The Kingdom of Boom: that fellow was stranger than anyone

Once in Willem's supply-room – where I had not noticed much earlier, due to the need of thumping a fool-hen and then being deafened twice, first when I saw the bird's nest turned into kindling, then afterward as I saw Sarah blow feathers off of a just-kicked tumbling bird in some fashion – I now understood a great deal more. Over in the corners of this room lay numbers of kegs, and Willem identified those.

“I get that stuff straight from them boiling it,” he said, “and I tell the freighters I know to get the cheapest dirtiest stuff they can.”

I had some comments about that, but I wondered if I could get a smallish sample. Sarah handed me a spoon, then a medicine vial; and after filling this vial from the dark gray crystalline material, I could faintly smell another odor.

“Willem, this stuff was done up by a witch!” I spat. “No, he does not need mule-urine in here!”

The kegs began smoking, and the reek of 'mule' drove us all out of the room. Willem looked at me, then as Sarah wrote the tag for the vial and put it in her satchel, she looked at Willem. “The cheapest stuff is often done fit for Grussmaan's, and you have some of their dung-adulterated stuff there,” she said. Pause, then, “this is just what he was speaking of regarding doing this business, Willem, and I hope we can get tanning salts for you, now that Grussmaan's is not going to be selling much for a while.”

“They will be very interested in what you have in that vial, though, as his selecting it essentially turned it into a crude version of what is wished,” said the soft voice. “Crude salt contains some rather interesting materials, but when ashes drift into it from smoky wood fires, and then it boils in clay pots for days, during which time it gets more materials from the pots – then it turns into something unusual.”

“Most of those additions add bad tastes,” I said, “which is why most publicans recrystallize their salt a number of times, and when and if they can, they buy the stuff from someone like Sepp.”

“Who will be very interested to talk to that woman who's checking on him periodically,” said the soft voice. “He wonders exactly where she came from, and why she's dosing him with both uncorking medicine and beer, but also some chemicals.”

“So he gets uncorked quicker and gets that stuff out of him,” I said. “Also replace the salts lost through the dehydration caused by, uh... Poisoned, eh?” I asked. “As if I had to know. That's one Public House that needs to be set alight – and if possible, tonight.”

“How?” asked Sarah – who then came to the same conclusion as I had about the nature of this particularly well-hid hostile takeover. “I suspect my cousin will wish to be in on the matter, knowing her.”

“She is, and she has something planned for those people,” said the soft voice. “Trouble is, she has no idea where to fetch more of those rockets.”

“At our house, obviously,” I said. “Perhaps a third of a brick of that smelly gray explosive tied to the back of a container of Benzina, and then put that on the front of the place late at night, with a nice long fuse to each of the two caps.”

“That will not work,” said Esther. “Not if there are witches in this place.”

Esther's voice tapered off, as she then knew the truth of the matter: these people dared not show themselves openly, hence 'two am' meant they would be most-closeted in their hiding places in this Public House. More, these people were in about as close to 'deep hiding' as was humanly possible due to current conditions in the kingdom house, hence 'three foot of fuse to each of two caps' was about as good a way to blow them up as was readily achievable. With someone like Deborah handy, and perhaps ten minutes of Anna and Andreas' helping to actually do up the bomb, the matter was a foregone conclusion.

“Just put two metal pears next to it, each one tied on with string, and some of that stuff we found that's almost impossible to see to each pin,” I said. “Do that, and then no one will be able to remove it.”

“Tie that stuff to the caps, also,” said the soft voice. “This one is good training for some people that need to learn how to do this business correctly, so they'll have themselves plenty of amusement tonight and wake up the town again.”

“Again?” I asked.

“As in 'the sun rose again at midnight',” said the soft voice. “Everyone who sees and hears that one will turn out, and then the last of the witches in town will finally be found out due to their being as much or more surprised by the blast and fireball as anyone else.”

“A witch-free town?” I asked.

“For a few days there will be no witches, as Lukas has been quickly learning about 'penetration' and 'when it rains hard with money',” said the soft voice. “Granted, he usually needs two or three shots to set off a given coach's dynamite, but his aim is improving quickly in regards to distance shooting.”

“How many of those cartridges did he take?” I asked.

“Two full magazines' worth, and he's also learning about 'sore',” said the soft voice. “He's quite sore now, and he's fired eighteen rounds – which should give you some ideas as to just how little most people are able to shoot those rifles.”

“No, they are not roers,” said Sarah, as we went back into the room, “but if you shoot them much, you can think you just shot a full-loaded one.” A pause, then, “this stuff over here smells like that bark that's really common in the fourth kingdom. Is it?”

“I think so,” said Willem, though his voice implied he 'hoped' it was from there, given the sheer attention given to his supplies. He now was realizing the difficulties in getting good materials, even given uncommon care in who he spoke to regarding this or that and what his needs were. Finally, his nose imposed upon him the issuing of a new edict: “it smells less in here now.”

“That is because those stinkers who you got your salt from had mules misting in it,” said Esther. “That will not help your hides.”

“Almost have to boil your own salt,” I spat.

“No, he won't need to do that,” said the soft voice. “Just charter some of the places down on the Low Way to supply him with salt on a regular basis, places that are down in the central portion of the fourth kingdom, and he'll not have trouble with mule-urine in them – as mules are not run openly there, unlike in parts of the second kingdom where salt is made 'cheaply' by more-or-less slave-labor.”

“More-or-less?” asked Esther. “Either you are a slave, and owned by a witch body and soul, or you are not.”

“They pay little for it, so those people either boil enough salt that they work like slaves, or they do that and everything else they can do to stay alive,” said Sarah. “There are many places in the second kingdom that are actually poorer than the third kingdom's back country, even if they look to be otherwise.”

“On the coast, it is due more to witch-robbery rather than the witches utterly running the place,” I said. “A similar result is achieved regarding what those living there actually have, however.”

“Exactly, and you'll most likely see migrating witches headed northbound during your trip,” said the soft voice. “They'll be driving up on the Low Way from points south into the second kingdom port – and you will wish to slow for a few minutes so you can see that place from a distance, preferably with slackened sail while yet in the area where the winds are stronger than close to shore.”

“From a distance, eh?” I asked. “More or less owned entirely by the witches, and they run that place to suit them. A lot of rotten cannons...”

“No, just a battery of five,” said the soft voice. “The chief issue is that those guns are manned nearly all hours of the day and night, and those on them are currently some of the best gunners outside of the fifth kingdom.”

“Oh,” I murmured. “Either want to shoot them or cause trouble in other ways,” I murmured.

“No, not yet,” said the soft voice. “There are things planned for that location.” Pause, then, “you, Karl, and Sepp need to know where it is, and more, what kind of a place it is – and those witches running that place are both especially watchful, but they also have good telescopes, so if you come closer than a mile, there is a good chance they'll see you.”

“And if we stay further away, then they'll have trouble,” I said.

“No, they will see something, but they will not be able to hit you with their guns,” said the soft voice. “You'll be at the limits of their range if you stay in the 'trade' area, and if you come at night, with slackened sail and no bright lights showing, then they will have a lot of trouble – as those telescopes do not like to be handled by witches.”

“They don't,” I muttered. “So they conveniently don't have very good light-gathering properties at night, and they show what...”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “Those were made by marked people, they were stolen out of the fourth kingdom years ago, and the witches conveniently 'prettied them up' so as to have 'fetish-grade' instruments that actually worked.”

“Hence they have some shiny tools that actually perform to some degree,” I said. “That polishing did not help those things, did it?”

“They were fairly careful about their polishing, but no, it did not,” said the soft voice. “That isn't why those work so poorly, though – and you can guess why.”

“They don't like witches,” said Esther. “Now you said you gathered bark as well as bought it from the fourth kingdom. What kinds do you gather, where do you gather it, and then what time of the year, and is this bark still on the trees, or has it fallen to the ground?”

“Usually fallen, though I check the trees in question as often as I can, and if it's loose, I might pry it off if the tree looks as if it can stand it,” said Willem. “I use a fair amount of blackwood bark, then some from straight-trees, those that are liked especially by shipbuilders for masts and things like that, then some that make acorns...”

“Those are swine-trees,” said Sarah. “Some few lecturers know their correct name, that being 'oaks'.”

“Swine-trees?” I asked. “As in pigs like acorns?”

“They do,” said Sarah. “I've not seen a pig yet not enjoy finding acorns, and that no matter where it came from.”

“Perhaps gather the acorns themselves,” I asked. “Would those work for leather?”

“No, not those,” said Willem. “The bark is the best, as I do have records of what has been used to make harness-leather going back several generations, and I've read those.” Pause, then, “there is the ash-sifter under that cloth over in the corner back there” – Willem was pointing these tools and supplies out as he spoke – “there the bagged charcoal next to it, and here, the tallow – and that one pot I use a lot for boiling tallow, though I clean it out with lye after each such run in case I need to soak meat in it.”

“Thrice-boiled tallow?” I asked.

“I do that when I get the stuff,” said Willem, “and then I do it thrice more during the winter, and only then will I use it on leather. You do not want smelly leather, and the stink of bad tallow attracts swine.” Pause, then, “I want that odorless stuff, though, so I get my tallow from Hans now, and I send him everything that way I can get my hands on.”

“Thought so,” I muttered. “Now no dung, obviously – that stuff, even in trace amounts, gives cheap, rotten leather.”

Willem nodded, then said, “good that you know that rubbish. Now one other thing, one that has only occurred to me to do it recently, is to soak my hides in clean water after scraping them, using Vat six and a lot of steam to it during the soaking.”

“I told you about that part,” said Sarah. “That's what those people who do the 'best-grade' leather do down in the fourth kingdom.”

“Did those people sound as if they were witches?” I asked.

Sarah shook her head, then said, “it was much the same regarding my notes, though – what I had written made no sense at all once I got back, and I've since learned that's very common with those students who talk with those who work with leather.”

“Some bad curses on that stuff, possibly,” I muttered. “Are there?”

“Yes, and they're still very strong,” said the soft voice. “Those curses are based at Berky, and the tanning vats of Berky made almost all of that country's leather.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered.

“Note I said, 'almost all',” said the soft voice. “There were some local tanneries operating out in the green area, and discerning witches and those marked dealt with them exclusively, as they knew paying their higher prices meant 'leather that works' in one case and 'leather that does not need constant chanting' in the case of the other – presuming they could afford it.” Pause, then, “those that could not afford such fees and wanted leather that wasn't cursed tanned their own.”

“Witches, or those marked?” I asked.

“Both, as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Slave-tanned leather was reserved for fetishes of one kind or another – and that was the rule for those things made of leather before the war, hence leather-workers currently tend toward treating all involving their craft as if it were a fetish because most of the witches of before the war wanting the stuff to be that way and chanting at it constantly as long as they lived.”

“So now you know why you have to do it yourself if you want decent stuff,” I said. “While not all tanners are witches, the process currently is so, uh, weird that it does not give a consistent product unless you exercise an unusual amount of judgment, and use the right equipment, and use the correct supplies, and ideally harvest the hides yourself.” I paused, then, “speaking of hides, is that one off of that elk yet?”

“It should be,” growled Willem. “Too many people think you can ignore hides, but I know better, and I've been telling Paul that...”

“Telling me what, Willem?” asked Paul. “That elk had a big hide, and I know you like them done a certain way so as to make good harness, so I had to show that butcher how to do that work, and I had to go over it once more after he was done to make sure it was right. Now where is it you want it – the salt-tank, or the lye?”

“Pardon me,” said Willem, as he grabbed a long and rather unusual hanger from someplace overhead. “I have to start with the steaming on this hide here.”

“Best get him a scoop of that salt you got out of that keg,” said Esther, meaning 'me' to take the salt to Willem in that once-smelly room.

I soon learned the chief matter was getting the hide in the salt, as then one could take one's time while the brine kept matters 'cozy', as Paul put it. The boiler took a bit longer to 'get a fire up', though once Willem had that tank bubbling and the salt added, I soon found another matter.

Hot bubbling brine smelled worse than the salt when it was in crystal form – and while this stuff didn't have mule-urine in it, it still smelled horribly. I got out of the room, then spat, “Willem does not need that stuff in his salt-tank!”

The eruption of smoke and fumes billowing out of that tank was enough to make me hunt up shelter, and when I found that, it proved to be where both Esther and Sarah had taken up the next room over from the room Willem kept his supplies in.

“There are enough benches in here,” I said, as I looked in this uncommonly long and narrow room. “What's that back there?”

“He grinds up the bark in that machine,” said Esther dryly. “I think it is an old soap-grinder, but I could be wrong.” Pause, then, “at least I know decent tools when I see them, as I helped him deal with Albrecht about replacement of some of these he had in here that were less than good.” Pause, then, “one trouble, though.”

“What would that be?” asked Sarah.

“I have no idea where to get good wood-carving tools, and less yet how to use those,” said Esther. “If I could get those, and someone teach me portions of that business, then there is something I really want to carve in the future.”

“What would that be?” I asked, as I looked over Willem's tools. I then found one that I tossed out into the main shop, and when I turned to look what it was doing, Sarah was making gasping noises.

“Willem!” she shouted, upon seeing the gouting smoke coming from an obvious fetish. It had not liked me handling it, and it was showing its displeasure. “I knew it, some witch sold you a fetish instead of a tool!”

“The leather-curses, dear,” I said. “Even with Esther helping him, they still manage to sneak a lot of worthless junk in here...” I had to toss another tool, then two more. “Those hangers?”

“Those came with the place,” muttered Willem as he came inside the room where the three of us were. “Good, you're finding the bad tools.”

“Bad tools, he says,” I muttered. “Stinky witch-run firms in the fourth kingdom! Most of them make nice-looking expensive junk!”

“You'd better get out of that room,” said the soft voice. “You just started something big.”

All of us piled out of the room, and again, I went wide just clear of the door. It proved very wise, as the torrential gouts of smoke and 'soot' shot well out into the middle of the larger room, and as the stink and smoke slowly drifted across the room, I wondered if that place we had just been in...

Did it have a vent-stack, and why did the light seem so cheery and 'homey' in that place?

“Light?” I spluttered. “The lights in there were a batch of sulfur-impregnated witch-candles!”

“That was the cause of most of the soot you saw,” said the soft voice. “He now has more-appropriate means of lighting a location that does not have one of those vents, as it was never intended to house 'smelly' processes.”

These more-appropriate means now included two more of those dual-placard alcohol lanterns, though the light blue-mottled-white ceramic jug that had showed had the strangest writing I had ever seen, especially for its otherwise-familiar shape. When I read what was on it, though, then showed it to Sarah, she knew precisely what it was.

“This is that fuel they use in those lanterns that come across the sea,” she said. “We may wish some beyond what we found.”

“No, what you found is better, and not a little better,” said the soft voice. “This is the currently-produced product, and while it does last better and give brighter light in these lanterns compared to aquavit, they will soon put that process to rights again and start making the latest-specification military-grade fuel in liquid form.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. “No longer have functionaries controlling the process through extensive 'micromanagement' of one kind or another?”

“That is much of the trouble,” said the soft voice. “That, and the process needs more than a little updating to suit current conditions there and here.”

With the homey lights gone completely out, we needed to fill the lanterns out in the main room away from the business of sweeping up a vast amount of soot. Willem had to find his broom and other matters by feel, then when he came out, his nose was wrinkled up as if he'd been sprayed by a skunk.

“I paid for good wax candles, and I think I was sold, as that room now smells like those gray and black things from the fifth kingdom.”

“You were,” said Sarah. “I've heard of witches taking those stinky things, shaving them down some, then dipping them two or three times in beeswax and selling them as entirely beeswax ones.”

“Plugged candles,” I said – and while doing so, I wondered if witches 'plugged' coins – namely, that they made brass 'slugs' of rolled sheet, stamped them with 'likely' designs, and then plated them.

Sarah looked at me in horror, then said, “it is bad enough that all witch-coins were cast in the past, and they want to run that business. Now you speak of false-made coins.”

“They are not common up here,” said Esther. “I have yet to see one, even if I have seen a lot of shiny coins in the hoards of witches.” Pause, then, “that shine comes off when I put them in this special lye, or better, a mixture of lye and niter. That cleans that rubbish right off of those things, and makes them decent again.” Esther then wrinkled her nose most peculiarly.

“The smell?” I asked. “It does have a smell, though why witches recognize that odor so much as being one they own is a mystery.”

“Because they want all of this stuff,” said Sarah. “They wish to own it, and not let anyone else buy it, and...” Here, a pause to look at me as I worked the lanterns over, getting them ready for filling, then filled them one after another with my screened funnel. “Do they add stink to that stuff?”

“That kind, no,” said the soft voice. “Recall that they might well wish to buy it, but those that do buy everything that comes off of that boat are in the third kingdom when it returns – and being an obvious witch in that place is not a wise idea, even if it was easy until the last few days to be a well-hid example.” Pause, then, “those who commonly buy much of what comes off of that boat are known by those on it, so the third kingdom gets some, and the fourth kingdom gets most of the supplies – and in the fourth kingdom, money talks and students walk.”

“Unless they have letters, ribbons, a good way of learning important matters, and they're absolutely determined to get what they need to do so as to fulfill their orders,” I murmured, as I topped off lantern number one. “Ten strokes, crack that valve there, twist the lighter, and then get back until it cleans out.”

I soon learned the truth of the matter: not only did this 'odd-smelling' stuff give more and brighter light, but it came up quickly, much faster than aquavit: the lantern took but perhaps a slow count of three to burn to a brilliant white light, one at once glaringly bright and eye-burning. When turned down, however, the 'homey' aspect was astonishing with these things.

“Save for the lack of flicker, that looks like about thirty student's lanterns with best-grade candles in them,” said Sarah. “Now once you are done with the other, we can see what is changed in that place.”

“I'd like to learn that as much as anyone,” said Willem. “No more sooty candles for me, especially with those things like that being present.”

“We shall have more of them, Willem,” said Sarah. “There are several versions we have drawings for, and they will wish those in numbers themselves, as often they need such lights and this type of fuel is easily made over there.”

“Yep,” I said. “Grade 'A' stove oil. Just take a common cast-iron stove, do some work to it with a log-type alcohol burner with a slightly modified version of what's in a titanium lantern, and then a sizable tank of that stuff underneath. Keeps your kitchen cozy, and you heat your pots easily.”

“They will want those,” said the soft voice. “Once you hear some of them talk about their cooking troubles, and then perhaps show you what they use, they will want that type of stove – that, and your design of heating lamp.”

“Simple, quaint-looking, and f-functional,” I muttered. “Too old by half.”

“Given what they use, they'll readily tolerate the 'quaint-looking' aspects, be glad for the 'simple' nature, and thank me for something that they can keep working under nearly any conditions they can imagine,” said the soft voice. “Most things they use need batteries, and those lanterns are no exceptions, even if they do charge themselves by their heat emissions.” Pause, then, “what most people on the continent don't know is that there are usually ten to twelve 'binned' lanterns going outbound with each trip that boat makes for repair – or, in reality, replacement.”

“Now,” I murmured, as I handed lantern number two to Sarah. “Light that one, fetch Willem... Where did he go?”

“He went to put up his broom,” said Paul. “He needs a good one, like this one I saw last night.”

“No, he does not need that broom,” said Sarah. “That thing sprays more hot lead and bird-whistles than you could possibly imagine, and it not only works for him, it works for my cousin!”

“Gets less fire out of it, though,” I said. “Now what happens if Annistæ uses that thing? More fire than Deborah gets?”

“Try 'enough fire that she has difficulty handling it',” said the soft voice. “It took you a bit of time to learn how to use that thing while dealing with that accursed wolfram in the Abbey.”

The changes wrought in the leather-room were astonishing: its walls now a creamy white color, its benches more or less 'new' wood, this seemingly 'treated' with this brown-tinted 'stain' of some kind; its tool-racks now 'organized', there being no less than five of them along his north workbench; his south workbench being fully as long as the other, and here, matters became strange, as there were not merely two machines, one at each end, but both of these had prism markings on them.

“What?” I gasped.

“Look those over,” said the soft voice. “He needs those now, not several months from now, as that elk is but the forerunner of a vast number that will follow that odorous 'lunch-call' in Paul's barn – so many, in fact, that Paul will be routinely sore from shooting and Willem will have trouble running all of the hides that come in here.”

“At least at first, he will,” I said. “Probably means another tank for salting, then a lot of tanning salts, then some improved tanning chemicals themselves that speed matters up.”

“Those will come home with you,” said the soft voice, “and he will need them by then, as he will be totally swamped for work.” Pause, then, “what happens at the Abbey, though – that is where you will get the leather processing down pat – from raw hide to finished products.”

“We will?” I asked.

Reinforced leather, leather that's been treated,” said the soft voice, “and instead of hobnailed leather soles, you'll have either hobnailed rubberized leather soles, or rubber soles, save for when you are doing medical matters.” Pause, then, “you will like those shoes.”

“I will?” I asked.

“You'll be wearing some within ten days, in fact,” said the soft voice. “Those really take care of your feet. Most importantly, they are easy to clean, easily sterilized, and fully waterproof.” Pause, then, “now, explain to Willem what the 'tallow-impregnator' does, then the 'leveler'.”

“The first cranks tallow into your hides,” I said, “while simultaneously, uh, grinding off any residual hair,” I said, “and then the other actually shaves your hides to a very even thickness and then entirely flattens the flesh side, so they're j-just like the stuff I used to use for belts where I came from.”

“What?” squawked Willem. “I have machines like they were said to use in the fourth kingdom for doing leather?”

“No, I think you have the best to be had at this time,” said Sarah. “I somehow suspect that we will be doing a lot of leather at the Abbey, so much of the stuff in fact that we will need to train numbers of people in how to first turn hides into leather, then work with this odd stuff that is so much like leather you'll have trouble telling it from the real stuff unless you try to use it and it do-does not wear o-out.”

“That's the reinforced leather,” I said. “It can use 'bad' hides and make good ones out of them, so if you can persuade those who hunt to bring their hides to the Abbey, then we can, uh, use them.” Pause, then, “I am not sure if those machines in this room treat leather, though.”

“See what's in that tallow-impregnator,” said the soft voice. “It's not just that odorless tallow.”

I went over to this machine, and now found it to be astonishingly complex, far more so than I thought, as cranking didn't just advance the leather through this thing.

It also drove a generator that heated this yellowish-white material and then rolled it into the warmed hides, the half-dozen warmed rollers impregnating the material to easily a sixteenth inch or more on the hide side and twice that on the flesh side.

“That's uh, this strange chemical as well as some weird odorless tallow, and I'm glad we have some, as they'll be able to make it weird.” I had no idea just what 'weird' would be across the sea, even if I had some ideas that were so strange that I could not yet put them into words.

“How will they make that stuff weird?” asked Sarah.

“He's not entirely certain yet,” said Esther. “I think he's going to be nearly as surprised as the rest of you, as much of what is over there is 'out of an old tale' as far as he's concerned.” Pause, then, “he's just better equipped to cope with that type of old tale, at least as to bringing down those stinkers that are running the place.”

“As in 'I have seen their type too often in my life beforehand', correct?” I asked.

“That especially,” said Esther. “Willem, all of your tools are not merely new, but they're so strange that about all I can tell is they're good ones, as every one of them has that prism mark.”

“How could I make so many?” I asked.

“Because, silly boy, that prism mark is going to become 'a whole lot bigger than just you',” said the soft voice. “That will, by extension, mean 'you had a hand in matters', and overseas, you're going to see it everywhere within twenty-four hours of them learning who you-all are.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because they will see it on what you use,” said the soft voice, “and they will desire it, and then I will tell them how you got that mark and just what it actually means.” Pause, then, “it relates to me and who I am.”

“Then I have an idea,” said Sarah. “The book speaks of him being three and one at the same time, that prism has three sides, and Brimstone d-desired to be him, but was crushed under that stone that was rejected, and, and it has become the capstone!”

“Very good, dear,” said the soft voice. “That is much of what they will be told. Now look carefully at this equipment, as you know much more than Willem does about its actual use.”

“Th-this stuff is all out of an old tale,” said Sarah shakily. “These knives are special ones, and...”

Here, in the light of the lanterns, the telltale rainbow gleaming glinted off of each and every edge. Willem had enough special 'leather' knives to make me all-but-drool. More, he had tools to measure the state of his tanks, these being a number of hygrometers able to test specific gravity – one for lye, one for the tanning bark, and another for salt content – though those were the simple tools. The others would need reading to use, at least for someone like me.

Willem would most likely need to do a lot of reading, then have me or Esther show him how things worked. I then heard more about the knives that I was 'lusting after'.

I then found the three-run tester with the three grades of PH paper. This was simple-to-use stuff, something appropriate to Willem's level of education. Annistæ would have proper electrodes available for doing real leather, and soon we would have not merely have meters, but also good tubes for driving them. I was hoping to find one of ours could do a good 'low-mu dual triode' imitation – though, for some reason, I could vaguely recall the name of one particular tube I had used, that being 'A-U-Seven'. I had no recollection as to the first digits: were those numbers a one and a two, or were they otherwise?

Again, I heard about the knives in question.

“No, just look in that one sewing kit,” said the soft voice. “You'll find the majority of these knives, if somewhat lesser in quality, in there, and between what you already have, and what's in there, you can do most of what Willem can do – unless you tackle larger projects, like gun-harness for horses. Then, you need this kind of setup.”

“Which this will now do in a fraction of the time,” I said. “Here, we have real harness rivets, nicely tinned copper ones with washers, so they won't rot your leather if they get wet, and then here's first a very nice riveting hammer, one th-that looks a lot like what I use for driving that type of rivet...”

“The small head?” asked Sarah. “That one with the long thin handle you use, with one head being about the size of my smallest finger for the smaller rivets, and the other my thumb for its l-larger... Like that one?”

“Yes, dear,” I said softly. “This one just looks to be a bit better made than what I have, almost as if the thing was l-lathe turned from rolled alloy steel and then deep-cooked.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “That process will produce hammers that are most-coveted, as they will not get banged up, they will not chip pieces off, and they will stand multiple generations using them, with a new handle once every fifty years or so when it becomes difficult to clean or somehow a bear-fisted user breaks it.”

“B-bear-fisted?” asked Sarah. She sounded more than a little alarmed at the word 'bear'.

“A term they use overseas,” said the soft voice. “You'll understand when they show you what they are talking about, when you are not laughing as if out of your mind.”

“What?” I asked.

“Just wait until you see those videos,” said the soft voice. “Then you will know what the idioms 'bear-fisted' and 'bear-slapped' really mean.”

“Do I want to know what a bear is?” asked Willem, who was wandering through the central area, moving aside what were now obviously hides hanging down from a taller-than-normal roof. “The bark grinder is new. Now I hope it works better, as I was having to sift and then chop up the bad bark with corn-knives.”

“It is, if it has that prism marking on it,” said Sarah. “Was that a soap-grinder?”

“I'm not sure, it was so old,” said Willem. “It's been here longer than I and my grandfather, who was killed about the time I was a waddler – and he told me about it being old then.”

“Then it is either written down somewhere in a ledger, it came with the place, or it's so old that no one really knows what it is,” I murmured, picking up an obvious stitching awl. Willem did not do much stitching, or so I thought until I was corrected.

He did do stitching, but it was closer to 'insurance' rather than 'a needed matter'; it gave his harness 'staying power' under heavy loads.

“And cannons are that,” I murmured. “Now what else is in here, other than the obvious matter of hides.” Pause, then, “Sarah, are you looking at these?”

“Yes, and I found one that looks very likely for those suitable for our use, at least for keeping our guns safe and dry,” she said. “Willem, these are the elk-hides, aren't they? Where are those from deer?”

“Next room over,” he said, among rumbling noises that somehow seemed 'cheering' and terrifying at the same time. “This thing is making meal out of this bark.”

“That is just what you want,” said Sarah, who then spoke to me. “Can you get after this hide here? It's far too tall for me.”

It proved 'far too tall for me' also, and Paul had to show me how to reach the hangers using this odd-shaped – and obviously new – 'cant-hook'. Sarah then learned just how much leather she actually had, and also, how good the stuff was once we four had gotten this huge hide out into the main area and laid it flat upon the floor.

“This thing came off an elk?” I gasped. This hide was huge.

“Yes, one like I just shot with that gun that thinks itself a roer,” said Paul. “Now I would like one of those, especially if it can be done the way that one is.”

“No, you do not want one done like that, Paul,” said Sarah. “He has to take those things for aiming apart regularly, clean them carefully with boiled distillate, and then reassemble them such that they are where he wants them – and they are close enough to be restricted.” Pause, then, “everything about that weapon is that way, and it does not tolerate anything careless about it. That much I know. It will not tolerate careless use, not the way what you normally use will or even with what Willem uses.”

“I can most likely make you something that will work for elk,” I said. “Most of the time, your shots on those are close, correct?”

Paul nodded.

“Hence an 'express rifle' sighting arrangement,” I said. “Two fold-up 'V' notches, with a removable version of what I have on that one should you need to shoot long, and a way to both carry it and mount it if and when it would be needed.”

“Which would be rare enough that you could most likely do the cleaning needed with that open version,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“You'll have something quite a bit better for your use within three months at the outside, and something for him and a great many more people within a month or two more. Figure roughly four weeks after Harvest Day.”

“And I most likely will not have the time for making such a weapon until I have that sextant delivered,” I murmured. “I might be able to freshen up what Willem has, or perhaps put new equipment on it, but otherwise, you're more or less 'stuck' using that one for the time being.”

“Then I need to get to cleaning it,” said Paul – who wasted no time in doing so.

“He said the deer hides were in the next room,” said Esther, as we rolled up the huge hide like a carpet and then tied it with several wraps of string. “You were going to make gloves of deer-hide?”

“Yes, for shooting,” said Sarah. “If you must shoot pistols that think themselves dragoons, then you want something like what I have planned – though if I have enough leather left over, I'll try to make some regular gloves for you.”

“Best get two hides, then, unless he's really short of those,” I said. “I know I can always use good deer-hide, as I need leather pouches...”

“I've seen you sewing those,” said Sarah, “and that is why I think Anna speaking of how slow you are is a pile of dung.” Pause, then, “I might manage faster, but I doubt I could do much neater.”

“I thought so,” said Esther. “You will want two such hides, though for gloves it might be best to try using those two machines in that room. These hides tend toward being very stiff, which is not what is wished in gloves.”

“I know about that part,” said Sarah. “The only worse thing than stiff deer hide gloves is to have your gloves cleaned in distillate after getting them slimy with this bad grease we found at the Abbey.” Pause, then, “did that bad grease get taken to where we live?”

“Yes, and you've got no less than twenty-three jugs of grease-filled distillate hidden in the horse-barn,” said the soft voice, “with another buggy having more greasy distillate coming by nightfall on the way to fetch 'beer' at the region's Public Houses.”

“Hence a lot of outbound jugs of what at first sight look to be empty so as to secure beer for a multitude, then returning with beer for a multitude,” I said. “Very good idea. Willem the larger came up with it?”

“He had much of a hand in the matter, yes,” said the soft voice. “Now fetch two good deer-hides, then Willem needs to take you on 'the grand tour', which is something Sarah could easily speak of.”

“It's in more than one old tale,” said Sarah, as she turned on her tent-lantern. “I think you want to get that one light, as this room isn't exactly small, by the looks of it, and I think there might be rats in it.” I fetched more than just that one 'battery torch'; I also fetched that suppressed pistol. This, I gave to Esther, instructing her as to the sighting arrangement, how to make it safe, and also, where one wished to hit rats such that they died right away. It proved wise that I did so.

Within a minute's time, as I and Sarah were inspecting the multitude of hides, I heard a surprisingly loud 'pop', this followed by a screech that only one type of animal – at least, one animal I knew of – could make. I turned, this seemingly slow as a glacier as more 'pops' came steadily and rapidly, ducked under the hides, then while still pivoting on my knees I proceeded to put no less than four rounds into a charging white rat, this creature easily two feet in the body and yet more for the tail.

“Another of those weird albino tree-rats with the bad attitudes,” I spluttered. “Esther?”

“Yes, I was shooting it also, though how I managed to damage this weapon is beyond me.”

“You what?” I asked.

“I think I broke it,” she said. “Here, let's take it out of this room, and I'll show you what happened.”

As soon as I put my light on the matter once outside and in the fainter shadows of the main room, I learned the truth of the matter: while I could, and was, shooting rapidly, Esther had managed to empty the pistol, and the slide had locked back. I went back into the room and found the paintbrush tail of the animal, then using that, I hauled the surprisingly hefty critter out into the main room. There, I saw another matter.

As did Willem. The gunfire had interrupted him in his sorting and inventorying of his new 'establishment', that being in the three rooms we had previously visited.

“What is that thing, and who put all of that stiff shot into it?” he said.

“I did,” said Esther. “Now let me count the holes, and I can tell you how many times I hit it.”

“You hit this thing every single time,” I spluttered. “All of the twelve shots in the magazine hit this thing in the head or upper body, and this while it was charging you?”

“That says but one thing,” said Sarah as she came out with a hide on that one 'cant-hook'. “You'll most likely take to shooting like I did, or like Deborah did.”

“M-me too,” I said. “I got a lot better once I came here, even if I knew something of shooting before coming here.”

The deceased rat, however, had more than just the smaller holes made by the pistol; I had tagged the varmint all four times as well, with my fourth bullet blowing its head partly apart. Seeing the mess, however, told me one reason why these rats were so hard to stop – though this example somehow seemed a bit different from a commonplace 'white' rat – it was not merely heavier for its size, but it somehow seemed to have a strange gray-green tint, instead of the usual yellowish-white. That color made for an association with a very 'creepy'-looking individual, one supposedly made from the pieces of other bodies and then 'turned on' by a species of electrification. It made me briefly wish to touch my neck, and feel for the scar that was once there – a scar like that one individual had, and in much the same place. The 'rat' in front of me then had my attention once more, yet for some reason, it had had my chief attention all along.

“This critter has a very thick skull,” I muttered. “If you are going to deal with larger rats like this one, and especially using those smaller pistols, you need some very hot rounds.”

“And dot one or both eyes, like you did with that rat,” said the soft voice. “Your fourth bullet actually hit it in the eye and exited out the back of its head, and turned its brain into mush while making the transit.” Pause, then, “find the deer-hides, or rather, remove the second one that Sarah finds, run both of those hides through both of those machines, do the same with that elk hide after 'slicing' it down the middle, and then go on the 'grand tour' of this place.”

Sarah had already found one suitable hide – it being the one she'd brought out using the cant-hook – and by the time I had conveyed that hide to the next room over and had made ready to begin running it first through the tallow-impregnating machine, then feeding the uncommonly long thing through the other, she had found another hide – which she and Esther brought in using the cant-hook for a pole. With three men cranking at their best speed turn-about, running the hides through the machines went a good deal faster. I found these machines were 'open-ended' on one end, with the result that they could process wide hides, providing such hides were thinner ones, like the two deer-hides Sarah had found.

The result was a smooth yet soft leather, one of buttery smoothness, and it made me wish to make Sarah a hand-bag for 'shopping' and other matters, just like one I had once made of similar yet thinner leather for Mrs. Ulyanov. She'd enjoyed the thing no end, even given my somewhat clumsy execution.

The elk-hide wanted splitting, however, due to its being nearly half an inch thick in places; then the latching mechanism could be engaged for added support, and here, one of Willem's new knives proved the precise tool for that job.

Its shape reminded me more than a little of a one-sided version of that one ax I had confiscated from Norden, with a wooden handle that one used to press hard on it when one was 'slicing' a long hide. The trick, such as it was, was to lay the hide on the table such that it ran against the wall, then run this odd 'hatchet' along the 'slot' in the table and through the hide until it was cut entirely in two lengthwise. It then had the more-ragged portions trimmed off, these being something Willem customarily kept for patch-pieces.

I thought to first run those through the tallow-impregnator once the arm was latched down and 'dogged' with its screws, and with the first piece through it, I was astonished at the change wrought.

“This piece spread out nearly an inch at the widest point!” I said. “What will happen when I run that leather through the other machine?”

“Make good harness leather, fully the equal of any leather on the continent and most leather that is found in the Valley,” said the soft voice. “By the way, there is more than just that one bar of 'tallow' in there – there's enough of that material present to process twenty to thirty hides, which number Willem will most likely be running during the time you two are gone.”

“This thing gets warm, Willem,” said Sarah as I ran through another piece. These trimmings were just about perfect for gun-leather, as those smaller pistols wished holsters of this size – with a place for the suppressor to emerge in some of them. “You men had best take turns, as that thing takes a lot of cranking.”

Sarah had the right idea, as not merely did this particular machine take a lot of two-handed cranking, it required no small amount of force on the end of its eighteen-inch crank arm. It had Willem muttering about overheads inside of a minute's laboring, and the same for myself – only what I had in mind was a small belted-down air-motor to drive the rollers, and another such motor, this one not belted down, to drive the alternator for heating said rollers.

This would be a most-peculiar motor, however: the engine-block itself would rotate, and the crankshaft would remain still. Air ingress and outflow would be handled by a pair of slots, each of these lining up with a port in each of the four cylinders. Sealing might prove a problem, but the motor would have good balance – hence it would easily turn rapidly.

“And they'll be able to make those overseas in the needed sizes, as that design lends it self readily to quantity production on their equipment,” said the soft voice. “It will produce as much torque as your first one, and turn faster than your second example.” Pause, then, “they'll make those by the basket-load to replace many of their smaller worn-out air-motors.”

“Oh, my,” I murmured, as I gulped beer. “Next hide, dear. Need to run it through this, uh, arm-breaker here.”

Sarah was quite busy with the 'leveler', however; in fact, both women were laboring as well. Once more, I could definitely feel the press of time, as we had but little time remaining to us. Our trip home would most likely take hours, given the state of Paul's buggy and the need to carry a very heavy load in it. Willem, however, had one answer to the matter.

“I put red-paste to that thing before you came here, and I plan on using gun-horses for that business,” he said. “We'll run two behind it on leads, and change them off as needed to keep that thing moving decently.”

“Yes, and will you pull the wheels often enough?” said Esther. She sounded as if she knew the limits of their buggy a bit too well to think otherwise.

“With red-paste, it is not likely we will need to, not until we get the two of them home,” said Paul. “Now do you know how to use a pistol yet?”

“I was allowed to use her smaller one,” said Esther, “and I emptied it into this white rat that had...” Esther looked around idly; she'd just gotten done with a stint of cranking. Both machines were geared low enough to permit 'ready' cranking, but they still needed significant effort to turn their long cranks, this with both arms – and hence one needed to spin their cranking arms as quickly as possible to have the hides do more than crawl through them. The outcome, however, was something that had everyone save me murmuring in admiration. I was too tired to do much other than drink beer, pant, and wonder where the nearest privy was. I got directions from Willem and ran for the place.

“Who cares if these machines turn hard,” spluttered Willem as I ran back. I could run some, but I knew doing much that way was a very bad idea with my knees. “This is the best leather I have ever seen, and it has no smell at all!”

“I thought so,” said Esther. “That is no longer common leather.” Pause, this to smell the first of the deer hides coming out. “It does have a smell, but this odor is not that of tallow. Then, this hide here is the most even hide I have ever seen, and then it's s-sealed on the back, so it...”

“It will not absorb water, nor will it go rotten,” said the soft voice. “They'll be able to treat leather to a yet-higher standard overseas, but this kind is not much less – and you can do this kind here and now, not wait months for the work to be done to that higher standard – and this leather can be readily upgraded, even if it is made into finished articles.”

“Hence it will provide good leather for our immediate needs, both here at the manse and for the new crop of guards,” I said, for some peculiar reason. “They'll all need some species of trekking boots.”

For some odd reason, though, I had in mind some boots with higher tops, ones that came to mid-calf. I had a suspicion that some of the women would like that kind of boot, especially if it had a fringe on top and was lined with a species of woolen 'insulation' – as well as two or three layers of that armor cloth.

“They'll figure out much faster ways of making those boots within perhaps two weeks of your arrival,” said the soft voice, “and then you'll get not merely treated leather, but reinforced leather – and that cannot be cut with conventional shears, even those you have.” Pause, then, “that stuff you're working on can.”

Over the next fifteen to twenty minutes, between gulped beer and bread by all hands laboring on the cranks – Esther had remembered to bring cherry jam as well as cheese spread, and Willem had an old waxed wooden platter as well as a knife that looked far too familiar to have been made by anyone else but me – the three hides were first split into manageable widths, evened as to thickness, and 'quasi-treated', the process giving a strange material, one that wasn't quite that slick plastic-feeling stuff I had felt earlier in Ploetzee while asking for help in 'the west works', but something that I suspected was nearly as good for matters like gun-leather and gloves. I then heard the truth.

“For those matters, as well as harness, this type of leather has a slight edge over reinforced leather,” said the soft voice. “It needs somewhat more care to keep up, but it is a lot easier to clean compared to regular leather, it does cope well with water, and it is far less prone to 'going bad' compared to regular leather – and finally, it has no real smell, hence swine of all types will not 'alert' upon smelling it.”

“Will they do that with, uh, reinforced leather?” I asked, as the last portion of the last hide cranked through the 'leveler'. This machine didn't just 'shave' hides down to an even thickness: it actually compressed them slightly, such that they were, indeed, like the leather I had once used for belts. It had me looking at some of that elk-leather we had in order to make one of those, in fact.

I could cast a bronze belt buckle, but for some reason, I could not only hear a 'wait', but also, a strange formula. I thought to speak of it, as this was a strange type of brass – to be exact, a species of brass that I might wish to use for that sextant in its less-exacting pieces. It would be easier to cast than the 'nasty' stuff, that stuff that once age-hardened needed sharp tools of 'bad cobalt' steel, and then careful grinding to final size – and on the wearing points, that odd green material, assuming it could be applied to that metal. That would give it 'staying power'.

“That odd golden stuff,” I thought. “I wonder if Willem would wish cannons out of it – even though we will have better ones.”

As if he had heard me – the last of the hide was now coming free of the machine – he said, “no, I do not want a brass cannon.” Pause while he drank. “Only worse metal for a gun if you're loading for swine is cast-iron.”

He has three guns, his older ones, that have gone loose in their bores,” said Esther. “There, the hides are done. Now to tie them with this string I found in one of your drawers.”

“Drawers?” asked Willem. “Since when do I have those in here?”

“Since now,” said Esther. “I count seven of them, all of them under your workbench, then this shelf has its drawers, and all of these things that I have looked in have tools in them, as well as lots of nice harness rivets, from smaller than I've ever seen, up to the usual sizes that you use, and then to rivets large enough that they look fit for witches using on mules to keep those things irritated.”

“What would I do with those?” growled Willem. “I do not run mules.”

“No, but you do need to hook up added horses to your teams more than a little, and leather is lighter than a chain,” said Sarah. “Get three of these hides, lap them together, rivet them with those big rivets she found, and then you've got a light...” Sarah shook her head, then said, “I-I-we can get stuff fit for that business overseas, and it will be less work for you and less weight for your animals.” Pause, then, “now I want to hear about those guns that went loose in their bores, as we have an answer to those.”

“He will not need it tomorrow, but those guns are not very good any more,” said Esther. “He's known about the place that casts guns being taken over by witches for nearly a month – or am I full of dung?”

“No, not dung,” said Willem. “Still, I have no use for a brittle brass gun, even if those others sound interesting enough.” Pause, then, “though if I shoot enough at swine, then I might use up all the tubes I have by Harvest Day.”

“Hence my asking,” said Esther – who, while admiring this last hide preparatory to rolling it up, asked me, “do you have ways of casting guns?”

“Guns, no,” I said, “even if I most likely can clean up and ingot-mold some material that could help that type of gun last better when it's hot-loaded.” Pause, then, “dirty bronze done with the wrong materials makes for a very weak and soft gun, and...”

“Yes, and how would what you speak of be better? asked Willem pointedly. “What could you do to make that stuff better, as loading guns hot does make them go loose a lot faster, and I load mine as hot as anyone I know.”

“First, we need to clean up your metal,” I said, now looking for my small brass clipboard and not finding it on my person. I was about to go get it when Sarah put it and a fresh-sharpened writing dowel in my hands. “That will mean smaller batches...”

Here, I heard writing. Paul was tying up our leather into 'rolls', and he was mumbling at its flexibility. The stuff was not acting like the usual stiff stuff Willem turned out. That needed a lot of hand-work to turn it into usable harness, but now that work would be far quicker and a good deal less thought-intensive – as good harness leather done the way Willem had done it had needed an uncommon amount of care and labor to give a product that worked.

“Then, careful 'cooking' of your copper and other materials,” I said. “Most likely, if it can be done, the stuff will need electro-refining for those things that lend themselves to it.” I could tell I had almost entirely lost Willem now. “Then, about ten percent tin, about half that much gray-metal at the most, some of this bright metal called nickel, and if I have especially good luck overseas, I can get these master-alloys...”

I'd lost everyone now – and I was close to losing me.

“These master alloys would give this really, uh, hard and tough golden-colored material,” I said, “and no, this is not brass. It's nearly as hard as the back of one my most-recent knives, and that's before it age-hardens, it does not like to pick up in the bore, and...” I paused, then, “it's really sort of silly, though, as within a month after Harvest Day, you'll start to see the first of the new guns, and those things we will be testing thoroughly before we release a single example – and we will need to teach people to fire those, as they do not load from the muzzle.”

“I hope you are not going to do rotten cannons,” muttered Willem.

“No, Willem,” said Sarah emphatically. “These things will be as if from an old tale, and you can give any rotten cannon three for one and scatter it if you can see the gun – and that with your first shot.”

“Then I want those,” spat Willem. “I'll toss these bronze things in a trice. One trouble though – how much will these new guns weigh?” I suspected Willem was using the difficulties he had with his current guns, and how 'the bigger the gun, the greater the range and weight – and his current guns bogged often enough that he needed to carry an added team of horses in case one of the three bogged itself.

“Less than what you have, be much easier to pull, and you'll have things able to tow them that make gun-horses look both noisy and slow,” I said.

“Good,” said Esther. “Now we can go on that tour, but first, I need suitable weapons. I do not wish to face another of those mean rats with just one of these smaller pistols.”

After equipping Esther with a fresh magazine of 'the hot stuff' and a machine pistol, I thought to look in her bins. One such was suspiciously long, and when I opened it, I gasped. “Esther, come here quickly. You have a really special rifle here.”

What had come for Esther was a rifle like I and Sarah had, complete with a manual, cleaning kit, eight magazines, and no less than five bags of all-purpose bullets – and four bags of 'hot-loaded hollow points'. These last had a double-six MILNO-prefaced hexadecimal number, and when I read the words 'high-energy propellant', I asked, “what will that do?”

“About two hundred yards more 'flat' range, and the capacity to 'instant-kill' any witch that lives out to well past half a mile,” said the soft voice. “That's one of the later scopes, so it will 'respond' fully as well as those prewar ones you-all have.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“Mostly some subtle improvements made by a number of 'monsters' who had become that way due to combat over here,” said the soft voice. “The original design was very good, it's merely these people had used them enough in combat to have some ideas as to improvements – that, and that place's optical equipment had seen two rapid rounds of improvements, so it was slightly beyond Vrijlaand's 'licensed' specifications. That meant a slight adjustment in terms of distances inside the scope to keep the focusing range the same – and then, finally, their production and assembly equipment had improved enough to reduce the 'hand-fitting' time from 'hours done by an expert' to perhaps 'ten minutes' by 'anyone who was adequately careful' – and they had plenty of such people by then, mostly those who were recuperating from injuries incurred upon the front lines.”

“And hence they were indeed motivated,” I said. “They knew the consequences of carelessness, and hence they gave every one of their assignments their all.” Pause, then, “just like one is supposed to learn while in class at the west school – do your best every single day you have, do that all the time and no matter what the task is, get the job done regardless of personal cost, and never give in and never, ever, quit until you go to your reward!”

“You said it better than any lecturer I've ever heard,” said Sarah. “Now, is there a smaller pistol like ours for her? I think I want mine back, as if there is one white rat here, I would bet there are more, just like at the house proper.”

There proved to be no less than two such weapons, and after oiling them carefully and screwing on their suppressors – Esther had ten magazines for each weapon, all of them loaded with the 'slow' stuff fit for quiet work, or so I thought until I examined the bullets in one magazine and learned it was 'the hot stuff' instead – I loaded them up, then handed them to her. I was utterly amazed at how quickly she'd hid the things – and the only thing that amazed me more was the discovery of a trio of knives like those we had found at the Abbey.

But one difference: these looked to be 'better' examples, and a touch of a stone to one showed me why they looked to be 'better' – they were better regarding their capacity for holding an edge.

“What did they do to these things?” I asked, as I shined my battery torch's light upon one of their blades. “Gray and black non-reflective mottled finish?”

“That's what happens when you 'treat' an otherwise 'passable' steel, like that in those knives you found yesterday,” said the soft voice. “Those knives are like those you'll find in a number of bins overseas, as they're the latest-issued types that were not later melted into scrap-metal.”

“Like this?” I asked.

“They're not quite as good as yours, but they are better than those you found, and not a little better,” said the soft voice. “They will stand up to a fair amount of abuse, actually, and that type there was prized by everyone on all sides who could get their hands on one.”

“Only those blades made by Vrijlaand were...” Sarah dug around in her satchel, then found a rag-bundled knife. “Here, this one is the first we found, Esther. It's from Vrijlaand, and it's decent enough.”

“I think I have enough for me and Paul here, though he already has a knife made by Dennis,” said Esther. “These, I can hide in my clothing.” Pause, then, “now what is this?”

'This' turned out to be a vest, much as I was wearing, save for some reason it went well down to cover the thighs and buttocks, and more, it seemed cut to fit women. Sarah was looking askance at it, least until Esther vanished inside the room with the deer hides and came out not two minutes later, all the while seeming to be uncommonly busy. She emerged, and now...

Paul had saucer-eyes for her, and hugged her as if she was fully as 'fetching' as when they had just married. It made me wish to play with Sarah's hair, or rub her neck – which I promptly did.

“How did you know I was getting a knot there?” she asked, as I began rubbing her neck and shoulders with both hands.

“Part was seeing the two of them, and then part was feeling how tense you were, dear,” I said. “That, and you know how much I, uh, 'fret'.”

“You do that,” said Willem. “Now, I think we can go for a tour, as I think I might have a special room for her to put all of that stuff, and some other rooms besides that I don't use.”

“And clean this place up,” said Esther, once Paul had turned loose of her. “This thing really helps me be organized, but I think it also makes me look more attractive, also.”

“It does do that,” said Willem. “I'll have to see about getting one for Angela, as she could use something like that, cleaning or no cleaning.”

As we went along the wall in the manner of the clock, I found that one smaller lantern needed a few strokes on its pump and then turning down slightly. Sarah then asked Esther if she had found the Krokus bagged up for her.

“Yes, I found that stuff in the whole bulb, though I left most of those smelly jars alone,” said Esther. “They look as if fit for traveling, though what you would want the juice of those things for is a mystery.”

“Silencing witches, Esther,” said Sarah. “You find that stuff by its smell?”

“How could she not miss it?” I asked. “Now, what else about your leather, Willem?” Pause, then, “how do you know when you have enough hides for a batch?”

“That, I must estimate,” said Willem. “It's by how many hides I have, how big they are – that one hide that came off of that one elk is half a batch by itself. Deer, usually they go twice the number of elk-hides.”

“And your money from hides?” asked Sarah, as we came to the next doorway.

Here, I gave Willem my light, so he could go 'where no man had gone before'. He paused, then, said, “I do not sell many, as not only am I busy enough for three more of me at the least with my hours, but being a cannon-master is a costly business, as you might well guess. It takes my income and more to keep the guns rolling, which is why I am glad the house pays for my services to the extent it can.”

“And before those machines, how did you put tallow in your hides?” I asked. “Warm the stuff and rub it in with these strange wooden blocks that are really worn and older than time?”

“Those...” Willem turned and looked at me, then said, “this room seems empty, but it's because I cannot see that well into it. It may go far further than I can see.”

As I went into this room, one hand on the machine pistol and the lantern in another, I saw that the room not merely was 'empty', but that it had an obvious false wall, one that had a corner gnawed to make a hole in it by some creature. I thought to go out of the room, then as I did so, I asked the others to spread themselves out and get well clear of the doorway. There was something hiding behind this false wall, and I wasn't sure if it was a herd of big white rats or what.

“Now, show yourself...” I spat.

A muffled thud sent chunks of plaster and bad brick tumbling out into the main room, then the odor, this faint yet otherwise very distinctive came up.

“Torment-grease, and a lot of it, and not just any type of torment-grease, but that of the Mistress of the North,” I spat. “What is down there, as if I had to ask?”

“Why, a private armaments factory done as per her design, which means none of those machines are cursed,” said the soft voice. “What curses that there were on those things went when that deep-hole went where it belonged.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “Willem, you have a lot of machines down there, and I bet those overheads you have here are used to run them.”

“They tried doing that,” said the soft voice. “Now, deal with that rubble, and go down there quickly, so you know what is down there and have a better idea of where that one rat came from and a better idea of what was hiding under that one town that went where it belongs earlier today.”

“It came from down there?” I asked.

“White rats, and some other unusual rats that are somewhat like them, tend to travel on the secret way, or they did in this area before it became populated with wasps, hornets, and toxic fumes,” said the soft voice. “That location has neither, so several white rats ran into it before the rest of their 'herd' died from hornet-stings – and since those things are prone to cannibalism, that one Esther shot was the last of them in this area.” Pause, then, “don't be too surprised if more show in the future at the house proper and other places you're familiar with.”

I wondered how to ask the 'mess' to go, until before my eyes, the air of the room acquired a vague and filmy aspect, this steadily becoming clearer to show trees, the ocean nearby – I could somehow smell this place and its faintly salty aspect – and then, a wide stretch of 'dirt road', this unkempt, potholed, rutted, and busy with both road-drags and traffic.

This traffic included coaches, many of which were now traveling northward at a steady pace, each one pulled by long teams of six and eight 'smelly mules'. I then recognized this wide stretch as that one road I had heard of so many times before:

The Low Way.

Here came a long string of coaches, the lead coach having a team of eight 'smelly mules', these animals indeed having 'full odor', and hence were routinely dosed with high-test. Why anyone wished a drunken mule was a mystery, as no Veldter worth his brass-covered boots mistreated his animal if he wished to ride it.

The scenery was now a good deal less vague, much as if I were more 'there' than here, and the reek of these animals was well-beyond awe-inspiring. It gave a new meaning to the term 'vomit-inducing', yet for some reason, I could feel something as I lay back...

Was it a tree, this some distance from the road?

Or was it the wall behind me?

I could not tell, even if I could now clearly see the scene before me. This made for a thought, at once strange, revolting, and peculiar, and it educated my speech, this a bare whisper.

“No, it can't be,” I whispered. “What would all of those, uh, bricks, mortar, and plaster actually do when and if they got into the lead coach of that ten-coach-long string?”

As if to remind me of proper speaking, somewhere far to the rear I heard a faint rushing, this rapidly progressing to a thunderous roaring rumble that quit with the suddenness of an explosion's dying out; and as I watched this lead coach move, it suddenly...

No, suddenly was no word for what this thing did. It slewed to the right as if it had struck a sizable 'anti-coach mine', set in the road, then as the wheel on the right front broke into toothpicks and kindling, the thing tipped...

Rolled, this like a bug...

The mules 'busted loose' from their harness and ran off, dragging the coachman through the dirt until one of them launched a 'mule-kick' that put the black-dressed drunkard into the branches of a tree to there hang like a dead man, his legs and arms twitching...

The coach then erupted in the hot-billowing flames of distillate, and as the other coaches attempted to 'hit the brakes'...

Coaches had no brakes save the balkiness of their drink-sodden animals, and these being 'mules with full odor' well-lubricated with high-test, they wanted to go – and go they did, right into the coach and then try to climb over what, to them at the least, was just another obstacle common to the life of a mule in the Valley.

Sarah had spoken of the capacity of a 'smelly mule' to seemingly ignore obstacles and trot like it was was a wind-up toy with an everlasting spring – a toy that gave an utterly new meaning to the word 'trots'.

Now came the chief trouble: this blazing coach not only had its requisite quartet of distillate-fueled light-giving firebombs – the type that used wicks and left huge smoke trails – but also, it had light distillate for its other lanterns, and finally...

It had ample stores of powder and dynamite, and when the eight mules of the following team ignored the yanks of the coachman in the 'second' coach and attempted to climb over this 'just another rock' as per the inclination of drunken full-odor mules, they brought the flames in contact with both powder and dynamite – and the witches had some dynamite, fused and capped, in case they needed to blow up someone.

As the second coach came within feet of the first, that first coach detonated with a thundering roar.

This detonation both engulfed the second coach, but also set off its dynamite and distillate; the third coach was climbing on the tail of the second, its mules starting to come within a few feet of number two when it disintegrated with a blinding flash...

Coach number two wasn't carrying 'about half a box of dynamite', unlike number one. Number two had no less than five boxes of the stuff, all of it but days from the mill, all of it witch-grade dynamite, and every single stick the kind that came fresh from the mill all-but-sheeted with a thick and clinging film of blasting oil.

Drippy dynamite indeed. This stuff could provide the definition of it, and the five boxes detonated with a massive blast, one that sent shockwaves thundering up the rest of the long column...

Like flashbulbs, each coach disintegrated in turn, as these coaches were all carrying either that stuff that 'came from the mill bad', or that just below it in strength, and they had stocked up as proper witches and per their 'orders from above'.

They were all dosing themselves with those drugs, also, which meant 'orders from above' were to be followed without thought to consequences or much else beyond 'obedience, full and complete, and that regardless of personal cost or compensation'.

The end result was a burnt-out wasteland, a road blasted into ruin, chunks of men and mules tossed far and wide – more than a little splashed into the sea, and the Low Way now had a vast number of scorched, blackened, and rock-scattered craters. It would take days to repair this road, even if the witches gathered everyone within twenty miles at gunpoint and worked them with gun and lash until they dropped from exhaustion and were then hauled off to the nearest witch-hole with the label of Disgrace – to there be sacrificed to Brimstone for the pleasure of his minions.

The scene then vanished, I shook my head, and turned, there to see the doorway but feet away. Only then did I think to return to that room, battery torch in hand, and upon seeing the dimness fleeing away ahead of my light, I looked up and muttered, “Willem, you need something to deal with those bird-nests, as there's another one of those things up here.”

“I am not inclined to shoot this one today, as I am still sore from that fowling piece I shot at that fool-hen,” said Sarah. “Perhaps if a riveted iron shield was put up there...”

“Not one of those, dear,” I said. “It would rust quickly in this place. Had I suitable sand-boxes, I might cast guards of bronze, or cast pieces and rivet them together – but then, how do we get them up there and put them in place, and then, how do I get the needed measurements so as to make them?”

“That needs a trip to the rear of the place, in one of the rooms where some of the cleaned niter is kept,” said Willem. “There's a door there that leads to the roof in the back behind this one cloth-and-wood dressing shield, and I had no idea those things could be cleared before today.”

“You and I,” said Paul. “We will need to go up there every year at the least, and clear those nests up there, least until he can get guards made to keep out the birds.” Paul then chuckled, saying, “at least we have fool-hen tonight for dinner, and buzzard before that.”

“That bird will be for tomorrow, and I will make soup of it,” said Esther. “It will keep, if you loaded up the stove good and set it so it cooks slowly with that pot-cover on that pot I kept in readiness.” Pause. “You did do that, didn't you?”

Paul nodded, and then I led the others to the stairs that had shown once the wall-fragments had vanished along with the dirt and dust. “Single file, keep close enough that two steps and you can touch the person in front unless it's too dark to see that well. Get closer then, and stagger the line a bit, weapons out to each side and a bit toward the front.”

“I found this one light,” said Esther. “It's like Sarah's. How do I turn it on?”

Sarah showed Esther, then we continued down the stairs.

There was a landing about twenty broad steps down, and here, I saw doors to each side. I touched first the right, then the left: and the odor, as well as the immediate sense I had regarding what lay beyond either door, told me 'this way lays nightmares fit for a world penned by Poe himself'. I closed each of these doors with a shudder, for as I closed the right one, I heard faint yet clear the scraping of a trowel and the jingling of the bells associated with motley dress; while on the left, I heard the gibbering screams of a homicidal orangutan, one with a razor in one hairy hand and the other a half-drunk bottle of green-as-envy Absinthe. I glanced at the second of these doors, and for an instant, it read the following:

Herein lies the road to the Rue Morgue.”

“The way to the roof, Willem?” I asked, as I continued on past the road to nightmares untold and unbidden.

“That place has this tunnel with a metal ladder,” said Willem, “and while I have but gone up it once, I could not open the door at the top.”

“Probably one of those which needs a Mojo Hand,” I said. “One like mine, or perhaps Esther's. She ever go up there?”

“No, and I wasn't about to go up there without weapons,” said Esther. “I've only been in part of this place, and most of it's like this here we're in now.” Pause, this to read something on the stairs, “what gives with this paper here, and what is that thing?”

Esther was pointing to a picture showing a bottle, this of an odd and iridescently sparkling purple drink. A glance at it showed writing, but as I drew closer, this drawing seemed to be dredging up memories, at least until I saw the telltale 'dead bat' in the corner.

“No, that was a defacement,” I said. “They had no idea...” Pause, then, “did they try to c-copy that stuff?”

“Yes, and drinking it sent them straight to hell,” said the soft voice. “That dead bat is not a defacement, by the way – and that poster will go where it belongs once you get to the bottom of these stairs and take a quick look around.”

“And rig a training aide as a warning signal,” I said.

“No, you won't need to, as there's another wall leading to the secret way and that one's not only a lot better than the one you encountered that was about to collapse, but also the witches believe this to be 'the realm of ye monster', and hence are no longer inclined to get to it.” Pause, then, “it does not help them much to know that on the other side of that wall is a large and growing hornet's nest, one where the insects are becoming enamored of this region due to the sheer number of dead witches they are finding nearby.”

The stairs came to an end perhaps twenty steps later, and my battery torch, this focused to a spotlight-like beam and turned up 'all the way', showed a room so huge that I wondered just how large it truly was. Other than our lights, its darkness was absolute: and its chill air, this at once reeking of the scent of torment-grease, made for a desire to spend as little time in the place as was possible. I made perhaps eight steps, and then encountered a sizable lathe, this slimed thickly with that infernal grease and driven by an obvious electric motor.

A motor nearly as tall as the lathe, with huge vertical-running fins and a placard writ in a language that took me some minutes to comprehend, it was so 'strange'.

“That's how those witches spoke,” said Sarah. “This is witch-gear, all right.”

“N-no,” I said. “Remember we were told it wasn't cursed?” Pause, then, “I think that nasty witch bought this stuff whenever and wherever she could, and that meant secret importation from, uh, places that did not speak the language we currently do.”

“Precisely, and that language, along with its few-then-living speakers, was more or less absorbed into what is now the language and populace of the five kingdoms.” Pause, then, “while those lathes are 'decent', they aren't that good, either.”

“Uh, all-manual, s-soft metal, need lots of work to keep them tight, just like my first lathe?”

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “They'd almost be fit for Frankie the way they are now, but once you get the Abbey running passably, then you can dismantle these machines, take them there, treat them – and then, they'd be good machines for long enough to make truly good ones from their materials and using some of their ideas – many of which were a lot better than the materials they had access to.”

“And then Willem will have a huge underground warehouse, one in which he can hide a lot of things,” I said, as I turned to go. “Need good ventilation in there, though, as the air is a lot worse than what we had at the Abbey's storeroom.”

“Exactly, and you don't have the time to go home and get into a chemical suite,” said the soft voice. “Now, Willem will tell you more about his leather as he shows you the rest of the manse, and then you can 'store' Sarah's buggy under wraps in one of the rooms you find and turn loose her horses out in the gun-horse pasture.”

“And our things?” I asked. “This will make for one full buggy.”

“You'll be riding Jaak, remember,” said the soft voice. “Just your possible bag with you, as you can reach down for any reloads you might need – and it's unlikely you'll need many, as all those explosions and other things have had people in the area on the hunt for witches, so those stinkers are laying low.”

“And getting stung or fumed up,” said Sarah, as we reached the main room once more. “What is next, Willem, as if I had to ask?” Sarah looked up, and I did also.

Here was one of those infamous 'overheads', and the shaft was easily three inches thick. More, it was turning rapidly, so much so that any pulleys running on this thing needed proper balancing, and more, were best made of some kind of metal – a metal that was not inclined to wear.

The stuff that came out of Frankie seemed very likely, for some reason.

“Next, I will show you the rooms where I have those things I use to cut up hay,” said Willem. “First, there is the hay-chopper, and I go through enough razors on that thing to make me wonder if you can make me a better one.”

“Better razors, or a better machine?” I asked. “Perhaps one that not only feeds the hay in, but also cuts it cleanly...”

“You'd best see this thing and how it works before you say more,” said Willem. “I'm not even close to being a carpenter, as you learned about my being sold regarding glue, and this thing is more wood than is good.”

“More firewood than anything else, you mean,” retorted Esther. “He might need two minutes to figure that thing out, and I five to draw it, unless he wipes my ledger and the thing happens faster than I can think.”

We passed a room, this with a single candle-lantern, and here, I learned one of Willem's tricks: he routinely used common hay to camouflage his real product, this being in vast numbers of old mail-sacks filled with the chopped stuff, and this room was filled with bagged-up chopped hay. He stopped for a moment so that I could shine 'Old Sole' into the room so as to learn its true size. The room proved to be larger than I thought possible, and more, it was filled with triple-stacked bags packed wall-to-wall.

“How..?” I blurted.

“First, I must mow the hay, and I have a large hay-field, this with those old fences that have been there longer than I, my father, and his father before him,” said Willem. “I have no idea what those fence-pieces are dipped in, but they do not go bad.”

“Your hay-mower?” asked Sarah. “It is in the manse?”

“Yes, and I mow strips using it, as that makes sure the hay being mowed does not get damaged by the horses,” said Willem. “My hay-chopper likes tall hay, so if I do strips and cut the tallest stuff, I get the most chopped hay for my time, and then I use common hay to hide those bags there.”

“You have a lot of them,” I said.

“Yes, and you should know about that, seeing as how you used those things for a bed when you first got here,” said Paul. “That way allows us to cart hay fast and then haul a lot of it, and I grow some hay too, same as a lot of people in this town. Willem pays them some for him keeping their grass down, and he gets grass out in the meadows, too, if the witches aren't too common and he can cut the stuff easy.”

“They were too common to suit me until recently,” growled Willem. “I might move my hay-fields out some soon, seeing as how the usual witches are so scarce around here right now.”

“Not yet,” said Esther. “Don't move them out much this year, even though there will be something to be had shortly that will give you two mowings of hay where you used to get but one, and a ready buyer for all of that extra hay you grow.”

“I can sell all I grow as it is,” said Willem. “Now on to the chopper, and I'd like all of you to look at this thing.” Pause, then, “I hope he can come up with a better idea, as I have to work on this thing a lot.”

“That was why I said its wood was best used in a stove, and he made you one entirely of metal to replace it,” said Esther. “They do cast iron there, but that stuff is not bad cast iron in the slightest.” Pause, then, “be glad they do not do rotten cannons of that stuff.”

“Why?” asked Paul. “They would burst more often?”

“You could burst them, but you'd need really hot powder and a lot of it, and do it three times in a row with doubled shot,” said Esther. “If you were careful, they'd give you plenty of warning, as people fight over that stuff down in the fourth kingdom, if I go by what those freighters say that I talk to.”

“You've heard it from several people now,” said Sarah. “Now this thing here is tricky, and I hope you can do better, as saying it's a headache is calling it wonderful. It is not wonderful.”

“No, it isn't,” said Willem, as he led us all into a room, this with at least eight candle-lanterns. When he took out one candle, I asked to touch it – and the sensation of 'sulfur' had me toss the thing out into the main room, where it billowed fire and smoke for a slow count of ten.

“What, another bad candle?” asked Willem.

“I think so,” spat Sarah. “Willem, I think I need to get your candles for you, as that smelly wretch that was getting them had to be a stinky witch.”

“You bought his lies, and were sold,” I muttered. “Everyone out, I need to talk to these sulfur-candles, as these weren't just 'fraud' candles – that stinker put a curse or three on them.”

The eruption of smoke in the room was so dire that only when 'someone' began firing at the roof with a weapon amid billows of falling kindling and high-pitched screaming noises did I entirely come to myself – and laying at my feet was a dead animal of a type I had heard of but never seen before. I was pulled out bodily away from the yard-long creature, and only then did I notice the stench.

“What was that thing?” I asked, amid an odor so potent I was gagging between individual words. “Black with white s-stripes?”

“That was a stinker,” said Sarah between coughing fits, “and I hope you shot it before it laid scent, as then we would all get really stunk up.”

The 'stinker', however, proved to be smelly enough to cause gagging and strange sights while it was being ferried outside and then interred into the manure-pile by Paul, and as I watched him carry the dead cat-like animal outside, the sense I had was almost as if I were seeing a marching row of those blue-suited functionaries walking instead of seeing Paul run hotfoot with the animal held at arm's length by its long and fluffy white-striped black tail in one hand, and a long-handled shovel in the other. He came back in a great hurry, and as the stink rapidly cleared out of the now-ventilated room, I murmured, “stinkers make nests?”

“Not that I knew of until now,” said Sarah. “That one must have found some eggs, as they do not just like drink.”

“Eggs?” I asked.

“People that raise chickens are on the hunt for those things constantly,” said Sarah, “as no other animal is as fond of eggs and new-hatched birds of that type as is a stinker.” Pause, then, “you can ask Deborah when you next see her, as their family kept a long-house full of the red ones for their eggs – and while Deborah is not fond of chickens, she is fond of their eggs, especially if they are served boiled-and-chopped on toasted bread.”

“Long-house?” I asked.

“Long, high-walled, solid stone, nearly thirty paces longer than where we live if you include both yards, and a well-laid tile roof for its entire length,” said Sarah. “You want that kind of a roof and walls to a long-house, as you wish to keep stinkers and other animals out, and then, you want to keep those chickens where they won't get out and cause trouble, as even the red ones will cause trouble indeed if you give them a chance.”

Paul then returned, even as the reek followed him to a small degree.

“It did not put scent on you, did it?” asked Esther.

“No, because he drilled that thing in the head once and three times in the body, and I think it was dead before it could spray that stuff,” said Paul. “It is buried decent in that manure pile over to the side of what we buried earlier today, so Willem should have smoking manure shortly.”

“Smoking manure, he says, as I went inside the room and began kicking kindling out of the way to see clearly now a 'contraption', this belted with a large pulley to a line-shaft. The pulley was turning perhaps sixty revolutions per minute, if that, and more, I could see the metal portions of this thing had a 'clutch' mechanism. The wood portions, however, had me wishing to spew – every piece of wood that I could see was on the verge of 'fully-rotten'; the whole badly joined; drips of hardened yet slimy-looking glue everywhere; and a level of carelessness so appalling that it was a marvel that it worked at all.

“That cutter wheel is off center, it's tilted nearly a sixteen of an inch, those razors are the cheapest things imaginable – closer to cast iron than high-carbon steel – that rotating piece is cast iron, that rotor is out of round... Blah!” I moved my hand over Esther's ready-to-hand ledger, then spat, “here is what you need, and this thing will work!”

Esther opened her ledger, and now, matters became astonishing at what had shown, for this had nothing of her drawings in it. Here, we saw a cleanly-executed all-metal device with a precisely-turned metal rotor holding eight cutter blades. These were specified as 'rust-resistant tool steel, as was the piece that they 'sheared' against; and in the chute, instead of Willem's careful feeding, there was a spring-loaded roller that fed the hay in such that the stuff was chopped evenly into inch-long lengths. The chopped stuff was then dumped directly into a mail-sack, and I surmised that Willem first cut his hay, then let it dry for a few days before 'gathering it up' with a special thin-tinned 'hay-fork' to put in his small wagon, one drawn by a single horse.

“A small wagon you use for your hay, correct?” I asked.

“That is in the next room over,” said Willem. “It has a wider door, and I think I could move Sarah's buggy in with it, as they're both about the same size.”

“Best put hers in its own room, Willem,” said Esther. “I would not be surprised if most of the parts for your new hay-chopper come shortly after they return, so you can take that piece of scrap-metal to Georg and use the wood in your stove.”

Esther sounded as if she knew full-well the difficulties in keeping that makeshift running, and as we shined the light on a small, light-built wagon with a wooden latticework on sides to hold the hay, I found this believable that it could be pulled by a single horse easily. After all, Willem had to 'rake' up the hay, then fork it in the wagon; and as we moved to his next room, he was again speaking of the difficulties of making harness for so many horses and more, harness for bulls.

“Those need special harnessing,” said Sarah. “You need doubled leather, and special collars, and much else to stand up to a yoke of those things.”

“Two yoke if you have a badly bogged gun, that and some long tested chains” said Willem. “Now here in this room, I have the hay-mower, and it's nearly as bad as the chopper. Tell me what you think when you look at it.” By this, Willem meant 'me', and when I looked at this thing, it was, at first, the least adequate machine I had seen yet: four wheels, two blades, these older than time, one reciprocating against the other using a pair of ancient-looking miter gears worked by a spindle geared to one of the wheels, and then a crank working the upper blade in its slot against the stationary lower blade so as to cut the grass. A touch of the blades, however, had me revise what I had initially thought, and I backed away, knowing that this piece of machinery would work well enough for a few months at the least, unlike the hay-chopper, which was indeed fit for scrap metal and firewood now.

“About a four-foot swath, which explains why you cut your fields in stripes,” I muttered. “About all that can be done with that one is just go over it, possibly replace the wood, grease it well, and run it as is for the time being. It's still sharp on the blades, as far as I can tell.” Pause, then, “grease?”

“That and wiping with heavy distillate I get from Hans every time I use it,” said Willem. “I'll be mowing another stripe in about three days, and it will take me a week or more to chop that hay up and bag it, which means I will be very busy in here, and the same for Esther.”

“Yes, and not just for your hay,” said Esther. “They need to see your older grain-grinder, that which you use for making horse-grain.”

“That, and my grain-room,” said Paul. “Now my grain I get locally, and I fetch the stuff myself, so I know what I get, and I keep plenty on hand.”

“Ready the pistols,” I murmured, as we came to the doorway of his 'grain-room', or so he indicated it being 'next'. “He has grain. That means rodents.”

“I hope not,” said Esther. “I do not wish a broken leg.”

“Not those, Esther,” said Sarah. “I think he means rats.”

There proved to be several of those animals 'leaping about' amid a vast store of food; and here, I let Esther shoot several – though I got in my own shots as well, this time spraying rounds so rapidly that I had Willem jumping for cover as I 'cleared his room' of rats in a trice, this nearly twice as fast as Esther had shot her half-dozen.

At least, I thought it was clear of rats until suddenly a gopher appeared, jumped onto its hind legs in a surprising display of agility, and ran toward me as if greeting a dear friend. Esther drilled it in the head with her pistol, and the foot-tall animal did a backflip and lay still.

“That was a rodent, Willem,” said Esther. “He said there was at least one of those things, and I just shot it.”

“More for the manure-pile,” said Willem. “You might wish to fetch that small cart out of your buggy, Sarah.”

I helped her get the cart – it was in its carrying satchel – and once we had it together and lined with a sheet of that 'waterproof' cloth, Esther, Willem, and Paul brought out rat after rat. The cart was 'topping full' once the 'gopher' was atop it, and in the process, two more rats showed and were shot by Esther. Neither rat ran more than ten feet from where it showed before she shot them down.

“She's getting good in a hurry,” commented Sarah. “Now, there is his grinder, and I can show you that while they deal with those things in that room.”

“His old grinder, or th-the new one h-he just got?” I asked.

“I had no idea he got a new one,” said Sarah. “When?”

“A few weeks ago,” said Willem, as he caught up with us. “My older grinder is older than I and my grandfather, but since it is all-metal, it still works well. It has a large pulley coming from a small one on the overhead, and when I throw the lever to engage it, it rolls grain flat and mingles it fit for giving proper mash to horses and bulls so they do their best.”

“Uh, how wide are these rolls?” I asked. I could see parts of these rolls from inside the hopper: small grooves on one, the other seemingly knurled. It was not a mash-mill. That much I could tell readily.

“Larger for diameter than those of my new grinder, but only half again as wide, and this old one... Here it is, in this room, and I've got grain to run before we leave today so as to feed the horses.” Pause, then, “Watch how it works.”

Willem first put what looked like thinned fourth kingdom grease in several 'pockets' on this machine, this with what looked like an old iron 'spoon', then he gently 'threw the clutch' with a long 'I-beam' section lever ended with a worn piece of wood. This latter mechanism was more than a little grabby, and his belt squealed for a second as it took up the load. I could hear humming and whirring noises coming from inside this machine, and when he began to toss scoop after scoop of 'grain' into the hopper on the top of the thing, I could hear intermittent 'grinding' sounds amid the others – which became much louder. However, what came into the 'bin' at the bottom was utterly amazing.

“That is corn, oats, and barley,” said Sarah. “You must mix it before it goes in that thing. Do you?”

“That, and again when I bag it up,” said Willem. “I have this thing like a mortar-trough, only it tilts, and I use an old hoe to mix that grain good before it gets bagged.” Pause, then, “I have to run some every day I can, but once I put the rest of this bag in the grinder, then we're good for today and tomorrow regarding four gun-horses.”

“And on top of what I've paid you for,” said Sarah. Here, she held out another gold monster coin, which Willem pocketed between scoops. “There. That should pay matters up for while we are gone, as I think Anna is going to ask you some questions about how to stuff horses with grain.”

“Oh, she will,” I said. “If someone else does not tell her, I most definitely will do that.” Pause, then, “did you just find another of those huge coins in your satchel?”

“No, said Sarah. “I found three more of those things since I last spoke of them, then four large silver pieces and eight smaller ones, and I've yet to look in the rest of it, and I have not touched the pockets.” Pause, then, “I suspect you'll wish to look in your pack when we get home, as I heard it clink a few times.”

“And I have a bulging-full money pouch,” I murmured. “Now that belt there. How did you get it?”

“Three-ply elk-leather, shaved carefully, glued together with hide glue, scarfed at the joints, and then stitched at the edges with strong-thread,” said Willem. “I use a mixture of three different tree-resins to keep the belts from slipping too much, and I need new pulleys periodically, so those I have done either at the house proper or in town where you live.”

“And the belt itself?” I asked. “Occasionally a bit of tallow?”

“Yes, when it's setting to rest,” said Willem. “Each belt like this I use has its twin, and while one is in use, the other is resting and getting tallow applied.”

Sarah sniffed, then spat, “I do not care if you boil your tallow a dozen times, Willem, that stuff still smells badly. What do you do with it to not get it to stink – boil it anew just before you think to use it?”

“I've told him to do that, least until he can get enough of that stuff that has no odor,” said Esther. “I think he should send all of his tallow to where you are so as to make it into that type, like this one small lump you let me have when you saw me while you were out wandering during your last period.”

I then saw Esther wringing her hands. They were most-obviously sore

“That is what that thinner leather is for, Esther,” said Sarah, meaning the gloves she had planned. “Now I doubt you wish to try those other weapons before I have proper shooting gloves for you, as they strengthen your hands and give support.”

“And prevent them going numb when you need to fire something as bad as a dragoon,” I muttered. “I am not sure, however, if they will prevent those things from breaking bones in your hands.” Pause, then to Willem, “you don't bother with tallow candles, do you?”

“Not in here, though I'd best get candles from you-all rather than just trust the usual people for a lot of my supplies,” said Willem. “Not if the usual people are all witches or want to be witches.”

“They are probably dead, Willem,” said Esther. “You've got several good lanterns that run aquavit, and you most likely will get more of those or ones like them within a short time, so I would make do with those you have for now, at least in here, and forget about wax candles, save for at home in the places where no witch can see what you are doing.”

Esther paused, this to drink. She'd said a great deal, and Willem needed to hear all of it, busy as he was. I now knew why he seemed to be 'a little dense' – he was so busy – nearly as busy as I was, in fact – that he seldom had time to think of anything new. Esther continued speaking a second later.

“They will be watching,” she said, “and they will demand that you use those stinky things that try to set your house alight if they get more than a little warm.” Pause, then, “I only use those when I have no other choice, and I use a wide-dish candle-holder so they won't set the place alight on me.”

Here, Willem pointed out to us his latest arrival, his 'new-found pride and joy', this between scoops of mixed whole grains, and as Paul returned from his interment of a lot of rats and a gopher, he blurted: “your manure-pile is smoking now, and that thing there makes the best mash to be had. I hope I can get one soon.”

“Not yet,” growled Willem. “If you have one out in your barn I'll ride money on the witches taking it and then burning your barn and your house to the ground, 'cause they will think that kind of thing is theirs and theirs alone.”

“I am not surprised,” said Esther. “Paul, you'd best just grind your mash here, as you're expected to be here regularly and no one in town is the wiser – and right now, I think that very wise.”

“Listen to her, Paul,” said Willem. “Now once we get some more grain ground in that other thing, and get it bagged fit for traveling, I can show you the rest of the rooms in here. You've seen about half of them that I know of.”

The grain-grinder, however, ran faster than expected, due to Willem letting me put the grain in the hopper. I fed the stuff in slowly but steadily, going by the noise made by the rollers as they turned the grains into that flattened scored material that worked so well as 'mash'. It made me wish to make a smaller one of these devices, then also to make something for 'pelleting' hay. The latter had me reaching for Esther's ledger, and the shock that erupted as I touched it sent the book flying out of the doorway flapping like a just-shot quoll. Esther came back with it, and as she flipped through the pages, she started muttering as if she'd had extended lessons from Anna. She then muttered louder and faster.

“Willem, you've got nearly every answer in here you need, including how to make a powder mill that can run enough to fire an engagement's worth of hot powder inside of two days.”

“An engagement's worth?” I asked.

“That would be a long day's gun-practice,” said Sarah. She then but barely caught her laughter in time.

“What is it?” asked Esther, in a tone that would not be denied.

“What Katje called this place,” said Sarah, who was still on the verge of laughing. “She called it 'The Kingdom of Boom', and if you put a decent-sized powder mill in here, it will be that.”

“Already is that,” said Willem. “I got enough powder in here, three different kinds, and now you want to take that small thing I have in one of these rooms and make it bigger.” Pause, then an answer that surprised me. “Good. She can't be here daily, so if we can run a keg of the stuff instead of a scoop-full in that amount of time, then I'm willing to risk it.”

“And I,” said Esther – who then began giggling.

“What is so funny?” asked Paul.

“What Sarah called this place,” said Esther. “She called it 'The Kingdom of Boom'.” Pause, then, “this sack is done. Want another one, Willem?”

“Best do that, 'cause he's getting that thing to do twice its usual,” said Willem. “I can always use more ready-to-mash horse-grain.”

While 'twice its usual' meant for a steady stream of grain cascading into the bag, it also ate what seemed ten precious minutes of time, or so I thought when I got into some beer afterward. It was also time for a dose, as my knees had begun to hurt once more, and once that was down, time seemed to slow again...

Slow to the point of seeming to stop. It had me asking a question while my legs quit hurting so much and every sound became deep-pitched, rumbling, and echoing.

“Your time sense was still badly off, even before you got that dose,” said the soft voice. “You've been in here perhaps an hour and a half, even if it seems more like 'all day'.” Pause, then, “the trip home will take longer than the time you've spent in Laidaan, in fact.”

“I heard that,” said Esther. “Willem, this bag is full. Now what – the powder mill we have now?”

Willem led to that region, that being in another room, only if I went by the size of this room, not only did the device I saw in this room not use overheads, but it also had at least one animal of some kind clopping about in a circle amid the ankle-deep chopped straw litter surrounding the thick wooden stand.

The device itself had a long poke connected to a capstan, and underneath a cast bronze 'yoke' with a screw holding down two wheels, I saw the narrow pan, the steadily rotating toothed grinding wheels of bronze, the numerous bolts holding the thing together, and over all, this odd fist-like steel end of the screw, a part that needed regular greasing, and then the screw that adjusted the pressure so as to first grind and them compact the powder into the fine slate-gray flakes that burnt hot and clean in the gun's bore.

Esther was still studying her 'book', however, and when I turned away from the center of attention and then looked in said book, then once more at what stood in the center of this unusually large room with its unblocked chimney and sooty-seeming walls, I understood clearly why Willem was so afraid – and more, why Esther needed to be handy when this thing was running – as calling it 'tricky' and 'an accident waiting for the first mistake' was speaking well of it.

This new device I had spoken of would increase her 'productivity' by a factor of at least a hundred, and that including the careful cleaning of niter and the purification of the sulfur Willem used. I mentioned this, and he spoke of working on that end of the matter, at least regarding the niter – though his current quantity in process at a given time was on the order of a modest portion of a cask, and that commonly took him over a week.

“If you want good powder, though,” said Sarah, “you want to put well-washed charcoal from your stove in that stuff while it is entirely dissolved, then filter that liquid good before you boil it down and collect the crystals. If you do it right, it comes out as regular white crystals then, not bad-looking gray ones, and it's a lot better for your powder.”

“Good that you told me,” said Willem. “Now there are certain vines that the best powder makers use, but I have no idea what they are, or where to get them in this area. Do you?”

“I do,” said Sarah, “and I suspect one of the things I will be doing upon my return is gathering such vines as part of training one or more contingents of new guards.”

“Gathering vines?” I asked. “Oh, that gets people out in the field, builds up their strength while they're becoming less underweight due to enough food for a change, teaches them to move quietly while laboring in a field environment, and then the house proper gets a good source of powder and Annistæ gets some good stuff fit for her chemistry charcoal.”

“That is better than what I thought,” said Sarah. “I know about those vines and where to find them in this area, but I think we will be going to places I'm not that familiar with, also – or will we?”

“We might, and we might not,” I said. “We may need to use faster means of travel than our feet, actually, at least for part of such distances as we might well travel.”

“Paul,” said Esther. “I think I might have it. If you can keep saving your coins, then we might put a smaller one of those grain-grinders like that one he has here in our basement, and then you can run more Geneva as well as aquavit – and you want some kind of a pot-still for that stuff used for rubbing, as then it will be better than it is now.”

“Better for rubbing, or better for spewing?” I asked, this while thinking of Komaet as I spoke. I thought, “let her get a whiff of Komaet, and she will think at least twice about having a liniment still on the premises.”

“When she sees what that stuff does, she will 'lay' an inducement upon Hans or Anna on the instant,” said the soft voice, “as Georg is at the Public House waiting for his buggy. He has news to expect it about two hours after nightfall, and he's going to try to run those swords tonight.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, at the thought of Georg getting caught by a gaggle of witches and receiving a 'double-barreled inquest'.

“He figures that he can better avoid such people by doing the unexpected,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble.”

“What?” I asked.

“They burgled his house last night prior to your getting after the witches with that machine gun,” said the soft voice. “You might not have shot out his window or door, but those people didn't stay in there long once they found what they were after – and they were the first out of the place and headed to the southeast coast with what they found, and Georg is none the wiser at this time.” Pause, then, this enigmatic, “it will come out all right in the end, same as several other matters that have been 'bungled' – and besides, you need the practice.”

“I what?” I asked. This time it was audibly, and I had four people looking at me strangely – save for Sarah.

“I gave him a map last night when he spoke of running at night to deliver those things,” said Sarah, “and he has a compass, even if it is an old one.” Pause, then, “he has a good watch, and he knows the back way passably, or so I gathered.”

“Now that you have seen the powder room, it is time for the niter-tunnel,” said Willem. “My main tool-room, however, is across the way, and these rooms in the back here are ones I don't recall going into recently.”

“No doors,” I said. “Any dirt in these rooms?”

“This place seems to get little dirt,” said Willem. “Good, Paul's gone off to finish cleaning out that one musket. I use this bad grease for keeping the rust down and thin it with heavy distillate, then I take it to bits and paint it on, that being when the elk are gone for the year, and doing that keeps that old thing from rusting.” Pause, then, “now, in this room a ways down this way is where I actually clean the niter, then there's this long sloping tunnel where that stuff is stored, and we need to go down it to get to where I clean that niter up.”

“It leads to the bad places under the manse,” said Esther morosely. No weapon would help in this place. “Only the cheese room is worse, Willem, and I need dosing beforehand to go into either of them.”

“You wish a dose now?” asked Sarah.

Esther nodded, then between swallows as she washed her dose down with beer from her cup, she said, “that's fairly strong stuff, Sarah, stronger than what I commonly take. Did you put it up?”

“Yes, and I need to put up more, including some with twice as much of the bull formula and half again as much for pain compared to this,” said Sarah. “Gabriel will wish dosing with it once we are on our trip, as then he will not cause trouble while we are sailing.”

“Just rope him down with the rest of the cargo,” I said. “I hope it corks him good.”

“Annistæ is working on doing just that, as Anna spoke of the matter of him being both needed and also likely to cause trouble,” said the soft voice. “Anna is plotting to mix up something special for him, based on what she was told.”

“What?” I asked.

“He will need most of a jug of uncorking medicine to get the corks out from that dose, which means once he is done with his business in the port, he will be spending a lot of time in the privy,” said the soft voice. “He will get the corks out before you sail, but between that and wishing to sleep 'like unto a log' due to further dosing with that or similar materials, he will not be up to doing much until you actually sail on the boat leaving from the third port.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “He will not cause trouble that way.” Pause, then, “if he should attempt to order a witch-meal in that place, I will shoot him in the knee.”

“I doubt he will be much inclined, actually,” I said – though at the back of my mind, even if he spent much of his time in the privy or sleeping, he would still try to cause trouble, this due to something happening to him.

Something that would be driven off within perhaps twenty-four hours of our arrival in that place across the sea. What I had done, and what else had been done to him by events and people over the last few days – it would all come to a head, and truly, in his case, he would have but two choices:

Life, or Death – and I would not be the one killing him. There were thousands of expert-hiding club-wielding functionaries operating on their turf, as well as numbers of obvious spies and the seven remaining examples who were...

No, all of those spies could pass for Chucky, and Chucky would scare Gabriel; scare him either unto death or away from the lure of witchdom. Chucky tended to do that when – or if – he happened to cause trouble.

And, Willem was now holding a tall riveted brass candle-lantern as he walked ahead. This example, for a change, had a real wax candle, even if it wasn't quite as bright as those things we used at home. I could tell by the smell alone, and soon, I knew I was not the only one.

“That one smells decent, Willem,” said Sarah. “How old is that candle – as old as I am?”

“No, not that old,” said Willem. “I'm not sure how old it is, but the less-used lanterns like this still have decent candles in them, and this one is one of those I've only used rarely in the last year.”

“Hence you've been 'sold' on candles for perhaps a year and a half,” I said. “Now why do I seem to feel a chill here, much as if there's a lot of niter on the walls and crawling out of the joints between the stones, and I hear a lot of clinking chains, much as if I were to, uh, meet this really irritated person named Montressor... This trowel-wielding rich person named Montressor?”

“D-don't,” said Sarah. “I can smell witch-wine, Willem. Where are you taking us?”

“Where I do the work with that niter,” he said. “It's cooler down here, there's an unblocked chimney with a good draft, a lot of charcoal, and this big copper pot that's older than time, so I pull the crystals out of that crown niter and do it up in that room down there. I figure three instances of pulling crystals, though you telling me about charcoal will have me try that next.” Pause, then, “I have plenty of charcoal, so I just need to wash it before using it, if I go by what you told me.”

“It will not take three instances, but one, should you do that,” said Esther – who when I next looked at her, was wrapped in a winding sheet and spewing a waterfall of small white things from her mouth. “I'm glad I was dosed, though still, I hear the cawing of a huge raven, and...” Esther brushed something off of her clothing.

“What was that?” asked Sarah.

“I am not sure, but I do recognize bugs when I see them, and I do not care if they are gold ones or not,” said Esther. “I think I know why all of this is happening. Look to each side of us.”

“Niter,” I muttered, as I saw the innumerable beyond-counting kegs 'piping us home' to where they and things like them lived. “How many kegs of niter did that place have?”

“Over a hundred, and that was ready-kegged in that one area,” said Willem. “We had to put a lot more of that stuff in kegs where they were cleaning the less-good stuff up, and that we kegged was the best-cleaned stuff they had.” Pause, then, “it still needs a lot of cleaning, let me tell you.”

“And drying it?” I asked.

“That chimney gives a good draft, so when it goes on the platters for drying, it dries quick and then after three times it gets crocked, so it stays good,” said Willem. “Here, turn left, then watch your head. There's this low place ahead.”

I not only watched my head as we followed Willem single file into what seemed an ancient catacomb; but upon each wall, crawling slow and death-like from each mortar-laid joint, I saw niter oozing out and crawling, this as if alive – or, perhaps, undead – downward over the stones, like slow-reaching fungoid slow-growing intelligent beings from another place in time and space. I reached out, and felt the utter crystalline nature of the slow-crawling material, this within ready reach; it was, indeed, niter; and when Willem again turned to the left, something, something I could not name, seemed to lure me onwards. I knew exactly what it was, also.

Even though I could not stand the taste of wine, this stuff still drew me like a magnet, this toward my entombment behind a wall of bricks and trowel-laid mortar by that one wretch, Luchresi be damned. Its name:


“Yuck,” I spat, as I followed Willem into the room where he attempted to purify niter – and was having little luck, for this business was tricky given niter that was done passably to start with. He really needed to be using 'activated' charcoal in his last crystallization. “How can you stand it...” Pause, this as the nonsense without ceased abruptly as we came within this room. “Why is it different in here?”

“I am not sure, but you talking like you were was not helping me one bit,” he said, a trace of irritation present in his tone. “Now here, I boil and try to clean that niter better. You can see I do not have much luck.”

“Is it decent niter?” asked Sarah.

Most would call this stuff here decent, but they're not shooting round-shots at swine, either,” said Willem as he pointed to the dished 'platters' where the whitish stuff steadily dried in this steady updraft, “nor are they firing distance-shells, nor shooting at those northern thugs, and that's just for cannons.” Pause, then, “there are a lot of people around here that just make do with bad powder, and they need stuff that will put some soot on those thugs and kill them dead, not just make them madder than they get with drinking that drink they like.”

“Hence multiple instances of crystallization, like you are doing,” I said. “Use carefully washed charcoal, filter the near-boiling liquid through it...”

“You want me or Sarah or him helping you, Willem,” said Esther. “That, and not commonplace charcoal, but this special stuff, and then drying those niter crystals spread thinly on cloth racks, not wooden platters, as those will help it dry much faster.”

“I hope you're writing all this down,” said Willem.

“I do not need to, as there are drawings in this ledger, as well as writing,” said Esther, “and it speaks of just what we must do to make enough powder to not merely keep your guns hot and smoking, but keep every gun in this town and the two towns down the road hot and smoking as well – and this stuff will not be commonplace powder, but these odd flakes that are shaped very evenly, so it burns evenly.”

“What will it do, then?” asked Willem.

“Give you another four hundred paces on swine,” said Esther – who seemed to be reading it out of the pictures and writing that had showed. “You bag and weigh this stuff, you put it in those special shoes, then your guns will roll back eight paces or more when you fire them, and if you get onto a pig at five hundred paces, no amount of plate will help that swine.” Pause, then, “no matter how much plate they put on those things, you'll put a shot into those swine if you do your part, and if you use a distance-shell, then that pig will sup with Brimstone on the instant when you hit that pig.”

“Then I want it,” said Willem. “Now, you spoke of guns and how they stretch earlier. Will this stuff stretch them more?”

“According to this here, yes,” said Esther. “The next page, though, shows something altogether strange – as if this thing is not out of an old tale, then I know not what it is.”

Sarah came to Esther's side, then said, “that is not out of an old tale. Those are the guns we will be making, and they take ammunition j-just like what our new weapons take, only... Why is that shell shaped like that, and that brass thing so short in comparison to the b-shell?”

“Because those guns aren't intended to shoot fifty miles,” said the soft voice. “They will manage eighteen miles when cranked all the way up, which can be considered their 'maximum' range.” Pause, then, “they do have the parts to some guns overseas that can shoot fifty miles or more, and I would expect them to bring them over here prior to the end of the year.”

“What?” I asked.

“Those guns are over seventy feet long, fire shells nearly six inches in diameter that weigh well over two hundred pounds, and those shells have terminal guidance – so they hit wherever they're programmed to hit,” said the soft voice. “They might only manage twenty rounds per hour out of one of those guns if they hurry, but when you've got a shell that does more damage than the one that hurt Anna at a hundred paces, then you generally don't need a high rate of fire.”

Willem looked at the book, then picked up his lantern once more. Again, we went through a realm at once too familiar and well-beyond terrifying, though when we came out into the main room once more, I was surprised to see immediately to our left another long row of open doorways. Walking by these rooms showed them to have but little in them – some had 'benches', a few had sundry bagged supplies, one had old kegs lined up against the back wall with waist-high stacked lead ingots lining the other two walls I saw from the doorway, these the large ingots, while two rooms, these back-to-back, had these 'greasy things' that were obviously large lathes – a pair per room, for a total of four. The otherwise utter emptiness of useful things in these rooms was so much so that when I saw an obvious 'buggy' in one of the last rooms in the row – the corner was but twenty feet ahead – this with a wider room than the usual for these doorways, I murmured about moving Sarah's buggy into one of these rooms.

“There's a better one up ahead,” said Willem. “We can put Esther's things in there, also, save for those she wishes to carry with her today and tomorrow.”

This 'better' room turned out to not merely have nothing in it – perhaps a bit of dust in the corners, nothing more – but also, its doorway was wider by half compared to most of the others. It took myself and Willem perhaps two minutes to slide Sarah's buggy in it, then from seeming 'nowhere', he brought two 'empty' niter barrels, and with Paul's help, we put the buggy up on the barrels, this to 'keep the wheels free', as Paul said. He spoke of needing but one more session on this 'musket' he was cleaning, and then he could reassemble it.

“That southern cleaning solution is not doing the job?” I asked.

“He puts a lot of grease on and in that thing when he puts it up for the cold time of the year,” said Paul, “and I am done with that stuff. Now I am just using light distillate to clean it up right, then I will oil it with some of that oil I got from Hans recently, and then it can go together. I have some of his tools in there, so that is where I am going now.”

Willem's tool-room was but two doorways down nearer the front of the place from where we had slipped Sarah's buggy, and here, I was stunned. I first pointed out an obvious Veldter's lantern-tool, then noted the sheer number of bagged-up tools, these in old-looking cloth, well-washed at one time – and now thoroughly suffused with fourth-kingdom-variety torment-grease. The mere sight and smell of these things caused Sarah to spit, “how can you stand that stuff, Willem?”

“I can, but I know Esther cannot endure it,” said Willem. “Now...”

I was looking at something hanging, being as careful as I could – it looked like a box-end wrench, this with an open-end wrench on the other end – when my elbow brushed against something greasy, this being a supposedly 'cleaned' workbench. I was instantly scratching at my elbow in frantic haste, and all but screaming for a rag – and only when I had wiped the stuff off of my elbow and then cleaned the place with aquavit did I feel 'passable' again.

“Seems he's worse than Esther about greasy things, and not a little bit, as I thought I'd cleaned that bench,” said Willem.

“I'm not much better than he is, Willem, and I suspect Esther has become worse since she last got near this stuff,” said Sarah.

Willem did not believe what Sarah had said, at least until Paul came in, found a slimy looking bag of tools, looked inside, then instead of putting it back, he handed it to Esther. What happened next stunned me.

Esther howled as if she were a cat about to be run through a wringer-type washing machine, and she dropped the slimy bag while screaming as if she were awash in flaming gasoline. As I gave her the rag and she began wiping her hands, I could clearly see tears in her eyes, and in a tear-stained voice, she asked, “Paul, why did you give me that? You know how grease and dirt bothers me if I should get it on my skin, and that especially on my hands?”

Paul seemed nonplussed, and asked, “has it gotten worse?”

I nodded, then said, “It got a lot worse for me since I got here, and in the last few days – oh, it's become too awful for words.”

“Hans told me about how you are, but now she is almost as bad,” said Paul. “I guess I must use a bucket for my tools, and if she is to handle them, I must clean them good with light distillate and wipe them off carefully.”

“With aquavit, Paul,” I said, “and that just before you hand them to her – and she might wish soft cloth gloves to protect her hands.”

Paul, thankfully, might have been ignorant, but he did learn quickly enough, and when he left, I was astonished to here Esther's torment-contorted speech on the sensation. The word 'icky' did not come close to how it felt, and when we left the tool-room, I noted again Willem's main 'gun-crane'.

This time, I saw it for what it really was: salvaged rails, mining cart wheels found and bought in the fourth kingdom's scrap-market, a lot of things that might have come from one or more other scrap-markets, and two blocks and tackles, these most likely made of bad brass castings and other parts, assembled at a high price in the fourth kingdom.

At least the wheel-axles for the pulleys had washers between their pulleys, and more, a drilled place to put oil in axles.

While the whole thing looked makeshift in the extreme, Willem assured me looks were altogether deceiving with this tool – it was older than he was, by a score of years at the least – and then, he dumped the bombshell on me.

This was the shop for gun repair in the first kingdom. If a gun needed real work – it was done here; or, if the work was beyond that possible here and the weapon in question could not be taken south to a firm like Machalaat Brothers or a few others in the same area – it was scrapped.

Hence, those guns that were too badly damaged 'under fire' to stand transport were 'left in place' until the witches shooting at them had been 'blown up', and then their bronze portions went south for reworking, with the other metalwork being sold for scrap and the wooden parts turned to ash in various stoves.

“No, that cannot be right,” I thought, as we investigated the last of the rooms prior to 'the room with wind' and then came to two spare gun-tubes on heavy wooden trestles. A look at these showed an uncommonly smooth-looking bore and a total lack of anything resembling trunnions, but Willem then spoke of the gage indicating an out-of-round aspect, just like the one I had shown him.

“You might wish to look at that one musket,” said Willem. “He should have it clean enough for you to handle, but touch it with a rag first to be certain.”

I went into 'the room with wind', and here, I saw Paul seeming to be in a bit of a dither. He had this 'musket' – it used thimbles – dismantled into pieces, and as I looked its pieces over, it was becoming altogether obvious to me that it was not a musket.

“It may be older than time, and worn more than a little in the barrel, but it's got some rifling left,” I murmured. “You want me to put this thing together?”

“Yes, as I cannot recall how it goes,” said Paul, “and I am afraid I will ruin something if I try to put this together without my head being clear as to its working.”

In my case, the gun was 'beyond obvious', and I oiled the various parts and wiped each one down in the process of reassembling the gun, which had barrel bands instead of the usual pins. I then noted something utterly unusual once I had the weapon entirely assembled. While worn, it was still all-to-functional.

“This thing has sights on it!” I spluttered upon seeing a v-notch near the breech-plug and a blade near the front, this obviously filed so as to 'regulate' the gun's aiming. “You can actually aim this one.”

“That was how I knew how to use yours, is using this one like I do,” said Paul. “Now I will need to run some lead tonight, so I hope you have lead where you live.”

“We do, and to spare,” said Sarah, as she came in. “You use a measure with that one, don't you?”

“Yes, and for elk, it wants a large one,” said Paul. “It may be a number four for its bore, but it is near a roer for its outside, so it wants a lot of good powder and then this strange bullet that looks like a lead corncob, only shorter.”

“Like a fifth kingdom musket's” said Sarah. “Those are short and stout.”

“These are a good bit longer, and want a fairly hard type of lead, one with more than just one part in fifteen of tin,” said Paul. “I have the mould for it, and that needs is a good cleaning with a rag damp with aquavit, and then I can run some bullets.”

“Bring it along to the house,” said Sarah. “How old is that thing?”

“I am not sure,” said Paul, “but it is old. I think it is older than Willem and the last three men of his family, if you ask me.” Pause, then, “it gets elk good if I'm close and I hit them solid, but not like yours does.”

Paul was wrong as to the age of the weapon: the gun was older than he said it was, as Willem had documents indicating it dated from 'the witch-wars of long ago'. I wondered what those were, and more, when they had occurred; but I soon had no time left for wondering.

Esther's 'gear' needed stowing in her designated room, and while I personally carried no boxes, I did lift them to set them down upon the cart that we had assembled. It was followed by the other two men, and within perhaps ten minutes, I not only had Esther 'set up for a brigand', but I had found her no less than four metal pears and five of those green Cyclohexanite training aides, as well as filled a small leather pouch with 'green' five-millimeter shot and a small satchel full of ammunition and pistols, in addition to a strap and case for her new 'scoped' rifle.

I told her, “I suspect there will be ways of gluing that stuff to those green cans, meaning the shot, and then they will work well for causing trouble.”

I did not mention the strong likelihood of finding a lot more 'training aides' overseas, as we had a fair number of them here.

As I had counted off the boxes and spoken of what was in them, Sarah had been writing in her ledger; then once that matter was done, it came time to load up Paul's buggy. That took perhaps two minutes, as it needed room for a lot of supplies and two women, and while Jaak was calm enough inside the manse, the animals Paul and Willem brought in were anything but calm.

This quartet of animals were all sizable, well-matched – all an even gray color – well-fed, and so frisky they seemed inclined to 'buck and rear' until they were either put on leads or harnessed. We then came out the door of the manse, there to halt while Willem closed the door of the large building; and then, another halt, this to close the main door of the place. Down we went, winding through forests and then fields that I now knew to be the chief source of Willem's income, that being hay and its delivery, and then once out of the path, we turned to the east, this heading toward a road that Sarah spoke of as being 'that great northern road that passes by the Abbey, and heads both north and south'.

“So now I know what to call that road,” I muttered. “It needs to be called Abbey Road.”

That was not the only matter, however, as both women proved most-astute 'backseat drivers', and that matter proved critical while we traveled on roads that were less than optimum for a heavily loaded buggy. However, by my compass, our progress was either east, south, or somewhere between the two; and once on that one road with the Abbey 'somewhere' in sight to the south some few miles away, Esther motioned toward me to come alongside.

She had been drawing, and now, she wished to show me something.

“I saw this in a dream,” she said, “and that is why I wish to learn to carve wood and wish good tools for carving.”

“Yes?” I asked. “What?”

“Here, you look,” she said, holding up the picture.

What I now saw, this from four sides, much as if Sarah herself had drawn him, was a tall carved figure of many colors, this figure showing an obvious person: a person with odd facial features, a person wearing a strange headdress made of long brown-and-white feathers, tanned leather clothing with a beaded fringe, tall knee-length laced moccasins, and what looked like an uncommonly thick roman candle in one hand – a candle with an uncommonly long 'wick', a wick smoking steadily.

“That looks like a 'cigar-store Indian',” I thought – at least at first. I then saw more clearly the eyes, these being slanted noticeably, and then... Then, I saw the ears themselves.

Ears at once large, slightly protruding, somewhat pointed, and slanting a bit forward, with a large and rounded 'earlobe'. They were superficially similar to the ears I had seen on people in the area, but these ears were intended for super-sensitive hearing – yet the resemblance to commonplace ears was such that you would need to stare at this individual for some seconds to see all of the differences.

Once you saw those, even those differences that were of just the ears, you would know for certain you were dealing with someone not of this planet – a most-obvious alien being, one who did not come where I did, either. I then thought to ask Sarah. She beat me to it, however.

“Who – or what – is shown on that drawing?” she asked.

“I am not sure about this person, but this is the chief reason I wished to know how to carve wood,” said Esther. “If I knew how, I could carve him so he looks right, as the picture in my head of his appearance is a lot clearer and sharper than this drawing.” Pause, then, “the hardest part will be carving what he is holding.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“I need to teach the children about how to use dynamite safely,” said Esther, “and that thing there” – there, she pointed with the pencil – “is a lit stick of dynamite.”

Sarah began giggling and I asked, “a lit stick of dynamite?”

“You know how much of that stuff I have in those two sheds,” said Esther, “and Paul told you how I find the stuff. Well, he didn't go into details about it, but it seems the witches in the area are very careless about how and where they store that stuff, and I can find it easier than an ill-tended privy. It works well for scattering those stinky wretches, and I've scattered lots of them in the last few years.”

“Lots of them, she says,” I murmured. “At least you keep the caps clear of that stuff.” I then recalled what was in that first 'privy' I had seen, and spoke of what was in there.

“That's where I put the best stuff,” said Esther. “It tends to be very inclined to explode.” Here, Esther was stifling a laugh and having trouble doing so. “I really like to get my hands on that kind, and those stinkers have been bringing up more of it than ever lately, especially the best stuff.”

“Best?” I asked.

“You'll know it if you see it,” said Esther. “It has a picture of a Giant on the box, and he has this club in his hand, and underneath that picture is something about a hard rock needing a big stick.” Pause, then Esther found one of the dozen or so green clubs we'd taken from functionaries. “That club he has isn't like this one, though this one does look likely.”

“They work very well, Esther,” said Sarah. “I killed more than one of those smelly blue-suited thugs with the silver collars today with one of those things.”

Esther continued, saying, “that kind of dynamite needs special handling, as it tends to be covered thickly with oil when it's fresh, hence one must wrap it well in rags so as to not get awful headaches. Only one thing is worse, if what Paul has told me is true, and if I can get it, I'm very inclined toward a supply of it.”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“It was said to resemble Vlai as to color and consistency,” said Esther, “and it was such that it was stronger than any dynamite one could get, even that kind I like especially.”

“You do not want that stuff,” said Sarah. “I have no idea how he could endure the headaches it causes, but it made me blind instantly when he was making it up, and calling such headaches head-mashers is calling them wonderful – and they are not wonderful.” A pause, then, “it's quite dangerous to make, also.”

“I can handle the headaches,” said Esther. “Hans might know what trees have the right bark for that stuff, but he must have learned his methods from a smelly mule, as there are ways of making that stuff stronger – and worse case, one can take the widow's tincture and then that for pain somewhat later.” Pause, then, “just like I had earlier, and it's gotten really bright on me. I hope I can get something for my eyes, it's so bright.”