What is this road called?
The remaining dregs of the 'fish emulsion' went in the pot with the fifth and final addition of boiled distillate, then with frequent stirring, the other ingredients went in one by one. The new measurer proved its worth here, as did the new funnel; and once the pot was starting to cook over a turned-down heating lamp – Hans was listening carefully to everything I said about his 'new' process, so much so that I wondered just how long he'd retained that witch-thinking that was supposedly so common to chemists. The answer I got startled me.
“Recall how I said he would change utterly in the months to come?” said the soft voice. “This is a small taste of that change.”
“Yes, because I was thinking like a witch for this stuff,” said Hans.
“What about blasting oil?” I asked.
“That was worse yet,” said Hans – who now had no oblivion in his voice whatsoever. He'd had more when I first met him, in fact – a lot more, if I trusted my recollection.
“No more double,double, toilet trouble?” I asked.
“No, I do not think so,” said Hans. “Now...” He looked at me, then asked, “I think I had best look up that one word you just said, as I have never heard of a toilet.” Here, he paused, then said, “but if I think much at all about how you said what you did, then I do not want to be within two miles of such a thing, as it sounds like it is something a witch would want.”
“A toilet is a somewhat more modern version of what one sits on in a privy,” I said. “There were a number of different types where I came from, most of which did not smell.” The last three words got the attention of someone in the room, though I could not tell just who that person was.
“Was this because of good air, or for some other reason?” asked Hans.
“Mostly because the ones I was familiar with drained their contents with a lever,” I said, “and some I've heard about would squirt you after you went, and then there were these other really strange ones that would off clean your entire bottom, but those were really rare.” I had no idea as to how to explain 'space toilets' and how much trouble 'going' was in a zero gravity environment.
“Ah, then I take back what I said about those things,” said Hans. He was stirring the wood treatment slowly. “This barely smells at all now.”
“That hardener?” I asked.
“It also more or less kills the smell,” said the soft voice, “and batches using it will need about half as much cooking time. It will want jugging early in the morning, however, and then thorough and careful cleaning of the utensils right away.”
“Yes, and with what?” asked Hans.
“Boiled distillate, at first, and then aquavit with clean rags,” I said. “I'd put the boiled distillate you use in a fourth jug, as you can use it for the next batch you make. If you're short of jugs, then use the one the fish oil came in. It probably can stand some more time soaking with boiled distillate.”
“That is good, as the carpenters will want some of this stuff soon,” said Hans. “They are nearly out of it, and they are starting to get busy, what with with planting starting to finish up around here.”
And for some odd reason, I wondered silently how Georg would respond to a buggy that looked as if it was treated with especially shiny varnish of 'darksome tint'. I thought to ask.
“He might like it, especially if it makes the wood harder,” said Hans, “as he likes to run with heavier loads than he used to. I have heard he is after another pair of horses for that thing, as he thinks his buggy is a freight wagon for what he puts in it.”
“A lot of what he carries is iron,” said Anna. “That stuff is heavy.”
“And plows, also,” I said. “Those...”
Before retiring, I changed out the cap in one of the squibs for one using a friction igniter, and I packed it in a small bag, along with some string. I needed to trap that one 'hidey-hole' the next time I went to the house, so as to keep the witches – the current crop, anyway – clear of it. I retired once I had finished the thing.
My words regarding plows, however, proved prophetic: the next morning, a very well-used plow arrived, and by the time I left at noon – I had the dead sixth posting again, for some reason, and I needed a nap before going – it had been joined by two more. All of them looked ready for 'complete overhaul': severe wear in general, a lot of missing fasteners, badly damaged and worn 'points', and in one case, a cracked 'mold-board' or whatever the actual side-plates of plows were called in this area.
“Those things are made out of butter,” I thought, as I rode toward the house. “Now I wonder how the house proper has changed with those five stinkers and their people gone?”
The change, while subtle, was still noticeable; and when I found Gabriel in the refectory asking a cook about beer, I marveled.
“I thought he liked wine?” were my thoughts, as he took a full jug of 'dark' beer and trudged off to his 'room'. I had a suspicion, however, and as I walked with him toward the back stairs – I was going to do some more exploring that evening, as I'd found what looked like a strange 'hallway' near the area where we had done sword-training, and it looked perfect for a 'hidey-hole' of some kind – I asked, “those, uh, other 'scholars'?”
“Were witches,” said Gabriel flatly. “One of them went to dust not four feet from Hendrik's desk, three of them where they sat in their offices while reading out of books that also went to dust, and the fifth one died by Tam's hand recently. Then, there were others who also must have either been witches, or who wished to be witches, as they went to smoke and dust also, and finally, there are some few others that seem to have left between two days.” A pause, then, “I suspect they are all where they belong now.”
“Yes?” I asked. There was more.
“I now need to do much of the ordering, what Hendrik does not do himself,” said Gabriel, “which means not merely much beer, as I'll be working longer hours than I did when I was spending my trial month at the west school, but also, I'll have a bit less work to do overall.”
“As in those people were making more work for others than they were doing themselves?” I asked.
Gabriel nodded, his eyes straight ahead, then as he headed straight for his office once I went down the stairs, I gasped, “what happened to him? Did he get the fear?”
“Partly,” said the soft voice. “Only partly.” A pause, then, “you'll want to 'toss' those five newly-vacated offices at the end of your shift, as you'll find something in one of them that will really surprise you.”
“What?” I asked. “Don't tell me – those people were reading literature that related to where they were planning on going, that being the second kingdom house.” I then paused, and gasped, “what they were reading went to dust?”
“Yes, because they were reading smaller black books, as is common for those planning with utmost seriousness to become supplicants,” said the soft voice. “They had had those well-hidden in their desks, in some cases for well over a year, but only since you started working here did they begin reading them with anything approaching regularity.”
“Which means that at least one desk still has one of those things hidden in it!” I spat. I was glad I was in a region where I would not be heard. The sword-training area tended to be one of the most deserted places of the house; only the 'bottom-basement' and the very top floor of the place saw fewer people – which made me wonder about what was on the top floor. I hadn't been up that way yet.
“I would carefully convey that book to that one room with the marked door,” said the soft voice, “and the end of the 'dead sixth' is the perfect time for both 'tossing' those offices and then taking what you 'bag' to that room.”
I took the back stairs up to the third floor, and from there, by the light of my lantern, I made my way to that one room. It was yet untouched, with the acrid odor still present as well as the dust; and I secured the wire of the friction igniter with string to a shelf near one of the corners next to the floor. The hardest part was then tying the string around the bomb itself, which took several minutes and nearly two yards of string; and I closed the unlocked door after driving a small nail in it about inch above the floor. With the door closed, I wiped the string with tallow and then tied the string that 'held' the bomb to this nail, leaving about six inches of slack, which I poked under the door – and as an afterthought, I used a rag to scatter the dust mounds and asked that my footprints no longer show. Before my eyes, they vanished as I watched in the light of my lantern – which I then blew out.
Yet as I sat on the bench in a dead-still building, making notes in my ledger – I had multiple sections now, these relating to the Abbey and the trip we would take afterward as well as that now-sizable portion that would one day comprise 'The Lunatic's Manual' – I thought, “tossing those places?”
“In your case, that means 'a quick touch to the door with a bag in your other hand along with your small shuttered lantern, go inside, close the door after you, find anything injurious in the room, bag it, leave – and then remove the bag to that 'safe' room when you finish the offices',” said the soft voice. “While there are two smaller black books, only one of them is in good enough condition to be useful – as the other one is very old, badly damaged, and missing a lot of its text.”
“For looks only?” I asked.
“That 'scholar' Tam shot and then hung out to dry the old way was 'sold' when he bought that one,” said the soft voice, “and the copies that went up in smoke were 'abridged' versions printed in the fifth kingdom some years ago. The one that remains in intact condition is not merely almost new, but it is also a 'witch-grade' smaller black book, not a 'beginning supplicant's version' – and the man that had it started his plotting on making his own trip south before you came to this planet.”
“Meaning he was the only truly serious one?” I asked.
“They all were, but he was both the first and by far the worst,” said the soft voice, “and given he spent more time at Boermaas than any three people combined who then lived in the house, it's not surprising.”
“His last 'four' years,” I muttered, “so he got an extra year, for a total of seven – and he lied about his going there, so no one knew anything about his inclination toward witchdom.”
“Which is where he not only received that book, but also the other things that go with such books,” said the soft voice. “They might be 'mediocre' as fetishes – mostly a badly-made witch-dagger, some old 'coins', and two cheap 'medals' – but his receiving them, as well as that 'witch-grade' black book when he graduated from Boermaas, sealed his fate unto Brimstone.”
“He lived here?” I asked.
“Yes, he did,” said the soft voice. “Gabriel doesn't have enough time on the job yet to 'merit' his own rooms, though with his added workload, he expects to receive something similar ahead of schedule.” A brief pause, then, “those other 'scholars' going up in smoke like they did, though, has laid even more suspicion in Hendrik's mind upon him – which, while that suspicion is warranted, is also a bit premature.”
“Bad company corrupts good character?” I asked. There was a place in the book that said something similar, even if I could not recall where it was.
“More so here than where you come from,” said the soft voice, “and given that the house proper is now more or less 'cleared' of bad characters in high places, Gabriel is now much more trustworthy in 'real life' terms.”
“A bit premature?” I asked.
“Hendrik knows enough about what is likely to happen in the months to come that he's suspicious of everyone who has not consistently over time demonstrated their 'rightness' in word, thought, and in deed – and that means he only truly trusts a small number of people, mostly those he either has known very well for years or those who are marked.”
'Tossing' the rooms was the matter that worried me, even though I'd found an added cloth bag in my possible bag while putting my ledger away when my relievers came; and while I talked briefly with these two – both from the class just after mine, and both of them having passed bottles for me to toss during the hall's destruction – I could not keep my added work out of my mind.
I went down the hall toward the privy once I was done with telling them how dead the house actually felt – there were a few rats showing, but these critters were the usual size and color – and once I'd visited the privy down the hall and to the left, I came back out into a very dimly lit and narrow hallway. It seemed to induce a claustrophobic sense as I walked, at least until I went past Gabriel's darkened office. I paused and listened for a second. I heard soft regular snoring.
“Worked until he fell asleep?” I thought.
“He's got one of those mining cots in there,” said the soft voice. “He knew of the possibility of longer hours once returning from the trip, so he put one in there within days after returning – but now, finally, he's actually using it.”
I then went down the hall but another dozen feet, and touched the nearest doorknob on the other side of the hallway. The lock clicked open, and the acrid aspect of dust that instantly bit my nose told me this was one of the offices in question – one of those where the 'supplicant' had gone up in smoke where he sat. I lit my shuttered lantern with a match, then closed the door. The charred match went in the soot-choked stove.
When I turned around to look at the contents of this 'tiny' room – it was smaller than Gabriel's office; only that of that one clerk had been smaller still, and it, not by much – I was stunned to see small glowing red spots upon the desk here and there amid a thick filming of coarse dust that seemed to cover the entire front part of the desk, with a sizable mound of dust on the single chair and the floor directly in front of it; and investigating the desk's drawers showed the same red dots upon things that my hands told me were 'dangerous' the instant I touched them. I went through the entire desk in less than three minutes, then a quick glance to the right showed a bookcase filled with ledgers; of these, there were three ledgers with glowing red dots upon them. I pulled out all three, then opened one of them seemingly at random upon the nearest corner of the desk – whereupon I gasped at seeing a page with several 'secret markings', these obviously drawn by hand, in one of the corners. Out came my knife, and I was about to cut the page out when I knew better.
“No, the whole book needs to go,” I said as I put my knife away. “If it has those in one place, then it's got dangerous ideas expressed in at least a few places elsewhere.”
The feeling I had was 'quite a bit more than that, even', and all three of these slim leather-bound volumes went in the bag. Another brief glance to see but one more red glowing dot, this shining upon one of the three student's lanterns hanging at eye-level – and I reached into the lantern to remove an oddly carved fifth kingdom candle. Its distillate smell was faint and feeble, which said it had been in the lantern for a very long time.
“A witch-candle?” I asked. I'd heard of such things before coming here.
“While witches do use candles, and they once carved them like that as part of curses long ago, that one just looks 'strange',” said the soft voice. “However, given how vulnerable many people are in the house, if one of those people saw it and had a thought like you just had, they would get 'taken over' instantly.”
The candle went in the bag without a second thought.
That finished that room, and the next one I went to – the next office down the hall, only on the other side – proved similar as to contents and the amount of time it took to 'clear' it. The third such office was that of the man Tam had shot; and here, I not only found much less of a questionable nature – he had little beyond that one book that had been spoken of, and what pages remained in the thing were so greasy and defaced that it was good for headaches only if one tried to read it – but also, I had the feeling that he'd far and away been the least involved of the five. I checked his lanterns, and found only a common wax candle in each of the two lanterns I saw, unlike the first two offices; and when I left his office, I had guessed my time at two minutes or less.
“Off by half,” said the soft voice. “You were in that last office less than a minute, and but three minutes each for the first two.”
“The worst for last, correct?” I asked, as I went to the next office in question.
“The worst for fetishes,” yes,” said the soft voice. “They're all in one area, so it will also be the quickest one to clear once you unlock that one desk-drawer.”
The next office was a replay of the first two, complete with a 'weird candle' in an added student's lantern; and by the time I put my hand to the fifth office's doorknob, I was prepared to feel a film of lard under my hand and a sense of intense evil. I felt nothing of the sort; I came inside, set my lantern down – and looked down to see a desk with a single – and 'sizable' – red dot. I put my finger on the drawer-pull, and gently pulled it.
I felt a click as the hidden lock unlatched, then the drawer opened with a slow dragging noise – and without even thinking, I piled everything in that drawer into the bag. It was all glowing with red dots, but when I found the black book itself, I thought to glance at it before bagging it. I'd heard about these things so much that a minute's worth of examination seemed uncommonly wise, and this desk had no dusting of ashes mingled with gravel, as that particular individual had dirtied Hendrik's office rather than his own. I wondered what he was speaking about at the time as I laid the book down and put the lantern near it so as to look.
“What?” I gasped. “Das Geheimnis des freude Lebens?” At least, I now knew the title. That part would no longer hide itself from me, though 'the secret of a merry life' didn't sound at all like the truth.
“The witch-versions of the smaller black books are written, at least in part, in Underworld German,” said the soft voice, “and the larger versions are entirely in that language.”
I flipped through the thing, and noticed first the complete lack of anything remotely resembling a table of contents, then where I expected to find the printing house listed, I found nothing whatsoever. I was expecting to find runes, or blood-writing – whatever that actually was – or worse yet, blood-inked rune-curses, but those seemed absent from this example. For an instant, I wondered why I had such expectations, but then I understood: those were not at all rare in these books, especially if they had been passed down from witch to witch. I then had a more-prosaic question.
“Who prints these?” I asked.
“That varies to no small degree, actually,” said the soft voice. “Those printed and used prior to the war had all of that information and the other things you were looking for – at least, as a general rule. Otherwise, almost all postwar black books, even those 'primer' versions, do not have a table of contents or indications as to who the printer was – or when or where they were printed.” A brief pause, then, “the exceptions are very costly, quite rare, often quite old – and need substantial connections to get.”
“Hence only familiarity indicates where to look in those like this one,” I muttered, as I stuffed the only true 'fetish' of the lot into the now-bulging bag. “Those other things weren't very strong, were they – or were they hiding that portion?”
While there was no answer, the weight of the bag now astonished me, and I hustled up to the third floor with a weighty bag and a mostly shuttered lantern. Once it was inside 'the danger room' and I had locked the door behind me, I was able to relax to a modest degree.
“Now home,” I thought. I wanted to be home before daylight, for some reason, and once mounted on Jaak, he seemed to sense this very thing, for he broke into a gait that was just short of a trot and kept it up for easily an hour or more. I struck the main road as the sky started to go to a very dark blue from the near-total starlit black of 'true-night', and as I began to look after him under the light of the shuttered lantern once I'd gotten home, I had an intimation as to why I wanted to be home before dawn.
“Frankie?” I asked. I'd not get to the shop much before 'the third hour', even if I hurried my before-bed activities and cut short my nap more than was wise.
“Waits on more charcoal, more flux, and your latest patterns,” said the soft voice. “Figure another three days before he flames again.” A brief pause, then, “I'd worry more about filling up the bombs you're going to use for the Abbey before he runs, then figure two days afterward to prepare to 'do' the Abbey and make up those other bombs you have in mind.”
“Hans!” I spat.
“That's why you want to be in bed,” said the soft voice. “You'll hear something truly unusual then.”
What this promised to be made for hurry while bathing and then doing my clothing, but as I sat on my bed 'getting ready', I heard Hans speak softly, but barely above a whisper. His words, these an obvious prayer, astonished me; for he was asking to be protected from trouble and evil. I went to bed as I heard him finish this, then as I closed my tired-beyond-exhaustion eyes, I heard Anna's voice.
“Why did you do that?” she asked sleepily. It was a bit early for her to get up, or so I suspected.
“I need to take that stuff I jugged yesterday over to that place right away, as they are almost ready for it,” said Hans, “and they will wish to test it good before they use that stuff, as they have never used it before.” A brief pause, “and I will want to watch them as well as ask questions about what they are doing so as to learn what I can.”
“Can't it wait, though?” asked Anna, as she made rustling noises. She seemed to be getting out of bed, if I went by what I was hearing.
“No, as that boat is important,” said Hans. “I need to get that stuff there, as they start early in that place.” A brief pause, then, “why, is there something you need in town?”
“No, not in town, but I do need...”
I fell asleep then, and when I awoke, I felt something tickle the bottom of my foot. I opened my eyes in shock to see someone – or something; perhaps it was a woodland sprite – running out of my room. I was so tired I could scarce recognize who or what they were, as they were not slow. I then woke up completely to thumping noises rushing down the stairs like a barely-controlled avalanche.
“What?” I gasped.
“Downstairs, sleepyhead,” yelled Sarah's voice. “You've got some really big patterns here, and the carpenters just brought them.”
The patterns that had arrived made for amazement, as not only were they the largest patterns I had seen, but I recognized them plainly for what they were. Sarah, however, did not.
“Lathe patterns, dear,” I said, as I felt the smooth glossy wood of the one for the bed. “This one is for the bed, this one is for what's called the carriage...”
“I hope not,” said Sarah. “Those things tend to have the worst witches of all in them.”
“Lathe-carriages?” I asked. “That's the part of the lathe that sits on the bed and moves back and forth on the ways.” I wondered if Sarah understood what I was talking about, even if she most likely had seen metal-cutting lathes similar to the one I was now planning to build.
“I thought you meant the kind drawn by those messy horses,” said Sarah.
“Messy?” I asked. “Leave horse-turnips all over...”
“Very much so,” said Sarah. “I've seen but four or five of them, and all of them in or near the second kingdom house.”
“Uh, those things travel, dear,” I said. “They, uh really get around, and, uh...”
“Are both more common than Sarah realizes, but are also found, at least occasionally, in all of the kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “More, while they are less suited to living in compared to a coach, they are far more comfortable to ride in.”
“And they make most coaches, unless those coaches have large teams of smelly mules pulling them, seem slow,” said Sarah. “Every one of those things that I saw moved faster than a postal buggy, and I suspect those running them change teams regularly.”
“Every four hours,” said the soft voice, “which is one of the reasons why they're currently the fastest wheeled surface transport in the five kingdoms.”
“Two-hundred mile days easily,” I muttered.
“Yes, if they stick to the High Way for the most part and run more or less without stopping,” said the soft voice. “They don't look like coaches, so very few people associate them with witchdom.”
“Unless those people have gone to the west school,” said Sarah. “Everyone I knew personally at that place knew about those things and where they came from, and who ran them.”
“Yes, your peers knew about carriages and their occupants,” said the soft voice. “Even at the west school, there was – and is – a substantial level of ignorance regarding those vehicles, as they're not currently mentioned in anything common – and there are but a handful of documents in the west school's library that even speak of them.”
“But I wrote...”
“The witches succeeded in deleting that one,” said the soft voice. “You could not watch that print-shop year-round, and the witches knew that, so they made certain to bribe one of the people in the 'main office' to schedule their truly important matters to be done during the times the west school had its people 'outside'.” A pause, then, “that bribe, and those after it, succeeded because it was done after that one session with the plain-dressed witches coming inside the place during the printers' lunch-break. That firm knew by then what a bribe really meant, and they also knew what would happen if they did not do as instructed.”
“Her alone?” I asked.
“No, but she caused more trouble that way than anyone else in the last hundred and seventy years,” said the soft voice, “which is but one of the reasons why Hendrik wanted most of those books that came here stored here and not at the house proper.”
“Why?” I asked. “The witches would cut those parts out?”
“That, or steal the whole set,” said Sarah. “From what Maria told me, what we received were among the last full Compendium sets of that particular printing, and that whole run of three hundred sets has had more of them stolen or destroyed than any other books she's ever heard of, by ear or otherwise.”
“Which is the chief reason why they're here,” said the soft voice. “Hendrik knew about the seventh printing of the twenty-third edition of the Compendium and how witches regarded it, so he had all of those books delivered here – including all of those thought to be required for instrument-makers, as to not include them in that shipment would arouse suspicion in many places.” A brief pause, then, “and that also explains one of the reasons why he received those plans for where the two of you are going to live – as it's not just going to be a house.”
“Not just a house?” I asked.
“The plans show the dimensions and materials,” said the soft voice, “but Hendrik was not given more information at this time than he could deal with.”
“He deals with enough as it is,” said Sarah.
“That's much of it, yes,” said the soft voice. “The chief matter, however, is the interior – and he knows enough to follow those plans precisely, even if much of what's on those plans makes very little sense to him. He's not a mason, nor a builder, so he figures it's his ignorance showing.”
“Such as, uh, grooves in the walls?” I asked.
“It does not mention those,” said the soft voice. “Those come later, along with a lot of other things that are left off of his version of the plans. What his version does speak of is more an overview of how important the place will be in bringing this planet to where it belongs in time and space – and how, in some ways, it needs to 'appear to be common for looks, while otherwise being a fortress in truth'.”
Sarah looked at me, then said, “I think what is done to the inside is a matter of who we speak to across the sea, and what they tell us.”
As I made ready to go to 'work', I asked, “do you know where I might find flowers?”
“Nowhere near here this early,” said Sarah. “The only place where flowers are readily found that I know of is the central part of the fourth kingdom.”
“Do they even exist up here?” I asked.
“Yes, but they're quite rare unless you know precisely where to go,” said Sarah, “and of the ones I've actually seen in this area, few of them are of any size at all – and all of the ones I saw tended to be high in the trees.”
“Trees?” I asked. I just knew there had to be flowers in the area.
“There would be plenty of flowers if the witches didn't dig them all up and destroy them,” said the soft voice. “If you want to find those, you'll need to look for them during your trips to and from the house proper, and that before you go overseas.”
“As in 'witches are too scarce right now to find them and root them out'?” I asked.
“Yes, right now,” said the soft voice. “Sarah, however, is right, at least as to years past, and those witches that are still present in this area destroy every flower they find when and where they find them.”
“Unless they are datramonium flowers,” said Sarah.
“Wild datramonium bushes are very rare,” said the soft voice. “Datramonium bushes, with few exceptions, indicate either the presence of nearby witch-holes, or areas witches believe they own.”
“That one near the Abbey?” I asked.
“That one's been gone for a while,” said Sarah. “Now I suspect you will wish help with these patterns, and I have an errand to run. When is your next posting?”
“Uh, tomorrow,” I said. “Frankie runs the day after, provided we can get enough charcoal, and uh, scrap metal.”
“Georg has gotten rid of much of his worst with that thing already,” said Sarah. “He still has plenty, though, what with that subscription becoming known about. I'll fetch the horses, and you can open the back gate.”
With the patterns delivered to the shop, I had some explaining to do, but I did this around planning the work for the plows. Georg had to restrain the others from 'jumping in on them', as he could tell for some reason that I'd most likely come up with improvements over what had been brought in.
“He will bring us more orders for those, you know,” said Georg to Gelbhaar. “I know you two know your plows, but you know how to do those the old way, and that is why those things are banged up like they are.” A pause, then as I looked again at the plows, “that one that came in here last is still doing well, which I suspect is why we have this business.”
“Bad rivets, also,” I said. “Punched holes pounded flat, really bad plate – more than that, even. The shape of these things is all wrong.”
“How?” asked Georg.
“These things dig in like anchors,” I said. “A plow is supposed to, uh, turn the soil, almost like a good chisel turns metal. It needs to have these things near here” – I pointed to the flat side of the nearest example – “done so as to break up the clods, then some strong bolts here.” Again, I pointed with my finger, this time at the place where the 'bar' came up where one hitched the horses or bulls.
“That is a bad place,” said Georg. “They break there a lot.” Here, he turned to the others, then said, “see, I told you. They will want the work on them done here, and not somewhere else.”
“Yes, when the thing goes to rust three ten-years from now,” spat Johannes. “Those will not break, nor will they wear out...”
“Right, planned obsolescence,” I muttered. I was too familiar with the idea, and I loathed it passionately. “No, think like this: 'I had my plow done there, and it's the best thing ever! Now I need this new thing, and this other thing needs repair; and my neighbor is noticing how nice my fields are, so he is thinking of fighting me for my plow, and then every woman in town wants knives that work as good as those things that I use for harvesting corn that I got at that place'.”
“Say no more,” said Georg. “I was right in what I was thinking. Do one thing right, and more people come, and not just for those things like the first one.” A brief pause, then, “if those need special plate or anything, tell me about it so I can get it. The freighters are finally running solid up this way.”
“We have some scrap plate left over from Frankie,” I said. “That sounds likely, especially once I cook it thoroughly.”
I had one of the plows apart less than an hour later, and as I went over each piece, I made more notes and drawings in my ledger. It was becoming obvious to me: this particular plow was utterly worn out, and was badly designed in the first place. I began drawing the parts that I had had in mind, but somehow, I was missing the special 'compound curves' needed for the long flat sides of the thing.
“The drop-hammer,” I muttered. “We'll need special dies for it.”
I thought to 'cast' those of tool steel, but as 'lunch' interrupted, I ate mine quickly and took up one of the just-annealed bars of 'tool steel'. I put it in the long forge so that it could slowly warm up, as I was going to make a chisel as had been suggested to me.
I needed a good chisel, or preferably a set of them, if I was going to work much upon plows. Those tended to use some of the nastiest fifteen-line rivets I had ever seen, at least for slag – and these three used those slag-riddled rivets in profusion. It made for wondering about the use of crucible-cleaned Norden-scrap for rivet-stock.
I needed a bright-yellow heat for forging the bar out, and as the rod lengthened while I forged it roughly 'round' and 'smooth' using swaging blocks, I realized I had enough steel for perhaps three such chisels as I had planned. I forged all of them to size, then let them 'stress relieve' in the forge without blast for a short time while wondering how to cool them slower than our mingled sand-and-ash 'cooling-heap'.
“Wait half an hour deep in the forge without blast, then bury the pieces deeply until after the usual quitting time for the others,” I thought. “I can work on them later today.”
It proved wise, as by then I'd not only damaged more of my chisels on those bad slag-filled rivets, but I'd concluded that all-new plows were required to give genuinely workable outcomes in all three cases. More, few if any of the original parts were usable, save as starting points for patterns and then fodder for Frankie. The three plows had hidden much of their true state of affairs well, at least until they were in pieces. Then I saw all of the huge number of hidden cracks and other flaws, as well as a great deal of severe corrosion.
“They'll work for feeding Frankie, won't they?” I thought. “Those things must be made entirely of fifth kingdom metal.”
“Given that they were made there,” said the soft voice, “that should not surprise you.”
“But I was told that fifth kingdom plows weren't like these things,” I said. The plows had not taken up all of my time; I'd repaired most of my chisels to their former sharpness, and started on the brass parts for another four of those catalytic lanterns, to give a total of nine of the things. I wanted those for homework tonight, as I could tell they were needed for more than just the Abbey and afterward. I knew that they worked especially well for exploring the less-lit sections of the house proper, and I had a hunch that at least one of the newer guards was almost as inclined that way as I was.
“Anna spoke of what she knew,” said the soft voice. “In truth, most plows are either made entirely of fifth kingdom parts in the fifth kingdom, or assembled in the fourth kingdom using mostly fifth kingdom parts – the rivets being less slag-ridden being the chief difference between the two. Rarely, someone north of the fourth kingdom's central portion assays a copy of one or the other common species of plow using local materials, which was what that one man had gotten by inheritance.”
“Mostly fifth kingdom parts?” I asked.
“Several smaller shops buy the rough parts in bulk from the large fifth kingdom manufactories, clean them up with somewhat greater care than the usual half-starved fifth kingdom workman manages, and then assemble them using 'second-grade' rivets from one of the local buggy-works.”
“At vastly higher prices,” I thought.
“True,” said the soft voice. “They work a trifle better, and it's a little easier to replace the bad parts when they eventually break, but most farmers have a tough time justifying a price three to five times higher for essentially the same barely-usable piece of equipment.”
“What do they use in the fourth kingdom?” I asked. That one phrase really 'got' me where it hurt. I did not bother with 'barely usable' equipment unless I had no choice – and I suspected these people were in the same unpleasant and terminally-frustrating position.
“Similar to what is used in the potato country,” said the soft voice. “Spades, heavy pitchforks, some few heavily modified plows, and rakes – and every piece a locally-made one in both cases; and in the northern portion of the potato country, the usual is to raise up the beds, much as is common in the fourth kingdom, as it gets more rain than the rest of the potato country and potatoes like dryer soil.” A pause, then, “at least that's what's thought by most of the growers.”
“What, they believe lies about their crops?” I asked. It seemed entirely plausible, given how common witch-thinking tended to be locally.
“Raised beds mean softer soil,” said the soft voice, “and usually, more manure is available for the plants, as the stuff is concentrated into those beds. Then, one does not need to plow or deep-dig nearly as much as otherwise, and finally, the insects are more readily removed from the plants.”
“Higher yields,” I thought. I then 'heard' the last portion, and reacted with an outburst too strong to suppress entirely: “picking bugs, ugh!”
“Tell that to Sarah, and she shall tell you tales fit to cause vomiting,” said the soft voice.
“She liked picking bugs?” I asked. I could not keep the shuddering out of my voice at the thought.
“If she had pincers or large tweezers, she did not mind,” said the soft voice, “but picking them with her fingers caused her to become quite ill in short order. Her cousin helped her out once she heard of Sarah having 'bug-picker's sickness' and let her use her own 'bug-tongs'.”
“The bugs here are poisonous?” I asked.
“To no small degree,” said the soft voice, “so much so that witches derived great delight by tormenting marked people by stuffing them into insect-filled sacks when they could not kill them openly.”
“You mean, 'they're toxic to marked people',” I muttered.
“More so than those otherwise,” said the soft voice. “Most people get sick if they handle insects to any real degree, it's just that those marked become more ill, and it happens sooner.”
“Most people?” I asked. I now knew one particular thing I needed to avoid: contact with insects.
“Witches can be buried in bugs – especially biters, fleas, and clothes-bugs – and they will not become ill,” said the soft voice. “They pay for that particular enzyme deficiency in other ways, most of which are far worse in the end than a serious case of 'bug-picker's sickness'.”
“Their end state is in, uh...”
“That also,” said the soft voice. “Becoming a witch does not merely mean 'instant hypothyroidism'; it induces a whole constellation of physiological and psychological changes, some of which you might find terrifying and others uniquely repulsive.”
“I can guess as to some of the terrifying ones,” I muttered, as I dug in the mingled sand and ashes for the chisel blanks. They were still warm enough to want tongs for handling, as I could feel their heat with my hands close to the surface.
“Oh, you won't have to worry about contact with insects,” said the soft voice. “You'll be well-protected by the time they become bothersome in this area.”
The remaining heat of the chisels was sufficiently great that I had to 'douse' them by wiping them repeatedly with wet rags, then once they were cool to the touch, I began to clean them up with files.
Trouble was, they were not inclined to clean up, at least until – in desperation – I thought to pray while doing so.
“What gives with this stuff?” I gasped as the files finally began to make a slight impression. “Are these files bad or something?”
While with prayer, the files did cut, they did so slowly enough that I was glad I'd forged the chisels so close to size, and when I briefly ran up the grinding wheel, I had an intimation as to why the metal was so obdurate.
“Those sparks are like those of high speed steel!” I gasped as the thin and thready red sparks petered out but scant inches away from the forgings. “This stuff is so nasty that even the grinding wheel isn't doing that much to it.”
I had no words otherwise for the metal, even as I carefully ground everything as smooth as I could with a too-coarse grindstone and returned to the bench to finish cleaning up the chisels. There, I had to pray once more to get the files to bite at all, until finally I looked at one of them and gasped, “that file's ruined!”
“A brief dunk in 'nitrogen-acid' will sharpen it,” said the soft voice, “and before doing so, I would pack it in charcoal and 'cook' it most thoroughly. Overnight in the long forge or that oven in a cooking can should help those files quite a bit.”
“Soft metal?” I asked.
“Less carbon than is good, even by the fourth kingdom's standards, then the usual 'to the changing of all colors' type of heat treatment,” said the soft voice. “Carburization followed by appropriate heat-treating, followed by a dip in 'nitrogen-acid', will all but transform those files you dulled on that metal.”
“They'll work again,” I muttered, as I fetched a fresh 'soft' file. “Nice workmanship, but the metal isn't near as hard as a file should be...” I recalled the files I had once used before coming here, and how those tended to hold up. The Swiss ones were expensive but generally worth their extra cost – provided, of course, one purchased them on sale when and where possible. They tended to be beyond my means otherwise.
“Why do you think most 'instruments' are of brass or other softer metals?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Preferably 'good' or 'best' rolled brass?”
“Soft cutters, right?” I murmured. “Will Pieter want his, uh, sextant blackened, or must it be shiny 'polished' brass?”
“He'll need something 'close' to the latter to avoid trouble, and that no matter where or to whom he shows it,” said the soft voice. “By the time it's thought permissible to have a true non-glare surface on such navigating tools, the danger inherent in using something at sea that shines like a mirror will no longer be an issue.”
“Need?” I asked. “As in to show such an instrument...” I paused in mid-sentence, then asked, “are sailors unusually superstitious?”
“They tend to be less so than most people, actually,” said the soft voice. “The sea here does not respond well to witch-thinking, especially if you run a capable ship and wish to travel at a good speed.”
“Bad seas?” I asked. “Storms?”
“No,” said the soft voice. “The precise opposite. Recall what you were shown? How the sea was almost like glass, even with a decent wind at your back and to the offshore side?”
“Y-yes?” I asked.
“Storms are very rare, as long as you don't get close to Norden during its 'bad season'; and waves, even at the shores, are but a few inches tall,” said the soft voice. “It's practically made to order for what you're going to be using, as that type of craft tends to work best on calm water.”
And yet, as I began 'ruining' another file, I knew that the sea held its own secrets for dark boats like what I would be riding within ten to twelve days. It would be the talk of the 'world' when it came into the sea-lanes, as in truth, nothing that ran on top of the water here could catch it if there was any wind at all.
I quenched the chisels from bright-orange heat in near-smoking oil, as I had been told, with the smoke and billowing flames of a 'fat-quench' filling the shop such that the place seemed impossible to breathe in until I went outside with a still smoking chisel in my tongs; and from that vantage point, I saw the roof billowing thick gray smoke in the slow-gathering dusk of late afternoon.
Twice more the flames and smoke billowing thickly as I quenched the other chisels, and then a quick run on the buffer; then slowly 'cooking' them to 'just past blue' and then quenching in water. I wanted to try one out bad by now, and I went to an unusually thick fifth kingdom rivet, one that had resisted all of my other chisels. I put the new chisel against it, and swung the hammer.
The rivet head flew off as if the obdurate soft-hard-soft slag-ridden metal were tinfoil.
The chisel, however, was unmarked. I then found an old file, tested it – as hard as the best of what I had, even if still 'worn out' – and put it in the vise.
The wide way, such that it was gripped firmly. I reefed upon the handle hard, and as I did, I recalled one thing I needed for the Abbey: at least one good rock-bit. This stuff I had made for the chisels sounded likely indeed, and if they cut this file, they'd be perfect for it. With that in mind, I put another billet in the forge, added more charcoal on top of it, then returned to the vise. I set the tip of the chisel against the file, aimed my hammer, and swung.
The first stroke cut deeply, almost as if the file was an unusually bad rivet; the second stroke, deeper still – and the third one sent the unclamped portion of the file flying as the chisel sheered it off cleanly.
My chisel was utterly unfazed, and as I set it down, I set to work upon the new billet. I knew the secrets of this metal now, and as I worked it, whenever I needed to take breaks – I left the lengthening billet deep in the coals then – I removed the handles from my 'ruined' files, then put them, one at a time, into the deepest portion of the forge. They'd not need long, I suspected, to become 'usable' again, and by the time I'd used a suitable swage to rough-forge to size the tips of the two rock-bits I'd managed – they were longer than the chisels, if roughly the same diameter; they bulged slightly at the striking end, and the swelling was longer and thicker at the cutting end – I'd gotten my files in the forge.
Once the rock-bits were forged, I moved the blower away and shut it down. I would need hard files to do these items up, which meant, one after the other, straight up and down, I quenched each of the files in oil and then water over the next few minutes. I needed another breather after that, as while most of the files were smaller and a bit colder, there were more of them than there had been of chisels; and the end state of the shop was worse for smoke than it had been with quenching the chisels.
After removing the still-cooling rock bits and putting them in the sand, I thought to pray for the chisels, and as I first rubbed the dirt out of them – but one rag became dirty with my rubbing for the three – and then asked for them to become 'as cold as the realm between the stars', the chill that filled the whole barn-like building clung to my skin for a count of five as if I were buried in snow before it began to dissipate in the heat of the still-glowing long-forge.
The three chisels were buried in snow; and I let them stay in their small frozen world while I gathered those things I needed for homework. I had a lot of such work, much of which involved catalytic lanterns; and of course, sharpening the files enough so they would work again. I'd need to cook them properly in the future.
Some of this work involved parts for Georg's buggy, and those promised to be tricky, even given their castings being some that I had done myself; and when I finally collected up the chisels – they were still cold enough to want packing in rags, then bagging separately prior to stuffing in my 'bag of tricks – I noted the time as I glanced at the crack showing between the doors:
“About an hour before sundown,” I thought. “Now why did those people” – I meant those who worked here other than me – “think it's so important to quit in the middle of the afternoon? Is it because that's the custom?”
While I had no answer then, I had something of one later at dinner. Before doing much else, I had found a tall and thin beaker, filled it with diluted 'aqua fortis' – Hans' stuff sufficed for 'biting' files – and one after another, I dunked them and then dropped them in a crock filled with 'stinky' lye and hot water. Removing them from the latter nausea-inducing liquid showed them not merely clean and bright – they had never been this clean before – but also, their small irregularities seemed to have been erased. A wash with water, a touch with my fingers, and...
“Ouch!” I squeaked. “These things could almost draw blood!”
“See, I told you,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to put both of those things aside for doing more files as you are able – especially once you have time to cook them thoroughly. That brief time of 'cooking' you managed this afternoon will suffice for the time being.”
“Are they hard?” I asked.
“Try them later tonight on those rock-bits,” said the soft voice as I put away what I had used under the fume hood and then headed for the stairs. “They won't need much grinding, but they will need filing.”
The chisels now were at room temperature, and looking closely at them showed not merely to have a mirror-finish everywhere, but also rainbows coming off of their edges. I suspected I wanted similar tools for my lathe, prayed for and all. As I sat down to the table, this was my thinking; I had dusted off the filings and chips common to 'homework' before taking my seat.
“A full set of lathe bits, no less,” I thought. “Those things will...”
“No, they will not be red-hard then,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise you'll have a very hard time telling them apart from that 'mean' stuff you liked to call 'bad cobalt' steel.”
“They'll not hardly go dull, you mean?” I asked silently.
“That also,” said the soft voice. “With those bits, get them exactly where you want them before you pray for them, as the stones you currently have will not touch them afterward.”
About midway through the meal – the pace of eating had slowed then; before that, it had been difficult to get a word out of my mouth for the food that was going into it, and the same for everyone else – I asked, “why do people quit here earlier than, say, the fourth kingdom?”
“I am not sure,” said Hans. “I think people are lazier up here, is what I think.”
“Not just that, Hans,” said Sarah. “Once you get any distance from that market town or the kingdom house, people tend to work fewer hours unless they will starve otherwise.”
Anna had no idea beyond that advanced by the other two; and this, I recalled, was in contrast to the nature of witchdom, if I went by what I had seen and heard. That one horrible dream had spoken of how all who were perfect – as defined by witchdom – were to labor without cease, lest they become liable to 'discipline'; and observation thus far seemed to confirm the truth of that dream to at least some degree for black-dressed witches. I let the matter rest, for I had work that needed me doing it.
I had a late night working on 'homework', and I then left the shop the next day once I had finished up the rock-bits. This time, while I still needed to pray for the files to truly 'bite', they did not go dull to any noted degree; more, my progress on the rock-bits, once I had ground the 'bark' off with the grinding wheel, was much more rapid. Another fat-quench – it drove the others out of the shop as well as myself – and then annealing, and I had my rock-bits.
It was a good thing that I had gotten an early start, as the rock bits had needed frequent rest-breaks. Filing such hard and obdurate steel was tiring, and more, it was indeed as I had been told: I would need to do a lot of filing. I wobbled home after finishing those things up, my 'bag of tricks' holding them, and once home, I but barely realized how 'late' I was.
I barely had time to eat and bathe, and then needed to head out, this at something of a hurry; I had the fourth posting for a change, and when I arrived, I barely had time to get some beer before hurrying to the bench, where the other two – two 'new' guards – were already present and talking to those going 'off-shift'. My presence brought an end to the questions, and the three 'off-shift' guards left.
These two men were those two of that latest class who had attended the destruction of the hall, and while one of them held a guard-musket at the ready, I noted the other was looking at my possible bag.
“I hope you have a rat-club in there, as the rats are starting in here,” he said.
“I broke it on a white rat,” I said. “Did someone tell you about those?”
He had not heard about the two rats and their demise; and both men were now interested in these peculiar-colored rodents. I spoke of their added size, their seeming agility, their capacity to absorb lead – “you want stiff shot if you use a guard-musket, and shoot close-up to stop them” – and also, just how I had ruined my club.
“You might want to check out in the boatwright's shop, then, as they are turning clubs now,” said the man holding the musket. “They have some they have made of layers which will be stronger, but these they are doing now are not 'weak' like that one you broke.”
“Blackwood?” I asked.
“You might ask them for one of those,” he said. “I saw several of those things earlier today.”
“Those of the layers?” I asked.
“Several are large,” said the other man, “and they come to my chest, or will. Then, there are several others, which are still large for rats, but they are easily a foot shorter and perhaps the width of a finger less for width – and those they said they had to make stronger than the big ones, because...” Here, he paused, added up what he'd heard, then spat, “so it was you!”
“What?” I asked.
“There was this busted rat-club with only the lead in it holding it together, and it was tagged as being of weak wood,” he said, “but I tried cutting on that wood with my knife, and it is not weak at all.”
“Uh, who said it was weak?” I asked.
“I am not sure,” he said, “but before the pigs came to our town, I was a carpenter's apprentice, and I was told that I would journey a year and a summer early. I only had the rest of that last year left to go when those stinking pigs came and wrecked everything that night, and then the witches came the next morning and shot everyone they could find who was still alive.”
“Witches?” I screeched. “Shot?”
“Yes, as if they knew about those pigs coming and those with them,” he said. “Our family had stood off the pigs passably, but I was hunting up a bush when the witches came, so I saw my family shot down from where I hid some distance away.”
“And then, the witches came out of their smelly coaches, and they started killing people who were hurt with knives and swords while yelling words that neither of us could understand,” said the other.
“They were s-sacrificing everyone in that place to B-brimstone,” I squeaked. “They planned on destroying that entire town, and they arranged it in advance with those people from Norden.” I almost screamed; then said, “so it is true.”
“What?” asked the two men in unison.
“The witches here want those northern people to kill most of us and enslave the rest, and that was a dry run.”
“Exactly correct, save for it being 'a dry run',” said the soft voice. “That was the real thing, only not on a kingdom-wide scale – and the only reason those witches didn't do 'selections' on the spot was they already had enough slaves in 'their' slave-dens, and were inclined toward 'sport'.”
“Sport!” I gasped.
“Yes, hunting,” said the younger of the two. “Witches do not just hunt because they want people to kill in witch-holes – they also hunt because they enjoy killing, and seeing others suffer gives them pleasure.”
“Also very true,” said the soft voice.
The boatwright's shop had no lights burning when I left in the darkness, though as I passed by it, I could tell its lights had burned for at least two hours after the sun went down and had but recently been doused. While Frankie would run tomorrow, and I had a long hot day of foundry work ahead of me, I wondered if I could attempt to find flowers in the darkness. I would not have many chances left, as I suspected I had all of one more posting prior to the Abbey, then possibly two more after it.
“Two more after, and that one time only before then,” said the soft voice, “and those postings because you're thought to need that time to plan, which is why you have 'the dead sixth' the next three times.”
“Plan?” I asked.
“You've noticed how quiet the house is then?” asked the soft voice. “There are all of three 'Generals' in General's Row nowadays, and those three remaining men are plotting their own escapes as we speak.”
“Escapes?” I asked. “As in they think I'll kick the door in when I'm on duty and go after them with the goal of taking their heads for trophies?”
“That also, though they've heard more than a few rumors about those 'massing witches' who are planning on coming from the south,” said the soft voice.
“There were five of those people, weren't there?” I asked.
“One man tossed his black-cloth and black book, and crossed over to the east side of the Main under cover of darkness last night,” said the soft voice, “and he's not planning on coming back into this area again. He found a decent-sized bag of money yesterday afternoon, so he thinks he might be able to purchase a small shop and sell second-hand goods somewhere in one of those far-away 'rodent-holes' to the north and east.”
“Uh, does he plan on remaining a witch?” I asked.
“All of those four remaining people are having second, third, fourth, and fifth thoughts about remaining witches,” said the soft voice, “even if you shot the only one of the five who had actually made his bones – and that just days before the hall went where it belonged.” A brief pause, then, “they think that they might manage petty thievery if they get out of this immediate area.”
“That won't help them much, will it?” I thought.
“Not unless they are very careful and cautious,” said the soft voice. “One of the lesser-known secrets is that most small-timers in the outlying regions tend to either die quickly due to gunfire or burn-piles, or they become big-timers and leave such areas while the getting remains good for them. Those witches that remain long in those areas tend to hide those aspects especially well.”
“And those who went to the north and west?” I asked.
“Are now finding that in some ways, it's not much better than being centered in your rifle sights just before you fire,” said the soft voice. “If they find witch-run towns, they've either got to take them over by main force the very day they show up, or they must become 'entry-level supplicants' all over again in terms of income and privilege levels. If they find towns that look to be likely territory, they find those looks to be deceiving – as usually such towns are either deathtraps for witches, or the witches that are running them are well-hidden 'big-timers' that maintain a very low profile.”
“Until competition shows up,” I said. “Then they tend to poison those newcomers.”
“That's more common further to the south,” said the soft voice. “To the north, it usually means an ambush involving arrows or sometimes spears.”
“Quiet killing,” I thought.
“Very much so,” said the soft voice. “The only areas truly safe for migrating witches are out in the middle of nowhere – and that means no income whatsoever, little to no supplies, and no real shelter.”
“Have to live rough, then,” I said.
“That usually means death within a matter of weeks,” said the soft voice. “Most witches coming from around here are not able to endure rough living particularly well, unlike those well to the north.”
“And then Norden's people...”
I was wondering about scouting parties, to be exact, though knowing that Norden's witches came to the mainland with some frequency added to this question.
“Find them eminently suitable for their altars, should they come across them,” said the soft voice. “Your leaving on that trip, once it becomes known in the hinterlands by witch-messengers and word-of-mouth, will result in a wholesale exodus back to the central portion of the first kingdom by those witches who manage to survive their time in the wilderness.”
“And then they get to deal with those people coming north from the second kingdom,” I murmured. I sniffed, then sniffed again. I could smell flowers, and I guided Jaak over in that direction.
I continued 'following my nose' for what seemed like ten minutes by my thinking, then at the edge of a woodlot near the shore of a small ice-chilled pond, I found a huge 'stand' of what looked like 'lilies'. I began gathering these soft pink and white trumpet-shaped things and putting them in a soft cloth bag that I had brought for that specific purpose, and as I did, the aroma of the flowers seemed to transport me to a better place, so much so that I temporarily forgot the trouble that would occur soon at both the Abbey – and then, across the sea.
“Yes, there will be some trouble across the sea,” said the soft voice, “but nothing you can't handle, at least regarding thugs, witches, and animals.” A brief pause, then, “the Abbey is the about the worst trouble that way you're going to deal with for some time, actually.”
I filled the bag with the flowers, then placed it in my pack. As I shrugged this last on, I could sense trouble coming, so much so that I knew that quick movement out of the area was a matter of life and death; and as I leaped to mount, I knew just what was coming.
Jaak seemed to feel these smelly people who were now coming in a tearing hurry, and he broke into a trot without my urging as I guided him along the very edge of the woodlot. I needed to duck branches as the shadows confused my pursuers and made it difficult for the hunters to shoot with any chance of success, then as the woodlot's boundaries curved away and a wide field stretched before us, I tucked in as Jaak spontaneously broke into a gallop.
As I tucked in, this urged him to his utmost; and as the first of the gunshots roared from behind, my hand found the pendant. The instant I brought it out, the cloud came down.
More booms and bangs, these echoing and hollow amid the thunderous ticking of the clock that was now parked upon the doorstep of my ear; then, with no warning whatsoever, the darkness to our rear flickered with faint red blooms that winked out slowly
I was glad for the blue line that had showed to our front. Yet even as the clock banged its third rumbling thud, I had a word for those who had caused trouble – or rather, several words.
“Be quiet, witches,” I muttered – and the sky suddenly lost its raven hue and bloomed a hard and brilliant white to our rear. The clock clanged once more, then twice, then thrice; and my hand remained where it was. I needed to count to ten, I knew, even as I followed the slender blue-white bolt of lightning as it twisted and turned like a snake in the darkness. To each side were shuddering blurs, and ahead, a dark and raving tunnel with that blue-white line ahead of me, and our speed was not that of a stoked-to-bursting locomotive, or even that of a fabled truck I had once heard of.
It too was near that of a bolt of lightning.
“Eight... Nine... Ten...” clanged the clock.
My glacier-quick hand now touched the pendant, and began removing it back to its hiding place, and as I began moving it back, I felt the main road. The blue-white line was fading, and I had to guide Jaak by feeling the line, and at our speed, we needed to line up precisely on the wide dirt track running north.
Our speed was falling. I had succeeded in hiding the pendant – and suddenly, the cloud vanished and Jaak but barely outran the dust to our rear before it settled and he gradually slowed to a walk. I then smelled what might have been food, and looked to my right.
“The Public House?” I gasped. “That felt like...”
A rumbling roar overtook us, and I looked over my shoulder. A massive tumbling cloud, this red-white-red-orange, was climbing slowly, its thick and smoky trail luminous and yellow, and black smoke ringing it round about. The sun had rose before midnight, but still, I knew one thing was different as to what I saw, even as I saw the eerie purplish tints to the corona that surrounded the slowly decaying fireball. I watched, transfixed, as the thing faded over a slow count of perhaps ten, and when I turned to my front once more, we were in front of the shop. I once more looked behind us, and with eyes somehow rendered more capable, I knew the last three miles of the 'main road' were so thickly layered with dust that it was worse by far than that made by a trio of fast-moving Lightning Hares.
“Waldhuis needs dust,” I said. “They need reminding of just what waits for them.”
The dust vanished, even that which Jaak was leaving as we came closer to home; then as he pulled into the yard, I wondered why it had done so.
“Thirst?” I asked, as he went straight to the watering trough and I hopped down under a brilliant moon. I had not noticed it before, but as he drank, I checked quickly all four hooves.
“No rocks,” I thought, as he finished. I led off to the edge of the house, then to the narrow path left for us by the farmer who normally planted the field directly to our north. I but barely noticed it for the smell of the flowers, but as I came to the rear of the buggy-way and saw the shoulder-high wall to my right, and glanced left, I saw that there was an area that had been plowed, but had not been sown.
“What?” I thought, as I came to the rear of the wall. “Back here, too?”
There was another barren area, this one extending back about fifty yards from our rear wall; it had been plowed, but not sowed, for some reason. The area to our north was nearly as deep, but at the end of this barren stretch, and for what seemed 'miles', I could see long and waving rows of plants, most of them reaching their sprouts up close to my knees to catch the thick mist that I could feel coming quickly. It would arrive within perhaps an hour, which made me glad I had come home so quickly.
Going through the fold, and Jaak behind me; I shrugged off my bulky yet otherwise light pack, and placed it on the single wide stone that lay as a step of sorts behind the bathroom door. I was glad for that particular recent addition, as it made for a place to scrub the dirt off of one's shoes prior to entering a room that Anna demanded be kept as clean as possible, and as I turned to go to the horse-barn, I noted that the fireball was now totally gone.
It had been replaced by a thick black cloud, this of smoke thickened with dark and choking soot. I had but one question remaining to me, as I had seen several instances that particular display before.
“Just what was that?” I asked calmly, as I went into the horse-barn to see to Jaak with a fresh-lit catalytic lantern, all of its shutters open wide and its wire adjusted for greatest light.
“Those flowers you picked are especially loathed by witches,” said the soft voice, “and that was one of those 'occupied and guarded' woodlots Sarah spoke of.” A pause, then, “the flowers had just bloomed for the first time this morning, and the witches were looking hard for them once they noticed their smell a few hours ago.”
“Did I, uh, get lead?” I asked, as I brought in chopped hay for Jaak. I'd already filled a grain pan.
“No, even if the witches sent enough of it after you,” said the soft voice. “That was a key station on the current main route of the secret way, and a just-arrived shipment of dynamite and distillate was being loaded into a group of coaches for transport along the river road.” A pause, then, “one of the witches – they were 'amateurs', for the most part, with a few 'old masters' along to supervise – became over-eager with his roer, and he shot a box of dynamite at spitting distance when he tripped over his own two feet as he came rushing to add his 'fire' to the party.”
“Set off the rest of the dynamite in those waiting coaches, which triggered the rest of what was in the shipment,” said the soft voice.
“That was a lot of dynamite, wasn't it?” I was checking Sarah's team; they seemed 'acceptable' in the hay and grain department.
“But little more than what usually comes up via 'the secret way' these days,” said the soft voice. “What none of those witches knew was that that old facility was not merely much larger than they thought it actually was, but that a sizable cache of munitions that remained from the time of that war long ago was 'walled off' – and those detonated in sympathy to the explosion of that dynamite and distillate.”
“Walled off?” I asked.
“Yes, by pure 'curse-energy',” said the soft voice. “That curse-collection needed someone on the order of Cardosso himself to even discern its presence.” A slight pause, then as I began adding grain to the pan of the original team of the gray and the black, “only a few witches from the time of the war's beginning could have taken down the curse-wall that that particular witch used to hide her supplies.”
“Don't tell me,” I muttered, as I came out of the horse-barn. The odor of those flowers was potent enough to make me sneeze quietly. “That one dark-haired witch put those there.”
“No, she did not,” said the soft voice, “and while she could have taken down those curses, she knew enough to not do so.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Because the witch that erected that 'wall' was nearly her equal in 'curse-power',” said the soft voice, “and well beyond her in 'nastiness'.”
I then came to the stone 'porch', and saw that my pack had vanished. The smell of flowers was still strong, and I saw light, this faintly flickering, coming from the cracks between the door and the doorway. I tapped on the rear door.
The door instantly opened to billow steam and show the dampened face of Anna haloed by candle-light. She was washing clothing, if I went by the smell and dampness.
“Did you see my pack?” I asked, as I looked at my shoes in the surprisingly bright light. They seemed clean enough to me, but I thought to remove them just the same.
“Yes, and I brought it inside,” she said as I removed my shoes and stockings preparatory to going inside. “I'd not leave anything outside unguarded, not even for a minute, as two witches were shot near here today.”
Once inside, Anna 'filled me in' as I got my 'dinner': “I was down at the greengrocers' when someone starts yelling these words that I'd heard some time ago in a dream, and when the grocer asked me what they were, I told him to fetch his musket. We went out to the street, and there were these two black-dressed witches yelling and cursing.”
“What?” I gasped.
“They were acting as if they were pickled,” said Anna, “and they needed enough lead for me to wonder, as I shot my pistol dry at one of those people and the grocer nearly made me deaf when he shot the other.”
“What?” I asked. “Did you miss?”
“It seems I was wrong about how common roers are, at least in town,” said Anna. “I thought they were rare, but it seems about half the people in town have them, and if that wasn't a roer he had, then what Hans had wasn't one either.”
“So those were roers,” I said. “If that many people have them, then what do they use them for?”
“I'm not certain,” said Anna, “as before those pigs showed, I had no idea just how many people had them. I knew most people had muskets like we had, but not roers.”
“Did they get them recently?” I asked.
“No, they didn't,” said Sarah. I then noticed what she had in her hands, which was one of the 'lilies'. “Where did you find these things?”
“This, one, uh, woodlot that went up in smoke after I gathered them,” I asked. “It was one of those you spoke of having lots of witches mounting guard upon it.”
“If it is where I think it is,” said Sarah, “that one was at least as bad as the one with the pigs, as the sun rose at night again.” Sarah paused, then said, “though I think that was not the usual for dynamite, as the colors I saw were straight out of an old tale.”
“Colors?” I asked.
“Yes, colors,” said Sarah. “There was a definite purplish color to that ball of fire I saw when it first came up, and that's spoken of on both a number of tapestries and in the Grim Collection. It means the things of witches were involved.”
“That explosion,” said Anna. “That one that killed my relatives and tossed me was purplish, too. Was that why I was so sick?”
“I doubt it,” said Sarah. “If I go by what your mother did – and did not do – I'd say she made you sick.”
Anna looked near to fainting, and I said, “let's see... She was angry because you ruined her 'social hour' or whatever she was doing when you came home, and that by getting 'dirty'. She didn't notice you were hurt, only that she needed to 'bathe you' so she'd continue to look good to those she was 'courting', and then she paid no attention at all to how badly you were actually injured until you started screaming in pain the next day. Then, and only then, did she do anything about your injury – and by that time, that wound made by that dirty shell-splinter had become badly infected.”
“You left out one thing,” said Anna. “My father was the one who checked on me, and he told her to see what was wrong. She was inclined to beat me then, and only he prevented her from doing so.”
“What?” I gasped.
“It seems I only recalled that recently,” said Anna, “and that 'social hour' you spoke of was uncorking her second bottle of wine for that day.”
“Then what we were told about her was true,” said Sarah. “She was inclined toward the things of witchdom even then, which was years before she was killed.”
“Killed?” I asked. “How? Swine?”
“Yes,” said Anna. “The pigs surprised both of them as they were traveling west to visit someone, and my grandparents came that evening to collect me up and take me where they lived then.”
“She lied to you,” said the soft voice. “She was heading east, not west, and the pigs got her near the Main once those northern people put them on to her.”
“Sport, most likely,” I murmured.
“That and they were training some of their pigs,” said the soft voice.
Homework finished late again that night amid the scents of flowers. I was glad to have rescued them, and when I had finished both the four candle molds and the last of the lanterns I would make before we went to the Abbey, I went upstairs with two of the lanterns, both of them lit and adjusted for maximum brightness. I was more than a little surprised to see Sarah industriously sewing, and as I stood to her right and rear with the two lanterns overhead, I watched her sew.
“I had no idea it was possible to sew so quickly,” I murmured, as I looked for places to hang the two lanterns I had brought up.
“I'm tired,” she said. “I've been at this much of the day, and doing so with but one such light...” She then looked up.
“Now I have two, and each of them gives twice the light of that one I was using!”
“Yes, dear,” I said softly. “Now where do you want these?”
Sarah indicated two small nails on the shelf perhaps two feet above her head, and I put one lantern on each. A further brief adjustment of their wires, and now her entire work-area was not merely brightly lit, but had no shadows. Before, it had had them in abundance.
“I'll need to test-fit this one on you,” she said.
“When?” I asked.
“Most likely tomorrow when you come home from the shop,” she said. “I suspect after pouring as much iron as Georg has planned tomorrow. you'll be inclined toward a full jug and a cool tub.”
“Why, did he get more charcoal?”
“Twice of everything he had last time,” said Sarah, “and he's quite surprised at that freighter's reaction to what went south today while you were gone.”
“What?” I asked.
“Those four bars for his buggy,” said Sarah. “Now I suspect they will be down there within a week, and back up here within three or four weeks, unless there is trouble.”
“About right,” I said. “Besides, I need to come home early tomorrow anyway, as I need to make up the rest of that vlai.”
Sarah looked at me, then slowly shook her head.
“No?” I asked.
“You need to do that,” she said, “and we need that stuff, but still, I am not looking forward to its headaches.”