The iron-smelting furnace, and other fables...”

The trowel-torment did not cease until nearly an hour before sundown, and during that time we busied ourselves with 'laundry soap'. Anna had secured a large copper pot – it had those awful fifteen-line rivets for its cast-brass handles, but otherwise it looked workable – that had been recently relined with tin, and as she used that one infernally dull knife to chop up the bars into lumps the size of finger joints, I wondered just what I could do.

“Other than possibly check on matters regarding that soap,” said the soft voice, “I would rest as much as I could today and tomorrow. Anna's going to want wood on the rest-day, and she wants both buggies going, so you'll have your hands full then.”

The last weekend had seemed to have 'gone somewhere', what with the labor involved with Frankie; I had worked much of the 'rest-day' upon homework involving the engine and blower backing plate, and had visited the shop both days for a while, either to do heat-treating or forging of some kind. Now, I could rest from Frankie, pigs, and witches; and I suspected I needed to.

“You do,” said the soft voice, and I took that as the command it was.

Yawning, I went to bed, where I slept the entire balance of the time until dinner. That was a most peculiar time, for while Anna usually had but one pot of soup, this time she had the usual 'soup pot' going, and another pot on the rear of the stove. I lifted its lid, and noted a clear white slow-boiling substance with a faint odor. It was, I could tell, not wise to taste it, much less think of it as food.

“That is soap, not soup,” said Anna with a possible tone of reproach to her voice, “and I doubt much that you would find it preferable to what I have in the other pot.”

“Yes, because soap is not food,” said Hans. “Now we can put that stuff out to dry tonight, as those carpenters brought over the soap-boxes while you were asleep.”

Again, I needed nothing more than food, the privy, and bed, and after checking downstairs to see if I could help, Anna all but shooed me upstairs after dosing me once more with the widow's tincture. I went to bed almost immediately, and only awoke during the night to visit the privy.

The next day, however, I was more than a little surprised by midafternoon, for I had thought I would be 'rested up' by then. Instead, I was still severely fatigued, and again, sleep, food, privy-visits, and the widow's tincture were what I got – as well as Anna's comments about not getting enough sleep finally catching up with me.

“Yes, and tomorrow we will want wood,” said Hans, “as we are nearly out of that stuff, and it is time to start stacking it up again.”

Hans was not exaggerating, for while the two of them had gone wooding when possible in recent days, that wasn't nearly often enough to keep the house warm enough to suit Anna unless she dipped into that vast-seeming mound of wood we had stacked last fall. That mound had finally reached its end, and hence we needed entire buggy-loads of wood. I suspected Anna wanted another such mound, and that quickly. It was still quite cold at night, and while I found it tolerable – I'd always tolerated cold comparatively well – I now knew Anna needed warmth to sleep well. I wondered if she had a thyroid problem like I had had where I came from.

“And fresh meat,” I then thought with a yawn. “Now I wonder what 'game animals' are out this early?”

Hans led our party southward but slightly after sunrise, and while I sat guard in the back of the buggy, I thought to myself. Frankie was visible from the front of the shop as we passed the place, but in the very back of the yard, its ragged bulk part-hidden behind the south watering trough, I noted a rust-dotted mound of metal. Its presence, while not dangerous, seemed peculiar, and I asked Sarah what it was.

“I think that is the beginning of the scrap-subscription,” she said without turning. I suspected she had not had enough beer that morning, and I lifted up the jug that was sitting beside me so as to put it on the seat. I hoped she would 'see' it and make the connection. “I heard that Hendrik has been working on getting one printed, but the house printing equipment is both very old and very bad.”

“Old?” I asked. Sarah had not noticed what was sitting beside her yet.

“It was old when the house was built, supposedly,” said Sarah, “and when that type of printing equipment and type is that old, only careful printers can produce documents fit to read. The usual is to use such paper for starting fires, as the printing looks to be written in witch-scribbling then.”

“The screw is worn?” I asked. I had the picture of Gutenberg's original press in mind, for some reason – and the pictures I had seen implied a screw of titanic proportions and wood construction.

“Those things do not use screws,” said Sarah, “and I know of no printing press that does.” A brief pause, then a question. She still had not noticed the jug, and I wondered why. I was about to speak of it when she said, “does Hans know where the wood is to be found?”

“Does he?” I asked. I then caught the smell of that one clearing as it overwrought the soft warm smell of spring, and nearly choked on my breakfast as it tried to escape from my mouth. I needed a rag, and I scrambled to find one – and only when I had it to hand did I speak.

“N-no, not that clearing, please,” I gasped as I heard clearly the sound of a razor-edged sword slicing cleanly through the torso of a witch. “Hans, please, turn right before...”

Sarah didn't wait for Hans, who had gone past the turnoff I'd indicated as if he'd stuffed 'boogers' up his nose; she let out a piercing whistle that rattled my tormented brain, then 'hawed' her team such that the buggy lifted its inside wheels briefly as she turned sharply onto that narrow path we had taken when dealing with that one witch-controlled village. I could hear Hans 'backing and filling' while muttering about something indecipherable, and when the road finally widened out enough that the two buggies were running side by side at a decent pace – for the larger buggy; Sarah's horses were restive, and they wanted to go faster – Anna asked, “is this a woodlot you found?” She was speaking to me.

“N-no,” said Sarah between attempts to not spew. She had a rag in hand just in case, just like me. “The smell of that clearing makes me sick, and I think it makes him want to spew.”

“Uh, do you want wood?” I asked.

Anna looked at me as if I lost my mind, and I wondered for a second if she was correct in her assessment. “Why, do you know of a place?”

“About two miles from here down this road,” I muttered. “Those people working on the Abbey have gone to every place within five miles and cleaned the woodlots out of drop-wood.”

“Yes, which is why I went this way,” said Hans, “and I usually go north, not south and west.”

“You stayed clear of this area because of those witches, right?” I asked.

Anna thought for a second, then said, “not merely that. I think Hans has his favorite places to get wood, and now you said those places don't have any.”

“Not just him, Anna,” said Hans. “There's a lot of talk that way, as there are more than just stone-wagons going up the road. There are masons, too, and some of those people talk like they are from the fourth kingdom.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Those people will show people from around here how to work.”

“They'll have some trouble, I suspect,” I murmured. “How many people are up there right now?”

“A lot of them,” said Hans. “I have not gone by that place to count them, and talk has it that some are coming from all over as they learn about it.” A brief pause, then, “and then, Hendrik has told them of the plans for the place.”

“Plans?” I asked. I'd had no idea that such plans existed, and hearing of such plans gladdened my heart. I did not relish the torment of coming up with plans for a 'humble cottage', much less a building fit for a truly big hospital.

“They are really old,” said Hans. “I have seen those things, and they look as old as they were part of an old tale.”

“They are that old,” said Sarah. Her voice had a peculiarly strident edge, and I felt inclined to force some beer upon her. I wondered if she suffered from hypoglycemia. “What he showed you was a copy, Hans – a copy older than the house proper. The original is on a tapestry, and had I my notes, I could speak of it at length.”

“That one place with the itchy clothing and too-public bathing, right?” I asked.

“No, this was in a monk-house about twenty miles north of the west school,” said Sarah. “Hendrik said he saw the originals during his time, which is how he knew what that copy was.” A brief pause, then, “and I've seen but one person with worse handwriting than what is on that drawing.”

“Mine?” I asked.

Sarah turned around and looked at me, then said, “your drawings are better, though these are nearly as clear for directions. I can understand them, and I'm no mason.” She then paused, and asked me with her eyes, 'what gives with this jug'?

“I would not be so certain of that,” said Anna. “Those people could not lay stone before you spoke to them, and everyone's talking about what they've done.”

“What?” I asked.

“Be glad you slept then,” said Anna, “as they were singing, just as I thought they would do, and I had to dose a fair number of people in town so they did not wish to live in a rest house. Then they also spoke of that blower.”

“Yes, and what did they say about that thing?” asked Hans. I wondered if he compared it to one of those fifth kingdom horrors.

“They might have said it looked strange,” said Sarah, “but they said it would most likely work very well. It had the right size for its rotating parts, and the blower housing was the right size and shape for that size of furnace.”

“Wasn't one of those people helping running one of those things?” said Anna.

“He wasn't just helping with a furnace like that,” said Sarah archly. “He was the gaffer.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“He was in charge of a crew of eight men in this 'town' I cannot name,” said Sarah, “and while he might speak the language here poorly as of yet, I knew enough of his language to make up for what he could not say clearly. I'm glad you have as many ledgers as you do, as I think I could nearly fill one of them with what I could get out of that man had I the time and he the inclination to speak on such matters.”

“Uh, tools?” I asked.

“I asked him all I could after I spoke of how stone was laid to those three,” said Sarah. “They seemed to learn that quickly enough that I wanted to look at their toes.” Sarah then turned to me, cup in hand, then asked, “is this beer?”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. It seemed a very appropriate tone, as Sarah looked distinctly 'sweaty'. “At least two of those smaller cups now, and another cup every short while until you, uh, feel better.”

Sarah looked at me strangely, but did as she was told – and midway through the second cup, thirst found her and she began guzzling the stuff as if parched. After about eight cups, she gasped, “was I cursed? I'm myself again.”

“No, dear,” I said soothingly. Hypoglycemia could make one feel very strange and most irritable. “I think you need to make certain you eat often enough that your brain does not starve. I've had that condition...”

“You still have that condition,” said the soft voice, “and so does she, though to a lesser degree. Anna has thought to tube her on more than one occasion lately.”

“What?” screeched Sarah.

“You nearly had a fit once,” said Anna. “Remember that time you came here all dirty and smelling of distillate?”

“Y-yes?” said Sarah. “I was shivering and cold, because my clothing was ruined, and I felt awful from that distillate.”

“It was more than nearly being ended on a burn-pile,” said Anna. “I've heard Tam never goes anywhere without food, and Esther needs to do the same. I've had to tube her more than once so she did not die.”

“And Andreas is never far from either food or a beer jug,” I murmured softly. I then made the connection, and in my thoughts, “what, are all marked people prone to hypoglycemia?”

While there was no answer, I did see a definite pattern, and it made for steady rumination when I wasn't giving directions to the woodlot in question. We'd passed several of them, and I could feel their 'barrenness', at least regarding drop-wood. They had regular 'gleanings' happening to them, unlike this place ahead of us.

“Is there a charcoal-burner in the area?” I asked.

“Yes, about three miles west of here,” said Hans. “Why, is that why you went by those places?” The implicit statement in Hans' tone was 'they looked likely' – and again, I wondered just how I knew this beyond 'an unusual means that most likely involves God at some level'.

The woodlot was but another mile past our last episode of speech, and we drove then in silence save for my soft directions to Sarah. There was a branching road that curved to the right, and as Sarah drove down this narrow track – I wondered if the larger buggy could cope with it – she commented upon how little it had been used. She then saw the woodlot I'd 'felt' some half-mile away.

“That place looks as likely as anywhere I have seen recently,” she said. “I would ride money on some charcoal-burners gathering wood out of those places we passed, and that regularly.”

“They do,” I murmured. “For some reason, this place isn't somewhere they go to.”

The path led within perhaps a hundred feet of the woodlot, and at its nearest point, I dismounted so as to find 'firm ground'. I began walking with Sarah following me on foot leading her team – and in the rear, I heard Anna's voice acquire a sharp tone as she spoke to Hans. He wanted to 'drive in', and Anna wished to do as Sarah was now doing. That 'argument' ended almost as quickly as it started, thankfully, and when I stopped at the edge of the woodlot and began walking about so as to test the ground for 'parking', I noted Anna staying carefully in Sarah's tracks, almost as if the ground elsewhere were 'quicksand'.

As Anna brought up her buggy by Sarah's in the place I had indicated, the 'dead' argument suddenly resumed with Hans sullenly questioning 'Anna'. “Yes, and how will we get out?”

“The way we went in,” said Sarah matter-of-factly. “That ground we went over was firm enough, as I could feel it with my shoes on. I did not need to take them off.”

Hans seemed unsatisfied, or so it seemed, and as I went into the trees, I gasped in astonishment. The ground was covered with sticks, most of them a bit thicker than my thumb for diameter and between eighteen inches and four feet in length – and snapping one in my hands spoke of its brittle dryness. These sticks were perfect for firewood.

“This place has had no one in it in a long time,” muttered Hans. “No one goes here.”

“That's good, though,” said Anna, as she gathered sticks to form a smallish armload. “There's a lot of drop-wood here.”

“This is some of the best wood I have seen this year,” said Sarah. She was gathering her own armload, and I could tell she wanted a hatchet like mine. I could picture clearly the equivalent tool in my mind, even if I had completely forgotten its proper name beyond the 'hatchet' portion. “Why, is this a bad place, Hans? I have my pistol with me, and I know Anna has hers in her satchel.”

“Anna has a satchel?” I thought. I then saw the thing, and its inspiration was obvious to me; Sarah had copied that wine-bottle carrier for shape and trimmed it two inches for height and depth. It somehow seemed 'perfect' for casual carry of 'medical' supplies, and it reminded me of another satchel that Anna really needed. I would speak to those leather people at the house proper the next chance I had.

Hans, however, had no answer; and his seemingly 'taken-over' behavior gave me the thought that he might be once more harboring a well-hid fetish. As I brought out my hatchet – I'd dumped my wood-load, and was about to cut the longer pieces up into the roughly foot-long pieces desired for stove-wood – I turned toward the east. There, but a short distance away, I saw clearly obvious ruins, these being greatly time-worn and all but overgrown by tall and unusually thin-looking trees.

“Did I lead us on top of a buried witch-hole?” I asked. My voice reeked of embarrassment at being the cause of the trouble.

“Yes, but no witch has used it in a very long time,” said the soft voice.

“Is it affecting Hans?” I asked.

“No, but he is not getting his way, either,” said the soft voice. “He expected to go much further south and spend half a day wandering around out in the country, and he's not had a decent chance to 'wander around' since late last year. Hence he is irritated.”

“Do we have time to do that?” I asked. I was prepared to give Hans his inclination once we had enough wood to satisfy Anna, as I was inclined that way also. I needed to 'get out' and 'smell the heather' or whatever this place had for flowers; and if I found some, I now needed two bunches: one for Anna, and another for Sarah. Both women needed flowers badly – and that because they were women.

“You do, but spending half a day that way today isn't a good idea,” said the soft voice. “That soap will be cured enough to cut into 'bricks' by the time you've gotten home with this wood, and you can sell some of it on Monday, if not sooner.”

“Don't tell me – Anna's needing money.” I thought. This wasn't pin-money, but 'food money'.

“No, but she wants clean clothing so bad she can almost scream,” said the soft voice, “and you do not want Anna to be in a mood for screaming.”

I looked at Anna for a moment, and as she straightened up with another armload, I could almost see small metal signs showing in stark white with black block letters upon her clothing. I wanted to call one of the little tin things and its label 'tattletale gray', but that would be speaking well of a bad situation. More, it was not merely the color. It was the feel that was 'getting to Anna' – and what I had heard was but the smell of the mule. I did not wish to endure the mule itself, and that came out in my next speech as I began piling the cut wood in Sarah's buggy.

“That stuff feels about as good as starched underwear, doesn't it?” I muttered.

“How did you know?” asked Anna. “I've not bought underclothing in a very long time, and this stuff is really getting to me.”

“Not its appearance, right?” I asked. “Really, uh, itchy, and, uh... Almost like it's crawling with these, uh, bugs?” I wondered if Anna had ever endured that 'crawling-with-bugs' feeling on her skin.

Anna nodded, then said, “those bugs are rare up here. I've but seen a few of them.” A brief pause, then, “they are not rare to the south.”

“Yes, if you are not a witch,” said Sarah. “Every witch wearing black-cloth has clothes-bugs in his clothing, and not bathing on a daily basis causes them to be most-troublesome.”

“Lice?” I thought.

“These bugs are not those things you were thinking of,” said Sarah. “I suspect those to be worse, and I am most glad we do not have those bugs here.”

“Correct as to quantity and seriously deficient as to quality,” said the soft voice. “Clothes-bugs are not lice.”

“What are they, then?” asked Sarah

“Think of an insect that is a very small and hard-to-see version of a witch-bred biter, with the sickness-causing capacity of those insects that swarm in the Graaepensaan rift,” said the soft voice, “then, added to that, the 'hardness' of Death Adders, and you would get a rough approximation of what that place calls 'lice'.”

“Hardness?” I asked.

“Death Adders are not easy to kill,” said Sarah, “and I have pounded on enough of those snakes to know how they are.”

“Pounded?” I asked.

“I would have preferred the use of a fowling piece, but gunfire in the mining country tends to draw thugs should they hear it,” said Sarah, “and I did not want those people to learn of my presence. Hence I needed to deal with those snakes quietly.”

“Are they, uh, fast?” I asked. Gabriel – and others during that trip south – had implied that to be the case.

“Yes, if you do not pound on them properly,” said Sarah. “I had a jointed staff with a forged iron tip made specially for me, and that usually settled them quickly if I saw the snake before it saw me.”

“Iron tip?” I asked.

“It was a bit broad for use as a spear,” said Sarah, “but if you turned it the right way when you thumped the snake, you could usually get gray mush on the spiked part.”

“That sounds like you killed the snake,” I said.

“No, those things will get over such blows in time,” said Sarah. “If you want to ensure the death of a Death Adder, you must cut the snake into three pieces, and then burn each piece to ash in its own distillate-fueled fire – or so I was told by a lecturer.” A brief pause, then, “I think that man got his information from an old tale, actually, as they are not that hard to kill.”

“What does it take to do that?” I asked. We'd filled the larger buggy to within an inch of the top of its side-boards with cut and stacked wood – I had my hatchet, but both axes had been packed by Hans and both Anna and Hans were carrying one – and we were now working on part-filling the smaller buggy, which I had but slightly filled already with my own hatchet-cut wood. I suspected we'd be leaving within minutes.

“A fowling piece with stiff shot at a range of ten paces or less,” said Sarah, “though a short musket like those you did for the house will work also if you hit the snake in the head with what those things are usually loaded with.” I wondered: did someone test-fire them and reload them with something else? Did Sarah know what I'd loaded them with – or was she speaking of Death Adders needing more than one such load of shot?

“What happens then?” I asked.

“The snake has no head left,” said Hans. “I have shot two of those things, and common shot just makes them angry unless you are close enough to put soot on them.”

“A number one musket?” I asked.

“No, one like Paul has for shooting pigs and quolls,” said Hans. “It was about due for tossing, is what I think, as it had a worn barrel that was loose everywhere except in one place about three hands down from the muzzle.”

“Or cleaning up like I've done with muskets in the past,” I said.

“Georg has been getting lots of orders for those things,” said Hans, “and I think he is going to bring up some barrels from the fourth kingdom, as he found out where Maria got those three.” A brief pause, then, “and I think those orders are going to want locks for thimbles. I know you have patterns for both types, but the thimble version is much quicker for you to make.”

I led out of the field but minutes later, my steps upon firm ground the entire way; and once back on the road, I took my seat among the wood in Sarah's buggy. I barely had enough space left to sit comfortably next to my jug, and as Sarah led off, I looked around at the country. It was still 'early' spring in places, though that was fading fast; there was no splop whatsoever left upon the roads, but rather the beginnings of dust as the ridges left months ago by wide iron tires wore down to make it; and finally, the chill that made for a desire for warm underclothing of a morning was finally starting to leave. A glance at the sun spoke of it still being 'early' morning.

“About an hour before the morning guzzle, I'd guess,” I thought, as we continued on our curving east-northeast path. Sarah knew the way back without much help on my part, or so I suspected. “We should get back about that time.”

After unloading the wood – both buggies in the rear area at the same time, with all of us unloading and then stacking the wood in the beginnings of another horseshoe-shaped 'mound' which then received a sheet to cover it – I asked, “wooding again this next week?”

“I think that is wise,” said Anna, “as that trip across the sea is quite soon, or so Maria told me.”

“That Abbey place is first, though,” said Hans, “and then that new crop of guards needs to find their beds and get used to things before that.”

“And Frankie must run, also,” I murmured. “He needs to run twice, actually – once to learn how he'll behave in actual practice, and then another time, to, uh, cast some important things.”

“Yes, and what would those be?” asked Hans.

“Uh, parts for a lathe,” I said. “One for turning metal.”

“You will need overheads for that, as no marmot can pull such a thing,” said Hans, “and if you tried to run one of those things in town here, it would find itself in a stew-pot inside of two days.”

“And I would be one of those seeking to put it there,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how Anna endures marmot-powered lathes, but I suspect...”

Anna was looking at Sarah while shaking her head. “Marmots are decent in stew and trouble if they are in your cabbage-fields, but I have no words for those things on Houtlaan.”

“Not even oaths?” I asked.

“I stay well clear of that place,” said Anna. “I've only heard a marmot running a lathe once in Houtlaan, and it was so horrible for noise I wanted a sick-headache.”

I took a look at the slow-hardening soap bars later that afternoon as an intermission from 'homework', and I found that as I riveted and then 'cooked' the three measurers, I had an intermittent audience. A heating lamp served as a tin-melter with the lining portion of the business done outside over a larger and turned-up example, then once I had both powder-funnels and the largest of the measurers done, I cleaned them up in water, dried them with a rag, and went downstairs to present them to Hans.

He was busy with the purification of lye, and his largest commonly-used beaker sat cooking with an easy half-pound of the smelly nausea-inducing stuff, or so I thought until he told me it was potash.

“I will need more of that stuff at this rate, and that soon,” he said. “Now what is it you want?”

“Here,” I said with a flourish as I showed what was in my hands. “Two powder-funnels, and a tinned brass measurer.”

Hans 'dropped everything' – including his jaw – and picked up first one of the funnels, and then the measurer itself. Its small neat rivets, its shining tin-lined interior with ten 'marks' showing the quantity, its gleaming brass exterior – all of these things were causing his mind to overload and his eyes to bulge, and as he turned and looked ready to shout, I clapped my hands over his mouth.

“No, no shouting, please,” I said. “I'll have Anna's finished in about half an hour, and Sarah's a bit later still. This one is for you to use, as it's the biggest one.”

I had just about finished the rivets for Anna's measurer when I heard a deranged-sounding scream. It was a woman's scream, obviously, but when Anna shot up the stairs at lightning speed with Hans' measurer, I caught her gently and said, “just another few minutes, dear, and you'll have one of your very own. That one's for filling witch-jugs – and Hans needs to stock up on those things.

“Why?” asked Anna. “He's got nearly twice what he usually has for this time of year.”

“Because this might not be the season of the witch,” I muttered, “but there will be enough of those stinkers showing two months from now to want a lot of such jugs.”

“What, from Norden?” asked Anna.

“That place also,” I muttered. My speech was sounding dark indeed. “I've got a late posting tonight, I want to finish those two measurers and some other few things, and then I need to get a nap before I go.”

What I did not speak of was the need of more exploring in the house proper, this on the below-ground levels of the house. There were 'secrets' in those places, and when I had finished both measurers – Anna was overjoyed, while Sarah looked askance at hers, but bagged it up anyway in her old sewing bag, saying, “I'm glad I'm working on a new one of these, as I'm thinking I'll need to imitate Pump a lot in the days to come” – I cleaned up my mess, did some minor 'maintenance' with the usual oily rag upon my tools, visited the privy, and then went to bed – and this in my bed, and not on the couch.

I woke up sometime later with a strange tickling sensation brushing quickly against the bottom of my foot, which sent me leaping out of bed to collide with the nearest wall in a crumpled heap.

“Sarah?” I asked softly. I was hoping she was the tickler. No answer.

I went downstairs, now wary of other possibilities, and at the bottom of the stairs, I listened. Nothing. I went to the basement stairwell, still wary, and found no one present save Hans. He was still boiling potash, though the three large steaming bowls he had setting out spoke of gathering crystals from their contents soon.

“Where did she go?” I asked.

“Both of them went on errands,” said Hans. “Anna is out after a bag full of soap, and Sarah says she knows where she can get some good lye. I would like to know how she knows that, as good lye is hard to find up here.”

“Potash?” I asked. “Niter?”

“We still have that one keg of niter,” said Hans, “but I will want to get another one of those things when we go south to that market. Potash, that I can get up here easy, but it is bad stuff and needs a lot of cleaning, and I do not want to do soap and nothing else all the time.”

“And neither woman has time for it, either,” I muttered.

“No, that is not true,” said Hans. “The part that takes all the time is cleaning those three chemicals. If you get decent soap, then that part is like cutting up carrots or potatoes, and then boiling the stuff is like soup, only easier, as it needs less watching and it is not likely to burn. Then, you pour it out, let it set, cut it in pieces with that one bad knife, and stack it up for airing out so it dries.”

“And sell three such 'bricks' for two guilders,” I muttered. “Twenty guilders a week easy.”

“Yes, in Roos,” said the soft voice, “and that's if you sell it cheaply. A more realistic price is a guilder a 'brick' – presuming your 'bricks' are decent-sized.”

“So that is thirty guilders a week if we stick to selling in town,” said Hans. “That is decent money for most families.”

“Yes, but your raw materials,” I said.

“Those are not that bad,” said Hans. “That price you spoke of would give us five to seven guilders of profit from each such batch.”

“Which is why you want to charge a guilder a brick,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to run three batches a week to 'float' the house properly at that price.”

“That is a lot of money,” said Hans worriedly. “It might get me in trouble.”

“No, it won't,” I said. “First, let Anna handle it...” I slapped my head, then spat, “Hans, how often does Anna use old rags for bandage cloth when she should use new stuff – and that washed first in that soap with the herbs in it?”

“We do that a lot,” said Hans. “Why, is it bad? That is the softest stuff.”

“It also introduces infection into severe wounds, and it makes for difficult-to-change dressings,” said the soft voice. “There are other needs that are being shortchanged around this household that should not be, and that's just for medical matters. You need more and better tools, and Sarah needs a proper workroom, and Anna needs decent yarn and real knitting needles, for starters.”

“What are those things?” asked Hans. He seemed to have not heard everything, or so I guessed.

“More medical instruments, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “I would check at that good secondhand store within the next week once you sell that first batch of soap, and get Anna the rest of those special medical tools.”

“That isn't all they have, either,” I muttered. “There's another soap-kettle, only this one's almost big enough for Sarah to hide in and sturdy enough to for her to stand on and not mash it.”

“Yes, and we do not have anyplace to put such a thing,” said Hans.

“Uh, I doubt that,” I said softly. “Perhaps Sarah can speak nicely to those masons, and they can, uh, do some modifications to our bathroom oven? Such that it can accommodate a real washtub?”

“I would wait upon that aspect,” said the soft voice, “but I would not merely get that kettle, but keep such an arrangement clearly in mind. More, I would look carefully for that grinder when you go there.”

“What is this?” asked Hans.

“First, it's rather old, so it needs cleaning and refurbishment,” I said.

“No, just cleaning,” said the soft voice. “I'd have Hans do most of the cleaning, though, as it has torment-grease on it.” A brief pause, then, “and you know what that means, don't you?”

“Yes, no one will want it, as it is nasty and sticky,” said Hans. “Why should we get it?”

“For soap, Hans,” I said. “I had no idea either firm made such equipment, but this thing was either made by the Heinrich works or Machalaat, and...”

“That means it is a good one,” said Hans. “Now how is it used?”

“Put the long skinny bars of soap in the hopper, turn the crank, and out comes...” I paused, then asked, “what was this used for originally?”

“Grinding bars of soap for a fourth kingdom laundry that went out of business about thirty years ago,” said the soft voice. “It was their 'ready spare' and had been freshly overhauled when the place's assets were sold – and it's the best of the four they had, as it's a Heinrich machine.”

“Fourth kingdom laundry?” I asked.

“Yes, for clothes-washing,” said Hans. “They have places that do that down there, and no place I have ever seen has more steam than they do.”

“Steam?” I asked. “Do they boil the clothing?”

“I am not sure what they do in those places,” said Hans, “but it involves a lot of steam, a lot of pipes, these big vats, and these strange things that go up and down and side to side, and spew steam all over.” Hans reached for a piece of paper, then began drawing; and as I watched, I became more and more enthralled. I was so much so that I did not notice the presence of Sarah until she was at my elbow.

“They will not want such things up here, Hans,” said Sarah. “They might wish that soap, and that such that we are awash in that stuff for boiling it, but they will not desire such equipment – at least, not yet.” A pause, this to drink and then belch demurely, then, “this winter should cure them of much of their desire for dirty clothing.” Another pause, then, “and I found that lye, also.”

“Why, will the winter be especially dirty?” I asked, as I followed Sarah so as to retrieve the lye.

There was no speech from Sarah, save involving the lye and its likely nature; and when I found out what she had gotten, I gasped. There were no less than six sizable crocks of lye, each one hefty enough to make me fear for the safety of either woman were they of a mind to pick them up, and as I picked up one of them, Hans came to the door. He seemed to have a question, and as he picked up one of the crocks, he muttered something about dirty weather meaning dirty clothing, and vice-versa.

“I am not certain how this winter will be, beyond it involves becoming as dirty as someone out of an old tale,” said Sarah. “You've not heard of that tale called 'The Turnip-Farmer', have you?”

“No, because he has not had time to read those things, and I have not had time either,” said Hans as we began going down the steps into the basement. Sarah had easily gotten two hundred pounds of 'number one purified lye' – and if I went by what I was feeling about the stuff in my crock, that label was justified. It just might be possible to use it straight from the crock. Hans then interrupted my thoughts. “Now what is this tale?”

“You've heard of the expression 'dirty as a turnip farmer', have you?” asked Sarah shyly. “It comes from that tale, and dirty – ugh! That farmer could have taught swine how to be dirty.”

We were on our second trip with the lye when the 'saga' of the 'filthy farmer' resumed:

“Mostly because he did just that,” said the soft voice, “and that 'farmer' was a farmer in name only. He was actually a high-ranking witch prior to the war, and as part of training animals for war-duty, he taught them the art of camouflage – and that regarding all of the senses people have.”

“Hence Iron pigs commonly wallow in mud when and where they can,” I murmured. “It makes them much harder to see, and it, uh, kills their horrible smell.”

“The stink more than the lessened visibility,” said the soft voice. “Domestic pigs may smell vile, but the ones from Norden smell so much worse that their stench has alerted people of oncoming trouble early enough to escape with their lives on more than a few occasions.”

“Yes, me also,” said Sarah, as we reached the buggy for the last of the two crocks. “One always wants to mind one's nose in the potato country, as that's often the first warning of swine in that place.”

Dinner came, and before it, Anna's testing of the soap for 'using'; and that evening, the bathroom was much in use. While Hans did not scrub clothing, everyone else did, or at least tried to do so; and while I did my very best, Sarah looked at my poor results in spite of my most vigorous efforts and said, “I think both of us need one of those fourth kingdom machines, as you do worse at this than I do.”

“Yes, with common soap,” said Anna. “I suspect this stuff is so much better that even those who have great trouble with clothing can do passably at the least.”

The truth manifested with the rinsing: Anna was stunned, Sarah was speechless – and I... I had no words at all for what had happened. Calling my previous clothing clean was an utter and complete misnomer, for it had not been clean; it had been labeled as being clean when it was, in truth, filthy. Now, it was indeed clean, and as we began hanging tomorrow's wear so as to dry, I said, “will people mob us when we show with such clothes?”

“If they do, I shall run and hide,” said Sarah. “I still have nightmares about mobs.”

While neither Sarah nor I were bothered – the prevailing talk I heard was 'neither of them can clean anything well' – the same could not be said for Anna. Every woman I saw, from Katje herself to women I did not recognize by sight, was asking Anna as to what she had done to her washing; and when she spoke of special soap...

Sarah and I did not wait for the mob to brew up; we both ran for the door of the church, and neither of us stopped until we were both hiding in a corner of the basement as the sound of the mob outside grew and grew.

“That's bad,” said Sarah as the dull and rumbling roar swelled to shake the ground. “They sound like they will tear the house down.” A brief pause, then, “if this is to happen, then how shall we live?”

“There are plans for you two,” said the soft voice, “and what has just happened will finally and firmly cement those matters firmly in Hendrik's mind.”

“What, that he put us in some strange place?” I asked. I was thinking of the nearest local equivalent of the Tower of London – a place at once outwardly 'grand' to look upon, and inwardly, a rank and raw prison of dismal nature and pestilential illnesses convolved with inedible food and surly guards, these last replete with foul language, nasty looking pole-arms, and clanking key-rings.

“Nothing nearly that bad,” said the soft voice. “I would start bringing down the soap shortly, as Anna is going to be deluged with both money and orders for when she sells all you have.”

I stood first, and I was first to the steps leading upward. Several strides down the hall, and a touch of the bars spoke of their ashy-seeming dryness. I shouldered one 'box', while Sarah picked up another, and as we came to the parlor floor, the door burst open and Hans all but flew into the room. He looked as if he'd just faced a pride of hungry lions and barely escaped with his life.

“There are women out there,” he said, “and they are all screaming for that stuff there. Here, let me have one of those things, as Anna will sell it off faster than she can talk.”

Sarah handed Hans her tray, and I set mine down on the couch; and as we brought down trays three and four, I thought, “wonderful. I feel like a snake-oil salesman.”

“I am not certain if you can get oil out of snakes,” said Sarah, “but this is not like what is common in the fifth kingdom, where they show you one thing and sell you another. This is all from the same batch, and we have all seen it work, and it worked even with the two of us and our poor efforts at cleaning, so it must work at least passably.”

“Yes, it will eat holes in their clothing,” I muttered, “or attract bugging flies, or something. This feels awful.”

“Yes, for you,” said Hans as he came in the front door and saw what we had brought down. The second tray was also empty. “Good, as Anna has already filled one sack of coins and is working on filling another. Now tomorrow, you must work, but I think you should leave the shop early so as to go with me to find those things you were talking about. We will want them bad if this happens much.”

“Yes, if he can post in time,” said Sarah. “When is your post tomorrow?”

“That one is late,” I said. “The day after, we run Frankie for the first time, and then the day after that, that latest crop of guards gets 'turned loose' – and I'm supposed to go to the house then, and that during the second posting.”

“Those people should do better,” said Hans. “Now will you choose any?”

“I hope not,” I asked. “Why, has that nonsense resumed?”

“I am not sure if it has or not,” said Hans amid the strident yells and devilish screeching coming from outside, “but talk had it that Teacher wants it, so it might happen.”

“And Hendrik does not, so it is not very likely,” said Sarah. “Besides, that wretch never arranged that nonsense.”

“Then who did?” I asked. Hans had gone outside with another tray.

“Those smelly Generals,” said Sarah. “I have thought about raiding their rooms, but I am not my cousin, so their locks are closed to me.”

“But not to me,” I murmured. “No, wait a minute – do those people have locks with special pins that demand a key?”

“Yes, which is but one of many reasons you have that key tagged as evidence,” said the soft voice, “and while Andreas prides himself on the potency of his pair of keys, there are locks in the kingdom house that those keys will not open.”

“He has not tried those locks yet?” I asked.

“That, and he does not even know of their existence,” said the soft voice. “Recall how that key has no limits?”

I nodded.

“There isn't a single door that it will not unlock,” said the soft voice. “None.”

I gulped, then gasped. Sarah looked at me, then said, “I want to see that thing.”

“No doors...”

“Both on this planet and elsewhere, and that irrespective of what kind of door you try to open, also,” said the soft voice. “When I said it has no limits, I meant precisely that.

“Elsewhere?” I gasped.

“I suspect that part was given for a very good reason,” said Sarah. “Now if I go by that noise out there, they will want this last tray shortly; and once it sells...”

Hans burst in the door, took the tray from my hands, then rushed outside. The door closed behind him with a bang. I looked at Sarah, then said, “let me fetch it for you, so you can see it.”

“If this is what was written about,” said Sarah, “then you will wish to lay it on a rag, and turn it over for me so I may see both sides. I dare not touch it.”

“Why?” I asked, as I began looking in my workbench. “Oh, what was said about it?”

“The originals had names also,” said Sarah, “and only the witch of that name could use them and live.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “There were a handful of witches that could use such named keys with impunity.”

“Handful?” I asked.

“Here, three,” said the soft voice. “One of them you have 'seen' already, in fact.”

“Th-that d-dark-haired witch?” I gasped.

“Her, another female witch, and one male witch,” said the soft voice. “Given that that male witch had the master key, he more or less controlled all of the others.”

“The other witches?” asked Sarah. I had found the key, and was looking for a rag to lay it on.

“No, the other keys,” said the soft voice. “There were once entire series of such keys, but nearly all of them are either where they belong or no longer accessible to either witch or man.” A brief pause, then, “and that key Koenraad the first gave you was the master key.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped.

“It is where it belongs now,” said the soft voice, “which means what few keys that remain in the hands of witches are now mostly ineffectual curios when it comes to opening doors.” I then opened the bag that contained the key, and laid it out upon the clean cloth rags.

“It does glow,” I gasped, upon seeing the less-than-faint bluish corona of 'fire' surrounding it.

“That is not the same key, but a very close copy of those I read about on that one tapestry,” said Sarah. “There were originally twelve major keys, one master key, and then several ranks of many lesser keys, and that master key was one of the things needed to conjure this thing called Sieve.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Sieve,” said Sarah. Her voice showed more than a trace of fear. “It was said to be a spirit, but even I know that those witches lied.” This was said with an aspect of loathing. “It was described...” Sarah paused, closed her eyes, thought hard, then, “the description of that thing had to be written by a witch in the grip of datramonium, as none of it made any sense to me at all. It had five eyes, this head shaped like a wedge of Essammen cheese...”

The door opened, then Hans showed, followed by Anna. The latter sniffed, then asked, “why is it I smell cheese?”

“I was speaking of cheese,” said Sarah, “and I was trying to describe how these keys were – and that one there is a copy of the master key – at least, it looks like the master key. It is not that key, however, as that key would only speak to a witch.”

“And what does that one do?” asked Hans. The matter seemed obvious to me, at least on a surface level. I then understood there were more than just the single obvious meaning for the word 'door' – and that was where I came from. Here, that word might well have more meanings yet.

“It opens doors,” said Sarah, “though I can think of at least six things that are named doors in the language we speak, and there are at least as many more in other languages that I've heard of and recall too poorly to speak much of.”

“There are more than that, dear – and that key works on all of them.”

“Yes, and it is glowing some,” said Hans.

“I would not touch that one, Hans,” said Anna. “Remember that dream I told you about, about those things which are named? How there would be several of them for him alone, and no one else, save at great risk, could touch them and not die?” A brief pause, then, “that key is one of them. I remember that much.”

“The pendants were all that way,” said Sarah, “and those previous six who had them were in the end devoured by them.”

“Devoured?” I asked. My voice reeked of fear.

“They all turned witch,” said Sarah, “though some turned more that way than others, and in the end, the pendants all sent them to Brimstone where they belonged.” Sarah paused, then said, “at least, that was what one lecturer said, and I'm glad we chased him out of that place quickly.”

“Uh, what did you learn about them in spite of that, uh, lecturer?” I asked. I had almost said 'witch', and was glad I did not, even if my suspicions were strong and Sarah's speaking of what was done to the man all but confirmed matters.

“I was not able to find that writing,” said Sarah, “even though I spent parts of three terms of traipsing and all of my time as a messenger asking who I could about it.” A pause, then, “it is written in the old form of the language used in the first part of the book, so I could not read it if I saw it. You would need to be one of the old Sages of the Chosen to read it with full understanding, and no more of those people live.”

“No, but there is Rachel,” I said, “and it would surprise me greatly if she could not read it.”

“Especially given what her title was to be,” said the soft voice. “She might not be 'an Old Sage', but what she is is not trivial – and she will, one day, receive the entirety of that recognition she is due.”

“Title?” I asked. “Rachel?”

“I am not sure what those terms are in their language,” said Sarah, “nor in ours, but I know that those titles were earned, even more than those who sit in kingdom houses are supposed to earn theirs.”

At lunch, however, the subject of cheese once more returned.

“What is Essammen cheese?” I asked. “Sarah spoke of it.”

All movement at the table ceased; and Anna looked at me in shock. A delicate shade of green began to manifest about her mouth, and as she held her throat with both hands, Hans said, “that stuff smells so bad that it would poison a witch.” Hans then turned to Sarah: “now where is it you heard of this stuff?”

Anna stood, then turned and ran for the privy. There, I heard some strange noises that ended in the 'Urargh-Ptttaaah' of vomiting. She then returned, wiping her mouth, and said weakly, “I tried that stuff once in the fourth kingdom, and I was in the privy for two days and three nights.”

“Is it that bad?” I asked fearfully. I wanted to make certain I did not get close to it.

“It smells horrible,” said Anna, “but it tastes nearly as good as vlai if you can get it past your nose, and I got nearly half of an entire cheese down before I began to feel sick.”

“Entire cheese?” I asked.

“I think that was the trouble,” said Hans, “as those things, once you get the beeswax off of them, are as big around as a Public House dinner plate and as thick as your hand is wide.”

“For a smaller one,” said Sarah.

“And what I got into was not one of those,” said Anna. “I think I must have eaten nearly three pounds of that stuff before it got to me.”

“Perhaps three ounces...”

“If you cook it first,” said the soft voice. “There is a reason that cheese smells as bad as it does, and the bacteria that produce the flavor and 'aroma' also cause an unpleasant species of food poisoning unless the cheese is cooked well enough to kill them.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Only a witch could eat it.”

“Witches do not eat Essammen cheese,” said the soft voice.

“Why is that?” said Hans.

“Because the bacteria in Essammen cheese cause illness in non-witches,” said the soft voice, “but in witches... In witches, it might as well be something developed by Madame Curoue.” A pause, then, “while forty-chain dumps their tripes in the privy in a certain amount of time, Essammen cheese doesn't wait long at all to do that. If they did as Anna did, they would go into a privy and never leave the place alive.”

What?” I asked.

“That is for witches,” said the soft voice. “Now if you dose pigs with it, the effects are even more spectacular.”

“What is that?” asked Hans.

“First, it causes the pig to become severely corked in a matter of minutes due to a species-wide allergic reaction,” said the soft voice, “and then, the conditions are especially good for that bacteria to proliferate.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Pigs that spew at both ends.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “Recall what happens when young horses get too much wet hay – how they become 'bloated'?”

I had heard of the term, but wondered what it meant here.

“That is bad,” said Hans. “I have had to stick those things with knives so they do not burst.”

“That happens much faster with pigs,” said the soft voice. “More, it does strange things to their wind.”

“What does it do?” asked Hans.

“Normal wind from pigs is explosively flammable,” said the soft voice. “Dose them with Essammen cheese, and a small group of pigs is almost as good for exploding as a fully-ripe bottle of doctored Benzina dosed with migraine-inducer.”

“Just the thing to get rid of subterranean witch-holes,” I muttered. “Find El Porko, give him some of that cheese, and run as fast as you can before the place goes to hell.”

The next morning; I worked until just prior to noon, when Hans collected me up and took me home. There, I had but minutes to bathe and get ready for travel, and once out of town, Hans seemed to relax. He was getting his 'much needed' country airing, and as we rode along in the buggy, he asked, “now, what all is in this store?”

“That one grinder, for one thing,” I said, “and then some chemicals, though those have been sitting off in a corner for a while and are covered with dust, and that one big pot, and then some bagged shot...”

“Is this shot decent, or is it bad stuff?”

“Mostly it's bad, though it's entirely lead,” I said. “Best to melt it down, clean it, add some tin and that hardening metal, and then cast a lot of stiff shot with it. Those new guards will want it badly.” I paused to fill my mug, then said, “then, there's some tin...”

“You need a lot of that stuff, especially with all those orders for copperware,” said Hans. “Now is this in old plates, or is it in blocks?”

“Both,” I said, “and the plates are substantially cheaper.”

“Then we should bag some of them up,” said Hans. “ I have a bag for plates with me. Now is there more?”

“Those medical instruments,” I murmured, “though those just came, and are in this large, uh, trunk of some kind. I'm not sure what we can do with the trunk, even if I am sure Anna will want its contents.”

“Yes, and I know who will want that trunk, too,” said Hans. “If it is decent, you might have the carpenters clean it up for Sarah, as she will want one of those things.”

Hans then looked at me and shook his head.

“Her things?” I asked.

“You could put all she has, almost, in a smaller trunk,” said Hans, “and this does not sound like a smaller one, but one like Anna got when the two of us were married.”

“What is in there?”

“In ours?” asked Hans. “I have never seen what is in there, and Anna keeps her own things in it.”

“Then perhaps Sarah would wish something like it?” I asked. I then had a strange train of thought: Sarah did want a trunk, but she had some very odd ideas about what to do with it – something about sawing holes in the side of the thing. In the process of her doing so, however, she got locked inside, and I had to let her out before she had a screaming fit.

“Would she hide in such a trunk?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. “I know Anna did things like that when she was younger.”

“Saw holes in its side?” I asked.

“Now that I can speak about,” said Hans. “Anna has no children yet, but I know of lots of families that do, and what is common for the babies is to do things like that so they can play inside of those things.”

“Holes?” I asked.

“Yes, they crawl inside of there,” said Hans. “I have pulled babies out of the strangest places, and it is bad when a new mother brings them over and they get out of her sight. It has taken Anna and I hours to find them.” Hans paused, then, “and if they had less sense, some of them would go up in smoke.”

“How?” I asked.

“I have heard of babies crawling into almost everything,” said Hans, “but I have yet to see one go down a privy-stool or into an oven.” Hans then thought for a moment, then said, “although the strangest one was when my aunt's twins got loose and got out into the pasture.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They had several yoke of bulls out there,” said Hans, “and I have seen dogs do this, but never bulls – at least, I had not seen them do it before that day. I have seen it happen more times since.”

“What?” I asked.

“The babies had both gotten out into the pasture,” said Hans, “and those bulls were trying to bring them back to where we could get them.” Hans paused, then said, “but bulls are not like dogs that way, so the best they could do was nudge those children back toward the fence with their noses until we could collect them up.”

“And dogs?” I asked.

“Those usually get the child by its clothing and drag it,” said Hans, “and the same for wolves. I have had more than one orphaned baby brought to the house by wolves.”

“Orphaned?” I asked. “Pigs?”

“Them and those northern people,” said Hans. “A baby might have some sense, but they cannot travel more than a mile or two on their own when they are small, not unless they are born with markings that will get them killed by the first non-marked person who sees them.” Hans paused, then said, “those old tales speak of marked babies traveling twenty miles the day after they were born when their mothers tossed them out like garbage.”

“Twenty miles?” I asked. “How?”

“I am not sure how they would do that,” said Hans, “but those babies most likely had markings that could not be hidden easy, is what I think.” Another pause, then, “I heard that type of baby could walk within hours after being born, and not like a common baby starting out, but walk easy.”

“What?” I gasped.

“How else do you think they covered such distances?” said the soft voice. “In nearly all cases, such children either burned on the altars of sacrifice very quickly, or they developed the instincts of hunted animals.”

We needed a stop for water, beer, and 'oiling', and once back on the road, I recalled what else was out this way.

“Wax candles,” I muttered, “and horse grain, too.”

“Yes, both of those things,” said Hans. “If that horse-grain is decent, then we will want some.”

“It is,” I said. “That one store has their own suppliers, remember?”

Hans slapped his knee at the recollection, and when we finally came to that one second-hand store, I was the first person inside the place. The change in 'feeling' was palpable, and when I squeaked, “the witches are gone!” I heard a faintly echoing answer, then the proprietress showed.

While Hans did 'the usual' for talking and 'gossip', I went in search of the things we needed. The first portion I found was a waist-tall stack of beat-up tin plates, and when I brought one of them to Hans, he continued speaking to the woman – though within minutes, the groaning noises of what sounded like a buggy with conventional axles three years past due for lubricating began to follow me around. I could hear two more people, both of them women, and also a third, though this person was obviously a boy.

“That pot,” I squeaked. “Over here.”

It took Hans some two minutes to find me, and once he'd done so and the 'trolley' was en-route, I left for the grinder. That took another few minutes, and as I looked over the filthy rag-tied bundle, I heard steps coming my way

“I am not sure what he is after now,” said Hans, “but I know enough to let him find what I am after, as it would take me a week's looking to do the same as he does in the turn of a glass.”

“The grinder, Hans,” I said, pointing to the messy-looking thing.

“That just came,” said the woman. “They sold it as scrap metal, and I'm willing to let it go for that. Now you say it is a grinder. For what?”

“Soap,” I said. “It went to a fourth kingdom laundry that went out of business many years ago, and it, uh... Who sold you this?”

“It was left over from an estate sale,” said the woman. “That person was a well-hid witch, and when the pigs came through that place, the seller said it was like the swine had come for gunfire and burning.”

“Estate sale?” I asked. “Well-hid witch?”

“No one suspected that to be the case until the pigs came to his door and wanted inside,” said the woman, “and the talk is that when that happens, that person either is a witch, or wants to be one badly. That town lost five families that day, all of them ending on burn-piles, and when their homes were investigated...”

“That is trouble,” said Hans. “If there are witch-tools in a house, they make people fit to wear brass cones for stupid, and I know about that, as it has happened to me some times.”

“All they had was a lot of money and some very bad drink,” said the woman. “The houses are empty of people now, even if what is left...”

“That is the trouble,” said Hans. “You need someone like him” – here, Hans indicated me – “to go through a house of a suspected witch, as most people will miss witch-tools if those things do not want to be found. That is the way a lot of witch-tools work, is they hide themselves from most people unless they want to ride that person straight to Brimstone's dinner plate.”

“I think that is why those houses have signs on them,” she said. “This one home was different – it was a lot bigger, and a lot darker, and a lot smellier...”

“And the place burned to the ground mysteriously a short time after the first people hauled off these things, didn't it?”

The woman looked at me in shock, gulped, then nodded.

“It was the house of a witch, most likely,” I said, “and that witch's 'friends' did not wish you to have anything that they wanted for their-own-selves. Unfortunately for them, you salvaged some of the most useful things that wretch had stolen before they could do that.” I then heard the 'trolley', and went in search of the trunk.

This took longer, as it was not merely well-hid, but also had things covering it up; more, it was such a recent arrival that the woman barely had any idea of its existence, much less its contents. I tried to move it, and found that I could do so if I worked at it.

“This thing weighs a ton,” I muttered. “What's in it – a superannuated monster of a cannon shell?”

“No, it does not have something to give Anna nightmares,” said the soft voice. “It does, however, have a great many things that will cause her to jump-up-and-down for joy.”

Hearing that gave me a renewed resolve, and I'd gotten the monstrous trunk – easily two feet high, three wide, and more than four long – clear of the surrounding things by the time Hans had found me. It needed both of us to get it onto the trolley; and then once it was in the bed of the buggy, Hans was shaking his head.

“I hope you do not need to walk home,” he said, “as this is a lot for this buggy.”

“Go slowly, take it easy, and I'll lead you through the bad stretches,” I said. “We've got plenty of oil, remember?”

I did not remount until Hans was back out on the road and moving slowly homeward, and when I sat in the thing, he shook his head and indicated that I added too much weight. I knew I wasn't of a mind to walk the whole distance, as while I was not limited to roads, Hans was; and more, I needed to stay close by him. There were still migrating witches heading north and east, and small groups of still-living pigs that were gradually turning feral; more, there were other travelers, these people thinking themselves sufficiently well hidden that they could 'stick around and clean up' in the vacuum left by the vast numbers of dead and departed witches; and finally, there were a few small and secretive bands of spies from Norden.

These last worried me the most, as most black-dressed witches – and all domestic pigs – were not quiet when awake or on the move. Norden's spy-groups, on the other hand, needed ears like mine to hear at any distance.

Hans was about to bid me farewell in hopes of meeting me at or near the house when I said, “no, that's not a good idea. You do not want to be alone, not in this area, and certainly not right now.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“Traveling witch-parties,” I said. “You don't realize just what you've got, don't you?”

“Yes, I do,” said Hans. “I paid fifty guilders for all of this stuff, and...”

I shook my head, then said, “it took three generations of witches to amass that collection of medical gear in that trunk,” I muttered, “and while it's worth a lot more to you than what you paid for it, and a lot more yet to Anna, that's nothing compared to what it's worth to a black-dressed witch.”

“Why, what would those people pay for it?”

“What they paid for it?” I asked. “Don't ask, as I have trouble believing the figure myself.”

Hans was insistent, and when I came to his side – I was still walking, and as I did, I noted the springs still had plenty of room before they would 'reverse' – I whispered, “about eight thousand guilders, give or take a thousand or two.”

“Low by a factor of three and then some,” said the soft voice, “and no, it wasn't three generations of one 'family' of witches. There were five 'families' involved originally, and through a combination of buying, selling, theft, murder, 'consolidation', 'takeovers', 'estate sales' open only to other witches, and other related things over a period of nearly a hundred years, those witches spent enough to run the first kingdom house proper for a ten-year gathering what's in that trunk.”

“Priced as fetishes, of course,” I murmured.

“Some of it, yes,” said the soft voice. “Some pieces were gathered piecemeal by combing a number of shops and markets all over the continent during that time frame and then reassembled by the usual witch-route of dealing with instrument-makers through multiple layers of 'trusted' intermediaries. Some were stolen from legitimate medical practitioners, and not a few things were 'found' by the witches in question themselves or their well-paid underlings in various ruins.”

“Then much of it is junk,” said Hans.

“Some of it looks like junk, and needs minor repairs and cleaning to become usable,” said the soft voice. “A lot of it just needs careful cleaning and lubricating, while a fair percentage of what's in that trunk will clean up enough to use as it currently is if Anna runs it through that pressure pot.”

“Minor repairs?” I asked.

“Mostly replacing missing or broken pieces that you can readily make from scrap pieces of brass or other metals you have,” said the soft voice. “The truly precise parts, with very few exceptions, are either refurbished originals or replacements made by the Heinrich works, while some few parts were made by other sources.”

“Other sources?” I asked.

“The Heinrich works does not make optical assemblies,” said the soft voice.

Optics?” I gasped. “Optics? Optics!”

“What is this word?” asked Hans.

“There's no time to waste,” I muttered as I ran around the back and took my seat beside Hans. “Hans, you can let the buggy break something and run the horses nigh to death, as there's a stinking small-seer in that trunk, and if we don't get that thing into Anna's hands post-haste, she will light both of us on fire!”

Hans needed no urging after that statement, as he jerked the reins and I 'guided' him down the safest roads – which were narrow, convoluted, well-clear of woodlots – and most importantly, not the route we had taken to the store. What we had gotten was of such major importance that not only did we need to get it to Anna – she would need it, or at least want it badly – but also, having it in our possession was a matter of our survival as a kingdom. I looked behind us to see a thin dust trail as we moved along the narrow 'track', and as Hans drove through a deserted-feeling town, I noted he did not bother stop for water.

“Is this like those people drove when we dealt with the hall?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “He's hung out the Red Arrow, and that means it's a matter of someone dying if he's held up for any reason.” A brief pause, then, “and only where the witches have real strength will they contest that matter, as holding up someone driving a vehicle running the Red Arrow, especially in the first kingdom, has a most-dire train of consequences.”

“Hence it is not done,” I thought. “Even desperate witches will think twice about trying for us?”

“A lot more than twice, especially now,” said the soft voice. “Remember, any witches that still live in this area have one matter foremost in their minds: avoiding discovery at all costs until they think themselves out of your reach.”

“Even those from Norden?” I asked.

“More than a few of them have died also in recent days,” said the soft voice. “Still, what you said to Hans is important.”

“Uh, why, will Anna really light us on fire?”

“You may well wish she had done that if she does not get her hands on what's in that trunk,” said the soft voice. “She'll be the best-equipped medical person north of the fourth kingdom house once you and Sarah clean that stuff up – and more, it will cause a big change in both her and Hans' own attitudes.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Their medical capacity takes a quantum leap,” said the soft voice, “and that's going to be important in the next few months, especially given what else is in there besides a fairly good, if very old, microscope.”

“Fairly good?” I asked.

“About equivalent to what you would find in some of the better college laboratories being used by advanced grad students doing thesis research,” said the soft voice. “It is not a toy.”

“What else?” I asked.

“Recall that one place's medicines?” asked the small voice. “There are some of those present in forms suitable for long-term storage,” said the soft voice, “and then all of those special tools she's missing for lead removal as well as some spare parts for them, most of another set of specialized tools for dealing with wounds, parts to several stethoscopes, a complete set of delivery forceps...”

“Oh, my,” I murmured. “She's going to want those.”

“Especially as these are not what you think they are, but a good deal better for the children,” said the soft voice. “Her hands will no longer be tied nearly as badly during deliveries, and between you and Sarah and that book collection downstairs, you can identify those things she and Hans do not understand.”

“Are, there, uh, any...”

I could not figure the name of these things to save my life, even if I had a perfect picture in my mind of what they looked like.

“No, none of those,” said the soft voice. “Those are not currently thought to be suitable fetishes by witches west of the Red mountains – hence they are not currently sold in the five kingdoms, and the witches did not bother looking for them in the slightest.”

The sound of this, however, said that they were most likely available; and any place able to make submarines could easily make this kind of medical tool. I recalled that about them: they were medical tools, and I'd used them many times in the past to administer life-saving medicine.

“Does that place even use those things?” I asked.

I was expecting to hear either no answer whatsoever, or a resounding 'no'; for they had moved beyond such 'crude' devices, unlike where I came from. I was not prepared for what I heard next.

“Ask Anna about that dream,” said the soft voice. “Draw a picture of what you are thinking about, and then show her.”

Hans had to slow down roughly twenty minutes later, as the horses were blowing and lathered, but as I guided him down one side road, I turned to him and said, “that main road is just up ahead. Once we're on that, then we've more or less made it.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“Traffic,” I said. “Remember, witches don't want to be seen right now, and when there are a lot of stone-hauling wagons and buggies, that means people will see them if they try to do much of anything beyond stay out of sight.” I paused, then asked, “the chemicals!”

“I got those things, as well as that shot,” said Hans, “and we have at least ten pounds of tin plates and the same of blocked tin, as I need some of that for bullets and it is smaller than plates for stowing.”

“And other bad shot, also,” I murmured. “Sarah said she knew how to clean that stuff.”

“Yes, she has been doing that outside now and then,” said Hans. “She might not be getting much lead from what she is doing, but that stuff is scarce enough that it is twice the price of what it was last year.”

“That one witch-horde?” I asked.

“Most of it got stolen before I could get a third of what I had coming to me,” said Hans.

“One good thing, then,” I said in 'peculiar' voice. “I know where some of that stuff is hiding.”

“Where is it?” asked Hans.

“Turn here,” I said abruptly, as I indicated another narrow track, this one leading left. I wanted to avoid any difficult terrain for the horses, and to go straight on our current road would make us both need to get out and push – and I now knew why I didn't want to do any more walking than I had to.

“My schedule's full enough as it is,” I thought, “and I do enough walking already.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Your presence in the buggy has saved Hans' life.”

“Were we seen?” I asked silently. I motioned to Hans, and he followed my leading around the potholes as we got up onto the main road. In the far distance, I could see a line of obvious freighting wagons coming at a steady plodding pace, and much closer, I saw two buggies, one behind the other, each with two tired-looking and travel-worn people and horses that looked worse off than ours. They'd come a long way, and were near the end of their journey; and now that we were on a familiar and hard road, our own team had an easier time of it.

“Yes, by two traveling witch-groups,” said the soft voice, “and not merely was Hans recognized, that trunk was also.”

“And they know about its contents?” I asked.

“There are but few legends in witchdom, especially in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice, “but that trunk and its contents are right up with 'the keys of Koenraad' and that dagger you received and sent where it belonged.”

“What was that thing?” I asked.

“Very old, very cursed, and reckoned a fetish beyond price in most circles of witches,” said the soft voice, “and Koenraad the first, while he generally knew the value of fetishes, let that one go at a small fraction of its 'true' worth, much like he did with that key.”

“What did it do?” I asked.

“The original dagger dated from before the war, and was the personal property of a upper-class second-rank witch,” said the soft voice. “Since then, a number of very important witches have had it, including Cardosso himself for several years. It vanished when he died, then turned up again about twenty years before you came – and its presence more or less 'made' Koenraad the first.”

“Made?” I asked. “As in it made him a witch?”

“No, it did not make him become a witch against his will,” said the soft voice, “but once he decided that being a witch looked even the least bit attractive, that dagger was instrumental during the whole process from supplicant to becoming who he was. Had he lived much longer, he would have become 'the Power of the first kingdom', with his 'reach' going south to nearly to the border of the second kingdom and to the sea in all of the other directions.”

“All of that under one witch?” I asked.

“Only two witches would have been higher in the whole of the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “The ranking combine head of the fifth kingdom house, and the ranking witch of the second kingdom.” A brief pause, then, “that copy is a far better weapon than the original, by the way.”

“A dagger?” I asked. The thing was the size of a small sword, at least in my intimation.

“You might try making a few smaller versions for that trip,” said the soft voice, “as well as one each for both Anna and Sarah.”

“Now this is better,” muttered Hans. “That was hard pulling back there, as that place is bad.”

“And the way I led you?”

“It was easier than is usual for that place, but the only way around it is to go this other way,” said Hans. “It is longer, and...”

“You would have run into yet another traveling witch-party,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you got that trunk when you did, as those people were on the way to take that thing by force.”

“Then it is good we have it, and not them,” said Hans.

“Hans, that woman,” I said. “They will kill her and burn the shop down, and then come after us.”

“Not when they meet up with those other witch-groups,” said the soft voice. “They've lost, they know it, and while they would like to burn down that place, they know such a gesture would be very costly at the least.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because that 'shop' was originally built by a miser,” said the soft voice, “and he did not stint the money or iron or mortar or stone when it came to resisting attack by rival witches.”

“Rival witches?” I asked.

“The Swartsburg was young then,” said the soft voice, “and Norden was having a dip in its population, so they were very selective about when and where they raided, hence the local witches feuded with abandon.”

“Norden's people could ill afford casualties then,” I thought.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “They had very few people then able to sail their boats back the return way, as Thinkers were still very scarce, and they had no navigating equipment, unlike now.”

“They have navigating equipment?” I thought.

“The lead boat of a group has a compass, a cork and string for a pit-log, and an hourglass stolen from the mainland,” said the soft voice. “Between those and the current careful selection of 'lead' ship-masters, as well as some significant improvements in their ships, they don't need to row nearly as much as they did then, at least while in the ocean.” A brief pause, then, “they still need to row upriver, as a rule.”

“Lead ship-masters?” I asked.

“Are usually Thinkers,” said the soft voice. “There were thirty 'war' ships in that last invasion, and one smaller and faster ship that guided them to the mouth of the river, and that smaller ship had a picked crew that included one of those individuals.”

“And then what?” I asked.

“They waited a week at one of the island outposts to the west and north, and then went back to their home port,” said the soft voice. “Thinkers only mingle with spams and witches when they must, not by choice, as Ultima Thule thinks they might become stupid by association were they to do otherwise.”

We were coming up on the long trains of stone-hauling wagons by this time, and as we passed them, I counted first four, then five, and finally six such vehicles, all with groaning axles and long teams of sweating horses. I suspected those were not the only ones; there were other such 'wagon trains'.

“That was the second trip for those people today,” said the soft voice. “Construction is due to start as soon as the wall-path is cleared enough and enough skilled 'lead-masons' are present.”

“Fourth kingdom masons?” I asked. This, again, was a silent question. Hans had his hands full with driving, and distracting him now was not a good idea.

“Mostly,” said the soft voice. “There are some genuinely capable masons in the first kingdom that don't act like that one smelly man whose beard you trimmed.”

“They work half the hours those fourth kingdom people do,” I thought.

“While that is true, the fourth kingdom people, once they show in sufficient numbers, will set the tone and pace of labor,” said the soft voice. “The reality is that you haven't seen much yet, as a lot of people are waiting for the Abbey to be cleared of its worms.

“Do they call, uh, dragoons worms up here?” I asked.

“No, but that's not all that's said to live in that place,” said the soft voice. “While most people are mostly in the realm of 'hearsay' and 'rumor' regarding what's there, the tales that are both well-known and applicable speak of the place having Desmonds of truly huge size, among other things that cause trouble.” A pause, then, “there's more to what's in there than the obvious, and that won't be something you can figure on until you're actually on site and getting ready to 'do battle'.”

It was soon 'the last mile', now; and I wondered if I needed to get out and walk. The horses seemed inclined to give out, for some reason, and when I hopped out and began walking, Hans looked at me – and then at the horses. He shook his head, then said, “you might as well save your legs, as they will make it home without you doing that.”

“Yes, but will they be up to working for a few days?”

“I doubt it, but this is not the only buggy that we have,” said Hans. “They can rest for a day or two now, unless something happens that needs us, and this is not the time for children.” A brief pause, then, “besides, if there is a small-seer in that trunk, Anna will not wish to go anywhere for a while, as she will be keeping her eyes on that thing as much as she can.”

“When Sarah isn't trying to use it, that is,” I thought. Sarah actually knew how to use a microscope, for she'd had 'formal training', unlike Anna; and more, Anna's instances of using one had been very few and of short duration.

“Sarah used those things more in a week than Anna did in her whole life,” I spat.

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “Most of what Anna knows about those things is from drawings in her journals, not from using that one that's a whole day away from us in this buggy.”

“Will she be able to use this one?” I asked.

“Yes, though she'll need practice and training,” said the soft voice. “That one she would go to was a toy, unlike this one.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there's the light source.”

“Light source?” I asked.

“It uses a small incandescent light,” said the soft voice. “There are over a dozen spare bulbs remaining for it, three battery packs, and a small hand-cranked charger.”

“Which will need us cranking on it,” I thought.

“Yes, during the winter darkest months,” said the soft voice. “The battery packs have well-protected 'solar panels' built into them, and just leaving them outside on a stool during the day once or twice a week will keep them charged up for an hour or more of use on a daily basis.”

“Those bulbs burn out very often?” I asked.

“Not really,” said the soft voice. “The one in the light source has an easy year's life left, assuming heavy daily use.”

“And we should have something to replace it by the time it burns out,” I murmured.

To my complete surprise, the soft voice said, “both batteries and bulbs came from where you are going on your trip – and they are both common and easy to get, assuming you talk to the right people.” A brief pause, then, “that's the way it is now. It will be quite a bit different by the time you come back here.”