The Kingdom of Boom: tanning birds?

However, I soon learned I was not done in that room, even if I was done with the 'ticker'. I soon found myself dealing with not merely some batteries that had severe levels of corrosion, but also a rather neglected line-shaft turned Heinrich generator.

“This needs its, uh... What, no commutator?” I squeaked.

“No, that is essentially a multiple-phase alternator, like some you've worked on,” said the soft voice. “It uses a crude-looking type of semiconductor diode.”

“Crude-looking...” I mumbled. I then noticed I was the only person in the room, and Sarah was yelling at me to get out before the thing exploded.

“Dear, I have seen these things before,” I said. “Crude-looking, eh?” I asked. “Where are they?”

“On the underside of the frame, where they use the bronze base casting for a heat-sink,” said the soft voice. “The reason they look crude is that the Veldter-made diodes do not explode.” Pause, then, “they just smoke and cause an open-circuit due to a 'fusable link' if they get too warm, which is why they are used – and another reason what that base casting is bronze and 'finned' on the underside for 'rigidity'. You know what else that does.”

“Duh, copper-oxide rectifiers, using silver and oxidized copper stacks,” I said. “Lower forward voltage drop, which is important when you're trying to charge batteries – and this base thing's a big heat-sink.”

“Precisely, and that's another reason why they are used,” said the soft voice, “as the semiconductors you're more familiar with don't just explode here. They also act weird, as you learned earlier today.”

“Weird?” I asked, as the others – urged on by Sarah – were slowly coming back in. I could hear her whispering about 'Veldter equipment' and 'that's who made those things, and I know they do not like things to explode'.

“You saw how those things looked like 'modern art sculptures',” said the soft voice. “They usually do a lot of vertical integration on those things, which is one of the reasons the devices are a lot faster than anything you've ever heard of, but then, there's just how they do it – and that's into the realm of science fiction, as they don't just 'dope' silicon there – they actually change the atomic structure of the metals used themselves, with the atoms actually changing from their normal size and shape to give unusual functional capacity.”

“Don't tell me – that's why that, uh, video camera exploded as hard as it did,” I murmured.

“That's part of the reason,” said the soft voice. “The unpleasant reality is chemicals are more reactive here, and semiconductors – save for things like those silver and copper disks on the underside of that generator – are among the worst for such misbehavior.”

“Like, uh, liquid death,” I said. “Unlike anything I ever saw in a chemistry class. Then, chemistry experiments commonly go up in smoke, so you look like Hans sometimes does. He's just sufficiently ignorant that it happens more often in his case than is the rule overseas or in El Vallyé.”

“He's getting rid of some of that ignorance right now on the fourth floor of the house proper,” said the soft voice. “He's helping them 'go through' the place with one of the lanterns Annistæ found.”

“What else is wrong in here?” asked Willem. “Do not tell me – I must look after my batteries better?”

“I told you so,” said Sarah. She seemed to be scolding Willem.

“You basically knew what you knew, which was what was written on that sheet,” I said. “Nowhere did I see anything of a practical nature on that 'nice-looking' document, just a lot of orders that looked good on the surface, and if you were as trashed as a blue-suited drug-addled functionary wearing a silver collar, then that kind of ordering would make sense.”

“That is very much a clue,” said Esther. “That was why that document was writ the way it was, Willem, and that was why it went up in smoke.” Pause, then, “I think he asked for you to see what came off of that king's desk.”

I was so involved in checking Willem's battery-collection – it was not doing well; Willem had his hands full just keeping his responsibilities in order – that when Sarah squawked, “Willem! This is not what came from that man, as I have seen his writing, and he did not write like this. I know only one person who does, or right now I do.”

“Uh, not me, correct?” I asked, as I cleaned another 'corroded' lead-to-copper contact, carefully scraping the rough contact and then wiping clean both surfaces and the brass bolt holding the two together.

Willem's 'sulfur-acid' was more 'sulfur' than 'acid', and hence it tended to corrode the daylights out of his copper straps. He needed new ones badly – preferably wipe-tinned and then dipped in molten lead. Those would last much better – those, and better acid. He needed that badly.

“No, it is your writing, save done such that it may be read easily, much as if it were set in type and done in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Begin-quote 'check batteries daily for acid level, and replenish with Roesmaan's battery-acid or distilled water as needed to maintain the level of the electro-blah-aah!” Here, Sarah stopped reading, and I turned to see both of her hands on her tongue with a slim booklet on the nearest bench. For some odd reason, her tongue seemed to have a knot in it, though how I could see this knot was a mystery.

“It knotted her tongue,” said Esther knowingly. “Willem, where do you get your acid?”

“It comes up from the same place as everything else I get the supplies for this equipment,” said Willem. “They don't tell me anything, and I know that's so if I get caught out I cannot say more than what I know should the witches torture me. I've heard they do that from a lot of people, and talked to people who've seen what they do – and with this equipment, you want to know no more than you must. That much I know.”

“Is it marked as being that acid?” said Esther. “It says in here that such acid will be clearly marked as being for battery use – it needs to be a special type, according to this. Then, you are to use their battery-lead, punch holes in it with the battery-punch according to drawing number twelve, fill each of the two sheets with their positive and negative battery materials while those are in a moist state, and then roll your battery-sheets up with their glass-cloth.”

“Blah!” said Sarah, as she 'straightened' her tongue and it went back 'into joint'. I had no idea it was possible to 'dislocate' one's tongue to such a degree. “Now my tongue has the knot out of it. I tried to say that one word and it caught me.” Pause, then, “whatever it says, it's right, as I've yet to see anything that's showed like that to be wrong.”

“Can you go fetch that acid?” I asked. “You've most likely not been getting the right materials... Duh! These straps need to be tinned, then coated with lead so they don't corrode like these, you need good acid, the right tools, and real test equipment...”

“You'd best get out of that room,” said the soft voice. “I'd really hurry, as you've started something big.”

I wasted no time, even if I was the last one, and not ten feet from the door, I ran wide to the right, so as to be out of the line of the likely 'detonation'. I could clearly see a room beckoning me, and when I got inside that room and hunkered down next to the wall, the reek of something was so powerful I nearly fainted.

“Better to nearly faint in this smelly room than be tossed and possibly get hurt,” I thought. I then looked to my right and saw a sizable and obvious vat of something – and said vat was one of the odor-sources.

There were several more like it that I could see in the near-sepulchral darkness of this room.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“In his 'tanning room' – and there's another bird-nest in this one, which is why it smells so awful.”

“Is there a fan?” I asked.

“No, but there is a gridwork of sorts for a nest-support, and all of these vent-stacks need to remain clear of bird-nests – and this one is no exception.”

The soft voice was altogether emphatic about the matter of clearing bird-nests. However, I was in no mind to go playing with another of those sizable 'turkeys' with the bad attitudes called 'fool-hens', and I now had an idea why they were named thusly.

Only a fool would wish to bother one of them.

“Not entirely true,” said the soft voice. “How much trouble did you have with that one you hauled through its nest and down onto the floor?”

“N-none?” I asked. “Still, I was taking a big chance.”

“The main reason why those birds are called that is they are not very bright, even if they are very aggressive toward those annoying them,” said the soft voice. “Recall how that first one you saw just sat in that tree until you pointed it out, then how easy it was to catch once it had been shot?”

As if to tell me again, Paul came up to where I was hiding – he had returned, obviously – and asked, “now what are you doing in his tanning room? I put that fool-hen to simmer on the stove in that stuff Esther usually uses for those.”

“Uh, something is about to go up in the sending room,” I said.

“It already did,” said the soft voice. “The smoke went up the chimney, and so did the soot.”

“Soot is common with chemicals,” said Paul. “I have worn my share. Now what did you do?”

I soon learned just what I had done: Willem now had new batteries – now similar as to size compared to those I recalled seeing in the fourth kingdom – proper testing equipment, a lot of good tools, and more, some things that made for wondering, especially as I wondered if Willem could handle driving small silver rivets.

He did have a set of four hammers, each subtly varying one from the others, that looked likely indeed. However, Sarah soon corrected me on that matter.

“Those are for you to use, I think,” she said. “Willem, you have a lot of spare parts, but I still...” Sarah squawked, then saw something I had thus far missed. “What is that stuff there!”

I found the spool she was pointing to, this easily eight inches across and ten high, and hefted. There was easily ten pounds of this particular wire in place, this a deep reddish-brown color. Looking at the label on the top of the spool showed the stuff to be 'zero-point-two-six millimeter electrolytic pure copper, with high-tensile insulation'.

“High-tensile?” I asked.

“That wire will not smoke until it gets truly hot – as in it starts glowing,” said the soft voice. “You've got enough wire there to wind all of his coils and a fair number beside, as well as real capacitors and all the other parts needed to redo those things right.”

“I found this other book, also,” said Esther. “Willem, send this thing with him, as this book tells exactly how those work and what their... Willem, he could make one from scratch if he had to, given this book and the other things that just showed.”

“Perhaps use these things overseas, then,” I muttered.

“No, don't,” said the soft voice. “They have that code on file, and many of their computers use that old 'legacy' code for some of their peripherals.” I had an idea just who 'they' were: the current 'leadership'. “Just use the code you recall, and that one will stay safe for the duration – as they've never figured that one out, and 'reading' you is going to help a great deal regarding a vast number of intercepts that have mystified those people since thirty years prior to the war.”

“Trouble is, I don't recall it very well,” I said. “I might manage T, C, Q, S, O, and perhaps two other letters.”

“They'll get everything, including your frustration at not making contacts during the time you were able to try while a young man and how much easier it was twenty years later,” said the soft voice. “Now that Paul's back, the two of them can get that one weapon ready for that soon-arriving elk, and you and Sarah – as well as Esther – can go into his leather-room. You already saw the tanning vats.”

“But there's a bird-nest up there,” I said.

“Well, shoot it down, then,” said the soft voice – who implied I was some kind of 'flaming ninny' for not thinking of a similar idea on my own. “Use that shotgun you found, if you wish.”

With some trepidation, I tiptoed out of the room, then went to Sarah's buggy. There, it took perhaps two minutes to first find the gun in question, then perhaps another two to find some shells for it. I found five, making sure in the process of examining their fronts that none of them were marked with that infernal 'S' on their fronts. In the process, I drew Sarah, who then asked what I was doing.

“There's a bird-nest in that room over there,” I whispered, “and this one wants shooting down.”

Sarah got that message right away, and not two minutes later, we were both 'tiptoeing' back to that one room with its nose-wrinkling odor. Our odd way of walking drew Esther like a magnet, and as we continued our strange stalking, I whispered, “I hope you did not put any stiff shot loads in that one.” She had gotten one of the double-barreled shotguns.

“No, not if it's a bird,” said Sarah. “Stiff shot is for thugs, and those are not edible.”

I just wanted said bird down on the floor in a deceased state, not fit for the manure pile, and while I was in the lead, I again felt no small trepidation – for as I came into the room again, I heard, this ever so faintly....

It was the strangest noise I had ever heard in my life. Whatever it was, it was not the noise of any mere bird.

This sounded far too much like speech for me to think it anything else, even if it was coming from a bird of some kind – though what kind of bird was an entire mystery.

“Gobble-Gobble-I-want-a-drink?” I asked, this in a whisper. “What kind of bird makes that noise?”

“That is a buzzard,” whispered Sarah. “If you do not wish to shoot it, I will.”

“Best let him deal with that bird,” whispered Esther. Somehow, she'd gotten inside with us. “If that is a buzzard, it will need a roasting pot, and I think it would best go home with the two of you, as if one must eat fowl, those are the best for you if you are sick.”

I also recalled Gabriel speaking of 'buzzards', and how they were thought to have imbibed their strange and uncanny wiliness, this by consumption of high-octane drink. I then recalled the reek of that one bird, the one I had shot what seemed years ago, and the whole somehow strangely went together with what I had just heard.

I carefully 'slithered' a shell into the shotgun's chamber while 'tiptoeing' back into place, but as I worked the slide, I felt a distinctive sensation. While this weapon looked and functioned like what I had once used, it was in its own class for capability, and as I aimed at the bird perhaps fifty feet up once back in the smelly room on the room's other side – to the side of a long concrete vat, this against the wall – the 'nest' seemed to go 'gauzy' and I could actually see an obvious brown-and-white feathered fowl.

“Just like that thing down south,” I thought. “It does look very similar.”

I then aimed – or rather, pointed – at this bird, and pulled the trigger.

The explosion was so violent that I only came to myself when I slammed against the wall, and as I saw a mass of kindling falling, amid it was a hefty bird that was attempting to fly and not having much luck, for it had just been 'woken up' by having its rump peppered with shot. This made for racking the slide instinctively, much as if I'd never quit using such a weapon. As the tumbling bird came closer, however, at about twelve feet, I saw the neck of the bird clearly, and quick as lighting, I fired again.

The bang this time was even worse, but the bird fell dead to the ground with a meaty-sounding thud, and over yonder, somewhere near the tanning vats, a distinctive splash announced I'd blown something important off of it. Sarah then ran back into the room, produced her knife, knelt down – and then yelled.

“We have Buzzard! Hallo! We shall have Buzzard tonight, and Hans will chew on a raven!”

“Uh, shouldn't we get this thing..?” I was definitely in a quandary, for the overhead light of near-noonday showed a brown bird laying dead, this with white spots, and its size was astonishing.

It was also headless, and blood flowed steadily into a before-unseen drain in the floor, this an obvious gridwork nearly a foot across and slightly domed as to its shape.

As if by 'magic', Sarah had vanished, and not two minutes later, I was wondering how I might clean out the shotgun while standing next to Sarah's buggy. It dismantled readily, just as I'd recalled the one I had once had once I'd dumped the other shells, and while my usual rifle cleaning rod worked 'well enough' once I'd ran a 'rifle-sized' patch through the barrel, first one damp with oil and then a dry one, at the back of my mind, I wondered, even if I carefully oiled what parts in the receiver I could get to readily. I then asked something unusual as I slipped the barrel back in and tightened down the nut holding it onto the magazine tube.

“What was in those shotgun shells I used?”

“A mixture of three and four millimeter shot, which is about perfect for those birds at that range,” said the soft voice. “That kindling stopped almost all of the first load, so all that needs doing is merely to sweep it into a corner and bag it up for 'paper' to be delivered once that paper-making operation is running at the Abbey, while the second shot blew off the bird's head and a short piece of its neck. Hence, it bled out quickly into that room's drain, and you killed it stone dead.”

“And now there is the head of a dead t-b-buzzard in one of Willem's tanning vats,” I muttered. I had first tried to call the thing a turkey, for some reason, even if most people called them 'buzzards'. I suspected I would soon learn another reason for calling them that, however.

“That is the lye vat,” said Paul as he came over to where I was reassembling the shotgun, “and you got that buzzard dead to rights, as here is its head, here.” He seemed uncommonly interested in what I was working on, even if he was holding a bucket that positively reeked of lye. It made for a desire to sneeze. “I got one on Hans there, but I think you got one on me now. You shot one of those before, didn't you?”

“Y-yes,” I said. I wanted to speak of the lye and how it would make me ill. “It was far to the south, though.”

“This is a good one!” yelled Sarah. “Paul! Why aren't you helping us pluck this thing and get it in the salt?”

I soon found that everyone save myself and Paul were now working on a rather sizable bird, and I soon realized that I had shot an example that was even larger than that earlier one once its feathers were mostly removed. Sarah pronounced this example as 'a prime buzzard, one full-grown yet still young', while I had all I could do to finish putting the shotgun away in its bag and then retrieving the two spent shells. The acrid bite of small-arms propellant really got to me regarding these things, and I thought to ask what was the chamber pressure in these things, as well as the common muzzle velocity.

“More than you might think, and that in both cases, especially the muzzle velocity,” said the soft voice. “By the way, those rounds would later become more or less 'standard' wasp-loads.”

“Wasps are not that big,” said Willem. “They might be trouble enough should you find them near a nest, but most wasp-shot is done with a Fritz-file and blacking, and then you dump it in your musket atop a piece of rag so the blacking does not kill your powder.”

“Where did you hear that prime rubbish?” said Sarah. She was saving the quills, and I suspected I knew who would receive most of them. Kees would get writer's cramp from all the inking he would soon be doing; while he was a good 'inker', he used up pens at an alarming rate, or so Lukas had told me. More, he only did his best work with 'buzzard-quills' – and that work was indeed 'exceptional'. “I know about using wads, but neither blacking nor lead kills powder.”

“It does that with what I use,” said Willem.

“How much blacking do you use, Willem?” I asked. I seemed more in the way than otherwise, even with a bird as large as this one. Willem, however, seemed to be thinking. He then replied, after a fair amount of thought on the matter, as it was becoming obvious he didn't routinely shoot at wasps.

“Half blacking, and half shot, and then mix them with a spoon, same as I was taught,” said Willem.

“That might be part of the trouble,” I said. “Do that... Oh, this is better.” Pause, this on my part to drink some beer. This bird did not smell like a leaky distillery, for some reason, even if its aroma did vaguely reminded me of 'mash', stills, casks, and the production of high-test liquor. “What you do is you get a blackened copper pan, one with no tin left on it, and you put the individual grains of lead on it. Separate them carefully with tweezers, and then gently warm that pan over a small charcoal fire. That will make small shot, which will be fairly round, which is what you want for those bugs. Then, you put your blacking in with that, pour that shot-and-blacking into a loosely woven cloth sack, and then shake out all of the blacking you possibly can.”

“Which is what you are supposed to do,” said Sarah, though at one level, though, I could see something rather funny shaping up in Sarah's mind. Using that much blacking, while it might not drop the wasp in question, did some rather unpleasant things to its ability to function in other ways.

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “You don't want to just drop those things – you want to soot them up!”

Only I had misjudged Sarah; she was not the only one, as Esther thought this matter exceedingly amusing as well. It was all either woman could do to not laugh uproariously. I was obviously on a roll, and continued unchecked.

“Perhaps use charcoal fines,” I said. Willem normally put those in one stove or another in here, save when he had them from certain trees. Those went in the powder mill, which I had yet to see. “Save on your blacking bill that way, and really dust those things off.”

“No,” said the soft voice, “that would not 'dust them off'.” Pause. “They later learned to use powdered charcoal as a filler in those mingled-shot loads, as it did something else that those wired-up wasps had trouble with.”

“What?” I asked.

“It created a huge burning cloud that often set their explosives off far enough away to make the resulting splinter wounds readily survivable if the wasp was already in its dive,” said the soft voice. “The splinters from those bombs usually needed the wasp 'going off' at waist level to cause maximal casualties, hence detonating them thirty feet or more away commonly resulted in not only less-severe infections for the wounds in question, but also far fewer and less severe wounds as a rule.”

“Huge burning cloud?” I asked.

“It also caused trouble for witches,” said the soft voice. “It not only 'aired their smelly hides' well, but at 'deadly' ranges, it sooted them up fairly well – which usually rendered the witch blind for a time if the load of shot did not put him on the ground.”

However, I soon had another issue that I could work on, that being 'cleaning the quills' of their 'fluff', as Sarah put it. I was so engrossed in this matter that only when Willem showed with a huge copper pot, this well-tinned and made with rivets like those I commonly used that I stopped with what I was doing.

“That is the pot for those things,” said Paul. “Now Willem has his own manure-bucket here, so the insides and remainders of that bird can go in that, and then the good parts...”

“Cleaned salt,” said Willem. “I have some.” Pause, then, “it will wish that – or will it?”

“Yes, it will,” said Sarah. “Those things might not be commonly considered fit foods for invalids, but...” Esther was holding her nose, and now, I knew why – both as to why Esther was holding her nose, and why one might think of a bird like this as a buzzard.

“That thing smells like your still when you forget the rye paste for the cap, Paul!” screeched Sarah. “Quick, let us get it drowned in that pot there, and have done with it!”

From somewhere in the area, Willem now produced water in a wooden bucket, this used for things like watering the horses, and within fifteen 'foul-smelling' – I wished to speak of 'fowl-smelling', but the need for hurry in first cleaning and then boning this vile-smelling bird wasn't a joke, for what Sarah had spoken of seemed have merely awoken in this bird when Esther began gutting it, her knife now working with a swiftness that was astonishing – but once it was in the water and the salt 'put to it', as was commonly said in the area, I found I needed to vomit until I spewed green stuff multiple times.

I soon found myself having company, however, and Esther was mumbling about the three who had spewed themselves green.

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “You've gotten sicker, and no mistake, as have I. I think that mash started things, as it was smelling strongly in your barn before he spoke to it, and it was smelling more afterward, and that bird smelled terrible when you started working on it.”

“Gobble-Gobble-I-want-a-drink?” I asked. “Do those birds like mash?” My thoughts toward imbibing buzzards now had a new and terrible swiftness, or so I suspected. Two for two, and both smelling as if they were drunk as stinkers, and vaguely, I did recall something else about 'turkeys' and 'drink' – though I wondered for a moment as to just what it was.

“I am not sure,” said Sarah, as she sought to replace her lost liquids with beer, “but that one certainly smelled as if it did, and I hope Paul gets busy cleaning that one gun of Willem's out in a hurry.”

“Why?” I asked. “Oh, an elk will be soon be sampling his mash and deciding which mash-tub it wishes distilled for its use? As in this is one drunken elk?”

“I have heard that was an old tale,” said Sarah, “but I know deer and elk like that barn and its smells, and he's shot them in there before using this old gun that he borrows from Willem, and I think...”

“No time for it,” I said, as I got up from where I had been 'cleaning quills' and began to walk toward my rifle. I'd laid it out in the buggy, along with those things I would need to load and then clean it. “Paul! I think you'd best get ready to get really sore, as that smelly Elk is on the way here now!”

As I 'loaded my cannon featly', I seemed to again hear the sounds of that one infernal 'poem' I had written so long ago regarding ravens and their insanity-inducing ways, and I hoped Paul would not have the same outcome as the narrator of my version, who, when the smoke had cleared, had found that the following had occurred:

“said bird was still parked neatly, this above my chamber door,

On a shot-cracked water pipe that I'd inherited the year before.”

He'd centered the bird, and the shot had gone around it. It was not a normal 'bird', even if it was big enough to be better named 'Nightmare' instead of 'Nevermore' – and I had never had a use for a water-pipe, even if the one in the poem was ornate and 'expensive' enough to keep as a strange and terrible reminder of what not to do – and indeed, the whole poem's tone was that of 'do things you should not do, and you will go insane, and you will do so thusly'.

Besides, I was writing about someone other than myself, even if the person in the poem was a student. I then blinked.

Paul had arrived at the side of the buggy smelling faintly of an evil-reeking toxic chemical, and as he watched me finish my loading, he said, “now that one, I want to see how it is used before I shoot it.”

“He'd best go with you, Paul, as you might well drop that one when you fire it,” said Sarah – who obviously meant the rifle. “Get to your horses and hie yourselves, and you'll most likely both wake up Laidaan and call for help in dealing with that animal.”

Paul, however, had a better idea, and we were soon moving down the road in his now-empty buggy, me holding my rifle on my knees and he driving the buggy itself. We fairly rattled down the hill, but as we went past the main gate – it had opened for us without a pause, which had Paul looking at me strangely – I asked, “how will we get back in?”

“That is the strange part,” he said. “That door is normally good for part of a day should Willem open it, but it seems to have a mind of its own that way.”

“As in it is connected to that other door this place has, the one to the main 'plant'?” I asked. “If that one is open, then the one we just passed through opens for people coming each way?”

“Yes, if they are marked or close to it,” said Paul. “I have never heard of it opening for witches, and I have heard them shooting roers and other guns at that door while I was inside helping Willem on his guns, or while Esther was helping him make that hot powder he reserves for swine.”

As we came onto the main road, however, this going to Paul's house at little short of a trot, I could feel the presence of an elk. This animal was not a smaller one, but one that had a set of horns starting; more, it was something of a 'rogue' elk, one that was either 'perpetually' in the mood or...

Perhaps 'perpetually in Musth' was a better word. This thing thought it was trouble, and it worked hard to make that matter good.

It also liked mash – as in this animal drank that stuff if it got wind of it, and that over most other foods elk might happen to like.

“I hope not,” I muttered. I'd put my supplies in one of those smaller camouflage pouches, one that Sarah had brought, 'just in case'.

“What is this?” asked Paul. I suspected he was looking forward to hunting up an elk – even if doing so might well put bruises on him.

“Loaded once more, and pulled trigger,” I said, quoting more lines of that pestiferous rewrite of a poem I had once done many years ago, “Just made the hole behind him bigger. I was about due for a jigger, when the elk screamed Nevermore...”

As if to announce my 'wrongness' in the matter of recitation or composition, the elk did scream, this a blaring challenge to anyone and anything in the area. Paul spat, “it is not time for those things to be in the mood! That is not for some months yet.”

“This one is that way if it's awake,” I spat. “I think you'd best let me drill this critter, as you'd...”

“No, let him,” said the soft voice emphatically. “He can handle this one.”

“Why would you want to shoot something that kicks like a roer?” I asked.

The elk screamed again, and this time, Paul did not wait. He picked up my rifle as the buggy all but slid sideways to a stop, then as I watched horrified, he ran for his barn. Only then did I realize just where we were.

“This is his yard,” I murmured, as the cornfield parted abruptly to show an elk, this one 'full-sized', most-irate, and troublesome indeed, its long 'electric' tail waving stiff as a flagpole in a high wind, much as if it had taken lessons in how to hunt down mash from Miura. I wondered where Paul had gone when he suddenly came out of the barn, then at a distance of perhaps twenty feet, he drew up, aimed, and fired.

He was flung off his feet, and the elk dropped like a stone – and I was running for the barn.

I ignored an obviously 'dead' elk to find Paul 'stunned' and 'bashed', with my rifle laying beside him in the hay, and as I checked first him, then my rifle, he 'came to himself', this to see the huge horned animal laying 'dead'.

He got up and promptly cut the animal's throat, then looked at it, all the while speaking in an awestruck tone.

“This elk has taken balls from roers before,” he said, pointing to several places where the animal had been hit long in the past, “but that gun drilled straight through its head, and it made this big hole in the back of its head, so it has no brains left in its head.”

“Do roers usually toss you like that?” I asked.

“Yes, some,” he said. “This elk should need some help, so let me get that started, and I will take you back to where you can get to that leather, as that needs you looking at it. You do that better than anyone I know.”

While I thought Paul was out of his mind, and I more or less said so, I had to revise my thinking when he clarified his position, saying he did not know of many people who did such work – and no one had the ability to see as I did regarding a host of things, and I was no mean worker of leather in the bargain.

I then asked about his shoes. They looked to be made in the place where mine had been.

“Oh, I was not thinking of them,” he said, as he rattled up the road and came to the Public House, this across the road from Willem's house. “I can get the help in here.”

I soon learned just the precise nature of this help, as it was 'the nooning', and while the distinctive roar of 'a gun fit for drilling swine' wasn't particularly uncommon in this area, supposedly, 'the first elk of the year' had been eagerly anticipated. One of the men Paul found inclined toward both help and 'fresh elk meat for his pie' proved to be a butcher, in fact, and that man led off down the road toward the barn, with a small mob of people of both genders following in his wake.

Paul wasted no time: he hustled his animals up the winding path to the manse, then after dumping me and my rifle off at the doorway to the large room, he all but ripped out of the door on the way back, speaking as he delivered me of dealing with 'meals for a month and more'.

“Now that I can believe,” said Willem as I began cleaning the weapon, “as I heard that thing in here. What did you put in it – dynamite?”

“No, something closer to what you fill your swine-shells with,” said Sarah. “That thing has put me on the ground more than once, and that when I was just nearby – and the first time, I had to spend time in the privy, also.” Pause. “I was not shooting it, he was – though after I saw him shoot it the second or third time, I was wondering just how to try it.” Pause, then, “shooting that roer cured me of trying that one.”

“I think so,” said Esther. “Now, Willem, he needs to see your tanning vats properly, as I suspect there is trouble in that room, and then your leather table and storeroom, as those need their share of work also, and you have a mess in your tanning room that wishes water so it does not smell worse than it usually does in that room.”

Esther implied this room usually stank, and stank badly.

I went with Willem to find out where he got his water, and found he had his own bronze pump. More, this thing was both very old and in extremely good condition, and as I walked with him back from the 'pump room' to the tanning vats, I asked, “have you ever needed to do work on that pump? As in it started making strange noises and having trouble producing water?”

“Not in the last year or so, but I check it twice a year,” he said. “The pump comes out of the socket, I put grease to the pivoting places same as I do with the guns, and then either thrice-boiled tallow or that stuff you make to the leather, and then it goes back together. Pause, then, “I use it every time I'm in here, and I usually need to pump water for the gun-horses daily, so it needs to work when I use it.”

“Meaning you usually have enough work here for you, Paul, Esther, and anyone else in the area you could possibly trust,” I said. “Most of the other members of your gun-teams don't routinely work in here.”

“No, and that's not a good idea, not when most of this stuff is beyond them,” said Willem. “They know their work, and that's a great deal of work for them, as a rule.”

“More than that, Willem,” said Sarah. “The less known about what you have in here, the better, especially that one thing that chops your hay, and the powder mill, and what is in this room, and what kind of leather you have, and all of that crown niter...”

“Yes, I know,” said Esther. “Now once he douses that blood so it goes down that drain there...”

Drain?” yelped Willem. “What drain?”

“There was another bird's nest,” said Esther. Her laconic speech was remarkable. “He cleared out two of them, and I am not certain it's that good of an idea for him to clear the rest of them.” Pause, then, “this stuff here is fit for kindling, but there's enough shot in it to wish to not use it for your stove, so I'd bag it up for those coming to work from across the sea. They can recover that shot as well as bring more of that stuff.”

“At least that shotgun works like the one I once had,” I murmured, as I resumed cleaning my rifle out and finished 'oiling' its barrel. “It just needs a bit of work to properly clean it internally, polish and debur the various pieces...”

“Not now it does,” said the soft voice. “It just changed on you from what it was into what those designers intended those things to be like, as those pictures are yet to be deciphered.” Pause, then, “that will save them no small amount of time to find that weapon, as it's now become functionally better than what you had after you cleaned that gun up.”

“B-better?” I asked, as Willem began 'swabbing' the blood with an ancient-looking mop, one that Esther then told me she had done of rags, string and the mop-stick – and this but recently. Willem commonly used lye in his mop-water, which meant for regular replacement of the business end. This time, he wasn't using lye, as there were three people who were commonly made ill by the stuff present in the room – and all three of us were bagging up the 'kindling' into an old 'mail sack', one of a number of such 'stout' bags Willem kept in the manse.

They worked so well for 'gunner's work' that he commonly bought slightly used examples, ones sufficiently stained that they were no longer wished for mail, or so Sarah said. The mail needed both 'good' bags and especially clean ones, as letters did not wish to arrive at their destinations dirty – and running the mail tended to be an astonishingly dirty business. It made me wonder if 'mail-buggies' were cleaned regularly, so much so that I was startled to hear an answer to my question regarding the shotgun.

“It can now devour those loads, rather than needing repairs every few thousand rounds,” said the soft voice. “The other reason those shells are 'all-brass' is they're loaded to roughly four times the chamber pressure common to shotgun rounds where you came from, and hence that shot gets a hefty punch at the muzzle.”

“How much shot do they use?” I gasped. “It was almost like shooting those bad loads, those fit for l-large birds.” I'd not been able to get 'buckshot' when I had taken delivery of that gun and its two barrels, but I had been able to find those loads – and I'd fired enough of them to know I wished to save the dozen and a half or so of the remainder of such shells to use in case I was invaded by thugs, at least while I still had had weapons handy.

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I still can see you shooting that buzzard's head off after you put a load in its rear.”

“Only a few pellets, Sarah,” said Esther, “and I drew those. They weren't that deep.” Pause, then, “he killed it when it was coming down, as that shot-swarm tore its head and part of its neck off.”

“About the only way to stop those things, other than getting onto them with a three-inch gun,” said Willem. He was finishing the blood up, thankfully; I was starting to notice its acidic reek as it combined with the seepage from his tanning vats. “I'll dump the rest of this water down this drain here once I get this mop cleaner.”

“Dump that stuff there and get more water, Willem, to clean your mop,” said Esther. “'Dirty water will not a clean mop make', and I remember that from my mother.”

“She is right,” I said. “I've used mops enough to know something about them.”

However, once Willem had finished dealing with the mop, he was able to show me – and, by extension, the two women – just what he did to make his leather; and this was far from the only room used to deal with leather.

The one next to it was 'the leather-store-room', that being where he stored the stuff needed to turn raw hides, these usually fresh from an animal, into the leather he used. It too proved to have poor lighting, though for this one I was not inclined to 'shoot' the kindling out of the vent – and now I knew I needed to see all three rooms.

Sarah looked at me, then aimed the 'gun' she was carrying. Again, the deafening roar – only this time, we indeed had trouble, and I had to kick a squawking fool-hen across the room and out of the doorway, and then out into the main place – where Sarah dropped the bird efficiently, blasting feathers off of it into a huge drifting cloud.

“Now you have done it,” said Willem. “One of us will need to take that one to the Public House, unless Paul gets back soon.”

“That, or put it to the salt with the buzzard,” said Sarah. “I'd like to see what that one has for shot in it.” Pause, then, “I think I got it solidly, as it dropped right off and it was not that far away.” Sarah was then wondering about 'doubled eight' fowling pieces and how they were not much better than roers, and how what she had fired might well be such a gun, at least for its recoil.

Several pellets had obviously 'drilled' the bird in the head once we had retrieved the part-denuded carcass, and once it was 'plucked' and then gutted, it became obvious to me that Sarah had not just 'drilled' the bird in the head – she'd centered the bird's head, hence almost all of the pellets were in 'non-edible parts'.

The muzzle blast alone had blown many feathers clear of it.

“Put that in your manure-pile, and you should get...” There was an absolute mound of feathers, as this bird was larger than the first example of today. I wondered what to do with them, and soon, I was told once more regarding the 'good' feathers, these being those suitable for pens.

Kees was not the only person who used ink. Hendrik did also, and here, Sarah told me about the one peculiar trouble with her ink: “that stuff does something to pens, and I'm not sure how or why, but it does ruin pens very quickly.” Pause. “You can only ink one paper if you are using those things, and then you must cut a new pen-point with your knife.”

“Paper?” I asked. “One sheet?”

“No, said Sarah. “I usually could ink enough sheets to keep me busy for a writing session, but each such session needed me trimming back the place that had ink on it and cutting a new pen when I took up the pen again.” Pause, then, “it made me glad I did the hunting for our group, as 'the hunter gets the quills' is the rule down there, and I needed a lot of those when I needed to ink my writing – and I needed to do a lot of inking, both writings and drawings both.”

Again, there were more feathers for me to work on, and we would have more kindling for the coming paper-mills – and again, I was glad Esther was so quick with her knife. Now I knew why she might well wish one for both what she did regarding 'gutting and skinning', but also, another for poking thugs when they tried for her.

It also made for a renewed intent to make several cook's knives, as Anna had a knife that looked very similar. Esther would get one of those as well as one of the second run of those 'good' daggers, and at this rate, I would wish to have forging dies made for them – as the Abbey's forging presses would make a lot of knives, much faster than I could do so by hand – and I would need to use such tools when and where I could so as to have the time needed to make that 'overly-complex piece of equipment' known as a 'sextant'.

“No, not with that shot,” said Sarah, as Willem whispered about the bird's head. “You'll wish to recover it, if you can, so I'd put that head in some strong lye, and then I would check the area across the room.” She then looked at where she'd fired.

“I hope I did not put any shot in your guns,” she said softly.

While I did find three small shot-holes in one of the carriages, Willem said they would most likely not cause trouble today, even if he would need to remove said shot in a hurry, relatively speaking, and then plug the holes with a mixture of fine sawdust and glue. I then thought to ask him for his 'key'.

“What will that do?” he asked.

“Pull that shot, I suspect,” I said, as I put it over one of the holes. To my utter astonishment, I soon had three pellets on the magnet, but when I moved my hand over them, they came off readily. “Now all you'll need to do is fill those with glue and put some of that wood-treatment on them.” I then looked around, and asked, “is this stuff magnetic?”

“The nickel plating is,” said the soft voice. “It is not quite as much that way as truly ferrous metals, but it is magnetic, at least to a certain degree.” Pause, then, “that is not a common magnet, by the way.”

“What is it, then?” I asked, as I looked at the thing and saw it go gauzy to show a fairly complex mechanism inside of the 'end-sealed' tube that had been sealed with interference-fit screw threads prior to then turning and grinding all over.

“Hence its' magnets are normally held close to the ends by that spring, and when that door opens, the 'grabber' magnet moves away... No, it actually flips over, which is why it ejects like it does, and then there's this underground passage...” I found the whole rather confusing, and my voice spoke of that confusion.

“Yes, I know about that underground passage,” said Willem. “Only place I've been in that's worse than that place is in their cheese-room, and both places are too much like taking that tincture for pain for me to like them.”

Added to my 'mental' list was 'a small number of strong magnets, thin ones, for removing nickel-plated shot'. I was then told I could get things that would remove shot of all kinds readily, and they'd developed a complete suite of tools for extraction of small pieces of 'anything that could show up on their imaging devices'.

“Imaging devices?” I asked. “Big...” I was thinking of those I had personally seen or heard of. I'd had some used on me, in fact.

“Those are the most-capable ones, and are usually found in theaters,” said the soft voice. “There are a lot of them that are relatively portable, and that one 'medic' you saw had a less-capable version that was made in the location where Annistæ had her training.”

“Less capable?” I asked.

“It worked best on metal fragments, though it could also see wood splinters if they weren't too deep,” said the soft voice. “Those overseas that can be wheeled about in theaters can visualize everything – and that down to the virus level.” Pause, then, “that was needed for some of those specially-cursed 'biological warfare agents', as those things needed removal – and they had a disturbing tendency to escape less-capable means of removal, at least until they developed those.”

“Those?” I asked.

“They look like some very long syringe needles,” said the soft voice. “They usually require two operators, one to insert the probe, and the other to control the probe's tools – and those can reach nearly anything for removal, including inoperable tumors and other things.”

“Oh, my,” I squeaked. “Inoperable t-tumors...” Willem had gone, and when he returned, I nearly gagged.

“This is the stuff I need to plug those holes,” he said. “Here, shine that light there on them, and I will put the glue-mix in those things with the tools here.”

“Glue-mix, he says,” I muttered. “Willem, that is hide glue, and that stuff is so stinky I think it might well be something named Hyde.”

“That is not hide glue,” said Sarah confidently. “I'd recognize that stink anywhere.” Pause, this very brief. “That's the cheap stuff, and if you paid the price for hide glue, then you were sold.”

“Do you even bother hunting up hide glue, or is this something you delegate?” I asked. “You might wish to have Albrecht get some of that evil-smelling stuff down in the fourth kingdom...” I was looking at the material, then at Willem, and then at Sarah. “Willem, get that stuff away from that gun and out into the middle of your floor. I've words to say to it there.”

Willem, commendably, did precisely what I said to do, and from the safety of 'cover', this being behind and to the side of one of his guns, I yelled, “cursed stuff, go settle in the nose of the witch who made you, and fetch us some proper patch-material instead!”

The the stuff erupted in a cloud of smoke and flame, the thump so violent that it moved the gun back perhaps an inch and put me on my behind, but when the smoke and clouds of soot had cleared away, I saw Esther holding a bucket.

A bucket unlike any I had ever seen here. I had seen this type of bucket beforehand. It was a milk-bucket – and not a particularly small one, either; and more, it was of stainless steel.

“First, you have a good bucket,” said Esther as she came closer. There was a ring of soot remaining on the otherwise clean stones of Willem's floor. “Then, you have this other stuff inside it that is so strange that I...”

Esther handed the bucket to me, then as I looked inside, I nearly howled. “Willem, you have the best stuff imaginable in here! I've seen this stuff before.”

“You'll wish to read the placard first,” said the soft voice, “and then do as it says, as that material isn't what you thought it was.”

“It isn't?” I asked. This material looked so much like a metal-filled species of epoxy that I was stunned.

“No, it is not that material,” said the soft voice. “It's not only not metal-filled, but it is not epoxy.” Pause, then, “that's the latest-specification 'field-repairer' for fiberglass bins – though it's a vastly better material for wood than that 'mess' Willem was about to use, as it wasn't what Sarah thought it was.”

“What was it, something worse yet than 'the cheap stuff'?” I asked. “Something that would cause his gun-carriages to go rotten in a hurry, like this stuff that...” I looked at Willem, then in a voice that spoke in hushed tones of horror, “no, they were just keeping you busy with their periodic assaults on your location while doing real damage to the place in the only way their records indicated they could, as they've been after this location ever since they learned about it. Willem, you weren't just 'sold', you had traitors in your midst!”

“I would like to know where they are, then,” growled Willem, as he drew a revolver from a well-hid location in his clothing, “as I will air out their smelly hides!”

“He already did,” said the soft voice. “He got those stinkers in the last three days, with the last of them dying today.”

“I hope you are not short people on your gun-teams, then,” said Sarah. “They weren't those people, were they?”

“No, they weren't, as Willem picked those men himself, and he watched all of them for years,” said the soft voice. “What he delegated out, though – those people were, in some cases, well-hid most-serious supplicants, and in one case, one of those witches that excelled at hiding.”

“One of the 'three wise guys'?” I asked.

“Bingo,” said the soft voice. “That man was one of Willem's suppliers, and he was the one making the most money off of crown matters at the crown's expense – bar none.”

“Just like a stinky General,” I spat. “Perhaps not quite as much, but...”

“No, he made a good deal more that way compared to one of those men, as he had all of the volume and but a small fraction of their expenses, so he got to keep most of his considerable profit and was well-past miser status due to those matters alone,” said the soft voice. “He kept his witch-gear very well hid, bathed regularly, was in contact with some surprisingly-high-ranking witches scattered in various places in the first, second, and third kingdoms, and had gone to school at Maagensonst, so he was working hard at turning the place into one fit for the belly of Brimstone.”

“Then you will not need to dirty that one up,” I said, noting as I spoke that the revolver had a conspicuously worn finish. Willem had obviously been keeping the thing maintained to the best of his ability. “You may wish me to look that one over, unless you're now keeping it as a spare.”

“He has had that one as long as I have have known him, if not longer yet,” said Sarah. “That gun may not look it, but it's one of the best to be had, if one does not consider yours.”

“It's also older than time,” said Willem. “I had this one from my father, and he from his, and so forth for possibly several generations further back – and they were rare then.”

“They are rarer-yet now, due to the witches swamping that firm with orders,” said the soft voice. “You will wish it gone through at the first opportunity, at least until you can get yourself a 'Webley'.”

“What is this?” asked Willem with alarm. “Does this have to do with spiders?”

“No, Willem, it does not,” said Esther. “You may have a few small ones in here, and you will wish to keep Sarah out of those rooms as she will smash those things and convince you she's had lessons from Anna regarding rats, but those pistols have nothing to do with spiders – though how you will cope with a pistol that thinks itself one of those called a dragoon is a mystery.”

“No, not one of those big ones,” I said. “One like I saw earlier today. Those are a bit better than the ones I commonly turn out, but...”

“No, he will wish a large example, as he sometimes needs to deal with those northern people at close ranges,” said the soft voice. “One wishes ample stopping power with them, as they are not easy to stop.”

“Hence he needs 'hand-howitzer-like' recoil and heft,” I muttered.

“He already has a weapon that does that,” said the soft voice. “He needs one he can look after readily – as he's busier than you realized, and needs no small amount of help in here, help he can count on, especially once those new guns start coming out in numbers.”

“Those will be trouble, Willem,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how you will endure them, but they will be a lot more accurate than anything you've ever heard of – and shoot much further, too.” Pause, then, “I think we had best plug those holes, and then get back into your leather-rooms, as I need to pick out those hides, and he needs to look at them also, especially your tanning vats and your supplies.”

Sarah had not merely meant 'he needs to see good hides'. She'd meant I needed to see all of what Willem had for supplies regarding leather. I wondered if she had the same presentiments I had about that stuff.

I found that Willem had stools, also, and as I read the 'three-fold' placard that came in the kits – I was wanting one of the kits myself now, and I wondered if I could get one to take on the trip – I found that the material was based on an intercept as to its coloration and mixing, hence it was a simple matter to use.

What was not a simple matter, however, was first preparing the damaged places for repairs – they needed cleaning with straight acetone, which was described as being a very dangerous material – but also, they needed to be 'reinforced' if they were at all sizable, and then daubed with camouflage resin mixes to roughly match the rest of the bin.

“For these, then, I just need to clean them out,” I thought. “Now where is that acetone?”

That proved to be in a number of small plastic containers, each of them listed as fifty milliliters. I looked at the yellowish-tinted liquid, and then fairly screamed when I read the uppermost portion of its label.

Acetone!” I yelped. “Gun-cleaning solvent”

“That is not proper acetone for gun-cleaner, but 'field grade' material that is intended to endure rough treatment – rough treatment for acetone,” said the soft voice. “It will not work as a gun-cleaner unless you distill the acetone from that stuff out under a vacuum and into a suitable carrier liquid – which is what you want for gun-cleaning solution anyway.”

“Acetone is, uh, flammable,” I murmured.

“That stuff is, yes,” said the soft voice. “Even the way that stuff is, if you try to put out a fire involving it by stepping on it, even a small amount, you may well be surprised at how far it tosses you.”

“Tosses,” I muttered. “Like 'lacquer thinner' coming out of that one smelly root.”

“Worse,” said the soft voice – who implied 'worse' was best rendered 'a lot worse' by the wry tone. “Acetone might not have the thump of a bad fetish, but it does thump people from time to time overseas, even with their precautions, and it then produces enough soot then to make entire laboratories look like Hans had a large batch of wood treatment go up on him.”

“I may have encountered this stuff once, then,” said Sarah. “I recall seeing a bottle like this, only it had a clear liquid in it, and it went up all right.”

“It did?” I asked. “What happened?”

“It first filled my nose with its fumes,” said Sarah. “It causes one to go blind from them, nearly as bad as that blasting gelatin stuff, but it takes some minutes to do that, not instantly. Then, it makes one very dizzy...”

“Which is one more reason acetone needs a carrier for gun cleaning, as then it will hide itself among the carrier material and stay put,” said the soft voice. “Let Sarah continue, as you will find this most enlightening.”

“And then, it makes more soot than anything, should you drop a small amount of it to the floor,” said Sarah. “It might not be as bad for exploding as blasting oil, but it is fully as sensitive when it's like that, but oh! That stuff is so bad for soot that dropping a little bit from a dropper had me cleaning that laboratory for days.”

“And 'field grade' acetone?” I asked.

“Needs tossing to 'detonate',” said the soft voice, “and has much less for fumes, so you do not 'go blind' from something that Roesmaan's Chemistry manages to somehow make in one of their chemical processes, something they get right maybe one time in twenty.” Pause, then, “it still prepares the surfaces amply well for field use, and in this case, for plugging shot-holes.”

I soon learned the truth of the matter: acetone, for one thing, while it did not smell 'evil', had a very penetrating fruity odor; its fumes not merely caused an intense degree of nausea but also had me wishing to be in a chemical warfare suite again. However, the fumes dissipated quickly when Willem opened that one door partly.

I then learned another truth: while the acetone had its own class for odor, the patching material smelled so horribly that I was muttering about that one chemical having been outclassed in its capacity to call flies.

“That stuff smells like it is High, and I do mean 'High',” spat Sarah through tight-closed lips. “Who put it up – Kossum's?”

“No,” I said, as I mixed it with one of the small plastic stirring paddles, this through gritted teeth. “This stuff smells so stinky-bad that I know a good use for it – put in the noses of witches.”

“Do that once you plug those shot-holes,” said the soft voice. “They will like that stuff.”

The shot-holes took but a fraction of the small mess I mixed up, and as I watched, the gray color faded into a brownish streaky material that actually matched the wood fairly well. I was so engrossed in seeing this transformation occur that I didn't notice I had been mumbling the whole time – and more, that not merely had the remainder of the material vanished.

Everything I had used to mix up that batch – a small stick, a piece of plastic like the lid of a container, and two 'measuring spoons' – had vanished also, so I did not need to clean up the mess. Then, faintly, the answer to the matter came.

I could hear screaming, this nearly at the audible level; and yet, I could not – at least until I heard several booming noises, followed by a thundering roar.

“What was that?” I asked.

“You got the last 'bad' spy on the northern half of the continent,” said the soft voice, “and the count of those people is now 'seven' rather than eight.”

“It roosted in his nose?” I asked. “Are those people witches?”

“That one most-definitely was,” said the soft voice. “He was also due to be 'promoted', once he had returned to where he could 'catch ship' and then get back.”

“Catch ship?” I asked.

“The leadership over there does have a few ships,” said the soft voice. “There aren't many places on the west side where they can 'park' those things without running them aground, so those more-capable spies either travel on the functionary level when they absolutely must, or they get picked up late at night – that being the rule – using small craft which the ferry them out to those ships.” Pause. “That individual was heading at a rapid walk from the Ploetzee area toward his latest-stocked supply-cache when you put that patch-kit in his gear – and some of the patch material in his nose.”

“And what happened then?” asked Sarah.

“He went into convulsions and accidentally deactivated his hiding field,” said the soft voice. “That made him suddenly become visible – and Paul 'centered' him at twenty paces with his pig-musket, which caused his front 'treason-charge' to explode, and that charge set off the rear one.”

“Pig-musket,” snorted Willem. “I need to finish cleaning that one I was working on once you three are in the room with the hides, then get the bullets ready for it so he can put holes in the next elk that shows.” A pause, then another scornful snort, “that thing he has does not do much to pigs even if you hit them in the head.”

“They do not get over being shot, though,” said Esther – who spoke as if she knew the rule about swine: difficult to kill if you wanted them dead right away, but dead-easy to kill if you were prepared to wait a few days for infection to set in. “He usually does not hit common swine in the head anyway, as he's learned where that one does its best business, which means getting close and shooting them in the sides.” Pause, then, “the lock is getting a bit balky, and I suspect the balls are loose, which is why I've been telling him he needs to have him” – here, she indicated me – “go through that thing from muzzle to butt.” Another pause, then, “he can patch those balls now, and I've helped him cut patches for them and put tallow in those patches, and I suspect he uses those regularly.”

“He does,” I said flatly. “Now we can go back to your leather-rooms, and not endure their stinky aspects nearly as much – as those things only use the wind to get their stench out, and that means you need to keep those ventilation stacks clear of bird-nests.”

The reek in the tanning room was now vastly less, and though I could not feel the wind in the place, I could tell that particular stack got up in the air enough to get a decent draft. More, it got up among the trees far enough to now provide a measure of light in the room, so much so that the tanning vats could now be properly inspected without needing to move all of Willem's long-hoarded candle-lanterns into the room. He had far more of those than anyone – save, perhaps, me – suspected.

Which was just as well, for now I had need of some explanations, this as to just how leather was currently tanned, and more, I needed to see all three rooms. I glanced down at my boots.

“Not merely for those,” said the soft voice. “You're going to need a lot of good leather in the months to come, and you also need to explain to those overseas just how hard it is to produce a good material given the supplies in this area.”

“As in they cannot duplicate it now...” I asked.

“No, they cannot,” said the soft voice. “They've never been able to precisely duplicate leather, even if they can do things to it that make it into a vastly better material for footwear and other things.”

“Then we will want that stuff done right, and we will need a lot of it,” said Sarah. “I have no idea what most of these vats are, as no one does leather like this that I have seen.”

“That is because you've never been somewhere that does that business right,” growled Willem. “I think the business of tanning smells so badly that all it seems to get is people who either wish to be witches, or witches themselves, and that...” Willem looked up to see a vent-stack cleared of its bird-nest, then gasped, “I do not need a light in here now.”

“You do not need to move all of your lanterns in here to see what you are doing, you mean,” said Esther. “Perhaps you did not hear the comments made about bird-nests and things like them, Willem, but you need to clear out those things in this place, as they help with a lot more than just keeping the stink down. They help with lighting, at least during part of the day.” Pause, the, “perhaps you can tell us just what-all you do in here, as your workings in here need some real improvement.”

I looked down and saw another matter: Willem putting water in the drain had begun to work on a clogged section, and the drains in this place did more than just drain off spillage; they also supplied a measure of ventilation. I was then 'interrupted' by Willem as he began what was likely to prove a long-winded explanation of just how bad working with leather could be, and how much work it was for him.

“First, there is the crane overhead,” he said. “It has old tracks that look as if they came from a mine, four mining cart wheels, then this strange thing that turns and this arm, with a block and tackle having some sailing rope, and that is how I move the hides from one tank to another.”

“That long tank of moldable stone, Willem,” said Sarah. “What happens in that one, beyond your boiling the hides you get?”

“No, not boiling,” said Willem. “You heat your water with steam, but you never wish it to boil.”

“Just bubble as if it's boiling, so as to agitate it and keep your steeping liquid in motion, and while no boiling is wanted, you do want the water good and hot – a bit too hot for a bath, in fact,” I said.

“More than that,” said Willem. “I know that I want a certain amount of steam in these, but exactly how much is sometimes a good question beyond 'each of those round tanks needs a bucket of water a day when they are working right, and that one there wants a bit less than two full ones'.”

“Meaning there's a lot of guesswork, and you sell only the less-good hides off unless you have plenty of leather – that, and you take good care of your harness, and you usually have some underway in here. Correct?” I asked.

Willem nodded, this surprised at my understanding of the true nature of being a cannon-master. One needed to put in 'hours better spent in the fourth kingdom' to stay on top of what needed doing in this place, as when the guns needed to roll, they truly did need to roll – and failures were not tolerated by the people in the area at the very least. I then realized another matter: appropriate chemistry and suitable tools were required to eliminate all unnecessary variables, as leather was variable enough given its source. I felt a faint 'stirring' in my right trousers' pocket, then removed a new glass thermometer, this unlike anything I had seen in many years. I handed it to Willem – who nearly keeled over in shock.

“I hope I can get more of these,” I murmured. “Now will that one, uh, do the job?”

“It will, and he needs to both adjust those valves for the best temperature range, that being between seventy and eighty of those units on the temperature scale,” said the soft voice, “and he needs to keep the contents of those vats in their optimum range for best results.” Pause, then, “that equipment is in the leather-room, where he works on harness, and it will need you or Sarah explaining its use.”

I could hear plainly the 'you need to see what he's doing, as then you'll understand why he thinks tanning attracts witches and supplicants so much'.

“When in reality, it's something that needs care, skill, close control of processes, and a lot of real knowledge,” I muttered. “Ignorance does not help make good leather.”

“I thought so,” said Willem. “That over there is the boiler, and I put charcoal to that, or when I can, burnt-coal, as then it runs good and long without me needing to check it every turn of the glass.”

“You need to put water in that thing on a regular basis, don't you?” I asked.

Willem shook his head, then said, “no, I do not. I have no idea how that thing stays full, but it does do that.” Pause, then, “I do check the sight-glass every time I run it to make sure.”

“Duh, probably has a force-pump and it pumps its own water once it's got steam going,” I thought. “Just like what I use – or am I all wet?”

“It does use a kind of force-pump, but this one isn't designed to cope with substantial pressures,” said the soft voice. “He doesn't need to run a steam engine, merely agitate the solutions in these tanks while heating them.”

The impressions I had was 'there is enough work to tanning without needing to constantly 'drive' a boiler', or so I suspected at the least. Willem then corrected my error.

“This long tank here is for salting the hides,” he said, “if I should get a big hide, like I expect to come here in short order, or if I should get a lot of deer-hides that are decent over a short period. That does not happen often, though.”

“Uh, not recently as a rule, you mean,” I said. “No, uh, deer or elk drives?”

“Not that I learn of them,” said Willem.

“You will this winter,” I muttered. “There aren't going to be nine thousand witches hunting deer and elk seven days a week so as to attempt to starve us all into submission, hence you will get more and better hides.”

“That will start happening very soon, actually, ” said the soft voice, “which is one of the main reasons why you need to see his 'tan-works' and comment on his activities appropriately.”

“So you dehydrate your hides in this long tank, which, uh, loosens the hair and preserves them in better condition until you can get to them, which is sometimes anywhere between days and weeks,” I said. “It gets the flesh and meat that remains on the bad ones looser, so all you need to do is scrape them well with a knife before putting them in the next tank.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Willem. “Now when you put salt to your hides, you want to use a lot of it, and the worse that salt is, the better, for some reason. I get it in kegs from those who make it, and I usually ask for the smelliest type.”

“Also the cheapest type,” said Esther wryly. “Willem, if you knew how to clean salt, I think you should try that business, as then you won't be short enough of money to need to worry that way.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “He'll need to worry to some degree about this location and all portions of his life, until witches are indeed scarce in this area and those northern people are done.”

“Perhaps, 'so you can afford to be pickier about your suppliers and have them thoroughly investigated before you even send a letter or speak to them'?” I asked.

Much better,” said the soft voice. “He needs to do that, more so than you do.”

“More so?” I asked.

“He does not have your capacity to sense mischief,” said the soft voice, “and then, he usually deals with these matters himself, so it takes time and money to either pay someone like Tam to check out a given supplier, or spend much more time and money doing it himself.”

“It adds to the stink in here to use bad salt,” said Sarah. “Go on. I had no idea why tanners tended to smell so badly, and now I am finally getting some answers that made sense.”

“Uh, is this because of which tanners you could get access to?” I asked. “Something about how their business seemed to make sense at the time you saw them, but afterward when you looked at your notes they looked as if you had gotten into five mugs of Groessfuetchen beforehand, and topped matters off on a regular basis during your note-taking?”

“Worse than that,” said Sarah. “They usually looked as if I had drank enough Geneva that only a witch could endure it.”

“Most likely as there's nearly as much 'superstition' involved with tanning as there is with a number of other trades, those that are closer to 'double-double-toilet-trouble' than 'real chemistry',” I said. Pause, then, “you had a chance to see one of those things today, so now you know what a toilet looks like.”

Sarah was looking at me, and suddenly she knew what I was talking about, only the language she used to describe 'something that came straight out of an old tale' was a bit peculiar.

“Oh, so that's what they were called in old tales,” I murmured. “Water-closet?”

“That was the usual word, though that is not the case if one should be on a ship,” said Sarah. “They had a different word for those, and I could never make out what it was.”

“Uh, heads?” I asked. “Did they... No, they called the rooms where they were heads. What they called the facilities themselves was another word, and I've no idea what it was – at least where I came from. Here, it might well be something else.”

Sarah looked at me as if out of my mind, then muttered, “I wish I could have had you as a lecturer, and not a pack of witches for thinking.”

“No, not all of them,” I said. “Some of them simply admitted, at least to you, that they often had very limited knowledge on their matters of lecture, and what you managed to learn in that one place increased their limited knowledge to no small degree.”

“She means what she said, as you're telling her things she has no previous knowledge of,” said the soft voice. “When that's all you've heard most of your life, then coming in contact with someone like you tends to turn your world twice around and flip it on two axes at once.”

“So now you know why I usually salt hides,” said Willem. “That is so I can try to do this stuff so as to get good leather most of the time, or at least better leather.” He was looking at the thermometer. “Now this is strange. It has one side that reads 'heat', and another that reads 'strength'. How can one of these stirring things fit for a chemist tell strength?”

I took the thermometer from Willem, and now noticed its faint glowing – at least until it got in my hand.

It suddenly became absolutely hazed with blue, and little lightning bolts were shooting off of it along the whole of its length, as well as crawling up the fingers of my hand. It made an evil hissing noise when I touched the bulb to the water in the tank marked '1', and when I took the thing out, I understood why.

“No, you need more lye in this vat,” I spluttered. “It does not...” I paused, looked around, then saw no one save Sarah was still in the room. “Willem? Where did he go?”

“He left when he saw that thing look as if it were about to strike him with lightning,” said Sarah, “and I think Esther went to grab him.” Pause, then, “I wondered why it had so little odor of lye in here, and now I know.”

“Neither of us wish to be in this room when it has plenty of lye, dear,” I said. “Part of that is the sheer difficulty of getting decent lye in this area, so Willem just puts wood-ashes in that stuff and filters out the mud periodically.”

“That's what he needs to do,” said the soft voice. “He usually just changes each solution out every time he runs a batch of hides.”

“Batch?” I asked.

“For elk, two, or possibly three,” said Esther, as she brought in a chastened Willem. “Deer, that depends on both the size of the animal and how thick its' hide is, and also when it was taken.”

“If they start coming in here shortly, I will be able to run more of them at a time, as summer-leather is thinner than winter-leather, least for most animals,” said Willem. “Now I was going to fetch the lye, but someone told me really loud to not add it until you three were not in the manse.”

“As it would make the two of us very sick and her a lot sicker than she wishes to be,” said Sarah. “I think if you keep your water good and hot, and put some fresh ashes in every time until the hair and stuff comes off of the hides, and scrape the soap off also, then it should work better.”

“Bad soap, so it goes in the manure-pile here,” said Willem. “I always wondered why I got such good manure out of that pile, and now I have a better one.”

“Uh, fresh ashes with each batch?” I asked.

“That I measure, and add them after sifting,” said Willem. “I screen all of that stuff good, and that is how I get a fair amount of charcoal for the boiler in here.”

“Try closer to a lot of charcoal, as he gathers ash from half the people in town when they clean out their stoves and gives them a guilder for each bucket,” said Esther. “I was hoping he would make soap, but now I know better.”

“Not in h-here, Esther,” said Sarah shakily. “Haven't you ever been near a place where soap is being made?”

“Yes, and it smells terribly because they use bad lye and worse tallow,” said Esther. “I would like to know what the two of you last bathed with, as I like that smell greatly.”

“No, dear, you need perfumed soap,” I said. “Bubble bath, only...”

Esther looked at me strangely, then pulled out a long ship-shaped bar of green soap. “Medicine-soap,” she said, reading the letters impressed into the bar. “What is this?”

“It looks like that soap with the herbs,” said Sarah. “It smells very good. What will that do?”

“You two know what that soap will do,” said the soft voice, “as that is the solid form of what you two bathed with recently.”

“Make more bubbles than you could believe,” said Sarah, “and you will laugh as if being in bed with three ticklers.”

“Good,” said Esther. “There is little enough for me to laugh about as it is.” Here, she turned to Willem. “These next vats, the ones you have numbered 'three', 'four', and 'five', with the one with the ashes having the number of 'two' and that salt vat being labeled as 'one'? That one you labeled 'six'?”

“Those from two to five are what get the tanning barks,” said Willem, “and that stuff, I buy some of what I use and gather some of the others, as it takes weighed amounts for all of it, and I have to judge what I have when I weigh it, and I pump the liquid from each of those things and add more bark each time to each vat.”

“Better if you just steamed the 'juice' out using an extractor, evaporated it to dryness, and then weighed that material, or better still, if you did careful analysis and purification,” I said. I suspected Annistæ would do precisely that, actually.

“Better yet beyond what you spoke of if you took some samples of his fresh-mixed bark across the sea, as then they can make the best mix of what he needs,” said the soft voice. “Let him explain what he does, and you'll learn another matter that's very common when so much of what you do has had to be 'double-double-toilet-trouble' due to both a measure of ignorance and a near-complete lack of real chemistry knowledge and a total lack of the needed equipment for turning a very inconsistent product into something that will actually work.”

“And, you do your tanning in three stages, correct?” I asked, as I noted that one vat spoken of labeled 'six'. “That one's the rinse – or is it?”

“You got that one right,” said Willem. “It most likely needs a bit of vinegar in it right now.” Pause, then, “come next door, seeing as you seem to have ideas about my tanning equipment, and I will show you-all the supplies I use for tanning, and after that, you can see one of the busiest rooms in the place.”