Homeward bound, and free of... What?”

Our pace seemed inhumanly slow once on this southbound road, so much so that I wondered just how far it was to the Abbey; and only when it seemed an age had past, one of those times that seemingly was far too long to be measured in years, did the place truly heave itself into sight. The horses were about due for dosing with grain and water, and while the two men worked on feeding the two animals who had been pulling and then putting into harness that pair that had been following on leads, I went over each hoof of the five horses with my hoof-pick, twenty hooves in all, then made sure each of them got his fill of water. Once back under way, however, I realized the truth of the matter.

We had not spent that long at Laidaan.

Where Paul and Willem lived was easily twenty miles or more from Roos, perhaps as much as twenty-five miles by road. Twenty miles was the straight-line distance, realistically.

Paul's buggy, being as laden as it was with people and supplies, had trouble managing more than a decent walking pace – it was heavy as a three-inch gun, nearly – and all four of Willem's horses would be 'flat' by the time we'd come to where Sarah and I lived.

They would more or less be done with their efforts for the day. We, on the other hand, would have hours more of work to do, most of it involving packing and perhaps other matters, as we would be having three over and Anna – and possibly Esther – would need to do some substantial cooking. The buzzard alone was twice too much for Anna's small oven and her pair of smaller roasting pans.

“Could the seven of us eat an entire buzzard?” I wondered. The cut-up bird was roosting in that one large tinned-copper pot, with the pieces of a fool-hen atop it amid a strong salt solution, one that Esther had obviously 'dosed' with more salt surreptitiously. Willem's 'dose' of salt was better at keeping such a bird for an hour or two, while Esther knew matters would take a good part of a day. “Somehow, I really doubt it.”

However, talking with Esther implied what parts of that bird that we did not think likely to eat, we could easily deliver up to the Public House in town – and there most likely trade for other suitable foods at a very favorable rate. She suggested the two of us should stick to herring regarding Public House food, as those caused minimal trouble for sick people; and if we were to run a late night, then we might well wish to retain more of the buzzard's meat for use in a species of soup – one that she knew of.

“Are you sore enough to try Komaet?” asked Sarah.

“I am not sure right now,” said Esther. “I think Paul might be inclined to try it, as he was speaking of being sore still.”

Another mile; then a second; then a third. The time in my head seemed to be dragging, the sun hanging stationary, it roosting like a grain-glutted quoll over to my left, the huge-white-ball-with-just-a-hint-of-blue hanging in the sky like a strangled corpse dangling from a rope. I wondered if Hans and Anna were home yet, then as we slowly passed a familiar landmark, that being an unusually wide cornfield next to a woodlot on the west side of the road, a woodlot that went easily half a mile south of our current position and a further distance yet to the west, I knew just where they were.

“We'll get home perhaps half an hour after they do,” I thought.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “They'll get home after you do, perhaps within the time needed to get your things unloaded and the buggy more or less ready to have its wheels pulled out in the yard.”

“Oh, Sarah's horses...” I thought. “Where are they?”

“They're out in Willem's pasture,” said the soft voice, “and given he'll be feeding them as if they were pulling guns, then they'll be most inclined toward getting home when Sarah goes to pick them up.”

“Trouble is, there will be swarms of coach-riding witches all over the place then,” I thought, “and witches living in coaches, and drunken witches fighting among themselves, and witches shooting at anything and everyone who isn't just like they are – and then, they'll shoot at those people also on principle.”

There was no answer, and then I knew: Sarah, to put it mildly, would have to sneak into Paul's town on foot, get inside Willem's house – most likely during that portion of the darkest night when the witches would be forced to 'crash' – stay at Willem's house most of that day, hidden deep in his basement; and then leave for home at the same time as she arrived the previous day, moving quietly in the depths of the darkness so as to avoid trouble with the swarms of drunk-as-stinkers witches.

“Will they bother the stone-wagons?” I wondered silently. At least I had some idea what a stinker looked like now – entirely black short stiff bristly fur, a white stripe or stripes running from head-to-tail, a shape like that of an emaciated wildcat, and smelly all of the time, even when it had not just fired a broadside.

Again, no answer. The obvious matter to witches causing trouble in general was 'of course they will, and that as much as they can'.

“They will try to do so until they learn it to be most unwise,” said the soft voice. “There will then be enough people up here who are able and willing to ride with those deliveries to make it a very risky proposition for those witches, and that first 'flush' of witches will be sending back enough 'negative' reports to their 'leaders' that they will become more cautious, at least to some degree in that area.”

“Still come up in complete swarms,” I thought. That one group I had seen on the Low Way was indeed a harbinger, and even with us doing as we could, the sheer number of witches coming would accomplish something – as those kind of numbers definitely got into the realm where quantity had a certain quality all its' own.

“And the house proper will thereby procure a large portion of the continent's currency when they try to take the house,” said the soft voice. “They will tend to concentrate their immediate energies in certain places, at least for their initial waves of 'invasion'.” Pause, then, they will spread out a bit more once the bad reports start to filter back to their now-current leaders.”

“Most of those people are so drink-addled that they'll just yell for them to carry out the plans regardless, and to quit bothering them with such trivial matters,” I thought.

“More or less,” said the soft voice. “That would be for those that are less-impaired. Those that are more-impaired – they'll just send a lot more people to those trouble-spots after they shoot the messengers conveying such bad results to those hearing them.”

“Hence multiple instances of defending where Maarten and Katje live – or, after the first instance, where they once lived,” I thought I then had a most-peculiar idea: retreat in the face of the witches, setting traps for them as we did, and such a strategic withdrawal would catch their guns and vehicles in the trenches, rendering them immobile...

And 'dead-easy' targets for our flanking people – with emphasis on both words, and especially on that word 'dead'.

Turning the place into a moonscape would make it worse yet for the witches, as we could then snake trenches among the explosion-craters and use the added wreckage to make yet-more-effective hides for our people. I was jolted from this strange revery when Sarah asked me to describe what I was thinking of, as she could feel a definite aspect of 'planning for the future'.

“Uh, how we're going to deal with those witches that come?” I said. “That place near Maarten and Katje's is going to be a huge magnet for those stinkers, and they'll try taking it multiple times, not just the once.” Pause, then, “there is a grove of trees about half a mile off, isn't there?”

“If you speak of the trees to the west, then you are right,” said Sarah. “There are some to its north, but they're further yet away.”

“Which is where we put some of the mortars,” I said. “We blast those stinkers so the shells seem to come out of nowhere, and we build our hides in those two forested places in addition to the trenches we dig among the current wreckage, three or four or perhaps five rows in this strange-looking gridwork of trenches deep enough to run in while mostly protected from bullets and shells, and we shoot as many of them as we can when they charge, then retreat back through our mostly-covered trench network – and let them get stuck in those trenches, and then we can blow them up easily.”

“What is left of them,” said the soft voice. “There may be some hundreds left by that time, and a handful of coaches yet undamaged, but you can handle that many.” Pause, then, “this time that is directly ahead of you will give you-all good practice for how to deal with an enemy that sometimes outnumbers you nearly a hundred to one.”

“That does not sound good,” said Esther who then asked Sarah to adjust the rifle to her so it fit her like it should. Once that was done, however, Esther surprised me.

She fired a single round, the blooming white muzzle flash longer than Paul's buggy and the fireball nearly as big as a beachball at its greatest point – and seemingly instantly, a place in the woodlot to our side erupted in a massive explosion, one that sent trees falling with mind-sundering crashes and clouds of soot billowing crazily as the flames of distillate burned their all in a finely atomized spray over the course of perhaps a few seconds.

Driven by high-explosive, light distillate made a decent fuel-air explosive all by itself.

“You just shot a witch,” screeched Sarah.

“I know,” deadpanned Esther. “I think I will want to try that stuff you name Komaet, as I did not bring any of that special jug's Geneva – and that shot made me sore.” A pause, this while she made the rifle 'safe' with Sarah's instructions, then when Sarah looked at her ammunition, Sarah exclaimed, “these bullets are those that have hollowed points, and not normal ones, but the really hot ones that you got.

“Yes, I know,” said Esther. Her sang-froid was remarkable. “I was told I wanted some of those handy, as any witches I will be likely to see in the next few days will be some distance away, they will be single individuals or in small groups, and they will be trying to stay hidden as much as they c-can until dark. There will be a few more of them showing then, but there's a lot of trouble where most of them have been hiding.”

“Wasps, hornets, and toxic fumes?” I asked.

“Those and trouble moving along their preferred paths,” said Esther. “It seems many of their witch-carts have been broken down where they like to travel, so their vehicles are broken and their roads are blocked in places when dynamite went off in them.”

“They'll fix those quick enough,” I murmured. “They have a lock on all the rail production on the continent, and...”

“Not quite, unless you speak of the size used for repairing and adding to the secret way,” said the soft voice. “Most of the rails on that road date from the time of that war long ago, and those damaged ones will be replaced by pieces made by a Blomfels-owned firm, one which uses both the best equipment for such work currently operating in the fifth kingdom house – but they have an effective monopoly because they're the only people on the continent who can actually do those rails such that they'll bear the traffic they commonly receive on the secret way.”

“Blomfels does not do anything worth using,” said Sarah. “Is this stuff different?”

“It seems to be,” I said. “Witch-grade explosives are better than those sold to non-witches, so it's possible these people roll such rails and dedicate them to, uh, propagating their rubbish – and since selling that rubbish is their chief source of income, they want to make sure that rubbish actually gets to its chiefest markets. Hence, they do not 'short' anything on those rails, and they've kidnapped the best people they could find, branded them on the forehead as slaves so as to prevent them escaping to their former locations in the fourth kingdom, and then feed them enough 'slave-rations' to keep them alive and productive while chaining them to their machines for as long as they dare per day.”

I paused, then, “given what they're trying to do and what they're using for equipment, they need to do their very best to make up for its shortcomings, and they make a lot of scrap with that equipment – that, and it breaks down a lot, so if one must be a slave laboring for Blomfels, that's about the best duty one might get – better food, enough food, shorter hours, and the lash seldom if ever.”

“Not if you're a slave in a Blomfels' manufactory,” said Sarah. “Lots of those people die, and they die in droves.”

“These aren't commonplace laborers,” I said. “While Blomfels keeps them as slaves, they do want them to remain functional enough to produce the best rails they can, as Blomfels knows where their money comes from and they want to keep getting those bags of money. Hence they have to use some common sense with those people, as they cannot just grab them from anywhere and then work them like their usual people if they want to consistently make rails that work.”

“In their case, you're right,” said the soft voice. “However, outside of those people and a handful of others, the rule in a Blomfels' owned concern is 'work the slaves until they die' and those Blomfels' 'family' members shoot those 'employees' who are slack in forcing their slaves to give their all.”

In hearing the word 'faemelij',I could feel its several varied meanings in this language that I knew of, and one meaning in particular, this exemplified by the people who had run where I last had worked, that being that realm whence I had come; or, more likely, a genuine 'Sicilian' family, one of those groups where 'Omerta' was practiced daily as the rule of life, and the only other rules came from one's chief or overseer, and at the top, where the head himself reigned as an uncrowned king, all that mattered to him was his 'inclination of the moment'.

Mafia,” I thought. “Those Blomfels people operate a lot like the Mafia, and those stinkers wanted their money to keep on coming in steady when and where they could, so they did whatever – and whoever they needed to do so as to make that happen. No rules at all save that one – get the money or else you die.”

I paused, this while looking westward over long-rowed green fields populated with groups of people, many of them using hoes and others using what might have been huge brass tweezers for the removal of insects from their plants. Their goal was to keep their plants in their rows, the rows smooth and even, and eventually, be able to harvest enough food for themselves and to sell so as to purchase things they needed – and perhaps, pay debts owed to others. I then had another impression.

Mafia,” I thought. “Just like those stinkers overseas that actually run that place.”

“That is but one source among a number regarding their knowledge,” said the soft voice. “Those intercepts are not only unknown by the 'commons', but are equally unknown by those blue-suited functionaries and many 'layers' of those over them, as only that small handful that actually 'governs' that place has ready access to them.” Pause, then, “some of the language present in those intercepts has filtered down over the years to the functionaries, but they are utterly unaware of its sources.”

“Those intercepts?” I asked.

“They who have access to them study them closely and at length,” said the soft voice. “You've heard of those particular books and videos where you came from, and even read some works written by their author.”

“Wonderful,” I thought. I could guess who it might well be, given I'd never been that attracted to the intricacies of that life. I knew just where it went for someone like myself, and I did not wish to go there. “Given they try to emulate the Mafia, then those blue-suited thugs should be called 'enforcers', as they are not soldiers.” The word that rang in my head was 'Soldati', and I was not inclined to speak that word, as it might well conjure droves of thoroughly-unpleasant 'whites'. I'd already seen more than my share of those, and that being before coming here.

However, another sudden realization landed upon me like an oven-heated brick dropping hard and heavy out of the sky: each 'enforcer', if he wished to become a made man, had to either kill a vast number of animals – or, if he wished to be promoted and 'climb the ladder' toward a position of leadership – he had to kill a lot of people.

Bloody hands were a sign of true significance among blue-suited silver-collared brainless thugs, as having a pair of blood-spattered hands upon 'returning to base' meant post-haste promotion and a radical increase in status in their world, both among the other thugs like them and those in leadership over them; and the more frequent such bloodlettings occurred, the more the causal agent of such bloodbaths was likely to be promoted.

“A lot of those spies started as those blue-suited brainless thugs, didn't they?” I thought.

While I had no answer from the source I most wished to hear, I had a most-distinct impression: I would get such an answer shortly. When we changed the animals pulling the buggy again, I noted someone else, this person or group northbound: large, imposing, making dust like that of a lightning-hare's 'thunder-run'.

“What is that making all of that dust to the south?” I asked softly.

“I believe that making the dust to be stone-wagons,” said Paul. He was busy harnessing a 'fresh' horse, a horse that once more seemed nearly as restive as it had in the manse. “There are a lot of those things on this road, and they run them in these long groups from the quarries. They leave for the Abbey as soon as they have enough stone cut to put a load on the wagons they have.” Pause, then, “they get a lot of broken stone that way, but most of what they cut from the quarries gets to where it belongs in one piece.”

“Those broken blocks are worthless, Paul,” said Sarah. “If they cannot endure such travel, they will not last if put into a wall, and the wall made of them will be a weak one, one that falls soon.”

“You mean the trip from the quarry finds the bad ones?” asked Esther. Sarah nodded.

“Did a builder tell you this?” I asked, as we resumed our slow southbound way. Again, Sarah nodded.

These dust-billowing wagons were coming closer in what looked to be a great hurry, which would mean single file for us, this along the right edge of the road, and then either navigating carefully amid the slow-settling clouds of dust or waiting for it to settle to a degree before attempting to 'eat dust'.

We would eat dust in ample measure regardless. I had another question, however; it bore upon how much and how long we would 'eat' such dust.

“How big is that run ahead?” I asked.

“Big enough,” said Willem. “I hope they won't lay dust like that when they pass us.”

Willem's hope was in vain, for the long 'train' of stone-wagons, each softly groaning with an eight-horse team of animals that looked like those we were running for size and 'stoutness', came by at a rapid and dust-raising rate, and when I counted twenty such 'fast-moving' wagons, each of them laden with a cargo of 'cleaved' stone blocks of roughly the right size, I knew it was folly to continue until the dust of their passage settled.

I also knew we would have to wait the thick dust cloud out, and as the dust slowly settled, I felt a most-obvious sense of approval.

I was learning what mattered and what did not, and I did not use what I was given for personal comfort or gain. It was never given for that, but much bigger things; and though I sneezed more from the dust than any two of the others as we finally got under way, I somehow had an impression.

That was the last dust I would most likely 'eat' here. I would not breathe dust like that again.

“Why, will I die overseas?” I thought. That was the simplest and most-obvious solution

“No, but you will get the help you need, including cleaning out all of what you just breathed and a great deal more,” said the soft voice. “That kind of dust is bad for you.”

As if to remind me of the troubles associated with 'eating dust', I began coughing, and I spat a number of grayish blobs, all of which began smoldering the instant they hit the road, much as if they were from a time spent at length working down in the fifth kingdom house. I felt like one of that place's 'lungers', those hot upon the road to slave-bound perdition. Slavemasters caught such people and whipped them to death to both keep their slaves in line and satisfy their lust for death and blood.

“Those wagons are trouble enough, but I think he should stay clear of them and their dust, Sarah,” said Esther – who was doing her own coughing and spitting. “Now what was this I heard about help?”

“I'm not sure what it will be, beyond I need it badly and it will help me,” I said.

“Good, because saying you need that help is calling the pot dirty when it is filled with burnt meat,” said Esther. “If Anna does not know how to cook buzzard right, I can help her. It's best parboiled before roasting under cover, as that releases the fumes from such meat.”

“And if it is not parboiled?” I asked.

“Your oven might explode as if it were fueled with distillate,” said Sarah ominously. “That's why the usual is to roast it over an open fire on long iron pokers, which is what I and those traveling with me usually did when we were lucky enough to secure one.”

“Lucky enough?” I asked.

“If Gabriel told you those things were wily enough to make one think them drunk, he was repeating what he heard from some ignorant wretch,” said Sarah. “I've put enough lead in those things to fill three large shot bags, and another bag with balls, and I got a buzzard at least once a trip.”

“Yes, and how many times did you put lead in them until you got one?” asked Willem.

“About three out of four, at least at first,” said Sarah. “One must be a very good sneak if one wishes to have a buzzard to broil, and hunting buzzards taught me how to be an especially good one, them and the witches I ran into with my cousin.” Pause, then, “by the time of my last year, I could usually get close enough to a roosting buzzard that I could put soot on it, and when I did that, I had that thing.”

“Stiff shot, correct?” I asked. “Full loads, and both barrels, and try for the thing's head?”

“That also,” said Sarah. “You need to shoot those in the head, as they will ignore nearly anything less than what you used on that first one you shot, and the only reason that bird didn't ignore that one was that bullet broke both of its wings and hurt it so badly it could barely move.”

“He told me it tried to get away anyway,” said Esther. “Buzzards tend to do that, which makes me wonder if they do consume mash.”

“Anesthetized birds?” I asked.

“I am not sure what that word means,” said Sarah.

“They act like they drink that tincture for pain?” I asked.

“I doubt that,” said Sarah. “They would have nothing but nightmares.” A pause, this to look around, then at the sun as it still hung in the eastern sky. It might have dropped a very small amount. We still had a very long day ahead of us.

“We might have another five miles,” said Sarah. “Now I hope your horses can last, Willem.”

“They can, but they'll want an entire bucket of mash each and a roll in what hay you have,” said Willem. “They'll be up to a trip tomorrow to the house proper, but afterward, that trip back from there does not sound at all good, not in this buggy.”

“Take it in two stages, stopping where we live for a time” said Sarah. “It will not have as much in it, most likely, so you travel the back ways...”

“No, Sarah, that will not be the case,” said Esther. “We will need to run the roads thrice on this one, and pull the wheels between each run, and that to help bring all you have for that trip.”

“N-no,” I said. “Just let me load your vehicle, and it might need but one instance, and then you can take my copied list back with you and make the other buggy's loads up for it when it shows.” Pause, then, “worst case, you could get Georg in on the business.”

“I will speak with him before he leaves tonight to take those swords,” said Sarah, “and after what happened last night, he will listen to me.”

Sarah needed to speak no more upon that matter, as Georg, even though his patience far exceeded mine, was hungry for news of his buggy. I wondered if I should speak to him regarding the nature of his house being burgled, and then, I felt a distinct 'wait'. He would need to 'stand and deliver', and have the suspicions of a vast multitude once more put upon him by 'delivering up trash' when people had paid for solid workable items, those being regarded as being close to 'crown treasures', and he...

“No, not him,” I thought. “Hendrik is going to get confirmation as to the true nature of the enemy we face, and it won't be from his usual sources, but a man who's been suspected of some kind of wrongdoing for years and lately has proven himself to be more-or-less beyond suspicion.”

“Especially since you arrived,” said the soft voice. “They've really been 'putting the screws to him' in multiple ways, and killing members of his family has but cemented his resolve to fight them – which is but one reason he went on the rampage in that one town.”

“And hence he will be told as to what will happen to where I work, then,” I said. “He'll see the formal document then, and learn just who will be drawing up the plans.” I then gasped.

“No, not me, I hope.”

“You will have some input, but no, the actual plans will not be drawn up by you but by some of those people from the Valley that that one 'excitable' individual has under him – and he'll look over the finished result to make certain they're right,” said the soft voice. “It isn't merely him, by the way – he knows a lot of people with real construction experience in the area that are or will be heading toward the Abbey, and one of them will be asking you questions while he takes notes – you, Sarah, those of his countrymen who do foundry work, those that run machinery, and whoever else they can find that looks 'likely'.”

“Including some of those from across the sea,” I murmured.

“They come in later,” said the soft voice. “They'll most likely install some of their machines, but they need a proper foundation for those things, not dirt like you have now – and those people will put that in first, and more, they'll do much of that work while you-all are gone.”

“What?” I squeaked. This sounded as if 'too good to believe'.

“Yes, the entire shop will be drastically renovated,” said the soft voice, “as well as have the yard's boundaries extended, a shorter watchtower installed for helping guard the place from intruders, and the foundations laid for a number of buildings – buildings that dwarf the current ones for size.” Pause, then, “there won't be a lot of those people on site, but they will use that 'time of no Cabroni handy' to the fullest extent they can, and they will keep people up all night in those houses next to the shop, as they will be working around the clock in rotating shifts.”

Somehow, however, I had the distinct impression that 'there won't be a lot of those people' did not mean 'one or two'; there would be closer to twenty laboring with frantic intensity during some periods, periods lasting a current week or more, as they knew that the shop would need to produce a lot of the tools they would need to use at the Abbey: but these people... They had definite plans, now that their first 'big' kiln was ready for its first firing. It was due to run any day – or, for that matter, any night. Life ran nearly around the clock right now in the settlements, what with the sheer number of people coming in from the Valley. Those settlements had five people where there used to be one, and many of these latest escapees were both 'educated' and 'skilled' – as well fatigued from a long journey, a journey that tested what faith they had, and grew that faith like a well-fertilized weed. The ones that didn't become entirely committed died long before they left the confines of that dessicated realm.

“Cement?” I asked. “Concrete?”

“Correct, as some of those currently coming from the south and west are knowledgeable in its use, and they will 'stop over' for a few days so as to get the floors in the existing buildings right. More, you may expect a complete lack of stumps, proper double-paned windows with metal shutters, and more, doors to the front and rear that are sturdy and seal tightly against the weather.”

“And a chimney,” I murmured. “They'll actually make one of those for the building to keep it aired out properly, and more or less redo the roof entirely.”

“True, they will, as they know that the wind in this area is typically at least thirty feet above the usual rooftop,” said the soft voice. “It won't need to be a huge one, either, and they know about how to get that equipment you 'reworked' to make the right sized pieces for such a stack, as well as the 'smoke-vane' to assure the best possible draft.”

“Smoke-vane?” I asked.

“What they called something that used to pivot so its face was into the wind and the rear portion sucked fumes out of its back,” said the soft voice. “They now have something better that does not need such tinkering and has no moving parts, and it pulls out more hot air and fumes than what they used to use.” Pause, then, “the only way you'll get more fumes out of the place is to put a high-volume fan in the inlet, but I doubt you'll wish one of those.”

“Doubt?” I asked. I looked around, these to see occupied fields on both sides. That said a town was in the area, even if Roos still seemed several miles south yet.

“They make a great deal of noise, just like your computers did before you took so many steps to 'silence' them,” said the soft voice. “They will implement such equipment on their mainframes overseas when they learn of what you did, as that will both improve their reliability and make those machines a lot quieter.”

“Only a few things then in my life were louder than those fans in the computers,” I murmured, this softly. I did not wish to distract the farmers, even though I could feel a witch in the area. I then noted just where this person was, that being in a copse 'hidden' mostly below-ground in an unplowed area. For some reason, I just wished this person to leave his shelter, and I whistled.

This time, I did hear more than the usual 'bubbling' noise: I heard a shrill screech, a screech so loud and piercing that while the mostly-drunk witch didn't hear it, the trio of pigs he had with him, even in their drink-sodden state, most definitely heard it.

And seeing an unplowed region suddenly erupt pigs and a black-dressed witch leap convulsively out of his hide and into plain view, face-grease and all, made for a large number of farmers suddenly stand up from their labors.

More than a few of these men were armed, and while they let the pigs run their separate ways, that could not be said for the witch: he caught an absolute hailstorm of musket balls from every farmer within fifty paces, and he fell back down into his hide and out of sight, limp as a dead sack of meal – this before he could do anything save become a lead-mine.

“That witch will do nothing in that place there except rot,” said Paul, who spat onto the road. “He is a dead man.”

“Are you certain of that?” said Sarah – who then looked at me. “You are getting better at whistling, as that one gave me a sick-headache, it was so loud.”

“It works better yet on functionaries,” said the soft voice, “and given that witch was using those pigs to cart his dynamite, it was a good thing he didn't shoot into that hole he had.”

“Boom?” I asked.

“It will do that regardless later today, but there will not be any farmers handy to get hurt or killed then when his load explodes,” said the soft voice. “One of them is noticing right now just how much those pigs like weeds, and he's talking to anyone nearby who is inclined to listen – and him speaking of weeds is getting some attention.”

Weed-eaters,” I said. “Hence the word will get out now.”

“It already has in some places, but it will now become a commonplace matter of 'gossip' in this area,” said the soft voice, “and if it is commonplace 'gossip' in Roos, it travels far and fast.”

On we went, leaving the farmers with their three 'weeder-pigs' now hungrily devouring weeds, and the comments coming fast yet faint upon the wind were most-edifying. The common type of pig really liked a lot of commonplace weeds found in the fields of farmers; and while now and then, they went off the fields to 'unload' their 'slime', these animals could not be faulted for their industry. It gave me more than a few ideas as to why some Veldters would wish them for laboring in 'those dark places' where a fair number of those people actually worked.

“Cooler underground in those places, also,” I thought. “Electric lighting?”

“Is more frequent underground than you might imagine, especially in their work areas,” said the soft voice. “Granted, the largest bulb they might use on those lines is a ten-watter, but between the construction of those lights and their fixtures, as well as how many of those light fixtures are in use, they keep their holdings lit passably at the least.”

This pace of travel made for such boredom that I now dozed off to awaken with a start within plain sight of Roos. I wondered how long I had been 'out', at least until I saw that the other horses had been changed over again. More, the wheels of Paul's buggy were now beginning to make noise, this a faint groaning amid periodic higher-pitched squeaks.

“How long have those been, uh, 'squeaking'?” I asked.

“Since about two minutes ago,” said Sarah. She sounded irritated. “I suspect he stinted the red-paste, that, or he forgot it entirely and put tallow in its place.”

“No, not tallow,” I said. “That would have had s-smoke coming out of those things a long time ago with this load.”

“You are right about that,” said Willem. “Paul, how much red-paste did you put to this thing? Did you put grease with it?”

Paul seemed utterly confused, then held up a finger and said, “I put some on with my finger, but I thought you only wanted a little, so I was very sparing with that stuff, as I know how hard it is to get and how much you speak of wanting thrice what you can get.”

Sarah all-but clouted Paul with one of those green clubs, she was so irritated, and her voice rose up into a shrill howl. “Paul! You brass-cone-wearing-wretch! You knew we would be about kingdom business, so you stinted something when doing so would put us all in the belly of Brimstone! How could you!”

“I suspect he didn't know much beyond what little he was told,” said Esther, “which was very little. Willem's almost as busy as he is” – here, she indicated me – “and he wasted neither time nor words regarding the matter.”

“And Paul wonders where and when he can get more of that stuff, and he wants three full tubes where he currently has one tube that's mostly empty,” I murmured. “I doubt we will smoke the wheels going this much further.”

Yet for some reason, something strongly moved me to pray about the state of Paul's wheels, and as the wheels themselves went 'hazy', I saw them billowing smoke, this at first thin and gray, then a solid sooty black stream as small tongues of fire came out of the joint between wheel and axle – as the effect of friction between two heavily-loaded wooden surfaces acted exactly like a fire-starting 'drill' used in some cultures where I came from.

I shook my head, then muttered, “what was that?”

“The buggy is going a lot better now,” said Paul. Willem then looked over at the nearest axle.

“You did not have sleeved wheels on this thing,” he spat. “Now you do, and I wonder why you got them, you smelly wretch!”

“Because he will need to travel a great deal farther from today on, and that distance much faster than he used to,” said Esther, “and I will need to put the oil to that thing every morning when I wake up in case he leaves the house with his brain still in his bed.”

“Besides, it will give you a third more speed,” I said, “and your horses will have a much easier time pulling it, so you can make a much longer trip in the time it used to take a short one – and it will not be merely tomorrow, Paul and Esther. It will be many times in the next few months.” Here, I paused, then turned to Esther. “Esther, get some of that thicker stuff Hans has planning for buggy-lubricant. You put that in those cups, and it will not leak out when the thing is stationary, so one dose per day will usually do the trick.”

“Yes, but will it get into the joint between the cup and the cone?” asked Esther.

“It does, but it's thicker than that oil,” I said. “More fourth kingdom grease, perhaps three times as much, and a little bit of red-paste, and a little bit more boiled distillate, and it's like a really thick oil, one that flows down into the bearing and spreads over it once it starts turning. One dose does you for a long day's traveling, which is why Hans has been thinking of it – as he's had to dose the wheels in that medical buggy twice today already, and he knows that won't do for an all-day jaunt at the buggy's best speed.”

“For that buggy, yes,” said the soft voice. “You want a thinner oil for the medical buggy, as you normally need to stop periodically to put grain and water to your horses.” Pause, then, “that buggy is also lightly loaded as a rule, and what you just spoke of is fairly close to what is needed for an 'extreme-pressure lubricant' suitable for heavily-loaded slow-turning bearings that get moderately warm.”

“Like, uh, steam engines for ships?” I asked.

“Were you to build one, that mixture would serve,” said the soft voice. “You'll have better lubricants in short order, and then building a suitable engine will be an easy matter.”

“They will wish such a damp-motor, unless you have an idea for another type,” said Sarah. “Those things they call 'turns' at the Heinrich works would almost work, but those need a marked person handy when they're running.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Not this type. Not given the level of ignorance people tend to have regarding 'engines' and their tendency to think 'anything having more than a dozen parts is a fetish.” Pause, then, “It will need to be totally enclosed, simple to use – as in 'fill this container full of good aquavit, keep this needle in the green on the gage here, watch the sight gage on the tank marked 'oil', and adjust this lever here to give the speed desired by the 'ship leader' ' – and then they can manage it.” Another pause, then this muttered, “going to want more than one, though, in case something goes wrong while underway. They can still progress to their destination and then home, and once in port, they can send the 'messed up' engine back to the factory for repairs.”

“What would those be..?”

Here, Sarah ceased speaking, for with the sleeves upon our wheels, Roos was drawing closer in a hurry. Paul and Willem could really see the difference in our speed with Paul's newly sleeved wheels, as these horses were 'stout' animals, ones fit for pulling heavy loads; and with the drastic loss of friction, the net result was they were having a much easier job. That meant half again as much speed at the least.

“Still going to need to pull the wheels,” I murmured. “I have a mostly-full tube of red-paste, so I'll check them over and grease them up right when you have that thing up on the kegs in the buggy-way.”

That would be in a very few minutes, or so I suspected – and as those minutes passed, Roos still seemed to be coming closer fast. We were now in the fields that were tilled by those dwelling in town, and a smell, this at once gut-clenching and horrible, seemed to waft toward me.

It was the stink of death, and ahead, I could 'see' vast numbers of people cleaning their houses out, this working as if Brimstone awaited hungrily for them, and each further second saw buckets of red-stained water come flying out into yet more-blood-stained yards, there to seep into the ground and make it dark with blood and gore for an age and a half.

“When did they finish moving the bodies?” I asked silently.

“About two hours ago,” said the soft voice. “Between Tam, August, and Georg, they were kept at it steadily until every body that was found within half a mile of Roos was first undressed, their markings noted by all and sundry – as in they laid the bodies out in rows for some hours while they were being undressed, and then their heads removed with corn-knives – and Tam told off a detail to cut numbers of saplings to size so as to spike every one of those heads in concentric rings about that 'meat-hole'.” Pause, then, “none of these people is going to sleep more than two hours a night for roughly a week and a half, as you made quite the mess in their homes, and that apart from the lack of doors and windows.”

Without doors and windows, there was nothing these people could hide from each other; and that state, given the lack of ready-to-fit doors in town and the near-total lack of glass-workers, would be the case for months.

“Serve them right, then,” I smirked, as we came into our own yard. Unlike those nearly everywhere else in town, our yard only showed bloodstains here and there, not solid masses of blood and gore; and the yard of the house next door now had a wooden sign on a thick planed post planted just past the tumbled down and still-smoldering ruins, this labeled with surprising neatness:

If you think like a witch, you will die like a witch,

and this is the thing which awaits you.

Read it carefully, and think long and hard

before you turn toward evil ways.”

“Who wrote that?” I asked silently.

Georg,” said the soft voice, “and that shortly after he woke up just after you-all left for the house proper this morning. Don't be surprised if he comes by when Anna goes into the Public House, as his injuries need some attention, and he wants that map Sarah gave him annotated so he knows where he will be going when he 'tries to break the record for the distance traveled' while moving 'in the darkest hour' of the night.”

“Bathing and cleaning, most likely,” said Sarah, as she stiffly got out of the bed of the buggy and went toward the horses tied to the rear and I slid off of Jaak. I nearly collapsed as my right knee tried to give way, and I put my hands upon it so as to 'lock' it back into position. It was really acting up now.

“Inside with you, and set on the couch,” said Esther in a voice not less than that of 'command' as issued by Anna herself. “We can get the rest of what is in here inside, and I can get her stove going, if it has a fire in place or not.”

I limped indoors, and there, I shed rifle, machine pistol, and possible bag. To my left stood three or four tall mounds of supplies and another wider-yet tall mound of bags, and I knew it was up to me to decipher which of them needed to go tomorrow. As if to remind me, a number of bags seemed faintly hazed with blue, and as I withdrew my small brass clipboard, I noted someone had tied a writing dowel to it.

“Best reorganize this thing,” I thought, as I started going through it. Within seconds, however, I knew a matter more pressing, and I found a small rag-wrapped bundle tied with a red ribbon. One whiff told me what it was.

“That silly medicine-soap,” I murmured, as I hobbled toward the kitchen, this now unburdened of much of what I had been carrying. I was still limping, and when I opened the wood-door of the stove, I noted a mound of still-glowing coals.

“These will serve,” I thought, as I tossed some smaller pieces of wood – kindling – atop them, then used a longer stick to make a 'bed' of coals and laid perhaps eight to ten more 'smaller' pieces of wood, then a few perhaps the size of my wrist, with open places between all of them. “Now for a bucket, and...”

Esther had arrived, and with surprising speed, she had not merely checked my 'laying of the fire', but also adjusted the dampers up slightly and asked for a good-sized pot. Meanwhile, Paul brought the large pot of 'buzzard' in the kitchen and put it where Esther indicated.

“Anna speaking of you being lost around a stove is news to me,” said Esther. “You did that fire as good as I could, even if you did not open the air inlet and damper.”

“She seldom touches those,” I said.

“You must not watch her much,” said Sarah, as she brought in the first of three armloads of clubs. “These things will wish a thorough cleaning with aquavit, as they stink too much like functionaries for me to like it much. Now is that stove heating your bathwater?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “I have a small lump of that solid soap, and...”

“I found one in my satchel also,” said Sarah. “Wrapped in a rag, tied with a red ribbon?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “I wonder how good it will work.”

“I think you should try it first, as you can get your bath while Esther and I get this place ready to cook,” said Sarah. “I can manage when she's around to tell me what to do in this place, as otherwise I'm lost.”

“He's less so than I thought, and a lot less so than Anna has spoken, as he did a good job of laying that fire,” said Esther. “I'll need to add more wood in an hour, but he moved the coals out in an even bed, then put the right size and number of sticks for a steady boil – and we will be doing that on that thing, once we all get unloaded and Paul goes down to the Public House for two more jugs of beer.” Pause, then, “are you planning on hoarding them?”

“No, but we are planning on boiling those things out tonight so as to fill them for our trip tomorrow,” said Sarah. “There is much for all of us to do, and not merely in the kitchen. We will be working downstairs also.” Sarah then looked at me.

“Best remove that other stuff, your boots and stockings also,” she said. “I might want to look those stockings over, as I just finished knitting another pair for you.”

“Another pair?” I asked.

“You need a lot of those things, and you wear them out quickly,” said Sarah. “I'm glad I can do them as quick as I can.” Pause, then, “the ones for women will be a hands-span longer, especially with those boots.”

“Those boots?” asked Esther. “Those he has are trekking boots. Will these be different?”

“In some ways, yes,” said Sarah, “but they will be strange boots, of odd coloring – green-flecked and brown, a bit dull yet somehow shiny, and they will...” here, she paused, and looked at her knees. “They will go more than half way to the knee, and they will have that stuff that's in that vest in them, so they will do a good job of protecting one's feet.”

“You left out the lining, dear,” said the soft voice. “Those boots will be very comfortable to wear, and a lot of women overseas will desire them when they become known of.” Pause, then, “they'll call them boat-boots, and that for a very good reason.”

“Waterproof?” I asked.

“Got it in one,” said the soft voice. “Also, like some medical shoes, those can have a warm-formed titanium shield for ones' toes, so no more mashed or shot-off toes from nasty black-dressed thugs.”

“They have a special name for those people,” I said, as I carefully divested myself of vest and boots. The stockings smelled bad enough that I tossed them into the bathroom immediately.

“I thought so,” said Esther. “He needs two pair of those things for every day he's wearing shoes, and he needs to look after his feet better.”

“Why do you think I've been knitting when and where I can on those things?” said Sarah. “I know he needs a lot of stockings, and had I the inclination, I could make a fair amount of money just knitting stockings for guards.”

“Your, uh, cousin?” I asked.

“Is listening to Annistæ describing a machine that turns out knitted stockings at the rate of one every few minutes,” said the soft voice. “She is most desirous of trying to make one, but Annistæ has little knowledge of how those things work.” Pause, then, “there are people she knows or can readily get in contact with who do, however, and you'll meet one of them tomorrow in your 'gun-class'.”

“Someone where she came from?” I asked.

“A born member of the Rooster Totem, and more, 'an expert toolmaker' – the kind of person who teaches those named Makinekalæ. More, she's quite familiar with making the parts needed for both 'washing machines' and a lot of other things made in the valley – and since this woman has a number of markings beyond the trivial, she's eventually planning on living in the house proper in the same area as Annistæ and Deborah.”

“For the time being, that is,” I said. “They all will need to experience 'purple haze' – or will they?”

“Very much so, and for the entire time, or as close as is possible,” said the soft voice. “They'll not only learn a lot, but Deborah will get the schooling she has wished she had gotten at the west school while she's in 'the black hole' – or, as it is called overseas, 'the black sack'.”

“Ooh, I've read of that,” said Sarah. “It's in at least one old tale...”

“Then you had best tell me about it while he gets his bath,” said Esther, who looked at the pot I had set for water as I went out the back bathroom door to fetch two buckets of water.

I had to make several trips, this to both replenish the 'boiling pot' kept on the back of the stove, and on the third trip, that for my bath water, I noted Esther looking at that boiling pot. She then asked a question.

“How hard would it be for you to make a pot like that with a cap like on one of your distilleries?” asked Esther. “I think we want to distill water for drinking, as she's been telling me about this one device called a m-micro-s-scope.” Esther paused, felt her tongue, then said, “I never said that word before, and Sarah said it had once knotted Anna's tongue.”

“It most likely will no longer do that,” said Sarah. “I was quite surprised that one word did, actually, as there aren't many words in a Gustaaf that are able to put my tongue out, and their number is much smaller than it used to be.”

My water began a slow boil not five minutes later, and pouring the stuff into the two buckets already in the tub made for a pleasant warmth. Once inside, and completely disrobed, I was in the tub, using that 'silly' soap...

And within less than a minute, I was surfeited with bubble-bath. More, this stuff didn't just tickle; it had some serious shot-removal capacities, such that it made that nice-smelling stuff made with roses seem worthless in every area save its smell.

“Sarah has a small piece of that soap in a vial, which she hopes to have duplicated,” said the soft voice as I moaned with pleasure. I could feel 'sores' opening up and being cleaned out, as well as now and then, shot dropping out of my hide. I'd shed most of it earlier, but this was getting the rest of what I'd caught today, and showers didn't make one 'drop' shot like a good long soak in a bathtub.

They were good at getting one and one's clothing thoroughly clean, which is why the 'commons' overseas commonly washed their clothing underfoot while enjoying one of the few real pleasures they had in this world – long warm showers, even with soap that was 'awful' as to function.

At least they got plenty of that awful soap, save in the newer places – places which had showers set up like those I had seen before I had changed their programming.

“And hidden video cameras,” I murmured. “And microphones. And spy-apparatus in every single electric appliance that sends back information via the power cord. Lights that don't merely shed light, but lights that listen and watch what goes on in the room. Every computer has a th-thought discriminator unit it in, a device that reads your mind...”

“They wish they could put those in a computer, but the interface is a bit too invasive for it to be readily implemented by functionaries, and a bit to obvious to the target,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however, they do have such units – and what they can do regarding 'reading your mind' is a gross and drastic understatement.”

“Then why don't those spies...”

Suddenly, it all became clear. They could infer what people thought about by what they spent their time doing and when they did it, hence measurement of resource consumption – as well as listening and viewing – could, if fed into the correct computer programs – give a surprisingly good picture of 'morale' and much else of importance among 'the proles'.

“They might not read minds like they can in medical establishments, but the level of 'electronic intelligence' used over there is well beyond anything you've ever heard of, either in reality or fiction. Recall how much Winston Smith was spied on?”

I nodded mentally.

“He would be very glad he doesn't live there,” said the soft voice. “That place might not read your mind that way like they can in a theater, but the end result of their instrumentation and computer programs gives a picture that's so similar as to accuracy and detail that it might as well have a direct connection to your brain regarding what happens in a lot of areas, those newer 'domiciles' and most places where people currently work being prime examples of such intense surveillance.”

“And where the functionaries lurk, there's a lot less, because they're so drugged 'revolt' is either too much for them, or it's going to happen in such a stereotyped fashion that...”

“Those people do everything as part of a designated group – almost like hyper-indoctrinated 'cells' – and those individuals that might be inclined to revolt against the leadership in any way are systematically weeded out during that lengthy training period those people undergo,” said the soft voice, “and when I said 'lengthy', I meant 'they start with young children and get nasty from the very first day, and those doing that training stay that way until said child either dies or finishes that years-long intensive period of no-letup twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five period of training.”

“J-just like me,” I stammered. I'd been punished by sleep deprivation at the age of six for not 'learning my multiplication tables the very day I saw them'. I did not have the discipline needed then to truly apply myself toward math, as it was my worst subject, and unlike many other subjects, I often needed individualized attention and needed to put in an uncommon amount of time and effort to learn it. Given that, I could understand it, and then do it well – but that help was either rare or costly, and at that age, my stepfather had 'his inclination of the moment' and I had not read his mind to learn it.

Hence the punishment I supposedly deserved. I was to stay up until I could recite them to a perfection; no rest for the wicked, supposedly. I guessed he didn't know people learned poorly when they were tired, but that was not the point of what he did.

No, I was causing him trouble, and he wanted me under his boot. End of discussion. Period. That was the whole point of that pointless exercise. Never mind that I did learn my multiplication tables within days without a shred of help from him.

That wasn't the point. I was his property, his nigger, the slave he could beat with near-impunity, and he was telling me that in no uncertain terms.

Finally, I knew, he more or less had tried to get my mother to 'toss' me to an adoption agency, as he wished no part of 'my smelly rear' in his world. His goal was not a pliant slave; his goal was my absence, and how he achieved that was immaterial so long as he did not get caught out.

“My, I really must have unloaded a lot of shot,” as I stood up and then felt a lot of stuff coming out of my body all over as the 'wound-blotches' shrank from dime-size to that of pinheads before my eyes. “How did I get so many of those things?”

“Those weren't fully healed,” said the soft voice. “and if you look at your bagged clothing, you'll see quite a number of holes in it, holes with bloodstains still present to a small degree. Now, drain that tub, collect up the shot and balls, and then move that tub over to the rear of the bathroom so someone can use one of the others while your clothing soaks with laundry soap in that tub.”

I did as instructed, for some new 'house-clothes' in my size were hanging, this no less than three pairs, and when I put them on, I sighed.

Sarah had obviously been very busy. Draining the tub, though, had me gasp, both at how filthy the water was, but also, how much shot and balls were in the tub.

“I am not Bobs, so how can I spill a quart of lead?” I gasped.

“Measure that stuff first,” said the soft voice. “You dumped a lot more than that in that one room.”

I did, and I filled no less than two of Anna's smallest measuring cups. More, most of the shot was that shiny stuff, and to my surprise, a lot of it was the 'green' size shot. I heard steps as the water finished pouring out of the tub into the drain and I was bagging the shot up, and I turned to see Anna.

“You must have been traveling hard to get that dusty,” I said. “You did, didn't you?”

“That, and got dusted by three long lines of stone-wagons,” said Anna, “and I shot several witches, and got some shot in my hide while doing that, and Hans has some shot also, and we all need baths, all of us, though...” Anna came closer, then asked, “now you got enough shot in that bag for all of us. What happened to you?”

From the doorway Sarah answered. “We had to clear out a house in Ploetzee, and there were enough of those blue-dressed thugs with the silver collars to fill three witch-holes and General's row, and they were all like fifth-kingdom mining-town thugs that had been drinking forty-chain for much of a year.”

“Did you get all of them?” asked Anna. Her no-nonsense tone was a marvel.

“Yes, as far as I know,” said Sarah. “He shut their hole and tossed a fumigator down before doing that, and he sealed that door to his word alone.”

“A fumigator?” asked Anna. Her voice had gone high-pitched. “How big was this thing?”

“Big enough to kill a great many of them,” said Sarah. “More of them will die, though how many more beyond 'more than half of them' is a very good question.” Pause, then, “that place overseas will stay taken, though, and that is the important part.”

“Anna, Sarah, when can I get a bath?” asked Esther. “I have this strange bundled parcel in my clothing, one tied with red ribbon, and I think I might have shot I picked up recently.”

“How did she get shot?” whispered Anna.

“I'm not sure, even if she does enough with setting traps to have ample chance of it,” said Sarah. “Now I most likely will dump a fair amount also, and then everyone else, as we have had a hard day of it thus far, and the day is far from over.”

“I am not surprised,” said Anna. “I'd best get more water to boiling. Hans, soon as you can, fetch more water for the wash-pot, and more wood afterward, as we need a good hot fire in here!”

I finished my business, and with the 'relative' absence of shot in me, I thought to check out the stuff that had come out of my hide. The number of 'blemishes' on my skin was so much less that it looked nearly normal again, save for a multitude of small 'pink' spots all over my body. I thought to ask Anna how I looked while Sarah bathed.

I first wrapped up the remnant of that medicine-soap, however, and tied it again with its ribbon. I wanted to keep that stuff, as it had at least three more baths left in that bar, and only once it was gone would I get into the 'field soap'.

“Best save that stuff for overseas,” I thought. My next thoughts were spoken, however.

“Anna, do I look strange?”

“Save for your hair growing twice its normal length inside of a week, no,” said Anna, “and Esther tells me you need that hair, and not merely to hide things. You need it for that third kingdom port, as there they will think you to be one of the Mule-Totem's men – and those people give them a wide berth there.”

“They do?” I asked.

“Yes, unless Lukas told me a lie,” said Anna. “That other woman told me the same thing, so I think it's a likely thing, though she said something in her language that sounded worse yet.”

“What was that?” I asked. “Oh, those medicines. I might be able to read them now, and I might well know what they are good for.”

“She said your understanding of her language was growing faster than anyone in one of their old tales,” said Anna. “You'll most likely speak it better than Sarah does inside of a week.”

“He nearly does that already,” shouted Sarah from behind the door. “Anna, you need to try this soap. It's like bathing with a pair of ticklers!”

“I could use something to laugh about, as Hendrik went 'stupid' on me and I got tossed by a fetish,” muttered Anna. “How he could have so many of those things in his office, him being as careful as he is, is beyond me, but I could feel something wrong close by and I got onto it within ten minutes by his clock.”

“Where was this thing?” asked Esther.

“In one of his desk drawers,” said Anna. “I had to open most of them and poke around inside them a bit until I found that thing, but when I saw that reddish glowing that I've seen before, I knew what it was right away. Hans had some tongs, so I had about gotten it out of the room when it exploded and tossed me so that I bounced off of Hendrik's desk and landed on the floor on the other side of it.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “You most likely want Komaet.”

“Yes,” said Anna tersely, “ only after I get a bath. Getting blown up by a fetish does not help one's cleanliness, and it took me some time to get what soot off I could, even with Annistæ helping me – and that woman has her share of scars, and bad ones.” Pause, this as Anna looked at me, then, “yours are worse, though.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Most of them barely show, but I can see them now,” said Anna. “The ones you got at the third ditch would have killed several men, and that alone, as I can see where you were stabbed and sliced on.”

“What?” I gasped.

“I had a dream where I saw how you got those weapons,” said Anna, “and while I've seen you briefly looking like that, I had no idea how anything short of an Iron Pig could fight like that – but I know better now.” Pause, then, “that's one reason why you're so sick, and then...” Here, Anna looked down, this to see my knees.

She then surprised me: “on the couch, put your legs up, and I'll fetch the Komaet directly. Esther, you need to see this stuff work to believe it, and bring plenty of spew-rags, as this stuff is worse for spewing than anything.”

“Even what I put up for risings?” asked Esther.

“I am not sure if it is worse, but it is worse than any Geneva I have smelled,” said Anna. “It tends to cause a lot of spewing. I do know that much.”

I soon had my own spewing to do, so much so that with rags soaked in the stuff on my knees, I was one of three people spewing hard and long into rags. The three of us dirtied up rag after rag, then gasps came from outside speaking of 'Komaet' and mumbled replies from two others – who were also trying not to spew and having very poor luck.

“Yes, and your teeth go green with it, or so Anna tells me,” said Hans, between instances of vomiting. “Then, you do not want to drink that stuff.”

“Who would wish to drink something that makes them spew worse than anything I've ever gotten close to?” asked Willem – who then dirtied his own rag, if I went by the noise.

“Some do, supposedly,” said Hans. “This dream Anna had, it had children speaking of it tasting like some kind of light distillate.”

“That stuff had a special name,” said Anna. “I might be able to say that name within a few days, but I doubt it to be a good idea.” Pause, then, “they said it made one spew, and one was to get into it and then do that.”

“We have it, and it does make everyone smelling it spew,” said Hans. “Now, is that stuff worse than yours, Esther?”

“It is, urp,” she said, as she filled a rag. “Ours is bad, and that stuff – I have no name for it.”

“It is worth using, though,” said Hans. “Anna, lift up one of those rags there, and show her what it does.”

Anna did so, and Esther gasped between attempts to spew. “Paul! Forget what I make for your knees! This stuff makes it look worthless.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “It wants a special still, one that is like a smaller version of the older type, only no witch-markings, and then one distills a mix of first or second-run stuff, or half aquavit and water, and the berries and the other things it wants, and that is how you get Komaet – which is what that man called it who wrote his note that came back with the jug.”

“That and the blessing, Hans,” said Anna. “We'll need to hide that, same as the rest, and now I have some idea as to why we have been bagging that stuff up.”

“It needs to be done properly,” said Esther. “Doesn't it?”

“That is not the half of it,” said Hans. “He found this big book full of witch-letters, and some of those go back four hundreds of years.”

“Rigged elections and all,” I muttered. “Hendrik got in in spite of their attempting to rig that election, as the other man died in a fight not three days before everyone was to come and make their marks, and people from the fourth kingdom came up with full-loaded roers to make sure no funny counting happened.”

“Good that I wrote that down,” said Sarah. “I left a measuring cup of shot and three pistol balls in that tub, and I know I shall wish to bathe whenever I get the itch today and tomorrow.”

“I'm not getting the itch?” I gasped.

“No, because you dumped most of your lead, and that plated shot is nowhere near as toxic – hence it travels to the surface a lot slower, and then, it itches little compared to the regular stuff.” Pause, then, “it's easy to not notice itching much when your knees hurt that bad.”

“Each of them is worse than Tam's bad one was,” said Sarah. “We might well ask him what he did when and if he shows today.”

“He most likely will, at least later tonight,” said Anna. “He was at the house when we were going through that huge chemistry room they have up there, and what they have for separating metals is so far beyond what Andreas has...” Here, Anna paused, then said, “she said she could turn out nearly a hundred pounds a day with what she had there, once she gets something to turn that generator.” Here, Anna was looking at me, then said, “It needs to turn a lot slower than what runs that blower, as she said that type of generator was usually used for that work, and more, that it was a real generator like they use, one meant for such work.”

“Big, round, turns slowly, has this dial on the side to adjust the current?” asked Sarah. “Esther, you get the next tub, unless Anna has shot to dump.”

Anna did, though her bathing was commendably quick, and the odor that trailed her was that of that 'nice' soap. What she said, however, surprised me.

“Even that stuff will leave shot in the tub if you have it,” she said. “I saw some special soap, and I am inclined to try it when I bathe next. Esther, if you want a bath, now is a good time.”

“We need to boil more water, as I need warm stuff for my bath,” she said. “I was cut not two days ago by a witch, and cold makes that cut place hurt more.”

“Cut?” I gasped. “Where?”

Esther pointed to an area high on her stomach, and said, “it did not go deeply, but that witch paid for doing that later.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“He had one of those bad lanterns that smoke like a burn-pile, and I threw a rock at it – and he had his burn-pile then, all right,” she said. Pause, then, “Anna, I hope you can eat buzzard, as we got one of those and a sizable fool-hen.”

“You what?” gasped Hans.

“Just what I said,” said Esther. “Willem had a lot of his vents blocked, and most of those vents were blocked with bird-nests of one kind or another,” said Esther. “I told one of the neighbors to not just look after the children, but keep our stove warm for the first bird he got.” Here, she indicated me. “Then, he shot the buzzard, and now I know better about those things.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Hans. He was totally interested in anything about 'turkeys'.

“They smell like leaky distilleries, Hans,” said Esther, “and all three of us were spewing until it came up green.”

“Green, she says,” I muttered, as I attempted to spew again. “Did Sarah show you those green clubs we got from those stinky blue-suited wretches with the silver collars?”

“Yes,” said Esther. “Anna is getting her bath now, and I think I am going to put two of those gold pieces on a still like she spoke of, as that stuff makes risings go down faster than anything, and we will put that still in our basement.” Pause, this as I sat up and began rubbing my arms and legs with the still-damp smelly rags while trying hard not to spew, then Esther said, “how hard are they to make?”

“Easier than a fetish-still,” said Sarah. “They might not be very large, but they're easily cleaned, they don't hardly clog if you run them right...” Here, Sarah reached into her clothing, then drew out a smaller ledger. “I copied that letter that came with that latest jug of the stuff. Begin-quote: 'this still is the best one anyone in our area has ever seen, and three more people are putting aside money for inducements so as to have plenty of liniment for harvest time. Everyone is sore now, but sore during the slow season and sore when digging potatoes are not the same thing'. Finish-quote.” Pause, then, “him saying that is calling the pot dirty when it is full of stew burnt to charcoal, as I've dug potatoes with my cousin's family during harvest, and sore is no word for how one gets then!”

Esther then went into the kitchen, and I could tell she was doing something with the stove, then a sudden 'A-Ha!' told me she'd found something of use. When I saw her putting up a heating stand and then a squat-tanked 'larger' heating lamp under the pot of 'buzzard', I murmured about not being certain the stand would hold up such a weighty load.

“It seems to be doing so,” said Esther. “Now you will be taking one of those things overseas, won't you, and having it copied?”

“We were told that, yes,” said Sarah – who was now scratching at her arm slightly.

I was not scratching; I wanted to scratch like a hound, and that everywhere save in my nostrils and mouth.

“Anna, you may wish to hurry,” said Sarah. “Both of us must have more shot to dump, as I'm scratching and he looks like a mangy dog!”

Anna hurried herself in a commendable fashion, and soon both of us were bathing, this with medical soap. I was glad for the curtain dividing the bathroom, but when I drained the tub this time, the amount of shiny shot that showed was so great that I muttered about being a lead-mine.

“Bathe twice more before you sleep tonight,” said the soft voice. “You'll be shedding shot every time you bathe for the next few days, and most of it will be that shiny stuff.”

“There's enough to stuff a double-barreled roer here twice over,” I muttered. “This stuff looks like it could be cleaned good with distillate and reused.”

“It can, and do not be surprised if it is reused,” said the soft voice. “Anna is wanting a slingshot, and she's put in an order for one at the house proper before they left earlier today.”

Once back outside, however, I found that I not merely needed dosing, but also, I had business downstairs. There, I was to be the 'lead-master', as Hans put it, as he, Paul, and Sarah needed to either run bullets or stiff shot; and Hans had ample 'lead' for me to make up a pot of 'the hard stuff'. I then recalled I needed to run a number of bullets also, and once I had the pot going, I left for upstairs to fetch the moulds for both revolver bullets and those for the 'elephant gun'.

Paul was altogether interested in both moulds, though when I began dumping revolver bullets on a damp rag, he spat, “those things are not proper balls! How do you expect to get something like that in a rotating pistol?”

“It takes a bit of care, Paul,” said Anna, as she came down with a jug of beer and a pair of cups. “You'll want to wash your hands well before you drink anything if you are running lead, even what he's running.” Pause, then, “I'm very glad I had my pistol loaded with those the last time I needed to use it, as those witches dropped right off, and I think Hans is going to use them from now on, ever since he got in that mess at the Public House with those three stinkers and emptied his pistol into their backsides and saw them run off.”

“Yes, if I can get those,” said Hans. “Now there were some brass tins, and I think I want one for my bullets if I must carry that type there.” I could tell Hans was wondering about that one device that lubricated such bullets as I used.

“Shoe-polish tin,” I muttered. “Paul, Hans, someone – please stir that lead-pot. I think I can find what Hans needs to keep his revolver bullets in, and I suspect there's more than one of these things laying around here somewhere.”

What I found, while these tins were 'older than time' and somewhat green and gold with 'verdigris', cleaned up readily in a dilute solution of 'sulfur-acid' followed by a longer time spent in a solution of salaterus, and the result, with a bit of buffing with a soft cloth with a pinch of the red-paste-and-rouge material I used in lieu of that stinky stuff called red-tallow, was marvelous to the eyes and perfect for keeping one's bullets 'good'.

It was good Hans didn't just have one or two; he had a modest-sized cloth bag of the things, and they all cleaned up quickly enough to make me wonder as to who made them and where they came from. I hoped and prayed they had not once held torture-drugs. I put that out of my mind, and resumed running revolver bullets, as while I might wish thirty or so bullets for the 'elephant gun', I needed to run a lot of revolver bullets, as this type hit a lot harder than the more-common soft lead sphere, and I'd encountered more than one 'hard' functionary earlier today.

One wished these revolver bullets to be dipped in that 'black-grease', as then loading them and wiping the grease into the chambers prevented both a chain-fire and kept the fouling from one's powder down to 'almost nothing', if I went by Hans' story about Anna finding and then both of them shooting at two witches on the way home with their 'old' pistols.

I wondered why for a moment until Hans motioned to the three large bricks of lead he had sitting and the fourth one he was cutting up, and the mostly-full keg of 'fine-grain' powder we had.

“We have lots of lead for these things, but for those others we have but few of those brass things, if I do some thinking,” said Hans. “Then, those other pistols are prone to trouble, or so that woman from the valley says, as they have seen them and pistols like them, and these rotating pistols are not that way.”

“One of those new ones stuck on me last night,” said Sarah. “It misfired, remember? I had to set it aside while I was shooting, and it made me glad I had gotten two of them.”

I now found my efforts divided between lead-stirring, formulation of a sizable amount of black-grease over a low flame, distillation of some really thick 'heavy distillate', and showing Paul and Hans how to run both the bullets for my rifle and those for revolvers. I knew we wanted well over a hundred of the latter, as we would be using revolvers overseas, and when I had a spare minute – those were rare – I drew this one very peculiar drawing.

This showed a stubby cartridge, one with a flat-tipped lead bullet, one made of hardened lead; and the cartridge used one of those odd hemispherical primers. What was inside the cartridge, however, made for wondering, even if the three grease grooves didn't.

“Flake-type powder?” I asked.

“That type never made it out of the laboratory, at least up until now,” said the soft voice. “They'll like that stuff overseas, as it's a lot faster to make than what they've been using, and it will work well for many faster-burning applications.”

“F-faster burning?” I asked. I had this odd impression about this one propellant that burned so infernally fast that light loads in pistols was about all it was good for. While it did leave a fair amount of residue, it did work well in those applications – and using that stuff had made the hand-howitzer of recollection 'semi-manageable'.

“At least I could put some holes in the black then with that thing,” I murmured.

“That type will be in thin flakes, like paper,” said the soft voice. “That cartridge you just drew was loaded with a thicker species, one that burns as fast as some rifle powders where you came from – and it will give that type of pistol 'Webley' knockdown power, especially in that size.”

“A point-four-four-two bullet?” I asked. That wasn't much smaller than what actually went in a real Webley pistol.

“Close enough to the punch of a dragoon for all save thugs needing rifles to stop them to not know the difference,” said the soft voice. “That pistol will be perhaps two inches longer than what you usually use, weigh about twelve ounces more, and have a substantial recoil, much like that one you fired once.”

“F-forty-four magnum?” I gasped, this silently.

“Much like that one was loaded, in fact,” said the soft voice. “It might not have been a dragoon or those large pistols for kick, but it did let you know when you fired it.”

“Easier to manage, mostly,” I thought, knowing that kind of a bullet would 'do execution' on the receiving end at those velocities. “No real muzzle flash to speak of, no smoke...”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “That powder will become a very popular material in medical chemistry labs, as it's about half the work for twice the powder, and the burning rate is controlled more by its geometry than chemistry.” Pause, then, “the fact that there about two-thirds the number of reactions, they're mostly less-critical ones, and that propellant uses common materials, will make the usual 'five gram' amounts possible with the usual type of propellants into 'fifty gram' lots.”

“Less energy-dense, and, uh, fluffier?” I asked.

“Nowhere near what you might think,” said the soft voice. “Three grains of that stuff in a weapon that normally took three grains of that propellant you were thinking of would have put you in the hospital needing major surgery, it's that much stronger.” Pause, then, “it will work well in a lot of commonly-used weapons over there and here, and permit most of the other propellant lines to be dedicated to the production of rifle and artillery propellants – which will be much desired.”

My hands had continued working, and now, when I looked around, I noted a very crowded laboratory: all three men were engaged in running bullets of one kind or another, with Hans asking me to supervise the lead-pot and its needed additions; Hans was running revolver bullets; while Paul, once he had been given instruction in how to do matters right, alternated between casting bullets for my rifle and pouring lead in the four cavity Heinrich mould. Both moulds needed to be warmed to their task, which meant I was kept fairly busy, first with checking every such bullet that was cast, then keeping the lead-pot hot and at the proper level, first with defective bullets, then adding lead, tin, and that mixture of hardening metals. It was warm work, so much so that I needed to go upstairs perhaps every fifteen minutes to first wash, use the privy, and wash again, and then down quickly a cup of beer before heading downstairs once more.

The stultifying boredom of my task was such that only when Paul indicated he had no less than forty of the 'lead corncobs' did I 'wake up' from what I was doing. I glanced around, and heard soft murmurings somewhere behind and to my right, these being certain medicines the women were looking over.

“That bark that works well for blood-shot, dear,” I said. “Grind up some in a mortar and put it in a small sample bag.”

“A bronze mortar, or one of the smaller ones?” asked Sarah.

“We need to take a smaller one with us in a medical kit,” I said, “but for that bark, use a bronze one.” Pause, then, “I may need to do some work to Hans' scale tonight. Not sure how much I can do to help it, perhaps only cleaning, but I think I might be able to do something to help.”

“And a plastic jug of Komaet,” murmured Sarah as she went to find one of the small bronze mortars with their turned wooden-handled pestles fitted with the bronze cap. She then hitched and yelped when she passed Hans.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He's been busy with some two-line tin pieces he found and some stamps,” said Sarah, “and he has here some tags like some I've seen you use.” Pause, then, “quote: Komaet, for soreness and risings'. He has two of them done, and I think they want good string.”

“I secured enough of that today,” muttered Sarah. “Now I just hope Karl got some decent fishing string, or someone does...”

“Lukas,” I muttered. “Both of them can't go more than twenty paces from the privy, as between those chemicals and all the uncorking medicine they drank, they need to make frequent urgent calls. Lukas looked over their buggy, nodded at it, got on his horse, and then went after the stuff – and he's got his own plans for that place.”

“What will he do?” asked Esther from across the room. She'd obviously heard something about him.

“Probably going to put a few rounds into that place that looks like a respectable Public House – and was, least until a week ago when some of those expert sneak-witches did a double-barreled inquest on the owners and everyone worth anything that works there and sent them packing with small coin-purses.”

“Sent them packing, eh?” said Willem. “Now this mould here, Paul, is a decent one, same as they all are. What's happening – you not pouring often enough?”

“I am not sure,” said Paul. “If I pour too fast, that frosts the bullets, but if I do not pour as often, they do not fill out good.”

“Then you must count steady with those things,” said Hans. “That for shot, you pour as fast as you can, and if you want your shot good and full, then that is what you do. The others, you wait until the sprue is solid, then knock the sprue-cutter thing aside with a mallet, unclamp the tongs, dump the bullet, and pour another one – and you do that as fast as you can until the bullets get frosty-looking, then count to fifty slow and start doing them fast again.”

“The one for shot needs no such counting,” said Sarah, “which is a good thing, as we are most short of shot, and they will wish shot for here and at the house – though more at the house, in case they get many Generals showing suddenly.”

“I can use frosty bullets,” I said. “The wrinkled ones work less well, so they and the sprues need to go back in the pot.” Pause, then, “Hans, more tin, hardening metals, and some more lead, especially that stuff you're cutting off of that big ingot with that wide chisel.” Pause, then, “did I make one of those recently?”

“Yes, only it was part of an order for a mason,” said Hans, “and I asked Georg if he could make two of those things and sell me the second, as I had had a dream about getting a lot of lead, and now I have these four big bricks of the stuff, and they will not go in that lead-pot there unless I cut them smaller.”

“Do you have smaller lead-moulds?” I asked. I wanted 'mixed' lead that Hans could melt during our absence, though if he were speaking of commonplace musket balls, he could more or less handle those passably. His several hundred pounds of lead was enough to keep him busy for the foreseeable future. Paul then asked a cogent question.

“Where did you get that lead?”

“That we can show you on the way tomorrow,” said Anna. “I think if you're really inclined toward lead, you may wish to go tonight, but you'll wish to go with Sarah, as she can find the stuff readily.” Pause, then, “there should be about two to three days before the scavengers get onto it in numbers.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice, “but you can expect numbers of people going out with every good buggy that can be rounded up on short notice after that teaching tomorrow, and gathering every bit of lead they possibly can, so as to secure ample store of it for the coming 'war'.” Pause, then, “It isn't that tough to find right now, but it will be tough to carry any real load and not get those buggies bogged.”

“Almost want a lead sled for that stuff,” I said “Slick wooden bottom, put four bricks in it, it slides over the boggy terrain readily...”

“You'd best draw one of those tonight,” said Sarah. “Now, I doubt those people overseas have blood-shot, but we are ready for it in case they do, and I have this jug here with the label for Komaet.” Pause, then, “Hans, you may have decent stamps, but he'll wish to go over them when he gets back and clean them up and harden them properly.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “That is why I used those tin tags, that, and Anna found a bag of those things, so I could do them.” Hans paused, then mumbled something about needing what I used for getting his letters and numbers even and in order.

“Yes, you want one of those sets also,” said Sarah. “Your stamps probably need cutting and filing, then treating so they are really hard at the marking end, and then blackened so they do not rust.” Pause, then this to Anna.

“Do you know when Georg will show?” she asked.

“No, but I most likely will need to go down to the Public House to fetch both some beer and tell him we may well have some buzzard meat for him,” said Anna. Pause, then, “I might as well take the publican those salted pieces of fool-hen anyway, as that is a large buzzard, and I have no idea how I will cook it all, save in stages.”

“Have him cook it once it's parboiled, and bring us a pot or two of the meat when it's done,” I murmured.

“I think I might do as well and save that man the trouble, as he's as busy as someone who has just troubled a bee-log,” said Esther. “Now, honey. I know you have a jugful, but you'll want to both fill a number of large medicine vials of the stuff and label each one clearly as being so, but then transfer what is left into something that will not be broken readily.”

“Like one of those strange jugs we got,” said Sarah. “One can drop them and not break them.”

I soon became 'bored out of my skull' regarding feeding the lead-pot, and only when I noted that the other three men were casting bullets as if out of their minds using another such pot – a smaller one – on a heating stand under a heating lamp did I realize just what I was doing.

“So that's why they're getting these huge ladles out of this thing, and I need to keep stirring it and spooning off the dross – I'm doing up the alloying business, the smoky and smelly part, and they're casting every bullet they can – and all of them are working as if their lives depended upon it.”

“No, Hans, you cannot just do enough for three days,” screeched Anna in response to Hans seemingly laggardly behavior. “I've no idea how long they will be gone, but I can say it will be more than ten days and less than twenty – but we will want bullets for twenty days, and that means at least three hundreds of bullets for pistols alone. Shot, at least two sizable leather pouches full and tied, and that atop that shot that we have been washing out of our hides.”

“Anna, we have stiff shot, that nickeled stuff,” said Sarah. “The stuff we've been shedding is more nickel than all else.”

“Yes, I know,” said Anna, “but that stuff cuts bores badly unless you have an especially good gun, or so Lukas told me.” Pause, then, “I think that's one reason witches don't bother cleaning what they use – they figure their guns will be fit for scrap in a month or two, so why bother with that work?”

“I guess they're willing to live with balky locks, half-cocks that don't hold, triggers that are inconsistent, and then blasting out clouds of rust amid their swarms of shot – and that's when they can get that shiny stuff.” Pause, then, “most of them can seldom afford its use, so they use a pound of common shot per load of nickel, and none of what we have here can be called 'common'.”

“That is the truth, Anna,” said Hans, “as this mould is getting so it needs a rest, and so do my hands from holding the thing, as they are getting the cramp.”

“Then go down to the Public House and get a jug of beer and two loaves of bread,” said Anna. “Wash good first, though. We eat enough lead from witches shooting at us to want to not eat it with our mouths – and if you see Georg, speak to him about coming here. I need to check him over.”

Hans promptly left, and Esther took his place on the mould for pistol bullets. While she was not familiar with its locking nature or the need for a mallet – with Willem showing her, she soon was turning out bullets with a rapidity that was astonishing.

It also had me turning up my heating lamp and then cutting off more lead with that one wide-bladed chisel. I wondered if we had bad shot, in fact.

“We have some, but I think you just want to cut some off of those big ingots we have,” said Anna. “Now that I think about it, our chief trouble will be securing enough tin and that hardening metal, as these bullets need more than the usual of both.”

“We have several pounds of tin,” I said, “and perhaps eight pounds of the other, and that's what I can see here. I have my own supplies of both metals hid in my workbench, and...” Here, I paused, then said, “you'd best be prepared for more help, as Hans has found some help down at the Public House. Georg is coming with him, and he's not only hungry for information about his buggy, he's really wondering when that thing will show.”