“More Fetishes. Lovely.”
In my dreams – they were most uneasy, almost as if I were visiting Franz' world of overly large garbage bugs and assaying becoming one, there to die due to an infection caused by an angrily-tossed apple – I 'acquired' some intimations regarding exploring the lately-vacated house; and when I awoke, I was softly speaking words which I did not understand.
At least, I did not understand them until I awoke completely. I was in the privy then, and adding 'glycerin' to the 'nitrator'. My 'bottle' was almost empty, and the fumes of the place were burning my eyes and nose.
“I would keep that in mind,” said the soft voice. “Hans can readily get more ice this time of year, and you will want that soon enough.”
I somehow made the connection, and gasped “nitro?”
There was no answer, but when I came out of the privy, I had to dodge Anna, as she was simultaneously stirring a trio of steaming pots and putting dishes and bowls on the table.
“Here, you put these out,” she said, handing me several plates. “I know what you need to do after dark, and I'd wait at least an hour after the sun goes down before leaving for that place.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“People in town may be more awake than ever I have seen them,” said Anna, “but they still tend to go to sleep at sundown, or just after.”
“That is because they are planting, and that is hard work,” said Hans, as he came up into the kitchen. “I will need to wash up good, as I have every thimble-rack filled.”
“Th-thimble-rack?” I asked.
“Yes, those things are under the fume hood, where there is a little breeze,” said Hans. “Thimbles take about two days to dry in this weather, or better than a week in the winter.”
“These will dry faster,” said the soft voice. “I would package them up tomorrow night, and use wax to seal your crocks for long-term storage.”
“Why is this?” asked Hans. I heard curiosity untainted by 'custom'.
“They will 'keep' better,” said the soft voice. “Recall the snow, and then the rains?”
“This summer will be as hot as is usual, but until 'high' summer, the added dampness will tend to weaken thimbles unless they are protected.” A pause, then, “your dipping friction-igniters in wax will help more than a little.”
“As in yours will fire reliably while everyone else's will be duds if they are more than a month old,” I muttered.
“Worse than that,” said the soft voice. “Thankfully, most of the gunners have been getting wax-dipped igniters to replace those otherwise, as now Korn does his that way also.”
“Yes, and I told him about it, too,” said Hans.
“And those gunners practicing with non-waxed igniters are learning of their unreliability,” said the soft voice. “That Roesmaan's chlorate will help with those, also.”
“Good that we got so much,” said Hans. “Those guns are ready to go together, as the stocks are done.”
“I need to m-make up the blacking...”
“You need to eat dinner first,” said Anna, who then went to the stairway going upstairs. “Sarah, come down. It's dinner.”
After our eating, however, I went down into the basement. I was having trouble keeping my mind on the blackening formula, so much so that as I looked around so as to find vessels with which to 'try it out', I was finding that all I could think about was the after-dark foray into the 'witch house'. I was about to give up any thought of working on the blacking recipe when Sarah suddenly 'showed' next to me.
“Are you going to try blacking?” she asked.
“N-not n-now,” I stammered. “It's nearly sundown...”
“It's past that by half a turn of a glass,” said Sarah. “If you leave me your notes, I can try to get things ready for you before I go to bed.”
I glumly did so, and returned myself to the couch. For some reason, I thought to pray, and within seconds, I was not merely 'immersed' – but in another world entirely.
Here, the sky was dark, with a half-hid moon amid high and ragged clouds, and the sleeping town seemed unaware of my presence as I moved behind the jagged border formed by the stone walls to the rear of the various houses. There was a path between these walls and the beginning of the planted areas of each field, and while this gap was narrow – perhaps five feet in the wider places, and two in the narrower ones – it was mostly firmly packed, with but little dust. The dust would come later.
More, it was quiet, and it had no stones. I was not wearing shoes.
I had two lanterns: the filled and serviced alcohol lantern, rag-wrapped and bagged in my pack, and the shuttered one, its candle lit and all shutters fully closed. All I could see was a faint pinpoint of light if I looked at it from the very top and some vague numinous glowings from the sides if I held it up to my face.
In addition to my lanterns, I had an awareness of what to expect: the witch had not quite trapped his house entirely, as when Anna had shot him, he was resting so as to leave that night at about the hour I was to 'burgle' his house. While I did not like doing this, I had a most-strong intimation: this house, like the armory, needed no interference from helpful well-meaning people who would readily be taken over or blown up by its contents; and like the armory, the only time I could render the place 'safe' was when they were all asleep.
More, I knew that they all were indeed asleep, even if some in town were notoriously light sleepers and inclined to shoot before they had awoken enough to think. A common response – indeed, the usual response in much of the central part of the first kingdom – to night-noises was 'shoot at the source of the noise until it no longer moves or makes noise, and then go back to bed'. Investigation, if it happened, would occur once people were entirely awake, properly fed, fully clothed, and ready for work.
“Which was why I was warned, no doubt,” I thought, as I silently moved like a rat among shadows. I came to the rear of the place in question, noted the tall and dank weeds indicating near-total neglect of the area – the previous houses had had their weeds at least 'trimmed' – and found the fold.
“It's blocked,” I thought, as I began to remove the rocks filling it. “This will take extra time.”
I then knew that 'extra time' was needed, as some people in town stayed up later than had I thought they might, and only now were they actually going to bed. Moreover, one such family was but two houses south from where I currently labored in near-silence.
“Thank God they don't have dogs in town,” I thought, as I removed another rock and set it to the side of the fold. I was wary for traps, as I suspected there might be one present, and when I 'suddenly' found a stick, I knew my wariness was indeed right – and that my recent experience with the armory had prepared me well for yet another rigged abode of witches.
And as I moved the rocks from around the 'trigger', however, I knew another matter: those rigging the armory had been experts compared to this individual.
“And those people were not experts,” I thought, as I reminded myself to be careful just the same.
“Especially here,” said the soft voice in my 'dream' or whatever it was. “Those in the armory had long studied the ways of traps, as the black book has a sizable section dealing with them.” A brief pause, then, “this man had nothing more than hearsay to go by, and hence his 'traps' are so haphazard that they are actually much worse for danger.”
“As in?” I asked. I was being yet more careful with the stick now. I did not want to touch it, even lightly – and I could feel the sense of danger growing with each rock I removed and set aside. More, it was important that I render every such trap I found 'safe' – as the owners, when they actually arrived, would be utterly ignorant of such matters, more so than nearly all of those in town. Those living here at least knew enough to find Hans in such situations – unlike those coming, who were ignorant not merely of traps, but also those dealing with them. The area in which they'd been living 'for ages' was nearly as backward as the 'lazy' part of the second kingdom's back country – and both places had no chemists or bombers.
“Due to his ignorance, he did stupid things and took chances that would make Hans cringe, even were he engaged in what he calls 'desperation measures',” said the soft voice, “and in the process, his 'traps' became not only unpredictable in their action, but also far more 'dangerous' than those you found in the armory.”
“Which is why I am here alone,” I thought, as I uncovered the neck of a jug, complete with a badly-whittled cork holding a corroded friction igniter that looked too far old to function.
“Looks is right,” said the soft voice. “Most of the time, those like that are inert.”
“Most of the time?” I asked.
“Now and then, the impurities in the mix – both incidental impurities and those deliberately added – cause the precise opposite effect, given time and dampness,” said the soft voice. “He had a small number of those devices, and all of them were well past their prime. He did not know this, and used them anyway.”
“And every one of them is sensitive enough to go off if touched,” I thought with a trace of pique.
“Yes, a light touch,” said the soft voice. “While there are more sensitive trigger devices in witchdom, deteriorated fifth kingdom friction igniters, especially those procured from outlets favored by witches, are bad enough that way that knowledgeable witches either test them carefully or sell them to the unsuspecting – or both, as they did with the late departed.”
I carefully removed rock after rock in the fold, all the time avoiding the slightest contact with the stick, and as the jug became more and more visible, I saw its coarse hand-thrown texture and what might have been a green stripe around its middle. I knew of two types of such jugs – one held a particularly volatile cleaning solution that was especially bad for fires, and the other held 'deworming medicine'. I wasn't certain which type of jug I was dealing with, so I presumed the worst; and when I cleared the rocks from around the thing, I carefully lifted it free and then turned around in place.
There were long furrows ahead of me, furrows going back far into the darkness unto the vanishing point; and as I walked barefoot among the rich earth with what amounted to a ticking time bomb in my hands, I wondered what would happen if the thing detonated between my finishing up the mess inside the house and the morning to come – and more important, how far out into the fields I needed to go. I came to an area that looked unplowed – it was an easy three hundred yards from the stone wall – and gently set the device down in its middle. No furrow was closer than thirty feet from the spot.
“If it does not detonate on its own by sunup,” said the soft voice, “you'll need to shoot it from the rear wall of where you live. It's far too dangerous for anyone else to come close to.”
“Uh, why?” I asked, as I turned around in my tracks to look once more at the jug. I'd walked perhaps ten paces while I'd heard the speech, and when I actually looked, I stood still in utter shock.
The device was surrounded by a very hazy yet distinct bluish glow, and a small white tag showed, pointed end next to the igniter, with the words 'impurities include free nitrogen and iodine in combined form'.
“Oh, my,” I gasped, as I thought to run and checked myself in mid-stride. My footfalls would cause the device to detonate. “I've heard of that stuff, and sensitive isn't the word for it.”
“It is not that chemical,” said the soft voice, “even if it is actually more sensitive than dry thimble mix without any chlorate to stabilize it. There is at least one other friction igniter in that house in a similar condition.”
“One other?” I asked. I was halfway back to the wall by now, and I could feel something strange happening to my rear. It was as if the device wanted to detonate without any outside influence, and it would do so when it was good and ready – and it was ready. Something – or someone – was preventing it from doing so.
“Is that why I need to hurry?” I asked. “Those friction igniters will pop on their own?”
“There is a fair chance of them doing so before morning,” said the soft voice. “That one you removed is the worst one, though the other 'bad' one is not much better.”
“How many did he have?” I asked.
“Twenty all told,” said the soft voice, “most of which are in a leather pouch in his desk. He only had time to place three 'bombs' inside the house, so most of his 'materials' are either on or beside his desk.” A brief pause, then, “still, what he did rig isn't trivial.”
“Uh, gun-traps?” I asked.
“Several, including two old roers,” said the soft voice. “At least with those, you should have little trouble.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“All of them are old and badly in need of maintenance,” said the soft voice. “Most will not be able to fire due to rust and dirt-clogged mechanisms, and those which able to fire will need a healthy tug on their strings.” I took this last as a hint as to what to look for.
The darkness abruptly faded, and as I looked around, I saw that I was still in the house. I turned where I sat, and in looking out the window, I saw that the darkness outside was going from a deep and dark blue to a total and complete 'black'. It was but slightly later than Sarah had spoken of.
“Another half-hour to an hour before I go outside,” I murmured. “I'd best not wait longer than an hour, not with an about-to-go jug-bomb in his fold and another one but slightly better in his house.”
“I'd wait a bit more than that,” said the soft voice. “What you were shown was later than it seemed.”
“The bombs?” I asked.
“Are as stated,” said the soft voice. “I'd take notes while I was waiting, in fact, as dealing with witches that think themselves to be tricky is going to be a most-common occurrence in the months to come.”
“As in something like this is going to happen again?” I asked.
There was no answer, even if I did have suspicions. Accordingly, I wrote while seated upon the couch in the light of a student's lantern for what seemed an hour, then as I looked up from my ledger, I saw not merely the single night-candle upon the table, but the alcohol lantern next to it. I walked over, silent in my bare feet, and checked it.
“F-full,” I thought.
“Sarah filled it when she finished for the night,” said the soft voice. “Get those things you recall having with you, and by that time, it will be 'time' for you to set out.”
As I gathered my 'supplies', I thought about the late departed 'witch'. First, he was actually a well-hid miser who did not yet have his bones. He was plotting on getting them, however, on the way south toward his well-planned – and pre-paid – hiding place deep in the heart of the second kingdom house. “Now I want that small candle-lantern with the shutters, as it's dark as an unlit coal mine in that house and there are places where using the alcohol lantern, even turned down, would be most unwise.” I was thinking about the parlor and the largest upstairs room, to be precise. Both rooms had windows facing the street, and I doubted they were covered. I wanted thick cloths, or better, sheets of thin leather, and I wondered if I could get something suitable.
“Ah, in here,” I thought, as I found the pieces of deer-hide I had saved from what had come from the tanners. One was that one piece that had covered our window but lately, and another one, this one nearly as large, had come but recently from the tanners. Anna had commented multiple times about my needing a new apron for work, but for some reason, just 'soaping' the existing one had seemed sufficient.
It had gotten it cleaner, even if now I knew the 'dirt' was really more 'severe wear' and 'scorch marks' rather than just 'filth' – and also, for some reason, I was waiting for something more than merely a new apron.
“Like the hide of a fresh elk,” I thought, as I gathered more of what I recalled.
It was odd that I seemed to know so much about the inside of the place, even though I had not gone inside the man's house. I looked around as I gathered up my possible bag and rifle, then thought, “this one here might be a bit bigger, and maybe have some odd features, but otherwise, it's most likely got a similar layout.”
“No,” said the soft voice. “The layout is nearly identical as to floor plan, and the dimensions are but slightly smaller.” A brief pause, then, “were it not rigged, you could navigate it blindfolded, it is so similar to where you live.”
“The desk?” I asked. “The basement?”
“The desk is similar to Hans', and is in nearly the same place in a basement of near-identical size and shape,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, however, that basement is almost empty.”
“Some shelves on the walls, mostly, and a lot of dust on the floor, correct?” I asked.
While there was no answer, I had the sense of my statements being exceptionally likely as to truthfulness, and once outside to the rear of the house with lantern, possible bag, rifle, and pack, I 'listened' carefully.
“Most of the people who are still awake are at the other end of town,” I thought, as I walked slowly toward the fold on the pathway stones, “and they mostly work at the Public House.”
“I would watch for those heading home from there, though,” said the soft voice. “There are three families in town still eating.”
“Uh, what?” I asked. I somehow suspected 'entire' pies, one per person, for some reason.
“Just the usual 'good meal', much as you've had with Hans and Anna,” said the soft voice. “They just started later than usual due to planting-induced fatigue, and are sleepy and tired enough that it's a struggle for them to stay awake right now.”
“Seeding?” I asked, as I went out through the fold to there pause once more at the opening to the fields. The sky was darker than I recalled it being, with but the barest trace of a moon; and while there were clouds, they were both somewhat lower and a good deal thicker than I recalled. I was glad I could see well in dim light, and when I turned left, I saw the first 'jog' in the otherwise near-continuous continuous stone wall at the rear of everyone's property but thirty feet away.
I came to the jog, then moved left the four feet or so that it passed further out into the fields, then as I walked along the chest-high piled stones of the wall, I carefully looked and felt underfoot for weeds. Whoever lived here kept them cleared well.
“That person's dead, though,” I murmured.
“He hid himself a good deal better than the man Anna shot,” said the soft voice. “The late departed was so 'glued' to going south and becoming a true-witch he let all else go once he'd made up his mind.”
Another jog in the 'fence', this one eight feet to the right; and as I kept in the shadows of the wall, the night seemed to get darker still. I moved slowly, a shadow dark among shadows darker still; and my feet, bare as per my instructions, made no noise as I walked with care along the well-trodden path.
“This is a well-trodden path, isn't it?” I asked silently.
“It is during the daytime,” said the soft voice. “Sarah is quite familiar with it, as she commonly moved through town by it after dark.”
“How much did she travel?” I asked, as I came to another jog. This one was easily ten feet to the left, and I paused at its field-bound corner to crouch down and look north and then east. There was nothing beyond it other than more narrow 'beaten track', and I stood up to continue.
“Almost as much as you did before meeting Jaak,” said the soft voice, “and that being on foot. She got rides when and where she could, save when she could move faster afoot.”
“Which is not hard, especially when the buggy or wagon is as slow as some I've seen or ridden on,” I thought. “Those tend to stick to roads, also.”
“Which is why she commonly made better time on foot,” said the soft voice as I came to another jog in the wall, this one to the right. The witch-house would be but two more 'yards'. “I would get her new shoes as soon as you finish both those muskets and the buggy parts – and also, get some trekking boots.” A pause, then, “she will want those.”
“That blacking?” I asked.
“Not only has she some experience with the process and its several variations,” said the soft voice, “but she has also seen Hans put his things away enough that her labors will save you no small amount of time.”
“Might she attempt it?” I asked.
“Her attempts were much as that one man's,” said the soft voice, “even if she did eventually get the blacking to 'stick' well enough to be useful.” A pause, then, “it worked, even if the results were almost embarrassing in their unevenness for coloration.”
“Inadequate cleaning,” I muttered.
“Which is the chief cause of that trouble,” said the soft voice. “Clean first thoroughly with soap and water – use a short-bristled paintbrush then – then dilute lye-water, then neutralize and etch the parts with dilute sulfuric acid – and finally, a brief dip in dilute 'aqua fortis'.”
“What will that do?” I asked.
“Depending on the length of time the parts spend in the last two steps, the finish can go from 'a high gloss' to 'completely non-reflective',” said the soft voice. “It happens slowly enough that you can stop it readily and wash with water, providing you do not touch the parts with your hands during and after cleaning them.” A brief pause, then, “blackening ferrous alloys becomes far less tricky if that is done.”
“F-far less tricky?” I asked.
“Just follow the directions written down,” said the soft voice. “The reason the proportions are so critical and the process so 'difficult' is that that everyone, save for the Heinrich works and a very few other locations, stints on the cleaning portion – or, in some cases, also uses adulterated or impure chemicals.”
“Hence Roesmaan's stuff...”
“Is almost like cheating,” said the soft voice. “Clean carefully using the four step process, watch the last steps so as to get the desired finish, boil until you get the right color – about a glass's turn worth of submersion, starting from a cold solution and progressing to boiling, gives a solid blue-black – wash well with water, dry thoroughly, and then oil. That's it.”
But two more 'jogs' remained, and I passed the first of these with ease. It was but a single leftward stride, and then an unusually wide and close-cropped area showed beneath my feet. As I walked upon it, I wondered as to the owner of the house.
“He's also buried in the cornfield,” said the soft voice.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He was caught driving pigs,” said the soft voice, “and after they'd 'aired out his smelly hide', they found several tattoos, including an 'owning' tattoo on his chest.”
“Hence a plain-dressed witch,” I murmured.
“And a most-nasty one, also,” said the soft voice. “Witchdom lost their most dependable source of information in and around Roos with his death, as well as their best 'mob-raiser' in this area, and his replacement will be most difficult.”
“Relatives?” I asked, as I came to the last 'jog' and then noticed the horribly rank knee-tall weeds to my front. Their 'deathly' odor did not help much, and I suspected the entrails of animals the witch had slaughtered for food lay among them.
“There are, but their location, at least in the minds of many, is much of a mystery,” said the soft voice. “While his house does not need clearing of fetishes, I would not think to live there.”
“Why, is a place planned?” I asked 'snidely'. The grass and weeds were making my steps much slower and needing far more care, and I could not see the ground. I expected trip-lines with every step, and I was feeling my way with great care.
“One is,” said the soft voice. “Do not speak of it to others, as the matter is supposed to be yet a secret.”
I gave up my questions as I came to the fold; and as I had been shown, it was indeed blocked. Unlike in the dream, however, the rocks were both larger and more sloppily placed; and as I took them out and carefully set them to the sides of the fold, I could 'feel' the presence of the bomb.
“He wasn't kidding,” I thought, as I uncovered the stick 'trigger'. “This thing's got worse than a hair trigger, and it's just looking for a half-baked excuse to go off.” I then caught the stink.
“Ugh, what is that stuff?” I choke-gagged. I almost didn't catch my mouth in time.
“Southern cleaning solution, as it is commonly called,” said the soft voice. “This is both impure and an 'off-brand', hence it's mostly a poorly-distilled species of light distillate with but traces of the usual mixture of chemicals added.” A pause, then, “true southern cleaning solution not only has a special name, but is not made in the fifth kingdom.”
“What?” I thought.
“It's made in the Valley,” said the soft voice, “and its name is one to conjure with, especially among the ignorant.”
“Why?” I asked. I'd but partly got the jug uncovered, and 'corroded' was an understatement regarding the friction-igniter. It looked likely to fall apart.
“It sounds like a curse in the Valley's language,” said the soft voice, “which it most emphatically is not.”
The rock piles to each side of the fold grew steadily larger as the bomb became uncovered, and when it stood barren of support save upon its very bottom – it wasn't too stable, which needed my holding the neck of the jug – I gently picked it up and backed away while turning. Two soft steps with the bomb cradled against my chest, and I was walking among furrows – and I thought to move to the side, at least until I recalled the unplowed spot.
“Which is only accessible by the way you're walking,” said the soft voice. “Walk between the furrows due east, and you'll find it.”
I did so; and less than two minutes later, I came to a flat hard area untouched by plows or seed. Its seeming 'hardness' – I could feel a large rock-collection directly underfoot – told me why it was not plowed, and I carefully set the bomb down in its center. I slowly turned, conscious of the warning I had received about its dire sensitivity, and walked away; and when I had gone perhaps ten strides, I turned and looked around.
The bomb, stick and all, was faintly shrouded by a light bluish-white halo; and the small whitish pointed tag I saw clearly spoke of a nitrogen and iodine compound, as well as 'extreme and growing sensitivity'. I dared not think about 'when' it might go off, as that might well cause the fetish to detonate immediately.
“He chanted when he set that thing, didn't he?” I thought.
“He did that whenever and wherever he could while preparing all of this stuff, as was appropriate for a witch,” said the soft voice. “Had he made his bones, however, and then survived his first year in the second kingdom house...” A pause, then, “he would have become a witch to reckon with had he managed that.”
“Koenraad?” I asked.
“In time, yes, assuming he survived that long,” said the soft voice. “This generation of witches, being the last, has more than its share of strong examples being raised up.” A brief pause, then, “and, it also has more than its share of witches engaging in foolhardiness and coming to the dinner plate of Brimstone 'early'.”
“Then again, Brimstone's hunger is a bit more than usual,” I thought, as I came back to the nearly cleared fold.
There were no more traps in the fold, and I cleared the rest of the stones in case I needed to leave quickly. I went to the horse-barn, and there found the place utterly deserted of both horses and their gear. A brief smell spoke of mules, though they were long gone.
“A witch-messenger kept his pair there overnight during the 'sleepy time', said the soft voice, “and the witch who lived here had his quartet of mules and buggy hidden in that witch-controlled town you encountered while gathering those 'quinine' plants.”
“Is it still witch-controlled?” I asked.
“It is, though the witches are currently both far weaker and much fewer in number,” said the soft voice. “Should you get the chance before you go on your trip, I would burn it to the ground and kill all of those inhabitants which remain.”
“Burn the whole town? Kill everyone?” I gasped. I was at the rear door of the house, and something told me to expect a gun-trap in the kitchen set to shoot the person coming in the door.
“Use some of this witch's jugs, and have Sarah help you once that buggy is finished,” said the soft voice. “Do up bombs like you did when the witches came for the fever-bark.”
“Those things were awful,” I thought. “Now this door...”
I bent down and saw not merely the lock's keyhole, but also the knob's button, and thought, “Hans said misers liked these doorknobs, and this man was a miser in disguise.” A pause, then, “I guess Hans was right.”
I put my hand upon the door, and the lock's tumblers at first moved slowly, then the lock clicked. I inserted my knife through the crack, and a thin sliver of light showed about chest-high for a second as the blade of my knife cut first one string, then a second example.
“Thorough wretch,” I muttered, as I oiled the door's hinges with an awl and my oil bottle. “Two traps for one door...”
“No, just the one weapon,” said the soft voice. “He knew a fair amount about witches and their ways of breaking in, which is why he used two lard-greased strings instead of just the one.”
I opened the door with the handle of my hatchet, pushing it open slowly, and as I came into a darkness so dark I had trouble seeing, I opened the shutter of my lantern but the merest trifle. A brief scan to my rear, and I saw not merely the filth upon the floor, but also the musket on the wall with its drooping trigger string.
“That one's mostly useful for parts and scrap-metal,” said the soft voice. “The lock's about as bad as Hans' was before you repaired it.”
“Stiff gritty trigger?” I asked.
“If you can get it to hold the cock,” said the soft voice.
“Is severely corroded,” said the soft voice. “I'd save the stock and toss the rest in Frankie.”
“Frankie?” I gasped. The door was closed, and the house felt like a tomb – and such thinking reminded me, upon hearing that name, of a tall and clumsy creature 'assembled' from the exhumed remains of the dead.
“The metal plaque is on its way,” said the soft voice. “Georg saw your writing on the 'submarine' before you left on that trip and commissioned it in bronze, thinking it a good name for a device supposedly renowned for its irritability and bad manners.”
I was now 'in' the witch-house, and with the half-opened shutters of the candle-lantern showing to the front and the lantern held low, I moved bent-over toward the single window in the parlor. I moved slowly, step by dust-shuffling step, and when my bare toes came upon a thin line of 'grease' I froze. I backed up, knelt down, and in the faint glimmering I saw what might have been a string.
I left the lantern there, and stepped over lantern and string. For some reason, 'El Brujé' – where that name came from was a complete and utter mystery – had only put one gun-trap in the parlor.
“Given he was still moving around on this floor while getting ready to leave, he didn't wish to shoot himself,” said the soft voice. “The other floors have more traps, with the basement having the worst one remaining.”
“That other nasty bomb,” I murmured, as I came to the right end of a dusty couch and shucked my pack. I had the leather window covering in it, as well as a thick square of canvas in addition to the second piece of leather, and when I looked above the window, I saw three pegs – just like at home.
“This is too much,” as I hung first the leather I had used before for covering the window at home, then the wider canvas over it as 'insurance'. “What gives?”
“The same crew of people built both houses,” said the soft voice, “and but a year apart.”
With the window blocked, I lit the alcohol lantern; and in its turned-down light, I carefully investigated the nearly barren room. Save for a free-standing 'closet' of some kind next to the north wall, the couch – it was in the same place as at home – a pair of three-legged stools next to the couch near its 'south' end and a bit 'east', and a thick coating of dust upon the floor, the parlor was empty. I then followed the string.
One end led to the 'closet', which proved empty; and the other end led to the passage upstairs. There, I found an old-looking 'number four musket' on full cock pegged to the wall, which I laid up against the wall once I'd dumped the powder in its pan and removed the pegs holding it. Thankfully, the pegs came out easily. I then went back toward the kitchen – and there, I found one of the roers mentioned. It was the gun I had first seen upon entering the place.
This monster was was also 'pegged' to the wall, and I lifted the pan and blew out the priming charge before I did anything else. This proved wise, as when I used a pry bar upon one of the pegs, the cock fell with a hollow sounding clack.
“Thank God that thing didn't go off,” I muttered, as I resumed prying. “That one was like Black-Cap's.”
“It wasn't quite that bad,” said the soft voice. “Still, it's best used for scrap metal, as the bore is badly worn and paper thin in places.” A pause, then, “the one in the stairwell, on the other hand, can be salvaged, though with a substantial amount of work.”
“About the usual for going through guns,” I thought as I removed first one peg, then the other before setting the gun against the wall. “Perhaps a short musket for Anna?”
While there was no answer, a quick once-over after putting the roer on the floor showed a neglected and ash-choked stove, an uncommonly stinky privy that looked substantially neglected, a near-total lack of cooking utensils...
“He ate all of his meals at Public Houses,” said the soft voice, “and until he made up his mind to 'get made', he hired a cleaner.”
“Couldn't cook or clean,” I muttered. “Sounds familiar.”
“He was worse that way than both you and Sarah combined,” said the soft voice, “and such people, while they are not particularly common, are not exactly rare.”
I put the candle lantern amid the dust of the kitchen table, and began moving upstairs. I kept my steps slow to keep the noise down, yet for some reason, his stairs did not creak. I wondered why, at least until I found another greased trip-line at the top of the stairs.
I looked to the right, and found nothing; and then to the left, and saw the same. I stepped up and over the line, and began following it into the bedroom.
While I was doing this, I held the lantern low; and in its turned-down state, I hoped it would not be seen.
“People don't look up much,” I thought, “and...”
“You blocked the only window that you need to worry about,” said the soft voice. “The town is asleep now, save for the 'scullery maids' at the Public House – and they're barely awake.”
“What?” I gasped. I'd found the end of the string, and it was tied to a corroded nail. I wondered if the nail went to anything other than a board in the floor, so much so that I cut the line and began prying. The nail came up with a slight jerk and a faint squeak that spoke of its softness and rust.
“Those who 'clean up the kitchen' between 'shifts' and at the end of the day,” said the soft voice. “They're usually apprentice cooks that are just starting out, which in this case are three girls.”
I checked the room, and found nothing more than a near-empty chest-high wooden 'cabinet' and a bed similar to what Hans and Anna used. Unlike theirs, however, this one was not only unmade, with rumpled sheets and blankets, but also filmed thickly with dust.
“When did he last sleep here?” I asked.
“Some weeks ago,” said the soft voice. “He commonly slept on the couch once he'd made up his mind, as he found himself cold then and wanted to be closer to a well-stoked stove.”
“Found himself cold?” I asked.
“Witches prefer warm surroundings,” said the soft voice, “and that preference is as much a physiological one as it is psychological.”
“Th-their metabolism changes?” I asked.
“The stronger the witch, the more dysfunctional their body becomes, with a form of hypothyroidism happening first.” A brief pause, “his thyroid function dropped drastically within days of his choosing, and his metabolism followed it down nearly as fast.”
“Hence always dressing in layered black or dark brown clothing, just as if it's freezing cold, even in high summer?”I thought. I'd never had that trouble, even if I knew a good deal more than I wished to know about many of hypothyroidism's other symptoms.
“And roaring fires whenever and wherever possible, a loss of appetite prior to being 'made' – it returns shortly thereafter, due to being infested with spirits, and grows apace as inhabitation increases – and a strong and ever-growing desire for the warming effects of strong drink and sundry drugs,” said the soft voice. “Also, the tendency toward 'corking' increases many-fold – as you know quite well from your past experience.”
I followed the string back past a room with a closed door and from then into a 'back room' much like the one at home. Unlike that crowded place, this one was bare – save for an old and rusted gunlock setting atop a carved wooden pole 'plugged' into a jug. I looked this over carefully, then opened the pan and blew out the powder.
“Quickmatch,” I murmured, as I saw where he'd poked in the 'fuse'. “That jug's like one of Hans'.”
“But partly filled, and with bad powder,” said the soft voice. “It's still dangerous enough to put out with the other bomb.”
I had a full armload – two muskets and a jug – as I went back to the unplowed area. My steps were light yet quick, and quicker yet as I left the mounded things next to the first bomb. For some reason, I wanted to put everything of a witch-nature in that one area, as there was something about these particular weapons that made them 'tainted'; and I knew as I returned to the upstairs that there were no more 'traps' there.
“There are fetishes, though,” I thought. “I'll sweep them after I clear the bombs and traps.”
The downstairs passage was clear of trip-lines, save at the very bottom, where I found the second roer; I blew out its pan, cut the ropes securing it to the support beam, and laid it against the wall. I then went to the shelves, and in shock I counted no less than twenty jugs. A touch showed them all to be filled with distillate.
“That you can leave inside, and retrieve tomorrow in the process of 'trapping' the place,” said the soft voice.
“Round squibs,” I thought. “One for each door, and a third for the basement about midway down the steps, with dark-colored strings and Hans' most-recently-made friction igniters.”
There was no answer, and I moved slow through the dust with the lantern in my hand. I found the trip-line in seconds, and carefully cut the drooping thing with my knife.
“Now to remove this, uh, bomb,” I thought, as I saw a jug 'collection' with but one cork holding another badly corroded friction igniter. I cut the string short, picked it up, and moved quickly for the stairs. I did not have much time, and I knew it.
“Yes, you want to clear the place quickly,” said the soft voice. “You definitely want to be at home when those things go.”
“Which they are likely to do before dawn,” I thought.
“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Still, if they don't go by then, you'll need to shoot them from cover.”
“I know,” I murmured, as I went out the back door with the bomb.
On the way back to the house, however, I relaxed slightly. All that was left was the remaining friction igniters, any more traps I might find, and all of the fetishes of import. I had a sneaking hunch about the latter, however – they were nearly all collected in one particular area, and while they were bulky, they were neither strong nor difficult to handle – at least, most of them weren't difficult to handle.
“What is this stuff?” I murmured, meaning the 'fetishes', as I went back inside to pick up the lantern at the upper landing of the lower stairs.
“Clothing, mostly,” said the soft voice. “Between the money in that desk, and the collection of clothing our witch purposed to travel with, he was going to set himself up 'in style' in the shop he had purchased-in-full in the second kingdom house.”
“He was going to sell black-cloth, correct?” I asked.
“He did not have the 'pure quill' yet,” said the soft voice, “but he does have some clothing which has 'quill-fiber' in it, as well as two smaller rolls of that particular fabric.”
“What did he do before he turned witch?” I asked.
“Tailoring, much as he proposed to do as a well-hid witch in the second kingdom,” said the soft voice. “He wasn't nearly as obvious as those three smelly men who measured you so roughly.”
As I ransacked the desk – mostly empty, save for the sack of friction igniters I had been told about – I kept looking at first the jugs on and by the desk, then at the jugs on the shelf behind and to my right. I was wondering as to what kind of distillate they were filled with, which was proving distracting; and then, I had a question.
“Is light distillate as sensitive as Hans said it was?” I asked.
“That depends upon where it comes from,” said the soft voice. “Many places' stills are not particularly tight, and many more do a very poor job of fractionating – hence their 'heavy distillate' should really be called 'medium' distillate, as it has both light and heavy fractions mingled.”
“Very poor?” I asked.
“Enough that there are some chemists in the fourth kingdom who redistill both fractions and produce some unusual products,” said the soft voice, “especially as fine-drawn glass-blower's wire or thin nickel sheet is used in some of their fractionating columns.” A brief pause, then, “those products are seldom seen, and more-seldom sold – at least, to people here.”
I found a small pouch of money in the desk, and in the light of the alcohol lantern, I sorted through the coins. The two money medals – cheap recently-made copies that scarcely glowed – I bagged, while the 'filthy lucre' went back in the pouch – and from thence, back on the desk-top. I put the bagged money medals in my possible bag, then as I turned to go, I gasped.
“That one room!” I spat. “It must be...”
“It is,” said the soft voice. “The witch spent much of his time lately in that room, hence it has no traps.”
“Just the cloth and clothing, correct?” I asked.
There was no answer, and as I went up first one flight of stairs, then another, I had thoughts of 'his clothing closet' and things like it. I turned the corner to the left, then came to the door – which had another of those 'miser's locks' upon it. Pressing the button made for a soft click, then as I showed the lantern inside, I gasped.
“His clothing s-shop,” I gasped.
The entire room was taken up with the manufacture of black clothing, with two long racks showing the stuff, one on each wall and a wall-to-wall workbench against the wall opposite the door. Just looking at it all told me all I had been given to hear was nothing less than the precise truth: he was to become a dealer in witch-gear, especially clothing, for as I began looking, I found a number of finished 'suites' – their precise label, scrawled on greasy 'witch-paper' and pinned to each collection of hangers tied together with string – but also rolls of 'common cloth' dyed black, some 'part-quill' cloth in rolls – and a few small scraps of 'pure-quill', this in a small cloth bag. I suspected strongly he had neither the money nor the 'pull' to get the latter in the amounts needed to make clothing, as it needed not merely connections in witchdom – one had to be not merely 'made', but have a reputation – but also, a vast amount of money.
“He did have the latter,” said the soft voice. “It's not particularly well-hid.”
“Do I leave it for the owners when they come, or..?”
I wondered at my asking: did the money have 'money-medals' mingled in with it, like that one pouch I had found already? Was its sheer quantity a matter of great danger – as in it would 'corrupt' those coming and turn them into misers?
“Why am I even asking?” I thought. “It isn't mine, it's probably stolen, and...
“All of those things, and then some,” said the soft voice. “It has 'copy' money medals in each bag, just like that first one, and those need disposal, just like the bombs and clothing.” A brief pause. “While they are weak as fetishes, more than one of the people who will be coming is susceptible enough to be 'taken over' by them if they come too close. Then, your take on the amount of money is absolutely accurate.”
“What – if I leave it, they will become misers?” I asked.
“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Recall Hans' vulnerability? A lot of people are at least as vulnerable to the mere presence of sizable amounts of money, and the bulk of the remainder are more so – and that is not a small hoard.”
“You will need it in the future,” said the soft voice. “I'd take the back way for transferring the stuff, as there's enough money in that hoard to require multiple trips – and unlike the distillate and some of the other things here, you do not want to be seen transferring money.”
As I began ransacking the workbench's drawers, I first found tools. These, while 'decent', hurt the hands to touch them, and I let them lay. Two drawers down, however, the drawer did not wish to come, and I wondered if it was rigged. I 'looked', and saw nothing; I 'felt', and felt nothing – at least at first. Within seconds, however, I seemed to feel something old, chill, and evil – and seconds later, I recognized the sickening sensation. I jerked the drawer open, and with a shuddering bang, it fell upon the floor and went to pieces under its heavy and clinking burden.
“Oh, no,” I gasped, as I touched the thong-tied bags. “M-money, and each bag needs to be 'cleared' and then moved.”
I pulled up the single stool in the room, and began going through each bag by dumping it out on a cleared region of the dusty desk after first blocking the small window with a bulging cloth bag. I turned up the lantern slightly, and by its faint hiss and brilliant light, I looked through the coins. In more than one case, the money medal said to be in each bag proved 'coy', and I had to touch each coin until the fetish actually showed itself. Those tended to squirm a little while inserting them into my bag, and at the end of the sorting session, I had no less than twenty-four bags of money on the floor and one clinking part-full bag of 'money medals'.
“And now for work,” I thought.
I bundled the ready-done clothing with string taken from the tailor's desk, then began tossing each such string-tied bundle down the stairs. I followed the bundled black-cloth clothing suites with the individual items of clothing, both those finished and partly done, all of them tied in bundles also; and then finally, the bolts of cloth. Twice I had to go down and clear away the stuff from the entranceway to the stairs, and when I had removed all the cloth from the room and tossed it down, I gathered an armload and went for the rear door of the place.
I had to run now, and I only slowed with my burden as I came near the actual spot where I had placed the bombs. Each trip, the bluish haze became less and less obvious, and a reddish haze began showing here and there as the mound of black-cloth grew; and when I had finished, I was itching and sweating from my labors and the mounded clothing lay in a waist-high heap nearly eight feet across. I then put the money-medals next to the bombs, and hot-footed it back to the house.
It was now close to 'the witching hour', and as I ran north bent-over double with a heavy sack of coin in each hand, I hoped and prayed I would not be discovered; and when I reached our house, I went inside the fold and there plumped down the heavy sacks right next to the wall on the inside. I needed over a dozen trips to retrieve all of the bags of money I had found – I dare not leave any, even that bag I had found in the basement – and as I left the 'witch-house' for the last time, I sighed with exhaustion. I was all-but spent.
“Walk slowly back to the house this time,” said the soft voice. “It's only now midnight, and those friction igniters will last another five minutes.”
Accordingly, I did so, again leaving the last of the money next to the base of the rock wall; and once inside and unburdening my pack, I heard – from somewhere; where, I did not know – a subaudible rumble. I faced the bathroom door, then as the cracks around it grew a haze of light, I heard a scream come from upstairs.
“Hans!” yelled Anna. “The witches are upon us!”
There was no answer, and I ceased unburdening my pack to look at the door to the rear of the house. I needed to bathe, but I needed to stow what I had borrowed first. Only then did I carefully fetch clean clothing suitable for bed, and set the water to boiling in the bathroom.
As I bathed, I again heard the rumble, only this time it merely started as subaudible in tone. It rapidly became clearly audible, and when the darkness outside suddenly became noonday bright with a distinct reddish tint, I again heard Anna scream.
Only this time, I heard it audibly, much the same as I heard the thundering roar of the explosion.
“Wow,” I thought, as I scrubbed my back. “That stuff would have scattered that house.”
“And then burned Roos to the ground,” said the soft voice. “Any of those bombs would have detonated all of the others, and all of those jugs of distillate you found would have but added to their effect.”
“Hans!” yelled Anna. “Wake up!”
I could hear Hans mumbling something in a half-asleep state, then as I finished bathing, I encountered Sarah – who was fully dressed, though for a change, she was dressed much like Anna in a long flowing dress tied with a sash. I thought she looked 'cute'. It made for a desire to first hug her, then gently stroke her hair.
“Yes?” I asked as I did the latter. “There was a lot of stuff in there that had to go.”
“Is that house all right?” asked Sarah. I turned to see Anna at the top of the stairs.
“It is now,” I said. “It's safe for people to go into.”
“It was not that way before,” said Sarah archly. “Will you rig it to keep witches out?”
I nodded slowly, between yawns. “I'll do that tomorrow, unless Hans wants to do so.”
I was glad for bed, but I was not glad when I heard Anna scream again in my dreams. I put my smaller pillow over my head, and still I heard her scream; and when I had fully awoken, I sat up to see the dim light of early morning. Thankfully, Anna had ceased with her screaming – and while my bladder now fully had my attention, I was expecting that.
I was not expecting to see a kitchen table all but covered with leather sacks of money.
“That stuff usually gets hung on the front door,” said Hans from somewhere nearby, “and it is usually in small cloth bags, not these big leather things.”
“No, Hans,” said Anna. “Some witch is trying to get us burnt as misers, and...”
“I was told that to leave that 'witch-hoard' in that house would have the returning people become misers, and that we would need it.”
“No, not we,” said the soft voice. “You.”
“Why will I need that much of that loathsome stuff?” I gasped. Sarah looked at me strangely.
“Perhaps for a house?” she volunteered.
Anna shook her head soundlessly, much as if she was trying to speak in a new and foreign language with speech too horrible or high-pitched for normal hearing to endure.
“If not a house, then what?” asked Sarah. There was no answer, beyond 'there will be one in the future'.
“It will not involve you spending it,” said the soft voice, “and it will be very important.”
“Gifts, perhaps,” said Sarah.
“No, I do not think so,” said Hans. “I think this has to do with the Curse, or something like that.”
At breakfast – I had the distinct intimation that nearly everyone in town would rise late, due to being awoken at the dead of night by a 'midnight sunrise' and then wondering for hours as to its nature before returning to sleep – I spoke of the things in the house I had left behind, as well as needing to rig it.
“We can do that today,” said Hans. “Now do you know what you want to use for rigging? We cannot use jugs, as those will blow up the house or catch it on fire.”
“Those round squibs,” I said. “One near each door to the place, so as to catch any witches, and waxed dark-colored string...”
“Waxed string?” asked Sarah. “You usually rub strings like that with a good tallow candle.”
“Wax works slightly better during good light conditions,” said the soft voice, “and nearly as well at night – and if a witch tries for the place at night, he won't be carrying bright lighting.”
“Hence he eats some broken pottery and goes elsewhere,” I murmured.
“Yes, to where he belongs,” said Hans. “Now there is more.”
“Lots of distillate,” I said, “at least some of which is light distillate, and the balance that, uh, heavy stuff.”
“That is good, then,” said Hans, “as lots of people are wanting boiled distillate. Now what else?”
“That is what I saw,” I said. “I was clearing the place of fetishes and traps of one kind or another, so I wasn't looking for anything else.” I paused, then muttered, “tunnel vision strikes again.”
“There are no tunnels in that place,” said Hans, “so how is it you can see so?”
I ignored what Hans had said, for I had spoken unintentionally; and when I came to the shop, I was surprised to only find Georg there. As I started working up one of the forges, Georg came over to where I was.
“Did you see it?” he asked.
“S-see what?” I asked.
“The sun rose at night again,” he said. “That's why they're not here.”
“N-no,” I blurted. “I had to c-clear that one house of traps and fetishes, and I needed to do so at night so people wouldn't get h-hurt, and I need to rig the place today to keep witches out of it...”
“I'm not surprised,” said Georg. “I've heard enough talk about witch-tools, or fetishes as some call them, and I've heard about those people who own that place, too.”
“Y-yes?” I asked. I needed to forge the parts for the new rivet swage today, and I wanted to use some 'blister-steel' billets – and for some reason, perhaps its not needing much attention in such use – I wanted to use the 'long' forge. Between that, finishing the distillery, and a few other things, I needed to finish early so as to go home at lunchtime.
“Oh, tonight's shift, also,” I thought. I had the sixth posting, which meant starting at 'the witching hour' of midnight – and leaving after dark, which meant a nap in the afternoon before leaving.
“If they get close to anything resembling a witch-tool, or so gossip says,” said Georg, “that thing will ride them like a pair of plugged mules!”
“D-do not speak of mules,” I squeaked, as I heard a ghostly bray seem to ring in the air amid gunfire and the high and raging cries of a group of long-haired Veldters. “I have nightmares day and night about those things.”
Georg left shortly thereafter, most likely to learn of 'current gossip' at the Public House; I then had the place to myself. I set to work with a will, and soon was most-glad: without the distractions of the others, I worked rapidly, and the still came together almost before my eyes; while as the individual pieces of copper annealed in a smaller forge between forming stints, I welded up the smaller blister-steel billets into larger ones that were relatively free of slag and then forged those into the pieces I needed for the new rivet swage.
“This is going so good I might as well make two sets of parts, one for the 'in use' one, and another set for a 'ready' spare,” I murmured. I had the instant impression this was a very good idea, and when I resumed 'assembling' the still – it needed a multitude of carefully-formed pieces, as there were but few 'straight' lines on this one; it had a vaguely similar shape to the old still, such that it too was a copper sculpture; but unlike the old one, it also had a place for a drain fitting, a tapered place for the seating of a top-cap, a nearly flat bottom, over a dozen reinforcing 'heating fins' on the bulging sides, and places for several latches to hold the cap on in addition to the usual rye paste. I was putting in a 'row' of six line rivets with the rivet-tweezers when someone came in the door.
“N-not now,” I thought, as I carefully inserted the last of the rivets. “I've got to finish this row.”
“Ah, so you are doing that one man's still,” said Hans. “That might look a little like a common one, but what gives with these things on the sides?”
I carefully set the last rivet of the batch I had inserted, and carried the portion I was working on over to the forge, where I held it with two copper-padded tongs. The wiped tin portions of the seams and the tin on the rivets would melt and hold the assembly together while I peened the rivets, and the smoke of the tallow flux I had used slowly gathered and wafted skyward as the tin melted and then flowed.
“Those pieces are so this thing doesn't collapse of its own weight when filled with mash,” I murmured. “That, and I think they'll help it work better – improved heat transfer.” A pause, then, “the house?”
“I am not sure how you missed all of that stuff,” said Hans, “but there are no traps in that place. I could see where he had put some, but there are none of those things now.” A brief pause, then Hans brought out a small sheet of paper. “Eight jugs of bad southern cleaning solution, nine of light distillate, eighteen of heavy distillate, two bad rotating pistols...”
“Were they, uh, usable?” I asked, as I removed the part-finished still from the stake and let the thing rest on the crude wooden 'cradle' I had asked the carpenters to make. I was glad it had come at the end of the week before.
“They were rusted bad,” said Hans. “You might use them for parts, but if they are no good, then you can toss them in that big furnace that everyone is talking about.” Hans paused, then resumed reading: “one small keg of three-X powder...”
“Powder?” I gasped. “Where?”
“In his closet,” said Hans. “That wretch had no clothing in that place, and I could find none of that stuff.”
“I-it was all b-black-cloth, and that man was making c-clothing of th-that stuff,” I stuttered.
“So that is what he did,” said Hans. “Sarah said that man was once a tailor, but I had never seen him do that stuff here.” Hans shrugged his shoulders, then as he was about to resume reading, I asked, “three-X powder?”
“That stuff is decent, if you shoot roers and want to do that more than once a day,” said Hans. “It is weak powder, and it leaves a lot of soot in your gun.”
“Where is it made?” I asked, as I picked up the still to peen the rivets. I'd needed a drink as well as a rest, I'd learned upon putting the thing in its 'cradle' for a moment's time.
“It is not made around here,” said Hans, “even if it is common enough to the south. I think it is fifth kingdom powder, is what I think.”
“If it is three-X, then it is not made in the fifth kingdom,” said Sarah as she 'materialized' nearby. “Good, that man is hopping for that thing.”
“He what?” I gasped, as I began to carefully 'find' the rivets with the stake's hollow so as to peen them while holding one of my smaller 'riveting hammers' in my other hand. I wondered if I had somehow heard 'hopping' when Sarah said 'hoping', even if I didn't wonder about the need for care in what I was doing.
“He's hoping to get it soon,” said Sarah. I clearly heard the difference this time. “He's one of my relatives, and I helped them enough to know about the soreness potato planting causes.” Sarah grimaced with the recollection.
“And you are hopping for that buggy,” said Hans. “Now Georg is at the Public House, and none of the others are in town on account of last night having the sun rise.”
Sarah smirked, then said, “I'm not surprised, as I saw some of what he did.”
“You what?” I gasped.
“I watched from the inside of the fence after you left,” said Sarah, “and if that man was a tailor still, he did nothing but black-cloth, and a lot of it.”
Hans looked at Sarah in stunned shock.
“Then, they are most glad of that hole,” said Sarah. “Every farmer in town from Elias to Ephraim may be picking rocks right now out of their fields, but Jurgen could not plow that place in his field, and now he can.”
“Picking rocks?” I asked.
“That place had a lot of those things, and it was so bad it wanted dynamite,” said Hans. “No one wanted me doing that, so...”
“None of the witches in town, you mean,” said Sarah, whose voice then acquired a sharp tone. In her own way, Sarah could hold her own with Anna when the latter was in 'Empress' mode. “Hans, the witches were more-or-less running the town here, and none of us knew it until the Swartsburg went where it belonged and they got routed out.”
“Thank God for pigs,” I muttered.
“What?” shrieked Sarah.
“Where there are pigs, witches commonly can be found nearby,” I said, “and it is very hard to hide the stink or the noise of pigs – and often, the pigs themselves aren't easy to hide.” A pause, then, “wasn't one of those men driving pigs?”
“Yes, him and two others in town,” said Hans, “and there were pigs sniffing at the doors of every one of those witches except the one Anna shot.”
“Hence pigs are useful,” I murmured. “They may smell terrible, and feel awful if one must touch them or their products, and make me sick when they are being cooked, and cause trouble for everyone when they are burnt, but they are a good indicator of the presence of witches.”
Sarah then looked at me, mouth agape, and then at Hans. Slowly at first, then faster, the matter dawned upon her; she then nodded dumbly, and closed her mouth after first drinking from a tinned copper cup. I suspected another batch of such cups would be wise to start soon. They seemed to sell with some regularity, or so I guessed from the sheer number of them I had done since the third ditch.
“And then,” Hans said, as he resumed reading, “I found some bad fuse.”
“Did you find any dynamite?” asked Sarah.
“I think he put that out in that field,” said Hans, who then turned to me. “Did that wretch have dynamite?”
“N-no,” I murmured. “The reason dynamite is so scarce up here is no sane freighter who's honest will transport it any distance – and the ones based in this area don't like going down into the fifth kingdom much.”
“So how is it witches have all of that stuff?” asked Hans.
“Because the witches bring it up themselves,” I said, “and they only sell to 'made' witches that have money and connections – and while that man had the money, he was not yet 'made'...”
“He was going to do that,” said Sarah. “I went in his house with Hans, and I could tell that man was of a mind to leave town shortly.”
“H-how could you tell?” I asked.
“The dust,” said Sarah. “He did not care about his cleaning, he told off his cleaner weeks ago, and then he was sleeping on his couch, and that only, so as to be closer to the stove,” said Sarah. “Then, he had trapped most of his house, but not all of it, so he wasn't about to leave right then, but very soon, perhaps within two days at the most.”
“That night,” I said.
“That sounds about as likely as anything,” said Hans, “as someone found out that man had hired two horses and a buggy in the town nearest here to the west.” I was amazed at Sarah's astuteness, as well as my own efforts. I had somehow managed to carry on a conversation and not ruin any rivets of the row. Hans was admiring their neatness, in fact.
“H-how?” I asked, as I tapped twice on a rivet and 'set' the head neatly. I then moved the still to the next one in that row and found the rounded head with the 'cup' of the stake.
“The person letting them out came that afternoon, and left shortly thereafter when he learned his customer had died as a witch,” said Sarah.
The pair of them left shortly thereafter, and I resumed work with a will. By lunch, I had made further progress on the still – it was a good deal harder than it looked, and I was learning a great deal by the need for careful fitting and then using 'holders' so as to check the fit of the individual parts before the actual riveting – and had finished the tong-pieces for the rivet swage. Finally, I also – finally – finished the buggy irons. I left home with a surprisingly small 'bag of tricks', with damped fires surrounding cooking cans and the sun near its zenith, and once home and bathed, I was deluged in gossip during lunch.
“Did you see that hole in Jurgen's field?” asked Anna as she smeared a piece of bread with cheese spread. “It is nearly deep enough to hide in, and there is all this burnt and blackened cloth around it.”
“That is because that man made witch-gear, Anna,” said Hans, “and talk has it that clothing can act like a witch-tool, especially if it is the really itchy stuff that needs starch to wear.”
“There wasn't much of that cloth,” I said. “Most of this was common cloth dyed black, while some had 'quill-fiber' mingled with the other fibers.”
“How did you stand that stuff?” asked Sarah.
“I put the nastier clothing inside the common stuff,” I said, “and I tied it up in bundles so as to carry it out there quicker.”
“You carried that clothing out there?” asked Anna. Her eyes were like saucers.
I nodded, then resumed eating. I was hungry yet, which surprised me, and as I became 'full' moments later, Anna tried to 'force' me to eat more.
“At least you drink beer now,” she said. “You'd die without it.”
“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly – and Anna glared at me. I hoped she would not start 'lecturing'.
“He might want those extracts, Anna,” said Hans. “If I had some yeast spread, I would give it to him, but I will not have enough yeast to make a batch until after harvest is finished.”
“Which is when you want it, for Festival Week,” said Sarah. “I would not worry over-much, Anna. Something is to be done, and it is to be quite soon.” Then, in lower voice, “as is the Abbey, and that worries me.”
“Which is why I am to be down in the basement today,” said Hans. “Now how is that blacking coming?”
“I have not started...”
Hans looked at me, then said, “who put out the things for doing it, then, and why is your ledger open to that recipe, and what are those crocks doing out on the tables with labels on them?”
“I did that,” said Sarah in a small voice, “and I found out why it worked so badly for me, too.”
“How is this?” asked Hans. He sounded indignant.
“M-most trouble with blackening metal is due to poor cleaning and less-good chemicals,” said Sarah. “If you clean your parts good especially good, it tends to work better...”
“Yes, everyone says that of it,” said Hans. I wondered how he knew, especially given his previous near-total ignorance of the process.
“Yes, they speak that way, but they speak as witches when they do so,” said Sarah. “One must first clean with hot water and plenty of soap, and use tongs to handle everything from start to finish.”
“Yes, they do that,” said Hans. “I talked with Albrecht when he last came, and he was inclined toward beer then, so I could speak of the matter.”
“Then, one must use lye, and a different brush, then 'sulfur-acid',” said Sarah. “That part is what sets the finish.”
“I thought that was done with straps,” said Hans.
“It is, but this does a good deal more,” said Sarah. “One must watch close, as the sulfur-acid first makes a shine, then it removes it partly, and then it removes it entirely.” A pause to drink, then, “finally, a brief dip in aqua fortis diluted with water, and then the mix for a time, with the mix boiling.”
“Yes, and what happens then?” said Hans.
“If one is careful, one gets an even blue-black color, without any streaks,” said Sarah, “and if one does the cleaning as I read in those notes and uses good chemicals...”
“That Roesmaan's stuff is as good as can be had,” said Hans.
“Then blackening metal is fairly easy,” said Sarah. “I hope to find out how easy today.”
Sarah then looked at me, and asked shyly, “should I arrange to have those irons taken to the house?”
Anna looked at Sarah, then said, “why, are they finished?”
“They looked it, or close to it when I saw them,” said Sarah. “He had set them aside.”
“Then I think I must take a trip after lunch,” said Anna. “I need to go to the house proper anyway to tend to Hendrik's rear.”
“Is it infected?” I asked.
“No, but it's healing very slowly,” said Anna. “He's needing to wear diapers to catch the liquid that comes out of those sores as they close.”
“Those were bad ones,” said Hans. “He is lucky he is not dead from that shot.”
“Perhaps it was blood-dipped shot,” I said.”
To my complete surprise, Anna nearly fell off of her stool, then as she recovered, she said, “how?”
“The witch dipped the shot in pig's blood and then put the stuff out to dry,” I said. “While that reduces its poison value, especially if it's dried out in the sun...”
“Which that witch did,” said the soft voice.
“It's still going to slow healing drastically,” I said. “You need to irrigate those wounds with boiling salt water.”
“But that will hurt him,” said Anna.
“It is that or have him grow gradually weaker until he dies of that infection,” said the soft voice. “That tincture for wounds that you used does not work on 'blood-salted' shot-wounds, and the witches know that.”
“Which is why they used it, no doubt,” I said. “Give him plenty of tinctures first is all I can think about, and then use, uh, this stuff Hans has.”
“Yes, I have lots of stuff,” said Hans. “What would this stuff be?”
“It's this, uh, bark,” I said. “It's especially effective against the wounds made by blooded shot.”
While Hans knew nothing of what I was speaking of, and I had to find the old and dusty crock myself, I was glad it was well-sealed with wax. Upon prying it open, I gasped.
“This stuff is a natural antibiotic,” I gasped.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It's closer to a naturally-occurring sulfa drug with a relatively narrow range of susceptible organisms.”
“Can it be improved?” I asked.
“Yes, quite a bit – but not with what you currently have,” said the soft voice. “Clean out the wounds with hot salt water, not boiling – and use cleaned salt, not the common stuff Anna is packaging up.” With that, Hans ran upstairs. “Then, make a poultice of macerated bark, and apply it three times a day until those wounds are entirely healed.”
I was glad Sarah was handy, as she wrote down all that the two of us heard, and when Hans came back down, he asked, “now what does this mace-stuff mean?”
“Boiling water in a large glass mortar and pestle, and grind half an ounce of the bark into a creamy paste,” I said. “It will need fresh preparation every time it's applied.”
“So then Anna must live there until he is healed,” said Hans. “Maria knows but little of medicine.”
“She knows more than you think she does,” said Sarah. “They might not teach that at the west school, but there's enough about it written upon tapestries, and I saw enough of those.”
“She can follow directions, can't she?” I asked. “Take her a mortar...”
Sarah shook her head as Hans left for upstairs, then said, “that isn't why he said that.”
“Then what is?” I asked gently.
“Anna will insist upon putting that stuff on him her-own-self,” said Sarah, “and if it is to be done three times a day, then there isn't enough time to go back and forth between here and the house.”