Under Siege

“It's in the book,” I said mildly. “Now what Maarten said was how we needed to be toward those who have declared themselves the enemies of God – and by extension, the enemies of those of us who call God our friend and helper. Correct?”

Nods all around.

“Now if God wishes us to treat witches as if they were, uh, 'transplanted Canaanites', complete with idols and fetishes and all the other rubbish witches like, then we should do all that we can. Correct?”

I hoped I was getting somewhere. “If you don't know what Joshua was told to do to those stinky wretches called Canaanites, I can sum it up simply: 'kill them all, leaving no survivors whatsoever; and destroy all that their hands have fouled in the process, leaving no traces of them, their doings, or even their names to be recalled'.”

“Now how did you quote from Charles?” asked Sarah pointedly. “You have not read that tale, have you?”

“There's a tale named Charles?”

“One named after him, a number of others that speak largely of what he did, and a great many that refer to him at least briefly,” said Tam, “and what you said is about what I recall reading out of that tale she spoke of.”

“Uh, why is it, uh, people like you and Lukas and Gilbertus talk like Sarah sometimes, and sometimes like, uh, 'old countrymen'?”

“Comes with doin' this work good enough to wear greens,” said Tam. “Part of it's doin' 'most all of what students do in the higher schools, only taking a bit longer and costing a bit less – and then, there's the other part.” Here, Tam paused. “You don't want to sound like you've done time in the west school when you go into a drink-house – 'specially a fifth kingdom drink-house – as that will set all o' those stinking thugs on you at once.”

“That I know about, sir,” said Sarah softly. “It is much worse if you actually are a student from that school.”

“I'm not sure if it's worse then or not,” said Tam. “Did you catch lead?”

Sarah nodded, then, “I was glad it was mostly bad shot they used then, as if they'd used decent stuff, I doubt I would have made it back to where I could have the rest of that lead removed.”

“It was a close matter just the same,” I murmured. I then caught the last word. “Removed?”

“Anna has some of what is used for lead-removal,” said Sarah. “Had I some of my drawings still, and you some of that Heinrich steel, you could possibly make the missing tools for her.”

“I did well to get what I did,” said Anna. “Why, how much is missing?”

“Several smaller probes, as well as some tweezers that are best for shot,” said Sarah, “as well as the full set of screw-gags for shot-holes.”

“That must o' been stiff shot if it needed pulling like that,” said Tam. “That stuff don't wash easy.”

“It did out of him,” said Anna as she looked at me. “That, and at least eight smaller pistol balls.”

“Those four-shooters witches like?” asked Tam.

“These balls were bigger,” said Hans. “I think they came from the usual type of rotating pistol, is what I think, and I know that size good, as I have one of those things.”

“And I heard tell you can get more of 'em,” said Tam.

“Do you wish the use of my spare tonight?” I asked calmly.

“No, you're likely to need that 'un,” said Tam. “What I heard is Hans here has got a good-size keg o' those things.”

“While Hans does have many of them, sir,” said Sarah, “they are either damaged enough to need entire rebuilding, or they need substantial refitting, and I've seen him” – here, she indicated me – “work on them enough recently to know reworking a rotating pistol is not the matter of an hour's labor.”

“It usually depends on the pistol,” I said. “If that thing is, uh, in working order, then I might just need to make a few pins and bush some holes before cleaning and 'fitting' it.”

“Most of those I got in that barrel are burnt some,” said Hans, “so they are likely to need a lot of new parts.”

“Depends on how bad they're burnt,” I said. “If they didn't melt them, then chances are decent they'd only take me a few more hours than a non-burnt one, given decent 'grip-piece' blanks from the carpenters in town.”

“How is that?” asked Hans.

“First, those things generally are not properly heat-treated, so their metal is perhaps as hard as a full-polish wrench for places that are supposed to be closer to file-hard on their wearing surfaces,” I said. “Then, I need to, uh, cook their major parts some before I rework them so they don't warp out of true later, do any major rework that needs doing, then pack-harden all of the major parts, make most of the springs and smaller parts new unless they're unusually good, ream all of the holes, make new pins, then assemble most of the internal parts in this special fixture I've made so I can polish the bearing surfaces of certain parts that need it without actually fitting them into the gun.”

“Sounds almost like you make them things from scratch, then,” said Tam.

“That is not far removed from the truth, should you speak of a bad example,” said Sarah. “Only recently did we learn how to blacken them properly.”

“Then sign me up for one,” said Tam. “Can you get them so they don't shine much? If you do much around witch-holes, those thugs will see anything that shines much, no matter what time of day or night it is.”

Sarah nodded, then Hans said, “I can let you see the one I have, so you know what those things look like.”

Hans fetched his revolver, and Tam looked at the thing in a state I had no name for beyond thinking, “no, it won't bite, and yes, it is real.”

“This a Heinrich gun?” asked Tam.

“I have no money for such things,” said Hans. “Some witch had this one, he was killed, Dennis over there went through it, and when the blacking came good, those two there” – here, he indicated Sarah and myself – “did it up.” A brief pause, then, “besides, if I had that kind of money, I would be tempted bad, and I would most likely burn in hell as a witch.”

“You, me, and about nine out of ten people in this area,” spat Tam. “I've had witches trying to get me to become a miser more times than I can count, and that's the case for everyone workin' in or around a Mercantile that I've ever heard of.”

“They almost did that with Hans,” said Anna. “Leaving these big sacks of money around on the stoop...”

“Now what did you do with that stuff?” said Tam. “Ain't no safe place to store it, 'cause about one coin in ten is so old I'd ride money on it being made by a witch.”

“Our money is cursed, then,” I spat.

“No, not the most of it,” said Tam. “Most o' what we use was made by jewelers.” A brief pause, then Tam said again the word 'most' by itself, this time with added emphasis.

“As in who made the remainder?” said Sarah. “The tapestries make little mention of our money, even if they speak commonly and in detail of witch-money.”

“I suspect some of what we use might be that witch-money that's spoken of on those tapestries,” said Tam. “Otherwise, why do some o' those special restricted touchstones have ways of checking just how cursed our coins are?”

“Coins?” I asked. “That one box that came?” I stood from where I sat and fetched the box in question, and when I brought out the polished black disks and the thin triangular-shaped 'needles' all on a brass ring, Tam counted the disks themselves, all the while looking at them carefully. I wondered what he was looking for, to be precise.

“Good, all o' those things are here, and all of 'em's marked with the three X's to show they're reserved specially.”

“They are?” said Sarah in alarm. “How many of those touchstones are there?”

“Seven, which is a full set,” said Tam. “Now you should know how many touchstones are in a full set.”

Tam's voice, formerly the absolute picture of confidence, now faded, then said, “only three such sets were ever made, and two o' those sets were destroyed by witches a long time ago.”

“And Cardosso himself was said to have hidden the third so it could not be used by those not as he himself was,” said Sarah. “Since his time, only three-stone sets have been made, save for a few four-stone sets which were reserved upon their making.”

“And now what am I doing with these, then?” I murmured softly. “Is this so I can check every single coin that exists?” My voice faded with every word, with the last words unto inaudibility. “It almost makes more sense to melt every coin we have down into bullion, clean the metal of its impurities in bulk form, roll the resulting cleaned metal out into strip, and, uh, use a punch press to mint new coins.”

“Keep that idea in mind,” said the soft voice, “even if you do not currently have those tools nor many of the other things needed to process those quantities of metal.” A brief pause, then, “while Cardosso did hide the last seven-stone set, that one jeweler learned of its hiding spot while escaping, found it, and kept his having it a secret while he lived – and that box next 'turned up' in the hands of a supplicant too stupid to recognize what he had beyond a 'ticket to three easy bottles of second-rate wine'.”

“Didn't look in it much, did he?” said Tam.

“No, he did not,” said the soft voice, “as between what that man had bought and made while he worked at the house proper, and what else he found in that cache, he acquired enough 'three-'X' tools to suit entirely what had happened to him while escaping.”

“What was that?” asked Hans.

“He lost part of his hand,” said the soft voice, “and while most of it regenerated overnight, it left a network of fresh scars and a shortened 'fourth' finger, which gave him ready entrance unto the only safe place left to him that he knew of.”

“Can't show 'obvious markings' even in the fourth kingdom's market, can you?” I muttered. I wondered about the words used, as they seemed to describe what I had lived with before I came here.

“Now that's nothing less than the stinkin' truth,” spat Tam. “Ain't no place here you can do that and live more than a ten-day.” A brief pause, then, “only two safe places then – either the Marshes, or that Valley to the east.”

“What?” shrieked Sarah. “The Veldters only allow those they recognize...”

“That's right, they do,” said Tam. “I had to show 'em my feet when I went in there two winters past, and those long-haired people that sell mules welcomed me special once I told 'em how I got hurt.”

“What?” I asked. My voice was beyond incredulity.

“That's about the only thing that's a sure invitation in that Valley,” said Tam. “All of them tinkers what go in up into that place from Eisernije are marked, an' them Veldters all think marked people are special, especially some that they talk about in their tales. They got a special phrase for one particular person that they talk about, and their naming works out to 'fire-spirit' or something like that.”

“What is this?” Hans was dumbfounded, and his voice showed it.

“Oh, no,” I muttered. “They call marked people witches.”

“They don't treat 'em that way at all,” said Tam. “They may have their feuds, and the fifth kingdom house don't have nothing on the Veldters when it comes to feuding, but if you're marked, ain't no one going to hurt you in that place.” Tam paused, then said, “and then, there's the Marshes.”

“I've but heard rumors of those,” said Anna.

“They are more than a rumor,” said Sarah. “I spent much of a session in that area watching, and though I did see marsh-people in some numbers, I could not find their entrance.”

“That would need someone like your husband-to-be,” said Tam. “He could find it on a dark moonless night, most likely – and I know for a fact that every trek-leader those people have is someone who's either had bad trouble with those northern people and has had to escape to that place so as to not get killed, or was born in that place and has to wear burn-clothing to come out of there and not be killed on sight.”

“And not just by the witches, either,” I murmured. “A surprisingly large number of people would wish such people dead, and that merely because they are who they are.”

I paused with the enormity of what I just said, and looked at the sober faces around me. Anna dropped her eyes, then said with a broken voice, “I'm afraid you're right, as I've seen what happens if a child is born with markings that cannot be hidden readily.”

“What?” I asked. My voice had a tone like iron.

“About seven times out o' ten, if not more often yet in the first kingdom, the parents murder their own,” said Tam, “and then, the witches find out somehow and burn the whole stinkin' town and kill everyone in it within days o' them doin' that.” Here, Tam paused. “Or, if they're particularly brave, they leave town between two days with nothing but their clothing, a few of their keepsakes, some food and their child, and try heading to the marshes with the hope of livin' there until they die.”

“And the witches hunting them the whole distance,” I murmured. “It seems that every town has its watch-witches set over it, with the goal of killing all such people the instant they show and all of those 'fools' who foster them...”

Again, silence reigned, until I spoke once more.

“So that's the matter,” I spat. “Everyone in this stinking town is thought an arch-traitor by the entirety of witchdom, and that simply because I happen to live here.”

“That is not true,” said Hans.

“Not now it is, you mean,” spat Tam, “now that all the witches in town are gone where they belong.” The briefest of pauses, then, “and once we do up that stinkin' bricked-up hall place fit for Brimstone's dinner-plate, at least this part of the first kingdom will be somewhere close to safe again.”

While Hans 'went elsewhere' – he gave excuses, chiefly about how he could not endure that one smelly chemical's fumes – and Anna remained upstairs to tend the glue while first cleaning dishes and then preparing dinner, the three of us who remained went downstairs to load up the remaining bottles. Hearing such a sermon and then what I had said at lunch seemed to have 'galvanized' both Anna and Hans, for when we took a break from filling bottles to then fetch the glue, our first steps upon the bottom of the stairs were met by Anna's call:

“Time for the glue?”

“Yes,” shouted Sarah.

Anna's steps came running downstairs, and when she brought down the glue, she handed it to Sarah – and then nearly fainted at the stench we had loosed in the basement.

“That smell,” she said in an unearthly tone. “How can you endure it?”

“It ain't easy,” said Tam. “Only remembering that stink o' that last pig when it got my toes makes me stick out this one.”

“I forgot,” murmured Anna. “I didn't look at your feet much, on account of they seemed to be b-bandaged so well. Who did them?”

“I did,” said Tam, “and I wasn't about to let you look at them then, on account of how your mother was when she was alive and how...”

Anna shook her head, then said, “no, I gave oath in church to not be that way.”

“When, and why?” asked Tam pointedly. Anna had recovered enough that she was painting on the glue on the first bottle where Sarah indicated it needed to go.

“When I was small,” said Anna. “It was perhaps a month after I was hurt by that explosion. I was well enough then to go to church.”

“The one that killed your relatives?” asked Tam.

Anna nodded, then said, “and I was quite sick from where I was hurt, so much so that I was bedridden for nearly that entire time.”

“Your mother made me wonder then,” said Tam, “but I was younger in those days, and I wasn't crippled then, and I hadn't burned swine, either.” A pause, during which time he finished tying a knot on a bottle's neck and passed it over toward Sarah. “I know better now.”

“What was your mother like then?” asked Sarah.

“Be glad you did not meet her,” said Tam, “as I'd ride money on that woman raising a mob and naming you a witch – and then, she would have burnt you herself.”

To my complete surprise, Anna nodded, then said, “she might have been inclined to join a coven.”

“More than 'might',” said the soft voice. “Be glad your parents died when they did, as your mother was on the verge of making her bones – with you being one of the first blood-sources she planned to kill.”

“And her husband?” I asked.

“He would have been one of the other blood-sources she would have killed immediately,” said the soft voice. “To put it mildly, dear” – here, I understood Anna to be the one referred to – “your mother taught you little of use beyond the common work expected of farm women, and she had no use whatsoever for either those journals or your natural inclination toward medical work.”

“N-natural inclination?” asked Anna.

“Had she a modicum of 'sense', she would have done all she could have done, short of criminal behavior, to send you to the west school,” said the soft voice, “which is where you not only belonged, but where you would have done well.”

“Then why did she permit me to..?” Anna's voice faded into nothingness.

“Because that cost her nothing of note,” said the soft voice, “and allowing you to do so made her look especially good in the eyes of her peers.” A pause, then, “besides, it kept you occupied a large portion of your non-laboring day, which meant more time for her to 'enjoy life'. Witchdom calls that kind of exchange 'a bargain well paid for' – and your mother thought precisely that.”

“Now was this your music stuff?” asked Tam.

Anna nodded, then said, “I knew she never enjoyed that thing's noise, as she was constantly yelling at me until I went out into the fields to practice.”

“I know,” said Tam as he tied the last knot on the last bottle of the batch of five we were currently working on. “Anyone who can learn that one o' those things that quick is a treasure, and no parent should be like she was.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. I was ready for either a breather or a session in the privy, as I was becoming very ill from the stink of chemicals.

“I still have it, even if I seldom have time for playing,” said Anna. “I was given...”

The word 'given' seemed to ring in my mind, and I wondered if Anna was given something...

Or, was she given to something, much as I had been given to the pendant.

My hearing came back up, and I shook my head. I'd missed part of the conversation, or so I thought until I heard Anna say, “a violin.”

“I know,” said Tam. “We'd best give upstairs before we crowd that privy.”

While we did not 'crowd' the privy, it received no small amount of attention from all of us, and when I used it twice between the others, the person after me – Anna – asked me pointedly, “did you spew?”

“Yes,” I gasped. “First from my mouth, and then the other end right after.”

“You'd best not do up bottles like that again, not if it affects you like that,” said Anna.

“Can't be helped, dear,” said Tam. “He's got to be there and doing his share, or we'll all go up in smoke filling those bottles.”

“And we have more of them yet to load,” said Sarah. “Tonight shall want many of them.”

“Did you..?” asked Anna.

“Just from my mouth this time,” said Sarah. “That stinky stuff has made me spew from both ends before.” A brief pause, then, “the stuff I made at the west school was bad enough, but this stuff is much worse for spewing and sickness.”

“How?” asked Tam.

“Better materials,” said Sarah, “and I think that condenser is better, also.”

“All of those things and then some,” said the soft voice, “and the two chemicals are but distant relatives of one another in all aspects.”

“Both are poisonous, no doubt,” I muttered.

“Her original chemical was quite deadly,” said the soft voice, “which is one of the reasons why her cousin is still alive.” A brief pause, then, “the current material, however, while it will stop spiders 'instantly', is much less lethal.”

“How is my cousin alive because of that chemical?” asked Sarah.

“Because it didn't just stop spiders instantly,” said the soft voice. “She once was attacked at Boermaas while not carrying her knives in a state of full-readiness, and she flung the contents of a just-opened vial in the face of the witch who was trying for her.”

“And?” I asked.

The witch dropped to the ground instantly and began thrashing in a violent convulsion,” said the the soft voice, “and as she fled, the man's 'helpers' came upon him – and after beating him into quiescence with lead-filled clubs, they carried him back to his rooms, where he died shortly thereafter due to its effects.” A pause, then, “that clubbing did not help him much.”

“Contact neurotoxin?” I asked.

“Both versions of that chemical affect nerve transmission,” said the soft voice. “The current version does so temporarily, while the version she prepared at the west school did so permanently – which made it a poison to be reckoned with.” A brief pause, then, “Madame Curoue – and a large number of other poison-inclined witches over the centuries – wished they could have come up with something with that kind of knock-down power.”

“Mace that kills,” I muttered.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “That stuff made what you are thinking of seem worthless. That witch was drunk enough – and strong enough – to ignore anything of a non-lethal nature.”

“One o' those hard-witches, eh?” said Tam. “Those witches what know the right curses so's they need pounds o' lead before they quit?”

“He had said those curses, but was not 'strong' in them yet,” said the soft voice, “hence he would been but somewhat harder to kill than is common for witches of his age.”

“Sounds like a hard-witch to me, if he was going to Boermaas,” said Tam. “Now for beer, and then bottles, and we'd best be moving and not speaking overmuch, and no more than four bottles at a time downstairs.”

We did precisely that, only with four people, we could manage five bottles before anyone became sick enough to desire the privy greatly. Still, however, I found myself spewing from both ends once more, and with each such succeeding instance of chemical exposure, I needed longer intermissions in order to recover enough to do my portion – until finally, I was feeling so ill I knew I could not endure another instance of bottle-filling. This made for gasping, and faintly, I said, “I think I need to go to bed.”

“We have more bottles left,” said Sarah. While she looked ill, I wondered if she felt as sick as I did.

“We got more than thirty of 'em filled with that nasty-smelling stuff,” said Tam.

“Yes, but those are of the one type,” said Sarah. “This other type wants a different filling, and that means...”

“If this involves that yellow material that induces a headache,” said Anna, “then a nap is in order for all of us. You three get in bed, while I go and chase down Hans.”

As I dropped my trousers next to my bed, I wondered as to Anna's speech, at least until I was on the bed asleep. There, I had but little in the way of dreaming, if a dream it was. The darkness seemed total, and the silence ready and waiting. I understood it to be night, the night that was to come; and I stood, a ready sentinel, primed for the word and the call to action. With itching ears, I heard the words.

“News of that one town's obliteration is traveling slowly to the east, and to strike now would permit you to destroy them more readily.”

“Smug and secure in their stone-laid nest,” I thought, as I saw through the stones of the fortress known far and wide as 'the hall'. Inside, I saw what was used for reinforcing: course upon course, and row upon row, hundreds and thousands of squat red bricks slimed liberally with slave-laid mortar.

Tam had named the place a 'brick-house', and now I knew why. Witches used bricks, just as they had in the days of the Tower of Babel; and like that place and time of witchdom, they thought themselves the equals of God himself regarding power and knowledge.

“No, not quite,” said a familiar voice. “No true-witch – regardless of when and where in time and space – has room in his heart or mind for an equal. Everyone else is either one's master, or one's slave – and the principle of ownership is both universal and paramount.”

“So many bottles,” I thought, as I counted them in their long dark feather-fletched rows. “So many bottles.”

And yet, I knew, when it was finally time to brave the fire and flames of both the bottle-started fires and those few die-hard witches who continued to fight unto the very plate of ever-hungry Brimstone himself, I would be glad for the covering fire I would receive.

It also made me desire something more than a mere pair of five-shot revolvers and a rifle that was deadly enough to drop a charging elephant in its tracks when 'loaded for swine'.

“What?” I gasped, as I shot up bolt upright from where my elephant gun had laid me. I'd fired another pig-load, this dumped by an ignorant lout thinking he was stuffing a four-to-the-pound elephant gun with powder and ball, and the recoil had rendered me both prostrate and stunned. “How much did I dump that one time?” I was referring to that one particular plated-up pig.

“Enough to drill through one end of Jumbo's skull and squirt his brains out a hole on the other side, assuming the bullet didn't break up too badly on the way,” said the soft voice.

Faint music then played, only when the words of the song meant to say 'Elanor', the singer said 'John'; and instead of the peculiarly orchestral effects of the original song, this example had thundering drums pounding out a steady rhythm. It made for pondering, then I stood alone with a full-loaded rifle, cocked and ready for action. The drums became louder – and then, I saw why.

Jumbo himself, the true king of the jungle, was coming with all of his legs moving in a maddening shuffle. I had one shot, I needed to take it, and I aimed for between the eye and the ear as I moved to the side at a rapid walk. Without hesitating, I pulled the trigger...

And the thundering roar and shoulder-crushing recoil that went with dropping an elephant brought me entirely awake.

“What was that?” I gasped – even as the music of 'Elanor Rigby' played softly to fade over the course of seconds. “Rigby? As in e-elephant guns? Double-barreled breech-loading...”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if what you shoot does kick like a peeved mule with its usual loading.”

“I made it badly?” I asked.

“For a first attempt, no,” said the soft voice. “You fitted it to your physique quite well, in fact.” A brief pause, then, “the laws of physics are the issue here – and those are the same throughout the known physical universe.”

“As in?” My question was full of awed wonder. I had always wondered why my rifle performed as it did.

“Think,” said the soft voice. “Recoil is due to the following equation: mass of bullet times muzzle velocity must equal mass of gun multiplied by force against shoulder. Given that rifle weighs about fifteen pounds, and those bullets weigh over an ounce, how fast do you think they're coming out of the muzzle?”

“I-I'm not sure?” I murmured. I hadn't any idea, in all honesty. I knew the bullets didn't have the classic 'rainbow trajectory' of black-powder weapons where I came from.

“When you dumped that 'pig load', it was roughly equivalent to a hundred and thirty grains of hot smokeless powder – and that pushing about five hundred and forty grains of bullet.”

Again, faintly, I heard the strains of 'Elanor Rigby' – and with it, the now-direct association with the makers of dangerous game rifles who were also named Rigby.

“That was not an elephant, or a lion, or any of the other 'Big Five' you shot when you blew that pig's brains out,” said the soft voice. “It was an Iron Pig, full-grown, thick-skulled and hard-headed, full of itself, blood-maddened, and with full plate – and none of the animals where you come from come even remotely close for danger or lethality.”

“D-dangerous game?” I murmured. “What do I normally shoot?”

“That's bad enough,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you won't have to shoot it much more without protection.”

“Why?” I asked, as 'Elanor Rigby' played again.

“Because that gun is truly 'dangerous at both ends',” said the soft voice. “I'd be very careful about firing 'pig-loads' out of that thing, in fact.”

“Will it burst?” I asked.

“No, but you might hurt yourself too badly for Anna to help,” said the soft voice. “The usual load would stop most of the animals where you come from – and I include dangerous ones when I say that.”

“It stops elk here,” I said. “Are those like the ones where I came from?”

“No,” said the soft voice's emphatic tones. “The ones here are not only far more irritable, but also substantially tougher. They're closer to some African animals that way.” A brief pause, then, “recall the other local name for a 'roer'?”

“Elk-musket?” I asked.

“They need that kind of stopping power,” said the soft voice. “Elk are the first kingdom's 'dangerous game', with the larger deer running a moderately close second.” A brief pause, then, “tonight, you aren't going to need a rifle able to stop a charging elephant. You will desire – and that greatly – something with a much lighter recoil and a far higher rate of fire – and most importantly, the ability to sustain that rate of fire.”

“Which we do not have,” I mumbled. “Wonderful.”

“Use those bottles,” said the soft voice. “Use them plentifully. They're the best antipersonnel weapons you have right now.” A pause – then suddenly, 'Elanor Rigby' became another song entirely, one with furious bursts of staccato 'drum-beats' alternating with an otherworldly voice miles removed from the smooth harmonies that had proved so enigmatic in the past.

“He's talking about war,” I muttered, as again the 'drums' fired their long staccato bursts and I heard the singer speak his line “let your bullets fly like rain,” mingled with words that spoke of picking up an ax and fighting like a farmer – and over all of this mingled speech, the true meaning of the song, that being also its title.

“I wish I could get one of those things,” I muttered. “Tonight is going to want that kind of firepower.”

“Not tonight,” said the soft voice. “Not tonight.”

But in the background, as the song faded in my mind, I knew it in my bones. We would get our hands on real firepower in the foreseeable future.

“Not 'no more bullets',” I thought. “No more one-shot-per-minute muskets.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Once more after tonight, and that will be nothing but the truth.”

“Once more?” I asked.

“The Abbey,” said the soft voice. “That place's 'worms' aren't inclined to give up their treasures.”

I shook soundlessly, yawned – and then, and only then, did I actually wake up. I had been dreaming, so much so that I wondered if I had had too much to dream, and when I nearly collided with Sarah on the way to the privy, she had a question of such urgent nature that she asked me while I was in the privy itself undoing my trousers.

“What is a machine gun?” she squeaked. Her voice seemed to drill through the door and penetrate clear to the center of my mind.

“Uh, let me finish this,” I murmured. I was right in the middle of 'nitration', and I was indeed 'primed' to see spurting red fumes boil up from the nitrator that lay fuming in front of me.

“Or would they be bullets flying like rain?” I thought. Such thinking, while disquieting, seemed all too probable this evening; as the witches would be on their best alert, all of them relatively sober, all of them chanting rune-curses, all of them primed and hot for 'real' action.

I finished the 'nitration', then turned and left the acid-burning nature of that particular chemical process and returned to the vestibule. There, for the first time, I saw what might have been a mirror, but the near-entire darkness of the tiny room seemed to make this abyss of shadow before me trap light within its boundaries, so much so that it seemed to form a black hole without an end. I gave it no heed, as it was useless in a darkened room, and opened the door to the outside world.

The reason Sarah was still present was that she needed to use the privy, and while it took her less time than me, her question remained foremost within the folders of my mind.

Only it was not the question I thought it to be, for she spoke more upon it when she emerged from the brown door.

“Did you mean the weapon itself, or what was said about it?” I asked, as the two of us went down the stairs to a near-odorless laboratory. Tam had gone, or so I surmised until I heard faintly the sound of snoring over in the corner. “Is he planning to help us transport those things?”

“I planned on doin' just that,” said the source of the snoring as it suddenly stopped and noises indicated covers being flung aside. “Now these other bottles, what are they like?”

“Bad for headaches,” said Sarah caustically. “Calling such headaches sick ones is calling them wonderful indeed.” She then turned to me, then said, “though that music I heard was strange indeed. I still wonder what was spoken, as no current 'gun' I know of causes bullets to fly like rain.”

“Now that's speaking lies, and I know it,” said Tam. “Easiest thing in the world.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Does this involve stuffing a common smoothbore gun with bagged musket-balls cast of printer's lead? A thick wad in back, and a thinner one in front, and a healthy powder charge?”

“Then why she ask that question?” asked Tam.

“Because it was not that kind of a gun,” said Sarah. She sounded – to my surprise – as if she had actually 'stuffed' cannons with such loads before. “This did not sound like a cannon, or even a large number of muskets firing in volley.” Sarah paused, then took an old brass spoon and rapped as fast as she could on the nearest table top. “Like that, only faster.” A pause, then, “and in one ear, I was clearly hearing one noise, and in the other ear, another noise entirely different.”

“Describe 'em,” said Tam. “I been down south enough to be familiar with most machinery, and I've put hand to a fair amount of it.”

“One sounded somewhat like a drum,” said Sarah, “only it was a very strange drum for sound, and the other...” Sarah screwed her eyes up tight, then said through compressed lips, “the other was like what he shoots, only it was like hearing fifty of those things one after another, and that so fast you could not count the individual shots.”

“Oh, that,” I said. “That's what a machine gun supposedly sounds like.”

“You've heard things like that?” asked Sarah incredulously.

“In real life?” I asked calmly. “No, I haven't. I have heard recordings of them, and...”

I ceased speaking and wondered just how to explain videos and movies, then said, “visual stories. Stories told with pictures instead of just words. I've seen pictures of what they can do.”

That seemed unsatisfactory, for some reason; yet when nothing more was said, I let the matter drop. There was that evil-headache 'oil' lying patiently in its jug, with its irascible nature and its desire for destruction; and the need to give it its due while making first 'vlai' and then 'bad animal glue', to then sop up the last with a mingled mixture of cleaned niter and 'cellulose' – and then, finally, fill at least five bottles with the resulting material – bottles of such frightful power they would be fully as destructive as true artillery rounds.

“And not weak ones, either,” I thought, as I pictured their likely dimensions within my mind. These shells were quite large, easily heavy enough to wish mechanical assistance when loading them into the gun that fired them. I then thought, “what's the difference between the two types of filling?”

“Their detonation velocity,” said the soft voice. “The liquid, while powerful indeed, has a lesser shattering power. It won't break down walls nearly as well as those others.”

“Those bottles will break down walls?” I asked. I was referring to the liquid-filled bottles; and upon reflection, that did seem likely, at least if I went by the explosion I had seen.

“And start flash-fires, and send showers of flying bricks and shattered fragments of stone into adjacent rooms,” said the soft voice. “They won't 'bust down' that gate, though.” A brief pause, then, “that needs substantial 'shattering power' – but not so much of it that it drops the towers and the whole front of the place into the hall's inner courtyard.”

“If that gate is of wood, and those walls are of stone, then why does that wood need more?” asked Sarah.

“Because those walls surround the blast, dear,” said the soft voice. “Much like the casing of a swine-shell surrounds the powder inside it. Then, that gate isn't just strong, thick wood. It has a lot of thick iron strapping and several hundreds of sizable screws, nearly all of which are on the back side.”

“Screws?” I shrieked. “Screws? Did he say screws?”

Sarah looked at me, then in a tiny voice, she asked, “why?”

I laughed, then said, “let's make that nasty 'glue' up, and I shall tell you tales of gore.”

The niter and cellulose went into the bowl first, and with the spatula, I began mixing the two chemicals while Sarah and Tam brought forth the other materials. I wondered if I needed to make 'vlai' tonight, but as the crock and jug appeared, I knew I would need to do that also.

“So I must do it three times, then,” I thought. “Tonight, I'll add more of the nitrocellulose to the nitro.”

“Not too much, though,” said the soft voice. “You don't want to drop the towers when you blast that gate.”

“Why are you mixing that stuff there and the niter first?” asked Sarah.

“We're making a much larger batch compared to that one experiment, dear,” I murmured. “I'll want to make a full batch of that vlai, most likely, as any of that stuff we don't use tonight we can save for the Abbey's batch.” I then asked, “five boom-bottles enough?”

There was no answer, beyond my thinking, “if we do not use them tonight, they will keep long enough for the Abbey's worms.”

“And squibs, too,” I thought. “We can use those things tonight and in the future.”

And while again, there was no answer as I stirred and mixed what was before me, I knew tonight was going to be dangerous and violent, fully as much so as the bridge had been. There would be blood running like rivers in and around the hall.

“Given the total number of witches the place now has, you're not far off for numbers,” said the soft voice. “The hall has been receiving refugees all day from every town that saw and heard the explosion last night – and every one of those refugees has brought a tale of woe.”

“How?” squeaked Sarah. “They were not in that town, so how could they know?”

“No, but they know what the sun rising at night means if you're a witch,” cackled Tam. “They're going to sup with Brimstone, and now they're shaking in those nasty pointed boots they like.”

“And scuffling and fighting among themselves more than a little,” I murmured. “Place must be wall-to-wall crowded with those thugs.”

“Every room in the hall itself is packed,” said the soft voice. “They're having to find beds among the lowest chambers for all of the incoming refugees, in fact – and that does not include that portion lying under the still-standing portions of the Swartsburg walls.”

“Refugees?” I asked. “As in the outlying witches are all now clustering in the hall?”

Sarah looked at me, then slowly nodded.

“We can get all of them, then,” I muttered. “At least all of the current crop.”

“Not all of them,” said the soft voice. “There are too many witches and supplicants to fit in that place's rooms, for one thing, and then there are those who are outside of the immediate area – which are more or less untouched.”

“Yes, an' they'll be afraid to come here,” said Tam.

“For a time they will be very much afraid,” said the soft voice. “Figure on roughly four to six weeks of relative peace.”

“And then it all starts up all over again, and that with a vengeance,” I muttered. I could put off making 'vlai' no longer. “Time for the fever-bark powder.”

That done, and then the nitro; the headaches started the instant that jug's cork came out. Again, I was alone, as not even Tam could endure the fumes that billowed forth once I began adding the nitrocellulose; and once more, I was mixing up 'vlai' while blind to the world and alive to my work alone. My blindness remained, even as I began adding the mixture of cellulose and niter, and with each such addition, I sprinkled a small amount of that fly-calling chemical from the jug.

First, I had 'glue', this of rancid reek and stickiness beyond belief; then with further additions of niter and cellulose, a pasty mass that still was tenacious as any glue I had ever endured; then, a less-pasty lumpy mess; then, a mess of drier consistency and less stickiness – and finally, a grainy 'meal' of mingled potent odors and slight but noticeable dampness. There was but a bit left of the niter and cellulose mixture, and I used that to clean the tools I had used, save for the spatula itself. The 'dirty' material went on top of the 'meal' as a dusting to then be churned into the mixture.

“A full bowl,” I thought, as my sight began to return and my headache decreased to a still potent migraine. “I hope I do not spew, as this stuff really smells.”

As if to answer, thumping steps came down the stairwell, and I turned to see Tam. He was enthused at the sight of a large bowl of 'meal'; and as he'd apparently heard from Sarah as to what we had done, he hunted up those metallic sheets we had used for drying. I began spooning out clumps of the crumbly 'meal', and with a long spoon, he began spreading the stuff out into thin layers so as to dry faster.

“I'm glad he's doing that near the fume hood, as that stuff smells worse than anything,” I muttered.

“I know,” he said emphatically. “Sarah said this stuff could call flies, and I'm beginning to think she's right.”

And yet still, the stench continued to flood the laboratory; for now, I began to fill the other plates. Lithe steps upon the stairs spoke of others returning, and when I paused in my labors, I saw Sarah and Anna. Both women were holding their noses, and when they spoke, they sounded strange – as did Tam now. I wondered if he'd gotten himself a pair of carrot-colored 'boogers', even as he asked his question.

“Where's Hans?” asked Tam's nasal-sounding voice. I looked up to see him handing each woman a long-necked spoon. I returned to my filling of sheets with 'meal'.

“I think he went to the Public House,” said Anna. Her voice was also nasal, though the reason why for her was obvious when I looked: she was holding her nose with one hand, and was 'stirring' with the other. “That place is closed right now, though.”

“Why did he go there?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Anna. She – and Sarah – were now moving about the rapidly 'drying' meal with their spoons on the currently filled plates. It seemed to shrink in volume slightly as it dried, which was good; but it also made for wondering: did we wish to load our bottles with still-moist meal, or the well-dried stuff?

“I can think of some reasons,” said Tam, who had his own spoon and was moving it about vigorously on his own trio of plates. It was obvious he could begin loading up bottles shortly, as the stink in his region was lessening fast. “First, he could be raising the town. Then, he could be bolting.”

“Hans might be a great many things,” said Anna, “but I know him well enough to know he is not a coward.”

“Or, he's got his own thing cooking, and he thinks it better than what we're doing here.” Tam thought for a moment, stirring his 'meal' the whole while, then said, “or he really can't stand the stink o' this stuff.”

“Or powder headaches, sir,” said Sarah. “I saw him faint when he smelled that chemical, and I heard from a reliable source that he's quite familiar with powder headaches.” A brief pause, then, “and I never thought I would become this familiar with that type of headache, but I can speak of it at some length now.”

“They are that,” said Anna between gritted teeth. She still sounded nasal, even if she was no longer holding her nose. I suspected she had gotten some 'boogers' in. “Now how long must I stir this? I'm getting so I can barely see, it's so bad, and the stink makes me wish to spew.”

“It put me in the privy twice until I got that new condenser made for it,” said Sarah. “What I tried first worked for what I made at school, but not this stuff.”

Tam's plates became dry first, and with that, he began assaying the loading of a bottle. All we had for that business was Hans' 'fetishes', and the outburst that followed Tam's first attempts at their use was filled with invective and overwritten with oaths, all of this delivered in a voice so contorted I could barely make out words here or there as he gnashed and ground his teeth around the words.

“You want him eating those things?” asked Anna.

“You use these things much?” asked Tam in a shaky voice. “Get your rump over this way, woman, and you try 'em – and then tell me they ain't the worst things for working you ever used.”

Anna did as instructed, while Sarah took over her stirring duties, and as Anna assayed using the clumsy 'measurer' and 'fetish-funnel' with its by-now well-proven tendency to clog, she first became irritable, then began muttering – and then Anna needed to give up on the matter, as she looked to toss both measurer and funnel across the basement after pounding them into scrap with the nearest tool of weight that looked likely. As she returned to her 'stirring', I heard speech about knitting.

“Worse than knitting?” I asked.

“Yes, if I use cheap yarn, bad needles, and I'm fretting badly,” said Anna. “How Hans stands that piece of rubbish is beyond me, but had I your tools, I would cut it up fine and bake a pie with it, and then make a witch eat that pie.”

“Kill two quolls with one load, then,” muttered Tam as he began 'poking' the contents of the funnel with a small brass rod. It had clogged once more. “Get rid of this rivet-choked piece of wall-hanging scrap and a witch in the bargain, and that thing he calls a measurer makes him a liar for sure and certain.”

Tam managed roughly half a bottle by the time he emptied his first plate, and while I refilled it – that was my job, for I had shone myself best able to endure the headaches of the material and the reek of that one chemical – Sarah took over on that first bottle. She seemed to have but little better luck, until she set down that infernal funnel of Hans and asked me, “do you have a funnel in your things?”

“Yes, a small one for powder measures,” I said as I stood. “It's a bit flimsy, as it's thin copper...”

“It has no fifteen-line rivets, does it?” said Sarah.

“He's never used those, at least in brass or copper,” said Anna. “He might use them for iron things, but not cookware.”

“Could you fetch it?” asked Sarah. “I'm about to toss this thing, and calling it a tosser is calling it wonderful.”

I bolted for the stairs, and as I came to the top at a run, I heard a deafening shriek, followed by a whizzing noise that ended in a clatter. I came down with my powder funnel to see Sarah in tears.

“Wh-what happened?” I asked, as I moved my hand to gently rub her shoulder. She seemed to need comforting, and doing that was the best I thought I could do

“I was so angry I tossed that horrible thing,” said Sarah. “I tried my best not to, but it was like a bad instrument, and I cannot stand those things, and I, I, lost my temper. Please, I'm sorry.”

“No need to be sorry about that piece of junk,” said Tam. “It made me want to stomp it flat, it was so bad, and Anna...”

Anna had gone somewhere in the basement, and as she returned to where we were working, I could hear her muttering. She had something of a metallic nature hidden in a bag she clutched with a white-knuckled grip; and while still muttering unintelligible speech, she scooped up the measurer after checking to see it had no 'meal' remaining in it. She then went upstairs to return shortly thereafter – and now that she had returned to our labors, she looked ripe for an eruption of volcanic nature. I wanted to hide.

“I switched that bag for his pillow,” said Anna in piqued voice, “and while that thing may have been worthless for function, it survived being tossed well enough to serve him up a proper reminder when he next thinks to sleep upon it and that other piece of rubbish.” She paused, then, “and I hope he takes them to Georg straight away tomorrow, as if ever a pair of tools looked to be fetishes, those things look likely indeed.”

“And now to bottles,” I murmured, as I began to scoop out more still-damp 'meal' to thinly coat another empty plate.

With regular stirring, the meal dried faster; but the onus of fleeting time was upon us, and somehow, Anna found more plates. These were smaller, and of tin; and with each of them I filled, Anna moved it somewhere – and where that was seemed an entire mystery. Only when I came to the end of the meal itself, and began wiping down the tools I had used once more with the mingled niter and cellulose did she indicate what she had done.

“Dinner plates?” I asked.

“We do not use them much,” said Anna, “and they're mostly old things.” A pause, then, “I heard you can do things with those bad buckles witches like, and that needs tin, so you should take our old plates and melt them down for their metal.”

“Uh, replace them with tinned copper?”

Anna looked at me in agog fashion, then asked, her voice a mouse-like squeak: “Public House plates?”

“They do hold up well, don't they?” I asked. “Those 'tins' might be cheap enough, but they dent if you look at them wrongly and they look, uh, bad after about three uses – or do they?”

“I get stacks o' those things out of the fifth kingdom,” said Tam, “and this one place gets all the dead ones and melts 'em down for tin-metal. You do that too?”

“Yes, when he needs block-tin and has none ready-melted,” said Sarah. “I've been melting old plates when and as I can for a few months, so I've got a decent amount bagged up, and I know Hans used to do the same.”

“Yes, and I still do that some,” said Hans as he came down the stairs. “Now the town is all ready, and they are heading toward the house using that map I drew for up for them.”

“The house?” I asked. “The, uh, house proper, or somewhere else?”

“There are these fields to the south of that hall place,” said Hans, “and they are to wait there until I send someone to get them. Then, they come up this back way, and go up quiet to hide in those abandoned houses, and when the whistle blows” – here, Hans produced a long and somewhat corroded brass 'thing' that looked about ready to fall apart – “they start shooting if they see a witch on those walls.”

Tam looked at Hans in a way I could not understand, then asked, “why are you here, then?”

“You aren't going to fuse those bombs we are using tonight,” spat Sarah. “You almost got us blown to hell last night, you wretch.”

“Why, you were not using a still, so that stuff didn't need to be very good,” said Hans.

“That attitude will get you killed soon enough,” said Tam with a sigh. “Whenever you do up a bomb, always use the best things you can get, and test it as much as you can afore you set it.” A brief pause, then, “your grandfather told me that when I was setting under him so as to learn about bombs and such.”

“And that fuse,” said Sarah. “We were told that wretch who sold you disguised quickmatch sold you good and proper. You did not test-burn a piece, did you?”

“No, because that person did, and I timed it.”

How?” asked Tam pointedly. “Counting the time it burned?”

“Yes, like usual,” said Hans.

I shook my head, then said, “thousand-and-one, thousand-and-two, thousand-and-three...”

“Not like that I did,” said Hans. “Why did you do that?”

The room went silent, then Anna said, “come over here and stir this meal so we can load it.” Anna's tone was a no-nonsense order, and Hans came over to do as instructed. Anna then proceeded to speak of the difficulties we all had with his equipment.

“Yes, and I put in an order for new ones some time ago,” said Hans. “They have a big stack of those slates with orders on them, and they need him working on most of what they have in there.”

“I do what I can, and as I am able,” I said. “There is but one of me, and I have but two hands, and I can only be in one place at one time.” A brief pause, then, “and these witch-induced interruptions are making me wish to spit oaths.”

“I would be careful if you did that,” said Hans, “as there is talk about what happens when you speak in jest, or sometimes, even should you think something.”

“Not now, Hans,” said Anna. “We have bottles to fill, and corks to wax, and then string, glue, and feathers for those five bottles.”

“And ink-globes,” said Sarah. “And then, we must fuse the last two jugs.”

Those I made my entire concern, and while I asked for the things I needed as the others labored, I added two sticks of 'headache-inducing' mining dynamite to the bundle already about them. I did up four caps, each with three feet of fuse, and at the last, I put two caps to each jug, one per stick of freshly-attached dynamite, with Tam taking a break to tie the fuses together near their severed ends. I had friction igniters planned for those, and to my surprise, Hans had a pair of small wooden boxes. Their workmanship proclaimed them the local carpenters' work. Thankfully, it was as good as their usual.

I went over the whole of the two devices meticulously, with a small bag of sifted priming powder carefully tied around the vent of the igniter in both cases. Hans was watching me intently the whole time as he stirred his meal, and only when Anna nudged him did he give his 'meal' more attention.

“Watch close,” said Tam quietly. “That's the work of a person who knows exactly what they're doin'.”

“Uh, no,” I said. I knew beyond all doubt that I was not an expert; I was a rank beginner, and hence I was being especially careful and not taking any chances that I did not need to. “These have long enough fuses that we'll need to wrap them up good in rags, and have the pull-string laying on top.”

“That is less fuse for length than I put up,” said Hans.

“That's proper mining fuse,” said Tam. “That much will give close to three minutes – and that type gives three minutes for three feet consistently.” A pause, then, “now how many feet did you cut?”

“Ten, as...”

Anna had nudged Hans in the ribs, who then said, “it was ten at first, but four feet stuck out of that copper tubing, so I cut that fuse stuff so it fit.”

“So that's six minutes with fuse like that there,” said Tam. “Now, you was sold bad fuse, which you not only did not test your-own-self, but you did not test it in a tube like you used.” Another pause, then, “that bad fuse burns a lot faster when it's buried, and a copper tube is probably worse that way than dirt.”

Much worse with that fuse,” said the soft voice. “instead of a foot a minute, it's closer to a foot in three to five seconds.”

“You only gave 'em eighteen seconds of burnin?” squawked Tam. “What were you trying to do, sacrifice those two to Brimstone like a stinkin' arch-witch fool of a traitor?”

“I am not sure as to his motives, but I am certain of what we were told,” said Sarah sharply, “and we were both warned, me by direct experience and him by being told by Lukas, about how Hans was with matters he was not well-experienced in and most familiar with.” Sarah then looked at Hans, then said, “now, did you ever do something like this before?”

Hans shook his head to indicate no.

“Then, you thought, 'because this is my work, I know all there is to know about it'? Correct?”

“And that witch who sold you that 'fuse' was strong enough to dump a curse so you believed his lies on top of that know-it-all rubbish,” I spat.

Hans did not reply this time, save by running his fastest through the crowded shop and shooting up the stairs as fast as he could. I could clearly smell the reek of dung over all the other smells.

“I think he is in the privy,” said Sarah. “This has happened before, hasn't it?”

While there was no speech, I did recall at least one instance of Hans being 'reproved' about his 'thick-headed ways', and this seemed like another instance of such reproof. I then recalled that in the months to come, he would change utterly – though to my mind, that looked to take not merely instruction, but also a brain transplant.

“Like I used to say I needed,” I thought, as I noted the group of five bottles being worked on. “Will there be enough meal to fill those things?” This last was spoken, though softly.

“I suspect there will be,” said Sarah softly. “Now when you did up those ink-globes, you added some distillate. What kind, and how much?”

“With these bottles, three pipettes full each,” I said, “and use heavy distillate straight from the jug, or light distillate if you can find it.” I paused, then said, “I think that will help light up the splinters from that gate better if we use distillate in our, uh, boom-bottles.”

I began to gather the supplies for ink-globes, and once I had those, I began to look around for rags. The only ones I could find were those we had used in cleaning ourselves up, and as I began wrapping up the two larger bombs, Anna came by with a ball of thin gray string.

“I can tie that on for you,” she said. “Now this is for what – padding?”

“Yes, dear,” I said calmly. “These need not merely that, but also a measure of disguise. If we can find dark 'sooty' rags, those would be better still.”

“Ain't none,” said Tam. “Best you could do is probably spill ink on those things when they're done.”

“And we have no ink,” I muttered.

“Give me twenty minutes,” said Sarah. “I can make up some.”

Sarah went off somewhere else in the lab, and while she was gone, the fletching ceased. But two bottles remained unfilled, and to fill them entirely looked to take another hour easily, given the slow pace Anna and Tam were managing. While my funnel didn't tend to clog, it was small; and while its inside was smooth, it passed but little more than the rivet-clogged fetish.

“Where is that funnel?” asked Hans as he abruptly showed. He was wearing different clothing, and smelled of a most-quick bath. “It may be bad, but it is quicker for that stuff than that little thing.”

“No it is not,” spat Sarah from her hiding place. “That rivet-studded wall-hanging fetish is a prime tosser, and I tossed it good.”

“Yes, and where is it now?” asked Hans. “At the least, I will need it for an example tomorrow, as I cannot speak to Georg such that he understands.”

“Him and most other people who ain't fit to wear brass cones, you mean,” said Tam. “Now I've loaded jugs before, and what you want is a funnel like this one, only bigger, and then that measurer thing needs no rivets, save for a few little ones in the right places so's it don't get out o' line when it's soldered. Them big fifteen-line brass rivets are for fetishes, and that's a fact.”

“Then why is it those are the only things used?” asked Hans. “Everyone in the first kingdom will only use that size for everything, except for one person, and that is him there working with those rags.”

“I am not certain as to why in these parts,” said Sarah, “but I can speak of parts of the second kingdom house.” A brief pause, then, “the reason fifteen-line rivets are used in that place's workshops is because witches buy much of what they make, and those witches want a certain look.”

“Namely, its value as a fetish, and not as a tool,” I murmured. I then spoke to Anna, again in soft and almost soothing tones. “Another knot there, dear. This one's nearly done.”

“And because the witches desire such things, everyone else wants them that way too, presuming they have the money,” said Sarah.

“And the lack of function is endured, chiefly due to ignorance that they could be using something better,” I said. “Now, is this willful ignorance, or something else?”

Again, there was no answer save that of the soft sounds associated with labor. Soft steps came from behind me, and I turned in my tracks to see Sarah with a beaker part-filled with a dark black substance that smelled strongly of 'acid' and aquavit.

“This is Foulgere's ink,” said Sarah, “and it either wants a newly-sharpened quill, should it be used for writing, or a small brush for blackening rags. It's fairly permanent, so you do not want it on your hands.”

“How is it you did ink?”

“Quiet, Hans,” said Anna. “Fetch a small brush and begin to paint these things with that stuff, if you're inclined to help.”

“I used to use it for my inked reports,” said Sarah. “It was not easy getting the recipe from that ink-maker.”

“Foulgere?” I asked.

“Is a fourth-kingdom ink-making house,” said Sarah, “and their ink not only does not come in ink-globes, but is most-preferred by honest printers and the house proper.” A pause, then, “I had to sneak into that shop once they'd closed for the night so as to copy down that recipe.”

“Could you not buy it?” I asked.

“Yes, but I would have needed a great deal of money on top of the inducement, and then a way to use a gallon of ink, also,” said Sarah. “They take days to make their stuff up, and spend a great deal of unneeded effort, as I learned in my experiments with their recipe.”

“You did what?” asked Hans. He was dabbing on the ink as if afraid of it.

“I learned that much of why they spent days was that they were treating the stuff as if it were alive or something,” said Sarah, “and that if I used Roesmaan's chemicals, it was mostly a matter of just being careful in my measuring. We had all the right ones here, so making a term-sized batch was easy.”

“Did they chant?” I asked.

“Yes, and loudly,” said Sarah. “I've only heard a handful of preachers louder than those people, and then their chemicals, ugh! They must use stuff from a place worse than anywhere I've heard of, Grussmaan's included.”

“Most likely the fifth kingdom, if they was that bad,” said Tam. “Now Hans here might not chant, and neither do a couple of other people up this way, and there's a few in the fourth kingdom that don't, but every other person who deals with chemicals this side of the Red mountains thinks they're a witch for chanting, and that's so if they're a witch or not.”

“And the Veldters?”

“Them people are strange for chemistry,” said Tam. “They do all that stuff underground, for one thing, and then they dress up in these odd shiny clothes that got hoses coming from 'em, and all of their places are built like real fortresses in case something goes wrong.”

“They do not chant, do they?” asked Sarah.

“I ain't sure what those people do, beyond perhaps pray to someone,” said Tam, “and while I wonder who that someone is more than a little, I really doubt it's Brimstone.” A pause, then, they call that character 'the chief of all spirits' in their language.”

“That is Brimstone,” said Hans. His surety approached that of 'oblivion', and I wondered if I needed to look for a well-hid fetish.

“No, I don't think so,” said Tam. “They treat that feller like we treat God, only I wish more of us was half as devoted as some o' those people are – as 'most all of the time when they get into a church on this side of the mountains, they fall down and start screaming like out of an old tale, and they don't get up until they're right.”

“Just like those masons,” said Sarah, “and just like some I've seen in the third kingdom. It's a rare person from the Valley who doesn't do that when they get into a church, and those who don't do that generally don't go near churches.”

“Those people usually speak both the Valley's language and ours,” said Tam, “and when they come over here, they usually aren't running from from someone important.”

As the bottles finished with their filling, the talk switched to that associated with the filling of globes. Sarah and Anna were now tying the fletching on the last of the five, while the remaining meal, as it dried, began to vanish into a row of ink-globes. I found that here, my powder-funnel was in its element, and each globe, once filled loosely, was set aside on its small flat-bottom.

“Now what do these get?” asked Tam.

“A pipette of distillate, that being straight from the jug, a cap with about a hand's-breadth of fuse or a bit longer, and then wax all over the globe and the end of the fuse,” I said. “Why, how many of them do you think we can do?”

I paused as Tam filled another globe, and set it in line in front of seven others. There looked to be enough 'meal' remaining for at least five more.

“Hans, you can go fetch the caps,” said Anna. “We're almost done feathering these bottles.”

“There,” said Sarah. “Now we can glue them.”

That done – the bottles went upstairs, where I suspected they were put in the bathroom to wait until it was time to load Sarah's buggy with its bombs – we gave our attention to the ink-globes. As Tam filled the last one – number fifteen – he said, “now how will we get this stuff there, and when do we leave?”

“I should think an hour after dusk should be right,” said Sarah. “Now do we stop at the house proper?”

“No need for it,” said Tam as he dosed an ink-globe and inserted a fused cap to 'cork' it, “and a bad idea. Them witches in there got ways of getting news to each other quicker than the post.”

“The secret way?” I asked. I was getting ready to dose 'my' pair of globes with distillate, as I had both caps fused and ready to hand. Anna was still upstairs, and I suspected she was heating wax.

Tam looked at me and nodded.

“Across town, though?” I asked. “They'd need messengers, then – and somehow...”

“Yep, that one place,” said Tam. “That's secret, and those witches in General's Row now know about it.”

“But they were blown up or burnt!” shrieked Sarah. “I saw it with my own eyes!”

“Most of 'em were blown up and burnt, and a good job,” said Tam. “The new crop knows it ain't wise to talk about matters openly like that batch did.” A pause, then as Tam tied his cap in place with string, “and those who were burnt most likely told them about how to get from that place to the hall quick without being seen by nobody.”

“How?” I asked.

“First, that one witch-hole is gone, but the route to it's about impossible to find from the inside, and it hides itself good, so it's cursed, and cursed bad,” said Tam. “Freek says that, and I'm inclined to agree, because we both got markings and neither of us could find it – and he used to find it dead-easy.” A pause, then, “the witches, though – they go right to it and jump inside, and we both saw 'em do it.”

Sarah was plugging an ink-globe with a cap sporting six inches of fuse, which was an inch more than the usual amount. She said as she began to tie its cap in place, “so they come up in the guardhouse. Then what?”

“They don't come up in the guardhouse,” said Tam. “There's several doors that open onto different levels in that deep-tunnel, and when you go past the one what goes from the deep-basement of the house into that one place that's before the war, it goes a lot further than that trick door that lets you get up to the run that leads up to that hidden door in the floor in that one guardhouse. Freek says that passage most likely goes a lot further.”

“And that passage connects directly to the access shaft the hall is on,” I spluttered. “Freek and his people just never went that way.”

“Freek never needed to,” said the soft voice. “Had Tam spoken to the other three returnees, rather than just Freek, he would have gotten a much fuller picture, especially from one man.”

“Why him?” asked Tam.

“He worked at the hall as an 'overseer',” said the soft voice, “and hence when 'time was pressing' – which in his case wasn't rare – he 'skidded' on the rails that path has when he needed to get to the house proper in a hurry.”

“Skidded?” I asked.

“A small platform, much like the bottom of a mining cart, complete with small well-greased wheels,” said the soft voice. “Most of that path is such that one can stand on that platform and push periodically with one's leg and roll along at a good clip – and given it's almost a straight line from the house proper to the wall, it isn't hard to beat the post if one is in any kind of a hurry.”

Tam was collecting up the finished globes, and as he got my 'last' one, he asked, “these what did General's Row?”

I nodded, then said, “I wanted to show Lukas what they could do, and it seems there was treason in the making.”

“You what?” squeaked Anna.

“He wished to show Lukas what those bombs could do,” said Sarah, “and while I have endured my share of explosions, that thing was so nasty it put me in the privy.” Sarah began muttering, then Tam said, “now that's the other reason why we don't want to stop at the house proper, and he ain't the only one I don't trust. There's others like him.”

“Who?” asked Anna. She was 'waxing' a globe, it being the last example needing such treatment.

“Gabriel,” said Tam. “He may be decent for schooling, but he's either cursed bad, or he wants to be a witch and is too dumb yet to make his bones.”

“Then why is he kept?” I asked.

“Mostly because he is decent for schooling,” said Sarah. “I've seen his reports, and he's not like most students from Maagensonst, as almost all of them can only write one way.”

“The written format, correct?” I asked. I had stood up from my stool, my goal now being to 'clean up' before bathing and then checking my 'supplies'. I wanted extra powder handy in case I needed to shoot much, and I think I wanted to 'lessen' my normal powder charge. Witches weren't elk, especially when they weren't wearing tin. “Makes no sense whatsoever unless you're a witch, and then it tells you the writer is someone who thinks like you do to a sufficient degree that it's worth spending an evening getting drunk and then speaking of 'important matters'.”

Dead silence struck like the crack of doom, while jaws dropped open wide, even Tam's – who revealed a full and healthy set of teeth, miraculously enough. I had heard enough talk of tooth-pullers to wonder why they were so commonly spoken of, and now this 'elderly man' showed them to be completely unneeded in his case.

“That is so,” said Tam finally. “I never heard it put that way before.” Then, a question: “why do they write that way between themselves?”

“He told you why, sir,” said Sarah – who was now cleaning a table with a rag she had found somewhere. Rags were scarce in the basement; I'd used many of them to cover the jugs. “It makes very little sense, save to indicate that you went to one of those higher schools where that kind of writing is demanded, and that you learned to write that way at least reasonably well.”

“And that you're either a witch or someone who wants to be one,” I said. “That sound about right?”

“That is not strictly true,” said Sarah. “I've encountered my share of people who write that way – and only that way – who are most open about their refusal to have anything to do with witchcraft.” A pause, during which she folded her rag differently, then, “I suspect that is the chief reason Gabriel is being kept right now – he might be questionable as to where his loyalties lie, but he can write plainly and make some degree of sense if he works at it.”

“And that isn't a common ability,” said Tam, as he stood with a bulging 'canvas' sack on a leather strap. I had not seen it before – or for that matter, anything like it here – and I wanted one like it. “Most cannot write, then most of those who do write beyond the simplest and crudest language only know witch-babble, and then some what can write and make sense have...”

Bad handwriting,” said Anna as she stood and shook her hair. I wondered if she had bugs in it. “I can read Sarah's with some effort, but his” – here, she indicated me – “might as well be written like that of Norden.”

“And I must work at mine to make it legible,” said Sarah. “Gabriel's handwriting tends to be easily read, and he only need write it once, not twice as I must do should I desire it to be as legible as is possible.”

The balance of the cleaning done, we began ferrying what remained of the tools that had come from elsewhere to their former places. Dinner, I surmised, would be a hurried matter, at least until I saw just how much of the sun's light yet remained to the day. Sundown would be at least another hour, and we did not wish to leave until some time after the sun dropped.

“Then why did Hans speak as he did?” I asked.

“First, all of those people that are going needed to get ready for a serious journey,” said the soft voice, “and that meant food, water, grain, beer, and their weapons, as well as a hurried pulling of wheels and then greasing with the stuff Hans brought them. Then, they need to get in column and travel.”

“Not the 'long way',” I thought morosely. “He didn't tell them to go that way, did he?”

“He was tempted sorely to do that, as that's the only route most of them know,” said the soft voice. “He drew out his usual route, which will not merely save them time, but is not currently being watched.”

I had the impression that normally it was watched, at least at certain places, and was about to ask when I heard, “you're right, normally it would be. The witches in this area are so low on manpower, especially now, that the only roads that are being watched around here are those in plain sight of the house proper and that section of Hallstraat in front of the hall itself.”

“And in that field he spoke of?” I asked.

“That area isn't being watched right now,” said the soft voice. “The witches, between intense crowding in their quarters and the slow-boiling squabbles for leadership that are now being forced into a full and violent boiling, are almost entirely looking inward.”

“So those farmers won't be noticed until they start shooting, I hope,” I murmured.

“Hans told them to think as if they were stalking elk during the winter,” said the soft voice, “which means, at least to those who are going, that they will make what efforts they can to be quiet until he or someone else blows the whistle.”

“But that whistle looks to be worthless.”

“You've not heard Sarah whistle yet,” said the soft voice. “Not only is that thing of Hans' about to fall apart from old age, but it's not nearly as loud as Sarah's whistle – or Lukas', for that matter. Both of those people can whistle.”