Nitro..?”


While Hans ground up a supply of the bark, Anna made ready for an extended stay at the king's house; and when both of them left in the buggy, the irons went with them. Somehow, I had the impression that their stay would not be overly long.

“Especially as the effects of that bark will astonish Anna,” said the soft voice. “She'll need to apply it a total of five times.”

What?” I gasped, as I stirred the faintly malodorous lye-water. It wanted gentle heating, which was why I had the crock on a sand-bath with a heating lamp turned down low under it.

“Not only does that bark contain an anti-infective agent,” said the soft voice, “but it also speeds healing of such wounds.” A pause, then, “it's not written down in any of Anna's journals, and is but poorly known of in the fourth kingdom.”

“Liza?” I asked.

“Knows of it, but has never used it,” said the soft voice. “Blood-shot, especially done that way, was mostly a subject of old tales until very recently.”

While the lye solution slowly warmed, I file-finished and reamed the various parts of the rivet swage. I would test certain of the parts first, and as I brought the part-finished pieces down, Sarah was looking at the crock for the 'sulfur-acid'.

“How much do you add, correct?” I asked.

Sarah turned, then nodded.

“That one isn't that critical,” I said. “The weaker solutions take longer to etch the metal, while the stronger ones are faster.”

“Best go weak, then,” said Sarah, as she turned back to the crock. “Does this one need heating?”

“Only the first two do, and the soap and water especially,” I said. “I'd put three pipettes of that acid in a half-full crock, and then for the aqua fortis, try two pipettes to the same amount of water.”

I then consulted my notes, and began making up the 'blackening mix' itself. Here, I used the scale and laboratory glassware, as while the proportions were not exceedingly critical, the nature of the outcome varied markedly depending on the proportions of certain ingredients. The chlorate was especially critical, I knew, as was the twice-chloride; and as I added the other ingredients, all the while stirring the 'brew', the acrid nose-biting character of the stuff became manifest.

“How much of that are you making?” asked Sarah.

“This is the concentrate,” I said. “One part of this to ten parts rain water... No, we don't have distilled water, and that's what's really needed here.”

“Hans jugs his rain water, though,” said Sarah. “Let me fetch it.”

As I added the dark blue-black 'syrup' to the water – it was in the largest beaker Hans had, which was not merely old, but had most of its markings faded off by use and sheer age – Sarah marveled. “Mine looked a bit like that, save it was not nearly as dark. Does that affect the color?”

“We'll know soon enough,” I said. “I'll begin cleaning these parts, while you watch that stuff so it doesn't boil over.”

“Must it boil fast or slow?” asked Sarah.

“I think it just has to be 'hot',” I said. “Put a thermometer to it, and write down what it shows once it starts to, uh, steam a bit.”

As I first cleaned the swage parts in hot soapy water; then in the lye water, I used slender iron tongs and the before-mentioned short-bristled paintbrush; then, after rinsing, I dipped the first of the parts in the sulfuric acid.

The bubbles that boiled off were such that I thought, “did I mix this too strong?”

“No, you didn't,” said the soft voice. “Recall how Sarah said things happened differently with those like you?”

I nodded mentally, all the while watching the part itself. The initial spurt of bubbles had subsided.

“The Heinrich works has several marked people,” said the soft voice, “and one of them does this as his main job.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Wait about fifteen minutes, and you'll see why,” said the soft voice. “You can take that piece out any time now, as it's etched enough to prove the process.”

I did so, then rinsed it before the aqua fortis step. I looked over at the beaker Sarah was tending and noted soft waftings of steam coming from it. It was a long way from boiling, however, and as I rinsed the part in water after dunking it in the nitric acid – it bubbled more then, though the bubbles 'looked different' and were fewer – I wondered what would happen to the now 'iridescent' part.

I walked slowly to the beaker; then with the tongs, I inserted it.

“Now we watch,” I said.

Before my eyes, the 'S' shaped forged piece seemed to both subtly change shape and color, and I thought to remove it. I reached in with the tongs, and pulled out a softly glistening blue-black part.

“Wh-what happened?” I gasped.

“Put it back in there for about five minutes more,” said the soft voice. “The blackening will 'take' fully then.”

I did as instructed, then as I counted off the minutes by the 'thousand and one, thousand and two' scheme I had learned as a child, I thought, “that was as good a bluing job as anything I've ever seen.”

“It will be better and more durable if you give it adequate time,” said the soft voice. “While that may look like bluing as you recall seeing, it is not bluing.”

“Then what is it?” asked Sarah.

“It's actually a chemical conversion process,” said the soft voice. “The reason the Heinrich works has a marked person doing their 'bluing' is that the outcome is drastically different, even with no other changes.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“Far more consistent color and finish, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and then, the 'bluing' is not merely a much better rust-preventative, it also wears far better.”

“Parkerizing,” I muttered. I'd done some of my tools that way before coming here, and they'd held up passably to handling. I was glad they were disinclined to rust, no matter how streaky the finish sometimes was.

“Closer, but still no,” said the soft voice. “This process, if you do it, will stand up to sea duty fairly well, provided the user occasionally oils the parts and tools so treated.”

“And in normal use?” I asked.

“Oil them carefully with thinned fourth-kingdom grease once the parts are done,” said the soft voice, “and the parts will wear out before they rust, no matter how much they're neglected.”

“Oh, my,” squeaked Sarah. “Not even a Heinrich gun is that good.” A brief pause, then, “I think five minutes is done on that thing in there.”

I took out the part, and again was astonished. The blue-black color had somehow acquired not merely a lustrous shine, but also astonishing 'depth' and a strange aspect of 'hardness'. It seemed a most appropriate finish for tools, and I began doing each of the remaining swage parts. With each part I processed, the process itself seemed to 'warm to its task', and I acquired a rapid rhythm that had Sarah and I quite busy in an increasingly steamy laboratory.

“So that's why that room steamed like it did,” muttered Sarah as she wiped down the some of the smaller parts to a just-'blued' revolver. “This looks as good as anything I ever saw them do.”

“Given the process is almost identical, it should,” said the soft voice. “The chief difference is the smaller scale and who's doing it.”

“The fowling piece?” I asked.

“That will want larger vats,” said Sarah.

“Try it,” said the soft voice. “Remember, clean it especially well, then use one of those 'rag-hunks' to do the acid portions.”

“And the bluing?” I asked. “Another rag-hunk and tweezers?”

The lock-parts – those of them that were not in case-hardening colors; those I let be – came out a deep blue-black color, with a soft luster that was not merely 'nice looking', but also not very reflective of light. I suspected Andreas wanted something similar, so much so that as I began working on the dismounted barrels while Sarah oiled the already-blued parts, I thought to ask.

“He'd be thrilled to have them that good,” said the soft voice. “He's seen Heinrich tools and guns before, and wants something similar, save less glossy.” A pause, then, “I'd show him those revolvers you've done so far as examples, in fact.”

“He may just trade straight across,” I said. “Those are already, uh, worked on.” I thought for a moment, then said, “perhaps I should do that.”

“He'd be most appreciative,” said the soft voice, “as he uses his weapon with some frequency – and not merely on rats, at least until the Swartsburg went up in smoke.”

“He's drilled his share of witches,” said Sarah, “and I hope to use one of those things once I start using that buggy.”

“I'll let you have one, dear,” I said, “as I suspect you need a pistol more than you need that buggy.”

“You're right, I do,” said Sarah. “I've driven off smaller domestic swine with Anna's, and I know hers works on witches.”

“That one man?” I asked.

“And another in town earlier that day,” said Sarah. “She shot that wretch in the head.”

“And Sepp has shot several witches, and I've potted some with mine,” I said.

“I think that is why those things are becoming desired of guards,” said Sarah. “I would expect many orders for them, in fact, especially as I know Hans has been hoarding them.”

“He what?” I gasped.

“He has a small barrel full of those things,” said Sarah. “I think it's over in that corner over there, behind that one shelf with all the crocks.”

The barrels for the fowling piece came out much as did the rest of the gun, and while Sarah began its reassembly, I began doing the parts for the guard-muskets. As I did their non-casehardened lock parts, I thought, “now these will need testing before issue, won't they?”

“They will get that,” said the soft voice. “If you use your powder, the usual amount you use will be plenty for testing, as well as one and a half of Hans' measures for shot.”

“That will have a mule's kick,” said Sarah.

“Precisely, which is why it is for testing and not routine use,” said the soft voice. “Those will normally use a number one musket's powder measure for shot, as their intended range is commonly measured in feet, not paces.”

“Oh, my,” I asked. “And stiff shot?”

“Be glad you put those aiming devices on those weapons,” said the soft voice. “Those help most people immensely, and those weapons will be most coveted by guards.”

“Mind that they do not migrate, then,” said Sarah. “If they work half as good as I suspect they will, I know Anna will wish one for when the quolls come.”

“Stiff shot for those things?” I asked.

“No, common shot,” said Sarah. “I have made up a small amount of cut-shot, as I can feel the start of the rats. It is soon, perhaps before we leave for the trip.”

“You will wish more than cut-shot, dear,” said the soft voice. “Hold off on making more of it.”

“I need to anyway, as finding time for making it is very hard right now,” said Sarah. “Oh, this one looks likely.”

Sarah was speaking of the musket-lock I had just assembled, and as she carefully wiped it down with a rag saturated in boiled distillate, she muttered about Heinrich guns.

“You want one of those things, don't you?” I asked.

“I would settle for one of these,” said Sarah longingly, “but yes, I have desired such a gun in the past.”

“Like Maria's?” I asked.

“I would need a slightly shorter hind-stock, as those must fit well,” said Sarah. “I might manage with the one we have, but it isn't the best for fowls.”

“Or thugs, I suspect,” I said. “Those guard-muskets, on the other hand...”

“I'll try one once they are tested,” said Sarah. “If it looks likely, I may try to get what's needed for making one.”

Yet somehow as I finished up the remaining gun parts, I knew that the reason Sarah was told to not make more cut-shot was not because we would have enough 'common' shot. There was something of a surprise awaiting us beyond large mutated worms and incendiary reptiles at the Abbey, and I did not know what it was beyond 'I can find it readily once the place is cleared' and 'it will be especially useful, and most needed in the near future'.

With the guns finished, it was early afternoon; and we tried them out one at a time, first tied to a tree and then from the shoulder. Sarah showed me how much she 'thought' they should take, and while the recoil was enough for me to wish Geneva for rubbing after firing one of them a single time, I was amazed otherwise at the weapons.

“These things are handy,” I thought, as I tried leading an imaginary quoll. “Now the usual guard-load...”

“Use half as much powder, if you use yours,” said the soft voice, “and a slightly smaller amount of shot.”

“Close range work, correct?” I asked.

“That, and that powder is better for smaller bores,” said the soft voice. “You were shooting 'overload' levels out of those weapons with that stuff.”

“No wonder I am so sore,” said Sarah. “I'd try Hans' powder, but he has his flask with him, and the same for Anna.”

“They both use the same stuff now,” said the soft voice. “Guard work involves close ranges, and hence full power loads are neither wanted nor needed – and a sore shoulder means a slow sword.”

“I forgot that,” murmured Sarah.

As I made ready for a nap, I asked, “how do I get those things to the house?”

“Take them with you tonight,” said the soft voice. “Andreas already arranged for the gun-rack's building, and it's been there two days already.”

“Powder?” I asked. “Shot?”

“You'll need to load them out of your supplies, at least initially,” said the soft voice. “Given the small likelihood of use for the time being, that should work passably.”

I bagged the three rag-wrapped guns in a large cloth bag, and once mounted, I headed out of town just after sundown. I would arrive in time for a short time of exploring, and as I left the road three miles south of Roos, I wondered briefly about the response of the other guards – and more, Hendrik and Maria.

“Both of them are sleeping under the influence of tinctures,” said the soft voice, “and both Hans and Anna are sleeping on cots in the office.”

“Both of them?” I asked.

“Anna does not mix medicines,” said the soft voice, “and while Hans is needed to make up the damp material for Anna each time, the rest of the time he is doing needed business in town.”

“And preparing to drive home that new buggy,” I thought.

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “He's looking forward to 'test driving' it, in fact.”

“With what, though?” I asked.

“He'll be able to borrow a pair of horses,” said the soft voice, “and Sarah can return them when she next goes on her 'rounds'.”

“Rounds?” I asked.

“She has a delivery in a town about ten miles south and four east of the kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and that buggy will make the trip go rapidly, especially if she uses the horses Hans borrows to go to the house with the others trailing behind on leads.”

“Uh, how,” I asked. “A trot?”

“Not quite a trot,” said the soft voice. “Those horses will feel as if that buggy weighs as much as Cardosso's coach did, almost.”

“And hence they won't get tired quickly,” I thought, as I brought out my compass to check my course.

I arrived at the house proper with almost half an hour to spare, and as I came inside burdened down with pack and possible bag, I could 'feel' a difference. It was hard to describe, but the change was in or near Hendrik's office, and as I passed by his door, I heard – faintly, yet audibly – an angered outburst. I turned to the right and rear instinctively, with my hand reaching for my sword.

“That was a curse,” I whispered. “Those wretches were gloating over his sufferings...”

I set the guns against the wall, then doffed my pack before reaching in my possible bag for a squib. Finding a hard round globe come ready to hand, I resolutely walked to the door closest to where I heard the cursing 'come from', touched the doorknob – it clicked – and then faster than thought, I opened the door, tossed the bomb, and then slammed the door closed and ran.

The noise from within General's Row went from 'quiet' to 'full yell' before I had managed three steps. Two steps more, and a thundering roar picked me up in full stride to touch down but feet from the juncture of the main court and the hallway leading to Hendrik's office. I 'slid' to a stop against the wall with my arms outstretched in front of me, and as I turned to face the destruction, the reek of 'blood and iron' seemed to suffuse the air about my head.

The door I had tossed the bomb in was hanging by the uppermost hinge of the five it had once had, and as I watched, a blood-dripping and tattered black-clad arm slowly closed the door upon the moans and sobs coming from within. For some reason, this display aroused no pity, but rather, the reverse; and what came out of my mouth as I turned to go to my post was merely the precise mirror of my thoughts:

“You curse my friends again, and you'll get more where that came from,” I muttered as I came to the bench, there to sit down – and as I 'roused myself' to 'guard', Hendrik's door opened a few inches to show the face of Maria. She seemed in 'bedroom' dress, and the resemblance to Anna – the clothing was of identical color, pattern, and nearly all else, once one made allowances for height and weight – was astonishing.

“Was that you?” she whispered. “Those people” – I could tell she was being 'polite'; oaths seemed unbecoming her – “have been no end of trouble today.”

“Th-they cursed him,” I stammered, “and it made me so angry I, uh, tossed a squib in that stinky place.”

“Was this a round squib?” asked Maria. Again, her voice was but a whisper.

“Y-yes,” I stammered. “Uh, why?”

“Then it's likely to have done as much good as a swine-shell,” said Maria, whose face now glowered – or so it seemed to me – “and had I one of those handy, I would have tossed it in there myself.” She then opened the door, stepped outside, noted the bagged muskets, and said as she returned to her 'shelter', “good, they're done. I hope we do not need to use them, but I wonder about witches just the same.”

“Imported or domestic?” I asked.

“Both,” she said while suppressing a yawn. “I hope things are quiet enough during your post.”

Maria proved prescient, save for a chorus of faint moaning noises that continued to come from General's Row. This racket became so annoying that I was but barely preferring the moaning noises to the former state of 'amateur-level cursing and professional-level gloating', and while I wondered about another squib, I thought, “no, not after the noise that thing made.” I then recalled the hinges of the door.

“They must have used bad hinges,” I thought. “Five hinges should have held up better.”

“No, they did not,” said the soft voice. “Recall the effects of a similar device upon that fifth kingdom excise booth?”

I did, and shuddered.

“That device you just tossed was stronger, and it detonated in the midst of those Generals who were causing the most trouble.”

“And now they are cut up,” I muttered, “and moaning.”

“Those of them that still live, you mean,” said the soft voice. “The moaning will stop when those worst injured die – which they will do shortly.”

“Was that one, uh, survivor hurt?”

“His head was removed from his body by the blast,” said the soft voice, “and the three closest to him died within seconds from their injuries.” A pause, then, “many of the others have smaller wounds, which will probably not kill them.”

“N-not?” I asked.

“The infections that result from those wounds will be most debilitating, however,” said the soft voice. “They will wish much strong drink to dull the pain.”

“And be drunk as stinkers, and cuss and yell...”

“No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “Not even a General, especially these examples, can drink that much strong drink and remain awake.”

“Then I...” I stopped in mid-sentence, then spat, “I did not rig that house.”

“Hans did,” said the soft voice, “and he used some of the tricks he has seen you do.”

“Squibs?” I asked.

“Those especially,” said the soft voice. “Sarah showed him your notes.”

“N-notes?” I gasped. “When did I..?” I had not spoken a word at home of what I had been writing while alone during my shifts at the house proper.

“She found them nonetheless, and was able to readily read the writing,” said the soft voice. “Hans followed those instructions closely, as he didn't have much of an idea for that place beyond 'I cannot use jugs' and what you told him of your plans.”

The moaning did indeed subside quickly, and I was most glad for the near-total silence that then reigned. I began to write in my ledger, this time under the 'chapter title' of pure insanity. I wrote, “swift action, if accompanied by boldness and appropriate knowledge, can often bring results far out of proportion to what is thought possible.”

“Especially when you toss bombs as potent as that one was,” said the soft voice.

“But I have to make those myself,” I said. I was nearly out of those I had made on the trip, and finding time to make more was proving impossible.

“Recall those three well-hid mines in the Abbey?” asked the soft voice. “Those weren't the only things of that type in there.”

“M-more bombs like that?” I gasped. “There are more of those things?”

There was no answer beyond a subtle impression, and with the passing of the hours, this impression grew stronger and more detailed. Hidden in the Abbey were supplies and other things dating from prior to the war, and due to the cold, dark, and dryness of where they were stored, they had survived in a near-pristine state of preservation.

More importantly, they would still function – and function as if they had been made sometime last week.

“Uh, some explosives keep well here, don't they?” I asked, as I recalled what had injured Anna as a child.

“If they are from prior to the war, yes,” said the soft voice. “Imagine, if you will, shells from World War One still killing people eight hundred years later than when you left where you came from. That's roughly how old that shell was that killed Anna's relatives – and it had lost but little of its power.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “How?”

While there was no answer, the impression grew stronger – and with it, the recollection of the undiminished power of those three hidden mines. They dated from the same era, and they had not been 'coddled' in the slightest, unlike the ordnance hidden in the 'storage room'.

“So there's ordnance hidden in that place,” I murmured. “I wonder what kind, and how much?”

Again, no answer beyond, 'it will help the cause greatly' and 'you'll be very glad to have it when you go on that trip to that place across the sea'.

During the process of being relieved, I showed the three individuals – Karl being one of them – not only where the 'guard muskets' actually were 'racked', but also assayed showing how they worked. Karl looked, saw the thimble on the 'nipple' of the nearest example, then drew out his revolver. “Like these, right?”

“Sort of, except only one shot,” I said. “They're loaded up with stiff shot.”

“I have heard that you can make that stuff,” said Karl.

“I can, but finding time to do so right now is very hard right now,” I stammered.

“I have some common shot, and the other things those need,” said Karl. “Common shot does work on thugs if you are close enough.”

“And this is close enough,” I thought, as I left the three men to their drooling 'labors'. I could tell the two new guards wanted weapons like those in the rack, and as I rode home in the mist-laden darkness of a near-moonless night, I wondered about an 'exact' powder measure for the weapons – one like the ones I used, in fact – and an equally precise measuring container for shot.

“That would be most wise,” said the soft voice. “Karl may have 'enough' knowledge to stay out of trouble with 'short muskets', but those new guards don't begin to understand when to use such weapons, much less their strengths and weaknesses.”

Things were 'close' to normal when I arrived 'at the third hour' at the shop, with the others present and laboring on those things they could do. After checking what was in progress – the forges, save for the long forge, were yet cold, even if they had been cleared of ashes and fuel stacked beside them – I began bringing up an additional forge. While I waited for it to 'get in the mood for business', I began to assemble one of the new rivet swages – and the deep lustrous blue-black color of the parts drew the entirety of the workforce onto it like filings unto a magnet.

“Now those look good,” said Georg. “Did you...”

I removed my revolver from its holster, and laid it on a clean rag next to where I was working. Georg went to look at it, then began muttering. I caught the word 'Heinrich' more than once.

“Y-yes?” I asked. “I was told the formula I used was nearly identical.”

“Can we do that here?” asked Georg.

“Not really,” I said. “I'd need to turn the place into a laboratory to get it clean enough, and once I finish that man's still, I need to work on another thing that will be sort of like it.”

“And that furnace,” said one of the other men. “The apprentices are finishing up that new scrap.”

“What is it they are doing?” I asked.

“Cutting it up into smaller pieces,” said Georg. “Now this new thing – would that be a blowing barrel?”

“Close as to function, but off on all else,” I said. “It will not use one of those noisy things that likes to explode, it will be nowhere near as dangerous to run, and it will – I hope, anyway – not be noisy.”

“Good,” said Georg. "There was talk in town about airing out my smelly hide, and the same for everyone here except you, and bringing up one of those fifth-kingdom engines would make that happen for certain.”

“I'm not fond of those, Georg,” I said mildly. “I'll be using something similar to what runs the buffer.”

There was a sigh of relief – until Georg's face suddenly changed to a much more serious expression. “Those sound nearly as bad when one is careless with them,” he mumbled.

“How?” I asked.

“I turned it up too much,” said Gelbhaar sheepishly, “and first that bronze thing started spewing steam...”

“Good, the safety valve works,” I said.

“And I did not like it spewing steam like that, so I opened up the valve that leads to the engine...”

Georg was quaking, and he muttered, “I hope I never hear such a noise again. It makes up for pitch and volume all it lacks in relation to those evil fifth kingdom things, and, and...”

“And?” I asked.

“If there is a witch close-by when anything makes that kind of a screaming racket,” said Georg, “the guns start shortly thereafter – and when that happened, I had to run to where you live, as I was hearing cannons and smelling swine, it was so bad.”

I had to leave for lunch, as I needed to check on the bluing supplies and equipment. I was pleasantly surprised to not merely see the crocks labeled, but also put aside neatly on a table. Sarah, however, was nowhere to be found, and as I grabbed a piece of bread smeared thickly with cheese spread, I asked softly – there was no one else in the house, as far as I could tell – “where is she?”

“Off on an errand to the nearest town to the west,” said the soft voice. “She has that rear room upstairs set up for her sewing 'office', and she ran out of a certain type of thread.”

“And a shop there has it,” I murmured.

“It and much else of a sewing nature, which is why she commonly goes there,” said the soft voice. “Also, they have no qualms about selling to her or any of the other itinerant tailors, which means the place does a deal of business for such a small shop.” A brief pause, then, “when you next post, come a bit early so as to 'inventory' that armory.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Recall its usefulness as a potential listening post?” asked the soft voice. “With some modest modifications, it might well be useful for other things.”

“Such, as uh, experiments best done away from home?” I asked.

“Andreas has wondered that way, yes,” said the soft voice, “and Karl has been looking for a place to hide some of his things that is seldom visited and even less known of.”

“A 'locker room'?” I gasped.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Much of Karl's things would fit in one of Anna's larger cloth bags, save for his spare clothing – which would need another bag of somewhat larger nature. Both could readily be hung from pegs on the wall, and he is not the only older guard so inclined.”

“Perhaps a small keg of good powder, ready-loaded adjustable powder measures, a lead pot, an armory mould, bagged shot...”

“I'd search that place carefully, then,” said the soft voice. “There was a lot of stuff hidden in that garbage those three witches left.”

Upon my return to the shop, I resumed working on the still. I was now forming the neck of the thing, and as I formed each added piece, I tinned the seams using a heating lamp as a localized source of heat, then put in the rivets with tongs. A smoky few minutes over the forge, and I could peen the rivets to the new piece.

I continued working on the still once the others left for the day, and when the day finished for me, I had a near-completed cooker.

“Only need the latches and cap to finish it,” I thought, as I looked at the softly lustrous bulging heft of the thing. It was heavy enough now to want care in both fitting and riveting, and I was often having trouble holding the thing steady enough to accurately peen the rivets.

“That blower housing will not give that trouble, even if it will be as difficult to assemble,” said the soft voice. “It's nowhere near as big.”

“Fourteen inches for the rotor, and then the scroll, and a lot of reinforcing parts...”

“Which you can solder on with a few rivets to hold them in place,” said the soft voice. “It does not need to be water-tight while being heated over a charcoal fire.”

At home that night, as an intermission between making latches for the cap of the still, I drew up the plans for the backing plate, quill, and rotor for the blower. Two of these would be castings, while the quill would need to be long and polished, with a hard surface and a close fit inside its housing. I thought to first drill a hole for oiling, then though, “no, not just a hole. This one will want an oiler and plenty of good oil.”

“You might wish a chamber for its supply, then,” said the soft voice, “and then put a thick vegetable fiber wick leading from the oil reservoir to the central place on the shaft.”

I added that to the drawing, then resumed working on the latches. I wanted to finish that distillery.

That happened the next day; and when I plumped the contraption on Georg's desk while in its wooden 'cradle', he goggled at the thing for nearly a minute. He looked like he might faint, then looked up at me.

“No markings?” he asked.

“Just my stamp near the handle there,” I said as I pointed to the place in question. “If you mean the usual markings, then no, I didn't do those.”

“Good, as that man's sent a letter speaking of 'still-markings', and how he does not want those.” Georg reached into his desk, then took out an obvious letter, which he unfolded and began to read. The text wasted no time on frivolities, and as I heard the words, I noted several things.

Georg could follow the thoughts well, but the person's handwriting was nearly as bad as mine. There were no mentions of cabbage or tall mountains. Instead, much as Pieter had done with the sextant, this man came straight to the point – though unlike Pieter, I could tell the person writing had a mind that was like a laser beam when he could focus on a task. He had no small difficulty that way, or so it seemed.

“Probably needs to take the widow's tincture daily,” I muttered. Georg did not appear to hear, at least at first.

“He had this written by a younger relative of his, one who went to the higher schools,” said Georg.

“Why, can't he write?” I asked.

“I suspect he can, but he has trouble saying what he wants, unlike this person,” said Georg. “The only person who writes clearer than whoever wrote this is you yourself, and in some ways, there is a resemblance in thinking – or so I would guess by this letter.” A brief pause, “and I can barely read this person's handwriting.”

“Mine?” I asked.

“Yours might as well be writ in the language of Norden, at least for your writing,” said Georg. “Even Sarah has trouble reading it, and she can read almost anything written that isn't the writing of a witch.” Another pause, another drink, a belch, then, “thank God your drawings are clear enough, at least when they're done on paper.”

“You know?” I gasped.

“Anna told me you have ledgers and drawing paper,” said Georg, “and as being someone who could work as a full lecturer at the west school, I'm not surprised.”

“I was told some instrument-makers went there before being apprenticed,” I murmured.

Georg looked at me for a second – perhaps, as if he thought me insane – then without any warning whatsoever, his eyes turned up to show their whites and he toppled bonelessly off of his chair in a faint. After laying him on his side and covering him with a thin piece of cloth from my possible bag, I thought to run home for Anna.

“But she isn't home,” I thought.

“She's on her way home, with Hans driving the new buggy,” said the soft voice. “You can wake him.”

“Georg,” I stammered, “p-please, wake up.”

Georg stirred, then with an effort that brought a soft groan to his lips, he rose to his knees. “What happened to me?”

“I told how some instrument-makers went to the west school before apprenticing,” I said, “and then, their apprenticeship runs 'until they are ready'.” A pause, then, “I guess some never are.”

“Those shops commonly are either run by witches, or are owned by them,” said the soft voice, “and the reason those people are never 'ready' to walk is they are not deemed fit to become true-witches by those over them.”

“They usually get sacrificed, then,” I muttered.

“Or they are kidnapped to labor in the slave-warrens,” said the soft voice. “Most of those who 'disappear' in the fourth kingdom's market and the surrounding area become slaves. The witches value them more as sources of labor rather than as blood-sources.” The unspoken part which I understood implicitly was, “presuming, of course, they are not marked.”

With Georg awake, the shop returned to its labors, mine being finishing the assembly of first the 'main' rivet swage, then the 'spare'. Both pieces looked astonishingly 'well-put-together' once fully assembled, and when I tried forming rivets, I was astonished once again.

The new design 'locked' when squeezed tightly, so much so that the rivet stock did not move; and the 'head' portion came out perfectly round and symmetrical. Jerking the handles apart 'ejected' the rivet; previously, the swage usually needed tapping on the anvil, as well as holding tightly the whole time. I did several more rivets, each finished rivet going on a large tinned copper plate piled with a thick layer of clean and dry sand so as to cool slowly; and when I looked up, I noted I had an audience.

“Those things work better than anything I've ever seen,” spat Georg. “What did you do?”

“Made new handles and levers for them,” I said. “These need oiling before every use, and then wiping down with an oily rag after you're done using them for the day.”

“I'm not surprised,” said Georg. He seemed to be speaking for everyone else in the shop, for they had lost the power of both movement and speech. “What surprises me is how good those work.”

I put in another yellow-glowing rivet-blank with tongs, locked the swage, put it over the 'stake-hole', slapped down the cap with the side of my hammer, and struck it smartly – then as quickly, unlocked the swage and 'ejected' a finished rivet, complete with 'pointed' end opposite the head. Georg took up the red-hot rivet with tongs, doused it in the forge bucket, and then looked at the blackened thing as if he'd seen a curious and rare jewel.

“I've never seen anything so good,” said Georg. “If people find out about these things, we will have mobs coming from miles away.”

“M-mobs?” I asked. I felt reminded of what Andreas said about his 'screws'.

“Yes, to buy them, and possibly fight over them,” said Georg. His voice sounded slightly dreamy. “How hard is that to do?”

I showed Georg carefully how to do so, and when he tried – clumsily, somewhat slow, and he needed two hits with the hammer to form the head, then some fiddling to 'eject' the rivet – he was utterly flabbergasted. He quenched his rivet, then compared the two.

“Th-that thing takes almost all of the trouble out of making rivets,” he mumbled. “It makes these things perfect every time.”

“Now, now,” I said. “You need to get that rivet stock to a bright yellow heat, and it needs to be cut to the precise length with a hot-chisel. Otherwise, you'll get this weird thing coming out of the pointed part.”

“What gives with that pointed part on these things?” asked Johannes.

“It makes them easier to put in,” said Georg, as he tonged in another rivet blank. “You two, start cutting blanks, and cut them right. Use that gage he has, that one laying there on that anvil.”

Georg soon 'warmed' to the task, and while he was a bit slower than I was, that seemed the sole difference. The rivets soon piled up on the sand-plate, which was replaced by another; the other two men were heating and cutting blanks using the brass gage I laid out; and by the normal 'quitting time', we had covered no less than five large sand-plates with 'perfect' hot-rivets.

“That's just about enough to start that furnace,” I murmured, as I drank from my mug. I needed a break, and was sweaty – and as the others left, Georg said, “I hope your drawings finish up soon. I want to start on that thing you spoke of.”

I stayed but an hour later, for I had another late posting that night, and an armory to check over beforehand; and as I trudged home wearily, itching for a bath, I noted faint tracks in the road's slow-growing dust. Some were of the accustomed width, but one set seemed not merely a good deal less-deep, but also a trifle narrower. I put what speed I could to my steps, for I suspected both Hans and Anna were home; and when I came to our 'yard', I froze in shocked astonishment at what I saw.

“Th-that-that's a b-buggy?” I gasped, as my bag of tricks fell to the ground with a soft muted clink. “It's so s-small.”

I stooped down to pick up my bag, and staggered forward to touch the wondrous apparition that had somehow materialized. The two horses that had drawn it were elsewhere, thankfully, but as I came to its side, I noted its seeming 'daintiness' of construction. A touch upon its side showed smooth wood with an obvious coating of yellow-tinted varnish, and the low sidewalls...

“They're only ten inches tall, and that seat looks as if it would break if I sat upon it,” I thought. “I wonder if I could fit in it?”

I moved to the side, and gently put one of my feet upon the footrest. It seemed solid enough – though when I put my weight upon it, I could feel the buggy's rear slowly begin to rise. I turned quick as thought, planted both feet on the rest, and then sat down with a subtle clanking noise followed by a quick and somewhat abrupt springing up and down that took perhaps three seconds to finally cease.

“I did not break it,” I murmured. I then noticed that Sarah might fit beside me if she was of a mind for intimacy, while Anna would not fit no matter how hard she tried.

“Ah, so you fit in that thing,” said Hans, as he 'materialized' to my right. “I could beat the post easy with that buggy and those horses I borrowed, it is so fast.”

“And I'm about a full load for it,” I murmured, as I wondered how to get out of the seat without breaking something or injuring myself.

“I think you should usually sit in the back there,” said Hans, “unless you are driving. There might be enough room on that seat for a jug with you sitting on it.”

“And Sarah?” I asked, as I made to 'exit'. I hoped the rear would not 'flip up' like it had when I sat down.

“It would be good for her,” said Hans, “though I think she will want a good thick pad for her seat, as that one is lively.”

“Lively?” I asked. I wondered if Hans meant 'it bounces a lot'.

“I cut a turn too hard and drove it into and out of a ditch,” said Hans. “It did that fine, but I was almost tossed out of the seat there. Then, it bounces some when it hits stones that ours ignores.”

“It's lighter,” I said. “It almost reminds me of...”

“What are you doing in that thing?” asked Anna, as she came to my left. “You want to drive, don't you?”

I looked at Hans with a perplexed face, and noticed his grinning. I could almost read his mind, as he'd never driven a 'hot-rod buggy' before.

“Uh, no,” I said. “I came home, I saw it, and I wondered what it felt like, to, uh, sit in.” I paused, then said, “I don't know how to drive a team...”

“That is not hard,” said Hans. “I think Sarah could show you in about half a turn of a glass.”

“Yes, to drive the thing up a tree or into a bad ditch,” I muttered. “Now how do I get out?”

“Same as usual,” said Hans. “Put your foot down, and step out.”

For some reason, that actually worked, even if I still felt the rear rise slightly, and when I got out, I was all too surprised to see Anna take my place almost instantly.

“This one wants a pad, Hans,” she said. “Sarah will wish one the moment she sits in it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “I drove it in and out of a ditch faster than I could think about it, it is so lively, and then when the road is straight...”

“You almost caught up with me,” muttered Anna. “I had an hour's start on you, and you came in not three minutes later than I did.”

“Is Sarah home?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Anna. “I'm glad she borrowed one of those pistols you did up, as I've heard talk from down that way.”

While waiting for dinner, I showed Hans the setup for 'blackening', and as a demonstration, I first did his pistol, then Anna's. As I reassembled the later, I heard Anna yell, “she's home.”

I ran up the stairs to as to see her, and when I saw her dirt and tear-streaked face, I gasped – and then I dropped everything, and hugged her close. I so wanted to caress her hair, that I flung caution to the wind and did so gently – until I saw blood upon my hand from a part-hidden cut somewhere on her head.

“Th-thank you,” she said between choked sobs. “I was nearly crushed by a herd of pigs, and I had to-to-to s-shoot some witches.”

I soon learned that that was not all Sarah had had to do; she had barricaded herself in the narrow space between two houses as a war-zone erupted about her, and when her hiding spot had been found, she'd had to run for it through a hail of gunfire from both townsfolk and witches.

“You what?” asked Anna, as she looked over one of Sarah's scraped-up legs. She had bruises almost everywhere, and I wondered if she'd acquired some lead.

“No lead in this one,” said Hans as he looked at her other leg. “It looks bad, though. Did those witches chase you into brambles?”

“N-no, but those pigs were awful,” said Sarah tearfully. “I had to toss a jug at those things, and it nearly got me, too.”

“What was this jug?” asked Hans.

“H-heavy distillate,” said Sarah. “It drove the pigs off, but it nearly lit someone's barn on fire, and then a coach showed, and, and...”

“And you did what?” asked Hans.

“I shot my last bullet at that thing,” sobbed Sarah, “and it almost got me when it exploded.”

“Those coach things are like that,” said Hans. “Dennis has shot at them, and they almost always explode then.”

“Y-yes,” said Sarah, “but it was but ten paces away when I shot at it, and there was a witch in it with a fowling piece...”

“T-ten paces?” shrieked Anna. “Are you out of your mind?”

“I-I'm not sure,” said Sarah. “Then, one of the farmers was hurt, and I borrowed his musket.”

“Yes, so you did that,” said Hans, as he looked over her back. The scrapes there were shallow yet bloody. “Now what did you do?”

“I shot this one witch, and he ignored being shot!” shrieked Sarah. “I tried to run from him, as he came after me.”

“Probably one of those stinky hard-to-kill wretches,” I muttered. “They seem to be common enough lately.”

“Where did you hit this witch?” asked Anna gently.

“I centered his chest,” said Sarah, “and that should have stopped him, as that wasn't a common musket.”

“What was it, then?” asked Hans.

“I am not sure,” said Sarah softly. She seemed to be reliving the experience as she spoke – at least, when she wasn't wincing in pain. “It was almost too heavy for me to pick up, and then it put me on my back when I fired it.”

“Is that how your back got scraped up?” I asked.

“I th-think so,” said Sarah. “I hope I never shoot a musket like that again, as my shoulder is still sore from it.”

“Then you do not want to shoot Dennis', as his will hurt you,” said Hans. “You have seen what it does to him.”

“On her back, though?” I asked. “What kind of musket does... Oh, my...”

My sudden gasp was that of astonishment, for Anna had uncovered part of Sarah's shoulder. It was a mass of black with occasional blue tints here and there, and swollen alarmingly as well.

“I think I know what that musket was,” said Hans knowingly. “Did this thing have a barrel you could wiggle your thumb around in?”

Sarah nodded.

“Sarah!” shouted Anna. “You shot a roer at that witch!”

“I won't do it again, Anna,” said Sarah sorrowfully. “It hurt too much then, and it hurts badly now.”

“That was not a common witch, not if he ate that much lead,” said Hans. “Not when he still came after you.” A pause, then, “what happened next?”

“I was about to reach for my pistol,” said Sarah, “but someone shot at him from the side. He turned to the right, and walked that way.” A pause to drink, a gasp, then, “and he was walking really stiff, too.”

“That... That wretch knew those curses, all right,” I spat. “I wonder what happened to him?”

“He is where he belongs,” said the soft voice. “Not even an imported strong witch can last indefinitely when his heart is blown out of his chest, no matter how much he chants or what curses he says.” A brief pause, then, “she more or less saved that town from destruction single-handedly, so her injuries are not surprising.”

“W-will she get over them?” I asked fearfully.

“Use that bark for the scrapes,” said the soft voice, “and that after careful bathing.”

“We will need more of it soon, then,” said Anna. “If it works like it did with Hendrik's rear, then she should be fine in a few days.”

While Anna bathed Sarah – there were soft moans steadily coming from the bathroom, and once an agonized shriek that had me running for the bathroom door with a prayer on my lips – Hans and I went over her clothing. Anna had passed what remained of it out through a crack in the door, and while I saw the burnt places, the many rips, and the dozens of blood-soaked tears in her clothing, Hans was muttering.

“This looks like she tried for the Swartsburg when that second wretch was running it,” said Hans. “This stuff is fit for the rag-buyers, is what it is.”

“She has extra clothing, doesn't she?” I asked.

“Yes, some,” said Hans, “but she needs more of that stuff, and I think she was going to that place to get some things for it. Then, her shoes are gone.”

“G-gone?” I spluttered. “Gone?”

“You will need to take her to see the shoemaker as soon as she is well enough for travel,” said Hans. “If you can make another short musket, or better two of those things, I would do that, as if this is going to be common, then we will want those things here, and she will need one to take with her, same as Anna.”

“That witch was heading back towards the south,” said the soft voice, “and he decided to 'take' the town.” A pause, then in more ominous tone, “Sarah set witchdom's case back more than either of you realize.”

“H-how?” I asked.

“That was the last strong imported witch that had come north for the second rising of the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice, “and as for strength overall, he was a rival to Koenraad the second.”

“Then he was a bad witch,” said Hans.

“More than merely a bad witch,” said the soft voice. “That town had not fully woken up, due to his hiding there once the Swartsburg went up – and it is now not merely fully awakened, but the first kingdom is now 'reawakened' once more.”

“Meaning everyone is again on the hunt for witches,” I muttered. “I hope no one tries to air out my smelly hide.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “It means that more witches will be routed out, and more importantly, that attitude will stick longer this time.”

“It didn't last much when the Swartsburg went up that second time, did it?” I asked.

“Not as much as it should have, at least here,” said Hans. “Once they learn about what happened to her, though – I would expect there to be a lot of trouble.”

Far in the distance, a rumbling boom was followed by two more like it, then faint on the wind I heard a long and heartbreaking scream.

“I think it is starting again,” said Hans, “as those were guns firing shells.”

“Oh, no, not another one of those nightmares...” My muttering was a tocsin of woe, for such noises usually meant 'reliving' events that featured them.

My statement proved prescient, for the gunfire and explosions seemed to follow me in my wake as I rode to the house proper in the late afternoon. The news was spreading fast, so fast that I wondered just how it could do so, at least until I saw winking lights in the corner of my eyes. I then recalled the term for what I was seeing.

“Heliography,” I murmured. “They're signaling. Now do they use code of some kind?”

“Yes, a very simple one,” said the soft voice. “Flashing like that always means trouble, and the more flashes, the worse that trouble is.”

“What kind of trouble?” I asked. “Do they indicate what kind?”

“No, and there's but little need to do so,” said the soft voice. “The usual trouble is imported witches and pigs, and if it's not imported witches and their pigs, then it's the domestic versions of both, much as happened with Sarah this afternoon.”

“She will be all right, won't she?” I asked.

“Perhaps two days, and she should be well enough to travel,” said the soft voice. “She'll be sewing much of that time, both to replace her own clothing and to work on the final orders she needs to fill.”

“Seven horses in back?” I asked.

“Hans will take the two back in the morning, along with the news,” said the soft voice. “Not everyone understands those mirror-messages, and the house tends to be insular in its ignorance that way.” A brief pause, then, “and when Sarah can travel, you will want to take her to the shoemaker.”

“She lost her shoes in that fight,” I muttered.

“They were falling apart,” said the soft voice, “and hence they fell off when she had to run from cover to toss that jug.”

“T-toss that jug?” I asked. I had the impression Sarah was not merely 'hiding', but waiting until the right moment to spring her attack upon the just-arrived witches and pigs; and her firing a roer unhesitatingly was indicative of what she was willing to do to wreak havoc upon the enemy.

“Your wife-to-be is not to be trifled with,” said the soft voice, “and her name is an apt one. More, such doings run in her family, and go back many generations.” A brief pause, then, “only her cousin is 'crazier' that way than she, and her, not by much.”

I arrived roughly an hour early, and when I went to the refectory, I was met by Andreas. Again, he was wearing 'old' clothing, and when he spoke of 'checking' the armory, I asked, “did you hear?”

“About what?” asked Andreas. “About that one witch eating a pound and a half of lead, or about what happened to Sarah?”

“H-how?” I asked.

“Partly by signal mirror,” said Andreas as he subtly handed me a small leather pouch, much as if he were a 'secret agent' passing a missive to another such nefarious person, “and then another portion by messenger.” A pause, while he drank, then, “I have the currently-used code written upon a paper in with that mirror, but I suspect the one you know is a good deal simpler to use.”

“But no one else...”

“Yes, right now,” said Andreas. “The current code is used because it's commonly known, not because it's well-suited for the task.” A brief pause, then, “besides, weren't you told the witches would have difficulty deciphering it?”

“But I barely recall it,” I said. I could remember 'S', 'O', and perhaps four other letters.

And yet, as I said it, I knew I would remember it better in due time. I took out the small round disk and marveled at it, for it was of surprisingly thick glass mounted in a cast bronze surround, and the hollowed area within its center shined eerily.

“It won't break readily that way, should you drop it,” said Andreas. “There's two more yet to finish out of that batch of five.”

Our steps to the armory were rapid and in the dark, for there was need of hurry and candles of the right sort were still in very short supply. We stopped at that one alcove to secure a pair of rag-covered alcohol lanterns, and as we resumed walking toward the armory, Andreas said, “your tossing that bomb set back General's Row no small amount.”

“They were cursing Hendrik,” I muttered. “What happened now?” My voice had a sound I could not place beyond 'it wasn't the usual tone of voice for me'.

“Three more dead Generals turned up outside the next day,” said Andreas, “and if I go by the smell and the blood trails, at least twice that many died in or near that room.” A brief pause, then, “and that room is a shambles, what with all the chewed-up wood and broken chairs I saw.”

“Does it smell?” I asked.

“Of death, yes,” said Andreas. “I also know many of those men who still live are nursing most-painful wounds, and Karl has learned of their thirst.”

“D-don't tell me,” I spluttered, as we came to the junction of hallway and 'promenade'. “He wants to dose their drink with Krokus.”

“He has been working on that, yes,” said Andreas. “He does not want to use just Krokus this time.”

“What else?” I muttered, as we turned the corner. I was glad for my small shuttered lantern.

“He's having no small amount of trouble getting this stuff,” said Andreas. “He was speaking of arsenic, and how no one would sell it to him.”

“As he is not a chemist, correct?” I asked.

“His near-exact words,” said Andreas. “He's a little brash yet to be thinking of that species of poison.”

“Didn't Krokus fetch some of them the last time?” I asked. The door was ajar, though the smell from within was that of fire, smoke, cinders – and perhaps the pure and unique reek of retribution, if such had an odor.

“It did,” said Andreas. “I think he wants to get all of those men – and some of them, at least, are too canny yet to fall for such an obvious trick.”

“Krokus, or arsenic?” I asked, as I followed Andreas in and began uncovering the lantern I held.

“Both of those things,” said Andreas. “Arsenic, unless it is prepared most carefully, is surprisingly ineffective as a poison.”

“And it has a most-definite metallic taste, no doubt,” I muttered. “Only a trashed General would guzzle arsenic-laced drink.”

“Right on all counts,” said Andreas as he lit his lantern. “Now let's see what's left in this place.”

With the glaring light of two turned-up alcohol lanterns shining brightly over the whole of the place, the first thing I noted was the bleached white-gray stone of the walls and much of the floor. Here and there, odd-looking metal blobs of one kind of another lay among thick drifts and dustings of ashes, while in the center of the room, the cauldron lay part-melted and collapsed. What remained of it was the reddish-brown of old copper mingled with the flaky black dust of high temperatures. I had seen such colors many times at the shop, and knew their precise meanings clearly.

“That thing was covered with soot,” I spluttered.

“It was more than covered,” said Andreas. “Sarah had a small scale, and measured up to half an inch of baked-on soot in places.”

“S-small scale?” I asked.

“She said it was one you seldom used,” said Andreas, “and I suspect that it wasn't that good of a scale, not for what you usually do.”

“Uh, I have several spares of those things,” I said, “and you're right, there are two or three I use a lot and the rest are packed away.” I paused briefly, then asked, “was this thing somewhat old-looking, with a few small rust-pits here and there?”

Andreas nodded, then said, “I suspect it was made in one of the less-good shops in the fourth kingdom. Now that there is something over there that I wonder about.”

Andreas was pointing at something poking up through a mound of ashes in the far corner, and when I went to investigate it, the ashes slowly and furtively moved to each side. I looked at the charred sack, and squeaked, “buckles!”

“Nickel plated, no doubt, and badly done,” said Andreas. “They are, aren't they?”

I turned and nodded, then said, “I have heard about something that can be done with gray-metal that involves them.”

Andreas eyes grew wide, then he asked, “did you find the recipe?”

“N-no,” I said. “I was told... Recipe?”

“It was on more than one tapestry,” said Andreas. “It seems that long ago, gray-metal was used in ways beyond casting trinkets by and for witches, and some of these ways were quite surprising.”

“Such as something closer to cast-iron for strength, only tougher and less prone to rusting?” I asked. “Something casts almost as readily as a more-fluid species of lead?”

“If that comes good, then I want to know about it, as I've got sacks of gray-metal stowed,” said Andreas. “If you add a bit of tin to it, then it works well for some bearings, or at least I thought it did until I found out about what you used for your bearings. I've replaced most of mine since then.”

“Or knobs, or other unstressed parts,” I said. “This stuff I was told about, though – I'm not sure what it might be good for.”

“Right now, not that much,” said the soft voice. “In the near future, though – it will be most useful indeed, as gray-metal is both very common and very cheap.”

“Which is why you need to make up what ingots of it you can, no doubt,” said Andreas. “I'd like a few of those when you do.”

Also among the ashes lay well-charred scraps of leather, and when I returned from a brief investigation of one elongated drift to then touch the bag, it disintegrated and spilled out the part-melted buckles. I drew out one of several cloth bags from my possible bag and began bagging them up.

There were more 'messes' in the other rooms; all that had once been burnable was now charred remains sprinkled with ash, if not entirely ash; and the 'ruins' of the various forges were now mounds of gravel mingled with whitish dust. The smell was now dry, sterile, and burnt; “it smells like a high-fired kiln in here,” said Andreas.

“Given that it was as hot as one for a slow count of ten, it's not surprising,” said the soft voice. “Sift carefully through those ashes, as those three left behind some few small sacks of coins, and while they are not 'spendable', they are fit for casting once cleaned.”

“Done,” said Andreas. “And any more buckles, the same.”

“And scrap-iron,” said the soft voice. “It has had its taint removed, and 'Frankie' will devour it handily.”

“Now who is Frankie?” asked Andreas. “Is that the name of the furnace that's supposed to get started soon?”

I nodded, and as I made to turn down my lantern – we had looked the place over, and I'd commented upon the many and varied melted masses of gray-metal, copper, and brass – I thought, “why did he pronounce it that way?”

Andreas had said “Frankij,” not “Frankie,” and that conundrum remained throughout the first half of a very quiet posting. I used the time to my greatest advantage by writing in my journal, mostly under various headings in the 'lunatic' section, while in one particular place, some few notes regarding dealing with the creatures at the Abbey.

“And hence we need to make, uh, nitro,” I thought, as I saw my trio of relievers. “Now I just hope Hans is not scared green at the mere mention of it.”

“He has never used ice,” said the soft voice, “nor has he done most of the other things that occurred to you, nor has he ever mingled it with the crystals of 'dried urine' and Roesmaan's salaterus.”

“Which will make it keep long enough to be useful,” I murmured.

“Some months, if kept in the cold room,” said the soft voice. “I would make nitrocellulose and add a small portion, such that it turns into a somewhat runny gelatinous material.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You can drop it on the floor then,” said the soft voice, “and it will not explode, unlike pure nitroglycerin.”

“Nitro explodes when dropped?” I thought for a moment, then, “more reactive chemicals...”

“And in some cases, stronger,” said the soft voice. “Some explosives here have little in common with those you have heard of where you came from beyond their names.”

“Uh, like...” I tried to recall the names of some, and was stumped.

“However, you will still need to treat that 'blasting gelatin' with due respect,” said the soft voice. “It will explode if you toss it any real distance, and there's a good chance it will explode if you were to drop some of it from a second-story window.”

I resolved to bring a 'done' revolver for Andreas the next posting, and as I rode home, it was all I could do to not stifle my frequent yawns. I didn't know what day it was, I was so tired, at least until the next morning when I saw Sarah covered in bandages. I wanted to hug her, but she shook her head slowly.

“I hurt too much,” she said, “and I needed both tinctures to sleep last night.”

“And now?” I asked.

“Anna will dose me again when she wakes up, most likely,” said Sarah. “She has to when she changes the bandages, as otherwise I would scream.”

“Yes, that is right,” said Hans. “At least you are likely to hurt less soon.”

Sarah shook her head slowly, then said, “the bleeding places, yes. The bruises, no.”

“I would not be so certain of that,” said Hans. “I think that stuff works on those things, too, as I could see that place on your shoulder there go lighter almost as I watched once she put that stuff on it.” Hans paused, then said, “I just hope I have enough of that bark left.”

“Uh, did you tell anyone about that bark?” I asked.

Hans shook his head.

“On second thought, I doubt you needed to, not when Maria was present and saw what happened with Hendrik's rear,” I said. “I strongly suspect a message is heading south...”

“It went south earlier, and the order is being filled as you speak,” said the soft voice. “She ordered several sizable and well-sealed crocks of it, with a request for more as it becomes available.” A pause, then, “and, you-all will desire it when the swine come.”

“Is it common?” I asked.

“Recall those strangely tall and straight trees with their stringy bark that were everywhere in the fourth kingdom?” asked the soft voice. “The bark comes from those things.”

“Ah, then it is good for more than starting fires,” said Hans. “There are lots of those things in that place, and there will be people willing to gather the bark...”

“There is bark, and then there is bark,” said the soft voice, “much like there is with some of your medicines. The stronger stuff isn't that common, even if it isn't exactly rare.”

“And about half of that stuff is best used for starting fires,” I said. “The trees need to be in the right soil with the correct microorganisms...”

Hans looked at me strangely.

“They make the medicine,” I said, “and the tree brings it up from the soil, and, uh, concentrates...”

“And converts it into a useful form,” said the soft voice. “The roadside trees, especially in heavily traveled regions where horses leave much dung in the roadside ditches, tend to have the best bark.”

“That bark is what is what travelers commonly burn, though,” said Hans.

“Not in the best places,” said the soft voice. “The area around that market, especially that region nearest the west school, has the very strongest bark – and the students commonly gather and sell it to the chemists in that town.”

Hans relaxed noticeably. He then said, “so, it is two days until the rest-day, and Sarah needs to rest.”

“Where did she go?” I asked, upon not seeing her in the room.

A faint shriek told me 'upstairs'.

“She needs dosing, is what she needs,” said Hans. “Anna should be dosing her shortly, as soon as she is dressed.”

“And then the bandages get changed,” I murmured.

“Yes, and I need to make up some more of that bark stuff,” said Hans. “You might want to help me do that, as it might be better if you grind it.”

I found the bark to be readily ground in the largest of our looted-from-the-Abbey mortars, and as I added hot water again to what I was grinding, Hans came to my side. He seemed excited.

“That stuff looks better,” he said as he pointed at the going-to-'mud' bark. “It is glowing a little here and there.”

“Glowing?” I squeaked.

“Yes, right there,” said Hans, as he pointed to the 'paste' adhering to the pestle. “Now someone has been telling me to get all the ice I can, and I need to go outside and get it before it melts.”

“Ice?” I gasped. “How?”

I soon learned how, even as I continued 'macerating' the bark, for Hans brought in two wide tinned copper pans that were solid sheets of ice, then two more, and then a final pair of pans. When he had put the last two tins 'away', he said, “they need a few hours for the ice to turn loose of the pans.”

“What did you do?” I gasped as I continued grinding.

“If you have a good stone wall like we have, and it is in the right height and all,” said Hans, “and if you have pans like that, you can get ice most of the year if you put water out in them about sundown.” A pause, then, “the only time I do not get ice is high summer, as then it is hot.”

I looked down at my task – I had been grinding away steadily the whole time – and now I could see a faint bluish haze covering the whole of the mortar and pestle, and the stuff felt 'charged' in some fashion. I almost expected it to spit sparks, it felt so strange, and when Hans looked at the mortar, he looked at me, then at the mortar again.

“I do not know what that stuff will do when Anna puts it on her,” said Hans, “but I think it will help a lot.”