Nitro..?” part C

I came home about an hour before lunch, and at the table while eating, I was stifling yawns. Accordingly, I went up to bed afterward; and when I came down the stairs., the odor of 'dinner' said I'd slept the afternoon away, and sundown wasn't far off. Dinner was 'soon'.

“And another posting tomorrow,” I muttered. “How will I get anything done?”

“When is your posting?” asked Sarah from behind me. I turned to see her in 'new' clothing: long-sleeved knee-length gown, part-hid trousers, mostly-hidden 'shirt'. This last was probably like the handful of cloth ones I had – 'keyhole shaped' neck, long sleeves, no buttons, soft fabric, and ending well below the waist.

“Uh, the fifth,” I said. “I'm getting a lot of late-night postings, for some reason.”

“I can tell you that reason,” said Hans from my rear. “Maria is worried about those General people, as they seem to be growing in numbers faster than you and the other guards can kill them.”

“What?” I gasped.

“I have heard tell from that jeweler there that they are coming in the house some secret way,” said Hans as Sarah came down the stairs. Her steps spoke of her still being stiff and sore, though she was markedly better compared to the last time I had seen her. “He does not know of how they get in, and there is nothing wrote of it, and that basement witch-hole is gone.”

“Yes, but not the route to it,” I spat. “That place needs trapping, and...”

I then recalled Freek speaking of how hard it was to find the 'door' from the 'basement' side. “That one guardhouse!”

“That place is boarded up,” said Hans, “and its door is locked good with a special lock.”

“To which the witches have a copy of the key, no doubt,” I spat.

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Not only did they import that 'locksmith' north from a witch-controlled instrument-making house in the fourth kingdom, but they also sacrificed him once he finished his job so he could tell no one about his perfidy – and their key works, unlike the similar-looking one delivered up to Hendrik.”

“Koenraad's doing, no doubt,” I muttered.

“The first example made the arrangements,” said the soft voice, “and by the time you'd removed his head, the deed was in motion; and when the second Koenraad took over, he 'expedited' matters and had his 'tormentors' kill the 'locksmith' once he'd done as per his witch-issued instructions.”

“Tormentors?” I asked.

“Those things are in those old tales,” said Hans. “The witches used to torture people so as to get them to tell the witches all of what they knew.”

“And so as to please Brimstone all the more,” said the soft voice. “The common term is 'season his meals with screaming' – and no, it isn't in that black book witches so treasure.”

“I saw that once on a tapestry,” said Sarah, “and it's in several tales, at least one of which speaks at length of Charles.”

“And I s-said that to those o-obdurate c-council members,” I squeaked. “Th-those very words!” A pause, then before I could speak, Sarah said, “it does not bode well that that witch has such people.”

Had, dear,” said the soft voice. “They are where they belong, along with their master.” A pause, then, “most witches of consequence either have groups of them or know those who do, and they are most common in the area around the second kingdom house.”

The noise of rattling plates and clinking spoons spoke of dinner, and we ate moments later. At the end of dinner itself, however, I found myself stifling yawns once more; and after a bath, I went to bed.

Morning came earlier than usually, however, and when I came down the stairs in the predawn stillness, I could smell a most unfamiliar reek. It was coming from the basement, and when I walked down the stairs, the smell became stronger – until at the bottom of the stairs, I noted the light of a candle-lantern over in the far corner. I slowly walked among darkened shelves and around tables arrayed with apparatus – Hans had several 'processes' set up, what with his trove of glassware; he'd asked for ring-stands and other things related to chemistry recently, which meant Frankie needed to run soon – and as I drew nearer to the source of light, I saw faint shadows that moved in a slow and peculiar rhythm. I stopped behind a tall set of 'back-to-back' shelves and peered around the corner.

Sarah was working on something, and in the light of the trio of ceiling-hung candle-lanterns – one was mine, while the two others were ancient things that looked fit for a crucible's charge and worked nearly as well as the newer example – she was boiling the bright-yellow contents of a modest-sized beaker. The slow-wafting steam coming from the beaker seemed the chief source of the smell, and its clouds drifted toward the fume-hood in an unbroken stream.

I whispered – it seemed appropriate – “what are you doing?”

Sarah jerked and almost shrieked, then as I came closer, she turned and said, “boiling urine. Hans wishes no part of it, and Anna the same.”

“Yours?” I asked.

“That, and some from the horses,” said Sarah. “I suspect theirs is actually better, as it has more of these gray crystals for a given volume – that, and they produce more to start with.”

“G-gray crystals?” I asked.

“I think that is the part you spoke of,” said Sarah. “I've been doing this the last two nights at this time with two candles burning in the fume hood to keep the smell down.”

“Then tonight, or perhaps tomorrow, we can try making that stuff,” I murmured. “Have you asked for sawdust?”

“At the carpenter's, and I've been pounding it in a mortar,” said Sarah. “It helps if it is cooked slightly in the oven upstairs, as then it powders much more readily.”

“Perhaps coarse cloth, or a punched piece of tin so as to sift it?” I said. “I know we've got tin at the shop.”

Between bouts of riveting on the furnace – I was still working on the wind-belt, though now the 'ladder' and the other supports were receiving attention as well – I began to actually bring to shape the first of a batch of six swords. Each one 'sat' deeply buried in the long forge when I wasn't actually forging it to shape; and when I needed to leave – the others left at their now-customary quitting time; it was still later than it had been, though the difference was slowly vanishing with the days – I added more charcoal to the glowing mass in their long 'grave', and left them to cook. For some reason, it seemed safe to do so now, and during my ride to the house in the early evening with a small sheet tin 'sieve', I suspected why.

“Burn-piles everywhere,” I muttered at the slow-drifting clouds of smoke coming from all corners of the compass and the omnipresent stomach-turning reek. “How many of those people are there?”

“If you mean those wearing black-cloth, a fair number yet in this area,” said the soft voice, “though those individuals are most cautious as to when and where they show themselves. Misers, much the same – still fair numbers, but very cautious as a rule.” A brief pause, then, “as for plain-dressed witches and the more-serious supplicants, and imported witches heading back south to where they came from – their numbers are substantially less in this area, and more of them will be routed out in the days to come.”

“Then where are those people coming from who are going into General's Row?” I asked.

“That location is one of the better-known hiding spots for the remaining witches,” said the soft voice, “as well as a 'golden opportunity' for some of the second kingdom's lesser witches – hence their steady surreptitious migration to the north.”

“And the hall?” I asked.

“That's another prime hiding spot in the house,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, those witches who yet remain in the house have learned caution and wiliness, albeit at a substantial personal cost.”

“Money?” I asked.

“It isn't much 'fun' being a witch if you're broke,” said the soft voice, “and it's even less 'fun' when you've lost most of your favorite haunts – and witchdom, at least locally, no longer has the resources to 'carry' more than a very few.”

“Carry?” I asked.

“That organization-based tendency toward mutual aid and comfort,” said the soft voice. “Most of their income is gone, it's become far more dangerous to acquire funds by the usual illicit means, and 'suspicion of crime and the crime itself are regarded as one and the same' by the bulk of the community – at least when it comes to the better-known practices of witches.”

“That...”

“More than a few preachers are now speaking more openly and with fewer fetters,” said the soft voice.”

“Honest p-preachers..?”

“Those in the area that were well-disguised witches, with few exceptions outside of those currently resident at the hall, are now where they belong,” said the soft voice. “The head of the hall is most angry, as he has lost almost all of his reach.”

“Got his hands full with staying fed and not getting killed, no doubt,” I muttered. “Now I wonder when that place is going to get, uh, trashed? Soon, I hope.”

“While it looks badly damaged,” said the soft voice, “that is mostly a matter of deception – and the refugees have brought its numbers back up to nearly what they were prior to the destruction of the Swartsburg.”

“Hence they've got building parties at night, no doubt,” I thought.

“Witches make poor substitutes for masons, especially when those witches are severely intoxicated,” said the soft voice, “which is why the repairs performed by most of those witches are repairs in name and appearance only.”

“Uh, the place has a damaged foundation?” I asked.

“It was badly damaged,” said the soft voice. “Had another three guns been brought up with well-trained gunners and ample shells once the hall's guns were silenced, they could have quickly brought the place down.”

“D-down?” I asked. “As in 'the rubble sinks and fills the below-ground portions, and the place is gone'?”

While there was no answer, the thought continued to rummage through my head during the rest of my ride; and on post, while there were more Generals – the dead had been replaced by thrice their number of new members, almost all of them new to witchdom's ranks – I could tell these people could be said to have a measure of 'the fear'. I suspected their talk was something on the order of 'you never know when one of those guards will toss something in here', and it was known that the last example of bomb-tossing was preceded by less-than-outwardly-obvious behavior.

“Not much of an excuse anymore, you wretches,” I thought silently as I sat at the bench, while wondering just how to 'dispose of the hall'. “Perhaps use that one village as a test? Maybe sneak in with that one buggy, put jugs with, uh...” I paused, then thought, “now where can I get some quickmatch?”

My thinking was this: place 'rigged' jugs at strategic intervals throughout the place about two hours before dawn, and each distillate-filled jug to have at least one stick of that dynamite we had recovered from the armory.

“How sensitive is that stuff?” I thought. “Perhaps put a small vial of, uh, gelatin...”

“Smear some on the top of each stick, put the jugs within twenty paces of one another, and you won't need quickmatch,” said the soft voice. “The explosions will propagate nicely then.”

“But we'd need a lot of jugs, wouldn't we?” I asked. “Or does that place have some distillate hidden?” Another pause, then, “or do we want to merely burn the place out, or do we wish to, uh, flatten it?”

There was something about the later idea that seemed uncommonly attractive, as it meant wiping out the current inhabitants at the same time – even though it seemed impossible with the resources I could readily access. This thought-train sat dormant until minutes later I recalled just what was close by that particular town.

“That place is near a woodlot, isn't it?” I thought. “All we have to do is get, uh... Is there something I can do to increase the b-blast, other than...”

Again, a dead-end came to my thinking. The best I could possibly do would be to haul what jugs could be carried in the smaller buggy – it was the quietest vehicle of any kind I'd yet encountered here – then either settle for setting a portion of the place on fire or finding part or all of the witches' supplies to augment what I brought. I was so lost in thought that when a blurry gray shape shot past my feet I nearly leaped off of the bench in startlement.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A rat,” said the soft voice. “The rats are freshening in the house, and will be starting soon enough outdoors.”

“Can I get some, uh, lighter distillate?” I asked. “Or better, that southern cleaning solution?”

“If you use either of those, then you can spread your jugs further apart,” said the soft voice, “especially if you ring your jugs with dynamite instead of using just one stick.”

“Oh, my,” I murmured. “What would that do?”

“Flatten everything within at least fifty paces of each jug,” said the soft voice, “and such bombs need be put no closer together than that distance.”

“We'd only need eight or ten, then,” I muttered, as I recalled the rough size of the town. “Ten minutes at three AM, five minutes of fuse...”

“You'd better hurry if you give yourselves but five minutes,” said the soft voice, “as the witches do have distillate and dynamite in that town – and the blast of those bombs will find their supplies.”

“Perhaps shoot the jugs, then,” I thought.

“You'd best have a good hiding place if you do that,” said the soft voice. For some reason, I recalled the morning after the demise of the Swartsburg and my shooting that one 'doorway' – and the 'bunker' that proved so providential when the place decided to imitate the Swartsburg's last seconds of existence. “I'd use ten minutes' worth of good fuse and travel your fastest out of town once you light it.”

“And hide that fuse, also – and use a fuse-igniter,” I thought. “If a witch wakes up and sees it burning, he'll cut it.”

I had the impression that this was indeed wise, and on the way home in the darkness, I stifled yawn after yawn. I was glad I had two days without posting, as Frankie would wait but little longer. A number of orders, I now realized, involved castings – and the latest drawings I had...

“No, best test-run that thing first,” I thought. “I don't want to run a lathe-bed casting on the first run of a cupola, especially when I barely have any idea as to how to run such a thing.”

“The others have no idea whatsoever,” said the soft voice, “as those running them to the south, save at perhaps a handful of shops, are most secretive regarding their methods and materials.”

“And they use different materials, I bet,” I muttered. “Bad-burned coke, southern black-cast only...”

“That is how that material is made, said the soft voice. “Charcoal will not merely work passably, but produce a superior product; and if you add ample flux and a fair amount of rusty scrap, especially if it's from Norden, then the end result will surprise you.”

On the way home, however, the aspect of the hall returned; and I wondered briefly what a dynamite-ringed pair of jugs would do to the place.

“Send it and its occupants where it belongs,” said the soft voice, “and then Hendrik has an altogether free hand in matters regarding preaching and those doing it.”

“They will regroup, won't they?” I asked.

“Yes, but not particularly soon,” said the soft voice, “and no, they will not have more than a shadow of their former power when they do regroup.”

I then resolved to test matters at that one village, then at the hall; and when the idea of doing them on successive nights struck me, I nearly fell from my seat. Thankfully, Jaak was in a meadow. We were making closer to a straight line so as to save time, unlike the usual part of staying in the shadows as much as possible. Witches were scarce enough in the area now that I thought it worthwhile, especially at this time of night – as witches, no matter what they said to the contrary, had to sleep sometime – and 'two AM' or thereabouts tended to be the usual bedtime for the serious witch.

“They won't expect that, won't they?” I thought a minute later as we passed between woodlots. We would be crossing a road shortly.

“Not the night after the biggest place of refuge outside of the house goes up in smoke,” said the soft voice. “When dealing with witches, audacity – and unpredictability – commonly go a long way.”

“That, and keeping them on the ropes,” I thought. The use of a boxing metaphor seemed apt.

Home, and then bed; and in the morning – the sun was up, and had been up for at least an hour – I had a hurried breakfast. Frankie would not wait, and once in the shop – the others had been doing those things they were able to do without my presence – I began to fit the last pieces of the wind-belt to the 'submarine'. By the time of the morning guzzle, they were fitted; and with the 'submarine' upon baulks of wood and sundry pieces coming off of it held in place by 'fitting bolts', I asked the question.

“Who wants to go inside that thing and pound the rivets?”

There were no takers at first, so much so that I marveled at the effectiveness of Hans' hearing protectors – until I saw Georg trying to stuff one of the long carrot-colored things in one of his ears.

“No takers?” I asked.

“I've seen your riveting,” said Georg, “and I know theirs and mine, and for one of these things, the best is none too good. I've heard tales about them, and they can be most troublesome – and that's if they are done right.”

“And then there is founder's talk,” said Gelbhaar. “I have heard but a little of it, but I am glad that thing has not shown yet with you doing what casting you do.” I could tell Gelbhaar had not spoken his entire piece regarding the speech common among those casting metal.

“That thing?” I asked.

“It is said to live in foundry sand,” said Gelbhaar, “which accounts for its name, and it is said to enjoy children as meals.”

“Yes, as snacks,” said Johannes. “It wants larger people for meals.”

“The Sand-Man?” I asked.

“Y-yes, that is it,” said Johannes with a visible shudder. “I had forgotten about it until Sarah spoke of it recently.” A pause, then, “and it is made of fire” – Johannes began shaking, then he pointed at the 'submarine' – “and those things...”

George looked at me, nodded, then, said, “they don't trust their riveting much more than I do – and though that is an old tale, those things let go with some frequency in the fifth kingdom, and that chiefly because their work is less than good.” Another pause, then, “talk has it you saw at least one smelter explode down in that place.”

I nodded.

“Those might not be smelters,” said Georg as he pointed to the 'submarine', “but I do not want its seams letting go while it is running.”

“And ours are bound to do that,” said Gelbhaar.

And as talk ceased, I heard the last lines of that accursed song:


...River of slag, lake of fire,

Give me a smelter,

Charred flesh of a Useless Feeder,

Sacrificed to Brimstone,

Lord of fire, Smelter-leader,

Give me a smelter...”


“No, this isn't a smelter,” I thought.

“Their concerns are entirely justified,” said the soft voice. “Recall what Knaadelmann's was doing?”

I nodded mentally.

“They only trusted their own work on that furnace and those tools,” said the soft voice. “Founding iron is dangerous enough without 'The Sand-Man' abruptly coming out of a badly-riveted seam and 'devouring' the founders with explosive rapidity – and more than once, that 'smelter' you saw explode was a larger version of what you are building.” A pause, then, “not everything in the more fanciful-sounding tales is true, even those like 'The Sand-Man', but there's usually some truth to them.”

From somewhere at the back of my mind, words of horror seemed to faintly echo; and with them, I heard a peculiar drum-beat rhythm. It faded before I could recognize either the words or the rhythm, but I knew I had heard it many times before coming here – and more, I knew beyond all reason that particular rhythm had especial meaning to the local version of witchdom.

I then noted Georg was looking at me strangely, with a face part-hid by a tinned copper cup. I could see beads of sweat building quickly upon his brow, and as he seemed to waver slightly in the air, he kept drinking. He finished, then said, “I heard some of that, and now I have the fear.”

“The, uh, drumming?” I asked.

“I'm glad I did not hear that,” said Georg, “even if I have heard before this one song, and that more than once, that speaks of smelting.” A pause, then, “that which I thought an old tale isn't, and anyone who tells me otherwise, I will point him straight into that part of the book where those three boys are tossed into that furnace by that bad king!”

“Uh...”

I was completely dumbfounded, both by what I had heard the men say and who else had spoken, and as we began heating rivets, I tested each set of 'rivet tongs'. I noted with some small satisfaction that the teeth I had cut in them with a small file months ago were holding up well, and as the rivets came to a glowing yellow-red, I heard Georg speaking to the other men.

No, speaking was not the word. Georg was yelling at them, and their replies were in similar tone.

“Wonderful, an argument,” I thought as the three came to 'apply themselves' to their work. Gelbhaar had the bucking bar, while Georg had one pair of tongs. It was time, and I climbed inside of 'Frankie'.

“Nearest this end,” yelled Georg to someone other than me. “The rivet! That hole, there!”

I was but barely positioned when a sudden bright-orange point of light appeared, and a clang hit the 'submarine' like a depth charge. I put my swage atop the rivet, and with all my strength, I swung.

The echoing machine-gun like roar nearly rendered me unconscious by sheer volume alone, and as I brought away my swage, I heard nothing except a high-pitched ringing in my ears. I wormed my way out of the 'submarine', then as I gathered my sundered and scattered-to-the-four-winds wits, I noted no one other than myself was in the shop.

“W-what happened now?” I mumbled. I felt as if I had endured artillery at the fifth kingdom's border once more, and that twice over, and as I wobbled to the door of the shop, the ringing started to fade...

And in the distance, a musket boomed, then two more followed by a thin and high-pitched scream.

“What was that?” I gasped amid still-ringing ears. “Where is everyone?”

“They went to see Anna,” said the soft voice, “and all of them need dosing.” A brief pause, then, “recall what I said about when you really start riveting?”

I nodded – numbly. I was still looking out the door of the shop.

“Best go ask Hans about those things he makes for the ears,” said the soft voice. “That was one rivet.”

I had made it perhaps half-way home when I saw the first cloud of smoke begin to billow into the sky some distance to the west. I began to look around, and to my astonishment, I saw three more such black columns of smoke begin by the time I was on the stoop of our house. I then tapped at the door, and Hans opened it.

“Ah, you are here,” he said. “Anna still has her things, and I have mine, and you need both of them if I go by the looks of you.”

I mumbled something unintelligible, then wobbled in to collapse upon the couch. I then noticed my apron – and this by feel.

“Augh!” I shrieked. “This thing feels horrible!”

Running steps came from the basement, and more from the upstairs, and at the juncture of both places Hans missed Anna by the breadth of a hair. Anna, however, was quicker, and she wasted no time.

“Here, drink this,” she said in a 'none of your nonsense tone'.

I did so, numbly – and within seconds, a strange sensation began to take over my mind. The whole of the scene before me began to fade, and when I awoke – I had blacked out – I was lying on the couch, covered with the room-blanket, and talk seemed to fade in and out of my hearing in the manner of waves. A pale face wreathed by a yellowish halo suddenly 'jerked' into view, much as if it had previously hid itself in an alternate dimension.

“Y-yes?” I asked. The apparition was moving in a very strange fashion – and again, it seemed to have an action reminiscent of waves upon the shore of the sea.

“You must be more careful,” said the apparition's voice. Its volume rose and fell in a cyclic manner. “You started half a dozen witches within an hour's ride with your riveting, and all three of those men are now home asleep.”

“Wh-what?” I mumbled. I looked at my hideously swollen hands, their sensation gone numb; and their stiff fingers, immovable, reminded me of balloons.

“I had to dose you, you were so bad,” said the apparition, who I now but barely recognized as Anna, “and you needed both tinctures, same as those men.”

“That was bad, Anna,” said Georg. “Georg may have trouble with cannons, but those other men were turning colors until they were dosed, and I had to send them out of here good and corked.”

“I hope they have uncorking medicine,” said Anna...”

I abruptly woke up, this time for real – to look into the face of Anna. She seemed mightily peeved.

“What was that noise!” she shouted.

“P-please, d-don't shout,” I squeaked. My hearing was almost normal now, with but a trace remaining of the ringing – and no longer was anything acting as if it 'was coming through in waves', nor did I feel 'sick'. I had felt altogether ill during the previous minute or so, with nausea so intense that it was a wonder I did not spew. “I touched, uh, my apron.” I then noticed my apron was no longer upon my body. “Where is it?”

“That thing is not here,” said Hans. “I think it is at the shop still, is what I think.”

I sniffed, and muttered, “b-burn-piles.”

“Yes, and you started those things out of their hiding places,” said Hans. “They were spying, is what I think, and now they are burning.”

“S-spying?” I asked. I then recalled what I needed. “Do you have anything for the ears?”

Hans nodded, then said, “I do not think you will be able to do much riveting today, as all three of those men went home after Anna dosed them.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“They will be back tomorrow,” said Anna gently. “I was about to tube you, but Sarah said you were not sick that way, so I did not.”

“Yes, and she was about to dose you like those men, but I told her you most likely would be fine,” said Hans. “Now do you still have bells in your ears?”

“Y-yes, a little,” I said. “D-dose?” I asked.

“Yes, a tube of the widow's formula, then a few drops of that for pain,” said Hans, “and all three of those men are now home and asleep.”

“And I hope they have uncorking medicine, as they will be corked otherwise,” said Anna.

“Georg is almost as bad as he is that way,” said Hans. “I doubt you would become corked if you took a couple of drops of that stuff.” Hans paused, then said, “now, do you want to be dosed?”

I shook my head, then said, “not with that pain tincture. The other stuff I might want.”

After a few moments, however, I realized I had a forge going, and I needed to 'bank' its fires and remove the rivets. I made to leave, only this time Hans went with me.

A scene of utter stillness awaited the pair of us as I opened the door, and when I found my laid-aside apron half-laying upon the 'submarine', then I muttered, “then why did I shriek so when I touched it?”

“Best get the hides together for a new apron,” said the soft voice, “and let the tanner clean that one today.”

“Yes, as he knows how to clean that stuff,” said Hans as he fingered it with distaste. His eyes were for its appearance, and that only; his fingers did not feel 'dirt', nor did they feel the blotches of thin-smeared 'torment-grease' mingled with rust and flakes of hammer-scale. He then pointed to the 'submarine' and its attached parts. “You have this thing ready to put together. Now were you doing that?”

“Y-yes,” I said. “I was inside...”

A thundering roar, this of an obvious cannon, came from somewhere to the west. I turned involuntarily, almost as if the gun had fired at me; and in the distance, I heard the whirring whine of the shell. It had me shaking for a second.

“You have not been near those things, so how can you shake like a gunner?” asked Hans.

“You have not endured shellfire from rotten cannons,” said the soft voice emphatically. “He has.”

“When is this?” asked Hans.

“T-the border,” I muttered. “They were shelling m-me, and I wanted a bunker, and there was no s-such thing, and they nearly got me.”

“How...”

And as if I were still hiding behind the stone blocks – again, I heard the whining scream of an elongated shell coming my way. Its driving bands, engraved by the rifling, made for an ear-piercing note amid the usual noises of shells, and as it descended – it had a far flatter trajectory than a typical smoothbore, at least at the range of the witches – I ducked once more...

And came to myself on the floor of the shop, with Hans next to me with his face in the dirt and his hands clasped over his head. He too was now shaking, and as he looked up, he muttered, “that thing was close.”

“Be glad those gunners were not those he faced,” said the soft voice, “or both of you would no longer be alive.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Look out the front of the shop and into the cornfield behind the houses across the road,” said the soft voice.

I stumbled to my feet, and saw a faint cloud of smoke coming from the house across the way, and as I went out into the yard of the shop, I caught the scent of the explosive used as shell filling. Its sharp and biting aroma was unlike that of common gunpowder's sulfurous stink, or even the altogether different odor of the propellant I used.

“That powder I use is not merely stronger,” I muttered, “but it has a different formula entirely. What is it really like?”

“In that granulation and loading, roughly as strong for a given volume as certain smokeless powders where you come from,” said the soft voice. “Your assessment of that particular propellant is correct.”

“What did they load that shell with?” muttered Hans. He was right behind me.

“Valley powder, possibly,” I murmured. “Either that, or something involving a type of chlorate for, uh, added bang.”

“That would mean the shell would detonate while still in the gun,” said the soft voice. “Chlorate of the type you are thinking of, when added to Valley powder, turns the stuff into something roughly comparable to the drippier species of mining dynamite for sensitivity and farmer's dynamite for power.” A short pause, then, “they used the finest granulation of Valley powder they could find, which is commonly used in the Valley for revolvers like yours.”

“What does that do?” asked Hans.

“Makes for a much nastier shell,” I said. “If it's filled brimming full, then it detonates on impact with no fuse needed, and the blast is not much less than an equivalent weight of farmer's dynamite.”

“It isn't quite that strong,” said the soft voice. “Still, it's substantially stronger than the usual shell-filling for rotten cannons, and it usually does not explode in the gun.” A pause, then, “and while a fuse is fitted, it's not usually needed – as such shells do detonate on anything less than a grazing impact, save at absolute maximum range.”

We were now moving between the houses on the opposite side of the street, and as we passed through an open buggy-way and into a tidy yard stacked chest-high with 'drop-wood' in tall trapezoidal mounds stacked in an orderly gridwork, I noted the smoke much more. It was coming from a field about fifty yards beyond the fence, and as I came to the fold in the wall, I noted a total lack of activity.

“Be glad no one was working within a hundred yards of that shell,” said the soft voice.

“The splinters?” I asked.

“Are both much smaller and far more lethal with that shell-loading,” said the soft voice. “You'll get an idea of its power when you examine that shell-crater.”

“Yes, and Nikolas will be hopping for anger,” said Hans. “This is his field.”

“Perhaps it dislodged a plow-breaking rock,” I murmured.

While the shell had done no such thing, its wide flat soot-ringed crater spoke of a substantial blast, and when I found a chunk of the shell half as big as my palm, I noted not merely the sharp edges of the metal itself, but also the smeared lead of the driving bands and the engraving action of the rifling upon them. I also noticed odd rubbing marks in one or two places. I had the impression I had found one of the largest shell-fragments; most of them were much smaller and just as sharp-edged.

“This shell was a bit on the small end of the tolerance spread,” I mumbled, “and the gun somewhat worn...”

“It was on the large end of the tolerance spread as well,” said the soft voice, “hence the shell had a hundred and fifty yards less range than the gunners figured.” A pause, then, “the more diligent users of rotten cannons pre-weigh their charges carefully, and they hand-select their shells with a 'precision' measuring device so as to have a proper fit for their piece or pieces – and no, they don't trust the filling and fusing of their shells to others.”

“Gunners always load their shells just before they use them,” said Hans.

“Not 'just before', but the night before, correct?” I asked.

“That is usual,” said Hans. “There is no time when one is traveling to where witches and swine were said to be.” Hans turned to me, then said, “I got some of those things.”

“What, swine-shells?” I asked. “Cast iron?”

“Three of those, and two of the other type,” said Hans. “None of them have filling, so they are safe.”

Hans' numbering, however, was still faulty, as I soon learned: the basket he had hidden behind my workbench had five 'yarn-wrapped' cast iron 'pills', while the 'canisters' of soldered sheet tin covered them entirely. I counted eight of those, and as I looked at the Heinrich mould – it was bagged and oiled in a bag on my desk – I wondered how hard it would be to fill their outer cavities with shot cast of type-metal.

“Four at a time, and that once a minute, or perhaps three groups every two minutes...”

“That thing is faster than that,” said Hans. “Sarah and I have done enough of that stuff that I hope to get a basket of printer's lead today.”

“And I need to work on chemicals,” I murmured. “I'm almost inclined to try the bull-formula, it's so scary.”

While Hans did not think use of the bull formula wise, he did suggest another dose of the widow's tincture, and I took it dumbly, washed down with beer. I soon felt slightly better, and as I went down into the basement, I realized just what I would do.

“Ice, for one thing... Buckets, of ice, two of them, each with a handful of salt,” I thought, as I reached the bottom of the stairwell. I checked the previous day's 'soap' and found floating on top of a semi-solid white mass a clear and limpid 'syrup' of faintly yellow tinge.

“Need to heat that enough to make certain it's, uh, dry,” I thought, as I looked for a pipette to siphon the stuff off. Steps came from behind, and I turned to see Sarah.

“I've been fetching those things I know,” she said, “and I learned something about urine-powder.”

“Yes?” I asked.

“If one boils it in rain-water,” said Sarah, “and does so until crystals begin to form near the top of the container, then allows it to cool, one can get white crystals out of the liquid – and I suspect those are the material that is wanted.”

“White?” I asked. “Did you add, uh, charcoal?”

“No, as that would make the stuff black,” said Sarah with a wince to her voice. “I assume you mean the coals out of the stove.”

“There's another type?” I asked.

“Yes, in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “Only Roesmaan's sells it, and it is not often they have enough for them to sell it at prices that are cheaper than glass-blower's metal.”

“It's special, isn't it?” I asked, as I wondered how to make true 'activated charcoal'. I suspected it was not nearly as easy as it seemed to be, even if the washed charcoal we used for aquavit did seem to help.

“It is in small grains formed into canisters, like the very best cannon powder,” said Sarah dryly, “though finding some cannon powder of that kind that isn't spoiled is very hard.” Brief pause. “If you spoil a reaction, sometimes that stuff Roesmaan's sells can save what's left of your product.” Another pause, this longer; then, “I usually had some handy in a small tin when I was doing experiments at school.”

I began helping Sarah, and as I found one by one the thermometers we would need, I heard steps on the stairs. I turned around to see Hans.

“Now it is blasting oil you are making,” said Hans, “and using things I never heard of doing, and I hope you do not scatter yourselves and the house.”

“Ice does help with the fumes, Hans,” said Sarah. “I know that much.”

“Salt,” I muttered, “two buckets, one larger than the other, water...”

“Ah, so you know something about it,” said Hans. “That worries me much less.”

“So as to chill both acids,” I said, as I laid aside the thermometers I wanted for each of those processes. One per vessel in this process was none too much, and I hoped I'd be able to write down the temperatures in question. “Now I think there was some Oleum around here, as you once spoke of it...”

Hans was shaking like a leaf as I finished speaking, and as he went to search for it, I said, “from Roesmaan's, Hans. That stuff only for this batch – unless you can get close to as good.”

“He has, at least for acids,” said Sarah. “That syrup will need boiling, as it looks a bit thin.”

“Slow boiling, with frequent stirring,” I said – which made me glad I'd found most of the thermometers Hans had said he'd had here. “How much boiling?”

“I had no idea it was possible to get that much of that stuff from that small an amount of fat,” said Sarah, “and I think Anna will want that soap. It's still soft enough to put in a soap-mould.”

“Do we have one?” I asked. I wondered if Frankie's output would work for such molds.

As it was soap we would be molding, and not lead destined for weapons, using the word 'mold' rather than 'mould' was appropriate. The words were utterly different in the language we were speaking; so much so that the latter word was usually known, even if the former word was a rarity to hear used; and I was glad I practiced that distinction before coming here.

It made that easily-made 'grammar' error harder to do in 'common' speech, which set me apart once more from the majority.

“We do, though it is old enough to want cleaning with lye and then a time in a forge so as to remove its rust,” said Sarah. “I washed it with lye and then put it in the stove last night along with some of that cooked coal you have.”

“So that is why it is warm in the house,” said Hans. “It is said that witches want warm places, so as to remind them of hell, but those things are scarce around here right now.”

“Yes, right now,” said Sarah, “and that if you mean 'scarce for showing'. That won't last that much longer.”

“Unless we first do that one bad town,” I murmured, “and then flatten the hall.”

“Ah, Hendrik will like that,” said Hans. “Those people in the hall there have been giving him trouble, and I think they have been filling General's Row from that place.”

“There and this other town, at least for witches that aren't imported from points south,” I said. “Do you know what's 'in' southern cleaning solution?”

“Yes, and we do not have the stuff for it here,” said Hans. “It uses chemicals that are only to be had in that market, and only certain places down there have them.”

“I would not be too certain of that,” said Sarah archly. “I know of some things that can be done to common light distillate to make it better for fires.”

“I do have some jugs of that stuff, and I've been boiling distillate steady so as to get boiled distillate for people,” said Hans.

“And 'light' oil, I hope,” I said.

“That stuff does not come good when I do it,” said Hans in downcast voice. “That stuff makes a bad mess, and I got sooted up more than once from it trying to make it come good.”

I went to Hans' 'oil setup', and looked it over carefully. Save for traces of soot nearly everywhere, it 'looked' fine.

“It will need to be taken apart and everything cleaned carefully,” I said, as the soot faded to show traces of brownish stains everywhere. “Those gums left by your failed reactions will interfere with the process working as it should.” I paused, recalled a need, then said, “besides, I need a fair amount of that lighter distillate stuff that comes from boiling distillate.”

“Yes, and for what?” asked Hans. “I have plenty of jugs made up, I think.”

“I need to burn down that one town,” I said, “and I'll need ten mostly-full jugs to do it – either light distillate, or southern cleaning solution – and preferably good southern cleaning solution, if I can get it.”

“That comes in light blue jugs,” said Sarah. “You might try this one second-hand place that sells a lot of strange stuff.”

“Possibly later today, after we make up some batches, of , uh, blasting oil,” I said.

“Yes, and how big are these batches to be?” asked Hans pointedly. “Smaller is best with that stuff, and I am glad you have buckets of iced water to dump it should it spit fumes.”

“Dump it right then, right?” I asked.

Hans looked at me strangely, then nodded. I had a question. “Can you get some salt – the usual stuff, it doesn't have to be cleaned...”

Over the next hour or so, Sarah boiled the glycerin down to a near-honey consistency, while I iced the acids. Hans had moved his table with the thimble-loading setup 'somewhere else', then began running his 'boiled distillate line'. “There are people who want that oil, and I am out of it,” he said.

This stuff?” I squeaked. I meant the 'nitro'.

“No, that stuff you do with the tallow and uncorking medicine,” said Hans. “Albrecht has an order for two and two twenties of small medicine bottles of it...”

“That was part of your trouble, Hans,” said Sarah. “I might not have made that oil, but I've made something like it many times, and anything more than a most-small cupful at a time is asking for a fire and much soot.”

“Unless he does it,” mumbled Hans. “He did a quart of that stuff at a time, if not more yet, and the people yelling for it want his stuff, not anything else.”

“Get what I used set up, then,” I said. “This process here involves a fair amount of waiting... No wonder you had so much trouble, Hans – you didn't do half the stuff I've written down.” I meant the 'motor oil' process.

“Yes, such as boil your syrup,” said Sarah, who was speaking of glycerin – and, perchance, nocturnal visits to the privy to there endure nitration. “Hans, come here and look at this stuff.”

Hans stopped what he was doing and came through the crowded room to the other side. As he did, he noticed the faint odor of urine, and began mumbling – until he came to Sarah's side, where his voice rose to a shout.

“What is this!” I involuntarily winced at his yelling.

“Soap-syrup, only done right,” said Sarah as she pointed to the yellow-tinged clear 'syrup'. Its consistency made 'syrup' an accurate name for it. “There's soap in that pan there. It just needs gentle heating and then pouring into a soap-mold, and then setting for a week or so.” A pause, then, “I suspect Anna would like it for her bath.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“No smell,” said Sarah, “and then its feel. I tried a little on my hands with water, and only fourth kingdom medicine-soap feels better.”

“Yes, and did it clean you?” asked Hans.

“As good as any I have bought in this area,” said Sarah. “It did not burn my skin, and it did not feel greasy, either.”

“Then you are right,” said Hans. “Anna will desire such soap, and not just for her baths. She will want it for her washing.”

“Actually, clothes-soap wants a bit of added lye,” I said. “Much of what is sold as 'soap' in this area is intended for clothing, not people.” A pause, then, “if it does not have to be in long thin bars, then it could be cut into small, uh, bricks, and then air-dried in that one second-story room with the flue in it. It'd be ready in days then, and then Anna can enjoy her baths.” I wondered about bubble-baths, for some reason – and how Sarah might look all-but hidden in such bubbles. Her next talk made for wondering on my part.

“I might not wait that long,” said Sarah. “I'll try it next time I bathe.”

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “It will make, you, uh,...”

I could just feel Sarah glaring at me, and I turned to see an emotion upon her face I could not place beyond 'she is not glaring at me'. She then spoke.

“It would make you desire to rub my head more often?”

I was so taken aback I gulped, “did it hurt?”

“No, I liked it very much, and was glad for it,” said Sarah. “Sometimes, my feet are sore and I wish I could rub them properly.” Her implied message: she wanted me to rub her feet – and, given the opportunity, I would gladly oblige her when and where the chance presented itself.

“You had best be careful when you cut his hair, then,” said Hans, “as he has fallen asleep when his head is touched much, and he is ticklish all over him.”

Sarah did not speak, but I suspected she approved of such a development. With a small knife – I suspected this knife was the one I had given her – she cut the soap into small 'bricks' about two inches square, then gently removed the now-firm material from the pan. Hans put it on a cleaned 'board', then took it upstairs. I waited for the uproar to start, and when he returned minus the board and without the slightest trace of noise from upstairs, I asked, “is Anna home?”

“No, as she is in that one town with the chandler's,” said Hans. “You are using that lantern in the shop now, or have been speaking of doing that, so we will need more candles in here.”

“You want the student's blend,” said Sarah. “I usually got those when I was traipsing.”

“Here, or while in school?” I asked.

“Whenever I came into an area where they were available, I got them,” said Sarah, “and I usually had several bagged up in my things just in case.” A pause. “Those are rarely available outside of the fourth kingdom's market, but there are places which have them or similar candles – and I know where most of those that sell them are in the upper four kingdoms.” A pause, then, “while I was traipsing up here, though – I bought candles nowhere else.”

“There are other places which sell them,” said Hans.

“Not his candles,” I murmured, “and many of those places that you spoke of would not sell to her.” A pause, then, “and the only reason I could buy things in many of the places you went was because I was with you or Anna. Had I gone alone, I would have been chased out of many of those shops...”

“And in some cases, then chased by a well-armed mob, and driven ahead of them, with chains and distillate waiting next to a hole,” said Sarah. “More than one Mercantile in this area is closed because its proprietor was a well-hid witch.” Her emphasis of 'this' implied 'close by', as within an hour's easy ride on a tired horse.

“That is so,” said Hans, “and two of those places were where we got candles a lot.”

“Which partly accounts for the lost supply – and also...” My voice rose in pitch. “No wonder they hid the wax candles, Hans! Those people were witches, and they only sold them to other witches!”

“I am no witch,” said Hans, “and the same for Anna, and we both got our things in those places sometimes.”

“Well-hid witches commonly do such things as they must so as to remain hidden better,” said Sarah. “The strength in such hiding is to appear as common as possible, and thereby cause others to become as the witches themselves are in all possible ways.”

“You mean they force others to conform to the goals of witchdom by their example?” I gasped. The concept was too familiar to me; it had been the usual where I came from, and that everywhere even in places where it was obviously and clearly wrong if I went by the book.

“I am not certain if they force people as you were thinking,” said Sarah, “but those who run Mercantiles tend to be among the leaders of a community.”

“Those in authority define truth,” I thought, “and that not merely in the way the saying implies, but in word, thought, and in deed.” And with my thinking, I knew beyond all reasoning that I had stumbled upon a matter of great importance.

And of greater importance, however, lay the matters before me. I had put a pair of small jugs of Roesmaan's acids, both nitric and sulfuric, in a large wooden bucket with salted water and ice; and the thermometer in the bucket was registering just above '0'. I took it out to read it, and noted again, this time clearer – it was again just above the '0' mark. The scale was mostly 'gone' due to age and wear, but was still legible in most places.

“This thing must be off,” I thought. “Given its age, though, I'm not surprised.”

“It is not off,” said the soft voice. “'0' on that thermometer indicates a differing calibration, as is common for 'chemical' thermometers. If you were to find a medical thermometer, not only would the units be different and the scale of finer graduation, but that mix would read below zero.”

“They had a lot of those things in that Abbey place,” said Hans as he noticed my looking intently at the thermometer, “and they work good. Now why is it you are trying to freeze those acids?”

“Less trouble with what I'm going to do,” I said. “The Oleum?”

Hans handed me another small jug, which I then plunged in the second and smaller ice-bucket. It too had a thermometer, and Hans looked at me as if I were out of my mind – especially when I added another small scoop of salt to that bucket's ice and stirred it in with a wooden 'dowel'. I was glad that jug had the Roesmaan's label on it – as I suspected Hans' 'Oleum' had come from Grussmaan's.

“I'll need a tall-sided crock about seven inches wide at the bottom, glazed on the inside and out...”

Hans had vanished; and as I looked around, I wondered where Sarah had gone. She shortly returned, however, with not merely a suitable crock, but also a most-definite smile. I was glad to see her smile, as Sarah looked especially lovely when she was 'happy'.

“Anna loves that soap,” said Sarah, “and she cannot wait to bathe with it.”

After chilling the crock in ice-water – I was glad Hans had 'accumulated' so much ice – I moved the 'reaction vessel' to the fume hood. There, I added 'two hundred units' of the sulfuric acid – roughly a brimming mug-full – then slowly poured in a hundred units of the nitric. As I slowly stirred the fuming mess – both acids fumed evilly, and once mixed, their fuming convolved into a thick and choking vapor – I heard steps behind me, then Sarah said, “here's the Oleum.”

That chilled jug fumed the worst of all when uncorked, and fifty units of the bitingly acrid 'syrup' went into the crock. As I stirred with the thermometer, I 'felt' bursts of heat one after another every few seconds, and after the third such 'burst', I took out the thermometer to look at it.

Thirty units?” I murmured. I knew the acids would get hotter when mixed, but this spoke of something well beyond my expectations.

“That is a warm summer day in the fourth kingdom,” said Sarah. “It gets hotter when it burns.”

As I replaced the thermometer in the acids – I wanted as close to zero as I could get – I asked, “burns?”

“I only saw it do that once down there,” said Sarah. “The sun does not go down, but rather hides itself somehow for a time, and it does not darken at night almost, and the heat! You stay indoors, with jugs of beer handy, and you wear no more clothing than you must while indoors until the sun sleeps again.”

“Sleeps?”

“The days return to their normal cycle of day and night,” said Sarah. “I've seen what happens after a burn up here, and it is worse yet.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“A lot of people just think it's a warm day,” said Sarah, “and while it is warm, and that beyond the heat of high summer, it can also burn the skin like distillate can if it stays too long on you.” A pause, then, “your skin becomes red, and if it's bad, it also blisters.”

“That sounds like trouble,” I said. “Do people die from it?”

Sarah nodded, then “I've heard of whole towns being killed from being out in the sun when it's burning.”

I was not about to describe my 'nightmare' involving a burning sun, as I had a real and tangible nightmare directly in front of me. I continued stirring, as I wanted near-zero temperatures before I added the glycerin. That, I knew, was most important.

“And no, this is not a privy, even if this is a nitrator,” I murmured.

“What did you say?” asked Sarah.

“I've gone to the privy half-asleep or drugged and thought I was doing what I am doing now,” I said sheepishly.

“That is not far-fetched,” said Sarah. “I've seen the fifth kingdom's blasting oil vats, and they look enough like what's in most privies around here to make me wonder just who makes them – and where.”

Another few minutes of stirring, and I removed the thermometer. It was just above zero, and as I looked at it more, I saw the thin silvery line climbing rapidly. I also saw where it 'cut off', that being '180' – and when I put it back in, I gasped; for now, I finally 'felt' the effects of the acids.

I wanted goggles, a respirator, and a full-body acid-resistant suit. The stuff before me was fuming bad.

“And now, the glycerin,” I thought, as I reached for the container of yellow-tinged syrup. I seemed to once more recall my times in the privy. “Pipette time.”

With slow and gentle stirring using the thermometer, I added the glycerin drop by drop. Any sudden bursts of 'heat' caused me to pause with my dropping, and I checked the thermometer frequently. I saw a shadow, first to my left, then to my right. As I added more glycerin, Sarah spoke.

“That...” Her voice was a mouse-like squeak of either admiration or terror. I could not tell which.

“That is blasting oil he is making,” said Hans, who was on the left. “This reaction has never behaved so good, not ever, not with me or you or anyone I know or have heard of.”

“You did not do it this way, did you?” asked Sarah.

“N-no,” said Hans. “They have cold-rooms in the fourth kingdom that make ice, so they will want to know of this.” A pause, then, “I am glad you are doing this here, and not in the privy.”

“He spoke of that,” said Sarah. My concentration was on what I was doing entirely, and I felt a sudden burst of heat. I ceased adding glycerin, and as I set aside the pipette, I wiped my brow with the back of my other hand. The thermometer remained in the crock, and I resumed stirring seconds later.

“Is it about to turn?” asked Hans nervously.

“I can feel the, uh, reaction,” as I continued stirring with the thermometer, “and there's two or three layers to this stuff. The top one is where most of the heat happens, as the 'syrup' is getting interested about 'talking' to the acid mixture. Then, the middle is where the change actually happens, and the bottom layer is, uh, blasting oil.” I paused, then, “they called that stuff nitroglycerin where I came for, or 'nitro' for short.”

“I have seen that name written, though I have not heard it spoken before,” said Sarah. “That was one of the hardest tapestries to get to I ever visited – they were watching me the whole time, even when I bathed for them, and I had to wear their clothing, and the stuff fit badly and itched horribly.”

I resumed the adding of glycerin, this being a drop about every two to three seconds. When the pipette emptied, I got some more from the beaker of 'syrup'. I suspected I needed a total of ten pipettes full – and I was amazed I didn't have a splitting headache.

“I would give that stuff there twelve of those things,” said Hans. “That is a five-unit pipette, and you are getting it up to the four line, or a little higher.”

“Uh, fifty units of... Syrup?” I asked.

“That is about what I usually did,” said Hans, “though you could probably do a jugful at a time and stay out of trouble.” This last, however, was said in a tone that almost made me faint, even though I but faintly recalled what Hendrik had said about 'higher yields' and 'greater purity'.

“And less trouble,” I mumbled.

“That is why I think you could do more at a time than this,” said Hans. “Not once has a reaction gone bad with you doing it, and Hendrik has told me of people like you doing chemicals.”

I glanced at the half-full container of 'syrup', and again noted its color. It was now an intense yellow, and it seemed to sparkle with hidden malice and anger. With each further addition, the remaining material seemed angrier and more malicious, as well as more yellowish in the flickering candlelight – and as I got the final pipette of the material, it almost screamed at me. I looked at the wall in back of the fume hood, and amid the traces of soot and dents on the etched and stained copper sheet, I almost...

No, not almost. What I was seeing was not conventionally visible, even if I could now see it clearly.

I was not sure how I was seeing the long arched string of runes, but the glowing and flashing distraction was slowly being bent double, then the ends were drawing into a circular form. It was very distracting, so much so that I briefly shut my eyes while I continued dropping and stirring.

The rune-circle was still there, its fluorescent-bright colors still as vivid and enraged as ever and the runes themselves strobing like hyperactive Technicolor flashbulbs. I opened my eyes, and nearly yelped due to the effects of the acid-fumes upon them. Hans was gone, while Sarah spoke of him lighting a small fire above in the oven so as to draw up the fumes better.

“He won't need kindling or a candle to light it,” I spluttered. “The fumes will cause the wood to catch fire the minute he adds it, they're so bad, cough, cough. I hope I do not get, uh, sick.”

The fumes suddenly decided they had a better place to go, as they began to climb up the fume-hood with alacrity. Hans came thumping down the stairs as if my statement had set his trousers alight.

“That fire lit the instant I put the kindling to it,” said Hans, “so, I put that cooked coal stuff to it right then.”

“How much cooked coal?” asked Sarah. “I would add but a small handful.”

“That is what I did,” said Hans. I could tell, however, that Sarah meant 'one of my small handfuls', not what Hans had added. He'd easily added three times what Sarah thought appropriate.

Again, that infernal rune-curse showed itself, only this time it seemed utterly real and tangible, much as if its figures were carved of brightly-lit fluorescent animated stone. More importantly, it had somehow gotten itself tied into a knot, and its colors – still bright, and still strobing angrily – were now somehow 'distant' and muted. I wondered what had happened to it as I added the very last of the 'dose' of glycerin – and now, I looked down into the acid. It had lost nearly all of its color.

“That stuff in the beaker was a primer for this stuff,” I muttered. “What color is blasting oil usually?”

“A murky brown sometimes, though that stuff needs tossing right then as it is about to turn,” said Hans. “You want something that is yellow with as little brown to it as as you can get.”

“L-look at this stuff,” I sputtered as I looked through the faintly tinted acid mixture to the glaring sunshine-yellow 'nitro' below. “It's as yellow as anything...”

Hans peered into what I was still slowly stirring. I needed to stir gently for a while, and I wanted a battery-operated mechanical device to do it for me. My wrist was tiring to a small degree, and my 'boredom level' was going skyward like a wayward rocket.

“That is like nothing I have ever seen,” said Hans, his voice rising as he spoke in pitch and dropping in volume. “I do not see any brown to it at all.”

“The other part, Hans,” I said as I slowly stirred the mingled liquids. “Can't you see how, uh, angry it looks, and how malicious – like it wants to blow us sky high in the worst way imaginable?” A pause, then, “I need to stir like this, for, uh, a full turn of the glass.” My unspoken request: “I hope I do not get a headache.”

“Then here is that glass,” said Hans, as he produced a stereotypical wooden-ended hourglass and upended it. The sparkling white sand began dribbling down into the empty lower chamber. “When it is done, you have done your stirring.”

While I stirred my 'brew', vast choruses of chants and angry-sounding rune-curses seemed to hover about the edges of my hearing; and while none of these was clear enough to be understood, the general feeling I had was as if I were doing a crime of such monstrous proportions that only burning in the belly of Brimstone would serve as an adequate punishment. I thought myself doomed to a burn-pile, even as the two others busied themselves in preparing the equipment for other chemistry processes: Sarah, the distillate-boiling 'line', and Hans, dismantling and then cleaning the setup for 'motor oil'.

“Where did you get so many jugs of distillate?” asked Sarah.

“That one witch-house is where most of this stuff was,” said Hans, “and the rest, I either got in trade or found in other houses in town where witches were routed out.”

“You went into the houses of witches?” I gasped. I wondered how he had not been 'taken over'.

“They had their witch-things elsewhere, is what I think,” said Hans, “as the only thing I found that witches commonly have was some forty-chain brandy.” Hans muttered to himself, then said, “and whoever said that stuff is bad needs to go back to school, as bad is not good enough for words to speak of that stuff.”

“No money, eh?” I asked. I knew Hans had missed a great deal.

“I found none of that stuff, and I am glad,” said Hans. “Money needs no witch-tools to cause me trouble, as that stuff acts like a bad one if there is a lot and I am around it.” A pause, then, “I am glad Anna does most of the shopping.”

“For what you need?” asked Sarah. Anna knew little about chemistry, or so I gathered.

“I take what is needed for the day, and but little more,” said Hans. “If I have no shopping to do, then I might have enough coins to make noise, but not much more than that.”

“So I need to clear those houses also,” I thought. “Did those people have, uh, hoards?”

“Yes, of both money and fetishes,” said the soft voice, “and not merely was Hans not looking very hard – to his credit, for a change – but also, those people regularly chanted the hiding curse and several related curses. Between the fetishes and their chanting, the only way those 'hoards' would be found is either by burning down those homes – and by extension, the whole town – or by someone going through those houses and finding what the witches hid.”

“They didn't trap their stuff, did they?” I thought.

“No, because they thought their fetishes and chanting would work well enough,” said the soft voice. “It may have worked amply well against people finding their 'treasure', but it did not work at all against the pigs finding them.”

“Pigs,” I thought. “Now I need to clear those houses.” A brief pause, then, “are there people coming?”

“Yes, but not until after harvest is finished around here,” said the soft voice. “None of them are less than a hundred miles distant in a straight line, which means a minimum of five days traveling once they are located – and no one is looking for them right now, as now planting truly has commenced in the first kingdom and no one can be spared for quite some time – either from around here or in the far-distant and isolated communities the still-living heirs actually live in.”

“And they'll need finding, also,” I thought. “The telegraph doesn't even come close to those places, correct?”

“It comes within about twenty miles of two of the families,” said the soft voice, “but they lie to the north of the very end of the east-side line. The rest of them – one group's located near that third bridge you crossed on the way back, and two more are 'working' in the middle part of the potato country – and there's no telegraph 'station' currently within a hard day's ride of any of those people.”

“I thought they had a run there,” I thought.

“They did until recently,” said the soft voice, “but the witches burnt out one of the main people – and since they killed them, they've been hunting down those that the members of that family gave up under torture.”

“Duh, no compartmentalization,” I thought.

“Actually, that is practiced, just not to the degree you're thinking of,” said the soft voice. “That's one of the reasons why the lines aren't contiguous. Then, unless you're one of the 'main' people, you only know those people next to you on the line and perhaps a messenger or two.” A pause, then, “the witches have been watching that man and his family nearly around-the-clock for over a decade, and one of those people finally slipped up badly enough that they caught him while he was 'engaged'.”

“And now that whole section is down,” I thought.

“For a while, anyway,” said the soft voice. “The equipment, while it is not 'made by the numbers', isn't that difficult to replace, and the actual lines themselves were not discovered.”

“I thought...”

“While it is made in instrument-making houses,” said the soft voice, “they tend to be those places that are the best-equipped with people and equipment – and while the actual devices aren't made in quantity, most of their parts are.” A pause, then, “in fact, Andreas has run his share of the smaller parts – and were you not so busy, you would be making some as well.”

“They subcontract?” I gasped.

“And thereby insure the witches have trouble shutting down that portion of the enterprise,” said the soft voice. “In many cases, the subcontracted parts are given out with 'oversize' dimensions and 'cover names', and then 'finished' at the places that actually assemble the equipment.”

“Better quality control, also,” I thought, as I recalled the standard for such gear in the fifth kingdom.

The 'nitro' in the bottom layer now had a slightly milky appearance added to its previously angry lemon-meringue-pie yellow, and as I watched the last of the sand run out, I knew the 'slow' parts would come next. I recalled Hans had something 'like' a separatory funnel among his trove of looted equipment, and when the sand ran dry in the glass, I went to fetch it. I moved around both Sarah and Hans, and when I found the thing and its stand, Hans asked, “now what is it you do?”

“I'm going to separate that stuff...”

“I have never seen it done with one of those,” said Hans. “Everyone...”

“Everyone turns out bad oil, also,” said Sarah. “Even my best batch had some brown to it.”

While the stuff sat in the 'nitrator', I first cleaned the ceramic funnel, then checked its stopcock by putting water into it and turning it. To my astonishment, the thing actually worked, and as I walked with a beaker of 'rain water' toward the crock, I hoped I'd get a clean 'separation', even as I first added the water to a second well-cleaned – and larger – crock, then slowly poured the acid-explosive mixture into it. I washed out the nitrator twice, then added its washings also. A brief flash of pain in my head flared, then as suddenly vanished.

“Now for the funnel,” I thought. “I hope this works.”

The funnel held the entirety of the larger crock's contents, and as I walked away with both crocks, I had an impression: I did not have much time. I put the crocks down, and put a beaker under the funnel's tip, then slowly turned the stopcock

A gentle stream of angrily-sparkling yellow 'syrup' came out slow as molasses, and I caught the first drop before it fell more than an inch. The beaker was filling fast, and when the 'syrup' suddenly went to water, I turned the stopcock. I was still amazed at the 'relative' lack of a headache, even if I could feel one.

“Now to neutralize its remaining acid,” I thought, as I went for the salaterus. I found the stuff from Roesmaan's, then using rainwater and a smaller beaker, I made up a solution. I added this, then began stirring with the thermometer, being careful not to strike or rub the container.

The fizzing that erupted with each further addition of salaterus solution was a marvel until I added the fifth 'dose'. The fizzing then moderated to a near-continuous bubbling, and once it quieted, I again visited the separatory funnel. I was more than a little surprised to see the thing had become empty and Hans had left the basement.

“Where did he go?” I asked. I wondered if he had a headache.

“To put that spent acid outside,” said Sarah as she slowly rubbed her head. “He usually redistills it and then adds Oleum to build up its strength once more.”

“Especially with that stuff,” said Hans as he came back down the stairs. “It is not often to find acid that good, even if one has the ways to make it right and does that regularly, and that is for the acid.”

“There was more than the acid?” I asked.

“Yes, that water you added to it, and the process itself makes a fair amount of water,” said Hans. “That is why it is over a slow fire right now.”

As I made ready to 'separate' once more, Sarah came to my side, and muttered, “I wish what I made was that well behaved.” A pause, then, “most places don't even come close to doing this.”

“That is because they want to make a lot, and make it quick, and make it cheap,” said Hans.

“And they just live with the periodic explosions,” I muttered. “You ever had your spent acid explode?”

“Yes, which is why I put that stuff out back next to the manure-pile,” said Hans.

I got another 'clean break' with the separatory funnel, then asked for 'cleaned salt'. I poured enough into a well-cleaned beaker that some remained after adding water and stirring vigorously, then heated the stuff while I stirred it with a glass rod until it all dissolved. I added more salt, all the while stirring, until the water began boiling. I then removed the heating lamp after turning it off, and as I walked toward the beaker with the 'nitro', I asked that the salt water become cold.

It was nearly icy when I returned, and with slow stirring, I added the malevolent-looking nitro a little bit at a time. The milky tint began to slowly vanish, and as I carefully took the 'stuff' to an out-of-the-way place, I wondered how long it would take.

“Until midafternoon,” said the soft voice. “You might wish to make another batch after making the nitrocellulose.”

“Now what is this?” asked Hans. He had returned to cleaning the oil-making setup, and as I glanced at his work, I knew I would need to give it a final cleaning. Hans was cleaning with an eye to appearance, not reactions; and as I put this new bit of fetish-thinking in the back of my mind, I wondered for a moment as to how to make nitrocellulose without it catching fire in the process. I had heard it described more than once as 'mean' and 'touchy' where I came from, and given the greater reactivity of chemicals here...

“Especially given that what Hans made was essentially 'celluloid' and not 'guncotton', said the soft voice, “and while 'celluloid' mixed with about a fourth of its weight in nitro and a bit of beeswax for a plasticizer would make an acceptable small-arms propellant, what you are proposing to do is another matter entirely.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It may not be as impact-sensitive as nitro, but it nearly makes up for its lack that way by other forms of potential misbehavior.” A pause, then, “and you will want both Roesmaan's salaterus and that urea ready-mixed and in solution to keep that stuff from causing trouble.”

I continued 'cleaning up' my mess, which involved cleaning all of the reaction vessels used and then carefully 'drying' them with clean cloths dampened with rain-water. I had the impression – and Sarah seconded my thinking while she was watching the slow-boiling distillate in the flask– that one wanted no trace of any former reactions present when one did something as sensitive as blasting oil.

“I'll need more ice,” I thought, as I poured out most of the water from the ice-buckets into a third bucket. Hans indicated it was best to put such water in the cold-room, as it would stay cooler and be ready to reuse in the morning – and the icy chill of that small close room was enough to make me a believer.

“Given how much ice he's been getting, it's not surprising,” said the soft voice. “The nights have been cooler than it usually is for planting.”

“The seeds?” I thought.

“Most of what is planted in the first kingdom, due to its hardy nature, tends to sprout slowly,” said the soft voice, “and the bulk of its initial growth is down, not up – so when the sprouts do show, they've got decent root systems already started.”

With clean glassware, I now thought to start on the nitrocellulose. I went looking for the sawdust Sarah had spoken of, and as I looked 'high and low' without success, I seemed to feel someone watching me. Finally, I had to ask, even though both of the others looked too busy to do other than what they were doing.

“Uh, the sawdust?” I asked.

“Watch this for me,” said Sarah, “and I'll fetch it.”

Sarah took but a minute, and when I changed places with her on the distillate-boiling setup, I felt reminded of the need to make a 'still' for the stuff. I wondered for a moment as to why I had not done so when I felt reminded of some of the more fiery explosions I had seen in the fifth kingdom house.

“Uh, wouldn't do to have a leaky distillery then, would it?” I thought.

While there was no answer at first, I recalled what Sarah had said about coal-ovens exploding, and as I went to look for the lye, I wondered aloud to myself about a larger distillate-still.

“Until you have means of achieving a higher level of precision than what you saw exhibited with Andreas' coal-cookers,” said the soft voice, “the only safe means of preparing 'boiled' distillate with what you have is as Sarah is doing so now.”

“You were what?” gasped Sarah. “Don't you know how often those things explode down there?”

“What is this?” asked Hans. He was about finished with his cleaning. I'd have to go over his work and check it, I now recalled.

“Fifth-kingdom distillate-stills,” said Sarah. Her voice had gained an octave, even if it had otherwise lost volume.

“He would not build one of those things,” said Hans. “He would...” Hans ceased speaking, then, “that stuff is worse than aquavit for escaping, and it ignores rye paste.”

“And I would imagine it ignores 'leather' seals also...” I paused, then asked, “how often did Andreas need to, uh, work on his equipment?”

“More often than he wanted to,” said the soft voice, “and while leather would work, such seals would not merely need unusual care in all facets of their manufacture – from skinning the animal to final processing – they would also need unusual care in installation and regular replacement.”

“R-regular?” I asked. My unspoken request was 'how regular'.

“Probably more often than you're inclined,” said Sarah. “First, you'd most likely have to do the raw hides up yourself, as that kind of leather isn't anywhere close to what a first kingdom tanner could manage.”

“Uh, some places in the fourth kingdom...”

They do as I spoke of,” said Sarah, “at least those of them I visited. Some few smaller shops might have those places do their hides.” A brief pause, then, “and their scrap-hides and other scraps are commonly fought over with vigor.”

“Why is that?” said Hans.

“Only the very best leather will serve for their uses,” said Sarah, “and of a given hide, only certain portions are used. The rest, they have little use for, save perhaps as belts for their overheads.”

“Overheads?” I asked.

“Not many places have those in that market,” said Hans, “but those places that do have lots of machines like what you have in the parlor, only they are driven off of those overhead things.”

“Line-shafts,” I muttered. “Belts, pulleys, uh...” I paused; I had found the lye. Now I needed a small crock to 'cook' the sawdust. “Knaadelmann's had those.”

“Only a few places have better equipment,” said Sarah, “and only the Heinrich works, and perhaps two others that I know of, have more of such tools – and yes, all of that equipment uses overheads.”

I measured out twenty 'units' of sawdust by weight, and as I added a 'scoop' of lye and then rain-water, I could tell Sarah at the least was wondering what I was doing. As I went to fetch the ice for the buckets prior to chilling the acids, I passed Hans. He was almost done.

“I'll need to clean that up with some, uh, aquavit,” I murmured. “I've got to chill some more acid.” Hans seemed to ignore me, but as I came back to the fume hood with a pair of refilled ice-buckets, I seemed to recall vaguely the reek of a paper-mill; and as I began to actually immerse the jugs in salted ice with a bit of water, this reek became more and more present to my mind. It was not an odor I was smelling conventionally, or so I thought until Sarah's sharp exclamation.

“That stinks worse than making soap!” she spat. “What is it?”

“Uh, I'm putting some lye to some of that sawdust, dear,” I said. “I need to make this next portion so as to make that blasting oil behave itself.”

Again, the chilled acids fumed frightfully, and as I added the nitric acid, I put in twice as much as the last time. As I stirred the iced beaker, I thought, “this stuff could set anything organic on fire just by being near it!”

“There are worse things for fires,” said the soft voice. “Much worse.”

And then, the Oleum. I added three times as much of the 'syrup', this in three separate doses with stirring the whole time; and as I left the fuming mess to the salt and ice so as to become chilled once more, I wondered as to just how 'mean' the nitrocellulose would be.

“Don't let it get air on it for more than a few seconds until it's entirely neutralized,” said the soft voice, “and boil it for at least two turns of the glass with a saturated solution of salaterus – and leave it in there until you're ready to actually mix it.” A pause, then, “and then, you will experience the headaches you've been missing.”

“Twice as bad, no doubt,” I thought.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “The headache-inducing properties of that gelatinous material, especially given who made it, will become the stuff of legend.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah. “My blasting oil was bad for headaches, but your's hasn't done that.”

“That is because it is saving that part up for when he mixes his stuff,” said Hans. “I heard that much, and I think I want to be in the Public House then, is what I think, as this place will be worse than a fourth kingdom powder mill then.”

“F-fourth?” I asked. “Do they have such...”

“Yes, two or three of those places,” said Hans. “They are small shops in out-of-the-way towns, and they only make to order, and you pay a lot for what you get.”

“And if you must use mining dynamite, theirs tends to be the safest,” said Sarah. “It still keeps poorly just the same.”

“Does it, uh, drip oil?” I murmured. I was checking on the sawdust-lye mixture. Only the fifth kingdom house's worst parts smelled 'worse' than what I was stirring, and I was glad there wasn't that much of it.

“Be glad you'll only need to make one batch in this fashion,” said the soft voice. “That's enough for at least five batches of 'gelatin'.”

“Stuff will probably look like Vlai,” I muttered.

“Vlai that smells really strange and gives sick-headaches at twenty paces,” said the soft voice. “Anna may love the taste of Vlai, but she will wish no part of that stuff.”