The Heretic – Snippet 25

They rode across town and had to ask for directions several times before they found the Bruneberg Powder Works. It was near the River, and when they approached the ammoniac odor of curing saltpeter told them they were in the vicinity, and, if they doubted this, the piles of sulfur and willow-wood charcoal nearby showed them to be in the right place.

There was also the tremendous thunder of the barrel mill, as large as three houses, to let them know they’d found it.  This structure dominated the middle of the manufacturing yard.  It turned night and day.  Something that was inside made an enormous racket against its wooden sides as it turned.

Lead balls, said Center.  Each is as large as a man’s head.

Center showed Abel what one such ball would look like.

Why lead?

It creates no sparks, Center explain.  Necessary, for in that turning barrel, gunpowder is born.

In the yard were the Silent Brothers, the maker’s of the Land’s gunpowder.  There were hundreds of them, all dressed in sooty orange robes, and going about a huge variety of tasks.

They did not speak, for they had no tongues.  True to their names, they hardly made a sound at all.

Even if they could, whatever moans or groans they might make would be lost under the din of that turning mill, Abel thought.  It never stops?

Only to load and unload, Center said.  It’s been turning for two hundred years.

To Abel’s surprise, the entrance to the powderworks was not guarded. In fact, there was no military contingent to be seen anywhere in the vicinity, nor priests either.

At least place is fenced,” Golitsin murmured. “But I don’t believe that fence would keep out a herbidak fledgling, much less somebody determined to get in there.”

“Maybe the Silent Brothers keep them away,” Abel said. “I’d be afraid of those gargoyles and wouldn’t set foot here if I hadn’t been ordered to come.”

Again they tied their donts outside, this time under the more promising shade of a large overhang that was constructed to cover the piles of raw material. There was a young boy throwing stone against a post nearby and Abel promised him a handful of figs to watch the horses.  The boy agreed readily enough.

There was a clear path that led through the works to what looked like a central office.

The smell of urea and feces, both human and animal, was almost overwhelming especially when they passed the settling ponds were the saltpeter was gleaned from rippled sheets of a specialized papyrus.

“Now that’s a holy smell,” Abel said and nudged Golitsin in jest. He’d learned over the past days that the priest did have a sense of humor, albeit a dry one that was barely a beat away from irritation.  “Does it make you just want to go and throw yourself in the cure tank waters?”

“I’ll throw you in first,” Golitsin replied. “It’s my duty as a priest to look after my flock, after all, particularly the stubborn and errant ones strayed farthest from Law and Stasis.”

You might be saying something truer than you know, Abel thought, but he only smiled wryly at the priest, and did not reply.

When they entered the main office, a man looked up from scratching out the totting of figures on a clay tablet. He was using a stylus cut from a river reed with the chipped flake of grainy feldspar fixed to its end — perhaps not optimal, but the hardest rock to be found in these regions. He was sitting in a chair behind a long plank table that faced the opening through which they’d entered.  There was the distinct odor of flitterdung in the air.

This time Abel took the lead in questioning the gatekeeper. “We’re here to see Director Eisenach,” he said.” Were told that he is the overseer of the powder plant, although we may be mistaken in his honorific. Does he not hold some sort of military rank?”

A voice from the back of the room cut in, “I’m a colonel of the local Militia, if that means anything to you soldier, but you can call me ‘director,’ that’s fine.  I’m not in command of anything here because I happen to own the place. What can I do for you?”

The voice belonged to a man who was of indeterminate middle-age. One glance told Abel that he was no soldier himself, whatever his Militia rank might say. Eisenach was not fat and definitely not skinny, but possessed an indeterminate pudginess that seem to be spread throughout his body, not concentrating in any one spot, but puffing out both arms legs and belly to an equal degree. His complexion was sallow and unhealthy looking. The animated wrinkles around his eyes, and his obsidian colored eyes themselves, chips of life in the doughface, belied this overall appearance of dullness, however.

He looks like a clever little man peering out from a big brute’s body with those eyes, Abel thought.

Aye, lad, said Raj. He won’t be a fool, or at least not the same kind of fool as those guards.

Abel and Golitsin entered the room and the man at the entrance table, a bird-faced, spindly sort, pushed back his chair, and stood beside it.  The long table was topped with neat cakes of what looked, for all Abel could tell, like dung.

The man nodded slightly in greeting as they walked past him, but then turned, his back to his dung piles, and stared after them.  Abel could feel the clerk’s hawklike stare on his own back.

Eisenach, the director, did not stand. He smiled and indulgent smile and bid them speak.

“We’re from Treville District,” Abel said. “We’ve come to inquire about our district powder allotment.  It’s four months overdue. We’ve been in constant engagements with Redlanders.  We’re running out of firepower.”

“I assume you wouldn’t be here if you were completely out,” Eisenach said.

Abel frowned, but nodded in acknowledgement.  “I guess that’s true, sir.”

“And your priestly friend here?” Eisenach nodded toward Golitsin. “Around here, priests and soldiers don’t usually mix so well.”

“This is the prelate’s chief of smiths,” Abel replied. “We get along fine.”

Golitsin gave a quick bow of the head and introduced himself.  “Prelate Zilkovsky is as concerned as District Commander Dashian about the powder shortage,” Golitsin finished. “He sent me to personally convey his unease.”