Now it can be told, part two.”

“That finally brings me to the last portion,” said Hendrik. “Rachel is up here in the area, but she is currently hidden somewhere in Ploetzee, which is about the safest place for someone like her in the first kingdom right now. Where you live now, however, is quite crowded, if my informants have not exaggerated matters.”

“It is that,” said Anna.

“Hence, another house will be built for the two of you once you return from that trip across the sea,” said Hendrik. Sarah and I were the ones meant. “It might look outwardly like the common, at least for its shape, but I suspect it will be somewhat larger.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “Larger?”

“Not markedly so,” said Hendrik. “I was told it needed to be larger, and that by a source I dare not question.” A pause, this to drink, then, “inside, though – it will not be anything close to the common – and again, I heard it from that very same source.”

This time it was Sarah who wilted. She asked, her voice sounding as fearful as I had ever heard it sound, “why?”

“Because neither of you are commonplace,” said Hendrik. He was smiling, at least for a second. His face then turned grave. “The pair of you currently have enough trouble that you do not need to have more of it later – and given how things are around here now, and how they promise to be in the months to come...”

“He was speaking of a vast herd of witches coming in droves, all of them with their fetishes and their fowling pieces, and the place would nearly swarm with coaches when they came,” said Anna.

“Precisely my point,” said Hendrik, “and that smelly woman to the north someone named Ultima Thule promises to but add to that trouble, as those people up there are as hungry as starving dogs.” A brief pause, then, “at least that name is in the Gustaaf. I dare not speak her real name, as that is a curse – both when written in runes and when written conventionally.”

“Uh, a question, sir?” I asked. “Has anyone spoken about soap?”

Hendrik smiled, then said, “you're but the fourth person today to mention it. Someone left this strangely-shaped bar of soap in a bag labeled 'for laundry', and it's been used up. Now, would you know where to get more of it? Maria insists upon its use for her clothing since her underclothing was done with it.”

“Yes, as we... Oof!”

Anna had elbowed Hans, which had cut him off most effectually. She then said, “he” – here, she indicated me – “spoke of something involving that armory, as it's vented to the outside, and that soap needs long slow boiling. Then, there was this word that Sarah had to explain to me, but I know about how the equipment and materials of war costs money – and I know about how this place could use a steady income of its own beyond what little running the post brings.”

Anna paused to gather her 'ammunition'. She needed to pause, as her next statements promised to be troubling. I knew that much, if but little more.

“It might not have the numbers inside it of the second kingdom house proper, nor spend a tenth of what they do, but grapes do not grow up here, and that place makes and sells enough wine to get every witch that lives stumbling-drunk every day of the week and double-drunk on Sunday.”

Hendrik was now staring at Anna. I wondered if it was her speaking of witches and drunkenness.

“I suspect that room would work well for manufacturing that soap, sir,” said Sarah. “At least, where they once had the forges would serve well for that task. Then, there are several guards who would like to have places for their things, and finally” – here, Sarah paused – “those people who've been ordering your powder smell bad enough to remind me of stinkers and bugs.”

“I suspect she could find better powder, sir,” I said, “and I think a small barrel from this one man...”

“Speak no more,” said Hendrik, “as you've answered a long list full of vexing problems, including the one Maria finds most vexing.”

Anna handed over a small cloth bag, then said, “I'm not sure where to find another large copper pot like that one we found, but Sarah can hide in it – and you almost want one that big. Or do you?”

“That depends on who is doing the work.” Hendrik again seemed 'confused'.

“Karl, for one,” said Sarah. “The chief trouble with that soap is securing potash, niter, and lye, and then cleaning those chemicals. Once suitable supplies of those are available, then it's merely a matter of grinding or cutting up bars of common soap, adding those chemicals in the right proportions, then boiling the stuff for some hours and putting it in these flat boxes so it cures. A dull knife the day after it's poured will section it into bricks for use, and then a few more days to dry fully until it's ready.”

“And the house will smell like a soap-mill,” said Hendrik morosely. I could see him asking for 'boogers'.

“No, it won't,” said Sarah. “The smelly part of soap-making is done by those you buy the original soap from. We boil ours in the kitchen at home, in fact.”

“You m-make this stuff?” gasped Hendrik. It was a first for him.

“Yes, it and this other type, though that one is more for bathing if you do not get dirty much,” said Hans. “It feels good on the skin, and then making it makes much of this really good syrup...”

“Which is used for blasting oil, correct?” said Hendrik.

“And the skin of babies, should they chafe much,” said Anna. “The two of them make that stuff, as Hans has not yet learned to be sufficiently careful to make it come out nearly as well as they do.”

“Uh, that one place where the niter was claimed for the crown?” I asked. “That place has...”

“A great deal of niter,” said Hendrik. “I was told you not merely did that, but also stopped a coven of witches that was aborning.”

“Those people were thugs and thieves,” spat Sarah, “and they stole half the first kingdom's niter for the last two years.”

“Perhaps we can, uh, clean that stuff also,” I said. “Carefully cleaned niter makes for better powder – and giving that niter to the local powder mills at nominal prices...” I was thinking of 'top-grade' powder at 'fourth-rate prices' for both shooters and cannon-masters. The people buying the material for the house seemed to have other ideas about powder – chiefly 'top-grade prices for fourth-rate powder'. I wondered if someone was 'skimming' some of what was being paid out, as that did seem likely.

“You'd best be careful with that stuff if someone marked cleans it,” said the soft voice, “as it will no longer be 'common' powder, but something closer to what that one man sets aside for shell-filling and double-strong guns.”

“Just use a smaller measure, sir,” I said. “It's what those guard-muskets are loaded with, and...”

“It leaves less soot in one's barrel, also,” said Sarah. “Two-thirds of the usual amount is what I've used, or a bit less than that if I must use what is common where we live.”

“That is from that larger keg,” said Anna. “We have a smaller one with the usual grain.” A brief pause, then, “I'd let Tam oversee matters, as he's supposedly been wanting to do something like that for time out of mind, and I know he can manage money at least passably.”

“Probably better than the person in the house who does it now,” said Hendrik. “Did you say he smelled like a stinker also?” This last was directed to Sarah.

“Gabriel may act like he's cursed, sir, “ said Sarah, “but comparing him to those men is like comparing someone ridden by a bad fetish to the witch who is riding him.”

“Like that one stinky clerk that was a witch,” I muttered. “He hid himself so good that no one suspected him, not even me, until he tried something here in the last day or two.” A pause, then, “do you know why Gabriel was so irritable when he left earlier?”

“A ten-day's worth of work that needs doing in less than a week would be my guess,” said Hendrik. “Otherwise, it might be nearly anything. He's been irritated lately, for some reason.”

“That, and what he said as he left,” said Sarah. “I quote, 'ignorance is godliness is a witch-authored lie that is used to keep us enslaved', finish quote. I tried to explain what that meant to him, but it seemed to dig under his skin like a measuring cup full of biters dumped into his trousers.”

“You did that, didn't you?” said Hendrik. “I heard about the year all of those bad lecturers were cleared out of the west school, and how they could not abide in that place while you were there.” A pause, then, “oh, with all this other happening I nearly forgot. Your marriage will happen in the back area here. No church is big enough to handle that many guests, and they're coming from every kingdom save the fifth. They've too many witches down there still to travel up here safely, or so I've heard.”

Sarah and I both needed leading out by the hands, for now, neither of us were even slightly well. I felt acutely ill, and Sarah looked as if she desired to live in a privy for an extended period of time. Once outside the door – those guarding it were still making frequent trips to and from the nearest privy – Anna said, “that last part was almost like out of an old tale.”

“W-what?” I gasped. I was but vaguely recalling the need to investigate the upstairs regions. A dust-mound could wait a few minutes more, I suspected.

“They did that in those old tales,” said Hans. “Now we can stay for a little while, so as to help people that are sick bad from that witch, but we will need to leave then. You two can stay longer.”

I wondered for a moment what Hans had meant until Anna said, “the parents would choose for their children, and marry them off when and where they wanted so the parents got what they wished out of such unions. It isn't like that now.”

Hans looked at Anna as if she was out her mind, then said, “yes, unless you speak of where witches are common. They still do things like that.”

The two of us, still led by the hands – much as if we were small children – were taken to the refectory, and there, Anna fetched two jugs. She then dosed both Sarah and I before urging us both to 'get into some beer'. I was too 'numb' to object; and after Sarah got half a mug down, there was no stopping her. In my case, it took but little more, and between us – and multiple visits to the privy; I did not spew, but I did need to 'add glycerin to the nitrator' several times, and I suspected Sarah did the same – we nearly finished what had been a mostly-full jug.

“Ah, now you two look better,” said Hans. I felt better, and a look at Sarah showed her to be better as well.

“What was that you gave me that one time recently?” I asked.

“I added a spoonful of the bull formula to that vial of tincture,” said Hans, “and about ten drops of that tincture for pain. Anna normally uses it now for dosing Georg when there is too much noise and he is hearing cannons again.”

“That's when it's not too bad,” said Anna. “When the swine came, he needed that stuff and the tincture for pain, and then all the beer he could hold before he was near his normal self again.”

“Knobs? For his clubs?” I asked. I could clearly picture the things in my mind. A drawing for a suitable pattern would be easy to do, especially given the carpenters could easily turn the slightly oversized wooden pieces and I could assemble those into a 'tree' for 'mass casting'. “A brass butt-cap?”

“I am planning on checking on how those things are coming,” said Hans. “They are planning on making him three of those things, so you will need three sets of everything, and a few spares would be wise, as he might lose some parts off of his club if he smells another big grunter.”

As I walked to the first-floor stair landing with Sarah, I wondered about getting my own 'swine-club' – only I wanted one that wasn't half again as large as a Louisville Slugger. One two-thirds the size of Georg's sounded about right, only for some reason, I wanted one done much as Georg was having his clubs made.

“Yes, for strength,” said the soft voice. “While you could swing one of Georg's clubs, and do well with it, they tend to be a bit unwieldy if you're not planning on smashing pigs bacon-sized and larger.”

“You would not have cracked that club he was using had you thumped that last pig,” said Sarah as we took the second-floor roundabout.

“Would the pig have noticed the club?” I asked. I suspected 'big grunters' had uncommonly hard heads, which was why a bullet in the head from a rifle able to reliably drop elk was the best 'medicine' for them. The stairs seemed to now have springs built into them, for we went up these stairs quicker than the first flight.

“I think so!” said Sarah. “That pig would have had no head left, and you would have left splinters of that club sticking out of its body, you would have hit it so hard.”

“But I s-saw this weird shadow or something like it, where Georg looked like he was a cave-dwelling thug,” I murmured. I wanted to say 'Oog' for emphasis, the recollection was so strong. “He was so big he could have thumped Goliath in the book and turned him into mush!”

“I saw that battlefield two days after the third bridge,” said Sarah, “and there was one of those people who'd been split in half lengthwise by an ax, and that at a single stroke.” Sarah turned to me as we came to the stairs, then asked, “did you do that with both hands, or just one?”

“One,” I said. “My left hand, which is the weaker one, though less so than it used to be. The sword was in my right, and it was doing business then also.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “If you get a club, I'd suggest making the thing out of your best iron, as you'll destroy anything less if you swing on a big grunter.”

“Uh, no big grunters, dear,” I said. “If I see another version of 'the father of swine', I am putting lead into its head, just like I did with a sizable pig in the fifth kingdom house. I was thinking more of, uh, prodding Shoeten out of my way and perhaps thumping larger rats if any of them should show.”

“They do not show up here,” said Sarah emphatically, “not unless someone...”

I moved Sarah to the side as we came to the third floor landing, then I reached for my rat club. As I brought it out, she looked at me, then whispered, “do you smell a rat?”

“Uh, yes,” I said, “or rather, I feel a rat – and this thing isn't the usual eight to ten inches in the body, but closer to something I shot in the fifth kingdom for size.” I paused, then, “this is the exact reason why I want a club like I'm thinking about – rats that size won't do much afterward if I thump them with it.”

I turned around, then not thirty paces away, a sizable yellowish-white animal shot across the floor as if it were jet-propelled.

“Oh,” squeaked Sarah. “That was one of those nasty white rats, and it was twice the size of a common one for the first kingdom!”

“Imported by our gone-to-dust witch, no doubt,” I muttered, as I drew my revolver. The club would be for close-work, while if the rat showed itself again, I would put some lead into it.

Another blur of white showed, and I aimed and fired. The screech as the animal tumbled and began thrashing and biting at itself was enough to make for nightmares on my part, but when the other rat came back at a scrambling run and began attacking the wounded rat as if crazed, I rushed closer. To my left, I heard another gunshot, then as I came within fifteen feet, both rats ceased their fighting – and as one, both leaving sizable trails of blood on the stone floor, they came for us.

I fired another shot, which hit one rat somewhere near its spine, or so I guessed, as it became very slow and its back legs ceased working, while the second rat received another revolver bullet 'somewhere' as Sarah shot the thing. It then sprung into the air, and as I swapped hands on gun and rat-club, the rat drew closer...

Time was now slowed to a crawling pace. I had not noticed the change before.

I swung on the rat as it leaped once more, this time like the one in the fifth kingdom, its charge shoulder high as it passed me. Sarah was but feet behind and to my left.

I swatted it down and out of the air as if it were a fly. It hit the ground with a bounce that carried it nearly to my knee, then hit the floor again and rolled twice like a rotten log while screaming like an over-speeding die grinder and squirting blood from everywhere. It then died.

“What did you do?” squeaked Sarah.

“I hit that rat,” I said. My voice was breathless, and high-pitched with excitement. A rat-charge was not a joke.

“I know that,” said Sarah. “You broke that club.”

I looked at the rat-club I had just ruined, and noted that only the lead portion was holding the two wooden parts together. The thumb-thick lead was bent into an 'L' shape “Cheap wood, I guess. I think there are spares of these – or are there?”

“After we deal with that witch's place, then I think we need to go to the boatwright's shop and tell them about you needing a smaller version of one of Georg's clubs.” Sarah checked her pistol, then said, “I think that other rat is either dead or close to it.”

“Or shamming,” I said, as I threw the broken club at it. The rat screeched when the club thumped it and bounced off; it then suddenly 'woke up', but it had 'eaten' too much lead to do more than manage a painfully slow limping crawl. I walked up to it, then with the heel of my boot, I crushed its head. The noise seemed to ring in the air for nearly a second as the rat screamed and then died.

“Good that I was wearing boots today,” I murmured. “Now, I wonder how we clean up these messy things?”

“They won't go rotten in minutes, so unless finding that witch's place is going to take us several hours, I would suggest leaving them and speaking to the cleaners once we are on the ground floor.”

“The blood, dear,” I said. “Both of these things left blood on the floor.”

“I-I d-didn't see that before just now,” said Sarah. “I was so concerned about that witch's things getting into the wrong hands...”

“I see, I think. Our witch's closet has 'bags' of bad fetishes.”

“He thought them to be 'bad fetishes', and he sold them as such to gain money, but these are second-rate gray-metal money-medal castings done in the late unlamented Swartsburg a few months ago.”

“Bought cheaply, then carefully trimmed up with a knife, a few small files, and possibly then burnished with a wooden piece and some, uh, cutting rouge to get that 'selling shine'. Correct?”

“That and strap them with a collection of rouge-loaded leather straps,” said the soft voice. “A couple of such 'medals' a month sold to new-minted wearers of black-cloth nearly doubled his income, and his profit margin bordered on a hundred percent.”

“He doubled his money?” I asked. I was still looking for a cleaner, as I suspected one was somewhere nearby on this floor.

“He bought 'waster' castings,” said the soft voice, “and then turned them into unusually 'fine' money-medals. His total cost was perhaps two guilders per piece, and his price was typically twenty-five to thirty times that – hence nearly all of what he received for those things was profit.” A brief pause, “be glad his kind is currently so rare in witchdom.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah, “and I smell lye, which means a cleaner is nearby. Do you know where this person is?”

“Lost and somewhere over there,” I said, pointing to the 'promenade' and the halls branching off of it. “I doubt he – no, she – will stumble onto what we're after, but... Why would a cleaner be on the third floor?”

“The first three floors receive semi-regular attention, though the third floor is such a 'warren' that most non-regular visitors need a string tied to the promenade railing to not get lost,” said the soft voice, “and she was a bit overconfident.”

“Hence first find her, direct her to the mess...”

I had been looking at the more-perforated example of white rat, and now, for some reason, I noticed what it looked like.

“That thing looks more like a short-haired half-grown albino squirrel than a rat,” I thought. The resemblance to those three-foot long electrified loud screeching things with the speed of a wayward rocket was unmistakable – and the fur?

“White? That thing's looking like it's due for a bath in laundry soap!” I thought. “Thing's more yellow than white where it isn't dusted with gray or black guard-hairs, and what gives with these big hind legs and that hairy paintbrush tail?”

A black paintbrush, at that. It set off the off-white yellow-tinged black-streaked color of the rest of the animal all too well, and though my boot had destroyed its head, it was obviously a lot blunter in the snout than an earthly rat.

“Bigger, too,” I thought. “Look at those claws! They've got to be nearly as big as those of a bobcat! And those teeth are no joke. Big Mama would have been trouble if she had ones like this thing.”

“Unlike most cats found here, these animals routinely use all four of their claws and their teeth,” said the soft voice, “and the comparison of a three-foot example with a leopard is accurate regarding their danger and lethality.”

“These things came for us like we were in their territory,” I muttered.

“White rats have no such things,” said Sarah. “Haven't you ever seen a rat before?”

“One big fast-moving blur in the fifth kingdom, dear – oh, and another smaller blur in dim light a few days after I came here,” I said. “This is the first time I've seen one that wasn't moving like it was riding a skyrocket, in fact.”

As we left in search of the cleaner, Sarah said softly, “I would not speak that way around my cousin, as she might fetch a larger skyrocket and tie a rat to it, and then set it off.”

“Why?” I asked.

“She might think it amusing to see a flying rat,” said Sarah. “I once stuffed one of those things into a cannon, though I told her that worked poorly.”

“What, you tried shooting a rat out of a cannon?” I asked. I could feel the cleaner in her wanderings; we were getting steadily warmer. I stopped to light the candle in the full-riveted lantern, then adjusted the wire for 'full brightness'. “This hallway, here – about half way to the main wall, then a left turn, second room...”

“Yes, I did,” said Sarah, “and I had to spend much of an hour cleaning that gun out afterward.” A pause, then, “it may have been Harvest Day, but rats are not corncobs, even when they've gone stiff after dying.”

“You?” I asked as we turned the first corner in question. That cleaner was lost with a capital 'L' – and had resolved to let someone else find her, rather than try to find her own way back. “A cannon?”

“I've served on gun-teams before,” said Sarah, “and save for actually shooting them at swine, I've done nearly everything Willem might do with his three.”

“Uh, no pigs?” I asked.

“Those had already either left the area or had been stopped that time,” said Sarah, “and the gun-teams had enough hurt and wounded that anyone who had shot guns before was wanted. I had, so I was the pointer for a fresh twelve-pounder with a tight bore – his best gun, in fact.”

“Pointer?” I asked.

“The one who aims and then fires the gun on the command of the cannon-master,” said Sarah. “I'm glad I'd had as much practice by then, as I had to cut the fuses for those shells as well as aim the gun and fire it, and I was getting good bursts over those thugs when they showed.”

We came to the area in which I had indicated we needed to take a left turn. It was dark enough in this area that part of the woman's task was setting lit candles prior to beginning her actual 'cleaning', and when I came to the corner in question, I heard someone female say, “thank God you came. My candle went out when this big rat tried for me, and while I drove it off with my broom, it put my candle out.”

“Big rat?” I asked. “Did you see what color it was?”

“No, because it was moving too fast and was entirely too friendly,” said the woman as she relit her 'lighter' candle from the one in my lantern. “When I heard gunshots, I was hoping I would be found soon. I'll bring string next time for certain.” She then noticed my lantern.

“That is not running distillate,” she said, “as I can smell the wax. What gives with that thing?”

“It's something of an experiment,” said Sarah. “We'll want several more of them for clearing the Abbey, and that is to be as soon as the needed supplies can be secured.”

“One for each person who goes, dear, if I have time to make that many,” I said. “Speaking of rats, there are two large dead examples making something of a mess near the third floor landing.”

“There are?” she said. “If these rats are half as big as that nasty thing that tried for me was, they'll need at least one person each to clean up the mess – which means two more people at the very least. Let me go and whistle for them.”

The woman in question, now with three lit candles lighting up 'her' hallway, went to the 'main' hallway and walked steadily toward the railing of the promenade. Once she came to the railing, she seemed to 'gather herself', then a high-pitched screech nearly made me jump out of my boots.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A smaller fourth-kingdom whistle,” said Sarah. “They tend to be hard on the ears and need a lot of cleaning, but they carry well.”

“Cleaning?” I asked, as I led out of the hallway as running feet came from far below and the woman resumed with her candle-replacement and lighting. This was the rule, I now knew: candles were replaced in full, or close to that level, prior to cleaning an area; and then, they were more or less allowed to fend for themselves, with those using the area replacing those that they needed to see by. Little-used areas, hence, were often poorly lit – and unused areas tended to be dark indeed.

“They are of a poor species of brass, usually,” said Sarah, “and they are often somewhat dirty when sold, hence they need regular cleaning so they don't leave a bad taste in one's mouth. My cousin made them for sale, which is what got her interested in jewelery once she found no preacher wished her assistance.”

I came to the place where the hallway joined the promenade, now no longer distracted by a lost cleaner – and I heard the feet that had been rushing below now coming up the stairs. I waited for the inevitable yells, and when they came from the right, Sarah – who had come beside me – said, “good. Now we can find that place.”

The place – we were getting warmer – was not in this main hallway, nor in the next one. I could see the end of the promenade as we passed the last and final 'main hallway', then as the promenade ended but thirty feet away, I saw suddenly another hallway, this one poorly lit and much narrower than those fifteen-foot-wide 'main' hallways we had passed. There was a fair amount of dust in its corners, even if the central portion of the floor had little dust.

“That looks likely to hide a witch's things,” said Sarah. “I wonder what it was used for?”

Is used for, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Currently, cleaning supplies for this part of the third floor, for the most part,” said the soft voice, “and in two of those rooms at the very back, long-term storage of privy rags for this floor's handful of privies.”

“And behind those boxed and bagged rags lies the opening to our witch's witch-closet,” I said. “That dust-mound will be not ten feet from it.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “More like three feet. He was reading a passage from that book before putting it away when you sent him where he belongs, and he didn't have a chance to either close his door or put the boxes in front of the door so as to hide the opening.”

“How?” asked Sarah. “How fast did he..?”

“Not quite as fast as a certain witch in the fifth kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “He was able to scream as his body went rotten.” A pause, then, “that witch in the fifth kingdom went to dust and bone-chips so fast he was gone before his weapon hit the floor.”

“I could barely count two, though,” said Sarah as she followed me into the narrow hallway. Its dust seemed to remind me closely of my recollections regarding the Abbey. “If the Abbey is this dusty, we will want face-rags for it.”

“Dampened with, uh, diluted soap-syrup, twice-folded, with ties to hold them in place?” I asked.

Sarah all but screeched, then said, “that's what Liza uses should she need to attend to sick people.”

“Uh, they did something similar where I came from,” I said. “Now does this place across the sea do that?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “They commonly go much further, and that's when they're not doing actual surgery or dealing with contagion. For that, they use special clothing in addition to the more-common things.”

“Special clothing?” I asked.

“What Anna saw when she spoke of all these people wearing burn-clothing,” said the soft voice. “That was prior to the war, and at least in some places there, they go beyond that level now.” A brief pause, then, “though within a few months, they'll be going far beyond that level, and then they'll be doing the real stuff.”

“Uh, gloves?” I asked. I had the picture of elbow-length rubber gloves of a soft and pleasing light blue color. Unlike common rubber gloves where I came from – medical-grade or otherwise – these things were not merely very pleasant to wear, but they did not affect one's manual dexterity or touch in the slightest.

“You'll be very surprised,” said the soft voice, “and very glad.”

The number of side-passages – no doors to any of them, and the lantern I held was more or less all of the light we had, as the whole hallway had but two candles burning, and it was fully as long as the others we had gone past – was enough to make for wondering at the volume of cleaning supplies intended. I suspected that the usual was to buy those supplies that 'kept' well in large quantities so as to secure the lowest possible prices.

“That's what's supposed to be done,” said the soft voice, “but those people that Sarah spoke of being smelly, while not witches nor supplicants, think so much like witches that they might as well have sacks full of finger-bones tied around their necks and strong fetishes in each pocket.”

“Re-education isn't a workable option, isn't it?” I asked.

“If you had several years, ample money, and people to do their work while you redid the entirety of their schooling from beginning to end, then that would be a valid solution,” said the soft voice. “The only workable one at this time is to attempt to limit the damage they can cause as much as possible, which is why your speaking of soap-boiling in the former armory got to Hendrik as much as it did.”

“As in 'they've been ordering the fourth-rate powder'?” I asked.

“And much else,” said the soft voice, “and while they've not been 'skimming' those monies disbursed, they are so wed to the practices of witchdom that the end result is identical in regards to wasting money on useless products.”

“Including the kickbacks they get,” I said. “Common practices among witches, correct?”

“Such 'business bribes' are very common among those wedded to witchdom's practices, and the end result is they often get a few percent of every order they send to a witch-run firm.” A pause, then, “in contrast, were they 'skimming', they'd pocket more than fifty percent of the amount disbursed, rather than the small 'gratuities' they receive months after the order is delivered.”

“Timed just right so as to remind them exactly who to order from when their too-small quantities of overpriced supplies run out,” I muttered. The end of the hall was up ahead, and I wanted to look in the left doorway at the very end. It seemed fitting, it being 'the left hand path' that was supposedly the desire and goal of witches.

“That, and the right side doesn't have any such hiding places,” said the soft voice. “That door and hiding place, on the other hand, was put in long before that witch was born.”

“By who?” asked Sarah, as we came to the doorway in question. There was a faint odor in the air, and it took me seconds to recognize it as the reek of death. Our witch may have died in a few seconds, but he took some few minutes to go to dust, unless I missed my guess.

“A good deal less than that,” said the soft voice. “That smell is from that crock he used to make 'tincture of rat'.”

“I thought for a moment, then said, “let that crock go to one of those places that sell witch-food somewhere to the north, and send it with a label indicating it's 'prime squab' or something similar.”

A faint 'thump' came from the room, then Sarah looked at me. “They will be most surprised when they open it, won't they?” she asked.

“Especially as that 'tincture of rat' is now fully as potent as the ones spoken of in the black book,” said the soft voice. “That place is going to be selling a great deal of poison in the coming weeks.”

“Where did it go?” I asked.

“Somewhere a good distance to the north and west,” said the soft voice. “There's a big witch-run 'food shop' up there, and that crock just got dumped in one of their larger 'Cauldrons'.”

“Which means that riveted and patched pot is... Oh, my,” I gasped. “That thing is going to contaminate everything they make in it until it's melted down for scrap!”

“And given that most witch-foods are prime culture media for 'old style tincture of dead rat',” said the soft voice, “witchdom's fortunes in the first kingdom just took another big hit.”

“Good,” said Sarah, as I led the way into this long, narrow, and dusty room. I could see a faint trail, however, and while I looked at this trail for trip-lines, I saw no such things – until suddenly, behind a box, I saw a mound of dust perhaps five inches high and a bit more than a foot and a half wide; and not three feet beyond it, an old wooden door, complete with old rusted hinges – and beyond it, a 'walk-in closet' perhaps five feet deep and perhaps the same wide.

“Bigger than that, as that thing is 'T' shaped, and all of those walls inside are lined with shelves from a foot above the floor to head-tall on yourself,” said the soft voice. “Our witch kept all of his 'witch-supplies' in there, including his notes, those books, some other books nearly as expensive, and then his own supplies of sundry materials.”

“Including his escape-supplies,” I said. “Not only well-hidden, but planned ahead better than most.”

“Those were a recent addition,” said the soft voice. “He started getting those when you planted Koenraad the first's head, and continued that work steadily since that time, knowing he would need to leave on short notice; but once the hall went up, he knew he'd best be ready to leave between two days.” A brief pause, then, “he suspected you would try for him in due time, but he had no idea you could do what you did.”

“Is that written of in those old tales?” I asked, as I shined the light into the place.

“It's hinted at in a handful of places in a small number of tales,” said the soft voice, “but what happened with those people then and what happens with you now are two very different things – and that gap, while large now, will become much larger in the foreseeable future.”

I was still wary for traps as I looked inside the 'closet' but for some reason, I knew that the witch placed uncommon trust in both his ability to hide the place and his secretive nature. He normally only visited this place during those times when the house was 'dead'; and my slaughter of the bulk of his compatriots had 'jammed up' his routine badly, so much so that he was here when he normally would be 'working'.

“That, and he was planning on leaving tonight,” said the soft voice. “He knew that without the other clerks, his job would no longer be the sinecure that allowed him to hide the truth so readily. He'd actually have to work – and work hard – and he'd be found out in very short order.”

“But I thought he did a better job?” I asked.

“He did,” said the soft voice. “He did more and better work than the other clerks, and that difference in his favor was not trivial.” A brief pause, then, “given that they did nowhere near what honest men could do – or even what he could do, were he to work at 'clerk-work' close to the eight or so hours clerks usually work in the first kingdom – he had a lot of free time.”

“And those three men will be working fourth kingdom hours, unless I miss my guess,” said Sarah.

“Not quite that many hours, but their hours will be substantially longer overall than nearly everyone else who works here, at least for a while,” said the soft voice. “They will quickly learn to work more efficiently, and then their hours will be much closer to what they were, if still longer than the usual for here.” A brief pause, then, “of course, they will be 'on call' most hours of the day as well – so those men will be living on the premises during the whole of the 'business week', more so than they did in the past.”

For a moment, I thought they would be working my hours – as well as my days; that last portion really spoke to me that way – and I took a step into the closet with the lamp held out in front of me. Within seconds, the sense of 'heat' reminded me of another such closet long ago, and as I turned to the right at the end of the 'T', I could feel myself getting warmer to those three books in question. I then shined the light directly at the middle shelf as steps came closer.

“Those...” Sarah squeaked. “Those aren't the usual ones, but the really b-bad ones!”

“Yes?” I asked. “The bad ones? You mean the ones that are 'genuine' copies, and not the ones that are 'sold' to lesser or 'dumber' witches?”

Sarah nodded dumbly, then said as she pointed to the books in question, “those were written by Cardosso himself, as I can see his mark right there.”

“What?” I gasped.

“She's right,” said the soft voice, “though there are actually three grades of those books: 'bad copies', which have much of his content replaced with fanciful witch-nonsense, 'better copies', which have mostly his writings – and the type you see there, which are either copied carefully from the original batch Cardosso himself printed for his 'most-trusted associates' – or, rarely, they are of that original press-run, and hence are not copies, but originals.”

“Those look to be the last type,” said Sarah, “as the original batch was said to have that mark there.” Sarah was pointing to the black-printed crowned serpent on the spine of each book.

“The originals would be dust by now,” I said, “or would they be?”

“The originals would have true-mule skin used for their binding,” said Sarah, who then touched one – and instantly drew her finger back. “Th-those there are o-originals, not copies. They feel faintly greasy to the touch.”

“Exactly correct,” said the soft voice. “Of that original batch of several hundred, you are looking at one of about ten full sets of the originals that remain in genuinely usable condition.”

“And worth a king's ransom to witches,” I said. “Only that one trunk would have cost more.” A pause, then a question: “how did he get that kind of money?”

“Somewhat by theft, more by various subterfuges, and mostly by years of careful-yet-intensive investing in witch-run 'loan-schemes' – as in he would turn his money right around and reinvest the whole of it as soon as he could,” said the soft voice. “Then, those selling thought those books to be merely 'better copies', and priced them appropriate to such 'copies', rather than originals. He, of course, knew exactly what they were the instant he laid eyes upon them, and paid the seller's price with but little bargaining, as was the custom for what they were selling.”

I passed my lantern along the 'book row', and was astonished: here there were 'commentaries' on the contents of 'Ye Large Blacke Booke', those being the exact spelling I saw, as was proper for the worst type of the written format; a 'grammar', this being on 'Ye Writtenn Formatte', and finally, a four-volume set which Sarah spoke of as comprising a special type of word-book.

“Not a normal word-book, but one that essentially gives the meanings of the words used in the written format. Correct?”

“Not merely the common meanings, but also those meanings used in Cardosso's writings – and by extension, an insight into the thoughts of many prewar witches,” said the soft voice. “That four-volume set is almost as old as that three volume set of Cardosso's notes, and was also 'commissioned' by him, even if he did not work on it much prior to dying.”

“As in, 'this batch of books might not be a big black book, but it gives clues as to what's in those books'. Correct?” I asked.

“Much more than just clues,” said the soft voice. “The larger black books might have the core information of witchdom, but if you have little knowledge of the ways and means of pre-war witches, what you see is essential to getting a true grasp of what is in black books of any size.” A brief pause, then, “Cardosso was the last witch to truly understand what those people were like, which is why his books and those others you found here are considered so essential by 'serious' witches.”

“But without those commentaries, and that wordbook...”

“They're very hard to understand,” said the soft voice, “as they're not merely written in an especially difficult version of the written format, but also, those 'code-words' that are so commonplace in the written format have an entirely different meaning in both Cardosso's books and the larger black books compared to their currently-used forms.”

“And he had a large copy, didn't he?” I asked.

“Yes, and it was not merely old, but also 'inked' by every witch who'd had it since its printing five hundred and eighty years ago. It was the only thing that was truly cursed of all that he had, and it was controlling him almost as much as that original money-medal once controlled Hans. It might not have 'made' him a witch, but it magnified his once-feeble interest in becoming a witch into raving lunatic hunger once he 'stumbled' onto it.”

“Which was where its previous owner hid it, which was somewhere near here,” I murmured.

“In this precise closet, in fact,” said the soft voice. “He was looking for a hidey-hole so as to put things he was pilfering at the time, found this place mostly by 'accident', found its key tied to the door handle, unlocked it, looked inside – and the only thing present on the then-dusty shelves was that particular book, which had been the property of the king prior to Hendrik. He touched that thing, and from that time forward, there was no turning back.”

“Did the king put it there?” I asked.

“It was one of the last things he did before dying, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and he did so as an act of repentance. He crawled and stumbled back to his bed unnoticed by those incompetents then surrounding him, knelt down at his bedside, said his last prayers, and died in that position, still kneeling, with much of the bed wet with his tears.”

“And...” I said no more. It was not for me to judge others, and that sounded like 'a last minute reprieve'.

“Which is exactly what it was,” said the soft voice. “Witches do see the light on occasion, though it helps a lot if they haven't made their bones.”

“That does not happen often,” said Sarah. “I've heard of but a few people doing so, if one does not count those who were on the council.”

“The total number in the last century, for the whole continent, is well under a hundred,” said the soft voice, “and of those holding bones, that group of them that once formed the council were the first bones-holding witches to turn from witchdom's ways since the reign of Cardosso.”

“And it's likely to be the last such bones-holding batch ever,” I said. I then clamped my mouth shut, for I had spoken 'sacrilege' or something possibly worse yet.

“No, you're absolutely right,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom can feel that day coming, as much or more than you can, and in the months to come, that gap that you've felt growing between man and witch is going to grow steadily wider.” A brief pause, then, “it's already become much harder for witches of any kind to turn back, and the slightest inclination toward the ways and means of witchdom tends to grow stronger much more readily – and quickly – than it did even a few months ago.”

“When will it end?” I asked, as I resumed looking at the other things in the witch-closet. I had no idea where to put the books beyond 'somewhere safe' at this time, and as I looked over the other things I saw – tools, clothing of sundry types, what might have been cooking equipment – I realized that the chief matter would be to somehow retrieve the library and secrete it safely. Much of the rest, if one did not include raw or part-worked money-medals, or the witch's tools to work on them, was commonplace enough to avoid undue comment.

“No, not where we live,” I thought. “We get enough visitors that the mere sight of such things needs to be avoided.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice, “and at least some of those visitors are very superstitious as well as extremely ignorant. Your concerns about the books, however, are valid.”

“That one room,” I thought. “The one with the marked door. They'll be safe in there.”

Sarah looked at me, then without a word, she began looking in her bag for a sack. “We'd best remove those things,” she said, “as those Generals don't have anything near enough taste for strong drink to stay put yet, and they will find this place within a week's time at the most.”

“Hence I'd remove everything in this place to that one room, and then trap this location with one of those small round bombs,” said the soft voice. “Removal of the entire contents needs to happen today, while trapping can wait. It needs to happen soon, however – a week at the very most.

“Today?” I asked. I knew it was important, and I'd make the time after hearing what I'd just been told.

“Sarah underestimated both the inquisitiveness of those people and their desire for their own hidey-holes like this one,” said the soft voice. “They might not be thieving yet, but such thoughts have occurred to them more than a few times in recent days – and mingled among those 'commonplace' things are items which are not commonplace save among witches. They all need careful sorting to find those things which are not safe for 'general consumption'.”

Sarah found a bag in her things, while no such bags were in my possible bag. I then recalled where we were.

“Bags?” I asked. “Just across the hall, in some of those rag-bins. There's some there – a little moth-eaten, perhaps, but there are some bags.”

“Moths do not eat clothing,” said Sarah as she began 'stuffing' her one bag with the three red-brown Cardosso volumes. “Those things that do eat clothing do not fly.”

“I was thinking of a saying from where I came from,” I said. “I meant 'they're somewhat worn, with perhaps some small holes in them'.”

I was glad for the relative nearness of that one room, as Sarah and I labored in the dark and dust filling bag after bag full of 'witch-junk'. The amount of 'gray-metal' the witch had in his 'supplies' was well over a hundred pounds, and his 'tools', while of poor quality in my estimation, were obviously sufficient for him to accomplish his desired goal of two or three 'grade A' money-medals a month.

It was also obvious to me that doing so with such equipment 'ate' much of his time, as poor tools, even in the hands of an expert – someone better than myself, namely – usually meant a poor outcome. I was 'clumsy' enough to need the best tools I could get my hands on, at least before coming here. My manual dexterity had improved, and that tremendously, but my thoughts still ran in that direction.

“That man was not even close to that good,” said the soft voice. “He managed to achieve a decent result with those tools in much the way Hans does with those things he manages to do adequately: slowly, with much patience, a lot of practice, a huge number of 'tossers', and more than a few 'accidents'.”

“He sold those 'accidents' at lesser rates,” I said.

“Again, much like Hans does with those things that tolerate such practices,” said the soft voice.

Sarah took out one of the castings, and nearly spat with disgust. I looked at the crude casting, then said, “first, add some tin to that stuff, as they stinted that when they cast these. Then, get a 'good' one for an example, and make a 'good' pattern. Play with that pattern and its gating and risers until you get the stuff to run with no shrinkage or voids...”

“Which is what the 'better' foundries have already done,” said the soft voice.

“Then, make a pattern-board,” I said, “one that permits molding multiple instances at a single time. Tweak it till you get all of the castings filling right once you do that, then...”

“You've already gone beyond what they do with your last statement,” said the soft voice. “Were you to cast them, you could turn them out such that a quick trim with a three-corner knife, some brief filing of the sprues, a quick run over the buffing wheel, and they'd be as good as his best – and 'cleaning up' those two or three medals a month were taking up most of his 'office' time.”

Sarah looked at me, then said, “more gray metal for that strange stuff you haven't had time to do yet.”

“It's not merely the lack of time, dear,” I said. “Part of it is the fumes... No, most of it's the fumes, and not just that someone might get sick from breathing them.”

“Yes, you would get sick,” said Sarah. “I hadn't thought of that, but sometimes it almost seems like you're smothering for air.”

“When?” I asked, as I bagged up some old clothing the witch had piled on a shelf. While the stuff looked 'wearable, if somewhat worn', I suspected it was better made into paper than torn up into rags. Our witch had done some bad embroidery to the inside of much of his 'escape-clothing' and 'adorned it' with runes for 'protection'.

“Yes, individual runes,” said the soft voice. “Be glad you can bag it up and hide it, as while it's not cursed, to show it openly at this time, save to burn it, would be most unwise.” A pause, then, “those clothes are an example of those things that are only commonplace among witches, and hence needing sorting.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah, “and the same for that gray-metal stuff. It almost needs – what would it need? A special furnace of some kind?”

“To do the alloyed material in quantity, yes,” said the soft voice. “Experimental amounts could be done in an open setting, but his breathing the fumes to any degree isn't a good idea.” A brief pause, then, “though when such means becomes available, you will desire to run as much as you can of that stuff.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Lock-plates?”

“And door-pulls, and cabinet braces, and small machine parts, and 'chemistry clamps', though those will wish either plating or special painting,” said the soft voice. “Note when I said 'chemistry clamps, I did not mean just those like you did for Hans. I meant 'all types of chemistry clamps', including all of those mentioned in those chemistry books. Then small parts for hand-tools...”

“That is a great deal,” said Sarah. “I'd almost want to play with that stuff, save it will fume.”

“Yes, before it's alloyed,” said the soft voice. “Suitably alloyed gray-metal will only fume noticeably if it is drastically overheated. If you can avoid that, then the cautions appropriate to casting bullets suffice – and castings of that material are but slightly more difficult than casting good bullets, given decent molds. More, it can be readily sand-cast, unlike lead.”

“Permanent mold castings,” I muttered, as I shouldered the first of the bags and wished for a cart. Sarah did the same, and we went out of the room with the little lamp shining brightly. Still, however, I wanted a cart, and as I led over the 'tricky' way through the narrow path that led to that one room, I said, “I hope we can find a cart, as carrying all of that stuff is going to be a pain in the stomach.”

“A cart might not make it,” said Sarah. “If this room is near where I think it is, it won't fit in at least some places.”

“Even part of the way?” I asked.

“I think it unwise to leave these bags out where they might be seen,” said Sarah. “This might be slow, and it might leave both of us sore enough afterward to want my uncle's Geneva, but I suspect it to be the best way for everyone, us possibly excepted.”

And with this, I gave up my longing for a cart. I knew she was right, much as if the soft voice had spoken audibly and not merely into my head.

I soon learned why: those who had removed the rats were now working in the area, and while our carrying bags of 'loot' from one area to another could be answered by Sarah with a short phrase or two, I knew that leaving a cart of such bags out near these people would inflame their boredom-driven curiosity – and them knowing what we were removing would not be good for them, especially given what had recently occurred in the house.

“Witch-thinking at its worst,” I thought. “When will it end?”

“I am not sure about here,” said Sarah, “nor about many of those working at the Abbey, but I do know this: anyone who uses medical equipment that is that strange is most likely not going to think like a witch at all.”

“That strange?” I asked.

“Yes, those odd drain things,” said Sarah. “No witch would want anything like that, at least no witches here would wish them, and the same for those glass things with the needle on the end.”

Opening the door to the empty room needed my touch; and with each such use – and a dose of oil – the lock seemed to free up further. Our trips – at least twelve, both of us carrying as much as we could – each took close to ten minutes to wind our torturous way though the narrow and darkened passages to reach that room; and while the cleaners looked askance at us, and asked a few more questions, it was possible to answer them with, “this is important stuff, and it was really dangerous where it was. It will be much less so where we are putting it, as it will be safe there.”

The talk in my wake spoke of bombers and their cares, and I let the matter go at that. If they presumed we were indeed carrying bombs, they would give us ample room to work, or so I though until we came back for what looked to be the last loads of the witch's stuff. This included an old pistol of the pirate-special species, a leather sack of very bad shot, and a powder measure that looked worse than Hans' original for appearance and was worse for functioning.

“They're all gone,” I muttered, as we went back to the small room at the end of the narrow hallway. “Why did they do that?”

“They, as you suspected, thought that you were moving bombs or related matters,” said the soft voice, “and what that one huntsman said is but the smell of that mule regarding common attitudes toward 'bomber's work'.” A pause, then, “your ways with traps are known of to a surprising degree, and the gossip that goes along with that portion of your reputation means that any time you might be dealing with traps, people want to keep their distance.”

“The fifth kingdom..?”

“Your experiences there added to such thinking to a considerable degree, especially those traps involving matches and sticks of dynamite. Recall Liza's talk and the 'alarm' of the others, as well as your own seemingly cavalier attitude, much as if you did such risky things regularly?”

I nodded, even as I began to thread the maze of passages needed to reach that one room. I was glad Sarah was behind me, as she had the last load – the pistol and its equipment – and I could tell she either was sore, or would be sore in very short order. More, I was starting to feel sore as well.

“That 'alarm' of the others you saw then is magnified drastically in nearly everyone who works in the house proper when you speak or hint about bombing supplies,” said the soft voice. “Hence, they've gone two halls down the promenade in hopes that if something explodes they won't get scattered.”

With the last load 'secured' in the room – there were varied-sized bags piled in rows, each one being easy to get to when it was 'time' – I closed the door for the last time, then we went back to that one room. With the witch-closet empty, I closed the door, and found what might have been an ancient and time-eroded key somewhere close to the dust-mound. A touch of my finger, and the thing itself went to rust and powder to mingle with the witch's dust.

“I guess it's best to just leave this be,” I thought. “Those cleaners will arrange this mess to suit themselves when they next come in here, most likely.”

The trip back all but demanded we take the long way home, for Sarah's cloth shop was but a half mile north of the start of the High Way and a few miles west of that place. Our pace was such, however, that when we stopped in a small town just off the Westwaag about two miles east of 'the main road' for watering, beer, and a loaf of bread, Sarah said, “that was faster than the post manages, and no mistake. I'm glad we have this buggy.” In lower voice, “I hope they do not steal it while we are gone.”

“There's nothing like it locally, so if they use it, it will show up readily,” I said.

“I was not thinking of common thieves,” said Sarah. “I was thinking of witches, and them doing that simply so that they have it and we do not.” A pause, then, “I suspect there was more than merely the idea of 'strong fetishes' that had those witches buy what was in that trunk; they wished to have them so as to deny them to others, as they do not want sick people to be helped.”

“True, even if the fetish value of that equipment is substantial,” said the soft voice. “The shop will be back to normal tomorrow, so work can resume then if you're up to it.”

“You're still sore from all of that, aren't you?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, some,” I said. “It should get over soon enough.”

The fabric store was in a town that seemed nondescript beyond the usual for towns in the area, and while I had been in a few of these places where I came from, I was not prepared for the way of this place. The woman at the counter recognized Sarah immediately, even if her icy glare melted instantly when she saw me. Sarah asked for 'a roll entire of cloth such as I am wearing', and though the woman and her two 'boys' made a grumbling noise worthy of a morose grizzly bear, she did as Sarah asked. I paid the woman's fee, then carried the cloth out to deposit it in the buggy.

“They don't much care to sell to you, do they?”

“Usually I had to have someone else do it for me, if I needed to buy from that place,” said Sarah. “Them seeing you, though – I think that they were unwilling to try such behavior with you handy.”

“That one town?” I asked. I was thinking of the place with the four would-be witches selling stolen niter.

“Talk of that has spread faster than you might think,” said the soft voice, “and while that distance isn't trivial, gossip travels nearly as fast as the post does in the central part of the first kingdom – and that's for commonplace gossip. What you've been doing lately to witches isn't that kind of gossip, and that wastes no time whatsoever in spreading.”

We 'wasted no time whatsoever' in leaving a place that felt like a witch-hole for thinking, if not behavior; and as we once more struck the main road headed north, I wondered just what Sarah would do with an easy twenty and possibly more uncommonly wide yards of cloth.

“First, traveling clothing, and not merely for you and me,” said Sarah. “Every one of those people who go on that trip will wish a padded cloak with a quilted lining, as the sea is colder than you might think it to be, at least up here. Then, there are trousers and shirts that need warmth as well, and finally, some sundry-sized drawstring bags to be made with the scraps. I'll be busy enough with sewing such things that I'll be wanting one of those small riveted lanterns, if not two of them, and both of them for that one room where I've set up my things. I've got some long days ahead of me, and my hands will be cramping at least some evenings.”

“And I need to make some candle-molds,” I said, as I wondered if I could rub Sarah's hands regularly.

“I would check the carpenters to see if they have your patterns,” said Sarah. “I know that they've been doing those as well as the pieces for Georg's buggy, as they've needed to have parts made over on Houtlaan.”

“The sleeves!” I squeaked.

“They'll most likely fit those things, if time permits,” said Sarah, “and those shops are doing the wooden parts to those wheels, so at least they'll be decent.”

“Will I need to assemble them?” I asked.

“You most likely will wish to make their tires,” said Sarah. “Those other men make too-thick tires, then fit them loosely, which means weak wheels that fail if they must endure rough roads or heavy loads.” A pause, then, “and I would use that iron coming from that one furnace to do those if I could, as it is likely to be especially strong and hard.”

“He'll want that,” I said. “Now those pieces for his, uh, irons?”

“Those can most likely be in the form of bar,” said Sarah. “If a regular fourth-kingdom buggy shop does those, then I can draw their preferred shape and size of metal.”

What Sarah drew, once we were home and the cloth hidden in that back upstairs room where she had her 'sewing closet', was a long thin bar, this about an inch and a half square in cross-section and roughly eighteen inches long. I suspected that this bar was a 'stock' item, and that a cast piece closer to the desired raw forging would be closer – as my sense was they presumed such bar would be wrought iron, and they cooked and folded it multiple times before beating the resulting 'hard-iron' into shape.

“No, that size and shape will work,” said the soft voice. “Their forging dies presume something similar in dimensions, and when they do use wrought iron for a starting point, they get the finished piece of metal into that size and shape before working it into the final product.” A pause, then, “that size and shape of bar is a stock item in that area, so if you send those down there, expect a regular business in such billets.”

“With that steel?” I asked. I had the impression that what I would be sending down would be closer to 'tool steel' to most places outside of the Heinrich works and some of their 'closer' customers.

“Remember, many places either back their pieces off to 'to the changing of all colors', or do no heat-treating whatsoever. With that stuff, it won't matter nearly as much as what's commonly used, at least for strength.”

“Can I heat-treat it?”

“I would,” said the soft voice. “A normal redness, a quench in oil warmed to near-smoking heat, followed by drawing to a solid purplish-blue color. That will make very strong and tough parts that will stand up to anything Georg can load on that buggy.”

“Can load?” I asked.

“The wood will fail before the irons do,” said the soft voice, “and if you blacken the finished pieces, then he'll have a good buggy.”

I resolved to 'teem' such steel tomorrow, and early in the morning, I fetched one of the bars of cast iron Georg had set aside near the furnace indoors. As I made the bar-molds indicated by Sarah – open-faced things, each good for a full crucible's output – I wondered just how I would load up the crucibles, and more, how I would pour them. The bar would need sawing into pieces, I knew that much.

“I have long tongs,” I thought, as I finished the last of five molds. I wanted a spare 'just in case'. “I'll need to go out back to look through the Norden-scrap.”

It wasn't until the morning guzzle that I had four crucibles sitting on the shelf in the furnace, with a load of charcoal steadily heating both furnace and crucibles. I wasn't running the blower yet, as I had need of boiled distillate, and wondered briefly how to manage 'superheat'. I then saw a small 'tin' funnel, and I bent its 'snout' and added a small piece of copper tubing. I put this tubing such that the distillate would drip onto the inside of the blower's inlet.

By lunch, I had added more charcoal, and the inside of the furnace was a bright red. I brought the blower near on its skids, then began building up steam. I set the blower to run at its lowest steady speed, and as the cracks of the furnace showed first a brighter red, then an orange, and finally, a dazzling white, all this over the course of an hour's time, I then knew it was time to 'run things up' and then pour.

I uncorked the small jug of boiled distillate, then using a spoon, I began to spoon the stuff into the funnel after I cracked the valve on the blower. Its steady humming 'burped' every time I put a spoonful of distillate in the small funnel, but with each such dose, I could see the whiteness in the cracks becoming steadily 'harder' and 'sharper'. I glanced around, and saw that I was now the only person in the shop, and when I wiped my brow, I had an idea as to why.

A half-dozen more spoonfuls, then scoop the charcoal from the blower and toss it into the nearest forge, then drag it back out of the way. Open the door 'remotely' using one end of the tongs, then, with near-closed eyes, remove one crucible-lid at a time, place each glowing lid in the forge...

I needed to hurry: I poured all of the crucibles within minutes, and the burning white-lot liquid was making the sand 'smoke' as I closed the door and then buried the crucibles and lids deep in the burning coals of the long forge. I put half a bag of charcoal atop them, then resumed my normal work while the four bars and their slag-covered 'tributaries' cooled.

Nearly half an hour later, the others returned, and one by one, they looked at the still bright orange-red bars of steel. The tributaries, these some eight inches long, made for wondering, especially as to their potential use, but when I spoke of trying them out for knives prior to shipping the bars south, Georg asked me why.

“So I can give them some idea of how that stuff is going to behave when they forge it,” I said. “It most likely isn't anything they're used to dealing with, as all of the slag and garbage in that material floated to the top when I poured those molds.”

“Yes, and that means they will be stronger,” said Georg. “Will you cook them when they return?”

I nodded, then said, “I was given instruction as to what to do.”

“Good,” said Georg. “I was needing new axles and hubs regularly, on account of both distance and loads, and those loads are much heavier than they were, which is why I'm asking for added timbers for that buggy, as well as an extra foot for its length.”

“And a four-horse team?” I asked.

“More hay and grain, but more speed when you've got a lot of deliveries of things that weigh much,” said Georg. “I'll need to buy my grain by the keg when those come.”

“Come?” I asked. “You're not fetching mules, are you? No 'Genuine Plugs'?”

Georg glowered at me, then wagged his finger. “I thought you did not tell jokes, but I see that those who said so were liars.” A pause to drink, then, “no, these are a matched pair, and from the same farmer the other two are from. I'm hoping they will pull well as a team, as those deliveries are not getting less for weight or distance, I tell you.”

Fire-watch ran long enough for me to finish not merely the liniment distillery, but also cut out the brass pieces needed for four more of the 'catalytic lanterns', and as I tapped out brass rivets using my 'updated' rivet swage for six-line rivets – I had copied the ideas over from the larger pair, and the speed at which I did such rivets now was such that five or six finished rivets a minute was 'slow' – I wondered just how many lanterns of that nature I needed. I would have a total of five with this batch, but Sarah needed two for her sewing, at least temporarily; and I suspected that 'more' would be a good idea, at least for now.

“And I need to cast those candle-molds,” I thought. I then glanced up from what I was doing and saw some obvious patterns upon Georg's desk.

“Those are the ones I need,” I thought a short time later, as I began 'collecting up' bronze bits for a melting. I would do a pour of bronze first thing in the morning, as well as mold up four 'candle molds'.

That night, I was working feverishly in 'batch mode' to do the four lanterns, and I had a late bedtime and an early rise. I was running bronze in a pair of the smaller crucibles by the time the others showed – not merely candle molds, but also knife-parts; those were a given when I was running bronze and had the room for them – and when I had finished with the pots in the long forge, I was ready to 'break out' the steel bars.

Only they were not inclined to break. A chisel, even one of my best, seemed barely able to manage a single cut before it had become dull, and when I tried a saw, I found that I needed tallow every few strokes, slow and gentle pressure on the frame, regular cleaning, and a fair bit of patience – as well as changing saws as soon as a blade lost its keenest edge. I finally managed to saw them up about the time of the morning guzzle, and while the large bars went in the 'out' region of the shop, their tributaries remained unto me. I had eight of them, each thumb-thick and eight to nine inches long, and as I set them in the long forge to anneal, I wondered: how would they forge?

“This stuff does not feel inclined to move much,” I muttered, as I banged one out at an orange-red heat just prior to lunch. “Perhaps it wants some blast for more heat.”

It needed a near-yellow heat before it moved readily, and as I moved the blade-forgings about under the blower's soft hum and the yellow-white glowing coals, I realized the others were staying well clear of me. Only when I began to 'anneal' the finished forgings in the long forge at a redness and had put away the blower did they think to come near.

“Best let those things sit until after hours in there,” I thought. I suspected they'd lost surface carbon, and I wanted plenty of that in them.

That evening, I had forged the eight to final size, and was rough-grinding their contours when a shadow came across the edges of my vision. I stepped away from the rapid-turning grinding wheel to see Sarah. She'd taken up one of the in-process blade-blanks.

“These are for those knives, aren't they?” she asked.

“Yes, and of that first batch of special steel, also,” I said. “It's especially tough, as it needs a yellow heat to move much on the anvil.”

“That sounds like steel teemed by the Heinrich works,” said Sarah. “I was told it was commonly forged to size prior to first grinding and filing to shape.”

“For their tools?” I asked.

“I suspect so,” said Sarah. “Georg's buggy, at least for its wooden parts, is nearly ready, and I saw those bars over by the door.”

“Will that be enough for his parts?” I asked.

“I suspect it will,” said Sarah. “I'm not certain what he's asking for, but if I were him, I would ask for parts sized for a postal buggy.”

“Which with that steel, would stand up to loads able to collapse a freight-wagon,” said the soft voice. “You have tool steel there, and not the common for it, either.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“When drawn to a blue,” said the soft voice, “that stuff will not only hold an edge worthy of a razor, but it will neither break or bend.” A pause, then, “however, if you draw it to a straw color, you'll have a material able to cut almost anything you're likely to encounter.” A brief pause, then, “next time, though, use those off-cuts of sword blanks and that swine-plate you bagged specially – and then, run nothing but such bars as you did.”

I did that the very next day, and as I stood fire-watch in the late morning, I continued to work on filling the accumulated stacks of orders. The slates were dropping off four and five a day now, even with Georg bringing in a few orders once more by some means, and when I went home at lunch-time with the first 'rough' example of dagger – it was an 'experiment', hence I had taken but little pains in its assembly beyond careful heat-treating and then roughly riveting on some roughly-sized wooden pieces – I wondered where I could carry it.

Or so I thought until Anna laid eyes upon it as it sat on my workbench, and scooped the thing up. She seemed to be looking at it as if wondering if there was a handy witch to poke with it.

“Best not let Sarah see you with that thing,” I said, “as she'll most likely want it also.”

“It's about the right size, even if it looks a bit less than your usual for finish,” said Anna.

“That's the first one,” I said. “I can clean it up a bit more, and most likely I will, but I wanted to show some people at the house.”

“Who?” asked Anna.

“Sepp and Karl, if they are handy,” I said. “We've got to run Frankie once more, and then it's the Abbey for certain a few days later. I'm still figuring out the lists of supplies we're likely to need.”

The trip to the house proper was completely 'uneventful' as I rode in close to a straight line across country by 'feel' and occasional checks of compass heading. I no longer bothered to remain in the shadows of woodlots, for now, it seemed, I could 'feel' danger at least a mile away, and at Jaak's normal speed, that gave me several minutes to deal with it at the least. In places, I could feel swine, these being domestic Shoeten; they were now growing 'wild', what with their normal feeders no longer in the area; and in one place, I saw a shadow of what might have been Miura grazing near a woodlot. The aspect of 'spring' was now in full flower. It made for a peculiar recollection regarding the women I saw most.

“Now where can I find those things?” I thought. “Sarah, Anna, and Maria each need a bunch of them.”

“Look for them on your way back,” said the soft voice. “You've got the 'dead sixth' for a very good reason, even if Karl and Sepp are planning on meeting with you during your shift.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “They going in the Abbey too?”

“It's a matter of 'volunteers', mostly,” said the soft voice, “and they were 'volunteered' as the most reliable of those available who are not wearing greens. Because it's a 'crown' affair, you'll need a crown officer going, and as Sarah said, Gabriel is the most reliable example you currently have access to.”

“He isn't that reliable,” I said.

“Those others would not go if were they asked,” said the soft voice. “He's willing to give it a try.”

“I'm not sure I'd want those others near me when dealing with anything of a dangerous nature,” I thought. “If you must deal with, uh, smelly critters, it's best to deal with ones you have some knowledge of over complete unknowns.”

“Which those others are,” said the soft voice. “None of them went to the west school, and all of them spent non-trivial amounts of time at Boermaas. Gabriel didn't go there longer than it took to find out that place was totally unsuitable for him.”

“As in the west school, a group of five, and then Boermaas?” I asked.

“With a big gap between the west school and the others, and a bigger-yet gap between Boermaas and the rest,” said the soft voice. “Boermaas is in a class by itself in so many ways that it's almost unfair to call it a conventional 'higher school'.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“Recall how people said Boermaas students not only did not traipse, but typically had no time off?” asked the soft voice. “That case, especially for many students there, is a gross understatement.”

“What, they don't leave the premises?” I asked.

“Sarah's cousin left once a year for the time it took her to get home, get resupplied with a year's food and sundries, and then return, and that trip was commonly using a four horse team pulling a 'copy' of a postal buggy with sleeved wheels, and days that typically began an hour before dawn and continued for two and three hours after nightfall – and that whole time, she had her books and ledgers and was studying while in the back and under cover in the light of two student's lanterns.” A pause. “She was lucky. The usual for most students, especially those wealthy enough to not need to import their own food, is to remain there from their first day of instruction until their very last day.”

“Last?” I asked. “As in 'they graduate' – or 'they die'?”

“Both of those events,” said the soft voice. “More, for the majority of students, Boermaas has a seven year period, not six like the other schools.”

“Why a year longer?” I asked.

“So as to 'break them of their folly and make them amenable to instruction',” said the soft voice. “They tried that with Sarah's cousin, but it did not work in the slightest – so they discharged her at the end of the sixth year, and left off that last and final year of 'instruction'.”

“With no papers,” I muttered.

“No, she received those,” said the soft voice. “The king had to force them to give her her papers, but she left with the full set.”

“They blackballed her, then,” I said. “They told every preacher her papers were rubbish.”

“They didn't need to,” said the soft voice, “as Sarah's cousin did not demonstrate 'correct' knowledge, 'appropriate' behavior, and proper 'deportment' – and almost entirely because she was unable to.”

“Unable to?” I asked.

“Much like you're unable to read facial expressions or tones of voice reliably here and where you came from,” said the soft voice. “Most honest preachers all but demand certain behaviors and ways of thinking in their 'hired' helpers so as to avoid trouble with their local 'halls', and the witches-in-hiding masquerading as preachers demand the exact same thing – namely, a person who can be two things at the same time: outwardly pious, and inwardly a treacherous and cunning wretch willing to do anything, up to and especially including murder, to see the will of their master fulfilled.”

“That sounds more like a witch rather than a wretch,” I muttered.

“It usually is,” said the soft voice, “and more, the local hall usually places such people, just like they determine which preachers go where, so the 'honest' preachers commonly get helpers who are bones-carrying witches of especial treachery and guile, with the goal of converting them into witches.”

“And those preachers who are well-hid witches?”

“They commonly get 'fully-owned witch-slaves' that are more or less ready to become bones-holding true-witches – and she was neither of those things,” said the soft voice. “Hence she could not get the job she trained for, and found work as a jeweler instead.”