Is it daylight yet?” “No.”

The lights drew steadily closer, and for some reason, I looked toward the west. Today had been another one of those 'extended' days, and tonight, I hoped, would be equally extended. I was tired, yet more work would need doing before I slept, and for some odd reason, I was glad I had given Sarah the shotgun.

There were some creatures of an edible nature – birds, to be exact – that at this stage of their development did not know if it was day or night. It made for a most-uncomfortable reminder, one of a supposed nightmare put to music, and such thinking jolted me.

Especially given how secretly popular that song was overseas. After all, it was played by the man.

“I hope not,” said Sarah. “If ever I hear that song, I shall scream until I bleed!”

“Because of your nightmare?” I asked. “Perhaps they can explain what it means better – or was it what you saw while you were hearing it that made you wish to scream like that?”

I did not wait for a reply, and neither did Sarah – she fired her rifle to her left and front, and that started another batch of witches. This time, these people seemed to try to go through the whole column from east to west, as for nearly a minute, there were the ear-shattering cracks of pistols pummeling my ears – newer versions; those 'Tossers' were proving themselves popular weapons, for some reason – but also, a fair amount of rifle fire; and several muskets, including Willem's, were doing their share of business.

I was jolted out of my tracking the latest witch that had showed when I suddenly heard a roar from my left, then a second such noise an instant later. I turned to see Sarah laying the shotgun aside, and as she drove past and I looked further, this to the left where she had passed just now, I saw no less than three witches lying in the roadside ditch. They were practically heaped atop one another, their bodies lying in a sprawled tangle of arms and legs, and those heads that I could see were bloody messes.

“Three?” I asked.

“They were coming in a body, and they were close enough that she shot at their heads,” said the soft voice. “The first shot killed the witch in front outright and badly wounded the other two, and the second instance killed both of the two still-living witches.”

“Thing must spread like crazy,” I muttered.

“No, just the witches were coming hard and in single file,” said the soft voice. “When they're that close, a shotgun loaded with that shot kills nearly as good as if it were loaded with an ounce of the stiff stuff per side.”

“And that gun hurts worse than the one at home,” muttered Sarah. “There, now there are no more witches – at least, none that I can hear, feel, or see, or smell.”

“Stinky, eh?” I asked gently. There were other things of a smelly nature closer to home, and the first intimation of such foul-reeking matters was at a distance of nearly half a mile further south. There, two bodies, these both dressed in black ragged looking clothing, lay in slow-growing puddles of gore; and I moved both of them to the right edge of the road before remounting.

As a precaution, however, I had removed both of their heads with my sword once I had moved them clear of our path. Dead witches did not cause unpleasant surprises for others, and these people hadn't felt 'entirely' dead when I dragged them. I cleaned my sword carefully with an oily rag, and then hoped and prayed that Sepp and Karl had finally gotten their swords delivered, as we would wish swords across the sea for quiet work.

There was something also to be said about 'putting the fear' into those functionaries, and a few severed heads left laying around would get to those people.

And when I found a third witch in the road, again I dismounted. This example thrashed feebly as I dragged him off into the west ditch by the side of the road and then shot him in the head with a 'Tosser'.

“Yuck!” I squeaked, as his head all but exploded. “Now I have a mess on me!”

“Be glad for small favors,” said the soft voice. “There are multiple tubs at home, and what you are wearing cleans readily of such gore.”

“Yes, but will Jaak endure me with witch-brains on my legs?”

He did, though he didn't like it much more than I did, and I shelved the idea about deliberately slicing on witches so as to get the fear into them and their masters. Just seeing droves of dead or badly hurt functionaries lying in large lakes of blood would accomplish a great deal in that aspect, and if it came to slicing on them, it would – and it would be a matter of tactics then, and not a concept I but poorly understood currently.

I did understand tactics to a small degree. I didn't really understand the other portion much at all, even if the grisly talk of some people implied that I did – and that in an especially thorough fashion.

“I usually have no idea why that stuff happens,” I thought, “and a lot of times, I'm not sure what is going on, as I feel weird then, almost like I'm watching someone else or becoming another person – a person I'm not terribly comfortable with, I might add...”

As if my mind needed a distraction, I saw another witch, this man running southwest through the cornfields some hundred and more yards away. I snap-shot at the man, and he stumbled and lay still.

“More manure for that farmer,” I think,” said Sarah. “I can smell a lot of dead witches ahead.”

“A l-lot?” I asked.

“Perhaps there are more dead ones than I can smell,” said Sarah, “but I can smell a lot of dead people, and most of them were pickled when they died, and I can see a lot of bodies in the cornfields to each side of us.”

“Blood makes the corn grow,” I murmured.

“Yes, when it's been in a manure-pile for a while,” retorted Sarah. “Dried blood isn't that good of a fertilizer unless it's been worked on by whatever small creatures are in manure-piles, so if these farmers really want to do as well as they can, they'll gather the bloody dirt and spade it in as well as bury these stinkers – and if these people were much of a mind to change, they'd combine their manure...”

“Some of them have been talking about doing that, dear,” said the soft voice. “Tonight, though – what has happened will cause most of those talking to act, and those who were waiting to see what their neighbors did will think strongly about doing as their neighbors will do tomorrow and the next day.”

“As in one big long stinky mound, one regularly spaded?” I asked. “Where would we put it?”

“Not near where we live,” screeched Sarah. “I do not want to live near a mound of dung!”

Sarah's speech was not that of 'I cannot stand the stink', but rather 'that stink will conjure nightmares in the daytime'.

“Back of the middle of town, over on the west side,” I murmured. “About a hundred yards west of the church, in this sizable unplowed depression...”

“You mean 'where that big one went off tonight',” said the soft voice. “A witch-party carting two boxes of 'drippy' dynamite caught a stray bullet in their cargo, it exploded, and now there's a big smoking hole in the ground.” Pause, then, “it's perfect for a manure-pit, by the way, and there's lots of witches handy to get it started on making good manure.”

“I hope there are no more of those things nearby,” I murmured. I meant 'sizable shells', as I could feel lots of witches – both live and dead examples, though the live ones tended to be badly injured.

“Not in town, though there are a few more over near Waldhuis,” said the soft voice. “They'll go when they're ready, and not until.” A pause, then, “and the one in town, as well as several others of a smaller nature that were nearby, were ready to go.”

“The others detonated...”

I ceased speaking, for now, I could see our house, and I shook soundlessly in horror. The white-painted stoop was now covered with blood, while our yard had more than a dozen black-clad bodies, these laying such that they nearly touched one another. Two more were floating in the watering trough, which meant watering the horses would be trouble at the least; while to the rear of the property, and indeed seemingly everywhere, I could smell more of them. I raised my hand, indicating we needed to stop or at least slow, and as I slid off of Jaak, the aura of stillness in town...

“No, the place is not still,” I muttered. “It was a war-zone here tonight, and there have to be a hundred or more dead and dying witches...”

Frantic scurrying across the road. I shouldered my rifle and as my hands found their places, I saw ringed in the scope a black-clad figure, haggard, worn...

Bang. He's dead and on the ground, now joining his fellows in bleeding stillness.

That ringing noise seemed to 'break' 'the spell of silence', as the echoing gunshot made for soft murmurings. One by one, people, these soot-stained and fully as grimy as if they'd been fighting a pitched battle – Rorke's Drift came to mind, for some reason – came to doorstep after doorstep, and more than one person heaved a dead or dying witch off of their stoop. I slung my rifle after putting it on safe, then began to slowly advance, 'Tosser' pistol in hand, toward the nearest witch.

“You'll need to clear a place for us,” said Sarah. “Where is Anna – did she..?”

“No, but she's now glad she took that pistol into the bathroom with her,” said the soft voice. “Georg is lying low, as he found one of Dennis' clubs and is waiting for more witches to try coming inside the house.”

“Georg,” I said softly. “It's us. We're not witches.”

“Thank God,” he muttered, this faintly. I could tell he was close by, though when he showed at the door, I dropped the witch I had been dragging and gawked at him.

“He looks like he's been fighting at the Alamo when Santa Anna was having his buglers play 'Cut Throats'! and they were shelling the place!” I thought. “Got blood all over him, he's all bandaged up, and I bet he's got more shot!”

“Two musket balls, also,” said the soft voice. “Anna's going to need good light tonight, as while her dream was worse than this reality, this situation demands good lighting.”

“Both alcohol lanterns, then,” I murmured. “Did anyone bring...”

“They did, and the stands for them,” said the soft voice. “While those will go back with those heading north tonight, you're going to want both of yours going indoors, as well as every catalytic lantern you can run and attend to.”

“I hope we can get a number of suitable lanterns while we're over there,” I muttered, at the thought of using lanterns that put out enough UV to erase certain memory devices and 'expose' circuit boards. “They don't do those, do they?” I meant 'circuit boards' as I had done years ago.

“Like you're thinking of, no, at least not currently they do,” said the soft voice. “Can they? Easily, and you can either go home with what you have in mind, or it will come here within a fairly short time after you get back.” A pause, then, “you won't have much use for them, at least at first.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Recall what semiconductors here are prone to doing, and how you have wished to have a number of 'softly glowing little night-lights' to reassure you that 'all is well' as you drift off to sleep to the sounds of music?” asked the soft voice. “Recall how you put those together, even that smallest one that used batteries?”

I nodded, mentally, even as steps from my left and rear began to converge upon the 'mess' in our front yard.

“There's enough witches here for a big coven,” said a man whose voice I had heard before our leaving the Abbey but did not recall just who he was beyond he was most likely marked – his toes, most likely, even if he did wear gloves.

I now knew why Sarah had 'driving gloves'; if one drove behind a team with any regularity at all, one wished them, as the usual for reins in this area tended to chew up the hands to no small degree – and if one drove much one needed such gloves as she had so as to not have blisters.

“Just some extra leather in the palm, dear,” I thought regarding gloves to make pistols manageable. “Soften them good with tallow and beeswax, make the fingers bare, so they can feel well, and then make the sleeves with this fold, so they have four or six grommets and some of that nice, uh, braided twine to lace them up – or maybe some of that thin rubber tubing from overseas, the yellow stuff that they can make up easily once those smelly blue-suited thugs aren't bothering them constantly.”

“Best not let Karl get some of that rubber, as it makes what he's using right now to be worthless for his slingshot,” said the soft voice.

“Good that I kept that stiff shot hidden,” I thought. “He'll wish it.”

“Actually, he'll most likely use pistol balls, of which he has a small number yet,” said the soft voice. “They work a bit better in what he has.”

This distraction was needed, as I, Sarah, and two others were now 'stacking' witches like cordwood in the yard of the house next door, as no one currently lived there and we needed all of the room in front of ours. These stinkers were heavy enough to wish four people carrying them if that needed doing, which spoke of them possibly having a species of metallic armor present. Dragging them soon seemed quicker, at least regarding myself. I could drag these people single-handedly, and another took my place in the carrying party.

“They'll want the room next door, also,” said the soft voice, “and the room laid aside to the north of the house, once they've cleared it of witches.”

“How many of those stinkers came here?” I asked, as I dragged another witch over to the next yard. I could tell there were others in town doing similar tasks; those houses that were abandoned were to have their yards paved with witches stacked two and three deep by the middle of the next morning, and I had a suspicion that...

No, not a suspicion. I dropped the witch's feet, then felt his 'nasty-feeling' trousers. I found my knife, slit one of his pockets, kicked that side, and a small commonplace-looking leather pouch came out to clink on the hard-packed clay and gravel of our yard. Sarah came up, touched it, then said, “for a witch, he had little, but I suspect most of these people do have some money.”

“Twenty to forty guilders as a rule, with many of them in and around town having fatter purses and some few with less,” said the soft voice. “I'd gather up what coin-purses you can, as you-all will need that money, either in very short order or...”

“Or for Andreas to clean up,” I muttered as a finish. “He's running low on silver right now, and his stock of gold is w-worse yet.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “He's still having his share of trouble getting needed supplies, and now he has a better idea as to why he's been having that trouble.”

“Did he..?”

“He got sooted up worse than Anna did, even if he's glad you worked that pistol over for him. He's cleaning it right now.”


“He was in town,” said the soft voice, “trying to get some spices for the cooks at the house proper, and the witches were 'breaking out' of their hiding places. He may have shot off all of his 'ready' ammunition, but at least he made most of his shots count.”

“M-most of his shots?” I asked silently.

“Two out of thirty were misses,” said the soft voice. “The other twenty-eight witches dropped on the spot, as he could tell these people were wearing pieces of plate from Norden under their outer clothing and he aimed for their heads instead of where most people tend to aim.”

“This is bad,” said Hans as a rejoinder to this otherwise silent conversation. He was on the stoop and shaking his head. There were now two teams of four carrying dead witches to stack them next door. “Now we will have trouble, as those people in the house who do windows are stinky enough for me to want to air out their smelly hides instead of asking them to fix this thing, and...”

“I don't think so,” said 'larger' Willem as he came up the stairs of the stoop to look at what had gotten Hans' attention. “There'd be pieces of the frame left, if this was a window like they do up here.” A pause, then, “if your window-makers hereabouts are witches, then I'd get the glass from down south and do it up yourself, or have one of those people from the Valley do your window.” Pause, then, “I've seen their work, and it's as good as you're likely to get, either up here or down where I usually live in the fourth kingdom.”

“And they could teach such people how to work, also,” said Sarah. “Here, help me drag this stinker. He must be wearing plate to weigh so much.”

“That and his purse, dear,” said the soft voice. “Be sure to get that, as it has more than just coins in it.”

“Stinking fetish, most likely,” I muttered as I walked closer. Dragging witches seemed to be catching on; I wasn't the only one doing it now. “An old-time money-medal, right?”

“No, not a fetish, even if that folded-up piece of paper is greasy enough to feel like one,” said the soft voice. “The reason he had so much money and 'picked' plate was he was to take that message to a location on the secret way about twenty miles distant from here, pay the 'station-master' the needed bribe, and then ride north on one of those handcars to the north-tip with his message – and more, he was one of those advance-people from the second kingdom.”

“A Schpee, then,” said Sarah, as she took out her knife and cut the man's trousers. The fist-sized money-bag, this as hard-packed and as round as a softball, hit the ground with a dull thud. Sarah reached for it, then short of touching it squeaked, “ooh, this one's as slimy as a half-burnt Shoet! I want tongs for it, it's so bad!”

“The strings, dear,” said the soft voice. “He just put new ones in, and he didn't have a chance to rub them with swine-fat.”

Hans was still on the stoop, now muttering about how much shot was embedded in the wooden portions of the place. He then saw an obvious bullet hole, then another two such holes – and then when he looked again at the window-region, he saw not merely soot-stains mingled with dripping-down blood at the bottom of the empty hole, but he let then out with a shout:

“Where is the window? It is gone!”

“I tried telling you that,” said Willem. “Now whoever was in there was shooting like they meant it, as I can see the powder smoke coming out of that hole there, and then that one man looked like he nearly got himself killed.”

I could hear plainly the last word as 'kilt', for some reason. “You'll be cleaning this place up for days, and that when you're not getting the carpenters in this town onto replacing your door.”

“What is...” Hans stumbled over to the door, then saw that it was hanging by one hinge of the three, and the wooden portions were literally shot to kindling in most places. “This thing is fit for the stove!”

“I know, Hans,” said Anna, as she came out onto the stoop. She had on more than bedclothes now, but between the bloodstains, tears in her clothing, the bruises, and the other obvious injuries that I could see, she looked like I had the night before. “First, I go to that place you warned me about, and got hairy and stinky like you did, and then I come back here, and I'm glad I ate grass in hell, as otherwise I think I'd be there for good after the fight we've had in town.”

“You'll wish to sweep the place for lead, then,” said Sarah, as she looked at the door. “This wood will want the lead dug out of it before you even think to burn it, as otherwise you will turn your stove into one fit for poisoning everything that goes in it or on it, and the same for those present near it.” A pause, then, “besides, burning wood with shot in it wastes much of such lead.”

“Oxidizing conditions,” I said. “You could put that wood in a cooking can, but I'm not sure I want to ruin those things I have, and putting more than a little wood at a time in them isn't a good idea...”

Hans left the stoop and now joined the rest of us in 'dragging witches'. Anna looked far too injured to do much outside, though when I glanced indoors, I soon knew why she hadn't bothered to go outside.

“It's as busted up in here as it is outside,” I muttered after carefully moving aside the door. I had a suspicion that I could 'fix' at least one hinge, though I was wondering about putting some eight-line plate on the back of the door after the new one was put up. I knew of at least one piece left over from Frankie's construction that was big enough to cover 'most' of the door – at least until I felt a definite 'wait'.

There were better things than that soft stuff, stuff that would stop hardened slugs instead of merely slowing them down. A lot of witch-weapons used hardened lead, I now realized; they didn't use common shot or balls, but special stuff, made by slaves – and accessible only to ranking witches, as a rule.

There'd been some of that material distributed among these people. I knew that much; much of the lead we would find would not merely be good shot and balls, but also more or less ready to cast into stiff shot after it was cleaned up somewhat with beeswax and tallow – if I went by the smells coming from near the manure-pile when Sarah was cleaning lead.

“No, it's worse than outside,” said Anna between coughs. She then spat a mess out into the yard, which was a first for her. “We must have had half the witches that showed in town try for us, and Georg did his part, as he ruined one of your clubs thumping witches and cracked another if I heard right, and that when he wasn't doing other things.”

“No pigs?”

“He wishes he had just thumped some pigs,” said Anna. “I've only seen one person load faster than he can, and that's you when you're of a mind to hurry.”

“I don't load that fast, dear,” I murmured.

Anna shook her head, then said, “I've seen you load, and there's your usual, which is not hurried – and then, I've seen you stuff those rotating pistols, and only Georg comes close to loading them as quickly as you've done once or twice in my presence.”

“The fifth kingdom house, Anna,” said Sarah. “Lukas told me about that. He can load 'most anything quickly if he has a need to do so.”

“And me, also, when I was getting shot out of him after they all came back,” said Anna. “Now I have shot, and balls, and I will need some of both of them pulled, most likely.”

“That, or have him pray for you,” said 'big Willem'. “If he does that, that stuff will come right out, if talk is true – even if you're not a horse.” A pause, then, as he turned toward someone else who was fishing a third witch out of our watering trough, “no, don't let the horses get into that one. That stuff's poison.”

“How did you know?” asked Anna. “Witches have these small creatures, and...”

“'Cause I've seen horses die after drinking such water as that,” said Willem, “that, and I've talked to this one woman who does doctoring down in the fourth kingdom, and she showed me those things witches have in them.”

“Round, shaped like bullets strung on a string, really moving around a lot, and then thrashing their whips like the tail of a firebug?” asked Anna.

“You must 'a seen 'em, then,” said big Willem. “That water will get rid of most of that blood on your stoop, and once that trough's been emptied twice with fresh, then we can use it for watering the horses.”

Hans ran into the house, and Anna turned to look at him. “He must be going for the buckets.”

“Best get more than just those,” said 'small' Willem. “Those people must have been coming for you like out of an old tale.” He looked inside, then spat, “and this mess is right out of an old tale! It's worse than the swine coming in here!”

He went inside, then as Hans came out with every pot Anna had, Willem came back out with the fragments of a broken laminated club. “Now who busted this one up?”

“That one was the one Georg broke once the witches started coming here,” said Anna, “and I'm going to get onto those people at the house about not cooking their clubs, as that one let go on him, and that's not a common club for Georg, but one that was said to be stronger.”

“You're right about glue, especially if it's the usual for around here,” said 'large' Willem. “Now if this was good stuff, I'm not sure it would help much.”

“It would,” said 'small' Willem. “I might not be a carpenter, but I've been told that one wants to bake such wood as if it were a trout, then while it is still hot, put on the varnish or drying oil or this wood-treatment Hans makes, and then cook that stuff in over a slow fire once it no longer smells.” A pause, then, “and then, your glue will do its best.”

“Where did you hear that?” asked Sarah. She was using a pot to carry water. “Esther?”

“Yes, her and someone who makes instruments for playing in this town to the west and north of where I live,” said 'small Willem'. “I hope Hans has buckets enough to finish emptying that watering trough quickly, as these horses are thirsty.”

“Two houses down,” I said. “That trough didn't get witches in it – that, and the one directly across the way and south a little. No witches in that trough, either.”

“That one will not hold water,” said Sarah.

“No, but its pump works,” said Hans, as he came out with two buckets. “These are the old ones. I am glad I had three new ones made recent, as now we need all five of those things.”

“N-new buckets?” I asked.

“Yes, we do not have three horses here, but five, so we need five buckets, plus two more for spares,” said Hans, “and that is for the horse-barn. I know now to get more of them yet, and I might want to go to the house proper, so as to have them quick, as they do not make them quick enough in town...”

“No, Hans, not wooden ones,” said Anna. “They'll get ruined with blood.”

“Yes, but such buckets are for cleaning and watering,” said Hans. “I have wondered about larger pots, only with handles on them like buckets, and those you can use for cleaning up people who are hurt.”

“Those you'll want several of,” said 'large' Willem. “I know that anyone who does much business with doctoring wants as many nested buckets as they can get, as when the witches show in that market down there, there's usually a lot of hurt people.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans, who seemed to be thinking more by the minute. “The only trouble is he is buried for work now, and he will be buried deeper later, and so...”

“I would worry about that later, Hans,” said Anna – who then wrung her hand in a most-familiar fashion. “I hope I did not break my hand.”

“W-why?” I asked. “How much did you sh-shoot?”

“I have no idea how Georg managed to load those two large pistols you brought back from the fifth kingdom,” said Anna, “but I managed to empty both of those guns, and when I did that, I'm glad the witches weren't coming so fast, as they seemed to not like those things much.”

“I think so,” spat Sarah. She was toting one of the smaller pots, but trying to make up for it by rapidly moving from the trough to the stoop. “I'm glad for that light, as at least I can see where to put water.”

Hans had now brought out a pair of scrub brushes and a mop, then Anna said, between coughs, “no, Hans. No lye. I doubt I can handle it right now.”

“What happened?” I asked. I meant the cough.

“I was shooting,” said Anna, “and I had taken the window out, like I do now and then so as to clean it, and a witch came in when I had passed the fowling piece to Georg and he'd handed me one of these muskets some guards dropped off. I was about to aim when a witch came in through the window, and he hit me before I shot him.”

“Hit you?” I asked.

“Yes, with a club,” said Anna. “At least I am not coughing blood, even if it hurts to breathe.”

“I would not be certain of that,” said Sarah. “I suspect you'll need to be prayed for.”

I didn't suspect; I knew. Anna had been hurt badly enough that she'd die if she wasn't prayed for now, and I went over to her, praying silently all the while. I put my hands on her side, then prayed as hard as I could – and came to myself near the other end of the stoop, this in a crumpled heap. My eyes opened, and to my astonishment, I recognized the yellow-haloed face glaring down upon me.

“I'm s-sorry if I h-hurt you,” I said.

“Don't be,” said Anna. “You needed to do what you did when you did it, as Sarah was right, and I coughed up some blood afterward.” A pause, then as Anna looked at her arm, “I think my arm was broken and I was too hurt to know it.”

“I could tell you were hurt,” said big Willem, “and I could tell you needed prayer if you were going to live much over a week.”

“No,” said Sarah. “Not a week. Hours.” A pause, then, “you dumped nearly a pound of lead that I could see, and I know there's more of that stuff than what I saw come out of you.”

As if she'd planned it, Anna simply nodded. “So I was told when I awoke and was coughing up that clotted blood and those whitish bits.” A pause, then, “what were those things? They were not bone, as I've seen enough of that stuff to know what it looks like.”

“Poison,” said Hans. “That witch had no common club, but one of those spiked ones some of them liked to use in old tales, and I found part of it in the house there, next to the couch.” A pause, then, “and I have to mend that thing, too, as I put some lead in it while you were gone earlier today.”

While the others continued to 'wash down' the stoop and 'scrub out' the watering trough, I made a careful check of the property. The area just to our north had been also 'paved' with witches, much as if they had gone there after catching Anna's lead or Georg's blows, though for some reason, I thought to turn one of them over with my foot and found he'd been sliced open as neatly as if I'd used my sword on him. A second example, this some distance away and laying face-down in a pool of blood, had had his throat 'poked' with a knife; while two more witches had been stabbed in the chest, this with a dagger of unusually broad blade.

“Almost looks like a cook's knife,” I murmured, as I continued on, leaving witches that were dead behind me and wondering if I would find live examples that would try for me, rifle at the ready, safety off, finger beside the trigger guard.

I didn't have to wait long: one witch moved, and I fired from the hip, blasting his head apart and ripping the night asunder with the report and muzzle flash. I could hear someone yelling, then suddenly Anna came to the stoop. Some rattling noises had followed her; she was still shedding shot and perhaps balls. The stuff was coming out with a vengeance, or so it sounded to me.

“What was that? A squib?” she asked.

“No, dear,” I said. “You might want to take it easy for a while, as you were hurt badly, and you're not completely well.”

“She's doing a lot better than she looks to be,” said the soft voice. “Mostly she now looks like she just got into a fight, instead of being 'dead and not knowing it' – and she is shedding her remaining shot rapidly. The big stuff – it left right away when she was prayed for, and it needed to.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. I wondered about something, as faintly, over the sounds of silence, I could hear something flapping my way. I looked up – and was nearly clouted in the head by a smaller-than-usual quoll as it 'ripped' over my head like a wayward round-shot.

“Don't know if it's day or night?”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “That species of bird has to learn when to be awake and when to sleep, and during their first-fledged stage, they haven't yet learned the appropriate times for sleeping – so they fly around at all hours of the day and night.”

“That one...?”

“Was about two weeks out of the nest,” said the soft voice. “There are some a bit older in the area, and you might encounter those.”

“Those?” I asked.

As if to answer, I heard a deafening chorus of quolls, only these birds were not merely higher-pitched, but louder than was the usual for such birds.

“That, or they're really close and I cannot see them,” I murmured, as I snap-shot at a witch who had suddenly gotten up and began running. He was quartering away, running 'cross-lots' and trampling the knee-high plants as he headed north while holding his guts with both hands – and his cry, thin and feeble, as he suddenly tumbled to lie still spoke of him not likely rising again in this world.

“He's dead,” said the soft voice flatly. “You just destroyed most of his chest.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Recall all of those 'dumb' rules they had about how to carry on war where you came from?” asked the soft voice. “They never had such rules here.” The unsaid portion, I had already heard: the ammunition these rifles used was intended to kill efficiently above everything else – and if it caused suffering in those who were merely 'wounded' and demoralization of those nearby due to sheer 'butchery', then so much the better. The only comment possible on that score was obvious to me.

“Woe to the vanquished,” I muttered, “Vae Victis. That's the only rule in force now.”

“With witches, there never has been any rule but that one,” said the soft voice, “and that is so no matter where they are located or when they happened to be alive.”

I completed my circuit of the north side of the property – for some reason, while it had been plowed, it had been left unsown – and now turned south, initially some fifteen feet away from the rear wall of where we lived. The area to my left had its share of bodies, but while glancing at the wall, I counted nearly a dozen witches either hung over it, or slumped down on its back side – and after going perhaps fifty to a hundred yards past our boundaries to the south, I turned back, now watching to my right for movement. Twice more, I saw running shapes, and I dropped the black-dressed forms centered in the glaring ovoids I saw in the 'scope.

I paused at the fold, and here, I had to sling my rifle, for there was a witch lying in it as if to plug the gap. I tossed him out into the darkness, then once inside our walls, I was stunned for an instant.

“The b-bathroom d-door,” I gasped. “It's f-full of holes!”

“That one is merely 'a bit drafty',” said the soft voice. “The front door will need either some quick repairs, or hanging a sheet over the doorway once it has been removed, as most of the witches concentrated upon the front of the place as they ran down the street.”

“In back?” I asked.

“They had their orders,” said the soft voice. “Those big-timers sent a lot of their more-ragged brethren as a diversion, thinking that if they kept you busy here you'd not be able to cause them trouble.” A pause, then, “of course, your dealing with their two spies in the camp this morning didn't help them much.” Pause, then, “recall those two who came in dressed in Maarten and Gabriel's clothing – they were those individuals, and both had concealed blades and a pair of those 'court-jester' revolvers.”

“Sent?” I asked.

“Journey-money is a potent inducement when you don't have a guilder to your name and you must leave the area,” said the soft voice, “and given that most of these people received 'guidance' in the form of cursing as well as their purses, they pretty much knew 'get Roos' and not much else.”

As I tossed out witch after witch, I made sure to slit the purse-pocket, then kick the witch until the purse fell out; and in most cases, the clinking sound told me that these people usually had more than the twenty to forty guilders mentioned.

“Those were the people moving north and west, but avoiding this town,” said the soft voice. “At least, they thought they were staying clear until they came to the road and began running up the street.”

“And..?” I asked silently, as I heaved another witch over the wall. I had to stop for a moment to breathe, and I suspected I needed not merely a new 'canister', but also, a new cylinder of oxygen.

“No, you actually have about another hour or two before you'll need servicing,” said the soft voice. “It is as you thought – this equipment was not intended for people doing heavy work, and that goes double for those like you.” A pause, then, “they know about such matters overseas, thankfully.”

“They do?” I asked.

“Yes, and have for a very long time,” said the soft voice. “Now, rest for a moment, then whenever you toss a witch, rest for a short time, at least until your breathing is a bit more normal as to tempo.”

I then noted a sudden flaring of light indoors, then as that light was turned down to a pleasant brightness, another joined it in first a soft glow progressing to a brilliant whiteness, then being turned down so it did not cause 'burnt eyes'. That term, or one like it, was used overseas. It made me wonder just why those lanterns were sold as they were, and I wondered more about large diffusers and frosted glass.

“Good, they've gotten the lanterns going,” I said. “Now can we do some cleaning before those people want to unload, or..?”

“Sarah's insisting on it, and 'large Willem' is doing likewise,” said the soft voice. “Both of those people know how hard it will be to clean the place up once it's 'jammed to the ceiling like a fifth kingdom Alley', those being Sarah's precise words.”

“And Anna?”

“Is now attending to Katje,” said the soft voice. “I'd wait a short while to go inside, as there is a line for the privy now that people are noticing just how full their underclothing is – and Sarah's currently inside it cleaning herself up.”

“Anna?” I asked. I wondered if she was in that line.

“No, as she hasn't had anything to eat since eating grass in hell,” said the soft voice. “More, the food that is due to arrive was delayed, as while this house got more attention than any other portion of town from witches, the Public House ran a fairly close second, and now every one of those who works there wishes to have their muskets and pistols 'gone through'.”

“Oh, no,” I squeaked. I could just see the slates having nothing on them beyond the two words.

“They will have more than two words, believe me,” said the soft voice. “Anna was telling Georg, at least before things became 'hot' in town, that he needed to not make your job harder than it already is.”

“Not just the shop,” I murmured, as I tossed another witch. I now knew the secret: one could work 'hard' in this clothing, but if one did, one needed a lot of chances to rest between stints.

“She told him about what she's learned regarding that pendant,” said the soft voice, “and only a few things have spooked Georg worse in his entire life.”

“H-how?” I asked.

“She showed him that one old tale, and had him read it while she was cleaning out his wounds, those of them she could at the time,” said the soft voice. “You don't have to tell her about that one 'medicine', as she's tossed it into the stove.”

“Is that why her hair seemed shorter?” I asked. “Stuff told her in no uncertain terms that it was a witch-drug intended as a poison, and not as medicine?”

“She knows that now,” said the soft voice. “At the time, she merely knew it to be worthless save as a source of heat when ignited, and she needed to get plenty of hot water going quickly so as to clean up Georg – so she tossed all of it she could find into the stove once she'd added some more wood.” A pause, then, “you can guess what it did then, given your experience with distillate that one time.”

“Hans got rid of his part, I take it?”

“Yes, and in a most-efficient fashion,” said the soft voice. “He knew there was at least one house in the area that was likely to have witches visit it, and since he has seen the markings of pointed boots near several watering troughs – those where people don't live any more – he found the one which was getting the most use that way and put his entire supply of the materials to make that 'drug' inside the pump.” Pause, then, “he put the dried herbs in a bag first, then 'stuffed' it inside the pump's nozzle so the water would be impeded but slightly as it flowed through the contents of that bag.”

“So now that water will cause them trouble, at least for a while,” I murmured.

“Kill them is more likely,” said the soft voice. “If one is otherwise healthy, it makes one a good deal less so, but if one is a witch who isn't sold-out-to-Brimstone serious, it's an slow yet certain killer.”

“Witches drinking out of horse-troughs?” I asked.

“They do not have to go inside those houses to just get a drink, and they figured that the horses that 'normally' go to such locations will trample their footprints into the ground,” said the soft voice. “That, and the black book speaks of where one must get water, and 'if ye commons drinketh from such a source, it be not fit for ye'.”

“Stinking black book,” I muttered. There was but one witch left that I could see, though I suspected there might be a holdout or two in the horse-barn – and if there were such people, I would need especial care in 'rooting them out'.

That place was built to stand up to gunfire more than passably, as Jochen, while crude, rude, filthy, and foul-smelling, did know his stones and mortar.

“Yes, if they were still alive,” said the soft voice. “Georg got to them good.”

“Good?” I asked.

“Ask Anna when she wishes to have her knives sharpened,” said the soft voice, “if she does not tell you how they became dull sooner.”

“Did he slice on them?”

“He killed more of them than she did,” said the soft voice. “Over half of the witches on the north and in the rear were 'sliced on', as you put it, and all of the ones you've found thus far in the rear of the property were 'sliced' or 'poked'.”

“The others?” I asked.

“How do you think he ruined two of your clubs?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “He was banging on those people so fast they they were flying out of the house.”

“Out of the house?” I asked. “Did they try a 'squeeze play'?” I wasn't sure of the precise 'military' term in this language, even if I knew what what the idea was: with multiple exits, one put pressure on all of them so as to deal with one's enemy upon two or more fronts. That kept him or them 'busy' enough that hopefully, one could eventually get at the defender or defenders in an unguarded moment and kill him or them.

“More or less,” said the soft voice. “They did have instructions on the matter, such that while one group was to try for the front, the other was to try for the rear of the place, and between them being well-indoctrinated witches and having curses put upon them, they did precisely as instructed.”

“Imprecise instructions?” I asked, as I went into the horse-barn. The reek of death inside this place was well-beyond profound, and I was glad for retaining the 'battery torch'. One look, and I knew the place needed to have all of its straw removed to the manure-pile, as most of it was bloody – when it wasn't packed down by the corpses of witches.

“They must have thought this a secure haven from Georg,” I muttered – at least, until I found one of Anna's knives buried to the hilt in one of the witches' upper back. I removed it with a jerk, and noted its dullness. Its edge was dull enough that I would need coarse stones initially – and with these knives, that meant hitting bone or 'hard' materials repeatedly. I wondered about copies made of crucible steel – at least for the most-used knives. I then had a question: “did he toss this one?”

“Yes,” said the soft voice. “He was being 'double teamed', and that witch lasted just long enough to get into the horse-barn.”

“None of his 'friends'...”

I ceased speaking, as now I knew for certain not one of these people would have helped each other regarding such wounds. That cursing, complete with that long-ago rubbish writ large in that black book, would make all of them regard the injured as 'Disgraced' and 'the meat of Brimstone' – and hence would tend to either curse those who were injured, or sacrifice them rather than help them.

“Close enough, even if those witches cursing these people weren't strong enough to do more than 'harden' what these witches knew already from that book and 'direct' their slim knowledge to a modest degree – as in 'get Roos' was about as 'specific' as those witches uttering the curses were able to manage.”

“And now I must get these stinkers out of the horse-barn,” I murmured. “I hope I can remove the hay easily.” We did not have either 'commonplace' hay or a hay-fork; instead, our hay came from Willem, the stuff was chopped coarser than his usual 'animal-feed grade', and in both cases, one wished a flat-bottom shovel to remove it. While we now had such a shovel – it was a recent find, and looked to be second-hand – it also looked to have been badly repaired in a number of places, and this made for a heavy and frustrating tool to use.

By the time I'd tossed the witches over the wall and removed the bloodied hay from the horse-barn, I was feeling a distinct need for 'attention' upon my equipment; and if I went by the sounds coming from indoors, I could tell a full-scale 'cleaning session' was in progress. I could hear but little speech coming from inside, and the sounds of much labor; and when I went around front, I noted that not merely were there people still bailing out the horse-trough – someone had been pumping water into it steadily, as I could no longer smell blood in the water – but that a lot of people were scrubbing the floor and walls indoors. I finally went inside, and as I came to look closer at the door and its frame, I shook my head.

“I know,” said Sarah. She was working on the wall near the window, which still looked 'messy' with bloodstains and the gray of burnt powder. “Best just take that thing down and leave it on the stoop and put up a blanket in the doorway, as it will take the carpenters here days to make a new one that will be worth filling that hole.”

“Are there other doors in town that are damaged?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” said Hans. He was working on the other side of the window-frame, which was equally a mixture of red-going-to-brown mingled with soot-gray. “Anna is wondering about some of these things that are waiting outside, but we need to clean the place up, and she needs to clean up Katje better before we can do much further.” A pause, then, “though there is one good thing about all of that shooting.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Georg as he came from the privy. Someone else had been waiting, as the door banged open and then shut itself. “The lead?”

“There is a lot of that stuff,” said Karl. “There is a lot of kindling, too, and then all of it has blood on it.”

The reek of powder smoke, and indeed, the overall sooty aspect of the parlor was but amplified by the mess of bloodstains and soot that had been made upon various portions of the walls and in splashes upon the otherwise filthy floor; and with everyone save myself, Anna, and Katje scrubbing on either the walls or the floor, I wondered just what I could do. I found a woman's 'dress' laying on the table, and as I went over it, I was astonished at both its damaged aspect – rips, tears, multiple bullet-holes of varied sizes, including what looked like the holes made by 'large' shot; and then, what looked like a long gash made by a sword or some other blade of size – and then finally, the quantity of yet-remaining bloodstains. I could smell the soap that had been used, so it had been 'washed', at least enough to prevent the blood from 'taking a set', as was said in the local vernacular. I laid the retrieved knife-blade on the table next to it, and now saw the blood-caked handle. It had seen much use, yet still, my eyes were chiefly upon the dress itself.

“How many holes are there in this thing?” I asked softly; then this unspoken, “is this thing repairable?”

“Enough that the hall was a stupid joke compared to tonight,” said Anna from behind me. I had barely heard her. “I need to change her things out, and I'll bet yours needs the same thing done, and I have but little idea as to how to do any of that work. Do you?”

I was about to speak when Sarah cut loose with a screech, then said, “your knives, Anna! They've been battered up horribly, and one of them is g-gone! Did you poke someone?”

“No, not with those,” said Anna, as she picked up the 'messy' knife to put it back with the others. They all needed a similar cleaning, and then, most likely, a thorough sharpening. “Georg might not have found those knives Dennis was working on, but that is because they're all downstairs where Hans was using a spokeshave so as to get their wooden parts close using those brass gage things and these special screws he found near them in the workbench.”

“What?” I squeaked. “He was using a s-spokeshave? How? Special screws?” The latter I had just made for fitting these knives; the ones for swords were a bit larger in certain dimensions, and those for common-sized knives were different yet, depending upon the handle-contours. Some wished a more substantial handle than others, which is why I now asked about the handle wanted and the size of the person's hands – as in smaller hands wished a slimmer handle.

“I suspect he had a lesson from one of the carpenters earlier today, and those screws like he was using, I've seen you use for swords in here,” said Anna – who then looked at her arm. Almost as I watched, I could see a number of bruises slowly fade away. “Sooty walls, sooty floor, kindling everywhere, and now the rats have started.” A pause, then, as if Anna was about to put up her hands to her face and cry, I heard faintly a most-familiar and obnoxious noise.

“The very noise I do most wish to hear,” said Anna ironically. “At least I am still alive to hear it.”

“The Public House?” I asked. I was wondering about 'herring', to be exact.

“Will be at least another hour, if the mess spoken of is as bad as I was told, and we'll wish some food before we do much more, either cleaning or unloading, or much of anything...”

I turned away from Anna, unslinging my rifle after putting it on safe, then laid down my possible bag. The kitchen table, knife-scarred – some witches had come in the back way with their knives at the ready, but they were no match for Georg – shot-ripped, spattered with blood still, was still more or less intact; I suspected it could be readily repaired to 'decent' status. I turned to see the couch having bloodstains being scrubbed off of it; those doing so were using 'laundry soap' and bristle brushes of a type I had not seen used here before, while two people – both of them named Willem – were scrubbing the floor of blood, both using buckets, both making decent progress, again with more of those bristle brushes. Thankfully the odor of lye was quite muted. Anna supplied an answer as to why.

“I added a small amount of that number one purified lye to that laundry soap,” said Anna, “and I still nearly spewed from its stink. How hard are those to wear?”

All this while, Sarah had brought up first a 'fresh' oxygen bottle, then an absorbent canister, and I then divested myself of cloak and much else. When I laid down the submachine gun, however, Anna looked at it with an apparently consuming interest. She was not the same woman she once was; that was obvious to me now.

“This is a good size for ready carry,” she said, “and the bore looks to be a trifle smaller than a rotating pistol.” A pause, then, “how is it to fire?”

“One or a time, or rapidly?” asked Maarten. He was scooping up another spoonful of swept-to-the wall shot mingled with mashed-up musket balls so as to clean the lead expended upon us. If I went by what was currently in that bucket, we'd gotten a fair amount. “If one is being swarmed with witches, and they are close, then there is a setting, that, while it is noisy enough to wish a privy to be handy for afterward, is also quite deadly.”

“I endured enough gunfire and other noises tonight that I am interested in helping Sarah make up this new tincture, and perhaps trying a small dose. She said she might try it also, but there is not much of a might for me.”

I just then noted Sarah's furtive darting into the bathroom, there to unload a pile of dirty clothing. “There. I'm done. Now I can show you how to do this.”

Anna asked a great many questions while I was serviced with Sarah's help, and once serviced, I took my bath, still while breathing from the respirator; and once dried off and in new bed-clothing, I got back into the suite, complete with goggles and a yellow-tinted insert. I now really noticed the visual distortion; it was worse than I thought it was, though it was present in very subtle ways given decent lighting. Darkness, however – that made the distorted aspect worse, so much so that I marveled at what I had done earlier in regards to shooting.

“We can do Katje shortly,” said Sarah. “Now, you wish lessons on that weapon. I might have some idea as to how it works, and I suspect between us two, we can teach you.” Sarah then said, fetching a tin of cartridges and an empty magazine, “first you must put some of these cartridges in this magazine.”

“Like this, dear,” I said to Anna, as I took up the magazine. “The squared-off end of the cartridge – this flat end with the groove next to it – goes toward the squared-off end of the magazine opening, and the rounded, er, pointed end goes toward the more-open part – like this.”

I inserted several cartridges with Anna watching, then gave the magazine to Anna.

With trembling hands, Anna inserted one cartridge, then another. The strong spring of the magazine seemed to be fighting against her, so much so that with an added three rounds, she asked, “this is hard. Is there any way to make it easier?”

“Practice, I think,” said Sarah. “I've only done it a few times, though those were rifle cartridges and not these things.”

“How are those different?” asked Anna. She needed to pay attention to what she was doing; and while she was doing that, the aspect of unfamiliarity, coupled with a moderately strong spring, made me wonder – was the magazine defective? Did these things need 'loading tools' to load readily? Was this magazine needing a bath in 'smelly' distillate and then dismantling for a thorough cleaning?

“They are longer, so it is a little more obvious as to which end goes in this sort of thing first,” said Sarah. “See here, how there's this rim on that one there – that always goes toward the back of the box.”

As a question, though, as I continued guiding Anna through the initially frustrated possibility of loading a thirty-two round magazine, I asked, “who didn't need to clean themselves in the privy?”

“You, mostly,” said Anna, “though your underclothing always has some mess in it because you're sick.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “Now Anna has good reason for wishing a short musket, and that one there is as likely a thing as I have seen for such guns.”

“It works very well for the usual uses of such guns, also,” said Sarah. “Hans, you come here and watch.” A pause, then, “these will work well for rats...”

“They do not take shot,” said Hans. “That fowling piece does, and I put some of those things in the manure-pile with it earlier today.”

“We have some fowling pieces,” said Sarah, “including a pair that are very likely for rats, but I think Anna will wish to try either these things or some pistols first.”

I might want a fowling piece for those things, then,” said Hans – who the pointed at a place on the weapon's receiver. “Now, what does this here do?”

“That controls the weapon's firing,” said Sarah. “There is S, which stands for 'Secured'. That means the weapon is safe to handle, much like the half-cock notch is in a good musket. Then, there is 'F', which means to fire. On that setting, the weapon will fire as rapidly as you can pull the trigger until its ammunition is expended. Then, there is 'R', which causes the weapon to repeatedly fire until you either let up on the trigger, or your ammunition runs out, or...”

“You fill your underclothing,” said Maarten wryly. “Had I more time, I could have just shot the three of them and put one hole in them apiece, not several holes each.” A pause, then, “I would have filled my trousers regardless, as those witches were coming for me, and all three of them were about to shoot.”

Anna had continued her slow stuffing of the magazine, this with a slow-growing increase of skill. I could tell she'd need to practice stuffing this type of magazine nearly as much as she did with knitting. I could hear something about to happen, so much so that when the deafening “QUOOOL” caused me to shake soundlessly, Anna muttered “those things must be fresh ones, as they make that noise all of the clock's hours when they're just out of the nest.”

“Do you wish to do something about that noise?” I asked quietly, as I removed a full magazine for the weapon from my vest.

Anna looked at me, then asked, “with this?”

“Yes, Anna, you can,” said Sarah. “Remember – set it to 'F', line up the small pin here” – here, Sarah pointed at the places on the sights as she spoke of them – “in the rear notch, center the bird's head, and go from one to the next as fast as you can pull the trigger.” Pause. “Fresh quolls usually take a bit of time to understand they're about to become meals.”

Anna took up the weapon, and as I showed her carefully, she inserted her just-loaded magazine into the magazine well. It went in with a satisfying yet muted click, and as I guided her to the door, there to notice more bloodstains and several blots of soot, I shook my head.

“That was mostly Georg's doing,” she said. “He may have tried every gun we had in the place, but more than once, I had to grab whatever he was trying when it wouldn't fire for him, and shoot that particular witch.”

“Nothing would fire for him?” I asked. “Nothing?”

“I told him to stick to clubs or knives after he'd tried everything we had at least once,” said Anna, “and I put every knife I had in the kitchen near to where he could get at them.” A pause, then, “I borrowed one of yours that Hans was working on, and I now know they work.”

“You k-know?” I asked.

“I poked several witches with one of those things, and it stayed sharp until they were done,” said Anna. “Now, I'll get ready with this thing, and one of you open the door.” A pause, then as Anna pulled the charging handle and let it go, “I hope...”

“QUOOOL!” screeched the birds. There must have been hundreds of them in the rear of the place. Anna shook her head, then as the three of us went out into the bathroom, I noted the lead-streaked walls of the place and the still-blatant reek of blood. The walls were clean otherwise, thankfully; someone had been working hard in here, first at keeping witches out of the place, and then at cleaning the place up. The odor of soap and lye was a potent reminder of the latter, and I suspected further bathing would help matters.

“I'm glad these walls clean readily,” said Sarah. “Now, if you have a pistol handy, in case she should miss, I will open this door.”

“Thing looks like a bad cheese,” muttered Anna, as she shouldered the machine pistol with its stock extended and adjusted to fit. I had that one Tosser pistol handy in one of my vest pockets, in case she should miss one of these infernally noisy birds. “I'm ready, I think.”

Hearing Anna's emphasis on the word 'think' made for wondering, both at just how much she'd changed – I'd underestimated the depth and breadth of that change, and that greatly – but also, her definite aspect of uncertainty. She was firing a weapon 'out of an old tale', and now, I was hoping it would turn the quolls outside into meat fit for 'soup' or whatever one fed invalids with a severe case of the crae.

Sarah opened the door. The moon had risen, and the tree, while not filled with those infernally loud birds, had no less than seven of them perched upon it. Anna began firing, and I brought out my pistol.

I then found myself wearing hot smoking shell-casings in vast and growing profusion, as Anna was seeking to empty the magazine! More, she was firing single shots – and the birds?

They were dropping like hot bricks, their wings fluttering, and headless bodies spouting blood.

Anna ceased firing as the last bird fell. The silence was sudden and loud. She gasped, “what did I do?”

“Dinner,” said Sarah, then to me, “come out and help me fetch those things, before...”

I went back inside, grabbed my rifle, then leaped out of the door ahead of Sarah. Anna's firing had started a fresh party of witches, and as I went to the wall, I could hear the women frantically gathering up the birds to my rear. I began firing, and as I dropped witch after witch, I could tell I was getting someone's attention, and this someone was preparing to supply assistance.

I then noticed I had company – Sarah – and she then joined in with her rifle. The fields behind the house were absolutely swarming with witches, so much so that when someone else joined the firing line, I heard someone yell, “the place is stinky with witches! Get that one thing out here, now!”

I took little notice of this matter; I was too busy shooting. Center the post; fire; on to the next one as the man I had hit dropped. Center the post; fire; on to the next one. Dry magazine: remove the empty one, put in a new one, hit the bolt release, resume firing.

Someone then came beside me, and tapped my shoulder. It was Karl, and he'd brought a machine gun – the one I had used earlier. I handed him my rifle, then took the gun, took it off safe, and fired a short burst from the remnants of the first belt.

The entire field erupted witches when that too-familiar rhythm stuttered forth amid brilliant 'lightnings' and a pair of red flaring 'rays of light': every witch now living in the first kingdom seemed to be migrating across the cornfields to our east in vast swarming lines, and when I ripped off bursts – these short, three to five rounds – the wiggling paths of the occasional tracers seemed to indicate some odd behavior regarding what I was shooting.

The witches didn't think it odd, though – they tended to drop and not get back up again, and with each such round, the usual was that more than one witch 'got the message' and dropped on the spot.

Now and then, I needed to aim 'up' somewhat, as the entire rear area was swarming with these stinkers as far as my eyes could see them in the darkness; and when I came to the end of my belt and the gun 'spat' it out of the left side, Karl was ready with a fresh one. He seemed to have been reading the manual, as not only did we put in a fresh belt; he also 'retracted' the hot barrel by twisting the carrying handle and removed it by that handle, then he gave me a 'fresh' barrel. I could hear the sizzle as he poured a thin stream of what smelled like aquavit down the just-removed barrel as I was sliding mine in.

“Careful that you do not set yourself alight,” I heard Hans say. He had taken a break from his shooting. “Now that thing there is trouble.”

“For the witches, it is,” said Karl.

“It is that, and it has put Anna in the privy again,” said Hans. “I have no more dung to me, so I cannot fill my underclothing, even if my tripes are inclined that way.”

“It has not,” spat Anna. She was on the wall, and shooting one of the rifles – and apparently was putting down witches steadily. “I had to get one of these things you-all have, as what I shot those birds with won't reach far enough. Sarah told me that much when I first came out here.”

I cut loose with a burst, and again, my hands found that strange stuttering rhythm, each burst one of two 'triplets' and a single shot on the end. I could tell, this beyond all knowing, that that particular rhythm, when one was shooting at witches, worked especially well.

“They think these things are fetishes, 'cause that black book says they are...”

“Not when they hear one of those guns playing that tune,” said the soft voice. “That means only one thing, if you're a witch: not only is the person shooting at you marked beyond the trivial, which means they're unlikely to miss you if they can see or feel your presence, but also, that person has been in an altered time and space regime – and hence, he or she has truly 'gotten the message' regarding just where witches need to go.”

“What?” I gasped, as I laid down another short burst – two 'triplets' and a single shot, all in that eerily lethal rhythm that mowed down groups of witches while conserving ammunition. “These bullets don't seem to be missing much, but there are so many of these stinking witches...”

I wanted to tell them all to sup with Brimstone, but I could feel a distinct 'wait', followed by 'you-all need the manure, and you're getting a lot of it right how'.

“We'll be exporting manure at this rate,” I spluttered, as I fired another burst at a distant 'clot' of witches, these people seeming to have a small mob of bodyguards. The target was too tempting to pass up.

This time, however, as the first witches began to stumble and fall, a massive billow of white-red fire erupted in their midst, and as bits and pieces of witches flew in crazy flaming arcs and a larger number were flung bodily to land some distance away to then tumble and roll, I watched in shock as the outcome of the detonation finally ended. There was a smoking place some half mile distant, and it was surrounded by the bodies of immobile or feebly thrashing witches. Someone had a comment regarding what I had just done, however, even if I went back to sweeping the battlefield 'clear' with short bursts.

“You got onto their dynamite,” yelled Karl – who was firing his own weapon and hitting witches with some frequency, or so I thought until I heard him speaking 'center, center' before firing.

“Aim up, son,” said a voice that I recognized as 'fourth kingdom Willem. “Them witches is a far distance, even for these things – though he seems to be getting onto them good just the same.”

“The whole stinking back area is rotten with witches,” I spluttered with indignation as I dropped another group of these evil-reeking fiends. “You foul-smelling stinkers, jump up and down and then fall down dead!”

To my astonishment, every still-standing witch leaped into the air, all the while thrashing as if in the grip of an epic convulsion, and then fell to the ground, there to thrash insanely for what seemed several minutes before becoming 'still' in death.

Everywhere I looked, the same scene played out, this as far as I could see within the confines of my laid-aside rifle's scope. I had handed the machine gun to Karl, and he was 'unloading' it – or at least, when I finally checked his progress, he was trying to unload it and not having much luck.

“Here,” I said, as I lifted up the feed-tray cover. It had a well-concealed latch, this to avoid snagging it on brush or other things. “I'll obviously need to teach you the day after tomorrow on these guns, and maybe spend some time coaching you on shooting them.” I then thought, “yes, and what do I know about them? Two instances of firing one gun, and...”

“And you did a better-than-average job with no teaching on the matter,” said the soft voice. “Note that when I said, 'better than average job', I did not compare you with those usually on these guns during that war.” Pause, then, “I meant 'better than average job compared to those marked during that time.”

“Did those witches..?”

“A small handful survived, those being new-minted 'expendables' that had crossed before Anna shot at those quolls and 'started' things,” said the soft voice, “and those witches who speak with them in the future will know that their worst nightmares, those writ large in the black book, have indeed come to pass – as you just played the signature tune that is associated with 'the return of the monster.”

“And now there are some birds that need plucking,” I murmured, “and guns that need cleaning, and a house that needs yet more cleaning, and...”

“You'll get help on that score shortly,” said the soft voice. “You woke up the whole town with your shooting, and you just saved the Public House from being overrun.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Another witch-party was laying siege to the Public House, as the first wave failed to 'get' Roos,” said the soft voice. “This was the second wave of that last party of witches in the kingdom house.”

“But I thought that one group I shot with that rocket..?”

“They put out the money,” said the soft voice, “and these people put out the curses, so between them, they thought to kill you, or at least 'keep you busy' enough that they could escape.”

“They have been doing that,” said Sarah. “Now I think you might wish to clean guns, and show Karl and Sepp while you are doing so, as Anna will need help with the birds, and...”

“No, let him help with those birds,” said the soft voice. “He needs to help clean them, and those weapons can wait for a short time.” Pause, then, “besides, happiness is not a warm gun when you're fixing to clean it properly.”

“Ooh, burnt fingers!” I screeched.

“Precisely, which is why you'll wish some 'hot-gloves' when you talk to the right people overseas,” said the soft voice. “They became standard issue to most gun-teams once the war started in earnest.”

“Sound like a good idea for kitchen use,” I murmured.

“They will be,” said the soft voice. “They're a bit too scarce now to be used in that fashion.”

I could tell that now I needed to give my attention to the birds, and as I began to help the two women strip out the feathers from the plump carcases of these 'oversized quail', I marveled at the number of guns leaned against the walls of the kitchen as the others went back to their former 'duties'. I soon learned another matter, however, when I needed to take a break from removing feathers from the birds:

“Where did the door go?” I asked, as I looked toward the parlor's front. The area around the door was finally becoming clean, courtesy of Paul's labor. Apparently Esther's capacity at cleaning had rubbed off on him to a modest degree.

“Your shooting that gun woke up the entire town,” said the soft voice, “and the carpenters, or at least two of them, came here to see what was happening.” Pause, then, “they removed the door, complete with all three of its damaged hinges, and took the needed measurements for a new one.”

“A new door?” I asked. I wondered about the hinges: would I need to make new ones?

“Better get back to those birds,” said the soft voice. “You might not have much further need to eat such food, but you will need to teach others how to prepare these all-too-common birds for meals.”

“Including 'quoll-and-potato soup',” I murmured.

“Yes?” asked Anna in a tone of near-wonder. “Is this a s-special recipe? One that I need to know about – as in it works well for invalids or people who are s-sick with the crae?”

I gulped, surprised that it did not make an audible noise, then squeaked, “I think so. Now the feathers...”

“You'll need to save some of these, but not so much for pens,” said Anna. “The house has a sack full of Buzzard-quills, and those make these things look to be worthless – at least if one must use a quill for writing.” A pause, then, “there are better things to be had shortly, but until then, I'll use a buzzard-quill and some of that ink that Sarah makes, and I will need to get what practice I can get, as my penmanship smells worse than a dead witch.”

“What?” I gasped.

“It does,” said Anna. “It is not getting better, but still, I need to try to do what I can, as some people need written instructions, and I need to be able to write them, and do so in a clear fashion.”

“Then why do we need to save these f-feathers..?”

“Arrows,” muttered Sarah. “We will wish numbers of those, which is why I hope to bring my bow and those nine arrows I still have.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “Those are a lot quieter than rifles, at least for most bows. Now there was something about a cane, and these unusually long needles that are intended for tapestry-sewing...”

“That I planned some weeks ago, and they were working on it at the house proper,” said Sarah. “I've used those things to get rats and other things at the west school, and more than once, a fool-hen.”

“How?” I asked. My quoll was slowly becoming 'bald', even if Anna was well into her third one and Sarah was finishing up her second bird. I wondered who would get the last bird, at least until Sarah said she would show me how to do it without spending so much time.

“I think that wise,” said Anna. “He may need to teach how to prepare these birds, but I rather doubt he will be eating much of these things in the future.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You're sick enough to want beer, and that only anymore,” said Anna. “Now, this soup?”

“First we must gut these things,” said Sarah, “and while pulling the feathers off just needs diligence...”

“He does have that,” said Anna, glancing at my hands. “Removing the insides from these can be tricky if you wish to have birds that are safe to eat.”

“I know,” said Sarah. “I learned about that the hard way – remember?”

“I forgot,” said Anna. “I thought Hans and I needed to teach you, but I recall now that to be otherwise.”

“More like 'she was too slow in ripping out the feathers', then, 'she was too slow in removing the insides...”

“That especially,” said Anna – who then spoke to Sarah: “you did these up at the west school, didn't you?”

“Yes, though I usually brought them in after shooting them, and some of the others in our group prepared them for eating as a rule,” said Sarah. “I might have known enough to remove the birds' heads with a knife, and let them bleed out well before putting them in my bag, but beyond that – they said I was slow, and I was slow then, and I still am slow.”

“Better for you to teach him, then,” said Anna. “I doubt he could make it work if I showed him, as he'd need to do it differently.”

“And we have no knives fit for cutting them up, either,” squeaked Sarah – who then pointed at the blood-caked kitchen knives. “Who did that?”

“Georg,” murmured Anna. “I'll need to look him over again, as he's got more shot in him, and some balls.”

“He's shed some of that stuff,” said 'bigger' Willem. I'd had a chance to compare the size of the two, and that larger size was a matter of perhaps two inches for height and perhaps an inch or so if one measured the shoulders, with a good deal of more-obvious muscle in the case of the 'larger' man. Around here, though – two inches either side of the usual height was unusual, so much so that I knew why Sarah was thought especially short – at least now.

The usual, for men, was about four inches shorter than myself; and the women tended to be a trifle shorter than the men, perhaps an inch at the most. Hans and Anna were well-matched that way – their heights might be the difference of the width of a finger, if that.

“And Sarah and I...” We were at the extreme points of height and build, though both of us were 'as thin as poles', as the saying went.

“Hendrik was indeed right in naming you two a well-matched pair, as he was speaking of matters other than the difference in height,” said the soft voice. “He knows that to be a matter of little importance – and since the last two days, he now knows it to be a matter of no importance whatsoever, as he's gotten word of what has happened here and at the Abbey.”

“H-how?” I asked. I really wanted to ask 'how did he learn about this town turning into the local version of 'The Alamo'.

“Recall that someone was to be laying a branch of the wires into the camp?” asked the soft voice. “That group that arrived this morning brought not merely enough wire to run it to the nearest 'station', but also had the equipment needed for sending and receiving – and when the witches started coming, August sent one of his girls on a horse he keeps for 'errands'.” Pause, then, “it isn't quite mettlesome enough to need bronze shoeing, but it does want a light rider and a thin silver lead, and a light touch is needed with that animal – hence he's known for well over an hour about what happened here.” The thought of the wires, though, was what was burning in my mind; the matter of a near-racehorse kept in town could keep.

“Hence all they need is a way of keeping those, uh... Pots? Did they use pot-batteries originally for that?” I asked.

“They got the idea for those cells from descriptions of pot-batteries, but otherwise, it's mostly a fourth-kingdom 'invention' that took well over a century from the first well-hidden experiments at the house-proper to where it is today – and it needed marked people doing all of the critical work, as the witches were trying to shut the whole thing down every step of the way.” Pause, then, “they, of course, wished to keep the whole place in a state of total ignorance, as is fit for those they think they own.”

“And they have their setup,” I murmured. “Do they run those wires along the secret way?”

“In some places they do, and for longer stretches than you might think,” said the soft voice. “In other locations, they just write matters down and put someone on one of those special handcars or one of the other means they have of moving faster than the post.”

“Other?” I asked. This question, as was the usual with these conversations, was silent. Besides, somehow I was sharpening up at least one of Anna's knives, this with stones, distillate, and rapid movements while thusly engaged. Someone then showed to my left. He needed a break, obviously, and his speech betrayed him a second later.

“No, don't want him for cutting these things up,” said Sepp. “I need a break from scrubbing, and I know how to do those.”

“Good, you can help teach me how to make them fit for, uh, soup,” I said. “Does quoll and potato soup sound decent – oh, with carrots, diced or dried Gobens, some, uh... No, not much Krokus. A scant pinch is all you want of the dried material, and that ground in a mortar until it's a coarse powder...”

“This is why I need ink!” spat Anna. “You're giving me a recipe, and all I have is this writing dowel, and...”

“I can try writing,” said Katje. “I've not had my dose of cough medicine yet, nor that sleeping medicine, and now I know why – as I need this stuff first.”