What is this road called? continued.

I came to the shop and began molding in the light of the titanium lantern once I'd gotten a forge started, and by the time the others began filtering in about half an hour after dawn, I'd molded not merely the lathe parts we had patterns for – the bed, the carriage, and the bottom portions of both headstock and tailstock – but also, I'd done up several more molds for camp-ovens. Among those molds, however, here and there, I'd put an occasional 'Finnegan bomb' casting, these using a new and somewhat larger pattern; and when the others came in the shop to do their usual 'morning routine', I kept doing those bomb-casings and their tight-packed green-sand cores when and where I could find room for them in the flasks.

And as I finished and clamped each mold, I used a small loose-woven sack, this filled with some flour Sarah had fetched for me from somewhere or another, to 'dust' the molds.

As the molds finished, I could hear the others 'getting Frankij in the mood for business' – firing at a 'low' level had been done the night before with drop-wood, but now they were filling him with charcoal, with an occasional bag of flux for 'starting'; and by the time I was hooking up the blower, it was nearly time for the morning guzzle. I finished setting up the blower, with a load of wood shavings mingled with charcoal in its firebox. As I did a last and final check, Georg yelled at me to come in the shop from the rear door. He was holding up a jug and mug.

“Best get down all you can,” he said as I came inside. “People have been bringing scrap almost every day, and a good portion of that stuff is from Norden.”

“Your old scrap?” I asked.

“I have been looking it over carefully and having as much of it as possible bagged for the last week or so,” said Georg. “After this pouring, most of it will be gone.”

“Isn't that closer to 'almost all of it?” I asked.

“That is what I meant,” said Georg. “You said those plows were scrap, but we cannot melt them down yet as you spoke of needing patterns for their pieces, and the same for some other old tools that customers have brought in. Otherwise, it is bagged and ready for Frankij, and I hope we can keep up with him better this time.”

“Last time was our first time running that thing,” I said. “This time should be smoother.”

Again, my words were indeed prophetic, save for one matter: while we filled all of our molds, and used up all of our supplies of scrap – Georg said he would need to ask for scrap now, as we were indeed 'out' and black-cast by itself would not work – Frankie's appetite was such that he devoured all of what we had 'laid by' by an hour before lunch, and we were done by lunchtime.

Or rather, the work at the shop was done, and I was left to stand fire-watch in the front of the shop while I worked on draining another jug of beer.

“I had no idea how hard foundry-work was,” I murmured, as I finished one cup and began refilling it. “I must have lost ten pounds of sweat in two hours.”

“Seventy-three hundred pounds of 'number one cast iron' will do that,” said the soft voice. “Your foundry-session also started several pigs in the area, and more than one farmer is glad he took his 'pig-musket' with him while out looking over his crops for insects and animals.”

“Pig-musket?” I asked.

“The other local name for roers nowadays,” said the soft voice. “Hans wishes he could get more printer's lead, as he is running that Heinrich mould when and as he can.”

“That thing needs to be automated,” I spat. “Same for musket balls, only we aren't going to be using them in vast quantities in the future.” I then gasped, and asked, “what am I saying?”

“You're right, though,” said the soft voice. “Musket balls, at least locally, aren't going to be used much longer in real numbers.”

“Uh, swine-shells?” I asked.

“Those use printer's lead,” said the soft voice. “Figure on making a lot more slug-moulds, though, when you get back, as Georg has been getting a lot of people asking him about getting their guns 'freshened up' for the coming 'swine-season' – and Lukas' weapon has been getting a lot of notice lately.”

“Thimbles, also,” I said.

“Andreas has arranged for those to come up semi-regularly,” said the soft voice, “and Tam is now taking charge of that one room. He has already arranged for regular deliveries of 'common soap' and is talking to Hans about what is needed for producing that laundry soap in real quantity.”

“Good,” I said. I had my hands twice too full as it was, and we would be 'doing' the Abbey as soon as I could get a reasonably complete list of the needed supplies ready.

“Best let Sarah copy off your latest list so you can hand one copy each to Karl and Sepp when you next see them,” said the soft voice. “Both of them have some ideas, and you'll need to take time off from work to do that place.”

“Uh, not just me,” I said. “Don't those masons have some, uh, work to do – something involving 'surveying' that back lot and the area behind the rear wall of the shop? Perhaps a 'pattern-shed', like Georg was speaking of? As in every decent fourth-kingdom person in the area with the right equipment is tied up at the Abbey, and no one else locally has anything close to a single clue as to what to do?”

“That's actually planned to happen while you're on that trip,” said the soft voice, “but they've got their own ideas, and they have a far more accurate notion of what is involved in building what Hendrik has planned for the shop – and the Abbey – than anyone else he's talked to so far.”

“No fourth kingdom people?” I asked. “Did he talk to any of them?”

“Briefly,” said the soft voice. “They're a good deal less 'lost' than Hendrik is, but they're not in the same league as those masons.” A brief pause, then, “recall how the Veldters are able to do medicine beyond what you're familiar with?”

I nodded mentally.

“They aren't quite at that level regarding building,” said the soft voice, “even if their abilities are in roughly the same league as what you commonly saw exhibited where you came from.”

“And that's easily two hundred years beyond what's done around here.”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “The methods currently used in the first kingdom for building are closer to those of 'dark ages' Europe, while the fourth kingdom's methods are comparable to the time of the Franco-Prussian war – or perhaps a trifle later for their best people. None of those individuals are up here yet, by the way, even if some fourth-kingdom workmen have showed.”

“The kingdom house?” I asked.

“Should illustrate just how far standards have fallen with the increasing control of witchdom over this area,” said the soft voice. “Where you live is three times your chronological age and then some, and that building is roughly a hundred and thirty years older still – and standards were starting to decline then.

“I hope they stick to those plans Hendrik received, then,” I murmured, as I went out back to check the molds.

“No one touched these things,” I thought, as I moved among them amid heat appropriate to a large and well-stoked oven. The dusting actually 'worked', at least as a 'warning'. “I hope I can quit soon, as I'm done for working here today whether I like it or not.”

Fire-watch, however, continued for another hour, during which time all I could do was guzzle beer and go to the privy occasionally. I'd acquired the runs somehow, and the stench after using the facilities was worse than it had ever been. As I came out of the privy and 'ran' between the still-smoking molds amidst 'oven-like heat', I thought, “when next do we go wooding?”

“Sometime very soon,” said the soft voice. “It needs to be done before you-all clear the Abbey and remove its 'plunder', as time will be most pressing for all who will go on that trip between the time you finish clearing the place and when you sail – which will be a matter of days.”

A brief pause, then, “when Sarah comes for you, you can go home with her, but I would either check these molds yourself or have her check them once or twice more before sundown.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Witches?”

“Are not currently in the area,” said the soft voice. “Curious neighbors, however, are – and while Georg has been speaking of foundry work and its heat and hazards at some length during his meal-times in the Public House, some of those people think him to be exaggerating to a substantial degree.”

“Hence they will try to come back here and unearth a mold with red-hot iron in it,” I murmured.

“They will drop in their tracks due to the heat before they come even close to uncovering anything you did,” said the soft voice. “Three and a half tons is about twice what you should plan on doing in one session given the yard's current size.”

“Meaning... So that's why they had so much room at Knaadelmann's,” I said. “We put our molds far too close together!”

“That, and their crew is more than twice the size of yours, so they can spread out the heat among more people,” said the soft voice. “Finally, Frankie is a bit more efficient than their furnace, and his output shows it – both for quantity, and for quality.”

“What?” I asked.

“You got a lot more black slag out of that slag port this time,” said the soft voice. “Be glad someone will desire it – and that greatly – in the near future.”

“Yes, when we can make another run,” I murmured. “Now I'll need a precision level, and a lot more scrapers, and some odd-shaped surface plates, and then...”

I paused in my speaking, for now I was wishing for 'real' machine tools; as while a lathe could supposedly 'duplicate itself', the lathe in question needed to be a good deal bigger than the pedal lathe I had at home. Even with me jury-rigging that device, small pieces were still all it could do, while lead-screws were not small. Even those things that passed for them on that machine were larger, at least for length, than its capacity.

“I do not want to cut those by hand,” I muttered, as I recalled the 'extreme hand labor' of the drilling machine. At least it was still tight in the right places, if otherwise beginning to go loose to a degree in its bearings. “I might have to do some work on the bed by hand, but it would be nice to do that part the easy way. Still, I'll do what I need to do. At least I have three good chisels.”

“You'll want more of those also, with wider and narrower blades,” said the soft voice.

“And every lathe part needs to be stress-relieved at some length over a slow wood fire, and I'll bet my original three surface plates are about due for touch-up,” I said. I almost expected them to be perceptibly warped.

“The last portion of what you did to them is all they need,” said the soft voice. “They haven't warped nearly as much as Hans expected them to.”

“Bad castings in the first place?”

“That, and he spoke to workmen who wished to have 'steady work and plenty of drink',” said the soft voice. “That one shop he saw did fetishes, as most shops with surface plates who need them do not trust others to do decent work.”

“Most likely because they usually don't,” I muttered between gulps of beer. “That place was filled with plain-dressed witches hiding out in plain sight.”

“Supplicants, anyway,” said the soft voice. “Half-hearted supplicants, but supplicants – and otherwise, they were treating what they did like potent fetishes, complete with all the usual nonsense that goes along with treating your product as if it's alive and 'magical'.”

It took a bit for me to digest what I had just heard, so much so that I had time to visit the privy again. The mad dash through the smoking wasteland with its oven-like heat made me glad that the runs seemed to be finally finishing – and as I returned to the shop, the 'fetish-grade surface plates' were still much upon my mind. It made for another question, and I asked it softly, in a voice but slightly stronger than a whisper.

“Meaning 'looks only' – or were those things usable?” I was refilling my mug as I asked this.

“They could be made usable with modest difficulty if their customers did what you did and purchased a set of three,” said the soft voice, “but they would need a lot more work to be kept in 'suitable' condition, unlike yours.”

“Meaning 'clean those I did up perhaps once a year'?” I asked. I doubted 'fetishes' could do so well, after what I had been told about the three I had done – and besides, I spread my work around among mine and wiped each one with an oil-rag before putting it back in its place in the stack.

“After this next time?” asked the soft voice. “They might need that if you use them a lot. Otherwise, perhaps every other year – though I would not worry over-much about cleaning them up after you 'pin-point' them this next time.”

“Why?” I asked. “Something better?”

There was no answer, but again, my speaking had 'informed' me at some level. I'd only have to do those particular surface plates entirely by hand once more, and I might have to do some hand work on the lathe. Why, I wasn't certain, beyond 'perhaps I can get it done overseas' or 'perhaps there are tools somewhere'.

“That, and a 'toolroom grade' lathe needs a better building than what you currently have at the shop,” said the soft voice. “That needs building and setting up before you put that lathe in action.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “Georg has no idea about that, and I might have a small one.”

“And those masons have a much better one,” said the soft voice. “Recall how one of them spoke of an 'electrical-worker'? They have 'machine-workers' also – and while none of those people you've personally met have done that work, they've seen it done a fair amount – and some in their 'colony' are 'machine-workers', hence they have people they can ask should they have questions about how to build a suitable 'dwelling' for that lathe and those other tools you have planned.”

“Something like the sand-house, you mean,” I muttered.

“Yes, with a foot or more of mud-brick on the outside walls for insulation,” said the soft voice, “or for the Valley's really precise stuff, in locations underground. It stays at a steady – and somewhat chilly, compared to the surface – temperature there.”

“A foot or more of m-mud brick?” I asked. I hoped we would not need that.

“It's closer to 'low-burned brick well-leavened with chopped brush',” said the soft voice, “though it does resemble 'mud' from a distance. They'll high-burn those bricks if they are to be used here, and then 'whitewash' them afterward to 'seal' them. They have that material dry-mixed in barrels, and how they've been getting it up here without people being the wiser is a deep and dark secret.”

“Insulation,” I murmured upon recalling the words regarding 'low-burned brick with chopped brush'. I'd seen and used such bricks where I came from for my welding table. “They don't have air-conditioning in that place, do they?”

“No, but they do have deep cellars under most of their dwellings,” said the soft voice, “and they do have effective evaporative coolers, and that outer layer of 'mud brick' is a very good insulator, and then that outermost layer of 'whitewash' that's commonly used helps to no small degree.”

“The inner layer?” I asked.

“Is brick similar to what the sand-house is made of,” said the soft voice. “Windows tend to be small, somewhat narrow for their height, and well-sealed with leaded panes of glass, with deep 'embrasures' to protect them; while doors are a bit smaller for width than what is common around here – and they too seal up well. El Jefe does not like dirt in his house.”

“The houses aren't individual family dwellings, are they?” I asked. “They look like what's common in Eisernije – or do they?”

“Similar as to concept, and a good deal neater as to execution,” said the soft voice, “and more, such buildings are very deceptive as to outward appearances. Eisernije looked to be mostly mud huts because those dwellings more or less were mud huts. A typical Veldter 'settlement' is not merely quite a bit larger than one of those 'houses' you saw in Eisernije, but it's a lot neater-looking externally – and if you went inside most of their 'rooms', you'd be truly surprised as to what they have.”

“No carpeting, of course,” I said. “Too hard to keep clean.”

“They do have rugs, though,” said the soft voice, “and decent furniture. You'd recognize it instantly as to form and function, if not the materials used.”

“Leather, uh, couches?”

“In some places, yes,” said the soft voice. “The usual 'couch' is closer to a sizable leather or heavy cloth sack filled with small turned wooden beads, much like some 'bag-chairs' you've seen in the past. El Jefe values comfort to no small degree.”

“Wooden beads?” I gasped.

“Much of the fifth kingdom's smaller wooden products, especially those they need in true quantity, come from the Valley,” said the soft voice, “and wood-cutting 'runs' are not rare in the northernmost settlements.”

“They have wood there?” I asked. I was surprised that anything of a 'tree' nature grew in a place that dry.

“About forty to fifty miles north of the Valley's northern border through a nearly uninhabited region,” said the soft voice, “and in that sparsely-populated place, they can cut wood.”

“And if they have to haul the stuff on mules, then it's obvious why they want to make smaller things,” I said. “Just like me trying to haul wood on one of those, uh, things I sometimes rode in the past.”

I could not recall the precise name of the vehicle to save my life, even if I could recall its rump-bursting seats, its horrible suspension, its abrupt starting and crash-like stopping, and its thundering too-loud 'semi-civilized' smoke-belching engine.

“At least those engines were reliable,” I said, “unlike those awful things they use in the fifth kingdom.”

“Were those engines made to similar standards, they would be a good deal closer to what you recalled,” said the soft voice. “They would still explode occasionally if they were running distillate, unless that distillate was carefully processed.”

“Boiled?” I asked. “Or would they still go up now and then?”

I had the impression that 'boiling' needed to be replaced with 'complete reformulation' to give an essentially 'totally synthetic' fuel. Then, and only then, could such engines be 'tamed'.

“They would be tame then because they would not run,” said the soft voice. “Tame engines, at least in the past, did not use the heat of compression for ignition.” A brief pause, then, “they used other means.” What those other means were seemed a mystery until I recalled a handful of rough drawings I had made over the last few months. They were mostly scattered in the last two ledgers, as well as my current one.

“Or external combustion,” I said.

“Yours, if not abused unduly, are quite tame,” said the soft voice. “They have a very wide margin of safety. Those made by Machalaat, however, need everything that Sarah spoke of and then some to be truly dependable and safe to use, which is why they tend to be seldom used outside of the central portion of the fourth kingdom.”

“Knaadelmann's made their own pair,” I muttered. There had been two of them, I now realized: the one blowing the furnace was dedicated to that task, and the one for the inside of the shop was used for those machines in there. The machine-shop engine was the same size, or so I suspected.

“Yes, over time, as the parts from the original engine failed in service or wore out,” said the soft voice. “More, they did not just copy the parts in triplicate – they wanted not merely another engine, but also spare parts for ready replacement – in most cases, they either improved them to a degree or completely redesigned them.” A brief pause, then, “if they saw your latest one, though, they'd scratch their heads and wonder how it held together at those speeds.”

“How does it hold together?” I asked.

“Partly the way it's made,” said the soft voice, “and then partly the lubricant that's being used, and the bulk of the reason why is its actual design.” A brief pause, then, “it's not a 'trial and error' device, unlike those of Machalaat – whose 'design methods' for its engines are much closer in concept to Hans' chemistry 'innovations' than they're inclined to admit.”

“What?” I gasped. This time it was audible.

And in the distance, faint footsteps. I felt the jug with my hand; it was nearly empty. I needed a bath, I now realized, and then a nap; and as I looked at the stacks of slates, I was astonished. They were still sizable, but they were a lot smaller – and the actual number of stacks was half what it had been when I returned several 'weeks' ago. The backlog, essentially, was nearly gone, as this was the 'busy time', or the start of it – and 'summer' here tended to be busiest, what with the greater amount of daylight and the amount of time customers were using their tools. It made for a question.

“How long have I been back?” I asked.

“Thirty-three days,” said the soft voice. “It's felt like less than that, hasn't it?”

I nodded, not noticing the steps and their rapid pace. I could almost 'smell' Sarah coming, even with the less-than-fragrant reek of hot iron turning the local environment into 'high summer', and when she came in the door, I noted she had her right arm filled with what looked like clothing. She then sniffed.

“How much iron did you pour?” she asked.

“T-too much,” I said. “I'm still feeling dried out, and this beer-jug's about done.”

“You need more than beer, then,” she said, as she somehow took my hand and began leading me to the doorway of the shop. “You need to be drowned in a tub.”

“Drowned?” I asked,

“Yes, soaked thoroughly,” said Sarah. “The first kingdom might not be thought to be the place for heat-sickness, but I have endured it enough in my traipsing and seen it enough in others to have an idea as to what it does and how it feels like – and it needs warm water to start, then colder until you feel less ill.” A pause, then, “you have the runs, don't you?”

“I d-did,” I said. “I didn't spew, but I did have to visit the privy with some frequency.”

“If they have stopped,” said Sarah, “then you most likely kept it from becoming too bad. The worst cases of heat-sickness causes the runs and spewing until the person looks like a old goat-sausage, and they do well to survive then.”

I was glad Anna did not see me when I came home, and the calming presence of warm water helped get me into the tub, as did another jug of beer. The door opened to the bathroom within minutes, however, and in slid a bucket full of water with several sizable chunks of ice floating in it.

“Put that in a dipper at a time,” said Sarah's door-muffled voice, “until you can think clearly again. Drink as much as you can hold the whole time, as Anna says you're most likely very prone to such trouble.”

I did as instructed, and as I added the last of the ice-water to the bath, my brain suddenly 'came back to life' and I developed a thirst so intense that I began pouring the beer down as fast as I could drink the stuff, all the while rubbing myself with the 'rag-hunk' dipped in the now 'cold' water. For some reason, I also knew I needed no small amount of salt.

“Anna's getting some herring ready for you,” said the soft voice, “and I would rest as much as you can until this evening.”

“And check those things?” I asked.

“Sarah can do that,” said the soft voice. “You were not doing at all well in that shop, especially near the time she fetched you. Be glad you'll not have to do that again without appropriate protection.”

“And no more huge batches of iron,” I muttered.

After one fillet of herring – and five tinned cups of beer – I was ready for bed, and I staggered up to bed to there collapse upon the mattress as if a falling log. I awoke at dinner-time, and as I sat on the couch – I was still weak, if otherwise now well – Sarah came in the door.

“I had to warn off several people who said they thought the place was on fire,” she said. “I suspect they were lying to me.”

“They're ignorant of foundry work?” I asked. “What, did they think we ran brass and chanted like a pack of witches while wearing bad fetishes the whole time?”

“That smokes much more, and is much quieter, at least for the noise of the furnace used,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, you might be right.”

“That we did witchcraft instead of pour iron?” I asked.

“I am not certain if that was happening or not,” said Sarah. “I am certain that those people looked to be ridden by strong fetishes, and only by my pouring buckets of water on their heads did they seem to wake up enough to then ask questions and understand my answers.”

“And then you had to escort them home,” said Anna's voice. She was coming from the kitchen, and I could smell both soap and soup cooking.

“How often is she cooking soap?” I thought idly.

“As often as can be managed,” said the soft voice. “Tam's already arranged for something similar to a group of 'ovens' like some of those you saw in use on that trip to be built in that one room. Those masons are glad of the work, as two more of their countrymen 'made it' up here recently, and both of them did their share of brickwork before they left.”

“Of firebrick, correct?” I asked regarding the oven in question.. “Four – no, five, small holes, each with a pot like Anna's using for size? Cooked coal for fuel, perhaps? It won't take much fuel at all with that kind of setup.”

“Those larger pots are quite rare, even in the potato country,” said the soft voice as I brought my latest ledger back to the couch, “while older 'wash-tubs' are fairly common in this area, as are 'second hand' Public House pots of varying sizes.”

“Fifteen-line riveted fetish-pots..?” I was paging through the ledger rapidly toward the 'list' for the Abbey's investiture.

“Those bacteria don't much care for that soap,” said the soft voice. “It might not 'kill' them like hot lye-water does, but it doesn't help them, either. They cannot eat it, so they eventually die off.” A brief pause, then, “long slow boiling avoids much of the trouble associated with 'fifteen-line hot-spots', and after running a few batches of that soap, re-tinning is an easy matter if the tin isn't perfect.”

“Those things are temporary, though,” I said. “He plans on ordering some from the shop sooner or later.”

“He does, but he also knows you're currently 'buried for work', and he has been told that those pots, while non-workable for meals, are workable for soap-boiling – and they are both common enough and cheap enough to permit starting quantity production fairly quickly.”

“And soap is more or less 'anathema' to witches,” I muttered. I'd just found the section in the ledger that I had been looking for, and was going over what I had written down thus far. Sarah, I suspected, had been too busy sewing lately to look at it – which was good, as I could think of another half-page's worth of important items to add.

“There are worse things in witchdom than soap,” said the soft voice, “much worse things – but witches and most supplicants do not like the feeling of soap upon their bodies.”

“What?” I gasped. “Is that why they smell?”

“One of the things that happens when a person becomes 'serious' about witchcraft – it's a later symptom, unlike hypothyroidism, which happens almost immediately – is a very strong belief that 'dirt' and 'smell' render a person 'pleasing to Brimstone' – and that on top of the steady and growing fear of contact with water and a steadily increasing dislike of the feeling of soap and bathing. Hence witches and serious supplicants commonly have dirty skin, and they invariably stink – and the stronger the witch, the worse they smell.”

“And more of that migraine-inducing vlai after dinner,” I murmured.

A yell came from upstairs, and both ledger and 'pencil' went upon the couch. Sarah had called, and I suspected I needed to try something on. As I came up the stairs at a steady rapid 'trot' – faster meant stumbling, and I was afraid I'd damage the stairway if I fell down it – I wondered what it might be.

“Here,” she said, as she handed me a sizable bundle. It was much larger than what I'd seen earlier. “Trousers, shirt, and padded cloak. Come out so I can see you when you get changed.”

I went in my room, but as I removed all of my clothing save for my underwear, I wondered just what she meant by the word 'changed'. Did she mean clothing – which was what I was doing – or did she mean another type of change, such as the type where I became 'hairy'?

“Or did she mean 'them changes'?” I thought, as I began laying out the clothing on my bed.

“That happens later,” said the soft voice.

“Them changes?” I asked. I had been referring to the supposed effects of a particularly unpleasant and nasty 'drug' that I thanked God that I had never endured. Life itself had had its own 'amusement' that way, and my whole sense of such chemicals and plants was 'I will see Hell then, and it will be absolutely real if I ever am subjected to them'.

Seeing an accursed Green Mamba in the flowerbed of my apartment, one induced by by a medical drug, one taken as per prescription, a drug that supposedly did the precise opposite of that which caused 'them changes', tended to make me think anything of that nature was a truly bad idea.

“And then there was atropine,” I muttered. “That stuff tended to make me scared out of my mind.”

But as I put on the trousers – they were slightly baggy, which was the particular way I liked them, yet uncommonly warm just the same – I again thought about 'them changes'. One particular song stood out in my mind, and Sarah's recent mention of the color that formed a portion of its title – purple, to be exact – made for wondering. I would see that color again some time in the foreseeable future, and it would not be something a witch would have produced – or for that matter, something a witch would wish to endure.

“That happens much sooner,” said the soft voice.

I then had finished dressing, and I went into the hallway. Sarah turned, and as she did so – she had been working, which amazed me as to her ability that way – she all but leaped off of her stool and came closer – and then began to 'tug' at the fabric gently all over.

“Yes?” I asked softly. The clothing was soft, warm, and pleasant to the touch, and the attention Sarah was giving was precious to me. I was really enjoying being 'fondled' in this fashion, and it was all I could do to not 'swoon' with delight.

“Traveling clothing, especially this type, wants to be loose,” she said, “but not too loose. Is it warm enough?”

“Enough to pass for a blanket during the depths of winter, dear,” I said. “It's almost sweltering right now.”

“I've had the other clothing done for some time,” she said, “but I'm still glad I have two lanterns up here.” A drop in Sarah's speech for volume and pitch, then, “and I am not looking forward to tonight's chemistry session.”

I was not contemplating it with fondness either, even as I went down the steps into the place and began setting up; and when the jug of nitro came out in my chilled hands, followed by the crock the nitrocellulose had been transferred to, I wondered just how much 'meal' I wanted to make.

“Those two bottles?” I thought. “No, best save those things for later. I'm not sure when 'later' will be, but we will want them later.”

With Sarah's help, I decanted the first batch of nitro into the bowl I had used before, and as the lab went silent save for the sounds made by my faint motions, I added the usual amount of nitrocellulose. When I had done so, however, I suddenly knew: this particular batch wanted more – as well as more urea and salaterus. I'd want all the 'bang' I could get out of this stuff.

“That, and you won't really have enough for 'moist' meal unless you either make two more batches of nitro, or you don't fill all of those bomb-casings you have.”

“I need at least three 'pills',” I thought, as I added two more pipettes of the nitrocellulose to the nitro, then began mixing in the 'niter and cellulose' portion. I thought to add the urea and salaterus early on, then when I got the stuff to the 'loathsome species of animal glue' stage, I began carefully scraping it into another crock with the wooden spatula.

I wanted to combine my batches so as to get a more uniform product. I knew that much.

It needed three such sessions to use up the remaining nitro and nitrocellulose, with the last batch of 'vlai' being crocked after dosing with added urea and salaterus. It would go into the decorator, or so I suspected; and as I began mixing in the dry ingredients to the stuff in the bowl, I began to hear faint steps on the stairs.

“The headache is just starting to become less, dear,” I said.

“I know,” said Sarah through clenched teeth. “The fumes upstairs were enough to drive both of them down to the Public House.”

“I'm almost glad they went,” I said, “as I've got to load up at least three of those evil-looking cast iron 'pills', and I need some meal left over...”

Sarah went to the cold room, then to my complete and utter surprise, she came back with a small covered crock I had not seen before. “You don't remember this, did you?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “More blasting oil?”

Sarah nodded, then said, “I waited until both of them were gone one day recently, then I made up three smaller batches, one after another.”

“Smaller batches?” I asked.

“Yes, a bit more than half the size of yours,” she said. “Otherwise, I copied everything you did to the best of my recollection and notes, and I got Tam to help me. So now you can moisten that meal properly.”

“Did you get, uh, the same thing?” I asked.

“Open that crock and tell me,” said Sarah. She then turned away as I opened it.

The same malevolent sunshine yellow 'oil' was present, only there was a faint difference, one I that I could barely sense. I could not see it visually, however; it was the same color and consistency as the nasty-headache-inducing stuff I had earlier seen through blind eyes. I gently lowered the lid, then silently prayed, my right hand gently on the lid of the crock – and thought to look again.

“It looks angry now,” I muttered. “Is that the difference? If I make it, the stuff is 'concentrated evil'?”

“I think that is more the opinion of the witches who are supping with Brimstone on account of its use,” said Sarah through gritted teeth. “I think you can spoon it into that meal and that will relieve the headache it's making.” A brief pause, then, “I can tell one thing about that stuff, though, since you touched it.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I began to gently add the new nitro with a spoon and then mix it in with the spatula. My own headache was making me wonder if there were pain drugs that did not induce insanity. Only the weaker species, those taken in moderation, could be endured where I came from – and those did not exist here.

“It caused a bad headache before,” said Sarah as she began groping her way toward the stairs, “but it is worse now. I'll come down once I can see again.”

As I continued adding the new batch of nitro a spoon at a time with regular 'mixing', I now realized that the meal would indeed be 'moist' when it was done, and when Sarah came down perhaps twenty minutes later, I'd usurped not merely another bowl – a larger one – but I was spooning in more 'cellulose and niter' as I mixed. I was glad the bowl was copper and my spatula wooden, as I did not want sparks due to static.

“Can we load this stuff without using a lot of that smelly stuff and then letting it dry out?” I asked.

“Yes, if you add it sparingly and mix it in well between each small addition,” said the soft voice. “Doing so will keep the smell down to a marginally tolerable level, and most of it will evaporate as you load those five bomb casings.”

“And those other things?” I asked.

“There will be sufficient 'meal' to load them as well,” said the soft voice. “While they will not be much help for the Abbey – you might use one or two of them there – you will want them for across the sea, and the same for those swine-shells you call 'pills'.”

“Those thugs, right?” I asked. I needed a breather, as between the stench and the headache, I was feeling distinctly ill. I headed for the stairs, now almost blind from the stink in addition to the intense headache.

I could 'feel' events at the Public House once upstairs with a lessened headache and drinking some beer on the couch: both Hans and Anna were catching up on their 'gossip', though for some reason Hans' speaking now had less 'gossip' to what he was talking about. He'd acquired a nose for 'real' news, and it seemed that the Public House was a ripe place for hearing it. I was also wondering if I could get ice for the beer. It sounded 'tasty', in fact.

“And he's not speaking of what we are doing,” I said. I could hear movement somewhere upstairs.

“No, actually he is, though he is being very careful as to exactly what he is saying,” said the soft voice. “He's spoken about how the Abbey needs to be cleared on the inside so it can be used, and you, Sarah, and a handful of others will be doing that.” A pause, then, “what he's asking about most is what has been happening on the grounds of the place, and he's more than a little surprised.”

Seconds later, Sarah came down the stairs; and upon seeing the stool and the two cups, she shot to the couch as if drawn by a magnet. I'd gotten her 'favorite' cup and put it by the jug. This proved most wise but less than a minute later. It was also obvious she'd been hearing what I had, at least to some degree.

“In what way?” asked Sarah. She'd developed her own thirst, and was drinking as if dried out.

“Mostly as to the amount of progress that has been made,” said the soft voice. “The grounds are almost entirely cleared, and the outer wall's foundations are being 'lined out' and dug according to the plans Hendrik has. Then, on the river side of those walls, a small 'city' has been erected; and finally, he had grossly underestimated the number of people coming up from the third and fourth kingdoms.”

“He thought they were only coming up the main road, didn't he?” asked Sarah.

“Those people were the smell of the mule,” said the soft voice. “The remainder of the mule has been coming up by other routes, most of which the witches either don't expect to find people on or ones they watch but little at this time.”

“The mule trail has been receiving its share, hasn't it?” asked Sarah.

“Nearly a third of those coming, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and then a fair number of people have come by sea.”

“How?” asked Sarah. I guessed she was thinking only of the well-known ports in the other kingdoms – and the witches more or less 'owned' the second kingdom port at this time. They would oppose any such 'migrations' northward with gunfire at the least, and their altars, as always in that area, were hot and hungry for sacrifices.

“They came around the lower portion of the continent and then up the east side from the fourth kingdom's harbor and landed in the northeast portion of the continent,” said the soft voice. “Two natural harbors exist there, one of which has a small town about half the size of this one, and the other a town about half again as big as Roos – and while that's a long sea-voyage for most ships, they managed passably just the same on those they took.”

“And then ride or drive overland, ford the Main at night in that one place to the south of here, and come up the 'river road' until north of where we are and come in 'the back way' so they hit that main road well north of here so they can cross that bridge. Correct?” I asked.

“And all of that done at night,” said the soft voice. “Those people have needed to dodge witches – granted, they've mostly been small fry, but they were as persistent as anything and quite numerous, also – almost all of the way, and the usual with such a caravan is at least one marked person is near the front to find the trail and keep the remainder out of trouble.”

“They're probably the only ones who can get such a group through,” said Sarah, as she 'put a cork in it' and then emptied her cup.

Once down in the basement once more, I resumed the additions of niter, cellulose, and now, that one foul-smelling chemical. All of this was done under the fume hood, and after a few minutes, I said, “three more doses of that smelly stuff, five minutes of stirring, and then we can start, uh, stuffing those pills.” I almost said, 'turkeys', for some reason. “That will be the easy part, save for the stink of that chemical as it evaporates.”

When we began 'stuffing' the pills – their size and heft was remarkable – I quickly found that I had overstated the difficulty of loading them; Sarah had not merely obviously seen them before, but she'd also loaded them before, if I went by the facility of her hands in filling the things with 'meal'.

“Here, like this,” she said, as she came back with two unusually-shaped spoons of thick copper. “These are old shell-filling spoons, if I go by what is in several tapestries. They used to load cannon shells with fillings that are not like what we currently use. They make this business quicker.”

“Right for principle, wrong for their age,” said the soft voice. “Those are recent-vintage copies of old shell-filling spoons, copies made in the Valley, and they load their shells with them.”

“Shells?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Any more, they tend to be current production,” said the soft voice, “and more importantly, they tend to be a bit on the small size.”

“Small?” I asked.

“About two inches across,” said the soft voice. “That type of gun shoots about as far as the better ones up here, but a train of six to eight mules can carry not merely the dismantled gun, but also a fair number of shells.”

“A pack...” I stopped in mid-sentence, for not merely had I forgotten the actual name of the gun where I came from, but there was no currently-used term for such a gun that would work. “I've heard of guns like that, though they fired somewhat larger shells and had more range.”

“They ran out of that size long ago, at least for the shells,” said the soft voice, “and hence their 'domestic' shells are those which their machine tools can readily accommodate – and the same for their 'mule-guns'.”

“They probably use those for feuds,” said Sarah.

“And dealing with troublesome mining towns on occasion,” said the soft voice. “While the Veldters know about forty chain brandy, and they sample it upon occasion, they tend to treat it with great respect.”

“Great respect?” I asked.

“Typically they bring their own 'sip-glasses',” said the soft voice, “and they are very particular about its taste. More, they commonly add water to it, much like Gabriel watered his wine on occasion, and they long for ice, even if they do not speak thusly in such environs.”

That does not sit well in mining towns,” said Sarah. “Now these will wish the usual plugs, only bored to fit caps, and I would put three feet of fuse to each cap, with that fuse secured well with string.”

“I hope we have that much fuse,” I muttered.

“I suspect we do,” said Sarah. “That was why they took the buggy down to the Public House, as August is expecting a delivery tonight.”

“Delivery?” I asked. “Tonight?”

“Yes, a donkey-train,” said Sarah. “Andreas told me that he'd arranged to get transportation for not merely that wire someone spoke of, but also some thimbles – and I suspect Tam's waiting in there for those.”

“Plans to stock up on thimbles, doesn't he?” I asked. My 'pill' was nearing 'full' status, and I gently upended the thing and slapped it gently with my palm as Sarah had done.

“Not too hard,” she said. “You do not want to fill these entirely full, as the cap will wish room for its presence, and I would use those stiff ones you have if possible.”

“Why, a bigger bang?” I asked.

“That is part of it,” said Sarah. “We might use two of these things at the Abbey, but across the sea, we will wish every squib and smaller bomb we can carry, almost.”

“Those, uh, thugs?” I asked.

“Them especially,” said Sarah. “They've been in my dreams more than once since I first told you about them, and I know more about those smelly people now.”

“People?” I asked. I almost wanted to name them otherwise, especially given my dream about them. Their behavior was too much like some witches for me to like it – though what Sarah said next really made for wonderment.

“I am not sure what they are,” said Sarah, “as not only do they not know anything about the book, they do not know about Brimstone either, at least for the most part.”

“The most part?” I asked.

“One of them was speaking of that lizard,” said Sarah, “but it was as if he was out of an old tale for his speaking, as he thought Brimstone was 'a lie imported from the mainland, as there are no such lizards'.” A brief pause, then, “I cannot speak what he actually said.”

“Why?” I asked.

“His language,” said Sarah. “Those people might speak in our tongue, but between the way they sound and the words they use, I wonder what they are saying most of the time.”

“As in you want a word-book?” I asked.

“Yes, but it had better be a Gustaaf,” said Sarah. “None of ours have some of those words, and the other words are usually so obscure that about all the word-books we have to say is something like 'this term was used before the war, and what it means is not currently known'.”

“Meaning this place is like a time-capsule,” I said. “Its society is that of before the war, only unchanged.”

And as I said that, I knew beyond all doubt that I was utterly and completely wrong. It had changed, it had changed drastically – much more so than the one here, in fact – and more, much of that change would only become evident some months after we visited the place.

“That change will start before you leave,” said the soft voice, “and more, you will be utterly astonished as to how fast that change happens. Otherwise, it is indeed a sort of 'time capsule' – and the words those 'thugs' were speaking date from long ago. Their society has not changed significantly since that war was in its 'hot' stage, unlike that of the rest of the populace.”

I was sufficiently astonished that I did not think to ask 'how' or why, and as I resumed work on the shell I was 'stuffing' – I had just started on my second example, and Sarah was well into filling her third one – I thought, “now what will these things do?”

“Almost as much as a boom-bottle,” said the soft voice, “and that filling is just about perfect for those shells.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “It's weaker than usually?”

“No, it's stronger than your previous instances,” said the soft voice. “That type of casting can only be done at one of the three places that does 'good' castings, and those were done at Knaadelmann's. More, they used their 'bad' iron on them, as that batch was slated to go up here to certain people who tend to load their shells as hot as they can.”

“B-bad iron?” I asked.

“It tends to dull cutters especially quickly because of its hardness, even when carefully annealed,” said the soft voice. “What they don't know is that 'bad iron' is actually a species of especially brittle high-carbon steel.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “These things will...”

“Spray vast amounts of small razor-edged splinters,” said the soft voice.

“What's the lethal radius on these devices?” I asked.

While I did not get an answer 'right away', Sarah looked at me and said, “that's exactly how those thugs talk. They use words that I've only seen on tapestries.”

And as if to supply a rejoinder, the soft voice said, “further than anything currently fired out of a gun in the five kingdoms, and more, further than you can throw them readily.”

I hefted the shell, then mentally tried weighing it. It was a bit heavier than a boom bottle.

“Glass doesn't carry like steel,” said the soft voice. “It might cut like a razor close up, but it's too light to carry real distances. Steel isn't that way – and if you toss one of those things, you'd best be behind some thick cover when it explodes.”

Loose corks filled the holes when we finished, and as I went looking for the 'fuse stock' Hans had, I thought, “I'd best get a sample and have these things turned up by the carpenters, as those, uh, Finnegan bombs will use something similar to fill their holes.”

“You'll want to draw up the covers for those,” said the soft voice, “and more, you'll also want holes in those wood plugs for short dowels. The carpenters here could do them up fairly quickly, as that apprentice is now actually working in the shop mostly.”

“So those thugs can get blown up, correct?” I thought, as I followed Sarah up the stairs after blowing out most of the candles. The remaining meal, crocked and labeled as 'meal for bombs' with chalk, had gone in the cold room. We would need to fill the decorator tomorrow night.

I was more than a little surprised to hear the medical buggy come but minutes after the two of us came up the stairs, and as I gently rubbed Sarah's neck – I could tell she was sore, and I enjoyed rubbing her – the door opened suddenly and Anna all but rushed in. She was dressed as if expecting a blizzard.

“We need to get that stuff in here quickly,” she said breathlessly.

Sarah darted out from under my hands, and I followed in her wake at a half-hearted 'trot' to dodge Hans as he came through the door with a thick bag in his hands. He too was bundled up as if preparing for 'fourteen-foot drifts', and when I went outside, I thought, “now why are they dressed that way?”

I soon learned a partial answer: that donkey-train must have been larger than the four-to-seven-animal ones I had seen or 'felt' on the trip back, because the buggy's bed was covered with a bulky-looking tarp. Sarah was reaching in under it, and she was having trouble lifting something.

“Here, let me, dear,” I asked softly. “Is it heavy?”

“No, but I'm too short to get at it,” said Sarah. She sounded irritated. I picked the box up that she had been after – it was small but surprisingly heavy for its size – then handed it to her. I then found what looked like a jug, and as I removed what proved to be a jug, someone took it from me as if they were a thief in the night.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “What gives with this hurry?” I then looked up from my labors. I had been utterly intent upon them, as I tended to be with almost everything.

Far in the distance, I saw a huge and billowing cloud of black smoke, this west-southwest, and I thought, “what happened there?”

“A witch had an 'accident',” said the soft voice, “and now that shipping point is a big smoking hole in the ground.”

“And their clothing?” I asked.

“Partly against the 'chill' of the night,” said the soft voice, “which is something they feel much more than either you or Sarah, and then, partly because of its concealment capability.”

“Concealment?” I asked. I'd found more jugs, these being of obvious chemicals. One, I could tell, was drying oil, and at least two were 'fish emulsion'. I had a hand on one of the latter jugs and was bringing it up and out.

“Some of what came up in that donkey train,” said the soft voice. “It was comprised of four smaller ones, and those smaller trains only joined together some distance south of this area when one of the leaders felt the lack of witches in the area.”

“Felt?” I asked.

“As in 'he was feeling them enough to watch closely, even if they weren't nearly as common as recent times before',” said the soft voice, “but when he hit the High Way about twenty-eight miles south of Roos and got some more beer in him, he realized his estimate of witch activity was unduly pessimistic due to his being more asleep than awake. The others joined up within the next eight miles as he continued to lead his six animals northward.”

I then noticed the odor – faint, yet more than a little reminiscent of mules – of what I was handing out to the others as they came to take them, and when I put down that side of the covering, I went and lifted it on the other. There, I was completely astonished.

“What?” I gasped, at the sight of a number of obvious 'musket barrels'. Unlike those I had received for the three guard muskets, these looked to be much closer to 'finished'.

“Mostly because they are much closer to finished,” said the soft voice. “The three you got were 'rough-bored' examples, whereas those have been brought much closer to size.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Take them inside and look closely at them,” said the soft voice.

I handed the first of the bundles of barrels to Hans when he came out, then took in a bundle myself. There were several such bundles, and when I came to the door with the last one, Anna all but grabbed it out of my hands. She had doffed much of her 'blizzard' clothing, for some reason.

“You'd best stay out there until that thing is empty,” she said. “Hans is opening the back door, so he can take the horses in quickly.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You didn't see the sun rise again at night, did you?” said Anna. Her voice was laden heavily with fear. “This one was the worst one yet, and those people that came spoke of how some witches would be coming this way in a tearing hurry.”

“I cannot feel any witches,” I said, more to myself than anyone else, as I went back outside. Yet as I continued unloading the buggy, I wondered what Anna was really saying. What had the two of them brought back here that was so close and dear to their hearts?

“I hope they weren't slipped fetishes,” I said.

Somehow, though, I knew that wasn't it. This was closer to 'an important document', one that was far too important to trust to the post, as the post was far too vulnerable to witchdom's depredations.

“And slower, also,” said the soft voice. “A donkey train generally manages nearly twice the average speed of a postal buggy.”

That statement brought back the following recollection: nimble feet moving rapidly, legs blurred like the wings of a frantic hummingbird, dust clouds spurting thickly, a soft quick shuffling noise that ate up the miles at a pace that even Jaak would have difficulty maintaining for long.

“He might manage a hundred and thirty miles a day for several days in a row,” said the soft voice. “Those animals were tired when you saw them, and more, those girls were also, hence the animals were not moving at their best speed. They're nearly a third faster than what you saw if they're reasonably fresh.”

“What?” I asked.

“They really move when they're changed over often enough,” said the soft voice, “and it helps if you put sugar-tree sap or honey in their grain before they're let out for their stint.”

For some reason, as I continued bringing out the supplies, I seemed to have an impression – one of a donkey of such uncommon boisterousness that the animal felt inclined to 'buck' and 'rear', it was so desiring of traveling; and when its eleven-year old rider 'let it out', it seemed to all but fly over the cobbles of a large and wide-spreading town. I felt inclined to ask Sarah about donkeys 'acting strange' when dosed with sugar-tree sap or honey once the buggy was safe in its usual place.

More jugs, some of these faintly smelling of distillate; then some boxes, these similar to those some of my tools had come in; finally, some unusually bulky bags, these seeming to be stuffed with books if I went by the feeling of them. As I got the last of these bags, Hans came from seeming 'nowhere' and pulled the buggy into the buggy-way, then I 'leaped' for the door.

It proved wise, as something 'hit' in the yard and sailed off into the distance with a pinging noise, much as if it were a ricocheting bullet.

“What was that?” I gasped, as I slammed the door closed with my free hand. I'd wasted no time in getting inside once I'd landed on the boards of the stoop.

“What it sounded like,” said the soft voice. “While Anna overestimated the number of witches coming this way, she was absolutely correct about there being witches headed in this direction.” A brief pause, then, “that group of three in that buggy is not going to do well, however.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. Going by the distance, the weapon that had shot at us wasn't a common musket.

“Because they've just found that one swine-trail, and Hans rigged it recently with a jug,” said the soft voice.”

“Jug?” I asked.

“Yes, of light distillate with some of Sarah's niter added,” said the soft voice, “and about five sticks of tar-painted dynamite on the back side.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “When that happens...”

A sudden booming roar shook the house, then Hans came running up the stairs. He ran hurriedly into the kitchen, then into the bathroom – and then outside after ducking through the jungle of hanging clothing. I thought to go out to see what he was doing when I almost was run over when he came back inside again at a dead run. He'd slammed the outside door for a warning, which I missed in my consternation.

“They set off that jug,” he said.

“They?” I asked.

“That one place was sending witches toward us, or so those people with the donkeys were saying,” said Hans. “A few days ago, I thought to check on where those pigs all came from, as people see those things around here sometimes still, and I found this one bad stinky road that they had made that goes almost straight east for at least a mile, so I do up a jug with some dynamite...”

“Yes, Hans,” said Sarah. She'd known the truth. Hans might be 'better', but he had some distance yet to go. “I remember that jug. You might have done it up this time, but you needed help to place it.”

“Yes, I did need help,” said Hans, which surprised me. “I am glad she was there to check it for me, as I've only seen you do jugs like that up once or twice, and I could not think of where to put it.”

“A small copse about ten feet from the pig-track?” I said. “Tie it to the tree, dynamite facing toward the trunk, the jug itself pointed toward the trail...” I paused, then squeaked, “road? Hans, if that was a road – was that a road?”

“They have roads like that in some places, except they do not stink like that one did,” said Hans. “I have seen those things, and calling them roads is like calling a pot with burnt stew in it dirty.” A pause, then, “I had no other word for that messy thing, and I had no word-book handy when I had that bomb with me, so I called it a road then.”

“And then fan out the waxed trip-lines, and hide the small wooden stakes a few feet into the grass on the other side, correct?” I asked. “Hide them as good as you can, in fact?”

“She knew about that part,” said Hans. “I hope you write down that stuff one day, as I think I need to read it until I know it good, and then practice that stuff until I do it good.”

“And a lot more time with the mathematics,” I said. “I've been so short of time that teaching such as I might know isn't hardly possible anymore.” I paused, then looked around to see the bags and boxes that remained in the room. “This stuff?”

“Some of it is from Albrecht,” said Hans. “Then, some is for the house proper, and then, some of it is for doing up the Abbey.”

“Fuse?” I asked.

Sarah came up to me, then put a sizable cloth bag in my hands. “I checked, and it's the exact same as you have, only this time, there isn't just one large coil, there's three of them in there.”

“Yes, in that bag,” said Hans. “There were two of those things on the list we got. Then, there is some cooking fuel, as you will want that should you need to cook in that place, and then there is some wax...”

“Special wax, correct?” I asked. “Common wax we can get locally, unless I am far wrong.”

“That came later,” said Anna as she suddenly came down from upstairs. “There are two really important thing, though, and they're among those boxes from Albrecht.”

“Yes, and some other things, too,” said Hans. “I have this paper here that says all that came up, but not all of it went with us. Some of it went to the kingdom house in their buggies, and then that train left a bit after they'd told us what they knew.”

“The back way?” I asked. “They're not going up the main road, are they?”

“No, because they need to go to Paul's next, then to a place to stay for a few days near his place before they head down south again,” said Hans. “They would not tell me more than that, as they have had witches after them since they left the fourth kingdom, almost.”

“Fourth kingdom house proper, you mean,” I said. “There are a lot of plain-dressed witches in the fourth kingdom, and some of those people are thinking to try this area in the very near future.”

Both Hans and Anna looked at me in utter shock. Only when Sarah came down from the upstairs area did they seem to 'unfreeze'. My words had most likely had ample truth to them.

“What, did he tell you about witches coming from all of the other kingdoms?” asked Sarah.

“N-no, but he spoke of the fourth kingdom's witches coming up here,” said Anna, “and I wondered how he could speak of that, as that place does not have any witches.”

Sarah looked at Anna fixedly, then said, “the second kingdom house proper may have the trickiest witches in all of the five kingdoms, but the next worst ones are those from the area around that market down there – and in truth, I'd almost say their type of trickiness is different and not less.”

“There is a difference, but it's less than you think,” said the soft voice. “The second kingdom's witches, like those of the fifth kingdom, fight mostly among each other, and the citizens are all-but powerless to resist their machinations – and that presumes they want to resist becoming 'witch-slaves'. Many of the people in those kingdoms are in love with the 'attractive' side of witchdom. The fourth kingdom, especially its central part, is – and has been for a very long time – like it is in this area now.”

“Yes, so that means witches are scarce,” said Hans.

“No, Hans,” I said. “It's been like that for a very long time – hundreds of years, most likely. That means the witches in that place have learned to be careful as to when and where they show themselves – and while they are less common than most other places on the continent, they aren't at all rare in that place.”

I paused, then, “unless, of course, you define 'witch' as someone who smells really bad, wears starch-stiffened dark-colored clothing and pointed boots, and likes strong drink, black coaches, and stinky mules. Those people are rare, at least in the central region of the fourth kingdom – but you can find them too if you know where and when to look.”

“Boermaas had lots of those people,” said Sarah, “and I saw more than one coach in that market town.”

“When was this?” asked Hans.

“If you wish to see witches in that market,” said Sarah, “you must hide yourself carefully near the main market, preferably bordering on one of the larger squares in an upper room in one of those places they have that let rooms, and wait until the place gets quiet.”

“That place only does that late at night,” said Hans.

“That is when the witches come out,” said Sarah. “The best time, if you were to use the first kingdom house proper's posts, would be the third hour of the sixth posting.”

“That's when they are usually asleep, though,” I murmured.

“That's true up here and most other places, but not there,” said Sarah. “More, while I have seen coaches run in that town, they do not use mules, or even those smelly horses that leave turnips all over the roads. They only run regular horses, and the coaches there tend to run sleeved wheels.”

“Hence they don't stink or make undue noise, and they leave no real trail to follow, either,” I said.

“Actually, they do leave trails, but what they leave looks so much like that of a smaller freighting wagon that you have to be very familiar with both types of vehicle to tell them apart,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, it's hard to know about them unless you're up late trying to organize the notes you took while traipsing and you hear something in the road below you and you decide to go look at what is making the noise.” A pause, then, “and that was how I saw my first coach in that town.”

“Not your last, though,” I murmured. “There were others.”

Sarah nodded, then said, “it was worse outside that town, though, as that area nearly swarms with them late at night.”

“Swarms?” I asked. My voice showed no small alarm at hearing my suspicions confirmed so strongly.

“There were coaches every time I went out late at night with my cousin,” said Sarah, “and more than once, we were shot at.” Sarah's 'nonchalant' tone implied 'this sort of thing was something both of us were used to'. Her next statement proved it, “but that was nothing compared to where she lived in the potato country. I've been to exactly three places that had more coaches routinely showing, and two of them were kingdom houses.”

“The third place?” I asked. “The Swartsburg?”

“I never went in there, even if I observed it closely a number of times,” said Sarah. “This was a fifth kingdom mining town, and that place was solid with those stinky things.”

Was?” I asked. “Is this place the one which went to hell where you rode that mule to safety?”

“It was,” said Sarah. “They'd only just started to rebuild it when I came by that place at night during the next year.”

“By?” I asked.

“That was during my 'long-trip',” said Sarah. “I used a donkey then, as I had to cover a lot of ground quickly to get into the Blue Mountains without being discovered by mining-town thugs, and I had to do that trip with what journey-food I could carry and shoot and find.” A brief pause, then, “I'm glad I was able to find some tinkers during that trip just the same.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “You traveled the entire length of that mountain range, didn't you?”

Sarah nodded, then said, “I'm glad I had a donkey to ride, as those will go up any trail less steep than a tree, and they're like mules for feeding, at least at least for short periods.”

“Shoot?” I asked.

“A bow and twenty arrows,” said Sarah. “There is game in the Blue Mountains, but most of it's the kind that flies.”

“Birds?” I asked.

“Quolls, especially,” said Sarah, “and by the time I'd gotten into the second kingdom's easternmost wastes, I was entirely sick of eating those things, and the donkey was needing some grain.”

“Uh, honey or sugar-tree sap in the grain for those things?” I asked.

“I did that when I could get it on the way back,” said Sarah. “That usually meant an extra twenty miles that night.”

“What is this?” asked Hans. He was listening if enthralled.

“I traveled at night much of the way,” said Sarah. “It was my very last traipsing, as well as the longest, and I needed an unusually good report that year, in fact the very best one I could do.”

“Your last one must be your best?” I asked.

“Especially at that school and doubly so for me,” said Sarah. “Anyone who's been at the top of their class the whole time usually has to make a long-trip their last time out. I know both Hendrik and Maria did.”

“What they did and what you did sound like two very different things,” I said.

And as I said this, I yawned; and then I asked, “what day is it?”

“It is finally a rest-day tomorrow,” said Hans. “The moon says that, and that means wooding.”

“Yes, if you go in the morning early and go to that one place with all the sticks,” said Sarah. “He's got a posting either tomorrow or the next day, and then most likely within two days after that, we'll be doing the Abbey.”

“Yes, I know that,” said Hans, “which is another reason why we need wood, as we need enough to keep the place warm in here while you two are gone, and Anna does not want to try wooding unless you two come along.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

Another booming noise – this one fainter than the last, though ominous just the same to my hearing – was followed by a distinct yet chilling whirring howl that ended in another much sharper boom, then it happened again; and finally, a third time. Anna looked at me, while Hans said in a low voice, “I think that is why you need to come if we do wooding, as those were guns firing shells.”

“At night?” I asked. “Witches?”

“The main contingent of witches that Anna spoke of went north and not west,” said the soft voice, “and that huge fireball alerted everyone within at least thirty miles in all directions.”

“Ah, that would be Willem's guns, then,” said Hans. “Now those witches are supping with Brimstone, is what I think.”

Another ragged volley – this time, a true volley, as the reports of the guns were almost simultaneous – then a chorus of shells. These sounded faintly different, almost as if they were of a different shape, then the first explosion was followed by another blast that rattled the parlor window in its frame. For an instant, the night sky to the north flashed white, like a flashbulb the size of a house.

“That is dynamite,” said Hans with a voice like lead.

“That whole group went, then,” I muttered. “The first shells had their fuses cut a little too long, but the second batch...”

“Were tipped shells, and one of them hit a buggy filled with dynamite,” said the soft voice. “Willem's not the best night-shot, but this isn't the first time he's done nocturnal gun-duels with witches.”

“So that portion is done,” said Sarah. “Now we have some things to check over, and then it is bed for the two of us.”

“Two..?” I gasped.

“I am not sleeping in that cellar,” said Sarah. “It still has fumes in it enough to make my headache return, and I know you wish to sleep in your bed.” I wanted to speak, but Sarah cut me off. “I'm glad for that room-blanket and a decent couch, but I'm glad my knitting...”

I could almost feel Anna glaring at Sarah. I turned to glance in her direction, and noted what might have been either envy or admiration. I could not tell as to which was involved, as was usual for me.

“Has been going well,” said Sarah. “That blanket should be done before we leave for that place across the sea, and we will desire it greatly then.”

“The ocean's cold?” I asked.

“It is that,” said Anna, “but I suspect...”

Sarah looked at Anna in the strangest fashion I had seen her do so yet, then she said quietly, “not that, Anna. That place across the sea might not look even a little bit like the kingdom house, but it could pass for it as to warmth at times.”

“That place is only decent when it is good and warm,” said Hans.

“Yes, the main floor,” said Sarah. “I was thinking of both the top floor and the depths of winter when I spoke of how cold the kingdom house can get, and then that part of the house is not much warmer than a fourth-kingdom cold-room.”

“Fourth kingdom cold-room?” I asked.

“Yes, the ones that need people to keep their fires lit and their engines running,” said Sarah. “The one here is cold enough, but it does not freeze ice. Those there do.” A pause, then, “and that place across the sea, at least in many places, is about as cold like it was outside tonight.”

“No heat?” I asked.

“The open spaces are often very cold,” said Sarah. “That's one of the reason those thugs dress like they do.” A brief pause, then, “though if you find a thug-hole, it is often a good deal warmer, especially if it is used much.” A brief pause, then, “it is still cool enough in those places that one wants warm clothing, and plenty of it, and good knit blankets for sleeping.”

“Thug-hole?” I asked.

“Where those thugs stay, or these other people that are not thugs but ruled over by the same people as the thugs are,” said Sarah. “Those other people, though – they are treated as if they are slaves of some kind.”

“Too much work?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then said, “like cramming all six years at the west school into about one and a half years, or perhaps two, and all of it reading out of these thick books that were worse than any text I've ever read, and writing reports out on these odd printed papers in these strange colored inks, and not a single error permitted in the whole of it.”

“That...” I was flabbergasted upon hearing this.

Not a single error,” said Sarah. “No, not one, not ever. I'm not certain what happens then, but I doubt much I would wish it, even if what I did truly warranted such treatment.”