As the minutes and miles passed, however, I wondered just what I needed to learn from the charred and smoking wasteland that had appeared with such stunning suddenness. This state of mind persisted as we went across fields and around woodlots, and the constant muttering of gunfire from all points of the compass seemed a harbinger of a long-awaited and longer-planned war. I felt a town some distance to the east and north, and thought to ask about it.
“That place doesn't do much farming,” said Lukas, “on account of them having a big pit.”
“P-pit?” I gasped. For some reason, I was thinking of an 'open pit mine', rather than the massive smoky crater we'd left behind.
“A quarry,” said Gilbertus, “and I stay clear o' that place unless I got business there.”
“Aye, and that business isn't that rare,” said Lukas. “That one stonemason's been sitting quiet since the Swartsburg first went up.”
“And now?” I asked.
“He might do well to not get hung out to dry,” said Lukas. “I know at least three people that think he's wanting to be a witch.”
“Three?” I asked.
“Where I live,” said Lukas. “I don't know how many of 'em are in the house, but I know there's a lot more than three of 'em that want to see that wretch on a burn-pile.”
I thought for a moment, then asked, “where do you live?”
“About eight miles east o' the house, and two north,” said Lukas. “It takes some doing to find that place.”
“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “It took me two years of asking to get someone to take me in the first time, and since then, I'm glad I live there and not somewhere else.”
“You both live there?” I asked.
Lukas nodded, then said, “Andreas does too.”
“How b-big is this place?”
“Bigger than you might think,” said Lukas. “It took me a year's living there to find out how many people live near me, and two more to learn where they were living.” A brief pause, then, “they're careful in that place.”
“They need to be,” said Gilbertus. “The witches have been trying to get in there for a bull's years.”
“T-trying?” I asked.
“Aye,” said Lukas. “The bomber in that place is busy enough to need helpers, and not just in his mill.”
“Mill?” I asked.
“Powder mill,” said Lukas. “It's at the north end o' the town.”
I felt the presence of Waldhuis some minutes later, and as I checked my compass – it helped my nerves to do so, I now realized, even if I could clearly 'feel' where I was – I murmured, “now I wonder what's happening there?”
As if to answer, a flash of light blasted redly into the sky some distance to the north, and seconds later, thick black smoke followed it to form a rapidly growing cloud.
“About time that place went where it belongs,” muttered Lukas. “I hope it stays gone.”
“W-Waldhuis?” I asked. “Gone?”
“It's burned before,” said Lukas. “Supposedly Hans' grandfather had something to do with the last time it went up.”
“He did?” I asked. “When?”
“I was a young man then,” said Lukas, “and it was the talk of everywhere within a day's ride.” A brief pause, then, “between that, and the pigs coming twice that year, I made up my mind about becoming a guard.”
A faint shriek came from somewhere ahead, then suddenly a small herd of smoke-blackened bacon-sized pigs burst from a woodlot some hundred yards to our left. As I made ready to dismount – I was still shook up from that nightmarish mess we had just escaped – first Lukas, then Gilbertus dismounted. I was about ready to do so when I heard one of the men fire.
The scream of a wounded pig 'woke me up' completely, and I 'dropped' down. As I turned – my rifle had somehow found my hands – I saw movement in the trees behind the pigs. I aimed and fired in one smooth motion – and the roar of my rifle was mingled with an earshattering blast as the trees behind where my bullet had gone vanished amid a blinding white flash.
“Not again,” I thought, as the explosion's flash was replaced by deep red flames and billowing black smoke.
“That was a coach,” muttered Lukas as he started a bullet. “I'll want some powder soon at this rate.”
“H-how...” I asked, as I began reloading. I thought he'd used up all of his powder earlier.
“I shot my flask dry,” he said. “I had another bottle of powder hid at the house, and I refilled what I carry with me.”
“Uh, did you have enough when you left?” I asked idly. My mind was on starting my own bullet straight down my barrel.
“A full flask and a small pouch for a spare,” said Lukas. “I'm down to balls for bullets, on account of I'm out o' them slugs.”
“Hans has got lead,” said Gilbertus, as he made ready to fire. The pigs seemed confused, for some reason. “Why ain't those things...”
I finished with my ramrod, and as I began unscrewing its pieces, I glanced at the pigs. For some reason, I was seeing a faint reddish haze suffusing several of the foremost animals, and as I sniffed – my nose felt stuffy, and I wanted to flush it clear with salt water – I seemed to at once both smell and feel the acrid fumes of datramonium.
“They d-dosed those things with datramonium,” I spat. “They're t-trashed!”
My 'screechy' voice was buried by the boom of first one musket, then another. A pig stumbled, then dropped in its tracks, while a second pig screamed and ran off as if set alight.
I was about to fire once more when the surviving pigs suddenly turned, then with echoing shrieks, they ran back for the woodlot's safety. I thought to give one of them a 'chaser', but for some reason, I held my fire as the pigs 'vanished' among the still-smoking splintered trunks of the woodlot.
“Were en-route to the north when the shipping point blew up,” said the soft voice, “and the witches in that coach were driving them north at a run so as to sell them while they were still alive.” A brief pause, then, “they didn't have much time.”
As I remounted, I asked, “burns?”
“Among other injuries, yes,” said the soft voice. “None of those pigs is likely to last longer than five days.”
“And those witches driving 'em are where they belong,” muttered Lukas with a note of finality.
“Dosing pigs with datramonium?” I asked.
“Is common among witches,” said the soft voice. “Stupefied pigs are more readily transported.”
“S-stupefied?” I murmured, as I headed more to the west. I wanted 'the main road' for the rest of the trip, for some reason.
“The black book speaks of the effects of certain drugs upon the favored animals of witchdom,” said the soft voice, “which is why those pigs were given an added dose over the usual.” A brief pause, then, “datramonium is thought to dull pain in swine.”
“Thought?” I mumbled.
“It actually increases pain while preventing its outward expression via a form of paralysis,” said the soft voice, “much like it does with people.” Another brief pause, then, “the reason the pigs were still able to move was that the datramonium was given in the form of a dilute tincture.”
“Dilute?” I asked.
“Less datramonium than the usual for 'antifreeze',” said the soft voice, “with a similar alcohol content.”
“So they were trashed,” I muttered. “Stinking drunk pigs.”
A dull booming rumble came from behind, and I turned to see a billow of near-colorless flame erupt from the trees to our rear. “What was that?”
“Those 'stinking drunk pigs' went into a below-ground witch-run distillery,” said the soft voice, “and now they, along with the witches who were running the stills when the pigs ran into the still-chamber, are now savoring the flames of burning forty-chain brandy.”
“They were making that stuff?” I gasped.
“The appetite of the 'late lamented Swartsburg' for strong drink was well-nigh insatiable,” said the soft voice, “which was why every witch with a still-house and the needed ingredients within fifty miles of the house was running the stuff.”
The road showed but minutes later, and as we came to the town of the shoemaker, I glanced at the shadows left by the sun. For a moment, I wondered as to the time – until a gunshot boomed, then a pig ran out into the street to dart between two houses on the other side.
“There's a witch in this town,” muttered Lukas, as he looked around. “That pig came from a witch's pen.”
“Are you sure the witch lives in this town,” I asked tentatively, “or did that pig come from somewhere nearby and was hiding up...”
I ceased speaking, and turned abruptly to a still-shuttered shop, then pointed with the index finger of my left hand. “There,” I said. “In there...”
My right hand was reaching for my revolver, even as I was speaking, and when the door opened a crack, the whole town seemed to pause and hold its breath. My eyes focused upon the door's frame...
Another gunshot boomed, this one closer. I could almost smell the burnt-sulfur reek of powder.
“Time's up, witch,” I muttered.
The door banged open – and a black-dressed scarecrow collapsed facedown upon the boards of the stoop with a rattling bang amid a small cloud of dust. My revolver was up and cocked as I slid from my seat, and as I walked closer with slow and cautious steps, the town seemed to 'wake up' another notch – to a status well past the previous norm of my recollection.
“That wretch was hiding in here all the time,” I muttered, as I came within ten feet of the still-immobile witch. I could smell smoke and fire coming off of him like slow-rising steam, and while he looked dead, I suspected that to be but the seeming.
Or was it?
“No chance,” I thought, and fired at the 'dead' witch's head, which tossed itself to the side as brains and blood flew. “Can someone fetch me a rope?”
The town at once 'jerked' upon hearing such a statement. From 'a far country', I heard talk of 'hanging him out to dry'.
“N-no,” I thought. “I do not wish the building...” I glanced to each side, noting the closeness of other houses and shops. The entire area looked ripe for a conflagration. “I do not wish this building to catch fire if he goes up in smoke.” Spoken: “I've had them do that more than once, in fact.”
“Had them do what?” asked an earnest voice to my right. I turned to see a young man, perhaps an older apprentice, with a coiled bundle of 'hairy-looking' rope. He looked more than a little like a younger version of the shoemaker, and his wax-caked hands and stained apron added to the impression.
“C-catch fire,” I murmured, as I took the rope from his twitching hands and began to attempt a knot. “I want to drag that wretch somewhere where he can, uh, not cause trouble...”
Faintly, I saw what might have been fumes coming off of the witch, and I moved forward quicker. I glanced down to see my hands attempting to tie themselves into a knot rather than the rope. I turned back toward the 'apprentice'.
“Can you help me?” I asked. “My knots are...”
Strong hands took the rope from me, and I saw Gilbertus fashion a knot in what seemed seconds, and but seconds later, he had the rope cinched tight around the witch's neck.
“Uh, can we, uh, drag that...”
I had no sooner spoken than Gilbertus mounted with the other end of the rope in his hand. As I began walking back to where Jaak was, I seemed to hear talk of tall stout trees with handy cross-limbs being nearby.
“N-no,” I softly murmured. “That wretch is going to go up in smoke any second now...”
As if someone – or some thing – had read my mind, the witch suddenly jerked off of the stoop while leaving a thin trail of blood to slowly bounce down the steps, his dead hands seeming to scrabble at the gravel-pocked surface of first his 'yard' and then the street itself. I mounted Jaak, then as I began to catch up with the other two men, I noted Jaak was moving of his own accord to the other side of the street – and away from the witch. Another glance at the witch, and the 'fumes' coming off of his body seemed yet more solid and 'present' – and I felt inclined to get away from him as fast as I could.
I paid heed to this inclination, and as Jaak caught up with the other two men, I felt a burst of warmth to my rear. In shock and horror I turned to see a fire-billowing corpse at the end of the rope. The languid red flames and grimy clouds of smoke made me long greatly for the 'safety' of home.
“I think we'd best not think about a tree,” muttered Lukas, as he turned to me. “Did you..?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “I've had witches catch fire before, and that one looked about ready.”
“Aye,” said Gilbertus. “I've heard about that happening, and I know who owns that house.”
“Not the witch,” I said. I suspected the witch had snuck inside so as to hide in a 'safe' place.
Gilbertus looked at me, then shook his head. “My uncle is no witch, even if he don't stay in one place much.”
“Uh, freight?” I asked.
“That too,” said Gilbertus. “That, and some other things hidden in some small places on that buggy o' his.”
Gilbertus turned around, then noted the still-smoldering remains of the witch were no longer on the end of the rope. He began coiling it up, then at the last house in town, he tossed the tied and coiled rope on the stoop. As if this were a signal, Jaak sped up slightly to leave the witch and the smoke of his burning behind.
“P-please,” I murmured. I wanted to cry, I felt so badly. “N-no more witches. P-please.”
“That's the truth,” said Lukas. “If I see another witch afore we get where you live, or another pig, I'll be ready for a rest-house, and no mistake.”
I currently felt as if ready for a lengthy sojourn in such a location, even as we passed by new-plowed fields that – according to both of the other men – were either ready to sow, or had just been sown. This 'breather' – no gunfire, save at a great distance, nor pigs that I could hear audibly – was most welcome; for I was dreading that one clearing and its still-reeking reminders of savagery. I cringed inwardly as the place drew near, and once in it, I could not keep my eyes open, and my ears rang with echoing sentiments.
“You are a very stupid man, witch” was mingled with sundry oaths and chanted runes, and when I opened my eyes once more, I sniffed carefully. I was afraid of smelling dead bones.
“The witches got that bag and that head,” muttered Lukas.
“Uh, gone?” I asked faintly, as I turned to him.
He nodded, then said, “I could see lots of tracks.”
“P-pointed boots?” I asked.
No answer was given, nor was it needed; and this was the last mile. Home would show within ten minutes, and I wanted nothing more than to hide in my room and cower under the blankets. Ghostly gunfire and massive eruptions of brilliant light seemed to be hiding in the corners of my eyes no matter where I looked, and my ears strained to their limits so as to hear chanted rune-curses, thundering roars of cannons, massive eruptions of light and sound, the bellows of cattle, and the death-screams of pigs.
“Them too,” said Gilbertus. He then hitched. “I bet those witches are dead.”
“A fair number of them are where they belong, while those who are still alive will be dead soon enough,” said the soft voice. “That group, large as it was, recovered very little just the same.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“That head was nearly ready to fall to the ground in pieces of its own accord,” said the soft voice, “and that bag was ready to fall to the ground of its own weight. Both head and bones went to dust and powder during the first mile once they'd gotten them.” A brief pause, then, “many of those witches who still live of that group are now enjoying the fifth kingdom's version of plague.”
“Uh, how?” I asked. “D-don't tell me – some of what was in that pile of rubbish at the stable...”
Lukas looked at me, then said, “so that's why those wretches looked so sick.”
“Plague?” I asked.
“The Swartsburg would have remained had you not gone there,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, the first kingdom is still far too cold for that bug to have anywhere near the virulence it has in the fifth kingdom.”
“Uh, it's c-cold-blooded?” I asked.
“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “It thrives in a very narrow range of temperature, and twenty degrees either side of the temperature at which it thrives greatest causes it to go dormant.”
“So then how are those witches enjoying it?” asked Gilbertus.
“Witches like warm surroundings,” said the soft voice.
“B-big campfires,” I said, “and, uh, well-stoked stoves.”
“Fireplaces are the preferred sources of heat in witchdom,” said the soft voice.
Lukas looked at me again, then spat before speaking. “So that's why they needed so much firewood in that place.”
“That place?” I asked.
“The second kingdom house,” said Lukas. “They have these big holes in the walls lined with firebricks in some o' those rooms.”
“And our room was, uh, comfortable without any such thing,” I murmured. I then had a question. “Are those holes you spoke of painted red, with teeth painted on the walls on their tops and bottoms – so it looks like a big hungry mouth?”
Lukas gasped, then said, “so I heard tell.” A brief pause, then, “I hope there's beer.”
“There is,” I murmured. “We just jugged some the other day, and I browned the malt.”
Town hove into view but a few minutes later, and as we passed the Public House, I could feel a near-electric sensation that bristled like flaming lunacy in the air. While no witches had shown in town, nor swine, the sense of former slumber was now not merely gone...
“It feels like the fourth kingdom's market,” I murmured. I then glanced to the left to see far in the distance a thin column of black smoke rising slowly into the air, then two more to the northwest. There were more such smoke-columns – I could feel them – but I could not see them to our front.
“There's a burn-pile somewhere around here,” muttered Lukas, “and if it don't have at least a dozen witches burning on it, I'm a rodent with a potato in my mouth.”
My nose then caught the burnt-flesh reek, and I nearly screamed. My hands reached like palsied crabs for my possible bag, hoping against hope that I might find the vial of tincture therein. My lips vibrated like lunacy, and faint ghostly sounds came from them like the soft winds of night as my hands closed around the vial itself.
“Take two,” spoke a soft voice that I did not recognize. I wanted to ignore it – at least until the insistent voice acquired a tone at once familiar and female. I looked around for Anna, and did not see her.
Instead, I saw the usual houses of town. Something was missing – something big – and I strained mightily to learn of it. My ears seemed to be stretching themselves yet further, and as the faint noises associated with town in the past began to percolate past the steady ringing in my ears...
“Wake up!” shouted the distance-muffled voice of Anna. “Wake up, you lazy wretch!”
Lukas turned toward the house where the voice seemed to come from, then with a shaking hand, he pointed.
“That's Anna speaking,” he said. “She's in there...”
A sudden gunshot banged hollowly, then the door of the house all-but crashed off of the house's front wall as a man stumbled out of the door with his hands clenched over his bloodstained stomach. He stumbled once more on the steps, then fell face-down in the dirt of his yard. I glanced up to see Anna with a smoking revolver in her hand and an irate expression upon her face.
“A-are you all right?” I asked.
“That wretch cursed me!” yelled Anna, as she advanced upon the man's 'corpse'. She looked inclined to give him a 'finisher', and I wondered if one was needed.
“No closer,” said Gilbertus as he dismounted. “That witch might be shamming.”
I was off of Jaak in a heartbeat, and as I came closer, I saw the man's hand scrabble outward to grip the beginning-to-loosen dirt of his 'yard'. I glanced around, and then saw the 'decay'. His refuse-strewn 'yard' seemed in the grip of an invasion of cracks and weeds, and his house was slowly falling apart. I thought to ask Anna a question.
“W-what did he say?” I asked. “Was it, uh, 'Hail B-brim...”
“That also,” said Anna, who looked inclined to spit. “He tried speaking these other words, and I cannot say them.”
“Not in the usual speech, correct?” I asked. “Did it sound a little like how people commonly speak, or something entirely different?”
Anna nodded at the latter, then “I did not let him finish what he was saying, as you've spoken of something called a hiding curse, and how witches chant it.” A brief pause, during which she carefully – and somewhat awkwardly – lowered the hammer of her revolver onto an empty nipple with shaking hands, then, “the first word of what he said was like how young boys are named.”
I shuddered visibly, and softly mouthed, “did he t-touch you?”
“No, because I shot him,” said Anna. “He had a knife, and he was about to try for me.”
“Knife?” I gasped. “What...”
“You'd best go in and look,” said Lukas as he looked at the immobile witch. “Burning that house isn't a good idea.”
I glanced up, then noted the too-close proximity of the houses on each side of it, and muttered, “they planned it that way.” A pause, then, “the witches bought it when the former owner died childless.” Another pause, then, “how many of these, uh, 'safe houses' do they usually have in towns around here?”
“Commonly one or two per town of this size,” said the soft voice, “and the usual means of acquisition involves curses, subterfuge, sizable bribes – and in some cases, assassination.” A brief pause, “as was the case with this house's former owner.”
“They murdered him?” gasped Anna.
“He and his family,” said the soft voice. “They started with the oldest daughter, and finished with the man himself some years later.” A brief pause, then, “all of them were sacrificed in witch-holes, and all of them were cursed beforehand.”
“And some of those curses are those that actually, uh, work,” I muttered.
“Especially those curses that affect the perception of others,” said the soft voice. “The witches' intermediary was welcomed with open arms when he showed some months after the owner's death, and he got the house for a modest fraction of what it was worth.”
I was idly looking around when I noted movement near the witch, and I drew Anna with my left arm back while speaking to the others to stand clear.
“Are you going to tell him to sup with Brimstone?” asked Anna quietly.
I was about to speak when Lukas said, “we had a witch catch fire on the way home, and this one might...”
The witch shook as if practicing for a convulsion, then with a terrible echoing shriek of agony, he erupted in head-high red flames that billowed thick black smoke. Anna looked once more at me, then at the other men.
“I'd best look the three of you over,” she said quietly. I expected to hear more, and once walking home beside her with Jaak following behind us – the other two men had remounted – I listened closely. Anna seemed uncommonly close-mouthed, compared to her usual talkativeness. I wondered if she were afraid to speak, and I looked back over my shoulder to see the neighbors trying to drag the still-burning witch further from his 'safe house'. They were having little luck with his rapidly-disintegrating corpse as it fell apart under the action of the intense red-yellow flames and billowing black smoke.
“They won't be trying to burn that house, will they?” I asked softly.
Anna shook her head, then said, “I think I had best send Hans down that way once I get home.” A brief pause, then “and that once I get into the bull formula.”
“That bad, eh?” asked Lukas.
Anna glared at him, then said in a tone I had heard her use but a few times before, “you should talk.” She then turned once more to the front.
Home showed but a minute or two later, and while both men 'hitched' their horses next to the one of the watering troughs – Jaak went around back without me – I 'guided' Anna indoors. I led her to the couch, then as I went into the kitchen after a jug of beer, I muttered amid steady crystalline chiming noises, “my ears are still ringing.” I then found the 'currently-in-use' jug, and as I came back into the parlor with it and a mug, Lukas came in the still-open door.
“Where's Hans?” he asked. I knew the rest of his unspoken question. I suspected Anna did also.
“He was home when I left,” she said, as she gratefully took the jug and mug from my hands. “He might be in the horse-barn out back.”
“Or at the Public House,” I murmured as I sat down with a sudden sigh of great weariness. I was about to get a dose of the widow's tincture myself when I abruptly blacked out.
I came to what seemed seconds later with the taste of the tincture in my mouth and a part-full mug of beer in my hand. Anna had gone somewhere, while Hans' voice was coming from somewhere nearby. I could hear movement downstairs.
I was sufficiently 'relaxed' that I wasn't inclined to get up off of the couch, and when steps began thumping on the basement stairs I wondered just who was making the noise – for I could hear more than one set of feet, and at least one pair of noisemakers was wearing boots.
I had only seen Hans wear common shoes before. Besides, the boot-wearer seemed to be a 'heavier' man than Hans, and as I tried to think who wore heavy 'riding boots' – I suspected they were very popular among guards, especially those that rode horseback much – I heard noises coming from behind me. I turned slowly in my seat, much as if I were made of rawhide-bound sticks of dessicated wood sodden with too-lively termites, and saw the first sweating horses of an eight-horse team. A glance to the end to the team's ending showed a dust-strewn and somewhat old-looking 'farm wagon' laden with a number of 'glistening' brown-streaked gray blocks of stone and a single taciturn-looking driver.
“There are three of those things in the road where there was but one before,” said the voice of Hans from behind me. “Now is that Swartsburg place gone?”
“Gone, he says,” muttered Gilbertus as he came in the front door. I had not noticed it was still part-open. “That place looks like an old tale happened inside o' it, and that's for the inside of the place.”
“Yes, and what of the walls around it?” asked Hans 'slyly'. “Talk has it there were lots of places under them.”
“There was a hundred paces of wall that was gone that I saw,” said Gilbertus. He then paused, and while I watched, he both scratched at his backside and sipped from his mug. I marveled at his capacity to do both things at once – and then, as I pondered how I might assay something similar and he looked likely to resume speech, Sarah abruptly 'showed' to his left.
“Where did she come from?” I thought. My ears were still ringing more than a little, and my thirst was impossible to deny.
“I saw that,” said Sarah forthrightly. Her 'arch' tone was a marvel. “How much lead did you pick up last night?”
“He will need to have Anna look at him when she gets back,” said Hans. “At least town is awake now.”
“It is more awake than ever I have seen it,” said Sarah. “Nowhere in this area have I seen such a sleepless town.”
“Aye,” said Lukas as he came from the kitchen with a stool in his hands. “I would ride money on a spinner that I've got lead also, and he” – here, he looked at me – “most likely has his share.” A pause, then, “did you hear the noise last night?”
“There were lots of noises last night,” said Hans. “I made some of them, and Anna did too, and Sarah...”
“I had to get into the Geneva to rub myself,” said Sarah softly. “That powder was really strong.”
“It wants two and three of the usual measure if you use that good stuff,” said Hans, “and that is if you use the stuff that is ground for muskets.”
Sarah shook her head, then said, “this stuff was not musket powder.” A pause, then, “I saw that bottle...”
“Bottle?” I gasped. “Bottle?” My voice had risen markedly in pitch. “W-where was this bottle?”
“It was in your workbench,” said Sarah. “I was in a great hurry, for I could smell a pig nearby, and there was no other powder fit for a musket I could find quickly.” A brief pause, then, “why, was it special?”
“That stuff is not the common for powder,” said Hans, “and I do not mean common for powder from around here or the fourth kingdom, but common from Klaus's mill.” A brief pause, then, “he will only sell that kind to bombers, as it is touchy.”
“V-Valley powder?” I asked.
Hans looked at me with narrowed eyes, then said softly, “I am not sure if that stuff you have is stronger or not.”
“What is Valley powder?” I asked.
“It looks something like his stuff,” said Hans. “Otherwise, it smokes less than the common, and leaves less soot when it burns.”
“An' it's about twice as strong as common powder from around here,” said Lukas. “I'm about out of powder myself, and I was wondering if I could get some while the two of us hide up here for a day or two.”
“That and lead,” said Gilbertus. “I've about shot myself out of balls, and no mistake.”
“I have that stuff,” said Hans. “Now you will want beer, and tinctures, and a place for the two of you to sleep while you are getting rid of your lead.” A brief pause, “there are places downstairs to sleep that I can do up easy, and the other things, the same. The lead, that waits until Anna comes back and you get some bathwater on you to start it.”
I had heard but a portion of Hans' speech, for I had had a similar idea; and I came down with clean clothing but seconds after he finished. I was bathing a few minutes later...
“I'm scratching like a hound,” I muttered, as the whole-body itch started with a vengeance when I began scrubbing with one of the small 'rag-hunks' that had come back from the fourth kingdom. “How did I pick up so much l-lead?”
“There isn't nearly as much as last time,” said the soft voice, “and more, much of this is the smaller species of shot.” A brief pause, then, “stiff shot tends to be most difficult to find north of the second kingdom house, and only those who travel between there and points south tend to have it in any quantity.”
I emerged from the bathroom a minute later, and found that there was a line forming for the place. Both Lukas and Gilbertus were fidgeting at the kitchen table, while Sarah was somewhere nearby. She too was waiting for a bath, as somehow, I suspected she'd acquired some lead in her recent travels. I was about to head upstairs when Anna suddenly came into the parlor.
“I had to put an order on for a large pie at the Public House,” she said. “I'm not going to have much time for cooking today.”
“Lead?” I asked, as I gently scratched my side.
“Not just the three of you, either,” said Anna. “I think Sarah got some lead, and...”
Hans suddenly showed with the medicine chest, then said, “they all have lead in them, and I am lucky I do not have some in me.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“That man next door was about to try for me with a large musket,” said Hans, “but I had had a dream about him, so I had my pistol close to hand and full-loaded.”
“And?” I asked.
“He is in the cornfield out back,” said Hans, “and the same for that other witch at the end of town.” A brief pause, then, “and then, there is a house in the middle of town that no one owns now, as its owner was a witch and Anna shot him.”
“He would not wake up,” muttered Anna. “I yelled at him, and he did not listen, so I got a spoon and then he started speaking like a witch, so then I got closer, and he tried for me.”
“With a long and pointed dagger, correct?” I asked. “Or was this a black stone knife?”
“Neither of those things,” said Anna. “This was like one of those knives they use in the fifth kingdom, only longer and thinner for the blade.”
I felt reminded of Lukas' rigging knife, and said, “uh, was this knife like what Lukas uses?”
Anna shook her head, then said, “you might want to look inside that house once town quiets down some.”
“It will do that sometime after lunch,” said Hans. “Waking up like this will make people hungry, just like sick people are when they are getting better.”
I then noticed what had been 'done' with the two 'witches', and asked, “you buried those two in the cornfield?”
Hans grinned slightly, then said, “yes, and buried witches make for taller corn, too.” A pause to sip beer, then, “they like to dig those things into the ground some places, especially where manure is scarce.”
“Normally you would have to burn them, correct?” I asked.
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Everyone expects witches to be burned, and them killing 'em to do the burning.”
“These people, however, were not 'obvious' witches,” I said. “Hans once spoke of burying a thief...”
Lukas looked at me, then nodded. A moment later, he said, “I had best be getting my water on if I'm going to get this shot started.”
My shot had begun erupting with a vengeance, and I was face-down on the couch while Hans and Anna went over my cloth-covered back first. I could feel the myriad tickles of of a pair of tweezers removing emerging shot amid near-continuous mumbling – not merely Anna this time; Hans was doing his share also – about buzzards and other creatures renowned for their capacity for lead absorption. I turned over at their prompting, and as one of them began running his or her fingers through my hair to feel for the telltale lead-bumps, I fell asleep, secure in the knowledge that I would not acquire much more in the way of lead – and I awoke, still covered with the blanket on the couch, with a one-word question on my lips.
“Why?” I thought. “Those witches...”
“Those witches that are still alive who remain in the immediate area are either lying low or making preparations to do so,” said the soft voice, “and by the time they begin to become troublesome once more, you will have returned from your trip across the sea.”
“Will they have learned, uh, caution?” I thought.
“Witches only learn that species of caution when it is too late to exercise it,” said the soft voice, “and once they think themselves capable again, they will resume trying for you.” A brief pause, then, “and then, they will find their game to be in a much higher league.”
“Much higher league?” I asked.
“Less damaging to you for the most part, and vastly more hazardous for them,” said the soft voice.
I relaxed amid soft yawns.
“That, however, will not stop them from making every attempt they possibly can,” said the soft voice, “and some of those attempts will not merely be exceedingly tricky, but also exhibit unusual capacity. More, many of the lesser attempts will be made against those close to you.”
“Uh, why?” I thought. “More vulnerable?”
“One of witchdom's better-known tactics is 'when the head is beyond your ready reach, strike cunningly at what supports it.” A brief pause, then, “the black book devotes a sizable chapter to the ways and means of such attacks.”
I fell asleep once more seconds later, and awoke to the heady aroma of food. My raging appetite clanged like a bell, and I jerked to a sitting position. The smoke-salt-fish smell of herring seemed to suffuse the parlor.
“It figures,” I thought. “Someone fetched herring for lunch, and that pie...”
“Will be for dinner, and that at the Public House,” said the soft voice. “Shot-extraction resumes after lunch.”
The parlor was an uncommonly crowded place, with a fully-occupied couch and every stool and chair in use nearby. Sarah was sitting next to me on the couch near the northwest corner of the parlor, and between mouthfuls of my fish, I marveled at her ravenous appetite.
I also 'marveled' at the number of small sores that showed redly on her legs, and during an 'intermission' to get another jug of beer, I asked about them.
“Some wretch was entirely too careless late last afternoon with his fowling piece,” she said crossly. “He's seen me enough to know I am not a witch.”
“Who was it, dear?” I asked.
Sarah looked at me, then her mouth opened wide. A soft gasp, then, “I think he left town.”
“He is in hell where he belongs,” said Hans. “I was not the only person in town using a spade to bury tricky witches.”
“Supplicants?” I asked.
“He smelled like he'd been herding pigs,” said Sarah with a sniff.
“Was he, uh, slimy?” I asked. My voice had a grimace of distaste. Clearing the fifth kingdom house proper of swine had made pigs 'too tangible' for me to readily endure their mentioning.
“Talk had it he was driving two of those things when he was shot,” said Hans, “and they put all three of them in the same hole.”
“They do good that way,” said Lukas. “The fourth kingdom don't do burn-piles.”
Hans lifted his index finger, then said, “they do that sometimes in that market town, but elsewhere in that place, they are short enough of manure to want to bury them in their fields.” A brief pause, then, “and, since town has woken up, there are people asking for work at the shop.”
“Georg?” I asked.
“They are looking for him, too,” said Hans, “and he is hiding from them, as he needs to get the rest of those people together.”
“And the two men are hiding from him,” I murmured.
“They won't be doing that long,” muttered Lukas. “Every town I've seen since the Swartsburg went where it belongs has had gunfire going in it, and I'd be surprised if that isn't happening across the river on the east side.”
“Oh for a...” I ceased in my thinking regarding 'radio' and recalled the mention of a telegraph line on the other side of the Main river. “Did Andreas expect word..?”
“That's how I know about where those two are,” said Lukas. “Two days ago they were seen heading north near Stellenbosch, and both of 'em's horses looked about due for a ten-day's rest.”
“No grain, either,” I said. “They both stint their animals' grain as bad as anyone when they have the money, and they did not think to purchase it on this trip.” A pause on my part, then, “given they've been traveling slowly, I guess they figure they can dispense with its cost.”
“Slowly, eh?” asked Gilbertus. “They been stuffing themselves in Public Houses?”
“Not by what I heard,” said Lukas. “They might not be raiding gardens, but if those men have enough silver in their pockets to make noise, they're hanging onto it tight.”
“Hence no grain for the horses,” I murmured, “and their chief provender the fruits of the hunt – and also, their chief source of income.”
Sarah looked at me in surprise. I wondered why for a moment, then said, “their comments, dear – both men said that when there was little or no work at the shop, their best means of earning a living was by hunting.”
“And Stellenbosch ain't much for hunting right now,” said Lukas. “The quolls haven't freshened yet, and they won't start up that way for another month.”
“And then?” I asked.
“The place is noisy with 'em,” said Gilbertus. “It ain't too bad around here.”
“That is for you,” said Hans. “Anna wants vegetable fiber for her ears for those things then, and she has asked me for a fowling piece for the longest time so as to drive them off when they show.”
I looked at Sarah, who was scratching gently on her stomach. She looked at me, then said, “I guess someone got me there, too.”
“What were you doing to collect so much shot?” asked Anna pointedly.
“I was traveling towards home from a town to the south and west of the house proper,” she said, “as I had finished a suit of clothing for a woman about to be wed.” A brief pause, “and that town was as sleepy as anywhere I've seen outside of some places in the second kingdom.”
“They did not wish to pay you?” I asked.
“They did pay me,” said Sarah, “but I was watching those people close. I suspected they would try to cheat me.”
“That is what a witch would do,” said Hans. “Now did you have your knife handy in case they tried for you?”
“Yes, and I was glad for it,” said Sarah. “I might not be like my cousin that way, but I did have my hand in my knife-pocket.”
“Y-your cousin?” I asked. “How is she..?”
Sarah looked at me slyly, then said, “she likes knives.”
“Ah, then she is a cook,” said Hans.
Sarah shook her head, then said, “I have only encountered a few people who are worse cooks than I, and she is one of them.” A pause to drink, a demure belch which I found enchanting in some strange fashion, then, “I was glad for her help more than once when the witches were being troublesome.”
“Now speaking of things like knives,” said Lukas, “I'd be watching that shop close.”
“We have checked it since he came back,” said Hans, “and I watch it some, too.”
“Not close enough, I'll warrant,” muttered Lukas. “I'd watch that place as if I expected droves of witches show at all hours of the day and night” Here, he dropped his voice, then said, “I'd almost line the place with traps.”
“Someone tried that once,” said Hans. “Now why is this?”
“That shop has been closed since a few days after he left,” said Anna.
“Still, I'd watch that place double-close,” said Lukas. “There's rumors about it and what's been doing in that place, and I don't like 'em much, specially as some of 'em are about swords.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“Some o' those rumors speak of witches making swords in that place,” said Lukas, “and that the whole time you were gone.”
“But how?” asked Anna. “That place is noisy when he's...” Anna's eyes opened wide, as did her mouth a second later.
“Do other smiths...” I paused, then said, “how noisy are instrument-makers?”
“Those people want quiet, and they do not make much noise,” said Hans, “and you are more that way for quiet than anyone like that I have seen.”
“So it is possible,” I murmured. “Yet still, if they forge them...”
“Then you are not quiet,” said Hans. “The whole town knows when you are busy then, and that is so no matter where they are.”
“Aye,” said Lukas. “Talk had it, though, that the noisy work was done elsewhere.”
“But, uh, why?” I asked.
As I spoke, though, something of monstrous import began to encroach upon my thinking. I tried to block out the whole idea, which at one level seemed the height of complete unrepentant superstition – and at another, much deeper level, it seemed all too plausible.
After all, witchdom lived and died by 'superstition'. My mouth betrayed me nonetheless.
“They 'birthed' the swords there,” I mumbled, “as it is my most-accursed lair, and therefore a place where Brimstone moves unfettered by the hand and will of his chiefest and most-powerful servant.”
The silence that descended was ringed about by goggling eyes and opened mouths, with paused breathing the sign and seal of a dumbstruck group of people. Even in my case, what I had said was of such monstrous import that I cringed outwardly, and as the scream tried to escape my lips, I clamped them closed with supreme effort. What came out was a cringing whimpering sound.
“No, I don't want to be a witch,” I whined.
My soft speech seemed unheard, and minutes later, Gilbertus spoke of moving the new guards 'into harness' ahead of schedule.
“Seems like more guards died off this time when the Swartsburg went up than they did the last time,” he muttered. “They'll need to split up everyone who's still alive and put two o' those new people with each 'old hare' we have.”
“Old hare, he says,” I mumbled softly. I was not heard, even if for an eyeblink's time I heard audibly the ongoing explosion of a lightning-hare's close-by passage.
“At least this time they will be decent for guards after they are taught,” said Hans. “Talk has it those Generals are not interested in them much.”
“Those Generals that still live, you mean,” said Lukas. “I know at least four of 'em left for the Swartsburg that night, and their horses came back without 'em.” Lukas scratched once more, then I noticed a steady and growing itch on my posterior. Anna looked at me, then said, “more shot. You'd best be getting back in that tub.”
Over the next two hours, the four of us took turns bathing and being picked over by Hans and Anna while lying on the couch. More than once, I heard speech regarding shiny shot, and when I gathered my blanket so as to retreat to the bathroom for another soaking, I heard Lukas speak of the glistening spheres as coming from the fourth kingdom.
“Do they make it there..?” I thought.
My thoughts went unheeded, for as I made ready another pot of water on the boiler, Lukas spoke of its rarity and high price, as well as the fights it caused when a supply of it suddenly showed in the market.
“Ain't no telling when that stuff will show,” I heard him say as I tested my bathwater with my toes. It needed a bit more warm water, which I needed to boil. “When it does show, there usually isn't that much of it, and a small bag goes for...”
The last words faded out as I lit the just-refueled heating lamp, and once back in the parlor – I had a few new shot-bumps showing; Sarah was being looked over by Anna, while Hans and the other two men had gone elsewhere – I wondered what next I needed to do.
“Wait until I finish with her, and then I can check you over once more,” said Anna. “I'm glad for these new tweezers you made.” A brief pause, as she once more bent over Sarah's back, then said, “I'd expect an order for more of them to show shortly.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. The new hostler's tools going to rust was still most-fresh in my mind.
“Albrecht came by yesterday, and said he'd have an order for medical tools shortly,” said Anna. “He has to go north to see some other people first.”
“And after I get, uh, rid of the latest crop of shot?” I asked.
“I'd get a nap first,” muttered Anna, “and then, I'd look over the shop again. What Lukas was speaking of bothers me, on account of there being so many well-hid witches in town.”
“It is not just that, Anna,” said Sarah's muffled voice. “There's supposed to be another delivery today, and he might want to look it over.”
“Do you know what kind of delivery, dear?” I asked.
“August spoke of two freighting wagons piled with iron,” said Sarah.
“Iron?” I asked. “Any special, uh, types of iron?”
“I think this iron is for that furnace Georg has planned,” said Sarah. “He said all of this stuff was coming hot-foot from the fourth kingdom, and the horses were leaving sparks on the road.” A brief pause, then, “much of it was a thicker species of sheet iron, and then there were odd-shaped lengths of bar and other things.”
“And rivet-stock,” I muttered. “They ruined the rivet-swage.”
“Then you had best keep such things to yourself,” said Anna. “I might have in the past said they know what they know, but any more, I wonder about some of what they're doing.” A brief pause, then, “and Sarah telling me how smiths do things in the second kingdom back-country makes me wonder even more about those men.”
“As to my needing to keep my tools, uh, hidden in secret?” I asked.
“So your tools do not get ruined,” said Anna. “I might wonder about some of what those men do, but Hans showed me what was left of that thing – and if ever a tool looked to have been deliberately ruined, that one did.”
“Too-cold rivet stock and a too-big hammer seems the rule,” I murmured. “I showed them...”
“Andreas said otherwise,” said Anna. “Hans took that thing to him, and he said it was ruined deliberately.” A brief pause, then, “and after what else he said, I wonder even more.”
There was no more word from Anna about Andreas, for her attention was purely occupied by the removal of rapidly-emerging lead spheres. Mumbled comments spoke of 'bad shot' and 'smaller shot than the common', much as if the usual witch-sources had dried up and the witches were now scrounging up whatever looked as if it might cause damage when fired. Sarah finished up on the couch and headed for the bathroom to bathe once more, while I took her place between the sheets. Fatigue stole up upon me unawares and I fell asleep so quickly that I awoke to a still and empty parlor. I yawned, then wondered how long I had slept.
“Best finish my nap upstairs,” I thought. “That shipment isn't coming for at least two more hours, and I'm thinking I want Sarah to come with me.” A pause as I mounted the stairs, then, “besides, she said she'd seen 'good' metal before, and any help right now is better than no help.”
I was nearly asleep before I lay down, and I was entirely asleep by the time my head was on my pillow. I awoke 'some time' later, and as I put on trousers and shirt, I listened carefully.
“That shipment's about two miles south of the south end of town,” I thought, “and they are not wasting time.”
“They're heading home after they make this delivery,” said the soft voice, “and they are much inclined toward sleeping in beds for a change.”
“Don't blame them much,” I muttered, as I gathered the rest of my things. I checked my latest ledger, and as I walked slowly down the stairs, I wondered briefly about an 'old time pencil sharpener'. Knives weren't the best for 'writing dowels', no matter what the local customs said, and when I came to the kitchen, I found not merely Sarah – she was sewing on some clothing, and her part-hid winces spoke of sore hands and needing a break – but also Anna, who was reading one of the Grim volumes. She then looked up at me.
“We'd both best go with you,” she said. “That shipment is due any time, and it's said to be a special one.”
“How is it..?” I then looked at Sarah, who was slowly wringing her hands. A long and thin glistening needle was protruding from a yellowish-brown lump of wax, and the lump lay by three 'rods' of differing colors of threads.
“Both of you?” I asked, as I picked up one of the student's lanterns and checked its candle.
“Mother always said the more eyes upon a matter, the harder it is for wrongness to hide,” said Sarah, “and I've learned since that time that she was right.” A pause, then, “besides, my hands are hurting, and I need a break.”
Going outside, however, soon showed another reason for traveling in groups: a half-grown pig broke from the underside of a house not three houses down from where we lived. I put a pistol ball into its rump, while Anna fired at the thing and missed. The pig ran off screaming and vanished seconds later.
“It is not likely to get over being shot,” murmured Sarah. “That place is a bad one for swine.”
“Their rears?” I asked.
“Their tripes are near the skin in that place,” said Sarah, “and leaky tripes kill in a hurry, especially with swine.”
“Uh, did they teach..?” I asked.
“Yes, but not at school,” said Sarah. “Much of what I know of swine I learned from my relatives.”
“As in pigs are most vulnerable to infections?” I asked.
“If the infection is at all severe, yes,” said Sarah. “Common pigs, if they be hit solid, seldom endure two days, while smaller wounds oft-times kill within a ten-day's time.” A pause, then, “and Norden-Swine are worse yet that way.”
“Those things ignore being shot with anything less than artillery!” screeched Anna.
“Yes, for a time,” said Sarah. “The same can be said for fire.” Here, another brief pause, then, “the second one I burned managed three miles before it foundered, and it was dead before nightfall.”
By this time, we were near the shop, and in the distance, two thin trails of dust spoke of an arriving 'caravan'. Sarah went out to near the middle of the road, looked for a few seconds with hand-shaded eyes, then returned, saying, “I think that is them.”
“We'd best get in the shop, then,” said Anna.
I wondered at what she was saying, even as I followed her and Sarah into the shop. I left the doors part-way open to let in light, and as I did, I murmured, “I wonder if I can use that lantern in here?”
“I'd make covers for the windows first,” said Anna. “Town may be more awake than I've ever seen it, but still, it isn't the fourth kingdom's market.” A brief pause, during which I heard three faint gunshots and the less-than-faint shriek of an obvious pig. “That, and the witches and swine are still showing more than I like it.”
As the three of us waited – it would not be long now, as I could hear the laboring horses and the faint hissing noises of heavily-loaded sleeved wheels – I 'checked' the contents of the shop with the lantern's light. I was making a mental list of what needed to be done first when Sarah showed at my side with a sawed stick of chalk and a wiped-clean slate – and her own example of candle-lantern at her feet.
“I might not know your business, but I can see there is much to do,” she said. “What is in those barrels?”
“Foundry sand,” I said. As I did so, however, I recalled the lumps of bagged gray-metal at home, then what I had seen being done in my first Swartsburg incursion. I shuddered involuntarily, then looked at Sarah. She seemed frightened.
“There is an old tale in the Grim Collection,” she said, “and it was called 'The Sand-Man'.”
“Y-yes?” I asked, as I put aside one of the lids and felt the damp grainy sand. It would need raking and spading, and then watering for some days before I could mold with it, which did not surprise me much.
“It lives in that stuff there when it is heaped,” said Sarah, “and it is made of fire.”
“A fire-spirit?” I asked.
Sarah gave me no heed, much as if she were giving a recital long ago in the past. “It comes out when it is dark, and the tale spoke of it preferring the theft of small children.” A pause of pregnant proportions. “And, I think there is something to that tale, no matter how strange much of it sounds.”
“Uh, why?” I could audibly hear the laboring horses and their faintly jingling harness. They would arrive within minutes.
“The tale speaks of dreaming,” said Sarah, “dreams of war, and of the flames of dragoons, and then...”
I looked at Sarah. No longer was she in the grip of a long-recalled recital, but rather something a great deal more frightening. I waited expectantly for her next words.
“And of those things that can bite.”
“Bite?” I asked.
“I never could figure out that part,” said Sarah.
Anna began muttering, then said, “I've heard about things that bite.”
I wondered as to what these things that were inclined toward biting actually were, even as I looked once more over the dust-coated supplies that I had seen earlier. I wondered if it were possible to move some of the supplies out of the way.
“Those men should help you,” said Anna. I wondered if she were indulging in wishful thinking, even as I went for the door to see where the wagons actually were. As I turned toward the south from the threshold, I saw the first pair of horses of the lead wagon turning into the shop's yard.
“I hope they do,” I said to no one in particular. “Otherwise, nothing much will happen until the others come back.”
While the men – two per wagon – were inclined to some degree to move things around, their chief desire was to be unloaded and then head home. There was ample talk of what had transpired that day, so much so that I stayed out of the way as much as possible so as to describe to Sarah exactly what had been brought.
“So this is the iron Georg ordered for the furnace,” I thought. “If this is it, then where did all of that, uh, rubbish in the back come from? And who messed up all of it? And that distillery? When did they precisely leave?”
There were more questions on my mind, and when the men left – it had taken them but twenty minutes to unload both wagons, and their industry was a reminder of how the fourth kingdom was said to be – the shop was horribly crowded. It was so bad I could scarcely move myself among the piled-high materials.
“I can check this with Georg's ledger,” said Sarah, as she vanished between two mounds of boxes that were taller than her head. I looked around to see Anna, and saw her nowhere.
“Where did Anna go?” I asked.
“I think she went to fetch Hans,” said Sarah. “I've no idea how long it will be until those men return, but I doubt much they will show today.” A brief pause, a rustling of papers, then, “and I would not wait until they return to resume my labors, either.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Hans did not speak of how many people were asking, did he?” asked Sarah. “I know both of those pumps are from nearby, and a house without a working pump is like the Valley for dryness.”
“Did they come asking?” I asked.
“I am not certain who came,” said Sarah, “even if the number of people that I saw was more than I have fingers.”
“Oh, my,” I asked. “L-long days and impossible nights.”
“That sounds about right,” said the voice of Lukas as he came in the door, “and Hans and Gilbertus are still rounding up people so's to put this place right.”
“I hope there aren't going to be, uh, swarms...” I stuttered.
“He might get one taker for every ten he asks,” said Lukas, “and of them, I'd bet two out of three actually show for a while.” A brief pause, then, “it's likely to be mostly us, truth be told.”
“That is good, then,” said the voice of Hans from outside. “Come by just before dinner, and there should be enough room in there then.”
“Did he?” I whispered silently.
“Most people in town have their own messes to deal with,” said the soft voice, “and the nature of much of this work demands a lot more care than Hans thinks it does.”
“Uh, why – chemicals?” I asked.
“While there are chemicals in some of those boxes,” said the soft voice, “none of them are terribly dangerous.” A pause, then, “organizing the supplies without burying important evidence, at least at this time, demands people that are more observant than the usual town-dweller.”
“Evidence?” I asked.
“Lukas' suspicions about the activities in the shop are well-founded,” said the soft voice, “and both he and Gilbertus have an idea as to what to look for.” A brief pause, then, “and Sarah will be most helpful.”
“Not merely as a note-taker, correct?” I asked.
While there was no precise answer, the impression I had was that I would need to watch Hans and perhaps Anna so that they did not hide matters that needed recording, and I was so involved in thinking thusly that I accidentally stumbled upon the first 'money medal' casting as I moved between two stacks of boxes. Its 'newness', its rough and unfinished edges, and its blazing aspect of crudity made me wonder why it wasn't glowing a brilliant red, and only when I picked it up with pincers did I realize why.
“A stinking cheap copy,” I murmured, “with all the strength of a hair-ball.”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice.
“It's stronger than a hair-ball?” I asked. I wondered at my choice of words now; for some reason, the early portions of a novel I had read long ago were now providing 'information'. I could not recall the name of the elderly black man, even if I remembered what he had used to 'predict' the protagonist's future.
“That depends on the 'hair-ball',” said the soft voice. “In El Vallyé, 'hair-balls', especially those of mules, are considered to be potent 'charms' and sell for high prices.” A brief pause, then, “otherwise, that 'medal' is both exceedingly weak and surprisingly costly for a fetish.”
“C-costly?” I asked, as I once more looked at the piece of 'rubbish'.
“It was cast by slaves in the second kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and it, along with the others like it, were thought potent fetishes indeed by those witches scattering them on the property while you were gone.” A brief pause, then, “gray-metal, once suitably cleaned and alloyed, does make passable machine-knobs and other non-stressed parts.”
“Hence save the stuff up, melt it with, uh...” I thought for a moment, then said, “some copper shavings, a bit of tin, and perhaps a few nickel belt-buckles for, uh, 'good luck'.”
“Add the gray-metal last if you do that,” said the soft voice, “and stir the well-fluxed melt thoroughly until it's poured in the ingot-mold.”
“And then?” I asked.
“It's almost as strong as the common species of bronze, if a bit more brittle,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, it's very fluid, casts readily, has almost no shrinkage while it solidifies, and it machines very well indeed.” A brief pause, “and then, it age-hardens.”
“It what?” I asked.
“It becomes significantly harder and a good deal stronger within two weeks of casting,” said the soft voice. “Think of a low-melting alloy that's a lot like cast iron, only significantly less brittle and a bit less inclined to corrode.”
“N-non-stressed machine parts?” I asked.
“The alloy used by witches in its received state, carefully cleaned and well-fluxed,” said the soft voice. “Your alloyed material will be harder, much stronger, far tougher, and a lot more wear-resistant.” A brief pause, then, “it won't be pot-metal.”
“No pot exists of gray-metal,” said Hans' disembodied voice, “so how are you calling this stuff fit for pots?”
“Uh, pot-metal was a cheap and readily-cast material where I came from,” I murmured softly. “This stuff, though – it may be cheap enough, and cast readily, but it's actually a decent material for, uh...”
I paused as I wondered about the chief uses of a material nearly as strong as steel that could be cast almost as easily as lead. I then wondered about bullets.
“Most muskets would not notice the difference,” said the soft voice, “while those you have rifled would find the projectiles most effectual when engaging tinned northern thugs.”
“Most effectual?” I asked.
“The bullets will penetrate their plate readily,” said the soft voice, “and then fragment shortly after penetrating the skin.”
I turned to look at Sarah, for some reason, and saw her busily writing. She had moved to nearly the center of the shop next to a tall mound of badly-stacked boxes, and when I followed her leg to where her foot was pointing, I saw not merely a badly worn example of poorly-made footwear, but also another of those infernal 'money medals'. She then looked up at me.
“This is the third one of them I've found,” she said, “and I heard that part about using them against witches.”
“Uh, the stirring, though,” I stuttered.
“Yes, when you are initially melting the alloy,” said the soft voice. “Once that is done, then the material casts much as if it were a higher-melting and more-fluid species of printer's lead.”
“M-more fluid?” I gasped.
“Your moulds, especially those which cast slugs, will do fine,” said the soft voice. “The common bullet moulds will show themselves badly made collections of scrap should people attempt the use of that alloy in them.”
“Aye, they are that,” said Lukas, “and I've a mind to get some o' that metal once you do it up, as I've seen some tracks in here.”
“Yes, and what kind?” asked Hans. He was looking at the ground himself when not stacking and 'arranging' boxes.
“These ain't the usual witch-boots,” said Lukas. “These are what witches use when hunting.”
“Oh my,” I gasped. “In here?”
“Aye, only I doubt they were hunting people,” said Lukas. “They don't just wear those things when they're out after people to sacrifice.”
“They wear them when they don't want people to know they're present, correct?” I asked.
“You almost need scent-hounds to follow 'em then,” said Gilbertus. “There's another of those coins they like over here.”
“Do not touch it with your hands,” said Sarah sharply. “If you must touch it, use tongs from one of the forges, and then place it on one of the workbenches.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “These are supposed to be really weak...”
“Always treat a fetish as dangerous, no matter how it glows,” said Sarah. “My uncle told me that.” A brief pause, then, “he said that many fetishes were dipped in poison as part of their preparation.”
“Ah, then gloves will work with them,” said Hans.
“Some of those poisons ignore gloves, Hans,” said Sarah. “They do not ignore the heat of a forge, which is why blacksmith's tongs are best for handling them.”
“Oh, no,” I thought, as I dropped the medal to the ground.
“You could handle these examples with impunity,” said the soft voice, “even if Sarah's advice is a very good idea for everyone else.”
“What did they dip these in?” I asked. A snide tone had crept into my voice. Fetishes, and the witches that played with them, were beyond 'irritating'. “Something brewed up by Madame Curoue?”
“They had arranged for her to 'dose' them, but she 'vanished' before they could be so treated,” said the soft voice. “What they did manage, however, is no joke.” A pause, then, “the blood of swine is a very effectual culture medium for pathogens, especially those found in some of the larger witch-holes.”
“Which means...” I choked on my words, even as I went to fetch some tongs.
“Long stays in the privy at the least,” said the soft voice, “and leather gloves and careful hand-washing only reduce the severity of the illness.” A brief pause, then, “those who do neither, though, should they then eat or drink...”
“Yes? I asked, as I handed Lukas a pair of tongs.
“They would wish they had acquired the red fever instead,” said the soft voice. “It might not be nearly as deadly as that disease, but any ailment that causes that degree of long-term illness and wasting is bad news.”
“D-dysentery,” I muttered. “Cholera.”
“That's when the person uses leather gloves and washes well afterward,” said the soft voice. “The milder form lasts weeks, while the full-strength version endures much longer.”
“If they live,” said Sarah. I noticed then she'd gotten herself a pair of smaller tongs. “I have had more than one relative die from handling fetishes.”
“Did they wash themselves?” asked Hans. He was holding a pair of the 'shop' tongs. I'd made certain to get him one of the best of the lot.
“And burn the gloves, and only handle the thing long enough to toss it on the burn-pile,” said Sarah. “I've gotten sick from them myself, in fact.”
“You?” I asked.
“Yes, once,” said Sarah. “My cousin's mother thought I'd drank a jug of uncorking medicine, it was so bad.”
“That is bad,” said Hans. “Too much of that stuff and you will dump your tripes in the privy.”
“At least I got over it quickly enough,” said Sarah. “Only my cousin got over it quicker.”
With each few boxes moved, another of the accursed money-metals showed, and the mound of the things quickly grew on a section of 'my' workbench. There was one hidden under each barrel of foundry sand, and a pair under my tool-carrier, while Hans found one secreted in Georg's desk in a darkened corner under some dusty ancient papers. As I moved the last of the barrels close to the furnace, I asked, “did they hide any of these things inside anything?”
“The 'first-level' curses involving money-medals speak of 'controlling the ground',” said the soft voice, “and the witches involved thought that meant 'put the fetishes on the ground.” A brief pause, then, “that medal you found inside Georg's desk was put there late last year.”
“First-level curses?” I asked.
“Are what most witches know, if they know of such curses at all,” said the soft voice. “Most of the more-advanced curses in the black book are far more dangerous – and that to all concerned.” A brief pause, then, “the truly dangerous curses are but hinted at in most black books. They are neither listed nor described in the common varieties.”
I caught the word 'most', even as I began 'sweeping' the room with the goal of finding the last elusive fetishes, and asked, “most?”
“Some few black books were written by individuals,” said the soft voice. “Most of those were destroyed long ago.”
Again, I caught the word 'most'. I was about to ask about it when, “no currently-alive witch could endure the presence of such a book.”
“That is good, then,” said Hans. “Those things will not use them.”
“Because such books are as Brimstone himself,” said Sarah. “More than one tapestry speaks of blood-writ tomes filled with rune-curses.”
“Tomes?” I asked.
“What witches called their books during the time spoken of in the tapestries,” said Sarah. “Such books were commonly larger than the common for witch-books, and their power was such that they needed to be both chained and secured.”
“Chained?” I asked. “Secured?”
“Much as if the book was a living creature of most-evil temperament,” said Sarah. “I am glad none of those is where it can be gotten at.”
“They're likely to be in hell where they belong,” grunted Lukas as he shifted an unusually heavy box against the back wall.
“I am not certain where those books like that still exist are,” said Sarah. “But one tapestry spoke of such books still possibly existing, and it said...” Here, Sarah paused, much as if she were about to quote something: “they lie still unto death, ages untouched by mortal hand, and deep in the heart of the earth.”
“That is hell,” said Hans with a tone of finality as he walked with a medal in his tongs toward the bench. “Everyone knows where that place is, and that sounds like it is being spoken of there.”
“You may be right,” said Sarah with a note of distaste. She was handling a medal with her tongs, and weaving among the boxes and materials not yet dealt with. “I hope you are right, anyway – but my heart says at least one of those things may still exist somewhere.” A pause, while she put the medal on the still-growing mound with her tongs. “And if it does, then it must go where it belongs before the day of retribution comes.”