A Riveting business


Dinner came later than usual that night, and Hans ran no less than three 'full-sized' batches of 'motor oil'. He was amazed at the ease with which he could now produce the product, but as he collected the last dribbles of the third run, Sarah said, “but two more runs, then take that thing apart and clean it thrice with aquavit and distillate before running any more batches.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans. I was putting away the last of the chemicals from Roesmaan's.

“Because I suspect that process gradually builds up burnt uncorking medicine on that glassware unless you control your temperatures just right,” said Sarah.

“Yes, and I am doing that,” said Hans. “I am using this heat-measurer thing here...”

“No matter,” I murmured. “That glass heats unevenly, hence it needs periodic cleaning to avoid trouble. If you weren't so behind on your orders, you might clean it every run.”

“It isn't just Albrecht, isn't it?” said Sarah. “Everyone who knows about it wants some, unless I miss my guess.”

“Yes, and not just those that know me,” said Hans. “There are people down in the fourth kingdom, and they know Albrecht.”

“Those are in addition to the number you spoke of previously, aren't they?” I asked. “As in you need a buggy-full of little ceramic jars for those orders.”

“He ordered some more a few days ago,” said Sarah. “He asked for twelve twenties of them.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “I hope you have enough, uh, distillate to make that much.”

“Yes, I have that,” said Hans, “and I am jugging up that stuff that comes out of the condenser here.”

That evening, while getting ready for bed, I seemed to have an odd intimation; and I went back downstairs. There was something in the parlor, something written about a particularly unpleasant-smelling chemical, and when I looked into the Compendium's volumes under 'cleaning solution' and the entries that followed that one, I found a few very confusing lines that seemed to be speaking about the distillation of mingled 'aquavit' and 'oil of vitriol'.

“What would that do?” I asked. There was no answer in the text, even though I wrote down both the fragmentary information mentioned in that particular section and my thoughts, with the 'question' being the last thing I wrote down. I was desperately tired, and would be riveting upon the morrow; and I knew riveting would involve hammering like a lunatic.

Before leaving in the morning, I asked for some of Hans 'earplugs', and found that not only was he short of them – there were but three more of the 'carrots' left after handing me my pair – but that he described them as 'going bad'.

I still found them helpful with concentration while I reamed out the rivet holes so as to make for an easier fit of the rivets.

“I'm glad I brought that lantern,” I murmured to myself as I applied my energies to 'Frankie' under the whitened light of the 'Sun' lantern in the predawn stillness with a fresh drill-bit. “I hope they get here early and well, uh, drugged.”

While the others did not come 'early' – they arrived about half an hour later than usual – they were most obviously 'drugged'; for they were wobbling more than a little when they showed. Asking Georg a question – he had to first remove one of the 'carrots' – indicated that he'd gone to where I lived to be dosed with both tinctures earlier.

“How are they awake, though?” I thought.

“Chiefly less of the tincture for pain,” said the soft voice. “They were given several drops yesterday, while today they received two drops each – and about half as much of the widow's tincture.”

“Hence they're merely sleepy,” I thought. “Now I wonder if they can handle their part of the riveting?”

They proved able, though somewhat sluggish at the first; and after driving a dozen rivets in as many minutes while inside the furnace shell, I had three now 'wide-awake' men and a headache that made me long for the mixing of blasting gelatin.

“You need more beer,” said Georg. “I had no idea being inside that thing was that warm.”

The riveting continued – until about midday, I was feeling as if I'd been shot out of a cannon to impact against a massif miles downrange, and the others were wobbling worse than when I had first seen them that morning. They did not bother with lunch, but rather left single file out of the door, and as my ears recovered and my senses cleared, a faint shadow showed from behind me. I turned to see Sarah.

“Do you know how many burn-piles you've started?” she asked quietly. My ears were ringing loudly, I now noticed, and that with the earplugs. I wondered if new ones would actually help.

I shook my head in a weary fashion, then in a husky whisper, I said, “n-no, dear. Why?”

“Smell,” said Sarah. Her sharp voice was that of command.

I did – and nearly spewed. I caught my gorge in time, then gasped, “what happened?”

“It seems more witches showed near the south end of town,” said Sarah, “only this time, everyone was ready for them with full-loaded muskets and fowling pieces.” A pause, then, “it was a good thing, too.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “These people came from the hall?”

“Some, I suspect, did,” said Sarah. “I identified two of those men as being from that place, and Anna spoke of another being from there, and then one of the carpenters said two of these men were from a town some miles to the south and west.”

“That one 'black' town, right?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then said, “now for what I really came over here for. I need some twenty-line copper tubing, this coiled into a spiraling circle, and a water-box of copper to surround it entire.”

While Sarah's description was more than a little confusing to me, her drawing – on paper, with a pencil – cleared matters up immensely.

“You want a water-cooled condenser,” I said, “with a big enough cooling reservoir to hold...”

“Ice, salt, and water,” said Sarah. “This stuff I'm trying to distill ignores damp rags wrapped around metal tubing, even if I drip water upon them steadily.” A pause, then, “and then, there is the smell.”

“Smell?” I mumbled.

“Yes, smell,” said Sarah. “I have seen Veldter fly repellent, and bought Veldter fly-repellent in Eisernije from tinkers, and used Veldter fly repellent on many occasions while at school and points south of there, but if ever a chemical looked to call flies, the fumes of this stuff would be very likely.”

“It smells like manure?” I asked.

“I very much wish that it did,” said Sarah dryly. “It smells like dead Shoeten, the leavings of mules, High Meats, and mashed rats gone rotten, with all of those things mingled, and smelling it makes me wish to spew at both ends.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Yes, twice, until I stopped trying to distill it,” said Sarah. Again, her tone was surprisingly dry. “I waited until Hans and Anna left, as I know neither of them would endure such an odor.”

Sarah proved to not merely have a very good idea of what she wanted, but also had ideas as to where the materials needed were in the shop; and while she wasn't overly inclined to cut out the metal and then bend it into shape, she was able to draw on the sheets of copper with some carefully sharpened sticks of chalk. Her lines were thin, precise, and even, and when I cut the metal and bent it, I was completely amazed at how all of the pieces fit together. A few drilled holes, some two dozen six-line rivets – Sarah approved much of them, saying that size of rivet was 'very common' in the better instrument-making shops – and soldered seams, and she had her 'condenser'.

And I still had matters involving reaming existing holes and drilling new ones, and though I wanted to continue for some time, after a hurried lunch and perhaps half an hour of 'reaming' holes, I found myself not merely twitching and shaking as if preparing to 'receive' a convulsion, but also completely worn out. I then looked closer at the furnace.

“H-how did I...” My stammering voice was a symptom of shock. I'd driven a lot of rivets.

“It wasn't easy for those men to keep up with you,” said the soft voice. “You were driving rivets as fast as they could put them in those holes – and Georg was urging the others on when he wasn't tonging rivets.”

“I thought it was so slow, though,” I said.

“Ask Sarah when you next see her,” said the soft voice. “I'd plan on going home and cleaning up, as you're a lot more tired than you think you are.”

“Uh, how?” I asked. I was having trouble speaking, I was so tired – and I knew I had heard the truth as to how fatigued I really was.

I had the impression I needed to assay counting the rivets, and while 'Frankie' was liberally studded with fresh-driven examples, when I went to count the number of empty cloth 'rivet-bags', I gasped.

“They must have been dumping whole bags of those things in the forge,” I muttered.

“Georg has more bags of rivets hid still,” said the soft voice. “About two more days like that should 'finish' the furnace enough to actually erect it – and no, you won't need to 'supervise' and keep everyone out of trouble then.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Georg noticed the Compendium set in the parlor when you drove that first rivet and sent him where you live to be dosed,” said the soft voice, “and Sarah showed him the entries relating to 'iron-founding'.”

“But I thought those people were secretive,” I murmured, as I began untying my apron. The tanner had cleaned it to a certain degree, but what he had chiefly done by his labors was showed that it was not merely an old apron, but it was made cheaply of poor quality part-rotten leather – or so he had informed Hans when the latter came to pick it up while I was posting at the house.

“They are, as a rule,” said the soft voice, “but that attitude of secrecy varies greatly, and the best places – which are in the fourth kingdom, save for Knaadelmann's at Badwater – let students from the west school observe and ask questions.”

I laid my apron upon the prostrate form of 'Frankie', and began staggering toward the door of the shop. The 'long' forge was filled with cooking cans, each of them packed with the latest billets of 'blister-steel' mingled with charcoal. The routine was now three such overnight cookings, each of them followed by two instances of forging and welding. Such material commonly made good knives and better tools, and I suspected some of our finished billets were being sold by Georg 'as is'.

“But... Is that how?”

“Ask Sarah,” said the soft voice as I staggered into the yard and turned north at its margin with the road heading through town. “One of the reasons she was able to show Georg so readily is that some of what she showed him was her writing.”

“Hers?” I gasped between coughing fits as I staggered north. “Writing?”

“Four days at Knaadelmann's while she was getting over the red fever,” said the soft voice, “and then several similar sessions at the Heinrich works, and several more at Machalaat Brothers.” A pause, then, “if one of those firms cannot cast a part, it's quite likely impossible to cast it with what you currently have access to.”

“B-Bart?” I'd passed three houses. All of them looked grim, foreboding, and seething with anger.

“Served his time at all three places once he had his walking papers,” said the soft voice. “He didn't start his own shop until he was roughly your age.”

“M-my age?” I asked. “How old was he when he was m-murdered?” Another house passed, and an eternity to go, followed by a bath. A nap – or, perhaps, a proper lunch beforehand – sounded wise.

“Older than you might think,” said the soft voice. “The main reasons people on the continent die when they do is due to illness or injury, not old age.” The house to my right was an empty one, empty of living beings. It was not empty of fetishes or well-hidden money pouches. The fast-growing 'hoard' Anna had hidden somewhere upstairs seemed to accuse me of evil from within its 'lair', and I wondered why we had been accumulating so much 'coin'.

“Short, ugly, brutal...” Hobbes was an incurable romantic when it came to life here, or so it seemed – and Leviathan was not the name of a book. That creature was 'god' to a lot of people.

“All of those things, and that mostly due to domestic and imported witches,” said the soft voice. “Prior to the war, however, the situation was much different, at least for those places not owned by witches.” I had the impression that the term 'owned' had more meaning than I thought it did – more than merely 'complete unrelenting control in all aspects of life both observable and hidden from sight, as is appropriate for objectified property'.

“Uh, what?” I asked. “Threescore and t-ten?”

“That was considered middle-aged during that time, unless one was a non-witch living in witch-controlled areas,” said the soft voice. “Tam's older than that.”

“But he looks...” Tam did not look 'old'. He looked to be perhaps ten years older than Korn – and that man was perhaps a year or two older than Paul was, if I went by appearances.

“Before he took up shopkeeping,” said the soft voice, “Tam wore greens – and he had to retire from that business when he was finally crippled by an enraged Iron Pig bringing that tree down after he'd set it on fire with a jug filled with light distillate.” A pause, then, “since you prayed for him, though, he's been thinking about speaking to Hendrik about taking up his old duties. He's aware of both the need and how dire times are currently at the house.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Recall how you wondered if people were 'tougher' here?” asked the soft voice.

I nodded silently, then asked, “are they?” Home was but another three houses away, and the distance seemed closer to a slow-staggering mile.

“Some family lines are 'tougher' than others,” said the soft voice. “Had Anna been in the place of Sarah, she never would have made it home from that fight, much less recovered so rapidly.”

“N-never?” I asked. “What? All those marked people in her family tree?” Another house passed.

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “Recall how I said your chromosomes and much else had been changed on the way here?” A brief pause, then, “some of those tales speak of marked people being especially hard to incapacitate or kill.”

“Like those hard-to-kill w-witches?” I gasped.

“Witchdom's cheap – and grossly inferior – imitation,” said the soft voice. “That witch Sarah shot with a roer lasted all of three minutes with a destroyed heart,” said the soft voice. “Those tales speak of marked people ignoring identical or worse wounds for nearly half a day – and in more than a few cases, recovering from them.” But another fifty feet to go, perhaps two houses. Everything was getting blurry, for some reason. I wondered dumbly if I was merely tired.

“What?” I gasped.

“Or having most of their internal organs blown out, or losing both legs at mid-thigh, or exposure to biological warfare agents, or hundred percent third degree burns that left the person looking like walking charcoal,” said the soft voice. “More than one old tale speaks of a marked person regenerating an entire limb.”

“How?” I asked, as I reached our stoop. My boots banged hollowly on the boards, much as if I were pounding a drum and calling something of a spiritual nature.

“Prayer,” said the soft voice. “In nearly all such cases during that time, the person not merely survived, but became 'good as new' within a matter of days.”

I tapped at the door, and then waited. I recalled Sarah's speaking of the absence of Hans and Anna, and for some reason, I knew that Sarah was 'tied up' in the basement.

“She might have two more orders to do,” I thought numbly.

“Yes, to deliver and final-fit,” said the soft voice. “And then, it will be a matter of fetching needed supplies, messages, errands for Anna, and bomb-delivery.”

“Errands?” I asked.

“Are a sizable portion of a normal medical apprenticeship,” said the soft voice, “and with the coming of the swine-season, those will be both commonplace and lengthy enough to desire a 'hot-rod buggy' – or, for smaller things, a horse that 'leaves everything else behind'.”

“B-bugging flies,” I murmured, as I slowly opened the door. “They'll be coming in swarms.”

“Yes, during high summer,” said the soft voice. “Currently, they're staying close to the woodlots where they are 'hatching'.”

“Hatching?” I asked as I staggered toward the stairs.

“What Hans and Anna saw were those adults that had survived winter hibernation laying their eggs,” said the soft voice. “Those eggs take some weeks to develop enough to hatch, then the larva take over a month to come to the pupa stage.”

“And when they hatch, there's a new crop of those bugs,” I muttered, as I found clean clothing in my room.

“All of them ravenously hungry, also,” said the soft voice. “The reason Anna and Hans saw so many of those flies is the witches have finally figured out how to preserve them over the winter.”

“What?” I asked. The stairs were ahead, and I would need to go down them. Falling seemed likely.

“Fine-woven nets to capture them,” said the soft voice, “and then grazing them upon penned swine during the night-time when the pigs are enclosed in their below-ground pens.” A brief pause, then, “the chief swine-rearing centers are not merely in the second and fifth kingdoms, but many of their facilities are the 'upgraded and repaired' underground remnants of that prewar witch-driven society.”

“Hence the weighted nets keep the flies inside when they let the swine out to graze,” I muttered as I prepared my bath. I was not merely tired, I now understood; I was also uncommonly sore. Swinging a three pound short-handled hammer, and that rapidly, in a confined space needed not merely unusual concentration, but also unusual effort.

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “Instead of a ninety-plus percent die-off of the pre-gravid adults, the witches' measures kept that percentage in the single-digit range.”

“The nets?” I asked.

“Were the chief trouble,” said the soft voice. “Not merely were they especially difficult and time-consuming to make, but their end-purchasers had to wait until their various layers of intermediaries had become well-established and 'respectable' so as to deal with those capable of making them.”

“Most of a generation, probably,” I muttered as I poured boiling water into my tub. I wanted a good hot bath, with some of that 'nice' soap for a change, and as I found a part-used example of one of the soft 'bricks', I murmured, “not just Anna with this stuff, right?”

“Anna was the first, but now Sarah swears by that material – and swears at the usual stuff,” said the soft voice. “Hans is still a trifle balky, especially as he needs to get soot off his skin a lot more often.”

“F-Fell's soap,” I muttered as I put a naked foot into the tub. The soothing nature of the water seemed to draw me like a magnet, and once in the tub, I relaxed utterly, so much so that I had trouble staying awake. “Lukas spoke of using it on grease.”

And with my speech, I knew that not merely had some of the trip-party brought some of that particular substance back with them, but that I most likely could find it in the surrounding area. It made for peculiar thinking, as I needed other things as well for the trip.

“That's going to need a long list and careful planning,” I thought, as I scrubbed with the fist-sized 'rag-hunk' I commonly used. There were several of them in a hanging 'wicker' basket nearest the bathtub, though 'mine' seemed peculiarly suited to me. The fact that it was much the largest might have had something to do with the matter.

The soap seemed especially soothing and calming, though when I stood up, I learned of a definite deficiency – and spoke accordingly: “it might be good enough for sweat, but it ignores this dirt!”

“Hence clean first with the usual type,” said the soft voice, “and then finish bathing with the 'nice' soap.” A brief pause, then, “you will feel better then, as the usual type irritates your skin far more than you realize.”

However, as I once more soaped and scrubbed, the thought once more of fetching Fell's soap came to mind, and I thought, “I don't want just a bar or two, either. I want a decent-sized bag of that stuff.”

“Or a local duplicate of it,” said the soft voice. “You're far from the only person who wants to wash with something other than 'laundry soap with added lye'.”

“Uh, that stuff we made?”

“Is starting to garner attention,” said the soft voice. “Anna is looking much better for using it, and people are starting to notice.”

“Soap-making?” I asked. “Can we, uh, do that?”

“Yes, but not in quantity with the supplies and equipment you currently have,” said the soft voice as I began drying myself. I was wanting another towel for the trip, and possibly a pair of them – and I knew there were more towels at the house in that one room on the third floor where we had found them previously. “It's closer to 'medicine-soap' than the regular material.” A brief pause, then, “and an added pair of bath-towels would be most wise for the trip in addition to bringing your own bags of soaps.”

“Soaps?” I asked. There was no answer, and I wondered about the use of the plural form of 'soap'.

However, I began to get the sense an answer of sorts was to be had in the basement, and once bathing had finished and my clothing was soaking in the bathwater, I thought to head downstairs. With each step downward, I seemed to smell an odor, though how I was smelling it was a mystery: was it real, or in my mind? The odor itself, however, was not a mystery in the slightest.

“That is one evil stink,” I muttered softly as I reached the landing. “Now is she cooking that stuff?”

Sarah not merely proved to be 'cooking' the chemical in question, but also slow-boiling several largish beakers full of grayish liquid, each over a heating lamp. A large crock slowly steamed, and as I watched, she used a slotted brass spoon to spoon out some whitish-gray crystals. A small mound of these already lay on an old yet well-cleaned tinned copper plate.

“Yes?” I whispered softly.

The spoon abruptly dropped back into the crock with a muddy-sounding splash, and Sarah shrieked. She then turned and said in softer tones, “how you got down here so quietly is a mystery, as I could hear you groaning in the bathroom. Are you sore?”

“Yes, but not nearly as much as I was,” I said. “It seems that riveting causes trouble that way also.”

“Hans had to go to town to get more things for his ear-corks,” said Sarah, “as people kept coming here and asking for them while that was going on.” A pause, then, “and then Anna ran out of her 'ready' vegetable-fiber, which is most-needed for those things, so she needed to go to town also.”

“Gone most of the day, correct?” I asked.

“I doubt much that they will return while it is yet light,” said Sarah. “I know Hans took a lantern and candles, as he expected to be needing to travel much.” Sarah then pinched her nose with one hand, removed the small receiver flask from both cork and 'bath' – and as I uncorked the jug she indicated, she poured the clear liquid into the jug while I tried to avoid spewing from the thick near-colorless fumes billowing from both jug and flask.

“What is that stuff?” I asked. Noxious was a compliment for it.

“It was in your most-recent notes,” said Sarah as she replaced the receiver flask on its unusually long 'lathe-turned' cork and put the 'bath' back where it once was. “I did some more looking in the Compendium and found some more details – and then I tried making it.”

“The Compendium accounts tend to leave out a lot, don't they?”

“That is not rare with writing about chemicals,” said Sarah. “Some matters can be assumed, but other things are a matter of experience – like with the condenser this chemical needs.”

“Do you know what it's good for?” I asked, as I looked at the crock. It was time to scoop out the crystalline material, and I began doing so, using a small beaker of grayish 'water' to rinse the crystals.

“Hans had this one big keg of niter hidden,” said Sarah. “It looked to be older than I am, it was so dirty, and when I removed the lid, I knew what kind it was.”

“Uh, it was not Reagente grade, correct?”

“No,” said Sarah emphatically. “It may have been packaged in a fourth kingdom niter-keg, but if that is fourth kingdom niter, then I am a fool-hen.”

“Sorry, dear,” said the soft voice. “That is fourth kingdom niter, although far below the usual standards for that material – and Hans was 'sold'.”

“How?” asked Sarah.

“He was told it was 'decent',” said the soft voice. “The person who 'sold' him was a both a well-disguised witch and an 'agent' of Matthyssoon's – and Hans was calling their chemicals 'good' when he compared them to those of Grussmaan's.”

“They're worse?” I gasped.

“Most are similar as to levels of adulteration and overall 'purity',” said the soft voice, “but some are indeed worse – and that particular batch of niter was the worst one they did in six months' time.”

“And hence recrystallizing it helps...”

“To no small degree,” said the soft voice. “I would do so twice, and use well-washed charcoal that's been baked in the oven for at least an hour during the second recrystallization so as to truly clean that material.”

“The charcoal would burn then,” said Sarah.

“Not if you use bandage tins to contain it,” said the soft voice. “Screen it carefully with a punched tin sieve, wash it thoroughly with water and then aquavit, dry it on a warmed plate while stirring with a spoon, and then bake it in the oven for an hour's time while in a near-airtight container.” A pause, then, “it might not be what you used in school for appearance, but it will perform in a similar fashion.”

“Activated charcoal,” I spat. “That's how to do it!”

“The material Sarah spoke of was specially processed,” said the soft voice. “It wasn't ordinary activated charcoal, but something vastly more capable.” A pause, then, “in contrast, what you were just informed of is somewhat less capable than 'real' activated charcoal.”

“How do we get that, then?” asked Sarah.

“Carefully select your wood,” said the soft voice, “with the thicker twigs of certain trees being the best sources. Kiln-dry that wood, then cut it in to short lengths, peel the bark with a knife, then slow-roast the wood in a clay-luted camp-oven for some days.” A pause, then, “that will give you 'true' activated charcoal.”

“I'm not sure we have time now,” I murmured. I was thinking of 'finding' the twigs in question.

“No, but there will be many chances to gather the twigs later,” said the soft voice, “and in the months to come, having a good store of 'activated charcoal' will be needed.” A pause, then, “the stuff you can get out of the stove right now will suffice if it is treated with care.”

Accordingly, I did so while Sarah continued her projects, and by the time she'd gotten a modest mound of gray-tinted whitish cubical crystals, I was ready to do the second step. With some advice from her, I put the crystals to boiling in a large beaker over a heating lamp, then added the charcoal – and allowed the now odd-looking mess to begin cooling.

“That stuff is settling to the bottom,” I murmured. “Will I scoop it out like the product?”

My answer came about ten minutes later when I pulled out the first small scoop of pure-white crystals mingled with gray-black lumps. I picked the latter out while the crystals dried, then tossed the lumps back in the beaker along with Sarah's latest two batches.

“That is the best niter I have ever seen,” said Sarah as I stirred the crystals around on the tinned copper plate so they could dry readily. “It could pass for that of Roesmaan's, if one goes by how it looks.”

“It is not that material,” said the soft voice. I then had a question.

Why are you making that chemical?”

“Because I could not find any southern cleaning solution,” said Sarah, “and while Hans has plenty of light distillate, and several jugs of that stuff that is like it from making that oil, he does not have any of the other ingredients the Compendium says it contains.”

“And that stuff?” I asked, as I pointed to the rapidly filling receiver flask in its bath of icy water. “Niter?” A pause, then, “that sounds like this stuff I read about called Greek fire!”

“The Greeks were most glad they did not have that mixture,” said the soft voice, “as that combination not merely has a limited shelf life, but within a matter of hours, several reactions begin to take place that turn it into a material suitable for potent fuel-air explosives.”

“And j-jugs r-ringed with dynamite?” I squeaked.

“Did you say flattened?” asked the soft voice. “Ten such jugs would flatten a town half again as big as Roos, and the resulting kindling would burn explosively as it flew.” A pause, then, “nothing would be left of such a town except wide-scattered rubble, ashes, smoke, and charred fragments of its inhabitants – and the ground would look like what you saw near that 'bunker' after that one shipping point blew.”

Sarah looked at me in horror, then asked, “what was this shipping point?”

“This one place where the witches were, uh, shipping swine,” I said. “I think it was at least partly underground.” My tone implied 'I think it was almost entirely underground'.

“All except for the access point at the surface was below ground,” said the soft voice, “and the total area of those rooms that place had was nearly that of Roos.”

“A limited shelf-life?” I asked.

“It keeps about as well as the lesser grades of mining dynamite,” said the soft voice, “but is best used between three and seven days after compounding – polymerization is complete, the product is as stable as it's going to be, and degradation has not yet begun.” A brief pause, then, “you will wish to cork the jugs firmly, seal them with melted wax, and then secure the corks with glue and twine before ringing them with dynamite.”

“And a small squirt of gelatin on each jug's dynamite after setting it out,” I thought. “That may be trouble for the hall, though.” I thought for a moment, then asked audibly, “I wonder if Gabriel has any wine-bottles?”

“If he does not have them, then I can find them in the house,” said Sarah. “I know you do not like fermented wine, so why do you wish it?”

“The container, dear,” I said. “Tossing jugs...”

“Is quite difficult,” said Sarah. “I almost hurt myself tossing that last one.” A pause, then, “how would you toss a bottle?”

“Find him a few and watch,” said the soft voice. “He's been wondering about mortars, but give him a smaller wine-bottle to throw, and he will manage passably for the shorter ranges.”

“Shorter ranges?” I asked. My voice was the picture of incredulity.

“I think the only way to learn that business is to fetch some empty bottles, fill them with water, and have you toss them,” said Sarah. “Now something tells me that you will toss them strangely, such that they fly a great distance, and that with accuracy.”

“How accurate?” I asked. Again, my voice was incredulous.

“You might manage one of the hall's windows, and then, you might not,” said Sarah.

“Yes, if I'm inside the place's walls,” I spluttered.

“You could drill one of those thugs then,” said Sarah. “I meant from hiding across the road from the hall.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “He could easily toss one over the Swartsburg walls from where you are thinking. From that range... He'd not merely put it in the window.” A pause, “he'd center that window – and if a face showed, he'd plant that bottle.”

“What?” gasped Sarah. “In the m-mouth..?”

“Yes, dear,” said the soft voice. “From that short of a distance, he could hit individual people if they're not moving rapidly. For 'area targets', try twice that range and then some.” A brief pause, then, “Hans has a few old wine-bottles in one of his less-used shelves, and filling them with water would simulate the heft of that mixture.” Another brief pause, then, “'softening them up' that way would make 'planting' the main devices a lot easier.”

This 'galvanized' Sarah, and while I watched her reactions – the distillation one needed regular watching, while the crystallizations needed periodic checking – she went in search of the bottles in question. Within less than a minute, she gave a screech of triumph, and came back with three old and dusty 'wine bottles' of stereotypical shape – if not color. One was dark brown, and the other two nearly 'black'.

“These are some of the smaller size,” said Sarah. “I know there are more like this at the house proper.”

“And at the Public House,” said the soft voice. “August may have little call for wine as a beverage, but he does use the bottled stuff in soup fairly regularly.”

“It helps the taste,” I said.

“Have you tried it?” asked Sarah.

“Forget tasting it as drink,” I murmured. “It tastes awful that way, and smells worse than it tastes. Put a little in your soup or stew, though – and then, it helps greatly, especially if you're cooking a less-than-tender marmot.”

“I know about that species of marmot,” said Sarah emphatically, “and had I known of the effects of wine upon such meals while I was traipsing, I would have secured a bottle of the stuff and ignored its weight.”

While I continued watching the distillation reaction – the receiver flask filled about every ten to twelve minutes, and I needed to add aquavit and 'sulfur-acid' at the same rate – Sarah first cleaned the bottles with damp rags, then filled them with water and found corks for them. She then seemed to be thinking, and as she stared at one of the bottles as it stood barren of all save the pair of its fellows, she asked, softly, much as if she were talking to herself, “do these want fins?”

While I had no answer, and I heard nothing of the sort, she seemed to come to a conclusion rapidly, and from 'somewhere' – I knew not where – she secured some obvious 'buzzard' feathers – they were easily the length of the bottles – some thin string, and a pot of glue, and proceeded to fletch the projectiles. Her knife was much in evidence, and I marveled at her skill with it. She looked altogether capable of carving intricate details in wood, or wax for jewelery – or, perhaps in the foreseeable future – surgery.

“Twist those a little bit around the neck of the bottle, dear,” I murmured. “You want it to spin in flight.”

“You know what that will do, don't you?” asked the soft voice pointedly.

I was ignorant of the matter, and said so silently.

“It will cause them to whistle.”

“The better arrows do that,” said Sarah, “especially if one has a good bow.”

“No dear, not quite,” said the soft voice. “These won't have the faint fluttering whistle of arrows. They're quite a bit larger, for one thing.”

“And hence louder,” I muttered.

“And given how fast they're going to be flying, the tone is going to be markedly different. Listen.” A brief pause, then silence unto death; and then, from seemingly all points of the room at once, a whirring scream seemed to build maniacally in volume while it dropped in pitch – until it was cut short by a 'thundering roar'. I involuntarily ducked, and it was all I could do to not yell 'INCOMING' before hitting the floor and cowering with my hands atop my head.

“What was that?” squeaked Sarah. “It sounded horrible!”

“M-mortars,” I gasped. “They supposedly sounded like that.”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “They weren't anywhere near as loud or as nightmarish to hear.” A brief pause, then, “there will be worse-sounding things in the next few months, so 'savor' the noise of flying wine-bottles fletched like she's doing.”

The trio of wine-bottles were done shortly, and after shutting down the distillation reaction and moderating the flames under the beakers of niter-solution so as 'to keep them warm' – Sarah's words exactly – we went out to the main street of the town. I could see someone pulling into the Public House, but I knew it wasn't Hans and Anna. Sarah handed me one of the 'black' bottles. The other two were in a satchel of some kind that I had not seen before. I faced south.

I looked at the bottle in my hand, hefted it, then leaned back and threw it as if it were a football.

I almost followed the thing to the ground as I recovered from the throw, and when I came back to where I stood initially, I first noticed Sarah's expression. Her eyes were like saucers, and her mouth an 'O'; and then, I listened.

Faint upon the barely sensible wind, I heard it: that terrible whirring scream we had heard in the basement; and when I turned back towards the south, I saw movement. The latest arrivals were struggling to control bolting horses as they attempted to leave in a great hurry, until suddenly a flash seemed to 'erupt' among them and the animals galloped away in several directions from the wreckage.

“Three... No, four horses!” I shouted.

“I would fetch your gun,” said Sarah quietly. “I'm getting the fowling piece.”

I turned to run toward the house, but Sarah was ahead of me; and by the time we were running down the road toward the 'wreck', I could hear gunshots booming intermittently. I wondered where we might find cover.

“I have those other bottles still,” yelled Sarah when she slowed slightly, “and I have a spare revolver.”

“Other bottles?” I thought.

“Recall what I said about 'planting'?” said the soft voice pointedly. “Remember that witch you hit with the snowball?”

I wanted to say 'duh', but I was looking for cover – and there wasn't any. More importantly, those four horses had been hitched to a buggy, and as we drew within a hundred yards, I saw enough details to know it was the buggy of a miser – a heavy, ornate vehicle, one redolent of paint and carved in detail.

“With its floor and sides lined with sheet-iron,” said the soft voice. “Those thugs thought to use it for cover, which they are now doing.”

“And no one's bullets are doing much to them,” said Sarah. I wondered how she could talk while running, at least until I noted that she was not merely slowing, but veering to the left. I followed her – and noted that she'd found cover of a sort.

“This watering trough should help some,” she said. “It isn't the common for those things.”

“Uh, stone covered with wood?” I asked. “Is this one of those homes..?”

“It is,” said Sarah, “and I suspect our witches are hiding in them.”

“There aren't that many of those thugs, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “and secondly, they think Roos to be too dangerous a place to 'abide'.”

“And hence they're attacking so as to destroy the threat,” I murmured, as I pulled the hammer to full cock. I'd seen the black-dressed backside of at least one full-blackened witch, and I was going to burn his butt the next time he showed it.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice, “and all the more reason to 'deal with' both that town and the hall.”

I had my rifle 'sighted' roughly upon the spot I'd last seen the rearmost portion of that one thug, but for some reason, I felt inclined to aim somewhat to the left so as to hit the buggy itself. I did so, aimed down a little, then fired.

As I recovered from the recoil, I noted Sarah was laying upon her back, and I brought down my rifle so as to help her up. That proved unneeded, though I could hear her softly muttering about there being things worse than roers.

“Why, did it..?” The smoke from my rifle was rapidly clearing, and I was assembling my ramrod.

“That gun still frightens me,” said Sarah. “It has a much sharper sound compared to a musket, and then, there is its flame.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I swabbed the bore with a spit-patch.

“A musket's flame is reddish,” said Sarah. “That one's almost white, with but a trace of red to it, and it's easily twice as long.”

My attention was jerked away from Sarah's speech when I saw first one witch stagger backwards to fall, then a second such man topple over to lie motionless upon the ground. The third man continued firing, though I could tell the loss of his comrades, coupled with his still-healing wounds, did not sit well with him. I dumped the powder from the measure.

“I think you might drill that witch in the same manner as you did with the first two,” said Sarah. “That thing ignores sheet-iron, or whatever those thugs lined that thing with.”

“I've shot at least one tinned spam,” I said as I rammed home another bullet. “He dropped right away.”

“If his tin was decent, then that gun ignores the lesser thicknesses of iron plate,” said Sarah.

I aimed again, though this time I wanted to wait until the thug was reloading. I'd have a clearer shot then. He fired twice from an obvious fowling piece, then when he returned to his refuge, I aimed lower and a bit further left.

“Get ready, dear,” I whispered, as I began squeezing the trigger.

Again, the sudden blast that nearly put me on my posterior, the ache to my shoulder tripled – and with a sudden scream, the third thug staggered back before leaping higher than the width of the overturned buggy and then landing back in the road to thrash madly. While he was not dead, he wasn't going to do much shooting now, I realized; and as I began reloading, Sarah said, “once you finish that, we can go and finish them off.”

“If the townspeople don't do that first,” I replied. I was already halfway through the reloading cycle.

“I think they're just noticing,” said Sarah. “It isn't usual to have witches coming so consistently.”

I stood cautiously, then thought, “why are they coming to the Public House?” then spoken, “the center of the community, isn't it? Take down the head of the place and the rest rots?”

Sarah looked at me, then rose with her gun ready to mount and then fire. I led off, with mine similarly held.

Each step we took was a wary one, as for some reason I suspected we ourselves might be shot by the townsfolk. The witches, while inept in their attempt to kill those inside the Public House, were not inept in other ways, and the aspect of silence that now reigned gave me the 'dry-ice in acetone' chills.

It was almost as if these few individual witches were strong enough to chant those curses that caused the town to sleep and make it work – and Sarah and I were more or less on our own, save for a very few people...

“Why now?” I thought, as a thought train began to roll in the station of my mind. It meant for uncommon ill-ease, as it meant thinking certain unpleasant thoughts.

“No, I do not want to be a witch,” I muttered. The nearest thug was thirty yards away – and unlike any thug I'd come close to in a long time, he felt like a collection of bad fetishes.

“Mostly because he and his fellows are carrying such in bags upon their persons – and if you speak to those fetishes, then retreat at least twenty long paces from your current position.”

“Is this because of what those things will do?” asked Sarah. She'd stopped going closer.

I was afraid to speak, or even think. Numbly, I began walking backward while still facing the thugs and their buggy, counting each step I took. Sarah did likewise, though she was walking more-or-less normally and facing north. I was glad she was covering my back, and gladder yet the town was more or less clear of witch-sympathizers. I then recalled what Liza had said about being ridden.

“Not just witch-tools, but beliefs, if they are the wrong type and held close to one's heart.”

“Which is why you two haven't been turned into sieves,” said the soft voice. “Those still in Roos wish no part whatsoever of witchdom's life, even if they are currently 'taken over' and incapacitated.”

“Us two, only?” I asked.

“And the Publican himself,” said the soft voice. “He's kept the matter secret about his amputated toe.”

“How..?” I was up to eighteen paces in my counting. I wanted 'twenty-one', the magic number of gambling.

“A sharp cleaver fell on his foot about eighteen months ago,” said the soft voice, “and because his toe was gone, he was deathly afraid to see Anna.” A pause, then, “he was even more afraid when his foot healed in three days without becoming infected, and he's spent his share of time in the book since.”

“Is that why they're coming to the Public House?” I asked. “Or is it they think I'm in there getting trashed because they think I'm an arch-witch?”

I reached twenty-one, and thought to add two more steps. Twenty-three was a prime number – and witches didn't much care for those. At least, those were my thoughts.

“Go to hell, you fetishes,” I spat.

The eruption of fire blew both Sarah and I spinning to the ground to tumble and roll, and as the hot black wind of a massive explosion showered us with ashes, I coughed and spat as I turned face down to avoid the smoke arising from the burning – and when I looked up as I turned over, I noted the sun seemed to have been blotted out by a thick gray pall of sooty gray-black smoke.

“The whole town will be sooted up,” muttered Sarah between coughs. “At least those witches and their things are gone.”

“Especially as one of them was the leader of those witches at the hall,” said the soft voice, “and the other two were the witches that owned that Public House where Hans stole that medal.”

“Oh, my,” I thought. “Their three strongest witches just went up in smoke.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “Your 'jobs' just got about three times easier – as now, both 'communities' will be fighting among themselves for succession, and neither place will be led 'appropriately' for a time.”

“Which is a sore trial among witches,” said Sarah softly amid rumbling echoes in my mind. I wondered at her choice of words, at least until she got up slightly from her face-down position and turned her blackened face to me. Unlike Anna, soot did not become Sarah, and she did not enjoy the sensation upon her skin in the slightest. “At least, that is what that tapestry said,” she muttered. “Now I am sooted up, and I want nothing more than a bath.”

“With Fell's soap, no less,” I muttered.

“Had I some, I would use it gladly,” said Sarah. “I know where there is some hid, but it's at the house.”

“Our house, or the kingdom house proper?” I asked, as I got to my knees. The smoke was slowly dissipating, but the whole of the ground was covered with either soot or ashes. It reminded me greatly of former nightmarish instances of both soot and ashes.

“The kingdom house, cough,” muttered Sarah. She was walking stiffly while bent double, and I was doing the same while thinking about crawling. I then wondered about the smoke.

“Can this smoke go elsewhere?”

A question in my mind erupted, that being 'where to'?

“Why, Waldhuis can use smoke and soot in their houses,” I muttered. “After all, they do entertain Generals from time to time – and Generals need soot like corn needs rain.”

A soft rumble of thunder seemed to come from the north, then with a sudden blast of wind that picked me up to a bolt upright position and blew me back several staggering steps, the smoke 'vanished' before I could think to count 'one'.

“I wish I could say that about the dirt and soot in town,” said Sarah as if dumbstruck. “I wonder if it is just outside?”

“Yes, where you two live,” said the soft voice. “Every other home, save for that of the Publican, and every other shop, save for where your husband-to-be works, is now thoroughly 'sooted up'.”

“Teaching about gossip, no doubt,” I thought.

“Maarten will mention that in his next few sermons,” said the soft voice. “Now, dear, do you have an idea as to how far and accurately he can toss wine-bottles?”

“Yes,” said Sarah in chastened voice. She then turned around and shouted, “that thing is gone!”

“That...” I ceased speech as I turned around, and with blackened hands I reached toward my mouth in fright. There was no trace, seemingly, of either thugs or buggy. “It's g-gone entirely. What was it, a fetish?”

“That buggy might not have been owned by Cardosso, but it was both very old and owned by many powerful witches, all of whom applied carvings, paint, and curses – as well as that sheet-iron lining to its bed.”

“Hence regular musket balls did little to it,” I muttered. “No, it's not all gone – there are some things laying in the road there.”

“The mostly-melted metallic portions of that buggy,” said the soft voice. “They will be passable fodder for Frankie's first runs, provided you flux them well.”

“What of the horses?” asked Sarah. She was wasting no time in heading home, and I could hear shouts of consternation now coming from all points of the compass as I tried to keep up with her. The people of the town now understood the meaning of 'being sooted up' – and when a door opened, I was astonished.

“He's covered with soot worse than I am,” gasped Sarah. “He looks like Hans did after that last bad batch of wood-treatment went up on him.”

“Bad soot?” I asked.

“The whole laboratory,” said Sarah. “I was not there when it happened, but I helped enough with cleaning the place up when I did arrive.”

“Not just the basement, correct?”

“It was not as bad in the kitchen as when Hans tried to run off with that filter paper,” said Sarah. “I was scrubbing walls for hours just the same.”

As we reached our yard, however, the change was startling: the soot and ashes stopped at that point, much as if a line had been drawn in the sand; and when we stepped over it, within seconds, the majority of our soot seemed to fall off and sift into the gravel to there disappear.

“I might just need a bath now,” said Sarah.

“Yes, dear,” I said soothingly. “Use that nice soap, please. It will help your itching.”

Sarah looked at me – and then hugged me unabashedly. I returned the favor by carrying her up the stairs unto the threshold – and then by asking it to open, I opened the door and carried her inside, there to set her down in the kitchen.

“That's supposed to be done after marriage,” I thought.

“Not here it is,” said the soft voice. “Ask Anna or Hans when they get back.”

As Sarah bathed and I cleaned my rifle, I asked, “will that stop the witches from trying for the Public House?”

“For a time, yes,” said the soft voice. “I would not waste time in making up your devices, as the next few nights will give prime opportunities for dealing with both sites.”

Hans and Anna arrived just prior to sundown, and their exhaustion spoke of a long day of hard traveling. They both wanted baths worse than anything, and as Sarah had left a fresh bar of the 'nice' soap in the bathroom's usual place, I knew Anna would use it. We were both in the kitchen addressing ourselves to a jug of beer with tinned copper mugs, while both of them were upstairs. I surmised they were preparing themselves for bathing.

“But will Hans try that soap?” I thought.

“He's sore enough now to try it,” said the soft voice. “You might look up 'Fell's Soap' in the Compendium so as to get ideas about its formulation.”

“I did not think of that,” said Sarah. “You get the burners going downstairs, and I'll find that entry.”

The crystallizations had continued while we were absent, and as I reloaded all of the smaller beakers with the dirty gray water from the large beaker prior to scooping out their crystals, I heard steps on the stairs. I turned to see first Sarah, then Hans.

“Now what is this you are doing with that bad niter?” asked Hans. He then saw the clean white stuff we were 'drying' on elderly-looking tinned plates covered with rags. He looked at it, smelled it, and rubbed a pinch between his fingers. Then, he spoke.

“That is decent niter, there,” said Hans. “That wretch told me it was like that, and when I opened that cask, it is fifth kingdom rubbish.”

“It might be rubbish, but it is not from their tunnels,” said Sarah. “Fifth kingdom niter has a differing composition, hence it is best used for aqua fortis, or nitrogen-acid, rather than powder.” It sounded like she was reciting again. “I didn't believe that lecturer, as he was in league with the rat-man, so I spent much of three rest days separating out a sample of each material.”

“He was right, wasn't he?” I asked.

“He was, at least for that portion of his lecture,” said Sarah. “Much of the rest of it, though – reading my notes was like reading the drunken writing of a person who'd been soaking themselves in Geneva.” A brief pause, then, “are you sure this is just 'decent' niter, Hans?”

“Why, that is what I commonly do to what I get from Grussmaan's,” said Hans.

“Drawing crystals twice, Hans?” said Sarah coquettishly. It seemed to fit her current 'clean' status. “With charcoal in the second one, charcoal that was done specially?”

Hans' eyes opened wide, then he shook his head. “I never did that. What does it do?”

“I'm not precisely certain,” said Sarah, “but I do recall commonly drawing crystals twice from 'purified niter' that I bought in the fourth kingdom – unless I was using that of Roesmaan's.” A pause, then, “my reactions tended to behave themselves better, but for what I'm cooking now...”

“Yes, and what is that?” said Hans. “He is involved, so it is different.”

“I'm not certain that is the case, at least with the niter,” said Sarah. “I originally tried to find the things to make southern cleaning solution, but could not find them in here, and I'm not sure I want to go right now to where I can find that stuff.”

“That is a far distance,” said Hans. “One can only buy that stuff in that market, unless you know someone good in the fifth kingdom.”

“Or Veldters,” said Sarah. “What they sell is not merely cheaper, but a much-superior product.” A brief pause, then “I got some once in Eisernije, and then tried it at school.”

“That stuff is bad for fires,” said Hans.

“That is why I cleaned that thing out of doors,” said Sarah. “I was at least a hundred paces from any building, and I left the jug behind me. I used a small bottle to hold what I needed, as well as some rags.” Sarah sniffed, then said, “only what I'm distilling here has a worse stink, but that stuff does clean well.”

“Yes, and what were you cleaning?”

“A very rusty gunlock,” said Sarah. “I'd brush it on, and then shake the rust off by grabbing the lockplate with a rag and shaking.” A pause, then, “I had to take that lock completely apart afterward, as every screw had gone loose and needed tightening, and there was still much rust that needed rubbing off with a carved stick and heavy distillate.”

“Sounds like it needed some work,” I murmured.

“It did,” said Sarah, “but I had no money for such work then.” Another pause, then, “the gun worked much better afterward, though, and the customer was very pleased.” A brief pause, then, “and only recently did I learn where I can get that kind of cleaning solution up here.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“That freighter does not speak of it, not to hardly anyone,” said Sarah, “and I learned of it when I made him some trousers late last year.” A pause, then, “he liked the trousers much, as did his wife, so he offered me a jug of it if I were inclined. I wasn't needing it then.”

“Why would he bring it up here, though?” I asked.

“I know Korn has some,” said Sarah, “and I would bet Paul has a jug hid in his basement. I'm not sure about Willem, but I know two cannon-masters to the north of here who swear by it for cleaning their guns if they must store them longer than a ten-day.”

“Cannons?” I asked.

“Foul badly, unless you use an especially good grade of powder,” said Sarah, “and that solution will remove not merely the crusts, but also any rust you might have in your gun.”

“And round-shots do that,” said Hans. “Willem told me about that, and how hard it is to get it out of the gun when it is bad.”

“Not when you have what the Veldters make,” said Sarah. “It may smell horrible, and have bad fumes that you do not want to even think about breathing, but it will get rid of dirt and rust on anything made of metal.” A brief pause, a sniff, then, “good, you used that soap.”

“Yes, especially on my head,” said Hans. “It is itching some there.”

“That is because your hair is sprouting,” said Sarah. “Now we need to resume this distillation here, and that means not merely ice, but also an odor.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. I could tell he was thinking 'chemistry is stinky, so what?'

“This is a very bad odor,” said Sarah. “We may have the technique down to a list and candles burning in the fume hood, but the stink is still awful.”

“Yes, so that is common,” said Hans. “Why, how bad is it?”

“I am surprised it has not drawn swarms of flies,” said Sarah archly.

“Those things do not come up here,” said Hans, “so why do you say that?”

“Uncork that jug there and smell,” said Sarah. “No, best let me uncork it for you. You just might faint from the stench.”

Sarah did so for an instant, and while I wanted to spew, Hans did not: he collapsed upon the spot.

“I thought that would happen,” said Sarah as she twisted the cork slightly tighter in the jug. “He'll come around quick enough, I suspect.”

Hans did but seconds later, and his face was unreadable. I wasn't sure if he was angry, afraid, confused or merely ill beyond the bounds of language. He turned, then began retching – and as he ran for the stairs, I heard first one instance of vomiting, then another – and finally, overhead, a third as the privy door banged open and Anna yelled something unintelligible.

“I think it put him in the privy,” said Sarah. “It did that with me for the space of an hour until you built this condenser.”

“Needs more ice,” I said, as I walked back to the cold room. As I came back with a partial plate of watery-looking ice, I not merely saw Anna, but Sarah speaking earnestly with her. I caught but bits of their conversation, and I stayed out of 'range' until the conversation ceased and Anna left.

“They saw what happened with the witches,” said Sarah, “and Anna did not believe me when I spoke of those wine-bottles and how you centered that buggy.”

“I what?” I gasped.

“I think those witches ate some glass from it, actually,” said Sarah.

“More than 'ate some glass', dear,” said the soft voice. “That bottle bursting like it did on the sheet-iron of the buggy's bed had an effect similar to a round squib detonating.”

“They were sliced up?” I asked.

“And bleeding like 'stuck pigs', said the soft voice, “as were their animals. The noise as it came down and the sound of the bottle hitting the buggy's bed frightened all four of the horses, and when it burst – all four animals, as well as the witches – received lethal fragments of razor-sharp glass.” A brief pause, then, “three of those horses have foundered, and the last one still mobile will only remain so for a short time further due to blood loss.”

“Witch-horses,” I muttered. “Dump loads whenever and wherever...”

“And dosed with datramonium mingled with strong drink, also,” said the soft voice. “All four animals were branded with rune-curses, so no farmer would want them.”

“Not even as fertilizer,” I muttered. “Cursed animals – do those need burning?”

“Depends on the animal,” said the soft voice. “Most animals currently aren't 'walking fetishes', hence burning them is a waste of good fertilizer.” A pause, then, “notice, however, that I said 'most'. There are some animals that need burning due to the curses the witches have put on them, like those four particular horses.”

“And with prewar mules, fire was the only way to dispose of them properly,” I murmured.

“So that's why everyone wants to burn the animals of witches,” said Sarah. “Those animals were said to live by spirits more than by food, and the same for all other animals owned by witches.”

“And up until about four hundred years ago,” said the soft voice, “all of the animals found in the possession of witches needed burning, with very few exceptions. That applied doubly if they were mules, because those were still more or less 'true-mules' and not the animals the Veldters have been breeding.”

“Which are merely surly and irritable if one does not know them well,” said Sarah. “I am not fond of mules, but should I need to travel and all I can find is a stinky mule, then I will ride it and bathe myself thoroughly afterward.”

“S-stinky mule?” I asked.

“If one must ride a mule,” said Sarah with obvious distaste, “one wants an animal that has not been deodorized, as that tends to put them in foul humors and severely depletes their stamina.” A brief pause, then, “and I was glad for that mule when I had to leave that mining town when it went to hell that night.”

“You rode a mule?” I asked.

“Yes, I did,” said Sarah, “and I smelt most-strongly of mule until I bathed thrice in a row the next day in the fourth kingdom.”

“Are those things, uh, fast?”

“The one I rode, not particularly,” said Sarah. “It was not a racehorse. Then again, it did gallop for an hour without letup over terrain that would kill most horses, so I'm not complaining much.”

“An hour?” I asked. “The terrain?”

“It leaped more than one dry river-course,” said Sarah, “and the second time, it came short. That did not faze that animal in the slightest, for it went up a broken-down place in the bank as if it were not there. Then, there were the trails I rode – they were fit for goats, if that, but that mule managed fine.”

“Maybe that's why the Veldters ride those things,” I said. “The ones I saw those people riding were not particularly slow.”

“I suspect they keep the best of their stock for themselves,” said Sarah. “I might not have gone in the Valley, but I went to its very edges enough times to see how some of those people live.”

“Why did you not go in the Valley?” I asked.

“Because I was not 'recognized' by the Veldters,” said Sarah. “They tend to exclude those non-Veldters they do not know well, and what they do to those foolish enough to go into that place without being first 'recognized' is something I would just as soon not think about.”

I recalled Sarah's mention of 'bathing in the fourth kingdom', so I asked, “an hour?”

“At a steady gallop,” said Sarah. “It needed a rest after that, but once it had done that – it drank its fill, and ate what bunch-grass it could find while I washed myself off in a disused watering trough – I was able to ride it more or less steadily until some time after sunup.”

“And not at a walk, either,” I murmured.

“It would have gone longer then, but I could tell I needed to get out of the fifth kingdom quickly,” said Sarah, “so I got it to trotting.” A brief pause, “and if one wishes to travel on the back of a mule, and one cares only for distance, the best gait is that trot they have.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It tends to loosen the lower tripes,” said Sarah, “and until I was cleaned out, I had to stop that animal and squat in the bushes with some frequency.” A brief pause, then, “still, I cannot complain much, as it got me to within easy walking distance of that border town by about two hours after sunup.”

“And you were safe there,” I murmured. “Was this a big town on or near the High Way?”

“It was,” said Sarah, “and I caught a ride out of there in a buggy once I had bathed and no longer smelled like a long-haired Veldter from that big town where they 'release' their mules for shipment to the fifth kingdom.”

“R-release?” I asked.

“It's on the east side, near that mountain range,” said Sarah, “and had those mountains passable trails running west, I would have observed it closer. As it was, I learned of it mostly by speaking with recent escapees living in the third kingdom's back country.”

“Escapees?” I asked.

“Many of those who leave the Valley do so because they have angered someone important,” said Sarah, “and while some of those important people are most willing to listen to reason, there are some who are apparently as irritable as anything.” A pause, then, “many of those people were said to smell badly – and smelling badly, especially if you are a Veldter, has several possible meanings, most of which I know but little about.”

“Those masons?” I asked.

“When they come next, I will ask them,” said Sarah. “It's time to drain that flask.”

We did so, and once again, I resumed 'cleaning' niter. A few minutes later, I asked, “do you know how we're going to fill the jugs?”

“Yes, somewhat,” said Sarah. “First, half full of light distillate, or as much light distillate as we can get stretched with the heavy variety. Then, a measure of niter.”

I held up the slotted spoon, and then Sarah held up a sizable 'scoop' made of sheet copper with soldered seams – they only showed solder on the inside, for some reason; someone had spent a lot of time removing the stuff on the outside, if I went by the scrape-marks that I saw – and heavily studded with 'fifteen-line' brass rivets. “This is an old one. I think Hans has an order in for a new one, but I'm not sure. If he does not, he should speak with Georg soon, and bring this one with him for an example for what he needs.” Sarah's tone spoke loudly of what she thought of this 'measurer' – and she did not think it particularly good.

“What does he use that thing for?” I asked.

“Filling powder-jugs,” said Sarah. “This one isn't very good, either, so I found his funnel and cleaned both carefully with aquavit.” A pause, “and then, we add the smellier ingredients, cork the jugs with waxed corks, and use glue and string to secure the corks.” A pause, then, “I heard that part of the instruction, and that clearly.”

“And the dynamite?” I asked.

“Andreas,” said Sarah. “It turns out we recovered more than a box of that stuff when we cleared the armory, and he knows where he can get more like it on a day's notice.”

“Weak dynamite?” I asked.

“He says it's about average for mining dynamite, actually,” said Sarah. “I suspect the Veldters do enough mining or whatever it is they do underground in the Valley that they make their own explosives.”

“They do a fair amount, don't they?” I asked.

“Everyone I spoke with in the third kingdom's back country spoke of their labors underground,” said Sarah. “More than one person spoke of them raising not merely swine underground, but of the pigs themselves.”

“Uh, what do they have?” I asked.

“Veldter pigs tend to be of many possible colors,” said Sarah, “but the truly large ones are black.”

“Tushes?” I asked.

“They have those, but I was told they were roughly as long as one's finger,” said Sarah, “and one man spoke of a pig fully as large as the largest Iron Pigs.”

“What were they doing with one of those?”

“It was pulling a cart on rails similar to those of a mine down one of the tunnels those people dig,” said Sarah, “and it seemed to have a temperament closer to a straight-horned bull than what one expects a pig to have.”

There was a pause in the speech, then thumping steps spoke of someone 'hefty' coming downstairs along with the lighter steps of either Hans or Anna following. I was transferring some 'fully cleaned' crystals to another drying plate when Sarah asked of our new arrival, “the club?”