“This is not the privy...”
The noise and confusion that grew rapidly spoke of a now-awakened house, and as the three of us slowly stood – I was not the only one face-down upon the floor; Sarah and Andreas had followed my example – I could see doorways opening and lights appearing in darkened 'hollows' both ahead and behind. A cook came rushing out from the hallway that led to the refectory, then another similarly-dressed person showed, followed by a very sleepy Karl and a slightly less sleepy Sepp. The latter turned toward the still-smoking doors of General's Row, and stifled a rousing laugh.
At least, Sepp tried not to laugh. Several chuckles came out anyway.
“You smoked them up good,” he said delightedly. “I awoke from a nightmare...”
I distinctly heard 'uneasy dream' in his speech, and with that phrase, I recalled the name of the man who had awoken to find himself an earthly version of a garbage bug.
“They said those things get to be the size of trunks, so I guess that might apply.”
I suddenly had a strange idea: Franz had somehow learned of southern garbage bugs, and made K. take that particular shape. I shook my head at the utter improbability of such an occurrence, and looked at Karl – who was now once more asleep, though still standing. He seemed to wave in an unfelt wind.
“There's the last of those stinkers,” said Sarah as a late-leaving General ran out of a door now wreathed in clinging gray smoke. “I wonder if that smoke smells?”
“Very much so,” said the soft voice, “and of a nature to kindle nightmares in those people.”
“How?” I asked.
“Recall the contents of that smelly place?” asked the soft voice. “How much broken-up wood and rubbish yet remained unburnt?” A brief pause, then, “you left behind a half-filled jug of heavy distillate buried in one of those rubbish piles, which is what caused the red portion of the flames you saw.”
“That sounds like a burn-pile,” said a voice that I could not recognize beyond I had heard it before in the refectory. I then suddenly, with a great yawn, understood.
“Those wretches thought they were all going up in smoke!” I spat.
And in speaking so, I knew I had grasped but a portion of the truth. While the reek – I could but barely smell it, for all the smoke had clung to the escaping Generals – was remarkably like that of a burn-pile, I suspected its abrupt appearance in such measure had a vastly greater impact upon the minds of the new-minted Generals.
“Did some of those people escape from the Swartsburg?” I asked.
“Three of the 'leaders' were present,” said the soft voice, “and that sudden eruption of smoke in their midst reminded them most strongly of what happened that night. The others panicked and followed their lead once those three started screaming of 'judgment' and 'retribution'.”
“Good, then,” said Sarah with a trace of satisfaction.
“Especially as two of those men then ran straight into that large smelly pond in back,” said the soft voice, “and both of them drowned.”
“They the only, uh, dead?” I asked.
“Three of the new crop were kicked by horses when they tried to hide in the horse-barn, and a fourth was speared by a just-awoken groom.” A brief pause, “none of those four are likely to survive.”
“Especially given that groom saw an obvious 'witch' and cut his throat after spearing him,” said Andreas. “If those men are still outdoors by morning, and they're anywhere near the house...”
“Someone will air out their smelly hides,” said Sepp between yawns. “I've got the first post, with two new fellows, and Karl...”
Karl had gone elsewhere, and I was thinking likewise. I needed to get myself home, and I suspected Sarah did also. I wondered for a moment if Jaak was up to carrying two people.
“I can always ask,” I thought.
Jaak proved to be inclined that way, and our route home, save for the usual jog about Waldhuis – we passed close enough to the back of the place to determine planting was nearly finished – was nearly a straight line. It was a few hours prior to dawn when we actually got home, and once inside with the single slow-burning candle in a student's lantern upon the kitchen table for a 'guiding light', we bathed, Sarah first and myself following – and then, I went to bed after visiting the privy.
“And tomorrow, we make thimbles,” I murmured as I lay down upon my bed. “I hope...”
Glaring sunlight streaming through the window woke me up from a sound and dreamless sleep, and as I went downstairs with a near-bursting bladder, I thought about how rare it was to have neither dreams nor nightmares. I visited the privy, then as I emerged I nearly collided with Hans.
“Now you are up, and church is in a glass's turn,” he said. “I would get yourself ready, as something is different about things now.”
“The Hall's people are toned down some?” I asked.
Hans did not know – he had not heard much regarding the hall, or so I gathered – and once back home, he seemed disappointed, for he had not seen what he expected.
There was a change, though; I could clearly feel it while in church, and when I refused to 'partake', there was no sense of disapproval in the air. It had been clearly present during – and afterward – every single instance of the times prior I had done so.
Neither was there disapproval for Sarah's refusing, nor that of nearly a dozen others – which was several more than the last time the supper had been served.
“There was a change, Hans,” I said. “Maarten is just not quite ready...”
“The hall is still fighting the changes Hendrik is demanding, also,” said the soft voice. “Though their numbers are fewer, and many people are plotting to overthrow the place and wreck it, they still persist in doing as they had done before the first Koenraad died.”
“And Sepp had a hand in that plotting,” I muttered.
“Him and Mathias,” said the soft voice. “Sepp demonstrated the effect of a single well-armed and resolute individual upon the place as it was then, and Mathias has been diligent in locating people inclined toward the hall's ruin.” A brief pause, then, “more than one person has tossed a jug into that place since Sepp claimed those papers.”
“Jugs?” I asked. For some reason, I recalled once desiring a mortar.
“Of distillate, with a flaming wick tied to the handle,” said the soft voice. “The fires did little, as those witches remaining in the hall are all well-experienced 'survivors', and in some few cases, strong as well.”
“That is because they did not toss them good,” said Hans. “Now, we have lunch, and after that, we can mix up the stuff.”
Hans was somewhat premature in his timing, for the meal – a roast of some kind; beyond it being 'beef', I could not describe it – was not yet completed. As an 'idle measure', and to satisfy my curiosity, I began to dismantle one of the dragoon pistols. Hans came to my workbench as I began to take the weapon down to its pieces. It was in need of a thorough cleaning at the least.
“There are more of those things downstairs,” he said, “as well as some of the usual size.”
“Usual s-size?” I stuttered, as I removed the sizable hammer from the pistol. “How many?”
“At least ten, and that is those from the trip,” said Hans. “There are lots of burnt ones being brought here by scavengers, and I give them two guilders each for those things.”
“But those are...” I was afraid they were ruined for an instant.
“They sell them cheap, because the wood parts are gone and they cannot use those things without the handles,” said Hans.
“But those...” I paused in mid-sentence, for I knew that all save the very best of such weapons had poor or no heat-treating performed, and the parts I did not replace usually needed a measure of truing up. More, the internal parts were often even worse than those that showed externally, save in the better versions; and finally, every well-used example I had seen, save for the very best or newest, had a worn finish. The pistol and its parts I had in front of me had small worn places as it was.
“I know you go through those entire,” said Hans, “and they are decent pistols at the least when you do that. I am glad of your work on mine.” Hans paused, then picked up the other dragoon. “There are three sizes of these things, and I think this is the big one.”
“Y-yes,” I asked. “Go on.”
“Then, there is the common size, though those vary some for the bores,” said Hans. “I have heard some take balls the usual size, and another that is no bigger on the outside takes balls about three lines bigger.”
“Useful for irate witches, no doubt,” I murmured. The last of the dragoon's pieces – some had been balky – were coming apart. It needed cleaning badly on the inside – more even than my pessimistic suspicions had implied – and there were a lot of rough places on many of the internal parts. Finally, several parts – pins, especially – already showed noticeable wear.
“And then, there is this size that is strange for its looks and small for its barrel,” said Hans. “They are passable for rats, as this knob they have on the handle works as a club should they miss fire.”
“Th-those?” I gasped.
“There are a few of them here,” said Hans. “I would not bother with them much, as none of them work particularly well, and they only hold three shots.” I had the impression Hans thought three shots from such a pistol to be marginal for an average rat, and inadequate for a tougher example. That presumed, of course, the rats were of common size and color. “Now this one here is an interesting thing.”
Hans was holding up the other dragoon pistol, and I was measuring parts and their fits of the other while making notes upon a quarter-sheet of paper. I suspected there might be uses for such weapons, even if they made one's hands hurt and go numb upon firing them.
“One, two, three, four, five, six,” he counted. “There are six marks here.”
I jolted, then with a sudden shuddering squeak, I spat, “six? The last time I saw those marks, there were but five!”
Hans counted again, then said, “It is said of brigands that they mark their weapons for each time they kill. How is it you knew of those markings? Were they there when you found these things?”
“I-I'm not sure,” I softly murmured as I set down my tools with twitching hands. “When I first saw those marks, I had shot the stinky thug that owned them with my rifle, then I took his pistols and went outside.”
“Where was this?” asked Hans.
“A town on this big dirt road that runs into the fifth kingdom,” I said. “Supposedly it got a lot of freighting traffic.”
“If it comes off of the High Way near the border, it does,” said Hans. “It is a faster road, and easier on their wagons.” A pause, then “now what did you do outside with these things?”
“There were thugs outside,” I said. I could almost hear the roaring thunder of gunfire once more, and my hands had once more gone numb and tingly from the brutal recoil of dragoons. “The first thug had a jug of distillate and dynamite, and he had a lit fuse, and then another across the road while he was trying to get on his mule, then two more, one as he was coming toward me and the other as he was trying to ride out of town.” I paused to drink; a dry mouth made it important. “After I'd finished shooting, I went inside to wash the soot off of my hands – and once back at the table, Gabriel pointed out the marks. I saw them then.”
“So that is five,” said Hans.
“Then, it got strange,” I said. “This was before I went inside with those things.”
“Yes, it was strange then,” said Hans. “You were hearing bells in your ears from the noise.”
“That also,” I said, “but not all. I was hearing this strange music, and as I came to the door of the Public House...”
“They have two decent ones along that road,” said Hans.
“This must have been one of them,” I said. “I came to the door of the Public House, and this strange white-painted sign showed next to the door. It seemed to be speaking to me, and my clothing was changing as I stood there reading it, and there were three rules spoken of, all of them about people who own private graveyards and their proper behavior.”
“Now where did this sign come from,” asked Hans, “and how is it your clothing changed? You did not take it off, did you?”
I shook my head, then said, “I'm not certain how any of this was happening, even if the sign seemed real enough to touch and my clothing had changed utterly into that of a black-dressed thug and my boots into knee-length pointed black things, with, uh, brass plates on their fronts.”
“Those are what they wear in the mining country,” said Hans. “Those snakes down there do not bite through brass if it is at all thick.”
“It was horrible, Hans,” I muttered as if choking back tears. “That sign seemed to think me a murderous thug of the worst stripe, and I panicked and ran inside. There, I tripped over the first thug I had shot, and fell in a faint upon the floor.”
“I think you should have had some beer then, that and the tincture,” said Hans. He seemed fascinated, much as if he were hearing a chemical recipe of the greatest import, or a new medical discovery.
“Then, there were two more thugs speaking over me,” I said quietly. I was trying to choke back tears. “One of them said I was 'too small', and the other said my fainting was unseemly for such a murderous thug.”
“You are not one of those things, so I would not worry much about what those men said,” said Hans. “Now this fellow with the jug – was he named Hecht?”
“Y-yes, I think he was.” I was beginning to sob.
“Now that wretch was a murderous thug,” said Hans in a most serious voice, “as he was said to be a thug and a witch both. Now there were five thugs, and six marks. What was the sixth one?”
“I think that might be at the king's house, where that man's guards shot at us,” I said. “They missed all of us, but one of them hit that king.”
“Yes, and with what?” asked Hans.
“One of those huge bullets,” I said. I could not keep the sobbing out of my voice now, and with each and every word, I seemed to be reliving the entire debacle. I wondered then at my choice of such words. “He was hit solid in the shoulder, and he was nearly dead.”
“That is about right for those things,” said Hans. “I have talked some, and they are worse than a roer close up as well as far away.”
“H-how?” I asked.
“The bullet has a flat place in front,” said Hans, “and a little hollow in the rear, so when it is fired, it swells up a little and seals up like a good leather in a pump.” A pause to drink, then, “so it comes out of the barrel faster than if it were a roer firing a ball.” Hans paused, seemingly to think, then said, “and the faster the ball, the worse the hurt.”
“Where is that?” I asked. The distraction was helpful.”
“In Anna's journals,” said Hans. “Now what happened next?”
“Someone – who, I disrecall – spoke about witches catching fire when they were told to 'sup with Brimstone'.” Here, the tears really started, and I sobbed. “I thought that was an old tale, and I did not believe it much, at least until I asked him a question with that phrase in it.”
“Yes, and what happened?” asked Hans.
“He caught fire!” I screamed, “and when I saw that happen, I was so frightened... No, it wasn't just fright. I did not know what to do, and I wanted to give him one more chance, so I told his fire to go out, and it did.”
Hans looked at me in a state that I could only describe as complete and total shock, and when I continued, saying, “that got his attention,” he was utterly agog.
At least, he was agog until I continued once more, saying, “then the head of his guards came out of this really thick smoke...”
“Yes, there was thick smoke,” said Hans. “Now were there fetishes?”
I shook my head, then said, “not in that room. Those were elsewhere.” A pause, then “he came out of this thick smoke – it was powder smoke, mostly, though I tossed at least one larger-than-common blasting cap and a pair of those round squibs at them – and I saw him all bloody, and he was about to shoot us, and, and...”
“Yes, and what did you do?” asked Hans.
“I told him with my thoughts those words, Hans,” I moaned. “I thought, 'sup with Brimstone, witch'.”
“And what happened?” asked Hans.
“He went up in smoke!” I shrieked.
“Hans, what are you doing?” yelled Anna as she came down the stairs. “It's bad enough clearing that armory thing at night like he did.”
Hans turned, then said, “come here, Anna. This is important.”
Anna did so, then asked gently, “what happened to this man?”
“H-he went up in smoke,” I moaned, “and I killed him, the same as the rest in that house, and those in the Swartsburg twice over.” I suppressed a scream, then as I spoke again, I cried “God, please, forgive me. I am a murderer.” I wept bitterly, and sobbed as if inconsolable. Someone – who, I could not tell because of the tears in my eyes – handed me a rag, with which I first wiped my eyes and then blew my mucus-clogged nose.
“Now if this thug went up in smoke...” Hans' voice trailed off, then he turned to Anna. Unspoken questions seemed to be on both their lips.
“I feel too horrible for words,” I moaned. “Are you going to burn me as a witch?”
Anna then noticed the still-assembled pistol, and picked it up. Instantly – as if someone had pulled her eyes directly to them – she noticed the marks on the backstrap. Hans looked at the gun where Anna was pointing with her finger, and then at me.
“Did you mark this gun?” he asked.
I shook my head 'no', then said, “I have no idea how those got there, same as the markings on my sword.”
Anna looked at me close, then said, “you borrowed one of my surgical knives, and I just noticed it yesterday when I was cleaning it. It has strange markings on it.”
“T-they're not runes, are they?” I asked haltingly.
“No,” said Anna emphatically, “because I looked them up in one of your books. They're out of the first portion of the book, and they have a special meaning.”
“That is fine, Anna,” said Hans, “as that knife is not this gun.” Here, Hans turned to me, then asked, “if you did not mark it, then who did?”
I had no answer, and all I could do was weep.
“What happened?” asked Anna. Her tone was that 'no-nonsense' tone she commonly used when lives were at stake and people were playing 'dumb' around her.
“There were six thugs down in the fifth kingdom,” said Hans, “and at least two of these people were witches, or so I am thinking.”
“They most likely were all witches, Hans,” said Anna. “That place is full of them.”
“So, he shoots the first one with his rifle,” said Hans, “and then four more with these things, and then the last thug, he tells to sup with Brimstone by his thinking. That last one caught fire and burned.” Hans paused, then asked, “now how long did that wretch take to burn?”
“L-like m-musket priming powder,” I sobbed. “He went to smoke and dust before his weapon hit the floor.”
“So how many numbers could you count?” asked Hans. He had not received what I had said.
“None!” I shrieked. “It happened so fast I could not think, much less count!”
Hans jolted, then ran his hands over his face, one after another. He then said – he was beginning to stammer, much like I did when frightened – “th-that is not like anything I have heard of, as those Grim books speak of witches catching fire, not going up like bad fireworks powder.”
“D-does that make me a witch?” I said softly, while wiping my eyes with a rag.
“I truly doubt that,” said Anna. “When you spoke to that which who burned...”
“He did not speak to that wretch, Anna,” said Hans. “He thought it. Then, he asked a question...”
Thoughts ran through my mind of the night before, when merely thinking about that room had 'started things' and we had been told to hurry. I wondered if I could keep a tight-enough lid upon my thinking, and more, I wondered if I would either become insane by the effort of such control, or turn into an exceedingly horrible arch-witch by the merest accident.
“...He asked a question of this other man, and he caught fire,” continued Hans, “and he had to put him out by speaking to him.” A brief pause, then, “I do not think those Grim books speak of such things.”
“How?” asked Anna. Her voice was a mixture of fear, consternation, and genuine curiosity. “It was said that fire could not be put out.”
“I asked that there be no fire,” I sobbed, “and it went out.” I paused to wipe my eyes again, then said, “I nearly spitted him on my sword before he gave up on his evil.”
“You nearly spitted him?” asked Anna. I could just picture a haunch of deer on an iron bar, the whole slow-turning over glowing coals and smoky vapors wafting skyward. “How did you do that?”
“I put my sword to his throat,” I said softly, “and as he seemed obdurate in his evil, I began to press on it. The point went in...”
The room went black, and in a flash, I stood once more before Blackbeard, my sword in my hand. My mind was again of crystalline clarity, and my goals – his death, his dismemberment, spiking his head and hanging his bagged cut-up remains to rot as an object lesson, and then burning the entire city while destroying all life I found within its boundaries – was as if it had just occurred to me. I heard soft words, and I came to myself once more as if the whole scene had not happened.
Or so I thought until Anna said, “where did you go just now, and why do you smell of powder and blood?”
“I, uh, don't know what happened,” I squeaked. “It was as if it was happening all over again – my sword going into his neck slowly, my thinking to remove his head for a pole and then bag his remains so as to hang them to rot, then burning his city to the ground and killing everything that lived within it, and making the entire fifth kingdom house into a burn-pile, so as to cleanse it of evil.” I paused, then said, “and before I spiked him, I knew beyond all doubt he had chosen Brimstone, and I knew I would do all that I just spoke of – and that to the utmost degree possible.”
I then screamed, “God! Help me! Why did I think that way, and what was I doing? Please, help me, I don't want to be a witch!”
I was handed a rag, and when I had dried my latest spate of tears, Anna looked at me with a knowing look. “That sounds quite familiar, actually, as it was precisely the type of thing done between the end of that war long ago and the time of the Curse.”
“K-kill all that lives, and burn what remains?” I asked sobbingly.
“It was said in many more words, and much less clearly,” said the soft voice of Sarah. “Those who wrote those accounts produced the most unclear writing I have ever seen, and I include official documents for the second kingdom house in what I say.” Sarah looked at the revolver I had disassembled, then at the still-assembled one, and picked up the latter. I was not merely astounded at her strength, but also her steadiness. The pistol did not waver in the slightest, and I wondered if she could fire one without becoming injured.
“I never held such a large pistol before,” she said. “What is it like to shoot?”
“Those things are bad for the hands,” said Hans. “Talk has it your hand goes numb, then it hurts bad for days.”
“And it burns some,” I said. “You can ask Lukas about what his hands felt like.”
“That is who told me,” said Hans. “Now Anna has the food ready.”
“Not quite,” said Anna. “I need to dish it up.”
The meal went silently for a change, as we all had work to do after finishing; and as we went down into the basement, I recalled another task I needed to do that afternoon, as well as the need for a nap beforehand. Briefly, I wondered if it would be possible to explore it after dark.
“Yes, if you take that alcohol lantern in a bag and are careful when and where you use it,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, that is a very good idea.”
“Won't you be shot as a burglar?” asked Sarah.
“What would a burglar want in a witch's house?” I asked. “Had he any sense, he'd stay clear of it.”
“I much doubt burglars have such thoughts,” said Sarah, “as most people like that are witches first and burglars second, and ransacking such a house would be something they would wish to do.”
I almost slapped my head with the suddenness of the idea. “So if I clear the place of fetishes, and then rig it afterward, it might well catch witches.”
“Yes, if you rig it the next day,” said the soft voice. “While clearing the place after dark is a very wise idea, it needs to be done in a quick and thorough fashion – and more, you must not let your presence be known to the townspeople while you are in there, as you will be shot otherwise.”
“But fetishes tend to make a lot of noise,” I murmured.
“These aren't that strong,” said the soft voice. “Much of what's in there is ceremonial clothing, as the man was not a full-fledged witch yet.”
“He still tried for me,” said Anna.
“So he is where he belongs,” said Hans, who then looked at me so as to speak. “How will you get rid of that stuff?”
In my mind, I wondered for a moment. Speaking to fetishes tended to cause unusual things to happen, but I gave the matter of their disposal to the future. We would be doing thimble-mix shortly, and that hair-raising job needed all my attention and every prayer I could manage.
Once down in the basement, I was astonished at the utter and complete change that had come over the place. Hans – and most likely at least one other person, with Sarah being the most likely – had been most industrious in setting up a 'thimble line', and the chemicals present at each station where a 'reaction' took place made for fearful mumbling on my part – at least, until I saw the stacked boxes of dynamite in a far corner.
“H-Hans,” I gasped, as I pointed with shaking arm at the two varnished boxes. The idea of having cap-sensitive products handy while compounding a primary high explosive sounded distinctly unwise, and my fear-laden speech betrayed me. “D-dynamite.”
“That is farmer's dynamite,” he said, as he took my shaking hand in his and led me closer to the boxes. As we came near, I noticed the usual 'dynamite box' details, then when at arm's length, I saw a difference that staggered me: a stenciled white plow, with white block letters beneath it spelling out the recipe: “four parts oil, four parts of niter, and three parts of sawdust.” Above the plow, however, was a label of white block letters, and that legend...
“Farmer's dynamite,” I muttered when I saw the uppermost letters in white.
“I have it outside the cold room while we do this, as I have the ice in there,” said Hans. I was beginning to get a headache, and as I reached my hand to my head to rub it, the headache increased. Only when I came away from the dynamite did the headache begin to subside, and I felt reminded of the material we had recovered the night before.
“Is there dynamite that does not cause much of a headache?” I asked innocently.
“Yes, there are two types,” said Hans. “One is sold by thieves, and has no oil, and the other type has a little oil and a lot of other stuff.”
“That must have been what we found last night, then,” said Sarah. “You might show him your cold-room, so he knows of it.”
Hans took me to the south side of the laboratory, and thrust aside an old and somewhat 'moth-eaten' 'rug' to show a door unusual for its width and height. I would need to duck my head to enter, I suspected, while the width was easily half again that of the usual door-size. Hans twisted the knob, and as he opened the door, I was glad first for noiseless hinges, and secondly astounded by the chill within.
“What is this, a deep-freeze?” I asked, as I saw first the three large buckets of sparkling ice, then the arched stone roof of a place perhaps five feet wide and a bit more than twice that for length. I felt reminded of a storm-drain like the ones I had played in as a child.
“This is how my grandfather did his cold-room,” said Hans, “only his had two runs, one for chemicals and the other for food. Both of them were bigger for wide, and especially for long.”
The headache then hit me full-force, and I gasped at its intensity. Stacked nearly to the low ceiling at the rear of the place were boxes of dynamite, all of them with cryptic-looking chalk marks. I counted at least eight such boxes. A number of jugs, all of them sizable, were closer. These were to each side of a narrow pathway, this done so as to give access to all of the place's contents readily.
“That dynamite there has more oil, so it is inclined to spoil quicker,” said Hans. “We will need to get the ice out of here when it is time, so it is best to leave in there before it melts more.”
With the door closed and my headache slowly fading, I recalled the seat in one fifth kingdom Public House; and seeing filled examples of such boxes reminded me of my excessive-seeming caution.
“Do they use boxes like that for seats in the fifth kingdom?” I asked.
“They do that in some of the poorer places,” said Hans. “If you see a seat made out of a dynamite box, check that box good, as they sometimes rig those things so as to kill people.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“There is usually a thin string tied to a friction igniter, and that goes in the cap,” said Hans, “and there are usually three sticks of that dynamite that does not give headaches.” A pause, then, “the thug pulls the string when the person he wants dead sits down on the box.”
“It usually gets that whole table,” said Sarah, who sounded as if she'd seen the matter spoken of actually done – and that multiple times. “I've got the first step ready, except for the ice.”
“You get that stuff,” said Hans. “This can take a while, and I know you do not have much for time.”
With the ice floating in a wooden bucket filled with water, the three of us went to the first 'station'. I vaguely recalled the process for making 'fulminate of mercury' – put the mercury in nitric acid, and then add high-strength ethanol – but having heard something of the greater reactivity of chemicals here, I wondered if the 'earth' recipe worked in the same manner. Hans pointed to the glassware used.
“Uh, fumes?” I asked.
“Those are easy,” said Hans, with the confidence of an 'old hand', “unless you are greedy and wish to sup with Brimstone in a hurry.”
What?” I asked.
“Small batches are dangerous enough to suit me,” said Sarah, “and that when using common liquid death.”
Hans seemed not to hear her, at least to my fearful ears. “First, you put the acid...”
“Where is it?” I asked.
“In the cold room,” said Hans. “I will get it once I tell you about this part.” A brief pause, then “you put the acid in the flask there while under the fume hood, then you use this thing I did up for the liquid death, you swish it around some after waiting a bit, and then add some aquavit, a drop at a time, with the fumes from that vented into some water with salaterus in it.”
Hans made a frightfully dangerous process sound simple and easy, and when he returned with the jug of acid, I noted first the nose-burning reek that seemed to come from the still-corked jug at a distance, and then its icy chill when it was close enough for me to touch it. I felt reminded of an ice-cold cobra – a snake that adored cold in some fashion due to its molten-iron blood and white-hot angry many-fanged disposition – when I actually touched the jug and felt its solid-cold infuriated mass.
“Aqua fortis?” I asked, as I wondered why that acid was named thusly. The closest thing to Latin spoken here was the language of the Valley.
“Yes, that is the stuff,” said Hans. “I am not sure where that name came from.”
“I am,” said Sarah. “It comes from before the war, much as do many of the names of chemicals.”
“You have your suspicions about who provided that name?” I asked.
“Less about who and much more about how,” said Sarah. “I suspect the witches of that time were involved in some fashion.”
“And everyone uses those names,” I muttered.
“Yes, so you know what you have,” said Hans – who sounded astonishingly assured, almost oblivious, even. “Now there is this funnel there, and that glass jug to put the stuff in.”
Hans first put the funnel into an Erlenmeyer flask of roughly 'liter' sized – I had once had a pair such flasks of that size – and then he removed the waxed cork from the jug. The explosive eruption of orange-red fumes from the jug made me glad the fume hood was drawing well, and as he slowly poured the orange-tinged clear liquid, I could feel – and hear – the scream-raging nature of the acid.
“Now put in that cork there,” said Hans as he corked the jug once more.
Hans meant an ancient-looking yet otherwise nearly-pristine dark-brown rubber stopper, and as he walked back to the cold room, I spied another jug. Superimposed upon it was a small white tag with the letters 'Hg' upon it.
“That is the liquid death,” said Sarah softly. “That name did not come from a tapestry.”
“Th-the others did?” I asked.
“That was why I spoke as I did,” said Sarah. “Many of those strange chemical names were used back then, much as they are now, and there were many witches who used chemicals. There were some very strange names in that portion of that tapestry, and I was glad to sleep without nightmares that night.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. Hans was returning.
“Many of the names I can but barely speak, much less recall to mind,” said Sarah. “There were a list of twenty-six of them, all of them named as districts of the chief city of witches in that place, and one in particular was especially involved with chemicals. Its name began with an 'M' – and it had more witches in it than the Swartsburg has had in the last hundred years.”
“Ah, that sounds like a bad part of the fifth kingdom house,” said Hans. “There are places that do lots of chemicals there.” A pause, then, “this is the first tricky part, and it will want all three of us.” A pause. “Sarah, take out the cork of this jug once I set it down, and when I get the stuff, put it back in.”
Sarah began working on the long and slightly twisted wax-covered cork of the jug, and when the wax 'cracked' suddenly, she almost shrieked. I could feel her fear as she slowly twisted the cork side to side so as to remove it. I looked to Hans, and saw his 'siphoning' arrangement, that being a long and pointed glass pipette the diameter of my smallest finger embedded in a rubber cork.
He then handed it to me, and said, “when I speak, Sarah takes out the cork all the way, and you put that thing in the jug with your finger over the top of that tube there.” A brief pause, then, “Sarah, out with the cork.”
A brief twist, and Sarah's cork came loose. I came closer with the pipette, then when she took the cork out, I slipped in what I was holding. I held my breath just the same, and when I stood there as if holding the trigger back from a huge and 'angry' bomb, I asked, “what now?”
I then noted that the 'open' end of the pipette had a length of rubber tubing under my finger, and this tubing – long, black, slightly age-checked, but otherwise decent-looking at the least – led to a crock filled with a milky substance.
“That stuff there will catch the fumes that stuff likes to give off,” said Hans. “Now, slow and easy, let off your finger so that stuff goes up into the tube there.”
I did so, again feeling as if I were playing with a hair-triggered bomb of inconceivable power. The first intimation of 'strangeness' was a slightly lumpy 'jolting' under my hand, then another, then a series of smaller jolts that slowly diminished in intensity as they continued. I watched the portion of glass above the cork, and to my utter astonishment, I saw a silvery material slowly climbing up the tube!
“Does this stuff defy gravity, or what?” I thought, as the level 'jumped' an infinitesimal amount with another jolting sensation.
“A bit more, then stop it with your finger,” said Hans. “Sarah, when he takes that thing out, cork the jug. I have the thing for the acid here.”
“D-don't you need to f-fill it first?” I asked. My fear was beginning to 'pour' out of my mouth, and only when I looked to my left did I learn – and recall; I had forgotten the first step of the process – that of filling the waiting container of acid.
Hans moved from my right as Sarah backed up, then as I watched, he began to wrestle with the cork of the Erlenmeyer flask. I saw plainly the Roesmaan's label on the jug I was 'corking' with the pipette.
“There, that is enough,” said Hans. I put my finger on the top of the tube's rubber tubing, and both 'jolts' and 'climbing' stopped as if a switch had been turned. The tube had perhaps two inches of glass remaining clear of 'mercury' – though given the behavior of this stuff, no name I had heard on two planets did it justice.
“Does this stuff normally climb like this?” I asked.
“That is one of the way's Roesmaan's stuff is different,” said Hans. “Liquid death might want to climb out of its container, but it is usually not that quick or that strong for its climbing.”
“C-climb out of its container?” I gasped. “This stuff likes to escape?”
“Liquid death is most troublesome that way,” said Sarah. “One must use a wax-lined crock and a well-twisted waxed cork to keep it where it belongs.”
The rubber cork made no sound when Hans loosened it, but the clearly-visible burst of fumes when he briefly fumbled with it while making the thing ready for the coming exchange was frightening enough to make me wish to hide.
“Now, ready with the cork, Sarah,” said Hans. “When you take that out of the jug, go straight to this flask while holding your finger still on top.”
I looked at Hans, who nodded. I swiftly drew out the cork, took a step to the left, and as he removed the cork from the flask once more, I heard a soft female grunt to my right, then a sigh as I stuffed the cork-bound pipette into the Erlenmeyer flask amid a gouting cloud of iridescent orange fumes. I looked to my right, and saw Sarah carefully twisting the cork, much as she had spoken of doing.
“That is a good job there,” said Hans. “Now, let me put away this acid and that stuff there while you keep holding that tube.”
Thankfully, Hans was quick, and he returned less than a minute later. The lessened 'clutter' under the fume hood was distinctly helpful.
“Now, this part is tricky,” said Hans. “Let up your finger slow, so that that stuff drops in little drops.”
I looked to my right, and saw the rubber tube once more in the crock. It had come out in my rapid moving to cork the jug of acid, and it was now once more where it belonged so as to catch the fumes of the material in the tube. With trepidation, I let up my finger's pressure slightly.
A small glistening silver drop formed at the bottom of the pipette amid the raging orange-red fumes, then as I watched, it grew slowly – until with a sudden 'jerk', the viscous-seeming silvery gray material left the end of the tube and plunged into the infuriated sea of acid below. A small gout of brilliant red fumes boiled up while another such drop formed at the end of the pipette, and as I watched raptly, I noted the glue-like viscosity of the 'mercury', as well as its thready fibrous nature.
I then saw what happened when the second drop hit the surface of the acid.
Amid greater-yet gouting of red fumes, I saw what might have been brief yellow-tinted flames – and only by considerable effort did I not run for the stairs.
“That stuff is nasty,” I muttered.
“That is the usual for chemicals,” said Hans, “and I was right about you doing this part.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Those flames usually precede an explosion,” said Sarah. “I was most fortunate that I caught it in time when I tried it with Roesmaan's material at school.”
“Yes, and those liquid death fumes are going in that crock, so we do not need to breathe them,” said Hans. “The old way did not collect them at all, and those doing this did not last long.”
“Thimble-maker's disease,” said Sarah. “It kills quickly once it shows, and it does so with great pain that can neither be endured nor relieved.” A pause, then, “that tincture for pain is worthless then.”
With each succeeding drop, the faintly orange color of the acid became darker and closer to the color of the fumes hovering over it, while the fume-eruptions became less and less violent. The flames no longer occurred, and as the pipette grew emptier, Hans came with what looked like a long and carefully-carved clothespin.
“This is for that tube there when that stuff is done,” he said.
“Does this stuff normally act this irritable?”
“No,” said Hans. “The common stuff is touchier when I have done this in the past, and that stuff there would have scattered me and the laboratory had I tried it.” A pause, then, “once I clamp the tubing, we can let it set for a while, with shaking every turn of this small glass I have, so that it settles a little.”
The brick-red liquid in the flask seethed and seemed to boil with the last drop growing at the end of the pipette – it was approaching the size of a pea – then as it fell, Hans 'plugged' the rubber tubing and I relaxed my grip. My hand had grown a cramp in the process, and when I saw the small 'hourglass', I was astonished.
“That might take two minutes to empty,” I said.
“That is a thimble-glass,” said Hans. “They need making to order, and an inducement to get the glass-blowers interested, and then three payments so as to get one once they are interested in such work.”
“And usually a very long wait,” said Sarah – who implied that wait was commonly on the order of 'months at the least, if not years'. “I've been in that place before, and they are neither careless nor slothful in their labors.”
“Then why a long wait?” I asked.
“Perhaps one in five common glasses tests decent,” said Sarah. “The others go back in the glass-pot, and that for the common glasses.” A brief pause, then, “for those like that, they do well to make a decent one in an entire day's laboring, and that doing nothing else – and their days are as long as anyone's down in that place.”
As Hans upended the glass, I asked, “what do we do when this step is, uh, done?”
“Then we add the aquavit,” said Hans. “That stuff in there drops out of the acid and onto the bottom of the jug.”
“What color is it?” I asked. My recollection of mercury fulminate had the finished product described as a grayish material.
“It is reddish orange, though not so much as it is now,” said Hans. “Then, we wash it good on that special paper, add the chlorate...”
“Doesn't it need to dry carefully and then be weighed?” I asked. I then looked at Sarah, and her face showed an expression that I could only describe as terror.
“N-no,” she stammered. “That stuff needs the chlorate to behave itself, and it must be added as soon as possible while that material is still wet. Should it dry...”
“I think that chlorate stuff makes it less sensitive, is what I think,” said Hans. “Grandfather used cloth for his filters, and the cloth was safe enough as long as he kept it good and damp.”
“What?” I asked.
“He would put it out with some bread in the middle of a piece of filter-cloth about the size of Sarah's palm, or a little bigger,” said Hans, “and he put a basket over it until it was dry. Then, he would remove the basket with a fishing pole.”
I looked at Sarah's face once more. While it no longer showed terror, I could not describe the emotion she displayed to save my life beyond, 'she isn't scared out of her mind'.
“What happened then?” I asked.
“Usually, if the rats were being trouble,” said Hans as he shook the flask gently in a swirling motion, “there would be an explosion before a glass could empty.”
“That is what I commonly did with my filter-cloths,” said Sarah, “only I commonly scattered spiders, not rats.”
“S-spiders?” I asked.
“I have no idea why the west school has such creatures,” said Sarah, “but most spiders are small enough to palm. Those there commonly cover a large dinner plate, and they are entirely too friendly to suit me.”
“Gabriel spoke of spiders...”
“They were both small and rare the year he tried the place,” said Sarah. “Every other year I was there, they were both exceedingly large and very common, and I had to endure them daily.” A pause, then, “and to this day, I find spiders most annoying, and that no matter what size they are.”
“She is like Maria is with rats,” said Hans, as he gently shook the flask and Sarah upended the glass again. “We need to do this at least five times more, and then we can put in the aquavit.”
“Uh, how much will this make?” I asked.
“Depends on how hot you want your thimbles,” said Hans. “Hotter thimbles want less chlorate.”
“Hotter?” I asked.
“I have made them hot enough that they pop if they are dropped on the floor,” said Hans, “though those must be made one at a time. That Heinrich machine can use hotter mixes than some of the things the regular places do.”
“D-dropped on the floor?” I asked. I could almost hear the 'bang'.
“The test of a good thimble is to put it on a special post,” said Hans, “and then use this special thing with a hammer whose head can add or subtract weight.” A pause, then “Korn has one of those things, so he tells me how hot they are.”
Another few turns of the glass, each time the flask being gently swirled by Hans, then when he set it down, he looked closely at it. There seemed to be two layers: the top being a supernatant, and the bottom, a muddy-looking precipitate. I looked closer, and saw that what I was seeing was closer to an optical illusion, and I blinked my eyes.
I still saw two layers, and Hans brought over the parts for the next step, saying, “this part is trickier than putting the stuff in the acid.”
“It is also much shorter,” said Sarah. “It takes this special cork here, and the change must be most rapid to avoid the fumes escaping.”
Hans changed them with such speed I marveled, and as he 'fiddled' with the equipment – a ring-stand with what looked like a tall and narrow separatory funnel, some old-looking rubber tubing, one of the many 'chemistry' clamps I had made, and an even stranger pipette for the current example of rubber cork. This one had a very small tip, such that its drops would be hard indeed to see. Hans moved aside, then said, “now, open that clamp there slow and easy, and keep your hand on it in case it causes trouble.”
“T-trouble?” I asked.
“I doubt it will do that with you,” said Hans. “When it has done that with me, a fire starts inside that flask there, and I must toss the whole thing before it explodes.”
“The flask?” I asked.
“Uncork it and dump the stuff into iced water with salaterus,” said Hans. “The soot is really bad then.”
Sarah looked at Hans with a grimace, then said in a 'small' voice, “I know. I had to spend three days helping the two of them clean it out of the house the last time that happened.”
“The soot t-travels?” I asked.
“That and the smoke,” said Hans. “It is worse than a dozen burn-piles for smoke, and it smells like the fifth kingdom house for stink.”
My hand had gently twisted the clamp 'open' as we spoke, and as I watched intently, a single tiny droplet formed and grew slowly larger. It then detached from the pointed tip of the 'pipette', and fell into the seething red liquid to gout up thick gray-white fumes.
“Ah, that stuff there is catching that smoke,” said Hans as he pointed to another bucket of milky liquid with floating chunks of ice. “It looks like it will work.”
With the succeeding minutes, I slowly opened the clamp, all the while watching the reaction. For some odd reason, I felt reminded of the name of a song, one called 'Toxic Lady'. It had strange music to go with it, and as the drops fell and the layers gradually grew more and more distinct and separate from one another, I felt inclined to sing it. It fit this portion of the process perfectly.
“Toxic... Toxic... (echo: “Ooh, how toxic!”)
You know, you a cute little poisoner,
Toxic, Toxic (echo: “How toxic are you?”)
You know, you a sick little proliferator,
Toxic...” (echo: “Ooh, how toxic!”)
“I want to set you up, yeah,
I won't cause you no harm, (echo, “No!”)
That money got to be all mine,
Ooh, Toxic Lady,
Toxic, Toxic...” (echo: “Ooh, how toxic!”)
“That is a very bad song,” said Sarah. “Who is it about, Madame Curoue?”
“I am not sure, dear,” I said, as the precipitate at the bottom of the flask – a thick reddish mud, with hints of brown and perhaps orange in places – grew thicker and more opaque. “I'm not even certain I'm recalling it correctly.” A pause, then, “why, was that witch wealthy?”
“She was,” said Sarah with finality, “and until she left mysteriously some few years ago, the second kingdom house was a place where many did not know if they would be alive or dead the next day when they went to sleep.”
“She and the place where she did her stuff went up in smoke,” I said flatly. “I was told by the best source possible, so you can sleep easily on that score.”
“You did not cause it, did you?” asked Sarah.
“No, because he was not here then,” said Hans. “Now, you can undo that clamp there, and let the rest of that stuff run in as it will.”
I did so with trepidation, but the lack of fumes, as well as the rapid separation of the precipitate from the supernatant, spoke of Hans' experience, and when the funnel emptied, the liquid was clear and the mud had all settled out at the bottom.
“Now, we wash it good, first with aquavit, and then with water,” said Hans. “I am glad for that special paper stuff and the funnel it goes to, as that helps a lot.”
I soon learned Hans' secret to the matter: he had an odd-shaped funnel with a ceramic gridwork in its bottom where the filter-paper lay more or less flat with but a narrow edge to provide a 'seal', and then on the receiving flask, there was a glass 'side-arm' where tubing normally connected. The result drained rapidly, and while I stood close and watched, Hans rinsed the 'mud' carefully and Sarah collected the washings in a sizable crock.
“Those?” I asked.
“I will take that crock out and put it on top of the wall,” said Hans. “It is a cheap one, so if it scatters, I will loose little.”
“Unless it scatters especially hard and someone is nearby,” said Sarah.
“This time, I doubt that will happen,” said Hans. “I have never had this reaction behave as good as this time, no matter whose chemicals I used and how I did it.”
The still-damp mud went into an old-looking ceramic mortar, and the chlorate – a fine white granular material that caused me to sneeze repeatedly – was added. I stirred the mix while Hans watched, then once the red had turned into a delicate shade of pink, he added a small scoop of another dried material.
“That is the gum,” he said. “Now, work it up good with that pestle there, and I will get the crock so as to age it.”
“A-age?” I asked.
“Thimble mix is usually rested for at least a week before loading,” said Hans, “and...”
“You do not need to do that with this batch,” said the soft voice. “More, it needs about half again as much chlorate to be up to your usual standards.”
As Hans added the chlorate, I asked as to why.
“Partly due to purer chemicals,” said the soft voice, “and mostly due to who actually did the reactions.”
“What?” I asked. “How?”
Sarah turned to me, then said, “things happen differently with those marked.”
“Yes, and he is not the common for marked,” said Hans. “There, that is about right.”
“Another small amount,” said the soft voice. “You needed to weigh your chlorate additions, not add it with a scoop like you usually do.” A brief pause, then, “if you have someone with substantial markings perform chemical reactions, the reactions proceed differently – and in the case of this one, much differently.”
“And a higher level of precision is needed overall,” I murmured.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Be glad that you'll not need to do this reaction again under these conditions.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Because that isn't a year's supply of thimble mix,” said the soft voice. “That material is roughly three times stronger than the usual, as well as more sensitive than what Hans usually makes – and that with the added chlorate.”
“Oh, my,” said Sarah. “We will be loading thimbles for a year!”
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “That batch will make well over two thousand especially 'hot' thimbles, and your husband commonly presses nearly eighty thimbles-casings per week – and that machine loads them almost as fast as you can put the thimbles in and take them out.”
“That, and any place that has submarines has weapons more advanced than what we commonly use,” I thought. I then wondered silently for a moment if they had 'ray-guns' of some kind.
“No, they do not have those,” said the soft voice, “even if they do have the technical capacity to make such weapons.”
What?” I thought. There was no answer, and I was still 'mixing'. The material needed especially 'thorough' mixing, especially as the 'resting' period commonly completed the job of 'desensitizing' the 'fulminate'.
“And that chemical is not fulminate of mercury,” said the soft voice. “It may use a similar process, and similar-looking materials, but the product, especially with your intimate involvement, is not what you think it is.”
Finally, the ground glass was added, along with more water; and as I carefully mingled the material with a wooden dowel, I noted the color of the mix was steadily taking on an orange-brown hue. Hans came to look, and said with unconcealed admiration, “ah, that is good thimble mix. Sarah is setting the machine up so as to do up some of those things.
“They'll go a bit faster, as you won't need to refill it nearly as often,” I said. “Do you keep this in the cold-room between such sessions?”
“Yes, as that gum will get nasty otherwise,” said Hans. “I have to take it out now and then and add a little water and mix it up good so it stays right for the machine there.”
Hans had accumulated a surprisingly large number of thimbles, and once I had finished 'mingling' the mixture, I could leave the two of them to their labors. I had a nap to 'perform', and then a house to explore and clear of fetishes and other troubles common with witches; and then afterward, I wasn't certain. I climbed the stairs with weary arms and a weary mind, and I wasn't certain if I fell asleep before I lay down on my bed or afterward.