“Vot trouble haff you gotten uz into dis time?” Jenka asked in an accusing tone.
“Vell,” Maxim said, fidgeting with the brim of his hat, “ve got a Heterodyne, don't ve?”
The young child turned her serious gaze to Jenka.
“Do you know where my Uncle Barry went?” the girl asked.
Jenka's eyes slid the the three Jägers crowded behind the girl. Dimo shook his head slightly. That was extremely worrying. Master Barry was out there, somewhere, alive, and yet unnervingly out of reach. Again.
Still, the girl was Heterodyne through and through. The smell was unmistakeable.
“No,” Jenka replied to the question, and the little girl's face twisted to dismay.
“Ho, but iz okeh,” Oggie rushed to say, sitting down on his haunches to be at her eye level, “ve search for him, yah?”
“Yah, yah, ve find him again,” Dimo added. “No vorriez.”
“Really?” the girl Heterodyne asked, sounding vaguely dubious.
“Ve promize,” Jenka said.
After all, Jenka thought, they found one Heterodyne, and it only took them several years to accomplish this feat. How much harder could it be to find another one?
A brief stint following the remnants of Barry Heterodyne's scent turned into a dead end and, because trouble doesn't travel alone, they also ran into a malfunctioning battle clank.
“Oop, hyu schtay here,” Dimo said, picking up Agatha before she could wander closer.
“I know!” she huffed, offended, as she tried to squirm loose. “I just wanna see what it does!”
“It sqvashes leedle gurls,” Maxim supplied, before he and Oggie sprang at it, weapons brandished.
It went down so quickly, that it was barely a fight at all, but at least it made a satisfying boom.
In the end, Agatha had to assuage her curiosity by poking through the smoldering wreckage with a stick. The Jägers hovered nearby, ready to intercept any piece of the clank that might still pose a danger.
“I don't think Uncle Barry was here,” Agatha said as she poked a brassy piece of plating.
“Hyu don't?” Dimo asked carefully.
“No, 'cause he woulda beaten that clank,” she continued with childish self-assurance.
“Hy guess hyu iz right,” Jenka said, but rather than look at Agatha, she caught the gaze of her fellow Jägers. “Master Barry vasn't here.”
All their expressions were variations on displeased, but they had the same understanding. A Heterodyne in hand was worth two in the bush.
“But what about Uncle Barry?” Agatha asked, absolutely stricken.
“Ve tek hyu to hyu family home,” Oggie replied, giving her the kind of wide smile that only a Heterodyne would find reassuring. “He knowz de vay.”
“Effen if he hazn't bothered to uze it all diz time,” Maxim muttered under his breath.
“Home?” Agatha repeated, looking thoughtful.
“Yah, Mechanicsburg. Und den ve come back to look for hyu oncle,” Dimo assured.
“You're-- You're gonna just leave me there?” Agatha said, looking quite alarmed. “Alone?”
Jenka sighed in the way she did when she tried to abstain from facepalming.
“Ov courze not,” Jenka said firmly. “Hyu vill haff plenty ov people to look out for hyu. But if hyu vant uz to stay, ve vill.”
“I don't... like to be left,” Agatha said quietly.
“It iz not pleasant,” Dimo agreed, patting her on the back.
Compared to the grueling years spent on a seemingly futile errand, transporting a child through the Wastelands seemed like a welcome challenge.
Even the parts that were, indeed, genuinely challenging.
It wasn't as if Jägers didn't have any experience with young Heterodynes. Indeed, the Heterodyne family did not abide shyness of Jägers in their heirs, not even if they were impressionable young children. Especially not if they were impressionable young children.1
It was just, well, usually the Jägers weren't the ones solely entrusted with a Heterodyne child's upbringing. There were other people tasked with the day to day things that children required, like deciding what to clothe them or which foods they were allowed to eat in what order or when touching something would be merely educational instead of permanently crippling. And sometimes that person was the scariest piece of architecture this side of the Ural Mountains2, but at least Castle Heterodyne was vested in keeping its Heterodynes largely intact until they had the opportunity to produce more heirs.
And it also presumably had some method for persuading a recalcitrant child to go to bed, even if that involved the bed having bars.
Tragically, the abandoned house they used as shelter for the night did not have the convenient child-sized cages that Castle Heterodyne did. They had to put her to bed the old-fashioned way. And Agatha was not amenable to that.
“I'm not tired,” Agatha insisted, not even removing her attention from the book in her hands.
“Ve must vake op early tomorrow,” Dimo said. “Hyu get crenky ven hyu iz sleepy.”
Jenka, far less inclined to be cowed by a five year old, Heterodyne though she may be, swiped the book from Agatha's hands.
“Hey! Give it back!” the girl shrieked, jumping to her feet.
“Dere, zee?” Dimo threw his hands up. “Vot did Hy say? Crenky!”
“I'm not cranky! She stole my book! Give it back!” Agatha made to take the book back, but Jenka was already holding it out of reach.
“Hy giff it back if hyu ken tek it back,” Jenka replied.
Agatha made a frustrated sound and hopped up, trying to grab it. She continued hopping for several minutes, her face reddening in frustration and exertion both. Jenka dangled the book casually, perfectly willing to attract the ire of the young girl if that meant she would wear herself out in the process and go to sleep more willingly.
Eventually, Agatha stopped, shrieked in frustration, kicked at Jenka's shin and then flopped on the floor with her arms crossed, muttering something that, in best likelihood, fell along the lines of promises to 'show you, show you all'. Heterodynes tended to be precocious ranters.
“Hoy, did you giff hyu uncle diz moch trouble, keed?” Maxim asked, looking up from where he was cleaning his sword.
Agatha scowled, clearly torn between continuing her rant and answering the question. She huffily turned away from Jenka, ignoring her with all the dignity a girl barely out of toddlerhood could muster.
“Uncle Barry told me bedtime stories,” Agatha said. “About him an' dad an' the places they visited and stuff.”
“Oh, vell, vhy didn't hyu say so?” Oggie said. “Ve gots de Heterodyne schtoriez too!”
“...Really?” Agatha blinked.
“Yah, ve iz Jäger, keedoh, ve uzed to ride vit de Heterodynez!” Oggie continued, crouching down next to Agatha. “De old vuns, at leazt!”
“Um,” Agatha tilted her head slightly, “but Uncle Barry said the old Heterodynes were bad people.”
“But dey vos fun bad pipple,” Oggie said, grinning. “Und dey vos hyu anceztors! Hy tell hyu all about dem if hyu get in bed first.”
Agatha regarded Oggie wide-eyed for a few seconds, ruminating on this offer for a few seconds.
“Okay!” she said finally. “But I'm not goin' to bed 'cause you tricked me, I just wanna hear the stories.”
“Ov courze,” Oggie said and took Agatha's hand, leading her to the next room where they'd set up the bed for her. He threw one last smug look over his shoulder, because the situation called for a little gloating.
There was some eyerolling at Oggie, but he turned out to be a better storyteller than any of them expected. He told Agatha about the time her great-great-great-granduncle Persiflat Heterodyne3 used a set of giant magnifying lenses to set a troublesome neighbor's castle roof on fire, and even with the girl interrupting to ask questions which clearly exceeded Oggie's limited understanding of science, he managed to make the story sound engaging.
“Hyu tink she gon' be like her poppa?” Maxim asked during a lull in the story, when Agatha asked a particularly tricky question that she was unwilling to let Oggie gloss over.
“Hy tink she vill be Heterodyne in de end,” Jenka replied, tapping the spine of Agatha's book.
The title, in flowery cursive, was '101 Elegant Death Ray Designs for the Fashionable Gentlewoman'.
There weren't always houses. Usually they camped under bridges or in caves or under the wide open sky, always avoiding towns or well-intentioned good Samaritans who might get the mistaken impression they'd be saving a child from becoming a Jäger snack. They picked up things for Agatha on the way—clothes, soap, a hairbrush, a plush toy, a book, little bits and bobs of mechanisms which kept her busy for hours.
Agatha rode with Jenka on Füst when she was tired or when the terrain was rough, but sometimes she insisted on walking, darting back and forth to look at whatever caught her interest. It was an endearing sight, even if not exactly safe.
On one notable occasion, she wandered right up to a feral construct sleeping under some shrubbery. The creature was a mix of large cat and bull, clawed limbs and taurine head complete with almost a dozen horns going every which way. The creature's fur was dappled in brown and gray, so it was no surprise it remained hidden from sight even when it was the size of a cow.
It opened its eyes to come face to face with the girl and it was just as surprised by Agatha as Agatha had been by it. Luckily, the few moments of frozen shock had been just enough to Maxim to dart in and scoop Agatha up. Going too fast to change directions, Maxim then stepped over the creatures head and used its grotesquely hunched back as a springboard, leaping well out of its reach.
Though the maneuver was elegant enough that Maxim knew he was going to be bragging about it at Mamma Gkika's for the next fifty years, it unfortunately ended with him hitting the ground with his back, so hard that even Agatha let out a pained “oof!”. The construct shook its head and nasty horns, opening its maw to display jagged rows of mismatched teeth.
Luckily, by that point, the other Jägers rushed in. Dimo's knives bounced off the construct's hide like it was rubber, and all Oggie accomplished was getting his halberd stuck in its mess of horns. This at least gave Maxim enough time to scurry to his feet and retreat a ways, because the construct bellowed like a mad thing and turned its murderous gaze towards Agatha.
Füst plowed into the construct, putting his whole weight into it, and managed to topple it, allowing Jenka to slash at its underbelly with a short, thick blade she produced from her boot. Blood spurted from the wounds and onto Jenka's arm, smoking and burning through her sleeve. She hissed, but scored another cut before jumping out of the creature's reach. Füst growled, but the construct twisted it head suddenly. It pummeled Füst in the face with the handle of Oggie's halberd, still stuck in its horns, and hard enough that the bear reeled back.
“Dem, I hate it vhen dey got de acid blood,” Oggie groused.
“Go for de eyez,” Maxim yelled, even as he dodged one of the construct massive clawed paws.
“Hoy, no backseat fightink!” Dimo chided. He recovered his knives and crouched, prepared for another go at the creature. It wasn't a bad suggestion, but it wasn't also like Dimo was new at this kind of thing.
Oggie jumped to grab onto the handle of his halberd and Jenka flanked the construct from the other side, grabbing onto one of its jutting horns and digging in her heels. The creature had a moment of indecision, not knowing who to gore first, and Dimo took advantage of this moment to leap down hard on its head and sink a knife into each of its eyes.
The construct opened its mouth to roar, but instead collapsed onto the ground, its limbs twitching spasmodically in a way that indicated it was already dead but its brain was sending out random impulses.
The Jägers retreated to a cautious distance and waited until the construct stopped moving.
“That was scary,” Agatha remarked, though she sounded more impressed than scared.
Maxim placed her down on the ground with a sigh.
“Dot iz vhy hyu stick cloze,” he said. “Hyu hurt?”
Agatha didn't reply, but she seemed intact. All her attention was taken up by the dead monster, which she regarded with wide eyes as she padded closer.
“Is it a construct?” she asked in an awed whisper.
“Yah, iz prob'ly some madboy's experiment vot got looze,” Dimo said as he gripped the handles of both his knives.
He tensed as he got ready to pull them out, but he needn't had bothered. The hilts did not resist and Dimo ended up stumbling backwards, almost falling over.
“Vot der dumboozle?!” Dimo turned around to show the hilts—and only the hilts—because the blades themselves had been burned down to corroded stubs. “Go for de eyez, he sez!” Dimo muttered with a dark look at Maxim.
“Vell, iz not like Hy force hyu!” Maxim shrugged, and grinned.
Jenka inspected the blade of her own blade with dismay. It didn't look quite as bad as Dimo's knives, but it was ruined all the same.
“Dem, dis vas my favorite gutting knife,” she muttered, displeased.
She looked down when she felt a tug on her cloak. Agatha was looking up at her.
“You're hurt,” Agatha said, pointing to her arm. There was an acid burn over most of Jenka's forearm.
“Vot, dis?” Jenka flexed her hand a few times—carefully, because it pulled at her skin painfully, but to demonstrate that she still had full mobility. “It vill heal.”
Agatha peered at the wound dubiously.
“But,” she said, “don't you need a doctor?”
“Ve iz Jäger, ve only let de Heterodynez do vit de doctorink,” Dimo explained.
There was a moment of silence as Jenka, Dimo and Maxim looked at each other, trying to decide what to say (not so much Oggie, who was struggling to get his halberd loose from the construct's horns, and failing miserably, if one were to judge by the steady stream of imprecations he hissed).
“Because ve don't trust anyvun else,” Jenka finally replied.
“Oh, but...” Agatha grabbed Jenka's hand, frowning in thought. For a few moments, Jenka thought Agatha would insist on the doctor. “I'm a Het'rodyne,” she said instead.
“Hyu iz a leetle hopped-op brat,” Jenka laughed, not unkindly.
“Hyu vill not be a Heterodyne proper until der Kestle recognizes hyu,” Maxim added.
“Und vot vill you do ennyvay out here?” Jenka asked, gesturing vaguely to the surrounding forest.
Agatha bit her lip, but she frowned like she was thinking fiercely. Apparently she did not have a good grasp of rhetorical questions yet.
“We need to... rinse the wound first!” Agatha said, probably remembering some instructions she'd learned once. “In, uh... running water.”
“Dere vos a stream dot vay,” Dimo said, pointing to the direction they came from. Jenka threw him a glare—don't encourage her!—but Dimo only grinned in response, looking profoundly amused by the entire situation.
“Good!” Agatha said. She perked up with confidence. “An' we need to remove any clothin' an' stuff from the wound.”
In the end Jenka let herself be dragged along, even though she complained the whole way about how this wasn't necessary.
“You saw what happened to Dimo's knives!” Agatha said with finality.
“Jäger iz made ov sterner stuff den Dimo's cheap toyz,” Jenka muttered, prompting an offended noise from Dimo.
But Agatha was clearly bent on being stubborn about this, and while Jenka was perfectly capable of weathering the girl's temper tantrums at this point, the boys were making encouraging remarks to Agatha, egging her on.
Jenka's sleeve was cut away and the burned spots were cleaned, and Jenka was forced to admit it did feel better now that all traces of the acidic blood were gone. By that point, the skin had mostly healed and bandages were unnecessary, but Agatha insisted because it was 'proper procedure', even if she could barely pronounce the phrase. But Jenka bandaged herself, because she could do a better job one-handed than Agatha could do with both her stubby little child hands.
It was, Jenka had to admit, not so bad. And though she'd been patched up by Heterodynes before, usually for much more grievous injuries, it was the first time one had 'kissed it to make it better!'.
“Vot iz hyu eediots looking at?” Jenka asked the other Jägers, who were regarding her with identical toothy grins.
“Vot?” Maxim raised his hands defensively.
“Nothink!” Oggie squeaked.
“Iz goot to haff a Heterodyne beck, yah?” Dimo asked, looking sly.
Jenka's eyes slid to her bandaged arm, and towards Agatha who was happily washing her hands in the stream, as if she was coming out of major surgery. Strangely echoed in her naïve medical ministrations was a hint of that... possessive kind of affection Heterodynes had towards their Jägers. It was a strange thing to be reminded of, especially since it was something she only noticed in retrospect.
“She iz not Heterodyne yet, she iz annoyink leetle bug,” Jenka grumbled, but without any heat behind it.
They resumed their journey, Agatha once again riding on Füst, because if nothing else, it kept her out of trouble. She curled up against Jenka and apparently fell asleep, but after a while, she started humming.
No, she started heterodyning .
The boys' ears twitched, and even though they didn't say anything or even turn around to look, Jenka knew they caught the sound. It had been... years, since any of them had heard it. It was familiar.
It felt like returning home, even though they were not there yet.
It didn't take long until they ran into more detached Jägers.
It was evening and they were camped around a fire. Jenka was polishing a sword she'd picked up recently, from the flaming remains of a merchant's wagon (the wrecking of which they were not responsible for, and in fact had not even witnessed), while Dimo was poking at the fire. Maxim and Oggie were bickering over a handful of berries they'd picked up from a bush along the way, because they couldn't agree whether or not they were poisonous. Füst was sleeping, curled up behind Jenka.
Then the winds shifted. Dimo sniffed the air and grinned. Füst lifted his head, rumbling warningly.
“Hoy, iz dot hyu, Laszlo?” Dimo asked, tilting his head towards the edge of the clearing.
Agatha's head whirled around just in time to see the aforementioned Laszlo step out of the shadows, a towering green and tusked Jäger, with a mace hanging heavily on his belt.
“Vell, vell, vell, if it izn't Dimo,” Laszlo drawled, as his eyes slid over everyone in slow appraisal. “Und Jenka—haff not seen hyu since de sackink of Brassov4. How hyu been, gurl? Ognian! Dot hyu, brodder? Und I see leetle Maxim is vit hyu, ohoho.” His gaze finally settled on Agatha. “But who iz hyu bite-sized companion dere?”
“I'm not bite-sized,” Agatha said indignantly. Then, after a moment's thought added, “Unless your mouth is real big.”
“Ve found a Heterodyne,” Maxim answered, not with a small amount of gloating.
“Vaaat?” Laszlo frowned, tilting his hat back so he could scratch his forehead. “Und vere iz diz Heterodyne?”
Everybody around camp gave him blunt, exasperated looks, except for Agatha, who very helpfully raised her hand and beamed.
Laszlo's brows rose slowly.
“Her?” he mouthed, pointing at Agatha in bewilderment. Then he stepped closer, crouching on the ground next to Agatha and inhaling deeply. By the time he exhaled, he looked positively gobsmacked. “She iz Heterodyne!”
“Hyu don't zay!” Oggie snickered.
“Vell!” Laszlo said, sitting down on the ground and regarding Agatha in wonderment.
“I'm Agatha,” the girl said, extending a hand.
“Laszlo,” the Jäger said, shaking her hand rather dazedly, though with gentleness. It was not every day a Heterodyne actually had to introduce themselves to a Jäger.
“It's-very-nice-to-meet-you,” Agatha said quickly, like something she memorized without really processing the words. Then she returned her attention to a handful of gears and other mechanical doodads that she was tinkering with.
Laszlo picked himself up and retreated closer to the other Jägers, not consciously, but because hundreds of years of being in the Heterodynes' service had conditioned him to steer clear of them when they were working on anything.
“Ve ken go home?” Laszlo asked, turning to Dimo.
They all smiled then, as sharp as Castle Heterodyne's cutlery drawer, and vicious enough that nearby forest-dwelling creatures felt a chill down their spines. Even Jenka, behind her mask, had a leer wide enough that it reached her eyes.
“Ve ken go home, brodder,” Dimo said.
By morning, Laszlo was joined by Matia and Korvin, who groused about Laszlo haring off like startled dinner. They were not as tall as Laszlo, and while Matia was a muted blue, Korvin was a green so bright he might as well have been glowing. Laszlo greeted them with a lazy wave of the hand.
They complained a bit too loudly, because Dimo, Oggie and Maxim simultaneously shushed them, pointing to a sleeping Agatha.
“Vot iz dis,” Matia grumbled, “iz hyu vet nurzes now?”
“Oh, yah, vell, hyu know, iz de economy,” Oggie replied very seriously.
“Dimo keeps loosink his knives,” Maxim added, shaking his head sadly. “Gets verra expensive after a vhile.”
Dimo threw Maxim an annoyed glance.
“Und ve get paid even better if ve ecktually return de cheeldren aftervards,” Jenka added, before Dimo could say anything. Dimo huffed and crossed his arms, seeing his opportunity to defend himself lost.
Laszlo only sat there with a knowing smile.
“Hoy, Matia,” Korvin whispered, “Hy tink deze guys know someting ve don't?”
“Hy haff a hard time beleefing dot ov any group dot includez de likes ov Ognian,” Matia snorted.
Perhaps a bit too loudly, because Agatha chose that moment to wake up. She yawned loudly and crawled out of the improvised bedroll, seating herself on top of it with her legs crossed and blinking blearily.
“G'morn'n',” Agatha mumbled, rubbing her eyes.
“Hyu ken sleep a leetle more if hyu vant,” Dimo informed her.
“But I'm not sleepy anymore!” Agatha replied, becoming wide awake at the mention of sleep.
“Ov courze, vhen iz hyu effer?” Dimo sighed.
“Matia,” Korvin whispered, elbowing his brother. “Matia, de gurl.”
“Yah, de gurl!” Matia said.
“De gurl, Matia--”
“Yah! Yah! Dot iz vot Hy vos askink!” Matia growled. “ De gurl! Vot iz vit op vit de gurl?”
“Shot op und schmell her, hyu crenky eediot!” Korvin said, elbowing Matia with a great deal more force.
“Hullo,” Agatha said. Matia grumbled and kneeled down, sniffing at her.
“She schmell goot,” Matia said, frowning. “She schmell... verra nize... like...”
He turned an incredulous stare at all the other Jägers.
“Hyu iz kiddink me!” Matia roared. “But how?! Vhere she come from?”
“Vell,” Oggie began, leering, “vhen two pipple iz dezirous ov each odder--”
He was interrupted by a well-timed punch from Jenka.
“Dot iz a qvestion for Master Barry,” Jenka said instead. “But she iz de dotter ov Master Villiam, und she iz a Heterodyne.”
Matia gave Agatha a once-over. His sense of smell was not quite up to the other Jägers' standards, but there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.
“She rezembles de Miztress Lucrezia, iz true,” Matia agreed.
“Really?” Agatha asked, perking up with interest. “You knew my momma?”
“She vos... memorable,” Matia said diplomatically.
“Was she pretty?” Agatha continued, very seriously.
“Ho, yez, dot she vos,” Korvin answered cheerfully. Matia, who unlike Korvin had been in the crossfires of her fits of megalomania, only grumbled something vaguely confirmatory.
“Vell, she had de Spark, so Hy guess zo,” Matia shrugged.
“Um, an' did...” Agatha paused for a moment, trying to think of new questions. She brightened when she came up with one. “Did she like death rays?”
“Er...” Matia looked around, at a loss.
“Did she have any death rays?” Agatha continued, bouncing in place a bit with excitement. “Ooh! Did she make death rays?”
“Ooh, now hyu gots her schtarted,” snickered Oggie, who had started dreading Agatha's endless barrage of questions whenever he attempted to tell her a bedtime story.
Matia looked around for help, but in that very moment, everybody seemed to have discovered something that urgently need doing, like scrounging breakfast, or dousing the fire, or breaking up camp.
Agatha, for her part, managed to come up with twenty-seven questions that were variations on the “death ray” theme alone.
Steadily, the group of Jägers seemed to be swelling, becoming more and more of a band. Laszlo, Matia and Korvin were followed by two more in the next hour, and another three by the time the sun set.
“Ve iz going to start attracting attention,” Jenka warned, and so they agreed to disperse and take different routes once they started approaching more populated areas.
In a day or so, they would reach the Danube, and would have to cross it to keep heading east towards Mechanicsburg. Ordinarily, travelers heading to Mechanicsburg could take the ferries, all the way down the Danube and up the Dyne, and that would cut travel time quite a bit, even if it wasn't as direct as land travel. But ferries were expensive and unlikely to take Jägers aboard, which was all just as well, since they kept to the wilds specifically to keep Agatha hidden from anyone's sight.
“Hokay, so vot's de plan here?” Laszlo asked eventually.
“Who iz hyu askink?” Maxim gave Laszlo a puzzled look.
“Ennybody!” Laszlo replied. “Doez even von ov hyu eediotz know vhere ve iz goink und vot ve iz doink vunce ve get dere?”
A few heads turned towards Jenka and Dimo, as they always seemed to do when troublesome thinking things were required of someone. Dimo grumbled something and then distracted Agatha by pointing out a flock of sparrows with butter knives ganging up on a hedgehog. The zoologically improbable farce seemed to utterly delight the young girl.
“Ve iz going to Mechanicsburg, of cauze,” Jenka replied to Laszlo's question, completely unperturbed.
“Und den vot?” Laszlo said. “Ve chust hend de gurl over to de Baron?”
“Vot iz wrong vit dat?” Korvin shrugged. “Eef de Baron vant to keep her safe unteel she iz all growed op, he iz de best for de job, yah?”
The older Jägers threw glances from one to another.
“Vot?” Korvin asked. “Iz Hy wrong?”
“De deal voz dot ve return to serve de Heterodyne vhen dey vos found again,” Oggie said.
“But she iz only leetle ting, und her oncle iz missink,” Korvin reasoned. “Eef de Baron tek care ov her, ve ken keep fightink for him--”
“Vot iz dis tok, ve dun need de Baron to tek care ov our Heterodyne,” Laszlo grumbled.
“Hy dun like it either,” grumbled Matia. “Iz politeeks.”
“Vell, politics iz for de generals,” Jenka said with finality. “Ve get her to dem.”
“Not to de vuns on Kestle Wulfenbach,” Laszlo grumbled.
“Ho, not effen,” Jenka scoffed. “No. Ve go to Mamma. Iz de best option, Hy tink.”
The conversation was settled after that, not least of all because the flock of sparrows with butter knives turned on Agatha that very moment, and her shrieks sent every Jäger moving at once.
At least the sparrows proved delicious when fried on a spit.
They broke up in smaller groups once they reached the Danube, scattering along the shore to each find their own means of passing over and agreeing to meet up again further down the road.
Dimo and Maxim took Agatha, though they gave most of the baggage to Oggie so they would be unencumbered if either running or swimming was in order. And by a stroke of luck, they came across a fisherman and his young son, ready to cast off for the day.
They gently menaced the fisherman into helping them across. The fisherman agreed and then stammered an advance thanks to them for not eating him or his son. He issued a very insistent advance thanks for not eating him or his son.
“Jäger don't eat people,” Agatha informed him cheerfully. “Not gamy enough for their taste.”
The fisherman's son, no older than eight, regarded Agatha with something akin to amazement.
“How do you know?” the boy asked quietly, as Dimo and Maxim settled into the boat.
“I asked,” Agatha said, and the 'well, duh' was implied, even if not spoken aloud.
“Why'd you ask?” the boy said, looking aghast at the thought of questioning a Jäger on any subject at all.
“'Cause that's what scientist do!” Agatha explained with a patient sigh.
“What, ask questions everyone else is too terrified to?” the boy frowned.
The boy gave up after that.
Maxim grumbled at the tiny boat's every dip and wobble, as apprehensive as a cat to be so near water. Dimo rolled his eyes and elbowed the fisherman amicably.
“He iz afraid ov gettink hiz hair vet,” Dimo confided.
“Hoy, vimmin luff de hair,” Maxim shot back.
“It's very shiny,” Agatha said, nodding gravely. Then she her attention to the water.
The little boat's engine revved to life, after a few judicious whacks of the wrench. The fisherman remained silent, concentrating on either navigating the tricky currents of the river or really not thinking about what else the Jägers could do to him other than eat him.
But Agatha hadn't been near children close to her age in a long while, so she managed to engage the son, András, in conversation. She asked questions about the river at first, and then about life in his village. He answered, hesitantly at first, but as thoroughly as he could manage for an eight-year-old. The more enthusiastic Agatha's questions, the more freely he began to answer them. At one point, he called her 'mistress' and frowned a bit, as if not sure what just happened.
As they advanced across, they were narrowly missed by a seagull with a switchblade. It swooped down, smacked the water surface and flew up again with a fish impaled on its blade. Before it had the opportunity to fly away, however, a pale tentacle snapped out of the water, grabbing the bird and pulling it under.
“Hn, the chortling squid are migrating early this year,” the fisherman muttered.
“Why do all the birds have knives?” Agatha asked.
“Oh, that'll be old Count Bafflecog's doing,” the fisherman said, speaking for the first time. “Had this big idea, yeah? Swordsfowl. Thought birds were naturally gifted at swordplay. Was going to be his big, y'know, madboy thing, what everyone knew him for. Only he thought, well, he had to work his way up, you know? Can't just jump right to peacocks with rapiers. Started with sparrows. After that worked out well, he moved on to pigeons, and so on. Chicken 'round these parts will still stab a fella trying to collect eggs, but least we don't get any trouble with foxes no more. Though if you see a raven anywhere on yonder side of the river, I suggest you give 'em your money nice and quiet and walk away real slow. Buggers always seem to know where you live and they really hold a grudge,” he groused.
“Hy tek it de Baron vasn't happy vit de Count,” Dimo said, amused.
“Well, who's to know?” the fisherman shrugged. “Count got shanked pretty good by a swan 'fore the Baron got to him. Now his nephew's the new count. New count's not sparky, though, he's just a lazy fop. Spends all his time in Pest, like he's too good for us.” The fisherman scoffed. “In my day, nobility used to mean something. Now it's all 'oh, I don't want to live here, the dining room's haunted and the ducks raid the kitchens every day for bread'! Phooey, I say. Face those feathered bandit hordes like a man deservin' of a title.”
“Yah, de neighbors been slippink vitout de Heterodynes to keep dem sharp,” Maxim said.
“Ho, yez,” Dimo agreed. “Back in de day, dey vas made ov sterner schtuff. It vas vot made dem zo fun to sqvash.”
After that, the fisherman decided it was better to just shut up.
By the time they reached the other side of the river, the sun was high in the sky and Agatha complained that she was hungry.
“Uh, you don't eat people either, do you?” András asked, eying Agatha carefully.
“Blergh,” Agatha's nose wrinkled in disgust.
The fisherman grumbled under his breath, unhappy that he managed to completely lose a day of fishing. Dimo and Maxim jumped down as they neared the shore, the water being only waist-high and easy to wade through. But as Dimo turned to pick up Agatha from the boat, a shadow passed over them, strangely elongated and moving oddly. Dimo dismissed it as the shadow of a tree moving in the wind and continued reaching for Agatha, but in that split second the fisherman stiffened and started reeking of fear.
“Geisterdamen!” the fisherman hissed.
András pulled Agatha down to the boat floor and his father swiftly covered them with a tarp.
“Vot de--” Maxim and Dimo, both of them holding onto the edge of the boat as if afraid it would zip away from them, turned their heads to look at the cause of this commotion.
In looming, lazy strides, a giant spider passed overhead, traveling along the shore. Atop it rode a ghostly woman, white as chalk in the bright sun. The woman gave the group a brief, indifferent glance. Maxim and Dimo tensed, but she only carried on.
The fisherman gave a sigh of relief.
“They snatch children, you know,” he said.
“And cause revenants,” András added, poking his head out.
“Uncle Barry said the ghost ladies were big trouble,” Agatha said, watching the geister disappear into the distance. “An' he said it was real important to stay away from them.”
“Oh, is your uncle Barry Heterodyne?” András asked.
The whole exchange was so casual, that it took Dimo and Maxim a full twenty seconds to process the fact that an eight-year-old had not only figured out the truth easily, but had casually revealed it as well.
“Don't be silly, boy,” the fisherman scoffed. “He couldn't... be... the girl's...”
He trailed off, his jaw working soundlessly as he looked at the Jägermonsters for a long few moments. His mind was forced to work itself along trains of thought that were usually unfamiliar to him, if only because, like most decent, sober people, he tried to spend as little time as possible thinking about Jägers.
“Sweet fishgrease, you're a Heterodyne!” the fisherman burst, turning to Agatha.
“Yeah, kinda, but they gotta ring the bell first!” Agatha replied with a shrug, as casual as András had been.
Dimo facepalmed. Maxim was at a complete loss.
“But-- how-- when-- The Heterodyne Boys--” The fisherman finally settled on a question. “Wasn't the Heterodyne heir a boy?”
Dimo made a sign to Maxim.
“Oop, dere ve go!” Maxim said cheerfully, picking Agatha up on his shoulder. “Wave gudbye to der nize boy!”
Agatha waved to András, who waved back, and Maxim took her to the shore.
Meanwhile, Dimo reached up, grabbing the fisherman by the collar of his shirt and pulling him down to eye level.
“Now,” Dimo said, grinning sharply, “ve haff nize friendly converzation about vot happen to lips vot flap vhen dey shouldn't, yah? Great fon!”
“That doesn't sound fun,” the fisherman said.
“Vell, not for hyu, no...”
Agatha looked forlorn as András and his father sailed away.
“Vot is wrong?” Maxim asked.
“Nothin',” Agatha said, but then continued with a pout, “I never get to play with any other kids.”
“Dun vorry,” Maxim reassured her. “Hyu vill haff lotz of leetle minions in Mechanicsburg.”
“Really?” Agatha asked, perking up a bit.
“Yez, of cauze,” Maxim assured her. “Hyu ken effen go fishink vit dem. Hyu gran'poppa alvays said dey make for de best bait.”
Traveling with Jägers, Agatha realized, was different than traveling with Uncle Barry. They were a lot louder, for one, and incrementally more cheerful the more of them you got together. Boisterous, was the word Agatha didn't yet have to describe it.
They were not as good at answering questions accurately, but they were also more willing to make the effort. A lot of the time, Uncle Barry would try to stop her inquiries with an 'I'll tell you when you're older'. The Jägers just gave her increasingly convoluted and incomprehensible answers until she gave up, which Agatha was begrudgingly forced to admit worked far too often. (She still hadn't figured out if they did it on purpose; she would need to conduct more tests, and was already working on a list of control questions.)
They were also slightly easier to convince into letting her do things which Uncle Barry wouldn't allow, like rummage through the remains of broken clanks and constructs, or poke at things with sticks. Granted, this habit got her more than one scrape or bruise, but the Jägers called this a 'learning experience', which Agatha was fairly sure Uncle Barry wouldn't have done. Whenever she injured herself, he always gave her that little sigh as he treated her. (He said it was because he worried about her, but Agatha couldn't help think, now that Uncle Barry wasn't around anymore, that he'd instead been disappointed in her.)
Traveling with Jägers was also, Agatha thought, a lot of fun in ways that traveling with Uncle Barry maybe hadn't been. She imagined this was what it was like having a big family, with a bunch of cheerful eccentric old uncles and also a grumpy aunt with a pet bear. And given that the only real family she could remember was Uncle Barry, he served as her only basis for comparison.
So she was worried when they started leaving the group, one by one, until she was left only with Dimo and Maxim. They all told her they'd be back, made grand promises to return with stories and candies and maybe the head of some interesting construct on a stick, until Jenka strictly forbid it on grounds that it was unhygienic. (Agatha still gave some whispered advice to Matia that if he was going to bring any organic parts, ice would keep them from rotting, but given how Jenka's head had swung around at that very moment and the glare she gave Matia, Agatha didn't get her hopes up.)
But it still made her feel anxious. It still made her feel a bit like getting separated from Uncle Barry, and it made her realize that she missed Uncle Barry. She missed him so much. She missed his stories, and his voice and his lessons and even the way he weaseled out of answering her questions. In between the pangs of loss she felt, she wondered if she should have done something differently, if she should have clung closer to him. Maybe she should have refused to go when he handed her off to Dimo, Maxim and Oggie, but then she felt vaguely guilty because the Jägers were nice and she would have hurt their feelings.
And now they were leaving her behind as well, for good reasons too, just like Uncle Barry had had good reasons, and they were promising to come back, just like Uncle Barry had, and...
And they did come back, eventually. Once they were past the river—the huge one, so big that you couldn't see the other shore—they started trickling back, one by one. Oggie returned with the bag (the one they kept for her, because Jägers apparently traveled light, whereas Agatha was always forced to change her clothes and brush her hair and all sorts of annoying things that Uncle Barry always insisted were important, too.) Then Jenka showed up again, just to check up on her, apparently, before leaving once more.
The others came and went. Laszlo popped in, ruffled her hair, and said he would be going ahead to check out the roads. Matia they only saw from a distance, when he signaled them to go around some town defenses. Korvin dropped in for an entire afternoon, sneaking Agatha a handful of sweets, as promised. (“Dun let anyvun see hyu eat dese before dinner,” he'd said, winking at her. Agatha ate them furtively, but perhaps not as furtively as she thought, since Dimo told her to slow down so she wouldn't get the hiccups.) Then Korvin left again by nighttime.
Other Jägers dropped in often, ones Agatha only ever saw: Yanos, Bulgar, Costi, Rerich, Mihail, and so on. She remembered their names because they all made a point to introduce themselves to her. They grinned at her or tipped their hats or asked her nosy questions about Uncle Barry, and then they were gone again, to wherever Jägers went when they weren't around.
Dimo, Oggie and Maxim tended to be constants, though. She wasn't sure what an 'honor guard' was, but it apparently had something to do with it. She heard the words whispered more than once, in a way that sounded important.
She listened to them talk, even when they tried to distract her from it, and she got very good at pretending she wasn't listening. Most of what they talked about was boring, the same questions asked in dizzying circles until they decided to leave it to the Generals, whoever those were.
Sometimes it was about the lands they were traversing, discussing the best routes or what they had to avoid. If she asked them questions then, they would happily tell her stories of old raids and whichever of her ancestors had passed through there. The Old Heterodynes didn't sound as bad as Uncle Barry made them out to be, just a bit scary. They also sounded kind of mean and inconsiderate to others, which was probably what Uncle Barry didn't like about them, but the Jägers always claimed they were 'fun' and the descriptions of their death rays sounded fascinating.
Other times, they talked about Uncle Barry and maybe her father, speculating about where they might have been or what might have happened to them. She found out this way that she had a brother, and she asked about him. She was informed that her brother was dead, and she felt disappointed about it, then she wondered if she ought to feel sad instead. That was what sisters were supposed to feel when their brothers died, wasn't it? Not just bothered that they'd lost a potential playmate. She decided to put the question aside and conduct investigations later.
Other times, they talked about people she hadn't met, like someone with a complicated title named 'Carson', or a Baron that they mentioned frequently. She didn't know who this Baron was until one of the Jägers called him Klaus. It sounded like a slip of the tongue, but the familiar name drew Agatha's attention.
“Klaus like from Uncle Barry's stories?” Agatha asked.
“Klaus who vas friends vit hyu poppa und oncle,” Dimo replied. “So mebbe?”
Agatha thought back to her questioning Uncle Barry about Klaus, when she wondered if she could meet this person and ask him to tell her stories about her parents, and she remembered Uncle Barry's frowning and his evasive replies, and at the time she'd thought Klaus was dead and Uncle Barry was hiding this from her because he thought she was just a little kid, even though she was old enough to tie her own shoelaces, and she was very glad at the time to have figured this out so easily. ...Maybe she'd been wrong?
“I don't think they're friends anymore,” Agatha said. “Uncle Barry...” She frowned, because she couldn't remember what Uncle Barry had said, exactly, just her impressions. “Uncle Barry wasn't happy when I asked about Klaus,” she said eventually.
“Hy see,” Dimo had muttered, then turned to the other Jägers to continue the conversation, but the tone changed. Whatever information they gleaned from Agatha's vague warning, they factored it into their decision.
It was evening, and Agatha sat near the fire, her book tilted so it caught the light. Oggie sat down next to her.
“Ve iz near Mechanicsburg,” he said, and Agatha politely looked up from her book.
“Really?” she asked, and looked around as if the entire town was going to jump out from behind a bush to greet her.
“Ho, vell, only kind ov, ve still haff a veek or so ov walkink if ve keep to de back roads,” Oggie amended.
“That doesn't sound near at all,” Agatha said.
“Mebbe not to leetle gorls vit short legs, no,” Oggie said, grinning. Then he turned serious again. “Ve vill haff to keep hyu hid, effen from dose odder guyz.”
“What other guys?”
“De Jäger who vork for de Baron. Ve ken't let ennyvun schtop uz vhen ve iz so cloze to Mechanicsburg, effen if dey iz Jäger. De Baron vould hear about hyu, und den it vould get tricky.”
“Oh.” They'd explained before, about the bargain they had with the Baron. “So you're keeping me secret so the Baron can still protect the Jägerkin until I'm old enough to do it myself?”
“Er...” Oggie looked a bit taken aback, because whenever anybody there had told her that they would keep her hidden, the only reason they'd ever given was keeping her safe. “Dot iz... an interesting vay ov lookink at it?”
“It's okay,” Agatha said, patting Oggie's knee. “I know you're all keeping me safe too.”
Then she returned her attention to her book. Oggie sat quietly for a while, before he wordlessly got up and walked away. Agatha could have sworn she heard a wet sniff.
“Um, did I make Oggie cry?” she asked, turning to Dimo.
Dimo patted her on the head.
“Hyu iz a goot gurl,” was the only thing he said.
“Hyu know vat? Hy tink ve iz near Zdranga!” Korvin said, as he emerged from some shrubbery and rejoined the group. “Hy recognize de mushrooms.” He pointed to the aforementioned fungus, which glared malevolently in return.
“Iz Zdranga not de village vhere hyu met dot milkmaid?” Oggie asked. “Vit de blue cowz und de beeg jugs--”
“Hoy!” Maxim punched Oggie in the arm.
“De jugs ov milk! I meant de jugs ov milk!” Oggie said defensively. “She had de beeg clenk jugs vot followed her around und ponched pipple!”
“Yah,” Korvin sighed, “de darlink Catinca! Hy neffer forget de vay she stab me in de ribs vit dot hay fork! She vos de very image ov grace und beauty. Hy still haff de scars.”
“Um, she sounds kinda mean,” Agatha said.
“Vell, mebbe ve vere raiding her village a leetle at de time,” Korvin conceded.
“Ho, more than a leetle,” Oggie snickered. “Dot vos a fon day!”
“Ennyvay, hy apologize for eatink her cow,” Korvin continued, “und she only tvisted de fork a leetle bit vhen she pulled it out, so Hy know she vos verra charmed.”
“Hyu tek too much romantic advize from Oggie,” Dimo muttered.
“She doesn't sound like she wanted to be your girlfriend,” Agatha said.
“Luff iz a myzterious ting,” Korvin said. “Mebbe hyu vill understand vhen hyu iz older und find nize boy to stab.”
Agatha scowled and kicked at a rock.
“I'm pretty sure that's wrong...”
“Hy don't remember vot happened vit Catinca,” Oggie said. “Did hyu effer go on a date vit her?”
“No,” Korvin admitted rather begrudgingly. “She married de village preest. Had five cheeldren vit him. Hy met her grandkeed a few decades beck.”
“Ho, vell,” Dimo grinned. “Luff iz a mysterious ting.”
Korvin threw him a glare.
“Hy tink Zdranga iz down de hill on de next bend,” Oggie pointed out.
“Ve keep avay,” Dimo said.
“Yah, yah, but iz no harm in chust lookink!” Oggie rolled his eyes. “Hyu know, for de noze-talgia.”
Indeed, once they went around the next bend of the treeline, they ended up on a hill overlooking the village of Zdranga.
Or at least, overlooking what had once been the village of Zdranga. The only sign of human life were the remains of houses long since destroyed. There was a sharp intake of breath on Korvin's part.
“It vosn't like dot vhen ve left!” Oggie said.
“What happened?” Agatha asked.
“Who iz to know?” Dimo shrugged. “Europa iz dangerous. Bad tings happen.”
“But usually ve iz dose bad tings dot happen,” Maxim muttered.
“If there's nobody there, can we go down an' look?”
“Vot for?” Dimo asked.
“Maybe someone needs help...”
“Dot vould mean dere iz sumbody dere.”
“Then, uh, maybe we can figure out what happened?”
“Yah? Und vot if ve figure out becauze de ting dot did dis iz still dere?” Dimo asked.
“Den ve gets to fight! Vin-vin!” Oggie said cheerfully, before Dimo elbowed him sharply enough to make him double over and wheeze.
“Please?” Agatha said, with the sort of expression that could be described as weaponized cute.
“Iz for de Baron to figure tings out,” Dimo said. “He vants nize und safe empire, he vork for it.”
Left without any other argument, Agatha fell back on her only remaining tactic. She pouted.
“No. Ve iz verra close to Mechanicsburg,” Dimo said with finality. “Ve vill not risk it.”
Agatha screeched in frustration and stomped her foot, before folding her arms and glaring at Dimo. For a few moments, it looked like she was going to dig in her heels, but Oggie gave her an amicable pat on the shoulder and offered her a piggy-back ride, and also called Dimo a grumpy ogre very quietly behind his back, which made Agatha giggle a bit even though she was trying to look serious and angry. She accepted the piggy-back ride and they moved on.
They camped out a ways away from Zdranga, out in the woods in an old cabin which had escaped whatever disaster had struck the village itself. It was dusty, probably untouched for upwards of a year, and a bit mildewy due to a hole in the roof. There was a tied bunch of basil hanging from the rafters, long since dried out but still faintly filling the cabin with its smell.
They put Agatha's bedroll in the cleanest corner they could find, and then started poking around the cabin, in case there was anything dangerous there. They didn't find anything much more intimidating than a clockwork can-opener, but they also found a raggedy plush toy on top of a cupboard, and they handed it to Agatha.
She brushed off some of the excess dust, but the fabric was stained beyond recovery, and worn clean through in some places, exposing the stuffing.
“It's got wire inside,” Agatha said, poking her fingers through a hole in the fabric and feeling around inside.
“Don't cut hyuself,” Dimo said.
Agatha nodded distractedly, before remembering that she was angry at Dimo and turning her back to him.
“I bet I could make it move,” she whispered to herself.
The wire framework served no apparent purpose other than keeping the doll rigid, but depending on what she could find in the cabin, Agatha was sure she could get at least some kind of limited motion from the doll. The clockwork can-opener alone provided some interesting possibilities. She took out her latest book and turned to the pages she thought were most relevant.
She hummed to herself as she took apart the can-opener, a broken cuckoo clock and parts of the stove. The pieces were there, she could see the end result in her mind, but putting them all together was a frustrating chore, especially without tools. It seemed the moment she made one part work, another would fall apart, the mechanism she envisioned remaining just tantalizingly out of reach the whole time.
It was like a barrier she felt she could pierce if she kept at it long enough. Musical notes and gears, humming in the background of her mind, close enough to see but too far away to grasp properly. But she was getting closer every time, she was sure of it.
Uncle Barry never seemed like he was having difficulty when he was building or repairing something. He'd hold her in his lap sometimes, explaining what he was doing and why, promising that she would know how to do all of it herself one day, and how she could help people when she did. It was always 'one day' with Uncle Barry, some indeterminate point in the future when everything would fall into place easily.
Only it didn't feel easy to her, and she didn't know how soon that 'one day' was meant to be. It felt like a very, very long time since she'd last seen Uncle Barry.
She realized her humming had stopped for some time, and the mechanism still hadn't come together.
Agatha pulled her knees to her chest and pressed her forehead against them. She felt silly for being close to crying, even though she cried over other reasons all the time, loudly and with great verve. This time it felt worse, somehow.
“Hyu okey?” Agatha felt Maxim's hand on her back, rubbing in slow circles.
“Did Uncle Barry leave because I'm bad?” she asked. It was awful, she didn't want to know the answer, but she couldn't not ask.
“No. Hyu iz not bad, und hyu oncle didn't just leaff hyu.”
Agatha turned her head slightly, looking at Maxim from the corner of her eye.
“Hyu poppa und oncle neffer giff op on ennyvun, hyu know,” Maxim said confidently. “No matter how bad dey vere. Iz in all the stories.”
“...Yeah?” Agatha sniffled a bit, but raised her head.
“Hyu shouldn't giff op on him either,” Maxim continued.
“So he'll be back?”
“Who vouldn't vant to return to schmott gorl like hyu?” Maxim grinned.
Agatha rather suspected that he was just saying these things to make her feel better, but she really did feel better, so she decided a hug was called for. Just because Maxim deserved it, and it was a complete coincidence that she really, really wanted one at that moment.
“Hy don't suppoze,” Maxim said, “dot hyu vill go to bed qvietly tonight?”
“'M not sleepy,” Agatha muttered against Maxim's shirt.
Maxim sighed. He didn't think he'd won that much good will anyway, but it was still worth the try.
1 And then, of course, there was Radovan Heterodyne, aged ten at the time, who after being foisted on the Generals so his father could work on an experiment in peace, ended up leading a raiding party all the way to Warsaw. “Well, at least he didn't cause any real trouble,” had been Lord Heterodyne's reaction when he received this report, before casting his attention back to his experimental musical guinea pig assassins.
2 The scariest piece of architecture on the other side of the Ural Mountains being, of course, the Great Wall of China, who was perhaps marginally less blood thirsty than Castle Heterodyne, but still maintained a higher death toll.
3 Persiflat Heterodyne had the unfortunate distinction of being the Heterodyne to have broken through the latest out of all known heirs to the family title, at the venerable age of 34. He proceeded to show them, show them all.