Investing the Abbey: “What? A radio?”


With a jug of beer handy – Katje was keeping the others busy somewhere nearby, as I could hear her voice clearly amid faint complaints of fatigue and other matters – the three of us took the last of our loads to the northeast corner of 'The Upper Alley', that being the place where I had previously spread out those 'waterproof cloths'. My old groundsheet, as well as my 'new' one, were both dirty and had 'loot' on them; and I wanted to learn firsthand of the wear-resistant aspect of these articles of cloth. While I knew there were more cloths like this in some other locations on the premises, I thought it best to learn of their toughness and ability to endure 'real use' with what Sarah most likely thought of as 'Tossers' and 'Rag-Stock'.

“We'll wish to muffle our weapons in common rags,” I muttered, as I began to look for one of the several smaller knives in my laid-aside possible bag. I'd lost several of them in that bag y in the last two days, and I was about 'out' of that size of knife at home. This tendency to 'lose' things had figured in my having a multiplicity of such knives – that, and their myriad uses at home and at the shop.

“Is that so their equipment cannot see them?” asked Sarah.

“It might help,” I said.

“No 'might',” said the soft voice. “If you do that, especially initially, you'll find it much to your advantage.”

“And after we, uh, start matters?” I asked. I now really wondered why we needed to see Rachel, as I had an idea as to what we needed to do, and then knew beyond all doubt that seeing her was a requirement, because I felt myself growing 'too confident' in regard to my impressions.

“You will have stirred up a hornet's nest,” said the soft voice. “Unlike the hornets found in this area, however, these people will not have anything resembling a clear idea as to what to do, and hence many of them will either panic or go after each other.”

“Fratricide,” I muttered, as I finally found a knife. It had needed a bit of digging around in the now horribly-jumbled possible bag. “This isn't string you want to save, is it, dear?”

“I think not,” said Sarah solemnly. “I've only seen string like it a handful of times, and most of those times were when I saw ink on tapestry-cloth.”

“And the rest of the time?” I asked.

“It was used for marking places in smaller black books,” said Sarah, “but I think that stuff was a bad copy, and this string was what the tapestries spoke of.”

“What you saw those times may well have been a bad copy, but those witches were not riding in carriages, either,” said the soft voice. “If you had seen a large black book or looked in a carriage, you would have seen identical string – and that because it was made on the same accursed equipment using the same materials as this stuff.”

“Cursed string, eh?” I spat. “Just the thing to tie up the tongues of witches so they have trouble spouting curses. String, go do that, and take these half-rotten slave-rags with you to cork the other ends of those witches good and proper.”

The thing that I was trying to 'liberate' suddenly flashed with a light-blue haze, then the string vanished with a thin puff of smoke – and the rags fell off, these vanishing from sight before they hit the floor. I then looked closely at what I was holding, and the stamped letters 'LMRKA' on the front of the 'green-painted' sheet-metal 'brick' glared back at me – and for an instant, I saw superimposed upon it the slightly curved shape of recollection, this shape being one of unquestioned lethality and having a name that I could neither pronounce nor clearly recall beyond 'the mines named thusly cut people down like scythes, and the long two-handed swords named likewise did the same'.

“Oh, my,” I gasped. That superimposed picture was still hot in my mind, and I could almost see it clearly again. “I've seen pictures of these things.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “These are the 'common' directional mines, and while they are not toys, they don't hold a soggy tallow candle to what you were thinking of.”

“Were they used to rig up the laboratory that one time?” I asked.

“That one witch started with this type of mine and substantially modified them,” said the soft voice. “Instead of an explosive filling that was mostly an inert filler, he replaced it with a domestically-produced material that was close in potency to that foul-smelling explosive you-all have found here, and then replaced the broken gravel mingled with scrap metal bound with cheap plaster commonly filling these things with 'out-of-spec' ball bearings he'd bought on the green market.”

“And these?” I asked. They had a substantial heft to them. I had a hunch about the term 'green market' – as in it was called the 'black market' where I came from.

“Are no joke,” said the soft voice. “Those stealing them, while they weren't able to do what that witch did, achieved nearly the same effectiveness as did that witch with his mines.” A brief pause, then, “it just took them more time and effort to achieve that result.”

“What did they do?” asked Sarah.

“Replaced the broken-up gravel and plaster with a mixture of larger spent shot and bullet fragments they gleaned from the aftermath of shootouts,” said the soft voice, “and they 'cleaned up' the explosive used and mixed it with smokeless powder removed from stolen ammunition they had no weapons for at the time.” A pause, then, “they later acquired both some of the weapons in question and more ammunition – which made the witches at first most frustrated, then chary of 'hunting' them until the small group of remaining witches were altogether desperate for meals.”

“Added no small amount of bang, didn't it?” I asked, as I looked the mine over. The resemblance to one of those evil things of my recollection was not a joke, and hearing that this particular weapon was in the same class for effectiveness was no small shock to my mind. It made me wonder about those mines that resided in the armory – and something told me those were a different matter altogether, even if just how they were different was an entire mystery beyond 'they are not toys'.

“The cleaned-up explosive minus its adulterants, when mixed in the proper proportions with that place's smokeless powder and then 'rocked' with a suitable solvent, resulted in a material that was far more powerful than either of the two initial ingredients,” said the soft voice. “It was roughly as strong as mining dynamite that isn't quite oily enough to be 'drippy'.”

“That's about as strong of a species of dynamite as most powdermen wish to have near them,” said Sarah. “They tend to scatter themselves in short order should they think to use it, save if they are most cautious and prayerful.”

“Near them?” asked Sepp.

“Mines commonly have one small stone building for powder some distance from the mine proper, and another building of similar size and construction some distance further away for the caps and fuse,” said Sarah, “and most powdermen are quite frightened should the superintendent order dynamite of that strength. I've heard of them leaving the mine upon hearing rumors of it being ordered, in fact, and I do not blame them much, as only a few places make that stuff for very long should a firm assay its manufacture.”

“It leaves the mill bad?” I asked.

“Some of that stuff does,” said Sarah, “as that one place Hans speaks of that way makes several grades, as do most powder mills I have heard of. I know the three I visited did, and if they make dynamite like that, they usually make it in a special building all by itself that's some distance from the rest of their buildings, and that building is walled off with a thick wall of dried mud mingled with brush and gravel.” A pause, then, “that one place Hans has spoken of does that, as it was one of the places I visited – and I was praying silently the entire time I was within a mile of that place, as I did not wish to be blown up.”

“Tends to be trouble, I'll bet,” as I reached for a 'mine' that soon showed itself to not be a mine, but something else entirely, for it had no stamped sheet-metal legs to 'hold it up', and no painted star-shaped knobs at the rear to attach wires to for setting it off. “Now what is this thing?” I asked. “A detonator?”

“I hope not!” shrieked Sarah. “It would explode!”

“Uh, one of the things used to set off mines like this, dear?” I was confused, and my voice showed it.

“Yes, that was just what I meant,” said Sarah, whose voice still sounded screechy and fearful. “If it was a witch-detonator, only a strong witch could use it and not be scattered, and that because...” Sarah stopped in mid-sentence, then asked in a calmer voice, “turn that thing over. The runes those things had on them would be on the other side, I think.”

I did so, and not only did no runes show themselves, but I saw what looked like a pair of 'coin-slot latches'.

I knew about those, even if I could not recall their strange name, as I had used them 'liberally' in putting my car together in its 'latest' incarnation, and their ready engagement and disengagement meant quick and easy servicing.

I was still glad I had driven seldom enough that I usually did not need to do vehicle repairs or maintenance while working, even if I did plenty of such labor during the times when I was unemployed. Such hardware still saved time and frustration, and my near-legendary – to me, anyway – clumsiness meant such measures weren't a luxury.

They were a requirement, and that way of thinking had become an indissoluble part of me. I felt for my money pouch, then to my surprise, Sarah handed me an unusually worn guilder coin. It seemed somehow small and 'insignificant', and I wondered if someone had 'shaved' the thing so as to 'steal' silver. I'd heard of that being done with coins before – from Lukas, no less – and while it took much time and effort to accumulate metal in quantity, the resulting material aroused but little suspicion in many jewelers, especially if they 'knew' the person in question to be 'honest' and they were hard-pressed financially.

I did not need Lukas to tell me about how most jewelers had light purses. Hans had hinted about the matter months earlier, and the near-total lack of jewelery I had seen on people told me he was right.

In purchasing such 'fines', however, they had bought 'tainted' silver; and now I knew another reason why our coinage needed redoing beyond the two reasons I heard thus far. Looking briefly at the coin Sarah had handed me, though, supplied an added reason yet: it had no markings of any kind remaining – and to me, coins needed some kind of markings to be 'coins' – even if those markings were limited to simple numeric valuation.

“That is not a detonator,” said Sarah. “I've seen pictures of those enough to know the difference.”

“Do you know what it is, then?” I asked, as I inserted the coin into a slot and began 'twisting' one of the latches.

“No, but I think you might once you see it,” said Sarah. “Now...”

These fasteners were not the quarter-turn devices I recalled, but something that needed several portions of a turn, and once I had turned the slot half a turn, I found I needed to go to the other fastener and loosen it. It went a bit further than the first example; then with another three such alternations from one to the other slot, I found that first one fastener became 'loose', then I returned to the other – and after turning it part of a turn, I gently felt around the edges of the slot that showed on the sides of the device for anything unusual. The resemblance to one of those mines wasn't a joke, and I hoped that one expert witch hadn't slipped a 'surprise' inside the container.

“He didn't, as he didn't find that cache,” said the soft voice as I finished feeling and resumed my turning of slots a half-turn at a time, first one and then the other. “You'll find what's in there to be quite a surprise, though.”

First one fastener popped up, then the other; then I began to gently lift up the 'lid', this slow and gently; and as it came up first half an inch, than another half inch, I found that not merely was there a slightly greasy gold-toned metal object under it, but that the 'cover' wasn't attached. The tight fit spoke volumes to me, as the goal seemed to be 'hermetic sealing' or something similar so as to protect the device I was handling from the elements.

Or so I thought until I lifted the now-obvious cover clear and found a thin black cloth-covered cord that joined the cover to that which it was covering. I then looked inside the cover, and with trembling hands reached inside to remove a single-sided cloth-covered object, this with the cloth lightly covered with grease and tied – loosely – with that dark string. As I began working on first getting the object clear, then untying the waxy-feeling string, Sarah let out a screech and then yelled, “what are those things?”

I then looked down at what I had uncovered, and nearly fainted.

Sarah was pointing at some obvious vacuum tubes – tubes that reminded me of some I had once had that were the shape and size of largish acorns. That resemblance provided their common name, in fact.

“What is it?” asked Sepp. “That thing is no mine.”

“I-It looks like a witch-tool,” said Sarah. “Those tales which speak of Charles said he destroyed every such thing he found, and...”

“Mostly because the only examples he found were cursed,” said the soft voice. “What you have in your hands there is one of a small handful of radio receivers that were made here by the workers in secret.”

“H-handful?” I asked.

“The witches either found the other ones or they were dismantled to repair those units that remained undiscovered,” said the soft voice, “and that one there is the best one they ever made, which is why Rachel wished heartily she could have taken it with her. Vrijlaand was still transmitting regularly, as were one or two other locations on the continent at the time of their leaving.”

“But these need power, and...”

“There are devices overseas that can take batteries such as you have for that microscope and provide the modest power needed for that radio,” said the soft voice, “or failing that, string two of those batteries together and insert the tap from between the two in the middle jack after adjusting the filament rheostat down to 'zero' or its maximum resistance setting.” A brief pause, then, “you've made and used radios like this before, so it should both give you a lot of ideas and provide some much-needed relaxation once you get onto the right people overseas.”

“It still works?” I asked.

“I'd try it once you get your hands on another battery or two,” said the soft voice. “There are a number of such batteries in that armory, as well as two hand-cranked battery chargers of a type the Veldters copied once they found an old example many years ago.” A brief pause, then, “those done like that one use less power than you might think, by the way – which is another reason why Rachel was most sorry she'd needed to abandon it, as the batteries she had cached would have permitted short periods of listening on a regular basis during their trip so as to learn of ongoing developments in the areas they were traveling through.”

“L-less?” I asked. Even the smallest radio of that type I had made needed at least half a watt of power to run 'decently', and this one had four tubes that I could see, not two – which meant it needed at least a similar quantity of power to run, if not more yet. 'More yet' was quite likely, in fact.

“But slightly more than your smallest one,” said the soft voice. “Those tubes were stolen from a witch's hoard shortly after he died, and the same for the other parts over a period of some months.” A pause, then, “there wasn't hardly a witch in here who didn't have a 'forbidden' radio hidden somewhere in his quarters, and fights commonly broke out over spare parts among those people.”

“Forbidden?” I asked.

“As in they were bought on the green market,” said the soft voice. “That one witch tended to price such equipment so high that no one save those wealthy enough to be on the 'hot list' could get it, and that meant a flourishing underground economy for radios and a great deal else. It needed going into 'green' regions – namely far enough outside of the built-up areas of the city that one could find substantial tracts of 'uncultivated' greenery – and hence it was called the 'green' market.”

“B-black market?” I asked.

“That was the 'correct' way in this area to get things not openly sold, which meant one needed 'bags of money', much 'pull', and substantial political power,” said the soft voice, “and a lot of witches lacked one or more of those things. Hence the green market was mostly tolerated as a rule.”

“It gave those in power a ready excuse to kill those they disliked,” I spat. There was a hint of questioning in the matter, as I was not sure if that was what was actually done during those periodic and highly publicized 'crackdowns' upon 'illegal' practices. Still, I could smell propaganda – and that meant Dugashvili, or someone much like him, was intimately involved.

“Absolutely correct,” said the soft voice. “The vast majority of crimes in this region prior to the war were not merely 'defined', but also punished 'administratively' – meaning there was about as much of a real legal system in this area as there is in the first kingdom today.” A pause, then, “there was the outward seeming of an elaborate and capable legal system, but everyone knew the real legal system could be summed up as 'power does what power wills, and that is to increase its reach and potency'.”

“That was what they did then, and the witches still do that,” spat Sarah. “The strongest witch in the area did as he or she felt inclined, and everyone else's wishes did not matter in the slightest.” A pause, then, “at least Hendrik knows what is needed, and Maria gets around enough to tell him.”

“Not just what's needed, either,” I murmured, as I carefully touched the small glass bulbs of the obvious vacuum tubes and then the various knobs. I seemed to 'know' what each knob did, even if I had but little knowledge as to the frequency this thing worked at. I wondered if it was like that one small radio I had made which needed partial dismantling to change frequency. The wide slots of the screws used for the panel spoke of that being entirely possible. “She stops at enough Public Houses to learn what's on people's minds, and the same for most of those people wearing greens.” I then had a question:

“Why am I not asked such things?”

“Mostly as you tell tend to him what is needed,” said Sarah, “and you do not have the time to get around enough to learn what people wish.”

“I think he tells him that too,” said Sepp. “Now there is the last of these bombs, and I'd best find a good thick sack for them and clean rags to pad them up.” A pause, then, “that thing, you'd best hide it in your bag after wrapping it good and bagging it up, if you got rags and bags enough to do that.” Sepp paused, then looked around before resuming. “There's enough people around here that might not think like Sarah does or know you like I do, and they'd call it a witch-tool right off if they saw it.”

“Those tales about Charles?” I asked.

“Not just those,” said Sepp. “Even in the fourth kingdom there's lots of people that think anything that's got more parts to it than they have fingers is something only a witch would want, or so Lukas told me one night on post.”

“He's right,” said Sarah. “They might not be in the third kingdom, but if one travels an hour or two at an easy walk from the outside of that market town's walls, one can find many people who think as if they live in the third kingdom house proper.”

“Stinking plain-dressed witches,” I muttered, as I found rags to wrap up the radio once I'd put it back together and screwed its lid back down. I could not find a bag; I really needed to clean out my possible bag, and that as soon as I could manage it – and try to get some more bags, also. Those things were as important as anything else I carried, I now knew. “They've probably got at least one of those stinkers in every single town down there, and that wretch poisons the thinking of every person who thinks to listen to him.”

“Or her,” said the soft voice. “The women of witchdom, even if that black book has rules that govern most strictly what they may and may not do, are not rare – and more, they have a most-special place in the scheme of things, as you saw that one night while scouting the Swartsburg and the area south of it.”

“T-that was a w-w-woman?” I gasped. “That o-odor..?”

“Was this person dressed strangely?” asked Sarah pointedly. “What was this stench like?”

“Like that of a Swartsburg brothel,” I spat. It seemed worse than an oath to say that last word.

“Then that was a witch-woman,” said Sarah. “They rarely go anywhere, save if those keeping them are especially wealthy, but I have heard talk about them just the same.” A pause, then, “it is not as the tapestries spoke of, however – at least, it is not that way now.”

“What did those things say?” asked Sepp.

“The women of that time ran matters to suit them, and they did not do anything save have children, do witchcraft, and tell the men of their desires,” said Sarah. “They did not do their part, and that is wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” said Katje, as she suddenly 'appeared' as if she'd been hiding. Her clothing was greasy and filthy, and I knew she'd changed clothing today at least once already. “I've been directing Karl and Maarten regarding clearing out more of those tools, and I've dodged one tripwire already.”

What?” I screeched.

“I put small pieces of cloth on it so as to show the others where it was, and it was by the grace of God alone that I did not blow us all up when I felt it touch my leg.”

“Did it glow red?” asked Sarah.

“Not this one,” said Katje, “though I suspect it would need one of you two to see it glow red. I knew that much, so when I felt the wire, I told the others to clear out and I followed it carefully to each wall so as to know where it was, then tore up bits of a rag to tie to it so as to mark it out while I had Maarten and Karl get more of those lampstands they have around here to light that room up better.”

“Did they make them in the smith's shop here?” asked Sarah.

“I think they put them together there,” said Katje, “as I was told they came up in pieces from the fourth kingdom, and their metal is strange.”

“Not solid rod, but tubing, correct?” I asked. “Strange-looking markings stamped in an unobtrusive place on the longest piece, indicating not merely one of a very few firms were involved, but that the work was done specifically at the king's request?”

Katje looked at me, then shrugged and nodded simultaneously. She was too astonished to speak, at least at first, even if Sarah was not.

“If it used tube-metal, then only one place I know of could have made them,” said Sarah, “and that would be the Heinrich works. They have a special machine there that takes solid rods and turns them into tubes.”

“An old machine, one that has needed both a lot of repairs and many years to learn its tricks,” I murmured, “and they still make a lot of scrap just the same.”

“Not since they started using that 'motor oil' as a lubricant,” said the soft voice. “They only scrap one piece in ten now if they feed it suitable stock. Otherwise, it is as you said still.”

“One piece in ten?” I gasped.

“They still don't understand that machine very well,” said the soft voice. “It isn't copper that they are usually running, nor are they currently running dead-soft wrought iron for 'boiler tubes', but a species of low-alloy medium-carbon steel, and that machine doesn't have enough power to readily pierce those billets. Hence lubricants that stand up to heat and pressure really help a lot, and that 'motor oil' frees that machine up enough that it can actually pierce the rod-stock they were using for those lamp-stands and some few other things they make that demand a decent level of strength in 'thin-walled tubing'.”

“Don't they anneal the billets?” I asked.

“They did that with especial care using a muffle-furnace and rag-wrapped billets, and they run that machine during times when the rest of the works is idle, and they use only new belts of 'best-quality leather' on its pulleys, and they only let marked people actually make the tooling and run the machine,” said the soft voice. “Until they started using 'motor oil' for lubrication, the belts slipped badly and that particular metal tore rather than flowed over the mandrel, but now it only does that in some places on some billets.”

“Poor quality control of the billets used?” I asked.

“That is the chief trouble, that and a machine that is simply not up to that particular task,” said the soft voice. “If they could buy such tubing readily, they'd stick to running wrought-iron boiler tubing on that machine, but such tube only shows rarely in that market town and the local plain-dressed witches tend to bribe those coming in with it so as to have it all for themselves.”

“A sack of coins in one hand, and a full-cocked fowling piece loaded with stiff shot in the other,” said Sarah. “I know about witch-bribes and how they work, as some people told me during my fourth term when I was wondering why things worked as they did at that one print-shop.”

“That, and they commonly threaten the relatives and friends of the one being bribed also,” said the soft voice. “More than once in the past the chief witch of such a bribe-group produced the severed head of a close relative before anything was said so as to put the fear into the person being 'bribed'.”

“T-that...?” squawked Sarah. She'd never heard anything of the sort verbally or read of it in book or on a tapestry, even if such behavior did not surprise me much at all. I'd heard of people doing that precise thing before, and were I a criminal, I'd do such things with few if any qualms as a matter of course – when it did not occur to me to go far beyond such trivialities. It made for an inward shudder, as that kind of vicious ruthlessness was currently rare in witchdom, and it wasn't exactly common during the time of the tapestries; and those not witches seldom saw anything of the kind.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Remember what I said about that black book speaking of 'the return of the monster'?” A pause, then, “they are utterly ignorant of what you were thinking of, and even the witches of the past would have been frightened mindless had they foreseen it.”

“Didn't that dark-haired witch..?”

No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “She may have written portions of that book her-own-self, especially that particular section, but she – and no one else – knew just what kind of a person would show themselves when it was time.” A faint chuckle, then, “the talk has gone out in witchdom that it is better to meet Brimstone as his fresh-broiled meat in hell than to meet you when enraged.”

“That talk would be but the faint smell of that mule,” said Katje, “as I doubt anyone on this planet has seen you in such a state.”

“B-but that m-mess...”

“You were not enraged then,” said Katje. “I might not have been on the premises then, but I spoke to enough people who were present afterward to know you were simply after the truth, and the witches brought most of what happened to them upon themselves by their knowing and deliberate choice to not tell you what you needed to know when you asked for information.”

“She's right,” said Sarah, “and we need to look at that tripwire before someone trips over it and sets off a mine.”

The tripwire in question needed no rags for me to see it the instant I entered the room, which did not surprise me much; and when I followed the thick reddish glow coming off of the thin rusted wire to one of the walls, I found it anchored with an odd-looking twisted spike fitted with a thin – and very rusty – wire ring. I followed this wire through the maze of spades, and on the other side of them in a small niche carved from the blocks forming the walls of the room, I found not merely another one of those green-painted brick-shaped mines, but also, this particular mine glowed more redly than the wire itself. The mine went gauzy, and I saw that whoever had thought to insert a detonator into the mine was so incredibly inept that he'd inserted an oddly-machined bolt fitted with a pull-ring instead.

“Is that a curse-detonator?” I asked silently.

“It may look like a curse-detonator, and that fool-witch who planted that bomb thought it to be a curse-detonator, but it was supplied by that one witch – and that one expert witch was dead by then, so he could not take it into his own area and convert it into a curse-detonator.”

“Oh,” I blurted, as I removed the mine with a slow and steady motion – it was a copy of one of those we had just found – and then followed the now-darkened yet still red-glowing wire to the spike. Now that was glowing redly like a damp road-flare, and I had a most peculiar idea.

“Those people bringing up rotten cannons from the fifth kingdom need to have this spike pounded into the place on one of those guns where they put the igniters, and this, uh, mine...” Here, I looked at the thing once more and saw the case go almost transparent to show the plaster-bound broken rock and scrap-metal, followed by the 'flour-extended explosive' filling. While a modest addition of 'flour' affected this particular explosive very little – it had an excess of oxygen, and hence adding a suitable fuel 'helped' it to a modest degree – the percentage of 'flour' used in this instance was such that the explosive was drastically weakened and made huge clouds of sooty black smoke upon detonation instead of a faintly gray-toned reddish-white flash followed by a huge fireball that endured some seconds. That massive long-enduring fireball was the single area flour helped the most – that, and it was a lot cheaper than some of the other materials that could be used to 'help' the explosive. A mixture of fine-powdered carbon and granulated aluminum helped the most, or so I guessed – and I suspected that material needed political 'pull' and sacks of money to get ahold of in bulk. It could not be had upon the green market in the quantities needed for substantial use.

One could get modest amounts of those materials if one knew where to go outside the city, however, and a number of the witches who had occupied the Abbey had gotten their own supplies of both materials.

“Oh, ditch the flour and correct the oxygen balance on that explosive filling with the right materials, and give it some of that accursed purple-bang stuff so it really kicks hard, too,” I muttered. “That thing needs to go in a limber, nestling itself in among the dynamite and the ready-filled shells, and it needs to have a genuine authentic-type curse-detonator, one that responds forcefully – and most-cunningly – to the presence of high-ranking witches.” A pause, then, “uh, let it explode when the leading arch-witch decides to inspect that particular limber, so he's chopped up fine and then cooked fit for Brimstone's dinner-plate.”

The mine and its trip-wire vanished with a faint blue-flashed plop, and I could – faintly – hear giggling, followed by less-faint words.

“You know what you just did, didn't you?” asked the soft voice. “Those guns are currently en-route northward in part-dismantled form via the secret way, and they will travel thusly until they get well into the second kingdom. The person who will be inspecting them at that depot is the currently-designated leader of that huge column which is slated to reestablish witchdom's presence in the central part of the first kingdom.”

“More delays?” I asked.

“But a few days of actual 'delay', as those in charge of overall planning did a 'decent' job regarding the 'usual' contingencies – or so they think,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, that particular combine-head is one of those thirteen Powers, and hence his destruction – along with that of his sizable retinue – will really shake things up in that particular area.”

“Which area?” asked Sarah.

“Why, the third kingdom port and the entire surrounding region,” said the soft voice. “He may keep a very low profile, but his 'reach' and 'power' are such that he more or less runs the central portion of the third kingdom.”

“Which means he has control of most of what happens in the whole of that kingdom,” said Sarah. “If he goes where he belongs, then that king will have a much freer hand.”

“Exactly, and you'll be most glad of that freer hand, as that's one area where the effects of that man and his retinue going where they belong will shake that place up good and proper – and more, that shakeup will happen quickly.”

“Meaning we'll not be bothered much when we arrive there?” I asked.

Organized opposition will be absent in great measure for quite some time in that kingdom,” said the soft voice. “What opposition you will encounter, at least until witchdom rebuilds its power structure there, will be operating on its own recognizance, which means it will be both relatively inept and very disorganized – hence its effectiveness will be minimal, and you can deal with it readily.”

“Back to spades,” I muttered. “I hope we brought some liniment.”

“I know I brought a vial of it,” said Sarah. “I hope those other caches aren't going to need us unloading this entire room.”

While the remaining caches didn't begin showing themselves 'within a turn of a glass', I saw the first example of that remainder just after we'd taken a break for beer. There were three of us in the front line, as faintly-distorted talk seemed to filter from the rear about how the other rooms were becoming barren of digging tools, which surprised me more than a little until I heard behind me from Katje about the 'wheelbarrow-train' that was now being used to unload them. These barrows typically had added slats on their sides so they could carry a dozen or more tools per load, and every such barrow currently functional and present was in use thusly.

That, and only the very first room we had opened was truly starting to show 'bare walls'. The other two we'd 'cleared' still had plenty of tools in them.

“And those other two caches in here,” I muttered. “I might be able to get to one of those caches shortly, but that last one is closer to the rear of this room.” I did not wish to speak about those remaining in the last of the five rooms – as I had no idea as to their precise location at this time.

“Best clear a path to it, then,” said Sarah. “I would toss the spades out of the way to each side, but that would make the rest of them fall down and cause the path to be both harder to get to and need almost all of these greasy things to be removed so as to get to it.”

With sore arms and a sorer-yet back, I returned to my labors, now touching spades and hoes and then handing them back behind me with that subtle twist of my back. I wondered if we had enough time for a nap, in fact, at least until the spades and hoes suddenly seemed to melt away to my front and left and I actually caught sight of the rag-covered wooden frame that seemed to blend in with the coarse-chipped walls flawlessly save for a faint bluish glow in the gloom that grew with each foot further from our light sources.

With a scraping drag, the first of the two lampstands moved closer to the area in question, then as one of the hanging lanterns was adjusted, then the other, the second lampstand came to the edge of the remaining wall of shovels. I had indeed cleared a path, and as I removed the final implements in front of the nearest cache – these being rakes, hoes, spading forks, and now and again a 'tunneling shovel', I saw clearer and yet clearer the nature of the cache and its going-rotten cloth and its nearly-rotten wood.

“Stuff wasn't that good to start with, and they had to steal it during the confusion just after a bar-fight,” I muttered, “and no varnish or drying oil, so...”

“I doubt they had such materials,” said Sarah. “Now what is this bar you speak of?”

“That drink-house,” I said. I'd lapsed into a foreign way of thought for a moment, which made me wonder as to why I had done so, at least until I knelt down at the front of the cache and began to carefully feel around its edges for tripwires and other signs of trapping.

I managed about six inches of careful touching along the top of the frame before the thing both fell forward and went to dust at the same time, and the hole it hid needed my getting on my chest with my face but inches above the faintly acrid dust. I was more than a little astonished to find sizable 'heavy-duty' metal cans in the hole, and when I dragged the first of them out, the stenciled labels spoke loudly to me.

“More rockets, dear,” I said – and as I said this, I knew this was a rocket box that had once held rockets. What it had inside now was an entire mystery, or so I thought until I'd gotten it into Sepp's hands and began reaching for one of the other three such containers hidden inside the hidey-hole.

“No, no rockets in these cans,” I muttered. “These things were delicate enough that they needed good packing, and some of those witches had stolen rockets hidden in their things along with their own copied launchers.”

“Which were not merely marginally functional, but provided no guidance to their rockets,” said the soft voice, “as they were fetish-built using parts provided by a company owned by that one witch.”

“They missed a lot?” I asked.

“More like 'the witch using one attempted to squeeze off a rocket and blew himself up',” said the soft voice, “as those rockets needed that guidance system to be safely fired as a general rule.” A pause, then, “the sole consistent exceptions were those individuals the witches named 'monsters'.”

“What did they do?” asked Sepp.

“Fire rockets with damaged launchers successfully,” said the soft voice, “and in some cases, actually 'program' rockets with thermal recognition seeker heads without using any of the designated equipment. Given such equipment's 'scarcity', that capability was a real asset on the battlefield, and such people commonly became team-leaders when and where it was possible.”

“Scarcity?” I asked.

“Mostly a contrived scarcity,” said the soft voice. “Not only was that equipment large and power-hungry enough to need a designated bearer to carry it in the field, it was also ill-suited to the battlefield conditions that existed once the war's opening phase ended. Finally, it was regarded – with good reason – as being something they did not wish the enemy to get his hands on, so it tended to remain in the safety of the 'rear' areas and the rockets were 'programmed' and then labeled prior to being issued.”

“But that would not work,” said Sarah.

“Actually it did work, though not optimally,” said the soft voice. “Most of the targets those rockets were fired against were either artillery pieces, mobile fortresses or their numerous smaller cousins, or bunker-like fortifications, and all of those had holes – and those rockets looked for holes. The programming process merely 'adjusted' them to look for certain kinds of holes and ignore what was done to hide those holes – which meant if one of them was fired with the wrong programming, it would still most likely hit what it was aimed at.” A pause, then, “it just wasn't a sure thing then.”

“Pigs don't have holes, though,” said Sepp.

“They have mouths, and they have backsides,” said the soft voice, “which means a charging pig is very likely to eat the warhead if it has a rocket coming at it, and should it turn tail and run, it will receive a most-thorough uncorking.”

“And if the pig is broadside, then you need to adjust that rocket correctly,” I muttered. “Those things usually aren't doing that for long, though.”

“No, sometimes you can catch them that way, though they'll be far enough away then that you'll want a good telescope so as to program the rocket to look for the correct shape and then the correct relationship to that shape so as to hit the front third of the pig. The pig will stop in its tracks then.”

“Find one of those small gaps in its armor, or one of those holes left in that latticework armor they use for the pig's sides,” I murmured.

While there was no answer to these comments, I had still been handing out 'rocket boxes' while thusly engaged, and with the last of them, I began wringing my hands, for now I had found another 'mother lode' of greasy brass tins. While many of these were the 'common' size of round tin, some were the large squared tins, while some few were of a smaller square size. A brief peek at one of these showed it to be filled with the non-plated version of the ammunition used by those smaller pistols, and I wondered just how common those weapons were across the sea at this time.

“That design is a domestic one, and the handful of faithful 'improved-copies' over there at this time are reserved for the very uppermost ranks of their current leadership.” A brief pause, then, “there are other pistols that look like them to a certain degree, but those are currently nowhere near as capable nor as reliable – and those are not at all rare.”

Another pause, then, “there were enough battlefield pickups made by that country's soldiers within the first few weeks of that war that they began making ammunition and spare parts for them in short order, and some of those parts can still be found if you look in the right places. The 'specification' ammunition is still fairly common, in fact – which causes more than a few destroyed weapons when shortages develop of the 'correct' stuff for those 'imitation' pistols.”

“Those blue dressed thugs have them?” I asked.

“Some few do,” said the soft voice, “but even those people usually realize they're more for 'decoration' than actual use.” A brief pause, then, “if you take that one modified pistol over there and speak to the right people, you should be able to get all of the parts needed to make more weapons like it – and that in very short order.”

“We will want them, then,” said Sarah. “They might be small for pistols, but I'm beginning to think I wish to carry one just the same.”

“Given what else is available for such weapons, I do not blame you much,” I murmured, as I continued removing tins and handing them to the person reaching down for them.

“You mean 'currently' available, don't you?” asked the soft voice. The tone I heard was enigmatic, more so than any time in recent memory. “There will be a pressing need for effectual and reliable handguns in substantial number – weapons that are readily used, accuratethat word was accented to indicate its importance – “manageable given modest training, easily maintained, durable, and possessing adequate stopping power against sundry thugs and animals.”

“Adequate stopping power?” I asked, this audibly. “Easily maintained?”

“I am even less inclined to fire those large ones now,” said Sarah. “They may stop large rats well, but if I close my eyes, I can still see the muzzle flames of those things and feel my hands going numb and tingly again on the instant, and I'm not certain if dragoon pistols are worse that way or not, as I have never fired those.” And in lower voice, “I doubt much I wish to try.”

“And those things put people in the privy when fired with a string,” I muttered. “Those other ones are soft metal with troubles built-in, so they need extensive reworking to be usable even for a short interval, those small ones are just that, and...”

“Exactly what I meant, even if those 'small' ones will be coveted to no small degree once they become available in numbers,” said the soft voice. “They do slip readily in one's pocket, and they're not toys, even with the lighter loading.”

I needed to wipe my hands with rags after removing a few tins, and as I continued to hand them out, I needed more rags to wipe my hands, such that by the time I had cleaned out the surprisingly deep cache, I had made a small mound of greasy rags by its side. I thought to bag these up for soaking in distillate, but Sarah beat me to the matter: she tossed down a strange-looking bag made of at least three pieces of cloth, each such piece colored differently from one another, and as I put the slimy rags inside – it was a sizable bag, and looked to be as stoutly-made as a mail-sack – I asked, “did you use cloth scraps for this one?”

“No, but the tailor I traded for it did,” said Sarah. “Such bags may not be desired by most people, but if you are an itinerant tailor, you'll value a bag's sturdiness over its appearance, as few other than those like you will see it openly displayed and you will use it a great deal in your travels, much as I did.” A pause, then, “that particular cloth isn't that common in this area, which is why I needed to give much of a paper of bright-needles and two fresh rods of green fine-thread for it.”

“Bright-needles?” I asked. I was still stuffing the bag. I'd used a lot of rags, more than I thought.

“If you sew much, or do so to earn your bread, those are the needles you want,” said Sarah. “The common needles, those having colors to them, tend to drag slightly in most cloth, which means more time and effort is needed to complete a seam, and the same for fine-thread – that, and most customers, especially the pickier ones, demand such thread, and close-stitching as well.”

“I'll take clothing that does not rip out readily,” I muttered, as I stuffed the bag with the last of the rags. “Back to spades and rakes, dear.”

“I know, which is why I had Anna fetch me a dozen rods of sundry-colored fourth-kingdom strong-thread before I did our traveling clothing, and I went to two shoemakers to get what they use as well for those portions needing extra strength,” said Sarah. “I asked Maria to order a bag each of such threads along with bolts of that cloth I spoke of, as I explained to her what was needed for clothing to endure hard usage.”

Someone had provided a small group of fresh gloves, and while these fit our hands poorly and their seams seemed to be wrongly placed – they were stiff to a degree, and hurt the palms until they stretched slightly with use – I and the others were still glad for their protection. We made them slimy with grease in a great hurry, however, for now the wheelbarrow-train was stopping by regularly and the number of helpers now inside the room was such that each of us had his or her own 'train' passing tools back. It seemed wise, as while the tools slowly shrank away in front of us, I could see clear progress manifesting every time I paused to rest for a few seconds.

“There are enough of these things,” muttered Sepp. “There might be enough common spades, but every third tool I touch is something else.”

“Good,” spat Sarah. She was working hard, and her voice confirmed her efforts. “Every one of these slimy things is going to be wanted, and I hope more distillate has showed so as to clean them up.”

“Foraging parties have been going out looking for it since that camp has been set to rights,” said the soft voice, “and those going to where you live to see Anna have spoken of the matter, so now Hans has gone to ask at the Public House in Roos for the stuff.”

“He won't get much, will he?”

“He'll get over a dozen mostly-full jugs, and that over what Georg has – unwittingly – hidden in places on his property.”

What?” I spat as I handed back an unusually hefty pick. This thing had a head of substantial heft, and looked to be up to chipping through hard stone for hours at a stretch before needing a session with stones to sharpen its points. “Where?”

“In the shop's rear area,” said the soft voice. “Recall Hieronymus and his two light-giving firebombs? He laid in 'ample store' of such fuel in various caches on the premises, and not just for lighting in the shop.” A short pause, then, “he also set fires with it after dark in the surrounding area, and that bomb you defused was one of his more-common setups save for the addition of his old pistol as a trigger and the use of some harder-to-get light distillate.” Another short pause, then, “he took what dynamite he had left with him when he left for points south, which was but a few ready-capped sticks which he sold to other witches he met in his southward travels.”

“Old pistol?” I asked.

“He'd just gotten a replacement which was of a significantly higher grade,” said the soft voice, “and since then, he's had it and the three like it he's bought since heading south to the second kingdom house 'gone through' at a witch-run instrument-making shop about forty miles due south of there.”

“Much money, better looks, and but little better performance,” I muttered.

“More like 'bags of money, much better looks, and a similar level of performance' – as those pistols were made in one of the fourth kingdom's 'better' shops, and are regarded as 'best' grade guns by most who purchase them,” said the soft voice. “They will take a good deal longer to become 'unusable' now, which is another reason why he has four of them.”

“Spread the wear around?” I asked. I wondered if that place had dismantled and case-hardened the weapons' parts. I knew what I did to a pistol, and had some idea as to how they were regarded.

“That, and he actually keeps all four weapons full-loaded – all six chambers capped, just like the example you handled – and ready to hand wherever he goes if he can hide them on his person readily,” said the soft voice. “Usually one in each pocket at the least, and if he's got his satchel to hand, the other two pistols are in there, each in its own fitted pocket with the butt of the weapon such that he can grasp it readily.”

Four pistols?” gasped Sarah as she handed back a shovel. The rear of the room had a fast-working line in it to pass the tools back, and these people were changing off frequently so as to keep up with the three of us.

“His circles are sufficiently rarefied at this time that not merely is he on the verge of entering the upper reaches of one of those Power's retinues, but he might well become that man's successor if he can avoid eating those dementia-inducing foods.” A brief pause, then, “that isn't possible, of course, as part of 'climbing' in witchdom is eating like a witch – and if your superiors prefer such food to all others and eat little else, then you must partake in kind.”

Those people need their meals liberally spiced with witch-tables, then,” I muttered. “Lots of solid-blue ones, especially.” I then gasped, and spat, “solid-blue ones?”

“Those don't currently grow on the continent,” said Sarah. For some reason, I could clearly picture the things spoken of: a raised button on top, a cap perhaps two inches across of light blue streaked with raised darker-blue lines, a darker-yet streaky blue underside, and a ring near the base of the ragged stem, with the whole thing coated with a faintly greenish slime and streaked with reddish 'curse-energy', this not the usual 'neon' red-orange haze but erupting like tiny bolts of angry red lightning from all surfaces of the thing. Calling them 'potent' and 'destructive' was an understatement of the greatest magnitude; and Madame Curoue would have killed to have such potent materials for her poisons. “The Curse killed all of those accursed things, and those witch-tables that remain are but pale shadows of those things for insanity.”

“Then let them...” My voice was a hesitating splutter.

“They received 'true-blue' witch-tables, ones fully as bad as anything ever seen in this area before the war – ones just like you saw, in fact,” said the soft voice, “which means that entire house is going to be thoroughly – and irreversibly – psychotic.” A pause, then, “and Hieronymus will need all of his full-loaded weapons then and more besides, as that place will make Babel when it was judged seem orderly and peaceful.”

“Why, he won't get some of the pie?” I asked idly. I could feel the closeness of the last cache some ten feet away. It wasn't at the very rear of this room, but it was within ready reach of the rear wall.

“Oh, he will get his share of it, rest assured,” said the soft voice, “and he will join himself fully in the resulting madness and mayhem. More, he will recall his days as a plain-dressed incendiary, and make the whole place 'dance on fire as it intends' with distillate before he's incapacitated.”

It was odd to hear a line of 'The End' from that particular source – and odder yet to know that line had been modified in the witch's version due to its proclivity to set the witches of long ago 'on fire'.

“Good,” spat Sarah. “I might not have met that wretch face to face, but I've heard enough about him both before and after he left to know him for a witch indeed.”

“He won't be a witch much longer,” said Sepp. “Not if he gets into some witch-tables and then sets that place alight.”

“That place?” I asked.

“It's most likely one of about four houses in the second kingdom house,” said Sepp conspiratorially. It was as if he was speaking of 'secret' information. “Gilbertus told me about that place's black regions, and said there was one 'specially bad one that had a lot of these big black smelly houses that had three and four stories to them, and the biggest of those houses had that kingdom's wealthiest people.”

“Not those places,” said Sarah. “If you want to find out who has the money in the second kingdom, then you must go some distance west from the west edge of the High Way near where it turns off to go to the kingdom house, and that's where you can find carriages and huge houses, each with a yard as large as that of the kingdom house here.” A pause, then, “that part of town you referred to isn't wealthy enough to get carriages, even if it has a lot of coaches with sleeved bearings and the other witch-things that go with having a lot of money.”

“Those people with the carriages have jobs in the house proper, also,” I said. “They don't need the money they get from that work, but they do want the power so they can run the whole of the kingdom to suit themselves – and about half of those Powers live in and around that area.”

“No, not nearly half,” said the soft voice. “Those people don't live in anything nearly that ostentatious, and more, if one is a Power, 'one must have one's main residence in the region one owns, that it may be better observed and further controlled' – or so the larger black books say.” A pause, then, “that's another example of that black book's old-headed thinking – not clustering one's leaders in a given area so they can be easily killed at a single blow, and more, to have those leaders blend in readily with the surrounding population – and to a man, those who are Powers do both of those things passably at the very least.

“They did the first more than the second, at least on the tapestries I've seen,” said Sarah. “Witches, if they are wealthy, wish to show their wealth to others – and those people did that when and where they could.”

“They did until the opening weeks of that war killed most of those people off,” said the soft voice. “Showing one's wealth openly since that time, outside of Cardosso and his closest associates during the sparse handful of years just prior to them being killed and their chief city razed, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in witchdom.” A pause, then, “and not all witches indulge themselves that way, which is why so much of the kingdom outside of this area is currently sounding like the house did after the sun rose twice at midnight.”

G-Gettysburg,” I muttered. “Massive gunfire, cannons blasting, tossed jugs of distillate, screaming swine – no, not those things. They did not have pigs in that battle, least as far as I know, and I have my doubts about the jugs of distillate as well.”

“What is this G-Get...” Sepp gave up trying to say that word, then said, “was that here?”

“Not that I know of,” said Sarah. “Then again, those witches did not name their battles.”

“It wasn't here, but where I came from, and it lasted for three days,” I muttered, as I handed back a tunneling shovel to an unseen individual behind me, then reached for a hoe. “I'm getting really sore.”

“I think everyone who is working here is sore,” said Karl from somewhere to my rear and right. “They have people putting together these wheelbarrow things outside, and I think every person who came up here brought one.”

“No, not everyone, as these people packed light because they were the first to come and they knew they might need to both 'break trail' and move fast,” said the soft voice. “Even so, everyone in that column who had room and enough 'spring' left to handle the weight hid some parts to at least one wheelbarrow in his buggy.” A pause, then, “they did bring up enough wheelbarrow parts to assemble the ones being used to unload these rooms, and enough additional parts to repair several of the non-functional ones that were on site prior to their arrival.”

“So instead of ten, we have perhaps, uh, fifteen now?” I murmured.

“Nineteen currently, with an additional two needing just some of their major wooden parts to be complete,” said the soft voice. “There will most likely be more than a hundred of them here before you sail, and both hundreds more on site and orders at the shop for their metal parts by the time you return.”

“How will I..?” I'd never done parts for wheelbarrows here.

I ceased speaking, for the spades and other tools were once again 'melting away' to my front and to my left, and as I advanced foot by foot through the long 'ordered' ranks of tools with Sarah and Sepp passing the tools back behind me as fast as I could pick them up and pass them back with both hands alternating, I asked, “why do the tools act like this?”

“I'm not certain,” said Sepp. “It might have to do with the curses on some of these things, as I can see places where witches wrote runes on some of these tools with red chalk.”

What?” I gasped. My voice had not merely come out at as a gasp, but it went up an octave in pitch.

“It began to fall off when that deep-hole went,” said the soft voice, “and what is happening is the very last portion of opposition these once heavily-cursed tools are providing.” A pause, then, “had you a day extra to let the remnants of those curses go entirely where they belong, the tools would not be doing this, but this work cannot wait.”

“And my continuing on like this is hastening the dissolution of those curses, isn't it?” I asked.

There was no answer beyond the faint knowledge that what I had said might well be the truth, at least until Sarah made a comment that indicated I was most likely correct.

Yet still, this was a large room, one which was 'deep and wide' compared to those we had opened earlier, and the path I needed to make was easily three feet in width. I could see the 'goal' ahead, and this cache I knew to be an especially small one, one but perhaps two feet in width and of a similar depth, with but somewhat greater height. What was in it was a mystery, at least until I came within six feet of the previously-hidden rag-covered wooden frame and seemed to see a most-peculiar device showing gauzily upon the dusty rag 'stage'. I recognized what I saw instantly, even if I had never seen such a weapon in real life – save, perhaps, in a museum.

I had seen a fair number of pictures of weapons resembling it, however.

“It's broken down into pieces,” I muttered. “Dear, they hid a... Did they?”

“They did,” said the soft voice. “It may have gotten no less than thirty workers tortured to death when they did it, but they did steal a mortar – and more, that one has a good firing pin, one made by the workers here, so you not only have a usable weapon – it merely needs a thorough cleaning with distillate and then assembly before using it – but also good usable examples of what parts you will need to copy so as to get those other guns like it on the premises firing.”

“Five mortars?” I asked.

“There were originally six guns, but a trashed witch thought to demonstrate how a witch fired one of those things, and he used a domestically-produced copy of the rounds that were brought here with them.”

“What happened?” asked Sepp.

“That witch probably scattered himself,” said Sarah. “I've heard enough about witches and guns to know how they can be sometimes.”

“He did much more than 'scatter himself', dear,” said the soft voice. “Not only did those making those particular copies use very poor materials and worse-yet judgment in their drug-addled haste, but they also used an especially cursed filling for 'extra bang'. Hence when that fool-witch dumped the shell in nose-first, the thing didn't wait to hit the firing pin, but detonated just after he turned it loose – and he, and every witch within about thirty paces, was cut to ribbons.” A pause, then, “only two of those witches out of that entire group lived long enough to be sacrificed in the deep-hole, as the gun's splinters were fully as lethal as those of the shell and the gun disintegrated like a bomb with that cursed shell detonating like it did.”

“That deep-hole most likely closed soon after,” I muttered, as I reached for one of the last tools blocking my access.

“It did, and that not two weeks later in apparent time,” said the soft voice, “as the person who controlled that fool-witch was the Mistress of the North, and that incident was her 'final warning' to the place's leaders – and some of them, at least, then had an idea as to what was likely to happen in the days to come.”

Foot by foot, I drew closer to the cache; and when I had passed back the last of the spades and other tools, I knelt down in front of it. As if the concealing panel had been waiting long years for my arrival, it crumpled as it fell forward when my hands reached for it; and within, I saw no less than four 'crudely-made' cloth satchels that seemed altogether otherwise once the three of us had gone outside with them and into the relatively 'bright' light of 'The Upper Alley' near the transom.

The work inside the long-room continued unabated, for the shovels and tools we had left in that last room, by our going through them, were now thought 'safe' by the multitude; and I could hear the sounds of labor within that room growing to a 'fever pitch', as there was a real 'market' for those hoes and picks I had been finding.

“Especially those picks,” said the soft voice. “The last room has over a hundred of those, all fully as good as any pick made today, even 'best' grade picks made in Badwater.”

“Hard digging?” I asked.

“Those turnip-patches aren't the easiest things to completely remove, as their foundations are thick, deep and surprisingly solid,” said the soft voice. “You've been too busy to hear the charges of dynamite some have set to break the more stubborn examples up.”

“When?” spat Sarah, as she began to untie the string to one of the satchels. I only now noted that the satchels only looked crude, and that at first glance. They were done quickly, but those doing them had been thinking about what they were doing more than a little, and they used the best materials they could lay their hands on. That thicker waterproof cloth figured heavily into their construction, as did much of that darker thread, and the obvious sewing, this done with a species of stitching awl like those I used at home, was done carefully and neatly with that darker thread.

“At least these things are not greasy,” said Sarah, as she untied the cloth ties to one satchel. “We may just wish to look at these parts...” She turned and noted the disappearance of Sepp. “Where'd he go?”

“Beer, possibly,” I murmured, as I worked at untying my satchel. The other two lay where Sepp had been sitting, and when someone began coming closer – there were wheelbarrows going up and down the stairs on a 'plank road', one up or down alternatingly, and this every few seconds – I could tell someone was coming for us.

“Is that you?” asked Sarah plaintively. I wondered who 'you' might be, as I could think of several individuals who might answer to 'you'.

“No, it is Karl, with some beer,” said Karl, as he showed with a dripping jug of beer in each hand. “These people are drowning their beer in the river, so it is as cold as if it came straight from a farmer's cellar in deep-winter, and then they have some yellow-fruits, so...”

“Cut those things in half and squeeze their juice into your beer,” said Sarah. “I thought that was an old tale until Liza told me about it during the beginning of term and I tried it later when I had heat-sickness during High Summer.”

“That is no old tale, as Lukas told me about it,” said Karl, “so when I found some of those things, I got three of them and two cold jugs. Now I hope you have your own cups, as I do not have spares, and we should not share our little creatures among us, as Anna has spoken of that being trouble.”

We did have our cups – I wondered if I should secure mine in a pouch or on a string to keep it handy, now – and the addition of 'yellow-fruit' to the beer helped tremendously. It seemed to take much of the soreness out of me by the time I was working on my second cup of such dosed beer, and Sarah said, “I knew it. We were getting ourselves sick in that place, as I was about to have heat-sickness and those things cured it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sepp, who reappeared carrying a small copper washbasin and another species of jug entirely. His trousers pockets bulged suspiciously, and when he saw the beer jugs, he dropped all he had on the 'ground-cloth' and began to suck down his share of 'dosed' beer.

“You got some of those things too,” said Karl. “Where did you get so many?”

“From one of those latest arrivals,” said Sepp. “They had bags of 'em, and they've been both drowning beer jugs in the river and dosing beer for those working in here.”

“Is it hotter in here?” I asked.

“I am not sure if it is hotter or not, even if there is no breeze in here,” said Sarah. “I am really unsure about those rooms, though.”

“They are hotter, and not a little hotter, which is the other portion of that fast-fading cursing,” said the soft voice. “You – and those working in there with you – are laboring as if you-all were in a rather warm iron-mine, and you all were about to come down with cases of heat-sickness.”

“Hence we need to rest, and get drink,” said Sarah. “We may wish to clean what is in these bags up some and then pad the things with rags for the trip home.”

“That is why I have this,” said Sepp, “and I recognized this jug, as it has Hans' mark on it as well as the letter 'B' for boiled.”

“H-how..?”

“He came by the Abbey once already today,” said Sepp, “and he took two of the people running things here back with him, as talk has gone around some about witch-hid distillate on Georg's property.” A pause, then, “and if Georg knows about that stuff being there, I am a Genuine Plugged mule with full odor.”

“Why is that?” asked Karl. He was untying the knots I had attempted, and having much better luck, while Sarah had spoken too soon about hers. She was fuming while still trying to get the 'Grandmother's knots' untied.

“Because talk has it Georg wants nothing to do with distillate unless the stuff is either jugged specially or boiled,” said Sepp, “and if he knew he had fifty jugs of that smelly stuff hid on his property, he'd drop to the floor in a faint.”

“Jugged specially?” I asked. We now used boiled distillate as a rule in the shop, and if I needed to loosen up something rusty, I had to bring what I needed from home and take it back at the end of the day – and when I wasn't actually using it, I needed to keep it outside near the rear of the property in a small masonry 'shelter' that had somehow 'appeared' as if by magic once the sand-house was finished and the masons' remaining supplies were being 'removed'.

“He's scared gray of that stuff since he almost got scattered by it,” said Sepp. “He went after a pig and the pig got too close to a witch's wick-lantern, and that thing went up like wick-lanterns tend to do.” A brief pause, then, “these knots had to have be tied by someone's grandmother, as I need an awl here.”

“Here, use this one,” said Karl, as he passed over an awl that could have only come from one location. I recognized its sturdy features and the squared cross-section of its four-inch blade, as well as the obvious rainbow of brownish temper-colors that said it was one of the 'dozens' I had made in recent months. I was wondering about drop-hammer dies due to their substantial and still-growing popularity.

“You make those by the numbers, don't you?” asked Sarah, as she drew out another awl. This one looked to have come from my 'awl-drawer' in my workbench, and while it was not quite as good as the ones I commonly carried or what Karl was using, it was amply good enough to serve in untying knots.

“I think so,” said Sepp. “That man Georg said that when he took my order for one, and I did not believe him until Lukas told me about the size of those batches you've been doing lately.”

“I tend to forge out a lot of awl blades when I do those nowadays,” I said. “The latest batch should be the best ones yet, as they're of crucible steel.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sepp. He sounded as if he wanted one of that particular batch, if I read his voice right. “He spoke of a special type of iron that is as good as can be had in the five kingdoms, and I did not believe him until Lukas showed me two pieces of a file that had been cut clean in half with a chisel made of it.”

What?” I gasped. “How did he..?”

“I think he comes by the shop regular so you are kept safe,” said Sepp. “I know Hendrik's been writing a fair number of letters regarding what's planned for dealing with that stinking witch up in Norden, and I know you're going to be in the thick of it.”

“He is guarding your back, then,” said Sarah, “much as I try to do when and as I can, and for much the same reasons.” Sarah's fingers then seemed to blur, and the awl she was using fell handle-first into her lap as the knots came apart and her 'satchel' opened. She looked inside it, then looked at me with an expression I could not decipher.

“This is a gun, all right,” she muttered. “It may have a smaller bore than any gun I have seen or fired, but it is bigger than that of any musket I have ever seen.” She then stuck her hand inside the satchel, and drew her hand back outside. Surprisingly, it only had a modest amount of grease on it.

“Three fingers wide, and I can move them some in the bore,” she said. “I think it is a bit more than two inches.” She then reached back in and removed a length of tubing – which shocked me to my core.

“There's two pieces for this thing,” she said, as she laid down the first portion of the mortar tube on the 'groundsheet', “and I think they lock together somehow, as I can see places at their ends where that can be done.”

“They also attach to some other pieces, dear,” I said as calmly as I could. The length of tubing Sarah drew out next made for an involuntary gasp, especially when I saw it to be open at both ends. It was easily two feet in length, just like the first piece – which then made for wondering.

“What?” I gasped. “Where's the breech to that thing?”

“I think that is this thing here,” said Sepp, as he passed over an intricately-machined assembly that showed an obvious fitting of some kind at each end, a plethora of 'quick-remove' pins with knobs at their 'closed' end and a hairpin-type spring at the 'open' one, and a lever with a small wire ring attached. Sepp held the device in one hand, then pulled slowly on the lever with the index finger of the other. At some point, I heard a click – and then saw the flash of something leaping out of a small hole in the center of one of the fittings to then retract itself back into hiding.

“What?” I gasped. “A mortar that fires with a lanyard?”

“That one can be set so it drop-fires also, but yes, these can be carried with a ready round in the tube and fired that way,” said the soft voice. “It's quite handy when one must 'shoot and scoot', which is why these mortars were especially prized when they could be recovered intact by this area's military.”

“Didn't happen much, did it?” I muttered.

“Especially given that the usual routine when such retreats happened was that one or more 'doctored' shells were dropped with the firing pin retracted and the gun 'cocked' with a lanyard in place,” said the soft voice. “That trick got a lot of witch-soldiers until they caught onto the part about such guns having ready-to-fire shells in them.” A pause, then, “a lot more of them died then, as such 'hot' shells were usually fitted with 'extra-sensitive detonators' that came live some minutes after dropping, so any attempt to remove the shell or shells, or for that matter move the gun itself, meant detonation – and those 'hot' shells were indeed 'hot', as they turned the entire gun into a very nasty fragmentation bomb when their filling exploded.”

“Probably smarter to just stay well away from those things then,” I muttered.

“The witches eventually did exactly that,” said the soft voice, “and when the counterattack started on the opposing side, the gun crews would have the deactivation transmitters running as they came near, so they'd just dump the 'hot' shell or shells out of the tube and put it or them away, put the gun back in place, aim it, and start firing the usual shells at the retreating enemy.”

“Were those things as bad as the distance shells Willem loads?” asked Sarah. I had a sneaking hunch Willem had his 'special mixture' that only he and a handful of gunners he knew of used, and its 'bang' was substantial, as were its hazards otherwise if mishandled.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Those shells you spoke of are bad enough, but the rounds these mortars fired made them look to be weak and feeble when it came to soft targets.” A pause, then, “if Anna gets onto an Iron Pig with that gun, that pig will sup with Brimstone very quickly, as the shells commonly have a small copper cone sitting just behind the fuze and their filling works well with shaped charges.”

“Oh, my,” I gasped. “A pig's top armor is pretty thin stuff, so these things will ignore it.” I paused, then said, “that pig is not going to do well if she hits it, or even gets 'close'.”

“'Close' will injure the pig enough to stop it within a hundred yards or so,” said the soft voice. “If she lands one on the pig, though – that pig will stop right there.”

What Karl withdrew from his satchel, though, made for wondering, at least until I had the three pieces of the mortar tube in my lap. The assembly of the thing – to me, anyway – was so obvious that within thirty seconds I had the two sections of the tube and breech screwed together and locked, then found the socket on the 'obvious' folding baseplate, and as I was handed part after part, I knew exactly where it went on the gun, almost as if I'd been trained at length in their use. I seemed to be gathering a crowd as I worked, for as I was handed various-sized pins, I inserted them 'exactly' where they went so as to 'lock' the mortar together, or so I thought until Sarah nudged me with a plastic-bound manual showing the gun set up in all of its 'glory' on the cover.

“You didn't use one of these before, did you?” she asked faintly.

“N-no,” I stammered, “and I h-hope these pins are the r-right ones.”

“I can barely read what is in this manual,” said Sarah, “but there is a drawing in here, and though it puzzles me a good deal, I suspect the pins and other parts to this thing can only put together in one way.”

“Exactly correct, which made training on these guns relatively easy,” said the soft voice. “Now, carefully reach in your satchel, dear, and remove the gunsight. It's wrapped in clean rags and tied with string, as those packing this weapon expected to use it in short order as they broke out.”

“Why is it so clean?” I asked.

“They carefully rubbed it with a rag dampened with that preservative grease diluted with a species of 'well-dried' distillate,” said the soft voice, “which should give you an idea just how good that stuff is at stopping rust.” A pause, then, “it was also dry and dark where it was stored, which helped more than a little.”

“And those really greasy ones were going to be carried to where things went to rust in a hurry unless they were well-protected,” I muttered. “How were they going to...”

“I think I know how,” said Sepp, as he brought out a familiar-looking glass bottle filled with a coal-black material, or so I thought until he uncorked it – and corked it once more in a great hurry. “This stuff would make a dead pig spew at both ends.”

“What is it?” asked Sarah.

“A species of lubricant,” said the soft voice. “It's not what they wanted, even if they did find a suitable bottle for carrying it.”

“What did they want to use?” asked Sarah.

“That oil used in DÖDGE vehicles,” said the soft voice as Sarah handed me a rag-wrapped 'lump' that I untied quickly – and nearly dropped upon seeing an obvious optical assembly. The aspect of 'aerospace-level' precision – not just in the gunsight, but in this entire weapon – was mounting in my mind. This thing wasn't an 'area' weapon: in the right hands, one could land a shell on top of a moving vehicle consistently, and the same for small groups of troops; and more, it apparently wasn't that hard to develop the needed touch.

“And when Anna gets her hands on it, she'll dump the first shell right on a house in Waldhuis,” I muttered.

“She'll need all eight increments to shoot that far, but yes, that weapon has that kind of range and accuracy.”

“That is further than any gun I have fired,” said Sarah as she untied the string holding a small cloth bag shut and then dumped out a collection of 'parts'. She looked at me, then spoke. “Now these here look strange, and they feel as if they did not know what they were doing when they made them.”

“Mostly as they had no precision measuring tools when they had to make a new firing pin and some of the other damaged parts, so they needed several attempts to get workable ones and that with Rachel guiding the process,” said the soft voice. “They originally trial-fit the gun with soft metal parts, then once they had ones of the correct fit and shape, they used a stolen witch-nail to make the three firing pins you see there as well as the fourth one, which is currently in the gun – and another such nail to make the remaining parts, also.”

“Meaning I need to take those parts currently in the gun out and make ones of the right dimensions,” I muttered.

“Mostly you'll need to make the firing pin of crucible steel and then finish it properly before giving it an appropriate heat-treating,” said the soft voice. “You'll be surprised, most likely, at how close the pin that's in the breech is for shape and size, and the same for the other pieces they had to make.”

“And these?” asked Sarah. Sarah was indicating the three 'firing pins'. I could tell what most of the other parts were – and most of them were such that making them would prove straightforward, given a moderate amount of time.

“Mostly 'spares', as the 'witch-nails' they used, while tending to be thought 'decent' steel for that particular time and place, weren't really up to the task,” said the soft voice.

“Witch-nails?” I asked.

“They used those things to nail people up,” said Sarah, “and the Mistress of the North had a great many of them.”

“She also became the sole-source supplier once the word got out about how hers worked,” said the soft voice. “Before that, it was common for such 'nails' to bend, break, or simply crumble into rusted fragments when attempts were made to use them for their intended purpose, and given the sheer number of such executions during the years prior to the war, that scandal went all the way to the very top.”

“And decent metal was tough to find in the place then,” I muttered. “It was use one of these, uh, spikes, or use something a lot worse.” As I said the word spike, however, I somehow had a picture of a railroad spike in my mind – a 'railroad spike' with a thinner shaft, a truncated-pyramid head stamped with fire-blacked red-hazed runes upon its sides, a four-sided tip with a sharp point for piercing flesh and bone readily, and a mottled black color indicating an oil-quench and then slowly 'cooking' the oil on to draw its temper back.

The whole 'nail' was surrounded by a faintly reddish-purple haze, this more due to its intended purpose than from actual cursing, and the 'runes', upon closer inspection, were the accursed letters 'L-M-R-K-A' – which, while not runes, seemed to signify an equal evil.

“That's what they did, even if those spikes where you came from were of better metal than what was commonly found in witch-nails,” said the soft voice. “Her nails were made of a low-alloy steel that was originally just barely responsive to heat-treating, but they were surface-treated using a mixture of chemicals which made them much harder.”

“Case-hardening?” I asked.

“Similar idea, different materials, as that treatment also made them corrosion-resistant,” said the soft voice. “The lengthy annealing needed to work such nails with hand tools drove off some of those constituents and made the modest carbon supplied by their 'curing' migrate further inward, so the end result was a rather contrary material that had 'reasonable' strength and hardness once they redid the heat-treating process using what they had for materials.”

“Meaning it might work for a limited number of shots?” I asked.

I then knew the matter: even with each person that was physically able to carry a shell in the original-sized party, they weren't going to fire that many rounds out of the thing. Two dozen shots, unless they got lucky and found a cache of usable ammunition, was about as much as was expected – and the current firing pin was likely to last that long before it bent or broke.

“More than that, but not much more,” said the soft voice, “and your take on the shells they intended to take is a bit optimistic, as they didn't have more than fifteen of them cached and more than that number of people left with Rachel after that gun battle.”

As I checked the remaining parts and tools 'left over' with the manual in my lap, I noted them to either be 'home-made' tools based on what this manual said was needed to keep the gun working in the field, or they were sundry spare pins and other 'easily-lost' pieces. My first take on the parts was wrong, for while all of them had a similar finish, many of them showed signs of being machined by 'machine tools'. It made for a question.

“Break it down and clean it every night, used or not?” I asked. “Were they hoping to find some of that nasty green plant oil... Why did they want that stuff?” And then finally, “why do the tools have these small colored dots on them?”

“Look on the back of the manual,” said the soft voice.

I turned the manual over, and shuddered, for here was handwriting fully as bad as my worst. I tried to crawl through the inky mess, and after a moment of silent prayer, to my surprise, the letters of each word seemed to reform slightly as I put my eyes upon it. It made for careful recall – or rather the attempt to do so – at least until I put my finger upon the region just under the word in question I was 'translating' and said 'Stay' under my breath.

The manual glowed blue for the merest blink of an eye, and the 'inky mess' turned into strings of clear block letters nearly a quarter inch high. I then read them, first silently, then aloud.

“The tools might be made here, and bad copies that witch might have had of them, but we made them usable and painted them as per what the manual said to do,” I said. “They'll work well enough for our trip because I and Stephan tested them every night for twenty days.”

“That tapestry spoke of her testing her things before she left,” said Sarah. “Now what is the rest?”

“It says 'we must find that one oil if we can, and use it rather than this poor excuse for a lubricant that we have found, as we all know how the soldiers of the other side have killed those living here when and if they could so as to have it, for it keeps them alive and causes those enemies they have to be killed in droves when they come charging in their accursed masses',” I said, “just like this one evil song they so love to play when they come running. I have heard it too many times, and I loathe the merest hint of its noise.” I then had a question.

They?”

“Witch-soldiers,” said the soft voice. “They liked to kill to the sounds of certain songs, much like certain marked people fought to the sound of what are called 'horns' here.”

I continued reading: “I hope we have packed sufficient spares to replace any small parts that might perish or be lost in our traveling, as both of those things are troublesome matters when one is on the march, or so we have heard.” A pause. “Finally, I pray to God, the real one and not those accursed things that the witches speak of, that we survive our escape and we reach a place of safety. Amen.”

“That would be Rachel's writing,” said Sarah, “as she wrote in that fashion. That last line I recognized right off.”

“So why did the soldiers of the other side kill to get that nasty KÄSTRÜL-R42 stuff?” I asked.

“Read what she wrote carefully once more, this time silently so you don't miss anything,” said the soft voice. “That joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time might be a joke for most people, but it wasn't much of a joke for you before you left – and given your current condition, it is not a joke now.”

Next to the portion about parts being lost, I read, faint, this barely legible yet still in block letters and therefore clear enough, 'this weapon needs careful cleaning and oiling each day while on the move, whether it has been fired or not'. This was obviously in another hand, and I suspected it had been added afterward by someone who had died in that final shootout.

“Rust prevention?” I asked.

“That one 'lubricant',” said the soft voice. “More, the workers here had learned that was 'standard operating procedure' of the soldiers out in the field on the enemy's side.”

“How?” I asked, as I glanced over to the rag-wrapped radio just peeking out of my possible bag. Someone had tied it carefully with string in the absence of a suitable bag. Again, I felt chastised, and resolved to always carry at least two 'small-to-medium sized' cloth bags, even if I had to make the room for them.

“Those especially,” said the soft voice. “More, they spied upon the witches in here diligently, and heard their 'secret speech' in the darkened shadows common to the witches' regions once that deep-hole had been closed.” A pause, then, “that part-bottle of scavenged oil came from one of the earliest scavenging trips the surviving witches made, and its manufacture was then a deep and dark secret.”

“It smells a bit like road-tar,” said Sepp.

“Closer than you might think,” said the soft voice. “It was made from the dregs of distillate processing as done then mingled with chemical-process wastes, and was altogether marginal for its intended purpose. It was worse yet for what they were planning on doing.”

“But that vegetable-based stuff would have gummed things up, wouldn't it?” I asked.

Not if the weapon was taken apart and cleaned religiously,” said the soft voice. “While the country that made those mortars regarded – with good reason – most of the supplies and munitions made in this area as either too dangerous to use or worthless for their intended function, they did not think so about that material – as their synthetic lubricants were but slightly better than those to be had here during the early part of the war, and that lubricant kept their guns working when they had to shoot them a lot.” A pause, then, “they lived with the increased maintenance with very few complaints, especially given what usually happened if their weapons quit working at the wrong time.”

“They were eaten,” said Sarah with finality, “and that was if the 'common' soldiers found them, at least those of the Mistress of the North.” A pause. “Those named witch-soldiers did worse things yet.”

After dismantling the mortar and returning its pieces to their respective 'bags', I muttered as I first came to my aching knees and then stood, “the last room, and the last mile, and then, that armory.”

“Amen,” said Sarah. It seemed fitting.