Investing the Abbey, part one.

Roos showed up but ten minutes or so later, and while the two buggies came into the yard of the Public House, I took one of the still-lit lanterns in hand and rode to the shop at Jaak's 'walk'. I suspected he needed time to cool down, and once in the shop's yard, I slid off and went straight to the door while he commenced drinking at the shop's long watering trough. I left the doors wide, thinking he might follow me, and as I used the small lantern – I was glad for its brightness, now, as it helped me find the casting flasks by seeing them rather than tripping over them – I wondered which of them had those smaller castings. There were a lot of those wooden 'boxes' sitting in the rear yard; and while none of them were 'smoking warm', the air still felt a good deal warmer in the yard than out in the fields and forests.

“I put those things almost anywhere I could find room,” I thought, as I began digging in a flask that looked likely. I then 'unearthed' the casting, and saw that this example – a camp-oven and its lid – also had no less than three such 'bombs' coming off of its paired sprues and 'risers'. I brushed the 'sand' off the 'mess' into the now-rumpled flask, then began to walk back inside with the sprue-connected bunch of castings.

I was now wishing for the titanium lantern, so much so that as I began sawing the sprues apart, I heard 'clop-clop' noises coming from the door. Jaak came inside, where he stood not more than a few feet from me, and I paused to remove the blanket and shake it out, then hang it over Georg's chair.

I then resumed sawing, but within less than perhaps two minutes, I heard a rapid-moving whizzing noise sail by the door, then another slower hissing sound some seconds later that spoke of both wagons heading home. I marveled at just how fast that one buggy was, and as I did, I muttered, “I know. Willem's place, in with his guns. That's about the safest place to put that thing while we're gone.”

“Best let Lukas in on the matter when he comes back, then,” said the soft voice, “as he's been homeward bound the last three days, and he'll have need of speed shortly thereafter.”

“Three days?” I asked.

“Figure that he'll be back in time to look over what you found in the Abbey,” said the soft voice. “He won't be around to help with the creatures guarding them.”

“Given how much room we're going to have in some of those places, we don't want any more people than are going,” I said.

“True,” said the soft voice, “very true. Also, while those two men are up to almost anything you can think of, neither man will cope well with that place.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The smell?”

“Think,” said the soft voice. “How many of those old tales do you know?”

“None, really,” I said. I'd gotten one 'bomb-casting' free, and was working on another. I was beginning to see a real use for the sprues, as those were the perfect size for stuffing a crucible, and I'd already cut two of them off. I tended to use quite hefty sprues, and many of them, or so I guessed, as well as a lot of sizable 'by-guess-and-by-golly' risers, and these particular castings looked 'decent' at the least. The camp-oven would just need modest clean-up on the grinder, a few minutes with files, some minutes with straps in a few places, and then it would be ready for a customer. The bomb-castings would need less work yet, as no 'customer' would see them intact for any real length of time.

“Then, how familiar do you think Karl and Sepp are with them?” asked the soft voice.

“Not very, save by hearsay,” I said. “What of Maarten and Katje?”

“Remember, neither of those people spent time at the west school, and both of them spent their entire six years of time at Boermaas – and unlike Sarah's cousin, they were able to 'fake' matters enough to 'get by'.”

“F-fake?” I asked.

“They were both there years before her,” said the soft voice. “Boermaas wasn't nearly as bad then as it was for Sarah's cousin, which is why most of the honest preachers in the central part of the first kingdom that still live are their age and older. During that era in the first kingdom, the hall didn't have the final say-so at the time they were 'sent out'. The king did then, and that person was two people before Hendrik.”

“And now it's worse yet,” I muttered. I wanted to add, “that witch-king probably had something to do with it, I'll bet.”

“It is, and to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “That place needed to act more or less like the other schools for the first twenty years of its existence, and only in the last twelve years has it truly become 'bad enough' to turn out bones-holding witches as graduates – and Maarten and Katje 'graduated' when it was just starting to turn into a 'finishing school for witches and witch-slaves'. It was a long way from the place Sarah's cousin was 'summarily ejected' from.”

“Hence they actually learned something useful,” I said. “Do they know those old tales?”

“Boermaas' chief difference then,” said the soft voice. “Boermaas more or less 'ignored' the bulk of those tales while they were there, as it was – and is – said to be the school for preachers.” A brief pause, then, “they emphasize them much more now.”

“So that leaves Gabriel and Sarah,” I said. I had freed another 'bomb-casting'. But three more sprues and 'risers' remained to this group of castings, and the blade was doing fairly well – although the metal in question was not particularly soft. I suspected a slow cooking in the forge would help such castings, presuming I had time to do so. The camp-ovens, I wondered about them needing it. Had I a suitable lathe, I would bore the place for the wooden plugs so as to give a good seating surface and a uniform diameter. I did not have one, and that meant 'making do'.

That cast iron will make you glad you made three blades for each saw,” said the soft voice. “Now, of those two you spoke of, who do you think is more knowledgeable about those tales?”

“Sarah, most likely,” I said.

“Gabriel thinks he knows them well, while Sarah does know them well,” said the soft voice, “and more, there aren't many tales she hasn't spent at least some time with – 'The Sand-Man' being a good example. Gabriel does not know that tale exists, save by hearsay. Sarah has read it multiple times.”

“So Gabriel...”

“Knows but little about 'dragoons', said the soft voice. “He has not had any dreams about the Abbey, either.”

“So that leaves Sarah, and I doubt she's going to be that scared,” I murmured. But one more riser remained, and I would not merely have a camp-oven casting ready to 'go out the door', almost, but also, the three bomb-castings only had their connecting sprues. I suspected they would 'serve' for samples.

“Sarah will be about as scared as you are likely to be,” said the soft voice. “Everyone else is ignorant of such matters – or, at least, ignorant of old tales that speak of dragoons.”

“I read those that book – no, books – that spoke of critters like Smog,” I said. Smog wasn't the only one, just the best-documented example. There were several others, all of them similar as to size and incendiary capacity – and while both the one in the Grim Collection and the one in several of our dreams had had fire, all of those I had read about had them both beat handily for both range and heat. Smog, at least, was not merely large, but also all but impervious to conventional weapons – and the other creatures of that nature were nearly as hard to kill.

“Which means you've read about dragoons also,” said the soft voice, “and anyone who's gone into a blazing car that could explode at any second to look for a woman's shoes because she's crying for them and then afterward contemplate in cold blood the possibility of immolation to save the woman he intended to protect isn't going to back down from an ambulatory flamethrower.” A pause, then, “and the same applies to anyone who'd shoot a coach filled with dynamite and distillate at a range of ten paces, or set fire to several Iron Pigs.” Another brief pause, then, “the others will more or less follow as the two of you lead – at least, to the limits of their capacity.”

“And those two you spoke of?” I asked.

“Both men know those tales almost as well as Sarah does,” said the soft voice. “Recall how Gilbertus spoke of some of the things Sarah did scaring him gray? He was not speaking of facing a large fire-spewing reptile or a larger-yet Desmond. He would very possibly 'freeze up' then, most likely when no one could afford him doing so, which is why you and her are going to be the most involved in any actual fighting in that place – and also why neither man is a good choice for the Abbey. They might do fairly well across the sea, but neither man can be spared for a trip that might take 'months'.” A brief pause, then, “that needs to be 'several weeks' rather than 'several months', even if Hendrik currently believes otherwise.”

I cut the last sprue from the last bomb-casting a few minutes later, and now stacked the sprues and risers into a 'semi-neat' pile. I found a bag, put the three rough bomb-castings in it, and then turned around. Jaak, for some reason, was gone, and as I picked up his blanket, I realized where he had gone.

“Home, most likely,” I said, as I went out the door. I could easily walk, either to the Public House, or to the carpenter's shop; and a check at the latter showed that place was still unlit. I then began walking down the path to the Public House, the small lantern still shedding its cheering white glow.

The houses to my right and left were just waking up, at least for some of them, while to the west, the sky was now truly lightening to a medium blue. It would be dawn soon, real dawn, and as I came into the yard of the Public House, I noted an absence of horses and the sound of food being prepared. I expected some kind of horrendous rush to crash out into the yard, and as I came to the door, I paused...

There, I listened to what was happening on the inside of the place. I could hear a moderate amount of activity, an amount that suggested a number of cooks hard at work making the morning 'hash' or whatever this place did for its breakfasts. I truly doubted they set out whole loaves of bread and pots of cherry jam before their customers, even if that was common enough at home. I put my hand upon the handle of the right door, and slowly – warily – pushed it open

I then walked in to a scene of bright wax candles burning in profusion amid my sizable and growing confusion. Not only were all the carpenters here, but seemingly a fair portion of the town – and while no one was eating yet, they were all getting into their first mugs of the day's beer. I began looking for Hans, and found him at the rear speaking to the publican at the 'bar'. He, at least, did not have beer – yet.

“Do you have those things?” asked Hans as he turned to me. “They need to finish their food, which will take them a while as it is not in front of them yet, and then they will do the wood pieces for those things.”

I handed Hans the sack, then as he looked inside, he said, “ah, these just need a little grinding, and...”

He pulled one out, looked at it, then looked at me with an indecipherable expression. He looked inclined to erupt, in fact.

“Now why did you do these things up like pieces of corncobs?” he asked, as he held one up to me.

“Uh, I used a larger pattern compared to last time,” I said, “only I thought to, uh, cut some small grooves in the pattern with a file so to make the bombs easier to hang onto should I need to toss them.”

Hans held one of the squat cylinders in his hand, then said, “why would you want to toss this, as it looks to be decent?”

“I've tossed those round squibs before,” I said. “These are also good for placing, especially if you make the wooden plug a certain way with dowels and fit those matches to the cap, along with a bag of priming powder...”

“You'd best draw that one up on some paper,” said Hans. “Now how is it you would use it?”

“Put it in front of a door after preparing it,” I said. “If it's setting on a stone floor, then chances are it will explode if the door is pushed open at all hard.”

“Those you will want for the house proper if General's Row gets more of those thugs in that place,” said Hans. “Talk has it some of them are coming, though they have removed their black-cloth and have taken baths so as to get up here easier.”

“Witches aren't inclined to bathe,” said the publican. “There's something about them wanting to be dirty and smelly, and they dislike soap more than a little.”

“It 'makes them pleasing to Brimstone',” I said. “At least, that was what I was told. I was also told that there will be masses of witches coming up, and that such that one day, it will be like this, and the next day, almost, the place will nearly swarm with coaches, all of them packed full of witches that will want to shoot anyone who gives them the slightest excuse – and these people are not going to be like the ones who left the area.”

“Yes, as they will be from points south,” said Hans.

“More than that,” I said. “Witches up here confined their hunting to sacrifices. Those further south hunted sacrifices and game – and hence, they're better shots, as a rule.” I shuddered, then said, “I hope no fifth kingdom thugs show.”

“Some of them are likely to,” said Hans. “Most witches are bad shots, but those people are not like most witches, either for shooting or much else.”

“For shooting, no,” said the publican. “This was at the border, wasn't it?”

I nodded.

“There's been talk about that,” said the publican, “and I heard it straight from Gilbertus himself – you were getting shot at by at least thirty of those thugs and two rotten cannons, and those people were the best shots for witches he'd ever seen.”

“Yes, and what were they doing?” asked Hans.

“He was hiding in this big pile of building stones,” said the publican, “and they were hitting that pile consistently with both what they shoot and those guns they were using – and both of those at far ranges for what are used on pigs up here.”

“Those are those guns that load from the rear, then,” said Hans. “Those carry the furthest of anything made in the fifth kingdom that a person can shoot, and the same for those rotten cannons those people like.”

The odor of food now redoubled, and as the first platters came out in what looked to be a steady stream, I asked Hans, “what do they serve for breakfasts in here?”

“More or less what they have,” said Hans. “Beer and bread may be cheap, but the rest-day's morning, if you are inclined that way and have time for it, is for something else, at least for most people.”

“Herring?” I asked, as I caught their particular odor. Smelling them made me realize my own hunger.

“Yes, those are at home,” said Hans. “We did not get just the one crock, we got two of those things, as I knew we will be busy before the day after church, and there won't be much time for cooking.”

“At least food-cooking,” I said. “Now there was talk about another pot for the stove, this one Anna picked out herself while some distance south...”

“Yes, that is the other reason,” said Hans. “People want that soap, and they have tossed inducements at Anna so as to get some for their laundry.”

“Best speak to those masons soon, then,” I said.

“Sarah already did,” said Hans, “and they plan on what they do for soap-cookers while you two are gone.”

“A little, uh, house, almost?” I asked. “Oh, that's right, the bathroom gets enlarged.”

“Yes, it will be longer,” said Hans, “though I would rather have them do that business than that smelly man with the beard.”

“He lost much of his business recently,” I said. “N-no more witches in the area, and the witch-sympathizers gone too, and the same for supplicants, so now he must smell decent and mind his manners – and that man is not used to doing either of those things. Almost forgot how, in fact.” A brief pause, then, “now I wonder if his dirt is a symptom of something else that's, uh, smelly?”

“It is that,” said the publican as he briefly returned. “The food's going out now.”

“Beer and bread?” I asked.

“You, Sarah, Tam, a few others, and then mostly travelers who have need of haste want that of a morning in a place like here,” said the publican, “especially this type of morning. Most want a bit more for their plates.”

“Uh, hash?” I asked.

“That...” The publican looked 'ill', then said, “they might serve that in some places in the second kingdom, and maybe a few up here, but I've never done so.”

“What is it?” I asked. “The leftover meat from the night before extended with some that's fresh if it's not enough, the whole chopped fine, mingled with chopped potatoes, then pan-fried with a small amount of cooking oil? The pan heated first with the oil in it, so the stuff doesn't stick?”

The publican shook his head, then said, “I'll need to try that one, as it sounds like it might sell around here during the winter.” A pause, then, “hash does involve leftovers, though its preparation is much simpler, especially if one is using one of your pots.”

“Yes, and how is it done?” asked Hans.

“The first part he got partly right,” said the publican. “One dumps all of that food in such a pot, adds a fair amount of boiled water, stirs it well, then stokes the stove and adjusts the dampers for a very slow fire. The apprentices take turns stirring it about once every turn of the glass the night through, and in the morning, much of the water is gone and one has what is called 'hash'.”

“Yes, and it sounds like it is good for a long stay in the privy,” said Hans.

“With those old pots, it commonly was,” said the publican. “With his, especially if they've got covers as he commonly makes for them, it isn't at all. It's actually 'decent', if you spice it right – and those get added with the food when it's first cooked, so they have plenty of time to 'mingle'.”

“Decent as to taste or decent as to cost?” I asked.

“More the cost than the taste,” said the publican. “Such food has already been paid for by the night's patrons, so it only costs its labor, and apprentices labor cheaply. It has little market in this town, unlike some I've heard of to the south and east.”

“So that's what that one place does,” I muttered. “They use their, uh, leftovers that way, and they then can sell dirt-cheap meals.”

“Yes, and dirt is what those things taste like,” said Hans. “I tossed that stuff at the people serving it when I tried it years ago, and I threw my money after the bowl.”

“It was probably for the best, if they used a less-than-new pot for it,” said the publican. “His, now – those do not go bad in a month or so if you cook soup in them.”

“And that place bought those pots used, lye-cleaned them at some length, and used them for another month before they sold them to second-hand stores,” I said. “The publican thought to practice economy that way, at least for his, uh, 'hash'.”

“Yes, and now he has two less takers for that stuff, as they were burned,” said Hans. “Now why is it you used...” Hans paused, then said, “this was at night, wasn't it?”

I nodded.

“And you drilled their all of their knees,” said Hans.

“That's the quick way, or so Tam tells me,” said the publican. “Sounds like you wasted neither time nor distillate on those stinkers.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Unlike most, uh, witches, those people needed burning, and that distillate had been secured for cleaning medical equipment, hence I dared not be profligate in its use. Distillate is still fairly scarce in this area, from what I understand.” To my surprise, the publican nodded his agreement.

“It is the smelliest heavy distillate I have ever used,” said Hans. “At least Anna can learn that thing good now, even if he needs to clean it good and proper before they go.”

“If he should have the time for it, Hans,” said the publican. “They're glad at the house proper that you did not waste time with that wood treatment, as they've been working his hours lately.” I understood myself to be referred to. “That's not their usual for hours, and I doubt that to be the usual for even the fourth kingdom when its markets are their busiest.”

I then arranged the three 'bomb-castings' open end up on the 'counter', and looked at the inside of one of them. The usual 'coarse' cast iron finish that I had expected these things to have – my other batches of cast iron had been missing it, but these were among the first 'real' castings that way since we put Frankie in operation – was also missing, and their smooth yet slightly grainy texture made for wondering – and then a question.

“Why did I cut grooves in these?” I thought. “Can't I hang onto them like I did with those others?”

“I think I know why,” said the publican. “I've heard talk about how lightning-hares scatter dirt...”

Hans looked at me, then nodded, saying, “I did not think of that until you just spoke.” A brief pause, then, “he got all messy doing the hall, and I got messy too, and then I had some lead, though that was not the first time for that stuff, and Anna got some lead herself.” A brief pause, then, “so you want those for tossing those things so as to hang onto them, no matter how messy you get and no matter how hard the bricks are falling around you.” A pause, then, “and I was glad I was under a stoop then. He was running among raining bricks and stuff a lot when he was tossing those bottles.”

“Her hair? Shot-tweezers?” I asked. “Hans, that's on the other end, isn't it?” Anna had a most-full head of hair, and hearing of the stuff being present upon her rear had me wondering. Sarah, save for her head, seemed to be all but hairless. What Hans said, however, was something of a relief.

“Yes, for most of it,” said Hans. “Most people have some of that stuff almost everywhere, and that place isn't any different from their arms or their legs.”

The food had gone out by now, and I was getting 'thirsty'. Soon Hans and I were working on a jug of beer off in one of the more-deserted corners, while the carpenters – not merely the men, I now saw, but their whole families – worked at a more substantial repast. I felt reminded of our meals that we had had here, and Hans pointed, then said, “now that is the common for breakfasts in here, is what they have there, I think.”

“Diced potatoes and chopped meat, with greens?” I asked. I was hoping for herring, at least at home. The greens looked helpful just the same, however.

“Anna and I like herring, and so do a fair number of people in town,” said Hans, “but not everyone likes those things. Then, there are people who are sick, and then people like you and Sarah who have lots of foods that do not like them much. Herring tend to taste better than most of what they have in the potato country, so while we were there, those are what we got most times when we could afford more than just beer and bread.”

“Exploring isn't cheap, is it?”

“No, it is not,” said Hans, “and that is so even if you are a good shot, as most places with game have bad powder and worse lead, and they price them as if they were the best to be had, which is why I tried to have as much as I could carry easy of both things whenever I went off to see what there was in an area.”

“Carry easy?” I asked.

“Yes, some in my satchel, and then two or three small bags each of powder and shot among our things in the buggy. That way, we would not be in trouble if some was stolen or was ruined.” A pause, then, “and I heard you did the same for that trip, at least for your money and the things for your guns.”

“Small bags?” I asked.

“They were smaller ones at first,” said Hans. “Later, I learned they needed to be larger ones of close-sewn leather well-rubbed with tallow and beeswax, and those tied good, and bottles for the powder. I usually figured thirty balls and thirty loads of shot for a given ten-day, and then two ten-days worth over that, and that was at first. The last times out I was out, I figured I needed at least five pounds of common shot, two pounds of stiff shot if I could get some, and five pounds of balls for a trip to and from that market, and three bottles of good powder – and I got more of all of those things when and where I could, so as to keep our supply-bags good and full.”

“You shot game?” I asked.

“Yes, as much of our last trips were through parts of the second kingdom between the two main roads, and the same for this one until we got into this area,” said Hans. “It is easier on the horses, and the usual time for such trips has lots of game showing, so we save time and money that way – and the more money we save on the trip coming and going, the more there is for medicines and things we need down there.”

I nodded at the sense of such a statement, then turned to my left slightly. The carpenters appeared to be finishing their meals, as far as I could tell, and as one man after the other began stacking his coins – these tended to be short stacks of the smaller silver pieces, with one or two of the larger ones for a base, and this for his entire family. I asked, “how much are meals here?”

“Ours are usually cheaper, because much of the year we bring in food of one kind or another,” said Hans. “That type of meal might be three guilders a plate unless you bring in food a lot, but that is a good breakfast.” A pause, then, “we paid about that much for the three of us when we were down here last, I think.”

“That was dinner?” I asked.

“Yes, and we still had meals coming from that last elk you shot until recent,” said Hans. “Now this year, I would think we might eat here more often yet, as I think it will be busy for us, what with you working like you do and soap boiling at home all the time.”

There were two men walking north with Hans and I a short time later, and while Hans stayed in the background once at the carpenter's shop, I indicated that the three 'samples' I had were likely to be representative of the others present as I drew on a piece of paper I had in my possible bag what was needed for 'plugging' them. I also spoke of the need for five fuse-dowels.

“Whole dowels, or the part that actually goes in the shell?” asked one of the men.

“The portion that goes in the shell,” I said. “They need to be bored...” I paused, then saw that Hans had 'vanished'. “He must have gone to fetch one of the things that goes in them. We have a number of blasting caps, but these things are the biggest ones I've seen, and someone said that, uh, your apprentice...”

“We will not let him get near such a thing,” said the man I had been speaking to. “I think I can measure it, if you stand next to me, then you can take that thing back so it does not cause trouble.”

“I was told they could explode if dropped...”

The reaction upon both men's faces was enough to give me the chills, as if ever I had ever seen witch-thinking before, I was seeing it now. The fact that the devices were very sensitive but increased the potency and reinforced such thinking. Whoever came up with these accursed beliefs was not stupid, I realized.

“Are they?” I thought. “That sensitive?”

“Take one and toss it underhanded onto a hard surface,” said the soft voice. “Toss it easy, but I'd get behind something able to stop copper fragments, as those can and do explode if dropped.” A brief pause, then, “they just don't do it all the time.”

“I heard that,” said one of the carpenters, this being the other man.

“I know they can explode if you throw them hard,” I said, “but it's like a lot of other things here – I've heard of things, but I don't believe what I hear until I actually test it out.”

Steps came to the door, then Hans returned with a small sack. He went to a table, cleared a small spot among the tools laying there, then began to remove a thick bundle of rags tied with string from the sack. After laying out several rags as padding, he came to the innermost rags of the bundle – and then, the cap itself, which he laid with exaggerated care in the middle of the piled rags.

“That is one of those things there,” said Hans. “I would measure it now, as it is less likely to cause trouble while he is around to make it mind its manners.”

“I do not understand at all how that works,” I said, “but there's at least some truth to what he said.”

“It's mentioned in a fair number of old tales, actually,” said the older of the two men, as he produced a pair of small 'bow-calipers' and carefully measured the cap. He checked the cap twice, Hans turning it slightly between his checking for 'out of round', then said, “there. Now you can remove that thing. We should have those wood-pieces in perhaps two hours.”

“I would keep a sample of each of those pieces for yourselves,” said Hans, “as there are likely to be more of both things. I know he did a lot more than three of those cast-iron things there.”

The two of us then hurried ourselves home to our breakfasts, both of which were not merely set, but a brief check on the rear area through the bathroom door showed not merely two partly-emptied buggies, but also a significantly larger woodpile. Hans and I 'downed' our food, then finished unloading and stacking the remaining wood; and after moving the smaller buggy off to the side and covering it with a new-sewn 'ground-sheet' of close-woven cloth lightly impregnated with wax – I wondered how that had been done, in fact – I helped Hans move the larger one into the buggy-way.

And as we did, I had a peculiar thought: a 'garage', one side with an odd-looking 'car' that looked like a very cheaply-made 'jeep' of some kind – it looked cheaply made, but it was anything but cheap, either for its cost or its construction; more, it was the closest thing to a maintenance-free vehicle I had ever heard of – and on the other side, a buggy, this one sized similar to Sarah's, save using fiberglass, corrosion-resistant metal, some odd materials that made for wondering, and thin rubber tires on wire-spoked wheels. The two juxtaposed together seemed well beyond peculiar, and this made for wondering as I went back to bed for a nap slightly later that day once the three 'containers' returned with their plugs done as per the drawing I had delivered.

Only, there were not three plugs; there were over a dozen of them, all done the same as if patterns were used, and the same for the other wooden plugs; and when I came down after my nap, I wondered if I could 'fill' the devices. I came to Sarah where she was sitting on the couch, a well-chewed writing dowel in her hand and two half-sheets of paper in her lap, with a small piece of thin-shaved wood surrounded as if it were a writing slate. I wondered if the back held places for other writing equipment, as that did seem likely. “I've got most of this done,” she said. “Now what is this entry here?”

“Dried meat, dear,” I said. “Why, what did you think it said?”

“D-dru-ed M... Is that an M?” Sarah then looked at me.

“It is,” I said. “Oh, what I would give for a computer.”

And yet, as I said this, I recalled hearing a certain person speaking of 'all-too-capable' examples of computers being present across the sea. It made a good deal of sense: truly capable submarines running 'nuclear power' needed those – and more, not a few of them – to not come to grief in a tearing hurry.

Sarah now used a falling-to-pieces 'rubbing block' to clean the paper, then rapidly made corrections to each of the two lists regarding what she had written, that being 'Drude Mount' with an exclamation point after it.

“That symbol?” I asked. “What does it mean?”

“It is normally used to indicate a question,” said Sarah. “There aren't very many such marks in writing today.” A brief pause, then, “there were a lot more of them long in the past, which tends to make most tapestries difficult to understand for the majority of their readers, and that's not for those marks that seem preferred by witches.”

“Is there one that looks like a hook?” I asked.

“Yes, and it speaks of witches taking whatsoever they wish when they wish it, and doubly so for sacrifices,” said Sarah. “I've seen it many times in your notes, but I doubt you mean what they do. What does it mean?”

“What that mark there does,” I said, pointing to the one in question. “You know how many questions I ask, don't you?”

“More than anyone I've heard of or seen,” said Sarah. “Most people seldom ask questions, even if they should have them, as few who have the answers they want or need endure either such people or their asking.”

“Witch-thinking,” I spat. “They assume you only ask questions so as to cause them trouble.”

Sarah nodded, all the while looking at her notes. “This one?”

“Fishing string, dear,” I said. “Witches also assume you can read their minds – or do they?”

“My cousin more or less said that they acted as if that were true while she was at Boermaas,” said Sarah, “and more, she found writing more than once on this nasty-feeling greasy paper witches like that said that was exactly the case.”

“And those that did not?” I asked.

“She said witches had no use for such people, as witches want to work without ceasing for anything, not even sleep,” said Sarah. “At least, that is what she said. We've both seen plenty of evidence that says that is merely what they say, and not what they do.”

“They do try hard to convince others that it is true, don't they?” I asked. “That there would be 'dried vegetables'. I'm combining both of the lists, dear, because while I doubt we will want dried vegetables for the Abbey, I know we will need them for our trip.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah emphatically. “Those people cannot think that far ahead, and they need to bring all of what we will need that they can find here so that we have it in readiness for both matters.”

“Not just Karl and Sepp,” I said. “Gabriel also, unless I miss my guess – that, and some of this stuff will need purchase and preparation, and seeing it on this list gets everyone thinking about it.”

“Gabriel can think ahead more than 'tomorrow' if he works at it,” said Sarah, who implied he seldom did so by her tone, “but if you speak of 'more than three or four days', then you are right if it isn't something he deals with regularly that demands such planning ahead.” A pause, then, “that seems to be something that the west school tries to inculcate, but they don't succeed to any real degree save seldom.”

“And your cousin is a master at doing so,” I said.

“She does that better than I do,” said Sarah, “and I was known for my ability that way.”

As the list 'finished up' – I knew there were more things we needed, but I could not think of them at this time – I thought to show Sarah the cast iron 'bomb-casings'. Her initial reaction was something I could not decipher, but upon some small reflection with one of them in her hand, her face brightened.

“They are not filled yet,” she said, looking at me. “We will wish many of them, even if three should do us for the Abbey.”

“Best get more of them before that happens, then,” I said, as I stifled a yawn.

“You need more beer,” said Sarah. “I should have these lists done fit for those two within an hour.”

Within an hour, however, we were eating dinner; and within an hour after that, I was headed south on the main road with a list each for Karl and Sepp in a small cloth bag. I knew I wanted to go east well before the stinky clearing, but as soon as I went to the southern ends of our fields, I'd want to head due south for at least two miles before heading east further again so as to miss Waldhuis.

“They're just finishing planting and repairs, so they'll be watching for me,” I thought.

“Especially now,” said the soft voice. “They're more into witch-thinking than almost anyone in this area who isn't a bones-holding true-witch, and given enough of those show there on a semi-regular basis, they're privy to more than a little 'witch-news'.”

“Which, regarding the house proper, has dropped off severely,” I said.

“Their last 'reliable' contact left for 'parts unknown' last night,” said the soft voice. “General's Row is now empty, and suspicion hangs over the Teacher's head to such a degree that anyone approaching him who is not well-known gets a lengthy questioning from one of several people after the fact – and several more people, Tam and Mathias chief among them, are watching that man closely.”

“Those people all left?” I asked.

“In old clothing, no less,” said the soft voice.

“Runes embroidered on the inside?” I asked.

“What happened to that one 'scholar' has gotten out,” said the soft voice, “so they went up in the upper rooms of the house and rummaged around for true 'old clothing', not that 'witch-cloth imitation' some witches have handy for when they wish to go 'slumming' among the 'commons'.”

“Which is what that one 'scholar' used, correct?” I asked. “That one witch?”

“True, which was the chief way Tam knew it was him,” said the soft voice. “Not only could he 'feel' those runes at some distance, but the cut of that clothing is subtly different from common clothing – and with his lengthy experience, coupled with what he felt as he came closer in the darkness, and what he had learned over the weeks previously – all of those things told him the person he rode down and shot out of the saddle was indeed his man.”

“He didn't use a pistol, did he?” I asked silently. I had just turned east, as I had come to the edge of the town's fields; and I kept moving steadily as I went along the path that lay at the very edge of the last one.

“No, he did not,” said the soft voice. “He borrowed that fowling piece you had worked on, stuffed it up with 'max-loads' of stiff shot tumbled in blacking and mingled with coarse-ground corn meal as a 'buffer', and fired his first barrel at a range of less than ten feet,” said the soft voice. “That man was dead before he hit the ground, but Tam fired a finisher into his chest at powder-burn range to make certain when he came up to him. He wanted no trouble when he hung that wretch out to dry.”

I then looked where I was riding: this 'path' had seen enough recent traffic of various types that I suspected Jaak's tracks would be 'erased' within a few days by various feet; and in the meantime, those treading it might notice someone had ridden a horse.

“Assuming they bother to look,” I thought. “That's a real issue now, but it's going to be a much bigger one in the foreseeable future.”

“Yes, in the months to come,” said the soft voice. “It won't be a 'much' bigger issue in this area until it gets closer to harvest.”

“Uh, all those witches coming?” I asked.

“They will nearly all gather themselves in the kingdom house and the nearest towns to that location of 'substance',” said the soft voice. “The 'small fry' that remain out in the hinterlands are starting to come across all of those smoking holes in the ground left by those exploding coaches, and they've heard and seen enough that now they have no inclination to even think about 'coming within range' – while those from the south know little more than the old witch-knowledge about the Swartsburg being 'the place to be'. Those first people that show are going to be very surprised when they see just how 'gone' that place is.”

“They figured it would be easy to fix, and they'd have an easy time of things,” I thought. “Instead, they come to a place that isn't nearly as witch-friendly as it was a few months ago, those witches that remain don't want anything to do with them, leastways at first – and there's no 'witch-infrastructure' remaining. Sure, there are opportunities, but they'll need to make those from scratch, almost.”

Here, the last field ended abruptly, this some five hundred yards from the road, and I turned south. I wanted to get back into the habit of using cover and concealment once more, which meant using every copse I could see and staying close to if not in the shadows. The sun had just gone down, it being the 'twelfth' hour or thereabouts – if not a trifle later. I wanted plenty of time for exploring tonight, as I needed to gather my own supplies for the trip, which meant sacks, rags, and perhaps some other things I found while exploring. I knew where to find the other things, those being in the room where Sarah had been annoyed by spiders while I was locating that 'Benzina'.

“You underestimated the remaining witch-antipathy in the kingdom house,” said the soft voice. “Remember, it wasn't merely witches and supplicants who died in those burn-piles – a lot of people who found witchdom attractive died also, hence the vast majority of those people who remain are not merely not favorably inclined toward witches to any degree, but they've had a fair number of recent reminders as to what witches need to have happen to them – and that's for those who have not seen the sun rise at night repeatedly in recent days. Most of the people in the house have.

“And when the place swarms with witches? How will they manage that?” I asked. The shadows were deepening fast, and I checked my compass heading to ensure I was not drifting east prematurely. I could feel Waldhuis ahead, and I had just passed a road that led there. I asked that my tracks on the road be erased to be certain.

“Due to superior firepower, mostly,” said the soft voice. “It won't be like it was, where misers could drive around with near-impunity in most areas and coaches, as long as they only ran after dark, were more or less safe. Misers will need to hide themselves well save late at night, and single coaches showing during daylight hours, unless weighed down with more iron plate than a full-grown Iron Pig, will be deathtraps outside of a handful of locations in or near the kingdom house.” A brief pause, then, “what you will see – and that commonly – will be coaches running nose-to-tail in long mule-drawn convoys of not less than three to five vehicles, and the witches crowded therein will be shooting at anyone or anything that dares to show itself.”

“Which will make the people hate witches all the more,” I thought. “Good.”

“But one thing these massing stinkers didn't figure on,” said the soft voice. “Lukas – and everyone else who wears greens or who is similarly inclined – is going to enjoy himself at their expense once he gets his hands on some of what's in that place.”

“That place?” I asked. “As in the Abbey?” It was now 'dark', with some lighter blue near the eastern horizon, and I could feel Waldhuis at roughly a forty-five degree angle to my left front. Their plowed areas this year weren't quite as large as the last, due to their recent losses of both time and personnel; more, while there were watchers, the majority of those living there had concentrated upon their fields while planting time was 'good', and had done the minimum needed to make their damaged homes and facilities 'suitable'. Now, like good 'witches', their 'temporary' works intended to do little more than 'hold the ground' were being redone to a higher standard, which meant busy-as-angry-wasp men and women during the day and long into the night.

And for some reason, I wondered if I would have access to a real mortar in the future. A few shells landing periodically in that particular wasp-nest sounded like a very good idea.

While there was no answer regarding the mortar-question, I could feel Waldhuis moving rapidly, first from the front and left to directly to my left, then gradually further to the left and rear; and then once it was more to the rear than to the left, I began heading slowly to my left. I thought to come to roughly a south-southwest heading over the course of perhaps twenty minutes, then stay in the shadows as much as I could.

Within minutes, however, I found this portion 'vetoed', at least regarding staying in the shadows. Each time I posted between now and our sailing, I would need to make the best time I could without tiring Jaak unduly; and more importantly, I would also need to take Sarah with me to Willem's with the buggy before we sailed and return with her on Jaak. Hence he needed to rest as much as he could.

“The night before we sail, in fact,” I thought, “and from there, then head straight to the house proper. We'll most likely get in late.”

And yet, for some reason, I could tell I was being followed. Someone was coming after me; and while I did not hear anything out of the ordinary audibly, I could tell this much: this someone was not a witch.

“Sarah,” I thought. “She needs an instance of sword-practice in the house proper before we do the Abbey,” I thought.

“Yes, and Karl and Sepp can do that after you give them your lists,” said the soft voice. “That's why you need to hurry tonight. The next two posting-nights' need for hurry will become evident once you clear the Abbey – and figure on moderately-long days both times.”

“Moderately long?” I asked. I could almost hear those horses trotting. Sarah had her own ways of hurrying, much of which involved little-used roads taken at speeds that only she could manage and any person of lesser familiarity with those roads would come to grief upon if they tried to go half as fast.

“Assuming they had similar vehicles, of course,” said the soft voice. “That's another aspect of that buggy that's unlike anything currently available – its off-road capability. She's crossing a field right now, in fact, and those horses are not having any trouble going at those speeds.”

“And I'd bog it for certain,” I said. “She's got almost nothing in that thing, doesn't she?”

“Less than usual, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and no, you would not bog it.”

“What?” I gasped. “I weigh a good deal more than she does... More than Hans does, in fact – or do I?”

“About forty pounds more than he does, assuming a common scale is used,” said the soft voice. “You're also more than a little underweight, presuming you were being measured where you came from and your muscular development was taken into account.” A brief pause, then, “anyone with that little body-fat here is thought to be seriously – if not deathly – ill.”

“And where I come from would call me 'fat', right?” The most common measurements of 'obesity' only took into account one's height and weight – and many medical personnel followed those religiously in prescribing to their patients, even if the end result was a walking skeleton if full compliance was achieved.

“No, they wouldn't,” said the soft voice. “While you would not win any contests, that would be mostly due to things other than your physique or strength – as both of those, especially strength, are no joking matter in either location.”

“What?” I asked.

“That's mostly a matter of conjecture,” said the soft voice, “but those people making those clubs you asked for heartily wish they had stronger materials – and that for very good reasons. More than one of them has dreamed of you breaking those clubs like matchsticks.”

“What?” I asked. This time it was audible, and more, the rapid moving of the buggy in question – it was now back on a road – was truly a marvel. Sarah was probably one of the fastest drivers on the continent during the daytime – and at night, no one could catch her.

“Anyone who isn't a long-haired Veldter, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Those people could, but the first thing they'd do if they caught her – she's dodged them before successfully on several occasions – is start looking her over.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They'd presume anyone that capable would be marked,” said the soft voice, “and when they found no visible markings, they'd ask her some questions.”

“They'd presume she was a witch?” I asked.

“No, because no witch currently alive can do what's she's doing,” said the soft voice. “They'd most likely have one of their doctors examine her, and then they'd learn the truth – and she'd be recognized then, same as you would be.”

“Me?” I asked.

“You would need no doctor, though,” said the soft voice. “In your case, they'd see the flames right away, and that would tell them but one thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“Their old tales speak of those the witches called monsters,” said the soft voice. “They do not call those people anything of the sort, but something utterly different – and that as an honorific.”

“What?” I asked.

Indiæ,” said the soft voice, “or 'Indians' – and according to their tales, their Totems were given them by the last of those people – and every one of them 'flamed' as you do.”

The rise showed a surprisingly short time later, and as I came past the gate, I could hear – this time, audibly – the whizzing sound of that one buggy. I slowed, this time waiting, and while the buggy did not show before I fluffed out Jaak's blanket and left it on the hitching rail, Sarah met me by surprise in the refectory but minutes after I filled my water-bottle and mug.

“You need to have your scabbard riveted, don't you?” I asked.

“Yes, but that can wait until tomorrow, I think,” she said. “It will not take that long, will it?”

“About an hour from the time I get started to the time you're wearing it, hopefully,” I said. “Most of tomorrow is going to be napping when we're not working, as we'll wish an early start the morning after.” A brief pause, then, “now where are Karl and Sepp?”

While they had not been present in the refectory when the two of us had arrived one after the other, they showed within perhaps ten minutes of Sarah's arrival; and after fetching our own jug of beer for the four of us, I thought to go down into the 'sword-drill' area. There were still some few places I needed to look over down that way, but when we went down the stairs, Karl said, “now I hope you have a decent knife for that place, as you will want it.”

“He's been working on a batch of eight of them steadily,” said Sarah – who then asked, “which place?”

“Across the sea,” said Sepp. “I've had more of those smelly thugs in my dreams, and this time, I know what some of those people are called by their betters.”

“What?” I asked.

“You'd have trouble believing it if I spoke of it,” said Sepp. “They call those people 'function' something.”

“Functionaries?” I asked.

“That's it,” said Sepp. “The common people call them something entirely different, or actually a lot of things, but their proper names are what you said.”

“They do not do well when you poke them, either,” said Karl.

“Do they need much poking?” I asked.

“They are not Generals for that business, nor misers,” said Karl, “nor are they witches. I am not sure what to call those people, but they are not like anyone I have ever heard of, as even one of those bad four-shooter pistols will put them down on the ground screaming if you hit them much of anywhere.”

“Or poke them with an awl,” I muttered. “Or... Karl, if you can find a slingshot, you may want to bring it.”

“Now how did you know about that?” he asked. “I have one, and I have put fresh rubbers to it.” A brief pause, then, “why?”

“If those thugs go down that easy,” I murmured, “then perhaps you can put a pistol ball up their nose.”

“I doubt I can do that,” said Karl. “I can probably dot their eyes if I am close, or clean their ears.”

“Good enough,” I said. “Those thugs will not enjoy that much, and we will need quiet at least occasionally when dealing with them.”

While the two men began speaking to Sarah regarding sword-practice once down in 'the realm of gloom', I went off on my own with a catalytic lantern in hand. This area currently had but few candles burning, even if they were larger wax ones; and as I passed out of the 'main' hallway and into the darkness, I was glad Sarah had such a lantern also. I then realized I needed to do 'candle-castings'.

“Anna took one of your molds to that one shop the day after you finished them, as well as one of your smaller lanterns, and spoke of a need for candles using the house's blend,” said the soft voice. “They've been running it constantly since, and you should have a sizable bag of such candles done in time for your sailing.”

“Meaning I need to make enough for the Abbey?” I murmured. These lanterns tended to burn their wax about a fifth slower than otherwise, which was a real advantage. They might need periodic adjustment – I had showed Sarah how that worked, as well as spoke of the need to 'darken' all of their metallic portions after finishing the Abbey's business – but they gave reasonably bright and steady non-flickering light of an unusual whiteness.

Normal candle flames had a pronounced yellow tint, and were much dimmer.

“Anna's made a few candles using your molds,” said the soft voice, “and Sarah has also. You might need to run one more batch in the three remaining molds.”

“Hours?” I asked. I suspected that to be the reason as to why they had only done a few candles.

“That one man's found the trick to those things – dunk them in water, pour the wax, put in the wick-holder while the center wax is still melted, then unlock them about half an hour later and repeat the process. Sarah typically does a bit better – she's molded candles before, though not with those molds.”

“They speed the process up some, don't they?”

“They do, and not a little,” said the soft voice. “More, they waste no wax, hence no waxy fingers; and the resulting candles are good enough that you can expect regular-sized molds of that design to be a most-common request when you come back.”

“Ice-water?” I asked.

“That will speed up the molding process to no small degree,” said the soft voice, “which is why Sarah can turn out finished candles, more or less, in about ten minutes each once she has the wax melted.”

“The empty molds stay in the ice-bucket...”

I came to one of the unexplored places, and in the light of my lantern, I could see stairs going up the end of the hallway. Behind me, somewhere in the distance, I could hear movements, these soft, lithe – the sounds of death – being practiced. Between Karl's 'misadventures' with witches, and Sepp's dealing with 'mean black cattle', Sarah had two practiced men to learn with; and I knew from what she had told me that she was merely 'unused' to real sword-work.

“I'd be lousy for teaching that,” I muttered, as I went up the hallway. “She saw Karl deal with that one man...”

“She could follow his moves,” said the soft voice, “as that fight actually took nearly a minute to finish. Yours tend to start and end so quickly she'd say 'what did you do'?”

“And I break all of the rules, no doubt,” I muttered. I could feel something unpleasant nearby, so much so that I was wishing for another rat-club, and as I drew closer to this 'thing' – it wasn't amusing at all to be around, I knew that much, and it was not something I'd encountered before – I unbuttoned my revolver's holster. I glanced at the walls now, wary for something to 'jump out at me', and when I saw the thing in my peripheral vision to my left hanging on the wall, I turned, drew, and fired in the blink of an eye.

The thing fell to the ground as if hit with lightning, and I heard running steps beside me. I covered the 'thing' on the ground, thinking that it might be shamming as it lay twitching faintly.

“What is that thing?” I thought as I covered the sizable 'creature'. “Is that a spider?”

“I'm coming,” yelled Sarah as she came at a run. “Did you find another white rat?”

“No, dear,” I mumbled, as I nudged the thing with my boot. “I found something that belongs in a science-fiction novel involving nasty creatures from another planet.” I paused, then, “do those things like to cling to faces?”

While there was no answer regarding my questioning, lithe steps came closer, then as Sarah entered the hallway, she asked, “what did you find?”

“This, uh, thing,” I said. “I think it's dead.”

“I hope it is,” said Sarah, “as I recognize that smell.”

“Smell?” I asked.

“It's one of the odors that's really common at Boermaas if you go into some of their less-used buildings, or their places underground,” said Sarah. She then came up to where I was standing, and poked the dead thing with her sword.

“How did that thing get up here?” Her voice was just short of a screech. “That's a spider, a blue-back spider, and it's one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen!”

“I could feel it as I came closer to it,” I said, “and when I saw it, I shot it. It dropped right then.”

“That is good that you did so,” said Sepp, “as those two white rats were not the only ones in the house. One of them showed in the kitchen here, and I used a cleaver on it.”

“Cleaver?” I asked.

“He cut that thing in half,” said Karl. “I put its pieces in the manure-pile here, so they will not cause trouble.” A pause, then, “and those cooks needed baths, and so did he, and they used a lot of stinky lye on the floor.”

“That was cheap lye,” said Sarah, “and that was a bad spider, as those things like to jump off of walls and grab onto you.”

“Your face?” I asked.

“I have heard of them doing that,” said Sarah, “but the throat seems to be where they like to grab most. It got so bad my cousin made a neck-guard of brass for me, as well as one for herself, and I was glad for that thing. I'd be dead several times over otherwise, as I've had those jump on me and try to bite through that brass.”

“I hope they are not common across the sea,” I murmured. “The Abbey is too dead for them, at least in the parts... Do they have those there?”

“Yes, and in some numbers,” said the soft voice, “which is but one of the reasons why those carpenters are working your hours right now. Expect to have a club that morning so you can mash those things when you see them.”

“How did they get up there?” asked Sarah. “That type of spider does poorly up here, and they would do little save die in a place this cold.”

“The same witches that brought up those white rats also brought up numbers of fetish-caged blue-backs,” said the soft voice, “and since they learned of the plans for the Abbey, they've been bringing those things up here and putting them in that place so as to make it 'untenable', in their words.”

“And the Abbey is nowhere near as chilly as this location, so they probably survive longer,” I murmured.

“Yes, by eating each other and what few rats they can catch and kill,” said the soft voice. “The only reason there are 'numbers' of them remaining in the Abbey is that the witches were bringing up coaches full of caged spiders nightly and then releasing them inside that place.”

“Do those people breed such spiders?”

“Their underground holdings tend to be warm enough that they are near-perfect places to raise such spiders, and it's not uncommon for certain areas to be set apart for 'spider breeding',” said the soft voice. “More, 'murder by blue-back spider' is one of the more common ways of witches killing people in the third and fourth kingdoms.”

“How is it they do that?” asked Karl.

“They put several such spiders in a person's house late at night,” said Sarah, “and as a rule, not only the person they're after dies, but everyone living in the place dies before morning – and no one's usually the wiser, save perhaps in the kingdom houses themselves.”

“What?” I gasped. “How?”

“Blue-backs, especially ones that large, tend to act like Death-Adders,” said Sarah, “only they are much more aggressive.”

“Especially if they are cursed,” said the soft voice. “While the 'spider-curse' collection isn't that effective on blue-backs – it was for another type of spider, one which is nearly extinct at this time – blue-backs are aggressive enough without being cursed to actually seek out sleeping victims out and bite them.” A pause, then “those curses just makes them single-minded about the matter, such that they do nothing else while they or their prey live.”

“And that one wasn't cursed,” I muttered.

“No, it was,” said the soft voice. “Blue-backs only thrive when it's warm, and down here it is not warm – hence it was more than a little sluggish. It wasn't aware of you until about a half-second before you shot it, and as sluggish as it was, it was just getting ready to jump for you when that bullet drilled a hole in it.”

“That one is dead,” said Karl. “I did not hear the bullet travel, so it got all of your lead.”

I looked closer at the place where the spider had been 'lying in wait', and noted a gray 'splatter' staining the wall. The bullet's 'added' tin – I used a good deal more tin than Hans did, at least for revolver bullets – didn't just harden it to a degree and make the lead more fluid when casting; in the amounts I used, it also caused a degree of brittleness in the bullets, such that that splatter had sprayed back into the spider's body.

Only adding the needed materials to make 'printer's lead' made it much harder, and my printer's lead was harder than that usually named so. Hans had spoken of 'hard bullets' and 'hard shot' more than once.

Sarah had turned the spider over with her sword, and gasped. “No wonder it did not ignore your lead. That bullet went to pieces when it hit the wall and ripped up its entire body as if you'd used a fowling piece on it.”

“It dropped right away,” I said. “Is that... What?” I gasped as I counted the critter's remaining legs. The 'splinters' from the ball had ripped at least three of them off – leaving nine that I could see. “How many legs do spiders have here?”

“This type usually has twelve,” said Sarah, “though I have heard of some on tapestries that have an extra leg on one side, for a total of thirteen. Those were said to be cursed by witches that way. Why?”

“Spiders where I come from have eight legs,” I said, “and I've never seen one that large before.”

“That was about average for size when I was dealing with spiders,” said Sarah, “but the only place I knew of that had blue-backs in numbers was Boermaas.” A brief pause, then, “and there, blue-backs might be big enough to cover your hand. That's the biggest one I've ever seen or heard of.”

“What do we do with it?” I asked.

“I would leave it for the rats,” said Karl. “Those like bugs, and that thing is close enough to one.”

“Rats might eat spiders,” said Sarah, “but they tend to avoid blue-blacks.”

“Yes, where those spiders are common,” said the soft voice. “That one looks 'mighty tasty' to a hungry first-kingdom-house rat, especially if it's a young and still-growing one, and they'll consume its flesh with avidity.” A brief pause, then, “they'll also die from doing so, but they'll do that outside, where it's warmer.”

“Good, then,” said Sarah.

The spider question resolved – I could feel no more of them in the area, and after cleaning my pistol cursorily and reloading the fired chamber, I resumed walking toward the stairs. The first intimation as to why I felt no more spiders was when I found the well-gnawed carcass of another such spider but a short distance from the first of the stairs, then as I began to climb them, I found another dead and well-gnawed spider, this one beginning to become 'mummified' or whatever happened to spiders twice as big as an earthly tarantula when they died.

“Or were killed,” said the soft voice. “Cold-weakened blue-black spiders are easy prey for rats, which is why that one you just shot was the last live one on the premises.”

“And those at the Abbey?” I asked.

“They're slowed down enough by that place's 'chill' that for every rat they manage to catch, the rats have caught and killed several,” said the soft voice – and most of the spiders that still live in the place are not where they can be readily found.”

“Will I, uh, need to mash some?” I asked.

“If you comb the place over thoroughly, you'll want one of those clubs,” said the soft voice. “Granted, you'll be thumping rats with it mostly, but you might run into another spider or two. They're actually becoming somewhat scarce in that place as we speak, as most of the remaining rats have learned what portions of them are 'edible' and which parts are not – and under what conditions that happens to be the case.”

“Edible?” I asked.

“To a rat, anyway,” said the soft voice. “The poison in a living blue-back spider is concentrated in certain portions, chiefly the poison glands and the envenoming apparatus. If those and the tissues in close proximity are avoided, and the spider is freshly killed, then they're more or less like any other insect rats commonly eat – and a large freshly-killed blue-black spider is enough for several rats to comfortably dine upon, which one reason why the rats have learned to hunt them in groups.”

“And if they are not freshly killed?” I asked.

“The poison tends to seep into the rest of the spider's body fairly quickly once it dies,” said the soft voice, “which means that one you shot will become 'rat poison' by the time you post tonight.”

I now noticed the twisting nature of the stairs. There was a central shaft of some kind, this easily ten feet or more in diameter, and a round 'silo' that the stairs climbed up steadily; and every half turn around the spiral, a long-unused rusted 'sconce' adorned the walls. The thick layer of undisturbed dust and the musty odor spoke of a passage long-untouched by man after I'd gone a full turn; and when I found yet another dead spider, this one shrunken down to something closer to a mashed-flat caricature of such a creature, I suspected I was onto 'something'.

“What's above where I'm at?”

“The offices of those 'scholars',” said the soft voice. “This staircase dead-ends in about two more turns, or so it appears to do so.”

“It doesn't, though,” I said. “Where is the hidden door?”

“About five steps back from the last step, and it's in that central shaft,” said the soft voice. “It's not been used in nearly a century.”

“And who used it last?” I asked.

“Marked people who needed to escape the house privily,” said the soft voice. “That one marked jeweler knew of it, but never used it, while Andreas knows of it by rumor only – as does Hendrik.”

“And now me,” I thought, as I continued climbing. I wanted to know about this door, as it might well be important one day to me.

“Especially given that it goes up to a narrow cross-passage that follows that hallway that leads to Hendrik's office, then goes up more stairs that wind like these – only those stairs go clean to the roof of the building.”

“The roof?” I asked.

“Yes, to a small 'building' on the rooftop,” said the soft voice. “There's another door, one that you haven't found yet. It's not ten feet from where those guard-muskets are, and it's not been used since the place was built.”

“And it's a marked door without... No, it has a knob,” I muttered. “Why didn't I see it?”

“Because you were not looking for it, but rather a place to put those muskets – and it's very well hidden,” said the soft voice. “You now have an idea as to where to look, and a decent light with which to look, also – which helps more than a little, as Sarah is now learning to her chagrin.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Sepp actually managed to surprise her,” said the soft voice, “and while she did recover quickly, she's not used to dealing with someone as quick as he is.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I saw the end of the stairs – and felt, this clearly as if another spider were on the wall, the door that had been mentioned. “How?”

“Witches are one thing, save for a very few examples,” said the soft voice. “Miura and his relatives are in another league entirely.”

“Uh, that one straight-horned bull?” I asked.

“Was almost as quick as a typical example of Miura,” said the soft voice. “That one witch you first took sword to in the first kingdom house was not a typical witch, at least when it came to blades. Sarah's more than a little glad none of her assailants were as quick as he was.”

“And most witches are slow compared to that wretch,” I muttered, as I 'felt' the outline of the door with my hands. “I think this is where this thing...”

An old grating sound, then with a 'creepy' groan of hinges, the door opened slowly as I pressed upon it gently. I could feel cold dry air coming, this slow as a gentle wind, and I slipped inside the door – which closed softly behind me. I then saw the 'latch'.

“Odd,” I said softly. “It can be pressed open from the 'down' side, but needs this latch to go back this way.”

“It was intended for marked people to escape their pursuers when hard-pressed,” said the soft voice, “and it was built that way in secret by those laboring under the direction of those in supervision, most of whom were marked.”

“Probably the only people who could build sizable buildings that worked then,” I muttered, as I began climbing an even tighter spiraling staircase.

While I had no 'direct' answer, the sense was that not merely was I correct, but I had given undeserved credit to those otherwise; and more, the situation had deteriorated drastically since then outside of the central part of the fourth kingdom. There, the standards had changed but little since the Curse, for some reason.

“They hadn't gotten worse, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Everywhere else, they have deteriorated to a lesser or greater extent, with the least deterioration outside of the central portion of the forth kingdom showing in certain parts of the fifth kingdom house.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The level of technology?”

“That, and the sheer number of people in a small area demands a certain level of functionality outside of those regions held tightly by witches. Where the witches have their pleasure, though...”

“Open sewers,” I said. “Filth. Vermin.”

“And tight buildings that actually last longer than a generation,” said the soft voice. “You've never been to the area east of your path home through the second kingdom's back country.”

“Don't tell me – all-wood houses that do well to last longer than their builders,” I muttered.

“Correct, for the better-built places,” said the soft voice. “Most places are closer to those bridges you passed over in the second kingdom – they need constant serious-level repairs to remain 'passable' by local standards – and those are not those of where you live, but much lower.”

“The climate permits such low standards?” I asked.

“It doesn't snow,” said the soft voice, “and it doesn't get much warmer than the central portion of the first kingdom. Then, it's quite a bit drier than around here.”

“No, uh, hard rains?” I asked.

“Almost never,” said the soft voice. “Taken as a whole, that area has about the mildest climate in the entire five kingdoms.”

“And the poorest soil, also,” I muttered. An antechamber was about two turns further up, or so I guessed; I was guessing as to the number of steps. I could clearly feel the antechamber, and more, I could tell it led to another door, this one with a definite knob. I was not certain I wanted to go all the way to the top, as tonight's exploring time was about 'over', and once I found that door and verified its location – and oiled its hinges – I would need to start back down.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “No schools of any kind, few tradesmen – none of which are worth bothering with; Mercantiles tend to be few and far between, with no shops otherwise having anything beyond the bare necessities of life.”

“All of them heavily witch-controlled, also,” I muttered.

“True,” said the soft voice. “Their situation is indeed as Sarah said: it's much like the third kingdom's back country for poverty, save for one thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“The people in the third kingdom's back country have a little money,” said the soft voice. “Those in that region do well to see money – and the third kingdom's back country is not poorer. It has more real wealth, and not a little more, as it's not owned by witches.”

The antechamber showed less than a minute later; and while it was dirty, that dirt was confined to the floor. I came to the doorway, now seeing a knob, and after carefully oiling the hinges, I touched the knob, which clicked. I swung the door open – and to my utter surprise, I found the guard muskets but right across the hallway.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “Go outside, and then you'll see.”

I did so, letting the door close behind me, and then saw that I was in a small 'passage' perhaps two inches wider than the door. It was narrow enough that I was glad it was so short, as otherwise I might need to turn sideways to fit my shoulders. Two steps out, then I reached the rack; touched it; then turned around.

“You have to look right at the place to even see it's there,” I thought, as I went back inside it to reach for the doorknob, then went back inside. The door had opened noiselessly, and I looked once more at the steps, first those going up, then those going down. I began stepping down, this time quickly, for I was now conscious of not merely being missed, but also, needing to 'make our plans' in somewhat more detail than I had done thus far.

“Need to divide up the labor, and ask some questions, also,” I said. “First, I need to get back to where they are practicing.”

The sense I felt was one of near-panic, and when I showed once more in the 'sword-training area', the others seemed gone – until I heard a noise, then suddenly Sarah leaped out of one of the doorways as if she was on fire, with the other two after her like shadows tied by string. She then hid herself behind me, for some reason.

“Yes?” I asked. “Were you looking for me?”

“I was about to, but those two wanted to play more.”

“That is not play,” said Karl. “I was showing you this trick I learned from your man there, and...”

“And we all need to go upstairs,” I said. “It's nearly time for me to post, and then we need to, uh, figure out what to do...”

“You have not done that yet?” asked Karl in stark amazement.

“He has to no small degree,” said Sarah. “I suspect he means, 'which of us is to do what tonight and tomorrow'.”