Waldhuis gets hornets

With the candle-wax being stirred slowly and Paul cutting off pieces of beeswax and the other waxes with his knife and then stirring the inner pot of the 'double-boiler' regularly, I was wondering what Georg could do, now that he had run out of ready-to-melt tin pieces. I suspected he would keep what lead alloy he had mixed up and hot and then transfer it to Hans' lead-pot as needed, but after filling that 'full', he pigged the remaining amount of lead alloy and turned off the heating lamp under his 'full-sized' pot. He then looked at me.

“Hans has enough lead there for a week's work if he does as he is doing now, and at least enough for ten leather pouches of that shot Willem is running,” said Georg. “I molded at least thirty of those things, and they weigh three times the usual weight for lead-slugs.”

“You weighed them?” asked Sarah from across the room.

“Yes, three, and I found out how to get that scale to average their weight, and Hans had three of the others, so I compared the two and that is the difference I got,” said Georg. “Now, how close is it to sundown?”

“Another hour at the least, Georg,” said Anna. “We have a surprise for Waldhuis, so I suggest you stay clear of that place.”

“I will, if this map Sarah gave me is as good as she says it is,” said Georg – though at the back of this matter, I could hear a long-winded string of oaths regarding Waldhuis, who – or rather, what – lived there, and where it and its dwellers needed to go. “Worst case, I can show it to Tam and ask what he thinks of it.”

“You will most likely not find a better map,” said Anna. “I know how he feels about maps, and he's told me his-own-self that most of them are fit for getting a fire lit in one's stove, unless they're ships' charts, and I know of only two people who don't do ship's charts that can draw maps worth the trouble – and she's one, and he – here, she pointed at me – is at least as good.” Anna paused, then, “she might have to go there, but that's a most-familiar ground for her, and she knows it fully as well as her bed.”

“The couch, Anna,” said Sarah – who was mumbling about a bed of some kind, and how she wanted a plain bed, not one of those four-posted horrors, and she wanted a good mattress, not some lumpy thing that made a sore back worse overnight.

I was usually far too tired to notice the state of my bed much, save if I'd had a nightmare.

“You need a water-bed, but they don't have those overseas,” said the soft voice, “and she'd like one. Trouble is, the usual beds there tend to be fairly narrow, save if you speak of hospital beds.”

“Yuck!” I spat.

“You'll speak otherwise of their hospital beds once you lay on one of them,” said the soft voice. “All of the conformity of a water-bed, a lot better support, a soft and slightly fluffy covering that feels just like that cloth that 'tickles your skin', and then a soothing warmth and a deep and pleasant massage.” Pause, then, “you get in one of those, and you will not wish to get out of it!”

“Do they have such cloth?” I asked.

“Not currently, but once they read your mind, they'll have modest amounts on short notice,” said the soft voice. “They have intercepts of that kind of clothing, but could never figure out its precise usage and much else, and you'll give them the answers they need.” Pause, then, “you'll be able to get it in any color wished, by the way, and unlike that cloth you recall your underclothing being made of, this stuff will work better at maintaining comfort and be less inclined toward damage.”

“What is this?” asked Esther. “Do you speak of underclothing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Don't tell me – yours feels like it is crawling with bugs.”

“It was doing that until I put some laundry soap to it while I was getting my last bath,” said Esther. “I usually carry a spare pair if I'm away from home, and now those are soaking in a pot I found along with part of a bar of that laundry soap and a pinch of that medical stuff to kill anything that could cause me trouble.”

For some reason, I thought, “Esther needs some of that strange underclothing that was spoken of.”

I then wished I had not done so, for Esther suddenly looked in her clothing, then said, “something happened to my underclothing, and it feels so much better that...” Here, she loosed a giggle, then continued, “no, it isn't like harboring a tickler or two in one's clothing, but it does feel good.” Esther then laughed, her laugh high-pitched and giddy.

“Ah, that is good,” said Hans. “She is laughing. Now did you put a tickler to her, or what?” Hans was looking at me.

“No, but her speaking of her underwear feeling as if it was 'buggy' was speaking well of a bad situation. Sarah, could you go see that underwear she has soaking?”

Sarah shot up the stairs, then not thirty seconds later ran down. Her voice was a shout. “Esther, that stuff is fit for the rag-merchants, it's so bad, and it's the buggiest underwear I've ever seen anyone wear. How could you stand it?”

“Not very well,” said Esther. “This I'm wearing is a lot nicer. It almost feels like knit tickle-cloth, now that I think about it.” Another peek, then, “no, it is not tickle-cloth, even if it is a nice white color. Oh, here is a printed label. It says 'easy-clean stain resistant finish with wicking properties.” A pause, then, “I am not a candle, so why do I need a wick?”

“Exercise clothing,” I said flatly. “Could I have a sample of that stuff to show Sarah what it looks like?”

A muffled 'thump' caused a small fiberglass bin to show next to where I had the bullet sizer and lubricator set up, while Esther was readying the two candle molds. She was putting a handful of 'dirty' salt in the water, ready for the ice when the wax was done up. Hans was still casting bullets, but I could tell, even with Paul changing off with him, the two of them were about 'done' for such bullets. Hans then surprised me with the number of bullets he had done so far.

“I have four hundred and eighty-four of those things as far as I can tell, and I will get another twenty of them out of this lead-pot, while Paul has two decent sacks of stiff shot from that mould,” he said. “Now it is good you have that thing there, as I want to learn how to use it.”

“So you don't get nearly as messy putting grease to your bullets?” I asked, as I looked at the 'MEDNO' followed by a double-six hexadecimal number embossed into the bin's lid. “I wonder what this is?”

I then popped the latches, and the contents I saw was well-beyond astonishing, especially as it was folded up neatly

“What is that stuff?” asked Sarah, as she came to my side from where she was finishing up her batches of ink between helping Anna identify certain medicines. I knew we would be taking some of those tablets in our medical kits, Spraetzen or no Spraetzen; most of the drugs we would need would work to a substantial degree if taken by mouth, and Anna had some tinctures that she knew from experience worked to a degree. There were two vials filled with that one bitter medicine that kept the red fever under control if taken preventively thrice a day, no matter how many small red bugs decided to show up in order to sample one's body fluids.

“Clothing,” I said, touching one of the impossibly-small-folded 'shirts'. I took one out, shook it – and to my astonishment, it 'fluffed out' markedly. The color of this long shirt was a very pale blue.

“What is this for?” I asked.

“Why, 'exercise clothing',” said the soft voice. “It's the easiest stuff imaginable to wash – a pot of hot water and a small bit of field soap, stir it well for a few minutes, rinse it twice, hang up to dry for an hour in a reasonably warm room, and it's good to go; it wears like the very best flour sacking; and it does not go buggy.” Pause, then, “it was developed during the waning years of the war, at least to the degree they have it now overseas, but give them a piece of that stuff and they'll be turning out 'the straight turnip' in three days flat – and that in quantity.”

“The straight t-turnip?” I asked.

“Turnips were a commonplace weed in the combat zones, and the soldiers found them very useful as meal extenders when food was shorter or more monotonous than they wished.” Pause, then, “trouble was, those things tended to cork most people, so the usual was to carry all they could of certain foods, some of which are still regarded as rare delicacies over there.”

“What?” I asked.

“You'll learn what some of them are within hours of you getting there,” said the soft voice, “and between that, some of the other weird things, 'flash' toilets, and swarms of blue-suited functionaries – you all will be very busy and quite perplexed, which is why I gave the four going other than you that list so as to teach you-all what you needed to know, and why the two of you know what those blue-suited silver collared thugs are actually like when they outnumber you to that degree.”

“Dumb as bricks, but when there are lots of them, they're trouble,” I muttered, then my voice rose to a near-giddy screech – one higher-pitched than Esther's laugh. “Trouble? That is no word for those stinkers, and that's if you don't run into one that's a spy or a spy-in-training.”

“We got three of the worst type of spy already,” said Sarah. “That means there are seven of those bad ones left. Now will they raise up more like they are?”

“Yes, but remember that type of spy takes a lot of training and perhaps one individual out of a very large group is able to become one, so they've never been particularly commonplace, unlike the other kind – which you most likely will run into a number of times.”

“Clean their ears right off,” I muttered, “and then rifle their pockets for anything of value before they go up in smoke.”

“One difference,” said the soft voice. “Most spies on the home front do not wear 'self-cremation garments', as those are reserved for places where their cost is a justifiable matter, like in the area around Ploetzee. Otherwise – spies will just simply die like any other functionary, and unless you get a truly unusual individual, they will not catch fire or explode.” Pause, then, “Ploetzee was one of the highest-value non-domestic targets that regime has, so the thugs you saw there were 'the pick of the crop', save for those hordes of commonplace thugs that were 'cannon-fodder'.”

“Not even normal cannon-fodder,” I spluttered. “Most blue-suited functionaries are less capable than the ones there.”

“True, provided you speak clearly of the word 'most',” said the soft voice. “If you see 'lines' of those people marching, shoot the first handful in that line, as they'll be the most experienced individuals, and usually the 'hardest' of that given group.”

“The rest?”

“Figure five to one,” said the soft voice. “Each one of those thugs you took on in Ploetzee is worth five of the ones you're usually going to run into overseas.”

“Five to one,” I gasped. I almost said the rest of the line, that being 'five to one, one to five, no one gets out of here alive.”

“No, go ahead and say that part,” said the soft voice. “That was a very popular line among 'heavy scout teams' when they were getting ready to 'get some', and when they spoke of 'no one gets out of here alive', they put that into practice when they were cleaning houses.” Pause, then, “the witches really didn't like hearing their propaganda turned against them in that fashion, and those overseas in current positions of leadership won't wish to hear it either.”

“What is this?” asked Sarah. “I might have seen it on a tapestry or read it in an old tale.”

“Five to one, one to five, no witch found here gets home alive!” I spat. “That sound better?”

“Yes, as it is an exact quote of what I read,” said Sarah, “and it was said to be a commonplace saying among those the witches named monsters.” Pause, then, “I think there was more than one version, though, as they sometimes said the last part a bit differently.”

“No one here gets out alive?” I asked. “As in they'd chase the witches to ground, squeeze through cracks so small that the witches thought would block them, and then they'd make lakes of blood as they killed everyone they found not themselves and did not stop killing people – didn't matter who, unless it was one of them – until everyone other than they themselves was cut into pieces to ensure they all died?”

“That was what was on that tapestry I bathed for,” said Sarah, “and I will write it upon their walls with chalk and anything else I might get my hands upon for marking.” A pause, then, “good. You have that thing there for greasing bullets. What size is it set to?”

Georg now came over, then said, “you must have given that man the cheap version, as this one is a lot better.”

“No, not 'cheaper',” I said. “His was only intended for one size, while this one will do any size and shape of bullet up to something a bit smaller than what goes into a number four musket.” Pause, then, “I deliberately made his as simple as possible to use so he'd not come to grief when using it, while this one...”

“That one is tricky,” said Sarah. “It works well, though, as I've used it.”

“When?” I asked.

“When you last had it set for pistol bullets,” said Sarah, “and I was out of that type and was running low on commonplace balls, so I cast up about twenty of what metal your moulds seem to like, then ran them through it.”

“How does it work?” asked Georg, as I began to insert the bullets for my 'elephant gun'. These needed a full stroke of the 'down' lever, just like my old one I had once had had needed; then, once down, they needed a full tug of the 'ratchet' lever that forced in the grease and put it onto the bullet's many greasing grooves; then lifting the main cast-bronze lever; and inserting the bullet into a 'bullet-board', with an added dab of grease on both ends of the hole to make sure the bullet remained in place. I then noted someone had 'trimmed' those boards I had set aside for plugging, and more, there were five boards, not the four of recollection.

“Are these new, or something?” I asked.

“Yes, they are,” said Sarah. “I had them made for the trip, as I learned something about the weight one wishes to carry on my trips as part of my schooling, and your boards weighed nearly half again as much those there, if I went by holding them one after another so as to guess their difference in weight.”

“Laminated blackwood and this other lighter wood?” I asked. “It's really hard, same as blackwood?”

“Those boards give up nothing in strength,” said Sarah, “and they hold those bullets better, as that type of wood makes for clean holes, not like whatever you got from Hans, which is but little better than something that fit to go in a stove.” Pause, then, “I wiped those down twice with his last batch of wood-treatment thinned with a bit of distillate, and I baked them in the oven beforehand overnight then between between each such rubbing – and I put a file down those holes, one that carpenters use for making holes fit for dowels so they fit tightly.”

“Did you put wood-treatment in those holes also?” asked Georg, as he felt the outer surface of the wood 'blocks. These were easily two inches shorter than what I had had, which also reduced their weight a bit. “This looks good for a pattern finish.” Pause, then to me as I ran more bullets, this rapidly, and put the emerging bullets in the first board: “I've heard absolutely nothing from those people I sent those patterns to months ago, and I've heard rumors coming from that area that I don't much care for.”

“Rumors?” I asked, as I plunged and then 'tweaked' another bullet. I'd do up the forty or so bullets I saw Hans had run in short order, then relubricate and 'plug' my remaining bullets and put their boards in Anna's stove-pile. Every such bullet-board I had of the original stock would go there, as Sarah calling that stuff fit for the stove was nothing short of the dire truth.

“They are little more than gossip, thus far,” said Georg. “I was going to put some money to Tam so as to check up on them, but if I see him tonight, I might manage to learn enough with less money than I planned to toss, as he's gone down that way recently, and he might know enough to tell me one way or another.”

“I can tell you some matters already,” I said calmly. “First, the patterns those carpenters have for 'sextants' are for wall-hangers, meaning they're worthless for a two-ring sextant, much less those for one of three rings. Then, when Pieter wrote of 'the best brass', he was not talking about that smoky fumy stuff that's a health hazard at best and a witch-magnet at worst.”

“Now you lost me,” said Georg. “What is a witch-magnet?”

“Something that draws witches like bags of money or those large black books,” said Sarah, “and I have been around enough brass-founders in the five kingdoms to know most of them act like witches, and the rest, save for a very few, are witches indeed.”

“He did not mean 'common brass', but something out of an old tale,” I said. “Something that's about as hard as some of that new steel when it's drawn to a dark straw, this odd golden color, very resistant to corrosion – unlike commonplace brass – and needs a lot of special equipment to first cast it and then machine the cast pieces to size – and these things make any instrument made on the continent, even those things supposedly made at the Heinrich works, look to be fetishes for function and finish.” I then muttered about the need to fabricate oil-tight 'dust enclosures' for the moving parts and make three separate complete instruments, as these things were so 'tricky' that assembling and then 'timing' them was like doing brain surgery.

Or assembling the engines to my car, especially in their latest incarnations, the ones that were 'proof' to nearly ten thousand RPM.

“Closer than you think” – meaning 'brain-surgery' – “and that work will pay off when you're working on people in a theater,” said the soft voice.

“Me?” I gasped. “But I'm not a doctor...”

“You might be surprised at what you can do, especially then,” said the soft voice. “Recall how a lot of things became a lot better on the way here, and how the amount you know about a lot of subjects increased drastically?” A pause, this one longer, then, “recall just what you were planning on doing once you graduated, and how you found out no medical establishment wished to hire someone with non-existent social skills – no matter how much they cared and no matter how nice they would have been to actually work with?”

“Prosthetics and other medical equipment,” I said. “I would need to be able to talk to d-doctors and know their language, and know a lot about anatomy and the other things so as to design prosthetic devices that worked...”

“And understand a fair amount of medicine in general, including especially detailed anatomy, and a lot more else beyond what you realized about the medical profession,” said the soft voice. “That increased a great deal, possibly as much or more than anything else that changed.” Pause, then, “Now. Recall just how much you were exposed to such equipment throughout your life, from early childhood on, and then how many health problems you had from the time you were full-grown, and then how you had to figure out on your own so much of those health problems and then convince those 'people' that you were not crazy – and then, when the test results came in, how often you learned you were right?”

I nodded dumbly, this while the machine continued to run mechanically, a matter of utter predictability. This machine had a huge advantage over earlier means that way: once it was set for a particular bullet, it was a matter of doing the same things over and over: snapping the lever to its stops and counting the clicks of the ratcheting screw, and the precision proper was built into the machine and its tooling. I was almost done with my rifle bullets, and I did not have 'forty'.

I had fifty-three present, and I would plug no less than three entire bullet-boards and part of a fourth, and those bullets I had existing would fill the fourth and possibly all the holes of the fifth one. I hoped and prayed I would not need to shoot that rifle that much, but I did resolve to transfer all my existing bullets to these thinner boards Sarah had, as they did weigh a fair amount less.

“And a small metal container of rifle powder in addition to a tapped-full flask,” I thought.

“Best make it three such containers, and larger ones than you thought to use,” said the soft voice. “It is very useful for certain traps, as you recall from your time in the fifth kingdom house proper.”

I finished up the bullets for my rifle, then as I went upstairs to fetch the dies for pistol bullets and any of the other kind of bullets that Hans might well have hidden somewhere, I could hear talk regarding my 'lubricator-sizer' machine, and when I came down, I found I needed to explain to Georg just what was needed to make dies for it – and also, what sizes of dies I currently had.

“This machine does bullets for rotating pistols,” I said, as I began to remove the dies for 'lead corncobs', “and then cheese-bullets for number one muskets, and then those you saw me running that to to what I shoot, and then, potentially any bullet I get a sample of that's about four to five lines smaller than what goes to a number four musket, as when the dies are that thin, they tend to warp badly when quenched – badly enough that I cannot clean them up with what I have here for internal and external honing equipment.”

“Then if you go through what I use on elk,” said Paul, “it will wish a new barrel.”

“Good that I get more of those with each trip coming up from the fourth kingdom,” said Georg. “These are not rolled and welded barrels, but bored, reamed, turned on their outsides, and of between thirty and thirty-two lines, so if Tam tells me right, they will work well.”

“They will,” I said. “I'll most likely gage a batch, then come up with reamers so as to ream them to a uniform size that both cleans up and genuinely straightens them inside, and then I can make dies for lubricating and sizing such bullets to size.” Pause, then, “Paul, I hope you can handle such an 'elk-musket', as it will toss you like mine did, if not worse yet.”

“Yes, I know,” said Paul. “Yours does that like a roer, so will that one do the same.”

“It probably will,” said Georg. “Now his tossed you?”

“Yes, some eight feet, but I landed in hay, and so did that thing, though its hay was twice as thick as mine,” he said. “That elk went nowhere except down, and I cut its throat right away, so there is elk-pie in Laidaan, or there should be by now.”

“And for the next few days, people will be glutting themselves on such pies,” said Willem. “I just hope I can get my slice of such a pie before it is all gone.”

“That was a big elk, Willem,” I said. “That publican is salting a lot of meat right now – both cask-salting and brine-salting, as it does not take twenty pounds of meat to make up a pie for three, and his cold-rooms are quickly filling with those casks, so that thing's meat will be at least somewhat fresh for the next week or more, given how much salt he puts to that meat.'”

“No, closer to two pounds of meat for a common-sized pie, assuming this is the Public House in Laidaan,” said Esther – who herself was hoping to sample such a pie. One of the usual size sounded about 'passable' for her family, with part of one of those pies left for next-day's lunch, given their cold-room and the nature of that place's pie-tins, these being about an inch wider than those in Roos. “The one here does a bit better most of the time, but a lot of places stint their meat, and you do not wish that if you've been working hard all day in the fields.”

Pause, then, “you need to explain that thing better to him as to why you have so much trouble with bullets larger than a certain size, as there will be lots of people wanting their weapons freshened, and you're going to be cutting lots of grooves in barrels.”

“I will?” I asked, as I began wiping off the insert for my rifle's bullets and then showed its shiny inside and outside to Georg. “This outer part needs to fit that inner portion of the press exactly, pressing the bullet into it and they makes bullets round, smooth, and the exact same diameter for each one so treated, and if the die warps more than a certain amount, I cannot make them right no matter what I do – and that means a certain thickness of metal after lapping to size and roundness, and I need to get them fairly close right now, so that means nothing that's much bigger than a bullet for a number one musket, if I want to avoid undue trouble.”

“So I was told in three towns already,” said Georg about my needing to go through muskets 'by the numbers', “and that in the last week. It seems between you and a few others making shots at twice the range and more of commonplace muskets and dropping witches right away doing so, there are a lot of people wanting to do that, and I recall just how much trouble it was to make those barrels, so I've been getting best-grade twisted barrels from the fourth kingdom for some weeks now, and several more each week.”

“Twisted?” asked Willem. He was lining up the pistol bullets for me, with the goal of handing me them as I ran them through the sizer once I'd gotten the thing fully set up. It usually took some ten to fifteen minutes if I'd been running the more-usual type, those being what my rifle took, hence I commonly waited until there were at least sixty or more bullets other than my usual size.

“Those are the best kind,” said Georg, “and they're usually a good bit stronger than the more-usual type for a given thickness. Only one kind is better, and they who make those don't sell them as barrels, but only as made-to-order weapons that take many months and multiple inducements to make, and given what you had to do to make that one man's weapon, I suspect why they would want those inducements.”

“The Heinrich works, and that because they teem their own steel and then bore their gun-barrels from the solid,” said Sarah. “Go on. What you're saying is accurate enough, if you got your barrels from some place that does a lot of guns.” Pause, then, “I hope you got their stout barrels, as that's what is wanted for a weapon suitable for drilling elk.”

“This place has two stories and makes enough steam to pass for a big wash-house and a printing-mill that does a lot of books,” said Georg, “and while they can and do make to order, they make enough muskets to have over a hundred workers, and that in a long shift at the least – and yes, I have an ongoing order for 'your very stoutest barrels, fit for firing heavy bullets and stout charges of powder'.”

“Two overlapping shifts, Georg,” said Sarah. “I think I know where that place is, and I've been in it several times to get information about their machines and what they do with them to make as many guns as they do.” Pause, then, “if you got your barrels from there, then few save the Heinrich works does much better, and that place scraps a fair number of barrels, as they proof those things with hot powder and a dozen balls rammed hard.”

“Tam told me that was what they did, and he said getting better was very hard if you didn't know people in the marshes,” said Georg. “So, I have an order there for at least five barrels a week, and I've gotten eighteen thus far hidden under my bed right now, same as where I usually keep the box with the swords before delivering them.”

“Under your bed?” I asked. I wasn't about to tell Georg that he'd had thieves get inside – and more, these people had found and noted everything in his house in the process of finding those things they'd each received a thousand guilders in gold each to retrieve – and for a witch of modest desires living in the hinterlands, a gold monster coin wasn't worth twenty guilders.

Those things were so infernally rare in the northeastern quarter of the first kingdom that they bought closer to a hundred guilders in silver's goods if one compared them to the exchange rate in the central part of the first kingdom – and for the first kingdom, even if it was indeed the cheapest place to live of all places in the five kingdoms, there was 'cheap', and there was cheap – and the northeast corner of the first kingdom had not only ample game – mostly marmots, with deer rare and elk almost nonexistent – but also, few towns, much wide-open country, and areas where one could readily subsistence-farm if one located one's rude stone-and-mud-walled hovel near a spring and a decent-sized woodlot.

In those circumstances, a thousand guilders in gold was good for much of a lifetime, presuming one did nothing further to actually earn a copper – decades of relative leisure, one given to perhaps four hours a day of farming most of the year and the rest of the 'year' exposed to the pleasures of the chase, with all save a brief period of snow in the winter and a somewhat longer period of rain following that few weeks dusting of snow spent in a fairly hospitable climate – and during that shut-in time of perhaps a month or two, one either made witch-medals for sale points south, or polished commonplace coins into witch-coins, or perhaps traveled south via the secret way using one of the numbers of abandoned well-hid handcars so as to invest one's money in sundry witch-run schemes, all of these things done with the goal of increasing that initial amount exponentially over the course of a few years. Georg's speech then brought me back to the current reality.

“Yes, as I sleep with my club right by my bedside on a stout leather loop about my wrist, and I tie a pair of strings from a staple at each end, one well-screwed to that box, and each string to one of my largest toes when I've got that box having something in it,” he said. “I've killed more than one thief since I put that box there earlier this year.”

My estimation of Georg went up at least two orders of magnitude, as given what he had for a burglar alarm – namely, none – he'd done more than anyone realistically could do, given his level of knowledge. More, he'd caught thieves – which meant those that 'burgled' his place either had inside information – difficult at best to get, given how close-mouthed Georg could be – or, these people were truly expert thieves, the kind witchdom produced on a rare basis.

“You didn't tell anyone about that setup, did you?” I asked, as I passed the first bullet of 'revolver' size. The settings for these were a bit trickier than for my rifle. “Needs less grease on the lever.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “You want the grooves on those bullets filled good, and then a little tin of that black grease for putting across the tops of the cylinder there, as Tam told me what can happen if you don't.”

Georg then spoke: “not a word to a soul, save to God alone – and the way things are happening, I'm about due for another face-down blood-oath in a church, same as I gave after that last pig nearly put me in my grave!”

“And it keeps your fouling soft, also.” I said, meaning the grease put across the top of the cylinder holes in a revolver.

“It keeps it down a lot, too,” said Hans, “and then most of the gun cleans a lot easier, and finally, if you must go hard all day and have little time for cleaning, then it keeps the rust from starting, as you can wipe it down with a rag while you are riding.”

“At least until you can get it to where you can clean it good,” I said.

“I had more than one day recently where I could not clean it at all until I got somewhere safe,” said Hans, “which was down in the basement here in the evening, and there was no rust anywhere in or on that gun, so I think that grease helps a lot. Then, there are those things that most call muskets that now I know they are not those things, and those stay good almost as good as a rotating pistol, at least for the barrel.” Pause, then, “the rest needs cleaning as soon as you can if you use flint and steel, or at least wiping down with a rag with heavy distillate in it if you cannot clean it good right then. Those like thimbles are a lot better that way, and people are learning about them quick.”

Georg watched me closely as I got the machine set right over the course of perhaps five bullets, and as I turned the ratchet lever, he said, “only two clicks I've heard so far each for this size of bullet? What does that lever do?”

“Pumps the lubricant into the grease-grooves of the bullets,” I said. “You need two or three clicks for most pistol bullets, while three is what you use for most cheese-bullets I've done, while those for my rifle need close to a full stroke, or five clicks.” Pause, then, “that setting would have given that one man absolute fits, as the amount of grease in those grooves is a bit critical if you need to consistently hit what you're aiming at – and he was as mechanically illiterate as a turnip-farmer on the east side of the Main.”

“That metal thing for his bullets has lots of those grooves for grease,” said Hans, “and if you put in one fit for a rotating pistol and work that thing right, you still want a little tin of grease with you, while those boards he does hold enough of that stuff in them so as to save the trouble carrying extra grease.” Pause, then, “now as for that grease keeping pistols good, I know it is good for more than one day, unless Lukas himself is a liar, as he told me about a time recently where he was riding a lot and he had no chance to clean his guns good until he got to where he was headed at the third kingdom house proper, as he carrying this important letter to the king of the third kingdom.” Here, Hans had to pause to drink beer. He'd said a large mouthful for him. “Then, he was riding each day there and back until his horse was about to give out and him about to fall off of it, especially in some places, and a lot of that riding done after dark by the light of the stars and the moon, with a compass in his hand and all the two of them had being in their packs and padded with rags for quiet, and the same for their horses' hooves.”

“Drier in most of those places south of the border with the second kingdom, so less chance of rust compared to most of the year up here,” I said. “N-no chance to clean?”

“They were using powder from that one man whose powder you use, which means it is less inclined toward starting rust, but it is worse for eating barrels and other metal pieces once it gets that stuff started,” said Hans, who then again paused to drink. He was no longer dealing with lead, so could afford to slake his considerable thirst when and where he had the chance. More, he'd put in a lot of work – for him.

He would learn work a lot harder and longer in the days to come, and that shortly.

“Yes, as he was carrying a five-page letter writ by Hendrik his-own-self, and I saw the red seal on that thing when he gave it to him,” said Hans gravely. “That means it is for the eyes of the one addressed only, and if it is red wax, that means a king is to get it, and him only – and with all the witches they have down there in the third kingdom, one cannot be too careful.”

Hearing Hans speak that way was something of a marvel, so much so that only when I came to myself did I realize Willem had taken over for me running bullets through the lubricator. He was a marvel, as between Georg speaking to him and handing him the bullets rapidly, he was turning the things out at the rate of several a minute. More, every bullet had just the right smear of grease near its front 'ogive' that indicated its grease grooves were indeed full, while he was not 'spraying grease' out the top.

“Probably need to top that thing with grease soon,” I muttered, as I began putting the bullets in those brass tins Hans had found. That made me glad this grease wasn't the tormenting kind, even if it was tacky enough to make for wiping one's fingers after filling a tin full and smearing a bit more on top before putting in a brass 'toothpick' that served as a bullet extractor and nipple prick. One wished those save for our thimbles, but having a short stiff 'pin' was still a good idea. I usually carried two or three of them in my 'patch-tin', it being that oblong brass box that held my cleaning supplies for my original rifle.

“Best keep doing that, as Anna found another bag of those brass things,” said Sarah regarding what I was doing. “I think these I just found want boiling, as this one at the top of this bag has this old and really strange label on it, and it says...” Pause, then, “it begins with a 'C', and ends with an 'e', and it has some dried out black dust inside it.”

“Best put that stuff in Hans' trash bucket, so I can put it in the firebox of the stove later,” said Anna. “Sarah, let me look at that label. It might be something a witch would want.” Not two seconds later, Anna went flying some few feet amid a sudden thump followed a crash of a table giving way as she landed atop it.

“You need a new table, Hans,” said Willem laconically. “Now, Sarah – did she find another fetish?”

“I think so, as now I have soot on me like I was working with chemicals, and then I need another bath, as I am starting to itch again,” said Sarah.

Sarah did not look good when covered with soot, and while Anna wasn't wearing much soot, she too had her share. She got up from the table's wreckage, shook her head, then spat, “Hans, this table was fit for firewood before I landed on it.” Pause, this to dust some soot off with sooty hands, then, “I'm getting my bath soon as she comes back down here, and if there's something in that one bin that looks likely, I am trying it out.” She then looked, and asked, “where did that one bin go?”

“Up there with her, I think,” I said, looking up somehow while remaining on task. That tincture and pill combination made doing that a lot easier. “Yep, in the bathroom. She'll probably sort through it to see if anything fits her, both for top and bottom, as that stuff is tailored for men and women – and it really makes women look, uh, nice...” I thought the only matter of real improvement was 'a smallish bottle of perfume in the inner pocket for times like these'. I knew having 'scent' would really help the ladies, and not merely in the area of making them smell nice. Smells, especially certain ones, helped greatly in other ways, and Annistæ would most likely know of them – as those people used such things routinely.

“It was good it had nothing of real importance on it,” said Esther regarding what had tossed Anna. “Now was that a fetish?”

“Yes, and a bad one,” said Anna. “It had these weird colors showing on it, like out of a bad nightmare where you cannot tell if it's still night or if the sun's come up looking weird like in a really old tale, and these colors were moving a lot, and for an instant before it went up on me, I could see most of the word. It went 'C-O-S-M-O...” Pause, then, “L... L-I-N-E' – and I am not trying to say that one, as it's either a bad curse or it will knot my tongue, or most likely both of those things.”

“I saw that one early yesterday,” I said, “and it dates from before the war – and just what it was... No!” I gasped.

“What?” asked Anna.

“I know what that stuff once was,” I muttered, this as I got the cheese-bullets in line and got ready their dies and punches. Hans had been casting those now and then; I could tell, as well as he'd been shooting them some, also – but he knew they worked better when run through this machine, as Lukas had most likely told him.

The remaining revolver bullets were going fast now that Willem was back on the machine, and I could tell he wanted one badly – as well as a 'Webley', one that took reloadable cartridges. Such ammunition would still need such equipment in its preparation, as while 'Webley' pistols did not use jacketed bullets, they kicked nearly as badly as 'full-loaded dragoons' and hit harder than those pistols did at close range. I thought a distraction of sorts might be wise.

“You've heard of the term 'full-loaded and black-faced'?”

“I have,” said Willem. “That means they got that black face grease on, don't it?”

“It means several possible things, depending on just where you encounter that expression and who it refers to,” I said. “If you mean 'real witches, those of before the war', then you're at least partly right, as some of them did wear black face-grease then, and they called that stuff what Anna just spelled out.” I paused, then said, “why would they call it that? An intercept? That stuff was a weapons-preservative grease where I came from, and a nastier and stickier messy material was a hard thing to find anywhere.” Pause, then, this mumbled, “only torment-grease is worse than that stuff was, and it, not by much, specially when it was the slimy variety.”

While there was no answer, there were yet many bullets to grease-up for revolvers – I had not realized there were that many remaining until now – and I found that first I, and then Paul, needed to 'spell' Willem at the lubricating machine so as to keep the bullets flowing steadily: from the ranked rows to the left of the machine; then into and out of the machine; then from there, onto an old rectangular 'tin' plate of some kind, its tin beginning to wear to show tarnished brass; and from thence, into the various brass 'shoe-polish tins', each one to receive one of those small bent pieces of brass wire, one end flattened to lift out a recalcitrant bullet, and the other folded to hold a short piece of music wire, this to 'drill out' a fouled nipple in an emergency.

Finally, prior to closing said tin, a modest dollop of the grease was added, and the lid put on and the whole hefty ensemble set to the side. It was an easily-pocketed way of holding thirty-three bullets, which was sufficient for six reloads per revolver – and three bullets remaining as 'spares'.

Dropped bullets did happen in the heat of 'combat', hence the added grease and the small bit of old diaper on top of the whole assembly prior to closing in case some field-wiping was in order.

While Willem was amply careful when he was greasing the bullets with the machine – being a cannon-master more or less demanded a methodical manner of thinking if one wished to remain alive upon the field when swine or northern thugs were handy – Paul, on the other hand...

He bore careful watching, as well as either myself or Willem watching him; and, at times, one, the other, or sometimes the two of us and Sarah spewing sundry words at him while reminding him of the methodical nature of bullet preparation and the consequences of failure to do the job right.

“You do not wish to be chained up upon a burn-pile, or have witches talking about killing you in a witch-hole, do you?” asked Sarah pointedly. Her voice then took on an absolutely chilling tone. “If you ever wear chains and clothing soaked with distillate, or lay tied like a beeve ready for roasting with witches speaking of where they shall cut your throat for a sacrifice, then you will give your all! Mark my words, and upon my face-down oath in church, you will!”

“The witches planned to do that to you?” I gasped.

“Yes, but they did not search me terribly well, and I had an instrument-maker's knife from the fourth kingdom, a good one, one I still have, and I cut my bonds and escaped while they were getting drunk.” Pause, then, “here are five more of those brass tins.”

These last were 'bright', and reeked of vinegar; and behind us, I could hear someone – Anna, most likely – running up the stairs, this with a clattering and sizable bag. She was most definitely hot for a bath.

I could tell that much merely by 'feel' now.

“I have more of these brass tins drying in the oven,” said Sarah, “but after I saw Anna get tossed and I wore soot from that smelly fetish, I did not wish to take any more chances than I have to with these things.”

“Are you wearing that, uh, 'nice' clothing?” I asked, as I wiped my hands first with a clean rag then one dampened with aquavit. Sarah had a knot in one of her shoulders, and I was fretting. I began rubbing her upper back.

“Yes, I am wearing that clothing now,” she said, moving one of my hands to the very spot, “and I wish to wear little else.”

“Yes?” I asked. Sarah really looked nice in it. She looked slippery somehow.

“First, there is its packing,” said Sarah. I could tell she was most-enthused with this stuff. “It packs into such a small area that you would think it to be a small handkerchief of thin linen, but then it fluffs out when you unfold it, but then, oh! Its feel! Only wearing a thick knit gown of tickle-cloth feels better!”

“Yes?” I asked. “It helps with hard work, like, uh, fighting messes of nasty blue-suited functionaries, correct?” I was still rubbing Sarah's back, and now and then, I stroked my hand down her back briefly. I was hoping to get such back-rubs myself in the future, actually – and hence 'do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you' was my thinking.

“This helps greatly then, or anytime one must work long and hard in a hot room like this one,” said Sarah.” A brief pause, then, “I would ride money on everyone who is going on that trip will wish this stuff for wearing, as there must be at least thirty pairs of both tops and bottoms in that tub, and each one I saw had a small place near the front of one's neck-place for one's name.”

“Did some have y-your name?” I asked.

“Yes, five sets of them, tops and bottoms,” said Sarah. “I bagged them up, tops and bottoms separate, and I could not have cut and sewed these better had I all the time and the best needles in the world.”

As if to supply a truly 'fit' rejoinder, a faint yell came from overhead.

“Anna must have found some to fit her,” said Sarah. “I put more shot in that tub, even if I used that field soap first and the medical soap afterward.” Pause, then, “I found this other thing in there, though, and I'm not sure what it is, even if it's tied with a red ribbon and wrapped in bleached linen cloth – only this is not common linen, but closer to woven tickle-fiber for its feeling.”

“More medicine-soap?” I asked.

“No, it's not that, as it is in this strange box that feels like it's made of metal, but I can tell it is not metal,” said Sarah. “The only thing I've felt before that feels like this is that small 'clock' you received.”

“That is not an ordinary clock, Sarah,” said Esther. “That thing is closer to a navigating timer for accuracy, and it's far better than any such thing for size and sturdiness – oh, and it floats, and it's waterproof.”

“How can it float if it is made of brass?” asked Sarah. “Brass is heavy enough to sink like a rock.”

“Perhaps it was fooling us as to what it was made of, dear,” I said. “I've never seen any metal do what that thing did, and that no matter if that metal was real stuff or in a, uh, visual story of some kind.”

“That's because you were looking at metals you were familiar with,” said the soft voice. “That is not one of them – and no, it's not entirely metal, but a metal-organic compound that is 'science fiction' where you come from.” Pause, then, “think something closer to 'living metal'.”

“Ooh,” I gasped. I had heard of that before, and the creature made of it was worse than a herd of Iron Pigs to deal with.

“No, not that kind of living metal,” said the soft voice. “There is a three-dimensional titanium-aluminum alloy matrix which gives the casing the bulk of its strength; then between the spaces in that latticework of 'girders', there are a large number of various formulations of electrically-excited organic compounds in glass-walled cells, much like tiny liquid-crystal displays; and then, finally, a network of fine insulated wires run over certain surfaces so as to pick up your nervous system impulses.” Pause, then, “that one has a pretty limited capacity that way, unlike those 'similar' devices that you'll encounter in other locations, in one or more theaters – or later, some months from now – in integrated form.”

“Integrated form?” I asked.

“Yes, integrated,” said the soft voice. “Remember waking up in that strange-feeling 'clothing' and hearing that woman's voice inside your head, as if she were speaking audibly into your mind and reminding you about how she would make sure you were always able to do your very best and not feel horrible and deathly ill while doing so?” Pause, then, “that takes integrated equipment, and you were wearing a lot of it – and even more of that equipment was implanted.”

I felt to the area just above my right ear, and there, the flat plane of the screw became so obvious I knew that it was an all-too-plausible matter.

I had an implant there, this of titanium with a small magnet – and that had been done nearly fifteen years ago if I measured time conventionally – and done in a place whose medical technology wasn't nearly as advanced as where I would be going.

“It was being done in some numbers prior to that war long ago for things of a similar nature to what was done to you, and between what information they will shortly receive and what they will find over there before you leave and what they are able to hunt down quickly once you 'unlock matters', those multitudes of medical people and their numerous friends over there will waste not a second's time working toward achieving a level of such integration that those prior to the war could only dream of.”

“Vrijlaand..?” I asked, as I took over from Paul and he began handing me revolver bullets. I soon got into the 'groove', that where Willem was removing the finished bullets and Paul actually putting them in the sizing die. In with the bullet, down with the lever, click-click, up with the lever, remove the bullet. In; down; click-click; up; remove. Pause. In; down; click-click; up; remove. Repeat procedure.

Just like that one little brass cube's 'machine-line' ways and its stranger-yet behavior.

“Vrijlaand – they originally came up with that equipment – did somewhat better prior to the war, but the war slowed their relative rates of progress compared to where you are going,” said the soft voice, “and once the Curse hit, that put a permanent stop to both production of such equipment and all further testing in Vrijlaand's territory.”

Pause, then, “those overseas, even if their progress was but a modest fraction of Vrijlaand's and done under intense secrecy, continued to 'throw men and money at the project in an utterly prodigal manner' – hence they're currently far beyond what Vrijlaand managed at its very height, even if they wasted vast amounts of manpower, time, money, and effort.”

This seemed truly an example of 'quantity has a quality of its own', and a second later, I knew I had understated the case.

“That is all too true, especially regarding their too-tight secrecy and the vast reams of committed-to-file-systems bureaucratic documentation that your opening the doorways will enable everyone in the medical establishments to read and record within minutes of them learning,” said the soft voice – who then dumped 'the mother of all bombshells'.

Pause, then, “what they will get in the next weeks, though – that's going from 'Harvest-Day skyrockets to faster-than-light starships' in comparison to the previous eight hundred years of slow, steady, and 'stupid' labor, and that in every area needed to make such help happen quickly.”

I then noted Anna had come back down, and while she did smell of food more than a little, she also smelled 'good' as well, and she turned around twice, her arms outstretched, much as if she were either dancing or portraying herself as a fashion model. I then saw her skin, and it faintly seemed to glow with health.

That clothing really helped her figure, as it seemed to make her look much more 'womanly', just as it had with Sarah. I wondered if there were some underclothing with Annistæ's name embroidered on it.

“Look at your own arms,” said the soft voice. “Later, when you finish running those bullets. You're doing more than Paul and Willem combined twice over, given the way they're helping you, as now they know who doing what works best for getting this business done.” The unspoken portion: “time is a-wasting, and get your rump to moving!”

“Yes, I know,” said Anna mysteriously, who came closer to what I was now working with redoubled energy, so much so that Anna looked about ready to fetch Paul a kick in the pants for being so laggardly. She then turned, and said, “Hans, where are you hiding yourself now?”

“Over here, in the small-corner of the place with all the shelves, looking through these medicines and tossing the ones that smell bad,” said Hans. “You smell that stuff a lot better than me now, so you might want to help me so I do not get fooled by something put up by a witch or someone who might want to be one of those things.”

“I hope I do not get tossed again,” muttered Anna, as she moved somewhere to my rear and then left. She then then noticed Sarah was helping Hans, and more, she had found another 'trash bucket' – a bucket that was being filled quickly with medicines fit for either burning or the manure-pile. “Oh! She can see those things too!”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans in chastened voice, “and I have a lot of trouble that way, so I hope when I get my markings I will not have trouble like I have now.”

“You will get your markings, Hans,” said Sarah ominously, “and then you will give a blood-oath face-down in the church here, and the door will open for you no matter the time, day or night that you should crawl over its doorstep and leave a trail of blood as you advance upon its altar.”

“Crawl?” I asked – and then, by means too strange to describe, I saw a pair of legs absolutely riddled with wounds, wounds from both balls and shot, and cut in places with what might have been stolen-from-Norden war-axes. More than one toe was missing from each destroyed foot, bullets had ripped up his lower legs – not commonplace bullets, but those huge fifty-line things from the fifth kingdom – and more than one such massive slug had hit him in the gut, and another had clipped the side of his head, there to leave his left eye filled with blood and a slow rivulet of the stuff steadily coursing down the side of his shot-ripped neck.

Without God to save him, Hans was 'dead right there'; and more, they'd killed his horses on the spot so he'd die slow under a blazing sun amid the ruins of a bullet-riddled buggy, the witches riding off in their coaches and laughing as he died, this as “a fool too stupid for us to wish even as a witch-puppet, may Brimstone gnaw your flesh, you crawling scum-licking dung-worm!”

Yet somehow, Hans did not die; he crawled into a woodlot after hiding for a moment under the ruins of the buggy he had borrowed, found some water, bathed his wounds, and rested in the shade after dumping some of that strange powder into his wounds, followed by swallowing some truly nasty antibiotics. He'd winced at the taste of both powder and pills, and raved silently as they made the world into a realm of nightmare worse than hell; and while he could not walk, he could crawl – and crawl he did, hand over hand in the darkness of night as the fires to the north and a bit to the east slowly sent their vast columns of black smoke into the heavens.

More, he crawled with astonishing alacrity, as with his wounds 'partly' repaired, and his bag more or less intact – the witches wanted him dead; they spat their green 'yuck' upon his plain-looking gear and his buttoned leather 'rifle case', at least until he'd put a round into the last coach's dynamite from his rifle – as he lay under the cover of that smoldering mess of a buggy – at a distance of several hundred yards, and blew up the whole stinky column in a series of massive explosions.

The witches didn't laugh then, even as he gritted his teeth and buttoned his rifle case once more. He'd needed but one round to send every single witch and mule of that entire lot 'straight to the plate of Brimstone', and now utterly silent, he resumed his slow and painful crawl 'home' with his back toward the setting sun.

He did not abandon his gear. He was being told to not abandon anything of the like to the enemy, no matter how much it slowed or pained him; more, he was being given explicit guidance so as to avoid capture by more witches; and finally, he was receiving – finally; he was now listening carefully, this for the first time ever – those lessons regarding the matters that had taken me decades in a hard school to learn:

Trust no one. It does not matter if you have known them for years: again, trust no one and no thing save the written word of God and the one who caused it to be written.

Hide everything you possibly can from everyone, as you do not know who will turn against you and try to stab you in the back when they think they have the chance to do you ill. Profit might and might not matter, as with evil, logic carries nothing save when it abets or coincides with the momentary inclinations of one's vast multitudes of enemies – and forget ever relaxing your guard until the day you go to your reward.

Never assume anything – save, perhaps, 'today will be the very worst day of your entire life'.

Plan for the very worst scenario you might think of, and assume things worse yet would indeed come to pass, things worse even than your very worst nightmares; and these in ways you could never dream of in a million years.

Never, ever give up, no matter who throws curses at you or how hard they try to stop you. Whether you live or die does not matter as long as the one you will give an accounting to is pleased with the end result.

And finally, there is but one person you can count on to some degree, and only one person you must trust with all you have. The answer to the last, of course, was God; while the former was – possibly – yourself.

And then, I had seen what had suddenly showed, this as a short stack of plastic-laminated cards. Georg came over, began reading, then suddenly slapped his head. He'd been busy with something that needed doing, what being a good question, at least until I smelled the reek of a sizable pot of just-decanted buggy-grease being stirred well with a stirring rod.

“This needs preaching,” he said, taking one of the cards that had just showed. “Good that I can read decently, least for around here, as someone left a receipt for that buggy-grease, and I followed it as close as I could.”

“You what?” I asked.

“I weighed everything, just like the directions said,” said Georg, “and it said, not less than every third line printed in bright red ink, “be careful and watch everything” – so I did that, and now, it seems to be coming good.” Georg then gestured, and before my eyes lay a huge just-emptied flask, one larger than anything Hans had save for three others like it, the thing set up identically to my much-smaller batch, and the whole of the two batches under that one heating lamp, this turned down to a simmer under the pot. Georg was obviously mingling the two, with the goal of getting the best possible result.

A smaller flask, this easily a liter, was filled with a cleanly-separated species of what looked like distillate. Esther indicated it was similar to a less-smelly version of light distillate, and more, that Georg was an especially careful man, one more so than anyone save perhaps Willem when he was doing the more-important things at the manse.

My estimation of Georg went up another order of magnitude. Any witch who could burgle his house successfully was an acute danger to the entire kingdom at the least, and I hoped under my breath I would get onto his smelly carcass before we left for overseas.

“He's already where he belongs,” said the soft voice. “He was blown to atoms when those witch-holes went up earlier today.”

“Good,” I thought. “That stinker won't pull that trick again.” Again, however, I heard the distinct 'wait' to speak of Georg's house being burgled by possibly the only witch in the entirety of the five kingdoms that could have pulled it off given his precautions.

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “There was a team of five witches, but as far as the individual that actually went inside to where Georg sleeps, you're nothing short of absolutely right, as none of those four people were 'Cardosso-level' for intelligence and 'Koenraad the first' level for curse-power – and that witch was both of those things, and a most-experienced house-thief as well.”

“That was a bad witch, then,” said Esther emphatically from where she was 'going through Hans' shelves like a pig through a weed-strewn row of corn'. “Hans, look at the good side of this. You'll have plenty of room here for real medicine when it starts coming here, even if you want these shelves here done up right and their bad wood replaced.”

“Sawn and laminated blackwood and sugar-tree wood, and three coats of reactor-cooked wood-treatment, and the whole done in the boatwright's shop,” I said. “Hans, almost every stick of furniture in here either needs to be done over completely or worked over at some serious length, as the kind of damp down here breeds dry-rot nearly as fast as Paul's cheese-rooms.”

“You can speak that again,” said Sarah. “They have nothing down there of wood, as it goes to dust and powder almost as fast as you can bring it down there, and Hans does this stuff up almost every chance he gets with drying oil and left-over wood-treatment.”

“He did in the past, anyway,” I said. “Since I came, it got a bit too busy for him to manage that three-times-a-year refinishing, and now that dry-rot is eating the place alive.” Pause, then, “speaking of dry-rot, what will that new table be made of for the kitchen?”

“How could you know?” asked Anna. “I told them we would be busy, we would be putting wood-finish to it ourselves, it needed to endure well, and it needed to sit four for the most part and six at need, and four easily, not cramped as we usually sit, and then I spoke about how you usually drew your drawings while seated at it, so they knew just what kind of table was wished – and more, what kind of table you needed.”

What?” I asked.

“It might not be a table fit for Hendrik's chambers for its looks, but it is its twin for its construction and function,” said Anna, “and then...” A sniff, then, “I hope you finish up those bullets quickly, as we shall wish to serve up dinner soon, and then Georg must head himself down to the Public House so as to wait out his buggy.”

“Yes, I know, which is why Esther told me about needing plenty of 'buggy oil',” said Georg. “I had no idea she was nearly as good a chemist as Hans, and I was glad of her help.”

“No, Georg,” said Sarah. “She is not as good a chemist as Hans.” Pause, then, “give her a few days with Annistæ, and she will be a much better one, as she helps Paul with his bomber's work and Willem with much of what he does, and the first rule of chemistry is to be watchful, and the second rule is to never assume anything that you do not know for a certainty – and there is little enough of that, as I have learned in the last few years.”

I then thought to ask a question: “is Georg marked?”

“No, but he did give another blood-oath in the town's church last night after Anna sent him home, even if it was not a face-down one,” said the soft voice, “and when you've got that many scars from fighting witches and swine, you might not be marked, but you are skirting the category by nearly as slim a margin as Sarah is.” Pause, then, “he might not have as many marked people in his genealogy as Willem or Sarah, but he does have his share.”

With so much happening, and my needing to go 'all over the shop', seemingly, I now wondered as to what had occurred with the second pot of odorless tallow. Georg then spoke of the material in question, and also, the uncommonly large knife he'd found next to the pans he'd poured the stuff into.

“She likes that knife, and thinks you should make those for butchers,” said Georg, “but August tells me they're harder to clean compared to that one you made, and they need a lot more work to keep decent.”

“That's a ship's rigging knife, Georg, not a knife for butchering,” said Sarah. “Esther might well wish one like it, but I think she'd best take a look at what Anna has in her kitchen before...”

“One can never have too many knives if one cooks much,” said Esther. “Now, if one took one like that, and did some changes to it, it would be a bit better for cooking, but the blade itself holds a very good edge, and only a few knives I have seen or heard of do better.”

“You'll get those soon enough,” said Anna. “You mean like this type here?”

“Yes, only those aren't that good for cooking, save if one is boning a quoll and doesn't mind possibly cutting one's fingers more than the bird,” said Esther. “If it had but one edge and... How hard are those to clean?”

“Very easy,” said Sarah, “though for a while, I doubt you wish a dark knife, at least in the kitchen. They can lose themselves in some kitchens.”

“I doubt it would lose itself in mine,” said Esther.

“She is crazy for that place,” said Paul conspiratorially. “She must have a place for everything, and she must put it back in that very same place, and if she does not, then she can start screaming and throwing things...”

“Careful, Paul,” said Willem. “You've seen nothing yet, if what I hear is true about him.”

“What?” I asked.

“I would like to ask you that,” said Georg, “as while I have not seen you scream, nor seen you throw things, I could tell when you had to walk away from those apprentices that you were not happy with them not paying attention.” Pause, then, “I'd rather have someone do that than scream, throw things, and then try to cause trouble, and that every day of a twelve-day week!”

“I often feel like screaming, throwing things, kicking walls, and a great deal more on occasion,” I blurted. “There, Paul – I'm worse than Esther, and not a little worse.”

“I'd say that again,” said Esther. “Now what did that one woman that looked a bit like Sarah say, the one that a lot of gunners speak of? Barbara, I believe her name was? Didn't she say you had more self-control than anyone she'd ever ran into?”

“Y-yes,” I said with a shudder. “I was surprised to no little degree, actually, as I'd never thought myself to have much of that at all.”

“Self-control is what you do, not what you think,” said Esther. “If you did not think such things, then you would have no need of that capacity.”

The bullets – those were finally reaching their end – were now coming faster than everything, now that Georg was handy to help pack them away, and as he did so, I noted his periodic wiping of his fingers on a rag. This made for a distinctive shudder on my part, as what I had heard about him being 'close to marked' was obviously nothing short of the truth.

More, the last few days had added to matters, and I wondered for a moment just how those witches had burgled his house.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “Was that the reason they assaulted the house here?”

“But one of several,” said the soft voice. “With Georg pinned down and the bulk of the town resembling a noisier version of Harvest Day for smoke and noise, that one witch saw his chance and he and his four compatriots broke in through the rear of the place after carefully scaling the back wall – as had that witch tried for Georg's room while he was home, he would have been killed on the spot, and the same for his helpers.”

“Uh, what he had planned?” I asked.

“Recall about how Georg is not as he seems?” said the soft voice. “He's on a par with Willem that way, and both of them know each other better than you surmised.” Pause, then, “anyone who is or once was a cannon-master is usually not a joke in the intelligence capacity, and the better ones are either marked, or have a lot of marked people in their bloodline – and what Georg did with that last pig was the act of a marked person, little did he realize it then – and in his case, one of two things will play out before the curse breaks entirely: either he will become a monster, or he will become an arch-witch – and right now, the matter is one where he still could go either way.”

I had the impression that who I was hearing from knew the outcome, but I had my hands well beyond full now and for the immediate future, and given the state of my health, I had far too much to deal with as it was. Better to leave the future to the one in charge of such matters, I seemed to think, and as my eyes blinked shut and I seemed transported, I abruptly awoke to find myself sitting on the couch, a cold cup of beer in my hand, a bustling kitchen with at least three people in it, two missing men, and Paul and Willem sitting beside me on the couch pouring down the beer as fast as they could.

Sarah came, this with a vial. “Time for your dose, and then part of a pill, and then, a refill of your beer. I've already gotten mine.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I have no idea how you could still work while asleep,” said Willem, “but I saw you fall asleep, and then your arms first, then the rest of you, began glowing this faint and hazy blue color, and then it was all I and Georg and Paul and Sarah could do to keep those bullets coming at you and remove them from that thing, and you were doing your job so fast they were done in ten minutes by that little clock that thinks itself an old tale”

“It is an old tale, sir,” said Sarah, as I washed down my dose with beer, “and one that is most needed. Now Hans should be back soon with an empty bucket and two more jugs of beer, and two more coming later with Georg when he gets his buggy. We will then need to look it over, and then...” Pause, then, “then, he shall need to hie himself, and so shall we, for there is much we have yet to do after we have our meals.”

“Will not Georg get any of that buzzard?” asked Paul.

“Yes, as I put some in a large cup for him, one padded with rags with one of these strange tinned brass spoons that's half the weight of a commonplace one and a tenth the weight of one found in a Public House,” said Esther. “Sarah showed them to me, and it seems they get wiped anew with tin about every two months, so I'm not sure we want them.”

“Those are for long-trips,” said Sarah, “and he – here, she indicated me – makes them specially of two pieces assembled with jeweler's solder, then tins them.”

“Wait until Annistæ has her plating setup running,” I said. “Now I wonder if I can get an engine made over there for plating?”

“For running her entire setup, no,” said the soft voice. “It would not be nearly what she needs or wants.” Pause, then, “for doing a pot or two, then yes, easily; and she'd willingly run one, as she's seen things a bit like them before – and yes, she could use it to charge batteries for providing lighting of certain key areas while she's getting that place into shape for real work.”

“A pot or two?” I asked. “Here?”

“Medical plating,” said the soft voice. “Basket plating of various rivets, especially those you use a lot. Plating up those forks, spoons, and the other things that will come to mind with a species of plating that's not only a lot more wear-resistant than wiped tin, but one that makes that travel cookware a lot more sanitary and far easier to clean. Certain sextant parts, especially some of the gears. That green coating for special tools and other sextant parts that need to be especially wear-resistant – and, of course, charging batteries of one kind or another.”

We would be charging a lot of batteries, and I was about to ask for my clipboard when Sarah looked at me, ledger in hand.

“Both of those battery chargers we got from the Abbey,” I said. “The other batteries can charge up by laying them out in the sun.”

“Yes, and I make sure Hans does that daily, so I can practice using that equipment,” said Anna. “Now there is this one thing I found, and I'm not sure what it is.”

“What is it?” asked Anna.

“It is about the size of the largest book we have,” said Anna, “and it looks to be made of a strange type of glass, only it has a small metal tag on it, and two small posts, one red and the other black, and then this small coil of twisted wire...”

“That's a battery charger!” I spat. “Could you bring it here?”

Anna needed perhaps three minutes, which left Esther alone in the kitchen. She was humming to herself, seemingly, and the whole while, I had the sense that Anna was having her kitchen gone through. Only when a sudden pop broke the humming did she actually speak.

“Paul, could you fetch a shovel? I just shot a rat, and I think it needs to go out before it makes a mess on the floor.”

Paul responded with alacrity, and when Anna came down the stairs with this article, I was stunned: it was not the size of the 'Strong's Exhausting Concordance'.

It was easily two feet wide and nearly three long, and when Anna handed it to me, I read the placard in an instant.

“Where did this come from?”

“I found it while we were looking around in that dark place,” said Sarah. “It was over by those things called field telephones, but I had no idea as to what it was and was going to leave it until Katje told me we wanted it. Why, I have no idea. Do you?”

“Yes, as it will keep any batteries we have here fully charged,” I said. “This thing puts out a decent amount of current if there's any sun hitting it at all, and so if it goes atop the bathroom roof where it's hidden from the street and the lines go down through one of the vents, then it can keep every battery we have in the house fully charged so Hans and Anna and their helpers...” Pause, then, “when are those people coming?”

“Tonight for two, and the other three tomorrow morning about the time you're about to leave,” said the soft voice. “More, one of them is a Medikalé from the Rooster Totem, so she'll know how to 'deal with' any 'Cabroni' that show.”

“Medikalé?” I asked.

“As in she's got both the red and the black gunsight patches, unlike Annistæ, who has but the black one – though hers has a green ring around it, and she's sewing that patch on her newly-fitted laboratory smock as we speak.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sarah.

“Something the Mule Totem's tsoldatos do not like to speak of,” said the soft voice. “If you find one of the Rooster Totem's people with one of those patches, they're just shy of 'experienced tsoldato level' when it comes to fighting.” Pause, then, “given just who they end up fighting, it isn't surprising.”

“Mining town thugs, ones that have been swilling high-test long enough that they're crazy enough to try anything, too dumb to have a shred of caution, and so stinking inhabited that they need to be turned into pot-strainers before they go down and stay down. That sound about right?”

“Yes,” said the soft voice. “A lot of mining-town thugs need 'hard-witch drill' followed by decapitation and then some Krokus in the mouth to die entirely and not send their droves of 'whites' after those killing them.”

“Hard-witch drill?” asked Paul. “What is that?”

“Two in the chest, one in the head, stinky witches gonna be dead – oh, and remove their heads with a sword and a taste of Krokus in the mouth,” I said. Pause, then, “so that's why she spoke that way – those stinkers really do stink, and not just because of what they drink – they're more inhabited than Koenraad the first was!”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Now, Hans is on his way back, and Georg is sampling his 'diced buzzard' along with a smallish plate of greens – when he isn't answering questions from the publican about who put the lead in that bird.”

“He shot its head off with this gun out of an old tale,” said Paul. “It sounds nearly as loud as one of Willem's guns, and that man Georg told me it was a good way of learning how to shoot a roer.”

“He's never fired one,” said Sarah, “though I have, and I have fired those loads out of a doubled-barreled gun like a commonplace fowling piece, and while they are not roers, they will hurt you if they don't fit just right.” Pause, then, “that one wanted some Komaet, it hurt so bad.”

“That is close enough to a roer to suit me, then,” said Willem. “Esther, how is that bird?”

“Near enough to done that we wait upon Hans,” said Esther, “and then, I hope you-all have appetites, as we shall have the first of our night-meals, as then our work shall begin in earnest, and then we shall all wish to turn in as soon as we may. Tomorrow wants an early starting, and then we must pay close attention, as not doing so will have us all dead.”