Deep and dark-laid plans

I had the beginning of the 'dead sixth' to myself, and as I paced the floor of the main corridor just off of the king's hallway, I noted the truly dead aspect of the place. Before, it had been much more 'alive', but by killing off the traitors, and then shooting that one particular 'General', I had accomplished something that I had no idea existed.

“The place is genuinely quiet now,” I thought.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” said the soft voice. “Figure another week, perhaps two to get prepared for the Abbey, then two days to deal with the place, then perhaps another week after that before you sail.”

“No maps worth bothering with, I take it?”

“Sarah's copied the best one she could find,” said the soft voice. “It's better than nothing – though otherwise, you're closer to the truth than you realize.” A pause, then, “truly decent maps are not only quite rare, but one must be a ship's navigator to get one.”

“Their rarity?”

“That especially,” said the soft voice. “Remember, those are not printed, but hand-drawn, hand-traced, and then hand-inked – and the ones worth bothering with are all restricted.”

“And drawn by one of two people,” I muttered, “both of whom had to leave the areas where they were born because they became injured and the witches tried to kill them. Correct?”

There was no answer, save what I recalled of Sarah's drawing ability. She could indeed draw like an artist, and then, there was...

“She's close enough to marked to get witches after her nearly as much as me!” I spat.

“Which is one of the reasons she's as good an artist as she is,” said the soft voice. “Were Esther inclined toward drawing, she too would do well, and while you haven't done maps yet, your other drawings show your ability – and while that wasn't bad where you came from, it got vastly better on the way here.”

“And Karl just woke himself up,” I muttered, as I returned to the bench. “Deep dark-laid plans indeed, done up by three men who could pass for characters in that one story that had that for a chapter title.”

“What was this you said?” said the sleepy voice of Karl. “Sepp is fetching a jug, as we have the shift after you do.”

“Back to normal in the place?” I asked.

“It will not be that until that smelly wretch teaches girls,” said Karl morosely, “though I think someone should light him on fire and have you teach them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “My softer voice?”

“You have more smarts in your left thumb than that man has in his head,” spat Karl. “Now I have seen them turning clubs in that place that makes boats, and talk has it there is a big size, and then a smaller one, and I wonder what I can do to convince those people that I want a smaller one.”

“You?” I asked. “Why?”

“This big rat,” said Karl. “It was as white as the snow that you find near a horse-barn, and it was too friendly for me to like it much, so I put two balls into it, and was about to put another in it when it got sick of that lead and ran off.”

“And probably died, so we will have to find it by its smell,” I said.

“If that was a white rat, then it might get over that much lead,” said Sepp as he showed with a jug. “The man I was apprenticed to knew his rats, as he had more trouble with those than anything, and especially those white ones.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Common rats will eat meat if they are starving,” said Sepp, “but they'd rather get into grain if it's handy. Those white ones like meat.”

“And being a butcher, there was plenty of that,” I said. “Now what did he do to keep them out of his, uh, place?”

“First, you build your place tight, with thick stone walls and bronze-screened drains,” said Sepp, and you make your ground-smooth floors slope at least an inch to the foot toward your drains, with all of your air-openings double-screened with punched sheet copper that has been tinned so it's easy to clean – and then, the outside and inside of your doors are sheathed in tinned copper, and they need to fit tightly, also.”

“Access denial?” I asked. “Sounds like it works.”

“Done right, it does,” said Sepp, “at least, it usually does. Then, one wants a short musket or fowling piece loaded with stiff shot, and that handy on a strap at all times.”

“I hope to get some more of that stuff from Hans soon,” said Karl. “I've put in an order for a sword with but one edge, as that stuff he uses will not endure two.”

“I have yet to see two-edged butcher's tools,” said Sepp. “In the mean time, I'd just use what you have, as they've still got stacks of slates there.”

“Those are shrinking steadily,” I said. “Their number is less than half what it was when we got back, and that latest batch of swords is coming along.” A brief pause, then, “and one of the things I need to do before we do the Abbey is get one of those things into each of your hands, as while Gabriel speaks of the place needing blades, I have a feeling having a sword handy is going to...”

“Is going to help,” said Sepp. “If not at the Abbey, then at this other place that comes after it, which is what I want to talk about.”

“Other place?” I asked.

“It's like being in one huge dark tunnel,” said Sepp. “No sky anywhere, and bad lighting in most places, and while we had these muskets that look strange and act unlike anything I've ever seen, there were times we wanted to deal with thugs quietly.”

“Thugs?” I asked.

“These people might have had their brains pickled with strong drink for how they acted, but they were thugs,” said Sepp, “and drunk or not, they could show up like Sarah does sometimes, especially if she's of a mind to be quiet.”

“Uh, Sarah had this dream about thugs recently,” I said. “Blue clothing?”

“Dark blue,” said Sepp, “only it was a strange dark blue – it got darker when it was dark, and lighter when it was light.”

I then brought out the 'rough' knife, and showed it to Sepp. He tested its edge, then said, “testing to see how it works?”

“That, and I need to get some blackwood pieces for the real ones,” I said. “That one's a 'sample' for the carpenters here so they know what I'm trying to do and have an idea as to what I need for its handles.” A pause, then, “uh, why?”

“Because if you want to poke thugs,” said Karl, “a knife like you use is too small.” He took the 'dagger', then held it in his hand. “This one could stand more smoothing, but otherwise, I think it would work decent for that business.” Karl paused, then said, “did you get ideas from that one big dagger?”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “That, and Anna made some comments about ones like these, which is why I'm working on a batch of eight of them.” I then asked, “look closer at that blade, Karl. Compare it to your knife, if you need to.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl, as he took out his knife. He looked closely, then said, “this one is smoother to the touch, and has these wavy lines, and then this one could stand strapping more, and does not have them.” Karl then looked at me, and asked, “what gives with it not having those wavy lines?”

“Because that, uh, knife is not pattern-welded,” I said, “but from the first teeming of crucible steel.” I paused, then said, “and I wanted to test it to see how it stood up to heat-treating without close control of its surface finish.” A brief pause, then, “that metal seems to be a bit more resistant to cracks.”

“It should be, given you put so much of Norden's metal in it,” said the soft voice. “It's also a good deal tougher than your usual blades, and finally, it's actually slightly harder.”

“Now what does that mean?”

“It should take a good edge,” said Sepp, “and it won't bend, and it won't break, either – and that's exactly what a butcher wants in his knives when he deals with cattle.”

“Deals with cattle?” I asked.

“I've heard of knives going dull when they hit bone,” said Sepp, “and knives breaking, and then their handles falling off, and all of those things usually mean a butcher who's lucky if he lives to talk about what happened.”

“Those 'mean black cattle' are just that, aren't they?” I said.

“As bad as any witch I've come across yet,” said Sepp.

“There are witches that will eat a roer's lead and still try for you,” said Karl. “That one in the fifth kingdom house was one of those things.”

“Those black cattle are not soft,” said Sepp. “I've seen what they can do, and I've seen more than one of those things take a roer's lead and its soot, and then act as if it enjoyed being shot.”

“Enjoyed?” I asked.

“That bull gored the shooter, then turned him to red rags and flung what was left of him on top of a stoop,” said Sepp, “and then came looking for more people to put a horn into.”

I then spoke of the second pouring of crucible steel, this one smaller than the first. I'd gotten no less than twenty-three bars like I the eight I had forged into 'daggers', and while I wondered as to their heat-treating – that would be in the days to come – I wondered more about the actual planning for the Abbey.

“I think you will want to do that your-own-self,” said Karl, “as the two of us learned about planning on that trip. We would just mess things up.”

“Yes, if we try it without him giving us an idea of what is needed, or a list,” retorted Sepp, “at least for much of it. I might manage if you plan on meals while we are there, though.”

“You could?” I asked.

“How many people are going, beyond us three and Sarah?” asked Sepp. “Talk has it that Gabriel needs to go, for some reason, as this is for the crown, and then you most likely want a preacher to say the blessing once that place is cleared. I'd get those two that go to the church where you live, as while I do not know much about the preacher himself, I know his wife some, and she's like Maria.”

“They do look similar,” I said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Not just that,” said Sepp. “She's like Maria for fighting, or like Hendrik now is.”

“Maria?” I asked. “Fighting?” I asked.

“She's a decent shot, too,” said Karl. “I have seen her shoot quolls recently, and she gets those when they are flying.”

“Then how did those two traitors manage to run off?” I asked. “Hendrik said he missed...”

“I do not think either of them missed,” said Karl, “as I found some blood-drops near the door.”

“How could those people get any distance, though?” I asked.

“They must not have had a chance to bathe,” said Sepp. “I know that after bathing at home I found blood-spots on my clothing, which made me wonder how I got them until I actually took my first decent bath in the house here, and only then the shot started itching.”

“Those two might have bathed when someone told them they smelled during training,” spat Karl, “and they got worse every week that way after that ended.”

“Same as those who died when the Swartsburg went up both times,” I said. “We lost about half of them the first time...”

“Four the first time, and two the second time,” said Sepp. “Then, that one that tried for you downstairs, which left us three and the two of them.” Sepp paused, drank deeply, then said, “and I think that neither of them were much good, either for guarding or trouble.”

“Trouble?” I asked.

“I think they wanted to try for you,” said Karl, “and I know they wanted to sell you to a coven so the witches could sacrifice you in a witch-hole.”

“How did you find that out?” I asked.

“I was sleeping in one of those rooms where you can sleep here on the ground floor near the refectory, and the two of them were next to me, so when I need to visit the privy during the night, I go outside of my room, and just up the hall the two of them are whispering in the dark,” said Karl. “I stayed to listen, as I doubted they had good to say, but when they speak of you, I listen better.”

“Did they notice you?” I asked.

“I think it was their wine,” said Karl, “as both of them were acting like Gabriel did when he had just started on his third mug of Groessfuetchen.”

“He was, uh, trashed?” I asked.

“I think so!” said Sepp. “Whoever says that stuff comes on sudden is a liar, as I could see it was getting to him when he started his second mug.”

“And he did not notice how bad he was until he fell out of his chair,” I said.

“He made a mess on the floor then,” said Karl. “I think that is how that stuff works – you get your first mug, it tastes like unfermented wine when you start it, then by the time you have gotten half of that first mug down, your taste is gone, and by the time you finish that first mug, your mind is gone to Drunkenland and it only comes back to you when you are spewing from both ends in the privy.”

“Taste?” I asked.

“Yes, only not for just wine,” said Karl. “He was wanting squabs after he got through with that first mug, and none of the rest of us wanted those stinky things, and that place won't do them up anyway.”

“Drunkenland?” I asked.

“Is where most witches live when they are not where they belong,” said Karl. “Now what gives with this boat they are building out in that shop out back?”

“So we do not dodge witches on the way down to the third kingdom,” I said. “I doubt any pirate ship can sail in water that's barely deeper than your knees are when you stand in it, and I doubt they can go as fast as this thing will.”

“How fast is that?” asked Karl.

“Probably faster than either of you have ever gone,” I said. “I've heard of boats like this, and they are not slow.”

“This one will make you think those boats were stationary if you handle it right,” said the soft voice, “and if you handle it wrong...”

“It will dump you in an eyeblink,” I said.

“Stay shallow and watch yourselves until you get used to how it handles under sail,” said the soft voice. “While you're passing those islands off the coast of the first kingdom and the northern part of the second, stay as close to shore as you can.”

“Pirates?” I asked.

“Will have to stay at least half a mile offshore to avoid grounding,” said the soft voice, “unless they use boats far too small to carry guns – and they don't use those much if they're thinking of giving chase.”

“That is a far distance for guns,” said Karl. “I have heard that swine need to be closer than that unless your gun is fresh and you are a good pointer.”

“What guns they commonly have are not fresh,” said the soft voice. “Half a mile is 'maximum range' for their weapons, as a rule – and no pirate currently in business carries shells.”

“Will what you shoot travel that far?” asked Sepp.

I was about to reply that I did not know when suddenly we heard, “it will manage that distance easily. More, the bullets will still kill readily.” A brief pause, then, “only if you try to shoot further than the range of a fresh three-inch gun with patched shot that's been cranked up all the way will you have 'trouble' making hits.”

“Th-that far?” I asked. “The bullet will probably do about as much damage as a small pebble then.”

“Yes, a pebble traveling at nearly the speed of sound,” said the soft voice. “Any bullet that long, and that thin, and starting out at those speeds is going to range for miles – and only at its most-extreme range will it not be deadly to thin-skinned targets.”

A brief pause, then, “gun-crews near the end of that war were most worried about people firing weapons like that, as the shooter could readily pick them off at long range – and the only thing they could do about it that worked was either get a lot closer and hope to get a shot at their assailant before they were all killed, or give the matter up and get out of range.”

“Wounded?” I asked.

“You've not seen what that weapon does to people, have you?” said the soft voice. “Be glad that king in the fifth kingdom was hit by one of those weapons his men were shooting and not what you have, as he would have been blown out of his gone-to-kindling chair, and then died before you could have reached what was left of his 'throne' from where you sat.”

“That gun was trouble,” said Karl. “Now is what you shoot worse?”

“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “Fifth kingdom rifled muskets, like most roers, border on 'marginal' for most full-sized elk. They do not 'ruin' a soup-kettle's worth of meat at those ranges, nor do they drop elk 'right now' with consistency.”

“That p-pig?” I asked.

“Four hundred and forty yards, or a bit more than a quarter of a mile as measured in the first kingdom,” said the soft voice, “and then a quarter inch of Norden's surface-hardened double-tempered 'best' grade swine-plate, and finally three inches of very solid bone – and that was just to get inside that pig's head. It blew the pig's brains and the back side of its head out as well, which means that printer's lead slug held together until it got into the gray stuff. It fragmented explosively then.”

“And it stunned me?” I asked. “What would...”

“They don't have hunting weapons like that where you come from,” said the soft voice, “nor do they have Iron Pigs.”

“That sounds closer to a...” I was thinking of rifles firing huge cartridges, ones used by the military for 'long range sniping' and destroying thin-skinned targets at long range.

“Weapons of that destructive power and range tend to have larger bores,” said the soft voice, “and more, they are not commonly fired from the shoulder.”

“I was told to avoid shooting any more pig-loads out of that thing,” I muttered, “as I might be hurt too much for Anna to help me.”

We were able to come to some manner of agreement as to what we might possibly need, but as I left the two of them to 'rest' for a couple of hours before visiting the boatwright's shop, I knew that there was too much yet to happen before we actually set a firm date for the Abbey's 'investiture'.

The refectory, there to drink down two mugs of their 'dark' beer and fill my water bottle. What Anna had spoken about a 'beer diet' was gnawing at me, hence I was careful in my gnawing. I kept myself to small pieces of bread, and put some in my bread bag, and after getting the disk for room 67, I went there, a slice of bread in my hand beyond that which was in the bag. I needed but minutes to first finish the bread, then make ready for bed in the small room – and I fell asleep seconds after lying down.

I then had thugs in my dreams.

“Such strange clothing,” I thought, upon seeing three tall and somewhat thin 'thugs' come out of seeming nowhere, almost as if they came through an unseen portal in the slightly grimy concrete wall half-hidden by the dusk-dim lighting that passed for 'night' where I was 'hiding'. Their dark blue 'jumpsuits', these padded and with many pockets closed with what might have been Velcro, had the usual fabric collars usurped by these strange silver...

Metallic? An odd plastic with metallic plating? Some material I wasn't certain of? Something beyond my understanding?

They had odd silver 'collars', or perhaps 'neck rings' would be closer, with strange markings that were embossed into the material. Some of these 'neck rings' – they were now reminding me of the collars worn by slaves in the fifth kingdom when 'marching' in column...

That was something these 'thugs' did to perfection, much as if they'd practiced 'marching in column' for eons.

The neck-rings now seemed my complete focus. There were small holes on the lower portions where they clamped around the neck, and on one side of some of these devices – they all had the appropriate jacks, but not all of them had these other things – an earpiece of some kind came up on a stiff-seeming wire.

“Strange earpiece,” I thought at the sight of the hard metal clip and rounded 'plug' with its pointed extension. “Looks like it hurts to wear it.”

That type of pain did not matter to these thugs. Their whole life was one of embracing pain, of embracing suffering and torment, so much so that that retained pain was waiting inside them like a coiled snake, waiting like a Death Adder to strike at the first likely victim to show nearby.

These people handily beat such snakes for hiding, as they 'vanished' into a wall in what seemed microseconds. This then repeated before me, only far more slowly, and I saw exactly what they did.

There were a vast number of hidden doors, these so well hidden that only I could find them. It did not matter if I looked carefully with the naked eye; their seams were so thin and so well-camouflaged by an odd species of rubbery 'plastic' that neither a careful touch – mine, even – nor a strong magnifying glass...

“One of those is coming, you know,” said the soft voice speaking into my dream, “and also, a 'proper' ship's compass. They're in padded bags in a donkey train now traveling at full 'buzz' in the potato country, and while they have other deliveries to do, yours has a fairly high priority.”

...Could find these doors that the thugs used for 'rapid' ingress and egress. It was truly a matter of 'sufficiently advanced technology tends to resemble magic' to unsophisticated 'bumpkins' like myself. I was not sure who to call those I lived with, so did not bother thinking on the matter.

I could, however, 'feel' such doors with astonishing accuracy, and a Finnegan bomb or suitable substitute, if equipped with the appropriate detonator – one that used several matches, a cap, and a small bag of priming powder between the matches tied around the cap – usually made a horrible mess of both door and thugs when they elected to egress from that particular door and touched the device in the process.

This was so even if their 'messed up' eyes happened to actually see the bomb. They were so infernally clumsy when not doing what they had been exhaustively trained to do that they'd detonate one of those hair-trigger things without fail if they tried to move it. That meant every such thug within ten paces was scattered and most of the others some distance further away were injured badly – and any such thug in the area beyond the lethal range of one of those bombs, if more than grazed by a bomb-splinter, collapsed to the floor while screaming like a 'stuck pig'.

“Hard?” I spat upon seeing the results of a bomb detonate. “These people are silly putty! Pot them anywhere and they fall to the ground and scream like burning Shoeten! You could stick them with an awl and they'd go nowhere except down!”

Yet still, when doing those things they were trained to do, these people were not particularly 'easy' to deal with. They tended to be well beyond 'paranoid' as to alertness, so much so that they were truly difficult to sneak up on, and their odor...

“Either these people do not bathe, or they wear this bad cologne that smells like rancid sweat – or they're taking drugs of some kind.” The term 'speed sweat', with its supposedly rancid reek, came to me.

Another trio of thugs emerged from a 'hidden' door without so much as a whisper of sound. Their movements were so silent, and their trained precision so perfect, that when they came upon a citizen a short distance from their door, this totally without a shred of warning, they...

A stylized ballet. The first thug to the right, the second to the left, the third to the front. This happened nearly instantly. In unison, the dark green lead-loaded limber clubs began to rise, this inexorable, like the raising of a missile to fire, yet the whole thing happened so fast it was a single speed-blurred motion...

Clubs began falling, each strike precise to the point of long-drilled perfection, and yet so rapid each blow seemed the work of a supernaturally-skilled master in martial arts. One blow to the head, to stun the person; a sharp blow to the larynx to ensure silence – that would kill quickly enough, but it wasn't the thugs' training to just do that. When they went after someone, their goal was as much or more an object lesson as the perfect execution of every other ordered and minuted 'instruction' they had ever received – and the clubs rose and fell, their outlines blurred by sheer speed, again and again, in precise and powerful strokes; and with three such thugs, all of them drilled to machine-like perfection and acting in synchronized concert, the surrounded person literally stood stiff in place as the blows fell like a hard and unyielding torrential rain and the crushing of bones was a steady crackling gnashing noise.

Just like the fabled 'weeping and gnashing of teeth' in the book, and when the victim fell scant seconds after the attack commenced, they were literally nothing more than a blood-seeping sack of dead bones. Survival, even with the best medical care available where I came from, was beyond impossible.

The thugs did not leave until they knew the person was dead, and more importantly, would be impossible for anyone save the God they had never heard of to resurrect from their crushed state. He'd once done something similar for Paul, but that was not a common occurrence where these thugs held dread dominion.

“These people do what they do, and in that manner, for a very good reason, and 'exhaustively drilled to perfection' is an understatement regarding how they are trained,” said the soft voice. “They don't take heads, and they have no death-poles, but they do have training and effectual yet silent weapons – and more, they've been trained to do what you saw for years before they ever wear one of those strange-looking garments with the odd-looking silver 'collar'.”

“But if they get thumped, they go down screaming,” I thought.

“Their training makes them extremely hard in certain ways,” said the soft voice, “but ignores many other aspects entirely, at least when they initially go into service. The reason their trainers can ignore those other aspects is the near-absolute effectiveness of what they are trained to do – and these thugs do what you saw them do on a regular and most-frequent basis.”

“By orders of their superiors, no doubt,” I spat in my dream. “That almost looks like a summary execution – one where a head thug says, 'go and find that person and then kill them', and thirty of these thugs do the equivalent of Weidmansheil or that other word and then go after that one person.”

“It's usually nowhere near that formal, even if the end result is identical,” said the soft voice, “and 'great-find-crush-kills' are common in that place.” A brief pause, then, “there are lists of 'deficient' people, those thugs – they have 'special' names in that place – read those lists daily, they have pictures available of those on the lists, and when their overseers' surveillance equipment detects one of those 'listed' people in a given 'sector', one or more carefully vectored-in 'killer groups' show up and do their business in the manner you just saw.”

“Using hidden passages?” I asked. The answer was obvious to me, but I wanted to know.

And instead, I woke up. It was sunrise, and I wondered what day it was. It seemed that every day that did not have a church session was...

“Eight days a week?” I asked. “Ten, twelve?”

“At this point in time, no calender – should you actually find one that isn't about ready to go to dust from age – is accurate. The only way you can tell 'months' and 'weeks' right now is by the 'phase of the moon', and your semi-joking comment about 'eight days a week' isn't really a joke. Sunday comes when it does, and Georg has so many orders – and so many 'hungry' customers – that everyone in the shop except you is complaining about too many days working and no time off.”

“The rest day?” I asked.

“The number of days right now in a given week actually varies quite a bit,” said the soft voice, “and most people – those who do not work long hours with the intensity you do – notice that but little. You don't notice it because you're accustomed to working harder than a fifth kingdom 'deep-slave' wearing a trusty-cap – and those people don't get any time off from the time they're put to labor until the day they drop dead from inadequate food and constant overwork.”

“Deep-slave?” I asked. “Trusty-cap?”

“Answers to those questions will come in due time,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say you're working at least as hard on what you do than before you came here – and with the same devotion and attitude. Be glad that will change very soon.”

“Change?” I asked. I suspected it would get worse.

“Not really,” said the soft voice. “I said I would help you, I keep my word – and you need this help badly so you do not die like a fifth kingdom deep-slave wearing a trusty-cap.”

“D-deep slave,” I muttered. “Buried alive. A trusty is one who has been selected, just like they did during selections at Berky, and the goal is erasure as quickly as possible.” A squawk, then I actually awoke. I was sitting up in bed, and this time, I knew beyond reason, that I had had too much to dream.

“Trusty-cap?” I felt my head for the coarse itchy cloth of the thing. I'd been wearing one in part of my dreaming, and its itchy metal-reinforced fabric had nearly worn through my scaling and filthy skin down to the bone. It wasn't boxy, but the resemblance in shape to a box-hat was unmistakable; and the narrow brim, the near-metallic stiffness of the plastic-impregnated cloth, and then the rune-curses embossed into its front that named and 'controlled' those wearing them were enough to make me wish to scream.

“They aren't like that now,” said the soft voice. “You were feeling one of those made by that witch-nation for its deep-slaves, and those terms – which are mentioned in the black book – had an utterly different meaning then, if compared to their meaning now. Those Cardosso volumes explain what deep-slaves actually were in the past and why the duties of trusties either meant becoming a bones-holding true-witch in very short order or dying within days from beatings and torture. You did not become a true-witch, even if you lasted far longer than you should have. That 'marked' you for sacrifice unto Brimstone, and you were 'snatched' before that happened during a 'commando raid' on Berky.”

“Is this reincarnation?” I gasped. I hoped it was not.

“No, it is not,” said the soft voice. “Recall the concept of alternate time-lines and mirror universes? How there are supposedly an infinite number of both? Well, the last part is wrong – that number is finite. There are only so many alternate time lines permitted to each planet at any one given time. This one has more of those than almost anywhere else in time and space, so time and space manipulation is easier here than anywhere else currently in existence in all of the universes, known or otherwise.”

“And I was in one of those?” I asked. I was not certain as to which was meant.

“It happens to marked people with some frequency, or it did in the past,” said the soft voice. “In your case, it can – and will – happen quite often, so that you can learn information that you need to know so as to do your job. That's but one reason you need a great deal of help, and that location across the sea will be the source of much of that help.” A pause, then, “the boatwrights are getting into their morning beer, and I suggest you do also before you see them about getting some blackwood pieces for those 'poke-knives'.”

I did as instructed, and again, I filled up both water bottle and bread bag before following two carpenters out to where the boatwright's shop was. I could 'feel' the presence of the boat in one of their 'back rooms', this being a place where larger 'projects' were commonly worked on, or so I guessed. In the room where I was asking about small blackwood pieces, however, I saw what looked like a 'production line' going regarding parts to buggies similar to Sarah's for size and construction. A question, this posed carefully, indicated the chief holdup was certain metal parts.

“Irons?” I asked.

“Those, donkey-sleeves, and screws,” said the man I was speaking to. “This looks like it can be done with blackwood scraps, and we've got bags of those. Let me fetch one for you.”

He returned a minute later with one of the bags in question, and when he untied the knot of the bulky bag – it wasn't particularly small – I was stunned. I'd found exactly what I needed, and that in massive profusion. There were easily a hundred suitable pieces in the bag he'd handed me.

“Th-these pieces are almost perfect,” I gasped. “They just need a bit of trimming.”

“I'd sort through those pieces as to find those closest to the right size,” he said. “Some of those are likely to be real close, while some of them might better work for rotating pistols or common-size knives.”

I laid down two gold monster coins, which the man looked askance at, then he looked at me. “What are these for?” he asked.

“This wood,” I said. “I might have some drill bits for you soon, so...”

“Then we can use those coins to pay for those things,” he said. “Otherwise, we will put these in the saw-box.”

“Saw-box?”

“That is for when someone has trouble and needs medical help,” said the man. “A good saw is sharp enough that it needs care to use, and then even with ample care, those sharp ones can slip and cut the person using them.”

“Say no more,” I said, as I looked at my right thumb. That scar was gone, but the memory remained of the time I'd been bitten by a bandsaw nearly twenty years after first using one. I'd been overtired and in a hurry, both of those things being recipes for trouble when using much of anything dangerous. My current fatigue meant but one thing: get home. The flowers could wait until I was less tired.

As I rode, it was all I could do to stay passably alert and not fall to the ground, and I was glad Jaak and I were traveling on such familiar ground. As I suspected, once I was actually home, I learned that I had underestimated my fatigue, and that I needed another nap to not have a recurrence of a similar painful injury while at work; and when I came to the shop, the place was deserted of people. It made for wondering as to what I could do beyond homework, and as I went home with the bagged daggers clinking in my back of tricks, I realized that was indeed the portion I needed to spend time on.

I cut the brass rivets off of the one 'practice' dagger, then began sorting through the pieces of blackwood so as to try to find eight 'matched sets' of the right size. I could hear faint-sounding noises in the basement, and Hans soon came up. He came over to where I was working. So far, I'd gotten two sets of wood pieces that looked to fit with minimal labor on my part. I suspected my spokeshave would do the work 'fast enough'.

“Ah, you are home,” he said. “The house proper has wanted a lot of that wood treatment, as their varnish does not like water, and that wood treatment ignores damp.”

“Is this for a boat?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Hans. “I know they want an entire batch of that stuff, and not a smaller batch, but a big one – and those big batches are bad for soot if you are not handy.”

I went down into the basement, and there, I saw Sarah working on cleaning more niter. Just seeing her caused me to recall just what else I needed to do – make more 'vlai', and thence 'sticky meal' – and now, just why I wanted some more Finnegan bombs. I then saw her smock, that being that latest one – and I gently stroked her shoulder. It caused an instant reaction on my part.

“Ooh!” I yelled, as I began rubbing her shoulders with both hands. The sensation, if anything, was far better than I recalled. “This feels so good!”

I was surprised at Hans not interrupting me, but I was more surprised at Sarah's reaction. “I'm really stiff from cleaning this stuff,” she said, “and I'm glad you're rubbing my shoulders and back like that. It was sore and getting worse in a hurry.”

“Yes,” I said dreamily. The feeling under my hands – smooth, soft, supple, slightly fuzzy, delightfully warm – was the precise opposite of torment-grease. It was soothing to my nerves and very pleasant to the touch. “This cloth feels so good. What kind is it?”

“They call that stuff mule-skin,” said Hans, “though it has nothing to do with mules.”

“It feels especially smooth and, uh, fuzzy,” I said. “It's almost like a type of gauze, in fact.”

“I've told Anna we should use it for bandages,” said Sarah, “but finding some that is not dyed is very hard up here.”

“Best have Tam order it specially from its maker, then,” I said. “Who makes it?”

“This one place in the fourth kingdom sells it in quantity,” said Sarah, “but they are nearly as bad for thinking and acting like witches as those who make Foulgere's ink.”

“Are they the only people making that cloth?” I asked.

“They are the only ones who do much business in it,” said Sarah. “I suspect there might be people along the Low Way who actually make it, as I think that place mostly buys and dyes cloth. I know they have vats big enough to swim in, as my cousin and I got inside of that place one night so as to take notes on what they do for the west school.”

And yet, for some reason, I felt a distinct 'wait' inside. There were things we would have – and have soon – that would make undyed 'mule-skin' seem worthless for injuries.

After rubbing Sarah for a short time more – it was not merely the cloth, I now realized, but also who was wearing it; she smelled good, also, which helped – I began to help Hans with his wood-treatment. The first thing I saw was the pot he had in mind for 'cooking': old, battered, covered thickly on the outside with soot, and covered even thicker on the inside with a messy and gummy accumulation of the burnt-on remnants of many former batches – more than a few of which, I suspected, had made soot rather than wood-treatment.

I began to dig at this stuff with a pair of small scrapers I had made recently for 'pot-cleaning', as I'd had a distinct hunch Hans was in love with pots that needed such treatment. Here, I found both proof of my suspicions about Hans and also proof of my scrapers. The chips were flying within seconds as they dug deep into the messy gum to strike the thick bright tin of a once 'nice' pot. Hans, however, was not impressed with the chips that were now flying like rain as I dug into the burnt-on crusts, and he came closer to where I was standing. I could feel his 'displeasure' building like a volcano about to erupt.

“Now why is it you waste time with that thing?” he spat.

“Hans, that's why you have that stuff catch fire so much!” spat Sarah as she came close to see just what I was doing. She looked at the wide-bladed scraper with what might have been admiration, then resumed speaking. “That isn't a usual-sized batch, but a big one, so the soot won't stay down here if it goes up.”

“It will soot up the whole house,” I said softly as the gunk flew out of the inside of the pot to land on the floor in shattered black shards, “including where I sleep – and I have no desire to attempt to sleep in a room that's got blackened walls. It would give me nightmares, and I would awake thinking I was in a witch-hole about to be sacrificed.” A pause, then, “hence I'm going to clean everything before we start.”

“That will not merely prevent the soot, but also give a better product,” said the soft voice.

“How is this?” asked Hans. “Is it him doing the cleaning that will make it behave?”

“Yes, though not in the way you are thinking,” said the soft voice. “That wood treatment might not be quite as touchy as some things you routinely make, but it does not like burnt-on uncorking medicine.”

I almost spoke on the matter, but kept busy with my cleaning. We'd all heard about the tendencies of uncorking medicine and its proclivities toward causing soot and fires recently, and for an instant, I was surprised Hans did not recall it.

“And this has about three years of buildup, if I go by how much of this crud I'm scraping off here,” I said as I set down the narrow scraper and began using the wide one. The pot had been use for 'quite some time' prior to my coming; I knew that much. It had been thickly gunk-slimed when I first saw it shortly after coming here. “Now, let me guess – this stuff I'm scraping off causes a lot of side-reactions, and the thicker and more burnt-on this stuff is, the more often – and the worse – that happens.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “More, some of those side-reactions produce volatile materials that are readily ignited.”

“So a tendency toward soot means a reduced yield of the desired product,” I said. The wide scraper was getting the remains of the burnt-on stuff quickly. I would need to clean the thing well with aquavit once I had scraped it clean. The outside, I wondered about; the soot might give a look a witch would love, but I suspected one wanted a pot that was clean on the outside also. A thick layer of soot meant poor heat transfer, which meant a greater likelihood of sooty fires – and more soot on the pot as well as more soot for the inside of the house. The stuff rarely remained in the basement with this product; Hans had undersold its soot-producing ways in the past, if anything.

“And the absence of those chemicals that boil off weaken those which remain behind,” said the soft voice, “so the material is both lessened in volume and lessened in durability.” A brief pause, then, “the best way to prepare that liquid is to do so under several atmospheres of pressure while being stirred vigorously, with an inert gas covering and a platinum wire-mesh catalyst attached to the stirring arm.”

“What would that do?” I asked.

“Kill the side reactions completely, and cause the main reaction to go to completion in minutes instead of hours,” said the soft voice. “More, the resulting material would be even more durable than it currently is – and finally, it would be almost clear, not yellow-brown, so it could be readily tinted with various dyes so as to give something closer to paint than 'stain'.”

“Yes, and what would that do?” asked Hans.

“Make the best barn paint you ever saw,” said the soft voice. “It would soak into the wood about three times deeper than it does now, so the wood would be truly impregnated, then it would set up solid.”

“The wood would last much longer, then,” I said. “It might even hold nails well.”

“If the treatment is applied after the nails are driven, they are essentially 'glued in place',” said the soft voice, “and then, that wood becomes harder than blackwood, as well as significantly stronger.”

“Sounds like that stuff would work good for bridge-wood, then,” I said. “Those witches would be wasting their time trying to seed that stuff with their fungus.”

“Especially as that treatment would then kill the spores on contact,” said the soft voice. “It would stop dry-rot a lot better than it does now if done that way.”

It looked to take longer than I had anticipated to clean all up the utensils, but while I worked at cleaning the pot's inside – there had to be half an inch of burnt-on rubbish near the top, with the thickness of the material increasing toward the bottom – Hans brought out the main ingredients, those being drying oil, some cryptically marked chemicals that I suspected came from Grussmaan's, uncorking medicine, and finally, the main ingredient, this being a species of 'fish oil'. This last was the chief source of the product's stench during its preparation, and when I saw Hans about to check its amount, I said, “first, get a funnel. Then put a clean well-washed cloth in it, and filter that stuff good before we add it it to this pot once I clean it out.”

Hans had no desire to hear me; he knew how to do this, which was his way; and he was already becoming irritated at my taking so long to clean the pot, much less the remaining things we would need to use.

I thought to pause in my labors, then took the jug of 'fish oil', shook it it well, and decanted a sample into a beaker. The stench was beyond even my recollection of the last instance I'd recalled of this particular 'fish emulsion', and I rammed the cork home. The stench, however, remained in my nose, and also, my mind. I then saw what was in the beaker.

“Oh, my,” I said, as I tried not to vomit. “This is exactly why we have so much trouble. Look at this!”

Hans ignored my outburst; his mind was completely closed to all save his own thoughts. I wondered how I could tell this so readily. Sarah came running, however.

“Hans, you wretch,” she spat. “He's trying to do this right, and you're going on as if you're thinking about making your bones and starting a coven. This stuff has got pieces of dead fish in it.”

“Yes, and it is fish oil,” said Hans crossly. “That is how they make that stuff.”

“Dead fish do not help the finished product,” I said. “What we need to do is add some boiled distillate to that jug, shake it thoroughly, and then filter that stuff really well, as there's something in this 'fish oil' that settles out with time – and that's an older jug, unless I miss my guess. It's really gummy, but if we can get that stuff out, it'll help that wood treatment.”

Hans refused to hear me, or so I thought until he uncorked the stinky jug and added some boiled distillate to it. The smell instantly became much less.

“What is this?” he said in shocked surprise. “Where is the stink?” It almost seemed he was actually saying, “but this stuff is supposed to smell awful, and now it is wrong!”

“I'd do it that way from now on, then,” said Sarah. “That stuff smells horrible, so if boiled distillate helps lessen the stench, then I'd count the cost of it as cheap.”

“Yes, and it will catch fire easier,” said Hans.

“No it won't,” said the soft voice, as I resumed my cleaning of the 'main pot'. I had spoken too soon about going to the aquavit, almost as if the burnt-on material had replaced itself partially. “Between his cleaning of what you will use and you getting the the full portion of that fish oil that has settled out, you'll not merely get a third more end-product, but you'll have less stink while making it, a far less risky procedure, and a slightly better product as well. More, it will be noticeably thicker once finished, so the end user can thin it more and cover more area when he uses it.”

“And it will be more durable,” I said. “It might take a bit longer to dry, but it will be more durable.”

“Which is its chief realm of improvement,” said the soft voice, “and 'more durable' is an asset on a boat intended to sail rapidly.”

“How will adding distillate to that stuff make it less risky?” asked Sarah.

“I think it's that stuff in that jug that's settled out,” I said. “We'll need to add more boiled distillate so as to get the dregs out of that jug, then filter it carefully before it goes in the pot, not afterward.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“A lot of what I am scraping off here has bits of fish in it,” I said, “and I suspect dead fish pieces encourage those destructive side reactions.”

“Those are the main cause of the tendency toward sooty fires with this material,” said the soft voice. “A heavy buildup of soot and gum encourages hot-spots, which cause ignition of the evolving fumes once they come in contact with air; and then the pieces of dead fish help agitate the mixture while it's cooking so it evolves more of those inflammable fumes. Then the side reactions involving the dead fish pieces evolve the most flammable gases of all, so if the batch is any real size, it's almost guaranteed to catch fire unless you do things exactly right.”

“And make lots of soot, also,” I said. “Lovely, thick, greasy soot. Just the thing for black-dressed witches – lots of soot, so they're entirely color-coordinated.”

And as if the matter had been foreordained for years, a thick shuddering rumble shook the ground beneath my feet for a second or so.

“What was that?” I gasped.

“There were some black-dressed witches attempting some 'double, double, toilet trouble' chemistry, and their 'brew' just went up on them,” said the soft voice. “They are now not merely sooted up, but have become soot to a marked degree.”

“Become soot?” I asked.

“Go look outside to the west,” said the soft voice. “If you look just right, you can just barely see the fire on the horizon coming up from where they were 'cooking'.”

Sarah left forthwith, and not two minutes later she returned excited. “There's this sooty smoke coming up from somewhere very far away, but the cloud is tiny and the fire so small I can barely see it.”

“Yes, because of the distance,” said the soft voice. “That cloud is not tiny at all in reality, but easily as big as the one that rose over the Swartsburg when it went to hell, and that large building the witches were using for their work is now burning like a torch.”

While Hans himself went to look, I began cleaning the pot's inside with aquavit. I was becoming quite filthy in the process of cleaning the pot, so much so that I left off cleaning the inside and began scraping the carbon off of the outside. I was muttering about stirring up nasty brews over smoky open fires with sticks cut from a special tree at a midnight crossroads while chanting rune-curses when I suddenly left off cleaning altogether and went over to Hans' desk. There, I found a old sack, and opened it. It hadn't been tied, thankfully.

“What are these peeled sticks doing here?” I thought as I drew one of the thumb-thick things out of the bag. Its forked aspect at one end made for a recollection of a witch looking for cursed rocket parts. “Did he cut these for stirring that stuff?”

“His latest innovation,” said the soft voice. “Most of what Hans knows about this wood-treatment was taught him by his grandfather, and as is usual for him, he tends to try out everything he hears in local Public Houses that might work. The only reason he makes any degree of progress is that he does keep records of a sort.”

“Bad ones,” said Sarah. “They're mostly crude-looking pictures with scribbles on them.”

“This looks like something Ernst would do,” I muttered as I replaced the stick in the bag. “Now did he hear about that character and what he does when blackening guns?”

“Yes, and that's why he cut those sticks at a deserted crossroads at midnight last night,” said the soft voice. “He was getting desperate with that wood treatment and its tendency toward fires, and hence he had started down the road to witch-thinking.”

“Best put these in the stove,” I muttered. “At least they'll do some good there.”

The bag, along with its sticks, vanished before my eyes; and as I turned around, I saw Hans. He had returned, and his glare was now too much to endure. He spat, “you filthy wretch. Now you have ruined everything!”

Sarah tackled Hans from behind, and I first grabbed his head as he tried squirming around and biting her. I turned loose with my right hand, grabbed his neck with my left, then slapped him hard; then, while he was 'stunned', I reached into his right trousers pocket and grabbed something that felt so awful that I threw it across the laboratory while yelling at it to go to hell.

Every light in the laboratory went out from the muffled rumbling explosion the thing made as it 'vanished', and after I 'took Hans down' by kicking his legs to then pin him down with my knees in the darkness, I said, “wonderful. How long did he have that one?”

“The person who told him about Ernst's tendencies was one of those 'suspect' 'scholars',” said the soft voice, “and that man heard about Ernst from other sources inside the house proper since your return from that trip.”

“A witch in truth?” I asked.

“No, but with people like Tam, 'suspicion' is commonly the same as the crime,” said the soft voice. “Tam caught up with him two nights ago, about two hours after he'd told Hans what to do in the Public House in town here, and hung him out to dry the old way by the side of the road. He used what you did at the house proper with that one traitor as an example of how to do so, which was no accident.”

“How did he get... What was that thing?” I gasped. Sarah was walking toward the stairs, feeling her way in the darkness with quiet shuffling steps, while Hans was now inert under me. He'd initially thrashed a few seconds before becoming quiescent.

“A small piece of wood,” said the soft voice. “That 'scholar' said that was the type of tree to use, and he spoke of some ruins about eight miles north and three east of here where the trees could be found. He commonly cut pieces of those trees to sell at Grussmaan's when the 'witch-door' still did a lot of business, and that piece was what he had kept to remind him of his lost 'easy income'. He thought to cause trouble as he left his former sinecure-job behind him, which is why Tam followed him from the house proper when he left the place late that afternoon.”

“Cursed trees, no doubt,” I said.

“Only because of where they are growing,” said the soft voice. “Those ruins hide a once-active witch-hole that has a lot of cursed things in it.” A pause, then, “however, the thing that turned that wooden fragment he was given into a potent fetish was Hans' own belief – both in the potency of what he was given, and also, the potency of the concepts he was told.”

“Stinking wretch,” I muttered. “Are all of those 'scholars' in league with one another?”

“No, but the remaining four are about as effective as that deceased man in teaching people like Hans how to think more like a witch than he would otherwise – and because of the multitude of 'chemistry-curses', most of which date from before that war long ago, it doesn't take much at all of such thinking to be 'taken over' almost completely if you do chemistry.”

“So that's why so many 'chemists' act like witches,” said Sarah as she began lighting the blown out candles with her 'lighter-candle'.

“Are the others like that man planning on 'leaving between two days'?” I asked. Tam had caught up with the man in question about a mile south of the smelly clearing the night he had spoken to Hans, while he was heading south at a slow walk on his horse toward the High Way; his jingling coin-purses spoke loudly of long-hoarded moneys he had laid aside in preparation for this particular trip; and his dress, that of old ragged clothing, was the precise same rune-embroidered type that one well-hidden witch was planning on wearing during his escape south. 'Lesser' witches commonly used such clothing when traveling 'among the commons', I now realized.

More, he was riding at night; and that, for someone like him, was 'suspicious' indeed; suspicious enough to brand him as 'wrong' in some fashion. Now that he once more wore greens, Tam needed nothing more in the way of 'proof' than what he was seeing: a man he had been watching closely for some time was riding at night, southbound, headed toward the High Way.

The 'scholar's' thinking: “so and so said wearing these things would get me in good with those people in the second kingdom, and they make me look like no one special while I get myself there.”

Yet Tam knew what 'that witch' was doing almost before he had purposed to do it, and as the man passed the smelly clearing, Tam kept his distance to the rear. He planned on an ambush – much as if he were a third-kingdom brigand – when the road bent and became tight with trees on both sides, this roughly a mile south of where his 'target' was now traveling; and slowly, with rag-muffled hooves on his horse, he crept up on the 'scholar' as he rode his last mile.

More, he knew the likely destination of the 'scholar' given his current heading, that being the second kingdom house; and if he was going to that place, he also knew the man's likely business once he got there. That, on top of what else he had seen, sufficed for Tam to act; he knew that place all too well, and more, he knew the 'scholar' could readily find work among the witches there. Most of all, he knew the 'scholar' could readily gratify his curiosity in that place about the ways and means of the bones-holding witch, as there were droves of those in that place.

I then came back to myself. The basement was still dark, just like a witch-hole, even though Sarah had lit over half the previously-burning candles. The Sun lantern was upstairs, where it was sitting on my workbench. It needed some minor cleaning and possible adjustment, and I hoped I had tools enough to do so. I shook my head, and then heard the answer I was waiting for.

“They are,” said the soft voice.

I could almost hear the questions as to why I had asked, but I brusquely brushed those thoughts aside. A sudden rage welled up in me; I needed no weeks to come to a decision, no carefully laid plans, no watching and waiting in secret; all I needed was the sudden knowledge – of these men; of their collected treasons; of their multitude of well-hid evils – and more, how only one action would truly suffice to deal with them. More, I did not have a fraction of Tam's patience with such accursed fools.

In truth, I had none whatsoever.

I wanted them dead, and that now; and not merely them, but all of their coterie as well. This came out of my mouth like the roar of thunder, and with a snarling growl like that of an angry beast:

“Because I'm not waiting for the chance to ambush those fools,” I snarled, my voice rising in pitch and volume with each further word. “To hell with them all!”

Sarah leaped back as the candle she was about to light lit with the hiss of an angry snake, and suddenly, that crackling and echoing hiss ended as the room now glared with blazing and brilliant white light. A glance about the place showed every single candle was now burning with a brilliant whiteness, brighter even than if they had had wire coils in their flames; and the shadows, long, sharp-edged, hard, and angry-seeming, seemed to set off the soundless screaming that came from the tortured candles.

Hans grunted, then he 'awoke'. He squirmed under my knees, then he shook his head, much as if he was finally awakening from a long night of witch-cursed conjoined nightmares. I slid off of him cautiously, then stood and backed away a step.

“Now I remember,” he said as he came to a sitting position, then found a stool. No longer did he sound oblivious, nor angry. “I was worried bad about that stuff, so I go down to the Public House here to think about what I might do over some beer, and I get onto one of those scholar people from the house and he tells me about this special place with these good sticks for stirring chemicals, and I am so worried about the fire and smoke that I take the sample he gives me of the wood so as to know to look for, and I think to try doing what he spoke of.”

Even I could tell Hans had heard far more details than he had related, but the oblivion in his voice, that which I had noted as growing steadily over the last weeks, was now all but gone. Compared to recently, but the merest traces of it remained.

“And you were ridden like a smelly mule, Hans,” spat Sarah, “because you believed that fool's lies and did not call him out on the spot and kill him like the witch he was showing himself to be by his speech.” A brief pause, then, “Tam was waiting for that witch, and when he was a mile south of that one clearing, he came up and shot him off of his horse so he could hang him out to dry the old way easily.” Sarah then looked around, then at me: “what did you do?”

“Sent the rest of those 'scholars' to hell where they belonged,” said the soft voice flatly, “and they, along with those they were 'grooming' and otherwise influencing, are now supping with Brimstone.” A brief pause, then, “Hendrik was speaking to one of those people in his office when it happened, in fact – so now he has no doubts whatsoever about those people and their 'true and inward nature'.”

“What?” I gasped. “What happened?”

“Much the same as happened with that one witch that you spoke to with your thoughts in the fifth kingdom house while you were dealing with that king,” said the soft voice. “He went up with a flash and a roar, and the chair he was sitting on was dusted thickly with his remains, as was the carpet nearby.” A brief pause, then, “there are seventeen such mounds of dusty ashes, most of them in plain sight within the house proper, with a few of them on that one path heading across the wide field directly south of the house proper. Those people were heading home after long days of 'labor' when in truth, they were shirking their efforts like all supplicants do when plotting to make their bones.”

“Which in time, they would have become, no doubt,” I muttered.

“Yes, and now I have some sticks that belong in the stove,” said Hans. He sounded 'odd' for him; I could only call his tone one of 'sincere repentance'. I hoped that way of thinking was somewhere in the tangled jumble of his thoughts, which was so unlike my own all-but-empty-in-comparison head. “I cut those things from this cursed tree in the dark, as that wretch told me those things would make chemicals behave if I spoke right to the stuff as I stirred it.”

“The power of those 'cursed trees' was far more due to your own beliefs than their actual potency,” said the soft voice. “Remember this: the wrong beliefs, if held strongly and with sufficient conviction, can cause people to be as ridden fully as strongly as if they were fondling close to their chest a most-powerful collection of mutually-supporting fetishes.”

“And it wasn't just him speaking about the matter,” I said softly. “You've been thinking lately about things you've heard about here and there over the years, things involving chants and cursed sticks gathered at crossroads at midnight, and other such matters – and you've been thinking that way for a matter of weeks, if not months – or longer still, for that matter.” A brief pause, then, “you had to sneak out of the house at night without Anna knowing about it, then ride there and back without a saddle...”

Steps, these timid and 'halting', began to slowly come down the stairs, and I turned from where I now stood in the brilliantly-lit room to see Anna. Her face was writ large with fear, and her eyes were the very semaphores of terror. She looked around, her mouth open, seeing for her own eyes the glaring brilliance of the blazing candles and their long, luminous, and smokeless flames, then asked, this timidly: “what happened? Another bad fetish?”

“Did you check the stove?” I asked. I wondered if those sticks were burning like they should be.

“H-how do you think I guessed?” squeaked Anna. “First, there's this snapping bang, and the door to the stove where the wood goes thumps my knee and I look down just in time to see the door close and latch itself closed again, and I look down in there and see these burning sticks and this bag I did not put there. I had to dampen down the stove so it did not go red on me, they were burning so hotly.” Anna paused, and I saw not merely her shaking hand, but the tinned copper cup it held. I smelled beer.

“Then the whole house shook as if a huge man, one taller than the tallest tree I have ever seen, kicked it hard with trekking boots,” she said. “So I head for the basement stairs, thinking that the place will be sooted up with that wood treatment like it does when Hans is not especially careful, and then Sarah comes up. She asks me for a lit candle, and she has no soot on her anywhere, so I give her one and she heads back down.” Here, Anna paused, drank deeply, then said in a near-whisper, “then, it got strange.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I'm not certain,” said Anna. She now truly sounded confused. “It put me on the floor, I spun around twice with my face just above the floor, and when I came to myself, Oh!” This was an exclamation. “There was this huge sword-point jammed into the floor but inches from my nose, and it was blazing with blue-white fire, just as if it were made of lightning, and it was speaking to me...”

Anna was lost in her recollections. I could almost see the thing happening myself as it played out once more upon her face.

“It was telling me to pray, or someone important was, or something, but all I knew was to pray my hardest...” Anna shook her head, then said, “no, not that. I'm not sure why I said that, because I remember now. I was asking to be delivered from evil, as there was great evil, it was close-by, and I and all in the house were in terrible danger, which was why we were being guarded and I was being told exactly what to do.”

Anna then turned, and slowly, as if the place were scattered thickly with hair-trigger bombs, she began walking toward where I had been working on the pot. She passed Sarah's niter purification setup, then as my eyes followed her, I saw where she was heading. It got my tongue and bit it hard, and in shock and surprise I squeaked, “that pot! What happened to it?”

The pot was now shining, both inside and out; but more importantly, it had acquired a shape at once both radically different and subtly changed. It was an inch higher and two inches wider, with rounded corners instead of the 'square' ones it had had; and as Anna touched it, she muttered about 'heavy potato country pots' – and then, when she looked inside, she almost squealed.

“No rivets at all!” she screeched.

“No, there are some small ones for the handles,” I said, as I touched the smoothly formed cast bronze pieces that now served as handles. The metal of the pot was thick, thicker than I commonly used, yet the mirror-shining tin of both inside and outside showed not even the faint marks left by planishing. I then looked closer, and superimposed upon the now-gleaming pot I seemed to see a faint and ghostly image of the older one, and then, I saw its two rings of thick, lumpy-headed, and often cracked fifteen-line brass rivets, these looking crude beyond belief; the three vertical lines of such rivets, two of them 'for looks' and one to actually hold the sheets together where they lapped one over the other; the thick 'bent-over' rim, this uneven and jagged, so much so that when Hans had actually gotten the pot he'd needed to use a piece of this strange porous rock to smooth it enough to not routinely need to wear gloves when handling it – and finally, the dented and fire-blackened uneven square-edged bottom he'd gotten as an added bonus free of charge when he had first bought the pot years ago.

The pot itself had been a cheap thing, something he'd found in a second-hand store. Money had been tight then, and its low cost – and the seeming newness of the pot – had been all that had then mattered to him. He ignored the odor of the thing, thinking that to be a consequence of it having sat for months in a near-deserted corner of the dark and dusty store.

“See, right there,” I said, as I pointed to the half-dozen 'six-line' rivets holding one of the handles in place, with their small neat heads that showed on the outside of the handle. The ones on the inside seemed almost to have been countersunk, they were so smooth and the tin coating so thick and yet so even. I then turned to see Sarah on my right, while Anna had been on my left.

How Sarah had gotten there so quickly and quietly was a mystery to me.

“I remember that smelly pot,” said Sarah with distinct distaste. “It was covered with those nasty fifteen-line brass rivets, and that pot must have been a fifth kingdom pot, as they put them together that way down there.”

“As in bang the bottom out with a big drop-stamp,” I said, “then roll the sides and join them with a lap seam, rivet the thing together with these big nasty coarse brass things that might be called rivets, some for function and most of them for decoration...”

“All of those things, and all of it done by slave-labor in the fifth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “While that pot might not have had rune-curses chiseled into its sides or bottom, nor had curses applied to it before its initial selling, the fact that it had been made by slaves made it unusually susceptible to anything done involving it that wasn't utterly and entirely 'right'.”

“No more of those stinking fifteen-line brass hot-spots, now,” I spluttered. “Fifteen-line rivets are best used for those things that need them, and that means iron, at least usually, and not pots and pans.”

“Yes, I know that,” said Anna. “Had he gotten that pot recently and not years ago, I would name it one a Public House had discarded upon getting one you made.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“That type of construction, when used on cookware, tends to become 'poisonous' after a relatively short period of use if it is not made in an especially precise and careful manner and then tinned with great care,” said the soft voice, “and such pots need especially good cleaning on a regular basis with hot lye solution irrespective of how well they are made.” A brief pause, then, “the vast majority of fifth kingdom pots, however, are made with intentionally rough rivets, rough seams, poor tinning, and a host of other 'defects'.”

“What?” I gasped. “Why?” The initial idea that came to mind was 'cheaper to make', but I knew the instant it came to me that idea wasn't the truth.

“They retain bits of food, and that no matter how well they are cleaned,” said Anna, “and after a week or two of steady use, nothing cooked in such a pot is safe to eat unless it is burned into charcoal before serving it. Regular lye-cleaning only slows such trouble down for a month at the most.”

“But proper tinning would...”

I was cut off in mid-sentence: “that would kill a bit more than half of the bacteria present in such a pot after a week's steady use,” said the soft voice. “The bacteria that cause the most trouble can stand temperatures above that of melting tin unless that temperature is maintained for some hours – and those bacteria thrive in a hot environment such as is found on Public House stoves.”

A brief pause, then, “the use of fifteen-line rivets in cookware means that such equipment was either constructed by witches, or those who act and think like witches; and the explicit and intended goal of all such cookware is to turn everything that is prepared within it into food that is fit for the bellies of witches – and witches only.”

“What?” I squeaked. I had just heard something that I had major trouble believing.

“There's a chapter on 'Ye Preparing of Ye Foode' in the black book,” said the soft voice.


“Quote:

'And as ye Foode of ye True-Witch must be full Proper for His own Inclination,

His Pottes and His Panns must retain unto Themselves a certain Flavor and Potency.

It behooves All-such of ye Gear to have ye largest Rivets that it be possible to Drive,

that ye Crackes and ye Crevasses may best Preserve ye Power and ye telling Nature

of ye Foode which be cooked in suche Vessels, and this being so from Meal unto Meal'.

Finish quote.”


It was completely strange to me to understand this 'extreme' version of 'Ye Writtenn Formatte' perfectly upon hearing it, but the statements at the bottom of the whole mess were utterly plain. What we had been told was nothing more than the unadulterated truth, and this made for an outburst upon my part: “stinking fifteen line rivets in cookware make certain all foods cooked in the stuff come out High.”

“As to bacteria count, yes,” said the soft voice. “Most Public Houses that are not witch-run clean such pots as carefully as they can and sell them off after anywhere between six weeks and six months of use, depending on what is cooked in them and where the Public Houses are located, but in those locations that are run by witches, such pots are never cleaned, inside or outside – and all food prepared in them is indeed High, and that in all aspects, when it is served up.”

“Which accounted for both the 'High' smell you noticed and the pot's low initial cost,” I said. “Pfennig-wise and Guilder-foolish – had you gotten a decent pot with no fifteen-line hot-spots, you wouldn't have sooted the place up all of those times, so you would have come out ahead pretty quickly.”

“After the tenth such batch went up he was losing money compared to commissioning a special pot in the fourth kingdom, even if you include the time lost in making multiple trips to the fourth kingdom's market region and the travel expenses incurred.”

“Which are a modest fraction of a typical trip,” I muttered. I was thinking of the month-long trips that I had heard were common among 'king's officers'. “How long does it take you usually?”

“About five days of hard traveling each way,” said Anna, “and at least two days to rest up from the trip before we do much of anything down there – and if you were thinking of taking longer for the trip and not going as hard and as fast as we could, that won't work for much of that trip.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Not with most of the High Way more or less controlled by witches.”

“That is so,” said Hans. “Now how much of that boiled stuff should I put to this fish oil?”

“Another small amount for a start,” I said, “then filter that fish-oil through several clean rags, which you put in that funnel...”

“That is changed too!” squawked Anna. “It's bigger, it has this screen in it now, and...”

“Lay the rags in on top of the screen,” said the soft voice. “At least two, if they're closely woven and 'newer', or three if they are well-washed and a bit 'fuzzy', like diapers that are about ready for selling to rag-merchants. The latter are best, as they'll catch more of those pieces of dead fish.”

Anna looked at me, then shot for the stairs, and within moments, we – the smell had previously been more than Anna could endure, but the boiled distillate in the jug of 'fish emulsion' killed the worst of the stink – were filtering the fish oil. I added some more boiled distillate to the contents of the jug, then shook it while Anna watched me, while Sarah resumed giving her attention at least some of the time to the niter purification process. I was thinking on processing more sawdust, in fact, as the cleaned sawdust was running low – and I wanted plenty of niter and 'cellulose' for 'meal'. I wanted several of those cast iron 'pills' stuffed with 'moist' meal, in fact.

“Can we do up more of that sawdust?” I asked.

“Yes, once this stuff is cooking,” said Hans. “Then it will only need one person, as that part just needs careful stirring.”

“Not with a clean pot,” I said. “Just stir it every so often, use a heating lamp turned down low instead of cooking it with charcoal, and then, uh, use this cover here.”

“That pot never had one,” said Anna. “Is there one now?”

I held up the thing in question, then showed Anna the 'tinned brass' stirrer. This thing had a curved edge to one side of its blade, and a straight one on the other, with a long tubular handle. The whole showed but a handful of rivets, these being the size I most commonly used. Anna looked at it with unabashed longing.

“I could use something like that for Kuchen, save smaller and without those holes,” she said. “What are those holes for?”

“Good agitation, I guess,” I said. “It may take a little longer to cook the stuff over a turned-down heating lamp, but with little stink and no huge smoky fire filling the house with soot, it should be worth it.”

“Especially as it will not require constant attention,” said the soft voice. “Just stir it well every turn of the glass for twelve such turns, then let it set overnight to cool and finish running, and then jug it first thing in the morning.”

“What?” squeaked Sarah.

“I think that larger pot holds quite a bit more,” I said, as I poured out more 'gunk' out of the jug. “Hans, how much of that stuff did they want?”

“Two jugs,” he said. “They wanted at least that much. Why do you ask?”

“Because you'll get three jugs here for the price of two jugs' worth of ingredients, and all of them better than your usual,” I said. “Now, let's see... There's this one chemical that you have that will help it, uh, 'kick' a trifle faster...”

“This stuff is not a mule, nor is it a bad-tempered horse,” said Hans, “so how can it kick?”

“It will dry a little faster,” I said. “It's near the medicines over there. You got it a long time ago during one of your early trips down to that market, and it was in this place that doesn't usually sell chemicals, but, uh, junk.”

“That is the scrap-market,” said Hans, as he went in search of the chemical I was speaking of. Anna and I were finishing off the jug of 'fish emulsion'; so far, we'd added three 'doses' of boiled distillate. It looked due for a fourth one, as I wanted to clean out this particular jug as well as possible. “Now what does this container look like?”

“Corked with a long thin dark cork, an old-looking glass bottle, long thin neck and square-sided for the rest of the thing, with a label that's written in... No wonder you got it cheap!” I squawked. “That stuff is from the Valley, and it's made by the Veldters.”

“Ah, then I know what it is,” said Hans. “They only wanted a guilder for that stuff.”

My mention of the Veldters, however, had drawn Sarah, and as Hans brought out the dust-caked bottle, Sarah let out a screech. Hans was so startled by her noise that he let her have the bottle, and as she wiped it off with a rag, she said, “you don't know what this stuff is, do you?”

Hans shook his head, then said, “I do not read that language. Are you saying I should learn it?”

Sarah was so shocked that she set down the bottle on the nearest counter, then said in a trembling voice, “I think you might profit by doing so, as those people make chemicals that you cannot get any other way that I know of, and that is one of the chemicals I was referring to.” She then picked up the bottle, looked again, then said, “you'll want but a little bit of this.”

“About twenty drops for the whole pot,” I said. “It's a paint-hardener, isn't it?”

“It is that,” said Sarah. “The Veldters might not have trouble with dry-rot, but they have trouble with wood in that place just the same, and it wants the best paint to be had if it's not going to be eaten up in a great hurry.”

“Glossy paint, especially,” I said. “It also improves gloss, and, uh... This stuff is weird, Hans. It makes that wood treatment harder, it makes it set up slightly quicker than your usual stuff, and then it forms this odd film that's really hard to scratch, and finally, it's really shiny.”

“And it will give you about five percent added speed on that boat while you're learning to handle it,” said the soft voice. “It does all that you said it does and then some.”

“How will that stuff make that boat faster?” asked Sarah.

“Reduced drag?” I said.

“Not merely 'reduced' drag,” said the soft voice. “It will reduce the drag by nearly a fifth at 'common' speeds, as that film repells water extremely well – and the difference in speed between that material and 'common varnish' will increase the faster you go.”

“That isn't just reduced friction, then,” I said. “What, it actually gathers a static charge that surrounds the boat with a thin layer of gas, so it... What?”

“Once you get past the islands,” said the soft voice, “get out about a mile and a half from shore, get the sail full, keep it that way – and then hang on.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because that's when that boat is going to fly,” said the soft voice. “That wood treatment would be outlawed in boat racing where you came from, as it would drastically increase speeds on all watercraft – and it works in much the same way as you were just told. The drag decreases with increasing speed once you go past the point where it forms a 'full charge' – as that charge actually keeps the water away from the hull.”

“And there ain't nothing that runs on top of the water that can catch you,” I muttered. “Gentle on the tiller, thumb and forefinger only, slow and easy movements, as it will tip in the blink of an eye when it's moving like that.” I could almost hear the deep bass voice telling me once more as an echo of what I had just said.