Investing the Abbey, part two

Going up the back way meant for two side-by-side at a time up those zigzag stairs, and I paused to go to the privy as we came to the juncture of the hallways on the ground floor. I listened for an instant just before turning right, and heard soft snoring. The sound and the rhythm were those of Gabriel.

“Must have quit early,” I thought.

“He started early, also,” said the soft voice. “Remember, someone who's used to doing eight to ten hours a day five days a week doesn't usually jump suddenly to fourteen to eighteen hours a day and that seven days a week.”

“Not even witches do that,” I said as I resumed walking toward the privy. “They have to work up to those hours if they do them, don't they?”

“They do, which is the usual reason for why witches commonly go the route of 'supplicant – well-hid plain-dressed witch – miser – black-dressed witch', with increasing hours, effort, and monetary needs every step of the way.”

I met the others back at the bench, and that region was substantially crowded. Here, I noticed that not merely did Sarah have an obviously new satchel – I had not seen it before, even if I had known of her working on it – but that the two guards on duty were asking her questions. Karl and Sepp had gone elsewhere, though I suspected they would return soon enough.

“They've gone to get more beer,” said Sarah when she saw me coming. She'd wrapped the sword back up in its 'rags', though the hilt was a bit obvious to me sticking out of her satchel like it did.

“Your new one?” I asked. I meant the satchel.

“Yes,” she said. “Anna has my old one, though I have not told her about what is planned for her.”

“What?” I gasped.

“I know you asked for a fourth-kingdom style medical pouch,” said Sarah, “as I had the same idea, and I went there not two days after you did.” A brief pause, then, “after learning one was being done for Anna, I asked for two smaller ones of a type I recall Liza having. We'll need those, I suspect.”

“Uh, not for the Abbey,” I said.

“Those things are nearly done, and that trip is much further than the Abbey's distance,” said Sarah. “Now once those two get back, we can do our planning.”

“Best, uh, wait...” I then looked at the two 'sitters'. Both had 'obvious' guard-muskets, though why they had them in hand now when I had counted a full rack of three not thirty minutes beforehand was a mystery. I thought to ask.

“Are those, uh, yours?” I asked.

One of them nodded, then said, “scavenged parts, mostly, and badly done parts when we first got them, but they are ours.”

“Scavenged parts?” I asked.

“Those are not hard to find, same as burnt rotating pistols,” said the other. “If you go out in that wrecked area near where the hall used to be, or close to that falling-down wall, and spend a few hours looking around in the ruins, you can usually find not only enough muskets and parts of them to put something like this together, but if you are lucky, you can find enough money lying around to pay someone to do the hard parts up for you.”

“The hard parts?” I asked.

“There aren't many people around here who can do that,” said the first man, “but one of those people who wears greens knows of someone who can.”

“Me?” I asked.

“You'd be my first choice to go to for such work, but that man's older than you are, at least he looks older,” said the second man. “You've got enough to keep three people busy, if talk is right, and he knows people who do decent work, so if you gather up enough old parts, clean them up as best you can, then take them to him in a sack, he can usually come back with something that will work in about a week.”

“Work?” I asked.

“They are not near as good as what is in that rack,” said the first guard, “but compared to most muskets I've seen around here, what he did for me is decent.”

“I'd say more than just 'decent', said Sarah. “The common short muskets I've seen in the forth kingdom are somewhat better for looks, but no better for working – and those take longer than a week to get and probably cost more than you paid.” A brief pause, then, “this would be Gilbertus, correct?”

The first guard nodded, then said, “there are some people where he lives...”

“Ploetzee,” said Sarah. “I've been there several times.” A brief pause, then, “that's Karl coming.”

“How could you tell?”

“I thumped him in the leg with a wood-sword,” said Sarah, “and he's limping some on account of it.”

“Where did you..?”

“That smelly wretch of a teacher thinks he has those things hid good,” said the second guard, “but most of the people in our class get in that place all the time so as to practice with those things when and where we can, same as racing from the seat here to those racked muskets.”

“And I suspect Karl and Sepp either have their own, or...” I looked at him, then, “that's this one room, one with a back passage that used to have a lot of witch-traffic, correct?”

“So we were told,” said the first guard. “One of them from your class, the butcher I think, told us about it.”

“Problem solved,” I murmured. “Sepp knew the back way into that room.”

“He used a key, though,” said Sarah, “and he is not my cousin.”

“No, but I'd bet that key... Oh, I bet I know. He asked Andreas.”

“I doubt he'd let what he has for his own be copied,” said Sarah

“I didn't say he did, dear,” I said. “I'd bet he's got no less than thirty old keys, at least some of which fit that door.”

“Close as to idea, but seriously wrong as to their number,” said the soft voice. “Andreas has a copy of nearly every key currently in use in the house, and he makes all the house-keys at this time, same as the last four jewelers have – and Sepp didn't need to get a key from him.”

“Where did he get it?” I asked.

“Recall the current absence of those Generals?” asked the soft voice. “He went inside General's Row last night, and began looking in desks – and when he found a sizable sack of old keys, he left with it. It took him about five minutes to find one that fit that door.”

“And... Oh, fun,” I thought. “He's probably got some keys Andreas needs to, uh, update his collection.”

“He does, which is why Sepp gave the rest of that bag to Andreas,” said the soft voice. “Given that most of the locks in the house have similar-enough keys, he did not give up much by keeping the key he did.”

“Similar-enough keys?” I asked.

“Between wear, age, generally 'sloppy' tolerances, and a bit of patience on his part, Sepp's key will open about eighty-five percent of the keyed doors in the house,” said the soft voice. “Andreas' two keys will open more doors between them, and open those doors readily, but their chief area of betterment is in how readily they open those doors, not how many more doors they actually open.”

“As in Sepp might have to feel around some with his and wiggle it a bit,” I said.

“Yes, with the balky doors,” said the soft voice. “About two thirds of the time, it'll open them right up – and that's no small accomplishment for someone in his position.”

Steps came in the hallway, then suddenly Karl and Sepp showed. The latter, I now noticed, had a partly-hid thong around his neck. I surmised it was the key spoken of.

“What kept you two so long?” asked Sarah.

“He” – here, Sepp indicated Karl – “wanted to go up and show me what was happening upstairs,” said Sepp, “and those people are busy as anyone I've ever seen.”

“Those people?” I asked.

Faintly, on the edge of hearing, I heard singing, this alien-sounding, high-pitched, mournful – and accompanied by a tinny-sounding 'banjo'.

“Do they have trowels?” I asked.

“I hope not,” said Sarah. She sounded alarmed.

“Those they will use later,” said Karl. “I spoke of what we would be doing down here, and how the two of you are around those things.” A pause, then, “Tam has been busy up there, too.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Soap-trays, chemicals, perhaps some older crocks, and, uh, about eight of these big smelly pots that look surprisingly new?”

“Those and then some,” said Karl. “I might not be much good for chemistry, but I am glad we will be starting with soap that is mostly done, as boiling soap from lye and fat smells.”

“Did you say that because you lived near that one soap-maker's place?” asked Sarah pointedly.

Karl nodded, then said, “I am glad I can stay here most of the time now, as that whole town smells because of it.”

“Big place, about twice the size of a common house, huge woodpile, huge yard that goes all the way around the place, and lots of buggies bringing stuff there all the time? Lots of customers, too?”

“All of that and then some,” said Sepp. “I'm glad my family does not live in that town, but one a good walk's distance from it.”

“And, uh, Karl doesn't live there either,” I said.

“No, but I live not two miles west of there, and there's nothing but fields to block the smell,” said Karl, “so much of the time, where I live smells nearly as bad as that town does.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “That place might make a lot of soap, but they're the exception about their fat compared to most smaller places.”

“They most likely sell their soap south, then,” I said. “More fat's to be had up here, and they make their own lye...”

“They do that too,” said Sarah with distaste. I suspected 'lye-making' smelled nearly as bad as the place's actual production of soap. “The only place that deals with worse fat in this area is this place north of where we live.”

“They get most of their fat from there,” said the soft voice, “and try to eliminate the stench by long boiling, multiple renderings, and careful straining. Otherwise, you're all somewhat right – they sell their soap cheaply, they make a lot of it, a fair percentage gets sold to regions where soap is both greatly wanted and scarce at any price – and, while the process for making 'laundry soap' will kill much of that smell, it will not kill all of it.”

“Which means we do not want that stinky stuff to make ours with,” said Sarah. “There are plenty of decent soap-makers in town here, and I would buy my soap there – unless Tam has found places which do better for price.”

“He has, and that to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “More, he's gotten part of Hans' 'secret' about rendering fat out of him, so he plans on telling that to those soap-mills for his soap.”

“Does this 'secret' involve sulfur-acid?” asked Sarah.

“He was not able to get the remainder of that 'secret' out of Hans,” said the soft voice, “so expect him to ask you or Dennis about how to do it properly some time in the future.”

The other two guards left shortly thereafter, it being the end of their shift; and now, the four of us could engage in 'deep dark-laid planning'. Here, Sarah gave both Sepp and Karl their lists, and mentioned what we would need for the Abbey specifically, it being marked as such by underlining. I gathered that she'd spent some recent time in 'The Horned Dragoon' and related tales, and once they were both reading over the material on their lists, I asked, “if you can think of anything else, then I would bring it when you come day after tomorrow.”

“Why so much?” asked Karl. “That Abbey place will not need all of this, will it?”

“No, but you will need to spend time looking for what you can find tomorrow,” said Sarah, “and then much the same every day we have to us for such looking until we actually sail – which we will do before many days have passed.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there is what occurs to us all separately, as I know there is more we will need than what is on this list.”

“Gabriel?” asked Sepp.

“Cannot be relied upon to bring much beyond his usual, which is himself and possibly a ledger and something to write with,” said Sarah. Given the talk I had heard, what Sarah said sounded indeed likely – and that for both Abbey and trip. “If you remember what Anna did to him the morning you-all left for points south on that trip, then you might do as she did.”

“I know what spoon she used and where that spoon is hanging in the kitchen,” said Sepp with a grin. “I can spoon him, and Karl can put the beer to him, and he can sit in the back of the buggy and wake up the rest of the way on the way to where you two live.”

“How do you propose to get there?” asked Sarah.

“There is...”

Sarah cut Karl off with a shake of her head, then said, “you will wish to take the route I have marked out on this map.” Here, she handed an obvious hand-drawn map to Sepp. “I've traveled all of those roads marked on that map many times since I came up here to stay, and I can speak of which ones are decent and which might give trouble.” A brief pause, then, “you're taking one of the buggies that went on the trip, I hope.”

“Yes, one of those is reserved for the Abbey,” said Sepp. “Lukas knew we would be using it, so he and Gilbertus looked it over carefully and then put the tongue up so no one would think to try using it.”

“Both of those buggies need Hendrik's permission, more or less,” I said, “unless you're one of a few people going about crown business – which this is.”

“He said that too,” said Karl, “which is why he put up the tongue. That means to those others that they are not to touch the thing, and those grooms know that.”

“Not them, Karl,” said Sarah. “The other guards – though with those last two stinkers gone and no one currently in General's Row, no one who remains is likely to abuse them much.” A brief pause, then, “besides, there are two common buggies in decent repair, unless my guess is off, and those will work for shorter trips into town and the like.”

“Those are waiting on sleeves and new irons,” said Sepp. “It's hoped they'll be redone also, same as all those little ones like you have are waiting on their metal parts.”

“Which I'll need to do,” I said morosely.

“Yes, when they get here,” said the soft voice. “That waits for bypassing the witches of the second and third kingdoms.”

“Which our boat will do handily,” I said. “One trouble, though – not many people will be able to sail it, and it's not going to carry much for cargo.”

“I suspect I could learn,” said Karl. “I have seen that thing, and it is not like a regular boat.”

“No, Karl,” said Sarah with a trace of alarm. “It is not slow. That thing makes that buggy I drive look to be going backwards when the horses are trotting, it is so fast, and you must handle it as if it were a most-mettlesome racehorse, or it will toss you.”

“Uh, can I drive that thing?” I asked. My voice positively reeked with fear.

“You, yes,” said Sarah. “I suspect I could learn, though I'll wish some slow driving first. Sepp can learn. Karl, I wonder about. Gabriel...”

“No,” I said. “He's best used as ballast, unless I heard wrongly – something about him being so unbelievably clumsy his career was decided for him at a very young age by a close relative.”

“That is not unbelievable in the slightest to me,” said Sarah, “as I've seen him move enough in the house here to know he's worse than worthless in the woods.” A brief pause, then, “he might manage this boat if it went at the speed of a walking horse, but that's painfully slow for it.”

“Uh, did you have a dream?” I asked.

“Yes, though it was quite brief,” said Sarah, “unlike those of where we are going, which were much longer and more detailed.”

“Yes, and what was this dream?” said Karl.

“That boat,” said Sarah. “Firstly, it has two controls, one for the sail, which you arrange so that it catches the wind best. It's full then, and it makes very little noise. If the sail is off, it makes a noise like a sheet being shaken out, and if the wind is strong at all, it's quite loud when it complains. Then, there is the tiller, and one must handle that as if it were the bow of a violin, or the lead of an especially capable race-horse – and if one does those both well, then that boat will travel rapidly if there is any wind at all.”

“And a decent wind?” I asked.

“Then it gets most tricky,” said Sarah. “That was when I woke up, was we came out from behind those islands, you steered into this area about a mile or two from land, and as you did, the wind became stronger, until that boat was moving so quickly I thought it about to take wing like a wood-pigeon.”

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “It will flip then.”

“No, it did not try to do that,” said Sarah. “It was glowing oddly, though, and if you touched it, it would cause small lighting bolts to come off of your fingers; and at night when it was traveling at speed, no one dared come close to it deliberately because of its glowing. I know this much about what happened after I woke up, it was at night – and you were weaving in and around those stationary boats somewhere south of the second kingdom port as if you were crazy.”

“Do you know why I was doing that?” I asked.

“Some of those boats were pirates,” said Sarah, “and I think someone – either me or Sepp – was tossing short-fused sticks of dynamite onto their decks as you drove close by them.”

“Yes, and what happened next?” asked Karl.

“We set fire at least five of them,” said Sarah, “and that in the space of what seemed like minutes. They stopped chasing us after that.”

“They?” I asked.

“Someone has strange boats without sails,” said Sarah, “and they like to hide in and around those islands, and they came after us, but they dared not continue their chase with those burning pirate ships exploding right and left. They gave up on us once we got too far away for them to see where we were.”

Sarah left shortly after that time, as did the other two men, and within perhaps ten minutes, 'the dead sixth' was truly 'dead'.

At least for a short time it was dead.

Faintly, somewhere upon the edge of hearing, that mournful banjo started twanging in a steady undulating 'twelve-time' rhythm once more – and fainter yet, I heard the scraping of first one trowel, then two; then four; and finally, a fifth trowel. I reached for the tincture, took a full tube, washed it down with beer, then inserted ear-corks into each ear.

Trowel-symphony,” I thought, as the noises continued near-unabated, or so it seemed for perhaps ten minutes. The trowel-noises then vanished as if by magic.

“Thank God,” I muttered, as I removed first one ear-cork, then the other. “What was that?”

“They closed the door to the armory,” said the soft voice. “Those people work when and where they can right now, as they're building a second and much larger kiln upon their property, and they need money for its fittings.”

“Bricks?” I asked.

“No, tiles,” said the soft voice. “There isn't that much call for bricks in this area, outside of potters, smiths, and founders – which means a lot of traveling to such work-sites, brief spates of intense activity, and then longer periods of little work in between each such job. Tiles, however, are different.”

“Not many people use them in this area,” I said. I knew they were very common to the south, especially in the third and fourth kingdoms. The second kingdom tended to vary, at least along the High Way.

“Save in parts of the kingdom house, you mean,” said the soft voice. “While shingles are common enough in that town, especially for homes, many of the businesses not only run tile roofs, but those who did them originally did a very poor job.”

“Hence busted tiles are a steady business,” I said.

“Steady, but not huge,” said the soft voice. “However, that's not the chief issue.”

“What is?” I asked.

“Up until very recently, those people figured they would need someone else to build their homes for the most part,” said the soft voice. “Sarah teaching them about the tricks of laying stone told them 'no, we can build our own homes now' – and while there isn't a huge market for bricks at this time, there will be a much bigger one in the future.”

“Do they know why it's not wise to use bricks for homes?” I asked.

“They do,” said the soft voice, “but they also know that firebricks, especially good firebricks, will be a vastly more salable article in the future compared to now – and theirs are about as good as can be had on the continent.” A brief pause, then, “the chief issue, though, is tiles.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “Tiles will become much more popular?”

“They will become the dominant species of roofing for new homes in this area within less than a year,” said the soft voice, “and those people know that. Hence, they're building a larger kiln now so they can start making tiles and laying them by.”

“And debug their tile-making processes by making their own homes,” I thought. “Idea – perhaps they can, uh, make their houses larger and take in people coming from the Valley?”

“Why do you think they're making such sizable 'abodes'?” asked the soft voice. “They know there's going to be a huge influx of refugees from that place over the next year, hence they're making 'large' houses like they're accustomed to.”

“Not for a single family, right? Even if it's a large, uh, extended family?”

“No, because those people don't live that way, and haven't done so for generations – and what kept them alive in the Valley, with modest changes, works just as well here,” said the soft voice. “Then, that 'settlement' doesn't just do bricks and now tiles – they're either doing or planning on doing everything they used to do in the Valley, which means their location currently comes close to being self-sufficient for their needs for everything save food.”

“They have to buy that,” I said.

“Yes, some of it,” said the soft voice. “They have decent-sized garden plots, and they go hunting when and as they can.” A brief pause, then, “they might not be terribly good shots as of yet, and have but few functional weapons, but they do know how to get close to certain 'pests'. Those are just starting to become common in the fields.”

“Marmots,” I mumbled. I needed more beer. “They, uh... Those people get them with clubs!”

“Which is not easy,” said the soft voice. “Then again, few begrudge them such meat, so they're able to 'make do' on comparatively modest incomes.” A brief pause, then, “and the Valley's poorer refugees are past masters at 'making do', which means much of their money goes for things they cannot do themselves.”

“Uh, do any of them have goats?” I asked.

“Yes, a few,” said the soft voice. “They need to keep those hid well, as there's a fair amount of witch-spawned thinking in this area that says 'goats are as bad as swine', even if the butcher's list clearly states otherwise.”

“The written lists, or the ones every butcher memorizes?” I asked.

“At least some of the printed ones are printed in Boermaas,” said the soft voice, “but the only butchers who follow those knowingly deal exclusively with those who wish their meat High. Most of the other lists are incomplete, but butchers stick together closer than almost any trade in the five kingdoms – and they have their own lists, all of which they copy down themselves so as to help commit their contents to memory. Sepp has his, as does that one woman, which means their writing is legible at the least.”

“What?” I asked.

“Part of being a butcher is learning how to write legibly,” said the soft voice, “and just as importantly, learning how to write instructions clearly.” A brief pause, then, “most publicans, in fact, started as butchers, which is why they tend to be among the most literate town-dwellers you're likely to find who are not marked.”

“And Tam needed to be literate to work in a Mercantile,” I muttered.

“He might not have been taught to be especially literate as a child, but he worked uncommonly hard at becoming so once he became a guard, at least until he was crippled by that pig. Once that happened, though...”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It was as if suddenly all of what he took in 'gelled' overnight, and within a week of his injury regarding his feet, it was as if he'd gone to the west school for his actual knowledge. He got the books they use just the same, though, and began studying them; he then re-learned to ride a horse, and finally, he began 'traipsing' just like a student during the 'slow season' for Mercantiles, when little ordering or shipping needed to be done.”

“Not just for six years, either,” I said. “He's truly been 'all over', as his traipsing was of longer duration.”

“No, Sarah's been to places he's never heard of, save by rumor,” said the soft voice. “He has however, gone into the Valley – and she hasn't, which is why she's been asking him about the place when and as she can.”

“Does she know she would be recognized if she went there?” I asked.

“No, but she has some less-than-small suspicions about the matter now,” said the soft voice. “She has fewer suspicions about you, as Tam's told her about their practices that way in some detail.”

When my posting ended and I was relieved by two people, I thought to visit the armory before leaving. With my most-empty beer jug in hand, I climbed the stairs, then walked closer to where I recalled the place to be. I could once more hear the trowels, though fainter yet than before, and this meant inserting first the ear-corks once more, then another dose of the tincture. I continued walking then, each step now seeming to grow steadily slower and more ponderous, and my lantern growing brighter steadily without any attention on my part, and as I came to that one narrow hallway, I was astonished to see the cracks in the doorway all but blazing with white light. I came closer, my eyes now drawn down into squints. My lantern was glaring like a magnesium flare, and the cracks were like looking at a welder's arc. I'd done enough welding before coming here – gas at first, then conventional arc-welding – and finally, TIG; I'd grown more than passable at welding steel, even if aluminum was still quite troublesome at times – to be able to speak thusly.

“What I would not give for some dark goggles,” I murmured softly, “just like those I used to use for sleeping. That's really bright in there. What do they have in there, a bunch of 'Sun' lanterns turned up all the way?”

“And several Veldter wick-lanterns,” said the soft voice. “More than one of those people in that settlement used to run the equipment used to make that lantern fuel, and they've cobbled together something that works well enough to keep their lanterns going when they can't get the regular fuel. The Sun lanterns, however, are much preferred – as aquavit, especially decent aquavit, is both easily had and not terribly expensive. Hans gets no small business from them now, in fact.”

“How do they get that other lantern fuel?” I asked. “Tinkers?”

“Some of those people do pass through this area, though they tend to use donkey-trains for passing through 'the violent north', as they used to call it. This area, at least, is now known otherwise.”

“As what?” I asked. “Boom-town? The land of the night-blooming Sun?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “They speak of it as being 'where the spirit of fire lives', and that means they are safe.” A brief pause, then, “that phrase has a different meaning entirely should you encounter a bones-holding Veldter witch, however.”

“They tend to not come into this area, do they?” I asked. I was now somewhat more used to the light, but only slightly, even if the trowels were now boring into my brain like huge and hungry twist-drills. I thought to tap, and with the first gentle touch of my fingernail, I heard ringing echoes in my mind from the gunshot-loud cracking noise.

“Oooh, that was really loud,” I gasped. “Why is everything so loud and so bright now?”

“That situation will be taken care of soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Try some honey once you see what's in there.”

Soft steps came...

No, these were not soft sounding steps, but closer in volume to the thunderous tread of a prehistoric bipedal reptile that weighed tons, even if the person doing so was wearing something like soft-soled moccasins with an added layer of thicker leather on the bottom. They could use such footwear in and around here because of a lack of Death Adders, and such footwear was quiet. These people prized that quality, more so than anyone else in the area.

“They're quiet enough for normal people,” I muttered. “I wish I hadn't taken a full tube of that tincture, as now...”

The door opened, and I had to shut my eyes tightly so as to see anything at all. The scene within was so infernally bright that only when I was given a rag for my face as a blindfold could I see what was happening. Even so, I was squinting more than a little.

There were more people up here than I thought there were, and the larger room was lined with what looked like mining cots. I thought I recognized some of the ones we had purchased on the trip among them, as well as a number of locally-made copies; but the chief matter was proceeding in that one room in the back. I passed a number of softly snoring people – their other shift; they had work going near round-the-clock in this place, or so I guessed, it being 'the rest day' and the house being nearly clear of people and almost entirely clear of business – but as I passed the region which had once had shelves, I noted new-looking close-spaced shelves, these varnished carefully and then assembled carefully as well with a vast number of 'decent' screws. I noted three new-looking 'soap' trays already in place on the shelves, with the obvious promise of a great many more in the very near future.

“They do not have many of the racks for those shelves yet,” said the soft-voiced man who was leading me. “I will be very glad to have such soap, as the stuff they sell here for clothing works poorly.”

Lavadora,” I said. “You could get that in the Valley.”

“Yes, and it was much better for clothing,” he said. “If I knew of a Makinekalé with decent tools, I would ask him to make the things needed to steam-thrash our clothing, but there are no such people to be found here, so we must use pots and paddles, same as the poorer settlements did.” A pause, then, “many people do not even do that around here, and they bathe seldom, so they and what they wear smell.”

“And the real stinkers are gone,” I murmured, as we went into the 'forge area'.

The blast and fire that followed it had bleached the walls to a dead-bone whiteness, but someone had applied a glossy species of white paint to them; and from somewhere, some person had dug up several old riveted iron lamp-stands and cleaned them carefully with 'smelly' distillate. Here, the Sun lanterns glowed that intense and eye-incinerating brightness that meant they warranted their name, while where the forges once had been, I began counting audibly. My voice rang like the bells of hell, and the echoes thundered like nightmares.

“One, two, three, four... Four ovens, each with five pot-holes?” I asked.

“They will need some fittings of cast iron,” said one of the obvious masons. He was using a trowel to smooth what I suspected was 'furnace cement'. I had heard five such people working earlier, but I now realized that was that particular 'shift' of these people. I wondered if they knew about the concept of the rest-day, both as it was practiced here and what it actually meant.

“The latter far more than the former,” said the soft voice, “given that settlement recently received a 'priest' who had angered one of those smelly people in one of the central settlements by telling him he was doing evil and would come to grief on account of his doing so.”

A brief pause, then, “and that man passed by a closed-and-locked church the very next day and collapsed in the street seconds later while screaming about being on fire in hell. They had to help him home, where he remained face-down in the dirt the rest of that day and all of that night – until he knew he was right the next morning.”

“Smelly people?” I asked. I then realized I had spoken in the Veldter's language.

“Yes, he was bad that way,” said my guide, as he realized I could speak his language – or at least, partly understand it. “He not only had the whole of the three-headed goat, but he wanted to keep it, and that makes a person smell badly – and Tomás told him that to his face, which how priests are supposed to be.” A shrug, then, “Tomás did well to escape with his clothing, as he could not ride, and that boss sent out his smelly people after him.”

“The three-headed goat?” I asked.

“They call that thing Brimstone here,” said my guide, as I counted the five 'holes' of each of the long ovens taking shape. They had some work yet, as most of the bricks needed cutting to size and then fitting. “It has three heads, one with two horns, one with two big teeth, and the third head with a bad sword, one that has two edges, so that sword smells horribly.” He then looked at what I was carrying. “Yours does not have two edges, does it?”

I shook my head, then slid it out partially to show the man. He was more than a little relieved, even if I recalled mention of 'two-mouthed' swords in the book, that being the literal translation I recalled. I then saw the stacked and blackened coarse cloth bags over in a far corner. “That stuff there?”

“That is raw-coal,” said my guide. “It needs careful grinding in an iron mortar, then special pots to cook it in. They have some of those on order here, or so people's talk says.” He sounded as if he thought poorly of 'gossip', even if I knew that was more or less the only current means of learning 'news' in the area. The fact that he would hear little of such talk because of the very real 'prejudice' of others – only those marked suffered appreciably more that way, I now realized – was beside the point.

“Camp ovens,” I said. “Put them in the firebox...”

Non,” said the man vehemently. He then vaguely reminded me for tone of an emigrated Cuban I had once encountered long ago. “Those pots go first in the middle hole of these ovens, as then they keep the last cook-pots as warm as the first ones as the coal turns partly black, then, for the second burning, they go in the first hole nearest the firebox, and then finally, the carbónæ can be used for fuel in the firebox along with the wood. Once-burned carbónæ still smells when it is burned, but when it done that way, it makes but little smell, and one gets every centima of heat out of what one pays for it.” A brief pause, then, “it is very cheap up here, unlike in the Valley, where such fuel must be brought in on the backs of mules.”

“Is that where you learned to burn it like that?” I asked.

He nodded, then said, “it will take us two more days, most likely, but it will take longer than that to get the other things, as this business needs a Kemikalé, a real one, not those who call themselves such and are no better than those smelly people who think what and how they speak is more important than all else.” I then saw the other things Karl had spoken of, these neatly stacked in a corner. There were more 'smelly pots' than I thought there might be, but what the man had said had precedence in my mind.

Ta Espirutu Mallé,” I said. It did not merely mean 'evil spirits'; it also meant 'bad medicine'. Again, which precise meaning was a matter of context. Here, it meant both at the same time.

He nodded, this time emphatically. “The three-headed goat is the chief of those things, but all of them are bad, and the things some call tools that those smelly people use...” He turned, then made a retching noise. I understood this to be an expression of 'profound disgust'.

I left the man to his labors, which I understood to be both 'teaching' and supervision, and left the armory. I suspected soap-cooking would happen shortly after we left on the trip, and after refilling my water-bottle in the refectory and topping up both of the honey vials – they had no less than three sizable jugs of the stuff there, and I hoped Sarah could get a smaller jug of it for our trip – I left.

The ride home had me coming home about half an hour before dawn, and after a quick nap and a relatively brief breakfast, it was 'time' for church.

I wasn't much inclined to go, for some reason, even if I could see the real need for it. It was all I could do to stay awake during the sermon, but after, as Maarten and Katje made preparations to leave, Hans said, “now, you will need to be here...”

“We will leave well before it is light,” said Katje. “This buggy is not particularly quick, so...”

“Here, take this,” said Sarah, as she handed them a sizable cloth drawstring bag. Its lumpy aspect told me its likely contents, which Sarah confirmed a second later. “This is a special lantern.”

“It does not burn distillate, does it?”

“No, it takes candles,” said Sarah. “Use the small knob on top, loosen it, then grasp the small 'bead' on the end of the wire and move the coil up and down slowly in the candle's flame until the light is brightest. It's almost as bright then as a wick-lantern, and it does not smoke at all.”

“Good,” said Katje, “as we most likely will need to prepare as we can before we sleep tonight. I hope you included at least one candle extra.”

“Two, plus the one in the lantern,” said Sarah. “We will get better lanterns in the future, but if you must go into places where such lanterns would cause trouble right now, then these are better.”

“And that place across the sea would detect those better lanterns easily were we to use them,” I thought. “Those light-sensors they have are...”

“Mostly non-functioning, due to the 'commons' smearing them with pilfered grease when and where they can,” said the soft voice. “Those functionaries Sepp spoke of clean them regularly, but they do a very poor job – so poor in fact, that they usually make the existing situation worse, not better.”

At home, however, as I began checking the fit of the wooden plugs for the bomb casings, I noted a troubling issue: they tended to fit a trifle looser than I had hoped they would. I spoke of the matter to Sarah, who said, “I think they will need gluing. Now I can fit the plugs to the ones we have filled, while you clean up those three castings and fetch a few more for spares.”

“And I'll need to unearth every casting between the time we leave and...”

“Yes, but you can get some help with that business,” said Sarah. “Those men have not left yet on their 'hunting trip' that I have heard them speaking of, and Georg will be nearly house-bound until his buggy is ready, which means he will remain mostly in town while we are gone – and what new orders he receives are those that come to him, not otherwise.” An instant later, I learned why: “The buggy he has use of is worse than his own was, and that to no small degree.”

“Worse?” I asked.

“Smoked wheels, unless I miss my guess,” said Sarah. “The owner hopes Georg will repair it for him, and while Georg is thinking much about doing that, he has need of it often enough that it would need a trip to Houtlaan to make it right quickly – and that thing will not make it that far unless he pulls the wheels every few miles and packs them with fresh grease.”

“An all day-trip, and then get there about the time they close, so he needs to camp out like those people did,” I murmured.

“Not one day,” said Sarah. “Three, or possibly four days, as pulling wheels on a regular buggy is not easy labor, even for someone like him. I've done that work enough to know how hard it is, and work that hard usually demands a time of rest after doing it. I know it did when I helped Hans work on the one here, as he was lucky to do it in a morning's time if he had no help, and that was for that one's wheels.”

“Yes, I know,” muttered Hans. “I am glad for what we have, as with regular oiling, the wheels only need pulling a few times a year, not every time Anna goes somewhere, almost.”

“And yours does not need such work,” I thought, as I left for the shop with my 'bag of tricks'.

Once I had started looking for castings, however, there was no stopping me; I unearthed most of the smaller flasks, this by carrying them to the sand-house and tossing the whole clamped-together flask-set at the sand-heap inside. This usually sprung the clamps off and dislodged the castings, and as I stacked the flasks – they were 'tied' to one another, which meant mixing them up was a bad idea – I accumulated, slow and steady, a mound of both clamps and castings. After 'dumping' all of the smaller flasks, I began carrying in the clamps, then the castings, these two at a time. The clamps would need oiling before I did much else, as they were starting to show traces of rust from being outside in the night's dampness. Blackening them a few at a time sounded very wise.

“There might be one or two of those things that doesn't have a bomb-casting,” I thought as I wiped down the clamps with a rag periodically dipped in 'motor oil' mixed with a knife's worth of fourth kingdom grease. “Now did I put those things in the bigger flasks? I cannot remember.”

“You did, but very few,” said the soft voice. “You most likely will not need to mold more of those particular castings for quite some time.”

And as I cut the castings in question free, I asked, “Is there a way to get this stuff so it's softer?”

“Yes, but not with what you have access to at this time,” said the soft voice. “That 'merchant' bar is being fought over in the forth kingdom, as not only is it unusually good – it's 'clean' for cast iron – it's also a good deal stronger than most cast iron, and its finish is second to none, even if it dulls cutters faster than most 'common' cast iron.”

“Which means these things here...”

“They will not fragment as badly as those pills,” said the soft voice, “but they will be very destructive just the same.”

“Uh, about like a pineapple grenade?” I asked. They were about that heavy, or so I guessed, and their size was hand-filling at the least.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Not with what you're filling them.”

“What would they be close to, then?” I knew the round squibs were definitely in the grenade class.

“A smaller mortar shell, roughly,” said the soft voice. “Those pills are closer to large mortar shells – as in shells that are difficult for one person to carry any distance.”

I found that to cut the sprues apart quickly wanted a truly sharp saw-blade, frequent applications of tallow, smooth steady strokes, and a fair amount of down-pressure. If that was done, cutting was surprisingly rapid – and at the first slowing of cutting, I changed saws, as time was of the essence and swapping blades took much longer than grabbing another saw. A close examination of a 'dull' blade under the light of the titanium lantern showed barely perceptible dulling of the tips of the teeth.

“Most of that was already there,” said the soft voice. “If you sharpen those before each 'common-sized' batch of castings, you can expect about three times that many sprues before a blade loses its best edge.”

“Meaning 'touch up the blades before we pour, and touch them up afterward',” I thought.

“That would be wise, as that would be most of what sharpening you would need to do on them, even with the harder materials you'll be doing in the near future,” said the soft voice.

The fastest way to clean up the castings, however, was not the grinding wheel – it tended to load up, I suspected, and my first trial with it proved my suspicions to be optimistic – but rather that one huge and hungry Great Bastard File. With that thing in my hands and the casting being worked upon held in a vise, a trio of curving swipes cleaned up the sprue-cuts 'passably', and two more strokes 'squared' the mouth 'passably'. Within another hour, I had no less than eighteen bomb-castings, all of them 'cleaned up' and ready to fill; and when I came home, not only was lunch smelling like it would be ready shortly, but Sarah – and Hans – were down in the basement.

All five cast-iron pills were plugged, their long tail-like fuses neatly coiled and tied with string, and the dead-horse reek of glue was strong in the air. I had a question, though.

“Did you glue those things in?” I asked. I meant the wooden plugs fitting the swine-shells.

“That and a bit of string around them,” said Sarah. “I know most of the tricks used to make fuses stay in shells properly, and that's the best one I know if you know you're going to fire the shell soon and not possibly empty it of its filling.”

“Did you, uh, dip the ends of the fuses in wax?” I asked.

“I was going to ask you about doing so, as I know you tend to do that when you prepare anything with a fuse,” said Sarah. “Does it keep the fuse from spoiling?”

“It does that with friction igniters, so that is a good idea,” said Hans. “I am learning to write better, so I am taking notes in one of those ledger things that came in that donkey-train.”

I now had the less-than-enviable headache-inducing task of filling the other bomb-casings, though with Sarah's help, it went quickly. She had obviously handled 'hide glue' before, and when I dumped in the five large spoonfuls of 'meal' each bomb-casing held, she glued the wooden disk around its periphery and slapped it down with some force. As the castings accumulated, however, she began stacking them one atop another three high.

“Their weight will act as a clamp,” she said, “and we'll need to cork most of them, save for those you plan to toss.”

“We need some fuse-crimping pliers also,” I muttered, as I filled the last bomb-casing of the current batch with meal. There was a modest amount of remaining meal, perhaps enough to fill a medium-sized crock. “This is probably enough for the Abbey.”

“I would do up as many of them as you can for that trip,” said Sarah. “Those thugs did not like those bombs.”

“Yes, most thugs do not like being scattered,” said Hans. “Now, I hope that you are inclined toward testing one of those things out back, as I spent some more time eating grass recently, and I learned that one good.”

“Always, uh, test your things?” I asked.

“You want to do that if it is possible,” said Hans. “Now, I would put a good chunk of fuse to that thing, as you do not want to run when you set a blast, and those things there are each going to be worse than any witch-jug I have seen.”

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Those are bigger than round squibs,” said Hans, “and they hold twice as much of that meal. Then, that meal stuff there has more oil to it, so it is stronger what you filled those last squibs with. So, if the round squibs you filled with weaker meal are worse than jugs, then those things there should be worse than both of those other things.”

“Now since when did you learn to think like that?” asked Sarah. She sounded as if 'it took me years to learn to think that way'.

“Since I last ate grass,” said Hans, “and if you do that much, then you want to be close to a privy, as you will need to spend a lot of time in there sitting on the stool.” Hans then mumbled about that one grass-eating king and how bad he must have smelled.

“No privies, right?” I asked.

“It does not speak of those things in that part of the book,” said Hans, “and then, he was out where no one else was, so either he had to dig his own privy, or he could go like an animal does, and he had no shovel, so it was go like an animal when he needed to go. Then, he had bad hair all over him, so that meant he went a lot and was all stinky from what eating grass does to people.”

Sarah tied in the fuse to a blasting cap, and when she inserted that, I was more than a little astonished to see that the cap was a moderate press-fit. Hans had an explanation for why that was so.

“Those wood things vary maybe half a line for that hole there, while those castings vary more than that,” he said.

“Did you measure them, or is this what you heard?”

“Those carpenters said they varied that much,” said Hans, “and they are better with scales than I am, so I let them do that.”

“How good are their scales?” asked Sarah. “Are these the type of scales with but sixteen divisions, or do their scales have that many?”

“The scale that I saw had sixteen,” said Hans, “and they said these things varied less than that much.”

“Meaning they had to guess as to the exact variance,” I said. “Two lines is reasonable, given I'm still new to molding cast iron and I was in something of a hurry.”

“Yes, if you take the two castings differing the most from each other for measuring,” said Sarah. “I used one of your closer scales and measured those wooden pieces, and they vary that much for their dimensions.”

“Tolerance stack-up,” I said. “That explains why so many parts are 'tied' to one another – they're matched sets.”

“I think you are right,” said Sarah as we went up the stairs with the bagged bomb, “as the usual for close work is to either deliver it fully assembled and working such that it may be put to use upon receipt, or have its pieces tied to one another with string or soft copper or brass wire.”

“And that sextant cannot be that way,” I muttered. “Those internal gears are either going to need a special machine, or...”

“That level of close work needs more equipment than you have,” said Sarah, “especially if you must make it so it has replacement parts – and I've heard enough sailors talking to know you want those for a longer voyage.”

“Longer as to distance, or longer as to time?” I asked, as I opened the inner door to the bathroom. Lunch smelled 'done', as did the soap in the rear pot. I was getting a distinct nose for that stuff, and I knew a pot of it cooked on the stove almost daily now. There was no longer any worry in Anna's mind about income for the neccessities of life – even life as practiced in this household with its far-greater monetary needs compared to the lives of the town's farmers.

Good laundry soap not only sold well; it was a consumable item, which meant regular repeat customers as well as new ones – and Anna's selling it gave it the cachet of medicine.

The small 'pot' – Sarah was speaking of the need for dowels, but those would be done while we were at the Abbey, or so I guessed – went out in the middle of the non-planted area to the rear of the house. The distance from the bomb to the wall seemed far too close for my liking, so much so that as Sarah lit the fuse, it was all I could do to not run for the safety of a non-existent bunker. I had to slow down to the pace of the others, and once behind our wall and hunkered down, I relaxed slightly.

I was still afraid the explosion would blow down the wall and damage the house.

“No one out in the fields today,” I murmured.

“Yes, which is why I thought to test it now,” said Hans. “Tomorrow, you might need to feed one of these things to that dragoon, and you want to make certain they work.” Hans then peeked over the top of the wall. “About another foot or so left.” A brief pause, then, “do not stint your fuse when you put in a blast, as some fuse...”

I could feel the fire in the slow-burning powder train. It wanted to 'start something', and that cap was just waiting for such a meeting of fire and 'fulminate'. It had a strong desire to explode.

“Burns faster than others,” said Hans as a continuation of his first statement. I guessed I had blacked out, or I had had my mind on 'watching' that fuse burn.

For an instant, the fuse spurted, it having encountered perhaps an inch or so of faster-burning powder. It behooved me to cut at least eight inches for 'tossers', I now realized; I had cut them shorter in the past, but I now realized the error of my ways. Hans was about to look once more when I shook my head. He needed to keep down so as to not get killed by the explosion.

“I can feel that thing, Hans – it has about another two inches...”

Another sudden spurt of fast-burning, this reaching nearly to the cap itself. I could feel the explosion coming like the roar of a far-away avalanche coming at the speed of sound.

“It's about to go, uh...”

My voice was drowned out by an explosion of such horrific magnitude that it felt as if the rocks of the wall behind me – they were those of the Swartsburg – were going to bury me alive, and I leaped for the ground screaming. Only Sarah's speaking to me with a soft rag in her hand, as well as giving me a dose of honey, helped my recover from a near-convulsive fit brought on by a worse-than-usual flashback.

“That was no jug,” said Hans as he peered over our wall. Faintly, I could smell dust. “It was worse than a bad shell from a rotten cannon, is what I think, as there is a big hole out there.”

“B-big hole?” I asked shakily. I was still enduring an obvious flashback, as I could smell Miura, just as if he were next to me once more, and it still felt like the Swartsburg had gone up with me in the middle of it all over again.

Sarah had gone out through the fold, and Hans went after her with a shovel I had not seen him fetch. I suspected the 'hole' spoken of was not trivial, but when I saw the gaping chasm in the dried-out hard-packed soil, I asked, “s-small mortar shell? That thing looks like something a big one would do.”

“What is this?” asked Hans. “Sarah, you are not dead, so you should not be inside that hole.”

The ragged-edged hole was easily ten feet across, and its depth such that it came past Sarah's waist. I wondered about the splinters from the bomb, then began looking in the crusted soil that made up the sides of the 'crater'. It took me perhaps a minute to find one – a jagged fragment but barely larger than a pellet of common shot. I showed the thing to Sarah.

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “That thing was worse than ten sticks of mining dynamite, unless I miss my guess badly.”

“I think so,” said Hans. “This hole's size says that much is likely. Now, in that one place with the grain-barrels in the horse-barn, there is another spade, though it has a bad handle. It might work for this, and it might not.”

Sarah fetched it, while I stood around numbly. I was so 'numbed' by the blast that not only did I not notice Sarah's soft-stepped return, but I also did not notice the added presence of Anna. She appeared to be looking at the hole Hans was working on, or so I thought in my poor explosion-rattled mind. Sarah's spade wasn't working at all well, as its handle was even worse than Hans had implied. It was crumbling in her hands as she tried to use it.

“Was that one of those new bombs that look like an iron bandage tin with a wooden lid?” asked Anna.

“It was one of those things,” said Hans. “If they get the chance, they should toss one in that dragoon's mouth, as that will remove its head, and no animal I know of does much without its head.”

“I think so!” said Anna. “There's chips all over the back of the house, though they're up higher than I can reach.”

“A-all over?” I asked.

“They might be small for size,” said Anna, “but there are a lot of them, and not anything I've seen that comes out of a gun does that.”

“R-rotten cannons...”

“Not even those are as bad as that pot was,” said Anna, who spoke as if she knew from experience. I wondered if she'd ever endured shellfire. “Those things that almost blew us up at the Abbey, I'm not certain.” A brief pause, then, “that hole can wait to be filled, can't it?”

“No, as someone might fall into it,” said Hans. I was now using his shovel, and scooping the mounded dirt as if I were crazy. Sarah had put aside the other shovel, and had gone elsewhere, hopefully to damper down the stove. We'd be out here working for at least half an hour to but partly fill the hole.

“They left this bare for, uh, testing, didn't they?” I muttered, as I scooped another shovel-full of dirt into the hole. I was easily making twice the progress of Hans.

“Yes, that especially,” said Hans, “as there is talk of there being much swine this year, and that means much testing.”

“I hope you have other places to test those things if you are planning on trying out one of those swine-shells,” said Anna. “Those would not mark up the house if they were that close, they would blow down the house.”

“And severely damage the three next to it,” said the soft voice. “The two devices are similar enough that testing a smaller one was sufficient.”

I continued my near-frantic labor, at least until two men with shovels showed. I recognized Dirk, though the other man was unfamiliar until I heard his voice and recognize him as one of the other coopers. The two of them joined me in my efforts, then during a break – I needed one, and they weren't used to such a frantic pace as I set for shoveling – Dirk asked, “was that a new trap?”

“Yes, and a special one,” said Hans. “These are for the Abbey, and then elsewhere, too, though I hope I can get a few of those things for the swine season.”

“They'll pitch those pigs if you set them right, then, if I go by this hole,” said Dirk. “I've heard tell that if those swine break one leg, it slows them but little, but if they break two or more, they have trouble moving.”

“So that's why the better gunners try to hit right under the pig,” said Sarah. She'd come back unnoticed by all, or so I guessed. “The pig goes up in the air higher than it can jump then.”

“Not only that, Sarah,” said Hans with utmost seriousness. “Willem has told me what a good shot like that does to those things, and the pig slides to a stop when it comes down.”

“Or in some cases, it goes down sliding, gets a little sideways, and then rolls,” I said, as Hans took my shovel from me. I was now, finally, tired enough to have trouble keeping up with our two helpers. “They toss their plate then.”

“I have seen that happen once or twice,” said Hans. “Now this hole should be filled enough soon.”

It was, and as the men left with their shovels and dirtied clothing, the four of us went inside. My clothing was dirty enough that it would want washing, and I would want a bath; and I began working on that task as soon as I could. When I came out of the bathroom, however, the others were sitting down to eat. I then saw a cloth bag on my workbench.

“What is that?” I asked, after Hans said his words. We had not yet started eating, for some reason.

“The dowels,” said Sarah. “They most likely did them after church, and brought them here while we were outside testing that bomb.”

I stood up, then walked to the bench. The bag was tied shut, this with a knot I had no luck with, but a small tin tag said, this writ with stamps, 'dowels, as per drawing'.

“Might as well put those in,” I said as I returned to the table. “They won't interfere with tossing, and we can always change out the detonator if we need to place them later.”

“Yes, after you eat,” said Anna. “I know that place is important, so I fixed up some special soup so as to get you in the mood for it.”

The 'special soup' proved to be long-cooked goat-sausages, these chopped fine and mingled with fine-cut potatoes and carrots, and I was glad the pot was as large as it was, as there was still a fair amount left when we finished dishing up the first bowls of 'soup'. I then recalled what else we were likely to need.

“Cooking gear, and pots, and then bathing...” I squawked. I'd barely gotten four mouthfuls down thus far. The experience of being 'blown up' all over again had ruined my appetite, or so it seemed.

“I wrote all of that down,” said Sarah between mouthfuls. She was very hungry. “Much of this will go in your tub, and those canes across the river from that place are perfect for the poles that needs.”

“As in cut several of them?” I asked. I then had a question. “How will we, uh, go on the boat?”

Sarah looked at me in horror, then said, “cloth and s-sticks?”

“Perhaps a small, uh, batch of panels, these made of thin wood rubbed with drying oil, with sewn cloth...”

My question was answered by the soft voice, this with such abruptness I nearly fell to the floor: “they figured on a sea-trip of some days, even with the descriptions given by Sarah for the boat's handling and speed, and more, they assumed you-all would only sail during the day, as is customary – and given its shallow draft, they presumed you would stay near the coast to such a degree that you could beach the thing periodically and 'go' normally, much as if you were traveling conventionally, and the same for such few baths as they thought you would take during the trip itself.”

“But I told them we would go without stopping, both day and night,” said Sarah.

They also assumed that Dennis would do all of the driving and do all of the thinking,” said the soft voice, “as well as everything of importance save actually handle the money involved. That, and the need for a king's officer, is the only reason Gabriel is going on that trip – and could Dennis go by himself to do both the Abbey and that trip across the sea, he would do so alone.”

“Why the need for a king's officer?” I asked.

“Because this is a crown-mandated affair,” said the soft voice, “and while the second kingdom is big on ceremony, the third kingdom is not far behind it as to quantity, and more, it hides none of what it has – and hence, the presence of a king's officer is currently a requirement so as to do much of what you need to do in that port.”

“Are those people that work there the ones who do not like to hurry?” I asked.

“Some of them, yes,” said the soft voice. “The harbor-master, fortunately, is not inclined toward sloth, and the best place to stay isn't that way to any real degree, and the crew of the ship that you'll be taking is especially disinclined toward slothful behavior – but nearly everyone else in and around that port is.”

Anna looked at me in something resembling horror, then gasped, “but that will not work, will it?”

“Not really,” I said. I presumed Anna meant me doing 'everything of importance save handle the money'. “I might need to do the work that's especially tricky, or demands unusual attention...”

“I think that explains much of it,” said Sarah with finality. “That entire trip, from its planning to its conclusion, is like that in the eyes of a great many.” A pause, then, “I suspect I was not the only person speaking of it to those people in the boatwright's shop.”

“You were far from the only person,” said the soft voice. “Hendrik spent several minutes to your one, and he specifically said that your husband-to-be was the only person truly up to the task for both clearing the Abbey and then making that trip. You might be able to help some, according to his thinking, and the same for Karl and Sepp, but outside of certain essential functions needing his presence in the third kingdom and possibly some little talk across the sea, he reckons Gabriel to be 'troublesome ballast', those being his exact words.”

“Is that, uh, witch-thinking?” I asked.

“To the degree that is common in the area now, yes,” said the soft voice. “While you will need to drive much of that distance, the others – Gabriel included – will be able to help.”

“Him?” asked Anna. I could plainly hear the disbelief in her voice, especially after hearing Hendrik's opinion of Gabriel. I suspected, however, that for Anna at least, the matter wasn't just Hendrik considering him 'ballast'; she'd had enough first-hand experience with Gabriel's indolence and 'oblivion' to find Hendrik's attitude to sound altogether reasonable.

“That dragoon will scare him witless,” said the soft voice. “It will force him to choose, at least for a time, and that choice will be a most-simple one, the same that everyone who endures real danger faces.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans. I suspected he had an idea, if he had indeed eaten grass like he had spoken of, and he wished to be certain. That was another change for the better, and I hoped it stuck.

“Life or death,” said Sarah flatly. “I suspect him acting the way he did most of that trip back made him oblivious to the danger you all faced.”

All of those people were unaware of the true extent of that danger, save for those two older men and your husband-to-be,” said the soft voice. “The Abbey might not have witches in it right now – it did long ago, as you well know from your studies – but what it does have...”

“That will put the fear in him, is what I think,” said Hans. “He has not faced swine, nor thugs, and I think what is in there makes the worst of both of those things look to be tame.”

“Correct as to quality and seriously low as to quantity,” said the soft voice. “Iron Pigs do not spew flames, and while they are hard enough to stop, what's in the Abbey is in an entire new dimension, both in terms of danger and 'tenacity'.” A brief pause, then, “and if Gabriel isn't staring well past two miles by the time that mess is done, he'll be lucky to live in a rest-house until he dies.”

“That is bad,” said Hans.

I shook my head, then said, “it's really pretty simple: if he wants to survive clearing the Abbey, he's going to have to listen to what he's told and ask intelligent questions if he does not understand his instructions perfectly, he's going to have to do what he's told when he's told to do it without any hesitation or complaint, he's going to have to think every second he's in there – at least until the danger's past – and he's going to have to fight like his life depends on it, or else he dies.”

A pause, then, “I have yet to see any corpse retain a shred of that 'oblivion' he seems to have – and no, it will not be me killing him. That place is a deathtrap right now, and more than one of those people working there on the grounds have gone too close and 'disappeared' when one of those creatures ate them – and that's for those things.”

Another brief pause, during which the faces I saw seemed frozen in shock: “there's more to clearing that place than those creatures. I'm not sure what else is in there, but if witches used it long ago, there's at least one bad witch-hole that needs to be dealt with before the place can be used, and if those using it were the witches from before the war, it's not going to be like the cellar at the house proper for trouble.”

I paused, let that sink in, then said, “it's going to be worse.”