Is it daylight yet?” “No.” (continued)

As was usual for me, I filled up quickly; and while Anna took longer to eat than I did, she finished quickly also. She then went upstairs with what looked like one of the smaller pots, then as I began to put my mask back on, she came down the stairs and said, “she's asleep.”

“Asleep?” I asked.

“It was not easy getting that stuff down her fast enough,” said Anna, “and she had to drink it so quickly that I had to finish putting it back on her so she's 'tight' and none of those things can get out.”

“Did you wash yourself again?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, somewhat,” said Anna – who then headed for the bathroom and closed the door. I could tell she was now getting ready to take a 'proper' bath.

“Bath?” asked Paul. “Now?”

“Yes, for the small creatures Katje most likely put to her,” said Sarah. “I might not be sure about those that cause the crae, but I know a lot of small creatures do not like soap and water, and I think we will all wish our own baths before tonight is done.” Pause, then, “I know I will.”

As I began to get out of the suit, however, I noted that my appetite had returned to a small degree; and by the time I was 'hanging it up' in my room – I was really noticing the glare of the moon, such that the small room was lit up nearly as brightly as if it were daylight – I was noticing something else had occurred.

“I'll need to visit the privy,” I thought. I had the runs. “Best confine any further food to liquids for tonight.”

That proved wise, as once the food had been 'moved aside', the unloading of the supplies started in earnest. Here, I had to once more be the 'load-monster', as not only was it important that everything be made to fit, but that also, we had ready access to a fair percentage of it. Finally, I had to indicate what things needed to go in places other than the parlor, and once some of the bags were in my room, I began to stack them in front of the window, this in a pile starting at the foot of my bed and then piling them higher and higher in rows so as to hopefully block the window's light and put my bed in the shadow of the mound.

“I'll need to clean guns, also,” I thought, as I ran down the stairs to nearly collide with Sarah as she came up from the basement. “Did you..?” I meant those medicines she had spoken of.

“Yes, some, though I'll need to spend time tomorrow night putting up the rest of our medical supplies downstairs,” said Sarah. “I did lay out the waxes needed to make up another batch of wax for candles while I was thinking of what we might wish to take for while we're heading south and actually in that port.” A pause, then, “I am not sure about what lies across the sea for sicknesses, which is one question of several I wish to ask Rachel.”

“Assuming she knows what is troublesome there of that nature,” I murmured, as I resumed 'directing' the stacking of things in the parlor.

With as many people as we had present, the 'to-and-fro' aspect soon ceased to form a chain of handlers once certain things had been unloaded, and I now found myself very busy. Apart from the business, however, I could sense the gawking awe of the carpenters, though when Sepp handed me a bag that I discerned by feel alone as being one I wished up in my room, he said, “they only found two hinges out of of a set of three.”

“These are decent hinges, though,” said one of the men. “They're from Machalaat, and I think I know why we got them cheap beyond them being in a second-hand store.”

“Why is that?” asked Sepp, as he turned to go back toward the door and 'catch' the next package.

“They're a finger's width wider, they're thicker bronze than is usual, even from the place that made these, and the pin that goes in them is the thickest one I have ever seen,” said the carpenter.

“Those would be fit for a kingdom house's door, then,” said Sarah, “and not one up here, but those down there, which are three wide fingers for thickness, or two inches and thirty lines if I go by my measurements.”


“That is twice the thickness of this door and then some, and hence twice the weight at the least,” said another of the carpenters. “I am glad this one was so close to done, but I am not glad for there being but a few doors in town that are intact.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“First, we might have enough boards in our store to make three or four doors, not ten times that and more,” said the carpenter, “and then those I spoke of are plain boards, not cut fit for doors, so they'll need a lot of work to make them into doors.”

“Sounds like not merely a good saw, but also something to plane and groove such pieces once they're 'close' dimensionally,” I thought. The carpenter who had last spoken then addressed something to me, almost as if he knew my thinking. The fact that this had happened before – today – didn't help.

“I hope you can come up with a good sawing machine, as the usual way of cutting boards needs a lot of planing,” he said.”

“Then you do not wish a rotating saw,” said someone outside. “Those might be quick enough to turn trees into lumber, but unless the blade is especially good, they do well to hold to eight lines of true.”

“Uh, a reciprocating saw...”

“If you build its frame sturdily enough, then such boards will need little planing, assuming seasoned lumber is used,” said the soft voice. “Only one type of saw works better here, and you don't have access to the needed tools to make one of those.”

“What kind would that be?” I asked silently.

“A bandsaw,” said the soft voice. “That was the only means used across the sea when they still had wood available, as their units wasted almost nothing.”

“Almost nothing?” I asked. This time it was much closer to actually being audible.

“What you'll make will produce a fair amount of fine sawdust,” said the soft voice, “even if it will produce smooth flat boards that need little if any planing.” A pause, then, “what they used prior to the war, leastways when it wasn't cutting 'boards', produced no sawdust beyond faint traces.”

“N-no sawdust?” I gasped. This time it was audible.

“I hope yours makes some,” said one of the carpenters. “That is the chief way we heat our homes, and what with them not having doors or windows any more, we and our families will want to sleep in the kitchen and stoke our stoves like it is Festival Week.”

“I shot out their doors?” I thought.

“They might have been more diligent than most in town, but they had their share of hubris,” said the soft voice. “Recall what you recently wrote in that journal about not underestimating one's enemies?” A pause, then, “hubris guarantees you will do that very thing.”

“And only August and Tam...”

“Neither of those people have homes which can be seen from the street, and neither location has windows that can be seen from the street, either,” said the soft voice. “The Public House is that way because it's the usual for such locations in the five kingdoms and has been so for some hundreds of years, while the Mercantile once had two windows visible from the street.”

“It would have been an unusual one, then,” I thought. I'd never seen such a store with a window, though I did have to admit I had seen only a handful of Mercantiles, even given the trip down south and my travels in the area.

“No, actually it once was the usual,” said the soft voice. “Mercantiles, up until about seventy years ago in this area, commonly had windows like other shops, but when the witches started to actively recruit such people, those who turned witch wanted secrecy, and those that chose otherwise wanted the security of a solid wall.” A pause, then, “you've not been inside the walls of that fourth kingdom market town, so you've not seen a real Mercantile, one with good lighting and sizable windows visible from the street proclaiming what they have to offer their customers.”

As the bags kept coming in, I heard more and more activity outside. Under the now glaringly-bright moon, the groaning of tallow-slimed axles in worn wooden hubs made for a steady grumbling undertone, one yet overlaid with faint screams. The townspeople were still killing witches, and I ceased what I was doing, then came to the area just inside the door. Without a mask and suite on, I could now speak truly loudly, and I carefully moved around those moving bags into the house. I had something that needed saying, or rather, reiterating.

As I came out into our yard, I noted that two nearly-empty buggies were already parked in the yard of the still-burning house next door. Now the upper portion of that place was gone, turned to charcoal yet burning still; and the stone portions of the place beyond the height of the stoop had either gone to powder, or they had toppled in to compress the charcoal so that it burned long, slow, and hot. A glance at the street, as I came out into the street to look at what was happening in town, and I wondered greatly, at least for a second or so. Then, I knew.

The groaning noises were not merely those of badly-made axles in poorly-constructed dung-carts; it was the noises of the townspeople as they labored.

“That nonsense needs to stop,” I thought. “Slaves must be silent, or their master thinks they curse him and he beats them accordingly.” I then spoke.

“Shut your stinking curse-holes and put your backs into it, fools!” I yelled, this my loudest. “Do you want me to fetch a club and put you-all into that meat-hole myself?”

The silence that then descended was such that I marveled, at least until I heard the screaming start. I looked down the street to the south, and here, I saw running individuals being chased by groups of people, these with long and bloody knives. The rule was I saw played out then, was this:

Those who groan under judgment are evil. They must die.

Those who curse their lot are evil. They must die.

Those who do not demonstrate their perfection, this in all things, are evil – and they too must die.

“And that is the way of the monster, you stinking witches,” I thought. I ran back toward the house, and was met at the door by 'big' Willem. For some reason, he was holding an intact club, not the one I had cracked earlier today. He'd put that one aside for stove-wood, and Anna was plotting when and how to chop that example up.

“You'll want this,” he said. “There are some witches still.”

“A c-club?” I asked, as I took it. “I s-spoke of one, but...”

“You said that 'cause you meant it, and the witches in this town need to know you mean what you say,” he said, “and if you kill any not witches, think not upon it, because if they aren't solid behind you now, they will stand solid against you ere this mess plays out to its very end.”

He meant that mess known as 'the Curse'. I understood this to the core of my being, and it made for a further comment on my part.

He who is not for me is against me,” I murmured, “and he who does not gather, scatters.”

“Aye,” he said. “Better than most preachers, and straight from the book. I'd say that to be your answer, and you need to bang some heads.”

I took off at a run, and for some reason, 'lanes' seemed to be cleared for me. When someone 'froze', I did not miss stride; I swung at the 'frozen' individual's head, and the screams that then resulted, I let them fall behind me, just like the mess and the blood.

More, I seemed to know where to go, and I did not bother with going inside houses. Oh, no – these particular traitors were hiding themselves better than that, as they were the last of the very last, the real experts, those witches who could pass themselves off as townspeople by killing those who lived here and then putting on their clothing – and indeed, their very faces and mannerisms.

“No, that would be too obvious,” I thought at the idea of 'baptizing their weapons with blood' by killing the townspeople, especially those here. “Probably just carrying some commonplace clothing, or they stole what they are currently wearing earlier tonight...”

“They did that,” said the soft voice, indicating the latter had indeed occurred, “and these people knew the business had gotten out of their league when you started 'waking the place up' with gunfire.” Pause, this as I swung at a head and felt a faint jolt amid-stride, then, “you don't realize just what you're doing when you 'bang heads', don't you?”

“Hopefully immobilize these especially troublesome witches so they can be dispatched readily,” I thought, as I made an abrupt course-change, one that flung a shower of dirt upon a party of people trundling a dung-cart along by carrying it rather than pulling it. “Two sets of handles, a pair of them at each end of that box?” I had never seen a dung-cart before now. “Where are the wheels?”

“They've always had those,” said the soft voice. “Your 'speech' regarding worn axles and worse-yet wheels caused all of them to go to dust, and now people can move when they're carrying those bodies.” A pause, this as I caught up with a trio of 'skulkers' hiding in a darkened region between two shops, then as I swung, things went red as blood.

The first blow caught the first hiding witch just under his jaw, and flung his ripped-off head at his neighbor, who was slowly reaching toward a hidden knife. I halted the club in mid swing, then like a battering ram, I smashed the club into his face – and then, as the third witch turned to run, I leaped, ripping out my club from the hole I had made in the face of the second witch – he was dead then, just like his neighbor to the right of him – and I landed just behind the running witch, my club at the ready. I swung my hardest.

The club flew with a speed that astonished me, and when the meat of that thing hit the man's head...

The explosion that resulted sprayed brains, bones, and blood in a crimson cloud that I ran through as if it was not there, as my killing 'the three wise men' had 'spooked' a great many more witches.

These were those people lax in finding suitable labors, and as I shot through the knee-high ranks of corn, I seemed to have a beeline-straight path to these people; I was now moving so fast that I needed to begin my swing some eighteen to twenty feet away from them as I made a crossing pass to their right and then having to recover the club in time for a pass on the left side as I came upon another witch.

There was a steady screaming now, as it seemed I was finding more and more witches and smashing heads. No longer did I care who I hit, or what kind of a mess I made, or who spewed when they were splattered with the blood and brains of a witch. No more, not on this wild hunt of a night.

No doubt in my mind. I was on the strait and narrow path, the one which led me to those I was to kill – and all of these evils needed killing so they could go where they belonged – the place where their master awaited them with slavering lips and a hunger beyond reckoning.

No thoughts now within my head, save one:

Where is the enemy?”

I was doing that which was not merely necessary, but that which in reality only I could do at the present time; and as I came upon the pit itself, I screamed, this such that raving echoes filled the silence and made blood shine bright upon the moon:

“Fill that stinking hole, curse you all! Move your rumps and work, or I'll put you in the pit too!”

Again, those that stood against me froze in my path, and though that path went all over town at a dead run, I smashed head after head, this moving so rapidly now I seemed to be 'in multiple places at once'.

I smiled at the thought, for I knew that was impossible.

“No, but you are moving rapidly enough to stop the remaining witches,” said the soft voice, “and more, by covering so many of the townspeople with their gore, you're breaking down much of their remaining hubris in a hurry.”

That spurred me on to yet greater efforts, as now I had truly 'reached into my legs'; they had loosened up, as had my entire body, and the coughing and retching I left in my 'wake' told me a most-singular story, even as I leaped back walls with ease to come down among parties of witches – and then slaughtered them in a whirling 'instant' of time.

It took but a single strike per witch, and no longer did I aim strictly for heads: if one hit hard enough with a club like I was using, a solid strike more or less anywhere north of the pelvis killed in a hurry.

“You mean 'almost as quickly as if you had shot them',” said the soft voice. “You don't realize just what you're doing, do you?”

I had to reply in the negative. I had witches yet to kill, even if I'd thinned them out to no small degree before going out with this particular club. I needed to get all of them, however, and I was doing my best to make that situation a grim and certain reality.

“When you hit someone with that club, you're causing massive internal injuries,” said the soft voice. “No witch currently alive could survive that kind of injury for longer than a few seconds.”

I had a question, but I could ask it later. I needed to leap a wall right now, an unusually tall wall, and I gathered myself for the leap.

I flew up and over this wall as if I were Jaak, and as I came down in a circle of witches, I began swinging – and this time, I resumed the former head-strike regimen.

There was something to be said for hitting the heads of witches – something that happened in the spirit world, something where their own desire for the mounted heads of their enemies was turned back upon them, such that while they had sown the wind by 'destroying' their enemies' heads and then mounting them on their walls as trophies of their conquests, they were now being engulfed by the whirlwind.

And I had become that whirlwind; and now, at last, I had some intimation as to why the witches would think me to be named Destruction; for I was now finding them, and in every case, destruction came upon them as if lightning had shot down out of the sky, its path inerrant and merciless, and it killed them all without miss or hesitation.

As if to remind me of this particular fact, it began to rain, not the usual soft mists, but a steady dripping patter, and for some reason, I found that this rain both helped me greatly and hindered everything and everyone else.

My enemies – they wanted me dead, and that more than anything – now could no longer hide in this rain; and the improved traction of fresh-moistened earth helped me both run faster and 'plant' my blows better. It gave me renewed resolve, also, for now, I was about to kill the last of the witches.

“For tonight, anyway,” I thought. “I'm probably going to be really sore.”

“Anna is just finishing her bath,” said the soft voice, “and once she hears about what you went out to do, she'll have a warm tub ready as well as some Geneva for rubbing.”

“Hopefully not Komaet,” I muttered, as I did an abrupt dirt-slinging turn at speed to shoot out of a ruined buggy-way and surprise a gaggle of witches, sending their headless corpses flying in a flurry of blood and gore, this in a fluid movement so rapid that I was left astonished and breathless in the middle of the street surrounded by a ring of crumpled headless bodies 'cementing the road' with their still-gouting blood.

“Is that the end?” I asked softly, as silent 'stretcher parties' now moved at a staggering run all around me and the head of my gore-clotted club fell to the dirt, its red-stained handle still in my gripping hand. “Are there more witches here that need to die?” This was said louder. “Are you moving yet?”

This last was but a whisper, and as lightning – this the very first time I'd seen it here – crackled its forked blue-white discharge across the whole of the sky and lit up the place as if it were noon and not merely a red-tinged nightmare, I looked down upon my club.

“Knobs,” I murmured, as the raindrops washed down the slick dark finish and soaked my clothing to the skin. I could no longer see the stripes of laminations through the dark shine of the club, and the stubby bronze knobs were both numerous and sharp – sharp, so as to give bite to my blows and transfer the whole of the club's relentless force to my target when I struck. “What happened to this thing?”

“Recall what happened to the haft of that ax at the bridge?” asked the soft voice. “Something similar happened here, only it went a bit further this time.”

“F-further?” I asked, as I began to walk toward home from somewhere south of the rough middle of town, under what had suddenly turned into a soft misting, this the usual for spring nights. The moon still burned brighter than a spotlight, and shed a brilliant light ringed about and channeled by fast-moving shadows as 'stretcher bearers' moved the corpses of witches past me, this still at a staggering run.

“It does not have hide-glue now,” said the soft voice. “That adhesive was replaced with something a good deal stronger, the wood was compression-impregnated so it too is much stronger, the whole assembly was cured under extreme pressure, and the whole thing covered with a material similar to an improved version of Hans' wood-treatment – one done as if you'd 'cooked it up' in one of those reactors mentioned some time ago and added some chemicals which are not currently available here.”

“It's heavier, too,” I thought, as I shouldered the dripping club. I could feel nothing wrong with this club, though the yells that came from the north end of town sounded a bit too familiar to ignore as I trudged northward.

“Don't tell me,” I muttered, as the stiffness of my exertions began to slowly settle upon me. “They stopped unloading the buggies and tried to keep up with me.”

“They wished to, at least a few of them did, but Sarah said they'd just get in your way,” said the soft voice. “They now have some idea of just how fast you can run, though, and Georg is shaking like a leaf.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. Resolve built with the knowing of need. “He needs to be prayed for.” This was a hidden whisper. I then thought, “Georg does not need lead in him!”

A sudden howl, this long, loud, and piercing, pointed me toward my rear – and in a move too sudden to follow, I turned as if in a slowed-down dream and shot headlong into the drizzly fog, my steps rapidly building to the former pace of a dead run. As I ran, I knew the following:

There were a handful of witches, these who had hid during my 'wild hunt' in places I had not gone to for some reason – and now, their 'cover' had been blown.

I came upon them so rapidly that they all seemed to be frozen in a glacial epoch of time, and as the club smashed them down to tumble and roll about me as I scattered their heads in a whirling slowed-down orgy of destruction, when I had dropped them all, I looked up at the brilliant moon to see red misty clouds seeming to hide it for what might have been a second and a half.

“What gives with this red night..?”

The clouds vanished, and I looked around me. I was once more in the middle of town, with people around me, four to each manure cart, moving at the closest they could manage to a run so as to merge into a ragged and jostling stream on the north side of the church to there form a close-packed single-file hustling line to reform that line once more on the south side of the church. These people ran faster, as they were just carrying the carts and not their carts and two or three corpses. They seemed to be learning a measure of teamwork in their frantic running, an aspect that was a needed thing so as to move.

I had words for them just the same, and they needed to hear them.

“One out of ten to remain by the pit,” I shouted. “Of those, one in three puts the severed heads aside to be spiked when poles enough are cut in the nearest woodlots; one in three removes the clothing from the headless corpses and lays it out so the rain will wash it clean and drown its clothes-bugs; and the last third removes the money-pouches from that clothing and stacks them in a mound on the stoop of the Public House, where they can be kept in readiness for funding the coming war.”

A pause, then, “and for those who need something of a break from heavy labor, they can walk the street with bags in their hands, and collect those brass things up when and where they should happen to find them. Those need to be brought to where I live, as they will be used to take war to the enemy – so as to slaughter him without mercy.” A final pause, then, “you now know just what that means, so do not be slack in all that you do.”

There was no answer to my speech, nothing save the echoes in my mind and the frantic running steps of those carrying bodies two and three to each wheel-less cart, and as my hearing came up once more, I heard more screaming, and over it, the faint snapping of a whip.

“Tam's going to work,” I thought, as I shouldered my club and began to head home. “I hope he's up to matters as needs doing.”

“He is, and he heard your instructions also,” said the soft voice. “Between him and August, they'll keep these people at their work until they either drop face-down in the mud from exhaustion or the matter is completed to a satisfactory degree.”

I was about to speak on the matter, until I realized I was far more fatigued than I understood it to be possible; and secondly, I recalled what had happened but two nights earlier: I had nearly run Gabriel to death during my 'insanity', thinking his fainting to be entirely a matter of shamming and treating it accordingly. Yet still, I wondered: had what I done tonight finally 'cemented' things in his mind?

I came up to one of the buggies from the house proper, then suddenly tapped it with my club. It seemed to shake soundlessly; it did not do so from the blow, which was a very light one. Such as what had happened seemed enough to me in my current state of mind, but as I came into the light, I had stares now riveted upon me from all sides. A yell came from just inside the house, one calling for Anna, and as I wearily trod the steps and came upon the stoop itself, Willem the larger suddenly came to the door.

“I knew there were witches, but...” He gasped, then, “how did you get so messy?”

“You have not seen him messy,” said Hans from somewhere to my rear and left. “He was worse last night when he got here.” A pause, then, “he does not look to be hurt bad, so I would worry more about my business than him.”

I coughed again, then spat – and for some reason, the material I spat looked to be solid blood.

“No, I don't think so,” said Willem with a shaky voice. “I hope you're not hurt. You'd best be looked over, as I heard a lot of shooting while you were gone getting those stinkers, and you might have some lead.”

I shook my head, then felt myself. My hand came away bloody, and I said, “how did I get this way? Did I get shot and not notice it?”

“No, but you inhaled a lot of blood, and you bathed in a lot more blood while killing all of those witches like you did,” said the soft voice. “I'd get into that hot water quickly, and not stint the soap, either for you or your clothing.”

“I heard that,” said Anna, as she came out of the bathroom. “You look to be an entire mess, worse even than any talk I have heard about how you can get – and that's not the club they brought, but something that must have dropped straight out of an old tale.”

“It stood up to his using it,” retorted Sarah – who then looked closer at it. “I think it needs a bath too, as it's got brains and mess all over it.”

'An entire mess' wasn't half of what I had become, once I'd gotten in the bathroom and shucked my clothing, for while my clothes had stopped much of the thicker gore, my skin was a solid red-brown with caked and part-dried blood. Thankfully, it came off readily with soap, hot water, and a thorough scrubbing; and when I tossed my ragged-seeming blood-caked clothing in the tub of still-warm water, I suspected it would need more cleaning than I could readily give it once it had soaked. I then began to scrub down my club with the 'rag-hunk' I had used to bathe with, and when someone tapped at the door, I said, my voice a still-hoarse croak, “come in. I'm dressed.”

“Do you need to be looked over?” asked Anna. “Are you sore?”

“Yes, to a degree, though I expected it to be worse,” I said, meaning the soreness. “How is Georg?”

“He no longer has any lead as far as I can tell,” said Anna, “and every one of those wounds that I thought would need lengthy cleaning is now enough better that he only needs cleaning in a tub followed by bandaging.”

“Did he drop that lead, or...”

“We were dodging it,” said Anna. “That stuff was coming out of him nearly as bad as people said it came out of me, and the smoke was terrible!”

“So now there is more lead on the floor?” I asked. “Did the stuff go far?”

“It did,” said Sarah. “I have a small cup of fresh Geneva, should you need it for rubbing.”

“F-fresh Geneva?” I asked. I again coughed, and without a word, I took the cup, sipped from it so as to rinse out my mouth, much as if it were mouthwash – and then spat the evil-tasting stuff into the tub so hard that I both spewed hard immediately after spitting and sneezed as if in the grip of an ailment not of any planet I had ever heard of.

The pinkish water now became red as blood, and with my continued coughing and sneezing, great white patches appeared upon the surface of the now thick-as-blood 'sea'. I then had an idea, once my coughing and spitting had subsided to an intermittent hacking cough with occasional spits. At least I wasn't sneezing or spitting blood, even if the taste of that 'fresh' Geneva was still most-present in my mind. It was well beyond horrible, even if I compared it to the recollection of whiskey – and both the remembered taste of whiskey and the current taste of Geneva made gasoline taste good.

I had never tried lighter fluid, even if I had heard of strong drink being compared to that material. It was similar to gasoline – and that I had tasted before coming here. The revolting aftertaste made for an obvious comment.

“Let this water replace that strong drink those few survivors are sucking down in that woodlot three miles due east from here,” I muttered.

The water vanished with a flash and a thump to leave a tub at once spotless and 'good-smelling', while in the bottom of it, my clothing lay scattered about. I took out the clothes, and noted not merely their 'almost entirely cleaned' status – a bit of further soaking would be all that would be needed, most likely – but also, that they now seemed undamaged.

“Did I get sliced on?” I asked, as I began looking them over. They'd been too clotted and covered with 'mess' and gore to tell beforehand, beyond 'they're much the worse for wear'.

“No, but you did tear them more than a little jumping all of those walls like you did,” said the soft voice.

“Jumping w-walls?” asked Anna in wonder as I began to put chopped-up pieces of laundry soap in the tub. I had to watch my knife, as it was a bit too sharp to use when one was fatigued, and I shaved off pieces as if the soap were warm butter, cutting away from me until I had trouble holding the remaining lump. I tossed it in the tub, and started on another of the small 'bricks'. “Are you going to wash those things again?”

“Best not let the remaining blood take a set in them,” I said. “I'm glad we have more than one tub, as Georg will want one to set in for a while so his wounds can clean out entirely, and he'll want the nice soap for that business – or that stuff that smells like roses, if we have any left.”

Anna left without a word, then came back with a steaming pot of water, which she poured on my clothing once I had chopped up that second bar of 'laundry soap' in its entirety. She then noticed my club. “Use that thing there to stir that stuff up good, and it will help get it entirely clean of that mess.”

“M-mess?” I asked. I'd already tried to clean the club as good as I could. Obviously, I needed to do better, but had not noticed the issue until Anna had spoken of it.

“That type of club tends to gather stink and mess especially,” said Anna, “and I know about them doing that since Georg told me about his clubs and how they needed a lot of cleaning after he'd been using them.” A pause, then, “and I think that one to be how his need to be done.”

“It stood up to a lot of witches,” I said. “I think they'll not bother coming here much after tonight, at least for the local versions.”

“You just raised that ante to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “Tonight will be talked about at some length in the first kingdom, and those witches coming from the south will hear of it as what you did spreads via the 'high-speed rumor-mill'.”

“Hence they'll try using artillery to blow the place off the map,” I murmured. “I think we had best teach Anna not merely about rockets, but also about those mortars – and that before we leave, with some shells handy in case she needs to blow up some witches.”

The silence following that remark was so eerie that when Anna asked me what kind of rocket I was speaking of, I could only try to describe what one of them looked like – at least, until Sarah told her what one actually did when I had fired it.

“Then I think I shall wish to learn how to use these rockets,” said Anna. “Now you spoke of a mortar. We have several, and I'm glad for all of them, but this is something different. Correct?”

“It is,” said Sarah. “It is a small cannon, and we were told that you would be especially good with these guns and others like them.”

“I have never fired guns,” said Anna. “At least Willem is here, so I can ask him what they are like.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “A lot smaller, small enough that it can be carried by a small group of people once it has been taken apart, and then it shoots further than one of his unless you dig a deep hole for the gun's tail, and the shell is about twice... No, not twice. I'm not sure how much stronger these things are, but they're more than twice as bad as a hot-loaded distance-shell when they hit.”

“Besides, Anna, I have fired guns like Willem's,” said Sarah, “and save for what it is like when shooting them at swine, I could probably answer your questions passably at the least.”

“Then how are these guns different?” asked Anna.

“They are much as he said,” said Sarah. “They come to pieces, so they do not need gun-horses to tow them, then they have ways of aiming that are unlike anything used today that I know of, at least in the five kingdoms, and then they can fire much faster than any gun I have seen or fired – even on the occasions when I was pointing one of Willem's guns.”

“Do they use a lanyard?” asked Willem. He had been inside stacking bags for my ready 'placement'.

“They can, and I saw how they work if one uses such a string,” said Sarah. “We were told that they could be fired in other ways, also.”

“Not using a port-fire, I hope,” said Willem. “That nonsense is for witches, and they can have their powder-burns.”

“No, not that way,” I said. “You can either use a lanyard, or you can drop-fire these things – and the latter permits firing them fairly rapidly.”

“Rapidly?” asked Anna incredulously. “How many people..?”

“Two,” I said. “One to hand the shells to the person dropping the shells, and the person dropping them to slip them down the barrel tail-end-first,” I said. “Figure this: one, two, boom! One, two, boom!” Pause, then, “though you'll want to do no more than a few shells that fast, as it heats up the tube if you dump too many too quick, and your gun's accuracy vanishes until it cools somewhat.”

“How accurate are these things?” asked Willem.

“Uh, that depends on your t-touch,” I said. “It helps if you can p-play music, for some reason, as in...” I looked at my hand, and now wondered. It had no writing showing on it, and I thought, “but I cannot play music. Write it, maybe, at least the lyrics, and perhaps make instruments of some kind, but play..?”

“Try shooting one of those things tomorrow evening,” said the soft voice. “Waldhuis needs to have its nights enlivened, especially right now.”

“Will they shoot that far?” asked Anna with what seemed a trace of eagerness.

“We were told they could,” said Sarah, “though they would need a full charge.” Pause, then, “why the portions of its charge were named the way they are is a mystery, as they do not look like anything I have ever seen.”

“Increments, my dear,” I said. “You change your range on those by adjusting the angle of fire and the number of increments, so you can put your shells anywhere from two hundred yards away to nearly five thousand, or perhaps a bit better.”

“Off by nearly a factor of two for maximum range,” said the soft voice. “That might be decent for such weapons where you came from, but there's a reason why this type has such a long barrel, and that's so it can fire long shots – as in to the furthest-south reaches of Waldhuis and a bit beyond from here, if you adjust for that elevation which gives maximum range.” Pause, then, “that's with the increments you have now. The newer versions give about ten percent more range with a trifle less flash – which is why you'll wish to be present so as to make sure Anna gets clear of the gun when she drops the first shell.”

Steps came closer to the house. For some reason, even as Georg was hustled into the bathroom with Anna bringing soap and the third pot of hot water among those that had been steadily steaming on the stove, I could hear this person among the noises made by moving the bags that I was now sorting and stacking. For some odd reason, however, as I put those bags aside that needed to go in my room, I carefully arranged the shape of the other bags now such that they would be in the shape of a letter 'E'.

“Easier access, or relatively speaking, it will be easier,” I thought, as I continued stacking them. “Now what, and how much, do I wish to unpack tonight?”

“Mostly that which comes in last, as it was among those first things loaded,” said the soft voice. “Between doing that, soaking your clothing, getting down what food you can manage, and a bit else of an important nature, you'll have a chance to get your doses and 'calm down' after what you just got done doing.”

“And most likely rub myself with Geneva,” I thought. “Now why is the publican coming here – more beer?”

“That and so as to tell you-all what he heard,” said the soft voice. “He'll also give you an idea as to just how much money is piling up on his stoop.”

Yech, money,” I spat. “Best take some of that stuff to Andreas tomorrow, as he needs...” I paused, then asked, “how much does he need?”

“Enough that he'll be making periodic trips down this way to pick up more while you-all are gone, especially as he's setting up more 'pots' so as to do electrolysis,” said the soft voice. “Unlike anywhere else in the five kingdoms, he's actually got a decent amount of electrical power available for doing so, so he can process non-trivial amounts of such metals.”

“Several pounds a week?” I asked.

“He can do that now,” said the soft voice. “Once you get 'Annie' to the house proper, she can help him do that much in a day – and better work, in the bargain, as he won't have to do it multiple times to get a satisfactory level of purity for his use.”

“Who would that be?” asked Sarah, as she brought me my cup filled with beer. “I'm next for the tub after Georg, and I can lay out the weapons for cleaning, along with those things needed for cleaning them.”

“That woman who's staying with your cousin,” I murmured, then said regarding the weapons on the table and those close by it, “we'll need to teach those going home with these enough to keep them firing,” I said. “How much... Just one magazine full?” That had been the amount specified, but after tonight, I truly wondered: was it enough?

“I think two of those to be wise, that and a small bag of loose cartridges and a larger bag for their empties,” said Sarah. “Other than both men named Willem, Paul, and possibly three others, as well as Karl and Sepp, the rifles can all stay here, and the same would work for those pistols named Tossers.” Sarah said, “I think I know why they were called that now, as I had a misfire while shooting from the stoop this last time, and I put mine aside until I could clear it later.”

“Clear it?” I asked.

“Yes, by pulling the top portion back with vigor, and letting it go home,” said Sarah. “That one cartridge I saved, as I think we will wish it to be examined overseas so those people there can learn of their tricks.”

“So as to cure that problem?” I asked. “Or do I just need to show them that one I have?”

“Both, I think,” said Anna. “I was told we would have good pistols soon enough, but we would not have them tomorrow, so if we must use those pistols that some call Tossers, then we must endure their lacks.” A pause, then, “they may be nearly the size of dragoons, and they may bite the hands more than a little, but they beat any flint-pistol I have seen or heard of, and only those pistols you've worked on are more dependable.”

“Those only hold five shots, Anna,” said Sarah. “These hold more, and not a little more.”

“Which is why I intend to carry one of each,” said Anna. “The one I will use mostly, but should it misbehave, then I have another that I can expect to do what is needed – and those two on top of one of those weapons that are short muskets for size, as I know I will carry one of them...”

Anna stopped in mid-sentence, almost as if she were being stalked by a creature from a nightmare; her eyes darted wildly, almost as if the creature in question was about to destroy her; then with a sudden yet fluid motion, much as if she had seen the creature itself somehow, she turned, yelling as if insane, and tossed something wildly into the area between the bathroom door and the kitchen.

Her target was a fleeting gray blur, and as she again yelled, she ran, all the while seeming as if on fire for both speed and yelling high-pitched oaths. She stopped, darted toward the table, grabbed a pistol, and ran into the kitchen, still howling like a fiend. She'd racked the slide as she advanced, and now, she was on the hunt for something, all the while muttering as if in the grip of a species of insanity I had no previous knowledge of.

She seemed as if she were facing a dreaded demon, one imported from where she ate grass, sent specifically to inflict further torment upon her.

“I told you she did not like rats,” said Sarah softly. “Now you know why I spoke as I did.”

I turned around, unzipped one of the bags laid aside for my room, removed one of the two shorter-barreled shotguns, and then a sack of shells for it. I broke open the weapon, then dropped in two of the stubby silvered shells, and approached the kitchen, this so silently Sarah seemed in awe.

I could hear movement, this faint and furtive; and when Anna shrieked and a gray blur shot out of the kitchen past me, I fired from the hip and the gray blur tumbled...

No, it flew away to smack against the wall amid a stinging scream of shot that dug a shallow wide-plowed furrow into the floor – and then, the shot scattered slightly, leaving a peppered place upon the door, this marked by blood that slowly dripped down from the wide-scattered holes. I was glad Georg was in the far reaches of the bathroom, as otherwise he would have been hit by my shot-swarm.

“What did you do?” said Anna with wonder.

“He shot that rat,” said Sarah. She seemed to have learned laconic speech from Willem the larger, if I went by how she said this. “I am glad he was not using stiff shot, but what was in what we found.”

Anna looked at the door, touched it and its blood, then shook her head slowly. She then turned to me.

“That shot might not be the stuff we make downstairs, but it will kill thugs if you find them in your house,” she said. “That rat is pie-filling, and it wants a shovel to...”

Hans suddenly showed as if smoke, and wordlessly scooped up the bloody remains of the rat with a familiar-looking shovel – the one from the horse-barn. He just as quickly vanished.

“Now we just need to clean up the mess,” said Anna, as she laid the pistol back on the table. “You'll want to show me what you just used, and that in all of its details, as I think it to be especially good for rats if they are quicker than the common.”

“Was that one a white rat?” I asked softly. I had ripped it terribly, for I had shot it at a distance of perhaps eight feet, and the shot-swarm had 'centered' it. It wasn't quite 'rat-burger', but it was close enough to that state to suit me.

“Entire-white, no,” said Sarah. “I suspect it had a white rat for a mother at the least, though, as the usual ones neither move so quickly, nor do they need to be hit as hard as that one was.”

“I hope we do not get any more of those,” muttered Anna. “The house is shot up enough to need a lot of work as it is, and I do not wish to add to that work.”

“If it was a white one, I'd call shot in your walls cheap,” said Sepp. “We're getting to the last buggies, which means they're the first ones loaded.”

“Willem's wagon?” I asked. I glanced at the doorway, and saw two carpenters holding the new door in place. It was obviously 'going up' now, for which I was glad.

“It's clear,” he said. “Only our two are left, that and the two which stay here, so I think you need to...”

“He'll need to get everyone around so as to show them what they need to know before they go,” said Sarah, “which means all that must be unloaded must be inside first.” A pause, then, “I'll resume helping, as minutes will count now.”

I was about to ask why when Anna said, “I thought so. We've got hours yet to go, and that after they all leave heading to where they will sleep – or try to sleep – tonight.”

I needed no further asking, and between arranging the bags in question as they came in, I retrieved the cleaning kits needed, as well as the manuals for the weapons now on the table. I thought to make up some small bags, one for each person going forth with such a weapon, but as I wondered where they were 'hiding', Anna suddenly appeared with a 'stuffed full' example of the size I had in mind.

“You were looking for these?” she said. “I'd like one of them, leastways until I can get a proper satchel for medicines and proper medicines to put in it.”

“Purse?” I asked.

“These are a bit large for such things,” said Anna. “Besides, I doubt I wish to actually live in an old tale, one where some women carried those things.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Every woman who had one of those things was a witch,” spat Anna, “and they carried things fit for witches in those nasty things, and I'll have nothing to do with anything or anyone who so much as smells like a witch.” Pause, then, “I'll air out Gabriel's smelly hide should I see him, as he needs to eat grass where I did and stay there until either he gives up on that rubbish or he rots – and I care not which!”

As if to answer matters, the publican came inside between men bearing bags, and he nodded as he walked through those laboring upon the bags so as to 'rough-sort' them. He saw the mess upon the floor, nodded again, then said, “so, it shall be the longest night of the year here as much as anywhere else in town.”

“It has been that,” said Anna, as she fetched a rag to clean up the mess on the floor that I had made. It looked as if I had a start on Anna regarding 'tearing the place up'. “Now, what did you hear at your end of town?”

“Much good, and little bad,” he said. “It seems first shooting the place up with something out of an old tale helped get the witches started, and everyone who is able is moving them to that one big hole in a hurry, but there were yet more witches, and those needed a club out of an old tale, and someone who hits like Georg does when he's smelling pigs or witches.” A pause, then a glance at me as I labored. “Someone like him, as Georg doesn't move faster than a racehorse at a full gallop, and he does.”

What?” squeaked Anna.

“I saw him go after those witches, and if Georg was that quick, he could clear out an entire witch-town down in the second kingdom in half a turn of a glass,” said the publican. “They were shooting at him plenty, but it was like shooting at a ghost or the wind, as the witches shooting would suddenly be standing without their heads, or with a few, they'd go flying through the air so far and fast that they'd be dead before they hit the ground.”

“S-standing... Standing without their heads?” I gasped.

“Aye, and many times I saw that,” said the publican. “It's a rare witch that you hit that did not lose his head upon the instant when you hit him there, and when you found groups of them, it was like seeing lightning itself strike, you moved so fast.”

“How so?” asked Sarah. She was dragging a bag to the kitchen wall, it being one of those we needed to sort through tonight. It had things we would need to know about, as its secrets might yield themselves to Rachel – and in order to ask her such questions as we could, we needed their evidence – if not to hand such things to her, then a good description of them. A good drawing was possibly enough.

“I saw him do this, and so did Tam, at least when he wasn't putting lead in witches trying to escape running south,” said the publican. “He came upon a group of five moving slow into the shadows but eighty paces north of where I was standing, and I counted 'one' just before he hit the first witch. Before I could begin to speak 'two', he left all five of those stinkers standing there without their heads under a thick red cloud of blood, and by the time they were starting to fall down, he was ten paces further on and heading for another witch that was running for his life.” A pause, then, “that witch might as well have run from a great-wolf, one out of an old tale, for all the good it did him.”

“Great-wolf?” I asked.

“They were said to be the enemies of witches,” said the publican, “and those today are but pale shadows of what they were, in many ways.”

“I hope they return, then,” said Sarah. “They might have been the size of donkeys, and could run like a bronze-shod mare...”

“Aye, and he was faster than one of those horses at a full gallop, one which will tolerate neither bridle nor saddle,” said the publican, “and he did not stop when he swung, but swung without hesitation or a miss-step in his stride.”

Sarah shook her head, then said, “that is out of an old tale, and much of what we have here is the same.” A pause, then, “it will mean a long day for us today, and another like it tomorrow, so plenty of beer...”

“That's why I'm here,” said the publican, plopping down two jugs on the end of the table. “Between me and Tam, we'll keep our end of town busy, least as long as they can move and we can stay awake, and then tomorrow, you-all can get them to jumping again if they fall down full-tired.”

“Just like slaves,” I said. “Deep-slaves, those that used to labor at Berky in the dark places.”

“Now you would speak so,” said the publican. “Talk has it you were at a place full as bad, if not one worse yet, and that for a very long time.”

“From the day of his birth until the day he came here,” said Anna. “I was told that before and now I believe it.”

The bags finally seemed to be coming to an end, and on the way out, Sepp wordlessly took one of Anna's 'starting-to-steam' pots of water. She looked at Sepp, then followed him, her steps halting, wondering what he would do with a pot of water that wasn't quite boiling. I didn't wonder; I had smelled dung in that one buggy I had tapped with my club, and I suspected Sepp wished to kill the stench somewhat with hot water.

“Not to worry, he'll be immured in that stuff for a slow count of thirty,” I murmured. “That water will just open his wounds again, and...”

A less than faint scream rent the air, and then an angry shout, this being unintelligible save for the source: Anna, and she sounded well beyond 'angry'. Over that, though, larger Willem's voice rang true as the last of the bags continued to come as if Anna's tirade was not happening.

“So now there isn't one person who knows of you and your true nature, witch-meat,” he yelled. “Be glad she has no weapons, as she would kill you on the instant, and I'd not be able to stop her, much less the one who reminded you of what he knows of you a short while ago – and had I your choice, I'd take her with her anger over him with his fury – as that is cold, calculating, murderous, and it doesn't miss, unlike her anger.” A pause. “I saw what he did to those last witches, and he did not miss once – and I doubt that you, witch-meat, can outrun a fresh bronze shod mare at its best gallop.” Another pause, then, “I saw him go that fast, and nothing short of a blood-maddened Iron Pig is faster or more deadly.”

A final shout, then the sound of a kick, and Anna came running into the house. Sepp, obviously, still had business outside. There were some bags yet remaining.

“I hope they put him in the house's manure pile for a slow count of thirty, and leave him there so he stinks worse than he does now!” she spat. “He'll wear old rags then, and nothing but, and I shall tell that to Hendrik myself!”

“That is planned, dear,” I murmured. “You just confirmed it to be the best choice of those we currently have, as then he'll need to bathe himself both well and often.” A pause, then, “twice a day at the least, in fact – and that with laundry soap so as to kill his reek enough that Hendrik can endure him.”

“He needs to do that now,” spat Anna. “He stank up everything in that buggy, and he used dung to do so, just as a witch would do.”

“Thought he was that one stinky witch, eh?” I muttered with a trace of a smirk. Sarah looked at me, and almost laughed. She shook her head.

“Yes, and what is funny about a smelly wretch who wants to be a bad witch?” asked Hans, as he came in with a bag. I was glad those bags were waterproof, and I strongly suspected Sepp would wish to take a bucket and 'douse' Gabriel regularly. I made up my mind to speak of the matter, in fact – as he did not need to smell that vile reek; and more importantly, he did not need that dung-reek to draw witches onto him as he went home.

“He will smell, all right,” said Sarah. “Karl and Sepp will bury him in the house's manure-pile, and keep him under until he nearly smothers. He'll need to bathe himself well then, and his clothing will need to be old clothes, those they have at the house proper.”

“Won't hardly work for 'showing himself' to the 'authorities' down at the kingdom port, won't it?” I murmured. “He'll need to pack his special clothing up in a waterproof bag, then put it on when he visits them.” A short pause, then, “and once he's done seeing those people, I'll pitch him into the sea myself so those things are ruined utterly, as those clothes are as close to witch-garments as anything that is made in the second kingdom that isn't black or a dark brown.”

“How so?” asked Sarah. “You've not seen those things, have you?”

“I doubt he needs to see them, not how he just spoke of them,” said Anna. “He has one set that I know of, and if I knew not better, I would name them as being made by a witch-tailor for all save their colors.”

“Colors,” I spat. “Let those things have purple and green stripes, each stripe an inch wide – so he looks so ridiculous that he must speak plainly.”

“Oh, they'll take him serious enough then,” said Sarah, “as he will be dressed as if out of an old tale, and that fit for an especially bad arch-witch, one who chanted runes constantly and sucked upon weeds at the least.”

“You understated the case, and that badly,” said the soft voice – who implied Sarah had spoken of 'commonplace witches' when that color-combination was the province of a rank closer to 'The Mistress of the North' and her peers. “He'll now need to pick his clothing most-carefully, as you just turned the full 'suite' of that 'finery' into clothing that would mean certain death were it seen in the whole of the third kingdom, most of the fourth, and in many places in the other three kingdoms.”

“Best to put that stuff in the museum, then,” I said. “That way, we know something of what those stinkers wore then, as...” I then gasped, and squeaked, “what?”

“Speak of that combination of colors overseas,” said the soft voice. “You'll get a chance to see those things before you go, and have Sarah with you when you do so as to look them over carefully. She'll confirm what Anna said about them, and then... Then when you speak with them who you meet over there, they'll tell you the truth about the many colors and combinations of colors that were so commonplace among witches then.”

“Purple with green stripes?” I thought. “But that was supposed to be so ridiculous that no one would take him seriously.”

Sarah looked at me, then said, “I think you made it much harder for him to think like a witch, as if those clothes were made in the second kingdom, I would bet money that they have marks upon them, many of them, each one small and well-hid on the inside near the seams. I'd bring that magnifier, in fact, as if this is indeed witch-gear, it may have been done specially by some witch-tailors, men such as were once found up at the north-tip, and I might well recognize such markings.”

“Where would he get the money for such clothing?” I asked.

“In his case, he would not need to,” said Sarah. “From what I was told by Maria, his measure was taken when he was hired, and the message sent south by the post with the king's stamp upon it.”

“To where, though?” I asked.

“I am not precisely sure without seeing that clothing itself, but if one of those who died as a witch put their hands upon that message, they would send it to one of a few districts in the second kingdom house, as they have many tailors there.” A pause, then, “I'd prefer to buy my clothing in the fourth kingdom's market, as I know they do decent work.”

“Or buy the cloth and things needed and make it yourself,” I murmured. “Now, I think those there to be the last bags – or are they?”

“No, they aren't the last, even if those still outside are getting them now,” said Willem the smaller. “Good that you have beer there. I'm dry enough to wish half a jugful, and that after a dose of that medicine Anna got herself into.”

“Best do that before I show you what you-all need to learn about these,” I said. “They don't clean like common muskets, and...” I thought, “will they need to clean them?”

“Not now they will,” said the soft voice. “You cleaned out nearly all of the witches in the central part of the first kingdom, and up where they are, they won't see hardly any witches until those people from the second kingdom start showing in numbers.” The unspoken portion I could decipher readily: I would be back here by then, most likely.

“I know about that,” said Willem the smaller, “and so I hope I can learn enough to keep what I used tonight shooting, even if I am sore enough to want Geneva for rubbing.” A pause, then a soft mutter, “thank God for Paul and his mash-tubs.”

“Uh, his Geneva?” I asked.

“It's decent for rubbing, even if I'm less inclined to drink it than I once was,” said Willem. “The taste has gotten to be too much for me, unless I'm sick and needing it.” A pause, then, “about all he needs is one of those all-metal grain-grinders to do better, and I've got a place where he can hide it if he wants to make sure it stays in town when those stinkers come.”

As Willem talked, the last bags finally arrived, and once I had moved those to the walls for ready access, the men who had come with us gathered around the table. I had an interested and 'attentive' audience, even if I could smell the beer being consumed. I then noticed I had a cup with a sliced piece of a yellow-fruit in it, and I drained it in a trice.

“You need a dose,” said Anna – who then 'dosed me' as if she had had lessons from Sarah.

“Gah!” I spat.

“No, beer,” said Anna, who refilled my cup. “About two more cups of beer, and those heat-waves I saw should stop coming off of you.”

“Best give him some bread, then,” said Sepp. “If you see those, he's in trouble, and no mistake.” A pause, then, “I'd get into some honey, and put that on the bread, in fact.”

Someone must have been thinking that very thing, for within perhaps ten seconds, I was handed a small tin plate with a thick slice of bread brushed liberally with honey. As I ate it, for some reason, I seemed to suddenly become much calmer, so much so that I yawned.

“Good,” said Anna. “I suspect you could teach, now.”

“I cannot teach unless I am dosed?” I asked calmly between bites. I was hungrier than I thought I could be.

“You can, but some you're teaching might be either too tired to pay close attention, or not inclined overmuch to think, and either of those things can cause you to become frustrated,” said Anna. “I had no idea as to why you might become so until I came back from that smelly place and all of my hair fell off.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“It lay upon the floor for a slow count of ten before it left,” said Anna, “and I had to bathe to get the stink off of me.” She then held up her arm, and asked me, “do I still smell?”

I sniffed, and faintly, I seemed to smell an odor too familiar to be from any place other than 'Brimstone Village' or wherever that one huge reptile had been lurking.

“Best rub yourself down with Geneva, dear,” I said. “I can still smell...” I turned, then sneezed, this so hard that I was surprised to see something fly across the room and out of the door. “What was that?”

“The reek of hell,” said Anna. “I'll need to bathe again, and this time with two soaps, one after the other, so as to get that stink off of me, as that stink will be in my nightmares otherwise.”

“You'll wish a larger dose,” said Sarah, “as will I, and everyone else who came with us to the Abbey today.” A glance around, then, “once you all have had your beer, then he needs to show you how these things are cleaned.”

That took perhaps another two minutes, during which time I needed to visit the privy, then wash my hands before eating another slice of bread spread thickly with honey. Sepp spoke of fry-breads, for some reason.

“We'll need to keep Karl clear of those vendors, then,” said Sarah. “There might be only a few places that boil those things regularly that I know of them, but two of those places are in that port, and they get much custom from sailors.”

“Hence they open early, and close late,” I murmured. “Now, first. This is a rifle. It is not what Willem fires, so it is not a gun...”

Faintly, I could hear an eerie chant, one that spoke of the difference between a rifle and a gun and how one was for killing and the other for something worse yet. I thought to 'overwrite it' by going on.

“The difference between the two, I can show you,” I said, as I pushed the pin and 'broke' the rifle. Pulling out the bolt and bolt-carrier by the charging handle, I set them down on the rag, then said, “now, if you hold this thing up to the light and look up the barrel, you should see a number of spiraling grooves in it. A musket, at least a common one, has no such things, which is why those work for both shot and balls.”

“And these would have trouble passing a larger pellet of common shot,” said Willem the smaller. “They kill worse than a tin-shell if you can see what you're shooting at, but forget using them on marmots.”

“Was it you that shot that animal?” I asked calmly. I was feeling calmer by the minute, and I really wanted to yawn now – if not actually take a nap.

“No, not me, even if I saw what had happened to it as I drove past,” said Paul.

My cup was full once more, and I sipped from it, slowly, so as to get the nourishment I needed. This was in my next thoughts, in fact: “I hope I can get some vitamins over there.” Pause. “I'll bet I need them.”

“Hence the beer,” said the soft voice. “At least for now, that's the best that can be done.”

“And there?” I thought.

“You'll get that issue properly addressed, as well as many others,” said the soft voice. “Now continue dismantling the rifles while that one goes around. You don't have enough time to spend the hours that would be needed to teach most of these men how to properly clean these weapons.”

“Then what can I do?” I thought.

“Clean the one when it comes back, and ask Sarah to help you clean the other weapons like it while showing these men what they're able to see,” said the soft voice. “Have them scrub the barrels from the breech with the cleaning rod and some bits of clean rags so they can see the 'soot' that these get inside them, then let them wipe down the other parts with an oily rag, and then have put them attempt to put them back in – and I would be most-careful with everyone here save perhaps Gustav and smaller Willem, as they're not used to equipment that needs real care to reassemble.”

“What?” I thought.

“The witches have done their work well over the years,” said the soft voice. “Recall how everything having more than perhaps ten parts is thought to be the work and property of a witch by a great many?” A pause, then, “while none of these men and women believe that, the result is – for them – that they're almost entirely unfamiliar with any device having more parts than they have fingers and toes; and precise work, save for the two people mentioned, is 'the width of a thumb' outside of a few certain areas which vary some, depending on the person.” Another pause, then, “undoing that way of thinking was entrusted to the fifth pendant, and its bearer was devoured when he thought to turn arch-witch.”

“And forget about dismantling the pistols,” I thought. “Best just have them swab their barrels with aquavit and a section of cleaning rod...”

I turned to look at Sarah. She shook her head in negation.

“No?” I asked. This was audible.

“Not one of these men has ever done that,” said Sarah, “and if those pistols are complex enough to need you spending hours learning how to clean them with a manual in hand, then forget trying to teach anyone in this house, or anywhere else for that matter, until you can spend hours doing that and then more hours yet teaching people.”

“I think that is why you'll need to redo these things,” said Anna. “I might manage to swab them out with aquavit and then dose them with oil, if I can find that kind of time and do nothing else for the whole of it.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “Even you, dear. Those weapons aren't like the rifles, or even the machine-pistols for cleaning. They're closer to a navigating timer for complexity, which is the chief reason for his needing to redesign them.”

“Then why do we even have them?” asked Anna.

“Because firstly, they are better than what you commonly use, and not a little better,” said the soft voice. “There will be a fair number of 'hard-witches' coming, and those either need 'third eyeholes' put in their skulls or a weapon that hits hard enough to put them down right away.” A pause, then, “those pistols will do that, even if they are very difficult to clean and prone to misbehavior, at least at this time.” A pause, then, “there is a fair amount that can be done to improve them, and that will be done fairly quickly, but in the process of his doing what can be done, he'll learn just what needs to be done to make a design that will work like a pistol should while not being overly difficult to clean.”

“I heard most of that,” said Willem the smaller. “I think if they quit, then we had best put them away until you've time to learn their tricks, and only use them if we must until then.”

“That would be best, if they are that complicated,” I said. “Hours?” I asked.

The impression I had was accentuated by the limited time I would have, then I asked, “how many rounds would they manage without cleaning?”

“Enough to give you the needed time,” said the soft voice. “Remember, a pistol, especially these, is a last-ditch weapon, and all of these men both have knives and know how to use them for fighting.”

I now broke open another rifle, and while Sarah took it so as to show the various men present how to clean the thing, I began wiping off the bolt and bolt carrier with that one oily rag I had. The odor it had once had had dissipated to a marked degree, so much so that once I wiped off the parts in question, I thought to pinch them. I might learn something of the stuff's friction-reducing capabilities that way.

The bolt-carrier spat out of my fingers, and only quick work with my other hand caught it in time.

“I think that to be your answer,” said Sarah. “If you clean these weapons, they'll manage two of those magazines, and that, I think, is as much as any one of these men is likely to shoot before we get back.”

“Even larger Willem?”

“Aye,” he said. “They work well, but much of what I think I'll be doing was like tonight, where one wishes loopers or stiff shot for work at close distances.”

“And I have a weapon that can shoot long, even if these do that better,” said Gustav. He'd moved closer, so as to watch what I was doing. “Now that part, I most likely can manage, so if any one here gets to needing these things cleaned between now and the time you get back, I suspect I could do it up for them.”

“And you, Willem?” I asked. “Can you keep Paul out of trouble?”

“I suspect so,” he said. “He comes over often enough, and I suspect I can teach Esther. She learns quicker than almost anyone I've seen save Sarah and you yourself.”

“And I can keep Karl and Sepp out of trouble,” I murmured. I then looked at Sarah, and saw that she was pointing out some critical issues regarding cleaning.

“No, this is not a musket,” she said, pointing to the barrel and then the cleaning rod with its filthy rag reeking of aquavit. “You know how to clean those out right, don't you?”

“The way I was taught was wrong?” asked Paul innocently. I suspected 'wrong' was the usual when it came to weapons-cleaning in the first kingdom, save among those few who lived in a kill-or-be-killed environment much or all of the time.

“I think so,” said Hans. “For the first part, most muskets are not done so as to be easy to clean, and then for the second, there is much dirt that gets in certain places, so one must take out the breech-plug every so often.” Hans looked at the bolt and bolt-carrier, then said, “and this is like one of those things, so it needs to be taken out and cleaned good regular, is what I think, and the best way, if you want to use things we have, is to put some aquavit to it, wipe it off good, shake it some, wipe it again, and then put some oil to it, like that stuff I make or this other stuff I can smell that is like a lemon-fruit for odor.”

“That would be this special blue oil that likes to escape,” said Sarah. “It needs these special bottles, and there are some weapons that need it to work well.” A pause, then, “that one weapon he used tonight to clean out those witches will wish it, as we will be using both of those things much on that trip.”

With 'smaller' Willem at my left, and Gustav at my right, I began cleaning another rifle, and as I did weapon after weapon and the pile of dirty 'rag-bits' steadily grew larger, my hands learned their business. I had to correct both men, however, when it came time for them to reassemble the parts, even if they picked up the other portions quickly enough; and as I slipped the third such rifle back together and pressed in the pin, I thought, “how long did teaching this stuff take in the past?”

“Much of a week, at least prior to the war,” said the soft voice. “They then did things by the numbers, and they drilled recruits relentlessly until they could do most of what was needed to keep these weapons running no matter what the conditions were and no matter how tired they happened to be.”

“Were those people 'mechanically illiterate'?” I thought.

“Nearly as much as those in the first kingdom today, though for entirely different reasons,” said the soft voice. “They are a good deal less so today, so it will not take hours for most of those overseas.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah as I added another filthy rag-bit to the growing mound of dirty bits of rag and Sarah handed me another one. It looked to be a small piece of an old diaper, one which had come from Anna's ready-to-sell bag. I hoped our used cleaning patches could be laundered and then sold just the same. “Did they take a week just to learn these, or was it for all that they carried?”

“I suspect it was a week just for these, dear,” I said. “They didn't train people quickly, at least until the war started in earnest.”

“They took longer then,” said the soft voice, “and they pushed them a lot harder as well.”

“Blindfolded assembly?” I asked.

And daily cleaning, and daily inspections of all weapons – and both of those things no matter what had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours, and that no matter where they might find themselves,” said the soft voice. “They then knew proper-functioning weapons meant their survival, and they also knew that the enemy would throw enough people at most positions that it didn't matter if their equipment was garbage in comparison.” A pause, then, “when you're having human wave attacks coming one wave after another in a big hurry, you rapidly get into that region where quantity has a quality all of its own.”

“I heard that,” said Anna. “Now I might need practice with mine, and I will put that practice in as soon as I can, so I hope I get time to get it before you-all leave.” Then, in softer voice, “if not, then I hope I do not need to shoot much, as I will have trouble otherwise.”

Sarah shook her head, then said, “with these, they need to be filthy to not work – or so we were told.”

“That does not mean one wishes to ignore them, though,” said Anna. “I will do what I can. I just hope that is enough, and I'll make certain Hans does likewise.”

And yet, for some odd reason, I felt oddly 'quiet' as I cleaned another rifle's barrel out with patch after patch, then used a brush for the chamber followed by a larger piece of rag. Our visitors from the Valley, those that would show within a day or two, would either be people comfortable with such equipment, or know of those who were; and that settled my mind.

“That, and expect Anna to show up when you teach that handful of guards the day after tomorrow,” said the soft voice. “If Hans can be spared, expect him also, as both of them will be doing a fair amount of shooting compared to most of those currently in the house – both here, and in the house proper.”

“I thought so,” said Anna. “Hans, we'd best be there, even if we must go without food or sleep.” Pause, then, “I do not wish to go back to that place where I ate grass.”

“I am not wanting to do that much either, Anna,” said Hans. “Now those of you here, you'd best do as well as you can, as you do not want to be in a place that smells worse than the fifth kingdom house on its bad days and eating grass and getting stinky while doing it – and if a witch gets to you while you have a stuck weapon, then you will do that thing, and that for the rest of time.”

The silence that fell upon the assembled persons was audible; I could actually hear the hush; and while I suspected Hans' theology was more than a little off, I was not about to dispute it overmuch, not while I wore a pendant – a pendant that owned me, body and soul.

The former examples had devoured those who had worn them, and they were not as the one I was wearing.

That thing had its own set of teeth, and calling them mere 'teeth' was to belittle them greatly.