Loading Up, Part six.

Sarah had put her pistols back in her pockets, and as we finished gathering up such materials as looked likely from the area, I led along the aisle somewhat further. I could feel another matter, this being something we needed badly; and when I turned to the right, I knew what came next after what these next things were.

“Those machine guns are this way, aren't they?” I thought.

While no answer came, a glance at the map I had been adding entries to when and where I could spoke of it being likely, while what was hiding in our current location was mostly a matter of conjecture. I could tell this particular equipment didn't explode or catch fire, or so I thought until I pulled down a fiberglass bin of squat shape. A quick feel around its rim, followed by popping the latches, and I found myself staring at no less than eight small closed-top 'buckets' with thin wire bales that seemed to latch in place like those mess-kits I made. They were beginning to become a semi-regular item at the shop, though the usual number desired was one or two, not the 'dozens' that had been predicted by several people.

“Now those I know about,” said Sepp, as he took one out. “This looks just like one of those mess kits you make, and...” Sepp set the thing down, then moved aside the bail holding on the 'lid' – and as he began drawing out portion after portion, he paused every few seconds to look at me. “You didn't know about these things, did you?”

“I doubt it much, as I've never seen nor heard of such things other than his,” said Sarah. “Now did you find that small stove in one of these things, or was it by itself?” Sarah was pointing at one of those smaller stoves – it had been near the top of the pot's contents – and as Sepp continued pulling out more things out of this 'mess kit', I could easily tell there were some other things of similar desirability on or near this pallet.

“Such as eating utensils,” I thought.

“Those are on the next pallet over,” said the soft voice, “and while you will wish to bring your cooking equipment, these pots are best used as carrying containers rather than for food preparation.”

“Why mine?” I asked.

“Think,” said the soft voice. “Recall some of the troubles with titanium pots and those things like them where you came from? Especially regarding cooking things in them over open flames?”

I nodded mentally.

“They did more than a little work to try to correct those deficiencies with these, and succeeded to a marked degree with them, but to put it mildly, your copper pots are both easier to clean and more frugal of fuel – and you'll want both of those things overseas, even if it means 'coddling' your cookware with thick paddings of rags.”

“Most of the other things, though...” I spluttered.

“Those you will want,” said the soft voice, “and those pots there will serve well to carry them, if not to actually cook your meals.” A pause – this implied we might be able to use the titanium pots for boiling water, possibly – then, “the other items, though, are well-worth the trouble to use.”

“The plates and, uh, servingware, and...”

“Those also,” said the soft voice. “I would look closely at every pallet you come across between here and where you find those machine guns, as you'll find most of the other major weapons present and or things that 'go with them' in the process.”

The 'true' mess-kits – what we had found earlier, according to a printed three-portion folding 'brochure' were for 'battle-teams' – were indeed where they were spoken of as being; and these things were enough to make for both admiration and astonishment, for not merely were they made of titanium, they were also 'color-coded' of a peculiarly bright scheme of coloration – no attempts at camouflage here! – with some strangely thick and bristly 'cloths' that looked suitable for dish-cleaning. I took out one of these oval 'pads', touched it, and knew I wanted one for more than merely cleaning 'mess-kits'.

“This thing would be perfect for cleaning up the handles of those knives,” I thought. “Just like those green things I used to use now and then.” A pause. “Now do these have dish soap, or did they just boil their dishes clean like we did on that trip?”

“The latter was the usual when there was time to employ that servingware,” said the soft voice, as I noted the three forks and four spoons, each of them a different color, shape, and length, as well as a pair of familiar-looking items I recognized from my having had several of them at home prior to coming here. I could not recall the precise name of the thing in question, even if the shape was so close to what I recalled that I marveled at it.

It missed one chief matter though: the writing on the handle, this indicating who actually made it. Those I was looking at now had no writing whatsoever, and were of an oddly iridescent-gray coloration.

“That one has writing on it,” said Sarah indicating something in the 'book'. “Now this is strange, as the Red Mountains seldom get snow, and the Blue Mountains never get that stuff, so how could they know of a mountain full of snow?”

“They got the idea from elsewhere,” said Katje, “as I just read that here, and it shows something that looks just like these odd things that think themselves spoons for the most part and forks of a sort for their remainders.” A pause, then, “they have writing on them also, but it is in a language I cannot understand.” Katje then looked at me and muttered as if tutored at length by Anna, “though if I had to hazard a guess at this, I would think this to be a witch-language of some kind, as it has that feeling.”

“It was not thought to be one there, even if it is closely related to what witches here commonly speak,” said the soft voice. “The witches here found using it a bit much for them.”

“Did it set them alight?” asked Sarah.

“It did at times, but it was most-tricky that way, as some words seemed to do little to the witches of that time and place,” said the soft voice, “while other words, some of them indistinguishable for sound, were among the worst ever spoken here.” A pause, then, “speaking some of those words caused such widespread destruction that they were reckoned to be preflood curses by most witches.”

“They were not those,” said Katje, “as I've seen enough runes in the last two days to know that this thing in the picture isn't writ upon in runes, but in common letters, and then these words themselves...”

“D-don't speak t-them,” said Maarten shakily. “Curse or no curse, I'll bet my last two coins that you'll not be able to speak for an hour should you try speaking that language.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that was a later intercept, and their equipment had improved sufficiently by that time to accurately discern things coming from where you came from without first being intercepted by other closer planets,” said the soft voice.

“And...” An instant's hesitation, this to think and hopefully 'keep my left foot and all of its toes out of my mouth', as the saying went in the area. “This species of servingware?” I asked.

“They got some ideas from there, yes,” said the soft voice. “The current versions are both 'nicer' as to functioning, a bit more durable, and a lot easier to clean – but the pots that gear is packed in aren't much better for either heat distribution or cleaning compared to those you've found here.”


“Those pots are very common there, and in fact are specified as 'commons-issue',” said the soft voice. “They're worse yet for ruining food and being hard to clean, which means copper pots will become prized items once people from there learn of them being available, and that's just for the 'commons' there.”

“Bathing dippers?” asked Sepp. “I am bringing mine, as that place...”

“If you get 'lucky'” – this was spoken as if it wasn't really a matter of luck as was commonly understood here, but more a matter of 'how bad do you want to bathe' – “you'll find equipment that makes bathing both easy and 'pleasant'.”

“B-bubble bath?” I asked.

“No, better than that – though if you ask for such materials, you can most probably get modest amounts on a day's notice,” said the soft voice. “Sarah's had baths like this a few times before.”

“Where?” she asked. “Not a common bath in a tub – or do they use tubs?”

“Recall that one small watercourse in the southern portion of the Blue Mountains where you camped for a time so as to try to catch some fish in the pool below it and to rest your donkey?” asked the soft voice. “Like that, only enclosed with water of an adjustable temperature.”

“Ooh, that thing was awful,” moaned Sarah. “Not only did I nearly freeze into an ice-carrot, but the water bit my skin as if it were not water but a bin-full of biters!”

“These are not like that,” said the soft voice. “They're one of the few things available to most people there that are genuinely pleasant.”

“Even if they're on timers of some kind and you have to, uh, play games with them?” I muttered.

“Yes, if you insist upon using one that's been put in use within the last fifty years,” said the soft voice. “Those places tend to have few takers, at least currently, as the 'commons' there reckon such places to be deathtraps.”

“Bad, uh, showers?” I asked.

“No, what else is usually found in those locations,” said the soft voice. “The places that haven't had recent refurbishment tend to not only have better amenities, but they tend to be somewhat warmer – and more, they tend to not get visited by functionaries nearly as often.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Those surveillance devices...”

“The older devices tend to fail 'soft' rather than 'hard',” said the soft voice, “hence what they commonly do is provide those 'centralized monitoring stations' with 'flaky' data rather than simply quit working altogether – and more, most of the 'commons' there know how to fool those.” A pause, then, “the newer devices are a lot harder to fool.”

“More capable?” I asked.

“No, they aren't nearly as proficient,” said the soft voice, “and hence instead of having built-in 'intelligence' – long-ago well-programmed intelligence, intelligence that could reliably 'tell' the difference between commonplace behaviors and those actions which posed a true hazard to the regime – the newer devices send everything they detect, spurious signals and all.” A pause, then, “and those things, especially the most-recent versions, generate lots of spurious signals.”

“Which means the functionaries get called to those places all the time, even when no one's been near them for ages,” I muttered.

“It's worse than that, even,” said the soft voice. “The newer devices have a much higher overall failure rate, so between vast numbers of false alarms and vaster-yet numbers of 'repair-tickets', the only time those older places get visited by functionaries is when they go entirely 'dead' or there are enough functionaries present in an area that someone who's over them decides they need to be kept busy in that way.”

“Busy?” asked Sarah.

“Recall what you saw during your trips to the eastern part of the second kingdom's western back-country – how those witches would kick in doors whenever they had a mind to do so?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Those blue-suited thugs over there do that kind of thing every day over there – at least when they're not assigned to other tasks.”

“Which they nearly always are, at least for the commonplace blue-dressed thugs,” I said. “The ones that act as guards are somewhat more inclined toward such nonsense.” I then had a question.

“I wonder if we could use more of those, uh, fowling pieces?”

“Why?” asked Karl. He had somehow found a strap that 'worked' with what he was carrying, and he had discarded the rope he'd once used. I suspected it was in a bag somewhere, and I suspected – no, knew – he was wondering how to get his hands on a smaller version of my possible bag.

He'd seen just how useful that type of bag was – finally – in the last two days, as had Sepp, and possibly Katje. Maarten – him, I was not sure, while Sarah had her new satchel, and I suspect the old one was being both repaired and revamped to serve at need.

“Look,” I said. “About another three pallets with fiberglass bins to our front on this aisle, then the metal ones resume.”

“And that means more things that are fit for causing thugs trouble,” said Sarah. “Now are these fowling pieces the type that take those large silvery things, or are they commonplace ones that are stuffed from the muzzle?”

“Commonplace for their size, but not for their loading,” I said. “The reason these things are here is so the soldiers could, uh, supplement their diets, with, uh, game.”

“There wasn't any of that here, not when the witches were running things,” said Sarah.

“If you mean deer, elk, and other animals thought of as 'game' by most in the first kingdom, then you're mostly right,” said the soft voice – who then paused for longer than the usual second or two. “Think. What kind of animal is both thought a pest in these parts and is also thought 'decent' for the pot?” Another pause, then, “hint: it really likes cabbage.”

Sarah seemed to think for a moment, then, “they did not have marmots then, at least not like they do now.”

“True, they weren't nearly as large,” said the soft voice. “Some of the 'escaped' draft-marmots bred with those animals here to give the current-sized animals by the time the country up here began to recover from the effects of the curse, but until the curse actually 'struck', the smaller version was very numerous – and while those people were present here in numbers, those animals were something of a nuisance in their camps.”

“Hence, uh, fowling pieces for pest control,” I murmured. “Then, there were some strange migratory birds like quolls that were nearly as much trouble...”

“They were quolls,” said Sarah. “They were just like the ones here, only they were loud all the time, not just when the sun showed itself.” Pause, then, “I am not sure about fool-hens.”

“Those came north from the southeast portions of Vrijlaand's territory between the end of that war and the curse, and they survived in the hinterlands of the continent when the curse 'struck'.”

Two more pallets passed, three side-trips on my part alone to retrieve dropped weapons and their magazines – the others did similarly; the witches had dropped enough pistols and other weapons to need but little additions from their storage locations – and I then came upon the first metallic examples of what everyone save myself immediately named 'corpse-boxes'. These first cases of that type, each of them as wide as the usual ammunition cans and three times their length, proved to each contain no less than three wood-stocked double-barreled shotguns, each gun having a good deal more than its cleaning kit and tool-pouch in the way of accessories.

These 'weapon-cans' – my name for them – also contained several round tins of various sizes, each tin filled with spare parts; some obvious-to-me 'serious-level' tools – perhaps not a full armorer's kit, but enough tools to make me wonder if these weapons were prone to breaking down – and wonder of wonders, a manual of sorts and a trio of 'game bags', these last looking to be uncommonly sturdy and probably waterproof.

At least, I thought them to be game bags until I examined one of them and found that its strap had over a dozen places to put shells on it, ostensibly for ready use while 'on the hunt' for prolific pests that craved warmth and table-scraps worse than rats did in our day.

“Now all we need is shells for these things,” I murmured as I helped load another 'corpse-box' onto a cart that already had received the first one. “These take the same size of shell as those we found earlier?”

“Yes, as the Mistress of the North was not fond of cursed death-camp shotguns,” said the soft voice, “and more, she was not recoil-proof – and more still, she knew about this type of weapon from her youth, and hence had fond memories regarding them.”

“Uh, hunting?” I asked. I then wondered what kind of hunting – hunting as currently practiced by witches? Or was she hunting something else – perhaps small brightly colored 'alien craft' launched from a small dark-stone building on what passed for a trap range – or was it a trap range? The purplish cast of what I was seeing made for wondering, as well as recalling a most peculiar song that spoke of a nightmare world, one filled with such darksome purplish mist as I was seeing for an instant surrounding the bright-colored flying disk.

Such disks, unlike those of my younger days, needed shooting, as they were as annoying a 'thing' as ever existed, especially in such dark and purplish realms as I had just glimpsed, and recalling the song that 'conjured' them as well as I did – that didn't help my nerves or sanity much.

“Yes – if you refer to keeping that smaller version of marmot out of her family's sizable flower garden,” said the soft voice. “She was called a great many names on account of their practices, even if she was a dead shot then.”

“I thought she was terrible that way,” I murmured. “Was she?”

“Yes, once she'd earned her title, she became a good deal worse,” said the soft voice. “Before that – and especially as a young girl – she was quite capable with some weapons, if not nearly as good as Sarah is.”

“Probably kept one handy while out in the field, then,” I muttered. I meant a shotgun.

“She did, and doing so kept her alive more than once while leading her campaigns,” said the soft voice. “She didn't bother with anything that one witch sold like that, as what her family used tended to be old 'heirloom' weapons that predated both that witch and his monopolistic practices, and she had one of those weapons copied by one of the best green-area shops using secretly imported materials.”

“And she was familiar with them, also,” I said. “I know that I would choose something I knew well then...” I was thinking of a two-position selector rifle, and that because I had once had a similar weapon. I recalled that rifle with no small fondness, in fact, as I could shoot better with that thing than anything else I had owned of a like nature – and I liked putting holes in the center of paper targets.

“More even than you know,” said the soft voice. “Now, you will wish several boxes of these guns, as they're quite useful, and not merely for the trip.” That last word made for wondering, especially given what I had seen. The word trip had some peculiar meanings, especially when it was associated with a strange purple realm filled with mist of a dark and violent hue. The current matter blanked this nightmare, and replaced it with a more-current one, that of distribution of some familiar-seeming weapons with some very unfamiliar aspects.

“Uh, drop one off at Willem's?” I asked. “Perhaps Lukas will want one, and, uh...”

“And save two of them for at home, also,” said the soft voice. “Anna may well wish something shorter and handier for 'blasting rats', but these weapons will work well for both that and any feathered noisemakers that show.”

“More than wish,” retorted Sarah. “I know for a fact that she's wished for a short musket as good as those three near Hendrik's office, and I know that one fowling piece is kept loaded for rats.”

“It has also seen use today,” said the soft voice. “Hans shot three rats in the horse-barn with that weapon, and he's found sign of them in the kitchen – and he chased one out of the house with his revolver.”

“Where?” I asked.

“He first saw it near your workbench,” said the soft voice. “It was coming out of the kitchen then at a good rate of speed for a common rat, and he was shooting at it once he saw it, at least until he shot his weapon dry.” A pause, then, “he not only has found a rat-hole in the kitchen he needs to fix, but he's also made five bullet holes, some of which will need wall-patches.”

“I hope he did not shoot your workbench,” muttered Katje.

“His first shot turned the rat, as it was planning to hide behind that bench,” said the soft voice, “and while he missed the workbench entirely with his shooting, he did put three holes in the couch when the rat tried to escape out the window – and he almost hit the window itself with his next-to-last shot.”

“I thought Anna would be trouble that way,” I muttered. “Seems Hans is almost as bad.”

Loading up several more boxes of shotguns uncovered some common-sized ammunition cans that were sitting under the 'corpse-boxes', and when I opened one of those cans, I found that not merely had I found a number of loaded rounds stuffed into a pair of 'cartridge belts', but also a 'field reloading kit', a rather thick armorer's manual, a full tool set, two small sacks of shot with stamped metal tags indicating its size in 'millimeters', a small round 'shoe-polish tin' of primers, and several small plastic containers marked as containing “#4922*B7 pistol propellant.” Hiding underneath and behind all of these similarly-arrayed cans, however, I found a slim camouflage pouch, and opened this to find a 'user's manual' along with another armorer's manual and the pouch containing the 'frequently-used' tools needed to keep the weapon in a usable state.

The pouch contained enough 'spare room' to suspect it was intended for issuing with the shotgun as a matter of course, as I could easily fit one of the loaded cartridge belts in it as well as a modest-size rubberized sack one could use for one's 'bag'.

The 'user's manual' specified these weapons as being intended for 'field foraging and guard duty', while their specifications listed their barrels as being both 'full-length' and '61 centimeters from breech-face to muzzle'. Some quick mental math spoke of them being of a 'handy' length for a shotgun, and when I turned to see Sarah 'aiming' up toward the ceiling with one of the weapons in question, she was muttering about 'poor balance' and 'this stock is too long for me'. She then put the shotgun back where she found it in the box, closed it – and then picked up the 'user's manual'. I had set it aside, as I was trying to find one of the 'shot-bins', these being a smaller species of ammunition can of unusual heft. I could feel at least two of these bins in the immediate area.

“Perhaps trim it slightly?” I asked. “The barrels? Are they too long?”

“The usual barrels are thicker, especially at the breech,” said Sarah. “That, and it needs about two fingers shorter of a hind-stock, a carved-to-shape butt with a brass butt-plate so as to stand use better, and then it would work well for me.” A pause, then, “I think it would work well for most people as it is, though, even if the plate on its butt isn't like anything I've seen before.”

“Anna?” I asked. I wondered for a moment if she'd want the 'tender's' weapon, as that thing seemed as likely as anything for 'rat-duty' – especially if the rats in question were those fast-moving white things that tended to hide good until they were inclined toward trouble. So far, no one had claimed it, and I suspected it was more or less being 'reserved' for her use. I was getting warmer when it came to the shot I was after, so much so that I knew we wanted this shot, as what the tender had stockpiled was a cheaper 'domestic' version. This was 'the good stuff', and I suspected that rats, both commonplace rats and white examples, would not enjoy it much, no matter what kind of a shotgun it issued from.

I knew that I didn't want the tender's weapon, as I knew what I wanted for rat-trouble; and one of those smaller pistols, especially if I could get or make a suppressor for it, sounded just about perfect for dealing with rodent-inflicted distractions of the annoying kind.

It also made me wonder if I could get a silenced machine pistol for white rats – one with a fast-twist barrel for coping with heavy-for-caliber slugs launched at subsonic velocities. White rats, especially in the larger sizes, wanted hefty doses of lead if one wished them to acquire manners quickly.

“Were she only using it for rats, she would wish shorter barrels, like that gun we found in that drink-house here,” said Sarah, “but if she wishes to use it on birds, then it is best to leave it this way, as fowling pieces lose range quickly should their barrels be much shorter than these have.” A pause, then as Karl put the last of the six corpse-boxes we intended to take today on the cart – which made for a full load, and he began to move it ahead so as to head it over toward the north side of the room – Sarah said, “this thing speaks of hunting game, only... There, Katje. Thank you for using that strange-looking light and not a lantern, as I wish to keep what hair I have, and those things put out more heat than a good student's lantern.”

I left that one pallet behind, and went to the next one, this thing stacked with the smallest ammunition cans I had seen yet. Hefting one made for both a barely-stifled grunt and an intriguing distraction, specifically about Sarah's hair.

“And I want to play with it,” I thought. I was glad Sarah seemed engrossed in the book, as she then spoke of marmots being exceedingly commonplace during the time of its writing.

“They must have known of those things, as here's two pictures showing marmots,” she said. “They're about that big today when they're fresh, though.”

“And easily shot, supposedly,” said Katje. “What? Don't use a type 1116 rifle on them?”

“I think using one on them would scatter these animals,” said Sarah. “Those might be best reserved for witches, if this speaks correctly... I think so!”

“What, dear?” I asked, as I laboriously hauled the shot-filled ammunition can back to the nearest cart. Sepp hefted it, and as he went back where I had gone, I felt something else, something most-needed in the immediate future.

Sepp could go fetch the shot, for I could feel some wire up ahead in the general direction I was now heading; and as to whether this was communications wire – twinned-conductor black-going-to-green stuff about like some smaller speaker wire I had once seen a few times before coming here – or whether this stuff was something suitable for tripping-up functionaries – was yet a mystery. More, while we had found thread, 'string', and 'rope' in great abundance, I could tell there was more of it close-by – or rather, a species of stuff better thought of as either twine or perhaps fishing string, this material being of a braided construction and possessing surprising strength. I was about to reach for a common-sized fiberglass bin when Sarah's next outburst startled me. I could hear movement in the background; Sepp had most likely looked in one of the ammunition cans I had found, and learned of its contents as being 'the best shot he'd ever seen', and at least some of it was big enough to 'work' passably on thugs.

“This recipe here is like a badly-done potato-country 'hot-pot',” she said. “The spices are all wrong, and this mess here” – she was meaning another dish, most likely – “seems intended to tie one's tripes in knots.” A pause, then, “these people may know their guns passably, but they are not cooks.”

“Not like some people who can cook well, you mean,” said Katje. “Oh, that next section, that one there.” A pause, then Katje spoke again. “This next part is important. I can tell.”

“Hazardous spices,” intoned Sarah – who then resumed reading. “On the mainland, some of the spices are hazardous to use, and in some cases, are used to start fires... What?”

“It seems witches did their versions of burn-piles then,” said Katje – who took over reading from Sarah. I could tell her credulity was also being stretched to its limit. “The burn-root may be known by its root-like appearance, its intensely flammable smell...”

Smell?” I thought. “Witches? Shouldn't that be, uh, spell, and not 'smell'?”

“Listen,” said the soft voice. “Remember that one episode with 'that smelly root' and its intensely flammable reek? Like how it smelled like 'lacquer thinner'?”

“...and by its crumbly nature,” said Katje. “Only use it if that material has been crumbled, carefully passed through a coarse screen, and then dried at some length with good ventilation, and do not use it near combustion stoves...”

“That would be most stoves I have seen, either real stoves or those found on tapestries,” said Sarah. “I've heard of some other kinds that were once used in the Valley, but I wonder if those people use things like them now.”

“I've had that type of stove, er, oven,” I said, as I recalled using two types of electrically-powered cooking devices, one of which used a strange means of non-thermal heating. “They can still start fires – and that for both types I recall using.”

“Then you do not wish to use this spice, whatever it actually is,” said Sarah archly, “as it acts like a species of light distillate, if I go by this here. It says it may burn explosively, much as if it were saturated with type 32B3-C cleaning solvent.” Sarah seemed to pause, this to think. She was wondering if the stuff was like anything she'd heard of or actually used, and her thoughts spoke of it being both altogether unfamiliar and very unpleasant. I wondered if Hans had tried to tell her about 'Lacquer thinner', complete with his difficulty in pronunciation.

“That sounds like Benzina,” said Katje. “Now what is this? It says it seems to have use in medicines.”

“Benzina is not medicine,” spluttered Sarah. “Didn't you know that?”

“Yes, but I think they meant this spice rather than what the Veldters use for getting rid of bad rust and worse-yet dirt when they're cleaning things,” said Katje. I was about to reach for that first bin once again, this time feeling its faintly pebbly outer sensation. I then noted that I had actually gone two rows over to find it. My feet knew what they were doing, even if I was paying attention to another matter, this of some importance. “It helps with griping, coughs, and wind, if used appropriately.” Katje paused, then said, “see, here – 'consult your medical people for details on this matter'.”

“Why would something called burn-root be put to medicine?” asked Sarah – who then thought for a moment, and asked, “is that why cough-medicine is so touchy to make unless you use the right equipment?”

“I think that to be a likely explanation for it,” said Katje, “and if we do not get done in this room fairly soon, we will all wish it for medicine, as I can feel a cough starting from this cold.”

“No, Katje, cold does not start coughs, not unless you have a sickness already and it has started such a cough and just needs some help to show itself,” said Sarah – who then resumed mumbling over the book. Meanwhile, I had pulled down the bin in question, and its heft spoke of something closer to metal than twine – or so I thought until I removed the lid and looked inside to find numbers of dark green plastic spools, each of these with dark red letters indicating something that needed better light for me to read. I took one of the spools back into where the party had halted for the time being, and Sepp showed me his lantern after adjusting it.

“Now that is some of that trip-wire,” he said. “How much is five hundred m-m-m-I can't say that word!”

“Meters,” I said. “Not quite a quarter – no, a third of a mile – I think.”

“Then we'll want some of that stuff,” said Sepp, as I showed it to him. “Those thugs can't hardly see wire like that unless it's as bright as High Summer, and it never is that bright in that place, not even when every lantern they've got has its wick trimmed and turned up for as much smoke as a burn-pile.”

“How can you speak of distillate-lanterns when those people cannot hardly get distillate?” asked Sarah – who then changed her tune utterly as she resumed looking at the book. “This book here makes for either laughter or a headache, and I am not sure which right now, but it is giving me a headache to read it.”

“Bad light, most likely,” I murmured. “Best get three of these spools, and then some of that other stuff.”

“What other stuff would this be?” asked Sepp. Maarten had gone to take the cart back, as he'd needed Karl to guide his way with a lantern held waist-high to both front and rear, and I suspected those boxes really wanted two people for unloading them so as to not jostle the guns overmuch.

“This, uh, twine – at least, I think it's twine,” I said. “It's dark, braided, about like some string I've seen, and...”

“I think that is fishing string, or a type of it,” said Sepp. “I've been needing more of that stuff, and I think I want the common colors for it, as dark string only works decent if you're fishing under a tree or when the sun's gone down.”

“Under a tree?” I asked. I'd only done fishing once here.

“That is why there are so many colors of such string,” said Sarah. “The best types are made in or near that market, or at least they sell them there.”

“Made?” I asked.

“I have seen some places make it there, but what they make is a bit large for most fish, unless one speaks of those fish found at sea or the larger Grossmoend fish.” A pause, then, “that type of string is really better for bird-nets, and not the commonplace ones, but nets fit for catching fool-hens.”

“Those things cannot see that thick stuff, is why,” said Sepp. “If you want to catch wood-pigeons, then you've not only got to use the thinnest fishing string you can find and tie your knots twice over, but then you need to put dye to it with a paintbrush, else those birds will go around your nets.”

I was now reaching for the 'fishing string', but again, I was astonished by picking up a 'heavy' bin. This one was also fiberglass, and like the last such bin, it was a squat thing. Removing its lid showed more plastic spools – and I could tell these also had wire, though what kind was yet a mystery beyond 'it is not barbed wire'.

“That we want a lot of,” said Sepp as he showed the lantern. “Same spools for size, only this stuff has different writing.” He was trying to read it, and not having much luck, at least until I picked up one of the spools to read its writing.

“Communications wire,” I said. I then looked at the wire, and asked, “How much current do those caps need?”

“That wire is a bit of a stretch for those,” said the soft voice, “but it can handle that current for a short time, provided you only use one cap at a time, keep your wire-runs less than thirty paces, and use a single fresh-charged pot-battery. You can use longer runs if you use a ledger-battery, but you're unlikely to need more than thirty paces of distance for anything you're truly likely to use.” Pause, then, “that wire is really intended for field-phones, but the soldiers out in the field found it worked well for a lot of things, not just phones and the smaller species of command-detonated mines.”

“Antennas?” I asked. “Shorter ones, perhaps where one strings the thing up between a pair of close-together trees?”

“That usually got the witches onto them quickly,” said the soft voice. “They commonly had to be very careful about antennas of any size at all, on account of the enemy being able to pick up their receiver emanations.”

“Receiver emanations..?” I asked. I then recalled something about certain kinds of receivers – how they could easily produce small amounts of RF energy if they were not properly adjusted and appropriately constructed. Some of the ones I had made in the past had done so, in fact.

“Or in their case, not adequately shielded,” said the soft voice. “There was only one type that proved truly usable during that war, or rather, two – one receiver was entirely passive; it was not terribly sensitive – and the other one had two stages of low-gain RF amplification prior to the first mixer, was very well-shielded, and was entirely analog – so it didn't radiate wideband RF signals due to the digital portions present in 'common' military analog radios then.”

“I think...”

“Oh, it also used vacuum tubes exclusively, which meant it was fit for rear-areas only,” said the soft voice. “It was heavy enough – and delicate enough – that it needed two smaller well-sprung trailers to carry it: one for the receiver, and the other trailer for the batteries – and forget about transmitting when the witches were within 'listening range'.”

“How did they think to use that one receiver, then?” I asked.

“Firstly, the witches had gone to ground for the most part,” said the soft voice, “then, if you recall how the witches came out but days after their leaving the Abbey, and how they found themselves followed vigorously the first third or so of their trip south?”

I nodded mentally, even as Sepp continued filling one of those 'dirty' bags I had emptied earlier full of communications wire. He'd put at least eight spools in the thing already, and was looking to stuff the bag.

“The witches managed to locate them by 'sound', rather than that radio's 'oscillating' detector,” said the soft voice. “Once they became aware they were being followed, Rachel was glad she'd not had a chance to bring it with her, as they would have all died then – and for the reasons that occurred to you.”

“Meaning the regeneration control would have needed exceeding care in its adjustment to avoid detection?” I asked.

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “She would have needed to run it herself while praying the whole time, and that while on the move once they were more than halfway to their destination to avoid discovery followed by 'rapid triangulation' and then 'neutralization'.” A pause, then, “recall reading before coming here about some missiles used to destroy radar sets?”

Again, I nodded.

“The witches had something similar in concept, only a lot smaller, much more accurate, and able to be ground-launched,” said the soft voice. “More, this missile not only had substantial range – far more than you might think for such a 'small' missile – but also the capacity to remain airborne like a glider for nearly an hour once it had 'come on station' so as to locate its target more-accurately.” Another pause, then, “that was for those weapons.” Pause. “They'd also 'wired up' a fair number of prewar-sized wasps so as to seek out RF signals, and those were the worst of all, between their 'wiring' and the curses put to them.”

Wasps?” I asked.

“The witches killed droves of their own people with those things, as those curses meant they weren't at all selective about who they went after – but by that point, the witches didn't care who died among their people as long as some of the enemy died also.” The soft voice sounded as cold as I had ever heard. “Rachel's people had to hurry, as a large swarm of those 'flying daggers' had been loosed after them not four hours after they left.”

“How did they manage..?”

“Mostly by killing every marmot and rat they encountered and leaving the sliced-open bodies after them so as to 'confuse' and 'distract' those ever-hungry wasps until nightfall,” said the soft voice. “That, moving as fast as possible, and then continuing on at the best possible speed throughout the whole of that 'extended' cloud-covered night was the only thing that kept them alive – that, and then finding a number of things to set traps with, not merely those caps and fuse.” The unstated matter was 'they had to kill off those wasps to not have trouble with them, and hence traps and poisoned meat were in order'.

“Wasps here have trouble with darkness?” I asked. These weren't the brown-and-yellow things where I came from, as those could be dealt with readily after dark. I had commonly doused their nests with used motor oil thinned with kerosene then, and the wasps had usually dropped to the ground by morning.

Most importantly, that particular nest was finished for the year, as the oil I used in my 'wasp-douse' made it untenable as far as the wasps were concerned.

“Those that were done up like that, yes,” said the soft voice. “The witches invariably wrecked the wasp's olfactory tracking capacity while putting that wiring in, and they badly damaged its visual capacity as a rule, also. Hence those insects like that could only 'hunt' during conditions of full daylight, unlike those wasps which used curses only to direct them.”

“Those were awful,” said Sarah. She most likely meant those 'cursed wasps'. “Now are you after that dark twine?”

“Y-yes,” I said. I'd been 'hunting for it' steadily since leaving Sepp to his bag-stuffing. He'd filled one bag and begun working on a second example. “Why, did you find some?”

“No, but I'm after it also, and the faster we find it, the faster we can collect up the other things we're going to need down here,” said Sarah. “That stuff may be of a dark color, but I know we'll wish it for one thing or another during that trip, and those blue-suited thugs aren't like witches here, even if they are thugs.”

With two of us looking, each with a lantern-holder following close behind, we found the 'twine' in question not three minutes later. I also found a small witch-cache, this in a pair of bulging-full bags; two machine-pistols laying next to a pair of ash-mounds; a camouflage-bag filled brimming full of mostly-full magazines for several types of weapons; two sizable camouflage-cloth bags filled with loose rifle rounds; and another pallet with something else we needed, these being several sizes of stamped aluminum tins. Their labeling indicated their use, this being 'storage of ammunition under harsh conditions', and their size indicated they were appropriate for issue to individual soldiers.

These things were round-cornered, 'square', and green-painted – mostly green, several colors of it, in the now-common 'flavor-of-the-week' type of camouflage coloration – lightly coated with a sticky wax-like material listed in their placards as a preservative 'varnish', and gasketed, with a dried-out version of what was listed as being 'long-lived synthetic grease'. It made me wonder for a moment just how that one container of 'torment-grease' had lasted so long.

“First, that container is a special one,” said the soft voice, “and the theft-leaders added additional solvents to the container so as to give it the right 'level' whenever they took some out. Then, as for what is in that engine and its 'oil tanks', those containers also have special capacities – and more importantly, the reason that Vrijlaand grease isn't entirely 'gone' is because the absorptive ingredient-mixture that made it 'grease' wasn't nearly as long-lived as the oil portion.”

“Meaning the oil is..?”

“Still quite good, if otherwise not currently at its peak of quality,” said the soft voice. “Running that engine for at least ten minutes will drive out all of the water that it's 'sucked up' and filter out all of the 'dirt' that's settled out, and it will then be nearly as good as if it were made yesterday.”

“And these tins stick worse than anything,” muttered Sarah. “I could use one of those smaller pry-bars you have on this one, as that grease they used set up like glue of some kind and I think these have things beyond that grease they used for them.”

“The gaskets, you mean,” I said, as I took the tin from Sarah and slowly 'pried' it apart with some rocking back and forth. “We'd almost be better off mixing up some torment-grease and beeswax ourselves for our ready ammunition storage...”

“That would work well, especially if you use plenty of that torment-grease,” said the soft voice. “That never occurred to those people, chiefly as they were concerned about being able to access their supplies quickly, and they weren't going by sea – hence they depended exclusively upon their 'sealing wax' that they mixed up using similar ingredients.”

“But Vrijlaand's climate...” said Sarah.

“They figured that by the time they'd gotten down there, they would not only be very low on ammunition, but also that they'd only need it for securing food, hence they'd be carrying it in rag-wrapped magazines in their pockets or actually in the weapons they had,” said the soft voice, “and by the time they were in 'safe' territory, they'd be within a few days of reaching their goal.” Pause, then, “the chief trouble, or so those planning had suspected, would be traversing the upper and middle portions of the continent, which while nowhere near as humid and hot as Vrijlaand's climate then, was at that time cold, damp, and often rainy, with frequent episodes of ground-hugging fog.” Pause, then, “it proved all of those things, as well as lacking cover, and the witches continued to 'show' intermittently – singly as a rule, though occasionally in smaller groups – until they were inside the then-current borders of Vrijlaand.”

“And hence they didn't need to spend seconds prying up the lids to these things while getting shot at,” I muttered. “Now how will we clean these up before dosing them with our, uh, sealing wax?”

“I'd use that one species of oil on them,” said Sarah, who was looking at the round rope-like aspect of the gasket. I suspected one trouble already: this particular gasket actually locked into grooves on both portions, so heavy use of hard-drying grease meant for trouble. The appropriate amount of proper-consistency grease, however, meant both a good seal as well as easy opening – as it lubricated and protected the rubber portions while providing a backup sealing aspect.

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and Sarah has a good idea regarding the use of motor oil.”

“Not what we have for gun-lubricant, correct?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to replace those gaskets quickly instead of once the trouble is done over there,” said the soft voice. “Use two parts torment grease, one part beeswax, a little bit of motor-oil to help them mingle, and slow-cook the stuff for an hour with occasional stirring – and then you'll have a most-excellent gasket lubricant and tool-preservative.”

“How, if it is torment-grease?” asked Sarah.

“The wax addition will remove much of its more-tormenting aspects, and hence make it less-troublesome to use, the smell will be both less intense and a good deal less unpleasant, and finally, tools preserved that way will not need careful cleaning before use.”

“How?” I asked.

“Mostly just wipe them some with a rag is all you'll need to do,” said the soft voice. “This isn't Vrijlaand during its damp season, so a thin even coating of that material, followed by gentle warming over the stove, will 'rust-proof' almost anything for quite some time.”

“Might want to dose blackened tools and pistols with it,” I muttered.

“Do that and they'll stand up to hard use without worrying about rust, more so than with anything else you can readily get right now,” said the soft voice. “That conversion coating's pores will soak that stuff up.” A pause, then, “it might make them a trifle sticky to the touch, but to have a pistol or tool that is nearly impossible to get to rust should be worth the slight degree of stickiness that treatment will induce.”

“So we will wish more of that grease,” said Sarah.

“It's quite common over there,” said the soft voice, “as they use it everywhere to protect parts. More, while what they currently use is made of inferior materials compared to what's present here, it's also seen a lot of development – so not only is it very common,it is also very good for protecting parts and tools.”

“They probably stick bits of rag...”

“No need to go to that much trouble,” said the the soft voice. “Cleaning one's hands of that grease is very common among those who work there, and a fair number of household cooking fires are fueled with small bits of such rags.”

“Probably smokes like crazy,” I muttered. “It would draw every functionary within miles.”

“Actually, it smokes very little, provided it's burned at a slow-enough rate in a properly-made stove,” said the soft voice. “It's distantly related to a 'dead-end' species of cooking fuel, so minimal smoke and high heat output were goals of those chemists from the beginning – and while it's decent enough as a moisture-excluder, rags doused with it work fairly well as a species of cooking fuel, given an appropriate means of burning such fragments of rags.”

“Too much of such rags gives smoke-signals,” I muttered.

“They know that, as well as the tendency of their cookware to scorch meals,” said the soft voice, “hence those who can cook commonly do little else if they're not 'employed'.”

“Little else?” I asked.

“That's common in Eisernije,” said Sarah. “Clay cooking pots want slow fires and long cooking with regular stirring, so they're best used for soups and stews, and those people there commonly eat in groups so as to not waste any food that's fit to eat.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Most 'commons' where you are going do the exact same things, and for the precise same reasons – that, and so as to hold scarce resources in common, much like they do in that particular district of the fifth kingdom house.” A pause, then, “one of the chief differences, in fact, is the food they have.”

“No long stays in the privy, even if it's, uh, nearly as scarce,” I muttered.

“Some food does put people in the privy there, and not all of that stuff is secured by hunting vermin,” said the soft voice. “They've more or less learned the rules of how to prepare their vermin for cooking, so while such food may make people slightly nauseous, it generally doesn't cause prostration or spewing.”

“It would be best to grill such meat, then,” said Sarah. “That way kills more of the small creatures, even if one's food is partly charcoal.”

“They tend to do similar things when and if they can, and long periods of slow-boiling otherwise,” said the soft voice.

“And next, we have liquid cooking fuel, along with those brass things for putting it in next to it,” I muttered. I could tell I would need to do an excursion off to the side, and as I left the line of 'march' to go find it, I had a strange intimation – and a stranger-yet song, or rather, a whistled scrap of one, one I had in ignorance once thought to be most-appropriate for whistling while fueling a wood-burning stove.

The sole reasons I had not attempted to whistle it here were, firstly, I had just now recalled the song-fragments I had learned to whistle; and secondly, I had only loaded up a wood-stove a handful of times since coming here – and now, I really wished to whistle this song, for what I was about to find was named by it.

I then recalled I was more or less unable to whistle since coming here. It had taken me years to learn how where I came from.

I came to the pallet having these things, hefted one of the tall bins off, nearly did a header as I brought it down, and levered off the lid. Within were six tall jugs, and when I lifted one out in Sarah's lantern-light, she nearly squeaked.

“That's a jug of liquid cooking fuel,” she shrieked, “and that's the type of jug it comes in if it's just off the boat!”

“What?” I asked.

“They look just like that one there,” said Sarah. “Brown on the bottom...” Here, Sarah touched it, and commented upon its cold ceramic nature. “They must mold these things using a thin clay-syrup, pour them many times to build enough thickness in the jug, then dip them for their color-coating so as to get that color scheme.” A pause, then, “and before their second firing, they seal them with clear glaze, like most good pots and jugs are sealed, so they don't leak.”

“D-dark brown on the bottom and a yellowish white on the top?” I asked. “That really small handle, at least compared to most jugs I've seen here?”

“They must figure no one will hold those things that way, so they use a handle fit for tying a cork to, rather than holding,” said Sarah. “There is this strange song, one that originally comes off of a tapestry, and it mentions such jugs. It's very common to sing it at the west school, in fact, at least that place's version of it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The original writer must have liked Geneva, more so than either Paul, Willem, or Hans' grandfather – Pump doesn't count, as he cannot write – and he was speaking of Geneva and how it came in such jugs,” said Sarah. “Geneva is used for rubbing sore places at the west school, not for drinking, and cooking fuel comes in such jugs as these, so we would speak that place's version of the song as we were getting ready to cook something.”

“Is this like Ernst and his yelling, or that one place that makes ink?” I asked softly. It seemed something like fetishism.

“I think not,” said Sarah. “That song helped keeping me from setting myself alight more than once, because if you sing it right, it will tell you just what to do so as to put the fuel in one's lamp or lantern and not spill half of it on the floor or your clothing.” A pause, then, “that type of jug is tricky that way. I know that much about them, they are tricky, and one must know their tricks well so as to avoid trouble.”

“Hence the brass fuel containers, which do not need one to sing the correct steps to avoid spilling fuel or setting oneself alight,” said the soft voice. “Singing is a very effectual way of memorization, as both of you know, and that's why that silly song is so commonly sung at the west school during mealtimes.”

“But won't they find those brass things?” asked Sarah.

“That was the one chief issue with those,” said the soft voice. “The brass containers were much safer to use in general – hence they were sold to civilians; those 'little brown jugs' were harder for the enemy to detect but needed care and a fuel-funnel to use safely, and the ceramic jugs you've found here earlier are the hardest of all to detect by the equipment found overseas, but are unusually breakable.”

“Hence wrap our brass containers in greasy rags and put them inside one of those, uh, smaller bags I emptied out,” I muttered. “Wrapping them in greasy rags like that might make for messy handling, but I'm not at all sure if I want to be set alight with military-grade cooking fuel.”

Sarah looked at me, and muttered, “I thought so. I wasn't about to take those brass things, on account of those smelly thugs coming after us if we used them, but the common-type jugs we found earlier would break readily, and now I hear once more about how bad these are.”

“No, dear, they would not break 'readily',” said the soft voice. “The one jug they managed to carry was well-padded with rags and carried by one person, as those ceramic jugs tended to be a good deal more fragile than jugs made today in the first kingdom.”

“About like a badly-made wine-bottle, almost,” I said. “We'd most likely break at least one if we took them.”

“Try closer to 'all of them' if you used those jugs,” said the soft voice. “If you used jugs like those Hans uses for powder-traps, then they'd probably not break, as those are a lot sturdier.”

“Heavy, though,” I said.

“You are learning,” said the soft voice. A pause, then, “these next things, though – they may look really strange, but you will want them for the trip, and especially so for afterward.”

“What are they?” asked Sarah.

“Recall mention of drill-helmets?” asked the soft voice. “These aren't drill helmets, but the real thing – and these will stop most high-velocity shell fragments and bullets.”

“Probably aren't that many of them, though,” I murmured – at least until I encountered the head-high stacked pair of pallets. Popping one of the fiberglass bins showed it to contain two bagged 'helmets', and these things...

Strange wasn't half of how they looked, especially given that they had chin-guards that folded up to insert one's head, then down to protect one's throat, with well-hid straps that took some doing to find and an oddly padded interior – an interior lined with a soft and somewhat slick-feeling cloth. I wondered for a moment if they had goggles to go with them, as they seemed to demand such eyewear.

There was no seeming about that slick-feeling cloth, as I felt compelled to stroke it, and did so idly for a few seconds while I thought as to where – and if – the place had goggles hidden. I received an answer quickly.

“One pallet over for the goggles,” said the soft voice. “You'll want those also, as they will keep things out of your eyes that you do not wish in them.”

“Not much good for bullets...” I murmured – though upon saying that, I knew I was most likely wrong to at least some degree. I soon learned of my error that way also when I read the description, as these weren't like glasses – had I once worn glasses? I wasn't certain anymore – I had worn in the past.

What?” I squeaked upon reading about goggles that were all-but indestructible. “H-how..?”

“They wish they had stuff half that good where you came from, as then a lot of things would be different,” said the soft voice, “including safety eyeware like you used to wear.” Pause. “Not only does that stuff resist bullets and shell fragments extremely well, it also has a surprisingly high tensile strength – and more, is quite tough, even if you measure it against similarly-engineered ceramics.” Another pause, then, “it's closer to metal in regards to how tough it is – and not weak or brittle metal, either.”

“How tough is it?” I asked.

“You won't be able to scratch those lenses, much less break them,” said the soft voice. “The term used for that glass-like material is clear ceramic armor, and somewhat-less-capable versions are used in the older 'domiciles' where you're going.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Unbreakable windows that are nearly impossible to damage are just the thing when you have large numbers of clumsy functionaries doing renovations,” said the soft voice. “No wastage, no matter how trashed they become – or at least, that was the thinking among the leadership during that timeframe.” A pause, then, “those currently in leadership are now kicking themselves for their predecessors following those old instructions so slavishly, as while possible invaders can't easily take out such holed-up citizens, neither can the functionaries – and that is the case even when they're firing one of their 'riot guns' at such a window.”

“R-riot gun?” I asked.

“Those magazine-fed artillery pieces,” said the soft voice. “They can only break those windows if they get really close, fire especially 'hot' ammunition, and hit the same place on the same window twice in a row.”

“Hot ammunition?” I asked. I had the impression regular use of this stuff in these guns was very unwise.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Using that ammunition in a gun that isn't in perfect condition is a very good way of scattering it widely, as those rounds are loaded just shy of 'proof' levels and such ammunition burns much hotter than the usual rounds.”

“Erodes the throat?” I asked.

“Two quick rounds and the third one won't need you to pull the triggers, as the gun will cook-off the third shell within a second or so,” said the soft voice. “More than a few functionaries have died that way, as a full magazine usually meant a gun firing wildly at an ever-increasing rate that sent shells flying in every conceivable direction – and that meant large numbers of dead and dying functionaries, as a rule.”

“That would seem to mean those thugs have no business firing guns,” said Sarah. “Not if they don't have enough sense to load them right.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “Those over those thugs think those guns to be far too dangerous to let them be used by mere 'functionaries', even those who have been 'trained' on gun-simulators at length. Hence if one of those guns shows, either the people sending it out are truly desperate, or those functionaries serving the weapon are thought to be well-trained enough to avoid accidents.”

Thought to be, he said,” I muttered. “Those stinkers will probably try to put the magazine on backwards, and then...”

“Worse than that, even,” said the soft voice. “The guns available to those people and what was in the 'simulator' have little in common beyond their basic nature as light artillery, and those thugs mostly used their 'simulator time' by getting into the local equivalents of 'badly-cleaned flower sap'.”

“They have flower sap?” asked Sarah.

“Those materials may not look like flower sap – not even a little bit like that material – but they have similar effects, at least if you're a blue-suited thug.” A pause, then, “well-cleaned and thoroughly dried flower sap is a common article of trade with those people, and several large wax-sealed crocks commonly go outbound with each trip that one boat makes.”

“Large crocks?” asked Sarah. “Are these the common-sized large crocks, or the truly large ones – like some that Roesmaan's Chemistry uses for their larger amounts?”

“It mostly depends on who's packing up that particular shipment of flower sap,” said the soft voice. “It isn't commonly known in that market town, but a number of 'chemist's shops' pool a portion of their outputs of their 'best' grade of that material for sale to those people, and depending on who 'sells' it – they of that group take turns – the crocks are either the commonplace large crocks they use for bulk medicines, those which hold a bit more than a quart, or some that are a bit larger yet.”

“If this stuff is cleaned decently, then that is a lot of that smelly stuff,” said Sarah. “I know that when Hans cleans one of those stinky balls they sell down there, it takes him nearly a week to get it so it is right, and he might get half of its original volume when he's done cleaning it, if I go by the amount of dirt and dung that he got rid of during the time I saw him do so.”

A short pause, then, “I can tell there are some of those rockets close by.”

“How?” I asked, as I lifted down a pair of bins one after another from the pile where the goggles were. Another cart was going back, this with enough bins to hold ten helmets. I suspected I wanted an entire bin of goggles, as there were easily ten pairs of goggles for each 'real' helmet, and the goggles had lots of uses beyond keeping shell-splinters and bullets out of one's eyes.

One wanted these goggles for chemistry work also, as 'clear ceramic armor' was as chemically-resistant as most of Hans' glassware, and the goggles had soft padding, which was very pleasant to the touch. It made me wonder if I could get darkly tinted goggles for sleeping, in fact, and opening the bin showed numbers of soft-woven cloth pouches, these in faintly gray-striped dark green. Touching one nearly caused me to shriek, and Sarah came running. She touched one of the pouches, then drew her hand back as if in shock.

“What is that cloth?” she said sharply.

“W-why?” I asked. I wasn't sure how to respond to that tone of voice.

“Is this the type of cloth you were thinking of?” she said in more normal tone of voice. “It might not be the right color for it, but I have felt cloth like that stuff there before.”

“What would that cloth be?” I asked.

“It is better if it is knit rather than woven, even if the yarn is very fine and somewhat difficult to handle,” said Sarah. “That stuff, both the yarn and the cloth, tends to tickle when handled, so it is called tickle-cloth.”

“Tickle-cloth?” I asked.

“Only handling a tickler when the animal has just fed and is especially lively is worse for causing laughter,” said Katje. “Now did you find some of that stuff, or are those little pouches there hiding something special?”

“I think they are doing the latter,” said Sarah, as she picked one up. Opening its closure – a zipper – showed not merely some silky-feeling cords for wearing the pouch about one's neck, but also another such cloth pouch, this one smaller, followed by the wide strap of the goggles – and finally, the goggles themselves.

Sarah looked at these last, then tried them on.

“I think those are fit for him, and not you,” said Katje, who was behind Sarah. “See, here it says 'large' on the strap, and I suspect you want either a medium or a small size.” A pause, then, “and why they have these things called inserts for them is a mystery, as it is dark enough in here without things to make it as fully as dark as an unlit iron mine.”

I was looking in the bin myself, and soon found that there were four sizes, including an 'extra-large' version. Showing that to Sarah – she had taken off the 'large' size – had her speaking of Georg needing a pair that large, as she said he had an unusually-large head for a man.

I'd never made any such comparisons, hence did not comment, even when I wondered how to try the goggles on.

“You'll need to partly undress,” said the soft voice, “even if you will want two pairs of those, each pair complete with its inserts.”

“Why would he wish two pairs?” asked Sarah.

“One pair for regular wear,” said the soft pair, “and another pair, one with dark blue inserts, for sleeping.” A pause, then, “his room may be dark enough most of the time, but finding a genuinely dark room in the places you're going to be hiding in overseas isn't going to be easy – and he has trouble sleeping unless the bedroom is dark enough to pass for a moonless night with thick low clouds.”

“I might know something about that, then,” said Sarah, as she put her first pair of goggles in her satchel and began looking for another pair in her size. I wasn't certain if it was 'medium' or 'small'. “I think I might wish some for sleeping also.” Sarah then looked at me, and murmured something about Anna asking for a window cover.

“What?” I gasped with trembling voice.

“She asked me to do one up, and I said I was too busy right now to find such cloth,” said Sarah. “It would almost be easier to use deer-leather, but the way that wretch in town does that stuff it would need dosing with that one kind of tallow and then dousing with distillate to drive the stuff into it – and that done three times, one dose after another, so as to get it limp enough.”

“Cloth?” I asked. “What kind?”

“Tapestry-cloth,” said Sarah. “She said you had trouble sleeping now that it is getting closer to summer, and have I wondered about that and more about her knowing.” A pause, then, “I do not wonder about tapestry-cloth, as that would need special-ordering through Maria – and while I did do that, I know it would not come quickly, even if the stuff is commonplace tapestry-cloth and not the special kind that is what most people think of when they hear of tapestries.”

“Not with her asking,” said the soft voice. “You'll have several rolls of it within a month's time.”

“That stuff takes forever to weave, though,” said Sarah wearily.

“Yes, if it's done the way most weaving is done outside of the handful of places that do much weaving in or around that market town,” said the soft voice. “One of the things that the Heinrich works doesn't list as things they do is 'weaving machines', or 'spinners' as they're usually called.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. She'd found her second pair of goggles, and if I went by the others' behavior, they too were looking for pairs of goggles. It made me wonder how much trouble other people had with insomnia.

“The reason they don't do many of them is that only a few places in the fourth kingdom's central region have the needed powerplants to power them, the needed people to run them, and sufficient custom of the right kind to mandate what is essentially a restricted-grade machine,” said the soft voice. “That, and each one of those machines takes over a year to make, and then a month or more to install.”

“Where?” asked Sarah.

Hut nine,” said the soft voice. “That's one of the four special 'houses' that need not merely the king's signature, but also visible markings to go inside, and that's because only marked people are allowed to work on what is inside them.”

“That's probably why it takes an entire year to put one together,” I muttered. “Only one or two people at a time, and...”

“Those are very complicated machines, also,” said Sarah. “I might not have gone inside of the four special buildings, but I did see the drawings for those things, and they take up an entire large ledger all by themselves.”

“Complex and difficult to adjust, also,” said the soft voice, “which is why the machines are test-run at some length and their users trained on them while they're still in hut nine and under 'known-to-be-suitable' power.” A pause, then, “and then, the place buying one also has to purchase the parts to a Machalaat Brothers engine and have that thing, its boiler, and all of its ancillary equipment completely gone through by the Heinrich works – with them suppling the needed lubricants, also.”

“Uh, balanced and blueprinted,” I mumbled.

“Is that what they do?” asked Sarah. “I did go into one of their 'huts' where they looked to be rebuilding one of those things, and they needed to make a lot of new parts entirely.”

“Doubles the rated speed, also,” I said. “The way those things come normally, they would not be able to drive one of these, uh, looms.”

“How is it you name one of those as if you stepped out of a tapestry?” asked Sarah. “I really doubt you've had a chance to see one of those things, at least those here.”

“They called them that where he came from,” said the soft voice, “and what the Heinrich works does to Machalaat engines is something altogether close to a dark secret, as they don't just 'balance and blueprint' those things.”

“What do they do to them, then?” I asked.

“More or less fix most of their deficiencies as well as 'balance and blueprint' them,” said the soft voice, “and they increase the rated speed to such a degree that they – and the machine they drive – demand especial vigilance to operate.”

“Let's see,” I muttered. “Pressure-fed oiling to all of the bearings, more or less complete enclosure of the moving parts, a specially turned crankshaft so the thing's actually straight, better materials in general, all of the moving parts upgraded substantially...” I paused, then said, “seems Machalaat Brothers has trouble with some of their suppliers delivering less-good metal to them – either that, or getting decent stuff isn't easy unless you start entirely from scratch, and the Heinrich works does that.”

“Material of that grade isn't that hard to get,” said the soft voice, “but getting what they have on hand for cutting tools to last on such metals is currently impossible.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “The Heinrich works doesn't sell their tool steel?”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “That stuff is not easy to make.”

“They but recently learned they can get something 'just as good',” said the soft voice, “and while that is calling a sooty pot filled with the charcoal of a burnt meal merely 'somewhat dirty', they now know where to get that type of steel.” Pause, then, “what they don't know, however, is just how hard that material is to work with, given what they have to forge and work it.”

“Almost makes more sense to send up the needed drawings and have me make their cutters,” I muttered. I then gasped.

“It might take them some few weeks of ruining that stuff to come to that conclusion, and several more weeks to pry their toolmakers' ledgers away from their tight-clutched grasp, but that is what they will eventually do,” said the soft voice. “That's the one matter that keeps them from of making restricted-grade tools and devices – the inability to manage truly precise and capable cutting tools, and that because of their toolmakers – to a man – following the dictates of the instrument-maker's handbooks in their entirety.”

“Fetish-makers,” I spat. “Those stinking wretches need to be sooted up.”

A faint jarring seemed to shake the ground, then fainter yet, I heard giggling.

“What happened?” asked Katje. She'd just found some goggles that fit her, and while the first pair was on her head and the lenses over her eyes, the second pair had gone in a pocket – and to see someone like her wearing these things made me wonder just how strange I might look wearing them.

“Those three men are now covered with soot and are running naked down the road from the shop's grounds,” said the soft voice, “and all three of them are catching lead from every shopkeeper that sees them.”

“That sounds like they wanted to be witches,” said Sarah.

“They were at that level years ago,” said the soft voice. “As you may have heard, the fourth kingdom has a great many well-hid plain-dressed witches, and Machalaat Brothers' chief toolmakers were all such well-hid witches.” Pause, then, “granted, not yet bones-holding witches, but that was just waiting for the right opportunity, as they'd done everything else needed to 'get up to the big-time' – and their work had gone downhill every step of the way they'd progressed toward making their bones.”

“Hiring new people...”

“Is not going to happen quickly,” said the soft voice, “as those people had caused enough trouble for a ten-year's unraveling, if done at the usual pace for that firm.” A pause, then, “the king will get onto the owners about hiring witches within perhaps two days, and then call those running the place to account because of their deaths.”

“Those three stinkers getting roer-loads of lead?” I asked. “Over a dozen loopers per witch, and half a pound of various sizes of shot each?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “The deaths those stinkers had caused while making them look like accidents.”

“So that's why they had so much trouble keeping decent apprentices,” said Sarah with tones of wonder. “They'd get hurt somehow, get sick, and then die, and Liza could do nothing for them save ease their deaths.” A pause, then, “did those thugs use a slow-poison?”

“Among other things, yes,” said the soft voice. “More, this wasn't a liquid death salt, but another one that's only available outside of the five kingdoms.”

“Do the Veldters make this stuff?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, but they do not sell it,” said the soft voice. “Where you are going, however, does – though not as a poison.”

“Then how do those stinky witches know of it?” asked Sarah.

“Did, dear,” said the soft voice. “All three of those witches are now dead, and the first witch is being 'hung out to dry' as we speak.” A pause, then, “they'll be really surprised when they search that man's ledgers, though.”

“Why is that?” asked Sepp. “Does he have a black book?”

“Yes, a large black book,” said the soft voice, “and how he got his hands on that thing will be much of a mystery, especially given its age, its well-preserved aspects, and the sheer number of its written-in-blood signers, him being the last of that multitude.”

“Who had it?” asked Sarah. “Is it any witch I have heard of?”

“Yes,” said the soft voice. “It was one of several Cardosso himself had, among a number of other much-less-known witches of but somewhat lesser stature. Cardosso had written some extensive notes in its margins, including the name and curses associated with the use of this particular 'undetectable poison' and just how – and where – to secure it.”

“Thing was older than he was,” I muttered.

“And not a little older,” said the soft voice. “It was one of the last witch-made printings made in what once was the city that covered this particular area, hence it wasn't nearly as powerful a fetish as the earlier versions run on that heavily-cursed equipment.” A pause, then, “still, it is more cursed than it looks to be – which is why it will more or less shut that place down until it's removed, now that its 'keeper' isn't chanting curses at it constantly to keep it from causing him trouble.”

“That does not sound like a common witch,” muttered Katje darkly. “He was one of those Powers, wasn't he?”

“No, but he was next in line for that position, and the other two witches there making their tools were to be the two ranking members of his retinue when he was prepared to take it from the man who is currently sitting.”

“Then that stinker needs soot also,” I muttered. “Deep, dark, thick, and nasty soot, with some well-greased chopped-up fiberglass for an itchy aspect and extra-long fingernails so he scratches himself like a hound with the itch!”

This time the giggling was audible, and faintly, I could hear what sounded like waves of gunfire, gunfire that was billowed along by a storm of Gettysburg-level musketry. This progressed to first one cannon firing, then another – then two entire batteries of such guns, all of them stuffed with bagged musket-balls and heavy charges of powder.

“Now that sounds like the main guns of the kingdom house proper,” said Sarah. “Most siege-guns are old things and near-fit for scrapping, but that place has some that look to be new, they have so little wear to their bores.”

“They aren't launching corncobs,” said the soft voice. “The king has been expecting witch-trouble, and he made certain his gunners were near their ready-loaded guns, this both waking and sleeping.”

“In the kingdom house proper?” I asked.

“That's one location where that man has guns sited,” said the soft voice. “This battery you're hearing is one of the town batteries, a battery that Sarah's never seen, and while their guns are a bit older than those at the house proper, they too are in very good condition – and they too were also held in readiness, with their crews and horses 'ready and waiting' in case trouble showed.”

“Was Willem in on that?” asked Sarah.

“More than 'in on it',” said the soft voice. “He told the king about how he suspected something was 'up' at Machalaat Brothers, and he sited three of the city batteries himself so as to deal with any plans the witches might show up with.” A pause, then, “he was right as to the locations of those batteries, even if he did not have a terribly good idea just how big that trouble has now proved itself to be.”

Another volley of these massive guns rumbled forth. Siege guns, while huge and heavy, were also a good deal slower to load than the common size of gun in the first kingdom – even if bagged powder, prepared-in-advance wads, and bagged 'undersized' musket balls mingled with 'stiff' shot were used by well-trained gun-teams, but given the tempting swarms of blackened targets boiling out of this particular sizable group of buildings, the gunners on them knew but one thing.

Willem's advice to the king had, once more, been correct; and as each of the huge guns rolled back in recoil behind its roaring blossom of flame and lead, the gunners learned another matter, chiefly as to why Willem used a roer, and more, why he commonly stuffed it with loopers cast of hardened lead and used the stiffest shot he could find otherwise.

Witches melted away like water when they were turned into bloody sieves.