Deep Dark Plotted Plans

Our road joined another as the remains of the town hove into view among the gathering dusk, and as Maarten's house showed, I turned to see a horse and rider 'trotting' toward us from the south. It was Gabriel, and when he came even with the two of us, Sarah said sharply, “now you know the why of that message.”

“I do,” sniffled Gabriel. “Still, custom demands the use of roads, and it seems I'm glued most thoroughly to it.”

“Not just any roads,” I said, “but those most traveled.”

“And those roads most coveted by witches, also,” said Sarah, who paused and then sniffed with an expression of wrinkled-face distaste before speaking again. She sounded peeved. “Gabriel, you smell like a pig.”

“I know,” he said sadly. “The notice did not speak of swine.”

“There have been enough of those things out loose of late for most anyone to know of them,” said Sarah, “and while the witches are less numerous and much more cautious in their doings, that does not mean they are entirely gone.”

“I know,” said Gabriel. “One of those shells came close enough to me that I felt the wind of its passage.”

“You do not have spare clothing, do you?” I asked. The field to our right had been snow-bound when I had last seen it, and it was now deep with lush grass – while the town itself was...

I looked closer at the blackened ruins that seemed to stretch far and deep into the gathering night, and here and there, I saw slow-drifting wafts of smoke from mounded piles of timbers that still smoldered. The sense of awe, and of desolation, was of such unrelenting nature that I said softly, “only the pigs were said to be worse.”

“Not by much,” said Sarah softly. “Those places usually aren't nearly this burnt.”

“The entire town has become a burn-pile,” intoned Gabriel solemnly, “and its like shall be repeated ere the day of retribution.” I looked at Gabriel, and wished to hold my nose while shooing him away – and at the same time, I marveled at what he said.

“So that's why he needs to be here,” I thought. “His speech may at times be an utter mystery, but it often has important answers.” I then said, “I think Maarten might find some old clothing for you while your current stuff soaks out that pig-slime.”

“Yes, on the stoop,” said Sarah. “They do not have a bathroom like we have at home.”

“How do they, uh bathe?” I asked. “Big pot in the kitchen?”

“That is the most common means in the first kingdom,” said Sarah. “I know they have a pot large enough, and their wood...”

I looked around as we pulled into the yard, then said, “Maarten will have no trouble whatsoever getting firewood now. He's surrounded, at least to the north, by half-burnt...”

“That stuff will serve at need,” said Sarah, “but it is likely to have a bad odor.”

I looked at the stoop of the sole remaining home of a town once half again as large as Roos, and I noticed first the tall square brass candle-lantern hanging from a forged iron holder. Neither lantern nor holder had not been present when I had been there before, and as I pulled back the cloth covering of the buggy's 'box', I thought to find a small leather pouch and put some coins in it for an 'offering'. I dumped two large silver pieces and two smaller ones in a pouch just in time to pick up one of the baskets that needed to go inside – and as I walked toward the stoop, I slipped it inside.

While Sarah and I were welcomed indoors, Gabriel gave up his basket at the threshold; and while Sarah and I made two more trips, each laden with bags and bundles, I could hear both Maarten and Katje moving pots about in the kitchen so as to boil water.

“You'll need to excuse us,” said Maarten as we took in the last of the bags and bundles and set them on their couch. “Ever since town burned, neither of us can abide the reek of swine.” A brief pause, then, “how did he become so befouled?”

“He ignored his instructions, and remained upon the roads,” said Sarah. “He was riding horseback, so he would have both avoided the pigs and come here an hour or more earlier had he been obedient to his instructions.”

“At least he is here,” said Katje as she returned to the kitchen, “and he seems uninjured.”

“That was the other reason he was to avoid the roads as much as possible,” said Sarah, “as he was nearly hit by a shell from a gun.”

“How was that?” asked Maarten.

“The pig-herd was being followed by witches,” I said, “and while Gabriel found its fringes – or rather, its fringes found him – and a battery of artillery were practicing...”

“Yes, go on,” said Maarten. “I know at least two of those gunners, most likely, and we commonly shop in that town.”

“And I'm not certain what happened next,” I said. “The result, though, was this – both pigs and witches were being shelled, while the canny wretches had their coaches hid in the trees of the nearest woodlot and a gunner put a round-shot into one of the vehicles.”

“So that was the big explosion,” said Katje from the kitchen. “This water's about hot enough for a bath.”

“Where?” asked Sarah. “The stoop?”

“I think that wise,” said Maarten. “Such disobedience should not be rewarded with favor – and bathing indoors while covered with pig-slime would be that.”

“Uh, clothing?” I said.

“Some of my old things should serve,” said Maarten. “I'll go fetch them.”

While Gabriel bathed out on the stoop – it was growing dark, with no one within miles to observe him – I sat at the kitchen table and brought out my ledger. Sarah, on the other hand, brought in first one of the Grim volumes, then another. I suspected at least one of the heftier bags had been filled with books.

“Which of those has that one story?” I asked. I meant 'The Horned Dragoon'.

“This one,” indicated Sarah as she pointed to volume 'three', “and this one also speaks of dragoons.” A brief pause, then as she pointed to the second volume – number 5 – “and that one also speaks of the Abbey.”

“Uh, has anyone come up with any plans thus far?” I asked.

“Nothing of value,” said Gabriel's 'damp' voice as he came toward the table. Maarten's clothing, while old, worn, and patched, did serve to a degree – though Gabriel looked awkward in clothing several inches too short for him. It also showed just how thin he was, with near-nonexistent muscle-tone. “Those doing such planning have but little clue as to how bad 'bad' can be, and that would be for those that have faced swine or those northern people.”

Sarah – and everyone else, save Gabriel himself, who was now heading toward the privy – now looked at me.

“And none of them did so under those circumstances.” Gabriel's voice sounded muffled, as if he had traveled to a far-off country, and I heard the door open a second later to then close with a soft thump.

“Those would be two different things,” said Sarah. “Doing that which is well-known and familiar as part of a large group is one thing, but to do that which is unknown, and then to do it with no visible help, much less no help of the common sort...” Sarah paused, then murmured softly, “that is unthinkable.”

“Unthinkable?” I gasped. I wanted to scream – and then cry out, my words those of the dire question, “I hope that does not make me a witch.”

Sarah looked at me with a penetrating glance, then said solemnly while slowly shaking her head, “most cannot conceive of such things, even if they be well-educated.”

My nose then caught the scent of soap, and with it, flowers.

“Some special soap was donated,” said Katje, “and he understated the case regarding plans for the Abbey – and that in all aspects.” A brief pause, then, “the outside of the place is simple, as such matters are written of in Hendrik's Annals.”

“What, clearing up a big mess of brush and briers?”

“Most farmers are familiar with that business, though on a small scale” said Katje, “and those Annals speak of larger areas being cleared off, as well as building repair and renovation.” Another brief pause, during which Katje fumbled with the long knotted-looking cork of a beer jug and then withdrew the thing before filling her mug, then, “the only literature I've encountered thus far that speaks of spirits is the book itself.”

Sarah looked at me, then said, “that, and what we happen to know about them.”

“I hope you know more than I do,” said Maarten. “I've never dealt with those things, much less seen them – and that place has great store of them.”

“Here,” said Sarah as steps returned from the kitchen. I glanced up to see Gabriel returning. “This tale here. It speaks of the Abbey.”

Gabriel came to her side, then said, “here's what's said of its history, anyway.”

“It was once used greatly by witches,” said Katje, “and they wish its use again in a similar capacity.”

Gabriel looked up, then nodded, saying, “you said in one sentence what it took this tale two portions of a page to say, and that for the first part.” A pause, then, “the second part of what you just said is news to me.”

“It is not news to me,” said Sarah. “Until coaches became scarce on the roads about here, that was a favored stopping place for coaches to water their teams.”

“N-no watering trough, though,” I said.

“They thought that river's water to be superior to that found in such troughs,” said Sarah. “At least one of them said so in my hearing.”

“You heard them?” gasped Gabriel.

“It was at night, and I was traveling north-northwest,” said Sarah, “and that area not only has soft grass to walk upon, but places where one might hide within earshot of the road.” Sarah drank from her mug, then said, “and that coach came up with six horses, and they were lathered and in need of water.”

“And there was much drunken witch-speech while the animals were 'refilled',” I said. “Hopefully it could be understood.”

“It was, at least while they did not speak in witch-language,” said Sarah. “Much of their speech was that way, and it was hard to endure.”

“And understand,” said Katje. “I wasn't just taught the languages of the book in that place, but I seem to have been taught how to readily learn other ones.”

“Such as, uh, Underworld German?” I asked.

Katje nodded, then, “and also, that of the Valley. There are a fair number of refugees from that place in this area, and I know some of them are thinking of working at the Abbey once it's cleared.”

“Should you need help with that language,” said Sarah, “I might be of assistance.”

“You probably have me there, at least currently,” said Katje. “I might learn languages a lot quicker than I used to, but I need to hear them so as to learn them.” A brief pause, then, “and until town burned, I heard that witch-language enough to desire to live in the privy while spewing at both ends.”

“But you also, uh, learned portions of it,” I said.

“And what it commonly means when they speak it,” said Katje. “If you hear that language being spoken, the speaker is almost certain to be a witch.”

“Most people know that,” said Gabriel. He sounded oblivious.

“The reason is not as you think, Gabriel, and certainly not as you spoke,” said Katje. “That language is used for matters of dire seriousness, and every word spoken in it speaks of the things of witches.”

Gabriel did not speak, but his look plainly seemed to speak the word 'So?'

“Every word in that language has its obvious meaning, its hidden meaning, and one or more secret meanings,” said Katje. “It does not speak of eating, but of partaking; consuming, instead of drinking; movement instead of travel...”

I thought for a moment that Katje was getting nowhere, at least until I saw Gabriel's expression. His waxy white features, slack in their nervelessness, spoke loudly of his being 'taken over'. Sarah turned to whisper in my ear.

“I would ride money on it,” she said softly. “If ever a man labored under a curse, it is him.”

“Wake up,” I said mildly.

Gabriel shook himself, then said, “I fell asleep.

Katje looked at him penetratingly, then shook her head before saying, “no, I think not. Gabriel, your speech at time reminds me of certain books which superficially appear to say one thing, and look to say another matter if one looks especially closely, and truly say yet a third thing – and all of those things I spoke of being dear to the hearts of witches, just as it is with that language.”

“Hence, it's essentially a 'stronger' form of 'the written format',” I said. “Correct?”

“Chiefly by belief at this time,” said Katje. “Long in the past it was indeed a language of power, and curses grew strong by its use.”

Maarten looked at me, then said, “I had think we had best be planning on 'taking' the Abbey.”

“Watch such words, Maarten,” hissed Sarah. “That is another of those words Katje spoke of.”

Gabriel had 'gone asleep' again; and again, I looked at Maarten, then at Sarah. “Why is he required?” I asked.

“Chiefly that Hendrik sent him,” said Sarah, “and I strongly suspect he” – Sarah implied Hendrik was mentioned in her use of the male personal pronoun – “was instructed to do so.”

“Wake up, Gabriel,” I murmured, “and ignore all words having witch-meanings for the duration of this evening.”

To my complete surprise, not only did Gabriel wake up, but he 'jerked' as if struck by a hammer. He shook his head, then said, “now I am awake.”

“You were asleep before?” asked Katje innocently.

“I am not certain,” said Gabriel. “Very little of recent events remains yet certain to me.”

“Uh, roads?” I asked.

“I was told to stay off of them as much as I could,” said Gabriel, “and I will need to give an accounting to Hendrik regarding my folly.”

Katje looked at me knowingly, then said, “now we can plan.”

Maarten sniffed, then said, “best plan to eat first, as that food smells about done.”

The books and ledgers seemed to vanish under the care of Sarah's hands, while I wandered into the kitchen to see if I could help. I soon found that the best way I could help was to get out of the kitchen and stay out of the way in general.

“Over here,” hissed Sarah from the couch. “They make all three of us look worthless that way.”

Gabriel's silence, at least until he'd gotten a bowl of stew and two slices of bread down, was a marvel, and I thought to ask as to his hunger. Katje, however, beat me to it.

“When did you last eat?” she asked pointedly – while entirely ignoring my ravenous devouring of food. Sarah was much the same, both for her appetite and being ignored that way.

“Properly, or poorly?” said Gabriel. “If you mean a proper meal, then last night at the house's refectory.”

“And poorly?” asked Sarah. She'd paused with her eating to speak.

“This morning,” said Gabriel, “and then once more on the way here.”

“How so?” asked Sarah pointedly.

“I had barely managed to start with my meal,” said Gabriel, “when someone fired a gun next door to the Public House, and the whole place, both patrons and servers, turned out within a minute's time.”

“A witch, correct?” My initial hunger was assuaged, hence I could speak.

“A witch and three pigs,” said Gabriel. “He was driving them in daylight while blacked up fit for hunting, and...”

“And between the smell of the burn-pile that started minutes later, the intense and growing reek of the burning pigs, and the continuing absence of the usual Public House staff, you ate your first portion alone; you called for more food, and no one answered; and when you found the bare dregs of your first, uh...”

“Course,” prompted Sarah.

“Course to be cooling, and no more courses looked to be forthcoming,” I said, “you left with but the merest edges of your hunger abated.”

“They should know to not burn pigs,” said Sarah. “Everyone knows about the smoke those things make.”

“Not everyone,” said Katje emphatically. “Many people, even in this area, have never seen a pig of any kind, and then custom demands they be burnt.” I could almost see Katje rolling her eyes at the idea.

“And the sickness thereafter is...” A pause, this to think for an instant's time. “What is it blamed on?” I asked. “The curses of the witches?” I sounded utterly incredulous, and I knew it.

“That is as likely an answer as any I have ever heard,” said Maarten. “Most know little beyond custom and gossip regarding much of life.” Maarten meant 'real' gossip, and not the usual talk circulating in Public Houses.

“Still, burning those three stinkers wasn't a total loss,” I murmured.

“Why?” said Gabriel. “I left all of what I did manage to eat in the privy, and more besides.”

“That witch was collecting up three stragglers from that much larger herd,” I said, “and burn-piles don't just induce nausea in sensitive persons.” I paused, then said, “the witches might well chant paeans to Brimstone when they get wind of a burn-pile, but the same cannot be said of swine.”

“But those are...”

Gabriel ceased speaking at Katje's glare, then she turned to me. “Swine associate the odor of burn-piles, and similar odors, with being cooked.” A pause, then, “and panic-stricken doesn't come close to the attitude of pigs when they think they might be roasted.”

“And they become uncontrollable...”

“And those shells then devoured both witches and swine,” said Katje. Again, she looked at Gabriel. He showed no signs of being affected by hearing another 'witch-word'. She then looked at me.

Dinner finished shortly thereafter, and after the dishes were cleared off – I took mine in the kitchen, and was shooed out posthaste by Katje once I'd handed them to her – the books and ledgers 'miraculously' reappeared. I thought to try an unusual ploy when I next spoke.

“Now we talk about spookery,” I said. The term 'geesterie' did not sound amusing. The sound of that word conveyed well the 'hidden' meaning of 'spookery' in English – and it reminded me more than a little of another word, one of similar sound that I had heard in a harrowing nightmare some months past.

“Your term, I presume?” said Katje. “I might know slightly more than Maarten about those things, but not much more.”

“I have some small ideas about how this may be done,” I said softly. I seemed to be seeing dust, darkness, and dead bones all around me in my peripheral vision, and a reek of foulness was attempting to roost in my nose. “The cellar was not the first time things became warm for me. Weapons, those are relatively simple.”

“How so?” asked Sarah. Her hand held a pencil, and a ledger lay open before her.

“Mostly it's what we can get that might look to work,” I said.

Gabriel looked at me in a peculiar fashion. He seemed to be hiding words within his mouth.

“Bombs?” asked Sarah.

“Those also, though what kind – again, it's whatever we can find on short notice during the few weeks we have.” A pause, then, “food, clean clothing...”

“Anna spoke of that place's dust,” said Sarah. “We may wish to have a tub, sheets, and poles handy, if they have no ready bathing places to hand.”

“And drink,” I said. My mouth was dry. “Then, transport, and finally, people who have shown themselves to not scare readily.” I looked at Sarah, thinking, “tossing flaming jugs at Iron Pigs isn't anything I would wish to do in a million years.”

“But how will you deal with the spirits?” asked Gabriel.

For some reason, I could clearly hear the 'you' as being singular, and myself being the question's target. “Planning otherwise... Good question. Those things are too unpredictable to really plan ahead for in much detail beyond 'be as well-prepared as is possible'.” A brief pause, then, “Desmonds and large incendiary reptiles are somewhat easier to plan for.” How much 'somewhat' would prove to be was a good question.

“Hence we will wish to do what reading we can,” said Sarah. “There's a great deal here.”

“It would be best if he read it,” said Gabriel. Again, I was the sole one meant, almost as if 'it would be better if he cleared the Abbey alone, and the rest of us stayed home where we belonged'.

“We can always ask those working there,” said Sarah. “They might...”

Katje shook her head, then said, “their eyes are on their assigned tasks, and those eyes do not roam much or far from those duties they are tasked with – and the same for all of their other senses.”

I looked at Katje, then said, “clearing the Abbey is important, and not merely due to its size and location.”

“That location is important to witches,” said Sarah, “and if we have it, then they do not.”

“And its use is denied them,” said Katje as a closing matter. “I vaguely recall reading of a tapestry mentioning it, and dire things...”

Sarah's mouth dropped open as if her jaw as unhinged, and she nearly shrieked.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Dire things,” muttered Sarah. “Dire for that time and place, not now, and that place and a large area around it was once a huge city before the war.” A pause, then, “and all who lived there were witches.”

“True-witches,” murmured Katje, “and the place had a special name that indicated its chief place in the realm of spirits.”

An intermission for beer, then talk resumed of weapons – chiefly firearms, though 'swine-spears' and other edged weapons entered into the matter around the periphery of the discussion. For once, Gabriel was not the only one with an edged-weapon fixation – even if he seemed to have little else upon his mind.

“That knife and those arrowheads worked well,” said Sarah, “but I have wondered about swords more than a little.”

“It is good that you have,” said Gabriel, “as dealing with the Abbey's worms will demand blades.”

What?” I thought. “Is he on another second-kingdom kick where only swords are fit weapons?”

I squelched the thought, then stood while reaching for my sword. Sarah looked strangely eager, with eyes like saucers and part-open mouth, then as she stood and came to my side, I wondered what she would say – and more, what questions would she ask. My mouth betrayed me nonetheless: “here, try this one.”

That odd eerie hiss as I drew the sword seemed to faintly echo and ring about the room, but when I gripped the back of the blade and held out the handle to Sarah, she seemed afraid in some measure. I was about to reassure her that it did not bite when she gingerly reached out her hand toward the grip.

Her first touch was tentative, almost as if the thing were alive; and when she grasped it entirely, she seemed – for a second – to be bowed down by its weight. She then lifted it, point toward the ceiling, and walked slowly, with aching steps, into the parlor.

She tried 'lunging', then 'parrying'; and while her moves seemed 'rusty', I had the unmistakable impression that she had once received sword-training somewhere. I was not ready for what she did next.

She leaped nearly three feet in the air while seeming to slash at the neck of an invisible foe, then landed in a crouch from which she emerged in a series of 'stylized' movements. She then circled, 'blocked', 'parried', 'lunged', and 'slashed'. After a minute, she ceased with her 'drill', and walked back to the table, where she carefully handed the sword to me. As I sheathed it, I asked, “just what were you doing?”

“I have seen sword-drills many times,” she said, “and that was one of the more-common ones.”

“This would be, uh, where?” I asked.

“At school,” said Sarah. “There were two lecturers that taught the use of weapons, and I learned a great many things about them.”

“Swords?” I murmured. I somehow had the picture she'd been shown 'the usual' for size and shape.

“Those they had there were a bit large for me,” she said. I had the impression that the unspoken balance of the sentence was, “unlike the one I just used.”

“Other things?” I asked.

“Axes were a bit large, especially the larger war-axes,” said Sarah. “I learned most of the other things passably, and some of those things, very well.”

“Empties two cap-and-ball revolvers into an area the size of a gold monster coin before I can count two, and she calls that 'very well'?” I thought. Yet somehow, I had the impression Sarah was not speaking of pistols, and the recalled talk about her badly injuring an attacker while unarmed made for further wondering. I then had a question.

“Which hand do you write with?” I asked.

Sarah paused in her writing, then showed me her right hand. She was still holding the pencil, though it was now whittled down to a near-stub and the unsharpened end showed traces of teeth-marks.

“Was that the hand you were born using, or..?”

Sarah looked at me in the strangest fashion, then asked, “were you not born using your right hand?” A pause, then, “only witches think to use certain hands for certain actions, and most who are not witches do not concern themselves in that way.”

“Those witches where he came from demanded such complete control,” said Gabriel mysteriously, “and by use of beatings and other things, they succeeded in erasing his tendency that way and replaced it with their inclination of the moment.” A pause, then, “while they, and most others in that place, would end upon burn-piles were they here – in that place, there were witches, and then there were witches – and he endured the latter.”

Gabriel paused, then, “the reason you were asked, Sarah, is that there are plans for a sword for you, along with a great many other things.”

Further discussion seemed to go nowhere quickly, and Sarah and I made to leave. Gabriel, however, looked inclined to sleep upon the couch, and when I saw again – and this time, in full measure – both the scanty nature and poor fit of what Maarten had lent him, as well as the remaining slow-departing dampness of his clothing, I did not blame him much for wishing to stay until his clothing dried completely – which meant leaving at dawn at the soonest. The nights were still fairly cold, and Maarten and Katje used second-hand blankets extensively in lieu of a well-stoked stove. They still had more than their share of trouble gathering wood, as the witches in the area had cleared every woodlot for miles in their search for fuel.

“It is still cold enough nights to not wish damp clothing while riding distances,” said Sarah, as she unpacked a cloak, “and I hope you brought yours.”

I had, and put it on along with the other things I usually carried before emerging into the chill of the night's air.

“And you are staying where?” I asked, as we left the remains of the town upon the southbound road that had led into it.

“Mostly in the basement now,” said Sarah, “save when the need to travel causes me to need to sleep elsewhere.”

“Th-the basement?” I spluttered. I wanted to add, “but won't people talk?”

“In the past, at least some people might have talked,” said Sarah, “but I asked Anna about it, and she said it would be different now.” Sarah had now turned east onto a little-used side-road. It was not one we had taken on the way in.

“Why?” I asked innocently.

“Medical work, due to its exceeding rarity, has never had formal papers,” said Sarah, “and to live in such a household means that you, and now myself, are as formally apprenticed as any other trade. Then, there is another portion, and that too Anna spoke of.”

“Which is?”

“People consider both of us 'strange',” said Sarah...

On the edges of my hearing, I seemed to hear a strangely distorted scrap of music, one that spoke of strangers, strange people and their all-consuming loneliness.

“And both of us are well-known, you but somewhat more than I,” said Sarah. “And then, there is what I told Katje before we left.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“The Abbey and its clearing leaves matters sufficiently in doubt that she said it would be unwise to post true-banns until after the place is done,” said Sarah, “even if I told her of your acceptance while we were cleaning up the books before leaving.”

I was glad for having brought the shuttered lantern, and hanging it on the small driver's side hook shed forth a thin ray of feeble light to the front that was still enough to see with by with dark-adapted eyes. Sarah marveled at it, even if she had looked askance at the abnormally short part-burnt wax candle I had put into it as a refill before leaving.

“You will want a mould for those things,” said Sarah. “I would make it adjustable to a degree.”

“Those small lanterns?” I asked. I'd used one of those I had received with my tools as a pattern.

“Those also,” said Sarah. “We are going to need not merely a good number of lanterns like that, but I can say their ordering will be common enough for them to be made by the numbers in the very near future.”

“And hence...”

I reached into my pocket and my hands closed upon a small cloth bag. I could feel the coiled glass-blower's wire inside that bag, and for some reason I knew it had here-and-now uses beyond what I had originally planned for it. There was something about it drastically increasing the light of candles if a small coil was placed in the 'yellow' portion of the flame.

“I'd best do that with full-riveted copies,” I thought. My 'test' lantern had used rivets in the corners and solder otherwise. “That coil of wire will make them burn much hotter as well as brighter.”

The chill of the evening seemed to provide an impetus to our horses, and when we came to the first town of the trip home, the still-lively sounds of the Public House were a marvel, even if the remainder of the town was sleepy and dark enough. Each stoop, however, showed at least one flickering candle-flame in a tall brass lantern, and the relative lack of the usual fatty smell spoke of more wax candles in use than those of tallow.

“Good,” I thought, as I noticed the town itself being different than those we had passed through heading east. “Wax candles are becoming more common.”

“Yes, where those freighters hauling them are based,” said the soft voice. “I would go to that town just south and west of where the shoemaker lives, and do so tomorrow so as to secure some fresh ones, and also some raw wax from the chandler there.”

“For molding?” I asked.

“With your increased candle use and their continued scarcity between now and the time you leave, you will want to mold your own candles when and as you can.”

“They will remain scarce after that time?” asked Sarah.

“There will be other light sources once you return,” said the soft voice, “so 'good wax candles' will be much less of an issue for you.” A brief pause, then, “in the mean-time, however, I would try that wire in full-riveted lanterns, as you were right about the increased heat.”

“Wire?” asked Sarah.

“Glassblower's wire,” I said. “I need to draw it down to about twice the thickness of a hair, coil it up like a small spring, and put it in a candle flame so as to see what it does.”

“It glows especially brightly,” said Sarah. “I tried it once.”

“Not like this,” I said. “There was something about the light output increasing more than a little.”

“They won't give as much light as a wick-lantern burning distillate, but not much less,” said the soft voice, “and the precise location of that coil is nowhere near as critical as the internal dimensions are with effective student's lanterns.”

“And if such coiled wire was put in those?” asked Sarah.

“The gains would be much less, but still noticeable,” said the soft voice. “The chief trouble would then be heat-damage to some of the critically-dimensioned parts.”

Another town, and another stop for water and checking of the horses. As I 'did' one of the horses, Sarah looked over the hooves of the other; and while I checked the buggy's oil-cups – they needed topping, though some oil yet remained – I glanced up to see Sarah 'standing watch' with the fowling piece in her lap and the small lantern still shedding its single trio of beams ahead. I had more questions, these such that they might be regarded as amorous.

“Do you like back-rubs?” I asked softly in a voice just above a whisper, as the road passed between two woodlots down the middle of a wide field. Sarah was taking a more-direct – and different – path home, and its silence, save for the sounds of a few animals bedding down, was a marvel.

“Yes, very much,” said Sarah, “as well as being tickled and hugged. My parents did so constantly when I was small.”

“They tickled you?” I asked. My incredulous tone was thick enough to cut with a knife.

“When they were not tickling each other,” said Sarah.

Another half-hour, and the road passed about the meandering margins of a wide and long woodlot. This place seemed to have a face it showed to the world, and then a most-hidden portion; and as we passed about the edges of the places' rough middle, I smelled – at first faintly, though stronger minutes later – a near-forgotten odor that at once nauseated and repelled me.

“What is that stench?” I gasped. I wanted to spew.

“I think that is datramonium,” said Sarah. “It was most-common until the Swartsburg went where it belongs.”

“Your travels?” I asked. “Around here?”

“Until the sun rose at night,” said Sarah, “that stench was seeming to be everywhere I might travel within a glass's turn after sundown, and I could scarce get away from it, save in a very few well-hid places.” A brief pause, during which time a jug was uncorked and we both filled our cups. “Since then... I think this is the first time I have smelled its burning.”

Sarah paused, then said, “most people think witch-holes are either in or close-by towns, but for every such place in or near a town, there is at least one which is not; and while I have not gone inside any witch-holes, I have laid my share of traps near them on the paths the witches use.”

“What kind of traps?” I asked.

“The one I used most involved a number of thin sharpened stakes,” said Sarah. “Those tend to be tricky, as the wood must be of a certain type and age of branch.”

“Is this, uh...”

“The stakes are cut to shape, with many barbs,” said Sarah. “Those branches are second-year branches of wild-cherry trees, which means they are soft when carving them to shape and especially hard when fire-blackened.” A brief pause, then, “and that knife really helped for those last traps like that I set.”

“You did?” I asked. “How?”

“Once you secure your stakes and prepare them,” said Sarah, “then you must find the path to the witch-hole, and dig a hole in it to hide your witch-stakes.”

“Barbed point up, I presume,” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then “the shape of the hole is similar to that of a grave, only less deep and with a flat bottom, and once it is dug and the stakes put inside, then one covers it carefully with branches, twigs, leaves, and then a thin dusting of dirt.”

“Oh, my,” I chortled.

“If one can be had, though, one uses a thin string coated with fat,” said Sarah, “as then the witch either trips over it and falls face-down in the trap, or he steps over the string and into the hole – and then falls down.”

“And gets, uh, staked,” I said.

“I usually dipped my stakes in a privy if I had the chance,” said Sarah. “They're a good deal more effective then.” A pause, then, “the last trap I did like that caught a witch.”

“Uh, how?”

“First, I used twelve stakes,” said Sarah, “and they were short, very sharp, well-barbed, and thin, with a cross-bar at their base to prevent them being driven deeper into the ground when the witch fell upon them. Then, this was a sizable witch-hole, one in a woodlot similar to this one” – here, she pointed at the woodlot to our right – “and it received much witch-traffic. I longed for dynamite and jugs, there were so many of those stinky wretches in that place.”

Sarah paused to drink, then continued.

“I set my trap in the early morning, as then the witches were elsewhere,” said Sarah, “and then I hid up for the day some distance away so as to watch that part of the path. Not two hours later, I saw a group of witches coming up the path.”

“All blacked up for a ceremony, correct?”

“They did not have face-grease, but otherwise, yes,” said Sarah, “and they were as drunk as stinkers, at least until the first witch tripped over the string and fell in my trap.” A brief pause, then, “and that witch sobered up in a hurry, as screaming drives out liquor and he was screaming like a burnt Shoet.”

“And?” I asked.

“He died shortly thereafter when the other witches ripped those stakes out of him,” said Sarah. “He caught one full in the chest, and two more in the gut, and several others in his arms and legs. The other trap, though, I wonder about.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I found scraps of black-cloth in it,” said Sarah, “and much blood, and then drag-marks leading away from it, but no witch.”

“Sounds like a witch fell for that one also,” I said. “How big are these stakes?”

“Near as large as your thumb for the thick end,” said Sarah, “or about half the size of a common broom's handle for round there. Then, their length varies, depending on the hole and the branches I could find and reach. I usually cut mine a foot long or so, with the cross-sticks about nine inches down from the pointed end, and the pointed end coming to a sharp point like a spear with barbs over its whole length.”

Once home, the two of us bathed, one after the other; and I mounted the upward stairs in a somnolent state that only increased until my bladder awoke me at midnight. I stood up, wobbly as an unsteady missile, and began walking toward the door and then the hallway beyond it. I was about halfway down the stairs when I heard – faintly – a woman's scream.

I woke up instantly and bounded down the stairs, as now the screams were vastly louder. I could hear startled commotion above me, and as I hit the parlor floor with a thud upon both feet at once, I was nearly bowled over by Sarah.

“Are you all right down there?” asked Anna's worried-sounding voice.

Sarah was beyond 'distraught' and into a realm unknown; and when she spoke, her voice was a hollow-sounding sepulchral croak.

“Th-that dragoon,” she moaned.

“What is this?” asked Hans from the top of the stairs. I turned to see him with a musket.

“That dragoon,” shrieked Sarah. “It has flaming breath, and it tried to light me on fire!” This last came out with a louder-yet shriek.

“That is those old tales,” said Hans. “You are too old to run for the privy, so they get to you while you are still in bed.”

The nightmare seemed forgotten the next morning, and at the breakfast table, there was frantic eating and but little talk until the dishes were soaking. I hurried off to work, for I had the dead hours of the first post to myself next; and I would need to quit early enough to get a longer-than-usual nap before leaving – and on the way to the house proper, I would need to seek that one chandler's shop to secure both wax and candles.

I finished both pumps by the morning guzzle, and within minutes of its ending, Georg left with both of them 'for parts unknown'. I had buggy-irons to work upon now, and musket parts to finish up; and as I bagged the latter for 'homework' – final fitting, stoning triggers, treating the wood pieces that I had just finished the day before, possibly blackening the metal, and then final assembly followed by testing – I looked out the door of the shop. It was within an hour of the normal quitting time; Georg had still not returned; and the other two men seemed 'restive'. I resumed packing my things, wondering why they seemed so 'stir-crazy', when a faint and ringing bird-call shattered my nerves and nearly prostrated me upon the floor.

“QUOOOOLLLL”, shrieked the covey of birds. They were coming closer in something of a hurry.

I looked around and saw that both Johannes and Gelbhaar had face-covering grins, and when the latter reached for an obvious musket, I asked – my ears had only stopped ringing that morning from the Swartsburg's destruction, and now these birds looked likely to reestablish that continual chiming –“is this a good time for hunting those things?”

“The new crop of them is coming in,” said Johannes, “and fresh quolls are the best type.”

“B-best?” I gasped. My ears were still chiming, though the noise was diminishing rapidly.

“Easiest to shoot, because they fly less,” said Gelbhaar, “and they tend to bunch up more when you find them, and then they bring half again as much in the Public Houses when they are sold or traded.”

“And for a while, at least,” said Johannes, “if you have them and they are decent, then you can sell them without seller's speech.”

“Meaning free meals?” I asked.

“Last year I got a month's worth of dinners from those birds,” said Gelbhaar. “The late crop tends to be most meager, unlike the early and middle crops.”

“M-most meager?” I asked.

“Enough birds that half the cooks were cleaning them and the other half were cooking them after I brought my day's bag in,” said Johannes, “and I was sore days afterward for all the powder I burned.” A brief pause, then, “and if I could find a roer that I could shoot, I would have done better yet.”

“That you can shoot?” I asked.

“Hans has spoken of what he had,” said Gelbhaar ominously, “and there is talk about what you shoot, especially as it is not commonly full-loaded.”

“It's not something you want to shoot much,” I volunteered. “Now I've got to go home, get a bath, then a nap, and I've a long riding...”

There was all of that and more before I left with two hours of daylight still showing. Hans had begun 'treating' the wooden parts of the guns as well as several lathe-turned 'billets' of close-grained light-colored wood, which I supposed to be fuse-stock. The gun pieces had fit perfectly, and their triggers, while still 'light', were a trifle stiffer than what I commonly did for 'experts'.

“Ah, these are coming good,” said Hans as he brought out a dark brown gunstock. His knife was out, so I thought he might scrape it smooth before another application of either wood-treatment or drying oil. “I see these things will take barrel bands, so they will be easier to look after, and those barrels are such that Anna might want one of these things if you were of a mind to make more of them.”

“Hers would need to be shorter in the buttstock,” I said. “Her arms are shorter.”

“Now, are these tight at the muzzle?” asked Hans.

“I was not able to find out much about that,” I said, “so their bores are tapered about a line from breech to muzzle.”

“That is better than just tight at the muzzle, as it puts the shot out more evenly,” said Hans. “Someone told me that the Heinrich guns are done that way. Now are you going to blacken that metal?”

“I thought to try it,” I said, “but I wanted to try something else first for a test.” A pause, then “why”?

“Because it is the season for chemicals,” said Hans mysteriously, “and I have a good stock of witch-jugs, so I can do my share of that business.” A brief pause, then “tomorrow is the rest-day, so we can work on them then.”

My trip took longer than usual, for I passed my usual turnoff; and as I passed through the town of the shoemaker, I began to look for a path or road to the right. I soon found one, and as I traveled along its narrow dusty way – Jaak was not wasting time – I looked ahead and to each side. My observance was such that the first houses of the town, with their busy fields – they were sowing, or so I guessed – did not register, and I only realized I was in the town when I came to its precise 'edge', that being a long narrow shop on the right side of the road.

I could hear and smell the sounds and odors associated with meals, and I came past a bustling Public House with a close-packed yard. I looked to the left, then began counting shops. I could feel – and smell – the chandler's place, and after counting but four shops, I came to the one I desired. I dismounted and went inside, and the instant I set foot within the place the smell of 'wax' all but dropped me to the floor, and the warmth in the place was that of a hot summer. I came to the front 'bench', and there waited.

“They're certainly busy back there,” I thought at the sounds of steady labor. “Must be molding lots of those things.”

“Those candles that do not arrive from the fourth kingdom already-molded,” said the soft voice. “Then, the proprietor makes candles to order, especially certain formulas.”

“C-certain formulas?” I thought. I could readily recall the supposed love affair witches had with special candles.

“Those do not use this type of wax,” said the soft voice. “You might ask the clerk about them when she shows.”

'She' – a young woman in a long brown wax-stained smock – showed but seconds later. The odor of 'wax' and 'honey' was even stronger.

“I was told you have, uh, special wax formulas...” I stammered.

“We do, and several of them,” she said. “One is for students, as they do not wish wax drips upon their ledgers...” The woman's speech was close to a dead-giveaway; she had a distinctive fourth-kingdom lilt. “And another for ships, as those want a strong wick, and a third one, which we get but seldom call for up here.”

She paused to drain a mug, then said, “not many instrument-makers up here, unless you want to speak of talk only.”

“No, Gisela, there aren't any of those people,” said a man's voice from the back, “'cept for one man in Roos.”

I gasped involuntarily, which the woman seemed to not notice. “We still make them, though, as certain people at the house proper desire candles giving the most light.”

Steps came from behind the curtain closing off the doorway to the rear of the shop, and when the cloth drapery shot aside to show a short man with brown hair, the woman turned toward him. The man, however, seemed to be in shock.

“You'll be wanting some of those candles, I suspect,” he said, “and some wax, also.”

“H-how did you know?”

“Only one person your size around here with hair like yours,” he said. “Gisela, if he shows again, get out those good candles on the double-quick, as he'll want 'em.”

“G-good?” I asked, as I reached for my money pouch.

“The house-formula,” said Gisella. “That one we make here entirely from the raw waxes, as those places in the fourth kingdom make too much at a time to be especially careful.” A brief pause, then, “and not only does it give as much light as the instrument-maker's blend, but it burns longer and drips less.”

“So that's what he puts in those lanterns,” I muttered.

“He?” she asked.

“Hendrik,” I said. “His office-work demands good lighting, and a lot of books and papers need reading, and some writing, also – so no wax-drips wanted, and also little smoke, as that place could stand better ventilation.”

“I know about that,” said the man. “Now how many... About two fair-sized bundles, I'd say, and a smallish sack of the raw wax, as those moulds are a bit tricky to get so they give good candles without the wax sticking to 'em. I'd watch your venting, in fact.”

“What?” I gasped.

The man then showed his hands, both of which were gloved, and he pointed to the last two fingers of his left hand, saying, “mother told me to stay clear of pigs, even when they were dead, and that no matter what size they were. I was about five then, and I found a small one that looked dead enough in a woodlot.”

“And you got too close to its mouth?” I asked.

“It was a black one, not one of these stinkers that have been turning up a lot around here,” said the man, “and while that pig was sick enough, it wasn't dead.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“It wanted my hand,” said the man, “and I was almost too quick for it.” A brief pause, then, “it got all of my smallest finger and half of the one next to it, so I wear gloves.”

“Hot wax...”

“Wants gloves,” said Gisela emphatically, who then held up her gloved hands. “Hence he can hide readily from the witches.” A pause, then, “good thing that they're scarce right now.”

“They will not stay that way, Gisela,” said the man. “They will come back in numbers, and cause trouble for a while.” Here, he paused, then said, “but even so, a time is coming when they'll all be where they belong, and that time is soon.”

It was close to sundown when I left the town headed east and slightly south, and I crossed the main road about two miles south of where I left it. Jaak did not waste time, either in his crossing of the road or in the fields as we skirted the edges of the woodlots, and after an hour's time, I paused at a 'dead'-seeming town to water Jaak. I had kept clear of the roads as per my usual, and as I listened and Jaak drank, I marveled.

“No datramonium,” I muttered at the startling clearness of the air. I could but faintly smell the usual traces of wood-smoke coming from stoves. It was no longer winter-cold, even if it was still cold enough to be glad for warm clothing if one was out much after sundown. “No witches within... No, rather 'no domestic witches' within miles. There are imported witches, but those people are staying hidden, for some reason.”

“Their caution exceeds that of most 'cautious' domestic witches, and they're asleep right now anyway,” said the soft voice. “The only time Norden's people show themselves openly in the first kingdom is when they are about to engage in mayhem and destruction.”

“Noisy on the march?” I asked, upon recalling the differences of the few instances I'd seen.

“Yes, during invasions as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, few know of their existence unless they deliberately choose to make themselves known.”

An hour's exploring prior to coming to the post, and as the two men left– one 'old hare', and another new guard, this one seemingly the most befuddled individual I had seen yet – I wondered how matters were shaping up. I looked around, and then knew I had the bench to myself during the quietest time in the house proper. I brought out my ledger, turned to that portion under the heading of 'Lunacy', and began writing.

I paused often to listen, and save for one instance prior to Hendrik's awakening, I marveled at the eerie stillness of the house. That one instance, however, had me worried; for it was as stealthy a noise as I had ever heard in my life, and its long-gnawing nature and tooth-grinding fury put me in mind of hungry Desmonds and worn-out manual transmissions. It finally ceased, and I slumped in exhaustion. Finally, I spoke the question.

“What was that?” I asked softly.

“A pregnant mother rat making up her nest between bouts of eating,” said the soft voice, “and unlike that rat you called 'Big Momma', rats here tend toward the irritable for temperament.”

“What?” I gasped. “Big Momma was the worst one I ever had, and she liked to bite!”

“The ones here are worse, without exception,” said the soft voice, “and the larger the rat, the harder the bite.”

“And their temperament?” I asked. I was still frightened by the mention of 'Big Momma'. That rat's legendary irritability put all recollection of that huge gray thing in the fifth kingdom clean out of my mind.

“That also gets worse with increasing size,” said the soft voice, “and that is for the usual colors of rat.” A brief pause, then, “should they be the color of Big Momma, though... I'd watch myself.”

“Wh-white rats?” I asked.

“Ask Sarah about those,” said the soft voice. “She could give you an earful and then some.”

My relief – three men, one being Karl and two 'new' guards who looked dense enough to give Karl a migraine in short order – spoke of my next shift being not merely of 'added length', but also, of 'unusual personnel'. It would also be the fifth posting on the rest-day.

“I would not bother with exploring before your posting,” said Karl, “as you will be seeing Andreas after it.”

“Unusual personnel?” I asked.

“He will be one of those people,” said Karl. “Who else, I am not sure, beyond it will be someone who can write decent and is not scared easily.”

I could think of several persons, both male and female, who matched that description; and as I walked wearily toward the stables – it had been another chilly night, and the warmth and high-piled hay of the horse-barn suited Jaak well – I mumbled, “what next?”

“Investigating the armory, for one thing, and then an unusual after-sermon business on the day after.”

“That one house?” I asked.

“The same,” said the soft voice. “I'd get a nap after the service and before going there, as you're starting to get noticeably fatigued, and fetishes and fatigue do not mix well.”

Home again in the early morning, and stagger up to bed for a nap to then come down close to dinner-time. Anna was in the kitchen, while Sarah was 'elsewhere'; I thought to go down into the basement, but Anna waved me off.

“After dinner,” she said. “He's just getting everything ready down there, so there isn't much you could do to help.”

“F-for?” I asked.

“I think he's about to make up another batch of mix for thimbles,” said Anna, “and you do not want to eat after doing that unless you wash especially well.”

“The chemicals, correct?” I asked.

“Those especially,” said Anna. “More than once I've seen plates scattered when Hans didn't wash himself especially well.”

“S-scattered?” I asked.

“They exploded,” said Anna. “I think he got something under his knife when he cut up the meat with it.”

“Ah, that was the chlorate,” said Hans. “Bad chlorate of potash does that.”

“B-bad?” I asked.

“This is good chlorate from Roesmaan's,” said Hans. “It is the best I have ever seen.” A brief pause, then, “Sarah is due home shortly, so she can help us.”

“And that blackening?” I asked.

“That too,” said Hans. “You have those things you want to try?” I nodded 'no', then said, “perhaps one of my smaller pry-bars. I use those things enough to wonder if blackening them will help with rust.”

“Why, have they tried to catch some?” asked Hans. I then noticed the bucket, soap, and water. Anna was using a ladle to add hot water from a small pot.

“No, but I spend enough time with my oil-rag,” I said. I then recalled Brumm's knife and Sepp's mentioning its possible use. “What are sinkholes?”

Hans laughed, then said, “that is the polite word for those things. They should be called stink-holes, as you do your business in them once you find a place to dig your hole.” A brief pause, a small splash, then “why do you ask about sinkholes?”

“This one thug had an especially bad-looking knife,” I said, “and Sepp spoke of using it to dig sinkholes if the spades were already in use.” A brief pause, then, “I thought to, uh, try blackening its blade.”

While I went to hunt up Brumm's knife – I had wrapped it in an oily rag before bagging it and placing it in my workbench – Hans returned to the basement. As I looked for the tin tag of the bag among the others in my bottom drawer, I heard faint clopping noises, and I turned left to look out of the window and see Sarah leap from the back of a horse.

“She rode?” I thought. “How..?”

Burdened steps came to the stoop, and I returned my attention to my bottom drawer. The door tapped, and while I was about to turn to answer it, I heard steps to my right and saw Anna in my peripheral vision heading toward the door.

“There it is,” I muttered, as the door opened with a faint creaking noise, and I turned to see both Sarah and Anna bundled up with cloth drawstring bags.

“That's the end of it,” said Sarah. “I'll be doing these things up, and then...” Sarah looked toward me as I straightened up.

“Chemicals?” she asked.

I nodded, then said, “Hans said it's that time of year.”

“Not just thimbles,” said Sarah, as she began 'hiding' her bags with Anna's help. I wondered what else she meant for an instant's time.

“How much cloth did you get?” said Anna. “This is a great deal of it.”

“Enough to finish my remaining orders,” said Sarah. “I'm done with taking more of them.”

“Those are...” Anna stopped in mid-sentence, then said, “the Banns?”

“Once the Abbey is cleared,” said Sarah. “That happens fairly soon, but it isn't just cloth I must do.” Sarah paused, then said, “there is much else to fetch, and I'll want a buggy soon with that much traveling.”

“I'm, uh, sorry it's not yet...”

Sarah cut me off with a word, then said, “you're further along than you know, as Andreas has come by the shop more than once.”

“To, uh, what?” I asked.

“Firstly, to make some of the parts,” said Sarah. “He might not make them close enough to use directly, but he can get them a good deal closer than they would be otherwise. Then, there were parts that needed making entire, and he's been doing those.”

“What are those?” I asked.

“I think these are screws,” said Sarah mysteriously. “I've no idea how he does it, but he's shown me two or three of them – and better screws I have yet to see, both for finish and metal.” Sarah paused, then said, “and he said these were not the common species of screw for metal, either.”

“What did he use?” I asked.

“It's made in the fourth kingdom, and rolled specially,” said Sarah. “The Heinrich works uses that type commonly, and I think he got it from their supplier.”

I helped Sarah with the rest of her bags, then walked from the 'dim and flickering' light of the world above into the glaring brightness of the basement, where the Sun lantern reigned.

“He wasn't kidding about how good that lantern works,” I murmured as I looked around. “It's never been nearly this bright down here before.”

“Candles are still short in the usual places,” said Hans, “though the wax and the other things are starting to come north again regular.”

“Yes, they're short in the usual places,” said Sarah. “I know of at least two places that are not usual, and one of them has the best candles one can get in this area.”

“Yes, and where would that be?” asked Hans. “There is this one town south of the house that I know of, but that is a far distance and there is little out there otherwise so as to wish to go there.”

“That is one of the places,” said Sarah, “and while they have much wax and many candles, both things tend to be less-good.” A pause to drink, then, “the better place is but a short distance south and west of the shoemaker.”

“I went there yesterday,” I gasped.

“Ah, so that is where those things came from,” said Hans. “Now we have thimble-mix to make here, and that is a tricky thing, so we must get our things ready for it.”

“The thimbles?” I asked.

“I have this thing for filling them,” said Hans. “It is old, but it is made by Heinrich, so it is still good, and I got it cheap at the scrap-market.”

There?” squeaked Sarah. “How?”

“It was all dirty and messy with this stuff that is like wax,” said Hans, “so no one wanted it. Anna knew about that wax and the things it usually hides, so I got it for a five-guilder piece and bagged it up for the trip home.”

“And?” I asked. There was more.

“Anna was telling me it might be medical,” said Hans 'conspiratorially', “and so I did not argue much with the man when he says he will not move his price.” A pause, drinking from a tinned copper mug, then, “and I get the thing home and it sits until the winter when things are slow.”

“And the heat near the stove softened up that wax,” I said.

“It was making a mess, too,” said Hans, “so I wipe it with a rag, and I see it has Heinrich for a name, so I clean it up good.”

“And I had to tell you what it did,” said Sarah.

Hans looked at her as if she had lost her mind, then nodded slowly, saying, “I put some distillate to it to get the rest of that wax stuff off when she shows, and then she shows me how it works.”

“How...?” I asked.

“I've spent much time in the Heinrich works,” said Sarah, “and I used to have one of their ledgers that spoke of what they made.” A pause, then, “they do not make many of those things.”

“Uh, and there was one hiding somewhere at school, wasn't there?” I asked.

“Yes, an old one,” said Sarah. “It did not stay hidden long, at least once I found out about it.”

“And so she is a lot of help with these things,” said Hans. “Now we need to clean the tools good, and put them in order before we do the chemical part of this thing, as having the stuff where you want it is important.”

“And clean,” said Sarah.

Again, Hans looked at her strangely, and Sarah softly said, “I did better after my third year.”

“Yes, and why is that?” asked Hans.

“I knew enough about chemicals then to make thimble mix without getting scattered,” said Sarah, “and I had a ready market for every thimble I could make among my fellow students.”

“That is good, then,” said Hans, as he brought forth an old-looking box with jointed corners, and then opened its lid with a faint groan of old hinges and a faintly musty smell.

The first thing he withdrew was an old-looking brass contrivance, which Sarah set aside on a clean rag. I wondered what I could do until Hans said, “this part is tricky, and it does not look to be so. I would watch close if I were you.”

“Until it comes time to do the chemicals, he means,” said Sarah. “This part just needs watchfulness and care.”

Hans' look at Sarah was now a positively 'evil' glare, so much so that I was astonished – at least until he resumed bringing out more equipment: small brass 'tamping tools', an old 'glass' mortar and pestle, several 'carved' wooden tools...

“Wood?” I asked.

“Metal weakens the mix,” said Hans. “I think vinegar does something to the metal of the thimbles themselves, as...”

“The copper is choked,” said Sarah, “and hence it cannot eat the chemicals out of the mix.”

Hans looked at Sarah again, only this time, his mouth was open wide and his eyes were staring. When he again spoke, he said, “I did not know that.”

“It isn't common knowledge,” I said. “Most chemists worth naming so – Ivo, even – know that 'metal kills the mix, unless that metal is copper with baked-on vinegar'.” I paused, then said, “you do warm the thimbles before loading them, don't you?”

Hans nodded, then said, “you want those things good and red inside.”

“That is only a little more common for chemists to know,” said Sarah. “Ivo told me that, even if he didn't know about vinegar choking copper.”

“Where..?”

“It was on a tapestry,” said Sarah, “one which needed not merely papers, but also proofs, and one of their people was with me the whole time I was there looking at that thing.”

“Passivation,” I murmured. “The copper becomes non-reactive due to the layer of, uh...” I paused, for I had no idea how to describe 'a highly oxidized form of copper bi-acetate'. “It forms a layer that's almost like glass, it's so, uh, hard.”

“Thimble mix needs that stuff,” said Hans. “Caps don't. Now you can grind up the glass, once I get its mortar and pestle out.”

“Glass?” I asked. “M-me?”

“I suspect they will be better thimbles if you do that,” said Hans. “Ah, here is the grinder, and this bag here has the glass.”

As I moved 'out of the way' – Hans and Sarah were now not merely unpacking equipment, but also washing and wiping it carefully with 'clean' rags from a sizable bag marked as such – I attempted to untie the bag's knot. After some persuasion with an awl, I untied the bag's thick and lumpy waxed string, then poured a small amount of the 'glass' into the mortar. Its 'iridescent' green color was something of a shock.

Green glass?” I spluttered, as I began to carefully 'grind' the glass with the pestle. The noise wanted to make my teeth run upstairs and hide behind the stove, and I wanted some earplugs in the worst way possible.

“Yes, that color works best in thimbles,” said Hans. “I tried every color of glass I could get, and only two places in the fourth kingdom's market make that stuff.”

“And getting their glass is not easy,” said Sarah, “especially if it is green glass.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Witches like glass of that color, for some reason,” said Sarah, “and while neither place will sell to witches, they both need to have people living there day and night so as to prevent its theft.”

“And they do not sell to people they do not know good,” said Hans. “That is so even for their scrap, which is what that stuff there is.”

I then recalled the color of the glasses used by the council-members, and was about to gasp when I heard the soft voice say, “'witch-glass' has little in common with what's in that bag beyond the color.”

“Uh, green?” I asked.

“That color, as well as all of the other well-known colors, are mentioned in that black book,” said the soft voice. “Green is associated with poison.”

“And hence their glasses will tell the witch if his drink is lethal or not...”

“If the witch knows the appropriate curse-collection and is strong enough to utter it and not die,” said the soft voice. “It also helps if the glass is true 'witch-glass' and not merely 'green' glass.”

“What they were drinking out of?” I asked.

“Was sold to them as true 'witch glass' and was made cheaply in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and that particular glass is worthless for thimbles.”

“And this stuff?” I asked, as I began to carefully 'powder' the jagged-edged fragments.

“Is both unusual as to its ingredients and purity,” said the soft voice, “with the minerals causing the green color making it uncommonly brittle and sharp.”

“So that's why it works better,” said Sarah. “What does 'witch glass' look like?” Sarah's unstated reason was 'so I can stay clear of it', or so I suspected.

“True 'witch-glass' is a darker green, with faint darker-yet stripes swirling about as if leading into a dark hole,” said the soft voice, “and it's translucent, not clear.” A brief pause, then, “and, if held up to the right kind of light, it glows faintly in the darkened hollows of glasses made of it.”

“Stuff is radioactive,” I muttered.

“Yes, though very faintly,” said the soft voice. “Only the better testing equipment present here can detect its radioactivity.”

Here?” I asked. I wondered where 'here' was; and when there was no answer, I wondered yet more.

“Perhaps where we are going,” said Sarah softly. I wondered as to her knowing.

“And in certain places in the Valley,” said the soft voice. “Unlike the equipment Sarah spoke of, theirs is both quite old and in rather poor condition.”

“ Elektrikalé?” I asked, as I recalled the speech of the masons.

“Someone with training similar to yours,” said the soft voice. “Those people are quite rare in the Valley, unlike those of the title you spoke of.”

I then saw the punched tin 'sieve', and as I ground the glass carefully, I wondered about all of this seemingly dedicated equipment. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me.

“Does this mortar only get used for this job?” I asked.

“Yes, and the same for everything else for thimbles and caps,” said Hans. “Thimble-mix is touchy enough that I do not take unneeded chances with it.”

I continued grinding glass, now recognizing when I would need to leave for my shift at the house. My soft mumbling had Sarah by my side.

“Fifth posting, and then the armory after it,” I murmured.

“There's cloth enough to cover all of those things we've cleaned,” said Sarah, “and somehow, I don't feel inclined to do this particular batch unless you're here.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Better chemicals?”

“For chlorate, that makes it easier to do,” said Hans, “and the same for some of the other things, but there is something strange about most liquid death, and that stuff from Roesmaan's does not have it.”

“As in that part of the process is touchy with the usual stuff?” I asked.

“Yes, and it is the most dangerous part, too,” said Hans. “I have never used Roesmaan's liquid death before, but I have heard of that stuff.”

“They distill it multiple times in Heinrich stills,” said Sarah, “and the one time I used it, I was lucky to not be scattered when I put it to the aqua fortis.” A pause, then, “usually, that part just fumes badly, but that time I had to toss the crock into ice water before it blew.”

“Ah, it is good you spoke of that,” said Hans, “as I did not think of that, and I have no ice here.” A brief pause, then, “I will have some tomorrow, and then we can do this.”