Getting packed, all right.

Setting out to find such a room took time and effort, and while the others 'fanned out', I and Sarah worked on sewing up scabbards for knives and swords. We now had to make one for Gabriel, his such that he could either wear the thing on his belt or concealed beneath his 'burn-clothing', and while Sarah spent a certain amount of time sewing up the scabbards, and I did some time on riveting up the riveted portions of Gabriel's scabbard, we both spent time altering that one burn-garment she'd somehow 'requisitioned'. I had some odd ideas as to how to cut the thing, chiefly as allowing extra room in the shoulders and waist.

“What would that do?” asked Sarah. “It will not fit him as well.”

“No, it won't,” I said. “It will also reduce its interference with his free movement, allow him to hide a number of things on his person and reach them quickly, and then also permit him to run readily – and he will need to do all of those things in that port. That's going to be his second baptism of fire, as the witches they have down there know what he looks like and they know about that price on his head. He'll turn into a 'gunfighter' for certain before we get done there.” Pause, then, “I know just what to call him.”

“Yes, and what would that be?” said Hans.

“I thought you were to go after lead?” I asked. I thusly had had not a chance to yet speak of 'the man with no name'. That would, I suspect, become a title he earned, as that was a name to conjure with across the sea. More than one 'monster' had worn it, in fact, and those individuals had high prices put upon their heads by the witches: as they were as hard to catch as putting smoke in a narrow-necked spirit-bottle, tended to show up in places the witches never expected to see, displayed suicidal bravery and courage – and then cut a swathe through any and all units sent against them as they returned with whatever they were sent to grab.

More, they of that 'battle-moniker' usually did that particular bit of nonsense multiple times per tour while in a given portion of the battle-zone, and their dress was such that one might well think them to match how Gabriel would look in battle-dress, that is a hooded long-sleeved cloak, trousers, short-sleeved shirt, and 'exercise-clothing' for underwear. He'd wear that burn-clothing until we left the sailing craft behind, where it would then be packed away in one of our bags of gear as both muffling and shielding, and something a bit more suitable put on in its place.

“Yes, and I just got back with some, too,” said Hans. “Four bricks is as much as my buggy can stand, or so Lukas told me and the others, but that with just me in it otherwise makes for fast traveling, and the horses are rolling in the hay while the people working here are unloading that stuff.” Pause, then, “only about four of all of those people you thumped with those two dead legs are still working on the first floor's mess, and they're all doing good work now.”

“The rest of them turned witch, I suspect,” said Sarah, “and Gabriel got to see his own hare dealing with them when they tried for Hendrik and those others of us in his office.”

Hans stood open-jawed, his mouth slack, then Georg wandered along with a slung shotgun across his chest, a belt of shells – all of the loops full of loaded ones, I now noticed – and a jug of beer in each hand, along with a 'clockwork marvel' pistol jutting out of his pocket. He needed both a better pistol and a holster, along with a magazine-case for a half-dozen magazines. “That planning is thirsty work, and hungry, also. They're figuring out just how to put this place in here coming off of Hendrik's rooms so he can visit his 'close-closeted scribes' without going outside of his office. That will cause him a lot less trouble, is what I told him, as then the witches don't know anything about who he's seeing or what he's doing.”

“And rig the empty offices with, uh, some rather unpleasant squibs, ones involving some weaker training aids, wasp-shot, and, uh, electric caps and some rather peculiar switches,” I said. “They'll fall for those regularly.”

“Ah, that is good, then,” said Hans. “Now how is it they will fall for them regularly if they get scattered good, and half the house is wrecked when those things explode?”

“We shall use some weaker varieties,” I said. “Turn the witch into a sieve, perhaps turn a ready-for-the-paper-mill door into kindling, and the same for the going-rotten furniture, but little damage to the rooms themselves.” I then had a most-peculiar idea. “We use some electric caps going into some smaller versions of round mines at each end of the hallway with about a second's delay, so when the point-thug gets his, the rest of the witches – oh, about twenty or so providing 'cover' and 'follow-on' – run each way from the blast, then they get turned into pie-filling also. Nice, neat, and a lot of dead meat for the manure pile, and General's Row makes a bit less of a Row for a while due to its losing a good percentage of its Row-makers.”

“Good,” muttered Georg, who went off to the kitchen, with Hans in tow. Hans would no doubt be heading back shortly, as he was here just long enough to rest his animals a bit and get some food down him, or so I thought when he returned to us still laboring like 'bees'. He then told us about the sleds, and how he was to take two out as they were completed.

“Done?” I asked.

“Yes, and they are putting some thin copper on the bottom of those things,” said Hans. “That will cover their wood, and the wood parts are getting smoothed before a rub with drying oil. Then, it is two bricks each for one of those little boats, or one trip apiece for me, and three such trips of two of those things for Georg's buggy and team.” Pause, then, “I am waiting here so as to take them back out there, in fact, and I will be doing a lot of that fetching, either me or someone else who is good at spotting boggy places in the daytime.” Hans implied, “I had to eat grass in hell before being able to do that.”

“Seen many witches?” I asked.

“No, not many, though if one of them shows, he gets shot quick,” said Hans. “I told everyone that when you see one, there are probably a lot more nearby, so usually someone who can throw good tosses one of those things that looks like a metal pear into the trees behind that wretch, and that gets to them.”

“It does?” I asked.

“Usually sets that woodlot alight, too,” said Hans. “Once Matthias tossed one in just after I shot a witch, and then not two words after it explodes, there is a whole flock of witches coming out, and it got hot for us. I must have went through half a box before they were all down, and every witch I shot was a dead man, as I was shooting them in the head regularly, and they had their heads go like witch-jugs filled with dust-powder.”

“And you are sore?” I said.

“I was rubbing myself with Geneva on the way here,” said Hans, “so when I hear some witches speaking in this bad language witches like to speak, I get one of those strange things that looks like a Harvest Day squib, hold its handle in, pull its pin, and when I can tell where they are hiding, I stand up and toss it in that ditch by the side of the road. I hied the horses then, and it was a good thing I did so, as it exploded like half a box of mining dynamite, and that got to their dynamite and distillate, and when I looked back a minute or so later, that whole place was burning like some place that makes distillate.”

“Where did you get..?”

“That was strange,” said Hans. “I was on the way there, and I heard this strange thumping noise, and then there is this bag on the seat beside me. So, I wait until we get to the first place on the map, and when we pull up, I look to see what it is.” Hans was grinning now. “I counted six metal pears, and twelve of those green things that look like Harvest Day squibs, only these have this name I dare not speak, as it will knot my tongue.”

“Cyclohexanite?” I asked.

“Yes, that is it, and they each have a hundred of these things called grams in them,” said Hans. “They are like a big bundle of mining dynamite apiece, and while they are not as touchy as the drippy stuff, they do not want rough handling, as they will explode if you toss them hard, pin or no pin.”

“So we were told,” said Sarah, as she finished a seam and began working on another. She was marveling at my work – slower, yes, but close to hers for neatness. More, it was done right, as she had seen my knotting every stitch, which she had said was done for the best travel-clothing. “Anna must have not seen him sew much, as he's as good as most tailors and not a few of those I met in my travels, and I might have a bit of an edge in neatness, but not much.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “I saw him sew when he first got here, and I thought him good then, but now he does that part as good as most tailors, even those who work here.” Pause, then, “who is that for?”

“Gabriel,” said Sarah, who was deep in concentration. “He'll need to wear it in that third kingdom port so as to avoid more trouble than otherwise, even though I suspect he will get plenty of that no matter what he wears, now that there is such a price upon his head.”

“Hence we must make this clothing such that he may conceal effectual weapons and bring them into action quickly, dear,” I said. “He'll most likely need to poke more than one thug while in that third kingdom port, shoot at least two more, and probably blast several into perdition with one of those short-barreled shotguns – and he'll wish stiff shot for that business, as stiff thugs want stiff shot.”

“Even if they've said those hardening curses?” asked Sarah.

“Close up and personal, they won't be able ignore a load of that stuff if he centers their chest,” I said. “The pattern won't hardly open up inside of ten feet or so, so a load of blue shot will hit almost as hard as the ball from a roer.” Pause, then, “Gabriel then goes to Mr. Thug, er, Pirate, shoots him in the head at powder-burn range with a 'clockwork marvel' or a smaller pistol loaded with the hot stuff, and no more trouble from that one.”

The lantern that Deborah had brought from our 'treatment room' was now in this room, and with it glaring down directly overhead from upon its stand, the others of our group who were to be going were using the small folding cart to bring in supplies – supplies they had gotten from here, supplies one or more people had gotten in town; and then, all of what we had brought from home, and hence the Abbey. Here, I thought to ask about more supplies, chiefly ammunition of one kind or another, and the resounding thump that resulted nearly put me on my nose.

There was a tall stack of green fiberglass bins behind me, and a brief look at these things spoke of supplies I knew we would need.

“More of that blue shot, also,” I said. “Now I will need to teach you how to reload those shotgun shells...” Pause, then a dire screechy tone: “what is this? Rifle cleaning solvent? What are we going to do over there, fight a war?”

“Closer than you think at times, and more, that particular formula is in a section found on that nice little collection of plastic boxes that's now on this long braided cord about your neck.”

“Collection?” I asked. “Braided cord?”

“Yes, all four of them so far,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ has the same formula in her small brown book, the one she's carried through thick and thin, though her pen wishes a small test-tube full of Sarah's ink so as to refill it after cleaning it well with aquavit.”

“Do they have what I need up there to make some?” asked Sarah. She obviously meant 'ink'.

“Yes, and plenty of such tubes, including many unbreakable ones, several of which you will wish to take with you for ready inking.” Pause, then, “don't be too surprised if you find a pen similar to hers.”

“Is this like a ball-point pen?” I asked.

“No, it uses a ceramic 'quill', but it is both pressure-sensitive and good for 'calligraphy', writes especially well – Sarah will wish she had one like it when she sees Annistæ's, in fact – and then, it likes ink like she has made up, so get those in the hands of Kees and Gabriel and their outputs will roughly double.”

“Then I shall wish two such pens,” said Sarah. “Are those pens thirsty? Those cut from birds, even the large feathers of buzzards, tend to need frequent dipping.”

“No, which is why after writing perhaps twenty pages in her ledger, it is needing a refill,” said the soft voice. “Granted, that is a small ledger, but hers is a fine-point pen, and she printed in that thing with small neat letters, ones that needed a headband with a swing-down magnifying lens to readily read.”

“I think we all want such headbands, that or with this, uh, clip that either has a place for a two-eyes version for magnifying matters, another version with a low-intensity light that will not show up on their sensors overseas, or a fairly bright gold-yellow light that looks like a really bright candle.”

“Boom, you just got them,” said the soft voice, as another stack of munitions arrived. “You also got over two dozen of those pens, and they'll want lots of those overseas, so figure on giving a few as souvenirs to the crew on that boat.”

“Which boat?” asked Sarah.

“Why, the submersible,” said the soft voice. “They'll give you some rather scarce things in return, and not just knowledge you need to take the place. They'll give you some very strange metal pencils filled with this greasy gray-black solid that does not break and writes on everything, and then this one item that is an absolutely forbidden object over there.”

“What is it?” I asked. I wondered what it was, in fact.

“A user-refillable rebuildable felt-tipped pen,” said the soft voice. “Those pens you now have aren't 'expressly' forbidden, even if getting your hands on one of them overseas at this time takes knowing someone very important in 'that tower of power', as everyone and his work-mate at that level has several of them, and it isn't uncommon to hand those out to functionaries who do especially good jobs – usually the small good-for-looks-only pistol is the first one, but those pens are for either a truly well-done bit of business, one that leads to a promotion, or for multiple instances of doing especially well – and that too leads to promotion, though the second instance usually means becoming a member of the nearest 'palace guard' and no longer 'patrolling'.”

“The first instance?” I asked.

Those people – one of those 'one-in-several-hundred thugs' – are usually trained for up to a year so as to become spies,” said the soft voice, “and your average spy has nearly a dozen of those things in his gear, hence when you find one of those smelly thugs, rifle his clothing for those pens and anything else of use you find. That equipment will come in very handy, and the same for any scribe-functionaries you find. They'll have several also of those pens also, and if they turn from their labors, they'll gladly give up one or more to the cause so as to have them copied in numbers.”

When the other returned from their various businesses – more lead had come to the house, this being a total of a dozen bricks, and the stuff was being stacked somewhere near Hendrik's door, this in plain sight of the guard-bench by several individual, two per brick due to their weight. These individuals included the four that had thus-far survived my early morning rampage, and while they were obviously injured – badly injured, in fact – it was also obvious that they would recover quickly.

More, by doing so, they would achieve 'near-marked' status, such that the old curse of 'entire-true-witches or 'entire monsters' was being carried out.

Sarah, however, had produced from her satchel that one enigmatic list I had written, and while she, Gabriel – he was doing his best to help, surprisingly – Karl, and Sepp, Georg came with a summons for me. I thought the idea of being 'a walking arsenal' was a bit much, so I carried a machine pistol, two full magazines for both it and a suppressed pistol, and a hand-howitzer, this with two added mostly-full magazines 'in case any hard thugs show'. I hadn't had chances to make pistol holsters yet, hence my pockets were full of pistols and their respective magazines.

“Now you look about fit for a walking brigand,” said Georg. “I'm about due for some more shells, as I had to shoot this big mess of rats that showed suddenly some twenty paces off...”

“No, not paces,” I said emphatically. “That unit of measurement originated with the witches of long ago, and we'll find out just how it happened shortly.” Pause, then as we turned the corner to find three guards, all of them with not merely their older weapons, but at least one of the newer ones on a strap per man. “The better unit is either yard or meter, and when we call out gun-ranges, we'll use both units, as that way no one gets confused as to how to aim their guns, regardless of where they come from.”

“Good,” said Georg. “Most gunners up here worth their powder might forget themselves now and then, but when the guns are rolling and you can hear those northern people banging their pots or whatever other devil-forged rubbish they're using to make noise, about all you hear is yards then, if you're a gunner.” Pause, then, “that one woman is in there, and I think she can find what they want to know with her knitting needle, even if she has trouble reading that stuff.”

“Needle?” I asked, as I tapped softly at the door. My slow, as well as quiet, taps, meant but one person was present, and Maria came promptly to the door.

With a machine-pistol in hand, no less, the weapon loaded, finger along-side the trigger guard.

“Good,” I said. “I hope you don't have to figure that one out yourself, like I did.”

“Yes, and I would like one of those needle-hooks she's using, save a bit smaller,” said Maria. “These setting rugs sound like a good thing for one's bedroom.”

“They are, if one has many old clothes that are too worn to be seen in but not bad enough for paper,” Annistæ said. “Now this is writ by bad witches, and I cannot read it, but I can tell them some things about it. Here, it speaks of that man Gabriel, and how he was as a child, and then trained up as a witch.”

I went to the place in question, and using Annistæ's rug-hook, I 'translated' what was said. What she had 'divined' and had 'localized', I found precisely and made plain as burning daylight: it had been observed shortly after his birth that Gabriel was 'prime' witch-material; that his mother had tried four times to birth a child before him, she one of those strange creatures having a foul-reeking multiplicity of odors and strange figure; he had been 'ditch-delivered by a drab', that being a line I recognized instantly as being one from my world, and therefore most likely a line found in a large black book; and Gabriel, though a weak and sickly infant born 'half-sized' compared to a common child, had grown strong and healthy within a short time, given the half-dozen slave-women whose infants had been killed before their eyes so they could nurse him 'as full-much and as oft as he willed', as the accursed letter spoke plainly to me.

The next was a continuation of the first, and here, I noted a matter of security: no witch-drafted and witch-inked letter contained much of a crucial nature; no witch-letter was of more than three single-sided pages, and those were rare; no real witch-letter was writ upon commonplace paper, as that did not stand dampness and other matters as well as this stuff did; and for matters needing more room, the information to be conveyed thereby was first writ in private by a witch-secretary, divided up into suitable pieces, each missive writ in fetish-ink separately and copied from that manuscript kept in 'secrecy vile, wide and deep', and that document prepared from that one especial manuscript or scripts as the secretary or secretaries took dictation from the speaking witch or witches.

Those secretaries were invariably close-closeted, and in their case, that meant a literal closet within perhaps five strides at the most of the witch owning them. There, they lived, worked, ate, slept, shed dung, and bathed, all of this done as per the wishes of their master.

Just like slaves, which they in fact, were. More, there was usually more than one, as high-ranking witches kept strange hours, ones as long as mine if one included the drinking and the fighting they did, and hence the attending secretaries had to be able to 'give full attention to my speech, lest I kill you or you-all upon the spot'.

“Their precise words,” I said. “That is how they treat their scribes, if you are up that high in the power structure.” Pause, then, “your using a similar means will therefore be quite unexpected, as most witches don't know that either, and no king does precisely what is detailed in that, uh, 'beyond top secret' book.”

“What?” gasped Hendrik.

“Three reddish letters near the very first page in it, if not the first page itself,” I said. “R dot C dot S dot, on this mottled green background,” I said. “That means you sleep with it under your pillow, or in your bed-clothing with a string tied to it and your wrist, and you'd both had best have your bed-clothing altered to take pistols of one kind or another, as you will want them to keep such literature safe.”

“I know I want them, as I had to shoot another rat in here,” said Maria. “I wish I could get a pistol of that one type, but...”

“Patience, dear,” said Hendrik. “These chambers have passable ventilation, and we have both endured the west school. Now I know why there was so much gunfire there, and that all day and much of the night. It taught me to keep on with what I was doing in spite of all that happened.” Pause, then, “continue describing how they trained Gabriel. It gives us all insight as to how witches are trained, if they are born high and destined to be indeed High.”

“High, he says” I muttered. “Now here, it speaks of his early years.”

Gabriel was put in his witch-undies almost the very day he was beaten out of his diapers and tied onto his own private privy in a dark and dismal below-ground portion of his family's huge house; and he ate, drank, slept, and 'shed dung' in that stinky place until he was indeed fully privy-trained, this period being quite long, so much so that the exact time was hard to determine. After all, it was his choice, one he had to make alone, as was everything from conception to decomposition in the realm of witchdom.

I suspected it was a good chunk of a year, if not longer yet. Two full years would not surprise me.

This initial period of 'training' was started the very first full moon after his mother 'ejected him' from her carrying parts, and the frequent number of times he was checked by various witches – these with Infernal lanterns reeking of distillate and turned up bright in one hand, and full-loaded fowling pieces in the other – was not merely intended to 'teach him the correct use of the privy'.

This was intended to 'break him of his wildness, and make him amenable to instruction' – and more, teach him his current place in the hierarchy of his family. As a young child, his status was lower than a common slave, with the chief differences at that age those of clothing and food.

Just the same, witch-children had an uncommonly high mortality rate, and they daily lived in fear for their lives, as 'displeasing' their owners usually meant torture and then sacrifice. Only when they had achieved 'adequate' size and learning were they actually treated as children and not 'less than animals'.

“I told you they started early,” said Rolf, “but I had no idea they did what you just said.”

“His family was something of an anomaly among witches, as their line went back to the time of Geeststaat when it was still a very large city and not a smoking ruin,” I said, “and they survived both the Curse and the resulting eight hundred and more years until the year before this one, or perhaps two years before this one, I'm not sure which.”

“What happened?” asked Annistæ.

“It seems Matthias and a number of similar 'undesirable boys – too old to be considered 'proper' children, and too young to do the work of a full-grown man – were tossed out into the wilds so as to fend for themselves.” Pause, then, “in reality, those causing them to be tossed were well-hid witches and most-serious supplicants running towns and areas to suit themselves, as there are very few children of that age who cannot earn their keep as part of a family.” Another pause, then, “those who were the chief source of that thinking, as well as a number of their cronies... Well, they sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind, as a lot of those boys banded together, they kept each other informed of matters germane to their collective survival, they shared scavenged tools, found-on-the-battlefield weapons, and much else of a needful nature, and they went after every witch-house and witch-family they possibly could.”

I paused, this time longer.

“Including, it seems, Gabriel's family – a group of them found one of their coaches, trailed the thing back to the house after dark, waited until the place went 'quiet' a few hours before dawn, then several of them, Matthias chief among them, went in with swords looted from ambushed Norden spy-groups and slaughtered every living thing in that huge stinky house – and they left it as silent as they went in.”

“E-every living thing?” asked Rolf.

I nodded, then said, “regardless of age, gender, condition, or species – if they found it in that house, they killed it – and usually, they cut off its head and put it well clear of the corpse, so as to make sure it stayed dead and did not try nonsense.” The part left unsaid was 'that is the way to deal with witches, Krokus or no Krokus – though Krokus does help if you have it'.

I was becoming convinced of that matter: Krokus did things to witches in both the physical world and in the spirit-realm, which meant what Annistæ and at least one other person had said about it was nothing short of the truth. The stuff was death when used upon witches, and that in no uncertain terms.

“Which means he has no family,” said Annistæ.

“No family, no money, no prospects in witchdom, and now they think he's thrown it up – and I suspect for the moment witchdom, what little attraction it really had for him – well, he's lost most of that attraction; and by the time we sail for that place across the sea, it will have lost a lot more attraction.”

“Good,” said Hendrik. “Now, is there mention of brigands in there, specifically that man Joost?”

“Cé, there is,” said Annistæ, who used her 'new' rug-hook to find another spot. This saved me no small time and energy, as she'd obviously laid the groundwork while the five of us began our packing. We would be spending a lot of time today in the house proper, as until the lead was 'piled' in rows atop the fourth floor, she and Deborah would be mostly help out in here, help us get packed, or help find supplies we needed here and there.

Especially more bath towels and those smaller cloth satchels, and I was really wondering where to get a lot of nails for nail-bombs. I suspected functionaries would enjoy being nailed up good by those horrific devices.

It took her a surprisingly short time to find out where Joost had been mentioned, and as she removed a small wooden skewer from the place, I noted just why it took so little time: while I had been gone, she'd had her list of places the kings were interested in, and had gotten sufficiently close to the areas of interest that instead of me having to spend minutes finding the spot, I might have to turn two or three pages, scanning them rapidly, then home in on where the area of interest might be.

I then heard her use a special word, one she had not used before in my hearing: “brigantisti.”

“Yes, that is what this man is,” I said. “Why, have you heard of him before?”

“I have seen him before,” said Annistæ. “I put some warm lead in him, too, but he was a far distance for what I was using, and he was quick, also, but I think he still limps from where I hit him.”

“Limps?” I asked.

“Cé, I hit his left knee and his chest,” said Annistæ. “With what I had, at three hundred metrâè, his plate stopped much of the chest-hit, but he wore no plate upon his knee, and that put him down and crawling. I had my people to look after then, so I swore that I would one day have his head, but all he did was hide in the brush, and as I saw it move, I wished I had a mule-gun, but we did not have ours with us that day.”

“Mule-gun?” asked Rolf. “I hope it does not involve mules.”

“No, not usually, as those are better for speed of travel and not so good for quiet, and one wants quiet for war as we practiced it,” said Annistæ. “It takes twelve donkeys to carry the parts of one and a number of shells, then two hoérra to assemble such a gun, then three to fire the gun and three to keep the shells coming.”

“A gun-team,” he said. “Does it fire quickly?”

“Cé, it can, though one wishes to be careful, as donkeys carry less than mules and you do not wish merely quiet when you are done using such a gun, you want the best speed you can from the area, which is why you want twelve donkeys for the gun and its shells.”

I had the impression that thirty rounds for this gun was a heavy load for such a trip, and the number of donkeys needed to travel the length of the Valley and then up into the haunts of Joost while carrying a gun, the supplies of over a dozen people, and then not be spotted by an individual with both preternatural sensing capacity – only mine was substantially better, which made him a witch to be reckoned with – and a good looted telescope was such that using a mule-gun on Joost was pretty much a lost cause.

What one needed was a rifle of supreme accuracy, one able to deliver a killing blow at a range of well over a thousand yards, and able to drop a plate-wearing thug at that distance consistently. More, this rifle had to not beat its user to death when firing multiple rounds in the course of an engagement, have quick-changing detachable magazines, and be both 'tough' enough to endure fairly rough use and constructed in a manner that it would still hit its target consistently even if mistreated to a certain degree.

Namely, a bolt-action rifle, one built ruggedly, with one of those special telescopic sights that gave up to twenty times magnification and had accurate range-estimating capacity.

It also needed to have 'elk-dropping power' and 'gopher-vaporizing accuracy' – and because it would need to be carried long distances at a good pace for hours upon hours day after day, it needed to weigh ten pounds or less. I asked for a small stack of paper, put my right hand down upon it, pictured the weapon in question in my mind, and prayed hard.

The paper all but exploded under my hand, and when I took out that one cord about my neck, instead of four data cases, I now had five of those slippery gray plastic containers.

“Five?” I asked, as I leafed through the pages. They'd been bound in thin tan leather – another book of sorts, though this one was slim and flexible – and a string-tie was in place at its edges. The whole, its thirty or more plastic-coated pages, each with four to ten microfilm sections, rolled up into something resembling a scroll perhaps an inch in diameter and a bit less than a foot long – and between what was in my mind, what was printed on and in that 'scroll', and what lay present upon that data cartridge, it would be but a matter of time and modest effort to make and try this 'deer rifle' – though anything that could reliably drop elk was likely to ruin a lot of deer meat, unless loaded with an appropriate round, such that it performed roughly as well as something I might have fired long years ago. My first rifle was a likely level of performance for 'close deer', though given their added toughness and irritability compared to those animals of that name where I came from, I suspected one wanted something 'heftier'.

Like one of those legendary weapons put out by Roy, he of the unpronounceable last name. The number that occurred to me was 'Three hundred and forty', but somehow, I knew this weapon would not have that large of a bullet. It would be smaller – but also, that smaller bullet would do 'unbelievable' things.

“That fifth one has all the instructions needed to make what you just saw,” said the soft voice. “Only one trouble.”

“What?” I asked.

“You cannot get all of that capacity in a weapon without paying a hefty price,” said the soft voice. “That weapon will recoil hard enough that you'll need to both fit it precisely to each firer, but also, you'll need to fit rubber recoil pads to each such weapon to make it truly usable by the majority of users – yourself included.” Pause, then, “they can make rough examples of those readily, ones that you'll be able to merely trim to size for the first examples. Later, they'll have the equipment to mold them to finished size – and those will be the weapons you'll predominantly use to fight those northern thugs with should they make it onto dry land; and later, elsewhere on the continent, under the ground, and in a number of other places here and elsewhere.”

“What?” I asked.

“Recall that need for 'elk-dropping power'?” asked the soft voice. “The need to deliver a killing blow at ranges of up to fifteen hundred metrâè? Just over a mile? Almost like that one 'big gun'?”

“Cé?” asked Annistæ. “I can find that smelly man, and I can get that close to him, and while what he has will carry that far, he cannot count on it to hit anything smaller than a house at that distance.”

“How far can he shoot?” asked Hendrik.

“If he wishes to shoot men, five hundred metrâè,” said Annistæ. “He can hit them solid at that range, and call head or chest, and expect to hit what he calls. Twice that, he does well to hit them, though if he does, one is likely to need someone like Graćiella handy with her full kit, and then hope to get to a Téatré quickly so as to save the person's life.” Pause, then, “if he is going after horses, then add half that much to each of those numbers.”

“Eight hundred yards or better still,” I spat. “No wonder Matthys seemed so lucky. He was!”

“Will yours carry that far?” asked Hendrik. “You made a shot at a buzzard at six hundred, er, yards, and hit that bird solidly.”

“Then it is likely he can hit that man,” said Annistæ. “It is a matter, then, of finding his hide without him seeing one looking, and then seeing him inside of it when he is laying still and watching for trouble.”

“He said that much, and now you confirm it,” said Hendrik. His voice was the picture of exasperation.

“Describe these hides he does, please,” I said. “Usually a somewhat elevated location within the outer reaches of a woodlot overlooking a large area, a narrow trench for the hide itself, shallow, sloping, covered with fresh-cut brush, a low wall of stones and earth roofed with sod or other things so it is very hard to see, constructed during the night for the most part and finished up very early in the morning with careful checking from all angles including the rear portion, with a rear egress trench that goes straight back, this trench shoulder deep from the hide, and then the trench curves around zig-zag for perhaps twenty feet or so before it starts becoming less deep, with the spoil put to each side and packed down tight and filled with stones, and usually more than one line of traps laid in wavy arcs to his rear so as to buy him time to escape should he be discovered and his pursuers try for him from the rear.”

“Cé, that is what he does should he know he is being followed and has time to do so,” said Annistæ. “If he is dug in like that, then he will hurt or kill many before he leaves his hide, and nothing short of a mule-gun will get him out of it before he is ready to leave.”

“He lives in those places?” I asked.

“I have seen him do that two days in a row, but never three, as he is gone from the place by the fourth such day when we checked it,” said Annistæ. “He has a large price upon his head in El Vallyé, and the men of the Mule want him dead, and so do those of the Black Rooster, though when he shows to the south...”

“He does?” asked Hendrik. Again, that tone of incredulity.

“Cé, though not very often, and that with no warning at all,” said Annistae. “It is suspected that he travels underground much, using this way that no one of the Valley wishes to run upon save if they must, as those rails are bad ones and very old, unlike those we use.”

“You use?” I asked.

“Cé, there is one long line, one that runs the whole length of El Vallyé,” said Annistæ, “and it gets much traffic, but there are bad places near it on spurs, and few save Cabroni go there.”

“Cabroni of El Vallyé, or other Cabroni?” I asked.

“I am not sure, as I have not been on such lines save between our settlements,” said Annistæ, “and we have our own line, one which is one-half metrâè, rather than that line, which is a full metrâè between its rails.” Pause, then, “our wagons are usually pulled by an electric vehicle, but the ones used on the big line are both electrical and fuel, and those that run fuel are very fast.” Pause. “Ours manage the speed of a donkey, one that is well-fed and fresh, and they tow three to five wagons, depending on the load and its size.”

“That almost sounds like something used in the mines,” said Rolf.

“Yes, it is like it, but their track is usually ten centimes narrower,” said Annistæ, “and their rails are badly made and they are weaker, so they cannot stand the use nor the loads we run, and then, ours run people, not just ore and supplies.”

“People?” I asked.

“Yes, people,” she said. “It is much cooler down there, and then, our machines are best reached that way, and finally, it is where we grow much of our food and do much of our difficult work.”

“Underground?” I asked.

“Yes, mostly root-crops,” said Annistæ. “Corn, we grow in plots in our larger settlements, though tinkers sometimes bring in bags of it from either the south or the west, but those to the north, they are not able to grow our crops, so they must purchase them – and how they did so was a mystery to me until I met Deborah.”

Annistæ's pronunciation of Deborah was a bit peculiar, as she accented the second syllable, not the first, and the third syllable was rather strange-sounding, almost as if 'ah' had become 'a-eh-ee'. She then said, “that is how her name is said in our country, so I called her that, and she seemed to know. I knew she knew about how those from the north got their roots when she told me about the strange notes and the bags of money when their root crops would vanish overnight.”

Another few minutes, this explaining salient information regarding how to set up this 'clerk closet' both quickly and with as few being the wiser as possible, and I had to return to my duties. Annistæ went with me, and when she came to where our packing was underway, she shook her head.

Deborah was beside herself, and more than once, she booted Karl in the rump, while Gabriel, she merely yelled at. Sepp – she once swung at his head with a club looted at a functionary, while Sarah...

Sarah was catching a lot of abuse, this predominantly verbal.

“How can you not see the point of this!” she shrieked. “It is to get you to think together and function as a team, and not to get angry at one another because of bad handwriting. Here, give me that list!”

The list was proffered up to Deborah, who then said, “Drud Moont. What kind of provisions are you taking, which have two words, the first one starting and ending in the letter 'D', and the second starting with 'M' and ending in 'T'.”

The aspect of 'terminal idiocy' I saw writ upon each face was of such potency that I wondered if someone was wearing a fetish, but when Annistæ looked at this list, she said, “she is right. Now that one is obvious to me. If you are going far distances, and you must pack your food, then you wish nourishing stuff that weighs little and packs readily. What sort of food is that?”

“Dried meat,” said Sepp – who then slapped himself.

“Yes, so you figured that one out,” said Deborah – whose irritation showed itself plainly. This wasn't that 'difficult'; it was easy, given a certain level of teamwork. One had to start somewhere, and I felt reminded of what I had heard in the Abbey's 'military warehouse' – something about the goals of military training as it should be practiced. I felt inclined to write them down somewhere, then realized they were either burned into my brain or written down in a ledger somewhere. Deborah then resumed speaking.

“Each of you, make your own list, and write in your own words what you figure out. Now, this next one. It is a single word, begins with 'C', and ends with what might be a small 'e'. What else will you need that is like that?” Here, Deborah looked, then muttered under her breath, “this handwriting might be worse than mine, and not a little worse, but even I can figure this stuff out more often than not the very instant I look at it!” She then yelled, “I ought to make you strip and bathe, one after another, while I and Annistæ go through your clothing and look for fetishes, as you all are acting as if you were wearing ones that make you glow red like witches!”

“Capital idea, dear,” I said to Deborah. “Do it.”

I soon learned the truth of the matter, as Deborah and Annistae were not the only ones: I found Karl to have a 'lucky hare's foot' that proved to glow red the instant I felt his trousers, and I tossed it; Sepp had this odd chip of rock that felt so wrong that I tossed it out of the room and heard the thunderclap as it went up in smoke; while Sarah... I wasn't sure what she had, but there was something so wrong that I was going through her clothing like a fine-tooth comb. I then asked that 'anything evil' show itself, and to my astonishment, red leather tags shot out of almost everything.

“Is this bogus, or did she somehow get clothing...” I shook my head, then spat, “if she left this stuff behind, then what did she take with her to bathe with?”

“Clothing she made, while this here was some old clothing she picked out from the piles said to suit her in the tailor's shop.”

“Put there by witches, I'll warrant,” I spat. “All of this stuff needs to go, Gabriel's included, save if it was made here and... Did they know about our trip?”

“Yes, and when you go back into inform Hendrik, go about three letters closer to the front of that tome, and you learn about just what they did to cause trouble in the third kingdom and here, and how that group of witches came up here to add labels to that clothing which had been reserved for you.”

“Hence only wear that clothing that's either been made specially for us by people here, or clothes we know are good,” I murmured. “Now that burn-clothing of Gabriel's – is that witch-gear?”

“No, as burn-clothing is, with rare exceptions, not used by witches,” said the soft voice. “Those tags they put in the clothing set aside for you-all...”

“Mine?” I asked.

“Yours is kept under lock and key save when it's actually being worked on,” said the soft voice, “and when it is being worked on here, the only people who are trusted with it are those who work on Hendrik's clothing.” Pause, then, “they do the exact same thing with Maria's clothing, also, so that tends to make it a bit difficult to put those markings in it.”

“Bit difficult?” I asked.

“One of the few 'genuine' hard-locks on the premises is used on that particular room's door, and it's both iron-bound and doubled-thickness, with three Machalaat brothers hinges on the inside of the door.” Pause, then, “that isn't a commonplace hard-lock, either, but one with three extra wards on its key.”

“Ooh,” spat Deborah. “Those take longer than anything I know of to pick. I've done them several times, but they take a full turn of a glass, nearly.”

“Hence our witches cannot get into that cloth-room short of using dynamite formed into a shaped charge,” I said. “All of the supplies are kept in that room, all of the tools used, even the needles and thread.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Your clothing is safe, and that Sarah made is safe, but anything used, unless it is gone over carefully by people able to discern fetishes, is very dangerous right now – as that used clothing has been a target of witches for nearly sixty years, and most of it has been worked over.”

“Almost want to collect up all of it and turn the stuff into paper,” I spat. “Our clothing only for the rest of the time.” I then looked at Deborah. “Yours?”

“I wore used clothing while mine was being washed, and I was very picky,” she said. “They're making some for me now, and nothing used would fit her, so they had to make her clothing from the whole cloth.”

“Good,” I said. “Give them three days, and you'll each have three sets of clothing apiece.”

“It will not take them that long, not the way that place does clothes,” said Deborah. “I had new underclothing in a matter of hours, and it was a good thing, as mine was put in the bag to be sent out for paper.”

“Mine too,” said Annistae. “Now, Deborah, let us sit down with this list, and do as we can.”

With me present – I could read this handwriting for the most part – we had three lists inside of five minutes, and as I went through the original, I thought to add matters to it that had occurred to me. There were no small number of such things, and before we were done, this room would wish a smallish table, possibly some shelves that were not too bad, and then, bedsteads of a sort for sleeping, unless we could put a lock upon the door.

“Oh,” I said, going to the door. “This one takes a key.” Pause. “Lock, become a marked lock, one that needs the hand of a person marked beyond the trivial to open, and under no circumstances – I repeat, no circumstances – open for anyone who even thinks a little bit like a witch.”

I stood back, for now the door became hazed with lightning, and small 'zaps' came from it for nearly a minute. When the 'electrical storm' had cleared off, the previous door was no longer present.

Nor was the doorframe a weak and feeble thing. This thing was iron, heavy iron, iron at least three-eighths of an inch thick, welded cleanly, and forming a socket where the wood-veneered door swung on seven eerily silent 'hidden' hinges.

“A seven hinge door?” I asked.

“Look at the front side, and as you touch that door, swing on it,” said the soft voice. “This room won't be just for your supplies – it will be the receiving room for matters too 'delicate' for immediate reception in the days and months to come.” Pause, this as I looked at the door and noted its 'X' shaped iron construction and what looked like a lot of well-made square-headed screws and varnished oak 'beams'. The heft, though, spoke of something a good deal heavier than oak.

“Feels almost like a bank vault, like that one place I did paperwork in,” I said.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “It will open for marked people only, by the way – and as you said, marked beyond the trivial.” Pause, then, “Andreas will not be able to open this door. Annistae will, Deborah will, Sarah will, you will, and then – Anna will, though in her case, it will open a bit early.”

“Sarah?” I asked.

“Anyone who's set pigs alight and done the things she has is but showing what she will one day receive in full measure,” said the soft voice. “Remember – who led the charge on Iggy so you could deal with him?”

“S-Sarah?” I asked.

“Who kept fighting, even with the pain of a broken leg, much like that one man who is now partly recovered from his destroyed foot?”

“Sarah.” I said.

“Who kept fighting, even though they'd taken enough balls and shot to kill two people – other than you?”

“She did,” I muttered. “I wonder what will happen when she gets her markings and everything that's hiding now shows forth.”

“I do too,” said Deborah. “I wonder what mine are, in fact, as they don't show...”

I looked at Deborah's hands, then pointed at a place just to the side of each 'smallest' finger. “There, and there, and that's for the hands.” I then pointed to the side of her neck, and said, “that one happens later. I then looked at her feet, and said, “that one, that one, and the whole corner of this foot, and finally, I pointed to her stomach, and lifted my own shirt to show the scars. “Like this, only what makes it will be no blade.”

“W-what will that make me?” asked Deborah, suddenly fearful.

“En Besté,” said Annistæ. “What Cabroni name 'monster'.”

Deborah promptly fainted, and only my asking her to wake up caused her to awaken quickly. She then asked, “careful, someone is coming. I think it to be Sarah.” Pause, then, “you have more, though, and you will get more, and that's just the ones I saw.”

I held up my left hand, and whispered, “no more can I take the left hand path. That way is closed unto me for the rest of time.” I then went to the wall, and put up my left hand, and prayed.

The smoke that billowed out was such that I backed away and ran into someone, then another someone, then as the door opened silently upon silken hinges, a small crowd of someones.

“What is it you did in there?” asked Georg. “At least you picked a room with a good door.”

“I think so,” said Sarah. “This is a marked doorknob, the door has more than twice the usual number of hinges, they're put in specially so one can only dose them with oil from the inside, and then the door itself feels as if it has but wood for its surface, and iron for its core.”

Georg swung the door, then said, “almost wish one like this for my house, but the rest of the place would not stand it unless my walls were doubled for the front of the place.”

“Check out that room now,” said the soft voice. “It's not only a special room, but you pressing on that back wall enlarged its physical boundaries to no small degree.”

“I did?” I asked. There was something else, however: across the sea, 'special rooms' were known of fairly well – and those places did odd things – like put one in that place called 'the black sack', or a simulation of it so real that you would not know it to be a simulation.

“Yes, and you did something else, too,” said Sepp as he went in cautiously. “We all are wearing that special underwear now, and Gabriel swears by it and swears at that nasty black stuff he used to like.”

“Good that he does so,” said Deborah. “Now, while you four were gone, the three of us went through that list and wrote our own list, and he gave us a lot more. So...” Deborah was looking at the clothing they had 'tossed', as was I, and I pointed to it, and spat, “become paper, paper fit for inking, and nothing whatsoever of the witch to it!”

The explosion tossed me against a wall, though the impact was surprising soft. When I turned to see where I had landed, not only did I see a room painted glossy white: the room had grown.

“How big is this place?” I gasped.

“About fifteen feet wider and twenty deeper than it was,” said the soft voice. “It's now a ground-floor secure-room. Now, ask for appropriate screens, shelves, tables, chairs, and whatever else it needs.”

I waved everyone out of the room, though I had trouble doing so, as Sarah had noticed the stack of paper.

“This is just what Hendrik needs,” she said. “There has to be at least ten quire of paper here.”

“Closer to eight, but still, that's enough to keep several scribes busy and that printing press groaning for several months,” said the soft voice. “By then, you'll have real paper-making equipment, both on-site and at the Abbey – though the Abbey will be shipping out material to make paper overseas within a very few weeks of their initial arrival.”

“Ooh, a paper mill,” I muttered. “Those smell horrible.”

“Cé, they do,” said Annistæ. “I shall do it in this room which has good ventilation, and while I will not be able to make much paper, I will be able to make it.”

“As good as this?” asked Sarah.

“Cé, only it will be coated paper, so it will wish special ink and pens like this one,” said Annistæ. Here, she produced what looked like a large ball-point pen, this of metal with a black-striped brown central portion and a turned brass 'rear end' and a similarly-turned brass cap. Both brass portions had been polished to a dull gleam by years of use, and the whole thing positively reeked of durability. “This one needs cleaning in Alkoli and then filling with ink, and I have chemicals for making several colors of ink, so I will make up some tonight.”

“Sarah knows how to make the type you will wish for that pen, and I was told we had received some pens like that one,” I said. “Now, tables, chairs, shelves, lighting, everything – oh, and a place for a wire-run, also, and a nice wire going all the way to the ceiling, where it sticks up a good ten feet. We have something Annistæ will wish to listen to.”

Cé?” she said, suddenly brightening. “What will I wish to listen to?”

“Last night he tried it out to see if it worked,” said Sarah, “and I had a brief chance to hear someone play one of those stringed instruments. It was unlike anything I ever heard until just a few minutes ago.”

“Then I think he needs one of those instruments,” said Annistæ. “I think he needs one that is wired, with valfuelæ, so he can get tone, like I was hearing.”

Going into this room caused no small trepidation, even though Karl went off to get the collapsible cart for the new-arrived paper. A glance at this stuff before entering the room had me gasping, as this was, indeed, true 'inking' paper', and when I swung the door wide, the light within was sufficient that it had me wishing to wear my sleep goggles so as to not go blind upon the instant.

“Four lanterns?” I gasped, as I put on my daylight goggles and began turning the lanterns down. “How big is this room?”

“Large enough to want four of those lanterns,” said the soft voice. “Mind the chair there – those are new lanterns, and they need to clear out, which is why they're set to 'a full knob'.”

“Brass lanterns,” I said. “Farmer-grade tanks, big polished s-shields...”

These shields were not polished brass, but something else. Their mirror finish, as well as the 'brass' itself, made for a touch of my hand upon the tank of the one I was adjusting; and in doing so, I nearly screamed.

These were not Veldter lanterns, but well-camouflaged lanterns of the type made overseas. More importantly, someone had taken a lot of ideas from Veldter lanterns and applied them to those made there, such that these things could be repaired readily in the field.

“Why the brass finish?” I asked.

“Good camouflage,” said the soft voice. “Note that that 'brass' is also new, and within perhaps ten to twelve hours of use, that camouflage coating will become fully 'alive'.” Pause, then, “now, carefully, look at the bottom of that one liter fuel tank. Don't tip it much – they're full of 'lantern fuel'.”

“Milno,” I spat. “Doubled-six, only they never got the numbers quite that high.”

“That's because that is a new-design lantern, and more, it will not cause people to become dim-eyed, because its' globe has proper shielding.”

“Shielding?” I asked.

“Unbreakable 'glass' with phosphors embedded in between the two layers,” said the soft voice. “Figure twice the light for a given amount of fuel, and these are a good deal less picky about fuel choice, either – anything from bad aquavit to latest-design alcohol-based Farolcumbusteblé, which is something Annistæ will learn about shortly.

“Oh, and take her stove and convert it to run such fuel,” I said softly. “Madame, this will be your stove. Mind the lids on top – they hide burners, and your pots will set down within those holes there about five centimes, so they will heat well. These knobs on the front there control each of the three burners, this one to the left the oven, and this little dial here tells you how hot your oven is. Your fuel tank is underneath, and contains sufficient for, oh, in your case possibly as much as two weeks of daily use. Oh, and the bread-toasting rack goes on the big burner-hole, so you just set your burner to 'two', it lights off automatically, you take a long fork, place the burner rack over the hole, put your bread on it, turn it after a count of quick count of five, and then toasted bread is ready before you can count to ten!

“I want one of those things, then,” said Deborah. “It sounds as if Maria will wish one, also, as she does not have time to cook, even if she is passable at it.”

“Do they have a stove in there?” I asked.

“Yes, two of them, one in their main room and another in the office,” said Deborah. “The office one usually has a slow fire going in it, though what is used for fuel is a mystery. I saw no wood, even if I did see an ash-bucket.”

“Speaking of stoves,” said Georg, “I need to go get some burnt-coal. You may wish to come with me, and let them get on with the packing. They need to learn how to get themselves organized, and with no witch-tools handy, they should be able to work with little trouble.”

“Yes?” I asked, as we went past the handful of floor-cleaners who had somehow not turned witch. They were just finishing up with their cleaning of the floors, and after a breather and a meal, they would join over a dozen other individuals carrying bricks of lead to the 'wall' where they could be watched by those sitting at the guard-bench with hot guns. I suspected more would be set to the task as the lead began to arrive in quantity, and more, that lead collection would continue on in shifts long past sundown.

I then knew better. Not 'long past sundown'. This labor needed to continue until people dropped, and then those individuals needed a swift kick to the rear, so as to keep on going until they either died from overexertion or the job was finished in its totality. That gave me words which needed saying.

“No, that lead-collection needs to get done today,” I said. “The horses can rest afterward, and so can the people, but the witches are massing...”

“Too late,” said the soft voice. “Those guarding that lead are now nursing sore shoulders, but the sight of three coaches going up like powder mills and spraying money and more lead was worth it to those four who were shooting at them.”

“Money?” I asked.

“Something that has its uses, especially when one is preparing to fight a war and build the equipment needed so as to fight with the goal of winning,” said Georg. “Other than that, I have but little more use for it than you do.”

“What?” I gasped.

“No, not me, not after that pig nearly killed me,” said Georg. “There are more important things in this world than money, and you know what those are.” Pause, then, “I hope to be ready for the next world when it is my time to go there. My time in this one has not been easy, but compared to yours since you came here, it was a float down a summer stream atop a raft made of logs.”

“Is this to show me the boat?” I asked.

“You'll see part of it, I expect,” said Georg. “What you need to see is that buggy those two men came back with yesterday, as that thing has those people in the boatwright's shop crawling up a tree to find a hornet-nest, and you'll most likely know enough to tell them and Hendrik about who did it, what they did, and why they did it – and that within minutes of seeing what they have, not the week they are likely to need to deal with something new to them.”

However, I was mumbling about a much-more-urgent matter than a buggy that was fit for turning into metal for Frankie and paper for writing upon, and this educated what I was saying. It was as if I were speaking to myself so as to embed it more firmly into my brain.

“The goal of military training, at least as it should be practiced, is to teach people who are unused to obeying orders and functioning as a well-integrated team to be able to do both of those things extremely well – and that no matter how tired they might happen to be, how they happen to feel about themselves, or how they feel about those orders.” This was said softly, as if no one save God could hear me. After all, he had told me this, and I was trying to do as he said.

Here, I paused, as we came from indoors and out into the sunlight. I was glad I was armed, and more, I was glad I was ready for Chucky if he decided to show. I could feel one of those stinkers in the area, and as I mumbled the rest of what I was thinking, I left Georg behind and vanished into the trees.

“This is how it's supposed to be done, people,” I thought as I flitted among the trees, using them for cover and concealment when and if I could. Trees of this size meant good cover. “Once the goals of learning to obey orders – not like a witch, but as if God himself were giving them, with his strong admonition to use what intelligence and capacity you have to the fullest so as to make his will a reality – and work as a team no matter what the situation presented happens to be, then it's a matter...

It is Chucky. This person's a witch, I can feel him, and he's come for what he thinks is his, and his alone. He's waited, waited patiently, waited for us to be off our guard. I move slow, silent as the wind, tree to tree like lightning. Chucky would need to have unusual capacity to know of me, I moved so rapidly.

“How to think on their feet...”

Dealing with Chucky wasn't fun. If he was in the area, even as a light-armed spy, it was, by definition, a combat zone. Hence the remaining words that ran slow as molasses through my mind as I came closer to this fool of a witch. I could feel the thuds of his hunting boots – real ones, ones that were expressly made for quiet and difficulty in tracking; I could also feel his silent chanting of the hiding curse. I could see those damned runes strobing in my peripheral vision, and it was as if he were flashing an accursed neon sign for someone like me.

He'd never read much about monsters in that black book he spent so much time in – or, perhaps, there was a different explanation for his behavior. No matter. here, one had to think while on the move, and make better than decent decisions...

'Decent' worked well enough with drunk-as-stinkers tinned spams or the hoards of ill-trained thugs that would come in their drunken black masses. With Chucky, 'decent' got you killed in a big hurry.

Chucky demanded 'excellence' – and that in every possible area – if one wished to kill him before he killed you.

And as if to remind me of what excellence truly was, I was about to move out from behind one of the thick trees when I froze...

I could plainly hear the cocking of a hammer-fired weapon. It was not a fowling piece. It was a fifth kingdom musket, one of those things that fired a slug suitable for stuffing an ancient Tower musket for bore and configured like a Civil War rifled musket. It hit like an elephant gun, even more than what I had first used here, and I'd seen first-hand what those bullets could do.

Tag someone more or less anywhere, especially at these ranges, and...

The thundering roar had me leap away from the tree, then as I flew, I fired into the smoke cloud some twenty feet away. Three rapid shots, then as I began running through the trees, I heard someone firing with two revolvers, rapid-fire shots sending bullets ripping through the trees. The thundering roars of these weapons suggested the thug was using dragoons, and the whine and splinters of bark that flew as I ran in a zigzag circle spoke of a thug of no common prowess. I suddenly stopped, then as the man slowly turned toward me, I peered out from the side of an unusually large tree.

This at a low kneeling level. He'd expect me to stand, and I knew that. Hence, my kneeling as low as I could and using a thick tree for cover.

I had set my fire selector at full-auto, and when the thug saw me, his shoulder-length albino-type hair told me he might well be Joost himself, even as I squibbed off a short burst and he screamed loud and long as he crumpled to the earth and I ran once more for the rear exit of the yard of the house proper. He most likely had come in the back way, using a key to the place furnished years ago by a bought-and-paid-for 'fully-owned witch-slave'.

“He's going to be coming this way,” I thought, as I rigged two metal pears, one under each of two medium-sized rocks, this near the manure-pile and near a stand of tall 'bamboo' that I had never seen before. I put the grenades with the rocks atop them and their pins removed directly in the tracks of these strange pointed boots, boots fitted with 'track spikes' on their heels and soles, and as I heard a surprisingly fast 'limping' trot, I drew back perhaps thirty or forty feet, and into the stand of bamboo, hoping for a slight depression that would yet give me a clear shot at the area where I had laid my traps. Finding one but a few feet into the bamboo grove, I then lay prone, my machine pistol set to single fire. I was going to snipe this person if my bombs didn't catch him.

He was able to move awfully fast, even if I had wounded him badly, and when he came into view – fast-flowing blood showing clearly on his black swine-hide sleeveless vest, his hand, and his neck – he instantly saw one of the rocks. Stones in his pathway, he thought. A commonplace trick at his level of initiation. He knew what to do with these, and unthinkingly did it, chanting a rune-curse as he did so.

Kicked it with his boot, this being a trap far too easy for him. The grenade ignited, its lever flying back, the bomb utterly silent, no smoking, nothing to alert this thug, one who thought himself too smart to catch and too canny to be chased down and killed. He stopped, looking at the thing, chanting his curse again and again, all the while wondering just what this odd fetish was...

A sudden roar shattered the silence, and rocks, dirt, pieces of thug, and God only knows what else went flying as I hugged the earth and hunkered down in this slight declivity. Something hit the ground not three feet from my right arm as it smashed into the bamboo, and as the throw-rock and other things that had been sent flying – the blast of the first grenade had set off the second, which meant not only did 'mister thug' get 'turned into pie filling' by grenade-splinters...

He ate his share of rock-splinters also, and a big jagged shard of stone had spiked him in the forehead.

His hair, once white as cotton and shoulder length, was now ragged, clotted with gore, and ripped and torn by a multitude of splinters and other things, but as Georg came at a run with a small mob of people coming single file behind him, I stood shakily to my feet and came out of the bamboo. I booted the thug's head out ahead of me, and I had words to say. I said them, not caring if people thought them offensive or not.

“Decent isn't nearly good enough for this type of thug,” I muttered, “even if you have to do things under fire in a combat zone.” I then wondered idly if the thug's weapons were still intact.

“They are, and Georg found them and was waving people clear of his weapons and other things he dropped when you shot him the second time,” said the soft voice. “You didn't just 'get him some' when you hit him with that burst, you know.”

“What did I do?” I asked.

“Put five rounds in his chest,” said the soft voice. “You 'drilled him good', and only the fact that he was one of the hardest hard-witches on the continent allowed him to keep moving with a destroyed heart.”

“Who is that stinker?” I gasped. I recalled the description of Joost, and this individual looked just like him.

“No, it is not Joost,” said the soft voice. “Joost is a bit too dangerous for those people to the south to hire him without a pressing need to do so.” Pause, then, “his twin brother, however, was thought altogether suitable for this job – and that's him right there, or rather, what's left of him.”

I left the head of the dead witch lie after turning him over so as to look at his face, but the grenade splinters had turned his visage into something resembling witch-burger. Somehow, however, I recalled what he looked like as he bent over to look at a bomb he'd never seen before, and more, how a trap that was 'too simple' held a trap 'far too complex and thorough' – and had he known there were two such traps with someone waiting nearby to shoot him if he didn't fall for them...

“That is a bit better than decent,” I thought – though as Joost's brother's head began to slowly smolder and then burn with low guttering flames amid putrid clouds of black smoke, I left the dead to bury their own. I needed to look at what he was using, and more, get an idea as to what it was. It would probably give clues as to Joost's weapons, or so I thought.

The buggy could wait another five minutes, and as I walked through the trees, I noted where bark had been blasted off of them. More, I looked toward the south.

“Twenty miles out, and going at a steady pace,” I thought. “Here come the forerunners for tomorrow. Big crowd, going to take up this area and that in front, and we got to get all of that lead before tomorrow morning. Have no idea how with our current teams and vehicles...”

“Lukas did, does, and has done so,” said the soft voice. “It may well have to rest in places on the grounds, but he's signaled to a number of people with stone-wagons, and they're coming also. Expect two runs to get all of it, and it mostly to be on the grounds by nightfall, with the balance coming within an hour after sundown.”

“Stone-wagons?” I asked.

“More than a few wagon-shops used by such people are doing a land-office business, especially two that have 'paddle wheels' in modest-sized streams. Those might not have the speed of what Willem has, nor the raw torque of that huge wheel at Waldhuis, but the turning of a 'paddle-wheel' in a modest stream is a lot quieter than a marmot, it runs steadily as a rule, it does not need to take breaks, and the lathes used, because they're driven steadily, give a good finish to their workpieces and keep wear on their tools down. Hence a superior end result is achieved in about half the time, if you speak of lathe-time for wagon axles – and those people are busy.”

“And stone-wagons are parked two and three deep,” I murmured, as I came upon where I had hit Joost's 'dupelgaenger' or so identical twins were known here. Unlike most of those people, these individuals were alike to such a degree that dealing with this man wasn't much easier than Joost himself, and learning what Joost was likely to use made for wondering, as what was laying on the ground wasn't one of those fifth kingdom rifled muskets.

“That's a breech-loader,” I spat, looking at the rather ungainly-looking 'badly-done Sharps copy'. Upon further notice, I changed that to 'really weird but otherwise very well-executed Sharps copy', as this weapon's mechanism worked very smoothly, and more, when one snapped down the lever forming the guard for the two-trigger set-trigger mechanism, a long brass cartridge case ejected out of the breach with a rapping noise, this three-inch long rimmed brass thing still smoking and sooty. A whiff told me 'this man was not using commonplace powder, but something closer to what I used', and when I waved the onlookers away from first one dropped dragoon and then another, I began scanning all over for Joost's cartridge belt and his other dragoons. I soon found his waist belt, slightly ripped and torn, it still being attached to the trunk of his body. Unclipping it showed that it carried no less than forty loaded cartridges, and when I found first another such belt some distance further away, this one longer and holding more loaded rounds, then a third belt, this one holding mostly loaded rounds with a handful of used ones next to a second pair of emptied dragoons, I spat, “how much did he intend to use this thing?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” said the soft voice. “He was the backup plan for that one group in case they failed, and when he came, he was not expecting to find you. So, he fires once, your three shots tag him in his hand and neck, so he drops his rifle and starts shedding his cartridge belts as he runs, firing his six revolvers at your noise.”

“He was getting a bit too close for comfort,” I muttered, as I found a fifth example of one of those huge pistols, this slightly nicked by grenade-splinters, then the other of his third pair, this with his hand still clutching it. I removed his hand, and as I made to turn, that hand went up in smoke and flames. Only then did I look at the pistols themselves. I instinctively knew all six pistols were part of a matched set, and I knew from experience that given a pistol that took minutes to stuff and a few seconds to empty, the way to get 'firepower' was to carry several of them in a ready-to-use state. This man did precisely that, and he wasn't the only one to do so.

Cavalrymen of the Civil War usually carried as many pistols as they could, as reloading that type of pistol wasn't something one had time to do in a horseback-mounted melee. They didn't have Churchill's C-96 Mauser and its capacity to devour a clip of ten, this stuffed in with one's thumb. Removing the clip holding the rounds caused the bolt to rip forward, and tossing the clip in one's pocket meant one could resume shooting 'manstopper' bullets at oncoming Sudanese tribesmen.

I had not faced Sudanese tribesmen. I did have, at least at one time, a Mauser pistol of that type.

“These may be Brumm-sized, but they are not Brumm-grade,” I muttered, as I came back to the present with the last pair of pistols in my hands.

“Brumm got his pair through three intermediaries and was going to have them 'cleaned up, reworked, and timed',” said the soft voice. “This man paid a tripled price per pistol over what Brumm had paid – both initially and in advance to have his guns worked on – and got 'the best to be had' – and unlike Brumm, he knew well of the value of 'melee reloads', and hence bought a set of six.”

“Where did he get them?” I asked, as I policed up the rest of this thug's dropped equipment. This included another of those huge knives, this one showing some use – not much; the knife had seen regular care and wiping with what looked like fourth kingdom grease – and then another knife, this one long, sharply pointed – and quickly going to rust for its metal portion and its wooden handle going to dust just as quickly. It was embedded in the ground point-first, not far from where a splash of swift-smoking blood told me I'd first hit my assailant as I fired through his powder smoke.

“An Arkansas toothpick dagger,” I said. “Now why did he have one of those nasty things when he's got this rigging knife by Machalaat?”

“Because he was a witch, and that one knife there was cursed, so stabbing someone with it was far more likely to be deadly, compared to what else you found of his accoutrement,” said the soft voice. “While that is usually a matter of purest rubbish, when you get a knife like that made by a good knife-making witch and then curse-poisoned by Madame Curoue, the result is it indeed does kill more effectively due to the poison she put on the blade, and the rough-ground finish of that type of knife tends to both hold and maintain that venom's potency for a number of years.”

Pause, then, “as for his weapons, they were purchased through multiple intermediaries from the second-best gun-making concern in the fourth kingdom, and while they're nowhere near as well-known among the majority of people as weapons made by the Heinrich works, their 'best' grade guns give up little to those of the latter location for performance or durability.”

“But one difference,” I said. “They sell to witches...”

“No, not if they suspect the buyer to be a witch, much the same as the Heinrich works,” I heard. “The latter location does not make weapons like those you found here – they specialize in hunting weapons, especially fowling pieces.” Pause, then, “this location does make these weapons, and they normally deal with fourth kingdom market hunters, who often find they need to make long shots or deal with some 'big mean critters' found in portions of the third, much of the fourth kingdom outside of its central area, and parts of the fifth kingdom as well.”

“Tyrant lizards?” I asked.

“Those, some other 'big mean critters' that you have neither heard of nor seen, and these other rather rare animals that make elk when in the mood seem pleasant to deal with,” said the soft voice. “They're 'rare' because they do not like to be around people, but if you get down into the fourth kingdom's market's tonier Public Houses and get your teeth into an unusually large and flavorful roast, you can guess what animal provided it.”

“What?” I asked.

“Mobogo,” said the soft voice. “The word 'm'bogo' you saw in that bestiary is flat out wrong.”

“Big, black, meaner than a bad elk with a taste for mash, big horns...” I muttered.

“The first kingdom's elk act like Cape Buffalo,” said the soft voice. “Those things are worse.”

After policing up what of Joost's brother's effects I could – I found his sizable lard-slimed money pouch, then an even-more-sizable cache of supplies he had hid just inside the rear entrance under a cloth covered with branches and leaves, this having more ammunition for his weapons, much of a box of mining dynamite, jugs of genuine southern cleaning solution ready-rigged with dynamite that caused a surprisingly mild headache, some of the genuinely drippy type of dynamite, this wrapped with rusty chains and bagged up in coarse-woven cloth sacks with rope handles for tossing, equipped with short fuses and friction igniters; and finally, a jug of high-test, this of such size and color that it made me wonder as to its purpose – did this man work while trashed? – until I uncorked it and noted a nose-burning odor unlike anything I had ever smelled before. I pointed all of this out to the others as I brought back this jug, and when I proffered it to one of the carpenters, he yelled, “now how is it you get this triple-distilled tailor's antiseptic in this big of a jug?”

“That stinking dupelgaenger of Joost had brought it,” I said. “Did he want to drink that stuff?”

“Not if he is a witch,” said the man. “Those want bad brandy or this other stuff called forty-chain. Why?”

The thought was so outlandish that I almost dismissed it out of hand, but when I thought to say it, I could feel a distinct urging, this by no one physically present.

“To deal with injuries,” I said. “He knew that if the other group had failed that I was most likely on the premises – and that even if he managed to deal with me, he knew he was going to pay a high price while doing so. So he brought this stuff, thinking it would help any wounds he picked up – and he picked some up, all right.”

“Yes, I know,” said Georg. “I was waiting, thinking that if he came this way, I could shoot him with what I had from cover, but he went after you, so I stayed put.” Georg then unloaded his gun, and to my surprise, both shells in the gun had that infernal letter 'S' on them.

“Stiff shot, and that thug was as stiff as they come,” said Georg. “Still, I doubt he would have ignored it much.”

“He seemed to ignore me shooting him in first the arm and neck, and then five times in the chest,” I said. “He...” I then had a question. “How long would he have lived?”

“About long enough to get to his supplies before he lost enough blood to collapse and then die,” said the soft voice. “He was dead and did not know it, and like Sarah putting the ball of a roer through that one witch, the only reason he continued on as he did was he was literally 'as hard as they come' on the continent, and what you shot him with had enough punch at thirty yards to 'defeat' those hardening curses fairly well.”

“And Annistæ was a lot further away with Joost,” I said. “Still hurt him, though.”

“Better ammunition, mostly,” said the soft voice. “It took him nearly a month to recover enough to begin to learn to walk again on that knee, and nearly three months more hard work to learn to ride well again. If he must walk, he does so slowly, in great pain, and needs to rest a lot. He could manage far enough on foot if he had to, but he developed a still-growing addiction to that tincture for pain due to how badly his knee was messed up by that bullet destroying it, and he's corked solid from consuming substantial doses of well-cleaned flower sap on a thrice-daily basis.”

“And hence this example of thug had a decisive edge in some ways compared to the one I heard of,” I said.

“No small advantage in a fire-and-movement regime,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though, Joost is a bit better at being patient – being so drugged helps him that way – but those are about the only big differences between the two witches. They were impossible to tell apart on the basis of appearance, they had the same quantity and quality training, they were both extremely good at what they did, and neither man is replaceable as far as witchdom is concerned.” Pause, then, “witchdom took a big hit today.”

After gathering up the horses Joost's twin brother had hidden – he had five of them, all on long leads, all commonplace animals, all having small deer-skin saddlebags, and all of the animals stolen, or so I suspected – I brought them in using their leads, then closed the gate and plugged the lock with a sizable chunk of whittled wood and put a baulk of timber against the door to make it harder yet to open – with a grenade, handle-pinned-down, under the baulk of timber so as to give us ample warning of trouble as well as killing those attempting to go through that doorway.

After securing the horses to various trees near the horse-barn – the grooms could deal with them there – I made my way back to the boatwright's shop. There, I had a buggy to decipher and thereby learn what I could; and then, another session with Hendrik to answer more questions.

The weapons and their ammunition were already headed indoors using a trio of old yet still-serviceable wheelbarrows, and I suspected Annistæ would speak about them as much as myself.