and the others regarded where we were with an emotion I could not identify.
“This is not romantic,” I thought. “I might have been to places like this before...”
“At least there is some grass still,” said Lukas. “We may have to gather it when we camp at night.”
“Gather it?” I asked.
“Go out in pairs and cut the stuff with knives,” said Lukas. “There are some better watering spots where seed might have taken.”
An hour's travel and two watering stops later, we came to an obvious 'crossroads'. I could feel a town 'some distance' ahead, and as I stopped to get my bearings, I heard Gabriel trying to say something. He was having uncommon trouble with it.
“What is it?” I asked,
“P-p-p... I cannot say that word,” he muttered, “and that for the first one. Those others bother me.”
I turned to see another road sign.
Unlike the previous one, this example had been nipped by a bullet, and as I mouthed the words, a sense of horror grew with the passing seconds. There were mules named Plugs, and the worst of them were indeed Genuine, and now...
“Mekhicho?” I gasped. The word came out as 'Mexico', and now the dreaded three-word description was indeed made whole and complete. I mouthed the dread incantation, and the sound of “Genuine Mexican Plug” in my mind was indeed a fit curse.
Gabriel was scribbling something in his ledger between mumbling about lips able to speak the unspeakable. From behind, Lukas asked me how to say the words.
“Poo-Eh-Blah Meck-He-Cho,” I said, with the 'C' of the last syllable being barely pronounced. The sound when spoken in the original language was much closer to what I recalled.
“Now that makes sense,” said Lukas. “There was talk of some places that did a lot of business in mules, and that might have been one of the names.”
“In the Valley?” I asked.
Gabriel looked at me in stunned horror, and resumed writing.
The gentle undulations of the road made for hidden details, and as the hours 'droned past' one by one, I could feel the town coming closer. We had passed two more road signs and several 'crossroads', and coming to the top of a larger-than common rise showed an obvious town less than a mile distant. It was 'midafternoon', or perhaps a bit later, and as we came closer to this 'outpost of civilization', I noted its small number of buildings.
“This place might have four buildings,” I thought. “At least it has a place with food.”
For some reason, the vegetation seemed a trifle greener near the place compared with further away, and at the outskirts of this town, I noted buildings of stone, dried-out wood, mud, and perhaps thatch. These small places had laboriously scratched-out plots of what might have been vegetables, and as our weary group passed one of them, I saw a young girl dipping out water from a bucket onto individual plants.
The spread-out nature of this town was that of the fourth kingdom's border amplified, and with each further 'farmstead' – I found it difficult to think of a 'farmstead' of such small size, but I suspected those operating them received ample income – I could feel and smell the town proper coming closer. Faint on the wind I smelled what might have been mules and distillate mingled, and I barely stifled a gag.
The 'farmsteads' thinned out with sudden abruptness. To our right and just ahead was a long narrow building of gray-toned weathered wood; its stoop showed both faded white paint and the lack of a second story, while windows ran down its side like a row of lead-crossed portholes. The remains of once-gaudy signs lay to each side of the single centered whitewashed door, and the huge unlit collections of brass and glass to each side of that door had meanings indecipherable.
The noise, confusion, reek of strong drink, and intermittent faint and hoarse yells from inside were easy to understand, and I mouthed my feelings with barely audible voice.
“No, I do not like bars, and that goes double for rough ones,” I muttered, as we left that horror in our wake.
Faintly-marked dirt trails headed all through the roadside 'sagebrush' from the center of 'town', and the other two 'main buildings' showed shaded by small groves of 'eucalyptus' trees.
To the left was a building labeled as being a Public House, and its exterior was beyond 'unprepossessing'. I knew not what to make of a building made in the guise of a farmstead, save far larger: walls of mud-slathered gray rock, a thick weed-strewn roof of poles, brush, mud, and perhaps the bones of the dead; a weathered door of wooden planks flung wide open to double as the sign; and a rag-draped open hole in the wall...
“That looks like the door,” I thought, as we came into the empty lot that fronted on the place.
Across the road and somewhat south was a much larger building of similar construction: it had two planked doors, one flung each way from its doorway; and above that cloth-barred hole was a faded sun-bleached wooden sign spelling out the word 'Mercantile'. The watering trough to its right was barren, while two 'farm wagons' were parked in front of the left example.
Dismounting, however, reminded me of the first 'building' we had found in the town, and after dismissing it mentally – “I am not going near that place” – I had a question.
“Do miners go there?” I thought.
There was no answer, and I began looking over the buggies while Lukas and Gilbertus began inspecting the horses' hooves.
The pump held its prime, and each of us in turn pumped a few strokes into the trough as the horses were led to it. With twelve horses drinking, we took turns pumping until they looked to be nearly 'done'. I then followed the two older men behind the cloth drape and into the Public House.
The ambiance of the place made for raw nerves the instant I saw it, for it was more like the interior of a mine than any place I had ever been before. The lighting – dim, flickering, and somewhat sulfurous – threw ghostly shadows in profusion, and the sawdust-covered floor, the worn plank tables, the weathered timbers sprouting from the floor – all of this made me think of a mine. I watched my feet carefully so as to avoid the part-hidden narrow-gage rails used for moving ore and equipment, and when I glanced around to see the remainder of the place, I half-expected to see more rails, mining cars, picks, shovels, hammers, drills, fuse...
The list went on endlessly down the ghostly halls of nightmare, and when I came to a long and narrow trestle table scarred with knife-cut graffiti, I wondered as to my seat for an instant.
At least, until I saw the thing itself.
There were profusions of seat-polished copper nails, and softly shining brass corners setting off darkly varnished wood, and the brass latch in front over a faded marking spoke at once of what was present.
I nearly fainted, and it was all I could do to not turn and run out of the place, even as I came closer and cautiously lifted up the lid. My thanks were audible when I found the box empty, and the hilarity of the others seemed of another place and time.
“That box wasn't empty long,” I muttered, as I reached into my bag for the vial of fever bark. My head was pounding.
“What?” gasped Gabriel. “I have a headache, and until you opened that box, I did not have it. What was in that box?”
“D-dynamite boxes f-for seats?” I gasped.
“Those are common here for seating,” said Karl, “and my uncle spoke of places like this. Why?”
“He asks me 'why' when I've found dynamite in boxes like that?” I thought. “I do not want to be blown up!”
“Karl,” asked Gabriel with a trace of pique, “how many times have you been blown up?”
“I have been lucky that way,” said Karl. “I have not been. Why?”
“He was, and more than once,” said Gabriel. “That would be for explosives. There were many other instances on top of that. That kind of caution may seem excessive to us, but I doubt greatly it is excessive for him.”
After sitting down, I looked around the room while attempting to suppress the shaking feeling I felt inside, and to my surprise, I learned we did not have the place entirely to ourselves: a trio of what resembled 'drovers' in dust-stained clothing were sitting at a table nearby, and muffled steps in the background spoke of at least one person walking around.
As I looked closer at the drovers, I realized the laughter had been confined to our table. These three men had seen my reactions, and had thought them neither excessive nor particularly unusual. I wondered why for an instant until I recalled Hans' common attitude toward much of the basement's contents.
“I'd bet he'd have checked that box too,” I thought.
A minute's sitting, perhaps two, and I felt up to asking a question: “do they have cots here?”
“That Mercantile across the road has some,” said one of the gruff-voiced men I had thought drovers, “and I would hurry. If it gets out that they have cots, there will be a rustle for them.”
“Aye,” murmured one of the drover's companions, and all three hoisted mugs and drank. The second speaker finished his drinking first, then continued.
“And you'll need to shoot your way in,” he said. “That would be double-true if they are good ones from up north, and those they have are them.”
I stood up, and made to leave. As I excused myself, I overheard faint scraps of conversation, much of which spoke of 'ace powdermen' and their careful ways. I came to the cloth barring the doorway, then glanced out of a small worn place with a hole.
There was no apparent activity outside, even to the north, and I carefully thrust the cloth aside. I hurried across the dirt road at a rapid walk, with one eye to the north on the 'bar' until I had passed the threshold of the Mercantile.
“Th-this place is huge,” I thought, as I slowly went up one of the myriad narrow aisles, and when I saw picks and shovels, I marveled.
“Those look to be decent,” I thought, as I examined the blade of a shovel.
The next thing I found were chemicals. The labeling was similar to Grussmaan's, even if the contents were vastly different, and when I came to the cots, I was amazed to find two head-tall stacks. A minute's looking showed the cots of one stack were but slightly more costly than the others, while their materials and execution were markedly better. I then walked slowly toward the counter.
There were two clerks, each of them busy with one or more drovers, and as I rested my arms on the weathered boards of the counter proper, I heard faint clumping steps coming from the hidden vastnesses behind the counter. These last were hidden by more shelves, and when I saw first a head show between a pair of these shelves, then the entirety of a person between the next two, I realized suddenly that the Mercantile had a basement.
This made for wondering: “do these people live there?”
The third individual came up to where I was with a dented mug in his hand. The color said 'pewter', and his purposeful drinking named him dehydrated.
“Do you have glass-blower's wire?” I asked.
“That we do have,” said the clerk, “and for sale. Freighters like that stuff for toothpicks.” A brief pause, then, “you look to be after cots and other things, too.”
“I am,” I said, “but why do you ask, out of curiosity?”
“You look like a powderman,” he said, “and not a common one, but one what leads a gang of 'em. How many times you get blown up?”
“S-several times,” I said. “Why?”
“You seem uncommon careful,” he said, “and that's what it takes to set powder and not get killed.”
He left for the rear of the shop, and moments later came back with a leather pouch. This he set upon the counter, and extracted a sizable coil of silvery wire, an old-looking hammer, and a somewhat battered chisel. I dug a gold monster coin out of my pouch and put it in front of me.
“Aye, you're serious, then,” he said, as he began uncoiling the wire and laying it on top of a tarnished brass scale. “One, two, three, four, and five. There.”
He marked the wire with the edge of the chisel, then hit the striking end with the hammer after moving the wire onto a 'safe' place. The 'snap' of the wire being cut spoke of a very hard metal, and when he began coiling the cut piece, the struggle he endured spoke more on the subject. He tied my small coil with a piece of thick and greasy string, then moved the coin to the side.
“The cots?” I asked.
“Those would be ten each,” he said, “unless you buy more than five. Then, they are eight.” He paused, sipped from his mug, then asked, “the better ones?”
I nodded, then dug out three more gold monsters and a large silver piece.
“Aye, I thought so,” he said, as he moved the coins to the side where the other gold monster held court.
“Uh, wagon grease?” I asked.
“We do have that,” he said. “How much are you after?”
“A smaller tin,” I said. “Also, some caps. Those need to be, uh, stiff ones.”
While he went 'hunting' for the things I asked for, I dug out another gold monster coin, and his return showed a sizable tin of 'number one first quality' grease and a box of caps nearly nine inches to the side. I opened the sliding wooden lid and poked around with my fingers until I unearthed a dully gleaming pointed copper cylinder nearly three inches long. I briefly looked at it, hefted it gently, then returned it to its sawdust refuge.
“Good enough,” I said, as I pushed the last gold monster coin toward him.
While I had some change returning – two smaller silver coins – I was less concerned about my change compared to transportation, and I was altogether surprised to find Karl and Sepp wandering up the aisles when I turned around. Karl looked at the cots for a second, then resumed walking closer.
“I bought eight cots,” I said, as I gathered up tin and box, “and carrying all of that stuff myself is a bit much.”
“I suspected that,” said Sepp, “and Gabriel did also, which is why the two of us are here. Which cots?”
I walked back to the stacks, then indicated the ones in question. Once outside of the Mercantile and moving across the road, I spoke of the caps.
“Did you get stiff ones?” asked Karl. “My uncle spoke of those.”
“I did,” I said. “They might well keep those thugs off of us.”
“What about those squibs?” asked Sepp, as we began stowing the cots.
“I have yet to finish those,” I said, “and somehow, I have the impression we may well be tossing more than... Oh, now I know why. The caps won't need lighting if they're tossed hard enough.”
Karl grinned, then said, “he spoke about that, too.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“A mining town thug tried for him once,” said Karl, “and he tossed a stiff cap at him.”
“And?” I asked.
“That thug was not doing well afterward,” said Karl.
“In what way?” I asked.
Karl grinned, then said, “they buried him the next morning.”
I refrained from commenting on Karl's latest exposition, and once returned to my seat inside, Gabriel asked, “did you get what you were after?”
I nodded, then said, “eight decent cots, glass-blower's wire, wagon grease, and a box of large caps.”
“How much for that wire?” asked Lukas.
“A gold piece for five feet,” I said.
“We want to remember that place, then,” said Gabriel. “The best price before that was four feet and three marks.”
“And the worst?” I asked.
“Two feet and nine in the second kingdom house,” said Gilbertus.
“Did you see anything else in there?” asked Karl.
“Uh, not really,” I said. “Why?”
“Arsenic,” said Karl, “that, or flower sap. I can wait on the sap, but Hans is not inclined to let me have arsenic...”
“He does not want your death on his hands,” intoned Gabriel.
I looked at Karl quizzically, and wondered why he had an arsenic fixation. He seemed to deem my gaze a signal of sorts, for he stood and went to the door. Not three minutes later, he returned.
“They have both of those things,” he said, “but they want a lot for them – that, and the arsenic was mixed with grain.” Karl paused, then mumbled, “he called it goat-poison, and goats are poisonous enough without arsenic.”
“Where did you get this tale of poisonous goats?” I asked – and then recalled what Hans had spoken regarding dried goat meat.
“My uncle spoke of them,” said Karl, “and...”
“Fifth kingdom dried goat?” I asked.
Karl nodded, then asked, “why, is there another type?”
“What the third kingdom sells is decent, if you can get it,” said Lukas. “I might still have some, in fact.”
“Those nasty-looking bricks look, uh...”
“Now those are poisonous,” said Lukas. “You can't cook that stuff enough to make it safe to eat.”
A waiter suddenly 'materialized' not two minutes later, and while he circulated getting orders for 'drink' – chiefly beer, though someone wanted unfermented wine and was told it wasn't to be had – I realized that this Public House was perennially short-handed, with perhaps two people for labors that wanted three or more.
“And that for a very long day,” I thought, as I mentioned 'common beer' to the waiter. As he finished, he paused to speak.
“You people do not look to be miners,” he said. “They come in about sundown, if they come here.”
“Food?” I asked innocently.
“Meat, vegetables, bread, and beer,” he said, “and the meat and vegetables are usually dried.”
The man's stilted language – singsong syllables, clipped consonants, rolled 'r's', and perhaps a lilt – made for wondering as to his tenure down this way, and more, his place of origin. There was a brief hush, and my thinking sundered it like a bolt of lightning once I had digested what he had spoken.
“Good!” I thought. “None of those accursed squabs!”
“We do not have fowls,” he said, “nor do we have fouls. Those things are popular to the south about five and fifty laengen, and the pfuddaarn can have them.” I could almost hear him spitting. “Those things are costly, they peck everything they can get their beaks into, and they stink worse than the bugs they have around here.”
He paused, much as if he had heard an inaudible question, then said, “that is why they call those things fouls.” He paused again, then asked, “now who brought up those stinky birds and put the thinking of them in my head?”
I now felt 'something coming' hard and fast, and my feet trembled in their boots as a faint vibration became steadily more noticeable – until with a shuddering rumble, the dim-lit room flashed blue-white for a count of three as the ceiling vanished to be replaced by roiling flames.
The waiter seemed unmoved for perhaps half a second, or so I thought until he spoke. I could plainly hear panic in his voice:
“This is not a mine,” he said. “This is not a mine...”
And as if to dissuade his thinking, a low-sounding growling shriek came from everywhere at once and he screamed “flood! Flood! Help me, I'm...”
I looked up, saw the flames, and said, “please, look up.”
He ceased screaming, then dumbly did as told. His panic vanished to be replaced by something utterly different:
“Oh, my,” he murmured. “It has come.” A pause, then, “I get so seldom the chance for a bath...”
Upon finishing this last, he leaped and vanished within the cloud.
There were questions in the eyes of those seated at the table, and I mentally ticked off the seconds until the thud of reentry spoke of his return. I looked to the left, and saw that now he actually had plans beyond 'do what I must to survive'.
“I shall leave for the north within a ten-day,” he said, “for the Abbey is building, and I do know my chisels.”
“And here?” I asked.
“They are not likely to miss me overmuch,” he said, as something else built steadily in the background. This sensation – whether sound or feeling, I could not tell – grew steadily, until a less-than-faint gunshot was followed by two more. A muled brayed long and loud, then audible near-silence returned.
It had never been 'silent' in other aspects, I now realized. It wasn't just that horror of a bar; there was more.
“That would be the salon,” said the waiter. “It gets more people than here and the Mercantile together.”
“Salon?” I asked.
“It never shuts its door,” he said, “and between the drink and the gambling, people get killed with some frequency.” He paused, then said in a lower voice, “I heard that mule, and thought some drunken wretch would ride it in here.”
“Ride it in here?” I asked.
“That usually means dodging hot lead,” said Lukas. “I've seen it happen more than once.”
“I have also,” said the waiter. “I'll go fetch the food and drink.”
“What is a 'salon'?” I asked. The word was pronounced 'Saw-loan', and for some reason, I heard repeatedly the word 'saloon' in my mind.
“That is the fifth kingdom's name for a drink-house,” said Gilbertus. “That one we passed was too small to do much in the way of services.”
“It definitely had spinner tables in it,” muttered Gabriel archly between gulps of beer. “No salon is a proper salon unless it has those.”
“S-services?” I gasped.
“Those places are in the bigger towns to the east and south,” said Karl. “My uncle said an especially bad one had a red sun rising on its front, and that place was a witch-hole for evil.”