Waldhuis gets hornets, continued

As if Esther had been calling Hans to hurry, he arrived out of breath not two minutes later, and what he had was not a just-cleaned bucket full of beer and another jug in his hand; he had those, and a thick strap about his shoulder with two more jugs of beer, for a total of four. He spoke of a Public House beginning to become busy, but also of Georg laying down three large silver pieces on the counter and asking for a table with a view of the door, saying he was waiting for someone of dire importance, and more, that he would need to leave upon the instant when that person showed. Hence, he was paying in advance, and more, enough to secure a 'prime' seat in the bargain.

“And a small plate of greens, correct?” I asked.

“Yes, and he was picking at that stuff when I was going out the door, and getting three mouths of beer for each one of food,” said Hans.

“Probably dehydrated from hard work, and sick in the bargain,” I said. “Oh, will he get a beer jug to take with him?”

“Yes, as he had his own jug at the table there, and then some ice in his cup, which is one he brought with him in this little leather pouch that looks like what I have for my hunting things, save about a hand's width for deeper and wider.” Hans was quite emphatic, much as if he'd looked this pouch over with an eye to getting one like it.

“Did he get ideas from me and my possible bag?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” said the soft voice. “Yes, in that you carry it almost everywhere; and no, in that he doesn't travel nearly as much as you do; nor is he a greens-wearing guard who will soon be doing guard-training, nor does he ride long distances on horseback, nor does he do many of the things you do.”

“Then why does he have what he has, then?” asked Paul.

“Because he does travel a fair amount in his buggy, he does need to carry a ledger and writing dowels, he does need to carry a modest amount of money in that pouch as well as the usual money pouch, and he sometimes delivers smaller things to customers 'discretely', or has needed to in the past,” said the soft voice.

Pause, then, “he also is wondering how to get a larger bag, one much like a possible bag, as he suspects he needs to carry something with range so as to defend himself, and now that he's found 'guns' that fire for him, he's definitely in the mood to have one on his person waking and sleeping.” The hint was 'he'd druther be taken for an armed-to-the-teeth-brigand than die at the hands of witches'.

“Probably wants a machine-pistol,” I said, as my stomach 'growled like a bear'.

“I heard that noise,” said Hans. “Now, Anna and I will get the plates, and then the stools, and...”

I was the only one left sitting, the others leaving in a mass exodus for either the kitchen or places 'near' it; and not five minutes later, I had a tinned copper plate with 'diced buzzard', greens, chopped potatoes with crumbled cheese, and a large cup of beer with a modest-sized piece of floating ice in it.

“Ice is good when you are hot from hard work,” said Paul. “It is good in your beer, too.” Pause, this to drink. “Now how is it you have that stuff, and there is no snow on the ground, and you are not in the house, so you cannot buy it?”

“Hans found more ice-pans, so he's setting every one of those things out when it starts to get cold of a night, so that our back wall has a number of them, and he and I get the ice in the morning,” said Anna. “Now when Georg gets here, we will need to go over his buggy while he gets his things, then tie them securely, and cover the whole with this one sheet he showed me earlier today. It has a great many brass grommets, and I tried out my blackening stuff on them, but it wasn't entirely right, so they just became a darker brown color.”

“Sheet?” I asked. “Darker brown would probably work, dear. It's the shine that will get gunfire.”

“I think he had this sheet done at the house's tailor shop, as it's a bit large for one person,” said Anna. “Esther, when you're done cutting up more of that bird, clean off your knife and bring it here so he can look at it and sharpen it up a bit.” Pause, then to me, “she's like you for how she likes her knives.”

“While I eat?” I asked.

“No,” said Hans. “You need to eat slow, almost like you caught a spear in your gut from one of those northern people. Pause. “When you need a break from your food, then I can get your sharpening stones and your oil, and then you can put your food on my stool while you look at her knife and then touch it up.” Pause, then, “it is a decent one, if a bit old and used some.”

“And what she cuts up that we do not eat?” I asked.

“One portion to go in a covered roasting pan,” said Esther, “and the rest, in that one pot for soup, along with any potatoes I can find that Anna will let me have.” Pause, then, “keep eating, as I'm almost done with this dicing here, and then I can eat my portion while you touch up my knife.” Pause, then, “I must eat slowly also, as there is no 'almost' about being poked in the gut, though it was the knife of a witch and not one of those northern people.” Pause, this to think. “Oh, that's right. The third ditch. There were a lot of those spears there, and I think Willem might have a few somewhere so as to teach his gunners about fending off spears should those people reach the guns.

Given that she was using a supposedly dull knife, Esther was astonishingly quick; and when my stomach said 'enough' – it would want more in a bit, though how much 'more' would be was a mystery – I found that Hans left my plate on his stool and fetched me both my stones and their small covered copper 'tin'. This elicited no small admiration, at least until Sarah spoke of only the best instrument-makers having such things. I then opened the lid.

“What, no smell?” asked Willem. “I thought that had distillate in it.”

“Boiled distillate has little odor,” I said. “It works better than the usual stuff for stones.” I tested Esther's knife with one of my finer stones, then under the light of the tent-lantern hung from a peg just above the window, I looked at the 'worn blade'. Then, faintly, I saw the following, this in fine 'etched' script:

Machalaat Brothers Cutlery”

“So they've diversified since this thing was made,” I murmured. “Were those three stinkers involved then?”

“They were years from being born when that blade was forged in their dies,” said the soft voice, “and Esther found that knife as a young girl in a second-hand store that had just received the tools from a butcher's shop where the swine had destroyed the town. She needed to pay all of three guilders then, but she's never regretted the cost of having that knife for both cooking and defending herself at need.”

I then used one of the stones to run along the edge so as to 'find' the right angle, and the faint sounds spoke of an uncommonly hard edge. A touch of the stone to the back showed softer metal – metal that would have been judged amply hard by most people I knew or had heard of.

“They hardened this one like I do with most knives,” I said.

“Good,” said Esther. “I'd like that one copied, if possible, or better, two, as one wants a good sharp knife for cutting meat off of an elk like Paul shot today with your r-rifle.”

“No, dear,” I said. “I'll do two whole sets, one for Anna, and another for you, and then you two can play off one against another while cooking a party-feast from a nice stub-antlered deer during Festival Week.” I said this while sharpening the knife, this using a 'gray-white stone', then once I got the 'wire' on the edge, I used the large black stone that I had gotten from Albrecht.

It seemed I was currently getting some strange bonuses from down in the fourth kingdom, especially since his path had opened up again, and he was now running four animals, two to his front in harness and two to his rear on leads, this to change off at need and get in both a longer day and a faster pace. I knew 'by the jungle telegraph' that he'd like some catalytic lanterns, these a bit taller than the small things and large enough to take a larger candle.

“Given how that setup worked for us earlier today, I guess it gives him at least another ten miles during daylight,” I thought.

“Try more like fifty on a good day,” said the soft voice. “He's using your oil in his hubs, he's having them lapped with rouge during his layovers, and then he's had his horses 'doctored' down there by a Medikalé who deals with such animals – and hence they're better nourished and free of the endemic parasites found in the northern half of the continent.” Pause, then, “and now, since there are so few witches in his way, he travels about three hours after sundown and starts 'when it just starts to get light enough to see', which is well before sunrise.”

“Fifty more miles a day?” I asked.

“Taking four genuinely healthy grain-stuffed animals – especially when Willem does the grain and someone makes sure they're looked after right while they're down in the fourth kingdom – really adds to one's daily total,” said the soft voice. “What you don't know is that he and his wife trade off, and the one who isn't driving is taking notes of all they see and hear – and Hendrik gets a new ledger to read with each trip they've been making lately.” Pause, then, “watch that knife. You're almost through the wire and now are getting it ready to 'jump some hair'.”

“Good,” said Esther. “I wonder what using a knife like that will do for meals?”

“Speed up your cooking by a third, if not more,” said Anna between bites. “Now this is the best buzzard I have ever had. How did he get it?”

“Shot it in the rump while it was setting on a nest asleep,” said Sarah, “and then he blew off its head when it fell down one of those chimneys that are everywhere in the manse.”

“That is what I must do, then,” said Hans. “I must find a big chimney in that place, and wait for a buzzard to roost there, and then use one of those new fowling pieces.”

“Hans, getting those things is more luck than all else,” said Paul. “Lukas told me about that first one he shot when I last saw him, and that shot was so far it was a good range for a three inch gun. Then, it needed something that kicked like a roer and shot like a cannon to put that bird down long enough for the others to finish it, and it was still a near thing, unlike today.” Here, Paul drank deeply, then said, “today, it sounded like gun-practice in the manse, and that gun he used is straight out of an old tale.” Paul looked at me strangely when he said that, and mouthed the words 'I want one of those'.

While I had no words yet for Paul on the matter of shotgun procurement, I did have words regarding buzzards, and those were what came out next:

“Those things need people able to prepare birds that stink worse than leaky distilleries,” I spat. “Two for two on those things, and I, Sarah, and Esther were spewing until it came up green once we had that thing boned and in soaking in salt water.”

“Yes, I know,” said Esther, as I handed her the knife. She marveled at it, and was about to test the edge with her thumb. I shook my head violently, then showed her the patch of bare skin on my arm where it had 'jumped hair'. I said shakily, “be careful with that knife now, dear – it almost wants a sheath, one that is riveted and sewn, with some way of either wearing it on a sash or in your clothing.”

“Can you?” asked Esther with utmost sincerity. “I'd like two, really – one for this knife, and one for the other one, and both of them so I can pull them out and not slice myself while doing it.”

“Time for the leather tools, or rather, once we finish eating,” I said, as I resumed eating. My stomach now had a bit more room, though within five minutes, I knew I was done for a while. I took my mostly-cleaned plate to the kitchen, scraped the food off into a large tinned pan that seemed an ex-Public House example, and then the plate I had used went into the soaking bucket amid the steam and soap-suds. On the way back to the couch, I asked, “that large pan?”

“That is for the wolves,” said Hans. “Now I think Esther might wish to cut up some of that meat, and then the vegetables we do not eat tonight that she does not put in the soup, and the other things so that plate is good and full, and then once we are done with that buggy and she and Anna are done in there, then I can put that out on the stoop.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Now, Hans, do you hang meat for them when you make a kill?”

“He does, usually,” said Hans – meaning me. “Now my grandfather told me to do that, but I did not listen to him, but now I know better, and any game I shoot from now on, I shall leave them their share.”

“A decent share, Hans,” I said. “They gave me some real help at the third ditch, help I needed, just like Elias and the ravens who fed him while he was alone and in the wilderness, and I'll never forget it.”

“They helped keep the witches off of you, too,” said Sarah, “and I have been helped by them also, which is why I always leave food for them when and if I can.”

“Do you call them?” I asked. It made for wondering anew if Sarah 'grew hair' at times.

“Can you?” asked Sarah. “I have, by the way.”

I wasn't sure – either as to if I could call wolves, or regarding Sarah's enigmatic reply, but I went out to the stoop regardless.

The sun had set, the sky was clear and growing steadily darker, the stars that were already showing were as bright as that of the night of my arrival, and a faint moon was beginning to show on the western horizon. I guessed it was perhaps half an hour after sunset, but not much more; and, as I tried to think about how I might howl, I filled my lungs – and suddenly, I seemed to...

At once, a scream, a roar, a howl, and a yell – all of these at the same time – came forth from my mouth; and as the echoes slowly died out in the distance and the ringing in my ears subsided, I heard, this at first so faint that I wondered if I were hearing with my ears and not some other means, a far distant reply some seconds later.

“One family heard me,” I thought, as a second answer came; then two more such answers, these one right after another; then, finally, seconds further, a clear answer, one as if a vast collective of wolves had gathered themselves together in their families, this a long, mournful-sounding – and yet, at the same time, a joyous chorus.

They knew. Change was going to happen, and they would be a part of both that change and the world to come.

“Such music,” I said softly. “Possibly charge up some batteries and try out that radio tonight.”

“Yes, after everything else is done that needs doing tonight,” said the soft voice. “You can take your turn charging batteries along with the others, but that radio will need some wire for its antenna and then your efforts in tuning it.” Pause, then, “do not be surprised if you don't hear much tonight, as most of the music currently happens during the daytime.”

As the others finished with their meals, however, I wondered where the leather had gotten to, and as I sat at our badly-damaged table surrounded by Sarah and Anna, with Esther glimpsing over my shoulder now and then, I set to work.

I had to ask Esther pointedly as to just what she wished, as the 'sewing kit' had small sealed 'escape-proof' bottles of dye marked in several colors, one of them being 'night-black', but given the tools available in that sewing kit and then what I had in my workbench for leather – those would go in another small satchel marked 'leather', if I could at all take them, the jeweler's anvil included – but still, within fifteen minutes, I was both driving rivets at an ungodly rate, and resolving that that anvil was going, twenty pounds and more that it weighed.

The strange flat-based 'stake' that was in the kit, while it might of weighed a fraction of the jeweler's anvil, was not the same when it came to speed and the desired outcome; and even on the table, my efforts were rewarded with many murmurings of appreciation.

“We're getting a new table tomorrow or the day after, so I do not mind if he damages this one more,” said Anna. “It is not going in the stove, by the way.”

“Where is it going, as if I had to ask?” asked Esther, as I put on the four rivets that made for putting the thing on a 'sash' if she wished to wear it thusly.

“I was told last night that I would not wish to put its wood to the stove, even if I and Hans were careful as to cutting out the shot, as there would be people up here shortly who would wish it for paper,” said Anna, “and they would recover not merely the lead, but any other metal in that thing – and they treat paper like we treat gold, almost.” Anna then looked at the ceiling, and murmured appreciatively at 'Old Sole', hoping wordlessly that we might get a jug or two of good lantern fuel.

As if she had read her mind, Esther said, “we found out about that stuff today.”

“What stuff?” asked Anna.

“What happens if you put that fuel that comes in these mottled blue-and-white jugs into that kind of a lantern,” said Esther. “First, it clears out very quickly, then it lights a good bit easier, and then you must turn it down in a hurry, as it makes those like that one above us think themselves to be those silvery ones.”

As if to cap her remarks, I gently took Esther's knife, slipped it into the 'just-finished' scabbard, and handed it to her. I'd left a part of the sash-loop wide deliberately, so as to go on a sash easier. The knife fitted in the scabbard as if the scabbard had been molded to fit the knife.

“Perfect,” she said quietly, drawing the knife out and then inserting it just as easily. “This is that special leather of Willem's isn't it?”

“It is,” I said. “Now for your other knife, that one with the mottled gray and black blade. Once the leather is cut out, riveted, and you try it for fit and an easy draw, then we can stitch both of them, and I know for a fact that I have at least one stitching awl in my possible bag and I know there is one in that sewing kit.”

“Try two,” said Sarah,” who was digging into the bottom of the sewing kit. “This bag has some of the best tools I have ever seen. About all you need to do is copy those of them that might have less-good steel and then form their handles to suit you.”

“These don't?” I asked.

“They're good enough,” said Sarah. “They're strange to the hands, though.”

“Rubbery, sort of,” I said. “Helps if you have to use them a lot, unless you get wooden handles, carve them carefully to fit your hands, rub them all over with this fine porous stone you get from the side of that volcano, scrape them with spanners, and then rub in about five coats of drying oil. Correct?”

“Yes, those would be better, but these are most definitely not bad,” said Sarah. “Most who work leather for a business would fight you for them, were you not as well known as you are.”

“Then I might have an answer,” I said. “They did not make these to fit certain people, but a lot of different people, so they took the 'average' of a large group of various people's hands and made them so that most people could use them without becoming sore.”

“Precisely correct,” said the soft voice. “Still, Sarah is right – you can make better blades, you can 'handle' most of those tools better, but the question is – will you do enough leather routinely in the months to come to make the matter one that needs that level of attention now?”

“Now?” I asked, as I cut out Esther's 'fighting' scabbard, then punched its rivet-holes. The tinned copper rivets went in rapidly, as did their washers atop the two thicknesses of leather, then with a trio of rapid-fire blows per rivet using my 'leather-rivet-hammer' atop my jeweler's anvil, I drove the nine rivets holding the whole thing together.

“That is how short your burst should be on a machine pistol,” said Sarah knowingly, “though it takes a bit of practice to come close to it. I have a ways to go yet, even if I have gotten them so they sound like the belch of an infant for brevity.” She was speaking to several people, everyone save perhaps Esther. “Now, I must sew leather, so I hope he has his marking punch handy for marking its holes, and then the wheel-punch for lining them up.”

I not only had my former set of two-prong items and the wheeling punch I had made shortly after my return from the trip south, but also a wheeled device that I recognized from where I had come from, this coming from the 'sewing kit': and once I had the right mottled gray-black wheel on the thing, I made a marking along the edges of the two leather pieces with the tool I had made so as to give an even border, then ran the 'marking wheel' along the indentation, pressing hard all the time. I then used the 'four-cornered nail with a handle' – again, one of my tools – to deepen the punched places, and when I handed it off to Sarah, she again amazed me at how fast she could then run the stitching.

“Waxed thread,” I murmured.

“I was waxing that stuff with beeswax while you were running those things there,” she said. “This thick hide wants that nail thing you have, as it makes it a lot faster to run the thread with this awl.”

“Easier to do holsters, then,” I said. “Are you using some of that looted thread?”

“Yes, and it works better than anything I've used yet for this,” said Sarah. “Why, do you have a better type in mind?”

I began waxing up thread from another spool, this of the thread we'd gotten from the Abbey; and when Sarah began using that, she was muttering as if she had had Anna teaching her by mental telepathy. The proof of the matter, though, was her stitching speed: where before she had done ten stitches with that thread we had taken at gunpoint from that witch this morning, she now did twelve to fourteen stitches, all of them tight, locked, and even; and within perhaps eight to ten minutes, Esther had two scabbards, both with riveted sash-loops, both able to be secreted within her clothing with no one the wiser, and both easily – and rapidly – accessible.

Esther tried reaching for both knives, and then Sarah had a suggestion: two buttons per sheath, so as to keep them from moving about in her clothing. A quartet of pokes with hammer and 'nail' per sheath to make the holes, and five minutes later, the matter of buttons was done regarding the sheaths. A slight slash with a small-bladed knife, this one of the multitude of instrument-maker's knives I had done over the previous months, some sewing with Esther's clothing still in place, some brief efforts by Sarah – and now, Esther could 'draw' with such quickness that only I could actually see her reach in and pull out either of her knives. It made me wonder if Deborah wanted such work done for her clothing, especially as I had at least one knife planned especially for her – one that I called facetiously, 'the sting of the hornet'.

“Now, practice doing that as often as you can, at least two or three times a day,” I said to Esther, as I cleaned up my mess and began to reorganize my possible bag to the degree needed for the next likely tasks. There were still a few tools needing to be pocketed, though just how I was going to transport my jeweler's anvil was yet a mystery, even if taking it on the trip was a requisite. “When you can do this...”

Time seemed to come to a stop. My hand, still visible, was holding a knife. I then thought...

My hand vanished, and just as rapidly reappeared, the suppressed pistol in my hand, finger beside the trigger guard, the slide working full-stroke and the safety snapping off with a click, the muzzle of the weapon pointing up toward the ceiling as the knife then clattered on the table. I'd had the pistol out and 'ready' before the knife had hit the table, in fact.

I looked around to see everyone looking at me, their jaws open wide, tongues dragging, even Esther, who was commendably quick with her knives, and Sarah, who was much quicker. Only Deborah could have possibly drawn as quickly, and I now wondered about her. The first person who spoke was Willem.

“I'm glad you're not a mining town thug,” he said quietly. “That ain't no holster, not even close, and I didn't even see your hand move.” Pause, then, “now you got a pistol pointed up at the ceiling, and...”

“It's hot, a round is in the chamber, the safety is off, and my finger is beside the trigger guard,” I said quietly. I then motioned with my head toward the doorway; and as if I had been expecting a small animal to come in, I turned and fired, my left hand clenching my right wrist as I turned, this in a motion too fast for me to follow. The ringing in my ears spoke of a 'hot' round, and I began to clear the weapon once turning once more toward the table, first removing the magazine and then ejecting the loaded round from the chamber. I reinserted it in the magazine, along with another from a small cloth pouch marked 'hot' with ink, then reinserted it into the pistol after verifying visually the chamber was empty.

This place called wells with no water 'dry holes', and hence, I spoke of 'dry chambers'. I'd used the term before coming here, in fact. I pulled the trigger, holding the hammer back to keep it from going home 'hard', then reinserted the magazine before laying the weapon down.

From the door, Hans called out: “Willem, Paul, best get the shovel, as he shot this rat here.”

“When you can do what I just did – draw like I did, then shoot that rat with that kind of speed and hit the animal square in the head as it was trying to come in the door – then all you need do is just practice daily so you can get onto thugs should they show,” I said.

“Yes, and I would like to know how you put a hole in that rat's head like you did,” said Willem from the doorway. Paul, along with Hans, was obviously on the hunt for a shovel. “It's a smaller one, so its head is gone, and a mess is all over the stoop with the rest of it on the stairs.”

“Not sure, really,” I said, then turning to the women, especially Esther. I could not tell, at least conventionally, that she now had two knives hidden in her clothing. “Oh, the meat left in that roasting pan – the part-full one, as well as the one we did not touch?”

“That is for later,” said Esther, “as we have work left to do before we turn in.” Pause. “Now Paul needs to cast some of his bullets so he can get elk and deer when they try to get in the barn to drink his mash, but his mould is a bit balky, and those lead pots down there work better than ours...”

“Pigged lead, but we'd best wait, as those people are about due at the Public House, and Georg is going to be up here in ten minutes, if that.” Pause, this to let what I had said 'sink in'. Paul, Hans, and Willem were interring a rat, and at least Willem had a machine-pistol hanging on a strap about his neck. “We'll want the battery torch, that 'buggy-oil', some rags for wiping, and then that large sheet and some of that rope – commonplace rope if we have it, that stuff from the Abbey otherwise – presuming Georg has not secured some, which he might well have done recently.” Another pause. “Then, Hans needs to put the food out for the wolves, out about fifty paces up the road to the north of the house and about ten paces to the east of the roadside ditch on the east side of the road.”

“Why there?” asked Willem, as he came through the rear door. I was glad he'd gone out with not just a machine pistol, but a spare magazine in one of his pockets.

“Early warning wolf system?” I asked. “As in some witches may well attempt to cross the road while making for the east side later tonight, and those wolf families lying up in the area will bite them into pie-filling?” Pause, then, “until Georg arrives, though – we have knives to grease, some 'protectant' to cook on the stove, and those earlier sheaths to load up with that strange tallow – and we have the tools now such that we all can do it, with battery-charging and pot-stirring for those who get bored of rubbing sheaths.”

Since we had a number of sheaths – over a dozen, if one included Anna's and those of the men – those blackwood sticks got used a great deal by all save myself; and as each sheath went into the oven for a short time – a minute according to that odd 'brass' timepiece I had earlier received – the other sheaths got rubbed on with either blocks of odorless tallow or then tallow followed by a rubbing stick once they'd become 'warm'. This continued all the while I got the battery charger hooked up to one of the 'book' batteries and tested its charging capacities – until I heard, faintly, the clopping of horses' hooves coming north upon 'main street', and I left off cranking the battery charger so as to go to the door, machine pistol on its strap and a 'full' magazine in my pocket, to then see Georg pulling up into our yard.

“My, that is a nice buggy,” I said appreciatively. “Time for the lights and the buggy-oil, people.”

I had my light – turned down, widened beam – going not two minutes later, and while I checked the undercarriage of Georg's buggy while on my knees for the most part, Georg vanished as if made of smoke. I pointed out places to Sarah and Anna that wanted oil on the underside – this thing had a number of such places, each covered by a spring-secured cast-brass cap – but also filling the reservoirs to each wheel. Lifting a wheel with an old farmer's lifter that had somehow shown had Willem spinning a wheel and pronouncing it 'bedded well' before putting the buggy oil in the measuring-cup sized reservoirs...

Once that oil was in and had a chance to flow, however, the wheel in question became eerily silent, and more, it spun faster and longer with the same force applied. I was more than a little astonished at the result of this test, even if only for a second as I once more ducked under the buggy and got busy with my 'greasy' oil rag, wiping down every metal portion I could reach and indicating which places needed oiling to the two women. Sarah was doing the actual oiling as she was smaller and more agile than Anna, while Anna handed her a 'dose' of oil in a strangely-shaped spoon I had never seen before.

“This spoon is one I found in the medicine chest,” said Anna. “It's older than time, and either needs tinning or plating with that strange blue silver stuff – and I'd like the latter if it could be managed, same as a lot of brass or copper things I've found in the last day that have to do with medicine.”

By the time we'd gone over the buggy as thoroughly as could be done short of actually pulling the wheels – they didn't need it, according to every man present save myself, and while I doubted Hans' veracity, I did not doubt Willem nearly as much; the guns did need to roll when there were swine in the area – and, we had put part of a sack, this tied with string and labeled with a tin tag stating the contents as 'corn, oat, and barley mash', Georg showed, him motioning to us down the road with a faint-looking light of an oddly white color. It could only be one type of light I knew of: a mostly-shuttered catalytic lantern, with the coil adjusted for best light.

Willem sprang into the buggy's seat, and I jumped in beside him on the bench-seat, machine pistol at the ready with the others walking beside us as Willem used his fingers gently to 'urge' the horses to a slow walk so as 'to loosen them up', as he whispered to me, his face close to the side of my head.

As we passed the individual houses to our left and right, a vast number of flickering lights, these invariably showing the faint and smoky glow of tallow with an occasional brighter instance showing wax in use, showed numbers of people laboring like mad – in each house that I looked at, no less – to clean their dwellings. The stench of death yet remained potent within the town, and the yards of nearly every house still showed the thick and cloying darkness of dried blood, the walls of houses splattered thickly with gore, the floors and stoops with slow-drying blood so thick it needed shovels to scrape off and then remove, and...

Many of the witches, thinking to emulate Imhotep, had urinated and defecated when and where they had a mind to, mouthing loudly the curses needed to destroy where they were staying once they had left their shelters. It made me understand, finally, that the witches, all of them, hated this town beyond nearly all others upon the continent, and more, they wished to make of it and its fields a desert, a monument to their eternal hatred; and then make this, the very place of their utmost hatred, first upon the entire planet among all others to be deeded in entirety to Brimstone as his 'vouchsafed fiefdom', a place where 'the law of his fiat and gullet' was to be all and everything.

“Blood on the church, too,” I saw, as I noted a complete lack of doors in the place and a vast swarm of bullet-blasted planks amid gone-rotten timbers.

“That place has got wood bracing in it holding it up,” muttered Hans. “It would have fallen down by now otherwise, and it has gotten its share of dried blood and dung in it from witches, that and they used what Maarten stands behind for firewood so as to cook swine in.”

“Then I guess the place needs proper rebuilding,” I said. “When I first came here, it looked decent, but now... No, I do not wonder about that shop!” Here, I pointed at a shop next to the church. “That stinker welcomed the witches here with open arms!”

After they had killed his family one by one while he was tied to a chair, until he finally said yes,” said the soft voice, “and when they had his shop, they then sacrificed him to Brimstone upon his own counter as a sign and a warning to all who thought to defy them.”

“Stinking witches,” I muttered. “Now why didn't I shoot up the shop?”

“You work there, remember?” asked the soft voice. “Now listen.”

Faint, though this was rapidly growing a lot less faint, were the sounds of several saws, these working with a speed I had never heard before in this area. Faint words, a whining tone rewarded with a sudden slap followed by an oath, and then the sawing, planing... It resumed, this with a renewed resolve derived from a serious rebuke.

One of the carpenters had called the one whining 'a stinking son of a witch', one of the strongest oaths one could utter in this area as it now stood.

“Glue,” I muttered, now noticing the familiar smell. “I hope that is not the cheap stuff.”

“No, it is not,” said Hans. “I heard about what happened to that stuff.”

“What?” I asked. Georg might have been a hundred yards off, and so far, every house I had seen had had people laboring inside it as if their lives depended upon it. Two days? Not a chance. They'd be a solid week working in each home every day once they were done in the fields, as those bullets hadn't just destroyed their windows and doors.

They'd played absolute hell with anything that wasn't made right and taken care of so as to endure; now, almost everyone in the town was fully reduced to the total conditions of slavery, and they would be forced to work like slaves so as to climb out of that particular pit. More, it would not take them weeks to accomplish that particular task.

They'd be at it until Harvest Day at the least, unless a large influx of the Valley's people came in to help them – and they would soon be in a position that they could ill afford to say 'no' to such help, as otherwise, they would die from overwork, much as I had nearly killed Gabriel by running him without letup.

It would just take longer than 'a few hours'. Without help of one kind or another, most of the town's people would become fit for the compost pit, their heads added to that multitude – and that would happen within a month at the most.

“It won't be just your house, by the way,” said the soft voice. “All of those now-empty houses will have people from the Valley living in them inside of a week, as they know about this town and how important it is, and more than one of those people is an experienced Makinekalé.”

“Given my druthers, I'd sign him up once he shows me he can work,” I muttered.

“I'll back you to the point of blood on that one, as I've seen how those people can work,” growled Willem. “Now that there is Georg ahead of us, and he must have done as he was told about that lantern, as he's drawn the shutters more as we've gotten closer, and that means his night-eyes are better than most people who aren't actually marked.” Pause, then, “they're better than mine, I believe.”

I could hear and see the carpenter's shop a lot plainer by now, and when we stopped and piled out, I pointed to the place in question, its saws still going without letup save when the use of a plane was involved. Georg turned, then said, his voice surprising for him, “they seem to have learned something of fourth kingdom hours in there, and if I can find someone decent and he can work with you, I'll give him his wages and not speak upon the matter, as people are going to need good metalwork in this town. There isn't a decent door-hinge left save in a few places, and mine are about ready to melted for scrap and my door is fit for firewood, assuming I could burn a stove and not set where I live alight.”

“What?” I gasped.

“I might be able to fix meals, but unless I stick to the very simplest ones, I'm better off eating at the Public House, and that's when I have the time or the strength to cook, which is seldom indeed.” Pause, then, “I hope I can find a good doctor soon, as I'm not sure what is wrong with me, and until recently, Anna could not explain a thing about it, even if Sarah and the jeweler at the house proper told me I was sicker than I looked.”

“L-let's see,” I said, as Georg slipped a long thin 'varnished' box in the back of the buggy and began to tie it securely in place with Paul and Willem helping him. Georg had obviously had lessons from someone who had done freighting. I guessed Tam to be a likely source, with Lukas or Gilbertus a close second, given how often they supposedly came into town. “You've got a large bed, none of this, uh, cover stuff on it, nice thick mattress, a bedside table with a cup and a jug of beer, and, uh, possibly a stand-chest – and it's in the basement. Correct?”

Georg looked at me, and if ever I saw raw fear erupt suddenly upon a man's face, I was seeing it now. He nodded, then returned to his task.

“You tend to, uh, stink up the privy now and then, though it isn't nearly as bad as my tendencies that way,” I said. “Do some compare me to a stinker?”

“Yes, two did,” said Georg. “I put my club into their heads, also, and both burned as witches, with me doing the dousing with distillate and setting them alight – and no one in that place dared to stop me. No one, 'cause they knew I'd go for them if they did, and my club smelled of brains enough for them to have the fear.”

“Good for you,” said Anna. “Now you'll wish to keep plenty of beer handy. We're working on getting good medicines soon, Georg, and I will have a chance to be taught to know that business properly, as my journals were a pack of witch-rubbish and they're gone now.” Anna spat, then said, “good riddance. I've been tossed twice today by fetishes, and each time I get tossed by those smelly things, I hate witches and their nonsense all the more!”

“Perhaps you need one of those, uh, special vests like Esther has, with some, uh, soft armor cloth in it,” I said. “I'm wearing one, but the ones cut for women are, uh, rather nice.” I was looking at Sarah, who was very busy checking knots and adding some small packages to what was already present. “I hope I can get her one of them, that and this really nice hooded gown with long sleeves, so she looks, uh...”

“How would I look in one of those?” asked Sarah, who then spoke to Willem. “Hand me that box, there. It's for the house, if I go by this tag here.”

Very nice, even though you always look nice to me, dear,” I said. “It would look especially, uh, 'fetching'.” I tried to purr when I said that to indicate how lovely she would look in such clothing – and failed miserably.

“What do you mean by that?” retorted Sarah. “I smuggled enough while at the west school, so how would I smuggle more wearing one of those things?”

“I think he means you would be most desirable to him, more so than you already are,” said Esther. “That word does not merely have to do with smuggling, especially when it is used the way he used it.” Pause, this to drink. “I think I know just what it means, in fact.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Sarah.

“I received this strange vest earlier,” she said, “and when I came out, Paul grabbed onto me and it was all I could do to get him to turn loose! He was telling me how beautiful I was, and how much he adored me, and...”

“Exactly so, dear,” I said. “Now you need such a vest tailored to suit your figure, though in your case it's more because I worry about your safety. That cloak I spoke of, though...”

“You meant a cloak?” gasped Sarah.

“Yes, more or less,” I said. “Nice mottled brown color, really soft fabric, wonderful to touch, especially smooth on your arms, warm, fuzzy, comfortable, easy to look after...”

“Then I shall do all I can to get such a thing, as it sounds as if it would be good to wear when doing close work upon journals or studying,” said Sarah. “I wish I had had something like that when I was writing my reports at the west school, as studying takes second only to digging potatoes for effort, and while potatoes are hard work indeed, they do not give head-masher headaches.” Pause, then dryly, “studying often does, and I endured them frequently.”

“Not just the carpenter's shop,” said Georg with a practiced eye. “Looks like everywhere in town has the fourth kingdom's hours for work, and we'll be no exception, even if those two sluggards will most likely go off hunting and...” Georg paused, then said, “they will get their share of fowls, but just you watch.” Here, he was speaking to me. “I'll ride money on them wanting weapons like you have when you return, as neither of theirs works well on deer, much less elk, and there will be a plague of deer in this area. I've been hearing tales from the south about how common those things are there, and if they're like that near the border, then just give this area a month, and you'll see spike-horned bucks running down the street of the town!”

Georg then paused, this to produce a sheet. This he began to spread out, though his difficulties spoke of a degree of clumsiness that I marveled at. With help from Esther, however, as the last of his cargo was stowed and lashed down with a coil of thin rope – stuff like I had, save a bit thicker; it weighed little, held knots better than anything – even when I tied them – and endured well – his cover sheet grew its full thickness, and here, I marveled.

“Six quarters to that thing?” I asked. “All of those grommets?”

“I had to do two batches, and Sarah is glad she had no part of the sewing on that thing,” said Anna. “Look closer at some of those grommets, and you'll see my progress with that stuff.”

I now did so, and feeling the cloth – the stuff felt like a light, tight-woven canvas impregnated with a mix of odorless tallow and beeswax – had me notice its neat hems, then every six inches, a small and rather neat-looking grommet. As I counted these off, I noted some of them were merely a dark and dull brown; others, these more-numerous, were darker brown streaked with a darker-yet color, almost a blue-black; and then a few, these mostly a solid blue-black nonreflective finish with but a few streaks of a lighter color, one tinged with darkish shades of brown. Only then did I notice the cloth itself.

“Mostly two or three colors of green, with blotches of two colors of brown, and the whole washed twice before it had that wax and tallow mix pressed in with coppers. Correct?” I asked.

“It ought to, seeing as how I copied that out of your journal titled about how to act crazy,” said Sarah. “It was a recent entry, one done in ink, and it was a bit neater than your usual, but not like some I've seen.”

“Never used ink, dear,” I said.

“Someone must have traced your writing, then,” said Sarah, “and I think I know who, though how you could write in your sleep is a great mystery.”

“No mystery,” said Anna. “A lot to do, and he needs to do it, so things happen, and he falls asleep and his arms keep working that bullet-greasing thing like a machine.” Pause, then, this to Georg: “you'll wish to use that sheet, as it works well for day or night, and it will do well tonight to hide your important things.”

“I'll need to stay there, as tomorrow, I must sit class for a time,” he said. “I have weapons I can shoot, and given how many witches are after me, I must learn to shoot, learn to shoot well, and keep weapons handy awake or asleep, in case they try for me.”

“Not just that,” I said. There was more.

“Yes, the horses,” said Georg. “I was told they were a lot better than I thought them to be, but still – they will need a lot of hay and mash when I get to the house proper, that and a good roll in the hay, so I'll need to put beer to myself and stop at the places Sarah indicated for watering and feed, and I am going to want one of those special hoof-clearing tools.”

Here, Georg was looking at me. “Three of those gold coins you call monsters for a blessing if you can copy for me what you use on your horse when you get back, as those are so rare witches throw pouches of money when one shows, and few have that much, so those who get them are either blessed by God or just plain lucky, or they get them by inheritance.” Georg then finished by, “that is what I know of them, and you can do things no one else can, so I will...”

Georg paused, then, “I might have this big pie-plate for mash, one that was used by the Public House here for family-pies, but I will want what you use for that business, as I have had people tell me how good those work!”

“No trouble, once I get back,” I said. “I'll need to make a set of four or more of what I used for that trip down south.” A pause, then, “Good. I might not be able to spin those things, but they're a lot easier to form than raising most copperware.” I looked around, noticed a critical matter, then, “you have more of that rope?”

“Yes, three more coils of thin stuff I got from Tam,” said Georg. “It is the best rope I know of. Now, we shall need to rope down that cover, and then I can deliver what is in the back there tomorrow after some sleep and a meal to settle my head.”

Georg, given the help he got from Paul and Willem, needed no more than ten minutes to get situated; and with a pillow for his bottom, a belt of shells for a two-barreled fowling piece, and one of the regular-length guns of that type – Sarah gave him a moment's instruction as to their use, and he was astonished at their simplicity – he was off, his touch most-gentle upon his thin reins, and his team responded with alacrity. I was more than a little surprised when he seemed to vanish from sight not three hundred yards out of town.

“He's taking the fast way, just like I drew on that map,” said Sarah. “He'll be going off-road more than on it, on account of those fires and explosions drying up so much of that ground, and that lantern is good for the next two hours. He has two candles and some matches just in case.”

“Won't he have to go around those big smoking holes and trenches?” I asked.

“Yes, but that will be easy, as many of them still smoke and flame a bit,” said Sarah, “and that's the only bad stretch in the whole place. I marked out the others, as well as the best roads right now if he's inclined to take roads.”

“He's going at a good speed for a postal buggy,” I muttered. “Only yours goes faster, dear.”

“Remember, he's got bronze-shod horses, a buggy that tracks straight and true, as good wheels as can be had, and some better-than-common sleeves with an oil that's better than anything I know of outside of a few places in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. She paused to drink.

“Then, he has almost nothing in that buggy beyond a few boxes, a pair of jugs of beer, a loaf of bread in a bread-bag, a corn knife he got from somewhere, and that fowling piece and a belt of mingled shells, so he'll get to the house inside of two hours unless he runs into trouble.” Pause, then, “he's got a decent compass and a good watch, and that's much of what you navigate a ship by when the sun goes down – and I've done that more than once, and that with almost every sail up on the masts and spars that the thing could carry, and that wind was decent.”

“What?” I asked. “Which ship?”

“Pieter Huygens',” said Sarah. “I took ship on a trip with him up to near those northwest islands, and I helped him with his charts there, so I traced those parts we saw on my maps – and I still have those tracings, same as most of the maps I did in my travels while at the west school.”

“Back inside, and back to work, I guess,” I said.

There was no guess for much of the rest of that evening, even though about twenty minutes after Georg had left I could feel a distinct 'wait'. I wanted Georg well out of range of Waldhuis, as dumping three to five shells down amid them tonight would cause more trouble than any of us could hope for.

“Fifteen minutes to hornet-time,” I said. It was all I could do to not laugh, as for some reason I was picturing these slender foot-long shells as if they were actual hornets that we would be launching downrange, and the bugs would flit about with their infrared vision to cause terror and havoc among the residents of a town that was a key realm of witchdom, one so-well-hid from most people that it did a land-office business in the things that mattered to Brimstone; and therefore, their money was Legion.

“That soon?” asked Anna. “Oh, that's right – they're having more coaches arriving by the minute, and they all have dynamite in them.”

“Fresh arrivals from the second kingdom,” I said. “Seems there's a lot of traffic on the Low Way, at least up as far as the second kingdom house, then there's this one route where it seems some witches have been working long and hard upon so as to carry on with those things cross-country and avoid regular roads and towns so as to get themselves here.”

“Not just locally,” said the soft voice. “That big batch of letters you found goes into substantial detail about ferrying coaches up here in secrecy, and how they have no less than five routes planned, including two that no one knew about until now.”

“And ships coming up from the third to the second kingdom port, as well as some from the fifth,” I said. “Lots of supplies coming up that way. Then, there's the High Way, though that's mostly up to the second kingdom house or a bit south of it, then from that point, there are a bunch of paths and just-cut roads... How many roads did those people make?”

“A fair number over the last few years,” said the soft voice. “They were rolled flat during the first rebuilding of the Swartsburg, and since then, they've had large slave-gangs grading and rolling them flat once more when and where they can, with routing such that caches of feed and water are present every twenty or so miles with freight wagons running day and night so as to keep them replenished.”

“Hence we need...”

“No, you'll need to spend an hour or more with Hendrik tomorrow going through what he's written thus far and then telling him what has happened today, and that after you do your teaching session.” Pause, then, “at least you'll have plenty of 'experienced help' teaching.”

We resumed work on the scabbards. The timer seemed preternaturally slow, with Paul and Willem down in the basement 'running lead' for those huge slugs Paul needed for that one 'rifled musket'. I had the distinct urge to go down there, and when I did, I soon learned the reason why that timer had been running slow to my perception.

“Your mould needs an adjustment,” I said, as I took the thing to bits in a trice after wiping it down with first a damp rag and then an oily one to prevent the still-warm metal of the thing from rusting. “Small brass shim here in the hinge so's to align the two halves of the mould, pin-holes need a bit of honing....”

Back up the stairs, get the tools, hustle back down.

“Clean up the cavity... Stone the backside of this sprue-cutter flat so it cuts the points off clean and sharp, stone the mould surfaces themselves so they close tighter so your bullets don't get these nasty fins, adjust these dowel pins...” My hands were working in a blur, parts here and there, fine three-square files cutting vent grooves from each of the points I saw needing them, adjusting the base plug 'up' about a sixteenth of an inch to shift the slug's balance point a bit forward and increase Paul's accuracy, as well as give a tighter seal when the gun fired...

“Now, let's see how it works,” I said, as I put the mould back together in what seemed seconds. The tongs closed like a pair of shears, good ones like I had made for Sarah, with a slight but audible click. A drop of oil to the pivot, work the tongs a few times to spread it – then I poured a bullet.

“Bad one. Toss it.” I wasted neither time nor words upon such matters when I was in the mood to make things happen.

Poured another. Better, but still bad – lumpy, not filled out, grease-grooves still rounded and sloppy-looking. The mould was heating up and burning off the film of oil remaining inside the cavity.

Two more, each a steady improvement over the last one. Bullet number five...

“That mould has never done better,” spat Willem as I finally dropped a good one – sharp, well-defined, fully filled out, not a wrinkle anywhere on it, and the base flat as a surface-plate. “Now watch him run those things, Paul, and let him teach you.”

I cast bullet after bullet, then with the twelfth one, I got traces of frosting in a few places, indicating the mould was getting too hot. I let Paul cast them, his rate a bit slower than mine, then as the frosting steadily diminished, I said, “two more ingots worth of those slugs, then turn that lamp off and let things cool until you can handle them. Oil the mould entirely when it becomes cool to the touch, wrap it in an oily rag after wiping it down thoroughly, and then bag it up carefully with a tin label so you know what it is if you get scatterbrained or Esther needs to find it for you.” Pause. “I'll be back upstairs if you need me.”

Two minutes more. I could feel Georg: his horses had gotten back into their stride, and now – only Sarah's buggy was faster. This buggy and its team were flying down roads and over sections of fields between woodlots; not even a coach with eight full-odor mules could keep up with it for long, and coaches had neither the suspension nor the construction to endure the jolting such travel would receive. The thought of coaches brought forth a distinctive note, one that indicated our current activities must cease for a time. It came out in my words, for some reason, and my tone, to me at least, was beyond my reckoning.

“Hah,” I spat. It was almost as if I were on the verge of laughter. “Anna, Sarah, the rest of you! Come! It's time to put the hornets to Waldhuis.”

Steps came running up the stairs, and I turned to see Willem. It seemed he had a distinctive nose for artillery, and when we uncovered the mortar in the light of several blazing catalytic lanterns with their frontal shutters opened, I noted that Sarah had a pair of well-padded shells in a cloth satchel. I made sure the gun was set to 'lanyard fire', then shooing everyone back, I carefully removed the safety pin from the shell Sarah handed me, then slid the 'evil green thing' with all eight of its increments down the four foot tube. I dove for the earth, praying that it would behave itself and not turn me into a red mist due to a premature detonation.

Nothing, even as the base of the shell hit the breech of the gun with a muffled clank.

Motioning to Anna, and indicating everyone needed to get inside the bathroom in case we had a bomb instead of a mortar, I had Anna look through the gunsight. Her exclamation was astonishing.

“They've got more coaches up there right now than there were in the Swartsburg!” she spat. “Now where is that string?”

I indicated where it was, and laying down prone with my feet touching the north wall, I indicated Anna needed to do the same. She began to take up slack in the string.

“A little more, dear,” I said. “Pull, keep pulling....”

The sudden blast of sound that erupted was so intense – a long, high-pitched thundering roar – and the fireball so huge and bright-white luminous, jetting taller than the roof of the house when the gun fired – that I screamed, even as the muzzle flash seemed to light up the whole of the night sky and put both Anna and myself back against the north wall in a sitting position from the concussion alone. A swarm of people came out the door of the bathroom, and while the first one was Sarah, the second was Willem.

“Now that was worse than a hot-loaded siege gun,” he said, listening carefully – though how he could manage that through ringing ears was a mystery. “That shell is going a far distance, as I can still hear it screaming.”

“Time for another shell,” I said mechanically as I walked back to the gun and 'relaid it' using the bubble levels to the rear and side of the baseplate. I adjusted the distance one 'click' using the 'elevation' knob, then carefully, again, I dropped the shell after removing the safety pin.

This time, I nearly did not get clear in time, as Anna had been sighting the gun while I was loading it, and once I had dove for the earth, she yanked on the lanyard.

This time, I was flung into the bathroom by the eruption of fire and blast from the gun's muzzle, and there landed atop Willem and Sarah to then bang into the west wall of the place and nearly tip over a laundry tub. Sarah was not terribly happy by my landing upon her, but Willem... Willem?

Willem was having a cannon attack!

“Give me one of them shells,” he yelled, as he pulled the pin near the nose. He'd been watching me, obviously, and he was a cannon-master, not a 'flaming new wretch' like me.

The shell was now 'hot and ready to go'.

“Down it goes,” said Willem. Slither-rasp-clank. “Clear!” he yelled, as he dove for the earth.

I dove for the ground, as did Sarah; and again, Anna fired the gun.

The roar this time was so acute that as I came to my knees from where I had been blown flat and tossed against the outer wall of the bathroom, I went to the gunsight to observe 'the fall of shot'.

I then saw what looked like a massive sea of flames, people black-dressed and otherwise running for their lives – some of them were on fire, in fact – and as I watched in utter fascination, suddenly this one huge 'house' – it was an absolute monstrosity, dark, forbidding, lit by a number of pulsating light sources – suddenly vanished in a titanic flash that blotted out what I saw in a massive maelstrom of fire. I motioned Anna to take a look.

“Oh, my,” said Anna, as she began to gently tweak the azimuth knob toward the 'west', then the knob for range so as to slightly increase it. “There. There's this one big barn, and a coach is coming out of it right now. Willem, a shell!”

The shell slithered down the tube minus its 'safety pin', and again, Anna kept her eye rapt to the gunsight as the base of the shell slowly hit against the breech of the gun. A slight pause, then she ran back to the north wall, lay down facing the gun, found the lanyard laying amid the dust of war, and yanked on that string as the rest of us got free of a gun that thought itself three times its physical size for roar and blast.

The explosion this time sent the shell screaming off in a high and arching trajectory as it flung us about once more; and this time, I heard the screaming, this so high-pitched that I knew the shells hit home with a screech of such high frequency it was far beyond the realm of witch-hearing – it was near-ultrasonic, in fact, and it needed strange ears like mine to discern it plainly. I then had a question.

“Do witches have high-frequency hearing loss?” I asked.

“An early sign, like hypothyroidism,” said the soft voice. “Ever wonder why most witches have what sounds like a deep-pitched 'whiskey voice', even if they don't get into high-test?” The obvious matter, based on experience, was that witches sooner or later drank little else, and that made for a voice like that of Old Shuck's rabid howling.

“Hypothyroidism can cause that,” I said, recalling some of its more-advanced symptoms.

“Only partly,” said the soft voice. “Remember also as how witches act as if they have brass cones glued to their heads, such that they need to learn almost everything new all over again? How you were told it takes them years to relearn nearly everything save, perhaps, how to use a privy appropriately?”

I nodded.

“There's that, also,” said the soft voice. “Another part that happens early due to the embrace of the life of witchdom is a loss of acuteness regarding hearing, hence most witches speak and hear as if they've been running really noisy machinery – like big punch-presses or jackhammers – for fifty years within two weeks of choosing to become witches, and it only gets worse from there over time.”

Pause, then, “once they've made their bones, their hearing is pretty much 'forty dB down' in the three hundred to three thousand cycles range, and 'deep in the mud everywhere else' – so those people at Waldhuis are not hearing anything save when those shells actually explode, and those among them that are bones-holding witches aren't hearing much of anything until they land on Brimstone's dinner plate.”

“One more, or do we want to wait?” I asked, as Anna looked through the gunsight.

“Not tonight,” she said. “If there's much... Oh, a coach just went up, there's another one on fire and its' mules are burning, this big house has caught fire bad, this barn just went up like a powder mill...” She looked at me, then asked in a small voice, “will they have a town left after tonight?”

“Yes, but they are going to be very busy repairing it for quite some time,” I said. “Keep that thing covered... No, let it cool off for a bit, then I'll bring it inside so we can clean it out 'passably'.”

We did not have proper gun-cleaning equipment or chemicals, so makeshifts were in order. I continued as we each took a look at a town that was indeed an example of 'your pretty place is going to hell', this one at a time to see a rapidly-spreading holocaust that looked likely to burn the place to the ground. I felt reminded of a song that spoke of smoke and fire, but I could but recall a few of its words.

We'll pull it down to the larger bits and quick-clean it,” I said, “then do a good cleaning tomorrow at the house proper so as to show people what a mortar is like for its parts – and then we can tell them how they're 'worse than shooting a hot-loaded siege gun for flash and noise'.”

“They are that,” said Sarah. She now took a turn to look at the eyepiece of the gunsight.

“That's Waldhuis?” she gasped. “It looks like... Oh, my! The sun just rose at midnight.

Far in the distance, a huge roiling ball of flame slowly billowed skyward, only winking out as the shockwave rumbled and roared about us. Something – or someone – had just gone 'Boom' in a big way.

“Another three months, then,” I said, as the fireball finally faded out to leave a vast pillar of black smoke yet-arising from a place that was now nearly destroyed. “That's how much longer they're going to be working to get that place back to where it's livable – relatively speaking – again.” A pause. “Figure their harvest is about shot, as they cannot sleep out in the fields, and their equipment is mostly charcoal and ashes.”

However, once back among knife-scabbards and making up 'grease-cakes', I had a distinct impression. Waldhuis was such an important location on the witch-map that there would be masses of slaves marched overland to the place once its fires and explosions had ceased; and then, the thefts of material and manpower would commence in our area.

“Hence we send them a hornet or two now and then, and Anna gets good at causing trouble,” I thought, as I rubbed down another knife sheath.” I then recalled a certain matter: Anna needed a knife-sheath like Esther's, complete as to both concealment and ready use.

But ten minutes later I had one for her, at least cut out and riveted, and as Sarah used the stitching awl, I could tell she wished one like it for her clothing once we were back home. Then again, with Sarah, I wondered: she customarily went about openly armed, unlike Anna, who needed to look 'normal' at least most of the time.

“I guess she gets that Vrijlaand knife for while we're gone,” I thought, as I resumed rubbing deodorized tallow into a just-warmed sheath. “Could someone stir that pot and add another smallish lump of wax?”

“Done,” said Sarah. “I'll fill three of those tins we got from the Abbey with this stuff, and put some on rags in two more, so we have them ready for wiping down our things when it should prove a needed matter.”

Our greasing of sheaths was done but a short while later, and once I had taken the mortar inside and then dismantled it into the pieces needed for transport, we began 'cleaning' the thing. The first trouble was not having appropriate tools, but Hans proved to have a stick, which he brought up from where he had been going through his medicines. Anna was now down helping him once more, and before she went down, she stayed for a short time to watch me 'clean' a mortar-gun. Her yell to Willem startled me, but his presence proved invaluable.

“Easiest gun to clean I ever saw, even if it tosses you worse than a hot-loaded gun shooting at swine.” Pause, then to me, “so how you like cannons?”

Willem would ask that question. After all, he fired them regularly.

“Uh, not sure,” I said. “My ears are ringing like chimes, I got tossed nearly every shot, and the fireball that thing spat when it fired was so huge I thought it would set fire to the house.”

“Now that ain't near like a gun I ever fired,” said Willem, meaning the horrendous flare spewing out of the mouth of a 'small' gun that thought itself something closer to one of those big '120mm' mortars. It was definitely in the 'giant-destroyer' category as far as I was concerned, and that came out of my mouth but a second later.

“They're worse?” I asked. 'Shooting of the highest caliber' was not fun, and one wished a slit-trench with sandbags piled five-thick with a tube snaked through for the lanyard. It sounded like a very good idea, even as to digging a proper 'gun-pit' and storing the bagged 'hornets' like Sarah had done. About all I could do to improve matters was perhaps to use a thicker species of cloth and reinforce it in key places with treated leather.

“No, not unless I got onto some hot powder that Esther said was different,” said Willem. “It was bad, then, and it stretched the bore a whole line, but it got onto that pig. Boy, did it ever get onto that pig. I cut a notch on my stick that day, and that swine tumbled and rolled when that shot hit it. Never moved a bit after until it was dragged off to be buried.”

As if to answer Willem, I heard a bloodcurdling snarl, then a chorus of screams that died out over the course of seconds.

“What was that?” he asked. “We got witches?”

“I think the wolves 'got onto' them,” said Sarah. “I doubt we will have any of those stinkers try much in Roos tonight, actually, and I'm most glad.”

“Why, too much witches?”

“There is that, but we still have much work, and want an early start tomorrow, and the last three days have worn the two of us out, and tomorrow, we must do as we are able, both of us, as Dennis will not be the only one closeted with Hendrik. I will be also, and we both will answer many questions.”

That seemed a cap to our labors: and over the next two hours by the timer, I heard three more wolf attacks, several random sprays of gunfire into the night by Hans, who swore the first time he'd gotten onto a party of witches and the third time got tossed back into the kitchen when he hit the bomb the witches were carrying so as to blow us up; we filled several tins topping full of that putty-like 'grease'; I, with Willem's coaching, cleaned the mortar passably and oiled the piece inside and out before packing it and its gunsight away; and finally, we all cleaned and 'greased' every firearm and knife we had.

Paul finished his casting of his huge slugs, and a donated bullet-tin was given him to house them, as well as a tin of black-grease. It seemed Paul commonly smeared the stuff onto his slugs in the process of loading them, but since my lubricator could not cope with a slug as large as his, I mentioned making one for such huge bullets upon our return.

I could feel something going on about that nonsense, as not only would Paul want huge slugs of hard lead greased thoroughly with black-grease and sized precisely for his new irate-elk-gun.

There would be slugs fit for roers, also, these stuffed into cartridges of thick brass nearly five inches long, and most needed then.

During altered time, anything was possible, and we might well need to make a few double-barreled roers that loaded from the breach, as well as a number of 'double-eight breach-loading elephant guns'.

I knew already I was not going to fire them. I already had an elephant gun, and it killed at both ends, even with its usual load – and I resolved to never again dump a pig-load unless I needed to.

We greased up Paul's tools, wrapped and bagged them; doused any heating lamps; those with that special fuel were emptied into those brass canteens, and from the part-full looted bottles, we filled every such 'canteen' we had, wrapped them in rags suffused with that wax-and-torment-grease material, and then the whole mess each canteen then proffered to the eyes was tied securely in place by Paul using some of Sarah's looted 'strong-thread'. I thought to ask as to the source of the rags.

“Old diapers, mostly,” said Anna. “I buy them from mothers who wear them out, clean them well, then on our yearly trip south, I sell them in the fourth kingdom. We usually make our eating money for the trip there and back by selling them to rag-merchants down there, if not for food in that town itself.”

“That place has expensive food unless you shoot it and cook it yourself,” said Sarah, as she 'greased' her sword with an 'oil-rag' folded into quarters. “We'll rub these things down some tomorrow, yawn, as tonight, we must get ourselves ready for bed.”

“Not yet, dear,” I said, fighting back a yawn myself. Beer and a dose helped a little, but I knew, it would soon be time regardless. “Has someone been turning that generator over there?”

“Yes, some,” said Esther. “Why, would it help us wake up?”

It proved to do precisely that, and now we all took turns on the thing, even Paul and Willem, along with Hans, who realized that sorting out his bad medicines would easily take a week's steady labor, and doing so adequately presumed he could get help of a useful nature. Anna might do so, provided she didn't get tossed overmuch by fetishes, but I knew she'd get something on the matter shortly.

Getting 'tossed' was part of the Job, and if one dealt with fetishes, one would get tossed.

As I began to dismantle the radio partly so as to learn what I needed to use it – how were the filaments connected, which connector went to which voltage, which of the four binding posts was at 'earth' potential – I heard faint and stealthy steps, steps that were so unlike those of a witch that all I could think of was a wild animal. Suddenly, three rapid taps followed by a soft knock came from the door, and while I was about to get up, Anna beat me to the door. She opened it, and to my utter astonishment, no less than three travel-worn individuals, all of them carrying patched and worn sacks with badly-done leather straps over their shoulders, stood in a huddled and shivering group upon our stoop.

“You three are hungry, I'll wager,” said Esther, who motioned to them to come inside as Anna backed away in what might have been awe. “Set down on the couch there, and we'll have food directly.”

“So that was why we got that huge bird,” I thought. “Guests.” I then thought to ask who they were.

Tomás, Misaheél, and Raemón,” they said one a time, between bites of food. They were eating as if starved. “Two more come, but they have a donkey and a cart, and the cart is a poor one, so it needs much fat in its wheels, and they must be pulled when they make noise, as noise is bad in this area and noise means warm lead will come our way quickly.”

“Tallow works poorly,” said Sarah, “but it is probably a matter of tallow or nothing. Cé?”

“Cé,” said Tomás. “For us, that is so. We hope to do better in this town, as two of us are workers of wood and Misaheél was an Instruectoré in languages, but he does decently with wood if someone who knows its working is there should he have trouble.” A sniff, then, “now who casts lead in here? I hope for the sake of Déo that they have plenty of air to breath, as doing so will poison them otherwise, and there are no Brujé this side of the Red Mountains, save a very few who know but little.”

“We ran a lot of bullets today,” said Anna, “and I know about the air, so I put five large candles in the fume hood to get some airflow. I hope it was enough.”

“You want an Elektrikalé to run a motor with a fan if you are going to do much lead in a room,” said Misaheél. “I did not just teach languages, but much else, even if most of those I taught were children about to go on to higher schools, most of those places being weeks to the north by donkey.”

“You did?” said Sarah with wonder. “How old...”

“From six summers until sixteen,” he said, “and one can work a trade then, though in that place, one needs to teach much more than merely languages.” He sniffed again, and said, “Ai! I smell guns and powder, and I taught them too!”

“Like this?” asked Esther, as she removed one empty plate and put down another full one in its place. These people had been living on short commons for weeks. “This is a machine-pistol.”

“Cé, much like that, only they did not fold as that one does, they were longer in the barrel, and they could kill at a good distance if one practiced much and was a good shot.” Pause, then, “I was driven off when the Cabroni took my town and found out I had six toes on both of my feet instead of the five that most people have, and I used two entire bags of cârtuchæ shooting them.”

“He is an easy one to teach,” said Tomás. “What it took me a year to learn, it might take him a week to become nearly as good, and while we had cârtuchæ for his weapon, he shot our game. We had to sell that weapon when we could get no more of the cârtuchæ, and the one buying it gave us perhaps a tenth of its worth.”

“When was that?” I asked.

“Time is strange now, because it is the time, that when this evil place will bow its head to Déo and give him an accounting,” said Misaheél. “It is so bad in most places I dare not speak my name aloud, as if Cabroni hear it, they would hunt me down like a ground-rat with the mouth-foam, and kill me like such a rat.”

“Do you recognize that man with the long hair?” asked Esther gently, as she returned with another full plate of food. These people were starving.

“Is he of the Mule's Totem?” asked Tomás. His command of our language was easily the best of the three, as he spoke in the Valley's language to the others. More, I had the impression that Misaheél was but a few weeks out of the Valley, and by the grace of God alone he had made it this far north unaided, save by his wits, his rifle, and whatever else he happened to have carried out with him.

He needed to move, move quickly, move quietly, move mostly at night, and that meant a light load and swift silent steps, each one chosen carefully, and running from rock to rock in the darkness of night. After all, he had taught this precise matter for over a decade; and now, it was his test. He'd passed, as now, he was here – though doing so had told upon him in ways that I had trouble discerning.

“No, but he could pass for one of those people sometimes,” said Sarah, “or so I was told. His hair grew a lot longer recently, and it hides quite a bit, and when we sail day after tomorrow, then in the third port...”

“They will respect him there,” said Tomás. “I and Raemón got out of the bottom of the country, as it was the easiest way to escape from El Jefe, as he was one of them who fumé and our settlement was filled with whites.”

This a pause to eat and drink. These people, indeed, were starving. Tomás then resumed.

“We could earn money in this area that is but a week's long walking from the west side of the Red mountains, so we stayed there until we heard that the rains had stopped up here. By then, we had purses with coins, clothes, and our bags, and we dressed as if we were students, so people left us alone for the most part until we came much of the way north. Then, we had to hide ourselves much, until finally it was so bad we crossed the wide black road and went up into the mountains, and there, we found this northbound trail that many use to come north when they escape from El Vallyé. We were out of food for two days when suddenly Misaheél shows, and he shoots this brown furry thing and we three had our first meal in days.”

“Uh, you two had knives?” I asked.

“Yes, small ones, decent for their edges, but no way to sharpen them,” said Tomás. “Misaheél had a three-stone, along with his knife, and then, one day, he showed us what he had on his underclothing, this thing that he had gotten where he had come from, and how he was hoping to find someone he knew.” Pause, then, “she would be called Anna in this language, and she is a Kemikalé non fierto.”

“I think I know who she is,” said Anna, “and as for my name, I am called Anna also.” Pause, then, “she is called Annistae, is she not?”

“Tall, like you for shape, brown hair, burns, many scars from battles?” asked Misaheél – who then showed his lower leg. Two obvious bullet scars showed there.

“Yes,” said Anna, “and I saw many of those scars that she has. I have some of my own, in fact.” Pause, then, “if you wish to see scars, though, then you'll wish to look at that man with the long hair.”

“Assuming you could get him to undress enough,” said Esther. “He does not like to be seen unclothed, I'm the same way, and that short lady with the dark hair is just like him that way – and she's got her scars from fighting those stinkers you call Cabroni.” Pause, then, “they're called witches up here.”

As if to unburden himself, Misaheél wormed something out of his clothing, and then showed it to me as I came closer. I nearly gasped in shock.

“Y-you-you're an 'Espeirto Soldaté'” I exclaimed. “The black rooster?”

“Cé,” he said. “You?”

“I'm not sure what I am,” I said. “First, today I and that short dark-haired lady go and fetch her cousin and Annistæ out of a place so bad I can only call it a witch-hole, and it blows up after we send it on the road to hell. We get them in a safe place, then we go and take this one place that Sarah's had trouble with for time out of mind, and then it goes to hell and takes a good chunk of town with it and wrecks Grussmaan's chemistry so bad they'll never earn a guilder again, and from there, then we go across country to this one well-hid town... And then – then it got bad.”

“How is this bad?” asked Tomás – who then saw the generator. Hans was cranking it vigorously, so much so that when I saw the four book-batteries, I knew that the one he was working on was the last one we'd need to get good reception from that radio. More importantly, their capacity was such that with a number of pot-batteries, we could listen intermittently on the thing for weeks with their current level of charge, given the thing's modest current draw. 'Bee-Plus' current draw only amounted to perhaps twenty milliamperes at the most. A-plus was perhaps three hundred milliamperes – again, at the most.

“You have not fought Cabroni much, Tomás,” said Misaheél, who then spoke to me directly, much as if I could teach him and not the other way around. “Continue.”

“First, there were these spies, and they were rigged with explosives,” I said. “You could not see them, you had to either watch for moving branches or find them by 'feeling', and I got the first one and got tossed good when he exploded. Then, there were more of them showing as we went about our business, until finally we had to take their house, and that place had so many of those stinky blue-suited thugs that we had to club and shoot them for what seemed like hours, and I was covered with mess and the entire floor was slippery with blood and mess, and there were pools of blood in places, and bodies and body parts everywhere, and...”

“Now that is trouble,” said Misaheél. “Those you spoke of sound like these people who like drink to the south of our settlements, and sometimes, we must go into their towns and kill them, then set their places alight, and it is very easy to get hurt or killed doing so.”

“Not like these people were,” said Sarah. “It's a big mining town if it's got two hundred people there on a given night, but there had to be three times that many in that one room at the lowest part...” Pause, then, “it seemed like that room was big at first, but it was really full of three-high beds, these people would hide under them waiting until they could try for you, they would come out of nowhere, and then you'd have to shoot them right then and hit them solid, or they'd break your leg faster than a ground-rat!”

“One did,” I said. “I had to pray for her right then, but even with a broken leg, she got that thug but good – sticking him with her knife, crawling up his body, then cutting off his head, and...”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. It sounded like she had a very bad taste in her mouth. “Now I'm about due for pedaling that thing, and you'd best get to that strange box, and then I hope you can get music, as we could do with it for our packing tonight, what of it we can or should do.”

The three men proved uncommonly helpful, as while they were but slightly taller than Sarah, they were quick – quick as to movement, and quick as to thought – wiry, and stronger than they looked, and while I made notes about the radio – all four filaments in parallel, surprisingly, which meant a pot-battery was good for perhaps ten hours if used by itself, or so I initially thought.

“Longer than that,” said the soft voice, who implied they were good for quite a bit longer. I resolved to use two in parallel, just in case. Too-rapid current drain could wipe out a cell quicker than otherwise. “Now before you retire, you'll want to add a bit of lubricant to each generator so as to top them up, then wipe each one down with those 'greasy' rags and pack them away one to a bag, with those clubs washed well with aquavit and each wrapped well with rags. Figure on repacking everything tomorrow just the same, as you'll wish to wrap those things well with things like towels and a number of flails.”

“Esther,” I said, as I reassembled the radio. Its layout was commendably neat, with two other sets of band-coils present in its case – one group for a lower frequency, and the other set of four for a higher one. “Some important matters you need to know now, as we might have trouble tomorrow on the way to the house proper and you'll need to know this if we do.” Pause while I fitted the last screws, then found a small package under the earphone. It was the wires needed to hook the radio up to its batteries. Esther was paying rapt attention to what I was doing, much as if it were the most important matter of the entire day.

I turned the filament rheostat all the way down, the same for regeneration, then with the switch off, I hooked up the five book batteries and a pair of pot batteries in parallel to the filament connection. I plugged in the earphone, attached a length of wire that I hung from the lantern holder overhead, and then, with trepidation, flipped first the filament switch and then the 'Bee-Plus' switch.

Just like with my smallest radio at home – filament power, then 'H.T'. It usually came up 'instantly'.

“Nothing,” I noted, as I began to slowly advance the filament power. A faint glow began to show in each of the four tubes, and then, I advanced the regeneration knob. It worked surprisingly smoothly.

I could feel the set 'coming to life', then a faint squeal came in my earphones. I backed off the regeneration to the point where the squeal just went away, turned up the audio gain – and began tuning. Within less than thirty seconds, a faint voice signal began to come in, and I began to adjust the various controls to get this signal 'louder'.

I had but little luck with tuning the RF stage's capacitors, at least until suddenly something happened and the signal came through loud enough that I had to back off the audio gain to keep the earpiece from causing pain in my ears.

“Must be skip coming in,” I thought, as I listened carefully. Esther was watching every move I made, and in a whisper, asked, “what is it?”

“Not sure yet, but I do have a signal,” I said. “Voice, sounds like the person speaking is well-beyond trashed...” Suddenly I knew. “This person sounds like one of those blue-suited functionaries, only he's been drinking forty-chain for a year, if I go by his voice. Really harsh-sounding, raspy, got this bad buzz in his transmitter, and he's talking such nonsense.... No, wait. He's calling for someone named 'E-One-Zero-Six-Nine-A-Four-Three', and he's wondering just where this fellow is. I can tell he's speaking of a person, though no person is named that unless....”

The connection erupted like a volcano, a song I had heard long ago as a child. I then spoke of what I recalled: “'secret agent man, secret agent man – they've given you a number, and they've taken away your name' – so this is a spy of some kind.”

I had whispered all of this, as I was still listening to the signal. Perhaps they'd kicked-in a linear amplifier to boost their output.

“Precisely, and Paul blowing him up is causing no end of trouble for that boat, much the same as you dealing with the other two,” said the soft voice. “Now, note that place on all the dials in your ledger, as you'll want to listen in that region during the trip.”

I did so, noting each dial setting in turn – the tuning dials tracked within one to two degrees; I had expected worse – then I was told, “now for music, that takes some looking, especially at this hour. Try 'forty' on those dials, not 'seventy-nine', and tune around slow about ten divisions to each side using the detector tuning dial and peak the signal with the others. You might find someone practicing.”

I did so, and found that I needed to not merely adjust the main tuning, I needed to adjust all of the tuning dials. Thankfully, I'd marked down the settings for everything regarding that 'ship to shore' frequency, but as I began 'diddling', I heard the strangest noise imaginable.

Two loud – and somewhat clumsy – booming rumbles, each sounding like a cannon shot, then a second latter, two much-higher pitched 'twangs'. This 'test-signal' repeated ad-nauseum, and when I turned once more, I not only had Esther watching me, but also Misaheél. He was showing Esther how to dismantle her weapons one at a time, and by the way he was doing it, even though the weapons were not familiar to him, he understood enough that he was doing a surprisingly good job of demonstrating what and why she needed to look after these pieces of machinery. I resolved to take him tomorrow, even if I had to ride him ahead of me on Jaak.

I thought to ask him to listen on the radio, which he did eagerly, while I took over showing Esther the salient matters regarding pistols, machine pistols, and especially, what amounted to a sniper's rifle. I had just barely started on the last weapon when Misaheél smiled as if in total bliss. He motioned to me, then put the earphones on my head.

The sound I heard was of one of those strange banjos I had heard on a few occasions, but unlike those people – who, to a man, could play fairly well as far as I knew – this man was of another league entirely. Not only could he play the thing like he was 'on fire', but his searing tone, his controlled use of feedback, and then occasional yells and singing – it seemed to transport me into a realm utterly unlike that present Inferno where powder burned and gunshot victims screamed.

Move over, Rover, and let Yahweh take over,” I muttered. “I just wish I could play something...”

“If you play,” said the soft voice, “I would expect some very strange things to happen, and that's if you play an acoustic instrument – like what Anna has, or what Hans has hidden away in their closet.” Pause. “However... If you get into an electric instrument, like what you're hearing on that radio – anything can happen. Anything at all.” Another pause, then something I'd never heard the soft voice say, and hoped I would never hear him say again: “move over, Rover, and let Dennis take over.”

“Oh, no,” I said, giving up the earphones to Misaheél – who again seemed enraptured. A moment later, and he said, “now you have heard him. That was Roberto hijé Ion, and no one is as good, if you speak of those not in old tales.” Pause, this to look at me penetratingly. “I think you might learn to play well, if you get yourself something that suits you. You once had one, non?”

“I did, I made it myself, I had an expert tell me it was a good one when he set it up so it was right, but I could never play it,” I said softly, as I continued helping Esther. She was learning quickly just what needed to be done to keep her weapons running if the witches came a-gunning sometime tonight, and as I went to the smaller pistol and its suppressor, I mentioned its needing careful cleaning each and every time it was used. I then went into the needed level of detail, that effort that was needed to stay alive while living in 'Infärnu'.

“Do this every morning when you get up, and every evening before you go to bed,” I said, “and sleep with your weapons ready to hand, in case the witches try for us at night or while you are resting.” Here, I looked at the bullet-scarred walls, these still streaked with lead and pocked with hundreds of bullet holes. “Remember the Alamo?” I spat. “Total complete rubbish! This was the stinking Alamo, and those accursed witches will keep on trying to kill us until either we're all dead or they're all where they belong and the Curse is broken entirely.”

“They'll come from elsewhere then, and you'll have to take war unto the enemy upon other worlds,” said the soft voice. “There's a very cogent reason this world is looked upon so closely by others, and then why it has so much influence on such a large area... You'll learn that inside of a month.”

“Which means the whole planet must more or less do as I was speaking of for years, if not centuries or even unto the end of time, and we must and will go to war with anyone and anywhere until it becomes well known that this place will eat you for dinner if we find reason to think you're trouble!” I spat.

“Much more than merely well-known,” said the soft voice. “You'll need to clear out a fair-sized portion of the area within five hundred to a thousand light-years before those who wish to cause trouble decide this planet is not worth bothering with, and that will be because all of those planets will be dust, and all life on them in hell, which is where those fools belong.”

“Hence we must do what I said, dear,” I repeated. “Always clean your weapons, even if you only fire them once, and if you happen to be in witch-country...”

“It seems this place will be that for a while,” said Esther dryly. “Breaking the Curse entirely will just draw more witches.”

“So I suspect, based on what I just heard,” I said. “Good that you understood that part.”

In speaking as I did, I was now sounding more than a little like 'the drill instructor from Hell' as to attitude, if not volume or tone. My voice then grew a certain degree of volume. Misaheél had turned off the radio, and was listening raptly, as were the other two men who had just put away their plates in the soaking bucket.

“The first thing you do in the morning, before you eat a bite of food or do anything else that isn't a dire emergency like an urgent call to visit the privy, is a quick-clean of your weapons,” I said. “You then verify their functioning, and you do the exact same thing when you bed down – and you sleep with your rifle by your side, your hand touching it, your pistol holstered and with a loaded magazine and dry chamber in your underclothing, and then traps are set about your area to let you know when and if they come. Do you-all understand? You sleep with your weapons in a loaded and ready-to-fight state. Got it?”

I was more than a little surprised to hear nothing, much less the screamed-at-the-top-of-one's-lungs tone of SIR-YES-SIR!!!.

Finally, after what seemed a moment of thought, Esther said, “you're right, and nothing less will do for a long time. You might think it rubbish to sleep with your weapons by your side in your bed, but didn't you do that very thing during that trip to the south and back, and didn't it keep the group from trouble more than once, if Lukas told the truth?” Pause, then, “even to the point of wearing your sword while sleeping?”

I nodded, this now crestfallen. I had been beaten by my own speech, and it was time for my nose to bruise itself upon the stone flags of my room as I wept in repentance before God.

“No, do not have that feeling,” said Esther. “You said what you did for a very good reason, and I can tell what it is if I look around this room here.” Here, she pointed at the lead streaks and bullet holes. “There were a mass of witches, they tried to take this house, and only two brave defenders stopped them from doing so, and then you had to go and more or less wipe out every stinking one of those wretches with first this one gun, and then with a club!”

“Ai, that is more than one of the Mule's people would do,” said Misaheél. “He speaks truth, and good truth, and if you give me a weapon, I will hold it close to me where I sleep. Now is there a weapon I may hold? One like that short one there, as it is much like what I taught people to shoot?”

I fetched him a machine pistol, breaking the weapon down and cleaning it myself, now wondering where everyone else had gone to, until suddenly, everyone other than myself and Esther began trouping up the stairs, Sarah in the lead with the titanium lantern.

“We're done down there, and I heard everything you said,” said Sarah. “It makes total sense, and we need to do it here, and will need to do it elsewhere, and we'll absolutely need to do it overseas and in that third kingdom port, so we'd best get ourselves used to it.” Pause, then, “I know enough about that port to know we'll need to do it, and yes, I do 'get it'.”

“You know this is a deadly serious matter, don't you?” I asked.

“I do,” said Sarah grimly. “Before today, I might have talked as if I meant it, but after dealing with all of those smelly functionaries and those spies and that witch-hole, and how you nearly blew up Grussmaan's...”

“Ah, that is good, then,” said Hans, who was 'wearing' a machine pistol, and had one of those clockwork marvels in his pocket. “I have my stuff, if those smelly thugs come, and I think I want one of those things like a Harvest Day squib, in case they come in a big mess like they did for Anna. I can throw it out of the top window and cause them trouble then.”

“Best be careful if you do that,” said Sarah ominously. “Those things think themselves to be seven sticks of that dynamite that gives you nightmares, and I've seen what they do, and the same for metal pears.”

“Cé, such things need to be tossed well, lest you eat their metal,” said Misaheél. “If I can, I will go to this place tomorrow and help with teaching, as I have done that much, and my two friends here tell me they know the other two woodworkers that are coming to live here.”

“Not just them,” said Raemón. “I know of two whole households that are coming down the river tonight, and they will beach their craft and head west by needle until they hit that large black road, then follow it north to this town, and that is for them. There are others, as this town has many empty homes and much work, and there is a large field of dead Cabroni that says what people here feel about them, so they will not hate us as much as elsewhere.”

“Not while I'm here they won't,” I spat. “First one who insults you or takes advantage of you in any way, let me know. He'll taste my club and then my sword, and his head will join the others on the poles and his body will rot to make fertilizer for the cornfields. Understand?”

They did, and so did everyone else. I was now truly sounding like 'The Drill Instructor from Hell' – hell as being defined as 'some place that made Berky at its very worst seem like a feeble joke'. I had more to say, however.

“We are dealing with a vicious enemy, one who knows no rules,” I said. “Cabroni know but one rule, and that can be said as 'I want it, I am taking it now, and I will kill anyone who stands in my way.' Those people, you've all seen them, and probably have either been hurt by them or killed them. I know I have, and that for both being hurt and killing them – and I don't bother with notch-sticks.”

Here, a pause to drink. This was a drying business, and one that needed ample liquid. I resumed when I had gotten half the cup down.

“They will try for us when and if they think they have any chance at all,” I said, “and sometimes, they'll not give two cares about anything other than just trying to kill us, no matter what their cost might be in lives or materiel. Hence we must go after those stinkers whenever and however we possibly can.”

“Also, we must maintain a total defensive posture during every hour of the night, and when we are awake, whatever the time and wherever the place, we must be prepared to 'make war, and that to the knife and beyond,' and from that place unto...”

Here, I needed to pause. There was something important to say, something so important that I put my left hand upon the table to steady myself, much as if I were to read once more the whole of the sixth chapter of Ezekiel and make the mountains echo as they were cleansed of evil. I then spoke.

We shall enter that especial realm of 'kill everything

that lives and burn the whole of what remains',

and then make that land a desert and call it peace –

that desert littered with the smoldering pieces of

those that had named themselves enemy by their

attitudes, behaviors, and even their way of thinking.”

Finally, I had some concluding remarks: “And as one thinks in his heart, so is he.” Pause, then, “That last line is straight out of the book, and it explains why so many turn witch and embrace evil.” I paused again, then said, “Now, I could use a bath, then a light snack, a dose, and then I have some maps I need to wipe, and a lot of other things...”

Everything seemed to happen at once, and I, Sarah, Esther, and Anna had to order matters among both the other men and our helpers. It soon operated like an assembly line: food, weapons-checking – every machine-pistol magazine I touched 'changed' upon the instant, and if I checked over a machine pistol to ensure it was cleaned properly, it changed also into a weapon like mine – bathing, fresh clothing – that bin had either grown in size, or that clothing packed down in such a diabolically compact fashion that one could slip three changes of shirts and underpants into one's front pocket and have room to spare – nightgowns of a sort; dosing with sundry tinctures, as well as a pinch of that one crystalline substance that was this world's equivalent of quinine; and then, the selection of beds. I had my usual, but what I took up there needed three trips due to my aching knees – and over half of what I took was ordnance, including stuffing my vest with grenades, firebombs, and training aides. Finally, my last trip downstairs, this to get a cup of beer and sit at the bullet-scarred table, my map-ledgers in hand, and without thinking, as I paged through them, I wiped each page slowly with either my right or my left hand, watching the changes happen before my eyes and microfilm sprouting in small half-inch square spots on each page as I filled page after page in each of the two slim ledgers. It needed two cups of beer, a visit to the privy, and another dose before I had finished, but as I put the ledgers in a small zippered waterproof bag, I wondered, this act one long and hard.

Would this be enough?

I then felt in my bed-clothing's pocket, and found another silvery container, this having one of those red 'memory devices'. I glanced at this, pocketing it once more, then thought, “if they can't find it in those ledgers or on this thing, they can always read my mind and learn everything they might wish to know.”

I was about to go to bed when I suddenly recalled a matter: I needed to plan an itinerary for the morrow, mostly as to what we would do and when and in what order: and then, the horses...

“The horses?” I shouted.

“They are in the barn,” said Hans' sleepy voice. “Now, we have our things, and are getting our jugs for our rooms, so when you have your list done, you can take it upstairs and sleep upon it. I would do that soon, as tomorrow, we will be leaving earlier than we did yesterday, and you are very tired. Even I can see that now.”

“Hans seems to be making a lot of sense, yawn,” I thought, as I slowly wobbled my way up the stairs, the small brass clipboard in my hand, my rifle shouldered on its strap, machine pistol in my hand, each knee hurting less with each step due to the effects of the tincture. It was, indeed, time for bed; and I needed my bed.

No, I was in love with my bed, and I wanted it worse than anything save a world without a single witch left to cause me and those entrusted to me grief. I wasn't sure if I fell asleep before I lay down or after, I was so tired, and I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, one where no noises came to trouble nor witches bothered to torment, and the dark goggles covering my eyes giving relief from the brightness of a noonday moon.