The boat.

“And what are these fish called?” asked Deborah. “Are they named oil-fish?”

“Yes,” said Annistæ. The women were two to a bag and one to an end, the men usually one bag apiece, while for some reason, Katje held Sarah and I back.

“Your clothing, all of it, and then these stoves need dampering down,” she said, doing the stoves first. “Now you, Sarah, your cloak, and the same for you, then your sashes, both of them red ones.”

“Red-sash?” I asked, as we walked. Neither of the three of us would carry a bag, though Sarah picked up her pack, and I...

“Best let someone else carry your things, or rather, most of them, unless...” Katje was unsure.

“No, for this trip, I must,” I said. “Perhaps not further than going down the stairs and out, and then the ceremony itself, but I must carry my gear then. I may be loaded like a mule, but this is most likely the last time I will carry such a load for a while, and I'll have plenty of time to go through both on the way to the cove.”

“Good,” said Katje, as she shouldered her rifle, and arranged her belt. To my surprise, she had a somewhat crude-looking flap-type holster, and her undoing it showed one of the eight-and-a-half Webley revolvers.

“I hope you get more of those things, as calling those clockwork marvel pistols trouble is to speak well of them, unlike these,” said Katje. “Now down the stairs with you, us three, as there are things we need to hear, and the two of you especially.”

I came surprisingly quickly, dark goggles and all, and in my hearing, I could hear discussions regarding the procuring of 'oil fish'. It seemed that the 'chicken coop' that was currently in use at the settlement was but the beginning, as this settlement would be fully as large as where Annistæ had worked before, and its foundations were being laid. More, those people were tired of whites, stone was 'cheap' here, and they had many masons who were expert at laying brick. Sarah had told a few how to lay stone – and now all of them were either good at doing so, or learning rapidly, as there was a lot of stone-work to be done in the kingdom house, and the regular people were at the Abbey.

The work also got done a lot faster, and often far better, and invariably, at the same or a better price.

More, the settlement's basement was going together rapidly, and this, while a single story basement, would be both deep and wide, with it covering the whole of the inner courtyard and extending past the outer walls at least ten to twelve feet, with several feet of soil over those parts not supporting the walls. Those runs of stone under such walls were to be of a tripled thickness, and reinforcing rods were to be used heavily and often.

“Nine chains across each way, that one man sneaked over with his surveying equipment and ran the rods...”

“He did that on his way here, yes,” said Toréo, “but I know something of such matters, so we only had to adjust our diggings somewhat. Now these fish, they are for oil, and they are good for lanterns and their fuel, much as is this bad tallow I smell everywhere in here.”

“The witches desire us to have that, and that only, so that we may stink as they do,” said Esther. “Now how is it you will take that bad lantern fuel and clean it up?”

“Put it in with the dead rats, and its impurities will fully react as they go through the entire process,” I said. “Then, there's the activated charcoal, and that needs a retort, a special type of grinder, then a pellet press, and finally some chemicals, correct?”

“I suspect you are right, and more, where you are going, you will get the answers you need,” said Katje. “I meant overseas, by the way. Where you are going shortly – I've no real idea as of yet, but I suspect it isn't trivial.”

The head of our column had reached the main stairs, and now I knew its chief advantage: we had to travel further, but there would be no bottlenecks in our travel: finally, it would take us directly to the refectory, where I would open the back door and let us all out to there put our burdens down for the buggies. That would be the signal for awakening, or so I hoped.

“Yes, I plan on trading him his bad lantern oil for our good stuff, and get things we need, and then we might well make our own red lanterns, if we can find ways of making their parts.” This last was Annistæ's voice, though how I heard her so clearly was currently a mystery.

“Do they have to be brass, or can their pieces be of copper?” I asked. “I can make a lot of parts of copper, and I think I might convince that type of lantern to give no smoke and more light, but I'll need to get some special glass parts from overseas.”

“You do that, and you can get what you want,” said Toréo. “Every tinker I know will sell as many of them as he can buy from you.”

“Non, Tú,” I said – meaning he could sell such lanterns once the settlement had its number and a spare one handy for each five to be used regularly. “I can make many of the machined portions of those lanterns, and then there are machines upstairs in at least two places that I know of which can make more, and then if you can endure copper tanks instead of brass... Copper with a bit of tin and perhaps a little brass when it's melted for casting into ingots, so it still forms readily, but it is not like brass that way?”

“Cé, especially if your tank is a good one, one holds plenty and does not leak,” said Toréo. “We will need many in our new settlement, which is where we will test them, and then a jeniradoré, or perhaps two if they are quiet, and a receiver, and a transmitter if you can make such a thing, as we have two good players.”

“Not like him,” said Annistæ. “He can play like Roberto hijé Ion, but he needs a special instrument, and an amplifier, so he can get tone without cutting up his hands.”

“Now, a foundry, one right here, one fit to cast small parts, perhaps even bronze ones – special bronze, for chemistry work?” I asked.

“How large of a foundry?” asked Deborah. “There is one room that might cope with it, but its furnace is very large – and I think that one is more for refining metals, not casting.”

“A room that we add,” said Toréo. “I know of a foundry person, the one they call the gaffer, and if there is a metal that can be cast, he can cast it.”

“I think I spoke with him for much of a day, and wrote a great deal,” said Sarah. “These are for lanterns like those we found, correct?”

“Those, chemistry clamps, things like them, radio parts – those strange switch-parts almost want casting...” Deborah was wondering: she'd done the wax portions, but otherwise, she knew little of the process I was talking about

“The glass must come either from overseas, or...” Toréo stopped speaking. We were at the landing between the second and third floor, and as I crossed it, I could hear the moans and wails of the 'prisoners' as they were given their first meal of the day. All of them wore leg irons, all of them would stay penned up until the shop was reopened, and all of them would only be bathed during the time of their confinement when and if their stink became 'offensive' or drew witches.

“You have used the nets you found?” I asked.

“Those, many times,” said Annistæ. “One wades out into the pond, sets one's net, then retrieves it some minutes later, and if that is a good pond, one has a bucket of those fish for each setting of your net – and the usual is to set more than one such net if the pond is large enough to support these fish in numbers.”

“And then, your pen?” I asked.

“I made sufficient ink to fill every such pen we have twice over, and tubes beside for those who will use them a lot. I have two such tubes, as I need to write everything down lest I forget it,” said Deborah. “I might barely be able to read my handwriting, but I did follow that recipe, and Hendrik has several vials of that ink and several of those pens. I made sure to get him some, and Annistæ has her old one and a new one for a spare, both filled with ink, and a vial for refilling each, as we will all do much writing while you five are gone, and more yet afterward, as there is something special about that type of pen using that ink, and it will become very important in the days to come.”

“How many batches of that ink did you make?” I gasped.

“Four, but each batch was a full cup, which was as large as Sarah said was wise, at least for her,” said Deborah. “Each of my batches came out well, but when I mingled them over low heat, they became more even in tint and better as well, so that is what I loaded those pens with, filed those vials for refills, filled the larger ink-vials used here, and refilled the rest of Hendrik's own ink-globe, that which he keeps hidden in his rooms for a spare.”

“There are other uses for ink-globes, should you find empty ones and are inclined toward trouble,” said Sepp. “One can put things other than ink in them, and cap them with a stiff cap and a foot of fuse.”

“They work well,” said Gabriel.

“Yes, if you are tossing them at witches wearing nothing stiffer than starched-up black-cloth, and not huge stinky lizards that were cursed every day for a year,” spat Sepp. “I tossed more than one at that thing, and it only got more irritated.”

“Where did you toss them?” asked Sarah. “I put a bomb to its rear, and it did almost nothing to that thing.”

“I tried to put one in his mouth, but I could not manage that, and I knew its rear wasn't much easier,” said Sepp, “so I tried tossing them at its eyes in hopes of blinding it.”

From somewhere behind us, Gabriel, between grunting noises as he carried a bag, spat, “he shot its eyes out, and that did nothing to that smelly reptile. It would not quit until he stilled it by piercing its brain-case with his sword, and that at the weakest place...”

“The place where his original brain was located, not the curse-conjured one. That one needed curse-tossing, and I could not do what was needed that way then. I doubt much I could do it now, though...”

“Though what?” asked Sarah. “You've done things since the Abbey that make old tales seem silly, and...”

“We are writing our own old tales, Sarah,” said Gabriel between grunts. “I seem to sound like a pig, carrying this bag. Perhaps I need to exercise more.”

“Yes, and I know that, so I myself shall start with the weights,” said Hans. “Put on good leather gloves, so you do not get lead in you, and get a smaller ingot in each hand, and move them about at arm's length as long as you can. You will be sore some at first, but it will make you stronger. That, or find a smithy, and have someone like Dennis apprentice you. That will give you muscles.”

“I doubt I can do what will be assigned me in a smith's shop, though I can probably find a bag of shot and do the other,” said Gabriel. “Besides, we only have a certain number of weapons that fire that kind of ammunition. We may well, for a time at the least, need to take weapons left upon the battlefield and rework them to arm the people working at the Abbey, and potentially, ourselves.”

“Besides,” I said. “We do have bags of shot. You can use those once we're done taking the place, and start your weight-training then. That, and a walk each morning, though that may be hazardous once the witches show in force. Have to do it at three AM, with the guards...” I then laughed, then said, “Gabriel, that one secret passageway. It will go up into the 'blue zone' from where you are closeted, and it's close, steep, tiring, and if you do that trip at a good speed, it will give you a lot of wind.”

“It will make me smell like a sick person mired in a privy?” asked Gabriel.

“No, it will make you fit for walking long days,” said Karl. “Farming does the same, that or hunting for your family, or living the life of an itinerant seamstress, or pounding iron and working days like a s-slave.”

“Need to eat right, too,” I said. “Lots of meat if you do that. Be glad we have lots of meat packed, though we may be able to loot their stores once we are there.”

“Loot!” said Sarah. “Blooming loot! That is what makes the boys get up and shoot, and the same for the girls!”

“Where did you learn that?” asked Karl.

“When we were taking that thread-seller's place,” said Sarah. “We were starting on our way toward learning thuggery, and we have learned more of it since, but I think that port will be our zuurpruef. After that, overseas will be easy, as those in that port are all like those spies they have over there are, all of them as hard or harder than the type that pitch huge rifles with spears on the end at you, the kind that come from nowhere and break your leg, and you need to climb up their body using your knife as a place to grab onto, and then you need to cut off their head to kill them!”

Anything more come from the dissection of Iggy?” I asked softly.

“Yes, and Hendrik has a copy, and I've seen it,” said Sarah. “Not much, as there wasn't much more to learn of that thing beyond what we learned that day. It had a thick skull, thick bones, showed places where someone cut rune-curses into its bones, a lot of healed scars – some of them quite large – and the pieces, once they were buried in that then still-small manure-pile, went to dust and dung overnight, like it was nine hundred years too old to live. That is what they took four pages to say.”

“Ye Writtenn Formatte?” I asked.

“No, they just had trouble writing, their spelling was awful, and they could barely think, so they did what they could do, which was write what they saw, and I spent two hours cleaning up their mess, and when I come back, I'm going to ask those people myself and get the truth out of them one way or another.” Sarah seemed more than a bit irritated at this matter.

“Good,” said Gabriel. “I could help with recording, as even if you make me worthless for expression, I can write neatly and fairly quickly. We need that information, and that badly.”

“Why do you want to do that?” asked Deborah. She was genuinely curious – and stronger than she looked by far, as she was easily carrying a bag that looked to be a handful. Cultivating potatoes was hard work, and it put strength in a person.

“Much the same reason your family keeps detailed records about swine and those who come with them,” I said. “They tend to return, don't they, and ignorance is not your friend, then – and the way those stinkers wanted to burn that thing then and there, that tells me something – we may run into another lizard or three like that one, and knowing what it took to kill, its weakest points... Stinking thing didn't have any of them. Need to blow it up with a rocket!”

“That would put it out of commission for a time, yes,” said the soft voice. “That was one reason why they were plotting on taking a rocket-launcher and rockets with them, in fact – a head-shot would have stopped it for long enough for them to get themselves well clear of it.”

“Even if we do not encounter another cursed lizard, we may well encounter other big mean cursed things, and those will want what information we have so as to more effectively put them in hell where they belong,” I spat. “They could be big, tough, and cursed for a long time by strong witches, and those are not easy to kill – just like Iron Pigs with full plate. Those are tough critters. I know, because I had to put most of a rifle-magazine into one not two days ago, and only then did it give it up.”

“Iron Pigs are indeed tough, but not Iggy-tough,” said the soft voice. “When they read your mind overseas,they'll wonder about some intercepts they have depicting such reptiles, as they thought them to be imaginings. They won't know what to do with someone who has fought and won against a real example, especially one like that one.”

“No, he wasn't Smog,” I spluttered. “He didn't fly, nor could he talk...”

The thought then hit me. Iggy could not talk. He was cursed, and the cursing didn't recognize a capacity for speech as a needed attribute, even if superior intelligence, greater than that of an Iron Pig, was recognized – and he had an accursed way of getting around that made flying seem silly, as flight permitted one to see him, and that one means 'caused him to show with no warning whatsoever.

You could see Smog when he was coming, and hear him as well. Iggy – the first you saw of him, as a rule, was his wide-open mouth when he was about to devour you – and hearing, the same. No noise showed as a warning – until the sudden crunch as his gullet crushed you.

Given that level of intelligence and the other capacities he had beyond those I had already recognized: stereoscopic infrared vision that didn't need eyes, acute discrimination of smell, the ability to survive injuries that would kill any non-cursed animal instantly, and a host of other qualities that no person, save myself, could possibly discern...

“He didn't need to be as big as Smog,” I spluttered. “Not when he was smarter than most people here or where I came from, not when he could flame like a rocket engine from the front and light a big fire from his rear, and not when he needed to be cut apart and rotting in a compost pile before he was truly done. Smog wasn't that tough. That one just took a single arrow hitting a weak spot, and Iggy – he didn't have one of those, not one that could be reached as easily as that place was on Smog.” Pause, then, “Iggy was the most dangerous creature I've ever faced on the surface of two planets, and I know of but one that's clearly worse.” Then, a question. “Is that why I need a pair of ticklers for bedtime?”

“I cannot tickle you all the time,” said Sarah, as she nudged my backside. “I have my work put to me, even if some of it does include tickling and rubbing you when and as I can.” Pause, then, “you are between an upper millstone, that being this planet and its people, and then the lower, that being God himself, and that would drive a person out of their mind in a very instant were they not helped in every possible way, and I hope and pray they read that and help you all they can!”

“Oh, they will, all right,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those people are not like those here. Witch-thinking there, unless you are dealing with functionaries and those like them, is very rare, save in most-subtle forms that will only manifest once the place is mostly liberated – and unlike the active aspect of witch-thinking here, there it is mostly an aspect of unwarranted confidence in their abilities, due to systematic manipulation of the populace by the leadership over the course of nearly a thousand years.”

“Meaning they're living in a fantasy world,” I said. We were coming to the second floor's turnabout, at least where we were in the middle of the long procession. I noticed here and there the use of headlights, as the place was still very much dark. Only the refectory showed light and life.

“Until the last few years, yes,” said the soft voice. “When life turns into something resembling your formative years, then the illusions fostered by leadership tend to be pretty obvious as to what they are, and the survivors learn what the truth is in a hurry.”

“Meaning they know they're being lied to,” I said. “The chief issue is just how much they are being lied to – as in they know they cannot trust much of anything coming from leadership over there, but the reality is 'they can only trust themselves to some degree, and they can only trust one person fully'.”

“Got it in one, and that's all you're going to need to deal with over there,” said the soft voice. “Living in an environment that resembles a death-camp tends to remove witch-thinking rather quickly among those who survive very long.”

“Oh, Anna?” I asked.

“Yes, right here,” she said. “My toe seems to healed almost entirely. What is it you are after?”

“You shot a rat with that dart-dip, and those needles Sarah selected for her tube...”

“She may have selected a hundred, but that one person who's as tall as Sarah is selected more, put vegetable fiber to their blunt tips with this glue Annistæ did up that is unlike anything I've ever seen, dipped them in that stuff in batches running the length of that bench, and then put them up in tubes and bagged them up with a painted tin label, one stamped and then rubbed with black paint, so you have lots of them for your use. She then did yet more for use around here. Why?”

“Do you know what it will do with witches?” I asked.

“No, not witches, but I did put a dart in a rat,” said Anna. “I told you about it stopping instantly, and then catching fire shortly thereafter.” Pause. “Witches, or those blue-suited thugs, I have no idea, save... No, I do have an idea. It not only will poison them, and cause them to stop the instant they are hit, but it will turn them into something that looks like a Ploetzee fuel-cake, and that change will proceed from whence that dart should hit them – and the change happens nearly as fast as a witch going to dust when centered with a high-energy hollow point!”

“Drop where they stand as a smoking lump of charcoal briquettes,” I murmured. “Paralysis so complete that they make no noise whatsoever when they're hit, and that most anywhere, as the stuff gets into nerves and travels rapidly, such that it hits their brain and turns it off almost as fast as a light-switch.”

“Meaning it kills them dead right then,” said Hans. “That stuff will need making more of, and if we can put up rooms for growing in that blue place on the fourth floor, then I think we should, and put some Krokus bulbs in them, so we have some of that stuff running for those smelly blue-dressed thugs. I had some in my dreams last night, and while they might not know most what witches know, they act just like witches, and bad ones, too.”

“And a last matter,” I asked, as our portion of the procession began to descend the last flight of stairs, those leading to the ground floor. “The leather-shop?”

“Next on the list for expansion,” said Deborah, “as that newly-arrived woman from the Valley knows more than the lot of the others, and she's talked with the masons, so they go there next, unless more of them come.”

“They will do that,” said Toréo. “More come daily, as they know the great time comes quickly, or if they are marked, they know it is here right now – and many of these people that have come and are coming are marked, and one out of ten fingers must wear burn-clothing to not die as a Cabroné.”

“Unless they are in a few safe locations, this being one of those for the time being,” I said. “Worse comes to worse, Rachel could stay in the blue zone, as that will remain that way until the curse breaks entirely, if not longer yet.”

“It will remain until this building falls, and given the nature of those masons, I would expect a small colony of such people to more or less set up their quarters in that area, as they know a lot more about this building than you realize.”

“That it needs to be gone through, done right, much stone needs relaying...”

“They cannot do all of that without dismantling the building,” said the soft voice. “They can correct a great many faults, they can repair the plumbing or they know people who can, they can make things work right, and under that one man's leadership, they can run wiring that works right and continues to do so. Expect about fifty or so of those people in the blue zone by the time this group of five comes back, and they'll stay, at least some of them, until well after the Curse is fully broken. They have a lot of work to do in here.”

“Some of them?” I asked, as we were half way down the stairs.

“The most-pressing work will be done by the time the Abbey goes into the black sack, where over half of them will go to work there – and every one of those people who survives their time in this place that goes to the Abbey is going to become marked – or marked further than they currently are.”

“And modernize the equipment?” I asked. “Tanning on the premises?”

“That will happen, and it needs to,” said Hendrik darkly. “Willem told me his-own-self what it took to get good leather where he works, and then Esther spoke of what you needed to do to his equipment, and how the Abbey will need to produce a lot of leather articles.”

“And how they can turn bad leather into good overseas?” I asked. “Perhaps real leather soap?”

“Ai, I can do that here,” said Annistæ. “I have it in my notes, as it was needed where we were fighting Cabroni all the time, that and how to do good leather, as it is scarce there and must last well, not like the part-rotten stuff here that is done with ashes and dung and the stuff that comes from mules, and then short bark and little time.”

“So it is more nice-looking rotten stuff than real leather,” I spat, as we came to the bottom of the stairs. “What happened to that one black pig?”

“It will come here in pieces at night, same as the other swine that have died, but that will be tricky, as they make many of us ill,” said Toréo. “Drowning in them in hot salt water kills most of the stink, but I think only boiling the meat off of those things will drive off the whites, and that makes the fat portions come to the surface, which is where most of the whites are.”

“So this,” I said. “In one place, get a pot, a good sized one of copper – there's one hiding in the blue zone upstairs – and put the pieces of that and other pigs in it. Get a decent fire under it, boil it for a time, then in the morning, skim the solidified fat, and bring it here to be made into lantern fuel. Do that twice, skimming the fat each time, and then put the rest in the manure pile, save for the bones. I want those from that one pig. The other bones, bring them with the fat to this place, and they can be ground up to finish up in the manure pile here. The rest, you can put in your manure-pile – and we will give you some of our manure, as we have few fields, and yours need more manure and larger size for those coming to the new settlement when it is livable.”

“Ai, you speak well,” he said. “I might well find this pot you speak of, as we do not like swine, and they do not like us, and that is much the same for people here, though it is much more they do not like swine.”

“The big black ones, yes,” I said. “The common tan or pink ones make good weeders, and they scent out witches when they show, and therefore most people around here leave them alone.” Pause, then, “they used to burn them, and that made everyone sick.”

“Non, one does not burn swine,” said Annistæ. “We would bury them for manure when they died, and while before my accident I had trouble enough with them, but after I was well... It was worse. Much worse. I would scream and become ill if they were at all close.”

“Ill?” I asked.

“They call it spewing from both ends in this place,” said Angelíca. “It is very bad, and I am worse yet about swine.”

“I did not enjoy them, even as a girl,” said Annistæ, “and that had Mamá speaking strangely of me, as there are tales regarding those who dislike pigs overmuch, and everyone down in that area knows of them.”

“What would they be?” asked Sarah. We were moving into the refectory, which was now busy. The house would wake up, and outside, those encamped would wake up, and hence the place was busy with people, sweat, steam, hot stoves, pots filled with food, and eggs being 'stirred' for 'mingled eggs', as they called them. I wondered if I could have those on toast, as that sounded best of all, and easily made into a Kommando ration, such that it would be in a tin that one returned for recycling by those packing them up.

“That such people were chosen for service by the great spirit, or as I now know of him, Déo,” she said, “and that proved to be true, as it usually is in that place.”

“Dislike pigs overmuch?” I asked.

“The Totem of the Rooster is not one which likes pigs, and it is a rare town in that area where one might see a pig, and that below-ground, where swine are sometimes used as draft animals.” Pause, then, “there are towns to the north that have them, and if one has been burnt, or cut, or has signs from Déo put upon them, they must not touch swine, nor must they touch anything unclean, even unwittingly, as things will happen to both those things which are unclean and such people. So I knew, and so I was told by the one who hid me for a time in that place of chemicals in what is called the fourth kingdom.”

“And now, the nature of Totems,” I said. “Some, one must be born into, though sometimes one might be 'adopted'.”

“Yes, and I am an elder, hence I can put it forth,” said Toréo. “I have heard of your abilities, and I know of but one thing to give you. It waits for your return.”

“What?” I asked.

“You will become a member of our Totem, that of the Black Rooster, something that has not been done since the time of this Curse people speak of, and when I say 'you will be a member', I mean a full member, long hair or no, as will she, as I heard what you did to save Annistæ from those whites, and that is what Rachel's friend did, and she is of the first of us.”

“Rachel's friend?” I asked, as I wandered slowly through the empty tables. A few had people at them, but they were mostly getting into their morning's beer. They looked like worn-out cooks, cooks that had slept but an hour or two during a hard day's night.

“You have his name as one of yours,” said Toréo, “and you delivered her from evil, and you went back to the worst time here, that time before the curse when there were the worst Cabroni since the drowning, and you killed many of them using one of their weapons, and their clothing showed around you, and then, that weapon itself. I saw it, and I know its like, and we wish ones like it for our borders, as then... Then...”

“The bad time,” I said, as we came to the rear door of the refectory and I opened it with a touch, then led the way outside, my rifle in my hands, soft murmurs from my mouth as I scouted about in the fast-lightening darkness before dawn. “Dread swarms that think they have nothing to use. If it shoots, use it, and those swarms will be the biggest and the last, and then, we shall stand, and stand alone, and stand together, just as it was in the days of the war long ago in Vrijlaand.”

As if to cap this, though, I loosed something that had never come from my mouth before. It was pure animal: it started as a growl deep in the chest, built rapidly from into an ear-destroying roar, then its pitch went higher, its volume louder, ear-shattering, higher still, until with a burst of something, it went into the ultrasonic realm to finally peter out.

“How did you do that?” whispered Sarah. “You sounded like that one dark-haired cat when he was his full size, only so much louder and higher that I can only speak of an old tale.”

“Not so,” said Toréo. “That is a hunting call, that of the Tigris, and I hope that those cats return to this world, as it needs them badly.” He looked at me, nodded, then yelled something unintelligible to the common man, but I understood it perfectly.

“Dawn, you people,” he had said. “It shall happen then, and all of you, mass yourselves, as this is war, and that to the knife and beyond.”

“I still think that noise you made was worse,” whispered Deborah. “If that was not the hunting call of a large gray cat, one of a size fit for an old tale, then I do not know what it was – but I do know you can go higher than I can now, as I just heard you do so.”

I got a dose, and I knew it was needed. What we were about to do scared me out of my mind, and a small soft hand clenched mine with a grip like iron. I could almost feel it shaking with fright, and I thought, “but this is marriage. It is supposed to be a happy occasion. Why am I so terror-stricken? Is it what comes after?”

“Yes, but not what you think,” said the soft voice. “This is no normal wedding, not even a royal wedding, which is how it was put in the missives, but something far beyond that. What happens then... Well, that's a secret. It will not be long now. Hold fast to one another, and you, take my hand, so you are not so frightened – and by you, I meant both of you. You will travel, and travel far, and travel to realms you know not of, and you will do the impossible, as it is needed.”

“Yes, I know,” said Katje, “and hence, I gave my blood, and two toes, and I shall give more yet, and...” Katje turned to me, then asked, “how is it to fly?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “It's supposedly very difficult, and if you go off a jump on a bike and have the back end try to catch up with the front, it can take a lot of strength, and then, you're controlling the thing more by shifting your weight than all else, and it takes a lot of muscle and quick reactions, reactions too fast for conscious thought. It's more instinct than all else. Is that what you meant?”

“No, but that tells me you will do well going down to the port,” said Katje. “I meant in the air, and also, above the sky, as there, I shall see stars, I shall work like a slave, and then I shall deal with people from other worlds – and it is dangerous there, which is why those who travel so do so armed.”

“Which is why there will always be places where one may find purple haze,” said Sarah. “The Abbey, it may and may not return to the black sack, but there will be places that will have such happening, as many people will need to 'become experienced' – and that is where that happens, Katje.” Sarah gripped my hand tighter, and as the sky grew slowly lighter, our entire group came out of the refectory, bags in their hands, and weapons slung to front or over the shoulder. The whole rear area seemed alive in some way, yet still mired in slumber; but that was but its seeming. In truth, people were drinking beer while dressing themselves quickly, and to do so in this huge forest of tents that were all over the back region and to each side of the walls to south and east, and then in the area of the dead to the front – it took time to mass them.

It also took time to bring out the horses from the horse-barn, harness them up, then check the wheels of the numerous buggies, dose them with buggy-oil, that being our latest material; and then, by my direction, that of Lukas and Gilbertus, and finally Toréo, the buggies came up. There were a lot of these things, more than I realized, and then I understood. Every sleeved buggy in a large part of the first kingdom had been claimed for this duty, and they had come since we had closeted ourselves. Some had needed repairs and then refinishing; others, their sleeves lapped and rebedded; all had needed inspection and minor maintenance; and then they, and their drivers, all had needed to give oath, for this was a crown matter; and more, it was a matter of such importance that the fate of the planet itself, and all of its peoples – they too hung in the balance.

As each buggy was loaded, it and its horses were led away, there to wait, with pans of 'mash' brought from somewhere...

“Willem brought all of his spare mash in his buggy, which has sleeved wheels, and Paul's buggy has remained, and that grain mill ground up over a hundred pounds of corn, oats, and barley each, and the stuff was made according to your directions,” said the soft voice. “It was toasted after dousing with sugar-tree sap, and it did all as you said it would – and horses love that stuff.”

“They do?” I asked. “Donkeys?”

“Be careful if you stuff a donkey with that grain-mash,” said the soft voice. “It may well buck and rear.”

“Oh, boy,” said Sarah. “It's going to start shortly, as I can feel all of those people camped getting up and getting ready, and it's like an earthquake, as they are all doing it at once, and the ground is shaking.”

“Will one happen?” I asked.

“No, but something else will,” said the soft voice. “It may be for but a handful of seconds, but when you two are done with that, then the lot of you will hie yourselves along that marked-out route, and there may be some shooting, as there still are witches coming north from the second kingdom and other points south.”

“There were a lot of those stinking spies, were there?” I asked.

“Were is right,” said the soft voice. “Those traps laid by Toréo caught most of the remainder of the 'great spy-swarm', and those shooting shot many of the others, so after you all are on your way, the return-trip will be to fetch much of the remaining lead, as many of their guns as is possible, the mounds of witch-clothing that remain behind, and then their heavy pouches of money; and then lay more traps if doing so is possible, as that field and area is a main highway for foot-slogging witches – and that means over half of them are coming up that way as they travel to the north, those that do not cross the Main to head north and east, that is. Without their spies, though – they are marching into a place that will devour them like a famished Tigris devours raw meat.”

“And now, a last question, this to any who can answer it,” I said. “There are a number of Totems in the Valley. I know of the mule, the bull, the snake, and the rooster. Are there others?”

“Yes, to the north and the middle,” said Toréo. “There is the pig, and their town is Cochænæ, which is where one goes if one wishes a pig for labor, or if one is a Cabroné, for meat.” Here, he spat, then muttered an imprecation about swine, their forebears, their destination, and how he'd put enough lead in those things to empty a lead-mine. This was so, even as the remainder of our bags went into three buggies, and we were left with our personal things, we five, all of which would come forward. Our names would not be called; we would know when it was time, that being the actual rising of the sun. The sky was getting lighter by the minute; it would be true-dawn soon – and I was not all that sure we would wait that long.

We would do our business when it was time, and Sarah's hand again gripped mine tightly, much as if we were to be devoured by a place far worse than Hell. Toréo then resumed.

“These that remain, they are smaller ones, but none of them have Cabroni, so they are sending their people outside as they can,” said Toréo. “They are those of the lizard, the cat, the wind, the sun, and the moon, and they are all near the northern portion, which is as poor as the southern border. Many of them go to the third kingdom, unless they know something useful, in which case it is easy for them to walk into the waste and vanish, then head north and toward the rising sun, and stay out of sight until they come up here.”

“Stay out of sight?” I asked.

“Cé, as many of those who are leaving that place are marked in some way,” said Toréo. “Those that are not marked, they commonly become so, as they leave a settlement taken over by a Dón who has become a Cabroné, and usually a bad one, one who likes to fumé and inhale the dust made from these plants that grow there.”

“He likes to powder his nose with Snurf, you mean,” I said softly. I could feel those getting up out of their tents, silent, moving like wraiths now that it was light enough for them to see, and with soft voices, they began to flow into the area of the large trees. There were a lot of them, and those camping among the trees, there were a lot of them also.

Not a witch among them, all committed to the cause. I wondered more than a little if this was all there was of such mind, then realized there were more yet at this moment in the Abbey, and then at Ploetzee, and then there were some places I had never been but had heard of: the marshes being one.

“And where we are going,” I said. “A country where all are 'entire monsters' for thinking at the least – and the true-witches, they shall die.”

“And we shall be the starting of that,” said Sarah. “Katje is standing on the edge of her chasm, the one which is a mile deep and carpeted with sharp spiky rocks, and she is hearing the command to walk. Shall she?”

“It took me two tries, but the second time, I did indeed walk upon air,” I said. “It is scary. Water, that's bad enough, as you cannot see anything under you, but air... Walking on air is worse, as I've done that, and I know about that chasm. Not sure about water, but I am sure about air.

“Yes, I know,” said Katje, as with firmness and purpose, she strode forth as the last buggy rolled off with our gear. I wondered where we were, but then Maarten prodded me in the rear, and I strode off, this after Katje. She would bless us, and ask us the question. Normally, there would be many, with many oaths given, some as 'to the shedding of blood'. I then knew I had done so the last time but the day before, there in that place called the ballroom, where my face-down prayers to God had etched the stone, and there, bright red yet, lay my tears, tears of blood, given utterly to the one who had called me, and now...

There was to be no retreating, no turning back. Once a man and woman put their hands to the plow, they were to plow to the end of the furrow, and this not looking back or giving ought for anything else.

As we followed Katje, this to a lectern made of blackwood – one that would last, as I could smell still-warm wood-treatment put to it, how being a mystery – the swarming aspect of the grounds to our rear seemed to grow exponentially with each passing second. Glances to each side, then one to our rear saw a vast crowd of people, all of them dressed as if for a pilgrimage to a land that time had forgotten, and when I turned, not only was Katje at the lectern.

She was joined by Maarten, and she raised her hand, showing his clenched tight in hers. This was as it should be: a partnership, one made in but one place, made to serve but one being, and I knew, now – their services, they would be very different.

“No church to do them in where we live, and...”

“It would be far too small, especially now,” said the soft voice. “Now comes the time.”

The rumble of moving feet behind us seemed to swell as if an earthquake in truth, and for an instant, time seemed to stand still. This instant passed, and soft whispers, this of a multitude, seemed to come from living people...

No, not just those living. These whispers were for those who had died to make this happen, who had waited a thousand years and more to see this very day, and now...

Not merely Maarten and Katje were to our front. So were Hendrik and Maria, and they stood to the right of the lectern, their hands also clenched tightly. No time to waste. It was time.

Katje made a motion of her fingers, her hand outstretched, palm upward, pointing to us two. For a moment, I wondered: we were both dressed for warfare, and now, we were to be married? The question vanished quicker than lighting, to be replaced by a terror I could not name. I was afraid, this for what would come after – and no, it was not sex.

This was so much worse that 'this is for something worse than killing' was a sick and dire joke. This was eternal, it was waiting, just like the anvil of the damned, and now...

The upper millstone about my neck gains weight like an anchor, and Sarah bows her head also, then somehow, I straighten up, my head held high, almost as if I were at 'brace'. This was an order, one from the ultimate leader, and this was his bidding.

Hendrik then spoke:

“There are five people, these five going on a mission of grave importance, this to save

our lives and our planet,” he said. “Two of them, those leading, are here to be married.”

Pause, this brief as a breath. “There shall be no celebration, for they all shall leave in

dire haste, for our lives and the planet depend upon them doing so.”

As if to prove this, I turned where I stood, reached inside my clothing, and for a moment, brought out the pendant. It was blasting lighting as if it were Nikola Tesla's best coil, and the bluish haze it showed all but covered my entire body. I put it away, the light show vanished, and I turned once more to the front.

They were convinced now. Hendrik, they could gainsay, but not that thing, not when it 'showed forth' in that manner.

Katje now stood forth, her right hand raised for silence. This happened as if a switch was turned, and for an instant, I saw a bluish glow all but envelope her. She then spoke.

“All of you here should have heard of these two that are being given one to another, that and what they have done,” she said. “Talk, that is cheaper than action by far; and action, that is far cheaper than blood. They have seen battle, and been seen doing that, and any pair that bears up in battle, especially that kind of battle – there is no thing of this earth or elsewhere that they cannot endure.”

“Right, Katje, tossing dynamite in that kind of a darkened dust-choked room full of curse-enlivened bone-masses is a stiff test indeed,” I thought. “Oaths? They don't hold a candle to dynamite.”

Sarah once more squeezed my hand, this tightly. Katje looked at the two of us, almost a glare, one that made me wonder: did she have some of that plastic explosive handy? A training aid, one of cyclohexanite, with our names writ upon it? I then saw her satchel, one of those strangely colorful camouflage items, and its bulging nature made for further wondering. Yet now was not the time.

Now was the question, the one question that decided all.

“Do you wish to be joined, to be made one in all ways?” said Katje.

As one, as a single being, Sarah and I both said the single word: “yes.”

“Then be joined for all eternity!” shouted Katje.

At first, nothing happened, but my time sense had gone utterly out the window, for seeming instantly, the very air began to melt, this to be convolved with a massive infusion of bluish-white fire and bolts of lightning that seared the sonic spectrum and raised absolute holy hell over the whole of the planet. For an instant, I could see vast numbers of computers exploding overseas, then as we became surrounded by this bluish-white fire, I heard singing. This gradually grew louder – and faintly, this at first, I heard something that I had never expected to hear.

Someone was playing an electric guitar – and they were playing in a manner only one person could have managed, had they come from my world. How they would play where we were going – or so I suspected – was an utter and complete mystery, at least until the blue-white fire vanished, and we were standing, our boots in our hands, barefoot, standing on soft green grass.

It was holy ground, a place where you never wore anything on your feet, as it was neither wished nor necessary.

I looked at Sarah, who giggled. She whispered, “I have never had grass tickle my feet before. What is this place?”

“I think I know, and I might have gone here before, but it was never like this – no, not beforehand, not in visions, and not when I might have come here.” Pause, then, “I smell flowers, lots of them. Do you?”

“Yes, I do,” said Sarah.

With Sarah in tow, our shoes each in our left hands and our right hands held one in another, I followed my nose. This led me to a rose bush, this in deep shade under the spreading branches of two huge deciduous trees of some kind, with a surrounding region of thickets, these thick, near-impenetrable, with spaces between them, and these thickets went on for miles in all directions to surround this place of meeting.

This place had a size beyond reckoning. I knew that much.

In the center of this clearing, in the deep shade of these two trees, the rose bush, head tall to me and nearly as wide, was in full bloom.

Its scent was intoxicating, and in the distance, music swelled. I recognized it as the beginning of a song, one I had listened to many times when work had become enough to wish to beat my head against the wall; and music that for some reason, Mrs Ulyanov had understood implicitly.

It had been forbidden under communism, as it spoke of a world without lies; and this song, this one especially – it had been especially forbidden.

And this bush did not lie. It did smell, and I felt its soft foliage, and then I felt its softer-yet flowers. Sarah's small ring, it had the same color as these flowers. She looked at me in utter complete understanding, and as I reached for a bloom, it came to me, it detached itself, and instantly, another grew to replace it, this so fast my eyes blurred as the stem of the bloom found my hand.

“For you, dear, to remind you who we are to serve,” I said, as I gave Sarah the precious thing, this from the rose bush that had no thorns.

“You need one also,” said Sarah, whose voice seemed to echo as if adrift in the sands of time. I reached again, and this time, an eruption of brilliant light sent one into my hand. I held it by its stem, and smelled it.

“A better world never,” I murmured. “Someone is coming. I know who it is, and I have been here before. I remember now, and it was scary. Now... I am not sure.”

“Be sure,” said a soft voice. “No, it is not scary – and yes, you are hearing what you think you are hearing,” he said, as he somehow 'materialized' in front of us. I nearly fainted again at the sight, as seeing Him tended to do that.

I did not collapse; I was being held up. I knelt, as did Sarah. He placed his hands, each of them bearing signs of severe injuries even if his wounds were in his wrists, and as he did so, he said two words, and two only.

“Be blessed.”

A soft glow, this seeming to arise from above, the ground, and all around us, seemed to make us both glow as if radiant beings from another world entirely, and our linen, this called fine linen where we came from, lightened markedly, such that it became soft, white, and totally without spot or blemish. I had somehow previously had the impression that such clothing would be a blinding and brilliant whiteness, like looking into the summer sun at home when the sun was a burning white ball in the sky, but this was not so.

More, it was very pleasant to the touch, far more so than before, and more, it was exceedingly comfortable to wear – and, oddly enough, comforting to the point of seeming to be 'cuddly'.

The music, formerly in the background, now swelled, and the tune had changed, this to something I recognized better yet. Before, there had been talk of walking into the sea, but now...

Now, it was speaking words, words that once had spoken of a world of terror and insanity. Where we came from, they still meant that. But here, they were not the description of a nightmare made tangible and ever-present. Even the music itself, while recognizable, sounded different, and I recalled the words writ upon the notes made while he was working upon it. The promoter, a money-minded fool, had left those two words off – only here, they were the chief words, for they said everything.

The song's words now spoke of a present and tangible reward, that of looking forward to a brighter future, one brighter than the sun, and while doing so, straining for the prize set before us. Still, though, its strangeness – I noticed that yet more now – had a lush and 'orchestral' feeling, as well as a great many hidden subtleties I had never noticed before in my hearing of the song. These broke into my thoughts, and those, formed words.

“They are playing an electric guitar here,” I thought. “Given how my playing got to witches where I came from, it almost makes total sense.”

“Worship is far more than you thought it to be, and that 'music' you are hearing is worship,” said a voice. “Here, that is the sole activity, and it is all directed toward me, just as you surmised.” A pause, then, “what constitutes worship – ah, that is yet a mystery. If it honors me, and furthers my wishes, then that is worship – which means a great deal happens in a place too large to dimension by mere numbers.”
“That s-song, though?” I thought.

The thicket around us had opened a small gap, this to show a vista spreading for many miles, and over rolling green hills carpeted with grass and trees, I saw what might have been a faint purplish tint. We were both still kneeling, still within a few feet of the rose bush, its odor still intense and wondrous. That purple mist I had seen seemed to grow, for now, it was not a trace; it was real, it was tangible, it was something that could be reached, touched, felt, and called to.

“I know that things are not as they once were,” said Sarah gravely, “and we are acting strangely...”

“Yes?” I asked.

“What does this have to do with kissing the sky?” asked Sarah. “Is it something we shall do, or are doing?”

“I am not precisely certain, dear,” I said, “but it might well represent the future, and more, it might well speak of that work which we are to do.” Pause, then, “see, over there. The horizon. Its color? Does that not look familiar?”

“Oh, now I do understand,” said Sarah. “It describes something, something I cannot name at this time, but it is real, and we must go to it with all our might.”

The fading from the strangeness of an environment so 'alien' to this world was replaced by one yet more alien, for now the two of us were kneeling upon a ground cloth, our hands held tight together, our other hands holding rose blooms, each of them pure, odorous, and without thorns, for they were of a place that most wondered of.

We did not wonder. We knew, and here in our hands, we had evidence that could not be refuted.

“I think we did kiss the sky,” I thought.

About us, the silence was deafening, and while I had heard of 'the sound of silence', and had wondered long what it meant, I had some idea now: for if silence could have made all the noise ever made since the beginnings of time, and hoarded it until the time of now, and released its noise-hoard over the course of three seconds, it could not have done justice to what we now endured.

I looked around, this to my right and left. The throng, teeming, seemed frozen in place, their forms as stiff and as still as carven statues. I looked up, this at Katje. She shook her head, came to herself, then asked, “what happened?”

Sarah held up her rose-bloom, and said to Katje, her voice soft, fit for one place and time: “we were blessed.”

“I am not surprised in the slightest,” deadpanned Katje, “and I am surprised less at the fact that both of you are softly glowing.” Pause, then, “I am surprised at the music I heard.”

“I suspect it tends to offend those who have evil upon their minds, if I go by a recent incident in the house proper,” I said. “I hope it does not offend you.”

“No, not at all,” she said. “It surprised me greatly, especially to hear that song, as I have heard it in nightmares, and there, it means something totally different than it did there.”

“He originally wrote it differently, and it was about how he was going to be destroyed, and he was saved by the hand of God – hence the common version left that part out, but when he was writing it, it spoke of the saving grace of God.” Sarah looked at me, and said, “yes, I know, as I heard that part.”

“I hope it can be played for services,” said Katje. “If it drives off evil, then we shall wish it, and if it is played there, then it must be good.” Pause, then, “but one trouble. Who can we find to play it, other than you, perhaps?”

“We can find people able and willing to play so, and the remainder is to be found at our next destination,” said Sarah.

“Then you had best go there,” said Katje. “Time is something that once it is gone, it is indeed gone. I suspect you two now know that.”

“We do,” said Sarah as she and I stood. I reached for the ground cloth, and it gathered itself into my hand, folding neatly as it did so. “Now, we can go.”

We headed for the foremost buggy at a run, and the crowds parted as first the two of us, then the other three, all ran for the forward buggies. Their drivers were ready, the horses harnessed, and as the first one moved forward toward the front gate, the crowd cleared itself away, and as we passed through the gate, I could feel a strangeness, one composed partly of mourning, for an era had passed, one never to be the same again; and a new feeling, one of hope, of cheer, of goodwill – though that last, surprisingly was rare. Willem was driving our buggy, and he had a rifle in his lap. Mine was out, and with my pack off and my possible bag next to me, I felt much more comfortable. Being loaded like a mule caused trouble, and it was important to not do it more than needed in the future – both the near future, and the further future. Further than a few months? Who knew?

“Will we draw witches?” I asked.

“You two might, which is why I made certain to put a bag with a fire-breather in it just in case,” said Willem. “You got two of those, you know, and enough ammunition for them to fight a witch-army, one like that bunch that came for use as the sun was going down. I'm still sore from that mess, and I got a shoulder that's solid black-and-purple.”

“No Geneva for it?” I asked.

“That stuff called Komaet may get rid of the soreness, but that's if you don't shoot that much,” said Willem. “I filled three large bags of those brass things, and I must have shot twenty boxes stuffed full, and then I started stuffing them up from bags of ammunition – and then it got weird.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“The witches were coming, this so thick that the bodies of the fallen were slowing them, which made shooting them easier, and then I found my trigger finger started working strange. It was moving so rapidly people told me I was shooting a fire-breather, but I wasn't on that setting. No, not at all.”

“And what happened?” asked Sarah.

“I was dropping so many witches it was getting crazy, and my shoulder felt broken, and I ignored it, just like you have to ignore a lot when you're shooting at those northern people and their pigs, and I just kept shooting witches until someone grabbed my shoulder and pulled me out of that trench to the next one of the three, and they tried to get Hans out of his part, but he was dug in like a burrowing rodent and he had a good shooting place, so he was shooting like a madman, then I saw it.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

“He got shot in the head,” said Willem. “I was about to go get him, and then he gets back up, and boy! He was shooting crazy before, but now he was mad, and I mean 'ready for a rest-house mad', as he kept shooting those thugs until they were on him, and then I saw him using his knife in one hand and this club in the other, and I took a machine-pistol, put it on the scary setting, and jumped out of my trench and just shot them thugs off of him, then shot a whole lot more of them, and I kept shooting and changing magazines until they'd gotten him out of his hole, and I was out of ammunition then, so it was back to my hole, and then someone started tossing metal pears and these green cans, and there were witches flying like crazy, but the one that stopped them was when someone tossed a green can and it landed on this stretcher, and when that can went up...”

Willem paused for a moment, this as if to think, then led off up this narrow path, this heading mostly to the east and a trifle north. He was obviously consulting a map, or so I thought until someone I recognized came up on a horse.

It was our guide, he of the pistols and the roer, and he was to lead us on – on to the cove, there to embark upon our journey 'to the promised land'.

They had modern-day Canaanites there, and I knew what to do with those.

“Good that you're following the map, but it has errors, deliberate ones, in case you had witches getting it,” he said. “That trick we only learned recently, from that man there who is...” He paused, gawked, then, “two of you must have gotten it done, then. Good.”

“Glowing like that?” asked Willem. “Never seen or heard of it.”

“She has,” he said, pointing to Sarah. “It is on a special tapestry, one that needs markings and much else, and it is hidden, and she was the first to see it in over two hundred years.” Pause, then, “that is what happens when two important people are joined together, and the two of them are as stiff as they come, as they stood up to blood, gore, mess, danger, gunfire, and explosions worse than swine-shells, and they did not falter, nor did they fail – and they were like those marked of old, those who fought until all that were left standing upon the field of battle were they themselves, and all who died burned as witches.”

“Oh, you may have seen something, but I got this feeling,” said Willem, his voice gone strange and 'spooky'. “There's something big going to happen down in the third kingdom, and that will give us the ear we need to get the second kingdom to go along with what needs doing.”

“That, and there's a lot of dead and hurt witches in that place right now,” I said.

“So I hear,” said Willem. “About half the kingdom house down there is a big smoking ruin, and most of it being the districts that had lots of wealthy witches.”

“The rest of the house is scavenging their funds, what of it the king's own men are not recovering as 'moneys stolen from the crown'.”

“They did not put the whole of their money there,” I said. “A good portion is in the house proper, near one of the wine-cellars, in this one hidden place.”

“Describe it,” said our guide. “It will go south by the wires, as if that place is to change, it will wish money.”

“More than that,” I said. “Those burnt-over districts need money to be rebuilt, and if it's all gathered up by the crown, that won't happen. Besides, that place has a lot of poor people, what with the cost of living as high as it was with the witches running things, and lots of them just lost their debt collectors.”

“True, but the crown was in dire straits, so any moneys right now will help that place.” This man knew what he knew, but he didn't have the bigger picture. I had some of it.

“It needs regime change as much as where we are going, almost,” I said. “Money will just cement the present arrangement that much better. It would be best if that place became utterly bankrupt, as then it would cause a war between witch and man, just like is now happening down in the fourth kingdom – and while the men would lose many, the resulting carnage would result in every witch in the place dying on a burn-pile. Send that!”

“Let me write it down, so I get its words right,” said our guide. “Good that I can go without bridle for straight distances and much of the rest of the time.”

He brought out a ledger, and began writing. He was done surprisingly quickly, then nodded as he resumed his place in the lead along our track.

Here, I dug out my 'music box' compass, and while sipping beer, I watched our trail change slightly further to the north. Here and there, we changed roads, all of them narrow, some looking new-cut or freshly rolled, and I soon learned why – there were dead witches laying everywhere, these smelly thugs denuded of all save that which they were born with, their money and weapons gone, and their bodies, while not dust yet, were rotting at such a rate that I knew they would be gone to ashes by the end of the day.

“Will someone recover the ashes?”

“Probably, when there is time to do so,” said Willem. “Witch-ashes fetch money in a lot of towns now, on account of it getting around in this area that using a communal manure-pile gives more and better manure, and one gets that manure faster, also, because the bigger the pile, the hotter it gets – and if you wish good manure, then you want a big hot pile, as you get better manure then, and have it faster. You don't want green manure for your fields, as then it helps less – and Laidaan is going to have a communal manure-pile when we get back, and if any should speak otherwise – well, they can go to the west end of town, and see their cornfield, and Paul will tell them, as he has the biggest manure-pile of any single farmer I have ever seen, he spades it under when and as he can, he dumps a lot of animal parts in it, and he won't put green manure in that field, same as all else he does.”

“Oh, then perhaps you need something to make, uh, 'number one stove oil', I said. “Best stuff ever for a manure-pile – the waste part really gets it to working good.”

“What's that?” asked Willem. “Is it something I want?”

“Yes, you do want that stuff, Willem,” said Sarah. “First, it is a good cleaning solvent, like smelly heavy distillate, only setting it alight is very hard.”

“If it loosens rust, then it sounds likely,” said Willem. “What else? You said it went to stoves.”

“No, that type is different,” said Sarah. “It goes to those lanterns, and it gives more light than aquavit.”

“Then I want that also,” said Willem. “Now how will it work in stoves?”

“Need a new stove to run it,” I said, “but that stove doesn't need cleaning out more often than a ten-year, it's easy to use – easy enough that someone like me could cook meals without spending all day – then it gives as much or as little heat as you want for your house, and no more constantly hunting drop-wood for keeping your house warm, even if you will still want plenty of drop-wood.”

“Why?” asked Willem.

“It works well for an excellent species of paper, as Annistæ put some pieces of stove-wood into that grinder, and that paper-maker liked that stuff,” said Sarah. “Really, she told me it liked it, and it liked best bad stove-wood, that stuff that's smoky and gives little heat.”

“Likes witch-clothing, also, though that tends to give that alcohol plant a lot of needed things,” I said. “Eats it up like drowned Kuchen, makes good paper, and lots of fuel-alcohol for lanterns, smaller stoves, and larger stoves – oh, and this stuff you'll be able to sell in quantity, also.” I then giggled.

“Let me in on the joke,” said Willem. “Now what is it?”

“The house proper will swarm with Generals shortly, which means many explosions, gunfire, and dead Generals, all of which have witch-clothing,” I said, “and our paper-mill loves witch-clothing, even the stuff that is stiff with starch – and then, of course, our manure-pile will grow, and we will sneak rats and bombs into their quarters of an evening – when we do not sneak things worse yet in their rooms.”

“Yes, and what will those be?” asked Sarah.

“Oh, let's see – how about nesters? Big, irritable, meat-fed nesters, all of which have labels attached of prime squab or something similar,” I said. “They like squabs, so they should enjoy those.”

“They will, assuming we can get those stinky birds,” said Sarah, who was writing with her new pen and obviously keeping any writing dowels she had for spares. “This helps my handwriting much. I wish I could have had one while in the west school. Now what else.”

“Perhaps chickens?” I said. “Loads of chickens? Really big black ones?”

“No, not those, as they're impossible to handle,” said Sarah. “If you are going to put such birds to witches, you want ones which just have their full plumage, and if you use the black ones, then they're trouble enough, all right, even then.”

“How big are those?” I asked.

“Twenty to twenty-five pounds, and they're irritable the day they come out of their eggs,” said Sarah. “Put them in General's Row in any number, and they will clear that place out. Mark my words, they will do that.”

I could hear barely-stifled laughter, then our guide said, “sounds like them people got themselves a peck o' trouble, as someone keeps chickens in Ploetzee, the red ones, and he's got a full-brass chicken-plucker's suit, on account o' those things being worse crossed by ten compared to bees. Now you putting black chickens in that place?”

“No, not black chickens,” I murmured. “Immature black roosters.”

“Then those people going to die,” said the man. “Anyone who raises chickens needs a full-brass chicken-plucker's suit, a good club, and then stout bags of doubled mail-sacking cloth so as to bag up those things, and I've heard about what they can do when they're small.”

“What?” I asked.

“First, all chickens fly, and if they're irritated, they can go nearly as fast as a wood-pigeon, go through trees like a hornet, and then attack like a hive of mad hornets, and that's for one bird,” he said. “Now how many of these birds you planning on putting to those witches?”

“As many as we can get our hands on, as I wish to clear them out thoroughly, then rig their place well, especially with 'exploding cigars' – or better, drink with witch-tables in in it.” Pause, then as I recalled the need to do so, “if we come upon a patch of those things, then we need to pick some with tongs and put them in a small sample bag, as those people overseas running the place like High-Test drink, and a bit of one of those in a bottle should help matters.”

“Good, as we'll need to stop shortly to water, and I know where some o' those are,” said our guide. “Might take you ten minutes, unless you wish a lot of them.”

“We most likely can pluck enough in ten minutes to make them all fit for rest-houses,” said Sarah. “Now are these the common type witch-tables, or are they a more-blue color?”

“They're more blue than most I've seen, even if they're not those of old tales,” he said. “Why, the more blue they are, the worse?”

“Yes, that is so,” said Sarah solemnly, “and I am going to dose every spy I can with those things, and then they will drive out more of their kind with their insanity!”

“Oh, no trouble, dear,” I said. “I'll just ask that they become 'true-blue' examples once we load up their drink, and then ask that they see something else entirely, something that says 'this is the best strong drink to be had', complete with a label with a dead hanging creature on it.”

“Now that will fetch witches, specially if they're out of old tales,” said our guide. “'Bout another ten minutes, then we'll come to the stream, so get your things ready, and we can get those things.”

Accordingly, Sarah and I became most-busy, and we had three small sample bags, a trio of tongs, and a small vial of aquavit, as well as rags to wash everything down afterwards. I had another idea, though – I was going to pour a small amount of aquavit into the sample bags before securing them, then mashing up the contents while praying, and then...

“Stinking chemical weapon,” I muttered.

“Best only do that with one such bag, as you will have something a lot worse than mere true-blue witch-tables if you do that.” Pause, then, “you'll have a drug that causes instant 'bad insanity', and any drink or rations you dose with that stuff will drive them out in absolute droves, as such a thug will get filled with 'whites' within minutes of his waking up from the stupor that drug engenders – and because he will be so thoroughly infested, he will see all not as he is as 'the enemy', and more, he will be like Irene.”

“Genuinely crazy,” I muttered, upon hearing that name. “Impossible to stop short of turning her into wide-scattered witch-burger. Could hide like a marked person, shoot like a maniac and hit people like Joost does, and...”

“Worse than that,” said the soft voice. “You contaminate 'spy central' with some of that stuff, and the leadership will go utterly and completely out of its mind, and then anyone who attempts to repair or decontaminate the place will do the same, and that for the space of months.”

“So we rig up a pill or three in there beforehand, and bugger up the hardware good anyway,” I said. “Nice big present for your functionary friends. It's a birthday cake, see, and it's got a nice long wick for the candle, so you need to light that wick when you see them, then march around in a circle while holding it over your head and sing 'hail, hail, the gang's all here' or suchlike until it goes 'boom' and ushers in a new world odor.”

“It will do that,” said the soft voice, “especially if said functionary goes into a functionary mess-hall, which is where those people eat 'by the numbers' in long seated rows at two-sided tables.”

Sarah and I continued to get ready to pluck these strange 'things', as when the column stopped for its first watering, we would need to hurry. That time happened all too soon, and both of us were over the side, machine pistols at the ready, satchels with our botanical supplies present, pistols on our belts, and ready for trouble.

Our guide was of like mind for hurry, as the stream was a sizable one and Lukas had made sure there was ample 'mash' and things for dispensing it, as well as four smaller buckets for each buggy, these to be hung to small lashing-hooks attached seemingly overnight.

“They did do that overnight,” said Sarah. “Those carpenters were busy, and now they are likely to mostly be getting into pies and then finding baths and beds.”

“We won't, but I suspect we might well have a pie later today, as one was put up for us,” I said, as I flanked our guide to his right as he moved in a straight line into the woodlot. He knew just where these things were by recollection, but I could feel them, and they were not another hundred feet further away. My feet seemed to move slowly, for some reason, even as my capacity for sensing was as sharp as it ever was, and when I saw black clothing to my right, I dropped the machine-pistol, drew the suppressed pistol, worked the slide noiselessly, and fired a single round.

The plop seemed to get lost in the woods, and I had not missed a single stride as I took up flanking security again. A glance to my left and ahead, and there, crowning a slight rise, were the witch-tables, these things but two inches high and thick as hair on the head of a bull.

“Oh, my,” I murmured, as I knelt down and got ready with tongs and sample bag. “Going to pick a lot of these.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah ominously. “These are not the common for these things, but the worst I have ever seen. I think the witches cultivate them, actually, and use them for poisoning people.”

“They do, and that's the hottest patch north of your first destination this trip,” said the soft voice. “The witches are so short of guards that that witch he shot was the only one, and he cleaned that drunkard's ear with his bullet.”

“Gonna have one heck of an earache,” I muttered. “Gonna complain all the way down until he seats himself in line so's to meet Brimstone in Brimstone Village.”

“Which is still being repaired, even if Brimstone himself is once more up to dining, and is doing so regularly. He still needs some repairs, however, as they fixed his front parts first and his back parts are still incomplete.”

Sarah and I, as well as our guide, now worked like fiends, gathering these small blue-capped mushrooms with our tongs and bagging them up. I put a small dash of aquavit in each bag before handing them to the others, this to keep these 'chemical weapons' 'fresh'; but, with further picking, I was noticing a most-disturbing development.

When we first picked each of these things, they had some blue to them, but by the time they were bagged, that blue had darkened in tint and grown to all-but cover them, and by the time we had clear-picked that outcrop and had three bulging sample bags tied shut and their labels inked, and were wiping down our tongs with rags and aquavit, I could feel something happening to our 'mushrooms'.

Real insanity,” I muttered. “Every one of those we picked went to a prewar type, the worst of the worst, and all of those things are not just 'true-blue' prewar mushrooms – they're that strain that once was called 'eight miles high'.”

“Got it in one, which is why a small piece in a bottle of that blue drink enjoyed by certain grades of functionaries, or that bad beer, will cause some serious and long-lasting insanity – and those functionaries are going to be tough to catch and hard to stop, which means a lot of their hiding places will be hidden no longer once they get themselves 'dosed'.”

“How long will those effects endure?” asked Sarah, as the three of us hustled back to our buggy.

“Days, if not longer yet,” said the soft voice. “You either must be a strong witch to endure such drugs, or you become a much stronger witch from taking them – and that latter route is one fraught with grave danger, so much so that only a few witches of before the war tried it, with that one that took over the country overseas being one of them.”

“Was she insane?” asked Sarah, as we clambered aboard the buggy.

“No, but she was full of spirits, with only a handful of witches on the continent able to compete with her in the realm of sheer inhabitation, and all of them were crazy, unlike her,” said the soft voice. “More, she received a lot of information, and a lot of new abilities – and that subtle-looking yet inwardly drastic change permitted her to take over overseas so easily and so quickly once she'd laid the rest of the groundwork needed to do so.”

The scenery now seemed to open up, and our heading was east-southeast. This road was also a narrow one, yet one seemingly rolled flat and made 'perfect' by vast amounts of labor. I soon learned whose labor when I saw a rune cut into a tree, and the rune itself was painted an eye-searing red.

“This is one of those roads the witches made for themselves,” I muttered. “How many of them did they do, and how did they do them so quickly?”

“Long-invested planning and sheer numbers of worked-till-they-dropped slaves, mostly,” said the soft voice. “You learned something of the numbers involved yesterday, as those road-builder overseers were the ones being 'called up' and run north in numbers on the secret way, wasps, hornets, and fumes being ignored,” said the soft voice. “About a third of them died that way, but those sending them by then knew they were going to take huge casualties – and they sent them anyway, without a second thought.”

“That sounds like the black book's nonsense,” I said.

“It is, and that part was dictated for the most part by Dugashvili – who was full of such ideas; and in many instances, though they cost dearly in manpower, they worked well,” said the soft voice. “Of course, he could also be tricky, and he fortified matters well also when he could, which is why 'the world as made by Stalin' was so hard to take, and cost so many casualties for those attacking it.”

“Those wrecked chemical plants, then the tractor factory, and then this one place called Red October...” I was muttering about my sudden-blooming recollections.

“They'll learn a lot about that place, and why it cost them so much to take it,” said the soft voice, “as Dugashvili used a lot of ideas from intercepts when he set that place up – and while they were bad intercepts for the most portion, those names came through well enough for him to guess what parts needed to be named and how they were to be named – and then, what to send his troops off with, which was a rifle, all the ammunition they could carry, what ready-made bombs happened to be handy when they were sent out, and a bottle of doctored strong drink.”

“Made them crazy, didn't it?” asked our guide.

“Inhabited, also,” said the soft voice, “so they'd do frontal assaults without caring two dead coppers for casualties and then eat so much lead doing while doing so that they'd run the opposing side out of ammunition – and so the follow-on troops, they with their Shpagins, would slaughter those in the frontal trenches, take them and their weapons, fix their new-captured bayonets, and then go for the next row of trenches, and the third wave of attackers hot on their heels, those having weapons with range as well as Shpagins...” I then had a question.

“They didn't have those, did they?” I asked. I was thinking about a weapon I had once held briefly many years ago. It looked cheaply made, and more, it was a surprisingly heavy weapon, and then it wasn't particularly small.

“No,” said the soft voice. “When you helped Annistæ, you saw a number of the weapons they named Shpagins – and they weren't terribly good, either, unless one cared for them very well indeed – and most of their owners didn't, so they jammed a lot, and jammed badly, and then, their accuracy stank.”

“Stank?” I asked.

“No sights on them at all, as they were intended for 'get close enough to light the enemy up with your muzzle flashes'. Then, if maintained well, they did their intended job,” said the soft voice.

Our route now began to slightly descend, as well as wind through woodlots. It was obvious that this new-cut network of roads, as smooth and as well-laid as they were, would see much use in the months to come; as here, these roads, while narrow, gave good cover and concealment for a lot of witch-traffic. Their hardened nature, as well as their sunken aspect, made me wonder just how this had been done 'under our noses' so readily.

“They had been planning doing this for years, they used a lot of slaves, they laid roads fit for coaches, guns, and heavy traffic, and then those at the top, those who are either newly replaced or severely impaired, accepted no excuses whatsoever, just like their master in hell,” said the soft voice. “Then, of course, there is that centuries of training that grants the whole of the night to witches, and in truth, a good portion of the day as well, as in 'most people only go to those woodlots nearest where they live', and the only exceptions to that rule tend to be heavily targeted by witches.”

“And the witches know which woodlots those are, so they simply ran their roads through those that few if any people used; and otherwise, they did their work at night, chanting curses when and as needed to keep people indoors and in deep stupors, so as to cut their roads through populated regions,” I murmured.

“About half-way there,” said our guide. “Horses holding up?”

“They are,” growled Willem. “I made sure each horse was stuffed with grain, grain I mixed and then baked during the late hours when there were few in the kitchen and the ovens were burning low, and then I bagged the stuff up and fed it to the horses after my too-short nap.” Pause, then, “I'll sleep in that blue place up at the house tonight and get my meals and strength back up while this team gets rested, and then I'll head back to the manse, and do the trip over two days, as today's work is just getting started, and our route back means a lot more work gathering lead, witch-clothing, and weapons.”

“Two?” I asked. “Oh, that's a far trip.”

“It is, given these horses have done a lot recently, and I do not wish them to go lame,” said Willem. “Besides, I have business to attend to in Roos, and a long session in the Public House with Georg, Hans, Paul, and myself. We have plans to do, and work to divide up, and that for while the five of you are gone, as them witches coming like they did yesterday told me a lot that's different from anything, old tales included.”

“They omitted that nonsense,” I murmured. “Generals gathered in their masses, Just like witches at black masses, Evil minds that plot destruction, Sorcerers of death's construction...”

“Now that describes to a nail exactly what they did yesterday, and that...” Here, our guide turned to Sarah. “Is that found on a tapestry?”

“None that I ever read,” said Sarah. “That means you know more of what they shall do than anyone who lives.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” I said. “I remember hearing that damned-to-hell song years ago, and it just came back to me, at least a portion of it.”

“They'll get all of it overseas,” said the soft voice, “and that will explain a great deal, as that 'song' was intercepted and then 'interpolated' by the Mistress of the North herself, and they were using her tactics yesterday when they simply kept coming while ignoring all save what their leaders had told them to do.”

“Did those witches smell like bad sweat and some other bad odors – like witches usually smell, but these smelled different?” I asked.

“Yep, and lots of them had these small vials of pills, usually two or three kinds,” said our guide. “We thought those important enough yesterday, so when we go through their clothing today, those of us who are up to it and have horses up to hauling that rubbish and any more lead we find that doesn't look likely for trapping, then all of those vials go up to the fourth floor. That chemist up there will know what they are, and...”

“And we have our samples, and will take them where they are likely to know just what they are,” said Sarah. “Now, that river I recognize, and in its off-pools, one can catch Grossmoend fish, though they are smaller ones, and need careful cleaning, less they make one sick like Karpfen.”

“And done right?” I asked.

“One bakes them over a fire, turning them regularly, as they are fat-fish, and such cooking removes much of that fat. Then one can eat them, and they're decent, even if trouts are better by far, those and new-herring.”

“And in the Main, one can find trouts?” I asked.

“Yes, ones headed out to sea, which means they are small, and that is for the type with the hard head,” said Sarah. “There is another type, one with stripes like a rainbow, and they taste fully as good when cooked as a roast Iron-Head trout.”

“Yep, them fish like that is prime eatin', if you can catch those things,” said our guide. “Now here, we go straight on, and off of this here witch-road, because we've started rigging those things when and as we can so as to catch those stinkers when they're running them coaches they're bringing. They're bringing lots of them, so the wires say, but any more, they're moving them at night, on account of losing so many coachmen.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“'Cause driving a coach during daylight usually gets it turned into a lead-mine if it gets into the first kingdom, even down near the border now,” he said. “Witches take a town down that way, they got to turn it into kindling and kill most of the people in it, and they're lucky to get supplicants if they put fowling pieces to 'em.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “If they wish towns, taking them will cost them dearly.”

“That's for the commonplace towns,” said our guide, as our road widened, gathered the usual roadside ditches, and became a bit rougher, with a definite worn groove to it. Unlike the other road, however, this one was truly hard-packed, as it had seen decades of use; and maintenance, while infrequent, tended to be done passably at the least – if done in a time-consuming fashion that wasted a lot of materials.

I could feel the Main, this but a few miles further east and north; and then the cove, this with a number of well-hid natives of Ploetzee guarding it, as they had their own 'rumor mill'; and with the deadwood gone from the town and those remaining now truly 'under the gun', those people there wasted no time whatsoever.

More, they were in the market for lanterns, batteries, radios, and at least three heavy machine guns, copies of 'Big Mama', guns that ranged for miles and wiped out witch-columns with a few well-placed short bursts.

Iron Pigs not wearing plate would not like guns like that getting onto them. True, they'd need more than two or three rounds to settle them, but Big Mama had a decent firing rate, unlike those huge nineteen millimeter guns – hence one good burst meant a foundered swine, one so badly injured that it would just lay there until it died.

I knew what that type of gun could do, having gone after a huge mass of 'Generals' with one, and shot their entire manufacturing plant up in the process. Any weapon that could chew up machinery like that thing did wasn't a joke – and walls? Unless they were thick ones with a lot of hardened metal bound up in them, that gun ignored walls. It blasted fist-sized holes through them, and the tumbling slug and assorted fragments of bad stone, worse concrete, and bits of scrap metal then ripped up everything and everyone in its path.

I was jolted out of this revery by seeing what looked to be a coach, this one a far distance off, and picking up my rifle, I warned Willem as I loaded up some 'hot red tracer'. Willem called to our guide, who kept on, and as I 'lit this smelly wretch up' with my scope, I found that not only had I found one coach; I had found a number of them in laager. More, these coaches looked worn, run-down, their animals common horses, tethered by long leads to graze, and then, it occurred to me.

These people were some of the remainders of that one group that had assaulted the trenches, and what they had seen then... To say these people now had 'the two mile stare' was a seriously bad joke. They'd seen what 'taking' this place was going to be like, with 'near-hundred percent casualties' to accomplish very little indeed, save mark a few people, recover perhaps a handful of lead ingots out of what was spoken of as being 'our chiefest supply of lead, this for shot and bullets'; and in the process of being massacred, they had left thousands of near-new guns on the blood-sopping killing field – guns that were, most likely, lost permanently – just like most of those weapons that had been lost when the Swartsburg was destroyed.

I sighted at the window of the nearest coach, then down a little, getting a solid hold, safety off, take up the near-non-existent slack in the trigger, feeling the detent mechanism cock, then faintly, the glass rod broke at mere ounces more of pressure.

The muzzle blast nearly flung me out of the buggy, and laid Sarah flat, but I recovered in time to see that 'hot red tracer' get into that coach – or as our guide said, “that thing got onto that coach all right. Now it's burning like a torch. You must have got their distillate, as it's burning good and red.”

“Not much of that stuff left to these people, just a few bottles...”

The coach I had hit suddenly erupted in a massive blast of flame, then suddenly, like firecrackers, the other coaches billowed smoke, fire, flames – and then joined the one I had hit in balls of fire. The witches were running about crazily – and as I watched, the witches, one by one, caught fire, burning like torches, then fell, burning still, their own burn-piles, until as we passed into the shadow of another woodlot as this road bent its way toward the cove where we would launch, the flames billowed ever higher, and the smoke of the burning witch-encampment was now that of man, coach, and beasts.

It was a lot bigger group than I thought it had been, as the people I had seen in laager were but the outriders, those providing security. Those behind them were now causing an entire large woodlot to burn, with staccato crackles, bangs, screams, erupting fireballs, and now and then, huge white flashes sending bigger fireballs into the air.

“Those must have been witch-horses to burn as they did,” said Sarah.

“No, not them, not these people,” I said. “What they had was about as good as those for your buggy when they were first found, only they had eight per coach, plus a number of spares. I counted over thirty horses in that group, actually – only that was but the tip of the ice-mass. There were a lot more in that woodlot behind them.” Pause. “Perhaps some animals bore packs so as to travel lighter.”

“Then why did they catch fire?” asked Sarah. “That entire woodlot is one huge burn-pile now.”

“I guess that 'hot red tracer' is really hot stuff,” I said. “That, and all of those people coming to get that lead and kill us all gave oath, something having to do with all who live shall either be entire monsters, or entire true-witches, only there was this one curse in runes they all had cut into them and rubbed with red ink, one that dedicated them totally to the cause – hence when they failed, they burned and supped with Brimstone forthwith.”

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “There was that, but that fresh-cut curse had an added meaning, that being 'either that monster writ of in the black book dies, or we die ' and hence your shooting their encampment... Well, they all died, they, their chattels, their gear, everything – it was destroyed, and that utterly.”

“And now, mark it for all time,” I spat.

Thunder seemed to gather, then out of a clear blue sky, from somewhere I knew not where, a huge blue-white waterfall of fire, one that resembled a huge blue-white laser beam, shot down with a blast of such magnitude it rocked our buggy on its springs.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“That woodlot is now marked for all time, and is slowly cooling molten black glass,” said the soft voice. “Watch what you say from now on. You just might get it, and that in full measure – and that capacity is in its infancy.”

“Them witches ain't going to like to see that,” said our guide. “They know what that means.”

“What?” asked Willem.

“They're all going to sup with Brimstone, every last one of them,” said our guide. “Only one old tale speaks of that happening, and it's the latter part of Smokestack Heroes, when this one marked person was rescued out of that place, and while he was marked before... Oh, what happened to him.”

“What happened?” I asked. Another mile gone. The incline, steep enough to need us to get out and push, would come shortly.

“He healed up, but it took him some time, cause he was poisoned as well as butchered, and they put fetishes in him, bad ones,” said our guide, “but when he was healed up, he was a monster, and no common one, even for one that marked, but one that the witches dreaded, as from that day forward – when that man took the field, the witches, no matter their strength, no matter their numbers... He prevailed, and nothing stopped him. Nothing whatsoever.”

“Yes, and what happened then?” I asked. But a few minutes to 'get out and push' time.

“The witches started dying in droves, and while Charles killed his share, he didn't get nothing on that man, as Charles came later, but that man – he put a stop to that war.”

“He did?” I asked.

“The witches were in great strength then at that place where they had their chemical factories, and he figured out how to reduce it and kill all of them,” said our guide. “He then led the campaign along the coast, and this one group hid itself as it went south from up here. That tale implies they hid themselves in that Abbey, the one left standing of the four they had done up for how to sacrifice people.”

“Figures, it was atop the worst witch-hole remaining on the entire planet, which meant that one didn't get anything shorted, more or less.”

“Correct, relatively speaking,” said the soft voice. “Let your guide continue. You've got a few minutes yet before you'll need to disembark and push to get that buggy over the rise and onto the road to the cove.”

“So, once that district was done, it was all downhill in that place, as he'd find the witches no matter what they did, and these flying things would dump bombs on them or shoot them on the battlefield, and only a few places held out, as the witches was dying like clothes-bugs do when they cannot eat the flesh of a witch.”

“Some remained, didn't they?” I asked.

“Not in any numbers they didn't,” he said. “They had to go in deep hiding, which helped them little, as he fumigated them good, so but a handful remained in that place far north of here. There, they hid themselves especially well, and he got his share of them, so much so that only the Curse itself got more of them – and when that happened, only a handful lasted more than a year, as that was when Charles was around.”

“He was not born then, but after the war, in a wasteland – few witches, few people of any kind period, but lots of trash and wild foods, so he grew up in a relatively safe environment.”

“He had to dodge his share o' witches just the same, as there still were some then, just not like there was before,” said our guide. “Now back to this one man. He was the one who liberated Berky and ruined the place, and all of those people went south to Vrijlaand, where it was still decent.”

“Penal battalions?” I asked.

“Not by then,” said our guide. “Besides, not a one o' those people were fit for 'em, and all of 'em were marked, and marked plenty, and most of them were monsters for thinking if not power.” Pause, then, “we owe that man, and those he rescued, as much or more as Charles himself, our lives.” He then looked at me, then said something utterly unexpected. “You ain't Charles. He'd have died holding the third ditch, much less half of what I've seen you do with your own eyes. This time, it's for all the bullets, and that means it needs you doing it.”

“Yes, and in a moment, it will need both of them pushing the back and me leading the horses,” said Willem, “as there is this turn on this road where it joins another that's steep enough to wreck a coach coming down or going up, and it will take most buggies unless they have large grain-stuffed teams and nothing inside them.”

That was not the case with ours: and everything Willem had spoken of, we needed to do; but once on the road, I knew.

But a mile to go.

An easy mile, one that might take eight minutes. Then, a time of labor, and looking toward the sun, I saw where it was.

“True sunrise,” I said. “We left at dawn, or just before.”

“Right enough,” said our guide. “Now back in that thing, you two, and Willem, don't spare the horses. We've got traveling to do, and that boat comes up shortly. Go that way, find the cove, and wait there. I'll take charge o' that boat.”

“We both know where it is, Willem,” said Sarah, pointing with her arm. “It is that way. Just stay on that road, watch toward the river, and unless you're blind, you'll see it.”

Willem was not blind; more, he'd been by this cove more than once, and while his previous trips had been years ago, Sarah's pointing it out to him proved all but unneeded.

A small army of men stopped him, then as we dismounted, Willem was directed to his parking place, while this 'army' unloaded our buggy in a trice. For a short time, I wore pack and possible bag, and I recalled I had not gone through them during the trip.

“You did that last night, and they won't need rearranging until you're in the third kingdom port and safe in that one Public House that's closer to an inn,” said the soft voice. “Now 'set on the dock of the bay' and watch that boat take its shape. It's coming behind you, it being but two buggies back from Willem's, and once it's up, it will come straight here at its best speed, as it's chief trouble is its size, not its weight.”

“Size?” I murmured.

“Annistæ spoke of how large it is, and while she was fairly close, it's longer and wider than she thought it to be,” said the soft voice. “It's that big for a reason, namely weight to surface ratio of the two 'logs'.”

“What will that do?” I asked.

“You'll need all of your recalled skill and quickened reflexes then, as you'll be traveling at speeds most boats where you come from would envy – and that's when that boat is in the water. Wait until you get out in the 'hot' zone for wind, and then... You'll leave everything that travels on this planet, save perhaps an angry just-fed hornet and Jaak at his top speed – you'll leave it behind.”

“And since there is so little metal in this thing, we barely show up on radar,” I murmured.

“No, you will show up,” said the soft voice. “They may have trouble figuring out what you are, and they will wonder if their equipment has 'sniffed the thrust', but you will show up on their radar.”

There was a pause.

“At a distance of perhaps two miles, which gives them about five minutes less than they need to do much about it if you're moving at all rapidly.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “What is radar, and why is it important?”

“How they see things, dear, especially when it's dark and foggy up near where they offload and pick up those bad spies, as well as possibly do other things.” Pause, then, “how many of those ships do they have?”

“They will have one or two fewer by the time you reach the third kingdom port,” said the soft voice. “If you get lucky, you may sink all of them they have in the region.” Pause, then, “you do have the needed equipment, by the way.”

“Rockets, or, uh, shaped charges put next to the waterline, especially near the stern,” I said. “Put a timer inside the charge, then up with the sail and away we go.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah.

“That route, while effective, will be risky,” said the soft voice, “even if that is where you want to hit those ships if you can manage it.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The engine-room's in that location, and either a shaped charge with some of that cooking fuel on the inside of that cone, or a rocket's warhead, will blow up the back half of the ship and cause it to sink before any of you can count to five – and that if you work at it,” said the soft voice. “Use a rocket, you get a mile or more standoff, and you can do that while moving. The other, that requires getting close enough to touch one of those ships, and they have watches going 'all day, and all of the night'.”

“Hence we fire a rocket while moving, or rather, we fire from the lee of an island, the 'ground clutter' makes us 'invisible', then we take off as the rocket goes flying, and by the time they see us, their ship goes up in smoke,” I said.

“That has a very good chance of success, and I would do that – of course, unless you get lucky and find their main port,” said the soft voice. “A shaped charge on their fuel bunker will settle things nicely, but you want a long timer on that one.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “Do those run light distillate?”

“No, but they blend the ignition improvers inside those fuel bunkers, and if you put a good shaped charge to one, then the blast will level that port and sink any ship in it – and that's something those people will not have time to fix, seeing as how they have to bring everything from home, and all of their ships in the area are likely to be inside that place or near it,” said the soft voice. “Only one better target, and that one's tricky.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“The warehouse where they have the munitions, which is right next door to the ignition improver tank,” said the soft voice. “It will be quite hard to miss – red stripes, black background, white dots for that tank. That stuff is so volatile they have to mix it on-site using ingredients brought from their chemical factories, but if you put a charge to that, or hit it with a rocket – then kiss that place goodbye.”

“Why?” I asked.

“'Cause that ignition improver is about as volatile as acetone, and almost as strong as blasting gelatin, and it being in a building next to their munitions?” asked the soft voice. “The fuel tanks right next door, both mixed and un-mixed? The fuel in those ships being shock-sensitive, like heavy distillate?”

“They will all explode like coaches filled with drippy mining dynamite?”

“Fairly close, actually,” said the soft voice. “What that sensitized fuel lacks in brisance and raw sensitivity, it will make up for in sheer mass – and that blast will make the sun rise at midnight, which means a hot time for a while afterward.”

“Then we'd best do it, if we can,” I said. “Hot time or no... Hot time?”

“If you get all of their ships, then the worst you can expect is some pirates, and you can outrun them and their guns,” said the soft voice. “If they have one of their ships out of that harbor, though – you'll have it after you, and and it will be shooting with all it has – and they are not firing worn-out smoothbore guns at you, but things with better accuracy and range.”

“Better accuracy and range?” I asked.

“They'll put more of them near you, and get them closer, as a rule,” said the soft voice. “The chief issue is while pirates are commonly full of drink, they aren't nearly as trashed as those who will be shooting at you if you find one of their boats, and hence dodging their shells isn't going to be that much harder than flying over a pirate ship and unloading a metal pear or a training aide.”

“Stuff the shell in backward, put the red bag first, then four too many of the other kind, and then stick the igniter in cockeyed,” I muttered.

“Keep that one in mind,” said the soft voice. “Their larger guns do load like that, and if you get them to pull that trick, then that gun – and a good portion of the ship it's sitting on – is history.”

“Don't want one of those, if that's what you have in mind,” said Willem. “Now here comes the two teams ahead of the boat, and then they're getting it up over the rise, if I go by those flashes I see.”

“Signal mirror?” I asked.

“Yes, only this is not mirror code, but something the three of us arranged around a table getting into some beer this morning,” said Willem. “Few of us could manage the usual code, being so tired as we are, but all of us in the front buggies have heard the orchestra, and we agreed on their practice note, which is three shorts and a long.”

“V, for victory,” I murmured. “We'll sign on with that.”

“Sign on?” asked Sarah. “Is this like what Annistæ told me about their radios in the Valley?”

“Very much so,” I said. “We'll need to find out where they do most of their business, so we do not bury their signals – that, or make some very stable variable frequency oscillators so we can work around them. Then, we can tell them from the house proper what is happening here, but the really interesting portion will be the Abbey.”

“Yes, and what will you do there?” said Hans, as he came up in his buggy. I was surprised to see him driving, even if Anna was riding 'rifle' beside him. He had his head bandaged, though this was a strange bandage indeed: it had become oddly tinted, such that it matched his hair-color very well. I found that while I could see it at fifty feet, Sarah could barely discern it at ten, and Willem had to be closer still.

“You are next, Willem, and you will spend a fair amount of time in the black sack,” said Anna. “You'll need it, as not only will you be firing those guns – you'll be helping to make them, the machinery needed to make them, and then teaching others to fire them – they, and the smaller ones that will be like them.”

“Smaller ones?” I asked.

“They will be for teaching gun-teams, those that are inclined to give up thinking like witches and are willing to put an end to those stinkers,” said Anna. “The rest will receive their heads on their chests and Krokus in their mouths, and we shall train gun-teams that want to kill witches, swine, and those northern thugs bad enough that they can taste it in their mouths!”

“Very good, dear,” I said. “Now is that team there I see a larger one, one of six horses, and it's got something twice the length of a freight wagon?”

“Yes, as that is the boat and its things, and though it has not the weight of a freight wagon, it needs a large team,” said Hans – who then looked around. “It will but want a few minutes, as while it was getting up, the other buggies were coming hot in its dust, and now they are making their own dust getting up that rise there.”

“Which means?”

“Hi, you lugs!” hissed a voice. “Ready for that boat when she comes to the drag, and then off with it!”

“Do they know about that boat?” I asked.

“Yes, as Lukas and some other people at the house live there, and they have been talking to some of the leaders of Ploetzee,” said Hans. “Now, they have been close, but with all of the witches we shot yesterday, I hope they were close enough about it, as I am wondering if there are any of them about.”

Hans then turned, went into a crouch, chambered a round, then with stunning accuracy, he shot four witches with as many shots, his shots blending into one. The witches dropped in place and then caught fire, burning like torches.

“Those will not alert others, now that they are supping with Brimstone,” he said, getting up from his crouch. “Anna, do you have some tongs and one of those little bags? I have some brass things here, and they need keeping carefully, as we do not wish to waste a one of them, and there are places those weird things that are coming to gather them will have trouble getting to.”

Anna went him one better: she collected them up in a trice, and then sniffed what Sarah and I had bagged.

“You got plenty of witch-tables, I see,” she murmured, as the boat-trailer came up. It was rigged especially well, though how well made for wondering, as that large swarm of men undid its myriad ropes so rapidly I was shocked. Only one thing shocked me more.

How fast that boat went together, and more, how well organized they seemed to be. I then caught sight of several people I had known, and I then knew the secret.

These men – and women – were Ploetzee's best, and every one of them was marked, some of them recently. One man, he especially – he had a crutch for a bandaged leg – seemed to know this boat, and when he turned to me, he indicated his leg.

“He's the one who was shot and nearly had his foot blown off,” I gasped.

“Yes, and by the time you're actually overseas on dry land, he'll be helping that man over there run his machine shop and foundry,” said the soft voice. “He's already reading about 'four grades higher' than two days ago, and by the time you-all return, he'll be as if he'd gone to the west school.”

“Not just any course of study, either,” I said.

“True,” said the soft voice. “He'll have been in that one smaller portion that Sarah could go to, and perhaps two others out of those set to those courses – and all of those people were marked.”

“The instrument-maker's courses?” I asked.

“The same, and Sarah sat in more than a few of their classes, which is why her mathematical capacities are well beyond the average for someone from the west school, as is her care and industry.”

“Calculus, dear?” I asked. “Perhaps differential equations – simultaneous ones. I might manage those now.”

As if to prove myself wrong, a bolt of lightning tore through my head, and I saw how four-space acted, this first in 'entirely real', then 'complex', and finally 'imaginary' – and the resulting graphs were so weird that I marveled at them, especially as how the four axes interacted one with another in the complex realm.

“No, not all twelve at once,” I muttered. “Four at a time, yes, but not all twelve – and you need to do all twelve...” I was then interrupted.

“What you just did, though, is absolutely crucial, and when they read your mind, their understanding of that equipment will go from 'double-double, flash-toilet-trouble', to 'this is how this part operates, and it does this, and then this part does this, and this is why this primary field must come up in steps in synchronization with this other field that modulates it to achieve four-space localization, and why these coils need to be space-wound, silver-plated, and spaced just so from one another, and why it needs a double-locked phase-locked loop to run stably, and how all of that relates to the locational system used,” said the soft voice. “That information, by the way, is a lot of what it takes to run faster-than-light, and you just did about half the theory needed to do a bender coil.” Pause, then, “they'll dig up more in those hidden archives, put that together with what they get from you, get Rachel to help them with the mathematical portions that remain, and then some further experiments while in that dark and spooky place – and then, you'll have it.”

“What?” asked Sarah.

“All of what remains that is needed to make starships that go places and do things, and you'll need those capabilities to break the curse fully,” said the soft voice, “as 'sub-light speeds' will not help – it would take far too long. You will need to go faster than light – and no, not 'slow' faster than light, but 'really fast' faster than light.”

“Better than anything I've heard of,” I muttered. “Better than warp ten.”

“Try more like 'way faster than warp ten',” said the soft voice. “Try 'top end unlimited' – and you'll get that before you're done, and you'll need that capacity to keep the witches off once that Curse breaks entirely.”

“How will we need it?” asked Sarah. This was 'cooking her brains'.

“Simple,” said the soft voice. “That kind of speed, while it does take a bit of time to get there and then slow down, is such that your enemies will expect you to be at one place, then suddenly, you show at their home planet, line up on it, and blow it to bits so badly it takes out their entire solar system, and their sun then goes nova on them – which wipes them out as a civilization. Hence no more trouble from that source – and you'll get a number of such places while you're out on a ten-day trip, along with a lot of ships full of bad characters and other things that have no business existing in complex space or real space.”

“Sounds like we get to play Jozua above the sky as well as here, dear,” I said. “Only way we're going to have peace that endures is to make lots of pieces of our enemies.”

“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “You're not merely going to have to clear a large area of evil – you're going to need to train a number of planets, form a league thereof, build a lot of interstellar-capable warships, and then write up the rules of conduct for this league, so when it joins the larger one that's further yet away, it's going to have plenty of votes, and it will carry the torch.”

“Carry the torch?” I asked.

“As the local league speaks, so the larger one acts – and that will spread, such that any planet in this sector of the galaxy which thinks itself trouble is going to either change its ways or its place of residence for a warmer one,” said the soft voice. “It will come to that, mark my words. Now, watch how this boat assembles, as you-all will need to dismantle it once you're in that port and have a place to store it safely.”

I watched, agog, as the pontoons – these were easily half again as large as what Annistæ had implied – went side by side, people handling them as if they were made of hollowed out balsa wood; then the cross-pieces, these five, glued, laminated, doweled, and then treated with that darkened batch of wood-treatment – were lashed in place. Sepp was there, watching when he did not help, and as I watched him, I knew him to be our expert in knots.

He had to be, given that he'd made bird-nets in some numbers and repaired them on something resembling a schedule.

“More than 'some numbers',” said the soft voice. “His net-line was large enough and covered enough ground that he was typically out two days checking, repairing, subduing the birds he caught, and then selling the plucked and gutted fowls to Public Houses – and his third day, that being the day he rested up from his long period of traipsing at a rapid walk through a pathless region encompassing a fair portion of Sarah's 'territory' – he was either purchasing things for his mother, or he was working on new nets.”

“They went bad?” I asked.

“Not particularly, though during the winter he found that he commonly needed to make a large number of replacement nets,” said the soft voice. “Nets for birds, especially birds like fool-hens, tend to be damaged severely whenever one is caught; he usually found he needed to carry several spare nets with him, and make nets more or less every chance he could year-round, as between bird-damage and sun-weakening, he often needed to replace over half of a given season's nets in a given year, and effect significant repairs on the remainder when he took them in during the first snows.”

“And find significant sources of good string,” I murmured. “Sounds like a lot of work for little money.”

“It was that,” said Sarah. “I think he actually made as much money finding and selling things as a scavenger than he did with gathering eggs and setting nets.”

I did,” said Sepp, as he came up beside me. “Now I need to watch, as they are lacing the sheet in place, and there are a lot of these small metal places it goes into.”

Those I most likely can figure out,” I said. “Getting knots to hold – that takes someone else.”

They're using that one type of rope that holds them especially well,” said Sepp, “and those places where those cross-pieces go, they are roped in three places. It will have some give, but not much.”

Just enough to take the shock of sailing,” I said. “You want some give at those speeds, specially if you hit something.”

I hope not,” said Sarah. “Now those things there, they look to be rudders, though they are larger than I expected, and longer also.”

They are mounted using strange springs,” said Sepp, “and sheathed them with copper, or... No, not copper. Those have bronze, and someone cast them and then filed them almost sharp enough to cut like a knife.”

Andreas?” I asked.

He did some of the work, but much of what you are seeing so far as castings are concerned came from Ploetzee's main foundry – which you did not see, as all three of its men were out on that Kommando trek – and all three are as marked as those men in the distillate place, so they will help out getting 'another good foundry' set up.”

Why did we not see them?” asked Sarah.

They needed no such seeing, and more, you did see the people, if not the foundry itself,” said the soft voice. “They were among the front-line shooters clearing that house, and all of them washed shot and balls out of their hides when they bathed later that evening, and most of those people are still dumping shot every time they bathe.”

So they got their not-so-smelly hides aired out,” I murmured. “Now how much lead did they catch?”

Two have more markings, as one lost the first joint of one of his fingers, and another was struck in the foot,” said the soft voice. “Unlike that one man, they continued with their work, knowing that it would work out, but like that one man, they both gave fresh blood-oaths in church – and that church has a lot of blood in it now.”

Functionaries?” I asked.

No, due to blood-oaths,” said the soft voice. “Some of those rooting out the last of those skulkers that went in the coffle to the Abbey took bullets and cuts, and while they finished their work and sent them on their way, they too gave oath in that church also, and now, its altar is permanently stained with blood, even though the new preacher – a man elected from among them, one who also gave oath upon that altar that very day – is going to preach what is writ, and not more, and not a bit less – and more yet, he will listen to me.”

And he will guard that house with his life,” I muttered. “Going to have trouble living in it, though.”

Not really, as you didn't see the kitchen,” said the soft voice. “He's not had his own house since he was driven here by a host of witches after being ambushed and nearly killed down in the fourth kingdom's market, and while few know it, he went to the west school for the full six years.”

Then he is likely to be a decent preacher,” said Sarah.

More than decent, dear, as he has learned to listen to me, and do as I tell him to, same as your husband has learned to do, and is learning still,” said the soft voice. “Now watch this loading of the bags, that according to the diagram given, and then the arranging of the sheet covering them, and finally, that which protects you-all from the sun while it shines – as you'll need to change it some once you get out into the region where there is wind.”

And I shall ask for wind, then,” I said. “Make the boats that are out there take shelter after dropping all sail, and then...”

Then we will be tossing bombs and shooting, when we do not hang on for our lives,” said Sarah. “it will be dark then, and that will be a wild ride, fully as wild as going down a waterfall on a log.”

What?” I gasped.

I did that once, and by the grace of God alone, I merely became thoroughly wet, and but a small portion of my supplies were damaged,” said Sarah. “It was not a long ride, perhaps long enough to count to three, but it was worse than riding a mule dosed with the drain opener the Veldters use.”

You do not want to ride a mule then, dear,” I said. “Smelly mule, yes – plenty of grain, all the water it can hold, and hunt up bushes when it gives you the runs when it's trotting, but no drink. Drunken mules are fractious and stupid, while the common ones – they're as smart as the average horse, if not a bit smarter.” Pause, then, “however, they are not donkeys, and I hope those larger ones become more commonplace, as those are fit to ride, if you're of a size fit to ride them.”

Hence Angelíca's animal and its progeny will become most-desired,” said the soft voice. “Annistæ wishes she had one like that twin-carrying mare, as it's not a common animal, even as large donkeys go – and neither was the animal that bred with it prior to her having to leave the Valley between two days.”

Uh, why?” I asked, as our bags began to be stacked methodically, this according to a written 'list' or map that one man was holding and calling them out by their numbered tags. Two rows, the bags two deep, each such bag methodically roped down, with a 'tape' being used for measuring for precise placement. This was a critical matter, said the man with the list, “as some things they need to get to easy while on that trip, while this load must not shift, not even when that thing is traveling like a wood-pigeon.”

He heard correctly,” I said. “It looks likely indeed – good for thirty miles an hour in a moderate wind, one like you find offshore 'most all the time, even when the shore is but a few hundred yards distant.”

True,” said the soft voice. “Anyone save Gabriel can handle it at need then, given practice steering and sail-tracking while in the river, and they'll need to as you chart your course among those islands and deal with some of the troublemakers there.”

Aye, which is why these bags are tagged and must go in a special order,” said the man with the list. “Now them which has ready-food, those are to be stacked last, and they'll be nearest your shelter, which you'll want to stay under while the sun shines yet. It will help hide you from trouble, and that I heard true, which is why I checked that part carefully when they mocked this thing up day before yesterday while that carrier vehicle there was being finished up and its hubs fitted. It's got sleeved wheels, same as all of these vehicles, and I suspect...”

No, no suspecting,” said our 'guide'. “When it is time, that being when they send it up the wires from the fourth kingdom house, all of these buggies, as well as some sleeve-wheeled freighting wagons from the fourth kingdom, will need to gather in that port, as they're going to have a long train of supplies for traveling, and long days will be our lot then, long days and much trouble, and witches aplenty.” Pause, then, “in places, we may need to shoot our way through through the witches, as they may be choking some of our road, and they're not going to listen to anyone 'cept Brimstone, as most of you learned yesterday.”

Just what I did not wish to hear,” said Gabriel. “Now I am glad for this cloak, and gladder yet for this burn-clothing under it, but you two?”

We'll put ours on before we get on that thing,” said Sepp. “Both our packs are full, we have satchels in each hand, and plenty of ready food.”

I hope you brought jugs of beer,” said Sarah.

Ten of them, and we'll rope them to the back side of that boat once we're on it and in the river proper,” said Sepp. “I believe they're about ready to put up our shelter, and once they do that, then it is time for us to board and use our paddles, all six of them.”

Six?” I asked.

In case we should lose one,” said Karl. “They are all to be roped to the boat, but things do happen, and that I learned at the Abbey fighting in that deep place where I could not see anything unless it was a bad fetish, or a few times, something exploded close to me and tossed me good.”

It got you clear of those skeletons, and you could take on more of them,” said Gabriel. “I was given three chances to use electricity, and I did so, and I think I saved at least one person from being hurt.”

You scared the dung out of me, Gabriel,” said Sarah. “I needed to spend time cleaning those underclothes, and I was glad I packed every set I had for that place.”

We have good ones now,” said Karl – who then went silent, as the shelter to the rear of the boat, this thing low, of waxed 'canvas' reinforced with thin cord, sewn together, and then thin blackwood sticks placed up and tied in place... The whole thing reminded me of a world-war-one Fokker triplane, one of those things that could 'climb like a monkey and turn like the devil'.

Yes, one of those could, if you knew what you were doing,” said the soft voice. “They were not some of those aircraft they had overseas.”

Uh, what kind – the kind that would 'bump' off of the runway, climb for about half a second at about a twenty degree angle as the landing gear came up, then go straight up like a surface-to-air-missile and vanish off of everything they had before you could count to five?”

No, one of those planes that could act like it was defying the laws of physics and sanity,” said the soft voice. “That type, while it could not do that kind of nonsense, was known for its tricks as well.”

Such as?” I asked.

Put it this way,” said the soft voice. “Any aircraft that can 'bump' off the runway from a standing start with engines idling and then get to thirty thousand feet before you can count to 'ten' if you work at it isn't a joke – and then go to the edge of space in about another count of ten. Then, there were its other tricks – such as being hard for the enemy to find, being able to do the work of an entire squadron of the most advanced jets where you came from, and then, if the pilot was marked beyond the trivial...”

Yes?” I asked.

Those planes could impersonate UFOs for how fast they could go, how they could turn, and then how they could go through entire bomber groups escorted by swarms of fighters, and send down most if not all of those enemy planes in flames in the space of less than a minute.” The soft voice had never been so emphatic. “They could pull more 'force' than anything in the inventory, they could fly faster, higher, and accelerate harder...”

Harder?” I asked, as the 'canopy' became finished.

Not quite as hard as being shot out of a cannon, but they did get up and go when you got full reheat,” said the soft voice. “Anyone within five hundred yards of your back end then 'sniffed the thrust', and you left them and their missiles behind you.”

Sounds like this one plane...”

Get real,” said the soft voice. “These weren't black, but a mottled green color, much like a hornet – but you could always tell when someone had to get onto it: the paint would be bleached white from the heat, and the plane would need repainting.”

What did he mean by that?” asked Sarah.

Not sure, dear,” I said. “Did these go faster than those black planes I've read of?”

Yes, and by a considerable margin,” said the soft voice. “In about two minutes, you'll need to get in that boat, Katje will bless your voyage, and then you'll cast off and paddle out into the river, there to head north. Sarah, have your ledger and pen ready, and the same for you, Gabriel – there will be much that you hear and see on that river, and all of it will be important.”

Two minutes passed as if they were hours, but when it was time, I stood up, gathered my pack and shouldered it, picked up my weapons, and walked to the edge of the wharf. It was a step down, a long step, then onto the flat portion of a pontoon, and from there, onto the fabric interlaced with rope that formed our covering from the water below. I noted that there were dual steering oars, as well as dual sail-tracks, but I understood the nature of this boat, almost as if 'The Old Man of the Sea' were about to climb aboard.

And, for some reason, as Sarah sprang onto the cloth, it felt like someone else had jumped on board with her. She sat beside me, huddling in her cloak as if for warmth, then as Karl, Gabriel, and Sepp came aboard, I finally saw them all for who they were: bundled thickly for warmth, indeed clothing fit for a cold not much less than that of a dead-winter, and then, a sixth person came aboard. It was Katje, and her words, these.

Go, and do what you were called to do,” she said. “May God guide your steps, and give you success. Amen.”

With that, she leaped off, the ropes were cast off, and then someone – who, I knew not, but I suspected Sepp – gave us a shove. The boat moved sideways, much as if it were a balsa raft, then a slow stroke with a paddle, one which needed my using the rudders to counteract its tendency to move the boat away from a straight course, had us moving toward the opening in the trees that covered this surprisingly large cove. It could easily hide three craft like this, and when I looked to my right, I noted what looked like the remains of another wharf.

Remains, no,” I thought. “That's just a very well-made camouflage net. They can pull that off in ten minutes, and then have two places to tie up.”

That is the larger wharf of the two,” said the soft voice, “and you are right, they can and do use it at need – which currently is seldom, due to the lack of downriver traffic. Just you wait, though – this place will be thoroughly modernized by summer's end, and it will have a permanent garrison present, as then – then there will be traffic, and a lot of it.”

This river is a long stretch to paddle up,” said Sepp. “Karl, the other side, just in that gap there. Paddle when I do, so we go better. Most of my work is trying to turn this thing, and he's having to correct with those rudders.”

Karl did so, his paddle first tied to a small cast-bronze cleat with thin rope, then on a soft count of three, they both stroked deeply.

Each stroke moved the boat 'smartly', and I wondered: supposedly, the distance between this location and the north-tip was a hundred miles or more, and rowing upstream, even with several rowing turn-about, was likely to take days. I then had an answer, though the sound was so absurd that I kept silent.

Besides, I had my hands full. Our sail was 'down', and the gap we could thread the boat through in its current condition was indeed narrow. More, the river deepened and narrowed there, and I would need to engage in trickery with the rudders to first get through the 'neck', then turn smartly with those padding to help so as to line up with the current in the channel.

The narrow channel. Norden's boats had trouble getting up this way, and that by intent.

The opening grew steadily closer, and behind us, I could hear those watching us, those of them who could be spared. The predominant sound was that of people looking after their horses and buggies, for now with lightened loads, they could travel, true Trek-Boers, rifles on their knees and their reins in their hands, with the regiments of witches coming steadily, running headlong into the long blue horizon.

That place called death, and as I emerged into the sunlight from the dark shade of the cove, I turned the rudder to my left a good forty five degrees, and the boat lined up with the current and shot through the channel as if it were lightning, rapidly building to a speed of nearly thirty miles an hour until the river once more widened to its usual width of several hundred yards.

Only deep in the middle here, though,” I said. “I thought that would be harder.”

That comes later,” said the soft voice. “Now, a dose for your knees, beer for your stomach, and start looking as you feel this boat out – and if you hear a deep bass voice, listen close. It's one of my people, one you'll meet in person soon enough.”