A long trip 'cross country'.

This time of harnessing horses went surprisingly fast – my hands were learning their business – and not two minutes later, we were traveling north along the wharf. The amount of wharf-work was surprising, and while every person present that I could see was armed with at least a revolver, to my surprise, I saw first one cannon, then another, and three men standing by them. They were sited on a stone-topped rise to our left with a smoothly graded path leading up to it, and sited so as to fire more or less 'downstream' at a raking angle. The platform was rimmed in front and to the sides, for secure footing.

“That is a short gun-team,” said Sarah. “Hallo! You men? Do you have those loaded with round-shot, or shells?”

“Shells, miss,” said one of the man. “They're the tipped type, they're hard to get, but these guns are as tight as they go and each such shell is fitted carefully to the gun it will be fired in – and I had my gunnery lessons from Manfred himself.”

“Good,” said Sarah, as we came even with them. “Those will be hard to shift with but the three of you.”

“Yes, I know,” said the man. “However, we've noted pretty much where to expect witches to show as of late, so we should not have to shift them much.” Pause, then, “of course, sometimes we get other witches showing, and then we get help in a hurry, as people stand watch up here day and night, and all hours of both.”

“Then you should have less trouble than I thought,” said Sarah. “Now we must go, but our horses must get their strides first, and then we shall hie ourselves.” Pause, then, “they stuffed them with mash, and I had all I could do to get them into that lift.”

“Stuffed?” I asked. I only now recalled missing 'the food preparation facilities' in the place, but I had a feeling those were not only 'not very important', but that I would learn a lot more about those overseas anyway. Besides, a 'training camp' run like Berky was not going to have good facilities of any kind, and what I had seen, if anything, had well-beyond-confirmed matters on that score.

“Yes, honey-sweetened mash, also,” said Sarah. “I am glad they were not donkeys, as those tend to be most restless when given such food.”

“Restless?” I asked.

“They do not act like mules,” said Sarah as we came to the 'chute' and I moved nearer the side of the road to see the wheel and its water, “even if they're most-inclined to travel rapidly.” Pause. “We can stop for a bit if you must watch that wheel turn.”

“No, just need to see it,” I said. “I know how those work, and we will need to speak to Willem once we're at his town about water-power and what he can do with that, if it's possible to do so.”

“That would be Laidaan,” said Sarah. “It is not a common name, nor is that place a common town.” Pause, then, “there is the wheel, right there.”

Sarah had stopped, and now, I had a chance to look at this device. Of stained wood, this thick, well-joined, stout, and regularly maintained, the wheel turned slow, majestic, and unstoppable, the water cascading into each bucket with relentless force. This thing needed a foot-thick shaft, this of a metal at once hard as stone and polished to a smoothness greater than a good mirror; and this thing did not receive tallow. It never had, as it had to keep turning, as those managing it were among the 'pillars' of their community. Hence, the best that could be possibly had was used for keeping this thing turning; and every year, there were days when the whole community turned out to 'renovate' the wheel, usually during High Summer. The oil they used to preserve it dried fastest then, and Ploetzee was otherwise less-occupied than its usual frenetic pace. Only now did I feel clearly the 'real' level of industry there; it was closer to that of the fourth kingdom than around here, and people commonly worked longer hours in Ploetzee than was usual for the first kingdom.

“That thing has to be forty feet in diameter, and four feet across, and each bucket is the size of Sarah's buggy,” I squeaked. “Torque? That thing is a torque-monster.”

“Given who originally planned it, that should not surprise you,” said the soft voice. “You're seeing some of Rachel's work right there.” A pause, then, “she did much of the planning for the town, even if she did it while still within Vrijlaand's territory.”

“She did not come here?” I asked.

“No, and she did not need to, as she had learned all too much about this place before she'd been 'conscripted',” said the soft voice. “She worked here for a time as a 'half-slave', meaning she was much like those where you worked that were full employees – save with a small fraction of the benefits.”

“Why?” asked Sarah, as we resumed our travel along the dike. I could see now why they would have an upstream cove and a downstream cove, and why the downstream cove was further north by nearly a mile. Rachel had most-obviously dammed the river to give that steady fall of water.

“Why did she work here?” I asked. “Probably forced to by some witch or another. Things worked that way then.” I then had an idea regarding when water-power wasn't to be had, and spoke of it a second later. “Save during the winter,” I murmured. “The river's iced up then – or is it?”

“No, that wheel turns every day of the year save when the spillway of the dam is opened and the sluice is closed for the wheel's yearly servicing,” said the soft voice. “Now, let your horses out as they loosen up, as once you see that cove, then the road from it turns off sharply west – and you'll wish to follow it as long as it travels fairly true by compass heading and head off of it when it bends away some miles from where it leaves this road.”

“This is not that one road, is it?” I asked. I meant that used so much in the past by witch-traffic.

“You'll cross the path of that road when you 'break out' of this one,” said the soft voice. “That road more or less peters out two miles north of Ploetzee and restarts about two miles south, and the area in between, if witches were involved, either involved a river crossing or travel via narrow and rough roads that tend to cause coaches and other heavy badly-maintained vehicles to break down constantly.”

With the passing minutes, our horses indeed 'loosened up', and while I ate and drank, I noted the countryside. It felt like the very beginning of summer, about midday or perhaps an hour later, and as Jaak and Sarah's team settled into their steady 'cruising speed', the two of us side by side, Sarah said, “we are going as fast as most postal buggies, right now, and that when they have light loads and fresh teams.”

“Dust,” I said. “I'm glad for these goggles, as they keep the dust out of my eyes.”

“This road is not bad for dust, even at these speeds,” said Sarah, “but if you get into one of those other buggies, the ones which rear up like mules and roar like a lion out of the book, then you will leave a lot of dust behind you.”

“Rear up?” I asked.

“Yes, and they do roar,” said Sarah. “That is when they begin to fling dirt, and that noise will scare every witch within miles.” A pause, then, “however, that is but the beginning for those things, as those do not merely roar.”

“What else do they do?”

“Scream like a large dark gray cat when it is after witches,” said Sarah. “I have heard those cats spoken of as 'roaring', but they do not do that.” Pause, then, “not after dealing with that smelly lizard at the Abbey. That thing roared, and that is not the sound of a large dark gray cat.”

“What do those s-sound like?” I asked. That cove was coming up fast. The road would cut off just after it, and while we could go as we were for a while, there would be roads a bit too narrow for side-by-side travel in the process of getting that stolen buggy to its owner. I then was distracted by a low-pitched growl within my mind – and then, frightened out of my mind.

This sound – it was very loud – was definitely that of a stereotypical lion, but when the animal in question decided it wanted to make its presence known, it again growled.

Louder. Much louder. This was not the growl of a lion, but something worse.

This second vocalization started as a growl, deep-pitched; then, rapidly, it built like the crash of an avalanche to a roar like thunder; then, that sound rapidly rose in pitch to a diabolical-sounding panther-scream so high-pitched that it shook the planet – a deafening scream, one that could be heard for miles. That was the animal's hunting call, as the puma-sized cat in question then shot into the air like a bullet and rocketed after a witch, flinging dirt like a hard-running open-class motocross bike as it ran.

At least, the cat did when it launched. I then knew better as it accelerated harder.

These cats slung dirt, grass, and mud behind them in a manner more appropriate to a lightning-hare's 'thunder-run' when at speed – and that was if one did not make allowances for the difference in size.

The cat shot past the witch with a speed-blurred rush, but the witch, while running, suddenly stopped and fell, a ripped-to-shreds bundle of rags, then as the cat saw another witch, it did a turn...

A nine-G turn, one where the cat turned on the smallest coin imaginable while running at its full-out speed, and it slung dirt crazily for nearly a hundred feet in multiple directions at once as its 'track spikes' fought for traction to prevent 'oversteer'. Three bounds, and it shot over this second witch, this time in slow motion...

The forepaws came down, these moving so fast they still seemed blurred, then the 'video' or 'movie' slowed even more to show the hooked claws – these razor-sharp, nearly an inch and a half long, and sharply pointed – come out of the cat's paws. Only those eight latest knives were sharper, and them, not by much.

It made me wonder about my claws when I was in 'hairy' mode. I then resumed watching this 'cat' that thought itself a two-ton razor-clawed weasel with a bad attitude and a long-pondered score to settle – with said weasel having some very powerful rockets for forward propulsion, and gimbaled nozzles for vectored thrust.

The witch's head suddenly 'vanished' in a spray of blood as the claws swung down in a flurry of precise yet blinding-fast ripping blows, then as the rear paws of the cat passed in ultra-slow motion, the two-inch long 'track spikes' spiked deep into the witch's chest and flung him backwards a good thirty feet as the cat 'launched' downrange off of his still-standing corpse.

They also ripped his heart clean out of his chest and flung it high into the air, so much so that it seemed to vanish for several seconds.

“My God,” I gasped, as this crazed cat shot around like a dark gray comet and ripped to shreds witches – singly, or in groups, it mattered not; this cat was no mere lion.

It made 'lions' as I knew of them look to be altogether tame and weak, and while I had once seen a movie, one involving two most-dangerous lions, this – this, I had but one phrase to describe it, and a certain dark gray long-haired cat I had once known figured prominently into this phrase, which I said as tall trees wiped out the sun and the road suddenly widened to thrice its former width.

The smoke and the darkness,” I intoned, this as if shuddering with horror. “That cat was both of those things, as it flew like smoke and left darkness and death in its wake – and it killed witches so rapidly they had no chance in this world or the next one.”

“Just like that one character named Finuegen,” said Sarah. “I think he could have taken lessons from you, though, if I go by what kind of things he did.” Pause, then, “this must be the downstream cove, and I... There. There is the wharf, and I'm glad it looks to be well-built and sizable, as that boat will need such a wharf for its loading.”

“For its assembly?” I asked. This was a stone wharf, thankfully; it was done much like that long thing we had seen earlier, and looked altogether usable. “It will not travel assembled, will it?”

“No, which is why there is a special wagon, one called a trailer, that was made specially to carry it and all of its pieces.” Pause, then, “I'm most glad they used sleeved wheels on that one.”

“Where did they get those?”

“They came up from the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah, “and all those things were tied with string. They looked to have been rouge-lapped with care, and I tested the fit of one before it went in the wheel and on the axle. It was a good fit indeed, and it will wear in before that thing goes a mile with that team.”

“That team?” I asked.

“The four horses you-all used for the buggies while on that trip,” said Sarah. “They're well-matched, and good animals also, especially since they've been properly shod.”

“Uh, down in the fourth kingdom,” I said. “This one really strange place, one where I learned about what some call those black-dressed stinkers.”

“Pfuddaarn,” spat Sarah. “They are that.”

“Yes, but do you know what that word means?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Sarah. “Good, there is a drag, even if it's not terribly big as such things go. We will need such a thing to put that boat in the water once it goes together.” Pause, then, “that word you said speaks of their odor, and it's a bad way of speaking of one or more of the Valley's words.”

“As in Annistæ would know its correct form?” I asked. “She most likely would, given that that pair of words combined that way is a pretty serious oath in that Totem.”

“It is?” asked Sarah. “Best watch for the turn, as this one's nearly as tricky as that which goes into Ploetzee.”

Sarah was correct, and I had to locate this turn, as while the road leading up was a fairly wide one – easily fifteen feet between its ditches – it did curve off suddenly, and did so amid the woodlot that now put the entire road in deep shade. We turned, this going at the sharp angle, and in the shade, I took out my compass. It had that eerie faint bluish glowing, and I 'shot' the angle to the Abbey.

“Good, we're but ten degrees, perhaps fifteen, off of our target,” I said. “If we continue on this heading, we'll hit the road about half a mile from the place, if that.”

“Closer to 'just south of that bridge', actually,” said the soft voice. “Take a note of that compass heading, then when the road bends more than twenty degrees from where it currently is, leave the road and go cross-country by compass heading as you are able – and be prepared for domestic pigs, small groups of fleeing witches, and occasional gun-teams practicing.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “As soon as the planting is done, it's time to swab out the barrels of those things and get filthy with soot sending shells and round-shots into the trees or wherever the cannon-master thinks a good target to be sitting.” Pause. “The best pointer gets filled with beer after a day's gun-practice.”

“Did that happen to you?” I asked.

“Twice in the potato country, and three times up here, all three of those times in Laidaan,” said Sarah. “I've slept a number of times in the manse there, and twice in Paul's barn.”

“His barn?” I asked.

“Their twins were sick with the crae those times, and I had no desire to catch it,” said Sarah. “I've about had done with that sickness, and if it means I must swallow cough medicine until I see four of everything, then that is just what I will do should I feel sick and think it to be the crae.”

We broke out of the woodlot but minutes later, and as far as I could see – perhaps two miles, maybe three – our current road went more or less straight. After that, it would begin a gentle curve to roughly due west, and that would be when we would need to leave it. I suspected Sarah resolved to get more beer-jugs in Laidaan, as Hans had once spoken of how Esther collected the things. She was a 'fiend' when it came to making up beer; twenty jugs in a day were not too much for her when she was 'up' to such matters.

Currently she was, and given that she'd done her 'regular' cleaning – she had a good deal less of it now, due to the sheer scarcity of witches and the near-total lack of witch-houses that were filled with dark antiques that needed long hours of oiling to retain that horrifying darkness so desired of witchdom – she had done up a month's worth of beer, this in two days of hard labor.

Paul liked his beer, and he liked the stuff to set 'a month of days' before he was inclined to uncork a jug – while Esther was concerned more with the stuff's nourishment. Hence Esther's mass-production escapades worked especially well for their family – and of course, Esther hoarded beer-jugs.

She did not merely put beer in them, however. She set traps with some frequency, and her 'favorite' one involved dynamite, a mostly-full jug filled with heavy distillate mingled with tool-cleaner, and a trio of friction-igniters, two rigged so they would 'attract' the witches who didn't stumble over them – most did, but some witches saw them in time – and the third one put underneath the trap, so the clever witch would be set alight when he tried to steal an 'obvious' trap for his own use.

“Doesn't even hide those things,” I muttered. “Now how does she put the dynamite on them so it isn't obvious?”

“I think she digs the stuff out of those sticks it comes in with an old brass spoon and puts it into a pair of old pie-plates, and I know she uses the strongest stuff she can find, the best friction igniters she can get, and the stiffest caps she can find – and each of those things gets either three or four caps.”

“Four?” I asked.

“If she puts two caps on the bottom to trap her trap,” said Sarah, “she puts a second one of those pie-tins filled with dynamite-meal under the regular trap with a thin covering of dirt to hide it, and then ties thin fishing string to her igniter from the jug's handle.” Pause, then, “if she has the time to do that kind of a trap, then it always catches at least one witch, or so she's told me – and she's not good at lying, and that much I can tell you for certain.”

“My, so it isn't just me who rigs witches and things, as well as thinks about anti-tampering mechanisms,” I murmured. “Good that she does so.”

“I hope that Hans does not have you attempt to make those things his grandfather drew up,” said Sarah. “I think that those were done badly in their drawings, as even if you made them they'd still be too dangerous to use.”

“Yes, for most people,” said the soft voice. “That device is something Hans' grandfather came up with from scratch, and as he was not nearly as aware of the tricks of metalworking as your husband-to-be, his design has some serious flaws.”

“Meaning, even if the thing is made right... Duh, I know just what the main troublemaker is.

“What would that be?” asked Sarah.

“This one trigger-arm or whatever it's actually called,” I said. “It's curved, and that's what gives that device a lot of its 'hair-trigger' nature – as if this thing is made of good steel, and it's made right, a mouse pulling on a piece of bread could set it off consistently.”

“I know that,” said Sarah hysterically. “That is just the trouble with those, and that would be so even if you made them as per his drawings.” Pause, then, “how would you make those things better?”

“First, a lot less curve in that lever arm, then put the point where you put the string up near where the 'sear' fits into the notch. The curve of that thing determines a lot of the sensitivity, and I think he went for 'as sensitive as I can get', knowing that his design would be especially critical in every detail, and he thought to live with the hazards of using such a device if it got pigs and those tin-wearing thugs with any real frequency.”

Pause, then, “if you get rid of most of that curve, make the enlarged pivot point out of truly hard steel – not just cooked overnight, but hard stuff that's been cooked for days and then oil-quenched and doused in water while still smoking – and then machine the whole thing so that it was 'tight enough to be really precise, but loose enough to work freely' – then, it would be sensitive, but it would not be too sensitive.”

“He did get swine, and that more often than anyone I've heard of,” said Sarah. “You may or may not be close to having more notches for your stick, but I know you will pass him before this summer ends, at least when it comes to Norden-swine.”

“Common pigs?”

“I'm not sure he ever saw those things,” said Sarah. “He might not have been looking for them, though, as from what Hans told me, he tended to be the busiest person he'd ever seen until you showed up.”

“Which is one of the chief matters he was trying to teach Hans,” said the soft voice. “He was trying to show him by example so he could better help 'that poor dark-haired fellow who will be so sick and need so much help'.”

“Not merely because...” I paused, as I could see our path. “Turn off about another hundred yards. The ditch is easiest there, even if it's a little sooner, and I'll find your path, as there is a boggy stretch ahead of us and it's more than a little treacherous.”

“It is?” said Sarah in amazement.

“This area soaks up rain, for some reason,” I said. “I think I know why, also. It used to be a coal-pit, and once it was filled back with surplus manure of one kind or another, it was buried again.” Pause, then, “it has about twenty years to go before it turns into 'brown coal', and if they wish the black stuff, they need to wait another two hundred years.”

“Yes, if they dig it out of the ground by then,” said the soft voice. “Digging coal out of the ground is going to become a very rare business within a bit more than a year, at least in the first kingdom, and points south will cease such digging entirely before the Curse is entirely broken.”

“Why will they still dig coal here, then?” asked Sarah.

“They won't,” I said. “I think he meant, 'the first kingdom, for so long the last of all, shall become as its name implies, and it will be the most advanced place on the continent, and that soonest – and that because it must become so that it may survive'.”

“Precisely correct,” said the soft voice. “Now slow here, turn into the ditch, and then out of it. Slow as you can, as while this is by far the best spot for this area and this road, it isn't the easiest ditch to get in and out of.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, as Jaak slowed to a walk and I pointed out the spots where the footing was likely to be surest.

Jaak managed the ditch fine, and for some odd reason, Sarah's buggy had far less trouble than I thought it would. She then told me why.

“I think you spoke to all of them when you did so, as I could see the places pointed out clearly, this first in my mind and then where he put his shoes,” said Sarah. “Now, you're right. This area is known for being boggy, but I always thought it was because of all the fighting that has happened in this area.”

“Fighting?” I asked.

“I've fired cannons twice in this area since I came up here to stay,” said Sarah, “and then another time about a mile and a half north of here and a bit east.” Pause. “That was when I dug a hole for my gun's tail and hit two of their boats as they fled downstream.”

I found that following the compass caused trouble while in the boggy section, and I was very glad when we hit a road going 'close' to the right direction. However, this road soon curved away, and we again needed to go cross-country.

Here, however, there was much firmer footing, and I used my compass to correct our path. I then 'saw' the Abbey.

“About another two to four miles, dear,” I said. “Perhaps half an hour.”

“Yes, and we will wish beer, bread, water for the horses, and perhaps speech with Willem the larger,” said Sarah. “We have beer and bread, as they filled all of our jugs.” Pause, then, “I'm going to need a bush or copse shortly, as I must do my business.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “There's one. I'll watch guard while you, uh, 'go'.”

While Sarah took perhaps two minutes, I only needed to take half of that; I just wormed my way into the foliage a bit, then moved my trousers down and undid the string of my underwear. We were on our way a minute or two later, though I soon learned another matter.

My water-bottle was empty, and I needed a refill. Another minute, this to get more bread as well as beer, and we were once more traveling. Again, I wondered about 'functionary food facilities', and then thought, “given who those people were, anything would either need to be very simple... Some of what was in those bins in that room where I found the shotgun? Was that their food? How would they feed that many of those stinkers, unless they brought them up recently?”

As the minutes passed, I could feel – and, now, I realized, smell – the fields of farmers ahead, and accordingly, I bore to the right so as to skirt them. While it would mean going through a woodlot, I felt confident I could find a path that would work.

“Are you heading for that narrow road up ahead?” asked Sarah. “It is a mean and hard crossing of that ditch there, as it is a deep and a wide one to get up onto that main road.”

“And then how far to the Abbey?” I asked.

“A mile, and that at the most, and that would be a fast mile, also,” said Sarah. “I do not know of a better way that does not involve traveling down the lanes of farmer's fields, and those are both prone to bogging and being easy to put a wheel where it does not belong.”

“Then I guess we do the crossing carefully,” I said. A pause, then, “I wonder how well those, uh, strange roaring buggies will work regarding ditches?”

“I would be frightened out of my mind to take one into a ditch,” said Sarah. “They are as large as this buggy, or perhaps a foot longer, they weigh but somewhat more without people, they do not use horses, and only one thing I know gets up to its best speed quicker, and I am not sure if those go faster than these buggies do or not.”

“What would that be?” I asked. I could now see farmers, these men vigilant, walking the easternmost portions of their fields, and every single one of these men was carrying a weapon of some kind. A booming roar, followed by a screeching noise, told me of one reason why they were 'packing iron' as the saying went in some places far to the south.

“A lightning-hare,” said Sarah. “Those things may be the largest animals I have ever seen, but I have seen them a number of times, and thrice I have worn their dirt from when they either shot past me as I was traveling in the southern portions of the fourth kingdom or many parts of the fifth, or leaped over me and dumped a buggy-full of dirt on me.”

“Seeing the hare,” I said. “I know about that tendency those things have for causing dirt-storms.”

“Lukas told me about that business,” said Sarah. “He's about the only person I know well who has seen those things more than I have.”

I then recalled a certain matter, this being the gold I had found after my first instance of eating 'hare-dirt'. I wondered where it had gone, then thought to ask Sarah.

“Oh, that,” said Sarah. “You had it laid out two days after you returned from that trip, it had a tag on it saying it was special gold for a ring, and Anna took it to Andreas.” Pause, then, “I think it was enough to make this one and several more like it, actually.”

“He's got the rest of that gold put aside for your other jewelery, dear,” said the soft voice.

“O-other jewelry?” said Sarah with alarm. “Why would I wish other jewelery?”

“Because I might wish to give you something?” I asked. “Because you are very special to me, and if you asked me for a huge rock, I'd do anything short of something illegal or immoral to get it for you.”

“What would I do with a huge r-rock?” asked Sarah. “You do not mean a commonplace rock, do you?”

“No, a very special one, one that you happened to like especially,” I said softly, as I lead due north. I'd missed the trail by perhaps four hundred feet, though as I found the edge of the last farmer's field, I led off roughly northwest. The woodlot was perhaps two hundred yards further, and the sense I had was I was wanting a real honest-to-God 'deer rifle' within perhaps two months – as then there would be 'prime' animals, these a year or perhaps two old, full-fattened, full of themselves, inclined toward charging, and difficult to stop.

They just weren't as dangerous as elk were, even if the deer here were on the verge of being considered 'dangerous game'.

“No 'on the verge' regarding deer here,” said the soft voice. “Deer do kill their share of hunters here, especially the larger animals of three and four years of size.” Pause, then, “compared to elk, they're not as tough to stop, but compared to most herbivores where you come from, they're very tough and irritable animals indeed – about like some of the truly large ones found far to the north of where you last lived, the ones that weigh a good portion of two thousand pounds.”

“What?” I gasped. “M-moose?”

“Those are a bit less dangerous than the deer here,” said the soft voice. “Deer here require a bit less stopping power, compared to a large example of a moose.”

“I am glad elk do not get that large here,” said Sarah, “though I have heard tales of large elk.”

“Those do exist,” said the soft voice, “but currently, their population is quite small, they stay in regions that have enough vegetation to support an animal that large, and then they tend to avoid people.” Pause, then, “be glad those do not have the same temperament as their far-more-common smaller relatives, as then they'd be a good deal worse than Iron Pigs wearing full plate.”

“If these are as large as I suspect them to be, they need close to ten square miles of good forest and grasslands to keep in decent condition,” I murmured. “That's for one animal – and if you get two in that much area, they'll both die of starvation sooner rather than later.”

“Not in the first year, but they would by the third such year,” said the soft voice. “Note that when the Curse breaks entirely, those animals will become significantly more numerous, due to increased landmass and more forage available for them, and their territory will be far larger than it is now.” Pause, then, “they'll still stay well clear of people, though – unlike the usual type of elk, which will become much more numerous also.”

“First, we will be deluged with Miura showing all over the place, and then we will hearing blaring elk-calls every day of the year,” I muttered. “Oh, good, there's that path.”

“I h-hope not,” said Sarah. “That first word you used – what does it mean?”

“Uh, 'mean black cattle' gone wild,” I said. “They're in the mood right now, so I should expect some young ones next year.”

“Try more like 'a lot of young ones' next year, as more of those animals have escaped in the last few days from places witches had penned them in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “Because Norden's weather will stay put this coming winter, there won't be anywhere close to this last winter's die-off of animals, and then because this coming winter will be relatively mild compared to its usual, the animals will drop their young a month or more early compared to the usual – which means some of them will be large enough to be worth the trouble by Harvest Day next year, and a fair number by the end of harvest-time, with the wintering animals steadily growing larger due to the light and thin coatings of snow and other matters that will be different in this area compared to how it is now.”

“And that winter that comes after this next one?” I asked.

“Milder yet,” said the soft voice. “So mild, in fact, that you'll be able to head out two months earlier than most expect you to, and hence that part of the Curse will break early.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. I could see the road ahead, though for some reason, I could plainly feel 'Chucky' in the area, and I pulled my machine pistol down from its slung position and chambered a round.

“This one's really tricky,” I thought, as I sighted on the track ahead – and when I felt him break out of the trees, I fired a single round as I 'tracked' him. I'd more or less centered his upper torso by 'feel' alone.

The resulting fiery explosion was so intense that Jaak nearly reared up, and I had all I could do to not fall off of his backside. Once I had calmed him down enough to resume forward progress toward the still-smoking 'mess' nearly eighty yards ahead, I asked, “eight?”

“Yes, now there are but eight of those people,” said the soft voice. “That one was thought more than a bit suspect, so he was double-rigged, both front and back – and you hit the back charge as he crossed the road.”

“Suspect?” I asked.

“About half of those people still that survive are advanced enough that they're thought to be nearly as dangerous to the regime as they are of service to it, and more than a few of those that get to that stage get booted upstairs when they become 'too dangerous' to be out loose spying.”

“Booted upstairs?” I asked. For some reason, I wanted to speak of 'going down' – as in 'way down'. This place wasn't hell, but it was a fairly good small-scale copy of Geeststaat during its prime just prior to the war.

“That place is not even known of by the lower layers of that fairly tall management pyramid, much less the functionaries or the commons,” said the soft voice. “You have to get way up there in that power structure before you're even informed that that place exists.”

“Up there?” I asked.

“The level of functionaries that actually make that regime 'function', and while they are located 'under' the main level of that place, their location and the one you spoke of are a considerable distance apart,” said the soft voice. “More, while they are connected, those running that path do two things: they maintain the networking equipment in 'best' condition, using the best equipment to be had there, and then they run 'crucial' messages thought too sensitive to be transmitted by any networking gear.” Pause, then, “those doing that are locked out of both systems, so they essentially run tests and maintain that networking equipment, and run 'packages' from one end to the other of their run – and those packages are conveyed automatically from the side of each portal to the other by special conveyor belts, these with 'automatic' weapons poised and primed for action – much like that one thing you though of as a child – the one with the really strange name.”

“What compartmentalization,” I muttered, as I came to the ditch. Here, I again had to guide Jaak, and here, he once more learned to trust me – even if a double-rigged spy blowing up in front like an artillery shell didn't help him much.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “He's been shelled before. That's right.”

“Yes, and not just when they were shooting at you at the border,” said the soft voice. “He's been bracketed by shells from hot-loaded rotten cannons several times, and that type of horse tends to get flashbacks as much or more as you do when that kind of thing happens.”

I wasn't sure if 'double-rigged spies' were in the same league as shells from 'rotten cannons', but I knew I was more than a little 'strange' when it came to the sound those guns made when they were sending shells in my direction.

“The last one put me right on the floor of the shop,” I muttered.

“What was this?” asked Sarah, as she came up out of the ditch, her horses straining to pull the buggy up the incline and onto the road. “There. I hope we do not need to do a ditch like that again, at least today.”

“No, not likely,” I said. “Now for the last mile. I can feel Willem ahead, and he knows we're coming.”

“That spy exploding was probably heard by every person able to hear for a mile's distance,” said Sarah. “He went up like he had five sticks of mining dynamite on him, and I had rearing horses to handle for a bit.”

Pause, then, “how you stayed put where you are is beyond me, as I can tell he does not like explosions like that, and you have nothing to stay put with.”

“Uh, multiple instances of shelling, and uh, lots of abuse by smelly black-dressed witches will make a horse dislike such noises,” I said. “I've only had rotten cannons fired at me on two occasions, and both times – ooh, it was awful, even when I had cover – and both times I was frightened out of my mind.”

Our horses, now having left a close region behind that reeked of burnt plastic and worse-yet odors, found it within themselves to 'move', and within what seemed like ten minutes at the very most, we were turning onto the Abbey's grounds. The ingress road had already seen major improvement over the time I had last seen it during daylight, but when I saw the bridge, I nearly fainted.

“What?” I gasped at seeing 'the bridge over still water' more or less fully erected, even if its scaffolding was still much in evidence and it needed some further work to be regarded as 'done'. “H-how did that thing get up so fast?”

“Those people from the Valley showed,” said Sarah. “They do not waste much, and time is one thing they do not waste if they can help it – and the fourth kingdom's hardest workers, save if they are marked beyond the trivial, do not equal their industry.”

“That, and they doubled the size of the camp,” I said. “Oh, another buggy-train is coming later today, this from the fourth kingdom – and these people have a lot of wheelbarrows in knocked-down form.”

“Good,” said Sarah, as we came out onto the grounds proper. Here, the tent city had 'bloomed' such that not merely was it neater than yesterday – it was easily three times as large as it had been when we had left. More, I could tell more people were setting up tents, digging privies – lots of those were being dug, including some multi-holed examples, and I wondered for a moment about sanitation.

“That may be an issue until that first group of people come from overseas,” said the soft voice. “They'll then begin to pump those 'sinkholes' dry with some regularity, and put 'insect traps' near them.”

“Insect traps?” I asked.

“They catch insects,” said the soft voice. “The bottom container of those traps goes in the same place as the other refuse over there, and the dead insects get made into useful chemicals.” Pause, then, “Go to the south end of the Abbey, as they're laying out their lines there, and Willem's trying his best to keep things there under some semblance of order.”

“Fourth kingdom people are full of themselves, think they know more about everything than those from El Vallyé, so they're wanting to argue instead of just listen and find out if what they're hearing makes sense or not,” I spat. “I wonder if they need a taste of that broom?”

“Willem is wondering more than a little about that matter,” said the soft voice. “Those fourth kingdom people have the sulks.”

“What if I show?” I asked. “Perhaps if I show it?”

“I might just do that, now that I think about it,” said Sarah. “That would get those people to do something.”

“Possibly mob me?” I asked.

“No, but they would listen to you,” said Sarah – who then whistled piercingly.

A sudden 'hush' seemed to come from somewhere ahead, and while the blocks of stone were being worked on 'manfully' – there were a lot of stone-saws in use, and the way these three-man teams were working those things to cut blocks, it was obviously they were doing all they could – Jaak suddenly sprang into a trot. I then noted I still had that machine pistol in my hand, and aiming up into the air and well downrange to the north, I fired three shots, the three almost blending into one.

As if it were needed, as then everyone stopped working, and a faint noise, this one I vaguely recognized, came to my 'ultra-sensitive ears'.

Es Dié da Muerté, Cabroni!” I yelled. “Saluté!”

“Now that voice I'd recognize anywhere,” growled a distinctive voice, it being Willem the larger, “only I had no idea you could speak that language.”

“He can to a fair degree,” said Sarah, as she pulled up. “I can speak it fairly well, and read it better than I can speak it, save if it deals with things that are far beyond me.”

“That's for him to talk of,” said Willem, indicating me. “Now, these people from the fourth kingdom don't want to hear a word from these people that just showed up, just like out of the book and between two days, but even I can tell they know more about what they are doing than any builder in the fourth kingdom.”

“They do know that,” said Sarah.

“That, and the plans you are most likely using are bogus,” I said. “We got good ones just this morning, ones that are very detailed, and...” I slid off of Jaak, went to what looked like a crude theodolite, then spat, “stinking witch-grade telescope! Cussed thing, become right!”

The brass thing flashed brightly, brighter than that stinking spy, and when I came to myself, I could see – how, I wasn't sure – but I could both 'see' and hear plain talk, this in the Valley's speech, about how the 'line-shooter' was now actually worth the trouble of looking into.

“It ought to be,” said Willem. “It's like out of an old tale now, and I can see this writing on it that's writ like the scribes of the Chosen write upon it.”

“Cé!” said a very excited man. “I do this much, and I have done it much of my life, before I had Cabroni chase me out of my home and into this place that is easier to hide from them.”

“You are a surveyor, non?” I asked. “An Arkotecaté?”

“Cé!” he said. “Oné Espeirto!”

“Déo Grecæ,” I said softly. This went well beyond 'praise be to God'. It was an expression that, to truly render in the language of this area, needed a paragraph – one written by me. “Now, you people, no matter who you are.” My voice was rising in both volume and pitch with each word. “The current situation demands true desperation measures, and if you do not believe me, then expect a message from Hendrik by nightfall.” I then took out the pendant, showed it to all that could see it, then put back inside my clothing. “You saw what I just showed you. I have the ultimate responsibility for this project, and indeed, whether we all live or we die as a people – and since there is but one of me, you – and I – we all must do our very best.”

“And arguing is not that,” said Willem.

I nodded. “This man does this work, and he's genuinely good at it – and the reason he had to leave where he left is he's nearly as marked as a certain chemist who Sarah and I just rescued this morning, which means he really knows what he's doing.” I then asked for a slate, and drew on it with chalk, then in a fit of irritation at the poor outcome, I wiped the smudged portion with my hand.

The slate changed utterly, become not merely much larger – it became the size of the largest book we had at home, at least for length and width – while its thickness was reduced markedly. I soon found that it was no longer a slate, but actually a number thin 'plastic' sheets – a large number of sheets – these sheets depicting the building's foundation plans. I handed them to the 'expert architect', he took one look, then screamed as if frantic for joy.

“I am glad he does not have a machine pistol,” muttered Sarah. “He would loose an entire magazine at that frightening setting if he did, as I have heard about people like him.”

“Cé!” he said. “Now where can I get such a thing, as there are especially smelly Cabroni in this area, some that hide so good that one must feel them as they cannot be seen by anything to be had here, and...”

“I shot one not fifteen minutes ago,” I said. “You're right, you do need one.” A pause, then, “I'll see that you get one post-haste, as you're not the only one here needing protection from various types of Cabroni and their rubbish.” Pause, then, “a lot of you people need protection, so I'd suggest oiling each other every time you eat or drink. Use cooking oil, small brushes or your finger, make the sign of 'addition' on the forehead, and do it often.”

“It does work, and I can say that for a fact, as it worked in the worst witch-hole there was until the day before yesterday,” said Sarah.

I simply nodded, then said, “that place is gone now, so no more can these smelly goat-heads can get all three heads of that three-headed goat, and the only place fit for a goat-head of any kind is buried deep in a manure-pile.”

That speech got a faint cheer going, at least initially, but within perhaps two seconds, every person on site from the Valley was cheering as if they were out of their minds.

“Are these people nuts, or what?” I thought – and for some reason, I recalled a strange name, one that I might want to speak to either Sarah or Annistæ about – with the latter preferred, as she might well know a lot more about the matter.

“There are such people,” said the soft voice, “but that title is not only a rare one in the Valley, but few there are inclined to deal with such people, as they are though to be filled with 'whites'.” A pause, then, “as a rule, they are.”

“As a rule?” I asked.

“Yes, as a rule,” said the soft voice. “About half of the Veldters of that title are not only not inhabited, but they are precisely the opposite – they are as fully committed to the cause as Annistæ herself – and when you go down into the third kingdom, that's one of the names you might well catch.”

“Wonderful,” I spat. “I'm crazy. They called me crazy where I came from, I act crazy enough here, and now I get named as if I'm a crazy man from the Valley.”

“Cé, you do,” said the 'architect' – though I had to revise this man's 'expert' status. He made any three famous individuals of that title lumped into one person where I came from look to be completed idiots, as he could definitely read between the lines of these plans, and was 'seeing' enough in that handout I'd given him to not just do the surveying.

“No, he'll actually do the foundations from what I gave him, and a bit of words regarding how to excavate...”

The man was looking at me, then said, “That I know well. I did many roads and underground places, some of them nearly as large as this place shall be, and we did that work quickly, also.” Pause, as he looked around, then, “more of my people are coming, and there will be ten times this number of them within seven days. By then, we will be digging our main trench for this building, and we will be running our teams of animals through it so as to get the dirt out of this hole.”

“Now that makes sense,” said Willem – who then pointed. “You, you, you and you. Get your hind ends over here and listen to him, as he knows ten times what the lot of you do if you're summed like numbers.” Pause, this for emphasis. “You ain't done nothin' compared to him.”

“Nor have they supervised large groups of people,” I said. “He's supervised thousands on some of those jobs, and only this one is significantly bigger.” I paused, then said, “Big enough to be interesting for him, but nowhere near big enough to be bothersome to someone like him – and we will have more help coming in a hurry, real help, help that will make this happen in time for us to not end as meals for Brimstone.” Pause. “Now, Sarah and I have further places to go today, and then we must hurry home, for tomorrow we labor like fiends again, and the day after, we are off.”

“Where to?” asked our 'architect'. “To deal with many evil Cabroni, these blue-clothed men with silver collars who try to kick me awake some nights? Cé?”

Sarah nodded, then seemed to speak to Willem without words. He understood, then said, “I have an errand to run, but I'll be back afore a glass turns halfway.” Pause, then, “time's a-wasting, and we're under desperation measures now, just like I thought we'd go to.”

“Just not today,” I said, as I followed him on foot. “Perhaps when more people had arrived? A few days from now, after those two kings meet up here over the new plans?”

“No, had something come up here about two hours ago,” said Willem. “It was sealed with a seal in this special green wax, only it had a 'W' stamped on it, meaning it was for me to look at, and no one else.” Pause, then, “it was writ by the king his-own-self, and he was speaking of a dream in which what he had told me before coming here was so wrong it was difficult to believe, least until he got on his knees for a turn of a glass and got told straight, and soon as he heard, he wrote that message and sent it by a messenger.”

“About eighty to a hundred miles south of here, currently,” I said. “Traveling at a good pace, perhaps two-thirds the speed of a postal buggy, four buggies set up like those of vendors, four horse teams, rest every hour by the clock, and grain and water at every stop they can do so,” I said. “They'll get a lot closer to the house proper by the time they...”

I paused, then gasped, “what? He's going on through the night and until he can park in the back of the house proper?”

“'Zactly what this letter says,” said Willem. “Now, I got to get you in that buggy, draw her a map, then try to teach you enough to harness...”

“He's been practicing that today, and I suspect he might need you checking his work – and he's not at all slow, either,” said Sarah. “The other part – that, I know he can do, because he's already done it once today, and that with a four-horse team of bronze-shod animals that need thin silver wires and small leads.”

“Then I might need about five minutes more than it takes me to get to where that buggy and its horses are,” said Willem. “I'm glad you can keep up with me easy, as I walk fast enough to cause most people trouble.”

“He's covered eighteen miles in a bit more than two and a half hours,” said Sarah. “He was not running, either, nor was he tired overmuch, and he did that a lot until he received that horse there.”

“No, dear,” I said. “My knees. I now know why I'm going to need work done to them soon, as while I can walk, it's not a good idea to do so more than I absolutely must right now.”

I could feel the right one acting like it wanted to 'seize up solid', and the pain in both knees was intense enough to wish to be dosed, so much that I started digging in my possible bag and found a specially-marked vial, this with a dropping tube attached with a string.

Willem was astonished when I got half a tube of the stuff, at least until he saw me nearly cry out from the pain of my right knee trying to lock and having to put my hands on it to 'straighten it out'.

“I saw that,” he said. “That tincture I could tell is what they use for pain in parts of the fourth kingdom, as I've had it from Liza her-own-self after getting tossed by a witch-load of dynamite going up when I tossed a jug at a coach.” Pause, then, “I've got it on good authority that you're not going to have to walk home from where you got to take this buggy, or where you got to go after that, or tomorrow, or the days after.” Pause, then, “I'm not sure about what you'll do across the sea.”

“I will have to do some walking,” I said. “Hopefully not much, as what I was told about my knees starting to go is not a joke.”

“Less than you have had to walk in quite some time, with ample periods of rest between each such instance,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to move a lot faster and further than is possible by foot travel, so you'll be driving.”

“Driving?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, in vehicles that are 'out of an old tale' and of a kind he's very familiar with – and then you'll see a side of him that no one knows much about.”

“Hah,” I said. The pain was already lessened enough to be able to 'joke' again. “Perhaps I will drive like Mr. Toad!”

The silence that descended was broken only by encountering the stolen horses, and while Willem led both of them along after me, I found the buggy itself not forty feet away. As soon as I found the harness, though, I was not only putting it on – I was doing so to Sarah's astonishment, and within three minutes, I not only had both animals harnessed up, but Willem was muttering as if he'd had lessons from Anna.

“Now,” I said, as I took the seat and put my 'supplies' beside me. “Could you please remove those, uh, things in the horses' mouths, as I neither know how to use them, nor do I need to use them.”

Willem did so in a trice and put them in the rear of the buggy, then he showed Sarah a slate. She copied it rapidly onto another such article she had in her satchel, then she flicked her reins, and her buggy lifted its outside wheels nearly a foot in the air as she turned sharply and 'moved out' with an alacrity that astonished me.

“Now, Jaak, you others,” I said in picture form, “just keep her in sight, and, uh, try to keep up.”

The horses responded with such suddenness that I nearly flipped out of the seat and ended up in the box, and by the time Sarah had done another wheel-lifting turn onto the main road, I was 'eating her dust'. I guided the three horses to her side, then asked, my rifle on my knee, “how far down this road? Two, perhaps three miles?”

“If that,” said Sarah. “Those animals are either better than these, or that buggy rolls unusually freely, so much so that it makes this one look slow.”

“It does weigh significantly more, so it's a bit slower for acceleration,” I said. “Its' top speed, however – I doubt that to be much less.” A pause, then, “did you understand what I meant by a 'toad'?”

“No, I did not,” said Sarah. “I doubt such a creature existed, actually, save if they were present prior to the drowning and the pets of witches.”

“Like he's speaking of, no, not here,” said the soft voice. “This is out of a rather strange visual story which is about ninety percent done overseas, so figure it will be present for you to view within a few days of your arrival.”

“Were there ever toads here?” I asked.

“Not like those where you came from,” said the soft voice. “The only knowledge they have of those things is overseas and based on intercepts – and you will see some of them in the future.”

“What, they will show here?” asked Sarah. Our horses were still 'cooking'.

“No, but you will see them on other planets – and some of those animals will be both very large and used for riding animals,” said the soft voice.

“Oh, no,” I squeaked. “Riders on the toad...

“Now that I have seen,” said Sarah. “Perhaps you could tell me what that means when we get to Willem's, as we'll need to turn up ahead and that road's a lot narrower than this one, and they're all narrow ones until we can drop off that buggy and its animals.”

Sarah was absolutely right, only the amount of dust she was leaving while on these roads was enough that I had to hang back nearly a hundred yards so as to see clearly enough to guide the three animals, and I was now glad for my goggles as well. They seemed to stay remarkably free of dust, for some reason, and they shed 'mess' well also.

I could feel the state of this area, however, and I knew that here, while Sarah could go cross-country without bogging in this region, I could not manage that in this buggy, even if I steered carefully and went at the resulting slow pace. This buggy was about half again as heavy as the medical buggy at home, and that one needed care or a marked driver to stay out of trouble in much of this area.

This buggy: forget it save in regions well south of the second kingdom's northern border, at least right now.

“I wonder if I will need to drive one of these again?” I thought. “Perhaps twice, three times?”

“If you mean 'how many times you do so because you need to', that would be the outside limit,” said the soft voice – who implied it was very likely I would never need to do this again. “If you do so out of choice – perhaps a bit more than that.” Pause, then, “though I can promise you, once you get your hands on that one 'snorting screaming dirt-slinging thing', you'll be far-more inclined toward things like it – and those will have no trouble going through mucky fields like these unless they are foot-thick glue.”

“Perhaps that's the best explanation,” I thought, as I felt Sarah turning onto another road. She'd not slowed down in the slightest, and it made me wonder more than a little about her. Would she prove to drive like Mr. Toad did – an absolute maniac behind the wheel? Those odd vehicles lent themselves to that kind of driving, especially with that kind of power-to-weight ratio.

“At first, no,” said the soft voice. “Once she becomes accustomed to such matters, though – she will take to driving readily, and she will become, in time, an excellent driver and pilot.” Pause, then, “the person you really want to watch, though, is Anna.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I knew she'd be good with mortars. I could almost feel her explaining some of what we had not brought to the house proper to Hendrik, especially the concept of 'man-portable artillery' that shot three times the distance of the common muzzle-loading gun, and landed a worse shell in the bargain.

“You think you can drive like Mr. Toad?” asked the soft voice. “Wait until she gets on something motorized, and then you just try to keep up with her!”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Not on these roads. Either far too much dust, or they're full of splop.” A pause, then, “nice roads, no dust – then maybe if the traffic's easy and the speed limits are lax enough.”

The sudden 'squawk' that came in my mind, this as I made the turn with the three animals, was so hard to believe that I squeaked, “what? N-no speed limits?”

“First, most people will own vehicles that simply cannot go all that rapidly,” said the soft voice, “and then most of them will not be inclined to travel far nor fast, at least at first. Then, recall those odd 'jeeps' you were once shown, along with that unusual-looking copy of Sarah's buggy? How horses will still be used for a fair amount of transport?”

I nodded, this mentally.

“Those 'jeeps' are not merely almost maintenance-free vehicles, but they can tell enough about who is driving them that first, they will not need ignition keys; second, they will not let their drivers 'get in over their heads', but try to keep them from getting hurt; and thirdly, they're not really designed to go faster than about three times your current speed – which as you know, is not a trivial speed if you're not driving real distances.”

Pause, then, “this won't like where you came from for traffic, even when the place is 'full-sized and motorized', and there will be high-speed means of travel where you can drive onto a carrier car on that one train, shoot along at several hundred miles an hour, then drive off a few hours later, and you've gone the length of the country in half a day.” Pause, then, “that's for here. Most of the other locations either will have significantly shorter distances, few roads of any kind, or 'wide open expressways' where the rule is 'slow stays to the right' and the 'center lanes' are for people who know how to drive – and those people are going to be rare and busy, so they will need to move if they drive.”

“Sounds like they often won't have time to drive – or will they?” I asked. I could feel Sarah about to make another turn, and when the dust cloud ahead did an abrupt left 'at speed', I had to 'feel' my way through the turn, all the while guiding three animals. I could definitely tell this was not something I wanted to do for amusement, as following 'a lone dust-cloud' wasn't exactly easy.

Only dealing with the dirt of a lightning-hare rocketing through a dark night made this seem 'easy'.

“In your case, no,” said the soft voice. “Not until the Curse is entirely broken, and then afterward isn't going to have much time for driving like you thought of for perhaps two, or maybe three years.” Pause, then, “you will be flying a fair amount, though.”

“Large aircraft?” I asked. I was thinking of something the size of an old-looking DC-3 – a plane that merely looked old, in that it had propellers. This thing moved, it was stable as a rock, it handled anything one might toss at it, and it was safe as any aircraft ever built – here, or where I came from. It was just the thing for riding in as a passenger when one needed to go distances at a fairly good rate of travel, as this thing also had real range – intercontinental range, easily eight to ten thousand miles without refueling. At nearly three hundred miles an hour 'comfortable cruising', this aircraft was not a joke.

“Varied sizes, actually,” said the soft voice. “You've only got about two more miles of dust to eat, so be glad it's going to be over in less than fifteen minutes.” Pause, then, “you're going to most likely enjoy that greatly, especially when you take up the big ones – as you'll be the pilot.”

“Big ones?” I asked. I was starting to get scared. I'd heard aircraft were hard to fly, this by people who had flown them. Some were merely tricky – while others were absolute deathtraps for anyone save a true expert. One such person spoke of his plane as being 'like keeping a pencil upright on his fingertip'.

“Nine hundred and eighty-one feet long,” said the soft voice. “Nearly a hundred feet high from the bottom-stands to the tail-planes. Wingspan over seven hundred feet. Seven million kilograms of thrust at full throttle – and you can hold that setting for hours, and climb like a rocket straight up at nearly eight times the force of gravity.”

“H-hours?” I gasped.

“You usually will not need to do that,” said the soft voice, “and that limitation is due to heat buildup, not fuel consumption.” Pause, then, “note, those are the most-current specifications available. Those craft could become significantly better by the time you're flying them.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“Why, starships,” said the soft voice. “Faster than anything out there – and not a little faster, either.”

It was almost all I could do to not smirk, at least until for an instant, I was sitting in an enormous cabin, one that gave a truly spectacular view, with no less than eight seats to my right on doubled 'tracks' so they could be moved around as those occupying them needed to. This was the control-deck of the 'plane' in question, and while it did indeed fly like an aircraft, it did a great many things no earthly aircraft could do.

It did not use wormholes, or anything else – it simply 'hopped' into another 'dimension' of some kind, one described by some really weird numbers that were odd-complex – as in this place was really odd – and then, nearly every law of physics was left behind. See? Forget it. You had to feel where you were going, either that or have a very special navigational computer that could tell you about where you were and then come out of the odd place so as to look around. That made for slow travel, relatively speaking, so pilots needed to know where they were flying if they flew craft that moved.

Shoot at anyone? Forget that also. You cannot see them, they cannot see you – or rather, they cannot see you well enough to hit you, and really, about the only way they know where you are is by certain rather imprecise instruments that detected 'standing waves' set up by your travel while in the odd place – and beyond a certain speed, those waves more or less vanished.

Then, you were invisible to all instruments. Only a person who could feel your presence to a greater degree than mine would know where you were.

One other trouble, though: while there were numbers of faster-than-light craft, there were no faster-than-light weapons, which meant all 'engagements' happened in normal space.

“There currently are no such weapons,” said the soft voice. “Those craft from here will have them – as well as 'main guns' able to blow large planets to bits in seconds.”

“Seconds?” I asked.

“Imagine that one instance of lightning you've seen here,” said the soft voice. “Now, make it vastly larger, far more powerful, and be composed of not merely energy, but also a significant mass – and that mass is moving at relativistic speeds, as in just under the constant named 'C'.” Pause, then, “the combination of intense heat, sizable relativistic mass, a highly energetic state, and those velocities result in a blast that makes the biggest weapons ever made where you came from look like damp firecrackers.” Another pause, then, “now, imagine being able to project several hundred of those things in a single second, and 'cone' the fire so it hits at the same point on the surface of whatever you're aiming at.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “Breaks up the planet.”

“No,” said the soft voice. “It creates a substantial amount of antimatter, which instantaneously reacts with the vaporized matter in the vicinity, and the result is the planet disintegrates in a massive flash, just like in that one movie you saw many years ago.” A pause, then, “now, guess what happens if some wretch tries for you.”

“Uh, dogfight?” I asked.

“You win, he loses, even if he's got serious numbers on you and knows what he's doing, relatively speaking,” said the soft voice. “While there are some cultures that have shielding fields of a sort, nothing – and I do mean nothing – stands up to that much punch. It might stand up to one or two hits, as in the toughest currently out there might be able to limp home if you tag him once or twice.” Pause, then, “Nothing out there can handle more than two hits of that magnitude and expect to stay in anything close to 'survivable' shape – and with that gun, you'll put a dozen or more solid strikes on someone if you get him in your crosshairs for an eyeblink.”

“And now, we must find our farmer,” I said, as I could 'feel' Sarah looking at her map. It was a rather imprecise thing, this done quickly, with Sarah relying as much or more upon her detailed knowledge of the area – or so I thought until I was told otherwise.

“That farmer is a former customer of hers,” said the soft voice, “and while she's gone there several times, she was not driving a buggy then, she was not in this kind of a hurry, and she wasn't nearly as 'rattled' as she's been the last few days – hence, you may wish to help her find the place, as she's slowing enough that she's not leaving much dust now.”

The dust settled quickly, thankfully, and a minute later I was by Sarah's side in the yard of an obvious Public House. I had a most-peculiar idea, however: I proposed to go into the place, speak to the Publican, and let him send a messenger to the owner of the animals and their buggy. I was about to speak to Sarah when she darted for the door, and as I began to get my things out of the buggy's bed, I looked up to see she'd brought someone to the doorway.

It wasn't the publican; it was the owner of both animals and buggy, and as he came closer, I could see tears in his eyes. He'd just bought the thing earlier in the year, and as he made soap along with his farming labor, he needed a vehicle fit to make regular runs for both the materials he needed for soap and then to sell the finished product.

“And he's no mean maker of soap,” I thought. “Now, what is this about his, uh, missing toe? Something about that stinker of a witch fighting him, and he lost it much like Anna did?”

“On my oath in church, it is back,” said the man – who then looked the thing over. “What gives with this here, and... This is not what I bought! This is something a miser would wish!”

“No, sir,” said Sarah. “You must travel, nearly as much as I did while I was an itinerant seamstress, and therefore you need such a vehicle. You will wish to put oil to those hubs regularly, and you will wish to see Hans about fetching it whenever you should go through Roos.” Pause, then, “you do go that far south, don't you? I do recall seeing you in that area more than once.”

“With this one?” I asked, as I got down gingerly. My 'sore leg' seemed to do better with keeping my weight off of it as much as I could. “It may not lift its outside wheels while turning, and it may not move out like that one, but it can keep up – and I did so, though that's something I'd just as soon not do again, at least while that road is so dusty.”

“That is the trouble,” said the man. “No one has time here to do much to roads, at least until the witches became scarce.”

“They will not remain scarce for long, sir,” said Sarah ominously. “There are a great many of them massing so as to come this way, and we have encountered many of their forerunners today.”

“And?” he asked.

“Killed most of those we encountered,” I said. “I'm not sure how many we did get, but we... Why did we not see witch-parties and those other things?”

“First, the pigs were lying up,” said the soft voice, “and then, the witches were also – though the ones that decided to 'go to ground' aren't going to come back up again.”

“Why is that?” I asked, this silently.

“That bomb you tossed got to them,” said the soft voice. “Figure a distance of about eight to ten miles from Ploetzee becoming 'deadly' to travel in within the next few days, if you speak of the witch-level – while the functionary level is going to be very toxic over the northern third of the continent, and troublesome indeed for a hundred miles or more further to the south.”

“Alternative methods?” I asked.

“They'll take months to get those going to any degree at all,” said the soft voice, “and nothing they currently have can transport numbers of those people those distances without being spotted readily.” Pause, then, “the parts they can get to readily are, or will be, too poisonous to travel in on that level.”

“Now that sounds like something out of an old tale, and you two look fit for being one,” said the man – whose face then became deadly serious. “When, and to whom?”

“Him,” said Sarah, “early. The day after tomorrow.” Pause, then, “we must hie ourselves, sir. If you must learn more about that buggy, head toward the Abbey, and ask to speak to Willem the larger. He can tell you more than either of us can right now.”

I found it harder to leap into the 'saddle' than ever before, but once seated and moving off, I could 'feel' Laidaan as if it were straight ahead and a bit west.

“No, cannot go through the town,” I said. “Back out past the fields, then follow me.”

Sarah had other ideas, however, for she went up the street, found an 'empty' lot, then moved at a good pace over a rather rutted field that wasn't tilled, for some reason. When I counted four large rocks in the space of half a minute while following her, I had a good idea why it was not in use, even if I had no clue as to that one empty lot. I thought to ask once we'd gotten out of the fields and into open country.

That took perhaps five minutes, as these people had long fields and seemingly huge families, with eight to ten people working in each such field. They all seemed to have either gardening tools, clubs, or in some cases muskets, but when we broke out into 'the prairie' or whatever people called the unfarmed areas between towns, I came along side of Sarah.

“Now to Willem's,” she said. “That lot I went through once had the house of a witch upon it, and they've just recently dug everything out entirely and filled it in.” Pause, then, “the stones went to a lime-kiln, and the same for wood that wretch had that wasn't unburnt.”

“Were you involved?”

“No, but I think I know someone who might have an idea as to how it happened,” said Sarah. “Esther gets down this way at times, and if we go this way, we should be at that town within the hour.”

“And now we find swine, witches, and sundry other stinky things,” I murmured. “Common pigs, leave those for the weeds and rooting out witches, save if they decide we look edible.”

“Which they will not do,” said Sarah. “Those things do not like eating meat, and if blood is on food, they will stay well clear of it.”

“Decent refuse-collectors, then,” I said. “The witches... Those need to go where they belong.”

As if something had been planned in advance, an explosion happened in a woodlot off to the left, then another some distance to the right, then behind us another blast ripped the sky.

“Those sounded like coaches,” said Sarah. “That, or witches carrying dynamite and distillate.”

“You just got rid of several parties of them,” said the soft voice. “For each group or individual you just heard...” Pause. “Look around, and see just how many smoke clouds there are.”

I did, and the number of these was astonishing. I counted twenty inside of a minute, and that merely to the east within a few miles. I could tell what I had said had gone further, though how much further was a very good question.

“Oh, my,” I asked. “Don't tell me – we just got a lot of domestic witches.”

“More than 'a lot',” said the soft voice. “Most of the first kingdom's remaining domestic witches were in this area – which means 'the black hundreds', at least now, are now indeed numbered in the hundreds for the bulk of the first kingdom. Only a few places on the east coast and near the southern border have them in any real numbers at this time, at least for domestic witches.” Pause, then, “most of what you're going to see from now on in this area are either imported witches, or numbers of local people that have decided that 'now is the time' to become a witch.”

“Will there be many of them?” I asked.

“Currently, no,” said the soft voice. “There might be a handful of people who are interested to some small degree in most towns – and as a rule, their interest is more along the lines of 'how to deal with those stinkers better' than 'how do I become such a stinker'.” Pause, then, “figure about half of the double-barreled inquests will get supplicants, though, as it takes more 'stone' than most people currently have in this area to 'stand and deliver' rather than 'fallest thou down and worshipest thou me'.”

“Stand and deliver?” I asked. It was supposedly something that brigands said during robberies, and at the back of my mind, I seemed to recall one speaking that way down in the fifth kingdom.

I'd given him quite a bit more than he bargained for, and I and this other woman had had to move to avoid the trouble I'd caused dealing with him.

“Up here, that means you fight witches until either they die or you die,” said Sarah, “and that means you stand up, and you deliver as much hot lead as you can.” Pause, then, “it means otherwise if you are a fifth kingdom thug.”

“I h-had one do that,” I said as I recalled the incident much better, “and I cut off his head!” Pause, then, “he was a bad witch, also. Glowed red really bad, his face was totally hazed with that reddish color bad fetishes have.”

“Do not tell me,” said Sarah. “Was that stinker you sliced named Jodocus, and was he related to that family down there named Blomfels?”

I nodded.

“Then I know just who will try to cause Georg trouble should he not get his iron from his previous sources,” said Sarah. “Those people have the largest combine in that entire kingdom, not just the kingdom house.” Pause, then, “and I would not be surprised if much of their money is going north.”

“It is, and it has, and you spread some of it around in the kingdom house earlier today,” said the soft voice. “They paid heavily into the rebuilding of the Swartsburg, and are paying heavier yet on trying to take the first and second kingdoms.”

“Don't have unlimited funds, do they?” I asked. I doubted anyone could suffer those kind of losses and sustain matters indefinitely.

“No, but they do have a lot of money, they hoard that stuff well enough to be worse than a miser out of the book, they run half the slaves in the kingdom house, and they own entire districts down there,” said Sarah. “Running them down will require destroying the kingdom house entirely.”

“Good, dear,” I said. “Your language is improving.”

“I still wish to get a proper grammar and word-book,” said Sarah, “and I hope they have ways of learning mathematics that are easier than what is in one of those books downstairs.”

“Uh, I suspect they do,” I said. “I had a couple of programs...”

“Those may have helped some in doing mathematics, but they did not teach mathematics – not unless you wanted to work like you eventually learned to work,” said the soft voice. “Those people overseas think life is amply hard without making it harder than is needed, so they have a whole suite of mathematics programs, most of which teach the stuff fairly well.”

“Most of which?” I asked.

“One of the most-used programs is very similar to one that caused you to spit oaths when trying to use it,” said the soft voice, “and more, it tends to spit oaths if you make mistakes, even 'honest' ones due to inexperience.” Pause, then, “that name will ring a bell when you hear it.”

“Yes?” I asked. We were behind the smoke and fires of witches now; their foul reek had vanished with the faint winds of this area, and our path was a nearly straight one, one where we encountered few animals and no roads.

“The name of that program is 'lopital',” said the soft voice, “and it comes from an intercept.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “L'hopital, only I called that stinker 'L-Hospital' at the time, as I needed surgery then and was having trouble getting it done!”

“Was he a witch?” asked Sarah.

“Him, I am not sure, as he had been dead for quite some time,” I said. “I did read about his being very irritable in one of my texts.”

“Then if he was in that place, then it is altogether a possible matter,” said Sarah. “Good, I recognize this road here. It may be troublesome to cross it, but it will save us time we will need to spend in Laidaan.”

Once across the road, however, we were once more in 'open country', and we soon built up to our former speed. I could tell we needed to come slightly east, perhaps ten degrees, and when I took out my compass, I said, “twelve degrees to the east.”

“Yes, if you wish to hit the manse,” said Sarah. “Paul lives in the other end of the town, and the manse is large enough that it's almost its own town.” Pause, then, “it's built a bit like where my relatives lived, in fact, even if I suspect that building to be a good deal older than their holdings.”

“Built?” I asked.

“He does not live in there,” said Sarah, “even if that place has ample room for living in, and not merely for one family. It could house half the town at need, and then the witches would need four full batteries of rotten cannons firing them until they burst to reduce that place.”

“Full battery?” I asked. “How many guns would that be?”

“That depends on where you are,” said Sarah. “Up this way, the usual is three. The fourth kingdom's usual battery is four guns, while witches firing rotten cannons, that number can vary from two to ten. I've counted that many during my times of seeing them do gun-practice.”

“And they will bring up as many as they can gather of those things,” I muttered. “Does Blomfels make those?”

“No, and for good reason, as they have other 'monopolies' that are far more profitable,” said the soft voice. “The usual firm making those is perhaps a fifth of the size of that place, has about a tenth of the people, and depending upon whether it's witch-run or not, either buys parts and fits them up or makes all of their parts from raw materials.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “I thought every such gun was made by witches and for witches.”

“Currently, that isn't that far from the truth, at least for those making them,” said the soft voice. “The only people that currently purchase those guns are witches, and the one firm that doesn't make them like fetishes doesn't get many takers.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Firstly, they do well to turn out four guns a year,” said the soft voice, “which is a most-difficult matter for the witch-trade, as they usually want to buy entire batteries of guns at a time – and the time between the initial inducement and delivery of the guns is typically measured in weeks, for 'prime' examples.”

“They almost have to have them 'ready to go',” I muttered.

“The places that make 'eating money' doing those things do precisely that,” said the soft voice. “However, should you ever get downrange of one of that firm's guns, you'd best watch yourself.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “They vary so much as to their bores to need gaged shells.”

“True, but this firm does a much better job, so much so that you only really need 'large' and 'small' shells for those guns – and the difference between 'large' and 'small' isn't very much at all.” Pause, then, “their useful life is significantly longer, but the very worst part, though, is their rifling.”

“What is different about it?” I asked.

“Why do you think your rifling setup is so desired in Ploetzee?” asked the soft voice. “That place uses a similar means of doing their guns, and since they're not true cast iron but something closer to what comes out of Frankie, they give ample warning of bursting unless they're severely overloaded.”

“I might have seen one of those guns, then,” said Sarah. “Talk had it most rotten cannons do well to hit buggies at a mile, but this one... That thing hit a moving coach, and that distance was over a mile and a half, by my measurement.”

“Uh, how did you measure it?” I asked.

“I kept such tools when I headed north, as well as my compass and my thin cloth maps I had done,” said Sarah. “I still have them, in fact, and I will show you their use when we sail – both the maps and the tools.”

“Does one of these tools fit on a compass?” I asked.

“Yes, only I think it will fit better on that one we received than on mine,” said Sarah. “The other thing is something that cost me dearly, and it's just shy of being restricted. I had to show my ribbon and a letter from the king to get it, in fact.”

“What does it do?” I asked.

“It figures map-distances and things like them quickly, and gives far more accuracy than I can manage doing geometry using paper and writing-dowel,” said Sarah. “One slides its portions, and then one reads it out, much like those things you got at the Abbey do, save those rotate and this just slides.”

“A slide-rule,” I said. “I've seen them before.”

“Not like this you have,” said the soft voice. “What Sarah doesn't know is hers is restricted grade, as that paper from the king proclaimed her as being a 'kingdom treasure' – and it opened a lot of doors for her remaining time at that school.”

“I did not see any such marks upon it,” said Sarah. “Why, are they small or well-hidden?”

“Both of those things, as their surfaces needed to have ample room for the numbers and lines,” said the soft voice. “Those can only be run on one machine in the fourth kingdom, only two people can run that device, and that particular firm casts its own brass, or it did until very recently.”

“Did?” I asked.

“It now uses your bronze, and finds it an utterly superior material,” said the soft voice. “Georg sells that place a fair number of your sprues, shrink-blobs, and runners – and he gets a very good price for all of that stuff.”

“I keep some sprues for bushing stock,” I said. “The rest just goes in the pile for the crucibles, and I never kept close track of it.” Pause, then, “perhaps I can copy that thing?”

“If you do, you'll wish to do so after you deliver up that sextant,” said the soft voice. “You'll have the needed skill then, as well as the capacity to increase its accuracy enough to make them very popular things overseas.”

“What, no calculators?” I asked.

“As you were thinking of, no,” said the soft voice. “Every student is issued a 'laptop' for school use, but since those have RF capabilities for wireless networking purposes...”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “They probably spy on the entire household when one of those things is present.”

“No, usually just the user, though they can and do spy on entire households now and then if that's the only means that's working at a given residence.” Pause, then, “having a mechanical device has other advantages, especially as it will not explode if 'abused' – and more than a few students have been killed by such computers over the years.”

“I think that to be a very good reason,” said Sarah. “Now, it is perhaps two miles, then we shall be in Paul's fields, or at the edges of them, and we will need to skirt them widely, as he sows enough corn for three common farmers.”

“And runs a distillery,” I said.

“I think that to be why he sows as much corn as he does,” said Sarah. “I know his animals like the used mash, especially the cattle.”

“Cattle?” I gasped. “Where are they?”

“The barn, mostly, though they graze those things out in the pasture behind that place,” said Sarah. “You've been in that barn, but Hans told me you were looking at what he had there for distilleries.”

“Does he still have those bad ones?” I asked. I meant the fetish-grade distilleries.

“No, and I think I know what he did to them,” said Sarah. “He took an ax to them, and then burned their pieces good, and I think he might try to sell them to Georg once he gets...”

“Actually, those have bad copper, and a lot of nasty brass rivets,” I said. “Best to get a good furnace, melt it down, and, uh, separate...” I then gasped, “what?”

“You get the right kind of furnace and set it up right,” said the soft voice, “and it will do precisely that.” Pause, then, “don't be too surprised if they offer to send one home with you, and failing that, they'll bring one here as soon as possible along with its needed power source.”

“Tool steel,” I muttered.

“Not just that,” said the soft voice. “They'd like good consistent 'cartridge-alloy', also – which is a problem that took a lot of effort on the home front to deal with, and that's why recovery of cartridge cases became such an important issue.”

“Hence those, uh, strange-looking machines they have?” I asked. “Don't just find wolfram shot or bombs or things, but cartridge cases also?”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “More, the larger ones can cover a fair amount of ground, and they do not need much attention.”

“They don't?” I asked.

“Just check on them periodically when they send their position and status out,” said the soft voice. “The thing you'll find the most interesting portion, though, is their capacity for becoming very hard to see.”

“Like those stinking spies,” I said.

“No, not like those people,” said the soft voice. “You could feel their presence. These things – you'd have to locate them the same way, but one of these machines would make far less noise and be much less 'obtrusive', so it would genuinely hard to find.” Pause, then, “they had to be truly capable that way, as otherwise the witches captured them and turned them into weapons.”

“Weapons?” I gasped.

“Usually mounting sizable automatic guns on each side, with each gun having its own targeting mechanism,” said the soft voice. “Having something invisible suddenly start shooting at you – and doing it a lot – is a really good way to cause massive troubles for your enemy.”

Perhaps ten minutes later, we came in sight of what looked like a mile-long cornfield, this flanked by a straddle-fenced pasture, and in the distance, a familiar-looking barn – oddly proportioned, taller than seemed right for a 'barn', with a steeply pitched shingled roof – and upon the softly blowing wind, some faint sounds coming from its vicinity.

These were the noises of cattle – and these animals were not related to Miura in the slightest.