Such noise this thing makes!

The sensation both physical and mental I had regarding 'food' grew rapidly greater, both as to my need to eat and also feeling faint in mind and body, and I was having trouble moving the needle into the cloth Sarah had laid out for me when suddenly an odor of such profound potency took over my mind that I dropped everything and 'attacked' the source of this wondrous smell. It was swimming before my eyes, and I felt as if I were a hungry Iron-Head trout and this was my customary food. I bit into hungrily, and that without hesitation, once the thing was within reach.

It was a sizable slab of toasted bread, this still warm, and heavily smeared with cherry jam, and the odor alone seemed to revive me.

Or so it seemed when my mind returned to me with the suddenness of a lightning bolt, and I reared up like a striking cobra, the sense of 'I'm back' was so sudden. I guessed that I had been about to fall down.

“I told you two to hurry, as he was about to faint from hunger, and you saw him wavering like a candle-flame in a wind-storm,” said Sarah. She was speaking to someone – who I could not tell, but when I heard an unfamiliar voice, I turned to see an obvious cook – Lukas' niece, no less. She was with another woman, one who I had also seen before in the refectory. She, I suspected, was a 'trainee' cook – one near the end of her apprenticeship, and since she was 'good', she would not need to journey. Besides, cooking at a kingdom house was the equivalent of 'journeying' for several years, as there one might well cook anything of an edible nature.

“She's probably safe enough,” I murmured, regarding Lukas' niece – until I saw that this 'apprentice' cook had a missing toe, and more, much of her training to be a cook had been a 'formality', as that 'accident' had happened two years ago, and doing so had 'woken her up' enough for her to make a blood-oath to fight evil when and where it showed itself. “Now how did that bread get toasted? I was so hungry I could not tell if it was fresh-toasted or not.”

“I had no idea there were people up here who could cook,” said Lukas' niece, “so I and she came up with the food so as to do that work, and then I had no idea there were two stoves running burnt-coal and something that makes a deal of good water.”

“Good w-water?” I asked, as I recalled Annistæ speaking of setting up the needed glassware to distill water – though I had the sense that water was best kept for chemistry. We needed gallons of the stuff, and that per hour – and what she was able to do, unless she set up several such distilling devices, seemed up to more like a few gallons a day.

“Yes, in that one room that sounds like a bee-log that's taller than a house and wider than I am tall,” said this other woman – who, I now realized, was about three years younger than Lukas' niece. Her missing toe had caused her to 'grow up', also. “It's a large copper tank, it's labeled as being filled with distilled water, and I was showed by the chemist how it worked using something involving... I'm not terribly sure how it works, but it seems part of what that thing in there does as it runs is it boils a great deal of water, and some of that water is caught, cooled using a special tank that heats the water going into the boiler, and then the water condensed from that steam is collected in this copper tank that's nearly as tall as I am and easily two feet across.”

“Cé, and it makes a lot of that water, so much so that I think we can take cans of it downstairs every day so they can cook good food that has no small creatures in it – as they cannot climb any distance out of the boiling water with the steam, and that thing that condenses such water is very large.”

It took another slice of jam-loaded toasted bread – Lukas' niece was seeing a heating lamp in action under her fryer, this done by Sepp as he wiped it with an oiled rag before placing every slice of bread as he toasted the stuff with swift dexterity, and she – and her companion – were both longing with great earnestness for such a compact heat-source. I noticed this before I felt up to 'supervising' the running of the straw and sawdust, and as the three of us went into the 'noisy' area, I could feel other work happening elsewhere in the immediate area.

“Is someone trying to bring up the pot-line?” I asked, as I put a handful of chopped straw in the grinder, followed by the 'sawdust' – sawdust mingled with smallish chunks of wood, chips made by chisels, 'bad pieces', and other matters that were considered 'waste'. I would let Sarah and Annistæ do most of the work on this run; my current presence was just to figure out problems if they occurred.

“Not yet, even if Deborah is looking in the pot-room and reading the printed documentation present there,” said the soft voice. “Gabriel has woken from his nap, which he needed badly, and is helping her try to figure out what needs to be done – and he tried sewing on that old clothing you were originally working on, but when he poked himself twice in three minutes while using one of her needles and needed some of that tailor's antiseptic on his fingers, Sarah dosed him with first that 'special' tincture and then three drops of that for pain – and he promptly went to that one room labeled as being for 'living quarters' and went to sleep for a few hours.”

“He doesn't know chemistry,” I murmured. “Then again, I don't know that much either.” Pause, then, “here goes nothing.”

The moaning noise built by the 'grinder' built to its usual howl, then the roar commenced – and the gouting of dust was just as if we were running clothing, save this dust was a yellowish brown, and not a rainbow of colors as the clothing got gnawed into dust. I was more than a little surprised to see what looked like iron filings in the 'rubbish' can, and thought that material warranted a magnet – and said magnet's material needed to get collected for Frankie, as it would most likely be that soft rubbish called 'iron' here.

“Not true in the slightest,” said the soft voice, as the grinder coasted down. “Recall your reading those books when you first got here, and feeling as if you knew far more than you should? As if you had not merely majored in chemistry, but had more than a bachelor's degree? Perhaps one that needed a book-sized dissertation?”

I nodded mentally as I reloaded the machine. This time it received a 'larger' mouthful, and Sarah blew her nose before muttering about wanting a damp rag for dust – and soft words, these wondering if being 'dusted' by a lightning-hare was worse than running this piece of machinery.

It was not quiet. I then heard more about the two people currently examining the contents of the pot-room.

“Anyone who could endure six long hard years of the hell of Boermaas, and then another person who endured but little less at Maagensonst – and did well in spite of all that was done to force him to become someone he was not interested in becoming then and is much less inclined toward at this time – neither of those people are 'dense'.”

“I think if Gabriel had managed to stay at the west school, he would have been chasing the ribbon-wearer, and I think Deborah would have worn her year's ribbon,” said Sarah – who then pressed the button, this with trepidation. The moan built steadily to a howl within less than a second, much as if this new machine was 'warming' to its task and breaking in at the same time.

“You underestimated both of those people, Gabriel more than Deborah,” said the soft voice. “Anyone who can do as he does in spite of that massive level of cursing put upon him is not dumb.” Pause, then, “then again, compared to your husband-to-be, though – he isn't that bright.”

The gout of dust shooting into the pail this time lasted perhaps two seconds longer, and again, there were more iron filings deposited in the 'rubbish' bin. Sarah looked inside there, produced something from her pocket, then fished it around in that rubbish 'bucket'. It came out covered with blackish 'fur', which she put into a small cloth bag. I then realized just what had been spoken about me, as I had been greatly distracted by the small silvery object Sarah had produced. It resembled a thick oval one-guilder piece, one rubbed smooth by long years of wear and witch-polishing – though I knew this wasn't a coin. I was going to ask her where she had found an obvious magnet, but again – that concept bored relentlessly into my mind, and it made me shake in horror, then gasp, “w-why?”

“You recall the special program you were in during much of your lower school years, and all of the time you were in the upper portion – all those special classes?” asked the soft voice. “How you received national recognition – and got an invitation from that one world-renowned college on the east coast of that country?” Pause, then, “that aspect of who you are got changed on the way here also.”

“Did I become s-stupid?” I asked. This time, I sneezed, this so hard that 'stuff' flew downrange to then ignite and burn to leave a thin gray haze that floated upward lazily along with much of the dust. Annistæ commented about the need for a fan in the 'stack' here, that and lining it with stovepipe of a large diameter, as the fume hood went up into a rough rocky tunnel nearly four feet across, and hence the draft was less due to 'surface roughness'. A smooth-lined tube with a fan in the right place would suck the dust up and out of the place then.

“No,” said the soft voice as an interruption in such thinking. “Your level of intelligence increased to no small degree on the way here, and it has grown steadily the entire time you've been here.” Pause, then, “recall how Rachel was solving mathematical problems as fast as she could write them on the wall?”

Again, I nodded mentally. Sarah pressed the 'loud' button, this after filling the machine's mouth with a mingled mix of straw and sawdust, leaving out most of the 'chunks' of wood when and where she could. I could tell this was 'floor-sweeping' sawdust, not the usual 'sifted' stuff given out as stove-fuel – and hence, it might well have some dropped nails and screws in it. I was glad the machine could handle that material, and gladder yet there were records on one of the memory cards I had strung about my neck. A slightly modified version of this machine was exactly what Willem needed for his hay – though for some weirder-yet reason, I had an impression that his situation could be drastically improved.

“Recall how you spoke of your 'lack' of ability that way?” asked the soft voice. “You no longer have that lack of ability, but can keep up with her that way, much like your facility with languages has grown.”

What?” I asked, as the howl built to an earsplitting roar and the dust gouted into the bucket. The machine was finally 'finding its legs', as it generally wanted a full load to work at its most efficient.

“Try a convolution integral when you get the chance,” said the soft voice. “You might be surprised at the result.”

“As in, uh...”

The very nature of this particularly difficult species of equation suddenly pictured itself mentally, symbols and all; and with a swift dexterity, no writing needed, I literally made mental chalk-dust erupt like an explosion and had the answer in what seemed seconds – and not merely in numeric fashion, but graphically as well.

“Your time sense is off, and that badly, due to that tincture you were given last,” said the soft voice. “You solved a nasty one in your head – and got not merely the correct answer, but could draw precisely what happened over time via a series of two-dimensional graphs – graphs that when combined give a three-dimensional construct, with the whole moving linearly over the fourth axis as it changes with respect to time.”

The strangest thing was actually seeing this thing play out and seeing the two-dimensional slices move themselves to form an odd and forbiddingly mobile shape as it moved along slowly through four-space along the time axis. It gave me a strange idea.

“Will they, uh, try to use my mind like a strange computer?” I asked. This time I was carefully loading the 'mouth' of the machine, showing Annistæ and Sarah how to get the 'best' results with straw and 'floor-sweepings': load the straw in as if it were bad spaghetti, this crosswise, then layered 'floor-sweepings' and straw, until the hopper of the machine was level full. Then, when it was indeed full to the brim, did one latch the lid closed. This time, Annistæ pressed the 'loud' button after Sarah produced a bag for the 'dust' and emptied the bucket into it. The bag was filled, and she left with it for the outer area as the howl built steadily and then progressed to the thundering roar, this now so loud I wanted earplugs for running the thing. The gouting 'dust' was frightful, and both Annistæ and I were sneezing as if we had allergies – and as the machine coasted down, we both left the room to give the dust in the air a time to clear out. It made for a sincere desire and a hope that Georg would order a lot more of that good stovepipe sheet in the larger size – unless, of course, I could get something made overseas beyond the fan motors that I'd most likely 'find' somehow.

“In the hospital, no,” said the soft voice. “Once you're in a 'wearable intensive care environment', though – they'll be recording everything, and you'll be giving them answers to a lot of things.”

I then found that the others had continued their food preparation, as Sepp had continued toasting bread, and now one of the benches had a cloth upon it with plates, several crocks, bagged-up bread with tin tags, and obviously, if I went by the smell, drowned Kuchen. I was inclined toward one of those, but thirst was a more-important matter, that and a visit to the privy. The two cooks were still present, and I found that Sepp wasn't the only person with a fryer – that one 'apprentice' had her own, this one a smaller item that made for wondering. It and a 'smaller' pot were both on those riveted stands that could only have come from one source, and both pot and fryer were under heating lamps turned down low.

I then felt people coming – a lot of people. We would have a crowded location indeed inside of an hour, and this food was intended for more than merely 'us'.

“More beer, and then I have a pot-line to start up,” I said, as I looked for 'my' cup on the table, found it, and found next to my cup a jug setting in a bucket filled with cracked ice. It was almost as if someone had said, “he needs his own jug.”

“Good idea,” I murmured, as I removed said jug and filled my cup with a tea-colored liquid of delightful smell. “Who needs that infernal bubbly stuff? This is proper drink, and it's good for body and mind.”

“And sick people, also,” said the soft voice. “Your speaking that way changed it to no small degree, and when they pitch that yeast into their jugs, the house's beer will improve tremendously.”

“Madame,” I said to Lukas' niece as I put the jug back in its container amid the icy water, “did you hear that?”

She nodded, then said, “good that it's kept in cracked ice, then. That type will wish its finishing in the cold-room, and I hope we have sufficient room for finishing a lot of it, as if it's good for sick people, it will probably help hurt people also. I do know something of witches and swine, and not just from Lukas telling me – I've put lead in both of those, and it was a near thing more than once.”

“Much as he is, dear,” said the soft voice. “He's going to get real medical care within days, and he needs that medical care badly.” Pause, then, “just wait, though. You'll have rooms fit for finishing such beer within a month or so.”

“Will the house's cold-room be enlarged so as to hold the number of jugs needed?” asked Sarah.

“I hope it is, as that beer tastes better than the usual type,” said Sepp as he sipped from his cup. He'd obviously sampled it, though what I was drinking was having a profound effect upon my mind, almost as if what I was drinking was not a species of 'liquid bread' but 'strong medicine' – strong enough to have some definite side-effects. “It helps a lot if you've been working hard, and it was hard work hauling those carts and food up here, as Karl and I had full packs and full hands, and we needed to shoot our way in here through the rats, it was so bad.” Pause, then, “they must have smelled the bread, as it was still warm from the oven here.”

“Ai!” shrieked Annistæ. “Go get those things, and put them in the grinder for farolcumbusteblé!”

“Those who are left here for cleaning were busy gathering those things, and they came on the run when they heard those two shooting,” said Lukas' niece. “It sounded like the swine had come, it was so bad, but once one of those two fired something that was so bad I needed to change my underclothing in the nearest privy, as I soiled it.”

“You fired full-auto at some rats?” I gasped.

“Yes, a short time, as we had struck what you call a rat-mine,” said Karl, “and that after putting two shells out of that fowling piece into the swarm of them as they came for us.” Pause, then, “I went through two entire boxes shooting rats and was about to use my third one when the rats decided they'd best go elsewhere for meals.”

“How much food did you bring in here? asked Deborah, who had somehow returned unnoticed. I then glanced at her and saw her using a rag to wipe her jam-reddened face. She'd been 'hiding', either that or had a small tin of jam in her bread-bag. Her time of 'slavery' most likely had taught her to 'hide' and then 'carry' food when and where she could.

“I am glad I brought two house-sized jam-pots,” said the younger cook, “and a whole sack of dried cherries, these ones I pounded in a mortar,” she said. “With two jam-fiends in here, and the others liking that stuff, and more coming once the rest of the lead arrives...”

“Yes, you will wish another such pot, as I know Esther likes jam,” said Deborah. “I nearly had to fight her over a jam-pot once.”

“Oh, then I'd best get to fetching another one shortly, as there were mirror-flashes coming in not twenty minutes ago...” said Lukas' niece.

“Since when...” I asked, amid swallows of beer – or rather, medicine. This stuff wanted that 'strong' tincture, as it tended to make weird things happen otherwise. Perhaps I would see a hairy tooth in the near future if I drank enough of this stuff.

“The person who spoke of them was a tall man, and he has an expensive watch,” said Lukas' niece, “and he caught the mirror flashes, as he and both kings were outside walking toward the boatwright's shop at the time he saw them, and he told me about the matter as we were about to start up the back stairs.”

“Meaning they were going back into Hendrik's office as you-all went to head up the back stairs, and hence it's more like, uh...”

Here, I brought out the small brass cube, opened it, and looked. “Oh, here. Twenty-nine minutes, and thirty-one seconds.” I closed the thing, put it away, then asked, “now how did that little, uh, box know?”

“It is learning to read your mind,” said the soft voice. “It has level-five acquisition now, and will soon have an undocumented level, one that is not currently known of overseas.”

“How much power does that thing have?” I asked.

“Enough that you'll wish to get into that pot-room shortly and plug it into one of that pot-line's 'battery' leads intended for such devices as soon as you bring the pot-line up,” said the soft voice. “It has quite a bit more power than you might think, actually – and that device will turn their heads around and flip them when they get its information – which they will when they learn of it being on your person.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that will enable them to build helpers that really work, far better than those devices they have records of,” said the soft voice. “You'll give them some of that information when you're in the hospital over there, but they need to get the place running right before they can use the remainder of that information – and you'll have to find and designate a fair amount of it, so that will take a bit of time and give you some needed practice – as Pieter will need one of those computers as well as the sextant, and in time, one of those 'brass' cubes like you have.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because those 'laptop' computers will both be smaller than the usual ones over there and vastly more powerful, and the information that comes from receiving their design and source-code will cause a wholesale rebuilding of their entire infrastructure over the course of the next few months.”

“Now, two more cups of that beer, fill your cup a third time, and then come with me,” said Deborah. “Oh, you need to start up that dust-maker, also.”

“He already did,” said Sarah, “and we are in here to both eat and get away from its dust and its noise – and I thought being dusted by a lightning-hare was bad, but I am not sure about that machine.”

“Why, is it especially loud?” asked Deborah.

“That's why I wonder if being leaped over by a lightning-hare and wearing its dust and dirt is worse than running that machine,” said Sarah. “Both are loud enough to give sick-headaches, both make you sneeze like you have bad pollen-sickness, and both make for a desire to bathe as soon as possible due to the itch that dust leaves upon you!”

“Bathe?” I asked. “Oh, that, uh, fine sawdust-like material. Probably makes for good clothes-dummies. Is now a good time to commence sewing?”

“Once I get some more food down, and then bathe, yes,” said Sarah. “I think we want to run that machine periodically, rather than one load after another, as then one does not get dusted nearly as badly.”

For some reason, I did not feel a distinct need to bathe, though once Sarah had returned from her bath, I then noticed the whole-body itch caused by being dusted. Perhaps it was due to getting enough food and drink down that my brain was working properly, but once bathed and my clothing soaking, I emerged to see the new 'clothes-dummy taking shape with stunning rapidity. Sarah, however, had a question for both men.

“Where did you two hide this stuff?” she asked. I could tell something about it being quite a bit different from what Karl had put together beforehand: that stuff was in such bad shape no one would wish to wear it, while this stuff looked about average for the house's used clothing. Hence, Sarah was more than a little afraid one or more witches might have gotten into it, seeing as how they more or less went everywhere in the house, even these upper floors should the inclination take them there.

After all, there were many secret passages that would permit them to travel to most places in the house with few if any being the wiser, and the upper floors seemed prime haunts of witches. After all, there were some 'rat-rooms' that had been stocked up with rats, and I just hadn't had time to hunt for them yet.

“This stuff we hid down the hall here,” said Karl, “and not all of this stuff is from my family. Some of it is from Sepp's family also, and they do not use their clothing up until it is rags like my family does.”

“And..?” I asked. There was more.

“That smelly witch of a teacher said that we needed to explore this place good,” said Karl, “so when we get into a place with dust that thick, the two of us knew no one had been up here for a ten-year at the least.”

“You mean 'no cleaners had been up here in a very long time,” I said. “I know for a fact that the witches know of ways of getting around this building – or at least, most of it – without any of us being the wiser, and as until very recently they had the only accurate plans of the building, they knew where everything was and had keys to everywhere not barred by a marked doorknob – and I know that for a fact, as I saw red handprints on the door to the chemistry glassware room earlier today.”

“Do you know where those passages are?” asked Deborah. She was using one of Sarah's needles and the looted thread from the Abbey, though I could tell she'd not make another ten stitches before helping get the pot room up and running.

“I'm not sure I do,” I said. “Do I?”

“Actually, you do, and when they read your mind overseas, they'll give you absolute details on this building, well beyond what even the witches know of it – which goes a bit beyond what is possible to put to paper and microfilm.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“It needs a computer to display these locations, as not all of them are conventionally displayable,” said the soft voice. “There may be a finite number of possible dimensional axes, but you know why that display for faster than light travel has a number of 'circles', all of varied colors?” Pause, then, “there are twelve 'circles', each representing a set of coordinates, and when they're in perfect convergence, you get a single perfectly-round ring centered on the screen, with each of the four possible means of deviation along the 'X' and 'Y' axes meaning a conventional set of four-space axes – on that scope. In reality, there are twelve conventional axes and a fair number more that are not conventional, ones that are created whenever a chain branches off of a time-space trajectory – and that's on the physical plane. What you sense by other means effectively adds yet more dimensions, and those need a computer and a special means of display.”

A longer pause, then, “while Karl thought he was careful enough, Sepp was looking carefully for any disturbed dust in the room they finally picked, and he carried his own candle lantern up here and looked carefully in that room and all of those adjacent to it – and wherever he went, as well as the entire distance from their hiding point to the stairs, he used a trio of lashed-together buzzard-quills to wipe out their tracks on the way out so as to brush the dust back into place – and then each time the two of them delivered more clothing, he checked the area again and did the same thing; and more, the two of them used the time just prior to the first posting, when the witches then in the house were the least likely to be up and around.”

“Listened to their doors, also,” said Sepp. “If you hear a lot of sleeping witches in General's Row, then chances are any of them that are awake are either getting ready to go to sleep, are off the premises, or so drunk they're not going to be listening good, as that time of night no witch is sober, and most of them sleep then, no matter what they say otherwise.”

“Unless you get one of those rare witches who's habitually sober,” I said.

“Most of those are plain-dressed witches,” said Sepp, “and they got to blend in good, so they're going to be asleep, and those that are the ones that were sober and black-dressed weren't anywhere near here as a rule – and they weren't at all common outside of a few places near the second kingdom house.”

“Meaning the risk of encountering one then was fairly small, and you had good reason to explore the area. The clothing you could pass off as 'this area is so dirty that we're likely to get filthy, so it's something we can change into if needed,” I said. “Then, while the witches do get up into all of the floors, once one gets above the third floor, there aren't that many places they can get to without leaving tracks.”

“Tam told me that,” said Sepp. “He's heard plenty about this house over the years, and he told me the witches knew its real plans and what plans Hendrik had of the place were likely to have enough truth for him to buy them – and that otherwise, he and every other king that's been in here who hasn't been a serious witch has been sold.”

“And now there is no dust present, and won't be much for a while,” I said.

“Very true,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, that area isn't one that interests them, so the two men were safe due to Sepp's precautions – and with no dust in the house, tracking them requires capacity that approaches yours, and no witch currently alive, not even Joost himself, comes close to your ability that way.”

“Meaning I could probably find that stinker before he learns of my presence?” I asked.

“Right now, yes, but you'd have to find the time to get out there now, as once the first kingdom swarms with witches he'll have an effective 'early warning system' once more, and you're not able to just 'show up'.”

“And dealing with him right now is not a good idea,” I murmured. “Not today, nor for the next week or two, but...”

“You will get him soon enough,” said the soft voice. “Anyone who's got your reach can go after a witch like that whenever he's given the capacity to do so.”

“And now, I need to deal with a pot-line,” I said. “Come, those of you who wish to learn of such matters who aren't inclined toward sewing or eating.”

Gabriel was 'glutting' himself, and given what had happened to him recently, I wasn't surprised, while Annistæ and Deborah came with me into the room with the generator. Again, that profound warmth, and when I came to the panel with the circuit breakers, I scanned their labels for the various pot-runs. There were easily thirty circuit breakers, and I flicked a number of them on, then went out of the room after a glance at the powerplant and its various components. I then saw the water tank, and knew another matter.

“No, it does not tap water off of the main boiler, but off of the engine exhaust for boiling water for distillation,” I said.

“It can do both of those things,” said the soft voice. “Which it does depends upon the level of water in that storage tank, how often that engine is run, and how hard it is run – and you bringing up the pot-line will put enough load on that engine that the exhaust steam of that last cylinder will produce two or more gallons an hour of distilled water.”

“Can we run that engine around the clock?” I asked.

“If needed, yes,” said the soft voice. “I'd not do it tonight, as tomorrow is going to be a very long day for the five of you, one that will start before dawn and continue until very late at night – and that for the whole of a much-extended day.”

The first thing I looked for was a place where I could charge up the brass cube, and when I found 'the battery shelf', I began looking for a place which had a 'dangling' plug. I soon found one, turned on the regulator – and noted the digital panel meter, this showing a message instead of an output voltage.

What is this going into?”

“Why, a device for which I have no name but is able to do more things than I can believe possible,” I murmured. “I have no idea...”

I then drew it out, and placed it next to the meter – within perhaps an inch, but not touching. To my astonishment, this 'commonplace-looking' meter then printed:

Oh, one of those things. I know what it wants.”

The message then blanked, and showed:

0.00 pressure units. Waiting for connection.”

I looked at the brass cube, found no place for a jack, then as I continued turning it over and looking for a place to 'plug it up', suddenly a small hole opened up in the case, and then this hole was replaced by an obvious 'power jack'. I was speechless, so much so that when I put the plug in, the 'digital panel meter' displayed.

Connection Established. Now negotiating rate of current transfer for initial charging.”

“What is this, a smart charger?” I asked. “I never heard of a battery charger 'communicating' with the device being charged – even a so-called 'smart charger'.”

“More than just that,” said the soft voice. “Computer batteries, especially that type, hold a lot more power for their size and weight than things like pot-batteries, but like most things in life, free lunches are just 'good advertising'. They don't generally happen – and that type of battery, while it can 'suck current like no tomorrow' and do much the same for sourcing it, doesn't have a whole lot of 'common sense'. More, it can suck and source so much current for its size that it gets hot enough to both melt its case and start fires – and that's apart from what it can do to a sensitive electronic device like what's in that instrument. Hence, that 'meter' needs to actually control the rate of charge as well as tell you how much current is flowing, as well as the voltage going into the device; and when the battery is nearly full, it needs to taper back until the device is fully charged – and that device will chirp three times when it's 'full'.”

“The first time?” I asked.

“That's the most critical instance for that species of battery,” said the soft voice. “Most 'laptops' have such circuitry built into them, but that thing is so 'fully packed' that it needs a special charger.” Pause, then, “you've got a power conditioner in your possible bag, so you can use 'commonplace' charging means overseas, or if needed, a hand-cranked generator to keep it charged up.”

As if to remind me, the display now began alternating the following messages:

Initial charging cycle.

3149 standard time units remaining.

Current flow: .397 units.

Pressure: 12.49 units.

“Now we can bring up the pots,” I said. “First, we need to see if we have anodes, cathodes, an appropriate electrolyte in sufficient quantity, and then we need to test that electrolyte...”

“I learned that much reading the documentation,” said Deborah. “Now how do we test that electrolyte?”

“Do we have anodes and cathodes?” I asked, going to the nearest pot. I found that it had a cover, and more, that this cover, while close-fitting, did a good job of keeping foreign materials out of the cells while letting the inevitable gases involved in electrolysis escape. I lifted the lid by its handle, and gazed down into the cell.

“Dark green, clear, star-shaped anode, then this thin sheet of what looks like the strangest copper I have ever seen...” I muttered.

“That's a copper cell,” said Deborah. “This whole row is those, and each of these things has a label saying what it is and much else molded into its' front. There are others that are processing silver, that being most of them, then another row that is gold – and each of them is supposed to use its own tester.”

“Do you know what these testers look like?” I asked. “Is it a long glass thing with these little balls inside, and the number and position of them when you suck up some of that electrolyte tells you what to add so as to keep it 'right'?”

“That was the portion I wondered about,” said Deborah. “Gabriel found the testers – I think.”

“You think?” I asked.

“They were each in their box, and there were several of them, but those were for that type. There is another type that is much more complex, and it only showed a picture of it – that, and this strange-looking blue-gray thing that I knew enough to not touch, especially as it showed me that it was for you, and that you needed to take that little box with you when you go tomorrow.” Pause, then, “I think you have some of them already on this string about your neck, and they hide in your clothing, just like that pendant does.”

“Meaning it either needs making, or we need to get it overseas, or get the parts there and make it here, or something similar, and that blue-gray thing is a protector for a memory device,” I said. “Most likely the routine work of testing can be done using the simple means of those 'hygrometers', but the other type is...”

“That 'simple' means is for routine testing, as it's quick and easy to do, and requires but a limited understanding of chemistry, so all you need is the right tester and the card in its box and an ability to read and follow the instructions printed on that card,” said the soft voice. “Whenever you get a pot that's giving weird results when the electrolyte tests within acceptable limits, that's when you need the more-sophisticated means – and that will be one of the first things the three of you will be making here, as there are a fair number of parts overseas that will need to be made specially, including a large number of 'valfuelæ' – as the means they have there now for doing that work are large, complex, highly automated, and not adequate to the task, which means that once you get your meters made, expect them to want some for their use.”

“What?” I asked.

“Simple,” said the soft voice. “The place that makes those sensitive probes that go bad in a hurry is where you are heading, and those probes are that way by deliberate intent due to the correct materials being withheld by the current leadership. Annistæ's probes, if made right using the right materials, can give similar or greater levels of accuracy while remaining infinitely rebuildable, and the same for meters made right using proper parts that work right – and what means they have now are makeshifts in comparison to what you will be making.”

“Hence we use the hygrometer – that's not what this thing is, even if it looks like what would be used to check specific gravity, like I've done for car batteries. Correct?” I was wondering more than a little just what that 'hygrometer' was.

“More so than you could believe possible,” said the soft voice. “The reason that one series that showed interstellar travel that you recall from your younger days showed such 'strange' equipment was that they had not become as advanced as where you are going – and hence 'powerful' equipment looked strange, difficult to use, hazardous, and in most cases, it was all of those. That's why you must not disregard any thoughts over there, no matter how outlandish they seem.”

“Such as 'a ball-point pen' that sprays flames and gets alien soap operas'?” I asked. “Something that looks like a commonplace transistor radio that that one peculiar-looking gentleman I recall seeing on that one series would have enjoyed for a toy? Or, an electronic snake that comes out of a container that resembles a Campbell's soup can?”

“Yes, and weirder thoughts than those, even,” said the soft voice. “I would be careful with the ball-point pens that spray flames, though – those things do exist over there, and they're not particularly rare, even if they're not currently able to display 'alien soap operas'.”

“Strange-looking 'brass' cubes that do more than I can dream of,” I muttered. “Thing can hide itself in plain sight in seconds, acts like a computer that makes every such device in one of the computer labs at school working in tandem look sick for power...”

“It does all of that because it does make a cluster of those Sparkenboxen look sick for power,” said the soft voice. “That device is essentially one of their better laptops done right.”

I turned around in shock and horror to see the little 'brass' cube seem to grin at me like a Cheshire cat – and then slowly fade 'into the wood of the shelf' until only the 'grin' was left to remind me it was present. It then resumed its 'brass' color, this over perhaps three seconds.

“I saw that, and I do not believe my eyes,” muttered Deborah. “This makes every old tale I ever heard seem silly.”

“You are living in an old tale, dear,” said the soft voice, “and you will be a character in many of those told in days to come – one fully as able and as 'strange' as those in the more memorable ones you recall from your days as a small child.”

“Will hearing about me put people in the privy?” asked Deborah.

“Yes, just like that strange long-haired man next to you has already done on more than a few occasions,” said the soft voice. “Now use that 'hygrometer' to check the electrolyte.”

Deborah led me to the box – or boxes, I soon learned, as there were several of each type – and once I had read the information on the inside of the box whence I had removed a 'hygrometer', I knew it wasn't half of what I thought it was.

It didn't just check specific gravity: it checked everything, and the 'location' for each of the balls was etched on the glass container. I sucked up a load of electrolyte, then watched the small balls 'migrate' to their assigned regions over the course of seconds.

“Dead even,” I murmured. “That one's fine. Now rinse this thing out using distilled water, blow it out well, and do the next one – which is one reason why we need, uh, 'chemistry-grade' distilled water.”

“The drinking grade will serve for the time being,” said the soft voice. “Since that is new electrolyte, you only have to more or less show the two women 'how' to do it, and since both of them will catch on quickly, you-all can bring up this pot-line within about ten minutes.”

It proved a busy ten minutes, even if Deborah 'got' using a hygrometer by the time she'd done it twice and Annistæ only needed a single instance, while the meters below each pot needed a minute's explaining and three minutes watching on my part, this will looking at the inside of a pot after 'bringing it up' using a sizable rotary dial on a dark black metal 'panel' below the pot itself. The glossy black of the panel made for nightmares, at least until I touched it and pulled my hand away.

“Glossy..?” I gasped. “That finish for a heat-sink?”

“They'll like that recipe you used to put on those motorcycle engines,” said the soft voice. “The stuff that needed heating in an oven – the stuff that came out a dark gray matte finish?”

“I have that recipe?” I gasped. “Gun-something?”

“Yes, on one of your memory cards,” said the soft voice. “More, that recipe is far more wear-resistant and can be either glossy or matte, or any finish in between – and it helps with heat dissipation to a far greater degree, just like what you're looking at right now.”

“I'm familiar with the dark gray stuff,” I murmured. “That color there gives nightmares.”

There was no comment from either the soft voice or Deborah, but Annistæ said, “that color was used by witches in old tales, but if one wishes a good paint that is ready applied with a brush for electronic equipment, that was the color we had the most of.”

“Th-that color?” I asked. For some odd reason, I was thinking of anodized red or yellow.

“Yes, it became even when brushed, unless one did a bad job, then once it had dried, one cooked it in an oven, and then it became like that,” said Annistæ. “It was used on some weapons, in fact, save then we would use leather straps with this red material...”

“Rouge?” I asked.

“Cé, and then it would remove much of its shiny aspect, so it would not reflect light, much like that finish is on those daggers,” said Annistæ. Her use of 'our' language was improving nearly as quickly as my understanding of hers, and I thought her language to be a bit better for describing chemistry, at least based on my limited experience. It had that 'violent and unpredictable' tone so appropriate to making things like 'thimble-mix'. “I hope to get one of your good ones, along with one of those other knives spoken of, ones that have but one edge.”

“Knives?” I asked, as I looked up to see a madly-bubbling pot. The thing wasn't quite boiling, but looked more than a little inclined toward doing so, and I knew regular checking was going to be needed at this setting, perhaps as often as once an hour, to replace water and possibly other chemicals in these pots. I turned down the dial slightly, noted lower readings on all of the three meters, again checked the pot – which was now bubbling a fair amount, but not on the verge of boiling – and then replaced its lid.

“About every two hours or so,” I murmured. “These are going to take a certain amount of experimentation to learn their 'best' settings, as I'm not certain just what they are doing yet and how much attention you wish to give them. I do know if you turn them up you'll need to check them often and add one or more things to each pot more often. The current setting...”

“Will need checking twice a day,” said the soft voice. “Until you start casting anodes regularly in here and have several more people routinely on hand, as well as several of those meters working as they should, I would run that setting you have there. Once you have all of the needed things and are pouring anodes on a daily basis, then you can run higher settings, until you find the optimal one for your plant and its people.”

“Optimal?” I asked.

“Lower settings give slower transfer, but a greater purity of the deposited metal,” said the soft voice, “and need less checking in general. Higher current settings, on the other hand, are trickier to run, need more checking in general, and transfer both a lot more metal and somewhat more impurities. What settings you run depend on a number of things.”

“We will need to experiment, then,” said Annistæ. “It will need us running an analysis upon our metal regularly, such that it is good enough to work well.”

“Ain't no such thing as 'absolute' purity,” I muttered. This language was better for that sort of speech. “Not here, anyway. Maybe in the next world it exists, but absolute...” Pause, this as I was given a distinct impression that I was most definitely wrong. I then said in shocked surprise, “no? It can be done here?”

“It can be achieved here, but it is not quick nor is it easy – and you don't have that much time, not to process the sheer weight of metal you will need to run,” said the soft voice. “You do need to achieve an adequate level of purity, which you'll know when you get it.”

“Enigmatic answer,” I said – and then shook my head before spitting out the words as if they were a bad taste in my mouth. “It will come out shiny straight from the pot, it will be really grainy and strange-looking, almost like something out of a metallic-based nightmare, but it will glitter in the light as if it were a faceted gemstone, and it will be very shiny!”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “It will test as better than ninety-nine dot nine nine nine pure, which is what you need to get gold like Sarah's ring – and that level of purity you'll need to preserve, as gold, silver, copper, and many other metals behave differently from their usual when they achieve that level of purity – and they act much differently at anything less.”

“And that means I must have good chemicals, very pure ones, and do analysis with the correct equipment,” said Annistæ. “Now, let us get all of these things to their running, and then go to work on that training-man so we can practice with our knives. This equipment will not do us much good if we are not alive to make it work, so we must practice with our weapons as much or more than anything else.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “Just go to each pot in that copper line, and set them up at that setting – namely, thirty-five – set 'silver' to thirty-four, and gold to thirty-two – and bring them up slowly, and watch the three meters and the pot in question as you bring up the dial a bit at a time. You always wish to do that while doing pots of this size, and do so with a thoroughly-warmed-up powerplant.”

“Voltage, current, and 'rate'?” I asked.

“Yes, and those will need checking just like with the hygrometer and those other means which will become available,” said the soft voice. “Everything about what is done in this room is fairly critical if you wish to get rapid deposition and maintain adequate levels of purity, but lower rates are fairly easy – and all three of you know that it's best to start 'easy' and work up to 'hard'.”

Accordingly, we split up, our voices growing steadily 'louder' as the formerly soft humming noise became steadily louder, until by the time we had turned on all of the hundreds of pots – there were a lot of these things in here – the hum was loud enough to conjure a nightmare on my part, and I all but ran out of the place in a state of panic.

It was causing a flashback, one where I was smelling an odor like a species of long-aged cheese, and then hearing Sarah yelling for us to run, for we had encountered a wasp nest.

“Time for a dose, I guess,” I squeaked, as I came out of that place and lurched to a halt near the table where that iced jug of beer was yet sitting. “It was s-smelling like ch-cheese in there, and...”

“Are there wasps in that place?” asked Sarah nervously. Her face was as white as a bleached sheet.

“N-no, but it sounds like we were walking in a nest of those things,” said Deborah. “If you have the bull formula, I will take an entire tube of it and wash it down with three cups of beer, as I have been chased by wasps more than once.”

“Best get that special tincture, then,” I said. “You'll wish darker goggles if you take it, that and some, uh, hearing protection.”

“I know about the earplugs, and I have a pair of them,” said Deborah. “I have my own, which I found earlier today in a pouch with my name on it. Now where are these darker goggles, as I need that stronger tincture so as to not go out of my mind.” Deborah was definitely 'getting the fear', if I guessed right – she had not just had 'commonplace' wasps come after her. Those were bad enough, if I went by the instance I had seen of them – and on top of what I had been told.

These that Deborah had encountered had been cursed wasps, and more, the witches sending them after her and her relatives had actually known a portion of the set of wasp-curses, and while most of their cursing had been in vain, there were two or three curses that, given a strong-enough group of witches, could actually cause the insects to go after a certain individual or group thereof.

“Yes, Gabriel's family knew of those curses, and they told them to the then-reigning Power who then had that portion of the potato country in his district – and that witch and his coterie had enough strength to curse a large wasp-nest and send its insects against Deborah and her extended family – and more than one witch died when he wasn't strong enough to stand up to the spirits that emerged from the nest during the conjuring, and several more witches died when they were stung to death by irate wasps.”

“So that's why we had so much trouble with wasps that summer,” squeaked Deborah. “We shot down hundreds of those things, and we burnt wasps every day for the whole summer, and it was a near thing for many of us.”

“You learned to use a fowling piece then, didn't you?” I asked.

“Y-yes, and I had to carry one everywhere and shoot it often, even if it put me on the ground at first more often than not,” said Deborah. “As it was, I was working hard making wasp-shot every evening that entire summer, and we needed good wasp-shot so as to drop those things regularly, so I was either filing on blocks of printer's lead with a file as large as this sword I have, cooking the stuff on an old blackened fryer, or mingling the stuff with blacking and then sifting the blacking out.”

“Uh, small globules, perhaps three lines across for many of them?”

“Yes, for the smaller ones,” said Deborah. “Most of them were closer to four, and nearly perfectly round – and that's what you wish for wasp-shot if you have them come for you a lot and need to shoot them down consistently.”

“And you learned that you do not load your fowling piece with a measure of powder and a measure of lead when shooting at wasps,” I murmured, as Sarah gave Deborah a dose of that one tincture. I was glad that particular vial was as large as it was – or so I thought when Sarah spoke of Anna bringing more of what was needed to make it, and Annistæ wishing its 'recipe' so as to 'improve' it.”

“Improve it?” I asked.

“Something she recognizes as a great need,” said the soft voice. “Also, she needs to make it such that it's fit for injection, as then it can take effect quickly, even if you just 'stick it in' nearly anywhere.”

“Oh, that,” I said. “I've done that. Veins, forget it, but 'poking', save for the 'ouch' part, isn't terribly difficult.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “If we can deal with the part that hurts, then you'll need to teach Anna and I how to do it.”

“Those overseas can do that, as for him to do so as he is right now would give him waking nightmares,” said the soft voice. “He had to do that multiple times a day for nearly ten years, and almost always, it hurt, and often, it bled – sometimes badly.”

“And here, you would need to worry far more about infections, if I go by the need for 'tailor's antiseptic' for needle-pokes,” I said. “What gives about that – a big curse-collection?”

“Partly that, and mostly a lot of time-denatured biological warfare agents that remain present from the time of the war,” said the soft voice. “They'll go when the Curse is entirely broken, and go mostly when you deal with that one particular 'Voodoo Child' who 'rests' in a particular mountain among those known as the Blue Mountains.”

“Oh, no,” I murmured. “First we get to live in a nightmare realm filled with thick darkness and dense purple fog, and then we get to go inside this horrible mountain... No, stand up next to that mountain, and ch-chop it down...”

“Yes, which means you and those with you will be going into that very room,” said the soft voice. “That happens after you live with the purple fog and darkness, though – and once you deal with that, then you will be able to handle 'Voodoo Children' like the one in the mountain – and after dealing with her and her curse, 'Voodoo Children' in general, no matter how big or nasty they are, just like in that second dream where you were flying like a bullet more than once.”

“Uh, there's more before that, correct?” I asked.

“Yes, and not a little more, as you'll need time to decipher just what that curse means, as countermanding it will demand precise and detailed knowledge, as well as a lot of preparation of one kind or another,” said the soft voice. “That, and you'll need to 'chop it down with the edge of your hand', figuratively speaking, which means you'll need to have enough power to do so – and that means dealing with some other 'Voodoo Children' first, including a certain slavemaster.”

“Thank God that stinky wretch and his smelly animal aren't in here right now,” I said.

“Do not speak of that witch,” said Sarah. “Here. Wash it down with beer, then head for the privy.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I got my dose. “Do I need to spew?”

“I doubt that,” said Sarah. “I do not doubt that you need to use that place, as if I can forget to go until I need to go, and you're worse yet, then you most likely need to use the place.”

Sarah had underestimated just how bad I was about being unaware of the state of my body, and after getting my dose, I had to run for the place. I got there just in time, as I needed to go twice – first from the front, and then from the rear, and the latter left an odor that I could have sworn was blood, if I went by the foul smell. I was glad this privy seemed to have decent ventilation, even if it did not 'flash' or 'flush'.

“Reminds me of that one surgery I had,” I muttered, as I left the privy and closed the door. It was, as every privy door I had seen here, a brown door, only this one looked that way because the thing was made of blackwood and rubbed with twenty coats or so of drying oil before it was hung with three Machalaat hinges or good copies thereof.

It gave me some definite ideas about door-hinges – something about casting the parts for them on a routine basis, then forming their pieces at the Abbey – and hinges that used 'tough' bronze and 'hard' steel, with oiling places on top fitted with secured caps of a type I was well-familiar with would last a long time.

“The reason it does is because you took several through-and-through hits from 'front-loading elephant guns', and while you did not develop peritonitis from those or the other hits you took then, you did bleed some into your gastrointestinal tract before matters 'sealed up'.” Pause, then, “those injuries will be repaired properly overseas, which is why you will most likely need a lengthy period in a theater, with more than one team of those people working on you.” Pause, then, “they'll think you did a year's time in Berky with those injuries – at least until they read your mind and learn what really happened, both here and where you came from.”

When I returned to the scene of 'dummy construction', however, I found that a seat had been reserved for me, complete with another iced jug of beer, my cup – the thing had somehow moved; either that, or I had shared someone else's germs – and a small plate with a slice of bread, a Kuchen, and a small tinned-copper cup of jam with a slim silvery spoon in it. Sarah insisted I get 'full-loaded and red-faced' before I touched a needle, and when I saw Deborah eating as if starved, I didn't wait a second to do likewise.

“Good that they'll return with the pies about the time the others are due back and have their animals stabled,” said Sarah. “Now I'm glad they left that fryer here for our use, but what I wonder about is that one smaller one. We may wish things like it.”

“The top of a mess-kit works as a fryer, though it's a bit small for bread slices, unless you cut them in thirds,” said Sepp.

“That was why I wondered about that smaller one,” said Sarah. “Its handle folds, and has a bolt and a strange-looking cast nut to hold it in place.”

“Oh, one of those,” I said. “Did that folding one they left here have any kind of markings on it?”

Sarah got up, looked at the thing before grasping its handle, then took it over to me. On the underside was a cast-in prism marking, this clear, sharp, inletted, and the size of a one guilder coin.

“So that's where it went,” I said. “I did four of those, so there should be three more of them.”

“They're all in the house somewhere if I know this place,” said Sarah. “I suspect one can check them out by signing for them, as I recall Lukas speaking of a strange fryer he'd packed when heading down to the third kingdom and back, and...”

“I did those then, dear,” I said as I began 'getting into some beer'. “I recalled casting them of bronze and tinning them, as well as riveting on the wooden portion to the handles.”

Three cups later, and half a Kuchen, and I was definitely 'full-loaded', and a touch of a folded 'rag', one with a hemmed edge folded next to my plate, spoke of a distinctly red aspect about my mouth. I then noticed the strange spoon.

“Ooh, where did this spoon come from?”

“That's one of those Abbey spoons,” said Sepp. “Seems they have things for eating that are as good as anything I've seen, and these soft packages that have about four different-colored spoons and some things like those you made of tinned brass – though for regular eating, those are better, even if they weigh a bit more in the hand.”

“They're brass, that's why,” I squeaked. “This is t-titanium, and it's a lot lighter, and it does not need tinning.”

“They improved those a lot during the first part of the war, and there are lots of better ones overseas,” said the soft voice. “They do not merely have differing colors – those there commonly present are not merely color-coded, but also hard-treated, so they do not hardly wear out; and in many places in the Valley, you can find those old eating utensils still in use.”

Annistæ held up her spoon, and smiled. “I think this might be one of those, then, as it has been in my family since Rachel's time, and it has gone from mother to daughter ever so long.”

“The women run things there?” I asked.

“Like you are thinking of, non,” said Annistæ. “Those who lead do so because they are good at it, and whether they are men or women does not matter, at least when they are not Cabroni.” Pause, then, “this was but one of the things my family had, and it is tradition that it went from mother to daughter, when there were daughters, and since I was the only one of the three children my mother had who was a girl, I received it before I left for my schooling at that mountain, and I have held it close to me ever since. Only that book is more important to me, as both things are needed for life.”

“True, very true,” I said as I threaded a needle, then went after my possible bag. For some reason I wanted it and what was in it handy. “Now I used to have some things like those brass 'spoons' I made, but they were a bit soft, so they'd leave marks on plates and things.”

I found my bag, retook my seat, resumed eating, and when I was truly full, I removed the suppressed pistol, checked it carefully, made sure the ammunition in the magazine was the 'slow' stuff – and laid it atop the closed bag, such that it was within easy reach, and the same for the sheathed dagger. I wanted those handy, as I suspected our food would draw rodents, and I wished to be ready to have rats to put into that grinder over and above those that were still being collected up from Sepp and Karl's shooting.

Both men were industriously engaged in cleaning their weapons, and the 'cleaning solvent' was definitely in use. Its distinctive odor spoke was a bit like Deborah's perfume, only it bit one's nose a lot more.

“Might wish a little, uh, aquavit in that stuff,” I murmured.

“You need to leave me a small tube of that stuff for study, and one of those special bottles of it for cleaning my weapons,” said Annistæ. “I will most likely be making more of it or something like it soon, but how much I can make is not something I know, and the same for how quickly.”

“Yes, I know,” said Deborah, who had the butt of a suppressed pistol protruding from her laboratory smock. It made for a really strange association: the scalpel and other tools of surgery, the set of tools needed for diagnosis of medical problems, a rather strange-looking computer, and a stranger-yet looking pistol – one that fired a much stronger cartridge than these 'obnoxious' smaller pistols.

The pistol in question, however, was as long for its slide and its butt as a hand-howitzer, even if the bore was a good deal smaller and the recoil far less.

“Try 'more manageable' recoil,” said the soft voice. “Those will be developed during the period just prior to going into the black sack, and they'll be among the first weapons assembled in that dark and foggy realm – and what you saw will be part of what goes in every medical person's 'kit' in that place, and eventually, the entire planet.”

“A pistol?” I asked.

“Yes, because when you're in a place like that, anything can happen,” said the soft voice. “Then, recall that portion you recited of the real medical oath, the one that was said overseas before the current leadership took over?”

I nodded. It made utter and complete sense to do so, and that hand upon book – and reading that book was fully as important as anything else, as it gave one the proper moral grounding to do anything that involved people's lives.

That book said to 'let people die' was wrong. They would die when God chose for them to do so, and hence one needed to do all one could to save them – as if it were their time, it would not matter as to what one did, and one would save his or her own soul by doing all that he or she possibly could to save their lives.

“Including, if needed, shooting functionaries who try to kill your patients, just like medics learned to carry full military gear on the battlefield in that war long ago,” said the soft voice. “There's a reason Graćiella has that expert soldier badge as well as that of a combat medic, and that's because she's needed to fight her way to an injured soldier, and then drag that person back to cover under fire so as to treat him or her.”

“Him or her?” I asked.

“She's needed to do that a number of times during fights with witches, and in all such cases, she's needed to kill numbers of enemies, because the witches they encounter try for those people more than anyone on the battlefield – and they did the exact same thing during that war long ago.”

“Hence it is written in that black book,” I muttered.

“No, but the rules regarding life imply helping others survive are wrong in that book, and what you were noticing regarding people's attitudes where you came from produced that book's chapters on life, death, behavior, and in fact the bulk of what is written in that book, including many of the curses and most of the language.” Pause, then, “there's a reason why that witch-run country named itself as it did, and that's because it saw what produced people like you – either 'entire true-witches, or entire monsters'. But one trouble, and you've been told what it was.”

“That that kind of place would create the monster?” I asked, as I resumed sewing on a seam. The needle was working especially well, as was the thread, and I periodically stopped to scan the area around us.

I could feel 'the coming of the rodentia', and I wished to scrawl that one somewhere on the walls here.

“Exactly, and don't be too surprised about seeing people writing on the walls in here when you get back,” said the soft voice. “It was commonplace long ago, and those overseas will do so with a vengeance once their current leadership is dealt with.”

“Graffiti?” I asked.

“Not in the sense you commonly found where you came from, but more like you taping up paperwork where you lived,” said the soft voice. “Remember how you would write important information on your computer monitors? That kind of thing, or like what you were just thinking about.”

“Yes, and I have an idea as to what that might be,” said Deborah. “Sarah, everyone, we will have rats shortly. I can smell those things.”

“Hence my pistol and knife, dear,” I said. “Now to needles. Sarah, I have a question.”

Sarah, however, was preparing herself for a massive rat-invasion, if anything, as not only did she get her pistols out – all of them, including both hand-howitzers and the three eight-and-a-half Webley revolvers – but she also got one of the double-barreled shotguns, put two shells in its opened breech, and laid the still-open gun by her. Only then did she return to sewing.

“You must be expecting a great many rats,” said Deborah. “Could you smell them?”

“Not like you could, but if Sepp and Karl had to shoot their way in here through a lot of them, and we have food in here, then if he's got a pistol and knife handy, and you smell rats, then I expect trouble, and a lot of it.”

“Speaking of trouble,” I said, as I began a new seam. This clothing, while not 'mostly patches', did need a lot of mending, and we were having to do an especially good job, as straw didn't seep out of things like that infernal dust did. Just to prove matters once more and remind us to do our very best, someone started the grinder, then to my surprise Annistæ took her place once more and resumed sewing as the howl built into a roar that raised the hair on my head for several seconds.

“I do not need to sneeze in that room,” she said. “If I do that every so often, then the dust will be less in the air, and if I run out of there after I press that button, then I do not breathe such dust as much.”

“Stuff is probably toxic,” I muttered.

“Not particularly, but neither you nor she needs to be breathing dusty air more than is needful,” said the soft voice. “They will address that matter overseas, as you do not need to be feeling as if you will smother.”

“Good that we have these needles,” I said. I had continued sewing. “Now the commonplace bright needles, those you have picked out...”

“Bright-needles are more often fetishes than not, or they are not worth paying the extra money,” said Deborah. “We would get commonplace temper-color needles and check them carefully, cook them in powdered charcoal from leather and bones, heat them to a redness and quench them in cooking oil, and then cook them on the side of the forge until the oil began to smoke, and then polish them ourselves with straps. Those worked passably, but these make them look worthless, as even I can sew with these things and this thread.”

“That is why I tested my needles by passing them through pieces of cloth before purchasing them,” said Sarah. “I'm not sure I want to keep those I have, as the ones I've picked out of that box are better, and not a little better.” Pause, then, “those needles I picked were usually good for an extra seam for every turn of the glass, while these things... I'm not sure, but I think where I used to run ten stitches, I now do twelve to fourteen, and this thread makes most of what I have used before look to be fit for that grinder in there that roars like a nightmare.”

“I think my current stock of temper-color needles are going in the grease at home,” I said, “as I intend to use these instead – unless I can get better-still ones overseas.”

“I've found enough needles for my darts,” said Sarah, “but Annistæ spoke of doing something to that Krokus juice...”

“When the others come, I will do that, as this man must be put together and stuffed with that dust before we do anything else,” said Annistæ. “Such work as you speak of will not happen if we do not do what we must to stay alive.”

“Which is why I have plenty of ready-loaded weapons handy,” said Sarah. “I still could stand more needles, both those for cloth and those for leather, as I will be doing a lot of sewing in the days to come.” Sarah paused, then as she looked at me, she said, “I know you'll wish plenty of those, as you sew cloth better than most tailors I have seen for neatness, and give up little to most men who do that for a living for speed.”

“He's nearly as fast as you are, and he needs to be,” said Deborah. “I'm not very good with these things, but Karl! Who mended this clothing? It looks worse than if I did it!”

“This work is not anything my family did, as this would be called fit for paying good money if they saw it,” said Karl. “I think it is from his family.”

“Yes, if one of my sisters or cousins did it when she was just starting to sew,” retorted Sepp. “Most of the women in my family do mending well enough that they sometimes would do so for a bit of extra money, and my mother has done more than a little that way once my father was killed.”

“Fair enough,” said Deborah. “Now, I need more thread. Can someone toss me a spool for it?”

Sarah tossed a spool of green thread to Deborah, who caught the thing as if she were an 'ace' player for a baseball team, then cut off a length of thread with one of the instrument-maker's knives she had out and began waxing it with a small lump of wax. I was about due for another run of thread, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement, then everything suddenly seemed to slow way down, almost as if the frames of my life-movie went up to a thousand a second during filming and were now playing back at the usual twenty-four frames per second.

Even then, my movements were blurry yet eerily smooth. Not a bit of abruptness here, much like when I did kicks, leaps, punches, or when I used a flail or sword. Every movement led to something else, with no wasted motion or effort, and the speed of this movement bordered on blurring, even in this eerily slowed state.

Rising to my knees, I picked up the pistol, and chambered a round, then as I rose to my feet, I sighted on the first rat as it came 'from nowhere'. Still, the door seemed likely, though this one might well have been biding its time in here and just now decided it wanted food of one kind or another.

Center the head, down lower to avoid the thick portion of the skull. This is one of those 'albino squirrels' that have hard heads, and sighting this way will put the slug into its brain by threading it into the varmint's nose. There, the slug will tear things up as it follows that pathway until that path makes a sudden turn and then the mushroomed bullet will blast through the thinnest portion of the animal's skull and turn its brain into mush.

Crack. The rat does a sudden backflip, thrashes like crazy, while two of its fellows suddenly come through the main doorway. They squeeze through it somehow, almost as if these things are experts at getting into holes far too small for a normal animal of their size.

Line up on the left rat of the pair, fire, then hit the right. Both rats flip due to their muscles being 'jerked' by sudden lead-induced brain-damage, but behind them come more rats, these a trifle larger and more gray-brown than white – but I can tell these things are definitely part-white also. Those white rat genes must have really proliferated in the house – or witches were, indeed, raising white rats in here in some numbers, and doing so on this or the floor above this one – a floor I might have gone to once since coming here, as I had not had time to do much exploring, and I could never feel anything up there.

The first part-white rat gets its dose of lead, but as it tumbles and sprawls while 'spewing' blood, over it come two more, these as if twins for size and speed. Left, right, crack-crack, and then I'm on my feet and running, pistol in hand, leaving the knife behind and changing magazines to the hot stuff, then drawing my sword as the pistol goes to my left hand and my sword-point leads the way to the nearest rat. Some of these 'albino squirrels' must have spare brains, but they have those in their heads, and...

No animal does particularly well when it has no head, and I decapitate the first rat I come to.

The second; number three, the last two I had shot, this in a single slice that removed both their heads, and then finally, number four, who had jerked its head at the last moment and had swallowed my bullet instead of getting a nose-full of lead. It was still a bit mobile, if otherwise badly injured, and as I came closer, it turned toward me as if to leap upon me.

No, Señor Rat. I am an animal right now, and a much bigger animal than you, and a much faster one also, and this big thing here is one of my claws with which I slice up dinner.

I then came to myself with six sizable decapitated rats bleeding all over the floor, and spat out a single word, that being “Yuck!”

“At least these rats will not cause trouble without their heads,” said Sepp, as he came up with an ancient-looking tinned copper bucket. “This was in that one storeroom nearest where we're putting together that dummy, only someone put a mop to it recently, and it has a small bag with some soap tied to this brass handle here, so I think it is for this business.”

“Cé, it is, as we had to shoot and cut rats in here yesterday,” said Annistæ, “and that stuff that was smelly in that big pot was the mop-water from cleaning up the blood of dead rats, that and some of the rats themselves, which I put in a bigger-yet bucket in that room.” Pause, then, “I think I know what happened to that big bucket, now that I think about it – it became that big pot.”

“You did not start it cooking yesterday?” asked Sepp.

“We were too busy to do much of anything save empty drawers and bag-up trash,” shrieked Deborah. “A lot of the trash went in this other copper bucket, one that was large enough for me to hide in, only it was a bit leaky in places, as I could see where two rivets were about to come out and the tin was badly worn.”

“Hence you used it as a trash bin,” I said. One did not speak of trash 'cans' in this language: the proper term was bin, and trash bins were very common overseas, with prominent labels and colors indicating what went in which bin of a given group of five. They did some recycling in many places where I came from, supposedly, but that business was not done at all in the area where I had last lived – and overseas, they recycled everything.

They were too poor by half to even bother in the area where I had lived, with many homeless people wandering the numerous landfills scavenging what they could; while 'trash pickups' were often at strange hours and quite unpredictable as well – as the trash was supposed to be picked up on Thursday. It might get picked up some time that day – but it might not, also. One needed to leave one's containers out Wednesday night, and then wait until the trash truck actually rumbled past, banging lids and tossing the empty cans onto one's front lawn...

Assuming one had one of those. I did not, on Mrs. Ulyanov's advice. What I had was a 'sound-absorbing jungle' that required almost no routine maintenance; its watering was by a network of small mostly-buried plastic pipes and water-jets that put water where it needed to go, and that only, with the whole mess controlled by an automatic watering 'system' that operated on a timer.

The trash-truck drivers tried throwing the cans into that jungle anyway, but it was a bit too thick in most places for the cans to do much beyond bounce off that stuff and then bang onto the ancient cracked and broken sidewalk, save if they went into the narrow winding 'pathway' one might take to get to the front door – but the driver or drivers – more than once, I had clearly heard two people, both of them obviously drunk, yelling and cursing at each other as they alternated sides of the narrow street and drove their wandering vehicle, their drink-enhanced carelessness blatant and their noise worse yet – were usually far too careless to put a tossed plastic can into that narrow path.

They usually banged back onto the sidewalk and broke up that thin ancient stuff more, and my last stretch of unemployment had had me repairing the sidewalk as best I could with concrete mix.

It was a lot more expensive in this area than elsewhere, according to what Mrs. Ulyanov told me, and more, hauling more than two of the ridiculously small yet frightfully costly bags in their elderly Fiat tended to bottom the vehicle's rear suspension.

It needed new springs, but short of making them ourselves, we could not get springs for that car, and mail-order was our only option – and I could not find springs for that car, and shipping the raw stock required getting enough steel for twenty springs – namely, well over a thousand dollars – and then several hundred dollars more to get it shipped halfway across the country.

Mrs Ulyanov did not think well of such excess, and more, she muttered something about the need for large bribes to get the stuff delivered to this area, as many of the more-common means of delivery truck simply did not go into this area at all.

I had to drive to a rented 'postal box' nearly eighty miles away to pick up those things I purchased by mail order, and four hundred pounds of steel would not fit in something like that 'mailbox' that I rented from an elderly man for a surprisingly large sum of money – nearly seventy dollars a month for what amounted to a spare room in his shabby home. I suspected he knew where I lived, as he spoke of an area many miles to his east where it was almost like living in the bad parts of the third world, and when I mentioned where I lived, he nodded – and then said that those he knew who did likewise for people who lived and worked in that area who needed to do as I did usually charged 'as much as they could get away with'. He, on the other hand, simply needed the money for medicine, and he showed me his prescription bills to prove it.

I suspected the 'bad area' was spreading itself relentlessly, and Mrs. Ulyanov confirmed my suspicion when she spoke of the difficulty in getting parts for their vehicle. Mine had been a different story – as his room was big enough to cope with steel tubes less than five feet long and parts that could fit in modest-sized boxes and packing crates. Fuel drums – different story. Those went in his mostly-empty garage, and hauling them home one at a time needed a small trailer and careful driving. I tended to go through one drum of fuel a month, roughly, hence periods of unemployment usually meant several trips back and forth, using a bolted-on trailer hitch that mandated the removal of a rear panel, driving in lower gears at perhaps half my usual speed, and picking times when the roads were little used. I'd leave him a call – “can I get some some of your home-made sausage?” – two days prior so he'd have time to put the stuff in his garage and hide one of the keys in a place we both knew of, this arranged beforehand in person upon each meeting.

That was not discussed over the phone. Little was, as I suspected my calls and much else were being illegally monitored – and that when employed or otherwise. Mrs Ulyanov told me that was a common matter in the old country, and assuming the 'Committee of State Security' was watching you closely was always a good idea there – even after the fall of Communism.

The nearest good junkyards were nearly eighty miles away to the west, this over a mountain range with steep elevation in places and narrow passes – a road that their car had trouble coping with if just the two of them were in the thing, and any real load meant 'driving like in the old country' while being cursed and yelled at by everyone who passed them in their huge and powerful fuel-sucking vehicles.

That was one thing people did not tend to do where the two of them had come from, and hence we had to adapt or repair the parts of that car as best we could. The two of them were glad I had the tools to do such 'remanufacture', even if I was clumsy beyond belief in tight places.

Thankfully, her husband was not. Given he was a surgeon and a teacher of surgery in 'the old country', that did not surprise me much – nor did his talk of forging his own tools for surgery when the political system provided worthless 'junk' that looked good but did not work well enough to save lives.

The Russian word for 'junk' – хлам – sounded a lot more 'dark' and 'forbidding', as if said junk were an especially accursed fetish that needed melting and then complete remanufacture to be worth using.

After the rats were 'where they belonged', I noticed where I was standing, and after I thought for a moment, looking at the somewhat looted stacks of supplies, I thought to investigate them. I knew this for a distraction, yet still, I felt a strange compulsion to look at the supplies.

“No, not now,” I murmured. “Now we need to finish this dummy, and...”

The howl of the grinder running took the words out of my mouth, and this time I saw Deborah dive out of the room at a dead run as the thing built to a thundering roar.

“Must be like the west school for noise,” I murmured.

“I have wondered about that, and much else,” said Deborah. “I did get out into that town a handful of times with Sarah, though, and there, I saw my first clothing-shop. She said that one was frequented by people with enough money to pass for witches.”

“Probably were witches, if they had that much money,” I spat, as I resumed sewing. I knew there would be more shooting, even if I had carefully cleaned and greased my sword after oiling it. I then wondered where Gabriel had gone.

“I think he is checking that pot-line, as I told him to look at the meters,” said Annistæ. “He would poke himself more than make stitches in the cloth for this thing, so it is best to keep him clear of needles and thread.”

“He'll eventually need to learn to sew,” I muttered.

“There are some people that are not meant to peel potatoes, and there are some people who are not meant to sew with needle and thread,” said the soft voice. “He has trouble doing both of those things, and he always will.” Pause, then, “what he does end up doing will be critical to your survival as a people, as he will come up with something needed, among other matters – and he will do that after he gets marked enough to have 'monster' status.”

“And what he is doing now?” I asked.

“He seems decent for that,” said Annistæ. “Give him time to grow up some, and get those curses off of him, and I could teach him to do chemistry, and that well.”

“You could tell he is cursed?” I said with amazement.

“Cé, and badly,” said Annistæ. “Some curses need something to happen to show, but I think with him, that has happened in the last day or so, as now they show a lot, and he needs to pray every chance he can.”

“Needs to do a blood oath, also,” I spat.

“I did one of those before I got out of that room where you-all put the eggs to me,” muttered Gabriel. “Quoll-eggs don't cut your skin, but hen-eggs can do so with their shells, and there was more than a little blood on my face still when I put my face to the floor, still reeking and dripping with eggs, and gave oath then, with my face leaving a print of blood on the floor...”

“You did not see him do that today in the ballroom, did you?” asked Deborah pointedly. “That place was a witch-hole, only it was so well-hid that only when he dealt with it could the curses be seen, and everyone was so stupid that only those of us who are marked learned anything until he dealt with it, and he was trying so hard and became so frustrated with everyone's stupidity that he wept blood and left a red face-print upon the floor.”

“It did not clean up?” I gasped.

“No, and it's etched into the stone as 'proof',” said the soft voice. “It will remain there as long as this house stands, just like that marked place upon the pavement in the third kingdom,” said the soft voice. “If anyone questions your efforts and motives, Hendrik knows just where to take them now, as what you did then went beyond what most think of as a blood-oath, as you did it for real, more so than anyone who has lived since that war long ago.”

“And now, this dummy,” I asked. “This one is made like a good one, one of those where they sell 'expensive' clothing – oh, and not all of those who buy that stuff are witches. Some are people who own shops and have to travel into areas where 'the clothes make the man'.”

“Those would be places which are owned entirely by witches,” said Deborah. “I've heard of those places...”

“No, actually there are other locations like that that are not witch-owned,” I said. “In the central portion of the fourth kingdom, if you wish to, uh, get into places like the Heinrich works and places that sell three-X grade things, then in some cases, you may well need to dress in clothing like Hendrik has – and as far as I know, he does not dress like a witch, but his clothing is very well-made and of expensive cloth.” Pause, then, “not everyone who at times needs to dress like a king or a high-class 'courtier' has access to a kingdom house's clothing shop...”

“Including the kings of the third, fourth, and fifth kingdoms, their officers, and some few 'business people' in the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “Hence there are a few clothing shops that do no business with witches who sell 'expensive' clothing – and the current king in the second kingdom is one of their customers also, ever since he found out his own clothing shop was making witch-clothing only, and he had everyone in that place executed while he watched.”

“And here, the place is so stinking 'backward' that...” I muttered. “No, it's not just that. Hendrik cannot afford to go that distance regularly, he cannot afford to pay their prices – and hence his clothing, Maria's clothing, greens, and all of the guards' clothing has to be made on site, with the cloth either made in the first kingdom or shipped up here from the fourth kingdom, and several clothiers...”

“I can tell you about that,” said Sarah. “The first kingdom house has always had its own clothiers, partly because of its distance from the central part of the fourth kingdom, and I now realize, because it has always been difficult getting any orders down south and back without a high likelihood of interception.”

“Unless you use the wires or special messengers,” said the soft voice. “Which of those is faster and more reliable depended on who was running them at a given time, but neither was that reliable, compared to what means the witches have had access to for the last several centuries.”

“And the 'fast' means the witches have is significantly quicker than anything we currently have access to,” I said. “Training others...” I almost laughed, then resumed sewing. There was a matter regarding clothes-dummies yet to speak of, as it was an important matter: some of our group of five would need to go into the 'south' portion of the third kingdom port, and there they would encounter clothes-dummies, these being the more-common species, and we all needed to know of them, as we would be making and repairing numbers of these things – and my speaking of playing games with them was the very tip of that iceberg.

Not all of them would be done up with black-cloth. Some of them would be dressed up like blue-suited functionaries, complete with their silvered collars, and those used to train those people from overseas in how to use knives and other 'silent' weapons. While most of the current crop of those people overseas would be killed off during the 'revolt', there were a lot of those thugs in the system being trained yet, and hence many of their losses could be quickly replaced if those training them decided to pick their most-promising people and 'promote' them early after giving them an 'accelerated' finisher course.

They'd be as dumb as bricks and green as grass, but those people would be part of the 'new' strategy, and they'd show in groups of ten to twenty, suddenly breaking out of a wall wherever their leaders elected for them to show and smacking as many people down as they could with their clubs until they either paved an area with the dead and dying or they were killed themselves.

“When they are not doing things that are much less obvious,” said the soft voice. “The higher ranks of the current leadership will need time to marshal their replacements, and that will be but the first wave of such replacements,” said the soft voice – who implied functionaries would be troublesome indeed until all traces of the current leadership and the 'Draekkstaame' were utterly destroyed. “Those that remain further back in the system will either be put to work doing 'dumb' labor, or they will be killed off for 'sport' by those spies that are being trained up, so as to give the most likely chance of retaking their territory.” Pause, then, “all the current leadership will succeed in doing is causing a certain number of deaths and injuries, a lot of trouble, and cause those who have been 'liberated' to 'grow up' very quickly, much as Annistæ spoke of Gabriel.” Pause, then, “it will take some time for their cursed gear to become both evident. It will then need to be cleared out – and by then, they will be ready to clear it out, as they've got a lot of work to do first to the basic infrastructure over there.”

“They have fetishes over there?” gasped Sarah in alarm?”

“Yes, and a great many of them, but they are most-well-hidden at this time, and more, a bit more subtle than can be dealt with right now,” said the soft voice. “One thing at a time dear – first liberate the place, then get it working right, 'grow up' that massive pack of 'dumbed-down-slaves' by teaching them how to fight and arming most of them – and then deal with that huge number of well-hid fetishes once the functionaries have quit trying to retake the whole of the place, and that because clubs work poorly against an alert and well-armed populace that has had enough to eat for a change.” Pause, then, “they'll give up on the 'retaking' idea surprising quickly, almost as soon as those liberated get their current boats both working well and start on the first of the new ones.”

“And hence we must talk of clothes-dummies,” I said. “There will be some of these things in the third kingdom port, and while I have seen my share of department-store mannequins where I came from, I doubt much that they looked like what we're going to see in that place – and then I doubt Gabriel has seen them, I really doubt Karl and Sepp have...”

“No, we saw those things,” said Sepp. “I remember a lot more of our time in that town, and I recall seeing shops that made clothes and how they had things like what we are making here with clothing on – and you're right, some of that clothing looked a lot like what I've seen Hendrik and Maria wearing.”

“Or what the two of them will be wearing tomorrow,” I said. Pause, then, “uh, Sarah?”

She looked at me.

“What will we be wearing tomorrow?” I asked.

“Clothing fit for traveling,” she said. “Why?”

“Weddings are usually done, uh, differently – or are they?” I asked.

“None that I have seen,” said Deborah, “and I saw several among my relatives and in the potato country.” Pause, then, “if the talk is right, and what Hendrik said on the matter is right, that's going to be about the shortest ceremony heard since the times spoken of in old tales.”

“Shortest?” I asked.

“I'm not sure how long it will be,” said Sarah nervously, “but I suspect Hendrik might speak a minute as to what we have done and will shortly do, then Katje will ask us together one question, we answer it properly, and then we will hie ourselves.”

“There has to be more than that,” I thought silently. Again, though, I felt a distraction, and as I finished a seam, I asked, “describe, if you will, the more-usual type of clothes-dummy, the type made much as we are making of old clothing and stuffed with fine-chopped straw and sawdust.” Pause. “There's something over there behind those stacks of bins, and I need to look at it.”

As Sarah spoke of clothes-dummies, I listened carefully as I tried to learn just what was getting onto my mind so persistently, and why it was so infernally important. Was this a trap of some kind? It seemed likely, so much so that I thought to listen to Sarah while attempting to probe the area with my mind. That got absolutely nowhere, so I listened to Sarah describe the various clothes-dummies she had seen.

This was a most-educational talk, and hearing it made for a renewed vigor in my sewing. I was mending a sizable patch when Sarah spoke of the most-common type, that being remarkably like what Karl and Sepp had originally done.

“Those things use old clothes and are done like that first one?” I squawked.

“Usually better than that, and a lot neater, but yes, clothes-dummies commonly are done using old clothing, and hay chopped by something similar to what Willem uses, or in the least-prosperous shops, those you might find south of the west school on the Low Way, straw cut using commonplace knives.”

“And then, there is the species of dummy that uses 'used' clothing, but said clothing is in decent shape, and that type is stuffed with fine sawdust, correct?”

Those are very common in the student's district,” said Sarah, “but student-clothing is usually intended to be durable, if not very impressive to look at.”

“It is not particularly cheap, either,” said Deborah.

“Did you have to wear a 'uniform' at Boermaas?” I asked.

“No, as I did not go there seven years, but six,” said Deborah. “Had they succeeded in turning me into a witch, I would have been expected to wear black-cloth, most likely, that or smell like a witch-woman and get whatever they use to set on and whatever those things are on their chest that make them look fit for filling ten infants with milk.”

“Yuck,” I spat.

“If you've ever seen one of those stinkers, you'll think that way,” said Deborah. “Most women only need something like a binder when they're about to give birth, or are feeding young children, and most children I saw are eating fine-chopped food by the time they are two months old – though they tend to eat with their fingers more than with spoons or forks.”

“I was told I used proper utensils by the time I was three months of age,” said Sarah, “and I was walking well before I was a week old.”

Annistæ stared at Sarah, then said, “you will become Besté, then. That is a sign from Déo, as every tale that we have of children walking that early either has them born with markings they cannot hide, or they get them sooner or later.” She then looked at me. “When was it you walked?”

“I was told I got up one time and ran, and most children there don't manage that before they're two years old. I did it at eight months, and I never spoke in 'infant talk', but used complete sentences from the beginning – and that early also, and I was doing many things very early.”

“That I expected also,” said Annistæ. “You two will need to watch any children you have, especially if they show themselves to have markings, as they might well be Besté from birth.”

“Uh, how?” I asked.

“They may stand and walk early, or if they are very strong, they may become hairy,” said Annistæ. “That type is very rare, but there are tales I recall that speak of them.”

“N-no,” I said. “N-no.”

“Why?” asked Annistæ. “Do you grow hair?”

I nodded nervously.

Sarah looked at me strangely, then somehow, she was in my lap, this sobbing. I had no idea as to why, but when I held her close, she whispered, “so do I, and I did so out in the forest.”

“And any such children?” I whispered.

“If this is like what is shown on tapestries, then they will all be as she said,” whispered Sarah. “Each of them will be able to do so, and that from birth, and we will need to hide them...”

“Hide?” I asked. “Oh, I think I understand. It will be easy to do that.”

“Non, you cannot hide that kind of thing,” said Annistæ. “If they become so, they are much larger, and then they are so strong that they can bend thick iron bars, and they are nearly impossible to kill, and...”

“Simple, dear,” I said quietly, as I stood, holding Sarah and carrying her softly back to where she had been sitting before she had crawled into my arms to be held. “They'll be born at the Abbey – though I hope for your sake there will only be one such child, and, uh, the child will be surgically removed when it is time.”

“How?” asked Sarah. “That's out of an old tale.”

“We are living in such a thing,” said Gabriel. “Now, there is something behind those bins, and I think you need to go look at it.” Gabriel obviously meant me. “It is very important. It is very, very important that you look at it now, as it will receive use almost immediately, and it will definitely be used while we are gone.”

“Then perhaps more than one of us should look at it,” said Sarah. “Why, what is it?”

“He's used these things before,” said Gabriel. “I think at least one other person in this room has also, though I am not sure who, but I know he has – and more, he's worked on things like this a lot. Repeat, he's worked on things like this a great deal, probably more than anyone currently on the continent – and I include those that run those things called 'turns' at the Heinrich works.”

“You've never seen those, have you?” asked Sarah with alarm, as I stood and slipped the suppressed pistol in my right trousers pocket. I definitely wanted holsters for these pistols, and that such that not only were they securely retained, but also that they would be holstered while having their suppressor attached. I hoped I could make such holsters in the days to come, but now, that urge, once more present, was so powerful that I could not ignore it if I tried.

With each cautious step, I could feel the presence of this thing more and more, and Gabriel's speech regarding it was, if anything, denigrated the sheer importance of these things. More, his speech of 'they will be used while we are gone' was an understatement, and when I had come even with the last of the workbenches, I could somehow hear the first of a long slow convoy of vehicles coming steadily closer. It was now nearly sundown, and we had hours yet to labor before sleeping. A glance back, however, had me stunned.

Gabriel was helping to 'stuff' the dummy with the powdered material while the others tied its arms and legs 'shut', and the finely-powdered 'dust' was being shaken down into the thing's legs once the ends of the trousers were tied with 'twine' and knotted. More, someone was going to run the grinder, and this time, they were going to fill up another bag with dust. This person had the technique down pat.

The howl started, then movement behind me showed Deborah leaping out of the room as the howl built and progressed to the roaring noise. I could faintly hear someone jerking at the sound, then someone – most likely Anna – speaking of it likely being a piece of machinery; more, it was not a fetish, as that kind of noise bothered witches more than nearly anything.

“No, it is not an evil engine,” Anna seemed to say in my mind. It was almost as if she were in the room with me, whispering faintly. “It is not one of those, as while those things might make a lot of noise, they do not sound like that. Not even that awful thing at the Abbey sounds like that.”

“And what I am about to find is...”

There was no answer, even as I came next to the last of the bins, and crouched down, much as if something a good deal nastier than an irritated Death Adder were on the other side. I began to peer around the back side, and then, I saw it.

It was a box, nicely 'varnished', though this was the darkest varnish I had ever seen, and as I crawled closer, I realized that this box had blackened steel corners, a multitude of well-made blackened steel hinges, and more, was of a very sturdy construction. I came up to it, and noted to my right that there was another like it, perhaps eight feet away.

“What are these things – really weird coffins?” I thought. “This one might be fit for a child about to start school, but that would be one strange-shaped child, and that one over there might hold a younger apprentice – an apprentice who was part-eaten by an Iron Pig, perhaps.”

I moved around this first 'coffin', and here, on the other side, I noted five blackened metal latches. I then blinked, and thought to look closer.

“These things are blocking the light, and that, uh, pattern I'm now seeing on this thing is really strange,” I thought. “Then, this thing is sitting on this one sheet folded in fourths, and if I didn't know any better, I'd say it's a camouflage sheet of some kind.”

I then felt along the ends of the case, and felt a slightly protruding button. Pressing this caused a click, and when I went back along the strange-shaped portion of this oddly striped 'coffin', I now saw a handle had somehow popped out.

“What is this thing, a weapon of some kind?” I thought. “Some kind of really strange missile or something?”

I then picked it up, grasping the sheet it lay upon, and as I came out into the light, the dark of the 'varnish' abruptly fled away – and then the case's true colors showed forth, these being an odd brown-flecked variegated green color, one immanently suited to forest work. I thought it especially wise to pay attention to this color-scheme, as it seemed made for the business of hiding someone or something in the forest.

I looked down at what I was carrying back to a bench near the area where the clothes-dummy was being stuffed and packed full, then when I set it down, I noted Annistæ was looking at me strangely, first as I laid down the surprisingly hefty 'coffin', then the sheet, and then I put the coffin back upon the sheet, such that its five latches lay in front of me.

“Now what is in here is really strange,” I murmured. “First, it's got this weird and ever-changing color scheme, then...”

A sudden chirp-chorus told me I had a 'brass' cube to retrieve, and when I came back, Annistæ was still staring at the 'coffin'. I noticed it more now as to its precise color scheme: three tones of green, two of brown, some flecks here and there of a soft yellow, and the whole moving about as Annistæ shown the light of a tent-lantern upon it.

“That color-mix looks fit for doing greens,” I murmured. “Better than what we do now.”

“Cé, I saw it change as you came out of that area which has no lanterns right now to give light, as they are all around that dummy that is being stuffed.”

Annistæ was drowned out by the roar of the grinder, then Deborah came close to where the two of us were standing. She murmured appreciatively regarding the color scheme, then pressed that one button on the smaller end of the case. The handle instantly retracted with a faint click, and I moved toward the center latch.

It flipped up easily.

“What is that thing?” asked Deborah – who then touched it. “It feels really strange – it is not wood, but some kind of strange cloth with a really open weave to it, and it is very hard, almost like metal, only it is much too warm to be metal.”

Annistæ put her hand on it, looked at me with a mouth dropped open, and said, “it is bound glass. It is that stuff that I spoke of, only it is not like anything I have seen before.”

“That new binder was used, perhaps?” I asked, as I flipped the two end latches open. They too came up easily.

“Do you think this thing is trapped?” asked Deborah. “You were acting like it was over there, and...”

“That device is very important,” said Gabriel – who then turned toward another. “Now at least you can tie knots that hold, Karl. Mine are worthless.”

“You are not worthless for filling this thing,” said Sarah. “Deborah, we need more of that dust that makes for itching.”

Deborah left, and I flipped another latch up. The feeling was an eerie one, one of exceeding precision. For a moment, I wondered if it were a very strange electric guitar, or perhaps one of those eight-string banjos played by the Veldters, but then I suspected it wasn't one of those.

The last latch. Click it up. Carefully, hand on the case to restrain the lid, then as it seems to spring up a trifle, kneel down and look. Let it up slow, in case the bomb inside this case has a hair trigger, then as it comes up a fraction of an inch, look inside.

“Still as dark in there as an unlit coal mine,” I murmured. “What is that smell – smells like a preservative packet, only this one's really fresh.”

“It is a weapon of some sort, perhaps,” said Annistæ, “though if I did not know better, I would think it something like I had to leave behind me.”

“What was that?” I asked. “Your rifle, perhaps?”

“Non,” she said. “My saw.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped – and as my hand fell away from the top of the box, the lid seemed to follow it up to show, in all its glory, a chainsaw, dully glinting a mottled green with faint tints of yellow over the whole of it – just like a hornet, in fact.

“Oh my God,” I squeaked. “Look at this thing. It looks fit to attack the biggest tree that ever grew, and it's colored just like a hornet!”

To my surprise, Annistæ reached for the saw, and picked it up. She then turned it around, moving it as if it were indeed a weapon, then set it down.

“It weighs more than what I had, and its bar is longer, and that chain is a new one, one of a type that I was helping to work on when the Cabroni came to my town and I had to leave,” she said. “Now what is this here?”

She picked up a thick manual, turned it over, and there, the saw was pictured.

My eyes lit upon what looked like a strange magneto cover showing on the side of the 'beast', and upon seeing the repeated numeral five under the sign of a stylized lightning bolt, gasped, “fifty-five?”

“Aieeeh!” screamed Annistæ. “Déo has heard my prayers. I have my saw!”

“And here, we have this, uh, bar...”

Annistæ put down the manual, then looked in the cloth 'sack' for the bar in question, then as I began to retrieve first a metal box having four compartments with the box itself labeled as having 'igniters', then a sizable tool-roll, then a fresh chain in a tin, this unbelievably sharp chain shiny with a thick and sticky 'oil' that was just as unbelievably slippery, I noted that I was drawing a crowd.

“What is that thing?” whispered Sarah. “The dummy is nearly stuffed. It just needs about three more runs of that grinder that makes me glad for earplugs and dark goggles.”

“How is it you can speak if you have them in your ears, and how can you see with that dark blue thing covering your eyes like that?” asked Karl.

“You take a dose of that strong tincture, Karl, and you'll find out why I'm wearing those things,” retorted Sarah. “You'll hunt up your earplugs and dark goggles in a great hurry, as otherwise a room that is dark becomes like bright daylight and whispers sound like Dennis when he is getting the witch-thinking out of people.”

“I think you should try that tincture, all three of you men, as you will wish it before tomorrow ends, and that much,” said Annistæ. “Sarah, give them their dose now, as I am figuring out how this saw is different from what I had.”

I picked up the saw, held it, then found the pull-starter. I found the ignition switch, made sure it was 'off', then pulled it through.

“Holy Toledo, this thing needs a very strong arm to pull it through,” I gasped. “It must have a lot of power.” Pause, then a question, “how fast did yours go?”

“It screamed like an angry long-haired cat when I gave it what it wished, and it was very nervous,” said Annistæ. “I think this one is like it.”

“N-no, dear,” I said, as 'the magneto cover' went gauzy to show an obvious electronic ignition – one more sophisticated than anything short of what one might find on a works-grade road-racing motorcycle – one raced by an unlimited-budget factory racing team. “How much power does this thing make?”

“Read the specification pages at the back of that manual,” said the soft voice. “That will tell you all you need to know about this saw.”

I put the saw down in its case, picked up the manual – and Annistæ picked up the saw. She set it down on the ground, then with a sudden jerk, pulled it through.

“Ai, this one is very strong,” she said. “I could feel its squeeze, and it has much of it.”

“Uh, let's see,” I said, paging through several portions of specifications. “Pressure-pump carburetor with four needles – low, lower mid, upper mid, and 'power'.... Power peak is at.... What?” I shrieked.

I showed the figure to Annistæ, and she shook her head. “I do not hardly believe that number. No engine this size could turn that fast without scattering itself like a bomb.”

“Displacement is fifty-five dot nine cubic centimeters,” I said. “Seventeen thousand revolutions? The power peak is that high?”

“Yes, and it has more power everywhere compared to what she had, which is why it can pull that larger bar and has a four-needle carburetor,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, this to Annistæ, “that saw will not need to have its timing set every time you use it, but you will need to adjust the carburetor frequently, and pay attention to the temperature gage...”

I pointed to where that was located on the saw, this being a strange gray 'line' protected by a mottled green surround, almost as if it were one of those computer 'gages' set up for linear use. I then learned another matter, one of utmost importance, one that meant potential trouble and a need for an educated user for this thing.

“As that saw is tuned to racing specifications.” The soft voice was never this emphatic, save if the matter was one of extreme urgency.

Annistæ looked at me in fright and asked, “what did he mean?”

“It will not need a count of 'five' to cut through a common log like yours did, dear,” said the soft voice. “ It might need 'three' if that log is of well-seasoned blackwood, and perhaps 'two' if it's a more-common tree of thirty centimes for its trunk.”

There was a brief pause, then, “let him go fetch that larger box, and you'll see something you've only seen twice before in your entire life.”

I left to go do so, now not terribly worried, as I could tell that what was in the other box was another saw, one similar to that evil-tempered snarler in the box. I then thought to ask what fuel that saw liked.

“The house's aquavit, and a lubricant that you'll need to have duplicated overseas, at least at first,” said the soft voice. “They not only have an ample stock of those plants growing now, but have the chemical equipment to make that lubricant in gallon quantities, and more, they'll want to make lots of that stuff and continue its arrested development.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Just look at what is in that other box,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn something yourself, as while you've used chainsaws a few times, they were not like these.”

“Oh, prone to sticking?” I asked. I had stuck a chainsaw once – seized it solid, in fact. My bike had merely burned a piston bad enough to stick the rings when it went leaky and I rode it home at a faster-than-prudent speed.

“Not unless you run them too lean or they get an air leak like your bike did,” said the soft voice. “There's a very good reason their carburetors have that particular design, and that's in order to keep them from doing a 'meltdown' while ripping through trees at 'blinding' speeds – much as if they were indeed 'lightning', just like that figure on that 'magneto cover'.” Pause, then, “recall you speaking of something like a smaller 'Weber-type' carburetor for your generator engines?”

I nodded mentally, as I came to this imposing 'coffin'. It too had that strange button on the smaller end that ejected the carrying handle, and when I picked this huge box up and got its 'cover-cloth', I noted something else that had been hidden from me.

“Where did those red containers come from, and why are they so large?” I murmured, as I carried the weighty saw to the nearest bench, it being next to the other. I set the saw down on the floor, put the cover cloth on the table, then set the four-foot long saw box on top of it. I pressed the button, the handle retracted, then I turned to Annistæ.

“Your turn, Madame. Open it up. I think this thing is a surprise for all of us.”

She did with some trepidation, and as the five latches opened, I could feel the tension building in the room. She tried doing them in linear order, but they would not open, and only when she copied the order I had used would the latches open. In effect, this was a crude species of 'lock' to prevent misuse.

“It's a lot less crude than you think,” said the soft voice. “It will definitely keep witches from playing games with these tools, and the same for those cover-cloths. They're included for a very good reason, that being to hide the these things when they are not actually being used while in the field.”

“In that order?” I asked, regarding the hinges.

“And you must retract the handle after extending it for carrying,” said the soft voice. “Failure to do any of these things, and all of them in the correct order, will result in the lid not opening – and that, if you are a witch, is as effective as having one of those good combination locks – like one on a safe – on these boxes.”

“Oh, and...” I stuttered.

Annistæ opened the last latch, the lid came up – and she was not the only person gasping at the weapon in this 'coffin'.

“Oh my God,” I squeaked, upon seeing a saw with a blade nearly four feet long, and an an engine of such size and heft it looked hideously powerful. There was but one use, and I had talked to people who had cut timber in my younger years. “That's a faller's saw. It could cut down any tree in the area.”

“Yes, if you can hang onto it,” said the soft voice. “That one has places for two people to hold, as well as a longer bar – and when you can handle an '88' running 'full out', then you know you're a woodcutter.”

“Eighty-eight?” I asked.

“Good to fifteen thousand revolutions,” said the soft voice. “That 'fifty-five' is good for twenty thousand revolutions, not twelve – which means it produces nearly double the power of what she once had.”

“And th-that thing?” I gasped. Seeing a chainsaw with a four foot bar was daunting to say the least.

“Another 'racing grade' saw,” said the soft voice. “Rich mixtures, good bar lube, good engine lube, and keeping all three tanks filled – and those saws take neat liquids, so they don't need mixing fuel and oil.”

“That would seem to help,” said Deborah. “Now why would it help these things?”

“Fewer fouled igniters, I guess,” I said.

“Not only that,” said the soft voice. “'Full-out' on those saws needs frequent topping of all three tanks, and when they're running hard, they use a fair amount of oil – and thirty-to-one premix would stick both of them instantly.”

“So now we have one issue regarding woodcutting dealt with,” I said. “Just need to make at least one reciprocating saw to make planks, find a reasonably capable way of hauling the logs, then somehow slabbing them, kilning them at a suitable temperature in the right kind of lumber-kiln, and then cutting them into dimensional lumber – and these two 'screamers' will speed up one of the most-troublesome parts quite a bit.”

“Especially when you get that big one to 'screaming',” said the soft voice. “Find a big old-growth blackwood tree, fire it up, bring it near the base, count to three while making the cut needed to drop the tree, and then get out of the way as the tree falls like an avalanche. Then use the smaller one to limb it, cut it into manageable lengths with the big one, and then bring it into town for slabbing and curing in your 'pattern-shed'. It'll cure fast enough in there that you'll be able to provide pattern-wood and miscellaneous boards in general within two weeks of dropping such a tree – a large tree, mind you.”

“Uh, up near the port where they'll be setting up?” I asked. That area would need a lot of tree-cutting – clear-cutting, in fact, and they didn't have things like this, as far as I knew.

“Just let them make the hard parts to that reciprocating saw,” said the soft voice. “You make the patterns, pour and stress-relieve the castings, and provide them with the other raw materials they'll need. They can do the rest quickly once the place is liberated, and they'll install it in the rear of the shop's yard, as you'll need a lot of good pattern-lumber, and their current documentation speaks of needing unusual care for that every step of the way when making patterns for metal-casting – and Graćiella will tell you the exact same thing. She's done enough patterns to know about how critical good wood really is for castings that have to be right – and especially for tricky alloys like that 'brass' you have two samples of.”

“So we just sell what we don't use to the carpenter's shop,” I said. “Besides, I really doubt those people are currently up to running a complex piece of machinery – one that needs care, watchfulness, and a clear understanding of what is involved to stay out of trouble with.”

“You understated the case, and that badly,” said the soft voice. “Perhaps by Harvest Day they'll be ready to be taught how to run such a saw, but you will need good wood quickly, not half a year from now, and then they don't have the room to dry that much lumber anyway, and they're still very much wed to the ways of witchdom more than a little – as are most where you live.”

“I wonder what these things sound like?” asked Deborah.

Loud,” I said. “Loud enough that they'll draw every witch and assorted thug within miles, and a lot of people that don't want anything to do with thugs that will think all of us to be witches and thugs both when we're using them.” Pause, then, “still, though – the current way of getting 'lumber' is slower than the sun moving backwards, so I think we may wish to try that smaller one on a few trees to get an idea as to how it works. Annistæ used to have one a bit like it, so she should be able to handle it – and I've tuned saws before, and used them a little myself.”

These saws, however, were of sufficient difference from her recollection – and from mine – that I found myself needing to read the documentation, this doing so at a page every two seconds or so. After perhaps thirty pages, I set the manual down, and walked to where those red containers were.

I then learned there were easily three times the number of them that I had thought, and I yelled for help.

“What gives with all these red cans, and why are they this strange shape?” said Karl. “They are not jugs, but... This one says 'ninety-nine grade aquavit only'. What does that mean?”

“The house's aquavit,” I murmured. “So that's why I added those extra stripper plates – it gets ninety-nine percent?”

“Nearly 'absolute' alcohol, actually,” said the soft voice. “What you have at home would give less power, so what you want for engines this highly tuned is a column distillery with eighteen stripper plates, like what he used for the house's distillery.”

“Did I put that many in that column?” I asked. “I have trouble recalling the exact number, even if I do remember putting more of them.”

“Yes, that many, which is four more than what you usually put in, and that's what it takes to get true 'fuel grade' alcohol here,” said the soft voice.

What I was carrying was but slightly smaller as to size, and it was labeled 'bar-lubricant', while the container Sepp was putting on the cart was labeled as being 'engine-oil'.

I soon learned my mistake: Sepp had thought to bring all of these strange-looking red cans over, and in the brighter light cast by the lanterns as Gabriel finished loading up the clothes-dummy with the dust Deborah had been running periodically, I resumed reading the manual. Not a minute later, I was done.

It was as I had been told: this saw did not run premixed fuel, but neat alcohol, neat bar lubricant, and neat engine lubricant – and when one ran it full out, it ran proportions of engine lubricant approaching those of a model airplane engine.

“Pumps a lot of oil to those bearings and crankshaft,” I murmured. “Do we have..?”

“Right there,” said Deborah, pointing to what she was speaking of. “It's another of those strange boxes that go about your neck on that string. I think it tells them how to make those things that look like big swords.”

“They are not swords, Deborah,” said Annistæ. “You heard me say how big a mess I made when I used one on a Cabroné, and how I do not want to do that again, and not just because it took two days of hard work to clean my saw.” Pause, then, tears showed, “it gives me bad dreams, and...”

She reached for that vial of tincture, took a full tube of the stuff, then washed it down with beer, and for the first time, I saw a face as haunted as any I had ever seen. “No matter what those people of the Mule say, there is a strong price one must pay to fight Cabroni, and it is not just in terms of blood. It costs much sweat, which they do admit to, and though they say this is not true, it also costs tears.”

“I'll buy that one,” I murmured, as I picked up the memory card holder and put it on the string. There were nearly a dozen of these things now, all of them laying flat like a fan of cards, almost as if they were meant to be carried this way. “Supposedly I've had my share of bad nightmares, and every time I have had to kill a witch to save people's lives, especially at first, I usually went into shock or thought myself a murderer.”

“I think at times you still do,” said Sarah, “as I've heard you speak when you're asleep, and that's not when you're having bad nightmares like some spirit is getting revenge upon you, or when you've done things that cause you great trouble, like dealing with those traitors.”

“I hope not,” said Anna, as she suddenly showed, this with a bin in her arms and slung weapons. “How many times must I tell you and everyone else that he must not do third degrees!”

“What are those?” asked Deborah.

“If you do not know what they are, then I...” Anna paused, then looked at what Gabriel was finally finishing. “What is that thing there?”

“A clothes-dummy, for knife-practice,” said Sarah. “Deborah, help me tie this portion off here, and then we can figure out how to lean this thing up against one of those stands so as to tie it in place.”

“Knife practice?” asked Anna. “I might need to do some of that, as I've had two instances today where I had to use my knife on a witch, and both times, I knew I was in trouble.”

“How?” I asked, as I uncapped the container for bar lubricant, then unscrewed the lid to the smaller saw's tank and put in a small funnel. This container was large enough to need care, and I asked no more until I had filled the smallest tank on the saw.

“I needed Georg shooting them with that fowling piece, and the second one needed not only me poking him a good one high in the gut, but Georg firing both barrels into that wretch from that gun.”

“Stiff shot?” I asked.

“He blew two holes clean through that stinker's chest!” shrieked Anna. “Where is that strong tincture?”

Sarah wordlessly handed it to Anna, who got a full tube, then washed it down with beer. The chief issue was Annistæ.

She was wandering about, her eyes closed tight, her fingers in her ears, and whispering, “please, can someone get me some earplugs and dark goggles? It feels like my ears are exploding and my eyes are on fire!”

I dropped what I was doing and ran to fetch 'her' supplies, and when I found a bin low down on the middle stack, I ran back with it. Here, I found not merely three bagged goggles, one for 'dust', and other for 'strong tinctures', and a third for 'sleeping', I also found earplugs, and I carefully inserted those, then slipped the goggles on her face. When I had done so, she thanked me, then went over to where Anna was. This time, she spoke quietly.

“So, how is it I look now?”

“Like I'm going to need to look very quickly,” said Anna nervously. “It's already getting really bright and loud in here, and...”

“Let me go get you your bag of things, dear,” I said, as I went to get another bin. This one had three bags, one labeled 'Anna', another 'Hans', and the third 'Esther'. I fetched the one with Anna's name on it, then once she was comfortable, I noted another matter.

Her bag was a bit larger, and I removed from it an obvious laboratory coat, complete with hood and long sleeves, with the white garment going down to about four inches above her shoes. I helped her put it on, she took one look at her arms, and said the strangest words I ever heard her say.

“Now this fits me properly,” she said. “Now I look fit for medical practice. I just hope I can learn enough quickly enough to do my job.” She then removed one of those 'improved clockwork marvel' pistols from 'somewhere' in her clothing, then shook her head. “I had to shoot three witches with this thing today, and I'm glad that tincture works on more than too many witches. I was really sore from all the lifting and shooting I did.”

“Why?” I asked, meaning the shooting. I was putting the engine lubricant in the saw now.

The bar-lubricant had been a clear liquid, this with a yellowish cast, but what I was now pouring was a trifle thicker, a bit murky, and its color, a medium green. It made me wonder just what the stuff was – was it related to that evil 'KÄSTRÜL-R42' oil?

“I hope that oil isn't something like that nasty stuff they used before that war,” I muttered.

Anna had taken a definite interest in the saws, and she seemed to be admiring them – though for reasons unknown to me, she was not touching them. Perhaps she thought they might bite her, but I was too intent upon my task of putting the fuel in the smaller one. I then got an answer regarding that nasty-looking greenish oil.

“No, but it is something Annistæ can make readily once you get her greenhouses set up in here, and she will want some set up,” said the soft voice. “Unless you decide you need to cut a lot of lumber, the lubricants on site and what you bring back from overseas currently will suffice – until she's able to compound improved versions, which she will do in time.”

There was no speech regarding what was inside the third container, that being the one I had just uncapped, for its reek was so diabolically potent that it produced gasps and retching noises. It could have only come from one source: that one distillery in the house proper with its added stripper plates. I was able to fill the saw with fuel, but I just barely caught my gorge in time to close both the saw's tank and the cap of the fuel container – and as I set the latter down, I needed to grab a rag.

I promptly turned that rag nasty with vomit, and I was one among several who did so.

We were standing near a fume hood, and while Karl and Sepp were tying up our clothes dummy to a lantern-stand minus its lantern, I went to this fume hood and held my hand up. I could feel a gentle updraft coming into this one, and I hoped it might work well enough for soldering without using a fan.

“Now, do we have good ventilation?” This was a serious question: would this fume hood cope with the smoke and fumes of a saw that would sound like an angry model airplane engine with serious delusions of grandeur?

Everyone was looking at me, and it became obvious that I was elected: I would be the one to pull-start the thing. Annistæ thought to coach me, saying that it usually took several pulls to get hers running as a rule, with the temperamental thing she had once had occasionally needing priming with raw fuel.

This wasn't that animal, even if it had the number 'Fifty-Five' cast into the 'magneto cover'. I primed the carburetor, richened out all of the three 'lower' needles half a turn and the power needle a turn and a half, set the idle slightly high, and then, after putting the carburetor cover back on, I gave the engine one hard pull.

The radical-erratic crackle of a barely-muffled highly-tuned engine blasted forth with such volume that, save for myself and Annistæ, everyone else present ran at full speed for the doorway marked 'living quarters', and the noise made by that one brown door as it opened and closed rapidly for several minutes was a sign of such magnitude that I asked, this now glad I was wearing earplugs and goggles, “but this is the smaller one of these things, not that huge one. What gives?”

“Mine was bad enough,” said Annistæ. “That one is worse that way, and I think everyone who can sit on a stool right now is trying to do so.”

“Two privies, correct?” I asked. “I've used one, but it's not the only one.”

Annistæ nodded, as now the engine sounded yet more 'evil'. It was plainly a cold-blooded beast, and the word 'beast' didn't do this thing justice. Her voice – and mine – was being overwritten by the spitting uneven crackle of a saw that sounded like a very large – and very angry – model airplane engine.

“They both go into this, uh, strange holding tank?” I asked. I hoped Annistæ could read lips. I had once been able to do so as a child and had lost the ability with age, but I seemed to have regained it in large measure – if not greater capacity compared to then.

“Cé, I think so, for there being such a tank,” she shouted. “This saw needs much time to warm up, as it sounds as if it is very cold still, and then it is smoking a lot.”

“About normal for a new saw,” I yelled. I thought to gently 'zap' the throttle so as to clear it out, and stabbed the trigger.

There was no hesitation whatsoever – the saw instantly screamed like a damned soul, its howl building with the speed of a lightning-bolt to a terrifying shriek before I had turned loose of the trigger – or so I thought until I then realized that I had done so faster than thought and the saw still hit the limiter before I could 'get out of the throttle'. I then noted that I was surrounded by billowing clouds of blue smoke, and more, through the smoke, Annistæ was shaking like a leaf.

This was not the saw she was familiar with, but something so alien and ferocious that it could have only come from one place – and that place was not Hell.

Hell hated these things, like it hated everything that was truly good, and the uneven barking crackle of a race-tuned two-stroke engine resumed. I then knew one thing:

This saw could easily cut three wagon-loads of wood in as many minutes, and need a refueling in the process – and that regardless of how many drunken loggers were handy to deal with the falling trees as this thing cut them down faster than my sword removed limbs and heads. Those people, were they present, would most likely find themselves being carried away on their wagons amid their lumber if they tried to actually use a race-tuned '55'. I had no idea what the big one would do, given what Annistæ had once done with her old saw.

“Probably good for about an hour's running time between major overhauls,” I said. The saw was now warming up fully, such that one could 'cut wood'. It sounded a trifle more even, but the bark was a lot louder, the crackle from the exhaust was still very uneven – almost like the crackle of gunfire from those mottled black rifles, in fact – and over all of this, there was a definite ringing, this of air-cooled fins vibrating. I noted the temperature gage still reading at the low end of green, and I thought two more minutes would be about right before I turned it off. The laboratory, however, was becoming 'fumy' in a hurry. One wanted good ventilation with this thing.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, regarding how long the saw would 'go' before needing to be gone through. “Remember, between the two saws, you'll cut as much wood as you can readily dry in the house proper and where you work inside of two hours of sawing, so figure twenty hours of use per year, which means doing major maintenance on both of them yearly. Minor maintenance – just check the chain for wear and sharpness, the bar for wear, top up the fuel, oil, and bar lubricant, clean the igniter carefully – the usual things that will come to mind, just like with your last bike needed to have done to keep it running good.”

As the engine was idling high enough for the chain to now engage with jerks and snatches, I adjusted the idle lower, then leaned out the idle needle slightly. The engine sounded 'better', even if I left the other needles the way they were, save for the 'power' needle.

That one went out no less than a full turn. The engine sounded a trifle happier.

“Here, you try,” I said, as I carefully handed the saw to Annistæ.

She held the thing as if to cut an imaginary log, then suddenly the saw went vertical and the explosive howl-whine-scream happened so fast that the saw nearly got away from her, and shaking, she handed it back to me. I looked at the temperature gage, let it idle for perhaps a minute, then shut it off.

With the sudden induction of quiet, the others began filtering back into the room, Deborah first, followed by Sarah, then as I noted in my peripheral vision, others began to come in the doorway. First was Hans, though he was heavily burdened by both a strange bag and a bin in his hands, then Esther, and finally, Georg himself – complete with crossed belts of shotgun shells, a slung shotgun to his rear, and a front-slung machine pistol – and he was carrying what looked like a smaller mail-sack filled with fresh-baked bread.

He'd obviously been shooting something, as he was muttering about having waking nightmares bad enough to want dosing.

“Now, it smells like you have been doing chemicals in here,” said Hans evenly. “This is a laboratory, and that is normal for those. Now where is the soot?”

“Didn't you hear that noise?” screeched Anna. “It sounded as if the hand of God had come down to smash us straight down into Hell!”

“Yes, I heard a loud noise for most of the time we were climbing the stairs,” said Hans. “Was it some bad chemicals that went up?”

“Non, you...” Annistæ stopped, then smelled Hans. I then noted just what he smelled like.

“How much did you shoot?” I asked.

“Enough to make me think I was shooting that roer again, and that twenty times in the last two hours, and that was the rifle and the other things. I had to shoot two rockets, and that was worse, but when Anna lit one off and I was behind it, I got tossed nearly twenty feet and I landed on Georg, who is very sore on account of me landing on him.”

Annistæ turned to me, and mouthed a word that I instantly understood as 'boom-head' – or in other words, Hans might well be showing the effects of a concussion.

Deborah came up to the saw, then touched it – and took her hand away instantly.

“That thing is hot, all right,” she said. “How could you stand it?”

“I think he has used things like it before, as have I, but that one is like a very bad-tempered horse,” said Annistæ. “They are very rare, but they are said to be large, black, and not stand to wear anything like a saddle or a wire for the mouth, and one must speak to them using pictures...

“Those are only bad-tempered when they are abused,” said Hans. For some odd reason, he was making total sense. Perhaps he did not need his head examined. He turned, then said, “now, she should be coming, and I hope she has something for my finger, as it was cut by a witch.”

“C-cut?” I gasped. “Which one?”

Hans held up his left hand, and I nearly fainted in shock.

His ring finger was shortened by an entire joint, and the stump was more than a little bloody. “Yes, I know what I am now, and that makes me a fit husband for her, as now we are both marked, and I have finally seen the hare, and it was big, smelly, dirty, and mean, and I kicked it a good one when it bit me.”

“So that's why,” murmured Deborah. “You're not usually like this. Now you need a bandage for that, and I still think you may have a cracked head.”

“Cé, Deborah, I think you will make a good Medikalé, as he is talking dangerously, and that apart from his cut finger,” said Graćiella as she came in with a full load. “He may have fought like he had lessons from those people of the Mule, and he may be as stubborn as a Mule for giving ground to those Cabroni when they came in a big black mass, but he has obviously never fought that many, so he was swarmed by them.”

“And he stayed put anyway?” I asked.

“Yes, and he was tossing many bombæ at them, and shooting them with rifles and rockets, and then swinging this strange green club, and he would not leave that place,” said Graćiella. “I had to shoot them off of him, then drag him back, and he is acting like he has a cracked head, that or he has become something like someone of the Mule's people, one who acts as if he is out of his mind.”

“El Vato Loco?” I asked. “Does things, like, uh, I do sometimes?”

“Yes, and I was thinking of what you would do when I did that,” said Hans. “I knew that place could be defended if I stayed in it, so I stayed, and the witches came for me, and I shot every bullet I had, and then I used my knife and this green club, and until she somehow got ahold of me and dragged me back, it was as if I were seeing someone my grandfather told me about next to me in that ditch and he was showing me what to do...”

“Was this someone who looked like me?” I asked.

“No, it was someone in our family, his cousin, I think,” said Hans. “This thing here is making a mess.” Hans obviously meant his finger. “Now, you there need to find me a stool, so you and Anna can look me over, as I might well be hurt more than I know.”

“I think so,” spat Deborah – who lifted up Hans' blood-matted hair. “Right here. Here is a place where he was creased by a large bullet, and it isn't a small crease, but a deep one.”

“It needs cutting his hair off so as to clean that wound,” said Graćiella. “Anna, get your things. We need to lay him down. Oh, what I would not do to have things to help this man. Déo, God, please, help me!”

I pointed to an area next to this woman, and the sudden bang tossed me over a bench and onto the floor, and when Hans shook his head when I somehow got back up and wobbled back to where I had been sitting – my stool was gone, as I could not find it – he was more than a little irritated.

“What are you doing with my hair?” he asked, this seemingly to us all.

“You were shot, Hans,” said Deborah, “and she just got something, as that bin is really heavy, and...

“I have no idea what happened,” said Anna, “but I think you should help me look in that thing. If it tossed him like that, it may well be really important.”

“Yes, to help my head, which is very sore,” I said, as I now once more took my seat once I had located it. It had flown further than I did, and needed retrieval before I could once more sit down. “You should have, some, uh, Spraetzen in there, small ones, glass, a range of needles...”

I then blacked out, and came to myself with a sticky mouth. To my complete astonishment, not only were there several more people in the room – Paul, Willem, Lukas, and Gilbertus – but also, Hans was being worked on by Anna, Deborah, Sarah, Graćiella – she was directing things – and Annistæ. I thought to wobble over to help, but Lukas stopped me.

“No, not now,” he said. “You got a big rising on your head, and Esther told me what you did – which is probably going to save his life, as that bullet cracked his head.”

“He got shot in the head?” I asked.

“Yep, only it creased him,” said Lukas. “Remember that one crease I got in the fifth kingdom house?”

“Is that why I got tossed?” I asked quietly. “Some wretch used a poisoned bullet?”

“Yes, but what showed up is what is needed to deal with it, and you dealt with the cursed aspect,” said the soft voice – “which is why you got tossed, as that wasn't a trivial curse, and Hans was dead and not knowing it.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured. “First, Anna gets hurt bad enough to need prayer, and she loses a toe, and now Hans gets his fingertip shot off and his head creased by a bullet, and...”

“He's good, now,” said Annistæ. “That medicine is the best she has ever seen, as now his finger is not bleeding, and the break in his head is repaired.”

“Not bleeding?” I asked.

“It did not grow back,” said Graćiella. “He will be different from now on, and not just his hand, but also his head.”

“That wound?” I asked. “Bones, come out of that man's brain, and make his head right.”

The sudden eruption tossed me back over the bench again, and when I came up – this time, I fell properly, so I didn't bang my head on the floor, even if Lukas needed to once more chase my stool – I came back to learn that not only was Hans awake, but he was also entirely coherent – and he was speaking of strange sights, words that did not make for comfort.

“Non, I can give you one or the other right now,” said Graćiella. “I know there is this big bird coming closer to you, but it is not there.”

“Oh, it is there, all right,” I muttered. “Just because you cannot see it doesn't mean it isn't there, at least as far as he's concerned. Now did he have a fractured skull, or was that slug poisoned, or what?”

“Both of those things and then some, and he needed you first dealing with the curse, then with the more-serious-than-it-looked brain injury which would have quickly made him a drooling idiot for the rest of his drastically shortened life.”

“So now I have two markings, and a big black bird annoying me for each of them,” said Hans. “Paul, when we did your hand, was it this bad for you?” Pause, then, “no, I do not like wine for drinking. I could use beer, and a lot of it, but not wine, and I especially do not want that nasty stuff you think... No, you wretch! My name is Hans, and I am the son of Ephraim, as my parents were killed when I was a baby by swine, and I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side.”

I whispered to Lukas, “some irate stinker is calling him Fortunato, I'll bet.”

“He is,” whispered Esther. “He's going to live now, but I never thought I'd see someone fight like that, no, not ever.”

“What did he do?” I asked.

“I was the last to leave that frontal ditch we dug for fighting when the witches were too much for us, but he would not get out of that ditch, and I don't think he knew about why we dug two of them, one behind the other with a connecting ditch that went at three angles, but he would not get out, so her and I had to shoot and cut the witches off of him, and they seemed to think killing him was worth two whole bags of full-minted witch-gold or something like that, and...”

“They do have a price on his head, same as any bomber does,” said Lukas. “Talk I heard in some places on the way back from the third kingdom was there was this list of people that lived in Roos that them Powers wanted dead at any price, and...”

“That explains a lot right there,” I said. “I'll bet they want everyone who's even remotely associated with me dead at any cost, and especially the two of them, as they're sheltering the monster. Now, look at him.”

“He's hurt bad enough to want close watching, I'd say,” said Lukas.

“He was, yes,” said Esther. “The second time he” – here, Esther pointed at me with a dirty finger – “got tossed saved Hans' life, and now that woman has many of the medicines she needs to take care of anyone who's injured here while the five of them are gone to get more.” Pause, then, “now why is it smoky in here, and what was that thing that was making enough noise to put me in the privy the minute I got in the house?”

“That smaller saw there,” I said, pointing to the saw in question

“It is fit for putting people in privies, and it is as green as a hornet, and it has this number on the side, and it is as loud as lightning striking, just like it shows on the side above that number there,” said Deborah. “His eyes look right now. Before, they were wrong.”

“Wrong?” I asked. “As in the central portion, that part which is brown with a black center, those center portions were, uh, unequal?”

“Yes, and that means the person has a cracked head at the least,” said Deborah. “About half the time when that happens, they die, and that's if people where I lived looked after them.”

“I know,” said Anna, as she came closer and then found a stool. “I am sore enough for a week of bathing in Komaet, and now, as soon as he's better...”

“He is better, but I'd not have him do much of anything tonight,” said Esther. “He's going to live, and he's in his right mind now, but until he wakes up and doesn't see ravens or rave about that nasty yellow wine with the name I have trouble saying, then I think we should just let her look after him.”

“Is his head injury better?” I asked.

“It is much healed, but he will need to wear a bandage on his head for a few days, and keep his head shaved there until it is healed entirely,” said Graćiella. “He's going to want gloves for his hands, as the Cabroni will double the price upon his head, and the ones I heard speak as we were getting him away from them spoke of 'bags of money if we get his head', how much ever that is.”

“A lot,” said Georg laconically. “I know that much. I had no idea he had that big a price on his head, even if I know a lot more now about the one on mine.”

“Three units of full-minted witch-gold?” asked Gabriel. “Now the two of them are right for each other again, as now both of them are marked.”

“Not two days apart, and both while fighting witches, and both just after clearing the Abbey,” I said. “Did he give a blood-oath, one right then and there, as the witches came upon him and he fought like a maniac?”

“Why do you think he decided to stay in that trench once that bullet creased his skull?” said the soft voice. “He figured he was a dead man once he was 'shot in the head', so he thought to go down like his grandfather did – and that man may have been speared in the chest, but with the last of his strength as he died, he tossed both of his witch-jugs at the charging tinned thugs of Norden, and killed and injured over a hundred of those people as those bombs exploded.”

Deborah was still interested in the saw, and for some reason, I could almost see her using one. She then asked, “I know it puts people in the privy. Is it good for something else?”

“It's what you want for cutting timber quickly,” I said. “Given that the house proper needs wood, where I work needs wood, and nearly every house in the town where I live needs wood, and that on top of the kingdom house – the town, that is – then...”

“Yes, and I am not sure about Houtlaan,” said Deborah. “It's screaming with marmots, they do a bad job of wood preparation, and they're most all a pack of sluggards.”

“Which will not do,” said Georg. “None of us can afford to be sluggards, and certainly not right now.”

“Besides doing a bad job of wood preparation, Houtlaan takes next to forever to get their rubbishy wood so it's salable, so we need to do a good job of getting our wood, and that quickly,” I said. “Now, this place has two privies, correct? I've but seen one of them in here, but I've heard there were two.”

“Yes, and we were crowding both of them while that thing was running,” said Deborah. “I must have come close to soiling my underclothing eight times, but I was able to get in the privy each time before it happened, what with two of them and the men using one and the women another.”

“And two stoves in there, correct?” I asked.

“Yes, both with burnt-coal in them, and I put two large pots on each of them, both filled with water, as we soon will be using the tubs turn-about. We've got a great many drawers left to clean, and then we need to get ready for bed after that, as tomorrow will start early.” Pause, then, “oh, and cupboards, also. We didn't even get to those yesterday, and there's a lot in those.”

“Including rodents?” I asked. “Keep a pistol handy?”

“I hope n-did you mean the type that burrow and grab legs so as to break them,” said Deborah nervously. “Did you mean those things, or did you mean something else?”

“I meant 'anything of a rodent nature', meaning 'burrowing rodents', common rats, white rats, tree-rats, those things called hamsters overseas, and perhaps other creatures that might be thought of as rodents that I have not yet seen. I've seen those I spoke of, the things overseas not included – yet.” Pause, then, “now Katje said something about these strange rats she ran into at Boermaas that were very resistant to clubbing...

“Yes, what is it I said?” said the woman in question as she suddenly seemed to materialize next to where I was sitting. “Good, we have a way to cut a lot of wood quickly. The usual means is slow enough to make me scream, and that's when I have a good ax or hatchet.”

“You did not hear that thing, did you?” asked Deborah fearfully. “It put all of us in the privy.”

“Yes, I know, and I think if a person was in this house, they would have heard it,” said Katje. “Now, we'll all sleep up here, once we get your bags up, and then that lead will keep until tomorrow. We might have gotten it out of the hands of the witches, but some of us paid a high price doing it, as the witches were massing by the hour and I was glad for those trenches someone wrote about.”

“What happened to you?” I asked. “Did something, uh, ruin your shoe?”

“They were already ruined before today started,” said Katje. “I'm going to need to be careful, now, especially when I have shoes made, and I may need to go where Lukas lives to have them done from now on.”

“Don't tell me,” said Lukas. “You got shot too.”

“I suspect so, though I'm not sure how badly,” said Katje. “I was laying face-down in the dirt already, and I was firing that rifle and hitting witches some of the time, so when I felt my toe get hit, I dropped my face in the dirt right then and prayed with all I had, and...”

Lukas was looking at Katje's foot, his eyes bugging out, then he said, his voice cracking, “we got another one hurt over here. Looks like her foot got hit by something.”

“Yes, a musket ball, and I suspect it was from a roer,” said Katje. “I was told I had two choices when the witches came in that huge mass at the last, as the sun was late in the sky, and they were these: I could do the sensible thing and give way to their numbers, or I could stand my ground and fight. I would pay a high price regardless, as both I and Maarten are marked for death by witchdom, so I figured that I had nothing to lose by standing my ground, so that's what I did, and I piled that field with dead witches once I was hit, as then I hit every witch I shot, no matter the distance, no matter what that witch was doing. I might have missed twice after that I got my face up from the dirt.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“Just what I said,” said Katje. “Maarten is arranging for food, and he was sensible, but I've always been a bit foolish, I guess, but better to be a fool for God than a sensible wretch who finds himself in hell on account of his sensibility.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured. “You're going to be standing in front of us with a bandaged foot, and...”

“It makes me fit to do that business, you know that, don't you?” said Katje. “I stood my ground, so now I can speak of what the two of you have done, and speak of it knowingly, and if any should question me, I will show them my foot, and show them the blood-stained cloth I wrapped it in that I watered with tears before I resumed shooting, and I did not stop shooting witches until I saw no more of them left alive before me, and I left piles of bird-whistles where I was, especially once my toe got hit, as before, I was missing them mostly, but once I did what I did with my foot, then I swear before God that I hit most all of them I shot at, and that solid, and I was cutting them down like no one I've seen ever.”

“You did not clear out that house in Ploetzee,” said Sarah. “We did, and that was bad.”

“Yes, it was, but this was my first time, if I speak in truth,” said Katje. “I had done what I could in the Abbey, which wasn't very much, save in that deep place, where I mostly tossed dynamite...”

“So it was you,” spat Sarah venomously. “You nearly blew us all up tossing that stuff.”

“You two are still here, though,” said Katje, “and those bone-masses were on the verge of overwhelming you both several times, you more than he, and I had that stuff, and I prayed that every time I tossed a bundle, it would keep them clear of you for a time. Now did it work, or did it not?”

“It did work, but you still nearly blew us up,” said Sarah.

“Dear, I think that is just part of the price one pays when one fights the minions of hell,” I said. “I got tossed twice in the last half hour dealing with curses of one kind or another dumped on Hans, and Katje was not in the room, and now she has an injured foot, and Hans a missing fingertip and a sizable bullet crease...” I left out the part about 'they will think him to be out of his mind because he's had a cracked head'.

“Yes, I see that,” said Graćiella, as she came near to where Katje was sitting on one of the benches. . “Now, let us see this shoe...”

Within moments, it became clear: Katje had had not just one toe removed off of her right foot, but two, but for some reason, the two places had 'filmed over' and were already rapidly healing. Katje looked on with interest as Graćiella cleaned and bandaged her foot, then said, “Anna, which foot was it for you?”

“My left one,” said Anna. “You're missing a toe also?”

“She is missing two of the smaller ones, but I think she did something, and Déo heard her prayer right away, as they are already partly healed.”

“I think it is more than just that,” said Anna. “You know what she is to do tomorrow, don't you?”

“Non, I do not,” said Graćiella.

“She is to marry those two there, and now she can speak of them rightly and with knowing, and now Hans and I both can understand them better, and we will all need to stand together, as because we are as we are, we are alone in this world, us and God; but we shall stand, and we shall stand alone together.”