I was feeling like I was in the middle of one of those bad dreams that aren’t quite nightmares, but that still make no sense at all. There was a troop of bloodthirsty Indians on their way. These guys were like the Wizard’s enforcers, only they weren’t flying monkeys. They were also his executioners. They were expected to arrive at mid-day. They were going to murder not only my pretty hostess, but also her half dozen friends, and display their heads on stakes. Probably mine too, if they caught me. I took that very personally.
Why the officially sanctioned bloody murder?
For conjuring me.
I knew damned well that I was no threat to anyone. I wasn’t really a demon. I sold sea shells by the sea shore.
True, I had once been a shooter in Afghanistan, but this was a world without guns. How can you have gunpowder with no guns? Same reason the Chinese had invented it: They liked fireworks, and they used the stuff in making magic. When they actually went to war, they shot arrows at each other, hacked at each other with swords, threw spears and big rocks, and trampled each other with horses. Usually they talked until they couldn’t stand hearing themselves drone anymore, when the head of one side would have the head of the other side poisoned. Sometimes the idea would occur to both of them at the same time and then peace would reign throughout the land for two or three days, until this legion or that proclaimed their general Imperator. Often the idea would occur to several legions at the same time and they’d shoot arrows at each other, hack each other with swords, ride over each other with horses, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. At least by now, after all this time, the Imperator had to have a blood claim, or at least a claim by marriage.
I wasn’t really worried. I was pissed off. Remember, I could pop from reality stream to reality stream. I’d been doing it since I was eight years old, that I’d noticed. One stream of reality looks much like the one next to it, whichever direction you go, unless you get the kind of enormous jolt I had. This little coven could all join hands and the bunch of us would find ourselves someplace much like where we were, maybe a few dozen Planck’s lengths away and out of danger. If they were touching me, they’d come along when I left. The ladies would wonder what happened to the bloodthirsty savages that were going to hack their heads off. The head choppers would wonder where everybody went. All would be peace and love and all that other hippy stuff, until we ran into another set of problems. I’d get to know ye faire Nevianne better – I was hoping for a lot better – and eventually I’d either find my way back to where I’d started or to someplace that was at least congenial. As long as it held seashore, sea shells, and tourists I’d be happy and maybe even prosperous.
The fly in that ointment was that I’m a real dumbass when I’m pissed. When “fight or flight” comes up, at least half the time I go with “fight.” The vision of even homely Blæda’s head on a stake really pissed me off. I won’t tell what the image of Nevianne’s head did for me. I will say it was worse, a waste of the worst sort. Being a sensible kind of fellow (I know, I’m contradicting myself) I was pissed not so much at the bloodthirsty Nannakussi, but at his boss, Palégos, and even more was I pissed at his boss, Governor Rægan.
“Call the rest of your friends to join us,” I ordered, interrupting Nevianne’s and Blæda’s exchange of ligatures and thorns and wynnes and umlauts and other Germanic-sounding stuff. I’d have had to concentrate too hard to understand them anyway.
They looked at me and thought briefly of going on with their conversation. Then Blæda meekly trotted off to retrieve them, after recalling that I denied being a demon but might be a liar. I watched her as she went, still thinking. Each of her butt cheeks was about the size of both of Nevianne’s.
“If I can’t come up with anything better,” I explained, “I’m going to pull the bunch of you to safety.” I spoke slowly and clearly so there wasn’t a chance of her misunderstanding. The language barrier was an impediment to coherent planning. “I haven’t decided where yet, but it’ll get you out of immediate danger.”
“Not to thy realm?” she asked nervously. I think she had images of high levels of heat and little red fellows with arrowhead tails and pitchforks. It had gradually occurred to me over the course of the morning’s conversation that she hadn’t quite believed me when I told her she had gotten the wrong Asmodeus. She was polite about it, but she was sure I really was a demon, even if I preferred going incognito.
“I told you,” I snapped, as I sometimes do when a thought process is being interrupted. “I can’t find my realm!”
“I beg thy pardon, Lord,” she squeaked submissively, frighted by my snappishness.
“Oh, stop it! I’m not your lord! I’ve got more than one name. Call me John or Johnny or Jack or Jonesy or something!”
I put my hands behind my back and stomped back and forth across the little room, trying to think. I probably looked like Captain Hornblower on his quarterdeck.
Trafalgar? No, no. Hornblower wasn’t at Trafalgar.
There was a clatter and a splash and the sound of someone falling outside. It was quickly followed by what I took to be some pretty sulfurous language.
Blæda entered with two other women, rubbing her shins and hobbling. “Ic trippèd over thy barrow,” she explained lamely (so to speak) to Nevianne.
“Sounded like you did,” I told her. “Thanks.”
“’Thanks?’, lord?” she asked, sitting on one of the stools so she could tug up her dress and examine a pair of now-skinless shins. “Falling übber en barrow?”
“For jogging my memory,” I responded. She didn’t look like she had ever heard the expression before, but I ignored it, along with the “lord.” She introduced the old woman as Mildrith, and the other, a cheerful-looking young woman with a pug, pink-tipped nose, who was maybe a couple years past Nevy’s age, as Ælflæda.
Before she could get comfortable, I asked Ælflæda to go and retrieve the remaining members of the coven since Blæda had managed to injure herself walking through the gate. “And move the wheelbarrow,” I added, just so we didn’t lose another one.
“How much gunpowder do you have, Nevy?” I asked when she was gone.
“What ist ‘gunpowder,’ Lor… Jonesy… Jack?” she asked.
“Mixed sulphur, charcoal, and niter,” I explained. “I don’t know what you call it here. ‘Fuerwerkenstoeffe’ or something, maybe. You use it in making magic. You used some last night.”
“Ic hæbbe næ much left,” she said doubtfully.
“How about you two?” I asked.
“At miner hutte,” said Mildrith. “How to describe? Æn quartarius? Æn hemina?”
A quartarius was a Roman unit of liquid measure. A hemina was the equivalent dry measure. Nevy showed me one of her containers. They worked out to about a half pint. “May I borrow a cup of gunpowder?” I asked her, trying not to laugh. None of them would get the joke anyway, so I’d just feel foolish. They didn’t use sugar.
Nevy had almost a hemina. Blæda had just mixed up a fresh batch, almost three heminae. Usually it was best to keep the ingredients unmixed, but Blæda was a “Wit,” which was a seeress. She hadn’t known why she would need more, but she’d followed her instincts, or her Sight, or whatever it was. I didn’t believe in the Wit, but I wasn’t going to argue with her. What the hell? If I could have a sixth sense, why couldn’t she? Maybe I did believe.
Blæda headed out to retrieve her stash and Mildrith’s. On the way she ran into the others. When she returned she had the other women in tow and about eight or nine cups of gunpowder, plus some raw materials. Less the raw materials, that would make about two quarts of gunpowder. It was lighter than I wanted, but it would have to do.
“Which way will they come?” I asked.
“From ye crossroad,” Blæda assured me while Ælflæda dressed her battered leg. That meant the front door. There were only two, and Nevy’s front door faced the road, such as it was. Blæda’s leg was being treated with a length of cloth and what looked like petroleum jelly. It was a long, nasty scrape with nothing much left on it but the shreds of skin over bone.
“And what will they do?” asked I.
“Þeir ælles uns killen werden!” Ælflæda said. (They’ll kill us all.) Leofgif, Eadgyth, and Sigeflæd agreed with her. Blæda and old Milly made it unanimous.
At least Nevy trusted me. “Thou wilt smite them,” she stated, rather than asked.
“Maybe,” I replied. “But the rain will be trying to work against us.”
“It’s gestoppt,” Ælflæda pointed out.
I’m leaving out all the translation and repeating and vocabulary questions and such from here on. Just assume that it always took a couple minutes at least to get a sentence understood in either direction. We had more language problems coming up that were even worse.
“But the rain hasn’t dried up,” I countered. “Will they fire your huts?”
“Yes,” was the collective opinion, six of the seven looking to Blæda for confirmation. “I see nothing,” that lady dismissed. “I am blinded!” She wasn’t referring to her eyes.
“It’s usual to burn the huts,” Nevy stated. “To Palégos, our crime is capital. Were we not the target, I would agree with him. Calling up a demon is not to be done lightly.”
“Basic cost-benefit analysis,” I agreed. “I still think you risked entirely too much. If I was a real demon I’d probably have eaten the lot of you out of pure irritation. You got me when I was tired. I need a really long length of thick yarn. Can you part with your belt, Nevy? Do you have another one? Or can you use the other one?”
“Aye,” she agreed, taking it off and trying to find where it was tied off so she could begin unraveling it.
“Ælflæda, could you bring the barrow indoors?”
“My lord!” Nevi squeaked indignantly. “My floors are clean!”
“Pretty soon you won’t have a floor,” I told her. “It’ll be a cellar. I’ll build you another house. What do we have for stones and broken glass?”
We were going to improvise an explosive device. At least I’d learned how to do something useful while Serving My Country.
I put them to work: We settled on two ceramic urns: The toothbrushing water jug, which was about two gallons, and an old amphora that the nasty wine had come in. That was maybe four and a half gallons. One went on either side of the doorway, sitting on the breakfast stools. There was also the jug Nevianne had decanted the wine from. That went on the third stool, which would have left Blæda sitting on the floor, except that she was up and hobbling anyway. She was tough. She could limp it out.
The third stool was set at the point of an equilateral triangle, the other two points being the other two stools. The wheelbarrow went inside the door, inside the triangle. I was hoping somebody would trip over it and bark his shins. I was showing no mercy, dammit.
I walked around the setup, looking it over. I moved the wine jug closer to the amphora, just in case. Then I changed my mind and rearranged the whole thing, setting everything up in the corners instead, then did it all again, moving them closer to the center of the room. I was trying to imagine what was going to happen when they went off.
Nevianne had her belt unraveled and I had her replait it into a rope that would reach across the room from the back door. If they didn’t come in past the manure pile we’d have that way out after blowing our IED. Old Milly helped with the rope, which was going to be our fuse. She was chatting like it was some sort of quilting party. When it was done, they soaked it in lamp oil. When it was good and soaked, I had them work a few hands full of gunpowder along its length. Rule number one: Never light an IED while standing next to it; always use slow match unless you have electronics. Further away is always better.
Nevy’s larder had a good-sized keg of flour. When flour’s a floating powder, it burns very nicely. If it’s packed tight it just sits there. Fine corn meal’s not as good, but it was pretty fine, so we mixed the two, maybe three flour to one corn meal for bulk. We’d sacrifice effectiveness for volume. I was hoping to emulate a fuel-air mixture.
Leofgif, who was the Wise Woman of the coven, raided the others’ houses for bottles and for lamp oil. She warned the other inhabitants of the ville to head north, toward what I’d have called Indian River. They could hide among the dunes and catch fish to eat for a few days.
When she returned, I put her to work making Molotov cocktails. The oil wasn’t explosive – it was vegetable oil – so maybe they were Ribbentrop cocktails or something. Regardless, it would burn.
Eadgythe, the Chaste Wife, and Sigeflæd, the Patient Teacher – those were their job titles within the coven – went to work turning the jugs into death dealers:
Nobody was smoking at the moment, so we didn’t have to worry about that;
A layer of gunpowder went on the bottom of the container;
Over the layer of gunpowder went a double handful of pebbles; bigger pebbles were at the bottom of the container, smaller at the tops;
Over the pebbles went the flour-corn meal mix;
Repeat until the containers are full: Gun powder, pebbles, flour. I hoped they would translate to gunpowder for explosion, shrapnel, flour for fire;
Thickly baste the outside of the container with lard;
Rub the dwindling supply of gunpowder into the lard coating;
Add charcoal and sulfur and the tiny supply of niter to the baste for incineration;
Arrange the containers tastefully on the stools;
Decorate the tops of the stools with gunpowder cut with charcoal – we’d run out of sulfur and potassium nitrate by that point – forming a flammable bed for the bottoms of the jugs;
Stuff the end of the match into the jug;
Tastefully lay a thick chunk of firewood on top of each container;
Garnish each container with as much more firewood as fit on top of the stool;
Don’t smoke. Don’t even develop a fever.
The principle was to confine the explosions in the jugs, which would then blow out, throwing shrapnel in all directions. The firewood counted as shrapnel. The jug would go “kerbang!” Its explosion would ignite the other two containers, the bottle going “kerkracko!” and the amphora going “kerboom.” We could then toss the Ribbentrop cocktails at anyone left standing, always assuming we were still standing ourselves. The cocktails would set fire to the survivors. We would then retreat, heading for Fenwick Island proper, across the bay.
I’d guess we finished up with everything around eleven thirty. Precisely at noon, as far as I could tell, our guests arrived. I hadn’t expected the entire war band to come rushing up the steps and into the house, so they were all present when she went up. They should have surrounded the house.
The carnage was worse than I expected. My witches were stunned, and not by the successive explosions and fires. Rather than the jug going “kerbang” it went “kaboom.” The explosion was so big, the bottle didn’t fire, it was destroyed in the jug explosion; the bottle protected the contents, it broke, and the rushing flames and blast met in the air. Then its contents went. It was like “ka-boom-boom!” The flour filled the air and went “ker-woof!” as it sucked the air from the place. The flaming firewood went every which way, to include through flesh, bone, and walls. One chunk tried to take my head off, but missed by an inch. The little house went up like a match.
There was a single survivor. Nannakussi himself was punctured here and there by shrapnel but not fatally. He was blown out the back door, semiconscious and bleeding heavily, with a broken gladius in his hand. I conked him between the eyes with a chunk of firewood and he dropped like I’d boned him.
“Join hands!” I ordered.
They did. Graceful Blæda tripped over Nannakussi and he came with us when I flinched us to a more peaceful reality line. It took us awhile to get the pair of them untangled.