Investing the Abbey: “Behind door number five, we have...” continued

I got the beer spoken of, even though my curiosity would not wait past the middle of the second cup in spite of forcing the stuff down against a protesting stomach; for I had not merely questions about quolls, trees, and bags – I had a question about the intended uses of these two weapons. I received the second question's answer first.

“They were intended by those escaping for shooting 'meals' once they had gotten out of the most dangerous regions,” said the soft voice, “and they'd stolen as many shells and loading supplies as they possibly could, as they knew they'd need to shoot those two guns a lot then to feed a sizable group of people.”

“Where did these things originally come from?” That question also would not wait, even if my mind spoke of getting down the beer as quickly as I could without spewing and then getting more bread, cheese or no cheese – though I really wanted some cheese, or perhaps some cherry jam. I hoped I could bring some on the trip, in fact – which made for a strong desire to 'borrow' at least one bandage tin full of either material and secrete it in my possible bag.

The jam actually sounded better, as I'd learned some aspects of its preparation during the trip; dried cherries were not merely cheap most of the year in the central part of the first kingdom, but also light in weight. They tended toward bulkiness, but I had an idea involving a smaller mortar and pestle – and then putting the resulting 'powder' in an airtight container of a suitable size.

There were some of those present here. I knew that much.

“That one witch imported those from a country then existing some distance to the south,” said the soft voice, “and he charged his usual outrageous fees for something that, initially at least, barely worked.” A pause, then, “every witch that purchased one, however, unless he or she was made an absolute pauper by such a purchase, took the thing as soon as possible into a green-area workshop and had it 'gone through' from muzzle to buttplate.” Another pause, then, “those two weapons are the best examples of those that were present on-site, and more than a few workers died at the hands of the witches when they were stolen.”

“Weren't those witches dead?” asked Sarah. The matter, to me, was obvious: while the Abbey's witches were alive, they tended to keep their weapons loaded and close to hand, if not actually on their persons; and once they died, they were no longer present to protect their property – hence 'first thief, richest thief' – and the workers had their ways of spying on what the witches were doing. Given their sheer numbers – ten for every witch, by and large, up until almost the very end of the Abbey's inhabitation, when the worker-to-witch ratio skyrocketed quickly due to the witches beginning to die at an increasing rate – it meant they usually knew who died before any of the witches did.

“Yes, but that didn't matter to the other witches,” said the soft voice. “Those things were their property, same as everything else they saw or learned of in those areas they owned.”

“Meaning they wanted to steal them, and the workers beat them to it,” I said, between bites of bread. I then turned to Sarah. “Now what did you mean by finding a good tree for quolls?”

“A tree with many quolls in it,” said Sarah. “If I was lucky, and the quolls were sitting close together in a tree that was the right size, I could usually get two or three birds with each shot, which meant the bag I had for carrying the birds was both full of quolls and rather heavy, as those things get bigger down there than they do up here.”

“Not much bigger,” said Karl. “We got into a big flock of those things down there, and we shot everything we had at them once they'd decided to show themselves.”

“They do get bigger, though,” said Sarah. “I think I know why you found smaller birds, as those were most likely the previous year's crop, and it was still early in the year for quolls during that trip.” A pause, then, “they're best down there about two months into the term, as they're just about to make nests, and the birds eat until they will burst before they start that business.”

“They sit around more then, too,” said Sepp. “There may be dumber things, but full-fed quolls are not terribly bright, even for birds, as I usually caught lots of them in my nets during the months leading into harvest, and more yet during harvest.”

“That happens nearly the year-round down there,” said Sarah, “though there's more things quolls like in the fields during the warmer months of the year, so they eat more then and grow larger.”

The two shotguns – now cleaned thoroughly, and their parts lubricated with 'motor oil' – went back together once I'd gotten down another mug of beer and finished my bread, and as I finished the second gun's assembly, I could tell the two 'stinkers' had finally gotten themselves 'clean enough' – they'd gone east some considerable distance past that one stand of canes I had napped in after arriving and had found a small tree-shaded 'cove' to actually strip and then bathe themselves while washing their clothing in the river's somewhat muddy 'pool' – and were now headed back this way with still-dripping clothing – to where they could truly 'bathe' and then wash their clothing properly.

Both of them still smelled more than a little, which meant two baths one after the other for each man and some time spent then washing their clothing, and all of that done with clothing-soap; and with but the one tub we had brought, that was easily the work of yet another hour after they returned, assuming good organization and teamwork on their part. It would take much longer otherwise – and somehow, I hoped they both stayed 'gone' until we'd cleaned out this last room of supplies.

“Now I hope they learned something from this escapade,” I muttered as I loaded the first shotgun I'd reassembled with a pair of shells and closed it slowly with a muted clicking noise. The weapon had no apparent safety beyond its substantial half-cock notches and the needed file-hard portions of its lockwork. “Who wants to carry one of these things?” Another question, then: “do we want to test them in here?” It seemed wise, at least until I was told that they'd already received a most-thorough testing during the last months of the Abbey's occupancy, what with the growing proliferation of various kinds of vermin on the upper levels of the place where the workers actually lived – and those 'months' of testing the weapons the workers used to keep down the hoards of vermin had determined which guns were to be packed away for use on a trip where 'failure to function' could mean starvation due to the sheer scarcity of edible food over most of the planned trip.

Karl wished one, as did Sepp the other; and while I had few doubts about the latter's capacity – he had 'taken' the hall with such a weapon, among the others he'd used – I wondered more than a little about Karl. He had seldom handled the fowling piece we'd brought on the trip down, as the 'best' shooters – Lukas and Gilbertus – tended to use that weapon when we might wish fresh meat of a flying nature or 'close thugs' seemed likely to show.

I still wondered more than a little about my ability with weapons, even if I had used a single-barrel repeating shotgun more than a little years before coming here; and my skill then had improved markedly – and quickly – with practice once I had done so regularly. As part of a trap-shooting club, I had begun shooting at brightly-painted 'clay targets' on a weekly basis. These last resembled small flying saucers of singularly erratic behavior when 'launched', and I commonly spoke of 'downing the aliens' during my visits to that shooting range.

“They didn't have those guns in here, did they?” I murmured, as I led off once more into the rumbling racket and soft labor-inflected speech of the long room. I meant 'repeating shotguns'.

“You had to be on the 'hot list' to even think about buying one of those,” said the soft voice, “and those guns weren't fetishes, at least those commonly used in this area.” A pause, then, “the versions used in the camps were, and were nearly in another class for both lethality and functioning, at least if the user was a strong-enough witch.”

“And that one witch..?”

“Had a special death-camp shotgun,” said the soft voice, “which meant that he was not merely a very strong witch, even by the standards of his time and place, but he also was 'recoil-proof' – as those weapons kicked like full-loaded roers with patched tight-gaged balls, and he shot his a great deal while hunting.”

“What is recoil?” asked Katje. I wondered now just what was the full load for a roer, as I suspected what Hans used to use in what he named a roer was not a full load; and such weapons seldom received patches, as was the usual still for muskets in this area. I had heard it was otherwise in some locations, at least since going to all of the five kingdoms and then returning to the area hotfoot over seldom-taken paths.

“How a weapon is said to kick one's shoulder,” said Sarah. “How bad is that musket to shoot?”

“Which musket..?” I wondered which weapon was meant more than a little, as well as who was being addressed.

“Bad enough that I'll not try it again unless I am being charged by an elk when it is in the mood,” said Katje, “and why I didn't notice it until the day after makes me wonder just what happened to me.”

“If you were bruised, then they might have taken some time to become ripe,” said Sarah, “and a ripe bruise hurts much more than a fresh one.”

“I was,” said Katje, “and I needed rubbing for days with what was left of that Geneva.”

“That sounds like a roer, all right,” muttered Sarah.

Karl muttered something unintelligible, at least to myself. Sarah understood it right away, however.

“You have not,” she spat. “I've asked everyone I could who might know about that, and none of them spoke of you actually shooting one of those things, even on a dare.”

“He has fired what I shoot, dear, and I had to grab it before it got away from him,” I said calmly. “At least he wasn't shooting a pig-load out of it, as he might have needed prayer then.” A pause, then, “he was rubbing his shoulder quite a bit as it was.”

“Yes, and I wanted Geneva then for rubbing, and that for three days,” said Karl. “I still wonder some how she managed to shoot one of those things.”

“She was hurt badly,” said Katje, “and I suspect if you were hurt that badly, you would not have made it out of that town on your own feet, much less walked that far to then be looked after.”

“I was tossed by that thing, Karl,” muttered Sarah, “but I had to shoot that smelly wretch, and I had nothing else then.”

“Next time, use one of those, uh, rifles like you used this morning,” I said. “No witch ever ignored being shot with one of those, especially if he was close and was hit solid.”

And as I said that, I knew I was being quite generous in regards to the witches in question, even those rare examples like that one particular witch who had been recently spoken of. Those weapons were feared – justifiably – by the witches of before the war; and what they themselves commonly used, while it hit hard indeed and kicked harder yet, was not in the same class for either range or lethality – even if their bore approached that of my rifle and their muzzle velocity... I wondered just what the latter was, in fact. I doubted greatly it was in the same category as that of a pig-load, and I really doubted their bullets weighed well over an ounce.

“What?” I gasped upon realizing what was likely to be the case for witch-rifles.

“They were roughly as capable as some of the large-bore hunting rifles where you came from,” said the soft voice, “and while the bullets were sizable, not only did witch-soldiers not practice anything like 'marksmanship', but those bullets lost most of their 'punch' once they'd gone three hundred yards – and no, those bullets weren't nearly as heavy as yours are, which accounted for much of their relative lack of effective range.”

“Uh, which hunting rifles?” I thought. I was thinking of some used for 'dangerous game': absolutely devastating when used within a hundred yards or so, but past that one had to use 'judgment' due to their 'droopy' trajectory – and the short blunt-nosed slugs slowed rapidly once they traveled much past that hundred yards or so. They were intended strictly for 'close up and wanting to kill you' ranges, with double-barreled weapons preferred for such shooting due to their quick capacity for a second shot.

Some of those animals needed that second barrel in quite a hurry if the first one didn't kill them instantly – and on occasion, even two full ounces of hot copper-jacketed lead was about fourteen ounces shy of what such animals needed to 'cease and desist' once fully into their thundering charges.

The witch-loaded fetish-weapons, on the other hand, needed closer to five rounds to get 'two full ounces', and more than one 'monster' needed a full magazine's worth of solid hits from those weapons to even think about ceasing from his or her killing; and most witches found on the battlefield – the Mistress of the North and her people included – were terrible shots.

Just like most of them had been inside the Abbey, even those witches who had died in the last and most intense gun-battle the place ever had – a battle where they had not merely been weeded out mercilessly by the workers' well-practiced and near-incessant sniping over the months leading up to that time, but they had been 'deprived' of the bulk of their drink and drugs for long enough to be 'close' to truly sober, and hungry enough to truly try and actually aim their shots, unlike the vast majority of their predecessors.

Those people had chanted rune-curses and 'sprayed lead' in the general direction of their targets, just like the true-witches who 'conquered' on the battlefield were said to do when they were 'advancing relentlessly'. That approach worked well enough when one's range was seldom much further than that which left scorch-marks on the clothing or skin of the victim – which made me wonder why so many in town had gotten so close to the witches during Roos' last 'witch-and-swine invasion' – Georg being excepted, as clubs had a range measured in feet unless they were thrown. It wasn't merely witch-nourished rubbish like the Teacher of Guards might spew during his lectures, but a great deal of something more, and I wondered just what that something was.

“Similar range and effects to what you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “They hit hard enough at close to moderate ranges, but the witches seldom got that close when the other side had effective weapons and wasn't afraid to use them – and the Mistress of the North both developed and encouraged the profligate use of such 'fire and storm', as it commonly worked well against those she went after.”

“It did not work well in here,” I muttered, as I came back to that last room of the five, and made my way slowly to that cache I had removed the shotguns from. “I really doubt it worked well where those of the enemy had decent weapons and weren't scared out of their minds at those thugs coming at the run in their huge black-clothed swarms.”

“The state of 'absolute terror' was actually the usual in such situations, as she used speed, surprise, massive assaults, and 'shock' to achieve 'victory' – that, and she was willing to pay a very high price in lives to achieve her goals,” said the soft voice. “She also had a very effective propaganda detachment, which explains why that 'wall of hot lead' approach seemed 'the' way to get results here and most other places where witches tried fighting.” A pause, then, “it usually did not work very well in this area against those fighting on the other side, and it did not work at all in Vrijlaand, even if it commonly worked very well nearly everywhere else on the continent.” Another pause, then, “and once that deep-hole closed and the remaining half-hearted 'supplicants' among the workers were killed off, then it didn't work at all in the Abbey, either.”

“It never worked 'well' here,” I muttered. “The witches may have been trashed enough to believe it did while they were still numerous, but it never worked that well here.”

“Also true, especially regarding their beliefs,” said the soft voice. “If they achieved surprise against defenseless and terror-stricken victims like those half-hearted supplicants previously mentioned, and the witches had parity or better numbers, then they had a relatively easy time of matters – unless the witches were one of a handful of 'decent' shots by the standards of that time and place.”

“I doubt there were many of those in here,” said Sarah. “Not if what Rachel wrote about the witches in here was true.”

“She never traded shots with that one 'expert' witch,” said the soft voice, “and she was glad she never had to, as that man and those few he had managed to teach could actually hit what they were aiming at some of the time.” A pause. “That man and his pupils still used surprise and 'the wall of hot lead' approach as much as they possibly could.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. I was going to my knees so as to resume unloading the cache, and I wanted people I could trust to a degree behind me right now – and for some reason, I not only did not trust Gabriel much, but I wondered about Maarten as well, given what was present in this particular cache.

“What is it?” I asked, even if I expected no answer. I got one, but I was astonished as to who provided it.

“I hope it is one of those things,” said Karl. “What do they look like?”

“What things do you mean, Karl?” I asked, as I found another hefty bag. “This sack here is of... Oh, my. Guess what I just found.”

“What did you find?” asked Karl with 'bated' breath. “Is it one of those things that sounded like what you woke up those wine-merchants with?”

“No, not yet, Karl,” I said calmly. “I think that is a clue, and I'm almost certain this is another bag of, uh, greasy grenades.”

“It feels like it,” said Sarah as I handed it back to her. “Now I think I know why I am glad those two are not here, as I doubt much Maarten is prepared to see what more than a few tapestries call fetishes.”

“What, dear?” I asked. I then almost said 'duh', as I now knew what Sarah was speaking of. I then had a question.

Fetishes?” I asked. My voice seemed to define the word 'incredulous' – at least, until I recalled some early automatic weapons where I came from. The idea then seemed to make a little more sense, as some of those things were unreliable enough to make 'chanting' a bit too tangible for my liking.

“If this is something that sounded like your pistol when you were training Gabriel, or that musket this morning, then they were mentioned on many tapestries as being fetishes,” said Sarah. “It took me no small amount of time to learn the truth about that matter, as well as going to that place I had to bathe for.”

“Which was?” I asked.

“If that was a witch-weapon, then it was a fetish, according to what I read in that place,” said Sarah, “and if it wasn't, then it could not be a fetish and actually work well enough to use.”

“Very true,” said the soft voice. “Only this country could make those things as fetishes and expect them to respond to chants and curses spoken by true-witches – and the weapons of that type on-site are not fetishes.” A pause, then, “those that were made here, though – they needed to be crewed by fairly strong witches, even for that time, to actually fire as intended.”

“And if they were not s-strong witches?” I asked, as I got down on my chest to reach in and get the next group of bags. These had satchel-handles on them, and while I had some suspicions as to what they were – mortar rounds, to be exact – I wasn't entirely certain. They could well be something else entirely.

“If they were 'lucky', the guns simply didn't function,” said the soft voice. “More usual was the guns and ammunition detonated like fragmentation bombs, and that when they would cause the most casualties – and that regardless of whether those nearby were the enemy or common soldiers of the same country.” A pause, then, “that did not apply, of course, to those marked – who commonly not only turned such weapons against the witches, but in some cases, got more than the usual number of rounds out of a belt of ammunition.”

What?” I gasped. “How?”

“Much like you did while training Gabriel,” said the soft voice. “Then, when they were firing, their bullets seldom missed, unlike when witches were firing – and finally, the guns themselves behaved differently.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“They'd not overheat, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and they'd often achieve significantly higher rates of fire as well – often such high rates of fire that individual shots would not be heard, but one continuous prolonged echoing roar. That noise terrified the witches then, and certain other noises that resemble it scare them as much or more now.”

Sarah began muttering about the last few words as I reached in and grabbed another package and handed it back. I was so intent upon my task that when I got the third such package, I felt it carefully, and noted a distinct sensation: I could actually feel the shape of a definite mortar round as my fingers played themselves over a portion of the cloth satchel, complete to the canted knife-edged fins at its base and the eight long tubular increments that somehow 'fit' around and between those fins.

“And these have carrying straps, also,” I thought, as I passed one back of them back and Sarah picked it up. By the talk I was hearing with my head now at the mouth of the hole, I could tell these packages were getting some serious commentary on both their thorough construction, but also how they were secured in the 'closed' condition using a knotted cord threaded through a reinforced area in the cover-flap.

“More grandmother's knots,” I muttered as I heard comments regarding 'black string' and 'grandmother's knots'. “Every buggy we have will need its covers tied in place for the ride back, as they will all be piled with loot.”

The next bags, however, while shaped somewhat like those of the mortar rounds, were long enough to make me think we had found more pieces to a mortar, at least until I felt an electric thrill run through my hands upon feeling one of them. I could feel an obvious barrel of some kind in that package, and as I passed it back, I found not less than four small yet hefty pouches of a species I had not seen in a cache before. I pulled one of them back to me, then saw its 'simple' knot and undid it by feel. The pouch opened, and I reached inside of it – to nearly scream with delight.

“I know what this is,” I squeaked. “It's linked ammunition, and that other thing is...”

“You'd best hand those things out to me, and we'd best hunt up a corner well away from where we've been doing our business,” said Sarah as she knelt down, “as this thing is very important, and we may well need to use it on the way home.”

“Yes, dear,” I said excitedly – or as excitedly as I could while I passed the remaining pouches back. I then found two more similar pouches, only these lumpy things were heavy and bulging with loaded rounds. “These go to the belts,” I thought. “They either planned on saving their links, or... Did this thing take non-disintegrating linked belts?”

“Yes, and those rounds can be put in those belts by hand if a loading machine isn't handy,” said the soft voice. “There's two of those down in the armory, along with more of what you just found – and you'd best get out and hunt up that corner Sarah was speaking of, as not merely is Karl getting itchy, but those other two are now bathing themselves in the camp outside the Abbey.”

“And they're using teamwork, I take it?”

“More than just that,” said the soft voice. “That one newly-arrived group is now putting up their tents just to the south of the first one, so they've got enough cover around them – and enough extra soap – that they're both bathing at the same time while using that tub you-all brought.”

“How?” I asked as I grabbed the last package in question and began backing out with it. “You can only bathe one at a time, unless they got themselves another tub or they're standing next to it and just using the tub for water.”

“They did the latter, courtesy of those new arrivals – and they've set up their own steam-powered washing machine in the middle of their camp, which is working on their clothing while those two bathe.” A pause, then, “not only is it a good deal faster than the badly-worn and jury-rigged example present in the larger camp, but the usual with the 'latest' batch of washing running on this one is to hang the drying clothing over the machine's coke-fired boiler on a rotating rack, which 'bakes' it to a toasty dryness very quickly.”

“That machine is going to get a lot of work, then,” as I got to my knees. “That means of washing and drying sounds like it would absolutely get rid of any clothing-bound insects present in clothing cleaned that way.”

“Good,” said Sarah, “as while Maarten's clothing does not have those things, I have wondered about Gabriel's for a very long time.”

“It will look a good deal different compared to its usual if he uses that machine,” said Katje. “Now we had best hurry if this is what you think it is, as I do not wish Maarten to see it before I can speak with him – and Karl, if he shows before that, then air out his smelly hide with that thing.”

“He?” I asked.

“I think she means Gabriel,” said Sarah dryly. “I'm more worried about him than I am about Maarten, as Maarten would ask Katje before doing something drastic.”

“He might, and he might not,” said Katje ominously. “I know what Maarten has read recently, but I don't know about Gabriel's reading beyond what I've heard of it in the last two days.”

“One of those compilations of tapestries and the Grim Collection,” said Sarah, “and if what he read was a bagged set, then what he found in those smelly books will be entire lies, nearly. I've never looked at those volumes that are part of one of those boxed collections, but I've heard enough about them to know they're worse yet that way.”

As I came out of the room burdened heavily with bags of loose rounds – I asked Sarah, “her journals were smelly?”

“Yes, they were,” said Sarah, who was in front of me. I brought up the rear of the column, for some reason, though our wading through a seething maelstrom of wheelbarrows and laboring men might have had something to do with our order of 'march'. “They were quite old, stained badly in places, several of them smelled somewhat of rotten meat, and the oldest ones looked as if they'd been rescued out of a fire.”

“They might well have been,” I murmured. “Did Anna ever speak to you about some of her more-distant ancestors possibly dealing with swine and the damage they caused?”

“I doubt that she knows of such things if they happened,” said Sarah. “Are you saying some of those people might have been marked?”

“I'm not sure,” I said, “even if I do suspect one of the people who started those things most likely survived swine and an attack on where they lived, and they had to 'rescue' those journals they had back then.”

“That person did not merely start those journals, but was also marked before his town was destroyed,” said the soft voice, “and that's one of the reasons Anna isn't a witch today, even given what those two women in her family before her did to those documents.”

“Could she have some non-smelly replacements?” I asked. “Ones that those women hadn't defaced with their witch-rubbish?”

“She'll not miss them much,” said the soft voice, “as she's but recently gone to look for them and found a note in their place speaking of what they in truth were – and now she's out in back eating grass, or so Hans currently thinks.”

“She isn't eating grass?” I asked. I wanted to ask as to what she was doing, as I suspected her current activities had something to do with abandoning a much-cherished way of thinking and acting – and then replacing those behaviors with more desirable ones, at least from the standpoint of God.

“She is doing that,” said Katje, “though I think she's going to know what Hans was meaning when he spoke about dirt and stink by the time we get back home.” A pause, then in lower voice, “and I hope she learns as much from her sojourn in that stinky place as her husband did.”

“She'd be better off with those books downstairs anyway,” said Sarah. “She can read fairly well now, and I told her to read those as they're a lot better than those journals were.”

“What's available across the sea will make her wish to toss those in the stove once she learns of it,” said the soft voice. “Those books, however old and accurate they might be – they were some confiscated texts that had been smuggled into one of the green areas from another country – don't hold a soggy tallow candle to what you-all will find across the sea.”

We came out of the long room in what seemed slow-motion to me, and when I came out into the Upper Alley, I changed places with the person in the front of the 'column'; I then all but ran, dodging columns as I went, to the north-west corner of the Alley. Once located there with my back to the corner's apex, I almost wished for a screen as I began looking for a ground-cloth in my possible bag, then once I'd begun to lay the one I'd found out on the floor, I whispered, “over here. Let me sit with my back to the corner, and you-all form a semicircle in just front of me, with those two fowling pieces laying on the cloth here down between your legs. We need to do this work quickly and then get it hidden, as I don't hardly trust anyone with this thing that I don't know well personally or who hasn't gone to the west school in the last ten-year or so.”

“Not quite that long,” said Sarah as she came up to me. She was breathing hard, much as if she'd tried to keep up with me. “I only set them right about five years ago, and if people have graduated since then, they should know the truth about these things.”

“Uh, that truth has probably gotten out among some of the other graduates of that place since,” I murmured. “They tend to stick together close, don't they?”

“You're right, they do,” said Sarah, “and I know at least that one man went there.”

“He's one of several graduates of that school currently in the nearest camp,” said Katje as she arrived with Karl in tow and Sepp beside her, “which means most of those people who just got here will listen to reason if we can explain matters to them.” A pause as she sat down next to Sarah's right, then, “Karl, I hope you're up to this knot, as it's beyond me, awl or no awl.” Katje then looked at me with a face that seemed to vaguely express a desire for no less than a trio of good awls – and a third hand, one dedicated to the wielding of awls and things like them.

Karl was already busy with the complicated-looking knot when I began to look at the other bags we'd brought out which had 'easy' knots. I drew out a single loose round from one of the lumpy examples, then gasped as I held the deadly-looking cartridge up to my face and saw the long pointed bullet that emerged from its mouth, “oh, my. These things look nasty.”

“You'll want those for bird-whistles, as that's the size for those things,” said Sarah. “I have never seen ones like that one, though.”

“Mostly as you don't go to witch-only estate sales,” said Katje dryly. “Those that size are even worse than the smaller ones among witches when they're like that one he's holding.”

“For what?” asked Sarah. “Do the witches fight over those things?”

“They do, and with great vigor,” said Katje. “Now what he has in those bags there has me worried, as those are thought to be worse fetishes than even those cursed swords witches trade witch-houses for.”

“More witch-inculcated lies,” I spat, as I brought out the 'feed-tab' out of a sack of linked ammunition. “How many of these things to a belt?”

“Each of those belts holds a hundred rounds,” said the soft voice. “They would have had to be very careful with that stuff, even if finding more usable belts and loose rounds would have taken but little looking as they traveled along their route.”

“They found none of that nasty plant-based oil?” I asked.

“They did find some small amounts of it in one location on their way down south,” said the soft voice, “and they were very glad they'd found that stuff and begun oiling their weapons with it that evening, as they encountered a witch-party not two nights later and they had to kill all of those thugs to continue their trip.”

“Could what is in that stinky bottle full of 'tar' turn into what the Veldters use?” I asked. I was hoping to get the current 'best' formula the Rooster Totem had, in fact, as I knew they needed their weapons to work.

A faint 'glow' seemed to hover overhead for a second somewhere in the general area, and Katje jerked, then stood and ran for where we'd put that particular bottle on the other side of the Alley. She came back to her former seat a minute later, the bottle cradled in her hand, and the faint bluish glow still surrounding it seemed to be a sign and a portent impossible to ignore. “I think this stuff is different,” said Katje – who sounded as if that word was both the best she could manage while knowing it was totally and hopelessly inadequate. “It looks different, and it feels different, also.”

“It no longer looks like what goes in a fifth kingdom engine,” said Sarah as she looked at the nearly-full bottle with its long 'lathe-turned' and wax-impregnated cork. “It's now a pretty-looking light blue color, and it's really lively.” Sarah's unspoken comment was 'I'll bet that stuff is inclined to escape, it's so lively'.

“B-blue?” I asked.

“That's Veldter gun-lubricant as per the Rooster Totem's latest formulation,” said the soft voice. “It's a slightly different mixture compared to what they presently use in their engines, even if it does come from those plants they raise.”

“They've gone further with those plants than anyone else in that Valley, haven't they?” I asked.

“Not merely that,” said the soft voice. “That's a partly-synthetic oil now, which means it no longer needs daily maintenance to not turn to gum and varnish, it has a much higher film strength compared to that prewar plant oil, it keeps powder residues soft and easily cleaned, and finally, it actually repells dust and grime.”

What?” I squeaked.

“Just what I said,” said the soft voice. “It might not seep into cracks like what you use, but it does not attract dirt or dust – and in a desert environment that's filled with dust and dirt much of the time and worse yet the rest of the time, using this stuff means 'your guns will keep working while everyone else's weapons stop'.”

“And what's in this collection of bags will most likely want it,” I muttered.

“I think that is calling the pot dirty when it is filled with a burnt-to-charcoal meal,” said Katje, “and I know all-too-well about those now that our stove is so much trouble at home.”

“This one is done,” said Karl, as he passed me one of the long satchels, “and I think he will finish the other one of these things quick.” A pause, then “if it is one of those things, then I will air out their smelly hides with it if they give trouble.”

Who will give trouble?” said Sepp – who then spoke like someone who could actually scare me. “I'd just shoot Gabriel with a rotating pistol and save this thing for if we see some witches.”

“Them too,” said Karl – who was definitely itching to get his hands on the thing.

“Now Karl,” I said drolly, as I pulled out a surprisingly long barrel, complete with a long and narrow conical flash hider on the end. I wondered if I could make something like it that helped keep down the muzzle while firing. “You'll need to be careful to keep your bursts very short, and really aim this thing carefully, as it's not a toy, or even a roer loaded with loopers.”

“Yes, I know,” said Karl dreamily. “I shot up a lot of coaches with that thing, and it got hot on me, all right.”

Hot on you?” I asked, with alarm, as I removed another barrel like the first. I wondered about the 'hefty' thickness of the thing more than a little, at least until I saw the places where it was ground smooth in a slightly conical cross-section with a small channel and then drilled for insertion into an obvious gas block. “These must be spares.”

“Yes, the witches were shooting at me a lot, but I had these really thick walls made of stones and mud backed with logs in front of me, with this narrow roofed-over slit that I was shooting out of – and whenever I saw a witch shoot, I made it hot for him.”

And the coach he was using for cover, also,” I muttered, as I began to take out some obvious 'gun parts' of some kind. They looked altogether familiar, even if this was the first instance I'd ever actually handled things like them.

Unlike those parts I'd seen pictures of years ago, these had a distinct 'hardened and ground all over' aspect, and a touch of the 'test-file' gave a glassy ringing noise.

“Not even a mark,” I muttered. “This one isn't going to be...”

Sepp then handed me the other pouch, and upon a rag-collection laid before me, I began to empty out both bags as quickly as possible, while Sarah struggled with the cork to that one bottle – at least until I removed another bottle shaped like it that was utterly empty of anything save perhaps a faint and dusty residue.

And a strange label on one side, one that was all but illegible. Sarah took up this other bottle, while handing the one filled with the now 'sparkling' blue 'oil' to Karl. He promptly spat an oath regarding waxy corks – followed by 'smelly glue', 'stinky mules' – and finishing up with swine.

Oaths regarding swine tended to be especially bad ones, at least locally.

“They needed to do that with this bottle,” muttered Sarah as she looked at the empty one and tried to decipher what was writ upon it, “and not doing so let its contents escape.”

“Who – or what – were they?” I asked.

“This person wrote 'strong drink' – I think,” said Sarah. “I can barely read this writing, as it is worse than mine and nearly as bad as some of yours.” A pause, then, “I suspect it was a type of aquavit.”

“It may have looked like a type of 'strong drink' of that time and place, and it may have smelled like certain species of 'strong drink' popular among the Abbey's witches, but it was not what was written on the bottle,” said the soft voice. “It was the closest thing to a 'cleaning solvent' the workers here could prepare given what they had access to, and the bottle was originally labeled as containing 'strong drink' by a witch who shortly afterward died in one of the earlier firefights – and the workers stole that bottle, among a number of other things they found in that witch's quarters.”

“Then why didn't they label it appropriately?” I asked. “Is that label not one that's easily removed?” I was resuming my removing of gun parts from both bags, now arranging them in something that looked like a 'workable' order. I wanted to oil them before assembly, as these parts all had light coatings of mostly-dried wax on them, much as if someone had got a better idea regarding this weapon compared to the usual 'thick and slimy torment-grease, layers of clinging grease-saturated rags, and greasy black string, with the string knotted by someone's expert-at-knot-tying grandmother'.

“It's not just 'ink',” said the soft voice. “That 'pen' had an 'ink' that etched itself into the glass and actually altered its coloring so that it became indelible, and Rachel thought if the jug was found by a witch, said witch would not merely think its contents to be strong drink, but actually consume it – and then die in short order.” A pause, then, “she and the others who knew her then thought using a looted bottle with that label on it quite a good joke, and I would be glad that stuff came out through that cork over the course of a few years, as that 'cleaning solvent' was nearly as explosive as Benzina, if a good deal less toxic.”

I removed something that might have been a manual, this bound with stiff 'varnished cardboard' sides and waxy black string tying the thing together in three places along one side. I passed it to Sarah, who began reading with slow-moving lips as she began slowly turning the pages. She seemed to be looking for something, then found a fairly clear – and very old – drawing. The stark white 'waxy' nature of the hand-printed and hand-drawn pages only seemed to make the drawing stand out better than it might otherwise manage.

“This person's handwriting is as bad as that on that jug,” she said with a voice reeking of consternation, “but at least they can draw well. This is how that one goes together, I think.”

“It is, dear,” I said, as I began to rearrange some of the parts when not pulling out yet more of them. “Why would they use wax on these parts?”

“Because that cleaning solvent they had would dissolve it enough to put the gun together and use it quickly,” said the soft voice. “That blue lubricant will do that also, which is why you want to carefully wipe those parts with a rag soaked in it before putting that thing together.”

Wax?” I asked. Wax did not sound promising as a lubricant – to me, anyway. The blue stuff in the bottle Karl was struggling with still looked far more likely, as I'd seen blue-tinted species of oil before coming here.

“They expected to use this weapon on the way out of the Abbey,” said the soft voice, “and the lubricating aspect of that 'wax' they compounded evaporated over the centuries.” A brief pause, then, “and their recipe worked fairly well for that purpose when first mixed, unlike what you tried make years ago for chains and the like.”

Sarah, however, was looking at one of the bags of loose ammunition, and said, “I really think you are right about that wax, as I've heard it used to keep parts good before.” A pause, then: “now what is medium-strength propellant?” She looked at me, then asked, as much to the air as to me or anyone else, “did they have stronger materials for the insides of these things? At least I know something about those 'all-purpose' bullets these things have, as I saw two witches drop right away this morning, and that pig didn't do much after I shot it.”

“The 'strong' propellant needed better brass and a smaller orifice inside the gas regulator,” said the soft voice, “as well as plated cases, and then it had a much larger muzzle flash as well as a higher muzzle velocity. That type there was generally preferred once the ground war started in earnest, as the witches commonly 'went after' machine-guns especially.” A pause, then, “much as Karl spoke of them doing so in his dream, in fact.”

“Duh,” I muttered, as Karl finally 'started' the cork while both pulling and twisting. It was a deeply-seated cork, and the wax coating it was both uncommonly tough and tenacious as some glues I'd used in the past before coming here. I wondered if I could get something like this particular wax, in fact – which was a distraction that vanished with the abrupt blooming of long-stored recollection. “That's the usual, if I go by what I've read in the past.” I had meant 'those accounts of 'modern warfare' I had had access to where I came from'.

“You did not read what's in a larger black book, either,” said the soft voice. “There, it speaks of such weapons as being especially potent fetishes, and only highly-initiated witch-soldiers were able to fire such things here – which meant the witches saw those being fired at them as being especially capable weapons as well as greatly prized fetishes – again, because theirs were fetishes.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl. I wondered why he seemed to not recall what we had been told, at least until I saw his face screwed up anew with the effort at dealing with a very stubborn cork.

It made for a question on my part: “does that stuff like to escape?”

“It is notorious for that, in fact, which means until you get your hands on some small 'escape-proof' containers later today, you'll want to just dampen your rags with the stuff and otherwise leave that bottle corked with what it is currently corked with.” A pause, then, “if those across the sea see that gun or those like it that are in the armory, what they say may well surprise you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they'll say some very familiar words,” said the soft voice. “You've heard them many times, in fact.”

Karl was still working on the cork, then suddenly 'jerked' and the thing came out with a faint 'plop'. A delicate chemical odor, this at once mild yet penetrating in nature, seemed to suffuse the area around us; and while it wasn't perfume, it did have a distinct aspect of 'sunshine' and 'flowers' somewhere in its mix of odors – or so I thought until Karl smelled the bottle and spoke of yellow-fruits and cherries among other good-smelling things he'd heard about but never seen. I wondered if he meant those 'lilies' I had found, and I wondered more yet where they had gone to. They were no longer present at home, and I fervently hoped the horses had not devoured them.

“What?” I gasped.

“Some of the ingredients used in that lubricant smell remarkably like some flavor extracts you've encountered in the past,” said the soft voice. “Recall how red-paste smells like yellow-fruit? This has some similar ingredients.” A pause, then, “now dampen your rags well, and put that cork back in. Some of those chemicals are a bit volatile.”

“They catch fire easy?” asked Karl. That word 'volatile' was tricky that way, and only context determined whether it meant 'they evaporate easily' or 'they like to catch fire'. The fact that Karl most likely hadn't heard the words 'haet vluchtaege Kemikallen' before figured heavily into my thinking, as outside of Hans and those like him for both chemistry and setting traps, that word vluchtaege wasn't used much. Other than myself, no one had ever used it at the shop, and I had had to explain its several possible context-inflected meanings in some detail to Georg.

The others seemed deaf to all such explanations, even if Georg now understood passably what I meant by 'volatile'. That lamp going up like it did had cured him.

“No, but you do not wish them to evaporate,” said the soft voice. “They'll keep the powder residues soft in that gun's action, which will keep it firing much longer than than it would otherwise.”

We each dampened a small rag with the lubricant, then after stacking the oil-damp rags next to my knee on a small piece of that waterproof cloth that had showed in one of the pouches, Sarah began wiping off the parts. Her comments were most revealing.

“This stuff is slippery as anything,” she said, “and it takes this wax right off, too.” She looked at me, then said, “I think you want this stuff for your tools, if you can get more of it.”

“He would have trouble hanging onto them then, dear,” said the soft voice. “It's best reserved for weapons like this one, which need it to be genuinely reliable.”

“If they don't get it?” I asked. I wondered more than a little.

“Why do you think those people killed to get that horrible-smelling plant oil?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “These weapons, while they do have decent-grade parts, tended to have difficulty with both fouling and 'stoppages' unless they were given appropriate care or fired by marked people.”

“Sounds like...” I paused, then turned to Karl, who was shaking. He'd opened one of the bags of non-linked ammunition, then read from an ancient-looking and somewhat greasy scrap of wax-coated paper, “they called this thing a pig, I think.” He looked at me, then said, “only your handwriting is worse than this here.”

“Always hungry for more ammunition,” I said, “hence its 'name'.” I then asked a question.

“What was the, uh, correct designation for these things?'

“Type 60-B,” said the soft voice, “and they got many of their ideas from elsewhere for both that 'name' and that weapon's parts. Rachel wrote that label on that scrap of paper as her idea of a joke, for she'd heard a lot of people – both witches in the Abbey, and the other side's soldiers on that radio – calling these guns swine.”

“Why would the witches call these things swine?” I asked.

“Because they called their pigs something entirely different, and they were not happy with weapons that were both not responsive to curses and killed their people in droves,” said the soft voice. “The soldiers out in the field had a lot of strange names for things in general, mostly on account of what they'd learned by experience and also what they'd learned in other ways.” A pause, then, “you'll learn a lot more of those 'names' in the months to come.”

As I began assembly of the weapon, I used another oily rag to further wipe down the parts. While it wasn't a simple piece – there were spare parts in profusion for this weapon, which made me wonder if it needed a lot of maintenance to stay operational – it did have a definite logic to its assembly, and as I put the trigger group together, Sarah – and everyone else facing me – seemed agog.

“Not much worse than a pistol, dear,” I said. “I do work like this all the time at home.”

“Hence that practice is really showing,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to have thick padded cloth sleeves for carrying those spare barrels, and I would put that medium orifice in that gas regulator, at least for initial use, as that's a new gun and it needs to loosen up a little before you can put a smaller one in it.”

“Medium?” I asked. “Which of these five, uh, spools has a medium orifice?”

“That one there,” said the soft voice, as the 'spool' next to my finger briefly glowed. “The one closer to your finger was the next size larger, which is what you use with a badly fouled weapon or weak ammunition.” A pause, then, “those are not merely readily made on what you currently have at home, but I might well advise you to do so and then 'customize' them to suit local conditions and users.”

“Did they do that?” I asked.

“Not on the battlefield itself, but behind the lines they often did,” said the soft voice. “If you handle one of these weapons, you'll want the smallest orifice of the five you've found thus far, as otherwise the gun will have too high of a rate of fire by a factor of three.”

“That would put the fear in the witches,” said Sarah. She then scratched her head, and asked, “I am not sure if we have enough ammunition to do that, though, and those belt things are not that light.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice, “and with him firing that weapon once it's broken in – if he uses an orifice suitable for, say, Karl – it will go through one of those belts before you can count to three – and that counting your fastest.”

“How much is that?” asked Karl. “Could I count to three?”

“I think not,” said Katje. “You might get halfway through 'two'.” Katje paused, then, said, “how much longer before it's together, as I think they're getting some food right now and will return shortly.”

“About...” I paused to insert the pin holding the feed tray cover on, then inserted the bolt carrier group behind the 'main-spring' such that the drive pin caught the socket on the bolt-carrier's bottom, then took one of the barrels, inserted it into the 'side-lock cover' that came to a stop at the flange near its base, and slipped it into the swiveling 'gas-housing' and then twisted the carrying handle to 'lock' the barrel in place. “A few more seconds.” I let go of the carrying handle, which flopped down slowly as I found the right 'pill', put it in the fixed portion of the regulator housing, then inserted the 'quick-release' plug that held it securely in place. “There.”

Karl was now shaking, and with a finger, he pointed, “th-that's it. That was what I was using, and...”

I lifted up the feed tray cover, cocked the weapon with the side handle, set it on safe with the knob inside the trigger-guard, and carefully laid in the tab of the belt such that the first round of the belt was in line with the chamber. I gently closed the cover with a click, then 'attached' the bag the belt lay in through its loops to the weapon's hooks, extended the two arms of the bipod, and checked the weapon gently by rocking it back and forth. It seemed secure enough, while there was no seeming whatsoever about its profound aura of 'deadliness' and its much-needed heft. “This thing is not light, Karl. You'd best...”

You had best hide it,” said Katje, who seemed more than a little afraid. “I can smell them coming, and I am not sure this odor I smell is much better than that of mule-dung.”

I did exactly that with Sarah's help and a piece of that waterproof cloth, then gasped, “oh, no. That's a cocked and full-loaded m-machine gun, and...”

“They do not know that, and they especially do not know where that safety is,” said the soft voice. “Now ask that they not be able to see it, and they won't even know it's there.”

I did so, fear showing in my chattering teeth, and to my astonishment, Sepp whispered, “where did it go?”

“I think they will not see that thing, then,” said Sarah. “Now there is more to that cache, and we must get into some beer before we do much else with that room.”

With Katje's pronouncement regarding the odor of the returnees, I was filled with an aspect of dread as we moved toward the transom and quartering toward the doorway of the long-room; and when I saw first Maarten, then Gabriel coming down the transom's still-crumbling steps, I was expecting to see them all but hazed with thick neon orange-red 'flames'. For some reason, I did not see anything of the sort, but that did not stop me from saying softly, “no cursed things in here.”

Both men instantly crumpled as if shot to then lay face-down and immobile; and then I saw the hazy reddish glow framed by the several rows of columns that separated the two figures and our group, this faint yet omnipresent while hovering over and flitting about their inert-seeming forms.

“Whatever is cursed, it needs to go where it belongs,” I spat.

Both men were instantly blanketed with soot, and out of that billowing black cloud of smoky 'threads' ran two screaming and utterly naked glossy-black-soot-coated people – who emerged from the inside of the Abbey into bright light...

Within a second's time, the first booms of gunfire erupted, these blasts nearly instantly building to 'Gettysburg' levels of gunfire. The spattering roars of muskets intertwined with the booms of obvious 'artillery' remained at that level for nearly a slow count of three, and then petered out to a few scattered bangs which then ceased. Steps, these wary and quiet, so quiet I wondered if I was hearing them conventionally, made quick progress toward 'the fallen'; then suddenly, a thundering roar seemed to shake the ground and our bodies with echoes to be followed by another such roar but a second later.

The light coming in the transom was briefly hazed with thick bluish powder smoke, which both spoke of the last two reports being those of roers used to ensure the demise of the two now-obvious witches, and of the short run the two had made from the transom's flung-wide 'doors' before they were cut down by a withering hail of lead.

“That fixes them,” said Sarah. “Now where is that beer with the yellow-fruit? I need some before I fall down in a faint.”

“Was that them, or someone – or some thing – else?” I wondered aloud.

“Two witches had stolen their clothing and were trying to sneak inside,” said the soft voice, “and as that clothing was not yet 'washed' fully – it was 'steeping' in hot lye-water preparatory to being dumped in that machine – it still smelled more than a little.” A pause, then, “they're still trying to get 'a good meal' while currently standing in their air-dried clothing.”

“I hope that meal corks them solid, then,” I muttered. “'Good meals' are only fit food for witches right now!”

“It won't, as what's to be had in either of those two camps isn't either man's idea of 'a good meal',” said the soft voice. “Both of those groups that arrived since last night don't have anything with them of an edible nature beyond what little they've managed to recently secure in a sparsely populated region while traveling at their 'best-possible' speed, and that meant one 'decent' or 'passable' meal a day while setting up camp for the night, and beer and bread for the most part otherwise – and that when they had it. Sometimes they had to go hungry due to the need for haste and the scarcity of willing sellers in some of the towns they passed through on that overland trail headed west and slightly south from their port of landfall – and there wasn't time for hunting, so that source of meals was not to be had, even if edible game was common enough in their line of march.”

The remaining contents of that particular cache proved more 'sturdy' cloth sacks, these small and configured with grommets like those used to hold belts; several 'smaller' sacks of bagged ammunition; two portions of an empty belt, with these being labeled – with more near-illegible handwritten scraps of waxed paper – as being 'short-belts for long carrying while on the march'; a smaller ceramic jug, which proved to contain liquid cooking fuel; an unusually small brass stove, this one small enough that one could pocket the thing once it had cooled off after cooking a smaller meal; what might have been pouches of small tools of one kind or another; and finally, some obvious-looking 'home-made' knives, these spoken of by Sarah as being 'tossers' for their blades once she'd opened their cloth sack and tried the backs of their blades with a small 'medium-fine' file that looked to be one of my 'less-good' examples – one that needed acid-biting and then cooking afterward so as to make it truly usable once more.

As I stood up, I asked, “what did they have to work with to make those, dear? Witch-nails, perhaps?”

Sarah looked at me, then said, “I never thought of that. I doubt they had much, actually.”

“Then while those there might be 'tossers', they were likely to the best they could do – when they made those things, anyway,” I said quietly. “What – or who – were they going to use them on?”

“Poking witches and stealing what they had in hope of getting something better,” said the soft voice. “What 'decent' knives they had – mostly acquired by theft, but also some few they had made late in the game – they took with them when they left, while those you found in that cache were actually some 'early-made' examples.” A pause. “They were spares more than all else.”

“And now to that other cache,” I murmured, as I reversed course and went to what Sarah had found to begin moving shovels and rakes out of the way.

These from the start began to 'flee away' before me, and as I advanced making a pathway to this cache, I could feel at least one other cache, it being on the other side of the room. I glanced to the right, then down – and some few feet beyond that one passageway, I seemed to see a faintly blue haze; and then, the outline of the passageway itself glowed briefly a furtive and ghostly blue. The fourth cache of this room was actually inside the passageway but a short distance from its visible entrance, and I suspected getting access to its contents wasn't going to be very difficult.

“We're in luck, dear,” I said to Sarah. “It won't take that much time to get to the other caches, as they're not much further away than this one is here.”

“Good,” she said tiredly. “My arms feel as if they're about to fall off, and a nap would be a very good idea before we try to find that armory, assuming we have the time for such sleep.”

I had a suspicion that we might well have time for that nap, for within perhaps ten minutes, I had cleared away enough to reach for that one small niche; and as my hand came closer, the niche 'enlarged' as its shield fell abruptly away and then went to dust and scraps of wood to sift down dust upon the floor of the room and the shovels yet nesting against the wall to my front. The resulting 'hole' showed a small cloth sack, and when I removed the pouch itself, I marveled at its sensation – for the contents was as close to being a 'ledger' for feel as anything I could think of. I handed it to Sarah, who undid its small knot with such ready ease I felt astounded.

“You know what this is?” asked Sarah. “This is Rachel's own diary. I'll ride money on it.” Then, in lower voice, “and if it is, then neither of us can read what is written in there.”

“Not yet, anyway,” said the soft voice. “You can read her drawings.”

As I moved out and back toward the other passage made earlier, I asked, “why would we... What is that writing?”

“It's hers, all right,” said Sarah. “That tapestry said so, the one I had to bathe for.” A pause, then, “this is 'old' Hebrew, just like that of the first copies of the old part of the book was written in when it first showed itself long ago, and it would need someone like either my cousin or that one woman who is also named Rachel to read it – and I doubt much my cousin could understand this type without a lot of work done where we live, as she does not have the books they issue in that place, even if she paid at the beginning of each year enough use-fees to buy outright each of those texts she used.”

“What?” I squeaked, as Sarah drew away her fingers from paging through the book in the light of the lampstand while Katje held her lantern over the open pages. I wondered if Katje could read it.

As if she understood my question, Katje began moving her finger along the lines left-to-right, then nodded, then continued with her finger so as to follow the mysterious symbols. She then looked up, and I wanted to ask her a question about what she was reading – and more, how she was reading it.

Hebrew supposedly read right-to-left, and Katje was doing the exact opposite, if I went by her finger's moving.

“I could read enough of this to understand it, most likely, given an afternoon's time,” she said. “This looks like someone's diary, and no witch currently alive could read it, as they do a poor job of teaching this language at Boermaas currently, if what I have heard recently is the truth.” A pause, then, “they didn't do terribly well when I was there, so that sounds likely to be the truth.”

“Some few there...” I knew there were a handful of witches that could read Hebrew after a fashion – though these people naming themselves 'lecturers' in the subject was pushing matters more than a little. In truth, what we had been told regarding the best way to learn that language was indeed 'go to the west school and take what classes they offered on the subject – while spending an entire six years there, traipsing and all, as the discipline thus imparted was a requirement to really learn this language – and then sit for an additional few years under a busy scribe who came from a region where that was the dominant spoken and written language'.

“They only taught the new type during my years,” said Katje, “and that one girl that's Sarah's relative told me it was the same for her – and while she's decent at the least for understanding it, this type needs a lot of work to really understand what the writer was trying to say, as there are no helping marks whatsoever to it and I'm having to guess over half of the words right now in this light.”

“Meaning you'd need to read it through entirely and sleep on it to have anything close to an understanding,” I murmured. I was at the other wall and beginning to slowly – and achingly, now; I would need food and a nap before we did much more – remove the tools that blocked the way to the other two caches.

“I am not sure I would need to 'sleep on it', even if I most likely would need a nap after going through this thing... No, maybe not, as this portion here is a drawing, and then this part here looks to be a map, and...”

“A map?” I asked.

“This one here speaks of where they actually cached things. Not all of those caches were in this set of rooms,” said Katje, “and... Two more pages, Sarah. That's the big map section. There.” A pause, two flips of pages, with Sarah rubbing her hand each time against what she was wearing, if I went by the noise I heard plainly between the sounds of pages turning. I was back at my task, that being clearing a path to the last caches. “These pages show how we traveled in the building without the witches seeing us.”

“What?” I asked. I spoke between handing back digging tools, and the stiffness and soreness I felt was now truly bothersome. I was wishing for both a vomit-inducing grade of liniment and something this place didn't have, namely effectual pain medicine that didn't cause insanity or undue sleepiness. Fever-bark powder was barely effectual that way if one was as sore as I was currently, or so I suspected – and it was near-worthless if one was dealing with a powder-headache, I now knew.

“I could read that title,” said Katje. “I think if I work at this some more, I could read it easier than I first thought I could.”

“I think you're right, as she did mention briefly what she'd written down in this thing,” said Sarah as she continued turning pages. I could hear each page flip, for some reason. “That tapestry spoke of a number of carefully drawn maps, and this here looks like them.” A brief pause, then, “and she did not speak of what was used to preserve that paper, as this stuff feels like it has some wax driven into it once it was written on and then smoothed with a warm pressing copper or something like one.”

“Mostly because it does, dear,” said the soft voice. “That may have been a stolen and mostly blank 'witch's manual' that witch got in the green area to the south and west – from one of the few smugglers who managed to successfully cross the border regularly – but it wasn't made of witch-paper, hence each page was rubbed with that preservative wax once it was finished; and while Rachel did nearly all of the writing, that book was not entirely the result of her efforts.”

“This portion speaks of where the most-used secret passages are,” said Katje. A pause, then, “here it speaks of where the worst witch-set traps are, and... What? What do they mean by this word 'reach'?”

“How far one must stay away to avoid those traps causing trouble,” said Sarah. “That tapestry spoke of how many of those things guarded sizable regions in here, and that in all directions, both for all of the compass directions and up and down besides.”

“Now here is more writing, though I can follow this easier,” said Katje. I could hear her moving her lamp's collet down a trifle for better light. “I seem to be understanding this variant a lot easier now. That title there speaks of why they had those rooms on that upper floor like they did.”

“Hunting witches?” I asked as I paused for an instant. “We were told they needed to grow more food, and then by that time there'd been enough workers killed...”

“By means other than just the gunfire of witches,” said Katje. “The witches used poisons, both gaseous and other kinds of poisons, and here it says they poisoned their food more than once.”

“Which explains why they had to grow most of what they ate,” I muttered as I continued with my labors. I was making much slower progress regarding tool-removal, given the presence of but two helpers. “The witches put poison to nearly all of the 'slave-rations', and only because they... Those rations were almost entirely bagged and binned whole grains, and they could be sprouted.”

“After the workers learned how to get those other poisons out of the grains so they'd actually sprout,” said the soft voice, “and the witches, at least while they had sufficient numbers, still tried to dose their food and crops with poisons when and where they could.” A pause, then, “of course, by that time that invariably meant the witches 'donated' their bodies to the quickly-growing manure-piles these people were using to provide 'soil' for their crops, but between numerous gun-battles, lengthy periods of near-starvation that only finally ceased as the 'end' approached, and the effects of poisoning of various types, nearly half of those workers remaining died after that deep-hole closed.” A pause, then, “much of the other half died within an hour after Rachel's party left.”

“Then once the witch-numbers were lessened enough that the witches seldom came out of 'witch-territory', these people worked on escape-gear as much as they could, as they knew it was just a matter of time then.” Katje now understood the notebook's writing passably, if I went by how she sounded. I then had a question: “Katje, how much did those leaving after that gun-battle take with them?”

“It says here that they did not cache everything they had to keep it from the witches, but they kept some weapons ready to hand up until the very last, and I suspect they took some of those weapons with them,” said Katje – whose voice then acquired a sudden tone of consternation. “I have no idea how Rachel could have put this away, though.”

“She asked it to go where Sarah found it, as she'd prepared that particular place for it some time in advance in case she needed to leave it behind for others to eventually read,” said the soft voice. “She carried it up until the day of that gun-battle, and the pages that weren't waxed by then rotted away over the years.” A pause, then, “the less-injured and those few who weren't injured that left the Abbey then carried thirty pounds, or usually a bit less – while those injured as badly as Rachel carried little beyond their ready-to-hand spare clothing and the sack on a strap around the neck of 'most-needed' things each worker commonly carried waking or sleeping, at least for the first portion of the journey.”

A pause in speech, one that seemed to build a greater desire to hear what was to be said next. I paused in my work to hear it better, in fact.

“As those injured healed up, they carried greater loads; and once the group was most of the way south and moving inland on the way to Vrijlaand, they all carried quite a bit more, as there was less need of haste then and much less danger as well.”

“That meant at least a few weapons went south with them,” I murmured, “or did they take any of those?”

“Everyone who could carry weapons and ammunition did,” said the soft voice, “and while there wasn't much ammunition left after that gun-battle, they took what they had – and they were able to find more for what they carried as they traveled through the more-dangerous areas. They were glad for what they did leave with, as they needed all of what they took with them and what they could find readily – in all aspects – on the way south so as to survive that longer-than-expected trip.”

“There's maybe fifteen more pages here,” said Sarah, “and most of it looks like writing, so I'll put this away in my satchel and then we can do our part over where the three of you are.”

“Where is your satchel, dear?” I asked. I was once more 'busy', so did not look behind me. It was merely a question of time as to when I would be 'too sore to continue' with what I was doing, and hence each unit of time had to 'count'.

Sarah pointed to an area just inside the door, then said, “over there, next to your bag and the weapons we brought in here, at least for the most part.”

“I have this fowling piece on a piece of rope, in case we find rats or those other things,” said Karl. “Now them with those rumbling things are coming past here a lot, so that means we just need to put these tools outside the door for them to take away.”

Karl was right, and once the 'diary' was safely tucked away in its pouch and then where Sarah spoke of 'hiding' it, the line forming behind me moved away the tools as fast as I could hand them back. I was stiff and sore enough now that that wasn't very quick, and when I cleared away the tools in front of the passage entrance, I continued on. I needed to get this 'hard labor' done before I was 'done in by it', and as my movements steadily grew slower and more painful, I found myself forced to pray silently on a unceasing basis.

Neither situation or my pain was improved by in the slightest by my prayers, and I wasn't surprised at all. Some things weren't going to be helped much by prayer, and the degree of pain and soreness I was experiencing needed rest more than all else.

Yet still, for some reason, the last few feet of tools blocking that final cache seemed to put forth their utmost to cause me trouble, and there was nothing left to do but continue on, this in slow-growing steady pain; until finally, the tools seemed to suddenly 'give up' and I found myself actually in front of the place, with the screen covering the cache falling down in rotten fragments as I stifled a groan.

My legs gave way beneath me, much as if they were ready to lay down and die.

“Travel supplies,” I muttered. “Both of these caches have those.”

“Then we most likely will wish them,” said Sarah, who was now right behind me. “I hope those two sluggards get here quickly, as they need to do their part of this labor.”

“While that is true,” said Katje, “what we've found while they were gone does not wish them knowing about such matters until everything can be properly explained to them, at least for Maarten. Gabriel I have no idea about, as he might as well have gone to Boermaas since your cousin left there for how much he is inclined toward thinking like a witch.”

“I doubt he's that inclined toward witch-thinking right now,” I muttered, “even if most of the people he met at Maagensonst must have either been plain-dressed witches or serious supplicants.”

“More like everyone he met there must have been like that,” said Katje. “While Maarten might simply be unused to this quantity and nature of work, Gabriel is the only one who's been really 'complaining'.”

Then came an answer, one which I did not expect.

“While Maarten received some small pieces of stale bread,” said the soft voice,”Gabriel got nothing save the yawning muzzle of a presented full-loaded and cocked roer when he came up to those people and demanded, this in loud voice, 'a proper meal, and that quickly'.”

“Then he will have to manage on what food is left from our meals,” said Sarah, “as I think whoever did that is most likely going to march him down here to labor as he ought to.”

“I hope that man can watch him closely and just lay that weapon's cold muzzle up against his stupid head the whole time,” I muttered as I reached my aching arms toward the cache and nearly fell on my face in the dust. I only caught myself just in time, and that on hands and knees. It made for a surprising outburst: “stinking fool of a witch-slave! Get your face down in that accursed mud and eat that stinky stuff until you've ate your damned-to-hell fill!”

“He will do that again before he leaves today,” said the soft voice, “but he will 'labor' first – and that because he does need to do his share.” A pause, then, “that man who presented that roer, though – he will do as you suggested, and Gabriel will be laboring at gunpoint until he drops in his tracks from exhaustion.”

“And then he will eat his fill of mud,” said Maarten as he suddenly showed, his breath short as if he'd come at a dead run, with a howling swarm of infuriated hornets hot upon his trail. “I have no idea where that man found those things he put on him, but he'll be along directly – and Gabriel fell down in the mud before my eyes once those things were snapped down and then keyed upon his legs.”

“Did the man who did that recognize him?” I asked, as my arms once more found enough strength to support my body.

“I think so,” said Maarten, “as did I him – and I never thought I'd see him up here.”

“Him?” I asked. I was now drawing closer to the cache itself. I was crawling, as that was all I could do right now.

“He wears greens down in the fourth kingdom,” said Maarten, “and I recall seeing him at least once up here with a message for Hendrik, that being recently.” A pause, then, “I think every king who isn't in league with witchdom no longer trusts the post much to do anything beyond let the witches get whatever they wish when they wish to have it.”

“Keeps an eye on a lot of the students?” I asked, my face yet to the floor and slightly ahead of my 'route'. I needed to look, as in my exhausted state, I could easily miss a tripwire. We were not done with traps yet today; I knew that much. “Especially those at, uh, certain schools?”

“He did that,” said Sarah. “I think I know who this is, then – and if he is that man, not only is he marked, but every witch that lives and knows of him wishes him dead.”

“That's the usual, isn't it?” asked Maarten, as he took his place in the 'line' of tool-handlers and I crawled closer to the cache. Each movement hurt, and I was wondering about both that tincture for pain and the taste of uncorking medicine, with the latter drunk first and a trio of drops of the former as a chaser.

“It seems to be, though I doubt many have had a great-find-crush-kill called upon them when they think to leave the area,” said Sarah. “If that happens, it means you have many powerful enemies who want you dead, and they'll stop at nothing to make it happen – and the one called out on that group coming north from the fifth kingdom was the worst and biggest one in a hundred years, or so I've heard.” A pause, then, “mine stopped when I got into this area, even if Hendrik spoke of it being the worst one otherwise that he knew of.”

“Not quite either of those for him, even if he's had gangs of plain-dressed witches after him for years down there,” I murmured, as I tried to stand and failed. “Now, we need to carry as much of this stuff out at one go as we can, as, as...”

Prisonerrr... Halt!” yelled a ringing voice that seemed to echo in my mind.

“Ooh! I do not want to meet whoever said that,” I gasped, this quietly. The forest of tools caught my words and kept them from going far – or so I hoped – and hoped I did not hope in vain.

“That would be him,” said Sarah solemnly. “I've heard that man before, and I have no idea just how many witch-plots in the fourth kingdom he has put a stop to, but do I know their number to be more than that of my fingers.”

Jangling and clinking noises then slow-marched their way into the room next to ours, the one we had most recently cleared of packages; then in a low-pitched yet unmistakable growl that seemed to draw blood from its many teeth, and spatter the ground with gore right before me:

“Now, witch-meat, you'd best sweat that stinking mud and dirt off of your hide,

or I'll blacken it up further with dirt from this floor here and then shoot you.

These here are loopers in this gun, and they'll turn you into bloody meat fit for

Brimstone's dinner plate – and that before I take your head for a pole with my

sword. I've spiked several witch-heads today already, and I'll do more most

likely before I'm done with today and sleeping tonight. Now work, curse your

eyes, or I'll shoot you down right here and now!”

Again, the tone rang out clear and ice-chilled, echoing endlessly in my mind: vicious, ruthlessly brutal, itching-to-kill, 'masterful-in-his-entirety'. The only times I ever came close to sounding like what I was now hearing was during periods when I was 'dealing with' witches 'close up and personal', and to hear it spoken now made me inwardly – and outwardly – cringe. It put an entire stop to my efforts.

“I hope I do not sound like that,” I whispered. “Do I?”

“No,” said Sarah. “I think that man would run for the privy if he had heard you speak what you did to Gabriel the night before last.”

“I sound worse?” I almost wanted to cry with my face buried in the floor's dust, then moan in agony – and that while speaking of not wanting to be a witch. I almost said the last out loud, in fact, and only stark terror silenced my lips that way. Perhaps that man would come in here, and then air out my smelly hide with his full-loaded roer stuffed with loopers.

“I do not think you sound worse, even if I am not sure which person I would wish after me, come to think of it,” said Sarah.

“I do,” said Katje. “If I were a witch, I'd want that man and his roer rather than you, as I'd doubt I'd hear anything before I arrived where Brimstone could gnaw me if you were after me – unless, of course, if I were a traitor and witch, and you wanted me to tell you the truth before I was dead; and then, I'd still prefer to hear that man speak rather than you, if talk be true.” Katje then looked at me, and with her hands somehow indicated to me that I needed to do the following: 'empty out that cache as quick as you can, so you can get away from that tormenting voice'.

I then noticed I was still kneeling, ready, hands primed for their last labors while simultaneously racked with pain; then without a word, I began to hand out those things in front of me and pass them back to waiting, yea, eager hands; and this done to a sharp-spoken cadence, this muttered low and yet ringing all the while with 'mocking' laughter.

It got to me in the worst way imaginable. Only that infernal Left! Left! Left-Right-Left! one was worse, and my recollection of speaking it to that roped-together line of traitors didn't help one bit. I could almost hear the screaming 'Hop on those left hooves' portion all over again; and even so, what was said next door rattled my mind and shook my brain like thunder and lightning:

“One, two, three! One, two, three! Move, damn your accursed witch-eyes! One, two, three!”

“Masterful in his entirety?” I thought. My hands were still busy, and those behind me eager to receive what I was handing out, much as if I were standing and delivering up all I had to eager brigands.

“But somewhat more than you are,” said the soft voice, “and but somewhat more experienced than you – if you take the whole of that experience to be here. There is no comparison otherwise, as Katje hasn't seen – asleep or awake – what you were shown that one time, and she has no idea as of yet what your life before coming here was like.”

“I know something about what you were shown, as Anna told me of her nightmare the second day after you dealt with those traitors,” said Katje from behind and my right as she took a package, “and while I did not see what she saw then, I did hear of it from her lips – and she was crying and screaming the entire time when she spoke of it.”

“When?” I asked softly. I did not wish to alert that one man and have him bore holes in my hide with his eight or nine 'undersized' number one musket-balls. He'd loaded that gun stoutly with both powder and lead, with a wad separating the two; and while he wasn't recoil-proof, he was one of those people who could shoot roers – repeatedly, if not many times – in the course of a day and not turn black and blue over much of their body.

I had trouble enough with mine if I shot it more than once a day, and that with its usual fifty and more grains of powder. Bruises were still a commonplace matter just the same – and I now wondered if I bruised unusually readily, in fact. I'd not had that problem before coming here. If I did, I knew it was a serious matter, one that needed urgent medical attention of a kind not currently available on the continent.

“Stronger powder, though,” I thought. “Compared to common powder, I wonder how...”

Another package came to my hands and it left in the hands of another. Fresh hands waited now.

“In that granulation, figure twice as much strength and then some compared to the better grades of first kingdom 'musket-grade' powder,” said the soft voice, “presuming someone other than you dumps it. With you dumping it down that weapon's muzzle – there's no exact comparison then, as the chamber pressure doesn't just change upward drastically – that powder's burning profile changes also, so it's more gradual and less abrupt than it would be otherwise; and it burns steadily – and strongly – until the bullet is just shy of the muzzle. Hence that long blinding-white muzzle flash that some people have spoken of.”

“Just like some kinds of smokeless powder,” I muttered as I handed out another package with a numbed mind and near-blinded eyes. “Sounds like a slower-burning species.”

“It would be equivalent to that kind, yes,” said the soft voice, “and what Katje said was an understatement for how you're being affected by hearing that man 'urge Gabriel towards labor'.”

“He thinks him a supplicant at the least,” said Sarah as she received something from my hands, “and hearing him talk like that makes me wonder about how he would treat me if he knew I was here.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl, as he received his burden. The cache, while nearly all of those parcels it held were 'bagged for travel' and fitted with carrying straps – they'd wanted to get to this stuff badly, as it was quite obviously packed in a way indicating they'd either practiced using it at length or somehow got 'real experience' – was larger than I thought it to be initially, and I had crawled inside the hole so as to reach the last items it had.

I suspected we'd either wish to use these particular satchels and bags ourselves, or those cloth ones found in that one room at the house proper, depending on which species of carrier looked more 'likely' for the given conditions.

And then, I knew something more likely yet: we'd want to use these while under sail, as they were intended to cope with dampness and inclement weather while keeping their contents dry and safe; then the others would be better once we were at our 'final destination', as they'd then confound the enemy's sensors – much as would the coat of grease upon our weapons and the clothing upon our bodies, in fact – and we'd need to go after those sensor arrays first and foremost, so as 'to blind the enemy, and confuse his ways and means'.

These people's plans hadn't seen a trace of updating since the Curse, if not years before that event; and that because the usual long-ago-created plan had worked very well indeed for hundreds of years. Hence, what remained of a 'plan B'...

“They don't have a stinking plan B,” I thought, as I slid a parcel back to be grabbed by a slender hand clutching at its strap.

“Closer than you might think, given how communicating that 'high-level state secret' you might otherwise call 'plan B' will take days for the news of its need to reach those who have that documentation, and then days more to get it back to those still able to implement it – which is another reason why you have a several day 'window of best opportunity',” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, the matter of 'taking down their sensors' is most-wise if you can do it, as then they will then be almost entirely dependent upon their version of 'human intelligence' – and while they currently use that a fair amount, it tends to respond quite slowly compared to their 'centrally-monitored sensor arrays'.”

“I've heard that man more than you have, Karl,” said Sarah's muffled voice, “and I've heard some witches that sound much like that man, also.” Then in lower voice, “one of those witches was coming with a torch when I was chained up on a burn-pile and damp with distillate.”

“Vegetable fiber in the ears, then, and get a dose if you have it,” said Katje as she received a hefty 'load' with a soft grunt. “How did these people think to carry these things?”

“They were doing 'hard labor on short commons' for years prior to coming here, firstly,” said the soft voice, “and they did so for further 'years' while they were here, until they finally received enough decent food near the end to develop real strength and muscle mass. Then, nearly all of them were marked.” A pause, then, “try hefting Sarah's satchel, and then compare your current load to that.”

“I'm not about to until I get this one done,” said Katje. “Karl, you next. We've got a lot to carry, at least for a short distance, and...”

The crash of a whip seemed to tear apart the air, and I cringed in a near-convulsion. The scream that followed as the whip-crack's echo almost broke what remained of my nerves into shattered fragments.

“There's more of that, witch!” shouted some other voice, one close by. It sounded as if it was just on the other side of the far wall of the room we were in, in fact. “If he says you are a witch, then I know you to be one, as I've been around him enough to know him good. Only one person I trust more about that, and I bet he got your mule-stinking hide dirty like that in the first place!”

“No time for it now,” I thought silently. “They're onto me.”

I began handing out packages in such a hurry that when the last three bags showed themselves, I simply grabbed them somehow, backed up out of the hole like a rocket-powered centipede thrown into 'reverse gear', and then nearly ran from where I'd been laboring. I saw my possible bag as I came near the door and reached down to grab that, and when I next 'came to myself', I was in that far darkened corner some few feet away from the machine gun, its cloth-covered shape but a short distance to my right, my back to the wall, and my arms now aching...

And burdened down with packages to such a degree that the bags and pouches were beginning to 'drip out of' my hands and slowly slide down to the floor of their own accord. I wondered where everyone else had gone, at least until Sarah came out of the door some distance to my front and left a few seconds later. She had two packages and her satchel, and though she had managed a most-commendable speed, she was all-but-hysterical when she caught up to me.

“Now I know how to speak to Katje about how those people managed those loads,” she shrieked, “as I just saw you pick up twice what any normal man could carry, and then run so fast you seemed to vanish before I could count to one!”

I was speechless with fear now, and as the others one-by-one came out of the room, they too were in no small hurry, yet compared to Sarah, they seemed sluggish, almost as if weighted down with spiked slave-drags – and that with much smaller loads than either Sarah or I had carried. Sarah had not merely set her load down, but she had begun to relieve me of mine, while my nerveless hands shook as if ready to convulse, and my mouth opened and closed silently, much as if I were trying to breathe underwater.

Only then did I realize that I was frightened out of my mind, which was the cause for my seeming 'panting'. Katje was the first one of the others to come near the two of us, and she shook her head before speaking. She was putting down her loads as she spoke, and this on a smaller piece of that waterproof cloth.

“I need ask no questions now, as first you vanish, and then she leaves the rest of us behind as if we were wearing things on our legs like I saw Gabriel wearing,” said Katje. She was altogether out of breath.

“There is that, and then there is this one man that looks like someone out of the potato country, and he has a roer's barrel setting at the back of Gabriel's neck while he was working.”

This last was spoken by Karl, who was the next to come with his burdens, while Katje had dropped the rest of hers and put down another thin and somewhat 'travel-stained' ground-cloth. Sarah and I moved what we had brought out onto this cloth, and while the others came on somewhat slower, they were able to put their loads down in the central pile that had formed, while the three of us took up our smaller pieces of cloth. I knew I wanted a smaller hemmed piece of that waterproof stuff so as to have an easily-packed 'groundsheet' ready to hand, and that in addition to a small bag filled with smaller and medium-sized cloth and leather bags.

“Now we can sit down in back of these things and see what is in them,” said Sarah. “I almost want to hide, that noise in there is so bad.” She then looked at me and shook her head.

“I know,” I spluttered. I should have kept my outburst to myself, or so I thought until Sarah resumed speaking.

“You did exactly the right thing,” she muttered. “Gabriel brought this on himself, and he has only his own brass-cone-wearing head to thank for it.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl. “I know there isn't much food in that camp close by, and there are these big lines for food if you want what they are serving in camp, but that stuff smelled bad and...”

“We have better food than that smelly stuff in the buggies,” said Sepp, as he began working on an obvious 'grandmother's' knot. “He should have known that, given how he did much of the loading this morning.”

“He wished a 'proper' meal, well-cooked and suitably garnished,” said Katje to Karl as if to explain the idiocy of witch-thinking, “and given how many witches have showed 'full-loaded and black-faced' in that camp out there today, to ask for such food, and in the fashion he did – only an over-fool or a double-drunk witch would speak so within an hour's walk of here, and I suspect those men in that room wonder just what they have.”

“...And a rod for the back of fools,” I muttered. I could not recall the rest of the verse, even if it was still found in what I had once known well as the book of Proverbs and now knew as 'Well-Chosen Sayings'.

“Thank you,” said Katje. “That portion of the book gets little time in churches today, and I think that is so because the witches that 'run' matters among preachers wish people to be ignorant of it.” Katje then said, “that word you spoke of as 'rod' can mean 'whip', also.”

And as if to punctuate her statement, another lash – distant-seeming, yet still loud enough to make me flinch – found its mark to then be followed by a scream.