Hans took up both mortar and pestle when I finished, and within moments, the soft moans subsided into silence. As I looked around for what I might need to make 'nitro', Hans came back down.
“Anna is surprised at how much better she is now,” said Hans, “and that stuff you did should help a lot.”
“Uh, glowing?” I asked.
“She did not see that,” said Hans, “but she noticed how nice it seemed to stick to the hurt places. It was like a lodestone for iron for that stuff, as it did not matter where Anna put it on Sarah, as long as it was close to a hurt place.”
“It moved?” I asked.
“Yes, like some chemicals do,” said Hans. “Then, when it got to the hurt places, it seemed to film over somehow, and I saw a little tin tag that said it was killing something with a big long name that I cannot say.”
“The name of a bacterium, most likely,” I softly murmured. “Do we have glycerin, for, uh, blasting oil?”
Hans suddenly went white as a sheet, then began mumbling. I could hear terror in his voice, at least until he realized who would be helping with it. He then relaxed.
At least until I told him how we needed to collect everyone's urine and boil the stuff down.
“Now why is it you want to stink the place up bad that way?” asked Hans.
“Because there's something in urine that will keep blasting oil stable longer,” I said. “That, some Roesmaan's salaterus, and then some, uh, specially treated sawdust so I can make this other stuff like it.”
As I laid out my plans, I spoke of the need to make small batches with the mixing container in ice-water, followed by careful washing with salt water, then using salaterus to get the last acid out of the 'oil'. It would then need careful dosing with the powder left from evaporated urine – and then, finally, combining with the nitrocellulose.
“You do not say,” said Hans. “It takes that oil and makes it less sensitive?”
“It still is quite sensitive,” I said. “It can be dropped from waist height...”
“That means an explosion with that oil,” said Hans.
“And it will not explode then,” I said. “If you toss it much up in the air, it is likely to explode.”
“That is like most mining dynamite,” said Hans. “What do you do with this gel-stuff?”
“Uh, put it in something and squirt it into holes,” I blurted. “It's really strong.”
“It should be, seeing as how it has more oil in it than that dynamite that leaves the mill bad,” said Hans. “If your way comes good, then those to the south making that stuff will want to know about it.” A brief pause. “You said this powder from boiled urine helps it keep?”
“I think so,” I said. “It has urea in it, which helps that way. Between that, gelatinizing the stuff, uh, treating the sawdust... Hans, how coarse is that sawdust used in dynamite?” I asked.
“About what you get from a bad saw,” said Hans. “Why, is that bad?”
“It needs to not merely be boiled in lye first,” I said, “but then made into a fine dust-like powder, and the same for the niter.” A pause, then, “the stuff will be like putty then, and stay in the tube better.”
But as I spoke of 'putty', I had an idea: “Hans, could you get some old swine-shells, the ones they use for the pigs?”
“Why is it you want them?” asked Hans with a grin. “Do you think that dragoon at the Abbey will like their taste?”
“I am not certain,” I said, “but I want some really nasty bombs for clearing the Abbey beyond those ink-globes – and come to think of it, a swine-shell loaded with dynamite does sound plausible for dragoon-disposal.”
I left the shop an hour before sundown that day. Georg was gone for some reason, and I presumed he was delivering the new still; while the others were present, both of them had muskets handy, as well as their 'hunting' satchels on a cleared space of the south-wall workbench. I had the impression they were expecting 'game' to practically charge into the shop, and while I faintly heard the call of a quoll sometime shortly after lunch, the bird was a good distance off.
Once home and bathed, I began to work on the drawing. Tomorrow – I had told Hans of the need to not merely save and boil down urine, but also process what tallow he could so as to get the glycerin, if he did not have some already – I would hopefully begin to start on the furnace. The apprentices had been busy segregating scrap from the sheets I would need, and Georg had been making rivets for three hours straight the day I had delivered up the finished distillery.
He'd covered three sand-pans all by himself, and rivets were quickly accumulating in small leather pouches. The whole shop seemed to be in an expectant mood, which I recalled as I finished up the four sheets of drawings; and as I did the last drawing, I marveled at what we would actually accomplish.
“Is that the furnace?” asked Anna, as she saw me putting the finishing touches on the drawing.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “Those stairs lead up to the charging platform, and those bricks below it...”
“Are not yet there,” said Anna. “Those mason people were talking about that, saying that you needed to have it nearly finished before they could put the rest of the bricks up for the outside, and then it must be entirely finished before they line it with bricks on the inside.” Anna paused, then, “and I will want Hans' ear-corks then, as they will sing while inside of that oven.”
“W-why?” I asked.
“They tend to sing when they work,” said Anna, “and while I cannot understand a word of what they say, Sarah tells me they are singing of things much as some people do around here while working.”
“And inside the furnace?” I asked.
“You never tried speaking in a cave, did you?” said Anna. “It makes your voice sound weird, and that's if you have a normal voice.” A pause, then, “with their voices, I might want tinctures.”
I paused, for my pencil had gone 'dull' and needed sharpening. As I trimmed it with a small knife, I asked, “and Sarah? How is she?”
“Much better,” said Anna. “I think you should mix that stuff up for her until she is better, as it makes what Hans does seem worthless for healing.”
“B-blue glow?” I asked.
Anna nodded slightly, then “his didn't move like yours did. Yours almost seemed to know where it needed to go, and it went right to the worst places – and when I was done, Sarah woke up and said she wasn't hurting any more.”
“She woke up?” I asked.
“She should have slept for at least two more hours,” said Anna, “as I gave her first the widow's tincture, then that for pain.” Anna paused, then said, “and this isn't the first time I wished I had something stronger than that tincture, as that kind of pain is bad enough to cause trouble all by itself.”
“Is she up now?” I asked.
“She went back to bed as soon as I'd finished, and then she was sleeping normally,” said Anna. “Except for eye-shades, she looks as if she was burnt.”
When Sarah came down for dinner, I was astonished at the seeming change wrought upon her person and her demeanor. Not merely was she not sobbing, but she was bundled thickly in bandages and then a soft cloth 'suit' of some kind, with gloves on her hands, leather slippers on her feet, and a hood for her head that hid her face; and that when she ate, I could see the food seem to vanish as if by magic.
“If you need to go, dear,” I asked, “I will be willing to carry you to the privy.”
Sarah looked at me, and under the shade of her 'hood' I saw a face all but swathed in bandages. Only the eyes and mouth showed, which made her look 'strange'.
“Anna says my bandages may come off tomorrow, at least most of them,” said Sarah. “That stuff is working better than anything I've ever had for such hurts.”
“They were worse than they looked when I first saw them, dear,” said Anna. “Some of them were quite deep, and how you got cut like that is a mystery to me.”
“C-cut?” I asked.
“Some wretch tried to dump her tripes from the side and rear,” said Anna. “I'm glad it wasn't particularly deep, as all I could do was bind it up carefully after cleaning it well. Then, there was some larger shot and two balls, and one of those balls needed extraction.”
“B-balls?” I asked.
“Yes, they weren't like with you, where they passed clean through and I saw your wounds already healed,” said Anna. “All except one of those things came out after she bathed, and that last one I needed to remove the hard way.”
“C-cut?” I asked.
“I was glad I had those special tools,” said Anna. “They're from the fourth kingdom, and they cost enough, but I've used them many times since I got them.”
“What are they like?” I asked.
“One is a special probe,” said Anna, “and it is made of a type of steel that is strange, as it is most disinclined to rust, even when not oiled.”
“Heinrich steel,” said Sarah softly. “They teem their own vats, and some of their metal is that type.”
“It is worthless for edges,” said Anna,” even if it works best for things like these tools. Then, there are several pair of very long tweezers with toothed ends that are shaped so as to grasp balls, and finally, this one thing that is a little like a special screw. It widens the wound without cutting.” A brief pause, then, “and I am glad I was able to fit them all in that pressure-pot, as that thing makes aquavit seem worthless for cleaning.”
“I've got orders for more of those pots,” I said.
“Albrecht had a hand in that, most likely,” said Anna. “I know want a spare one, and Hans sent word south to some people he knows, and then Albrecht seems to have his own ways of sending word apart from what Andreas and his people can do.”
I then caught what Sarah had said, and asked, “teem their own vats?”
“They use furnaces like the one in the shop,” said Sarah. “That one seems a trifle bigger, and I suspect it's actually made slightly better.”
“That would not surprise me,” said Anna. “Those three masons are not as they look to be, and that is for the common matters.” A pause, then, “they are not the common for masons.”
“They would do well in the fourth kingdom?” asked Sarah.
“I included the fourth kingdom's workmen when I spoke,” said Anna. “They might not do stone, but if they did, that one smelly wretch would have a burn-pile waiting for him as soon as people learned of their work, and it would happen between one day and the next.”
Sarah did have the need to 'go' at the end of the meal, and I carefully carried her to the brown door. There, she limped inside, and some minutes later, returned. I scooped her up, and carried her back to her chair.
“Thank you,” she said. “I may be better, but it hurts much to walk.”
“With the tinctures?” I asked.
“I tend to sleep if I am given sufficient to deal with the pain entirely,” said Sarah. “As it is, I must drink uncorking medicine every chance I can.”
I then noticed her having two cups, and a glance at one of them showed it part-full of that evil-tasting 'turpentine'. I did not envy Sarah in the slightest, and when she indicated she wished to go upstairs, I carried her as per her wishes.
“You don't weigh much, dear,” I said. “To where you sew, or to where, you, are, uh, sleeping?”
Sarah was tired; she had sewn as much as she could that day, and it was not easy labor while swathed in bandages and aching all over; hence I laid her upon the 'pallet' in Anna's room. As I stood up, I noted that not merely was the 'pallet' not what I thought it was – it was a bed, much like mine, only one readily taken apart – but also, the nature of what Hans and Anna actually slept in.
“A covered bed?” I gasped. I had not really noticed it before quite like I did now.
“That is the usual kind,” said Sarah's sleepy voice. “My parents had one like it for size, if otherwise much different.”
I then heard a soft snoring sound, and I turned to carefully cover Sarah with a blanket that lay heaped by the side of her 'bed'. On tip-toe, I left the room to be met at the bottom of the stairs by Anna.
“Is she sleeping?” she asked.
“She seemed to be,” I said. “I think she was tired.”
“I would think so,” said Anna. “She was working nearly the whole day upon clothing, and I know enough about being done up like that that it is not easy to move.”
“I think that is why he carried her, Anna,” said Hans. “She can barely move, just like a lot of people who are burned bad.”
“It's more the pain, Hans,” said Anna.
“That is why they can barely move,” said Hans. “If you are burnt and you are healing good, the pain is such that even with doses of the tinctures enough to kill a person who is not hurt twice over, you are still stiff from the pain.”
“What?” I squeaked.
“If someone takes too much of that tincture for pain,” said Hans with utmost seriousness, “the best thing to do is set fire to them. That will wake them up in a hurry.”
“And then it will burn them to death,” I squeaked.
“No, you do not use distillate,” said Hans. He was still altogether serious, and spoke as if from personal experience. “Use Geneva or diluted aquavit, and then as soon as they are woke up good, drown them with water so the fire is out.” A pause, then, “it is better to be wrapped in burn-clothes for a week than to be dead and buried, is what I think, and that I know about, as I have done that more than once.”
“And I several times,” said Anna. “Usually, it's smaller children, and the mother might scream louder than her child when I've set them alight, but they're glad the child's life is saved when I have to bandage them up.”
I finished the drawing that evening, and as I walked to the shop in the morning, I was glad I did not need to post for two days. It seemed that my bomb-tossing ways had quieted down the Generals markedly, and both Lukas and Gilbertus were back in the area. Knowing the latter had returned from where he lived made me wonder about rat-clubs, but as I opened the door to the shop to see the neatly-laid-out sheets of metal and carefully stacked pieces of metal clustered about the 'submarine', I thought, “Now how will I bend up the wind-belt for this thing, and more, how will I rivet it?”
The pieces for the 'wind belt' proved surprising easy to bend, once Georg fetched a big wooden mallet from the carpenters. I wondered what they were doing during our first break.
“Still digging that pit, though they're doing that between carpentry jobs now,” said Georg. “That apprentice they have seems smart enough to learn, but he's clumsy enough to pass for a fresh elk.” A brief pause, then, “I'm glad you have good riveting tongs.”
“Escaping rivets?” I asked.
“Those boys are not to tong those when they are hot,” said Georg. “I heard recently of how someone died from a rivet-burn, and it was but ten miles to the south and west of here.”
“That sounds close to this one, uh, town,” I said. “It has a lot of witches in it...”
Georg turned, then spat with violence. He turned back to me, then with a shaking quaver in his voice, he said, “talk has it those stinkers were involved in that, and had I distillate and knowledge enough, I would burn them out myself.” A brief pause, then, “it's bad enough they nearly killed Sarah, but those fiends kill when and where they can, and decent smiths are about as high on their lists as preachers.”
“Then he is higher,” said Johannes. “Now where is it you wish this hole?”
“I put chalk marks around the places where I put a divot, so you can see them easier,” I said. “You want to center your drill on the divot, like so...” I found 'my' drill – Johannes was using the spare – and showed how I put the bit in the center-punch mark. “These drill a trifle undersize, so we can drill to size once the parts are in place.” I said this as I began drilling the hole in question.
I could feel something 'odd', and I said, “whoever tried punching holes in this stuff...”
“It was not me,” said Johannes. “I saw some of that work, and that is as bad a job of punching as I ever saw.”
“What is the usual, then?” I asked.
“That depends on your punch,” said Johannes, “and also the metal. If the metal is decent, and your punch sharp...”
“You're supposed to start with a smaller one and enlarge the hole with bigger ones,” said Georg. “I did some asking around on my rounds, and found that punching is used so much because few have decent drills. It's better to drill such holes, as they don't need near the work to reform the workpieces.” A pause, then, “and no shop, not one in this area, has bolts like he has for fitting.”
“So we can put our rivets right,” I said. “Now when I get this piece here done, who wants to buck?”
“I am no mule, so I cannot buck,” said Gelbhaar.
“The person on the other side of the rivet from the hammerer holds what's called a bucking bar,” I said, “and they're the one who usually puts the rivet in, also.”
While all three men had ample experience with riveting, their work had neither been this large or this precise; and I had to first figure out what to do, then actually demonstrate. The resulting rivets, at least the first examples, were poor enough that they needed careful chiseling and then drilling to remove; and it was only just prior to lunch that the rivets started to come out 'usable' – provided I 'ran the show' and swung the hammer – and when lunch came around, all three men wobbled out of the shop. I wondered where they were going, so much so that I followed them out the door and into the yard.
“Now why are they heading north instead of south to the Public House?” I thought.
“They aren't accustomed to being around someone who does a passable imitation of a pneumatic riveting hammer,” said the soft voice, “and while Georg is thinking of swine and artillery, all three of those men have ringing ears.”
“Vegetable fiber?” I asked.
“Is barely enough now in your case,” said the soft voice. “You will want fresh examples of what Hans gives them once you really start riveting.”
Thankfully, that did not happen that day, even if all three men came back with strange orange carrot-shaped things in their ears and a wobbling step that spoke of the widow's tincture. Their abilities, however, steadily improved with practice, and we'd managed to build up a portion of the wind-belt by the time they'd taken their aprons off and had left the shop. After they left, I began to actually attach it to the 'submarine' with the bolts, then drill the holes.
Once that was finished, I began laying out and marking the support-straps, and then brought in two sheets of copper. I would need to make the blower – and also, the engine.
“At least I have the patterns for that portion,” I said. “I might need to make some larger ones.”
Looking closer at the original drawings for the first steam engine spoke of larger dimensions in key places, and I made more drawings that night for the carpenters – and in the morning, I took them over before getting started for the day, and I returned home to then eat breakfast.
Sarah seemed still better yet, but she was still dressed in 'burn clothing', and as I mashed up a fresh batch of the poultice after dinner, I heard soft words speaking of her being 'ready to travel' upon the morrow.
“She won't be entirely healed, will she?” I said.
“No, but she will be able to dress normally enough to be taken to the shoemaker's in the morning,” said the soft voice – “and then afterward, you'll need to head to your posting right off, especially as it's during the day for a change.”
“It and the one on Sunday,” I thought. “Both good exploring days, and also, good days for writing or drawing.”
The day went by rapidly, for I was busy again with fitting and riveting. I was finding that I needed to fit up more sections to the wind-belt, as well as some of its supports, before I could rivet it to the main furnace shell; and between that, supervising and then trimming pieces of various bars and 'angles', illustrating once more the finished furnace and how it would look, and answering questions from the carpenters, I had my hands full enough to wonder about other matters – chiefly, the matter of nitroglycerin.
“Hans has to make up the glycerin,” said the soft voice, “and that will take him several days – if he does it as he has done before.”
“He does not have some jugged, does he?”
“Unless it is pure, it tends to keep poorly,” said the soft voice. “His methods are but little better than the hurried and careless ways of the fifth kingdom – chiefly in that they are neither hurried nor careless. The product is improved but little just the same.”
“Which means I need to, uh, purify it myself,” I said. “Or is that 'make it myself' – as in clean the tallow as if I were going to deodorize it, then use Roesmaan's lye and, uh, make soap and skim the resulting clean and clear material that comes to the top?”
There was no answer to my question except 'it's worth a try'.
When I left for home, however, a slight and gentle wind from the north was blowing my way, and the stench was one I had but smelled once before. It took several seconds for me to recall first when I had smelled this particular stink, and then, what kind of stink it was. The building's sign flashed briefly before my staring eyes.
“Lye,” I spat. “Anna must be having a fit. Hans is boiling soap.”
“About all that material will be good for is irritating Anna and making the house smell,” said the soft voice. “Follow the instructions you were given with due care, and your product will be worth the trouble of adding to the acid.”
As I drew closer, I could hear not just one irate female voice, but two: Anna's, whose voice I expected; and a higher-pitched voice that somehow agreed with both parties, at least at some level. As my feet touched our stoop, though, I heard this second voice plainly.
“Hans, that will neither make decent soap nor blasting oil,” said Sarah's voice. She was more than a little 'irritated'. “I do not care who told you how to do it that way, or how many times you've done it like that, I've done both things enough to know better.”
“Poorly rendered tallow, no doubt,” I muttered.
“No rendering is closer to the truth,” said the soft voice. “He got that stuff 'cheap' from a chandler some miles to the north.”
“Is that a hint?” I asked, as I gently tapped on the door. I did not wish to intrude upon the three-way argument, and I was more than a little surprised to hear 'dainty' footsteps rapidly hurry toward the door. The door opened to show Sarah dressed 'normally', and my lower jaw dropped open to nearly hit my navel.
“Y-you're all better!” I squeaked.
“Not quite,” said Sarah testily. “Hans has put his mind under a brass cone, as he's trying to make the syrup for blasting oil, and it is not coming good.”
“And he thinks it's fine, correct?” I muttered. “Hearsay amplified by time and repeated story-like tellings?”
Sarah looked at me again, and as I came in, I then noticed that she was still wearing bandages here and there, with numbers of lumpy discolored places all over her body. Nonetheless, she looked much better.
“Does it still hurt?” I asked.
“Not like it did this morning,” said Sarah. “We had best stop Hans before Anna tries to air out his smelly hide.”
“She's trying to what?” I asked, as I followed Sarah to the stairs going downstairs. The smell was not getting better; it was worsening rapidly.
“He's using some really bad tallow,” said Sarah, as she started down, “and he did not clean the stuff hardly at all.”
“Because he thinks 'the lye will do that, so I can use the cheapest stuff I can find', and 'this is the way everyone does it'. Correct?”
Sarah stopped, then turned to me. Her face was frozen in an emotion I could not place, at least until she gulped, then said, “no one – and I mean no one, not even at the west school – ever explained to me why the fifth kingdom does blasting oil like they do. Now you answer both of my questions.”
As we came to the bottom of the stairs, the stink hit me so hard I saw flashing neon-like colors for what seemed seconds, and through the bright-strobing grayish haze that covered the ceiling, I could almost see galloping herds of pigs amid the carcasses of rotting winter-killed animals.
“Cheap stuff, indeed,” I muttered. “Stuff must be half lard.”
As if I had spoken a dread curse, the area under the fume hood suddenly turned into a massive cloud of thick gray choking fumes, and amid the noise of horrid-sounding female screaming, I heard running feet. I moved Sarah out of the way and took cover behind a shelf, and as the cloud spread like lightning – it had filled half the basement already – I heard yelling; and I then saw Anna run out of the cloud with Hans hot on her heels. Both of them were covered with soot from the waist up, and as they shot up the stairs with smoke-clouds following them, Sarah looked at me. I thought to head up the stairs in a few seconds, as the smoke was still spreading and I wanted it to cease doing so.
“I told him that could happen,” she said. “Soap-boiling is not easy, and that's if one just wants the soap to be usable.”
“And the glycerin?” I asked.
“That... Getting decent 'syrup' is not easy,” said Sarah. “I've only heard that name you used twice, and both times, the lecturer who said it must have spent his nights in the Gustaaf instead of sleeping.”
As I followed Sarah up the stairs – the fume hood was slowly clearing the fumes, which had by now all but filled the basement – I asked, “what do we do now?”
“I would think we need to go to that one chandler who makes Hendrik's candles,” said Sarah. “His shop is not far from that of the shoemaker's.”
“And get some decent tallow, for a start,” I said. “Soap-boilers might use a lot, but I wonder how careful they are.”
“Soap-boilers are fairly picky about their raw materials,” said the soft voice, “and the better ones, at least in this area, render their fat several times with repeated strainings through multiple layers of close-woven cloth.”
I now noted Anna's speech: she was muttering, and when I came up into the kitchen, I could hear someone stoking the stove.
“Now we must bathe,” said Hans' muffled voice. “That stuff went up on me, and I have never had it do that before.”
“I told you there was always a first time,” said Sarah emphatically. “I saw that precise thing happen to more people at school...”
Anna looked at Hans. Somehow, seeing Anna 'sooted up' was almost enough for me to laugh, and I was glad I could keep my mouth shut, even if the comical thoughts ran rampant through my mind – chief among them, 'now she's done up as if for a minstrel show' and 'my, dear, how soot becomes you'.
By the time both of them had cleaned themselves up enough to be presentable – they were both still slightly sooty, which knowing Anna, meant an after-dinner bath as well – we were able to eat dinner. The silence at the table was remarkable, save for Hans' periodic outbursts. These could be stated most clearly, all save for perhaps one or two, as 'but it never did that to me before'.
“That is mostly because you watch your, uh...” I paused in mid-sentence, then resumed, “you watch your fire somewhat better than is common in fifth kingdom powder mills, and your 'rendering vat'...”
“He was using an old pot,” said Anna crossly. “He got it cheap somewhere years ago.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Your 'rendering vat' was a lot smaller than those huge things they use. That, and you stir a bit more regularly, and your 'grease' wasn't quite as High as what they use there.” I paused, then said, “Kossum's does a lot of business with powder-mills, seeing as they have a near-monopoly on what they need for, uh, syrup.”
“Now how is it you knew I was using charcoal for heat under that thing?” asked Hans.
Anna glared at Hans.
“Like a number of other processes,” I said calmly, “this is one of those methods that you have neither improved nor changed in the slightest from how you learned it – and you learned it as much or more by hearsay and rumor as all else. Correct?”
“That is because there is no other way,” said Hans emphatically. “That is what you do for blasting oil, is you get the cheapest tallow and stuff you can, as you are mingling it with lye, and that stuff stinks bad, so it does not matter if the tallow is High or not...”
Sarah was slowly shaking her head, then said, “perhaps if witches ran soap-making places they would do it that way, but I've spent enough time...”
“Yes, and you were...” Hans was beginning to sound troublingly 'oblivious', at least to me.
“Quiet, Hans,” said Anna. She sounded as if she 'knew' something.
“Stirring that stuff, and boiling soap, and skimming that 'syrup' to know something of it,” said Sarah. “I might have observed much of how people do things, but there was much I also did, and I spent much of a week's time in a fourth kingdom soap-mill alongside the apprentices during my first year's traipsing.” A brief pause, “and then, there was what I did myself on top of that in the succeeding years.”
“It almost sounds as if you could make soap, dear,” I said.
“I have made it out in the woods more than once,” said Sarah, “and if you wish to dodge soot, then try making the stuff over a campfire with old castoff pots and the tallow from your own kills.”
“Which isn't too different from what Hans was attempting,” I murmured, “No heating lamp even close to that mess, as that is not done – and hence poor temperature control. So, it boils over, the lye-and-tallow mixture hits the charcoal, and...”
Here, I tried to make a noise appropriate to a fast-blooming stinky mess and failed. I then looked at Anna.
“And that stuff is worse for smoke and soot than almost anything,” said Anna. “I always wondered why those places smelled so, and now I know.”
“Bad lye, for one thing,” I murmured. “Soap-maker's lye is not merely quite impure, but it's commonly bought from places like Grussmaan's – so it has other things in it to, uh, cheapen it.”
“Or make it a better fetish,” said Sarah.
“Witches don't like soap, dear,” I said. “Not if I go by their apparent disinclination to bathe.”
“The ones on this side of the western mountain range are that way as a rule,” said the soft voice. “Elsewhere, that rule is nowhere near as reliable.”
“There are witches that bathe? Regularly?” I gasped.
“They might be 'called' witches,” said the soft voice, “but with very few exceptions, they are not witches as most on the continent understand them.”
“That would be the case with the Valley's language,” said Sarah. “There is one word that, depending on how and when it is used, means either 'witch' or 'doctor' – and using that word wrongly can cause fights among those people.”
“As it's considered insulting?” I asked, as I recalled Anna's terror at the mason's speech to her.
Sarah nodded, then yawned between mouthfuls of stew. “I'm not certain there are words in our language that are as insulting as some words in theirs – and you do not want to insult Veldters, irrespective of how long their hair is.”
Once dinner had finished, Anna vanished utterly for perhaps a minute, then came down with a sack. She made a beeline for the bathroom, and there, I heard the sounds of someone getting ready for a most-serious bath. Hans, however, went down into the basement with me hiding in his 'wake'. I wanted to see if I was indeed correct in my 'guessing'. He'd either used Grussmaan's lye, or made the stuff himself – and Grussmaan's stuff sounded likely indeed.
While the smoke and 'fumes' had cleared out, the stink and 'mess' remained, and as Hans stood next to his soot-blackened fume-hood with a slow-shaking head, I took in the 'scene':
A 'slop-bucket' that smelled so horribly I knew its contents were best buried somewhere – and among the scents of rotten meat, the reek of dead swine coming out of the bucket was enough to cause intense nausea. Those gathering their bodies had used 'anything laying around dead that looked to render down into fat' – and the vast numbers of recently-dead pigs had figured heavily into their latest vat-loads. Hans had bought their 'worst' – and cheapest – stuff; and calling it half-lard was speaking well of something that deserved the greatest condemnation possible.
“Were those people inclined toward the things of witches?” I thought.
“More than merely 'inclined',” said the soft voice. “They were most desirous of the life and 'privileges' of witchdom until the events of the recent past overtook them – and though they have put their supplication and its trappings upon the shelf for a time, that has not stopped them from surreptitiously gathering every dead animal – including pigs – they can for rendering.”
“Weapons-tallow?” I asked.
“They did not have the needed influence to 'compete' for the privilege of supplying such material,” said the soft voice, “but their recently-made product could pass for the worst grades those Generals have ever ordered.”
“They're lucky they didn't get killed,” I murmured.
“Three members of that company are now resting in cornfields,” said the soft voice. “Losing half of your members in two days in the midst of a 'windfall' is a potent inducement toward shelving the more outward aspects of witch-like behavior.” A brief pause, then, “they learned caution for a time, but expect them to discard such caution in the future when and as the chance presents itself.”
While the seconds of the former conversation had taken place, I had taken in the rest of what Hans had doing, and the whole reminded me more than a little of what I had seen in the armory. There was a part-open crock of evil-smelling lye, this plainly marked 'Grussmaan's' – and I could see two small tags, one speaking of 'very impure material' and the other 'heavily adulterated'; an old, battered, and now partly melted copper 'cauldron' – it did have that shape, if not the size, blackness, or hidden rune-markings dedicating it to Brimstone of the item that had once rested in the armory – a still-smoldering charcoal fire amid scraps of wood used as initial kindling; old, bent, and battered equipment – and, in the corner, a greasy-looking scrap of old-looking paper.
My eyes 'locked' upon this last, and while Hans was still 'pondering', I moved swiftly. I went around him as if he were rooted to the ground, grabbed the paper – and instantly, without thinking, tossed the thing while mouthing silently the words 'go to hell'.
The paper burst into flame the instant I turned loose of it, and it flew across the shop like a smoky comet to vanish just before it struck a shelf. Hans shook himself, then spat, “now this is a fine mess.”
“That was your recipe-paper, wasn't it?” I asked.
Hans looked around, then muttered, much as if he had been taught by Anna. “I think that fire got my papers, is what I think, as I had the instructions written down.”
“You did not write them, did you?” I asked.
“No, because I could not write a single word then,” said Hans. “This was years ago, and I asked someone down in the fourth kingdom...”
“Who was a well-hid and most-serious witch,” I spat. “Hans, those people are everywhere down there. Gabriel received a 'map' that was a fetish, and it was on the exact same kind of paper.” A pause, while I turned and coughed into a handy rag. “Now, can we make 'syrup' properly?”
“Yes, as soon as I dump that bad stuff there into the manure-pile,” said Hans. “It smells a lot like a dead pig.”
“That's because most of that fat is lard, Hans,” said the voice of Sarah behind me, “and had I not known better, I would have expected there to be a witch-circle around your witch-pot and rune-curses on the walls in here.”
I went closer to the 'pot', and to my shock and horror, I saw etched in soot a most-definite yet ragged circle. More importantly, the pot itself had a slight but definite reddish-orange haze. I backed up, arms out to protect the others, and said, “all of you fetishes, leave and go where you belong.”
The muffled blast seemed to pick me up and throw me backward amid a choking cloud of black smoke, and as I fell out of it to land on my back, I heard muffled coughs, then, “now I am awake. I must have been asleep...”
“No Hans,” said the voice of Sarah beside me. “That 'old pot' was something a witch had once used.”
“Yes, long ago,” said the soft voice. “It might not have looked like a fetish, at least those known as fetishes currently, but anything that has a shape like a fetish, especially if it is extremely old, is likely to actually be a fetish.” A pause, then, “that pot dated from prior to the war, and had been 'hiding' in some ruins for centuries before a scavenger found it and sold it to a scrap-monger, who then sold it to that shop.”
“How strong was that thing?” I asked between coughing spates.
“Be glad that witch was an ignorant fool for that time and place,” said the soft voice, “and be glad the bulk of its power died when the witch was blown to atoms during the start of that war – as otherwise, it would have been stronger than anything of a fetish nature any of you have yet encountered.”
As the sooty smoke cleared, I felt my face – and brought away a blackened hand. I looked at Sarah, and saw upon her face streaks of blackened dust, while Hans was muttering about needing another bath. I looked at him, and was astonished.
“He's covered in soot again,” I thought. “Now why did it dust him, and only 'touch' me?”
While bathing, however, I learned the truth of the matter: my clothing had scorched places, and when I bathed, not only did the water turn into something like gray ink within seconds, but I needed a second instance of bathing to become truly clean of soot and 'dirt'. This last water – it was mostly clear – got a dash of the soap with herbs, then my damaged clothing and another pot of hot water – and as I stirred it with a wooden clothes-paddle, I noted something strange.
“Why does it smell like flowers all of a sudden, and why am I being prompted to look at my clothing?” I thought. I then removed my shirt.
“N-no,” I muttered. “Not only is this thing spotless, but all the scorch marks are gone.”
My voice had risen to a high-pitched shriek with the word 'gone', and the door behind me banged open. Anna strode in, all the while muttering as if she were most irritated, and used the wooden paddle to remove my shirt. She then muttered more – and sniffed.
“What did you do?” she squeaked. “All of that stuff he was using down there is gone, there's a mark etched in the top of that table under the fume hood, and now your clothing is not only clean, but there's not a single mark upon it.”
“I'm not sure,” I said. “First, his recipe was on some witch-paper, and he got it years ago from a well-hid witch in the fourth kingdom market. Then, his pot...”
“That thing was old,” said Anna. “It was so old I think you should have tossed it in a crucible, as anything that old was made by a witch.” A pause, then, “at least, that's what everyone around here says.”
“That one, yes,” I said. “It was made by witches, and used by a witch before the war.” I then asked, “everything that's really old is made by a witch?”
“Most of those old tales involving Charles more or less say that,” said Anna, “and that's what almost everyone believes north of the fourth kingdom.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“N-no,” said Anna. “Andreas told me that while some things from long ago were made by witches, not everything was.”
I pointed to the pendant – it was hiding under my shirt, where it belonged; it was out of the sight of others, and mine as well – “this is very old, and it was most definitely not made by or for witches.” I then said, “I suspect a lot of stuff in that market that witches covet is coveted on the basis of belief, not its true potency as a tool of witches.”
“That, and the witches wish to have its exclusive use, hence their spreading of such rumors as Anna spoke of,” said the soft voice. “The fact that that rumor is true at least part of the time just makes it that much more believable.”
Day dawned 'early', or so it seemed to me as I awoke, and I but barely beat Sarah to the privy. There was an aura of expectancy in the air near the two of us, and at breakfast, Anna said, “that man may and may not be open this morning, so I would hurry if I were the two of you.”
“That is easy,” said Hans. “That new buggy is fast enough.”
Just how fast the thing proved to be was a marvel, for even with the two 'nags' drawing it and Sarah letting them go at their own pace, the buggy all but shot down the road. As we passed the former witch-clearing, Sarah turned – I was sitting in the front of the box – and said, “Hans was right. This is the fastest buggy I've ever used, and it rolls as if it weighs next to nothing.”
“It's not the common for a buggy, even those of its type,” said the soft voice. “In many ways, it's better than anything currently made in the fourth kingdom's buggy shops.”
“Does it track true?” I asked.
“I can let the reins dangle, save if I must direct the horses,” said Sarah. “It is lively, though.”
“Uh, watch sharp turns?” I asked.
“Those especially,” said Sarah. “I must slow for them, if what Hans told me about it is true.”
The shoemaker's shop showed surprisingly quickly, and he proved to be open. As I opened the door for Sarah so that she could 'hobble' in, I heard the sounds of 'industry' in progress, and when the man himself showed, he looked slightly sweaty. He had a sizable beer mug, and the dampness around its rim spoke of its contents' steady consumption.
“Enough new business with guards, and now her,” he said. “I expect you want shoes.”
“And boots, also,” said Sarah demurely. “I will be doing a great deal of trekking, and that soon.”
“I hope I have a form small enough for your feet,” he said. “Let me measure them, and I'll know.”
While Sarah had wrapped her feet in rags, I had seen them before her being injured. They were still showing bruised places, even if the improvement in her overall condition was so rapid as to be difficult to believe – and their otherwise dainty and pink aspect had me inclined to tickle them. Her toes were all but hypnotizing, for I associated toes with laughter – and I longed to hear Sarah laugh. I had heard her cry enough lately that it was hurting me.
“Talk was right about you getting hurt, then,” he said. “There's been a lot of such talk.”
“Talk?” I asked. I hoped it was favorable.
“Your man there shoots a rifle that's said to kick like a roer and kill like artillery,” said the shoemaker as he measured Sarah's right foot, “and now people speak of you actually shooting one of those things.” I had the impression he'd once shot a roer and resolved to not do so again.
“I learned my lesson,” said Sarah with a trace of pain in her voice, “but it was me or that witch, and that was what I had, so I used it.”
“And then the jugs, and some dynamite, and blowing up a coach at spitting distance,” he muttered. “Once you get better, though, there's this town that's full of witches...”
“Uh, some distance west and south, correct?” I asked. “Really bad, or it was not too long ago?”
“Was is right,” he said. “Before the Swartsburg went where it belonged, it might as well have been a copy of that place, but now...” He paused to drink, then write down some measurements. “Now, it's filled with burned black-dressed people, and people with missing arms and legs, and about nine for ten of those people are limping, and it stinks horrible, and that's for the houses what have people in 'em.”
“A lot of them do not, correct?” I asked. “The Public House in that town still has witches running it, and the same for all of the other important places. Am I right?”
“That's what people have said,” said the shoemaker. He was working on Sarah's left foot. “You're handy at knitting stockings, or so people say.”
“You might not need them for the shoes,” he said, “but wearing those boots, especially with hobnails, you will want good thick knitted ones, and several pair at the least, so you can keep them washed out and aired well.”
“I've never worn things with hobnails,” said Sarah, “even if I am somewhat familiar with what they look like.”
“There was talk about your man there and how he took to wearing them,” said the man. “He needed a lot of rags for his feet until he got stockings, and he's as bad for smell that way as anyone, or so talk goes.” A pause, then, given how he works, though, that's not much of a surprise – and there's more than just talk to speak o' that.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“I've heard you myself, and that in this very shop,” said the man, “and I tell you, no witch likes to hear that hammer when it's busy.” A pause to drink, figure something upon his worksheet, then, “and more than once, it's started one in this area.”
“Started?” I asked.
“Drove one from hiding,” said Sarah. “I've heard you forging from an hour's distance walking, and that several times, and then people in town have asked Hans for these things he makes for stopping up the ears.”
“Me?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, then said, “then, there is that other thing, and while its blows are as loud, it is not nearly as quick to repeat them.” A pause, then, “only those tools in the fourth kingdom's market which use steam are louder, and them, not by much.”
With Sarah measured and a promise for 'shoes by mid-week, and boots in a ten-day', we headed south. Sarah seemed to not merely know of that one town, but also the route I had taken, for she headed that way with a surety that spoke of long familiarity. I was no less surprised when she stopped in the yard of the place.
“Good, they are yet open,” she said. “They dare not work the fourth kingdom's hours in this area, at least openly.”
“I think one of those people is from there...”
“That whole family is,” said Sarah. “The owner was born up here and had to leave the area when he was small because the witches tried to kill him and his family, and he did not return to this area to stay until I myself came up here permanently.”
“Small?” I asked.
“I believe Albrecht's father had to take him in a box down to the fourth kingdom's market, or near it,” said Sarah. “He was a year from starting school, is what I've heard.”
“He had a misadventure with a pig,” I said, as I got out of the buggy's box by the rear 'gate'. Unlike the other buggy at home, this one's gate swung open from the side. I'd been told that was the usual for those of its size in the fourth kingdom, as they commonly did not put people in their boxes – and I suspected I was heavy enough to be considered a 'full load'.
The shop proved to not merely have tallow, but the lack of smell spoke of its careful cleaning. The clerk – again, a young woman – asked me, however, if I could provide 'odorless' tallow.
“I'm not sure when I can make more,” I said, “but when I do, I'll not just bring it, but also the latest version of the recipe. There's still room for improvement with it – as I want to try glass-blower's wire the next time.”
“So it is still being worked upon,” she said. “Talk had it it was like wax, and burned similarly.”
“If he does it how talk goes about it, Gisela, then it's a bit much to burn,” said a woman's voice from the back area. “That stuff is better used for leatherworking and carpentry.”
“Talk?” I asked.
“Hans has spoken of it,” she said. “It's a fair bit of work to do, and needs chemistry tools, is what he said.”
“It does,” said Sarah, “including things that are not commonly used by chemists.” A pause, then, “only that shop in Roos makes them, as far as I know, which is why there are a number of orders from the fourth kingdom house and that market.”
“What?” I gasped. “They do not make those things down there?”
“Not if that first volume of those instrument-maker's books is right,” said Sarah. “That one, at least, does not read as if a witch was involved in all of its words.”
On the way home – I'd bought another bundle of candles, as I was intending to borrow the 'Sun' lantern for the shop when and as I could, and Hans would wish decent candles for the basement when I did so – I asked, “and that second volume? That chapter called, uh, 'Methods'?”
“Reads as if a witch wrote it,” said Sarah, “as does much of the rest of that book. The third volume, I'm not as sure, as it's not used much at the west school, and it's been a long time since I looked in it.”
Once home, I had but minutes to 'cram down' a hurried 'snack' of dried meat, then minutes later I was on my way south. Jaak seemed to sense my hurry, for the trip with Sarah had taken longer than anticipated, even with the speed of the new buggy; and when I passed Waldhuis, I did so at the closest margin I dared, with the refuge of a woodlot but feet away when and where possible.
Jaak trotted when there wasn't such a handy refuge, and that without my urging.
His trotting, however, had bought me no small amount of time, and the growing warmth of late morning meant stopping at at least one watering trough. The town I commonly stopped in had a crowded Public House, and on the way out of town – I checked Jaak's hooves while he drank – faintly, upon the wind, I smelled the characteristic odor of first one obvious burn-pile, then another, then three more within fifteen minutes.
“How many more witches are there?” I asked.
“The less-cautious supplicants, mostly,” said the soft voice, “with those 'imported' witches that still live heading south being the chief manner by which they are being discovered.”
“That last strong witch?” I asked.
“Was their 'cover',” said the soft voice, “and with the lost of that man, the hiding curse lost a significant portion of its effectiveness in this area.” A pause, then, “besides, all of those witches had their jugs of strong drink, and Miura caught wind of it.”
“Those things are still loose?” I asked.
“And are now most inclined to breed,” said the soft voice. “Given that the witches brought north cows as well as bulls in recent months, you should see the first crop of 'fresh cattle' in about fifteen months.”
“Fresh cattle?” I asked.
“Like fresh elk, only less 'stupid' and clumsy,” said the soft voice. “Inside of two years, Miura will be quite common in the central part of the first kingdom.”
“Uh, devour the corn?” I asked.
“Miura, when fully reverted to the wild state, prefers grass to most man-raised crops,” said the soft voice, “and given his elusive nature at this time, there will be very few sightings until he becomes common.”
“And loses his, uh, dislike of man,” I thought.
“The grown animals will take longer than a year or two to do that,” said the soft voice, “while the fresh examples will be much less that way.” A pause, then, “by the time the Curse is broken, there will be 'wild cattle' roaming most of the first kingdom and the northern reaches of the second – and by that point, they will have reached critical numbers in many locations, this area being one of them.”
“They will need to be hunted in those areas to avoid overpopulation,” said the soft voice, “hence ample 'free-range beef' will be available.”
My time at the house was bracketed by exploring, and when I arrived home near sundown, I could smell something vaguely similar to 'soap-boiling'. Going into the basement showed Sarah – with fewer bandages yet – dredging up the supplies needed for 'nitro', while in the background, a large pot slowly steamed over a heating lamp.
“That's some of the best tallow I've ever seen,” said Sarah as she saw my shadow. “Now where did he hide that measurer thing? It was around here the last time I saw him put it away.”
I went to where Sarah had the pot boiling, and added a pipette of 'oil of vitriol'. For a moment, I wondered why Sarah called it 'sulfur-acid', at least until she came over.
“What did you do?” she spluttered. “Why does that stuff smell like that, and where did all that gray f-foam come from?” A pause, then, as Sarah turned down the heating lamp, she said, “I'm glad I have a candle in that fume hood, as the smell will have Anna yelling should she and Hans return.”
“Wooding, most likely,” said Sarah. “They left about two hours ago, as Hans was speaking of fresh deer showing in this place to the east and north.”
“F-fresh deer?” I asked.
“They tend to be too small to eat, unlike fresh elk,” said Sarah. “One wants them to have their first horn-stubs before attempting to bring them in, which means a bit after their first full year near the end of harvest.”
“Is there something else associated with fresh deer?” I asked. “Something about, uh, fish?”
“Trouts, I think,” said Sarah. I was skimming the gray foam off now, and I had added another pipette full of oil of vitriol. The tallow-water emulsion, while not 'crazy' with bubbling, was still spewing foam.
“You called this stuff 'sulfur-acid',” I said. “Hans calls it oil of vitriol.”
“He's using one of those old names,” said Sarah. “The Compendium has a list of chemical names, and while many chemicals have but the one name that's older than time, some have other names, and I use those when and where I can.”
I continued to 'slow-cook' the tallow-water emulsion for a time after the foaming ceased and I had skimmed it all off, then I ran the stuff through a clean cloth and funnel. The amount of charred bits of 'meat', as well as the stuff remaining behind in the water, was a surprise to Sarah; and when I stirred in a small amount of salaterus into the slowly congealing mass, she asked me why.
“Normally, I would put this material in a pressure pot with tin and that material,” I said, “and I'll do that with a later batch so as to have some for that chandler as a sample.” A pause, then, “for some reason, this is as far as I need to go with this stuff.”
“What is that smell?” shouted Anna's voice.
“It is a little like boiling soap, only not as strong or as bad, Anna,” said the 'calmer' voice of Hans. “Now I hope they are home, as we have a full load of wood and two trouts, and that is twice too much for just the two of us.”
I turned off the heating lamp as Sarah headed for the stairs, and after checking everything, I went up the stairs after her. I was astonished to learn of just how much wood Hans and Anna had found – and more, what else they had found.
“This year will be bad for bugging flies,” said Anna, as she piled an armload of wood next to the bathroom. They had brought the buggy into the rear area, where it now sat next to Sarah's. “They were swarming in all three ponds that we checked.”
“At least we have good medicine for them,” said Hans.
“It will be good, if you can get it down sick people,” said Anna. “I tasted some yesterday, and it almost had me in the privy, it tasted so bad.”
“Mingle it with honey,” said Sarah. “I did that when I tried mine.”
“Yes, and where are we to get honey up here?” said Hans.
“Let me look for it some,” said Sarah. “I might not be entirely well, but I suspect I can find it.”
“Not up here you cannot,” said Hans.
“Hans, be quiet,” said Anna. “You might know where some things are, but if anyone can find anything in this area, she'd be as likely as anyone I can think of short of Andreas himself.”
“I was going to ask him first,” said Sarah. “Besides, I know of at least one place in the house which has had it when I went by that place last.”
“Yes, and when was this?” asked Hans.
“A ten-day past,” said Sarah. “It was a confectionery shop on Kokstraat.”
Hans slapped his head, then shook his head while muttering, and Anna glared at him.
“Medicine is supposed to taste awful, therefore he never bothered looking for honey,” I said. “Correct?”
“And I never had time, except when we were down in the fourth kingdom,” said Anna. “I don't get into the house much, save when I have business there.”
“Which is not that much,” said Hans.
“And she needs to go there all the time,” I said, “as do most itinerant tailors, as they need to keep track of just who has what and for how much.”
“And not just sewing things,” said Sarah. “Food also, and the usual things most people need as well.” A brief pause, then a soft grunt as Sarah lifted a surprisingly large armload of wood. “If one is on foot, and has a job involving fitting, then one must stay at or near that job until that portion is finished.”
“And with some of the fussier customers, that might well mean 'until they're entirely happy and they pay you'? Correct?”
“I do not give those people any more of my time than I must,” said Sarah, “and I would tell every other tailor such as I was about their meanness and unpleasant ways when we met.” A pause, then, “those people like that tend to either leave the area, or they learn some manners when it is time for more clothing.” Another pause, then, “and I am most glad I will not deal with such people again.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. I had a strong suspicion about at least some of them.
“First, I am to be married,” said Sarah, “but that is far from the only reason.”
“Yes, and what is this other reason?” asked Hans. The buggy was emptying fast.
“Many of those people have recently proved to either be witches, or they wished to be witches,” said Sarah. “Almost all of them are no longer in the area.”
“That is because they are where they belong,” said Hans.
“No, a few of them moved,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, you're probably right.”
“Yes, to the Swartsburg,” said the soft voice. “With almost no exceptions, those people were either witches or truly serious supplicants that were ready to make their bones – and the two exceptions were killed 'due to suspicion' when the Swartsburg went where it belonged.”
“Due to suspicion?” I asked.
“They acted like witches, most likely,” said Sarah.
“And Miura found the strong drink that they still had in their houses,” said the soft voice. “Strong drink is but a somewhat lesser death-warrant than black-cloth or mules now, at least in the central part of the first kingdom.”
I had the first posting on Sunday, hence had to get a nap and then leave after dark; and riding home during midmorning – I'd done more exploring, such that my map had now multiple pages for the first floor alone – I noted that again, the air seemed 'clear' of both smoke and fire. I was so 'lulled' by this that when I saw the first animals of a large pig-herd emerge from a woodlot some distance away, I instinctively fell off of Jaak and scrambled for the nearest trees with him hot on my heels. Once I was 'safe' – the pig-swarm was nearly half a mile off, but their odor was strong and growing, and I knew the entire herd easily numbered in the three-digit range – I began watching to see what they would do; and then also, when the witches themselves would show.
“Cautious wretches, no doubt,” I thought.
“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Those who gathered those pigs might be, but those transporting them are precisely the opposite.”
“And I have no way, to, uh, deal with that many of those stinkers,” I muttered. “Not even if I raise an entire town will those...”
I ceased speaking, for a black-dressed figure emerged from the trees. I seemed to smell 'datramonium' in great measure, and as I began to look closer, I noted more and more details.
“That witch is imported, isn't he?” I murmured. “Full face-grease, reminders to duty firmly clenched by a near-lethal dose of datramonium...”
And for some reason, I recalled the words 'near' and 'lethal' – as well as the customary dosing of swine while transporting. I thought to speak.
“M-more datramonium, please.” I whispered. “The witch and his animals need more datramonium.”
The witch abruptly dropped, while around him, his animals suddenly went stiff as boards. This spread rapidly, even as those animals first to go stiff began collapsing. Another witch came out of the woodlot, this instance faintly screaming while clutching at his throat with both hands; then suddenly, as the pigs continued to drop, a massive eruption of flame seemed to turn part of the woodlot red-white for a fraction of a second. I closed my eyes involuntarily, and when I opened them, a vast and thick eruption of black smoke was shooting up into the heavens, while gray smoke billowed thickly around it from a vast collection of torched trees – and among the pigs and witches that now lay collapsed upon the grassy field, thin drifts of smoke began to slowly rise, along with small tongues of flame that soon spread to encompass all of the still-thrashing bodies in thick, greasy – and sickening – fumes.
“I'd best leave before I spew,” I thought, as I walked out of the trees with Jaak behind me; and once mounted, we headed due west so as to dodge the southbound smoke, fumes, and flames.
As we came within sight of the road, I asked, “what did that do?”
“You doubled the most-recent price of pork in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “That batch of pigs was but newly arrived, and that witch-team was driving them cross-country from the shipping point to Waldhuis.”
“They were going to keep those pigs there?” I asked.
“Overnight, yes,” said the soft voice. “From that point, they would have been driven to the various 'markets' in the first kingdom, and from thence, to those inclined toward roast pork.”
“And all very efficient and neat,” I muttered. “Those things may smell terrible, but if there's just a few, it isn't that hard to hide the stink in some farming communities.”
“Those that are still witch-controlled, you mean,” said the soft voice. “The first kingdom's 'main' swine-market, now that the Swartsburg is gone and Sarah had her misadventure with that witch and his coterie, is nearly eighty miles north and west from here.”
“Which would have either meant driving those things day and night for three days straight and delivering them close to dead, or using hidden means.” A pause, then, “does Waldhuis have those?”
While there was no answer, what had been said about that 'village' in the past implied most strongly that it either did have access to such transport, or was close by an access point.
“Neither of those for that group of pigs,” said the soft voice. “That destination is not merely in a sparsely inhabited region, but is within an easy day's pig-drive from the coast.”
“And there's plenty of cover, also,” I thought. “So they send the pigs downriver and ship them...”
“The witches commonly use rafts to float them downriver,” said the soft voice, “and more than one of the larger northern islands near the river-mouth has a well-hidden harbor.”
“Hence they can ship them at least part of the way by boat,” I murmured. “It might be painfully slow, at least while in the river, but I really doubt anyone is going to, uh, stop them.”
“Currently, that is generally true,” said the soft voice. “Pirates view domestic swine as but slightly less desirable than the local equivalent of 'gold doubloons' – and more than a few of the smaller islands west of the first kingdom's coast shelter part-time pirates when they're in the area.”
“Lovely,” I thought as I hit the main road headed north. Roos was about eight miles and three towns distant. “Thugs on land and sea.” I paused, then thought, “well, at least there's a possible answer waiting for me at home.”
I thought for a moment, then said softly, “if I can make it without blowing myself up.”