Investing the Abbey, part three


So much remained to do, and that in so little time, that I wondered if I would have time to get a nap; or so I thought as the four of us went down into the basement after dinner had been 'downed' and the dishes put to soak. The glue was still more or less warm, so much so that once I showed how to 'fit' the dowels, it took but minutes to put them in the remaining bombs. I then riveted Sarah's scabbard, only in her case, I did not merely rivet the back-strap on for her belt; I put rivets in a number of key places, all the while seeing odd expressions play across her features. She seemed to be wondering what, exactly, I was trying to do.

“Why did you put in those extra rivets?” she asked as I peened the last of the fifteen I had used.

“First, it will be stronger,” I said, “and then, it will make your remaining sewing on the thing go a lot faster, as the leather pieces will not move around on you nearly as much as I saw them doing before.”

My promise, if anything, was understated: Sarah had indeed been struggling mightily to make a decent scabbard, but as I watched, she used first the awl on the riveted leather, then a pair of blunt needles to thread unusually thick brown-tinted waxed linen thread through the leather from each side while wearing oddly-shaped soft leather 'mitts'. It was really interesting to see her thread the two needles with both hands, and more, to see her do the work so quickly.

“Do you have a dominant hand?” I asked. Sarah was a lot faster than I was when it came to work like she was doing. She'd done more than four inches in the time it took me to do one inch of such a seam, even if my seams were nearly as good as hers. “One that you use preferentially?”

“I used to think I did, but since coming up here, I've learned that's not the case. Now, if one of you could find me two round pieces of smooth hard wood about as long as your forearm and three fingers for thickness, and some thick rope, I suspect I can make a quiet weapon for those blue-clothed thugs.”

Hans said he would speak of the matter on the morrow, and after some further minutes of reflection, I realized I first needed a nap, then resuming work on those knives, and finally...

“Candles!” I squeaked.

“I think Anna and I can handle those,” said Sarah, as she finished one of the lines of sewing. Her first four inches were a primer, for she had sped up noticeably since 'starting' that side. “This might take me another ten minutes to do the other side, and I know we have ice to cool those molds.”

“Will you need to adjust it?” asked Anna. I wondered what she meant.

“Not really,” I said. “That type of scabbard doesn't drag, and I was fairly careful to make the length of the sword and its parts such that it fit her reach properly.”

“It's about two finger-widths shorter than yours,” said Sarah, “and its grip is thinner, slightly shorter, and it has this odd ball on the end. What is that for?”

“An attempt at a rose-bud, dear,” I said. “I've not done much silver casting, and that sand we have doesn't allow for nearly as much detail as wax does – and while I did what I could with my files to sharpen its detail, I'm not a jeweler.”

“That's fine,” said Sarah. “I just wondered what it was.” A brief pause, then, “I'd get a nap, if I were you, as I suspect you'll wish to help with tonight's packing.”

Tonight?” I asked. This was a surprising development.

“Yes,” said Sarah. “I told Karl and Sepp to hie themselves hence about supper-time, as thirty miles is a bit much for those three to manage in one day unless they're being led by someone who's used to traveling such distances.”

“Maarten and Katje?” I asked, as I stifled a yawn. “They do that all the time.”

“They do,” said Sarah. “None of those men have, at least not on their own.”

While I was a little less pessimistic regarding arrangements – all three had done far more than that in a day during the trip to the other kingdoms and back – I was thinking, “eighteen miles here, then stop and wait, then another twelve miles, then go in that place, and if we want an early start, then...”

“Sarah's arrangement is the only one which makes real sense if you want to get there before noon,” said the soft voice as I made ready for bed, “because while neither Karl nor Sepp are particularly lazy, Gabriel, between his natural tendency toward indolence and his 'overwhelming workload' of late, is currently a good deal worse for sloth than most of those worrisome people at the third kingdom port.”

“Almost makes sense to grab the spoon out of the house-kitchen, grab a jug of beer, grab him and tie him up – and then bring him here and let Anna spoon him in the morning.”

“Which is what Karl thought to do before going to bed last night,” said the soft voice, “and upon speaking with Sepp the next morning, they agreed to do that precise thing.”

“Besides, he'd probably ignore both of them using a spoon and beer to get him going,” I murmured sleepily. “He will not ignore Anna once she goes to work on him.”

“You think Anna is bad,” I heard as my eyes closed. “Wait until you see what Sarah does.”

With that statement in my mind, I expected to have nightmares. I had none, at least at first – until faintly, at the edge of hearing while I slept, I heard Anna doing precisely what I had spoken of her doing. As I slowly awoke – I'd been overdoing matters, and I would need to do that once more tonight; I had knives to work on, as well as packing to deal with and arrange, as we would attempt to pack the buggies tonight – I seemed to hear Anna's voice more clearly.

“Gabriel!” Anna's voice was a deafening – and echoing – screech. She sounded like a raving jet engine running wide open with 'full afterburner' for tone and volume. “Wake up!”

“Yes, dear,” I said in my 'dreams', as I suddenly 'woke up' while rolling out of bed to hit the floor with a cushioned thud. Only then I actually did wake up.

“Is that Anna shouting?” I thought as the echoes rang in my mind like the screams of the damned. “Thank God this bed is so low to the floor. You only fall a few inches if you fall out of it.”

“It is,” said the soft voice of Sarah from the doorway. “You might want to get dressed, as not only are all of them here, but it looks like they just piled the stuff in the buggies, then trussed Gabriel like they'd had lessons from those two gaffers, put wagon-sheets over the mess and him, and drove here straight through as if the pigs had showed in the area.”

“And smoked...”

“They topped the oil reservoirs before leaving,” said Sarah, “and I felt their hubs. They're barely warm.”

I had turned my back to Sarah in the darkness while putting on my trousers, then my shirt. I wasn't certain about how I'd manage sleeping once married, unless by some mutual agreement we could hide ourselves from one another while dressing.

“Separate beds?” I thought. “No, that won't work very well. Probably need one like Hans and Anna have, save without that silly-looking cover, and just roll out of bed to each side.” I thought to ask Hans, as I could still hear Anna's yelling – and more, Gabriel's slow and sleep-riven moans in response.

“Sounds more like she's using a club rather than a spoon,” I said, as I started down the stairs.

I came to a scene of confusion: the Sun lantern – turned down, but still bright enough to cause me to squint – was in the parlor on an old-looking riveted iron stand that I had not seen before, while both Karl and Sepp – and Hans, I soon realized – were bringing in bagged 'supplies' one after another. I dared not intrude, at least until I saw Sarah bring in something that looked far too heavy for her.

“No!” I squeaked, as I grabbed the thing out of her hands. “P-please, no!”

“That was heavy,” said Sarah.

“I would feel awful if you were hurt,” I said. Then a question – or an attempted question, as Anna was still yelling at Gabriel to wake up. “What is she doing?”

Sarah moved out of the way as the three men brought in more bagged or bundled supplies.

“They did him up like these bundled and bagged supplies are done, complete with a raw-leather gag,” said Sarah dryly. “It seems he was asleep in his office and stinking of wine, and Kees said to do him up as if they were witches and he was a sacrifice so as to try to get some sense into him.” A brief pause, then, “and they dumped him in the kitchen while Anna was making dinner, and she was going to undo all of his ropes.”

“He's probably wishing she was a witch with her knives,” I muttered, as I recalled the set of 'kitchen knives' Anna now had. That boning knife had the shape, if little else, of something a witch might use for sacrificing his or her victims. This made for a strange thought, and actions to go with it.

I then turned to the desk, grabbed the latest near-finished 'poke-knife,' and went into the kitchen. Gabriel, to my astonishment, was still tied up, complete with rawhide gag, and seated in a chair facing into the main 'food area'. Anna was glaring at him with an obvious rat-club in her hand – and she looked inclined to use it as a 'head-tenderizer'.

I looked at him, this slowly. My mind was vacant. I then looked at the knife I was holding, and saw my knuckles going chalk-white with frustration. Once more, I looked at Anna, who was now looking at me.

And without thinking, I leaped the six feet from where I was standing; quicker than thought, I knelt down and grabbed Gabriel's head in a left-arm armlock; and as I lifted his 'inert' mass up by standing, the tip of the knife I held came to the position favored by the silent killers that I had never seen: the point touching the skin where a small notch was made by the meeting of the two portions of the collarbone, the knife's down-slant that of forty-five degrees, his neck bared, his head hauled back.

Just like a sacrifice, or a sentry about to die at my hand. I had done this exact thing before, this on two worlds; only here and now, I could kill with near-impunity.

I wore greens, after all; I was the king's man, and I had a job to do which demanded a favorable outcome to ensure our survival as a people. This job but added to that of the pendant; and the fact that the pendant's work and that of the kingdom's happened to currently coincide quite closely put the seal of decision upon my every thought and word and action.

Finally, I had a reputation, and I needed to add to that when and where I could. I wasn't sure why that was so, even if I knew doing that was of great importance – and our future, that of the entire planet to the best of my understanding, depended upon my actions.

And most importantly, our labors tomorrow would make the bridge look terminally stupid for thinking and utterly safe for danger. I knew what I had to do; one slacker could kill us all with his stupid unthinking ways and his uncaring indolence. This formed my words.

“Which shall it be, witch?” I spat. I was now truly angry at Gabriel. “Life, or death?”

The whole house froze. I had gone so far beyond Anna's intended rat-club drubbing that this was truly in another league.

“The witches name me monster,” I said. “I don't give two small coppers for their opinion – and the only reason I'm not killing you right now is that tomorrow is a crown affair, and that means you're still needed in some fashion that I don't much understand.” My voice had taken on a snide tone. It now became utterly ice-cold. A pause, then, “that, and Anna doesn't like a messy kitchen.”

A brief pause, then the chill of my voice grew to that of liquid nitrogen: “the state of Anna's kitchen is far more important to me than whether you live or die, as otherwise, you're just ballast like you are right now.”

Again, silence. I had the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the people inside, all of them crushed like tinfoil in my ravening maniac hands. I had more to say, however.

“Yes, you heard me. You're just someone who's annoying me, and you're doing nothing useful – and here, we don't tolerate that kind of rubbish. Not here, and certainly not now – and if a blue-back spider bites you tomorrow, or a bomb scatters your smelly carcass, or anything else happens, and you die – no loss. And, if you slip up, or play dumb, or do anything that annoys me between now and then...”

I stopped speaking, took the knife away from the base of his throat – and then slammed him into the wall face-first, this while still tied up; and my voice went from a quiet snarl to a scream that put Anna on the floor with her ears covered:

“Quit wasting my valuable time, damn your accursed eyes! We've got work to do!”

To my complete surprise, not only did Gabriel strike the wall such that the house shook to its foundations, but he then fell, twisting as he did, to land upon the floor on his side with an audible thud. I looked to my right, then walked to Anna. She too was on the floor, and as I helped her up, she looked at me. To my complete surprise, I saw a degree of fear in her eyes that I had never seen there before.

“Did you actually mean what you just said?” she asked, her voice trembling.

I said nothing, merely put the knife in her hand while holding it by its blade. The gesture's meaning was unmistakable, but I wanted to reinforce matters such that she knew exactly what I wanted to happen.

“It's not finished, but it's plenty sharp enough to do the job. If he objects to anything at all, let me know. I'll toss him outside, and you can kill him then and there like the witch he's acting like.”

I then turned to him, and growled, “and actions follow thoughts, and your thoughts are those of a traitor and witch. Your choice, fool: give it up now and live, or die like the witch I name you to be. Choose!”

I waited no longer; I lifted Gabriel up, still tied, this with one hand. My left hand, which was the weaker one. I held him to my face, such that he could see clearly the eyes of a true monster. Witches feared monsters; and witches ruled and were ruled by the forceful application of brute violence and the systematic cultivation of terror. Hence inducing fear unto terror in their hearts and minds was the way to 'run' witches.

“I killed at least three of those stinking traitors with my bare hands,” I spat. “Do I have to add you to their number? Your head spiked in that stinky clearing, your body chopped up and bagged with a label of traitor and witch, there to rot until it falls to the ground under the blazing judgment of God?”

Gabriel had fainted. I didn't buy his rubbish. I slapped him with my free hand until he woke up and tried to scream.

“I think he will speak if you take that gag off,” said Sepp. His mild tone was surprising. “Kees told us how to tie him up, and he also said being drunk at one's desk was one of the signs of wanting to be a witch.”

“Given Kees was a serious supplicant when he tried to make his bones by killing me, and I, uh, did something to him, he would know about the matter,” I thought. I then said, “the gag, please.”

It fell off at my word – and Gabriel's pent up terror came out in a piercing scream.

“Silence, fool,” I shouted – and without hesitation, I slapped him again, this time hard enough to leave a fast-reddening welt upon his face. It worked, surprisingly. “You will speak when I tell you to. I say jump, you do that. I say move, you do that too – and that such that I am well pleased. You want to suck your own balls, like I did when I plugged those especially evil witches so as to silence them for all time, fool? I'll make it happen here and now to you if you give me any excuse at all.”

I then paused, then said in an evil-sounding whisper, “wait until tomorrow. There's a hungry dragoon that loves the flavor of witch just as much as that of mere stupid people who get close enough for him to bite – and he'll eat you too. Don't think he won't. Want to live? Then do what I say, when I say it, and how I say it's to be done. Do otherwise – and if that thing doesn't light your sorry behind on fire, I'll shoot you right then. I'm not letting you cause me trouble. Got it?”

Gabriel nodded.

“Good,” I said. “I won't use a spoon. I'll kill you on the spot. Now get to work, you dung-licking slave, and I want to see you leave sweat on the ground!”

The ropes fell off as if by magic, and Gabriel ran. I was after him like I was his glued-on shadow, however, and before he managed three steps, I had leaped up and crushed him to the floor with my right foot – and kicked him over once he was down, such he lay face up. My left foot then found his neck, and I put weight upon it, so he knew I had the power of life and death over him. That move was straight out of the book, which was deliberate on my part. It seemed appropriate.

“You will labor as I tell you to, and not otherwise,” I spat. “Now I did not give you leave to do aught save listen to me.” I took my foot away from his neck.

“Now, stand up!” This was a shouted roar that rattled the parlor window in its frame.

He did so, shakily.

“Down, dog!” Again, 'the voice of command' – the thundering voice that made witches beg for the mercy which they would never receive, either in this world or where they belonged.

He began to get down – until I kicked his legs out from under him and then slammed him into the floor with both my arms pushing him down hard. The house shook with the impact as he smashed into the stones of the floor.

“When I say 'down', I mean 'drop to the floor or the ground right there'. I do not care if you get hurt, or if you eat dung doing so, because when I tell you 'down', I want your sorry behind on the floor or the ground! When I tell you 'up', I want you jumping for the sky like you've got a rocket up your sorry behind! And when I want you to move, you will run like your life depends upon it – because it does! Understand, fool!”

This was in a growl. My voice dropped to a whisper.

“Because, fool, this is war, and you think you've seen the Hare. You ain't seen nothin'.” A pause. “If you don't stare a thousand miles by first light tomorrow, you'll be in that dragoon's gut before noon – and that means I've got to turn you into a tsoldato overnight!”

“What is that?” asked Karl's voice from somewhere 'out there'.

“What the long-haired Veldters call themselves,” said the soft voice, “and what you are seeing is what some military trainers do where he came from.” A brief pause, then, “some. Most of them would be punished severely if they did what he's doing.” Another brief pause, then, “they – and those they taught – would also become dragoon-food tomorrow. The ones who teach people how to survive while fighting that kind of enemy do things like you are seeing him do.”

I then hauled Gabriel up with one hand such that he came up standing, his feet flailing crazily; and when he tried to run, I somehow got in front of him such that he ran into me. I kneed him in the gut such that he lifted up from the floor, then as he doubled up in midair, I smashed him down onto the floor with both of my fists locked together into a 'hammer'. I then dropped down hard onto his back 'knees-down' to concentrate the force of the blow, such that he grunted a cry of pain.

“Don't move, fool” I snarled, as I drew my revolver and cocked it, then put it to the back of his head such that the cold muzzle was touching his scalp. He knew what that meant; true-witches did such things routinely when they were out for blood. “You know what you just did, don't you?” A pause. “Desertion is what I name it to be – desertion from a training camp. You know what is done to such fools as you who think to escape their duty?”

Here, I paused, this to let what I had said sink in.

“They turn out the dogs,” I growled, “and those dogs bring back the pieces of the idiots who tried to run away – the parts they didn't eat, that is. I can whistle up such a pack easy, fool – and those dogs are hungry for your blood, just like my sword is.” I holstered my pistol, carefully un-cocking it as I moved it away from the back of his head, then got off of his back where I had been kneeling.

“Up!” I shouted.

Gabriel was still slow, so I grabbed him by the hair and ripped out a big chunk of it while I hauled him up such that his flailing feet were running in mid-air. I then slapped him in the back so that he flew into the couch, and I landed just behind him by leaping over the piled bags an instant after he hit the couch. I then hauled him erect by what remained of his 'too-long' hair, and spun him around with a 'lightning-slap' so that he was both stunned and facing me.

“Now, we do 'up and down',” I said, as I began dragging him outside by his 'expensive' starched collar. His clothing was tearing like a worn-out rag, but that did not matter to me. I kicked the watering trough as I reached it, such that a huge waterspout shot out and wet the ground next to the long board structure.

“Mud, please,” I said. “Deep, sticky, gluey, mud. I've got training to do.” I then muttered, “they called that place Infärnu. He's going to learn all about it and what happens there right now.”

I then flung Gabriel face down into this mud, and in what seemed like a fraction of a second after he hit with a squishing noise, I knelt down beside him and emptied my revolver such that the burning powder shredded the clothing covering his back and blistered his skin, and the bullets smacked into the mud but inches from his trembling body.

“That's hot lead, idiot,” I said firmly as I stood up. “Now up! It takes time to reload.”

To his credit, Gabriel got up quickly, but as he looked at me, I could see the beginnings of hatred in his eyes. I knew what to do – and I did it instantly, without thinking.

My punch to the jaw also sent him flying into the watering trough, where he splashed face-up like a drowning whale. I was at the deep wooden side of the trough an instant later to pull him out by his clothing, then I bodily dropped him face-down back into the mud after kicking the watering trough again to get another taller-yet waterspout. It splashed down upon him wetly, and the muddy area seemed to grow in size.

“More mud, and deeper mud, and some horse-dung mixed in, too.” The stink was indescribable now; he'd fouled his own clothing, and that just added to the potent reek of horse manure.

“So we cannot hold our water,” I said. My tone was beyond 'snide' and into an unknown region, one I knew nothing of and had never managed before. “Fine. The flames of that dragoon will dry that stuff up as they turn you and your dung into a cinder. Now get up, and move your stinking rear!”

This time, Gabriel got up with alacrity. I grabbed him, screamed, “flat down” – and slammed him face-down back into the mud.

“This is so you learn to follow orders, idiot,” I said. “Given that Hendrik spent perhaps five minutes in that shop speaking of his fears, and you spent at least a full turn of the glass in that place engaged in your personal efforts to sabotage both the trip and clearing the Abbey...” I paused, then, asked, this silently, “did he?”

“He did,” said someone whose voice I could not name, “and sabotage is too good for what he did.” I then saw the speaker in my peripheral vision: Tam. He came out of the darkness, then said as he came closer, “now that I've read about.”

“What?” I asked. Tam had never been where I came from, and somehow, I doubted that military instructors did things like I was doing, even in Infärnu. I wondered about the pronunciation of that word, in fact: that spelling was as close as I could get to how those working and training there actually named that particular jungle-overrun place. I did recall one thing about it, however: those that survived that place were cold-blooded full-hardened killing machines – and Gabriel needed to become one of those before tomorrow dawned, or else we all were indeed doomed to become 'dragoon-food'.

“He's been acting like a witch, hasn't he?” asked Tam. “Don't answer, you're busy doing what those witches did before that war to those slaves they bought and sold so as to turn them into soldiers.”

I shook my head in negation, then said, “I was writing about this kind of stuff recently, and thinking about it a lot, but when I heard what he was doing in his office, passed out and stinking of wine and how they brought him here, then it all came together in my mind as to what needed to be done.” I paused, then said, “that Abbey's going to be scarier than anything I've ever faced, and he...”

“You need him to not trip you-all up,” said Tam. “I been talking to Maarten and Katje and teaching them what I know, so they hopefully won't do the same.”

“I do not think he's doing what you said,” said Sarah emphatically, “as I thought so also until I heard from another source.” A brief pause, then “besides, I think he means to turn Gabriel into a long-haired Veldter.”

I had never seen Tam spooked before, but I was seeing it now; and he said, “those people aren't like anyone on this side of the mountains.”

“I've got to make him as close to a tsoldato by tomorrow morning as I can,” I said, “because with people like him, if they are anything less than that kind of a person, we will all die in that place.”

Tam was speechless, and he went inside. I suspected he would help with packing, only I had other ideas.

“Up!” I shouted.

This time, Gabriel 'shot up from the ground like he had a rocket up his behind', and he stood still, quivering. No longer did I see hatred; he was hiding it, if he still had it. I drew my sword, then held it in front of me like a pointer. “Now we march. You've probably heard me speak of how it is done.” A pause, then, “When I say 'left', you will lift your left feet higher than your waist, you will lean forward slightly, you will take one regulation pace of twenty-eight inches, you will set your left feet down, and then you will repeat that process until I give you directions to do otherwise.”

A brief pause.

“You know why I said 'feet', as in plural, rather than 'foot'?” I said snidely. “You got two left feet, idiot, and I get to beat one of them into a right foot so you got a pair so as to march by the numbers.” I then screamed, “sound off like you got a pair, fool!”

“What?”

I slapped Gabriel down into the mud, this time so he landed face up, then put my sword to his throat. I screamed, “I work for a living, idiot! I sweat every day the sun comes up, and all I do is done just so you can ruin it? Not on your life!”

Another pause, then in a grating pitch that seemed ripped out of the grave-strewn ground, ground that sprouted crosses like mushrooms, crosses row-upon-row in their tens of thousands: “the correct – and the only response I will tolerate from your sorry dung-licking tongue – is 'Master', you stinking witch-slave!” My voice abruptly rose to a scream again.

“Up!”

Gabriel shot up, and as he did, I slapped him hard so he fell back into the mud. Again, the scream:

“Up!”

This happened no less than a dozen times more – and every single time, I kicked or slapped him down back into the mud. When I was done convincing him of the meaning of 'Up!', I then knelt down outside of the reeking mud-wallow. He needed to crawl before he marched, I now knew.

“The next thing you will do is crawl, just like a stinking goo-spewing Desmond. I'm not about to demonstrate it, as all witches and witch-slaves know how to do what they're told to do because they're expert mind-readers.” A pause, then, “Forhard, Crawl!”

Gabriel tried to rise up so as to crawl like an infant, but I stood up and then stamped his face down into the mud with my foot. For some reason, I drew my pistol – then, with the barrel actually touching the scorched places on his back, I began milking the trigger.

The spitting roar and long white-yellow muzzle flames that resulted sounded – and looked – just like those of a machine-gun, and Gabriel screamed as his flesh was 'creased' by a small swarm of bullets. I slapped his face down once more into the mud, then drew my sword and began 'shaving' his head with it.

“Screaming like that will draw that dragoon onto you, fool,” I said in an 'evil' voice as I continued turning him into a 'skinhead'. I was deliberately sloppy with the blade, such that he received a number of minor cuts. His remaining hair – what little of such stuff that would remain when I finished – would be nearly a solid crust of blood, which I found oddly appropriate to someone in his position.

Supposedly, the military haircuts given incoming recruits left more blood than hair on the cutting floor where I came from, and while I suspected that was due to inexpert 'military barbers' wasting no time whatsoever with 'slovenly scum-sucking civilians', I had a better idea. The title 'tsoldato' had to be earned, and as a rite of entrance into that particular fraternity, one's head was shaved in this exact fashion. More, one was supposed to be dead-silent and dead-still while that shaving was done, as was appropriate to one who now reckoned himself dead to his former way of life; and I had words to speak to Gabriel yet.

“Count yourself lucky those bullets weren't blood-salted or done by Madame Curoue,” I spat, as I continued the 'shaving' process'. He'd be an honest-to-God skinhead by the time I got done with him, and that in multiple ways. “Now the reason why we crawl like worms is because we want minimal exposure to enemy fire when it's coming at us hot and heavy. You now know what that feels like, so you can crawl like a worm – presuming, of course, you want to live.”

I left off with my shaving and put the bloodied sword but an inch in front of his nose. He was trying to crawl without my explicit orders – and that was insubordination. Had I less 'need' for his presence, I would have simply removed his head on the spot, as the slightest insubordination to one's training 'officer' was the exact same thing as full-blown treason to one's country – and it merited the exact same punishment. This was wartime, and treason meant one thing, and one thing only: summary execution.

I still did not like traitors, even if what I had done gave me nightmares during the daytime. I knew – this beyond any and all doubts – that I'd do that whole mess all over again without a shred of hesitation if it had to be done; and on top of that, I'd do whatever I had to do to fulfill those orders given to me. I looked down at Gabriel, and in the flickering light coming from the stoop, he saw the expression that now etched my face in stone.

And as suddenly as a glass rod snapping, he shattered like glass; and that, because he was not seeing what the witches called a monster.

He was seeing someone he had no words for, as he'd finally encountered something he'd never seen; never heard of; never even dreamed of, not even in his very worst nightmares. He was seeing something that made all of those things combined and taken as a whole seem as nothing whatsoever.

“No, no monster,” I said quietly. “Now do you understand what this is all about?” Here, I took out the pendant to show it to him. It blazed with blue-white fire. “This thing owns me as surely as God does, and I do what I must because I was given to it. It gives me but two choices. Can you name them?”

“Life, or death,” said Gabriel.

“Exactly,” I said. “Now, I've still got to teach you what you need to know if you're not going to get us all killed tomorrow. This isn't guard training, certainly not the way it's been done. That makes sacrifices for witches and food for pigs – and we will all become those things if that Abbey isn't cleared properly and we all don't do our utmost to both reach that place across the sea and then do what we have to do once we're there. Understand?”

Gabriel nodded.

“Now, crawl like a worm. Keep your entire body down as low as you can, as there's a really angry dragoon spewing fire like a badly-made fifth kingdom smelter, and you've got to get close enough to that stinky thing that you can make your weapons count. Ignore everything else, just get closer to that dragoon. That's all you got to do right now.”

As Gabriel crawled, I continued shaving his head with my sword. I wanted him to learn to ignore everything – pain, hardship, thirst, broken glass slicing his flesh, bombs exploding and riddling him with splinters, bullet wounds, even distillate-fueled third-degree burns – in the process of achieving his assigned goal. That was to be the most important matter: one needed to learn to tell one's body when to 'shut up' and then 'drive on regardless', and keep on doing that until one either died or the job was done.

“And done properly, done completely, done fully, and done well – and no, I'm not the one who says so,” I thought.

I then kicked him in the side such that he flew up into the air, then quick as thought, I swapped hands on the sword, drew my pistol – and began firing at him as he hit the ground and rolled. This time, however, I managed to count my shots as well as keep them all 'near misses'. More than one bullet creased his skin just the same.

“Now how did I get twelve shots out of a revolver with only six chambers?” I thought.

“I'll explain that later,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say that while nothing in the Abbey will be spraying hot lead like that at you, it will be fully as frightening and as dangerous as what you just did – and he will thank you wholeheartedly for doing this if he survives his time in that place.”

If he survives?” I asked.

“It usually takes years to train those you named tsoldatos,” said the soft voice, “and while only a small percentage of those people die while in training, a fair number of them either drop out or become too crippled to continue.” A brief pause, then, “a member of the Mule Totem is not considered a full tsoldato, however, until he has fought in a number of 'major actions' – and by then, nearly a third of those graduating the training program are either too crippled to continue as such, or they are dead.”

“Sounds like it's no joke,” I thought.

“'No Joke' is a colossal understatement,” said the soft voice. “Those that finish that place you tried to name are fairly close to how they are.”

“Long-haired Veldters are...”

“The pace isn't as grueling as the place you were thinking of,” said the soft voice, “but that's mostly because that entire Totem operates as if their towns were in ancient Sparta – and they do similar things, actually. One of the exercises is to circumnavigate – alone – the entire Valley on foot using nothing more than what one can carry.”

“Oh, my,” I thought. “That's well over a thousand miles.”

“Yes, and on foot,” said the soft voice. “More, every settlement under the Mule's Totem is looking for those people that whole time with loaded guns, and they've got thirty days to manage that trip.”

“There isn't time for things like that,” I thought, “and Gabriel's about as unsuited an able-bodied person for such doings as one could find.”

“Hence what you are doing is nothing short of a requirement,” said the soft voice. “You'll want some sleep, but you'll need to ensure he gets none whatsoever between now and reaching the Abbey's grounds.”

“Why... Oh, exhaustion will ensure full compliance,” I thought.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “He'll have to follow orders then, as he'll be totally unable to think for himself.” A brief pause, then, “that will do him no end of good, actually, as you naming him a 'witch' and a 'witch-slave' describes his thinking to a 'T'.”

“Did Tam hear right?” I asked.

“Tam's more or less primed to hear and see evil any more unless one acts as if living in an old tale,” said the soft voice, “one of those where one had to demonstrate daily the absence of evil in every possible aspect of life.”

“Suspicion instead of discernment,” I thought. “Still, it tends to work passably.”

“Here, it commonly works very well indeed,” said the soft voice. “Only the trickiest plain-dressed witches and supplicants miss being caught given someone who's that suspicious.”

“Not most of them,” I thought as I recalled the sermon regarding witches being like the tribes of Canaan and what we were to do, that being absolute and unrelenting extermination. “All of them.”

“Another reason why you're here,” said the soft voice.

It took me roughly another five minutes to shave Gabriel's head completely; and twice in that time, I either fired my pistol over his back such that the muzzle flames tore and then burned his clothing, or I kicked him forcefully in the side or head. He continued crawling, now silent, until he reached the the wheels of the nearest buggy.

“Now up,” I said smartly.

He got up quickly enough, but his visage – and indeed, all of him – was now solid mud. “Now we run. You will run around these two buggies until I tell you to stop – and if you fall, or slow down, you will regret it. I've still got plenty of hot lead in this thing, and I'm still much inclined to shoot at you. Now move, and let me see you wash that mud off with your sweat!”

I shot at his heels more than once as I sat on the stoop watching him circle the buggies, and I did not bother reloading my pistol. As long as I would get free 'hot lead', I would use it freely; and when Gabriel pitched forward on his hands and knees to start vomiting, I fired a trio of rounds that splashed vomit into his face.

That got him moving again, and I continued running him until he dropped and would not get up after firing three shots that narrowly missed his head – and a fourth shot that 'creased' it, leaving a weeping red place. He didn't even lift his head up.

Shamming,” I thought, as I went inside. Here, I saw Tam directing the packing, but when I came in, the expressions I saw were chilling. It was as if I'd not merely gotten matters through to Gabriel – I'd gotten through to everyone, and as I came back with a small pot of water, I asked, “what now?”

“How are you shooting that thing so much?” said Sarah. “It sounds like my dream when you fire it!”

“Dream?” I asked.

“That one where I asked you what a machine-gun was,” said Sarah. “That pistol sounds a lot sharper than it normally does, and then it fires off a lot more than it should hold.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Once I think you must have fired twenty times at him before I could count two,” said Sarah.

“Not sure, dear,” I said, as I resumed walking. In my thoughts, I asked the water to become boiling hot, and when I poured the steaming flood out upon Gabriel's lacerated and burned back, he instantly got up and began to really run.

I also fired a burst of 'hot lead' at his heels to 'get him in the mood for work'. Slacking really angered me, and he'd been doing that while running before I'd 'doused' him.

When he collapsed again a few minutes later, I splashed more boiling water on him; he resumed running as if frantic. To spur him on to yet greater efforts – he was still slacking in my mind, as his face didn't yet show the rank terror I wanted to see displayed there – I routinely shot single rounds at his churning legs as he circled the buggies; and as I continued to shoot at him every minute or so, I somehow had an odd idea.

He would need to rest sooner or later.

“He can rest when he's dead, same as me,” I thought as I 'nixed' that stupid idea. I would run him like this for at least another hour, if not two. “If I can do it, so can he.”

The reply that came back was of such astonishing nature that I gasped, “no?”

“No, he cannot do what you can do, and if you don't let him rest in short order, you'll kill him,” said the soft voice. “This is not the fifth kingdom, and he is not a deep-slave wearing a trusty-cap – and if you didn't believe before that that was how you normally work, then what you proposed to do to him just now proved it conclusively.” A brief pause, then, “that, by the way, was another reason you were brought here, as that kind of devotion to duty is a requirement to successfully complete this job.”

“I think he's gotten the message now,” said a laconic voice from the doorway. I turned to see Tam. “You'd best get you some sleep, as you don't turn someone like him into a hardened soldier overnight, and I can spell you for a while.”

“The packing?” I asked.

“That you'll just need to put in the buggies,” said Tam, “and it's damp enough out here, or it will be, that I'd not let a lot of that stuff set out overnight. Figure about twenty minutes to load it into the three buggies you-all are taking, as it's all in order.”

With that, I went inside, now finally conscious of my own fatigue, and to my astonishment, Sarah was asleep on the couch, with both Karl and Sepp asleep on cots in the parlor between rows of carefully arranged supplies. I thought to go over matters anyway, and did so quickly – it all depended on me, if I recalled fully what I had been told on the trip southward through the other kingdoms; then as I went to change my clothing once more – I'd gotten it dirty 'training' Gabriel – I first thought to clean my revolver.

At least until I looked at it closely. The usual soot and grime that came with burning black powder was more or less gone, and the thimbles – they were gone also. Not even a trace of them remained.

“What?” I asked.

“Smell it,” said the soft voice.

I brought the still-warm weapon up to my nose, and instantly, the bitingly-sharp odor of smokeless powder assaulted my mind. I was confused more than a little, especially as this stuff 'bit' more than what I recalled of smokeless powder in its 'infuriated' reek; this was not the same material as I used to use in reloading, and it wasn't 'factory-grade' powder either.

“Get used to that smell,” said the soft voice, “as you're going to be burning enough of that stuff shortly.”

“How do I clean this thing, though?” I asked. I had nothing suitable, or so I thought. I'd used plenty of different chemicals for cleaning guns long years prior to coming here, including some mixtures that were 'field expedients', but none of those chemicals, much less the 'real' stuff, were available.

“Break it down like usual and then swab it out with boiled distillate,” said the soft voice, “and then dry it off inside and outside thoroughly before loading it up the way you usually do.”

I did so, this taking but minutes, and as I listened carefully to what was happening on the stoop, I could hear Tam more or less telling Gabriel what he needed to know about 'bad areas' and things like them. Gabriel's ragged breathing, as well as intermittent 'deep' coughing, sounded distinctly dire.

“Be glad he's still relatively young,” said the soft voice. “Had he done for another year what he normally does at the house proper, you'd be digging a hole in the nearest cornfield to bury him right now.”

“Did he get the message?” I asked. That was important to me.

“Enough that he's listening carefully to everything Tam's saying,” said the soft voice. “You don't take someone with that little innate talent for fighting and turn them into a killing machine in a few hours by mere training, even the way you were doing it.”

“Uh, me...” I wondered that way about me anymore. Was I a killing machine?

“Why do you think those people wanted you so much?” said the soft voice. “You remember your test scores then, and then what happened to you given modest training in a few areas. The things that kept you out of their organizations were taken care of on the way here.” A brief pause, then, “if he survives the Abbey, though – he will do his part when you sail, and he'll pull his own weight overseas.”

After my bath, I barely made it to the stairs before seeming to fall asleep, and when I awoke, someone was gently shaking my leg. My response was predictable – I nearly leaped out of bed and to the side, then smacked my head and body against the wall to lay there somewhat stunned. I was far too tired to jump up and start fighting the now-obvious witch who was trying to kill me.

“Are you all right?” asked Anna. “I was trying to wake you.”

“W-what happened?” I asked.

“It's time to load up the buggies,” she said. “Tam says he can hear them coming, and you don't want to waste a minute.”

“Them?” I asked, as I turned and pulled on my trousers. I hoped I could pack at least two spare pair, and the same for shirts. My recollections of the place said the Abbey was well-beyond any commonplace concept of dirty – it made the implied nature of 'turnip-farming' seem a clean business – and I didn't much like the feeling of dirt on my skin. I could ignore that feeling while I was fighting – I tended to be focused solely on the task at hand then – but in most situations, the feeling of 'dirt' on either clothing or skin drove me out of my mind.

“Maarten and Katje,” said Anna, “and if I know her at all, they left two hours ago with that lantern. It's safe enough now to travel in darkness, at least around here.”

“And G-Gabriel?” I asked.

“Don't worry, Anna,” said Sarah's voice from a far-away shore. “Tam's having everyone loading those things up now.”

The sight that greeted me once downstairs needed several cups of beer while prying my eyelids open, as now, I was seeing what amounted to a miracle: Sarah was checking off the list; Karl and Sepp were bringing out the organized supplies that had been around them as they slept; and outside, I could hear someone working as if they were being driven by the meanest slave-driver who yet lived, if I went by the insistent and constant shouting mingled with whip-snapping I was hearing.

I thought to stay out of the way and attend to my own supplies. I concentrated first upon spare clothing, which I bagged up separately, including all of my underclothing; and then, as I checked my usual supplies – I had kept the original catalytic lantern for my own use; I suddenly realized a most-definite lack.

“A club!” I squeaked. “I need a club!”

“That is next to your workbench,” said Sarah calmly with a trace of a yawn. “He brought it last night after you went to bed.”

“What?” I gasped. “Who is this 'he' you spoke of?”

“Andreas brought your club,” said Sarah, “and he also spoke of something else, something about us both needing to see him once that place is dealt with. He said he's just about finished with what he's working on.”

“How did you know I went to bed?” I asked.

“Yawn, because...” Sarah paused, then said to Karl, “no, Karl. That sack there, not that other one. That one I'm pointing to. Yes, that one.” A brief pause, then as he picked up the one she was indicating, “that other sack stays here until we leave on the boat. Remember what I said about getting all you could on the list I gave you and then bringing it here?”

Sarah then turned to me, and said, “Andreas came up on a horse while Tam was making Gabriel fall down in the mud again, and Tam said you'd gone to bed earlier.” A brief pause, then, “Gabriel seemed to need it, if I go by how he was acting then, and I heard Andreas telling Tam to test the club he brought for you on Gabriel if he didn't sweat enough while falling in the mud and then running around the buggies.”

“About half the people in town must have had no sleep,” I muttered.

“More than that,” said the soft voice. “The only people that slept much at all last night are at the other end of town, as while Tam didn't fire off over a hundred rounds of ammunition from a pistol, he did use his stock-whip most freely.”

“Stock-whip?” I asked. I had wondered what was making those whip-snapping noises I had heard a minute or two ago, and now I had a most-definite idea.

“About ten feet of plaited cattle-hide,” said the soft voice. “Now Gabriel not only looks like a 'skinhead recruit', but he's also had at least one other portion of the Veldter's tsoldato initiation ceremony.”

“What?” I asked. “Tam gave him forty-minus-one lashes?”

“No, but Gabriel wishes he had done that and not what Tam actually did,” said the soft voice. “Between the bullet-creases, powder-burns, scaldings, and those whip-marks, Gabriel's nearly as beat up as if he'd ran forty miles at top speed through unusually thick brambles.”

“I hope he gets over it, then,” I said.

“You said he needed to learn to ignore such trivial matters,” said the soft voice. “That's nothing short of the bald-faced truth, especially when dealing with what's in the Abbey.” A brief pause, then, “be glad the vast majority of people you will need to train in the future will be in better condition and have more aptitude for the task.”

“And no more scary-dangerous messes like the Abbey, I hope?” I said.

“No, actually there will be,” said the soft voice. “The chief difference then will be that you will have proper weapons, trained people, and a measure of backup as well.”

“That's part of what I meant,” I spluttered. “We don't have...” I then looked down at my sword. It was clean and oiled, just as it should be, but I did not recall precisely when I'd cleaned it. “What does it take to fight one of those things?”

“Guts, determination, and a fair amount of what you were trying hard to instill into Gabriel,” said the soft voice. “It's a dragoon, or dragon if you like. It isn't one of the armored fighting vehicles they used to have rumbling around this area during that long-ago war.”

“What were those like?” I asked.

“Recall some of those 'tanks' that some people where you came from wanted to build during that second major war and weren't able to because of their size and weight?” asked the soft voice. “They built a number of 'tanks' like that here, and not only did they solve nearly all of the problems that stymied those wartime designers back where you came from, but such 'mobile fortresses' were quite capable vehicles, both for mobility and firepower.”

“M-mobile fortresses?” I gasped.

“Those things were awful,” said Sarah. The sky was starting to go lighter in the west just above the horizon, and I could now 'hear' Maarten and Katje coming. Tam was a bit premature, or so I suspected.

“What, were they depicted upon a tapestry?” I asked.

“Yes, them and much more,” said Sarah. “That tapestry might not have been in that one place I had to bathe for, but the trip wasn't much easier for difficulty or distance. Then, when I got there and gave my proofs, I had to help those people find that tapestry. It was hidden so well in their storage area that it took me and three other people two entire days of searching and moving things around, and when we finally found that thing, it was rolled up like a carpet in the dust on their floor. It needed unrolling, then careful dusting with a soft brush before I could read it and then copy its pictures and words.”

“How were those mobile fortress things awful?” I asked.

“They had more guns on one of those things than the whole first kingdom has,” said Sarah, “including some guns that were so huge I could crawl in the breech and out of the muzzle!”

“Guns that large tend to not be readily moved – or were these guns in, uh, turrets?”

“The fortresses themselves moved, and so did all of their guns,” said Sarah. “Those big ones needed huge things shaped like upside-down fryers to hold them, and if they had guns that large, there were usually but two of those guns, each in its own fryer and able to move independently.” A pause, then, “though the way those things were, they were all but covered with smaller guns on their tops and more guns on their sides – and those witches in those stinky things would shoot at anything at all.”

“N-no,” I muttered. “I'll take nine thousand pounds of superannuated foul-smelling iguana with flammable breath any day over one of those.”

“What did you call that thing?” asked Sarah.

“The decorator!” I gasped. “It needs loading.”

That proved to be the one thing that needed me doing it, and when I had finished with cramming the thing with 'vlai' – my headache was pounding still when I returned to the scene of packing, but I had the thing corked, rag-wrapped, tied with string, and bagged in a drawstring bag – not only was dawn obviously approaching, but Maarten and Katje were still not present. I came to a room in which everyone present – even Gabriel, who had bathed and had his clothing washed at the least – was eating as if starved.

“You don't plan on going, do you?” I asked. My question was directed to Hans.

“No, because if you are hurt bad we will need to come get you, and there are people in town who are likely to be crazy when they wake up, so they will need dosing,” he said. “You shot that thing you have so much it was worse than those northern people coming here and causing trouble, then Tam's stock-whip was almost as bad for noise, and there was a lot of yelling the whole night between the two of you.”

“All of it was most-needed, though,” said Sarah. “That smelly wretch of a teacher is worthless at his job, and now I can say that and give proofs if they are asked for.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You did more in a few hours than that man does in a month,” screeched Sarah, “and you turned someone who has no business trying to fight into someone I'd not want to deal with.”

“Especially if he has one of those spears they use for swine,” said Karl. “Tam was having him run around with a spear held over his head once he had loaded those buggies.”

“Spear?” I asked mildly. I'd heard rumors of spears over the past few months, but somehow, they sounded like a bad idea for poking anything much larger than a sickly Shoet or a common-sized rat. I was wondering about the club, in fact, even though I had seen and hefted the 'baseball bat'-sized weapon. “Perhaps I should best confine my efforts about prodding such pigs out of my way to the mostly-dead examples,” I thought. “I might bust this thing otherwise. It should manage rats and spiders.” Karl then spoke something that made me wonder as to what he was thinking.

“That dragoon will not enjoy being poked with those spears,” said Karl. “They are not very good for their metal parts, so you might make more spear-heads if you have the time.”

“No, Karl,” I thought. “Spears? After what we get at the Abbey? You'll toss those useless spear-heads in the scrap pile so as to feed Frankie, and put their cut-to-pieces poles in a cook's stove! You'll get yourself into a machine gun, or maybe a shoulder-fired rocket launcher, or perhaps something that's really nasty.”

I wasn't certain what would be 'really nasty' here, even if I had heard about machine guns and rocket launchers, and I knew something about the three mines that had exploded when we last were inside that filthy place. I then had a question.

“Where are Maarten and Katje?”

“I am not sure where they are,” said Karl, “but if they are much later in coming, you will need to find them, as they are either lost or have smoked their wheels bad.”

“Lovely,” I thought. “I work my hardest and they foul things up. Maybe I should have had them come over here last night and run them around like Gabriel.”

“They would not endure such treatment,” said Gabriel quietly. “It nearly killed me, and when you creased my skull with your pistol when I collapsed that one time, I knew then you meant every word – both about this being war, and about you not tolerating anyone who would not do their very utmost.”

“I doubt rather much that they would have had your attitude,” I said mildly, “so I take it their age precludes such arduous doings?”

“No, it is their work,” said Sepp. “Preaching, for the most part, is very similar to what Gabriel does.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “There is some sitting involved during the portions where one's studying or writing, but most definitely not like Gabriel tended to do.” A brief pause. “Both of those people have a house to look after – a house built in the manner of a fetish, as it was both the last one put up in that town and done by a bunch of witches, so it needs frequent and substantial repairs to remain habitable, and they have too little money still to have those done to any degree.”

I had said a mouthful at the least. Perhaps it was too much. There was more that needed saying.

“And then, because it's the only building that remains intact in that entire town, they've got to travel some distance to get much of anything.” A pause. “They commonly do so on foot while leading their horses, as their buggy is in very poor condition and they use it when they must.” Another brief pause, then, “now is that why they're late?”

“Is what why?” asked Karl.

“Their buggy,” I said. “It might not have smoked wheels, but it's worn such that you either need to go real slow and stop a lot to cool the wheels in some fashion, or you need to pull the wheels about every three miles and put fresh grease to them.”

“Both of those things, as a rule,” said the soft voice, “and Katje did not allow for the fact that the wheels needed to be pulled and grease applied before they went on the trip here this morning, hence they had to do that first before going anywhere; so even with her goal of starting early and the non-trivial amount of planning the two of them managed to do, they started almost an hour later than they intended.”

“And then they needed to stop and pull the wheels again twice more,” I muttered. I knew now what was commonly in the back of that buggy: Maarten had a farmer's lifter under cover along with the grease and whatever else was needed, and both he and Katje had been on a serious and involuntary weight-training regime. More, they had bagged – and baggy – old clothing to wear over their meeting clothing.

“No, Katje found an old tube of red-paste since they've needed to travel like they do now,” said the soft voice, “and she put that on instead of the usual 'grease'.”

“Not tallow, correct?” I asked. I knew that was 'the usual' with the common buggies, even if it stank, both as a lubricant and in general.

“No, actual 'grease',” said the soft voice. “Gilbertus gave them a large tin of fourth kingdom grease once he came by there after the trip, so they will make it here.” A pause, then, “of course, they need to splash water on the hubs now and then from a jug Katje brought as per her usual, and between 'tired nags' and a buggy in poor condition...”

“Tired,” I gasped. “That's right! They did their usual Sunday's trip yesterday!”

“Which she also did not allow for, even if she put ample grain to those horses before, during, and after that run,” said the soft voice. “The reason you were hearing them before is because those wheels are in bad shape, worse than even she realized, and the usual 'noise' made by the presence of witches was 'absent'.”

“They – how are they going to get there?” I asked. “That thing's going to slow us up drastically.”

“It will if it is used, which is why you'll actually get there about the time everyone on the property currently is awake enough to actually do something useful,” said the soft voice. “What's inside the Abbey is essentially not merely devouring anyone who gets too close to certain portions of the building, but is also acting like a large collection of strong fetishes.”

“Wonderful,” I murmured as a thought suddenly occurred to me as to just why I had wanted cooking oil in quantity. “I'd best paint everyone with oil before we leave, and then do so periodically thereafter.” And this, unspoken: “I hope we have some cooking oil. Sarah said she'd get some, but she's been really busy lately, as much or more as me.”

“Oil?” asked Sepp as Sarah put down her ledger and 'vanished'. “Why?”

“So we are not ridden like mules,” said Gabriel. His 'oblivion' remained to some degree, but it was barely noticeable. “That dragoon continues to exist by a curse, as does that Desmond, for both creatures would have died long ago otherwise, and the truly accursed things lie beneath them both so as to support them in their evil ways and to give them greater strength.”

I was stunned, not merely to hear Gabriel speak thusly, but also to hear him make complete sense for a change. I wondered once more about his 'oblivion'.

“That will be gone entirely, at least for the crucial portions, before today is over,” said the soft voice, “and those parts of his thinking that look like 'oblivion' will stay gone long enough for him to be useful overseas.” A brief pause. “He will not recover the full measure of that oblivion for quite some time, however, and when he finally does recover it in full measure, it will not endure long at all before it once more vanishes – and then it will vanish for good.”

I then noted Sarah was 'gone', and as I set down my plate – two herring fillets, a piece of bread, and mug of beer; I had had my pick of the 'leftovers', more or less – I wondered where she had gone. She came up a moment later from the basement with a surprising large and lumpy bag in one hand, and a small jug in the other

“These are candles for our lanterns,” said Sarah as she indicated the bag. “I was running them almost as fast as I could melt and blend that wax, what with those new molds and the ice I put in that water.” A pause, then, “and the jug is cooking oil. I have several brushes for painting it on people and things.” There was more to the matter of oil than what Sarah said, if my suspicions were correct, as I had seen ten small ceramic vials near the niter-cleaning setup when I had last gone down in the basement. I wondered if she had filled them with oil.

“Are these for those special lanterns?” asked Karl. “There is one for each of us, and another to spare.”

“And mine,” I said quietly, “which was the first one I made. I've also got several spare wires and brass beads, in case a wire gets lost or damaged.” A brief question: “do Maarten and Katje have pistols?”

“If they do not, then they should manage with those three older ones we brought,” said Karl. “I know you have your spare, but you will want to keep it, seeing as how you shoot enough.”

“That and he saved our lives using two at once in this town to the north and east when there were four bad thugs who wanted to be witches,” said Sarah. “Besides, Katje has a pistol. I'm not sure if I trust Maarten with one.”

“Pistol, no,” I said. “He might want the fowling piece, or something like it.”

“With the hall's demise,” said the soft voice, “he has had a lot more free time compared to before, and he did as those two guards did – only he did not merely spend a morning looking for weapons and parts of weapons. He looked in that area two entire days, which was long enough to find a large bag of musket parts to take to Gilbertus and those three all-too-busy transplants from the fourth kingdom and their two 'domestic' apprentices. He also found a smallish leather pouch of money, which went with the bag of musket parts.”

“Hence they actually have, uh, muskets that work passably?” I asked.

“What those two guards spoke of was those people's 'first level', which means 'provide a workable weapon first, and then fit the gun to the shooter passably',” said the soft voice. “With what Maarten brought them in both parts and money, that was enough to do up two 'best-grade' guns, at least by their standards – and since one of those people is marked, that means Maarten received two 'best' grade fourth kingdom muskets of 'medium barrel length' and the promise of a third one with 'cut grooves' in the barrel, once a suitable rough-bored barrel arrives in Ploetzee. It's due in the very near future.”

“How do they do that?” asked Sarah

“First, this isn't the fourth kingdom, dear,” said the soft voice, “and most non-imported articles are much cheaper – even if those articles aren't cheap by local standards. Then, they've gotten a lot of parts for muskets and pistols from Gilbertus, just like Hans is now starting to get.”

“Starting to get?” I asked. I knew about the 'keg' of pistols. It was closer to a full-fledged barrel, and it was filling steadily by the day, so much so that now a second barrel of similar size had become its neighbor. That barrel was empty now. It would start to fill up by the time we returned from the trip, if not sooner. In the meantime, I would continue doing such pistols as time presented itself – which usually meant 'about one or two between most church-days'.

“He's starting to get musket parts, also,” said the soft voice. “More, most of these are like the parts were on that one fowling piece – a decent cleanup with files, case-harden deeply, properly heat-treat, some modest hard-fitting, and then bluing followed by assembly. Those three men and their two girl apprentices are essentially getting a lot of 'near-finished parts', so much so that in most cases, the only parts they need to make from scratch are pins like those common to the less-worn revolvers, and then the stocks as well. Everything else, they essentially get for free – and that by the barrel-full – and they've got enough 'raw' parts stockpiled at this time that 'mixing and matching', followed by restocking and a few new pins and some modest rework gives a usable weapon.”

“And what Maarten and Katje have are well-beyond 'usable',” I said.

“They're not quite as good as those guard-muskets,” said the soft voice, “especially as their finish is somewhat streaky in places and the woodwork isn't nearly as good what you did, but there's but little difference for functioning – and that's the main issue with the two of them. They have decent weapons to hunt with now – and both weapons use thimbles, hence they're reliable weapons.”

“And hopefully they get here soon,” I thought. I could tell it would be dawn shortly.

Dawn came, and they were still not here; and as the light of day began to draw long shadows unto our waiting vehicles, I heard movement, this of a vehicle about ready to fall apart; and then suddenly, as I went outside to the street to see the slow-moving producer of such nerve-wracking noise, I saw our two tardy people coming up the road from the south end of town.

Never in my time here had I seen a more worn-out-looking pair of people and horses. Even Gabriel looked fresh compared to the two of them, and when they finally pulled into the yard, I went back inside to get my things. Given the slow pace of their last hundred yards, we would take until noon to get to the Abbey, unless the two of them were packed into the rear portion of one of the two larger buggies. They'd get some rest then. I wondered if fatigue would have the same effect upon them as it would upon Gabriel.

“Is that why Karl and Sepp brought both of those buggies?” I thought, as I suddenly recalled precisely what had indeed happened; one buggy had been reserved, but both buggies that had gone on the trip had been taken.

“Neither man can pack well without close supervision, they found more than they thought they would in that short timeframe, and then Gabriel all-but-needed a buggy to himself once he was bound and gagged.”

“So they can park their buggy here, put their horses out to graze somewhere nearby...” I murmured.

I was glad Tam could deal with their horses, as neither of our two latest arrivals looked up to driving another mile, or for that matter, doing much at this time beyond sleeping. One buggy would need to carry two people in addition to its driver, it was now obvious to me; and when I came back out with my equipment, I thought, “should I...”

The question was obvious: I needed to ride Jaak. The two of them would be 'crowded' into the back of the less-packed buggy, and while Sarah brought her horses around, I went to fetch Jaak.

Or rather, I stopped at the outer bathroom door when I saw him following them, and went back inside, gathering up all of my supplies in the process, and came out on the stoop. Tam was gone; Maarten and Katje's buggy was parked next to the hitching rail, Hans and Anna were elsewhere – and Maarten and Katje themselves looked to be all-but sleepwalking as they were helped into the back of a buggy. Gabriel took his own seat on the seat of the other larger buggy. It was obvious, however, that he wasn't about to drive the thing.

“Did they bring anything?”

“They did not need to, beyond what they commonly do for that buggy,” said Sarah. “They dropped off their 'Abbey' supplies while they were here yesterday, as Katje suspected they would have 'some' trouble.”

“It looks like they had nothing but trouble,” I muttered. “When did you two leave?”

All I heard for an answer was a soft snoring sound, followed by another such snore. Karl looked back at his two 'inert' passengers laying 'dead to the world' on piled 'drop-cloths', then at me.

“They'll get what sleep they do on the way there,” I muttered. I'd paint everyone with oil once we were within sight of the place, as more than painting was required; words needing saying as well, and I did not have a clue as to what those were right now.

And as I led off, I had an intimation: while Tam had spent enough time trying to teach them what he knew that might apply to the task at hand, the two of them were not much better than Gabriel in terms of 'real' military promise.

“They have somewhat more aptitude,” said the soft voice, “and they had far less 'oblivion' to start with, as well as a vastly better attitude than he had.” A brief pause, then, “most people would have not even bothered to come, given what they had to work with. The bulk of the rest would have turned back within an hour or so after leaving, due to much the same reasons.”

“That buggy?” I asked. Sarah had come up beside me. The horses were beginning to 'loosen up'; it would be another mile or more before our three would truly be in the mood for travel. The other two buggies would set our pace; each of them had a more-than-decent load, or so I suspected.

“Its iron belongs in Frankij, and its wood in a stove,” said Sarah. “I've only seen two buggies in worse condition in my whole life.”

“What Georg has to use?”

“Is readily usable, if you compare it to what they came here on,” said Sarah. “I suspect their horses were about to founder when they got here.”

“Which is why Tam is taking them to the rear of the Mercantile,” said the soft voice. “They've got three empty stalls there, as those horses are about as 'poor' a pair as one could expect to regularly use.”

“Supplied by the hall, no doubt,” I muttered.

“At prices close to those of proven race-horses,” said the soft voice, “and that done at ages when horses are usually 'retired' in this area.”

“Retired?” I asked.

“Most farmers keep their old horses as 'lawn mowers' for their less-used pastures and grounds once they are too old to be of service otherwise,” said the soft voice, “and the same for their older cattle. Only if the animal is in obvious pain is it 'put down'.”

“What?” I gasped.

“They do not do what is common where you come from,” said the soft voice, “and being 'put down' here is closer to 'real hospice care for terminal illnesses' where you come from. Hans has had to dose his share of animals with tinctures during their last days.”

Somehow, I had the impression that this was not 'killing', but rather 'relieve terminal suffering as best as could be done with what was available'. I felt reminded of what I had done with the horses during our time of hiding in the brush of the borderlands, and how it had contributed to our safety.

“Only witches would do what you were thinking of,” said Sarah. “They do not just sacrifice people – they kill their animals when they no longer have use for them, just like they do with sick slaves, and they sacrifice both slaves and animals to Brimstone.”

“And those otherwise?” I asked.

“They take care of their animals as best they can,” said Sarah. “You do not let your grandparents suffer by mistreatment, because without them, you would not be alive, and the same for your animals.”

“Animals are not people,” muttered Karl from behind us. He had the fullest buggy of the two that had been brought, and Gabriel was sitting beside Sepp. The bed of that buggy, thankfully, was covered. I did not wish people to see what we had brought with us, given the omnipresent 'witch-thinking' that was endemic to the region we were passing through. I suspected even our 'catalytic' lanterns would arouse suspicions in many if they were known about: they weren't shiny as mirrors, as was thought appropriate for the output of someone like myself; they looked 'different' from what most used for light; and they gave out far too much light to be 'tallow-fed' – and tallow-fed lights were the exclusive light-sources of those who were 'pure'.

“That's no excuse to mistreat them, though,” I murmured. “It says if an ox helps to thresh grain, then let it have some, as that's only fair.”

“And that's in the book,” murmured someone far to the rear. “Where am I?” We were about a mile, perhaps two, from home; and now the two loaded buggies were indeed setting our pace. Jaak and Sarah's team could easily travel at nearly double our current speed.

This last sounded like a woman's voice, and I asked, “what happened to them?”

“Katje knew their buggy was in poor condition, and the same for their horses, and while she did not allow for a number of things, she did allow for the fact that 'things do happen, especially when witches and things like them are involved'. Hence her planned departure time was about two hours earlier than Sarah thought the two of them would try leaving, and they got here an hour later than they thought they would – and in the process, the two of them walked no small portion of the distance.”

“They w-walked?” Knowing that the two of them walked as much as they did didn't help much, surprisingly.

“Nearly a third of the way from where they lived, and that over the worst portions, in fact,” said the soft voice. “They might be the oldest people in the party by no small measure, but they almost made up for it in effort getting here – and they were in a good deal better shape than you thought they were, which is why they made decent time.”

“Will they be able to get home?” I asked.

“Yes, if Karl or Sepp takes them there,” said the soft voice. “That buggy's not going anywhere without some substantial repairs at the very least.”

“It probably has smoked wheels,” said Sarah.

“No, it's just a buggy that was well-past its prime when the hall sold it to them at several times what a farmer would would call a reasonable price for a near-new example made at Gnadigen's – the best buggy-works in the fourth kingdom – and there was no money to repair it while those repairs could be done 'cheaply',” said the soft voice. “Maarten was hoping to save enough money to 'repair' it before it gave out, but he thought it would go another six months, not the 'sixteen miles' it managed coming here.”

“Hence they actually need a new one,” I said, “and a new team.”

“Which Tam has more or less figured out by now,” said the soft voice. “He'll make the needed arrangements before 'church-day' comes again.”

As the road stretched before us, I could hear the surrounding 'countryside' coming to life; off in the distance, I heard the calling of quolls, this singly and in small groups. While at no time did I heard huge flocks of those infernally noisy birds, the calls I did hear were so frequent that I knew it wasn't going to be at all long before the birds 'massed together', and then massive swarms of them would fly about in search of nearby fields of rye to devour.

“And cabbage, and other greens, and nearly anything a first-kingdom farmer might plant,” said the soft voice. “Only fresh elk cause more damage to crops than new-fledged quolls.”

Sarah looked at me knowingly, and I turned around. The two buggies were keeping up, though I could tell their horses were 'straining'. That wasn't what I was looking at.

A long 'wagon train' was raising dust in slow-drifting clouds, and by the faint jingling of harness, I guessed that we were seeing a stone delivery. More, some distance away to the right, I could 'feel' another caravan, this easily thirty buggies long, coming north on the river road at a sluggish-seeming pace.

“Been chased by witches the whole way, almost,” I thought, as I felt their tired animals and their groaning buggies. “Common buggies, also, unless I miss my guess.”

“No, those are sleeved,” said the soft voice. “Those groans you hear are the people.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“They've been traveling all night,” said the soft voice, “and much of the day prior, as the witches thought to 'meet them at the river so as to bury them in lead' – and those groaning will be both shedding lead when they first bathe properly, then come to Anna once they learn of her.”

“Those that survived, you mean,” I thought. “Those witches were...”

“Were very bad shots,” said the soft voice, “and those crossing gave them three pounds of lead for the witches' one.”

“They were bad shots also?” I asked.

“Somewhat better,” said the soft voice, “but given the preponderance of roers loaded with 'loopers' that the travelers had carried with them, those witches did not do well.”

“Loopers?” I asked.

“A handful of balls for pistols like what you use,” said the soft voice, “or failing those, then a half-dozen or so 'undersized' balls for number one muskets.”

“Undersized?” I asked.

“Recall how much trouble your 'ball' moulds were?” asked the soft voice. “Now imagine what happens when someone out on the frontier tries to make 'ball moulds' – someone neither as capable as yourself, nor nearly as well-tooled.”

“Tossers,” said Sarah emphatically. “I've seen piles of 'scrap' moulds for muskets in some shops in the fourth kingdom, which is where many such moulds are made.”

“Worn cutters, also,” I asked.

“Which is why new moulds are commonly sold as being 'broken in' with a ball in them,” said the soft voice. “The customer then knows what size the thing casts to, as he takes the ball by its sprue and tries its fit in his barrel.”

“Most old ones are sold that way also,” said Sarah. She then seemed to be quoting, “If a seller attempts to sell you a mould for bullets without a ball in it, you should think him a thief.”

“Or someone who found the thing in an old trunk and wants to unload it cheaply,” I muttered.

“That is how I got mine,” said Sepp. He was behind me, and his team seemed to be sniffing my rear. I wondered if the near-continuous emission of fumes coming from my posterior made them ill. “It had no bullet in it, but that place had a lot of old junk on its shelves.”

“That place?”

“A smaller second-hand store in the town where I live,” said Sepp. “They might not have much in that place that is good, but they do not charge much for what they have, either.”

“He probably buys much of his stock from scavengers,” said Sarah. “Your horses are working hard, aren't they?”

“I suspect they'll make it, though were I going much further, I'd wonder,” said Sepp. “Karl, though – I wonder about his team. He has three people in that thing.” Sepp's voice trailed off as if to ask a question.

“We had more in them coming back from the fifth kingdom,” intoned Gabriel. “They managed, though that was as much who was leading the party as all else.”

“And those driving, also,” said Sarah. “Both of those men have done work as freighters, at least for a year or so.”

“Gilbertus did that longer than a year,” I murmured.

“That why I spoke as I did,” said Sarah. “Lukas might not have done much time as a freighter, but I know Gilbertus did for much of a ten-year, if I go by what I learned in my travels.” A brief pause, then in lower voice, “and while I did not haul freight, I did my time traveling as a messenger, so I know the talk of freighters, if not their loads.”

“Uh, not just how they speak, correct?” I asked. “You learned much more during those, uh, two and a half years or so.”

“I did,” said Sarah, “and going as far as I did during my time at the west school helped, as I traveled more in a month as a messenger than I did during my entire time at that place.”

“You did not waste time, did you?” asked Sepp.

“No, I did not,” said Sarah. “Freighters might take some time with their meals, but if I wanted to take more than the time to get beer and bread, I had to eat what I had bought while I drove – and there was neither time for cooking nor true camping for me most of that time.”

“Uh, tie the horses to the buggy in a well-hid place, bathe in a stream if it was big enough, change your clothing in the dark, and then climb in the back of the buggy under the covering to sleep, correct?”

“The better days, yes,” said Sarah. “Some days, I had to sleep while still sitting and the horses going at their usual pace, and wake up now and then to check where I was.”

“Like driving the post,” I muttered.

“No,” said Sarah. I could hear a shudder in her voice. “Post-drivers may work long and hard days, but I wished more than a little that I had days as short as theirs. Some of those people that I delivered things to tended to speak as if I did not need to sleep or rest at all.”

“Those sound like witches,” said Sepp.

“I suspect some of them had two-doored shops,” said Sarah, “only their second doors were hidden too well for me to find them. Then, they were neither dirty nor smelly...”

“Plain-dressed witches or most-serious supplicants,” I said. “Those people tend to blend in fairly well until they do or say something that gives them away.”

“Or they're that way by choice so as to cause more harm than they would otherwise,” said the soft voice. “Not all plain-dressed witches are newcomers to witchdom or chary of danger. Some are that way because it serves their purposes best, and a very few are that way so as to more effectively advance the cause and goals of Brimstone.” A brief pause, then, “and the true leaders of witchdom for the five kingdoms are all plain-dressed witches – and to a man, they tend toward sobriety.”

“True leaders?” I asked.

“Recall that what was said about 'sober' witches?” asked the soft voice. “There are a handful of such people in the second kingdom – who do not ride in coaches or carriages – that do the thinking and make the place run like the witch-hole it is, and those people are the actual and true leaders of the second kingdom – even if the king thinks he runs the show and tries hard to make that a reality.”

“Masterful in his entirety,” I muttered.

“That man is the soul and definition of what you just said,” said the soft voice, “and his 'election' was predominately upon that basis, as he was thought to be readily turned into a witch-king.” A brief pause. “The second kingdom's witches are now chewing on a raven.”

“Yech!” spat Sarah. “Those things taste awful, and that's if you can get them close to your mouth.”

“You didn't just, uh, read about it, did you?” I asked. We had some distance yet to go; Roos was behind us, hidden by the dust-trail left by that one huge and massive wagon-train; there were long-furrowed fields to each side, these covered with sprouting vegetables of one kind or another; here and there, there were woodlots, meadows of varying widths, and roads; and finally, the Abbey lay 'some distance' ahead. I still had no idea as to what I needed to say while 'painting' people with oil, beyond 'do it as often as you can, and whenever and wherever it seems even somewhat appropriate'. I could tell that much: oil worked here, even more than it did where I came from.

“And that to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “Just make the 'plus' sign on each forehead – finger or brush, it won't matter – and ask for assistance when and as you recall, and it will help greatly.”

“I know about that, also,” said Sarah. “I did not believe what I had heard about the poor flavor of ravens, so when one of them came into our camp and looked inclined to sample our cooking while we were out traipsing in the second kingdom, I put some lead in it and then prepared it like a wood-pigeon.”

“Greasy?” I asked.

“No, ravens are not greasy,” said Sarah. “The first sign of trouble was its odor, and that should have put me off of it right away, as it smelled more than a little like an ill-tended privy. I was glad I was spit-roasting that bird outside of camp because of that stink. Then, it did not wish to cook.”

“Did not wish to cook?” I asked.

“It would not become browned,” said Sarah, “and it continued to look raw. Finally, I cut a small piece off, tasted it – and spat it out in a great hurry.”

“What did it taste like?” I asked.

“I am not sure, as I spewed right after I spat that piece, and that taste washed out the flavor of that nasty bird right away. It was just as good, then.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The sticks fell down, and the bird's carcass fell into the flames,” said Sarah, “and it burnt like that bird had been drowned in road-tar.”

“Smoky?” I asked.

“That also,” said Sarah. “I think I recall now what it tasted like. It tasted like the odor of a fifth kingdom distillate distillery when they are tapping the dregs of a run.”