“That is not Vlai...”
I strained the sawdust out of the murky 'mud' that had accumulated, and as I swirled it in a crock with rain-water, I noted its near-snowy color. Two rinsings, both of which went in the container having the lye and 'mud' mixture, and I noted the following:
The 'sawdust' was now a brilliant white 'pulpy' mass, and as I spread it out on a pan to dry over a turned-down heating lamp, I noted its complete lack of smell and fine 'grainy' texture.
The container with the lye, however, had a stomach-turning stink of such intensity that I had to run up the stairs, through the kitchen – Anna was not home, thankfully – and then out into the back, where I flung the stuff at the manure pile while checking my gorge. There, its stench was not merely in good company, but...
“What happened to the stink?” I gasped.
“The two stenches canceled,” said the soft voice. “Stirring in that material will accelerate the development of the compost into fertilizer, as well as increase its value as a plant nutrient.” I had chemicals waiting on me, so did not think to spend an hour spading a mixture of horse manure and 'too high' leftover food in with the stomach-turning mess left by the treatment of sawdust with lye.
The pulp was nearly 'dry' when I returned to the basement, and as I stirred it with a small brass rod, I noted its increased friability over what I had initially seen. I thought to leave it as it was once fully dried, and then add it in small amounts, much as I did with the glycerin to make the first batch of nitro.
“I would decant that first batch into a jug first,” said the soft voice, “add some of that urea, and then put it in the cold room.”
The 'nitro' was now a clear and brilliant yellow of 'fluorescent' intensity that seemed to give off showers of 'sparks', and as it lay 'coiled and malevolent' in the bottom of the beaker, I wondered how to remove the gray-tinted 'dirty' water that lay above it. I found a larger pipette, and once the water was 'gone', a faint 'chemical' smell 'shot' up my nose – and a crushing 'migraine' followed with such abruptness that I nearly collapsed on the spot. The pain was so intense that even with my eyes open, I could not see; and by feel and 'sense' I added first the urea, then began slowly decanting the remaining 'blasting oil' – it was 'oily' enough to earn that label – into a small jug. Only when I had finished the job and corked the jug did the headache begin to abate – and then, I spoke.
“Good Lord,” I gasped as I wobbled toward the cold-room. “That was awful.”
“Wait until you make the gelatin,” said the soft voice. “I'd use a wax-sealed crock to store the finished material, and keep it in the cold room until you're actually ready to use it.”
By the time my vision was 'passable' and the headache mostly gone, the pulp was not merely entirely dry, it had gained yet an added measure of friability; it was so crumbly that the slightest touch of the brass rod seemed to turn its small and irregular lumps into a grainy dust. I began 'scooping it up', then wondered, “how am I going to, uh, filter that stuff?” The obvious answer: some of the filter paper we had looted from the Abbey.
“I would watch that if I were you,” said the soft voice. “It will need care and quickness so as to not ignite while filtering the nitrated material.”
“Is no word for that material,” said the soft voice – “and with you making it, only your immediate presence will make it behave until it is fully neutralized.”
“What will it do?” I asked.
“Once you have some done, try mixing up a small batch of the gelatin and mix it with some of that 'treated' sawdust and Hans' 'purified' niter.” A pause, then, “in this instance, you want 'common' niter, not 'Reagente' grade.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
There was no answer save the soft voice of Sarah: “common niter, even when Hans works it over, is not the same stuff as Roesmaan's.” A brief pause, then, “I suspect they use uncommon methods for some of what they do, and uncommon sources for much of the balance.”
“Uh, ammonia compounds..?”
My thought was cut off instantly by faint and glowing letters starting to show on the wall of the fume hood, and as I noted the aged and stained sheet copper turning into a mottled shade of pale 'electric' blue, I wondered more – at least, until I actually read the sign.
“That stuff is really impure,” I thought. “A fair amount of a-ammonium n-n-nitrate... Ammonium nitrate...!”
“The calcium nitrate is the real kicker,” said the soft voice. I wondered as to the use of the last word, at least until the remaining part came to my ears. “It has a catalytic effect upon the other three nitrates, such that it isn't just an oxidizer when mixed with suitably nitrated compounds.”
“What does it do?” I asked.
“With what you're making?” said the soft voice. “It normally increases the power a decent amount.”
“I wondered about that,” said Sarah. “How would this be different?”
“About two and a half times as strong as is common for the drippiest grades of mining dynamite,” said the soft voice. “More, the detonation velocity is almost doubled compared to that material.”
Sarah looked at me with staring eyes and a dumbfounded expression, and I asked, “what is it normally?”
“Normal mining dynamite is pretty 'fast',” said the soft voice, “with the more 'oil' present, the 'faster' – with the stuff that 'leaves the mill bad' being the fastest. With you processing it, it will gain as much as gunpowder does when you turn it into dust.”
I heard a soft thud behind me, then a less-than-soft shriek from Sarah: “Hans fainted when he heard that.”
“Uh, why?” I asked. “Really strong stuff?” I then had a question.
“How strong will that gelatin be?”
“Stronger – and that by a substantial amount – than any non-fictional explosive where you came from,” said the soft voice, “and vastly stronger than any current product made in the five kingdoms.”
“At least it won't leave the mill bad, I hope,” I murmured.
Soft steps came closer, and in the corner of my eye I saw Hans. He was rubbing his head, and when he came to my side, he seemed to be 'vibrating' with fear. I was about to 'start' the nitration process itself: the thermometer was at its minimum level and the mixed acids were fuming crazily – and I wanted to sneeze until my nose fell off.
“This stuff will not be like that bad dynamite, will it?” asked Hans. “The stuff with the giant on the box?”
“Uh, no,” I murmured, as I used the tip of an old brass spoon to add a small amount of the whitish 'dust'.
In the blink of an eye, I could almost 'see' fumes starting, and amid recollections of gouting clouds of brick-red fumes I stirred rapidly. The silver line on the inside of the thermometer shot up like a rocket, and it came within the width of a thread to a previously hidden red line. Thankfully, the temperature went back down quickly with prayer and continued rapid stirring.
“That cellulose is too dry,” said the soft voice. “Turn it into a thoroughly damp paste, and then try adding about half of what you just did.” I wordlessly handed the container with the 'cellulose' to Hans, who brought it back a minute later looking like a species of grayish 'mud'. With trepidation, I used the tip of the spoon again, this time scooping up what looked like 'half' as much.
“What happened?” I murmured, as the temperature climbed but a few degrees, and that over a period of seconds. “Are these acids too 'hot'?”
“For celluloid, yes,” said the soft voice, “but if you want nitrogen percentages in excess of fifteen percent, then you not only need that particular mix, but also someone marked to make it. Otherwise, it's 'boom-time'.”
“What is this?” asked Hans, as I added another 'smidgen'.
“The fifth kingdom, Hans,” said Sarah. “That's when powder mills explode.” A pause, then, “I think Lukas might be able to speak more on the subject than I can, but I do know something of what they say down there.”
As I continued adding the 'mud' every minute or so, I tried to recall what I had read of guncotton. Everyone working with it spoke of its 'tricks', and the higher the percentage of nitrogen in the finished product the nastier it supposedly was...
“F-fifteen p-p-percent?” I gasped.
“That's not merely higher than where you came from, but higher than is usually possible here,” said the soft voice, “and the usual material has significantly more energy and brisance here as well.” The unspoken portion was obvious to me: nitrocellulose was 'mean' that way too.
“What is this word?” asked Hans. I presumed he spoke of 'brisance'.
“It means 'shattering power',” I said. “As in 'when the rock gets hard, you want a big stick'?”
Hans was now shaking like a leaf. He 'calmed himself' – then blurted, “that is on that dynamite that leaves the mill bad, is some writing like that.”
The additions of cellulose continued, one 'smidgen' per minute with continued stirring. Twice, I had to stop for a minute or so, once because of a particularly 'fierce' bit of cellulose, and the other because I had to add a bit more salt to the ice. It was going to water in a hurry, and as I resumed, Hans came with a bucket, a dipper and more ice.
“That stuff is bad for ice,” he said. “Now what is this stuff going to be like?”
“Similar to warm fourth kingdom grease for texture, I suspect,” I said. “Are there things, that, uh...”
Hans seemed to vanish like smoke, then seconds later, I heard faint noises above my head, much as if someone was rummaging in the kitchen; then seconds later, Hans came down hotfoot with something. I'd added perhaps half of the cellulose by then, and while I still had to be most careful, the level of care needed wasn't quite as great.
“This is for decorating cookies,” said Hans, “and though this is Anna's good one, I know where I can get more of them easy.” A pause, then “here is the snout-thing.”
I glanced to the side to see a long tapered conical thing with a flat end. The resemblance to a stereotypical 'witch-hat' made first for wondering, and then for barely suppressed laughter – until I saw how the thing had been made.
“Cast of bronze, lathe-turned, and then hot-tinned,” I thought. I then spoke: “the market?”
“That is the only place that has this type,” said Hans, “and when Anna got herself three of those things time before last that we went, I went and bought a few of them myself.”
“Uh, for what?” I asked.
“They work good for stubborn corks when the person won't drink uncorking medicine,” said Hans. He sounded not the least embarrassed. I wish I could say the same for how I felt. “You put the stuff in one of these things, get their clothes off, and give it to them from the other end.” Hans chuckled, then said, “I have wanted a bigger one for corked bulls, but the place that makes these only makes the one size.”
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Yes, but you had best have a privy handy if you use it that way,” said Hans. “Last time Anna dosed someone that way they did not wait for their clothing when they had to go.” A pause, then, “and they were in the privy for an entire turn of the glass. Anna had to hand them their clothing through the brown door.”
“I think that is because it gets watered down when it is taken by mouth,” said Sarah, “while that way puts it straight to the cork.” Sarah glanced over at Hans' work, then said, “does that stuff take uncorking medicine?”
“Yes, that and some other things,” said Hans. “Why?”
“Because there's at least one spot where it got burnt on that I can see,” said Sarah, “and there's something about burnt uncorking medicine...”
“Yes, a lot of soot,” said Hans. “Until he came, that wood treatment would go bad about every third time I did it, and the soot was as bad as anything.”
“Did you clean off the burnt places on your vessels?” asked Sarah pointedly. “Uncorking medicine is really strange that way – when it gets burnt on something, then it must be removed, and that thoroughly, or you will have...”
“Or what? Trouble?” I asked. I somehow suspected that was a part of the problem.
“Or nothing beyond the tamest chemicals will behave themselves while in that container,” said Sarah. “I learned that the hard way.”
“How was this?” asked Hans.
“I was making a species of ink, one that vanishes with time and handling,” said Sarah. “A certain lecturer said it did not exist, and I'd heard talk of it many times before hearing him, so I suspected he was wrong.”
“Yes, so that man needed time in his books,” said Hans. “So then what happens?”
“I had just about gotten it done,” said Sarah archly, “and I was looking for a place to put the finished stuff. I found this crock, cleaned it well – or, at least I thought I cleaned it well...” Sarah paused, then said, “I'd found it in my room when I came to the west school, and someone must have used it before me and left it behind.”
“Yes, so it was dirty, and you made it clean,” said Hans.
“But not clean enough,” said Sarah. “There was a little burnt uncorking medicine on one of the inside walls, and when I put that ink in that crock...”
The tension had been mounting by the second as Sarah spoke, so much so that I no longer noticed the burning of the acid fumes. My hands seemed to have minds of their own, for they both continued working: the right stirring with the thermometer, the left hand slowly adding the 'mud'. I had perhaps a teaspoon left, and it was going fast. The reaction had 'tamed down' considerably since the start.
“Yes, and what happened?” asked Hans innocently.
“I lost all of my hair and half my clothing when that stuff went up,” said Sarah, “and I was glad it only flamed for an instant – and I was even more glad that the crock did not burst.”
“Sounds like a good trap, then,” said Hans nonchalantly. A second later, though, the 'concept' got through his head – and he then changed his mood and tone utterly.
“That is the trouble,” he muttered. “This stuff has burnt uncorking medicine all over it, and nothing will come good if that is so.”
Sarah held her tongue, and I asked, “was that because of what you just heard, or because you just recalled something someone else told you?”
“I had forgotten what my grandfather said about that wood-treatment,” said Hans, “and while his was decent, I did some work to his recipe so it came out better. I thought my making it better had made it touchy to make, so I lived with the soot and the fires and the stink, as chemicals are like that. Now I know better.”
There was more to what Hans had said than he had spoken, and I kept this matter to myself. The nitration aspect of nitrocellulose was coming to an end; and the truly 'touchy' portion of the process was to come shortly. I then had a question.
“If that is her good cookie decorator,” I asked softly, “then why does she have three of them?”
“You have not decorated cookies much,” said Hans, “but she has, and she needs at least three of those things then. There is one of those things for each color she wants to use.”
“I've never seen...”
“She does those things for Harvest Day,” said Hans, “and you were not here then.”
“Cookies?” I asked.
“Hers are like Kuchen, only smaller and tougher,” said Hans. “The only reason I will eat them over Kuchen is that they have honey in them.”
“Tougher?” I asked. I had but three more 'smidgens' of 'mud' left to add, and then I would need to 'drown' the reaction in ice-water to 'stop' it.
“They are almost like bad fry-breads,” said Hans, “and if they were much tougher than they usually are, I would wonder if Anna wanted to pull teeth.”
Sarah barely suppressed a giggle, then as I heard steps behind me, I wondered just how I could drown the reaction. Beyond 'rain water with some ice in it', I wasn't certain, at least until the shadow at my right suddenly 'vanished' – and I turned to my right to see Sarah with a large crock part-filled with water clustered with chunks of ice.
“I was seeing how that stuff was steaming, and how you're almost ready to drown it,” she said. “I hope this will help.”
“It will, dear,” I said. “Thank you.” I then added the last 'smidgen'.
I would need to keep stirring for another five minutes, or so I guessed; but within seconds, I knew five minutes was far too long. I'd need to dump it in less than thirty seconds.
“No,” I thought, as I put down my thermometer and lifted up the 'steaming' crock. The steam was beginning to go 'orange' in a strange fashion, and I wasn't sure if it was physical or otherwise. “To hell with maximum yields – I'm dumping this thing now!”
I poured the crock's contents into the ice water, and as I moved away to rinse out the crock, a faint wisp of reddish fumes came from the crock. I did not hesitate. The crock went in the nearest 'emergency' bucket, and I gasped, “what..?”
“I told you that stuff was mean,” said the soft voice. “You adverted disaster twice in less than thirty seconds.”
“Uh, how?” I asked. I'd never done nitrocellulose before. I then turned to see Hans, who was shaking like a leaf, and Sarah...
“Where did she go?” I asked.
“I think she went into the cornfield,” said Hans. “Those are the bad fumes that stuff makes.”
“That color?” I asked. I had expected a more brownish tint. “Aren't they, uh, more brownish?”
“I panicked when I saw those,” squeaked Sarah's voice from the stairs. “I've never seen them that color before.”
“But you've heard of them, haven't you?” I asked.
“Yes, down in the fifth kingdom,” said Sarah. “That color means you'd best have done all of your prayers, as you're about to be scattered.”
“Yes, and we are still here,” said Hans. “That was an empty crock...”
“Which had enough residue remaining inside it to do a very passable witch-jug imitation,” said the soft voice. “When you make up that gelatin, I suggest most strongly that you try out a small amount diluted with treated sawdust and niter in the cornfield out back to learn just what you have.”
“How much was that?” I gasped. I thought I had poured all of the product into the ice-water.
“Not very much at all,” said the soft voice. “It's 'mean' for power, also.”
The sense of 'hurry' and of 'danger' I felt was such that as I rushed to find the 'filter paper', Sarah yelled, “what else?”
“A large beaker for boiling, Roesmaan's salaterus, a smaller beaker for rinse with salaterus...” I had found the paper, and as I moved back toward the 'fuming' ice-crock, I saw Hans setting up the funnel I needed. I put the paper in, and as I lifted the icy crock, Sarah set another one like it under the funnel. As I began pouring, I said, “once I finish this, dump some ice-water in here, then after I empty it onto that stuff that's showing there...”
Hans was looking at the scene in shocked horror; he was frozen by terror. There was no time for for contemplation; I had to act.
“Put the salaterus-water into this crock here,” I said. I was almost done pouring. “Hans, get ready to remove that acid-water, and Sarah, put that other crock under the instant he does.” An instant's pause; I finished pouring, Sarah poured some ice-water in my crock. A quick swish-around, then I poured it onto the nitrocellulose.
“Move the crock there, Hans,” I squeaked.
The instant the crock was gone, Sarah moved another in its place, while I reached for the beaker of salaterus-water. It all went in the 'nitrator', and as it began foaming, I poured it onto the nitrocellulose. I then reached for the jug of rainwater.
“As soon as I wash this again with this,” I said, “I'm putting that entire thing in that beaker. We need to boil it for a while – gentle boil, and a lot of stirring...”
“And you had best do that,” said Hans. “Now how is it you know when it is safe?”
“Uh, no fizzing?” I asked.
“Two turns of the glass after it stops fizzing entirely,” said the soft voice. “Remember, leave it under water until it's ready to be mixed with the blasting oil – and then, don't waste time.”
A dash of the rainwater, then quickly I picked up the sopping-wet filter paper and dumped the whole thing in the beaker of salaterus-water, which then foamed slightly. It continued doing so while I stirred and Sarah lit the heating lamp under it, and while I continued stirring, Hans cleaned up my 'mess'.
“You'll want that second batch of nitro to start once that stuff is done,” said the soft voice, “and you'll need to make perhaps two or three more such batches before you do the Abbey.”
“Uh, why so many?” I asked.
“Testing, witch-disposal – both that one town and the hall, at the least – large irate reptiles, larger-yet Desmonds, and some 'toys' for Hans,” said the soft voice. “He might not enjoy their headaches much, but he will enjoy hearing of what they do when they are used.”
“What is this of toys?” asked Hans. The beaker was just starting to steam, while its bubbling continued. I was glad it wasn't 'foaming at the mouth'.
“Uh, small bombs that make the nastiest jugs seem tame for power?” I asked. “Rigging devices the size of a smaller book that turn entire Norden-boats into kindling?”
“Yes, and we have no such books,” said Hans. “All of those things are enough to need both hands and close and careful carrying, and me to carry them for Anna should she want one.”
“I think he means the size of the smaller ledgers,” said Sarah. “I've seen at least one of those in his things.”
Hans came to my side, then asked, “now why is that paper in there?”
“I was told seconds counted,” I said. “Why, is it bad?”
Hans thought so, and fished it out with tongs. He began walking across the lab, but as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he broke into a run – and as his run became frantic and his steps faster yet, his running abruptly stopped with a muffled thump, followed a second later by an anguished yell from Anna that rang louder than the still-echoing noise of the explosion.
“Hans! You've sooted up the kitchen!”
Sarah looked at me and hunched her shoulders, then said, “he must be of a mind for soot.”
“At least it did not...” My beaker's contents resembled a well-stirred 'winter wonderland', complete with 'fog' and thick drifting clouds of 'snow', and with the heating lamp turned down low and constant stirring, the fog slowly cleared with the passing of what seemed half an hour. Only then – the fizzing had stopped, and the 'fog' was nearly gone – did I hear steps behind me, followed by Hans' voice. I needed to boil the nitrocellulose for at least another hour.
“That stuff was like that one thing I made for Anna, only it needed no spark,” said Hans.
“No, Hans,” said Sarah sharply. “I saw it start to smoke about halfway between here and the bottom of the stairs.”
“S-smoke?” I asked.
“Reddish-brown,” said Sarah, “and that noise we heard was him being tossed when it exploded.”
I glanced at Hans, and nearly fainted. Not merely did he have traces of soot here and there still, but his previously-neat and somewhat longish hair – at least, longish for the area; it was but an inch or two shorter than Sarah's – was now mostly gone to charred ragged stubble; and where that was absent, there were shiny reddened patches of bare skin on his head. His clothing was not what I recalled him wearing.
“Did it get your clothing?” asked Sarah pointedly.
Hans did not respond; nor did he need to, for not ten seconds later steps came from the stairwell and Anna 'announced herself'.
“At least we have the money to replace what he was wearing,” said Anna. “Now what was that thing?”
“A piece of filter-paper,” said Hans. “If it were not so touchy, I would want it for traps.” Hans paused, then said, “and what we have been doing down here today is as touchy as anything.”
“You mean, 'what he's been doing',” said Anna. “I can smell something like blasting oil, and another thing that reminds me...” A pause, then, “I'm not sure what this other smell is, but it's worse.”
“How so?” asked Sarah.
“I'm not really sure,” said Anna. “Whatever he had, it thumped the kitchen good, and me with it, and if that was a taste of the pie, I'm not sure if I'm inclined toward the meal.”
I said nothing; I had stirring to do, and I needed to neither flag in my efforts nor give my attention to anything else – for not merely did I need to pay attention to the liquid level, I had to also periodically add small amounts of salaterus, and as the hourglass turned over for the second portion, pinches of 'urea' crystals on a regular basis. Each such addition caused brief spurts of 'foam' that boiled off along with the wisps of steam from the steady boil.
“It will need to cease doing so entirely before it is truly 'safe', said the soft voice, “and in order to make it keep for 'long periods', you would need equipment and chemicals you currently do not have access to.”
“And if I had them?” I asked.
“This process, while still somewhat dangerous, would be almost 'routine',” said the soft voice. “More, it would not require your close-by presence or minute-by-minute attention.”
“That is good, then,” said Hans.
“Yes, for this stuff,” I murmured. “There will be other things that will be just as difficult and dangerous as this.”
“And far more powerful as well,” said the soft voice. “Imagine, if you will, a chemical explosive sufficiently powerful that a dozen or so larger examples of Hans' jugs, if filled with that material, could flatten most of the first kingdom house.”
“N-nuclear...” I gasped.
“No, not quite, even if the results would be all-too-similar,” said the soft voice. “It will come in handy in the future.”
“Uh, how?” I asked.
“Toss something a bit bigger than the size of a ball for a roer into one of those bad Public Houses,” said the soft voice, “and then color it 'gone' when it detonates.”
“What is this?” asked Hans.
“Something one can easily hide in the palm of one's hand that would wreck a place like the hall,” said Sarah. “If I could get something like that, I'd borrow a sling and do that place myself, and that as soon as I could manage it.”
“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “It would not 'wreck' the hall.”
“Then what would it do?” asked Sarah.
“It would destroy it utterly,” said the soft voice, “much as if it were a dozen entire boxes of that dynamite that Hans has nightmares about – that stuff that 'leaves the mill bad'.”
“That...” Hans was now speechless, and I was as well, at least for a few seconds until I recalled just what I was stirring.
“Needs a bit more of that salaterus,” I thought. “Oh, a little more water as well, as it's boiled down some.”
The foam lessened with each further addition of urea as well, and at the end of the the time of boiling, I added three final pinches of urea, two of salaterus, and a small amount of rainwater. The winter-wonderland was gone – and it had been replaced by a desert, snow-white in its barrenness, and its drifts were reminiscent of soft waves of ashes covering the crumbling remains of well-charred bones.
I left the desert behind me, feeling exhausted, and as I followed the other two up the stairs, the odors of cooking and 'home' seemed to revive me. It felt like sundown, but it only turned out to be lunchtime – a lunch of near-silence amid black-stained mottled gray walls and blacker-still patches that grew steadily larger and darker near the stairwell heading down into the basement – and at the junction of the stairs leading to the basement and the main floor, the walls were the color of nightmares and darkness convolved.
Anna would be cleaning for quite some time, or so I suspected.
“It will not take me that long,” muttered Anna when I softly spoke of the matter. She paused, then said, “I cannot have a kitchen that looks like a witch-hole!”
“As they will, uh...” I paused, for my first thought was of burn-piles – and within less than a second, I knew a vastly greater matter: a 'clean' house was a matter of both personal pride and great labor among most women in the area, and while Hans' business was known – and known well, both for its products and its 'accidents' – it was not thought much of an excuse for Anna to be the wife of a chemist.
She still needed to have the kitchen looking 'as clean as lightning' – or so the local saying went – and that consistently. The demands upon her time of medical practice were not considered, chiefly as most people were ignorant of the extent of those demands; and Roos being a 'farming' community, most of the community's women did little beyond cook and clean when they weren't urgently needed in the fields.
“Is that why she puts so much time into knitting?” I thought. “Community standards? Women are expected to knit things?”
While there was no answer, that was the best I could do between mouthfuls of bread, beer, and soup, and when I went back down into the basement 'alone' – Hans had something he needed to do at the Public House, and Sarah went with him – I wondered more.
At least until I recalled the need to make more 'nitro'.
“But before that, I need to clean Hans' glassware,” I thought, as I fetched the aquavit. I suspected it would 'clean' things passably.
It proved to do far more than that: the amount of 'dirt' and 'grime' that came off of the reaction vessels amid the burgeoning eye-watering fumes was astonishing, and as I cleaned them a second time – some of the spots I'd found were a bit stubborn, and their dissolving had left a noticeable film over much of the glassware – I heard steps coming downward upon the stairs. I turned to see Anna, and as she walked among the shelves and tables, she seemed to be smelling something, at least until she came to my side. I then noticed her state of 'cleanliness'.
“I'll want a bath shortly,” she said. Thankfully, she did not sound unduly irritated. “I forgot how much work it was to clean soot off of walls.”
“Is it true that most women in the area knit?” I asked.
Anna nodded, then said, “then again, they have the time for it.”
“They what?” I gasped.
“If what your husband does is farm,” said Anna, “which is what about half of the people in town do entirely and many of the rest to some degree, then your primary job is keeping those men and boys out in the fields as much as possible.” A pause, then, “and that means cooking and cleaning is most of what girls and women do.”
“And gossip,” I said. “Cooking... They don't try your meals, do they?”
“No, because many people aren't much better at cooking than you are,” said Anna.
“My cooking?” I gasped.
“I misjudged you that way,” said Anna. “Until you took that trip, I thought your cooking was as bad as anyone's, except perhaps Sarah and a few others.” A pause, then, “what those two older men told me said otherwise.”
“That I'm worse than you first thought?” I asked.
“I suspect you could prepare a fair number of edible meals,” said Anna, “at least, edible for most people.” Another brief pause. “Lukas spoke of your tripes being unusually inclined toward griping, and since you came back, I've seen that as well.”
“Meaning I can cook,” I muttered, “but I'm not particularly inclined toward my cooking.”
“That especially,” said Anna. “I've had to spice your meals differently from what everyone else in the house eats, and Sarah has spoken of such troubles being common with her relatives as well – and any more, I wonder about her.”
“Is she prone to digestive troubles?” I asked, as I recalled her reaction to Cuew and her talk about vlai.
“She might well be,” said Anna, “but I know what she has told me about her relatives.”
“Most of them live in the potato country, correct?” I asked. “Where the meals are especially bland.”
Anna nodded, then said, “I've been asking about how they do their food, in fact.”
Another pause, during which time Anna picked up one of the pieces of glassware, then shook her head before speaking.
“Hans might be passable for cleaning walls,” said Anna, “but I have to watch him close when he does what I need for medicine.” A brief pause, then, “I wish he did this good of a job.”
“At least he can do walls,” I muttered. “I'm likely to just smear the mess around.”
“If they take much longer for me,” said Anna, “you might wish to try cleaning them. I've wondered about something ever since you came back, and I've wanted to try it out.”
“What?” I asked.
“Perhaps you could speak to the walls?” asked Anna.
I nervously shook my head, then said, “Anna, if I think about some things...”
A subtle vibration seemed to take hold of the upper household; then, with the slow-passing seconds, it increased in frequency, amplitude, and territory. For some reason, Anna seemed oblivious, or so I thought until she turned to me with stark-staring eyes open to their very limits, and a mouth wider yet. She was trying to scream, and could not; and as I seemed to turn in place, I could 'feel' a soft and rushing wind driving soot and 'filth' from the place. I closed my eyes, blinked as if in a dream, then opened them again...
And clamped them closed in a great hurry, as the room I was in was filled with swift rushing dust-and-soot-laden wind that was heading in a hurry for the fume hood amid soft muted rumbles of thunder.
As the rumbling noise died away, I once more opened my eyes, and looked at the glassware. It was now entirely clean, so much so that I knew a third cleaning would be unneeded; and when I looked for Anna, she had left my side. I set down the glass tube I had been holding carefully, and with fear in my heart and thundering rumbles still echoing in my ears, I moved up the stairs – to then arrive in a kitchen at once familiar and yet utterly unlike the place I had last seen.
“What did you do?” squeaked Anna as she pointed to the walls, each inch of them blazing whiteness so 'pure' it seemed to burn my eyes. “Not even Esther can get a house this clean, not even if she's well!”
“Esther?” I asked. I had only now noticed the pronunciation of Esther's name, and it was not 'es-ter'. Instead, it was 'es-THUR' – with the 'th' sound clearly emphasized, and the second syllable accented, unlike most words in the common language.
“Yes, Esther,” said Anna. Again, I heard 'es-THUR'. “She does that regularly so as to have money – and the way that family is, they need it.”
“Her being sick?” I asked.
“That is but a small part of it,” said Anna. “Then, there is what Paul does in his basement, and then clothing for three small children, and then hiring two people to help out during planting and harvest.” A pause, then, “between what Paul sells and what she does, they have enough, but no more.”
“Es-thur?” I asked. “Not 'es-ter?”
“The 'h' sound is never silent,” said Anna, “save in a very few cases. I've only heard two of them in my whole life, and both of those men were lecturers at the west school.” Anna seemed to think, then said, “always say all of the letters in a word, and you will seldom be wrong in your speaking.”
“Your mother?” I asked.
“Every teacher I had in school said that,” said Anna, “and most of them said it daily, if not more often yet.”
“And the accent?” I asked.
“That's one of the few names which isn't hard on the first part,” said Anna. “Another thing they said daily was 'most words are hard upon their first portions, and softer upon their remainders'.” A brief pause, then, “and those different must be put to mind regularly, should you need to speak them.”
“Is that why people have so much trouble speaking unfamiliar words?” I asked.
“I'm not certain,” said Anna. “I think it's more than just being taught what most learn in those schools, as my journals speak of certain sounds being very difficult to speak unless the person is...”
“Marked, or inclined toward witchcraft, or an actual witch,” I said. “That was a test used just after the Curse...” I paused, then said in a hard-edged voice, almost as if I were spitting the word rather than speaking: “shibboleth.”
“What did you say?” asked Anna.
“A similar test in the book,” I said. “It involved that word I just said, and those who spoke it wrongly were to be killed on the spot – and that test inspired those here.”
“Correct as to source, wrong as to those implementing it,” said the soft voice, “and that test dates from before the war, not after the Curse.”
“Who did it then?” I asked. “Witches?”
There was no answer to my question, at least from that source; but when I spoke of the matter later while making up the second batch of nitro, Sarah supplied a partial one.
“There is at least one tapestry that speaks of the witches seeking out those marked,” said Sarah, “and putting all of their people to the test regularly by long questioning was one of the ways used.”
“Uh, their pronunciation?” I asked. There was no answer, at least until I looked at Sarah – whose eyes were now saucers, and her mouth open to form an 'O'. She gasped, then squeaked, “I never could figure out what they were questioning them about, and now you spoke the answer!”
“Did you have to conceal your ability that way?” I asked.
“Some, when I was not in the west school or areas near it,” said Sarah. “The only other safe place was when I was with my relatives in the potato country.” A brief pause, then, “it was awful for my cousin, though.”
“Why was it 'awful'?” I asked.
“I've only met a few people who could open a Gustaaf and speak every word, no matter what it was,” said Sarah, “and my cousin is one of those people.”
“And some of the others?” I asked. “Lecturers?”
“Yes, some few that most disliked,” said Sarah. “They seldom stayed long, at least at the west school.”
“Because, uh, of something you or someone else did?” I asked.
Sarah nodded slowly, then said, “especially this one particular lecturer who seldom spoke long on his mandated subject.”
“What did he usually speak of?” I asked.
“The habits and natures of rats,” said Sarah. “Everyone called him the 'rat-man', and no one that I knew was sad to see him gone.”
“Who is this?” asked the voice of Hans from behind me.
“The rat-man,” said Sarah. “He was the worst lecturer I ever had, and I learned nothing from him.”
“How is this, if he spoke of rats?” asked Hans. “Those things are trouble down that way.”
“His talk made little sense, even when he spoke of rats,” said Sarah, “and while it seemed to make sense enough when I was writing my notes in session, when I went back to read them later so as to study, it was as if I'd gotten into the Geneva for understanding.”
“Have you gotten into the Geneva?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Sarah sorrowfully. “Once.”
“And what happened to you?”
“I heartily wished I had not done so,” said Sarah, “and that was when I was not spewing at both ends.”
As I dumped the nitro-acid mixture into the ice-water, Hans was close-by watching intently; and when I was stirring the salted mix a short while later, he said, “you could easily make that stuff by the jugful.”
For a moment, I wondered as to why we would wish to make so much 'migraine-inducer' at one time, at least until Sarah's sharp outburst.
“That way leads to explosions with little or no warning, Hans.” A pause, then, “what has made you so greedy? Do you wish to sup with Brimstone?”
Hans had no answer to Sarah's question, though I suspected I would soon 'concoct' a cure for his 'greed'. With the second batch of nitro 'setting' on a sturdy table where it was out of the way, I thought to make up the 'sample' of gelatin mentioned earlier in the day.
“I'll need a small bowl,” I thought, “and a wooden spatula, and that last batch of nitro, and...”
My thoughts drove my actions; and when I was 'ready', Hans was still watching me as if I were a mouse and he a ravenously-hungry cat of especially predatory inclination. I prayed silently, then opened the crock containing the nitro.
The instant crushing headache brought tears to my eyes, and I slowly ladled a small spoonful into the bowl. With the lid back on, Hans – or so I thought – removed the crock; and though the headache was less, it was still horrible. I could hear someone speaking – possibly Anna, though I was not certain – somewhere up above my head; and as I reached for the beaker of nitrocellulose, I thought, “how much do I want to add, and how do I get it?”
“I would use a glass tube,” said the soft voice of Sarah to my left. She sounded as if in great pain, and when I looked through watering eyes, I noted hers to be slitted and running with tears. I then looked for Hans, and did not see him.
“Where did he go?” I whispered.
“Hans!” yelled Anna's voice. “What are you doing?”
“He's not in the house,” I mumbled, as I used the glass tube to 'pick up' some of the fluffy white nitrocellulose. With my thumb over the end of the tube I was holding, I drew it up slowly, then moved with aching slowness amid a steadily increasing pain growing between my ears.
I then let the 'snow' drop, and caught the water portion before it hit the nitro – and as I returned the tube, I watched the snow slowly sink into the brilliant yellow 'syrup'.
And as it did, the headache increased exponentially, so much so that it was all I could do to stir the stuff carefully and siphon off the droplets of water that showed.
“L-looks like lemon meringue,” I thought, as I put in first one small scoop of the dried 'cellulose', then two scoops of 'purified niter'. I looked to the side, and saw that Sarah was gone also. I was the sole person in the room.
“And now I m-must stir,” I thought. Speech hurt too much, and my eyes were all but blind with them wide open. “I hope this headache gets better sometime soon.”
“Mix, mix,” rang the ghostly thoughts in my mind, and as I worked with the small carved spatula and added further small doses of 'niter' and 'cellulose', the material looked less and less like lemon meringue.
And more like vlai.
With this growing change, the headache lessened steadily, and when steps came softly upon the stairs, I noted the following: a soft yet unusually firm 'custard' feel, unbelievable stickiness, a distinct yet dilute yellow-white color – just like vlai – and as I added a final dose of salaterus and urea, a potent 'chemical' odor whose nature I could not describe.
“What are you doing?” whispered Anna.
“M-making an experiment,” I softly murmured. My speech was mangled by gritted teeth and a constricted throat.
“That looks like vlai,” said Anna. “It smells strange. What is it?”
“Uh, an explosive,” I said. “C-can you find me a rag? I know where I've got some caps and fuse.”
While Anna was able to find the rag readily, I laid it by the bowl and followed her upstairs. I needed a breather, and I suspected she needed one also.
“Sarah lit three candles in that chimney before she went upstairs,” said Anna, “and Hans left the house somehow. I've no idea where he is.”
“The Public House?” I asked.
Anna looked at me strangely, then said, “why?”
“The headache, Anna,” said Sarah from the upstairs stairway. “That blasting oil was bad enough, but when he put that other stuff to it, I went blind instantly and had to feel my way out of the basement. I could only start to see again after I found my bed.”
“L-light the candles?” I asked.
“I did that while you were getting ready,” said Sarah. “Hans went to the Public House, like he said he would, and he was speaking of wanting Geneva when he left.”
Anna looked at Sarah, then at me, then shook her head. “Geneva does not help headaches. My journals say that, and Katje said much the same.”
“He does not know that,” I said. My own headache was much better. “I don't much fancy going back down into the basement, at least...”
“The headache will be severe but endurable now,” said the soft voice. “The undiluted gelatin, especially well-mixed and 'seasoned'...”
“Seasoned?” I asked.
“It's best to let it set in the cold-room for a day or two after mixing,” said the soft voice.“What you did up will get Hans' attention in a hurry when you try it out back.”
“Uh, any bad sections of ground?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, then said, “yes, there's one near the other end of town.” A pause, then, “how big will this thing be?”
While I had no good answer for Sarah then, she watched me as I piled as much of the sticky yellow mass into the center of the rag while trying to form a 'line', then used another rag to wipe the spatula and bowl clean. The first rag was rolled up, the second wrapped around it, and a third wrapped around the first two. This made for Sarah's commenting, and I thought her words strange.
“That reminds me of a weed-bundle,” she said.
“S-Sam Brumm?” I asked, as I finished 'rolling' the 'cigar'. “I have caps and fuse in my desk upstairs.” A pause, then, “can you tie this thing up with string?”
While Sarah was engaged thusly, I found both fuse and caps; and as I was about to cut the fuse, I wondered as to a suitable length. Three feet seemed wasteful, as this was the 'good' fuse and resupply would be doubtful – while one foot...
“No good 'saving' fuse if we end up dead,” I thought, as I cut three feet. I'd heard that was the 'standard' length for dynamite charges where I came from.
“Quarrymen and miners commonly use similar lengths of fuse,” said the soft voice, “and giving yourself enough 'time' is always a wise idea.”
“Might burn fast, too,” I thought. “I know we're going to need as much good fuse as we can get, though.”
“More will arrive from that store before you leave on the trip,” said the soft voice. “It might not be ordered now, but it will be very soon – in fact, as soon as the news gets out.”
“N-news?” I asked.
“The 'bang' heard throughout the countryside,” said the soft voice. “It might not be as spectacular as when 'the sun rose at night' over the walls of the Swartsburg, but it will get people's attention.”
Sarah and I went out of the fold with our tools of destruction secreted in a pair of cloth bags tied with string. It was roughly midafternoon, about the usual quitting time for most people who 'labored'; and the fields, while barren of people, were not barren of greenery. Every peaked furrow-top had a long row of stubby green 'spikes' showing, and as we passed house after house along the 'back trail', I wondered which of the houses would need clearing, and when would I have the time to do so.
“It's good the place is no longer run to suit the witches,” said Sarah.
“Supplicants, perhaps?” I asked.
“I doubt there are any people left in town that are inclined that way,” said Sarah. “Since I had trouble with that one witch, I know at least two houses in town had those living in them leave between one day and the next.”
“Meaning those living in town who are interested in the things of witchdom are either not that interested, or are hiding it well,” I murmured. “I wonder if this thing will flush more of them.”
“It might,” said Sarah. “I know they spy upon us.”
“Uh, there?” I asked, as I pointed at a copse some two hundred yards past the end of the furthest field to our left.
“I think they are staying further away than that,” said Sarah. “A fair number of witches have far-seers, so they might be using those to watch us.”
“Telescopes?” I asked.
“I might know what that word means,” said Sarah, “but I've only heard three people speak it as clearly, and one of them was my cousin.”
“Uh, who else?” I asked.
“Esther,” whispered Sarah. She had reached up to speak directly into my ear. “The third person ended on a burn-pile during my fifth year at the west school.”
“Was he a...”
“He was,” said Sarah. “He showed himself fully blackened and in hunting clothing, and he was shot to rags before I could count to three.”
“You s-saw?” I asked.
Sarah nodded, then said, “I gave him both barrels, also.”
“B-both barrels?” I gasped. “What, did you shoot that wretch?”
“I did,” said Sarah. “He came for me with a knife, and almost got me.”
“H-hard to kill?” I asked.
“No, just well-hidden and quite sudden,” said Sarah, “and my mind was elsewhere, as is the usual for a less-wealthy student trying to find a good price on some much-needed ledgers.” A pause, then, “he yelled what I now know as a curse, then came out of hiding, and had I not jumped, he would have poked me with his knife. As it was, I shot him while sitting on the road at a distance of three paces.”
“And then?” I asked.
“That curse he yelled must have gotten every shopkeeper that heard it onto him,” said Sarah, “for as I fired my second barrel into his gut, the entire street went smoky with gunfire. I tossed my gun and dived for the cobbles, and it was a near thing for me.” A brief pause, then, “and I needed to see Liza afterward, as I'd gotten some lead from those shopkeepers.”
“Where did your first barrel hit?” I asked.
“I centered his chest,” said Sarah, “but my shot was poor and my powder wasn't very good, so he seemed to ignore it.”
“Hence his gut?” I asked.
“That takes longer to kill,” said Sarah, “but it is not as readily ignored as a chest-shot.” A pause, then, “that wretch ignored it just the same.”
“Uh, perhaps... Oh, there – over there. Is that it?”
Sarah looked, then said, “I think so. We had best check, but I think that's another spot that no one thinks to plow.”
“Filled with rocks, no doubt,” I muttered. I had brought one of the 'bad knives' that had come back from the trip in lieu of a spade. “I wonder if this was Brumm's?”
“Sepp has that one now,” said Sarah, “and he has said it works passably for sinkholes.” A pause, then, “that one looks to be like it for size and shape, if not much else.”
“Uh, Brumm's knife was old, and...”
“It has decent steel, also,” said Sarah. “Sepp let Andreas test it after you blackened its metal.”
“Decent as in..?”
“It is as hard as the better wrenches made today,” said Sarah.
“F-full polish?” I asked.
“From Machalaat Brothers,” said Sarah. “Only the Heinrich works does much better today, at least for wrenches – and they seldom sell those they make, unlike the place I first spoke of.”
“I had to work most of mine over,” I said. “They were softer than I liked, and needed a fair amount of work to clean up.”
“I have heard that is common to do, actually,” said Sarah, as she left the path and began walking down a narrow path toward the spot in question. No one had gone closer than ten feet to this place with a plow, and its hard-packed soil seemed to speak of not merely of a profusion of 'rocks', but a particularly big example 'holding the territory'.
“How would they normally remove a big rock?” I asked, as Sarah turned and began crossing the rows. The place was easily twenty feet from the path.
“That depends on what they have to remove it,” said Sarah. “Up here, they either leave them be and work around them, or if they can get a bull-train and chains proof against the bulls, they would try its removal.”
“B-bull-train?” I asked.
“That is when there is more than one yoke of them,” said Sarah, “and the chain must be stout indeed to stand up to two or three yoke of those things.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“You've never seen those work, have you?” said Sarah. “They're mentioned in those tales, though I wondered about some of the descriptions until I came up here to remain.” A pause, during which Sarah stopped at the edge of the unplowed space, then said, “I saw one of those animals pull out a tree as big around as my waist.”
“Did they dig..?”
“No, they didn't,” said Sarah. “I think this place here is where we might want our hole, as it is right on top of a large rock.”
Digging with the knife proved Sarah right, as I found the rock to be roughly about an inch deeper than the overall length of the knife. While the soil was friable enough for 'plowing', poking with the blade established the rock as easily being three feet across, if not more.
“How deep do plows dig?” I asked.
“Deep enough that this rock would make a lot of business for the shop if they tried plowing this area,” said Sarah. “You've done plows, haven't you?”
“Uh, once I helped with one,” I said. “I hope it's doing well.”
“I would be surprised if it is not,” said Sarah, “especially if it is one that was spoken of as using fat for a quench.”
“I-it was,” I gasped, as I planted the 'cigar'. I put it on top of the rock, and as I held it vertical, Sarah moved the dirt back in around it and tamped it with the butt of the knife. “Why, has anyone spoken of it?”
“I suspect a good many farmers would like their plows done as well,” said Sarah, “as that one has taken rocks that would break normal plows.”
“Taken?” I asked.
“Yes, taken,” said Sarah. “He's cleared several bad fields with his bulls, and would have cleared more of them except for his chains parting.”
“C-chains?” I asked.
“The test of a good chain,” intoned Sarah, “is to put a yoke of common bulls upon one end, and a stiff and sturdy plow upon the other, and then plow a field filled with rocks. If the chain stretches but the width of a finger, the chain is bull-proved.”
“And if it stretches more?” I asked.
“The lecturer implied that chain was best scrapped as being weak,” said Sarah. “A bull-proved chain is worth thrice the price of a chain unproved.” Sarah sounded as if reciting from memory – at least until she said, “there, that looks likely.”
“Like w-what?” I asked.
“Were there no fuse,” she said, “and that bundle smaller, I would say we had planted a corn-seed.” A brief pause, then, “I have the matches and a striker. Do you want to light the fuse?”
I was afraid to, but did not speak of my fear. I held up the fuse for Sarah, who then lit the match while sheltering it with her hand. A touch of the flame to the end of the fuse, and the hissing spit of smoke told me enough.
“We'd best be leaving,” I thought, as I deliberately walked between the rows toward the path. Sarah was hot on my heels, then as I struck the path, she asked, “where did you learn it was unwise to run when setting a blast?”
“Uh, I read it somewhere,” I said. “We'd best get well clear of that thing, as I don't know of any, uh, bunkers in the area.”
“Behind that wall, there,” said Sarah. “No one lives there now.”
The two of us 'took shelter' behind the wall as the fuse continued its smoky travel. I was glad it burned slowly, for it still had half its length to burn by the time we had taken cover. The distance might have been fifty yards, yet for some reason, I was most glad of the thickness of the stone wall. We wanted something that would stop flying rocks. Sarah looked at me, then peeked up.
“Another foot to go,” she said, as she ducked back down. “How strong do you think it will be?”
“I'm not sure,” I said, as I peeked up to look. The fuse was now burning up off of the ground and preparing to head down into the hole where I buried the thing. “I'm not daring to look at that thing when it goes.”
“That's why I thought to get behind...”
Time seemed to be slowing.
“This wall. It should stop the rocks...”
The fuse went underground. It was if I could see the thing at arm's length. But a few inches left. I began counting, this done silently, and in reverse order. “Ten, nine, eight...”
“I hope that thing wakes...”
Sarah's voice was usurped by the loudness of my mind as the numbers counted down and the fuse's fire began to dig into the cap. I was about to think the word 'one' when I felt a tremor beneath my feet...
And a sudden brilliant flash of white actinic light seemed to blot out the sky and the sun as a noise painfully sharp and intense all but imploded our eardrums. As the 'electric-sounding' roar echoed off the houses and in my mind, I looked up to see rocks flying high into the air and heading westward. Sarah looked up, yelled – and then ran like a frightened hare.
I ran after her, and as I reached the buggy-way of the house in question, sharp crackling noises began pounding above our heads – and by the time we were inside the place, the crackling noises became a steady rattling patter of 'throw-rock'.
“What was that?” I gasped. My ears were ringing almost as bad as when the Swartsburg went to hell around me.
“I am not sure,” said Sarah. She sounded spooked. “That was not dynamite.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
Before Sarah could speak, someone yelled – and then from near the Public House, a door 'slammed', then another door banged like a gunshot, then someone began firing an obvious revolver. I burst out of the front door of the buggy-way to see a trio of black-dressed 'beings' running at full speed up the road – and as I watched, first one stoop to our front billowed smoke, then another, then two more. A witch stumbled, fell; his two mates continued, even as more stoops became smoky and the booming of muskets became an unsteady rumbling.
At fifty yards, I drew my pistol, and as I began to cock the hammer, I noted Sarah had hers out as well. “On my count,” she said. “Forty.... Thirty...”
At twenty paces, the lead-witch of the two seemed to acquire a sudden limp, and his partner left him behind. I could almost feel the well-hid mules they had secreted nearby, and when Sarah startled me by yelling 'Now', I acted unthinking.
My first shot struck the lead witch an inch below his ear, and as that man began to 'tumble', the limping witch suddenly seemed to freeze in mid-stride – and then flung himself, arms and legs flying crazily, to then sprawl clumsily upon the ground amid a steady and growing gunfire from both our right and left that raised dust-spots in the road about both black-dressed bodies.
I drew back into the buggy-way with one hand upon Sarah's shoulder, and as the booms and roars of musketry finally died out, I muttered, “did you shoot that witch?”
“I know at least one of my balls hit him in the side,” said Sarah, “but I know I wasn't the only one to put lead in him.” A brief pause, then, “I saw...”
Sarah's speech ceased as the townspeople began to come from their stoops, all of them wary and most carrying loaded guns. Those without firearms tended to carry either axes or what looked like sturdy versions of hay-forks, while at least one person had a club...
A club at least three feet long, with carved pyramid-shaped wooden spikes. The darkened color of the spiked end spoke of it 'doing business' before.
I came to the 'second' witch, and noted that he'd been turned into a 'sieve', while the witch I had shot looked to be similarly ventilated – or so I thought for a second.
“Someone cleaned this wretch's ear,” muttered one of the coopers. It took me a second to recognize his voice as a familiar one, and nearly another second to recall his name: Dirk.
“His shot,” said Sarah, as she indicated me with her eyes. “Now where was Hans?”
“I think he was one of them who was first shooting at these thugs,” said Dirk – who then looked up to see several people coming up the road at a brisk walk. One of them was Hans, who looked more than a little the worse for wear.
“He looks to have a long stare,” said Sarah. “I am not sure it is fully two miles, but he looks much like Karl did when I walked him to the house proper.”
Hans was shaking, and while he had not gotten into the Geneva, he was functioning much as if he had. His walk was that of a palsied elderly man, while his soot-stained pistol showed all five thimbles mashed.
“Those thugs came in the door like they owned the place,” said Hans, “and no one in there had anything except me.”
“No, Hans,” said one of the carpenters. “First, there was someone firing a siege gun...”
“T-that was no siege gun,” said Hans. “It sounded like lightning hitting the roof of the Public House, and then...”
“And the witches, who were about to charge in anyway, were so startled by that noise that they came in unprepared,” I said. “All of them had fowling pieces full-loaded and ready for business, didn't they?”
Hans – and a number of other people who looked very familiar – looked at me as if I were crazy, then one of them – the publican himself – said, “I was reaching for my fowling piece when those thugs kicked the door in, and before they'd gotten their guns up to fire Hans starts shooting at them.”
“In a corner, about twenty feet from the door, right?” I asked.
The publican nodded.
“And when the first witch in the door caught a ball in the gut after being startled by 'the crack of doom', they panicked and turned tail. Correct?”
“Yes, and I was getting some dust on their backsides then,” said Hans. “I had no idea it was possible to shoot these things that fast.”
Sarah looked at me knowingly, and I looked at the nearest witch. Sure enough, when I turned him over, I saw a small hole about four inches above his 'hips' and but two inches to the right of his spine.
“That one would have killed him soon enough,” I thought, as I went to the one I'd shot. He was already more or less face-down, and in his case, each 'buttock' had been holed. Hans came up to me, then said, “that one was slow, so I put two doses of lead in him.”
“That place just slows them down, or does it?” I asked.
“Yes, for a while,” said Hans. “That place may leak slower than some, but it usually does not stop bleeding until the person is without blood.”
The third witch – the one who had first dropped – appeared to have been missed entirely by Hans, or so I thought until one of the neighbors cut through the layers of black-cloth and leather to expose his skin.
“A little high, Hans,” said the man. “That one went into his gut from the back-side.”
“That place usually kills, though it might take a day or so to do so,” said Sarah softly. “I suspect these witches were dead and did not know it until they could no longer ignore how much lead they had received.”
As Hans spoke of distillate being 'short', the three witches were to be planted in the eastern cornfields; and while he went to 'inspect' their interment, Sarah and I went home. I had a suspicion that I did not wish to be in the cornfields when the 'hole' we made was discovered, and when we actually got inside the parlor, Sarah heaved a sigh of relief.
“At least we know what that stuff is like now...”
“What stuff?” asked Anna pointedly. “I was about to wash clothing, and when that lightning hit the ground, I almost jumped into the tub.”
“That was not lightning,” said Sarah. “We tested that stuff that you thought looked like vlai.” A brief pause, “and I thought we would be safe hiding behind that wall, but the rocks it flung were too much for us.”
“Was that you?” asked Anna. Her tone was that of wonder, and the 'you' was the plural form. In this language, it was not merely 'you plural', but also a bit more formal than the usual version spoken in the area – though it was not the 'you-plural' used for Deity and persons of 'royal' rank, thankfully. “Where did you try it?”
“This one place that is not plowed,” said Sarah. “I suspect there is a hole there now.”
“Yes, and it will take Jonas and both his boys all of tomorrow to fill that thing,” said Hans as he came in the rear door from the bathroom. “Now what was that thing you did?”
“It looked like vlai,” said Anna, “though it smelled like a bad day near Grussmaan's and gave me a bad sick-headache the instant I saw it.”
“That is because...”
Hans faltered, for he had been witness to something he had trouble comprehending. He thought for a moment, then asked, “how big was this thing?”
Sarah indicated with her hands, then said, “it was a little smaller for round than a stick of farmer's dynamite, and perhaps half as long.”
“Yes, and did it need a cap?”
“It got one of those, and three feet of fuse,” said Sarah. “We were fifty paces off, and down behind a stone wall at one of those empty houses, and when it went, the two of us ran and were dodging rocks until we got into the buggy-way. They were pounding the roof for a slow count of five then.”
“That is no jug,” said Hans flatly. “That is like mining dynamite, only one stick would not make a hole like that. You would need at least three of those things, and that is if it is bad dynamite.”
“Bad dynamite?” I asked. “Like the stuff that leaves the mill bad?”
Hans nodded. It seemed a fitting end to a most-violent time.