Something Wicked this way Comes...

I was deep into work on the liniment distillery when a shadow came behind me, and for a moment, as I emerged from the concentration needed to rivet the cap of the thing, I wondered if I was being visited by 'The Sand-Man'. I turned around, slowly, achingly – and there saw Sarah, satchel in hand and that one ledger out and open.

“Y-yes?” I asked, as she went silently around me without speaking.

“Good,” she said quietly. “That one's for liniment, isn't it?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. I was too tired to sound soothing, and my parched voice showed it.

“I had heard pouring iron was thirsty,” she said as she brought out her cup, “and I think I knew but the smell of that mule before now.”

“Aye,” said the voice of Lukas as he came in the door of the shop. “Now all of them people what work here are down at the Public House, and they look as if they was slaves being driven hard and fast, and they're drinking like they've been riding mules all night in the mining country.” A pause, then, “I saw the flames o' that thing three miles off, and I heard it further away than that – and that ain't nothing out o' the fifth kingdom for either flame nor noise.”

“Describe it, sir,” said Sarah. I then saw the pencil, its dull end slightly chewed and the other end freshly sharpened.

“First, that flame was tall, like a smelter when the gaffer knows his business and he's running a lot of blast for his fuel,” said Lukas, “and then, almost no smoke, so he got it just right. I've seen fourth kingdom people run iron, those what do it good, and they do well to get close to that kind o' a burn.” Lukas paused, saw a jug, and got out his cup. After filling and part-draining it, he said, “and then, there's that noise.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I began to finally remove the ear-corks. I had relished the quiet so much I had left them inserted, and my work on the still showed my improved concentration. I suspected I routinely wished 'boogers' when doing work of a critical nature.

“How can you hear my talk when you got them things in?” he asked, as I struggled to remove the first one. They'd molded themselves to my ear canal somehow.

“I generally hear very well,” I said, “and it's kept m-me out of trouble...”

“Aye, and a lot of other people, me included,” said Lukas. “So that noise, though – I ain't ever heard anything like it for tone or volume, and nothing – I mean nothing – starts pigs like it does. Nothing.”

“Did you encounter any of those?” asked Sarah.

“Three, and I put lead in two of 'em, so those two are done causing trouble,” said Lukas. “Common pigs, though they need a lot of lead to stop 'em quick, don't need much lead at all if you got the time for 'em to get sick and die – and they ain't common enough to cause much trouble now, same as most witches and them who want to be like 'em.”

“Any witches?” I asked, as I got the second ear-cork out. It had been harder to remove than the first.

“No, and I know why,” said Lukas. “They're scared gray to come in this area unless they either hide really good or are really stupid – and witches that hide good hide their witch-nonsense 'most all the time.”

“The stupid ones are most rare,” said Sarah. “I cannot speak that word that says they are entirely not here, as I can tell...” Here, Sarah closed her eyes for a moment, then said, “there are some few still, though they think themselves especially well hid.”

“That's those I was talking about what hide really good,” said Lukas, “and those people from Norden are like that if they got one o' those smart people with 'em telling 'em what to do.”

“Thinkers?” I gasped. “You know about them?”

“I studied that report that you got,” said Lukas, “and that one's got more in it about those people than everything else I know of put together.” A pause to empty his cup, then, “and what's in that thing don't have any lies. A lot of the stuff that's written about those people in places like the Compendium and some other books is writ by witches, or I'm a rodent.”

“I suspected that,” said Sarah. “I know they did nonsense regarding Kossum's Tinned Meats, as I had to rework their plates between two days.”

“You do that much?” asked Lukas.

“No, because I didn't have many opportunities, and neither did my cousin – and I needed her to unlock that place's doors.”

“Now is she about your height, or a bit taller?” asked Lukas.

Sarah nodded, then said, “her hair is lighter than mine, though it is still darker than the common. I've not seen anyone else with that color of hair – at least, not in the five kingdoms.”

“Works as a jeweler, right?” asked Lukas. “If this is who I think it is, it's easy to misjudge her, as she seems crazy or something – and she ain't crazy.” A pause, then, “that ain't no act, is it?”

“Not with her,” said Sarah, “though I would call her more 'silly' than crazy.” She then turned to me, and said, “much like you are sometimes, in fact.”

“I am?” I asked.

“Only she comes close to being that way,” said Sarah, “though Esther sometimes behaves strangely also, especially should she find dynamite.”

“What does she do?” I asked.

“Same as my cousin does,” said Sarah. “Both of those women scatter every witch they possibly can should they have dynamite, and I know both of them have rigged witch-holes.”

“You set traps for them things, don't you?” asked Lukas.

Sarah nodded, then said, “I've caught witches in them, also.”

Lukas then thought to go outside, and I thought to with him so the slow-cooling iron would not light him on fire. Sarah came along also, though she stayed behind me as if I could block the heat, and when Lukas saw the iron bars laying on the sand in yet-glowing splendor, “now them things is prime. Each of 'em's good for fifty guilders each if you get 'em down to the fourth kingdom safe. Now what are those molds you got there?”

“Camp ovens,” I said. “I know there's at least three orders in that stack for such things.”

“That's the other reason I came down here,” said Lukas. “Hendrik thinks those need to be handy for when we go chasing them pigs, and each o' them small buggies needs one, along with some o' the other things we used for the trip.”

“And at least four women in town want one, unless my guess is wrong,” said Sarah. “Cuew may not like me much, but it seems most people in town like it as much as Hans and Anna.”

“You ain't the only person who Cuew don't like,” said Lukas. “It don't like him, either.”

“Donkey-sleeves?” I asked.

“Andreas isn't having much luck, either with them or some of the other things he's been going after,” said Lukas, “and there's something strange going on at the house. It ain't those new guards, as they're mostly decent if you can keep 'em close by. They like to wander some.”

“Not just the 'new' guards', I muttered. “There were some few – no, two – of my class who conveniently got sick or 'distracted' when we tried for the hall, and they've...”

“They ain't heard the noise o' the hare yet, you mean,” said Lukas, “much less got its dirt on 'em. They're getting better, but if you get paired with the two o' them, I'd make sure you keep those guard muskets in mind – as there's something going on in the house proper, and I don't know what it is.” A brief pause, then, “and then, I need to get myself down to the third kingdom, same as Gilbertus, as we got us a letter and sending by the post means it will never get to where it needs to go.”

“To whom, sir?” asked Sarah.

“That harbor master down in the third kingdom,” said Lukas, “as well as the king, and that means trouble.”

“The trip there and back, correct?” I asked. “Compass headings, night travel with no lights showing, living rough, and staying off of all of the roads the whole way there and back?”

“You got that right,” said Lukas. “That's why we got to start in the next day or two, as that's slow going on horseback.”

“It is less so if you take a spare horse each,” said Sarah, “and then a horse or two for your supplies.”

“We're doing that,” said Lukas. “We can't see in the dark like your man there can, or even like you can, dear, so we can really only travel readily during nights with a good moon, and then we got to hit towns at least once a day for bread and beer.”

“Do so just before closing, and then move on steadily at least several miles before you stop,” said Sarah. “If need be, hide up where you can watch the Public House to make certain no witches are in it.”

“Now that I didn't think about,” said Lukas. “Now, would you travel at dusk?”

“Witches are most active during the day in the second kingdom from about the third hour to the ninth hour,” said Sarah, “so if you travel from dawn for an hour or two and get your morning meal during that time, then hide up until about an hour or two before sundown, you can ride during the day if you avoid roads for the most part. At night, you will wish the moon, which tends to be good this time of year in much of the second kingdom.”

“And the route you would take?” asked Lukas.

“If your horses can endure it, I would take the mule trail,” said Sarah, “but there are very few towns there, and it's a rough route for horses, so it is best done on foot. I escaped that way when I left, so I know of it.”

Lukas looked at Sarah with huge eyes, then shook his head.

“If you are going horseback,” said Sarah, “the best way is to go through the darkest portion of the second kingdom, which is at the eastern border of what is thought of as the back country. The witches prey on those people so heavily that everything that can be had is exceedingly cheap, and because of such dire poverty, the witches themselves are most scarce.”

“How do they prey on those people, then?” I asked.

“First, it is closer to their chiefest and strongest haunt,” said Sarah. “The western back country has more to plunder, so you there find witches that think to behave like third kingdom brigands, and there are more of them. Then, the witches control, either directly or by proxy, every town and village that exists in that portion I spoke of.”

“Sounds like a bad place,” said Lukas.

“It is,” said Sarah. “Since the witches think they own it, and that utterly, they do not watch it much, so if you can carry enough food to travel perhaps seventy miles without stopping for much beyond water for yourselves and your animals, then you most likely can escape detection in that part of the second kingdom.”

“Like the Swartsburg,” I muttered. “All of the defenses are on the surface. Get past that outer eggshell, and there is nothing inside to stop you as long as you don't attract attention.”

“It is much like that, save that outer eggshell is that of an egg that is long past due for tossing,” said Sarah, “and avoiding detection in that place is fairly simple if you avoid roads, daylight travel, and visiting towns, save when all in them are asleep.”

“And in a witch-run area, that's early,” I said.

“I waited until an hour after sundown,” said Sarah, “and our group learned much about that area in the process of exploring it.” A pause to drink then, “and then those stinkers tried to put their description in the Compendium, and my cousin was busy, so I could not stop them then. I had to do that later.”

“How did you do that?” asked Lukas.

“I got one of the proof sheets and took it to the west school,” said Sarah with a devious tone in her voice, “and it went from there to the king – and they had to redo that particular batch of pressings.”

“Proof-sheets?” I asked.

“Those they run first, so as to check their press-plates,” said Sarah, “and they put those in a bin, which is put outside the shop – and I jumped the fence and rummaged around in that bin until I found that pile of witch-spewed rubbish, and I went back to the school with it and showed them the next morning. Those lecturers were angry, but the king! Oh, he was furious, because he knew how that place was from his own traipsing.”

“And south o' that part, the witches are scarcer,” said Lukas.

“In most places,” said Sarah, “they are very scarce, again because there is so little to steal. You can visit towns in that part, if you keep your visits short and discrete and confine them to just after dawn and an hour prior to dusk. That's so until you reach the border of the third kingdom, and in that place, the only genuinely safe place is the house proper.”

“And watch myself in that harbor,” said Lukas.

“Yes, during the day,” said Sarah. “It's very deceptive for looks that way.” A pause, then, “it's like the Swartsburg was when the sun goes down, or so I've heard.”

Have you been there?” I asked, as Lukas made to leave. He nodded, and said nothing; for he had riding to do, mostly to visit Paul's town, most likely. There was something else of an important nature in that direction, and I suspected Paul – he did some roaming of his area, as was common for bombers, I now realized; it was more than mere 'cabin fever' that Hans had been expressing when he was restive – had something important.

“Which is why he sent word by Willem's wire,” said the soft voice, “and his roaming afield has been further than you think.”

“Uh, why?”

“He's been scouting a new route for another run of wire,” said the soft voice, “as Andreas recently learned of another spool of it 'turning up' in the fourth kingdom.”

“Spool?” I asked.

“About eighty-five pounds worth,” said the soft voice. “It's nearly twenty miles of wire, which extends the north-west 'reach' quite a bit.”

“And getting it up here?” I murmured.

“That is the chief trouble,” said the soft voice, “which is why Lukas and Gilbertus are trying to find a new route through 'witch country'. The witches have all but put a stop to Albrecht's trips – as while he's a canny man for traveling, he's not much good for finding new routes.”

“He's been traveling the same route?” I asked.

“More or less unchanged for the last several years,” said the soft voice. “There aren't that many routes running north and south if you are limited to roads, which is why Sarah's suggestion will work for those particular two men.”

“It won't work for Albrecht,” I said.

“The roads through that region are not only few in number, but badly maintained,” said the soft voice, “and most of those people do what little traveling they're allowed to do by walking.”

“Barefoot, no less,” said Sarah. “Only the third kingdom's back country is poorer.” Sarah's voice then changed to one of alarm: “allowed?”

“Those people are slaves in everything except name,” said the soft voice, “and as is common for slave-dens, money and personal property borders on non-existent.”

“They get by using barter,” I murmured.

“With the witches siphoning off a substantial portion of everything those people do of value,” said the soft voice. “When the harvest happens, the witches roll their wagons in and bag the stuff up at gunpoint, and since they forbid all hunting and fishing, those people are commonly on the verge of starvation.”

“How?” asked Sarah. For a moment, I wondered why, until the obvious hit me: time spent hunting or fishing was time not spent in fulfilling the desires of the witches – and they owned that portion of these people's lives especially.

“By confiscation of anything that could be potentially used as a weapon or as a means to gather wild food,” said the soft voice, “and then by not permitting capable tradespeople to live there. The result is a state of utter, total, and complete control, almost as if those people were living in an old tale and the witches were powerful enough to curse entire areas and 'take over' the populace of those regions.”

“Which they did in real life long ago, and that was one of the chief areas,” I muttered.

“How do you think the witches manage to do what they do so readily?” said the soft voice. “While that is not the only cursed area, it's the largest one this far north.”

“And I sent those two men to ride through it,” shrieked Sarah.

“I would be far more concerned about your own job, dear,” said the soft voice. “What you told those men was the key portion of their trip there and back, as that was the portion they could not figure out. Between that and what your husband-to-be told them, their trip will be quick and without incident.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“Two horses each, remember,” said the soft voice, “with a fifth horse for their limited 'baggage', hence they are not limited to roads. Both men are used to long days in the saddle, and you understated the case for the moon recently – and not just for the second kingdom. They'll have no trouble riding at night that whole distance there and back, and both of them are used to doing both that and riding 'cross-country'. They are not amateurs.”

“And no one's blown Weidmansheil or that other word on them, either,” I murmured. “The witches aren't out in force looking for them – or rather, they aren't looking for them any more than they're looking for any other king's messenger these days.” I paused, then, “it won't be like that trip back from the fifth kingdom, or even your trip north, dear.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “That trip back will become its own 'old tale' in the near future, and the same for Sarah's escape.”

“Not even close to that bad, dear,” I murmured. “Now, you have an errand – something about a keg – no, two kegs – of 'cleaned niter', correct?”

“How did you know?” asked Sarah. “Can you go with me?”

“Not while I've got a thousand pounds of iron cooling back there...”

“More than that,” said the soft voice, “though I would go with her if she's inclined to wait, as those people might cheat her if she goes alone.”

“Wonderful,” I spat. “Stinky witches in hiding!”

“No, these people aren't witches, nor even supplicants,” said the soft voice. “Recall how what you've heard about how many will not sell to her?”

“Same situation here, correct?” I asked. “Do I have to, uh, show up fully armed and rattling my sword?”

“That will get their attention,” said the soft voice. “I would do precisely that, in fact, as those people need to learn manners.”

“I can wait,” said Sarah. “Now, about this niter – is it decent stuff?”

“It's a good deal better than what is in that keg we have,” I said, “though I would use this stuff for soap, and not explosives.”

“Why is that?” asked Sarah.

“I am not sure how that bad niter is different,” I said, “but there is something about it that makes it better for bombs and, uh, worse for soap.”

“And this stuff?” asked Sarah.

“They've got a number of barrels,” I said, “and I just might find one or two that can go straight into the soap.”

“Then we wish those, if possible,” said Sarah, “as niter-cleaning, such as we do, needs to be done when it must be done, and not otherwise between now and the time we sail.”

I went home when the iron seemed 'cool enough', and after changing – I wore greens, so as to make the biggest impression – I left with Sarah while riding Jaak. I wondered more than a little about the buggy and its load-carrying capacity.

“These barrels are not particularly light,” I said. “Two will be a decent load for that buggy.”

“You could carry three if you had to,” said the soft voice, “but that presumes Sarah driving carefully and slowly over smooth roads. Otherwise, you're right.”

The location was north some miles, then east. As we went past one town, I heard a faint booming noise near its other end, then the crumbling of stone amid faint yells that sounded like the howling of lunatics.

“That is a quarry,” said Sarah, “and I stay clear of such places, as most quarrymen tend to behave like this one smelly man with a large beard.”

“Jochen,” I murmured.

“Yes, him and his smelly crew,” said Sarah. “I avoid them as if they were bad witch-tools, and I sometimes wonder if they have those in their things.”

“They like Geneva, at least the two in charge do,” I said. “Now that town with the niter is some further distance, isn't it?”

“It is, which is why I'm glad for this buggy,” said Sarah. “Not only does it handle roads like this one well, but it's fast enough to keep up with Jaak easily.”

“Near that, uh, ridge up ahead,” I said.

“That ridge,” said Sarah, “is some ruins that are mostly buried. The town is several miles beyond it, and it borders on the river.”

“Any boats in that place?” I asked.

“Yes, a few small ones for fishing,” said Sarah. “They might have about twenty feet of drag where they can bring them up out of the water in the afternoon.”

“Drag?” I asked.

“A smoothly paved area with windlasses, for pulling the boats in,” said Sarah. “These people are quite clumsy with what they have, so much so that they dare not leave without a rope tether lest the current sweep them downriver and they drown.”

“Some of them do that anyway,” I muttered. “Why do they bother fishing, then?”

“Because the area near the river tends to receive the worst attacks from those northern people,” said Sarah, “and the summer and fall raids are food raids – and for some reason, those people do not like to eat fish that come out of rivers. I suspect that is why that town has remained, actually – they catch and dry fish, mostly.”

“Ocean fish, though...”

“Those they eat, or are said to,” said Sarah. “I've never actually seen one of those people manage to eat fish caught around here and survive long, so I cannot say if they eat ocean-caught fish or not. I have seen them try to eat fish caught in rivers or ponds.”

“And they spit the things out, correct?”

“No,” said Sarah. “They get them down readily enough, but there's something about those fish that does not like them, as I've seen those people become deathly ill in a matter of minutes when they do that.” A brief pause, then, “the usual is the leader of such a group makes an example of the sick person, and tells the others to beat him to death with clubs and then eat his body until it is entirely consumed.”

“Cannibals,” I muttered, as we went past the juncture with another road. I could feel a quarry off in that direction also, perhaps two miles away.

We stopped at a woodlot about two miles further on, where there was a small river. Its chilly nature indicated it was safe for the horses to drink, and while they got their fill that way, Sarah and I checked them over for rocks. As a guess, I felt the hubs – and noted their almost chilly coolness.

“Donkey-sleeves need little attention,” said Sarah, “unless they are greatly abused or very old. Were they larger, they would work well for freighting.”

“There are such things, but they're quite rare,” I said, “and they're about twice this large – and to get them, you have to... They price them like fetishes!”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if they do take that whole witch-bred nonsense involving inducements and a lot of extraneous fees which are actually a form of well-disguised bribes.” A brief pause, then, “much of what passes through the third kingdom port has unusual fees attached to it, because that's the chief source of income for the house proper.”

“Almost the only source, actually,” I said. “No real manufacturing...”

“Yes, outside of the port,” said Sarah. “I've been there enough times to know that they repair a fair number of ships, and that means they must make what is needed.”

“And furniture, and less-expensive clothing, and wooden tableware, and a fair number of the fifth kingdom's hand-thrown jugs, and fire-refining of silver and gold...”

“They might do that, but they do a poor job,” said Sarah.

“Only a handful of jewelers do a significantly better one,” said the soft voice, “and with two exceptions, they're in the central portion of the fourth kingdom.” A pause, then, “Andreas' setup at the kingdom house proper is one location, and there's another somewhat larger one in the town where he lives – and in all cases, the better methods involve electrolysis.”

“Oh, my,” I murmured. “Has Anna had a chance to use that small-seer yet?”

“I think you will need to help us clean that thing up,” said Sarah, “as it has this nasty stuff on it, and aquavit wont touch it, and neither will boiled distillate.”

“Heavy distillate fresh from the jug, then,” I murmured, “and working outdoors, with one hand on my nose and the other holding the brush,” I murmured, “and not just any heavy distillate, but some really, uh, bad stuff.”

“Light distillate?” asked Sarah.

“No, regular 'heavy' distillate, only whoever ran this stuff had to be really careless, so it's got more of the stinky parts in it.”

“It does not have rust,” said Sarah. “What about Benzina? We still have that one jug.”

“That stuff is too strong and too toxic,” I said. “Besides, we might want to keep that stuff handy in case we need it for some, uh, witches.”

“Or serious cleaning once you get some proper protective gear,” said the soft voice. “While there are non-flammable cleaning solvents, they tend to have very poor cleaning power, unlike Benzina – which, while it is poisonous and flammable, works very well indeed.”

I then posed the question again: “has Anna tried those, uh, things?”

“I found the book that described the light and its power source,” said Sarah, “and I did manage to make that work, both with the small hand-charger and by putting those things out on a stool like I was told.”

“And Anna..?”

“Now knows she has the best to be had,” said Sarah, “as that thing is bright – and you want that. I remember that much from my time at the west school.” A brief pause, then, “at least boiled distillate and aquavit works well for much of the other things we're cleaning.”

“And that grinder?”

“Hans has been working on it steadily,” said Sarah, “and he thinks you will want the used distillate, as it has a lot of that nasty grease in it.”

“It works well for a tool preservative,” I said.

“Boiled distillate?” asked Sarah.

“That works decently, if you apply it regularly,” I said, “but if that boiled distillate has some dissolved torment-grease in it, then it works a lot better for keeping rust off of tools you don't use often.”

We came past the ruins, and as the road bent around them, I noted the nature of the trees themselves. For some reason, these trees were uncommonly tall and straight, with few branches showing until they were over twenty feet high. The odd color of the bark – a black-streaked dark brown of smooth consistency – was only exceeded in my mind by the peculiar round shape of the leaves themselves.

“What odd trees,” I murmured. “What are those things?”

“Trees that most furniture makers, especially those who do good furniture, guard most jealously,” said Sarah. “I would ride money on those being blackwood trees, and those there being especially good ones.”

“Hard wood?” I asked.

“And dark, with long thin black stripes running through it,” said Sarah. “If you were to make another gun like you have, I would use that type of wood for its stocking, as that stuff will neither break nor split.”

“And it's hard on edges, also,” I muttered.

“Which is one reason why it is so highly regarded,” said Sarah. “Hendrik's chair is of blackwood, and unlike almost every other chair in that place, it has not needed refinishing since it was made. It was not made recently.”

“Wood going rotten?” I asked.

“Is a serious problem around here,” said Sarah. “If you make something of wood, and do not wish it to fall apart quickly, then you must either paint it with good paint, put drying oil on it, or use Hans' wood treatment – and that wood treatment stands up to hard use better than anything I've seen, especially if one thins it with distillate and paints it on thickly so it soaks into the wood.”

“Bugs?” I asked. “Wood-bugs?”

“It stops those too, and those tend to ignore drying oil unless it's really thick,” said Sarah. “Were I to make a great many guns from scratch, I would specify that finish of Hans' for their wood.”

“Drying oil...”

“Is preferable for looks, at least for most people,” said Sarah, “but Hans is still working on that treatment. He's gotten it so it gives up little for looks, but it still endures rough treatment well.”

On the back side of the 'rise' – it was easily half a mile, and the 'mound' reminded me of a butte – we came to a gently downsloping region of near-impenetrable dark green forest. I could feel the river but a mile or so away, while the forest crowded the road to each side such that we were in the shade of the trees all of the time, and occasionally dodging branches that jutted out into the road. The road was beginning to curve further to the north, I now realized, and when the trees suddenly 'thinned out' and then vanished, the town was but a short distance away.

As was the river, and here, I was amazed at its slow-moving waters, with the far banks seemingly in another country.

“The Main is still high,” said Sarah, “so much of their drag will be under water.”

“And few fish yet,” I said. “They're staying out of that current, as it's full of silt still.”

Sarah looked at me, then blinked. “Is that why they're just getting their boats out of their sheds?”

“I didn't know they had sheds,” I murmured. “Now this place has a lot of warehouses, even if they are not built like Alleys or cursed like those awful brick things are.” I then asked, “why is that?”

“This town has two main roads,” said Sarah. “This is the front-road, and the one closer to the river is the river-road – and that river road gets its share of traffic between the north-tip and the edge of the second kingdom.”

“And our destination...”

“The north end of town, on the river's side,” said Sarah. “They've got niter caves somewhere nearby, only I've never learned exactly where they are for this town.”

“Those ruins, perhaps?”

“Ruins make poor caves for niter,” said Sarah. “You want dark, damp, and stinky, with walls and ceiling of rock and a deep dirt floor, and then the bigger the cave, and the damper the cave, the better the niter.”

“Which is why the best niter 'caves' are not real caves, but old ruins of a certain type that are still in good condition,” said the soft voice, “although you are right about that type of ruin being worthless for niter. The best ones were used to house war equipment – and they've got one of those places under this road.”

“War equipment?” I asked.

“Mostly munitions,” said the soft voice. “It hasn't had any of those in it since the hot part of that war ended.”

“And as a niter cave?” I asked.

“It works very well,” said the soft voice. “It's been in use long enough to develop not merely a good strain of bacteria, but the place is amply 'conditioned' as well – hence the niter made here is truly 'first quality'.”

“Does this place have a powder mill?” I murmured, as we passed the first of a row of obvious shops. I could see a cross-street up ahead, then perhaps two more.

“Yes, though it's quite small,” said the soft voice. “It's not much bigger than the basement where you live, and while the powder is considered good by local standards, it could be better.”

“Too much soot, most likely,” said Sarah.

“No, not that,” said the soft voice. “It tends to vary quite a bit as to strength, for one thing – as the mill-master places more emphasis on chanting verses out of the book than on making certain he gets the proportions right, and his grinder is in poor condition, for much the same reason.”

“And he stints the niter, also,” I mumbled.

“No, he stints the sulfur,” said the soft voice, “as he thinks that stuff is the dried milk of witches, and he uses as little as he can get away with.”

Sarah looked at me in horror, then shook her head – or, at least I thought it was horror, until she had to put both hands over her mouth to not laugh out loud.

“Hence it rusts guns quickly,” I said.

“It does do that,” said the soft voice.

“The dried milk of witches?” I murmured.

“I would be careful in this portion of town,” said the soft voice, “as while that is out of an old tale, it's thought to be gospel by that man and those he sees regularly.”

“Which includes the niter-sellers,” I thought.

“Exactly, so don't speak of witches, even in jest,” said the soft voice. “This town is as bad as parts of the third kingdom that way, as those northern people have planted death-poles on the riverbanks near this town for time out of mind.”

“Are they cursed?” I thought.

“No, but they think they are,” said the soft voice, “and that's a large part of the power of most curses, both real and imagined.” A brief pause, then, “they are superstitious, and that fully as much as anywhere on the continent.”

“Wonderful,” I thought. “Now when we go to this niter place, we had best chant straight out of the book...”

Sarah looked at me, then shook her head. That was a bad idea, even if I was partly joking.

“Just go up and ask to see their stuff after laying out some gold monster coins on the counter?” I asked. I was no longer joking at all.

“That would probably be best,” said Sarah softly. “If this town is bad that way, one wants to show one's hand as plain as possible, and do nothing that might be construed as the actions of a witch.”

“Uh, the greens?” I asked.

“That means you're the king's representative,” said the soft voice. “You don't know what those mean, do you?”

“Uh, for forest work?” I asked. That was all I had been told, and that mostly by hearsay.

Sarah looked at me, then said, “they might not mean that much to the south, but up here, that means a fair amount. They won't dare to cheat me, or anything of the sort – as they know you can do whatever you need to do to stop them.”

Whatever?” I asked.

“Regular guards can do a fair amount that way,” said Sarah, “but those that wear greens are hand-picked by the king, and they go as his people – and being who you are, I suspect these people will think you were sent by Hendrik his-own-self.”

“More than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “Recall the hair color of the others who wear greens?”

Sarah thought for a moment, then said, “dark hair? How is that any different?”

“Think, dear,” said the soft voice. “That's not just any man wearing greens, but someone who's got a reputation.”

“A good one, I hope.” I murmured.

“No, not good,” said the soft voice. “These people might as well be witches for what they believe about you.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. It was all I could do to not choke and then spew.

“What?” asked Sarah.

“I don't recall precisely what I was told witches believe about me, but it's like hearing about the angel of death himself,” I said quietly.

“Exactly, which is why they will not dare to even think of cheating Sarah,” said the soft voice. “They know beyond all doubt that you will kill all of them if you feel inclined, and then destroy them and their town utterly, such that even the memory of their names is gone.”

“The manifestation of Sieve,” I muttered, as we came to the third and last cross-street. I wondered if it was wise to take it, then thought it better to go to the end of the town to the branching place, then turn 'at the usual place'. Sarah looked askance at me, then shrugged her shoulders.

“That place is at the very end of what might be called the waterfront,” I murmured, “and there are four men, all of whom are inclined toward thuggery – and one is a sometimes thief, one who does so when and if he thinks he can get away with it.”

“Then what I was told was right,” whispered Sarah. “They might have tried to cheat me...”

“No, dear,” I said. “They would have done more than that. Those people would have tried to take all you have, your life included unless I miss my guess, and that means I've got to be ready to deal with them.”

I now was wary, for these people, while not witches, were indeed thugs; and I wondered for a moment if hanging them out to dry was a wise idea. I thought against doing so, save if they actually tried something – until I caught a whiff of something that made my eyes water briefly and my stomach give a heave. This odor was very familiar; and it was one of the more obvious odors of witchdom.

“He keeps that stuff hidden,” I murmured, as we came to the end of the shops and houses. The turning spot was a good hundred yards further, where the two roads became one, and as we passed by the grassy region at the end of town, I saw faintly the tracks of wagons, and those of what might have been either mules or very strange horses. None of them looked recent, for some reason. That explained one reason why they might have so much niter: their usual buyers had not come recently.

“Now who were those buyers?” I thought, as we came to the turning place. I went to the outside, and as I did, I saw a rusty piece of metal. I leaped off, then bent down and picked it up. Sarah stopped, and I brought it to her.

“That is trouble,” she said. “That is a mule shoe, and not a common one, but one made in the fifth kingdom.”

“Hence people running mules shod down in the fifth kingdom,” I muttered, as I remounted. I pocketed the mule shoe, thinking 'evidence is evidence, and scrap metal is scrap metal – and Frankie isn't picky about his meals'.

I then thought, “not recently, though, not if I go by the rust on that thing. It had to be there a month or more.”

“Less than that,” said the soft voice, “and that witch-run wagon, along with its team, are where they belong.” A brief pause, then, “your take on those four men is accurate, and they, along with a handful of others, more or less run this town.”

“And hence if I pot them, the town takes a turn for the better,” I thought. “Now why am I thinking I'm going to need to air out their smelly hides?”

We were coming up on the place, and unlike any of the previous shops, this place had a distinctly different feeling. It looked like the other 'shops' I saw, save for its larger size, but as I rode with Sarah into its yard, I unbuttoned my revolver holster and checked my possible bag for the spare revolver's precise place. I could tell there was at least one full-loaded fowling piece on the premises, and as I dismounted, I waited for Sarah carefully. I noted she looked in her satchel, and I suspected she was checking her pistol.

With wary steps, we came to the door, and I let Sarah tap. She did so smartly, and as quick steps came to the door, I heard what sounded faintly like pointed boots pounding the true-step. I felt my knife in its small sheath, and as I did, I knew I wanted to make a batch of those knives like Anna had spoken of, not merely a pair; more, I wanted one for my personal use.

The door opened, and the person opening it paused for an instant as he looked around. I was suspicious the instant I saw him do so.

“No, that wretch is a thug,” I thought, as he bade us 'welcome' and we came into a place that reminded me at once of the fifth kingdom house. “Every one of these people is a thug – and they all might as well be imported from a fifth kingdom money-changing witch-hole.”

“I would like some niter, sir,” said Sarah.

“Let's see your coin first,” said the man coldly. His voice was that of recollection; he sounded like a nasty version of one of the money-changer's doormen.

I reached and grabbed my money pouch, removed it, then untied its strings. Its plump yet small size had the man's attention as if a magnet, and as I placed, one by one, three gold monsters on the counter's wood, I could see greed stalking us like a green-thatched forest monster – and it was plain in the man's eyes as I touched down the last coin. Each time I had put down a coin, I had felt the counter; its chill varnish made the wood feel like blackened metal, and for some reason, I seemed to recall the scent and touch of Formica or its otherworldly equivalent. I looked up at the man, and saw through his clothing to see a tattoo of a swastika. He was serious enough to get inked, and greedy enough to long for the stiff dark brown clothing of a miser – if not the sheet-metal stiffness of starched underwear and black-cloth.

The man swallowed, then said, “That's one barrel's worth. Niter here is sixty guilders a...”

The man did not have a chance to speak further; my hand flashed from countertop to waist, then suddenly, before I had time to think, my cocked revolver 'materialized' in my hand, its cold black muzzle but a few inches from his face, and its point of aim centered between his two cold narrow eyes. He seemed to be staring into the bore of the thing, trying to determine its precise size – much as if he were indeed a hard-witch, one who could digest a pound of lead and still walk long enough to kill a 'disgrace'.

“You hard enough to eat lead, wretch?” I said in a voice as cold and dry as a glacier. “Now let's have your real price, and no lies.”

The silence was deafening, for this man was the leader; the leader of this batch of thugs, and indeed, the leader of lies and treachery for the whole town. More, while he was not a supplicant, that was but a matter of time and opportunity, if I went by the tattoo I had seen; and from there, a question of whose finger-bones and how he would get them on the way to becoming a black-dressed coach-riding witch.

“Do I need to use a dragoon to get you to speak when I ask you a question?” I whispered.

The man put his hands up, but as he did, I saw movement out of the corner of my left eye. In a movement literally too quick for my mind to follow, I reached for the spare revolver as I shot the head thug between the eyes at powder-burn range, then as I turned to my left and backed away, I saw the barrel of the fowling piece I had known about come through a side door.

Left-handed, both hands now full of cocked revolvers, I shot that man in the head but half an inch above where his eyes met, then as he fell, I saw two others standing close behind him. I fired twice, once from each pistol, the reports seemingly conjoined – and both of them dropped as well, their blood and brains leaking from their ears with bullet holes between their eyes. I then looked around.

“How did you do that?” asked Sarah amid the ringing echoes of gunfire and the thick stinky fog of powder smoke. “I could not count to one before you shot all of those nasty thugs.”

“That was only four shots,” I murmured, “not ten.” I laid down one revolver on the counter, and made the other 'safe' before tucking it in my possible bag, then asked idly as I put the hammer down on an empty chamber and holstered the other, “is there any rope around here?”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“I'm going to hang all of these people out to dry, and that by their feet,” I said, “and then we will take the pick of their niter. They stole all of this stuff, and that thug there” – here, I pointed to the first example, his head lying in splattered brains and a slow-growing pool of blood – “wanted to be a witch.”

“He more or less was one,” said the soft voice. “He just was waiting for a chance to make his first contact with witches, and from that point, make his bones.”

“And his three, uh, fellow thugs?”

“Would have followed his lead with alacrity once he had done so,” said the soft voice, “and I would do just what you thought to do. More, I would claim all of this niter for the king.”

“I know how to write that up,” said Sarah, as she brought out a piece of paper and began writing on the counter with a pen and small vial of obvious ink. “How much do they have?”

“They've been stealing more than just niter,” said the soft voice. “They've stolen horses, also.”

“Then you did exactly the right thing,” said Sarah. “Horse-thieves die, and everyone knows it.”

I was off in search of some rope, however; and when I found the nasty-feeling tarred thumb-thick stuff in a corner of their 'loading dock', I wanted to scream when I picked it up. Nonetheless, I brought it back, then with Sarah's help, I tied my rope to the feet of the first thug I had shot and cleared a path through the other bodies so as to hang him up from the rafters of their stone-fronted 'loading dock', which was open to the road and facing the river. There, I found a thick dark-stained crossbeam, and within ten minutes, I had hung all four men such that their blood-dripping heads were but inches above the stones beneath my feet – and in the process, I had gotten my hands tormentingly sticky. I wondered what else needed to be done, but as I pulled out a rag and small bottle of distillate to clean my hands, I noted Sarah was still writing with a much-shortened and 'shorn' quill. I had an idea as to how she kept it 'usable' now; she'd put it in a test-tube and sealed the thing with a cork, and the quill itself had a thin stick or wire shoved inside it. The ink was a bit more obvious: she had a smaller example of ceramic vial in her satchel, and she kept it filled with ink from her ink-runs for the house.

There,” she said as she finished the writing, its squared blocky letters clear and precise. “Now this niter is claimed for Hendrik's own use, as it was stolen by traitors and thieves.”

“Traitors?” I gasped. “Traitors?” My voice had rose an octave, nearly. I did not like traitors.

“Thieves were also named witches in those old tales,” said Sarah, “though I have trouble making the connection between the three.”

“They did not steal from their fellow men,” I said in a chill and 'creepy' voice, “but from God, for 'The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it' – and if you steal from God, then you make yourself God in his place; you declare the whole of his law null and void and yourself to be above it; and that is the soul and definition of a witch – and therefore, witches are traitors to God as well as to their fellow men. That's why they're no longer human – they've declared themselves to be above us in all possible ways, and that by their actions.”

The utter and complete sense of this startled me, so much so that as I put together the many pieces of my thoughts and what I had been told over the past months, the matter suddenly gelled in my mind; and more, I knew exactly what needed to now be done.

I took my sword, then stalked to the first man. With a swipe of the blade, I disemboweled him, and his guts flowed out in a red flood to hide first his chest and then his face; and as I went to the second of the four, my resolve built to a cold and brutal hardness. This town was evil, and it needed a lesson.

An Object Lesson: one as cold as ice, as hard as iron, and without any mercy whatsoever.

I cut open the remainder of these thugs in the same exact way; and then, after lending Sarah my small hammer and one of the few 'cooked' nails I had in my possible bag, I went and found a slate in the 'office'. Using chalk, I wrote upon the slate, laboriously; and then, I nailed it up on the supporting beam holding up the rafter between the second and third witches.

All of these men are

Traitors and Witches.

Turn from your evil,

Lest you die as they did.”

I wiped my sword clean, oiled it, then sheathed it. “Now we can get our niter.”

The thugs easily had fifty 'barrels' of the stuff, all of these barrels waist high and the shape of conga drums, and as I touched them, I seemed to feel their contents.

“This is definitely better than what's in that one at home,” I said, as I continued 'feeling' the barrels, “but some of these have much better niter than others. It's almost as if they wanted to 'sell' some people.”

“Which is what they intended to do,” said the soft voice. “Go to the rear of the storage area, in that corner over there, and feel those. They are the best kegs of niter they have.”

“And the others?”

“Hendrik just received enough niter to not only make a lot of 'laundry soap', but enough in addition to make enough powder to fight a not-so-small war.”

“Assuming the substantial use of such powder,” I murmured.

“Muzzle-loading weapons will still be used for quite some time,” said the soft voice, “even when things beyond your wildest dreams become relatively commonplace.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“People are used to them, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and given precise manufacture, proper bullets, and a good grade of powder – such as what Dennis uses – they put meat on the table quite well.”

“And they hurt you if you put too much powder to them,” I muttered, as I moved through the thickly -packed drums. “There's a lot of this stuff here. How did they steal all of this?”

“About half the niter of the first kingdom's last two years is in this 'warehouse',” said the soft voice, “and their methods of theft were simple: go to every place that 'makes' niter within forty miles, get in those places at night when everyone in town is asleep, and bag up what ready-to-package niter they can – and then sell their stolen goods to the highest bidder among the first kingdom's powder mills.” A brief pause, then, “that head thug was nearing 'miser' status, and his partners in crime were not far behind.”

“That's much of the first kingdom's niter, all right,” said Sarah.

“Uh, why – all the niter producing facilities of the first kingdom are within forty miles of here?”

“Most of them that I know about are,” said Sarah. “That much I know for certain.”

“And the one here was cover for their business, correct?” I asked.

“No, there's a niter mill in town, and they stole from that place regularly,” said the soft voice. “Granted, not much niter at a time per location, and a lot of night-driving to visit all of those places on something like a schedule, but you can see some of the results of their labor.” A brief pause, then, “until recently, they were selling two drums for every three they filled.”

Getting the two 'best' drums of niter into the buggy needed Sarah and I both lifting them, and once on our way out of town by the 'river road' – the reek of blood and offal coming from the four bodies was starting to bother me, as the wind was blowing from the north and back into the town – I could feel the eyes of all the town-dwellers fasten upon us. We had beaten their 'champions', and hung them out to dry, such that their faces were hidden by their entrails; those 'champions' now dangled like slaughtered animals, which proved beyond all doubt that they were not human, and they were therefore witches; and now, I could see, and this plainly: wherever my gaze happened to land, that portion of town I owned.

And for some infernal reason, I wanted to laugh: not at what I had done, but at the rubbish these people had believed about me; and with their Brimstone-worshiping leaders dead and in hell where such fools belonged, they could now resume reading the book like they were supposed to and cease acting like a pack of witches.

“That's closer to the truth than you might think,” said the soft voice, “as those men were the town's leaders, and they were well on their way toward turning the place into a witch-hole with themselves owning it and its people.”

“Then that's not going to happen for a while, I guess,” I murmured, as we passed the last house and struck the road we came in on a minute later.

I now wanted to leave that messy place behind me, and while I had cleaned my hands of the gummy tarry mess left by the rope I had used to hang the men, I still had a need and desire to clean my hands. I wondered if I should speak from a play, something about telling a damned-to-hell spot to come out; but this spot was now deeply immured, and that upon my soul – and it, and all the other spots of horror, all of them inked in blood, were now coming in a murmuring multitude to accuse me of evil.

And for some reason, I reached into my bag, found one of the vials of honey, opened it, and took a 'slurp'. I then replaced the vial's cork and followed the honey with beer, and noted that Sarah had seen what I had done. I felt 'better' within less than a minute, and my head lost its recriminating ruminations as well.

“I put two of those in there,” she said. “I hope this niter is good enough to use as it is.”

“It might be improved by recrystallization, and then again, it might not be,” I said. “If I go by most of that stuff I felt, it might need, uh, that second step only.” I then looked again at the two barrels, and said, “I suspect we can use what we received as is, actually. I'd try it that way, in fact, and see how that soap does.”

We came home about two hours before sundown, and once the two niter barrels were down in the basement, I let Hans 'pop their lids' while I cleaned and oiled both revolvers. Sarah was by his side, quietly speaking of what we had done; and when Hans got one lid off, he said, “ah, this looks good.”

“The taste test?” I asked.

“No, you do not put niter in your mouth,” said Hans reproachfully. It was quite unusual for him to speak that way. “You will be in the privy for a long time if you do.”

“Why, did you try it?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, and I was going until I wondered if I would end up down there with the dung,” said Hans. “With him, he goes so much already that that might happen, so he must not taste that stuff.”

“How do you tell if it is good, then?” I said.

“I can tell it is not that bad stuff in that one keg,” said Hans. “It has no smell, which says they were careful in making it; and then it is white in its entire, not off-color, which says the same thing; and it has even-sized grains which are the right shape, which means they made crystals of it at least twice, and both times, they did that right. Beyond that, about all one can do is make it into powder and try it with this thing powder mills use to test their stuff to see how strong it is.” Hans paused, then, “now why is it you claimed that niter-place for the crown?”

“Those men were all thieves,” said Sarah, “and when one of them tried nonsense, he shot all four of those thugs. Then he found this awful sticky nasty rope, and we tied them up so they hung head down.”

Hans' face had changed expression drastically. He looked shocked, or deadly serious – and I could not tell which. He then said, “now what did you do next?”

“He told me how thieves were witches, because they stole from God and not their fellow man,” said Sarah. “It was strange hearing that, because I've always heard thieves were witches, but I'd never heard it explained so it made sense until then – and then, how they were traitors, also.”

“They are all of those things,” said Hans – who then turned to me. “Did you pile their guts on their faces?”

“He did that next,” said Sarah, “and I really doubt he's read about doing that.”

“Why?” I asked. “I have no idea where that idea came from, other than I think Tam said something about hanging witches by their feet and how it got to them worse than hanging them the other way.”

“No, you did not get that from him,” said Hans, “as he has never cut them open. That is out of those old tales, and it says a lot to people, especially if they think like witches.”

“These people were doing that,” said Sarah. “I could feel it clear as anything, and those men were the arch-witches ruling over that whole witch-hole.”

“No, not all of those people, dear,” I said gently, “even if those men were the leaders and were planning to become witches in short order, and they wanted to turn the place into a town like that one bad place.”

And yet, as I said this, I knew that at some level, Sarah's speech was precisely correct: those men were arch-witches, and that place was a witch-hole.

“I hope not,” I murmured. “Now I hope I'm paired with two decent people tomorrow, as that's the third post, and those middle ones tend to have the most trouble.”

At dinner, however, there was discussion, chiefly about the 'need' to speak to Hendrik about that one town and its niter; and I was beginning to feel 'sick' with revulsion toward my behavior. I had acted almost like a devilish automaton: I had acted as if consumed by a burning illogic that acted too fast for rational thought when I shot the four men; then, while still an automaton, I had roped them up by their feet and spoken to Sarah about thieves being witches, and therefore, traitors to God and men, which made them 'abominations' in the sight of God...

The word 'abomination' meant 'I have cut myself off from human-kind, and have become a devil'. That was its precise meaning here. Hence the neuter gender of 'witken', and the non-human status of witches.

And finally, still an automaton, I had cut all four men open, such that their draping entrails showed them to be witches, and their cascading intestines hid their mouths and thus prevented their last curses from being spoken.

Sewing their mouths up was a joke, in reality. It did not stop such curses, merely the sound of them. The only means that did were the things that were done in old tales, which was the precise reason for doing them; and in that day, the dying curses of witches were far stronger, and vastly more deadly – which explained much of the apparent brutality of those fighting them.

The vindictive nature of the servants of Brimstone was deeper than time and beyond all sense or logic, which left me with a question.

“Is that why all of that stuff was done?” I thought. As I expected, there was no answer.

“We will need to go with you,” said Anna as she 'cut me off', “as this is a serious matter, and then Sarah has errands to run in the house, so she will go also.”

“And I have a surprise for you, dear,” I thought as Sarah followed Hans downstairs, most likely to work on soap. There was another batch 'brewing', and we had received more trays from the carpenters. A stand, this to hold them, was on order. I had seen Sarah's drawing for the thing. That was not the only batch brewing, however.

The first of the latest batch of swords was nearly ready, and when I worked on the handle of the thing after dinner while Sarah was in the basement and Anna was in the kitchen, I asked, “can you hold something for me, please?”

Anna came over to where I sat, obviously wondering what I needed now. I wondered for a moment if she was irritated, at least until she saw what I was working on. Her eyes became like saucers.

“I've seen you work on that last batch of those, and they went to their owners, supposedly,” said Anna. “Is that one of the new batch of them?”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Now, can you hold it?”

Anna looked at me in shock, or perhaps horror, then asked, her voice a thin, high-pitched, and barely audible squeak, “why?”

“Your hands dear,” I said. “Mine are a bit larger than Hans', while yours are closer to Sarah's for size – and she needs a grip sized to fit her hands.”

Anna looked at me strangely, then nodded. I held the sword by its blade, then handed it to her. She picked it up, then asked, “I thought these were heavy. Now how is it you use them?”

“I have some daggers to make next, dear,” I softly said. “Remember? I need to make a batch of those things, as I learned yesterday that what I normally use for a knife isn't much good for poking or slicing on thugs.”

“Yes, but this thing...” Anna stopped, then whispered, “this thing is like out of an old tale.”

“I have yet to wrap the handle with wire, dear,” I said, as I checked Anna's hand and how it fit the handle. “There, it looks like it will work.”

I had the handle wrapped with twisted silver wire but twenty minutes later, and as I made ready to oil the blade, I thought to rub it with a rag while praying for it.

The metal gave off but little dirt in the ensuing minutes, surprisingly, but when I prayed for it, the entire room went several degrees colder, and Anna came into the parlor to see a smoking sword rimed thickly with ice. “What did you d-do?”

“I prayed for it,” I said. “Almost no dirt in this one, it compressed down easily, and...” I slung the ice off with a flick, and it went to smoke in mid air. “And now...” My question hung in the air like the slow-dissipating 'smoke'.

“Now it shines,” said Anna. “Not just polished...” Then a question: “No markings, save on that bronze piece there?”

“This pattern welded stuff is bad for cracking, remember?” I said. “That's why I was reminded of this shape, in fact – it seems it's less inclined to crack, and I've, uh, tested it enough to know it works.” A brief pause. “It needs to be polished before it's heat treated, not just afterward.”

I paused once more, then said, “is there something, uh, more? Like those instrument-maker's books that seem written by a pack of witches?”

Anna seemed 'frozen', and after I covered up the sword with rags– I would oil it, then wrap it in clean rags and tie it with string – I went to the books. The second volume of those instrument-maker's books seemed to 'jump out at me', and I picked up the accursed thing. As I walked back to my workbench, the book itself seemed to gain weight, for some reason, and setting it down raised motes of dust in the air. There was a section in this book, one beyond 'Methods' and that portion on Secret Markings, one that actually dealt with the idea of heat-treating; and in less than a minute, I found it.

“Heating and Cooling? That title?” I murmured. Anna still seemed frozen, and the chill in the air had grown deeper and colder somehow. I felt reminded of long-ago tales from my younger days, tales that spoke of chill rooms and colder-yet evil spirits. I could feel none of those, but I did not implicitly trust my feelings that way. I then 'got into' the book.

The convoluted language of this part – it was just as I recalled: it was speaking to witches, or those thinking like them; it had multiple layers, and the deepest layer of the several layers expected one to be 'initiated' into the great and grand secrets appropriate to curse-chanting wizened gnomes who worshiped money and Brimstone commingled; it was difficult to follow, with 'codewords' and other things that demanded long and careful study so as to discern them and their meanings; and finally, it was written in an especially awful species of 'the written format', where 'Ye' was used when and where possible.

And yet, for some reason, I could now follow its tangled mess all too readily, and comprehend all of its multiple layers of meaning at once. It made for a certain phrase upon my lips, and I mumbled it as a pitiful prayer:
“Please, I don't want to be a witch, and this is written by witches and for witches, and it's too evil for words.”

That feeling was not helped when I came to a subheading titled Knives. I came to the third paragraph from the top of the page, and I found something which made me wish to spit – and while I did not spit 'cud', nor spit an oath, my verbal outburst 'woke up' Anna.

“So that's why those things are so stinking soft!,” I squawked. “Listen to this tripe!”

“If ye Blade be of too great hardness, It will Crack

at ye slightest Realm of its Imperfection. Therefore,

ye shall draw it to the changing of all of ye Colors,

That it might endure the weakening of ye Blade,

and thereafter, It shall not crack common-wise

if ye Live-Iron be of a proper and good nature.”

Live-Iron?” I spluttered. “What gives with this rubbish?”

“I've heard more than a few smiths speak of live and dead iron,” said Anna. “Now what does what you said mean? It might as well be the speech of a witch for all I can understand.”

“Didn't you ever wonder why that one bad knife is so soft?” I asked.

“Those new ones are harder, but they are not at all like yours,” said Anna. “Why?”

“Because if they heat treat them at all,” I spat, “they back them off so stinking much that they lose almost all of what hardness they might have had. Then they polish them so you can't tell anything about that aspect at all.”

“Yes, if they bother with heat-treating,” said the soft voice. “For every place like Machalaat Brothers, there are at least ten shops in the central part of the fourth kingdom who wholeheartedly believe and practice that material you just read, and an even greater number who don't bother with heat-treating their products in the slightest – and that's for that region. Elsewhere, heat-treating is rarer yet.”

“And they use soft metal to start with,” I murmured. “Live-Iron? What gives with these people?”

Such a conundrum made for a headache, and I put the infernal book back after reading two more of its pages. Again, I noticed the aspect of understanding far more than I had the last time I read, and as I rapidly plowed through the tedious verbiage, I noticed something different: here and there, buried deep among the high-mounded and witch-doctored rubbish, some few useful bits and pieces of knowledge showed like mostly-hidden nuggets. The first page had perhaps three such sentences, the second page, two; and as I put the book back, I thought, “that's maybe about fifty pages in a Machinist's Handbook, if that, for the whole of this volume.”

“You've not looked in volume three yet,” said the soft voice. “While volume one might be called 'where to get your favored fetish', and volume two might be called 'why you want your favored fetish', volume three is best titled, 'this is how you make that fetish' – and the reason Sarah knows little about it is she isn't an instrument-maker, and that volume was never 'opened' in any of her classes.”

“Volumes one and two are useful for those otherwise,” I said softly, “as the first volume tells them where they might buy 'technical' devices, and then that second volume speaks of how to write up purchase orders for those devices so that those making and selling them will 'understand' what is being asked for.”

“That, at least, is the ostensible theory behind the higher schools' extensive use of those books,” said the soft voice.

“And now, to bed,” I said between yawns some time later. I briefly wondered where to get some really 'bad' distillate, and recalled someone speaking of Houtlaan and cleaning saw-blades – and how the sawyers of Houtlaan tended to get the stinkiest heavy distillate to be had for such work.

“So I need to go there,” I thought, “as Sarah will go out of her mind with those marmot-driven wood-lathes that are all running at full screech right now.”

“Full screech is right,” said the soft voice as I made ready for bed, “though tomorrow might not be the best day for you to go. Mention the matter to Hans before you go to bed so he can fetch some for you if he has the time.”

“Is he bothered by marmot-powered lathes?”

“Yes, but not nearly as much as you would be,” said the soft voice. “Recall all of those farmers who needed buggy repairs?”

“Full screech, right?” I asked.

“They might not be as loud as that blower is at full 'howl', but they're a lot higher pitched – and every one of those animals has a bundle of carrots hung when it's running on the treadmill.”

“Full screech, indeed,” I thought. “I might...”

“You've never gone near Houtlaan during business hours,” said the soft voice, “and until you have appropriate hearing protection, I would strongly advise you to not go there.”

Before bedtime, however, Hans handed me a bag. In it, he spoke of three small wooden boxes, these tar-lined and fitted with corks in one end; friction igniters with affixed caps; small 'cards' of thin string; and a package of small nails, these of that one batch I had cooked. I wondered if Hans expected me to make him some more nails.

“You wish me to try these when and as I have the chance, correct?” I asked. He nodded, then said, “and filling those boxes with that stuff was the worst trouble I ever had. I needed Tam and Sarah to help me, it was so bad.”

“Did you use blasting oil, or that other stuff?”

“Sarah advised me to not make vlai, but to use the oil,” said Hans, “and to use much of that powdered stuff. I did that, and while that stuff I put in those boxes was dry, it gave me a headache worse than bad mining dynamite, so I think it is as strong as that stuff.”

“Bad mining dynamite?” I asked. “As in the stuff that drips oil?” Hans nodded.

I learned of the truth of 'the nature and noise' of Houtlaan during its times of 'full screech' the next morning, for as I came to the rise, I could faintly hear a rumbling roaring sound intermingled with high-pitched screaming – and the sound increased rapidly in volume, so much so that by the time I had gone in the gate, I was muttering to myself about abandoning all hope because I had entered the realms of the damned. What Sarah had said – and what I had been told – now congealed in my tormented mind: marmot-powered wood-lathes sounded like the deepest circles of Dante's Inferno, with the rumbling noises of the turntables sounding like an earthquake and the rumbling of Brimstone's gut, and the screeches of the marmots sounding like a multitude of damned souls.

“And I'm an easy three quarters of a mile away,” I muttered, as I went inside 'full-loaded' with Sarah's sword protruding hilt-first from my pack. I needed to hide it somewhere safe, which meant, in my mind, the room commonly issued to me: room 67. That meant visiting the refectory, and there, asking a cook.

As I walked toward the refectory, however, I kept in the shadow of the wall, and there seemed to wilt somehow. There was an oppression present in the place, one I had never felt before; and when I asked for and got that particular disk, the seeming oblivion of the cook was enough to bother me yet more. I had time for exploration; and for some reason, I wanted to wait.

“Oh!” I squeaked. “Hans and Anna! They're coming!”

“They left but minutes after you did,” said the soft voice. “Anna now wonders why you left early.”

“I haven't told her about my exploring yet,” I murmured, as I hid the sword under the sheets near the edge of the mattress. Under the bed was too obvious, but this location hid it well. “Now would a thief look there?”

“Only if he had the time and inclination to 'toss' the whole room,” said the soft voice, “and that kind of brazen thief would not go near the house proper day or night. Besides, he'd need to 'work' – and most thieves are not inclined toward real labor, even if the payoff is substantial enough to make it worth their while.” A pause, then, “those four niter-stealing thieves were close to being exceptions to that rule, as they were keeping the carpenters in that town busy with buggy repairs, and they drove their animals and buggies hard enough during their trips to need spares of both.”

With the sword hidden and my water bottle filled, I could explore: and this time, I made it into the regions where 'sword practice' was commonly done. My latest full-riveted lantern glowed brightly with its glass-blower's wire in its 'chimney'; I had finish-drawn the lengths of wire the night before and was now giving this particular lantern its first real test.

“No smoke, and almost as bright as one of those, uh, things I used to have,” I thought. I could not recall their names, even if I recalled their shape and function precisely. “This thing is not dim, and it does not flicker at all.”

“The coil also stabilizes the candle's flame,” said the soft voice. “Your wax-burn is slowed very slightly, and there is no soot produced, because the wax is now entirely burning due to catalyst action.”

“And I need to cast up a mold for candles,” I murmured. “Bronze? One cavity? Wooden handles?”

“Best make several molds if you do that,” said the soft voice. “Remember, you want at least two of those things for the party, and at least one spare – and spare wires for each such lantern you take.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Do they get fragile, or are they burned up in use?”

“No, but if they get banged around they might get lost,” said the soft voice. “Your idea of using a collet to hold the wire is a good one, but recall that they need to be not merely tight to hold, but that wire needs periodic adjustment for best brightness.”

“And that wire can fall out if you're not particularly careful,” I murmured.

“That also,” said the soft voice. “Swaging a small piece of brass rod onto the free tip will help prevent loss and injuries.”

I did not have the needed materials to do so on my person, so I resumed my careful looking. I was looking for trip-lines, to be precise, and when I found an obvious line thickly layered with dust, I knelt down and followed it to an old pistol propped up in a carved wooden holder. One look at the piece – a pirate-special model – said not merely poor care, but it had been sitting a very long time.

“How long has that been there?” I asked.

“Longer than you've been on the premises,” said the soft voice – who then caused me to wonder 'which premises'? The answer forthcoming gave clues: “the person who taught Lukas put that one there in hopes he'd bag the person who was then teaching guards.”

“What kind of a wretch was that man?”

“You mean witch,” said the soft voice. “It was before Hendrik's time, and the 'king' then wished to become a 'witch-king' like Cardosso. He had neither the bones nor the guts for that business, even if his short 'reign' caused much of the first kingdom to become a haven for witches.”

“And that witch-thinking that had been slowly building for ages really came to a head then,” I said.

“He definitely helped it along,” said the soft voice. “He only lasted a few years, as his preference for High Meats meant he did not taste that 'slow-poison' someone slipped him while down in the fourth kingdom.”

“Slow-poison?” I asked.

“Is one of the ways witches 'manifest' curses,” said the soft voice. “There's more than just arsenic and datramonium, both of which kill quickly. Slow-poison, on the other hand, takes anywhere from weeks to months to kill its victim – and it does not look like poisoning when it kills, but something else entirely.”

“Liquid death?” I murmured.

“Gently warmed and then mingled with acetic acid with a few drops of dilute nitric acid to get the reaction started,” said the soft voice. “The yield of the soluble salt is very poor, but most of the liquid death is readily re-distilled and used in other ways.” A brief pause, then, “that soluble salt, though – it might kill slowly, but if you have the time, it's a near-perfect poison: it takes but traces to kill; it has no taste, odor, or color; it retains its potency more or less indefinitely; and it's quite easy to get it into the victim by convenient means. Finally, the outcome does not look like poisoning.”

“And with no toxicology labs, it's impossible to prove poisoning,” I muttered. “Just the way to get rid of an obnoxious witch – dip the wretch's glass in that stuff, let it set out so it dries, then let him get trashed on wine or strong drink while drinking from it – and said wretch gets sicker and sicker until he or she eventually dies.”

“Which is almost exactly what was done,” said the soft voice. “He made it home, but by then, he was too ill to do much beyond lie in bed the majority of the time, and it was obvious he was dying – and since he enjoyed squabs and other foul-smelling foods before his 'illness', it was assumed they were the cause.”

“Given a fair amount of witches actually die from eating High Meats, it's easy to see why they thought that way. Correct?”

“More than 'a fair amount', said the soft voice. “The consumption of High Meats tends to be one of the leading causes of death in witchdom, more so than violence or 'poison'.”

I came up from the depths perhaps half an hour before my posting, and again, I felt the unease. It was unlike anything else I had felt before, and when I took my place on the bench, I wondered for a moment who would sit with me. Steps came, these seeming to be on the verge of falling-down drunkenness, and first one man showed, then the other. Both of them immediately relaxed upon seeing me.

And my paranoia, which was already heading toward 'condition orange' before these men showed, instantly went into the dread zone. These people didn't even know about the hare, and more, they were from among my classmates. They were of the old 'sinecure' breed, those that thought this a safe job with easy money, and as they came closer, I stood.

They both then sat on the bench, much as if I had stood for them to take my place, then looked at me. Both seemed to have well-hid smiles behind faces of utter and complete 'normalcy'.

“You can't feel it, can you?” I asked softly, as I tested Hendrik's door. “Thank God.”

“What did you do, other than feel that door?” asked one of them.

“I was checking to see that he was all right,” I said softly. “Do you know where those guard-muskets are?”

The first of them nodded, then the second said, “how much are those?”

“I had my hands full with making them,” I said, “and money feels awful. I do not even like to talk about it, much less handle it.” I then had a question.

“There are three of those weapons,” I said. “I want one of you to fetch one of them, as I need to explain to you how they work.”

The 'younger' one of the two left and slowly walked down the hallway, then turned into the alcove. By the way he was walking, I suspected he would have trouble finding them; and when two minutes passed, I told the other man to remain at the bench and not move from it, and I went after the now obviously lost guard. I found him wandering, looking at cupboards in a drunken 'haze'; and I took his hand and led him – with an aspect of firmness, if not outright violence – to where the gun-rack was. There, I showed him the powder measures and sacks of shot for each gun, as well as the old measuring cups covering their muzzles to keep out foreign objects. He seemed 'doubly' impressed now, and and when I pulled out a small ball of string from my possible bag, he asked, “what are you doing?”

“First, carefully pick up one of those, uh, muskets,” I said, as I tied the string and began paying it out, “and then follow me. Do not cock it, or I'll thump you.”

My speech seemed to 'galvanize' him, for now his 'lax' attitude vanished; and faintly, I seemed to hear the ringing crashing of the true-step behind me as I paid out the string. I needed to explain to him what I was doing.

“If you need to go after those muskets in an emergency, seconds count,” I said, “and you took a lot longer than I felt was reasonable. Hence I'm laying this string so you – and some of those others who don't run that path at top speed multiple times a day so they can do it if they're too tired to think and half-dead from exhaustion – can find those guns and their supplies quickly. It's really important.”

Once I'd gotten him out in the hall, where the string ended, I let it lay, then removed the 'musket' from his 'sloppy' embrace and carried it back to where the other guard was supposed to be. He was gone, much to my complete terror.

“Where did he go?” I shrieked.

'Most likely to get beer,” said the other man. “Jurgen's about as thirsty as anyone I know, and he likes that Lion-Brew a lot.”

“I hope he consumes it slowly, as it is quite strong,” I said. “You never want to leave this bench alone, even if all of you on post become deathly ill and want to crowd the nearest privy. If that happens, take turns.” I paused, then said, “now, I'll show you how this weapon works, as it's not a flint-musket – and that's all you've ever shot before, unless I'm far wrong.” I looked, and saw a long sheathed dagger, one similar to what Gilbertus had, only much less good; and also, a pirate-special pistol.

“Shot in that pistol?” I asked.

“Yes, larger shot,” he said. “It works well on rats, but I've never had anyone try for me.”

“You'll need to smoke up their face then,” I said, “and then cut them open with that dagger.” I then 'popped the question': “are you prepared to do that if someone should try for the king?”

He nodded, though I could see substantial fear and no small amount of insincerity. I began showing him the lockwork, then after removing the cap, I had him 'feel' the weapon. His eyes began bulging.

“Yes, it does have a much lighter trigger than you're used to,” I murmured as he 'dry-fired' it. “Now I hope that other man gets his rump back here quickly, as we're expecting visitors soon, and I need to show him how this thing works and how it feels without him actually shooting it.”

I was having the guard dry-fire the gun – both from the shoulder while using the sights, then from the hip, which I explained as being an emergency measure when nothing better was possible – when the other man appeared. While he was not close to 'drunk', I could tell he'd had more 'Lion Brew' than was wise, and I had the first man explain the intricacies of using a short musket in guard situations while I watched them both. I then had them both put the weapon away, and that 'on the double'.

Both of them ran, and as I watched, their drink-fueled clumsiness was obvious. These people needed real training, like something that I'd heard of but never endured due to handicaps I was born with or had acquired in childhood, and as I took out my ledger, I yelled, “move your sorry behinds, you people! People are getting killed out here!”

They both turned the corner at a dead run, and when they came up to me, they were both panting. They then saw my ledger, and with one of them sitting to each side, I silently – and this while longing for ear corks to help my concentration – began writing a new chapter in the book upon the behavior of lunatics.

It dealt with training; and while it omitted much of the 'nonsense' that I'd heard military organizations did where I came from – especially saluting; I deliberately left that out – I strained to recall the other parts. “Deliberate flat-down in the mud?” I thought. “Not the way that wretch did it with us. Now maybe if someone was tossing harvest-day squibs, and we were running around in the forest out back with padded poles so as to get used to something like real fighting, maybe – but not the way that wretch was doing it. Not realistic enough, and for the wrong reasons anyway.”

I wanted maximal effectiveness in combat, and a high level of paranoia-level vigilance in guards. They needed to watch themselves – in fact, they needed to watch everyone – and as I wrote of the need to have overlapping shift changes, especially during the crucial second and third shifts, faintly, on the edge of my hearing, I heard someone scream – a loud,long, and tremulous scream. I stood, this abruptly as a missile ready to fire, all forgotten save this one need; and I said to the others, my voice cold as dead iron: “do not move until I return. Someone is hurt, and I need to go help them. When Anna shows, send her after me the instant you see her. She's coming, and will arrive shortly.” I then laid ledger and pencil down, and ran down the hall to my right.