The final problems...


I began to consult the first sheaf of papers, now looking for field telephones – and while I did not find those listed as being in the room, I did find two bins filled with packaged sharpening stones. Fetching one of the bins having them showed the contents of each cloth package to be five in number, with two stones closely resembling those in the medical chest at home and the other three of progressively coarser grits. All of them, however, were both accurately-dimensioned and without chips, and one package went in my possible bag, while Sepp and Sarah each selected another – or so I thought until Karl bagged up two more.

“One for you, and the other is for...” My questions were tentative at best.

“One is for that place that used to be called an armory at the house,” said Karl, “as the only two people I know who can use these things decent are you and Lukas, and I am hoping he will teach me enough so that you can teach me good.” Karl paused, then said, “and the other one is for where you live, as three of those things should be enough for that trip.”

“That, and he will use his a lot for his work,” said Sepp. “I might be able to teach you something about sharpening knives, Karl.”

“He'd know a lot about sharpening knives, being a butcher,” I said.

“There is sharp, and there is sharp,” said Sarah, “and while most butchers know the former, it takes the later to shave hair readily or do surgery, and you do the latter.” Sarah meant me, or so I thought, and when she removed the knife I had given her for while I was gone, she said, “this one is nearly sharp enough to do surgery, and only those special knives made for that business are sharper.”

“I don't hardly draw those back, dear,” I said. “I normally put a light to medium straw on the edge of most knives, but those things – I barely put any color in them at all, save on the end that's held, and then I polish them carefully before and after heat-treating.”

“Why do you do that?” asked Sarah. “For easier cleaning?”

“That especially,” I said. “We can leave... No, best take one spool of that communications wire with us. I can find a use for it between now and the time we'll need more of it.” I then read, my voice at first soft, then steadily rising in pitch to a giddy screech, “camouflage paste? What? For our faces?”

“That's for things other than faces and exposed areas of skin,” said the soft voice. “What you want then is a face-covering and special 'sleeves' as well as possibly a camouflage 'cloak', and those are out on the main floor.”

“Then what is that paste used for?” I asked.

“Mostly hiding certain types of traps,” said the soft voice. “Fetch a kit, and look at the instructions inside it for ideas.”

While Karl went to fetch one of the kits in question, I continued scanning the list. What I next found shocked and surprised me.

“What gives with this 'Wulfræmë' stuff?” I spat. “Sounds like it's probably written in runes somewhere.”

“What number is it?” said Katje.

“Box 331, though its shelf number isn't listed...” I turned slowly, then pointed down and to the right, saying softly, “that one box, that big one, right there. Mind, that stuff is heavy.”

Katje went over, and as she did, I heard movement behind me. I'd resumed reading off the list – it was in 'rough' alphabetical order, much as if a list had originally been been compiled alphabetically and things had been added here and there randomly 'as they had arrived'.

“That's more or less what happened,” said the soft voice. “More, that particular name is normally spelled in runes, hence its spelling on the bags.”

“Tell me that!” spat Sarah. “This is that accursed wolfram shot, all right, or I'm a mule.”

“You are not one of those things, as mules smell bad and you do not,” said Karl as he brought the box I had read off regarding the camouflage paste. “There are three tins in this box here, and two more boxes like it next to it.”

I opened one of the green-painted square-with-rounded-corners tins after flipping its latches, then to my astonishment, I found not merely a four-down-by-four-across arrangement of pots, each such pot nearly two inches across and deeper yet, all of them with screw-on-lids attached with small chains; but wrapped in a clean 'rag' of some kind having a fine yet 'fluffy' weave was a plasticized-cardboard-bound 'manual'. I opened this last, and said, “my, this thing has a table of contents right at the front, and it even references page numbers!”

I began to rapidly read the manual, starting at the front page. I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I heard – faintly – noises of first confusion, this being manifested by quiet, almost whispering female voices; then a faint shuffling noise that seemed to drag unto eternity; and then a crackling bang, followed by the sound of 'gravel' cascading out onto the floor. This last was followed by soft oaths, then steps came closer to where I was. I was only then truly aware of what had happened to my rear, as I had finished the manual.

It helped that it was but a dozen or so pages, each page packed with pictures surrounded by brief bursts of terse yet clear commentary, this showing to all sides of each picture – and each page printed on both sides. Still, it packed a lot of information in those few-seeming pages, enough to definitely give me some ideas. I knew at least two of these 'camo-kits' were in order for our trip across the sea, and I was mentally making a note in my mind to bring them when the steps from behind suddenly 'manifested' right next to me on my right side.

I had 'faded out' again.

“That's where such things usually are, if the printers do their work right,” said Sarah as she grunted and plopped something heavy on the top of the bench. She then adjusted her lantern, and spat, “this stuff is labeled in runes!”

I put down the 'manual' to my left, and looked closer at the lettering on the pouch with my lantern held close. The thin cloth, this loose-woven and 'fragile-seeming', needed but a touch of my finger to begin to unravel. A closer look at the label told me something otherwise, however: while the black-printed archaic-looking letters did resemble runes to a substantial degree, they were not those particular figures – as here, not only were the shapes different from those runes I had seen, but the entire word was fully spelled, complete to the 'umlaut' on the last letter and the a-e combination in the word's middle being a 'conjoined version' of both letters, not the rune that normally had that sound.

“Best toss that bag and use a different one,” said Sarah. “I've seen cloth like that before, and the rag-merchants have little use for it.”

Her 'irritated' tone implied Sarah had no use for it – save, perhaps, starting a fire in a stove when something better wasn't to be had. A pause, then, “use a stout leather pouch for that stuff there, one close-sewn for smaller shot and made of elk-leather, and tie the slow end good so it does not leak.” Another pause, this one seemingly to think; “then, I'd go up a hand's width with cord-wrapping before I finished knotting it entire, and tie that knot thrice and tight.”

“Why would you do that?” asked Katje. She was looking at the thickest of the three lists, this with one hand on the pages and the other holding her lantern close to both the paper and her face. I wondered for a second if she was nearsighted.

“You can use such a bag as an easily-hid club,” said Sarah. “I've done that with the better close-sewn shot-bags more than once, and I've used them enough to know how well they can work.”

“Better to use common shot in such a club than that jagged-edged stuff,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, that idea will work well should you need to thump an obdurate functionary or two quietly.”

“At least until I can get one of their clubs,” I thought. “I'll use one of those then.”

Another few minutes and a handful of 'withdrawals' later – 'stranded wire', this coming in strange-looking thick and multi-colored twisted hanks that Sarah wished to use for decoration until I spoke of it being better for 'wiring things'; small metal bottles with tight screw-on gasketed lids, which I thought to be the 'escape-proof containers' previously mentioned until told otherwise by Katje, who spoke of them working especially well for priming powder; some 'multi-tools', these obviously 'military issue' due to their 'spotty' mottled gray-black finish and slight surface roughness in some few places; and finally, some odd things that looked vaguely like large brass hexagonal nuts with carefully-bored oil-holes that I suspected went to some of my tools at home – I came to the end of the first shorter list and began working on the longest example of the three. Katje had already figured out that example's 'map' portion, and as she showed me where she was – she was 'lost' regarding what we needed for the trip, which did not surprise me – she began looking at the last – and thinnest – paper bundle. Within seconds, she let out a 'screech' that had me scrambling for my club.

“What is it?” I asked excitedly. The last time Katje had made that kind of a noise, I'd needed to club a very large rat – the rat that could have imitated a lion had I not killed it right away, if I recalled correctly.

She'd been too busy shooting her pistol and then one of those muskets they'd brought to screech during the eruption of the 'rat-mine' earlier today. I suspected she'd be another customer for 'stiff' shot.

“Th-this,” she said with a shaking finger pointing at what she'd laid on the 'table'. “Remember how you wondered if there were ways to work on those brass things these muskets use? I found out where all of that stuff is, and more, there are these other muskets in there.” Katje looked at me, then at what I normally shot where it lay on the workbench near to hand, then said, “and I am not sure if they weigh more than that one does or not, as I suspect these to be fully as large as it is.”

“Why would they need to be?” asked Sarah.

“I suspect they r-recoil as badly as that one does,” said Katje, “and no, they are not those that witches like, either now or on tapestries.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “The witches disliked those weapons more than almost anything of a shoulder-fired nature that could be shot at them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. I knew they didn't much care for being shot with what I used, if I went by their tendencies to expire or self-destruct when my bullet found their coach's dynamite.

“Wait until you see one,” said the soft voice. “You might find them a bit strange-looking, but until stranger things yet are to be had here, these are about as deadly a species of shoulder-fired weapon as you're likely to get your hands on.”

“They don't have ray-guns overseas,” I thought, “so what could it be?”

“It might not be a ray-gun, but you'll think you're shooting one of those for how far the bullets travel and how accurate – and destructive – they are,” said the soft voice. “More, while there is nothing whatsoever cursed about those weapons, there is something unusual about the aiming equipment, such that it will respond differently to someone like you compared to most people.”

“D-differently?” I asked.

“That design is practically a straight-across copy of what Vrijlaand used,” said the soft voice, “and while theirs' were slightly more capable, the basic principles, the materials, the dimensions – all of those things are identical to those specified in Vrijlaand's documents.” A pause, then, “only the means of making the parts and assembling them differed significantly, with the ones made overseas being made in larger numbers once their automated processes were fully debugged.” A pause, then, “Vrijlaand's units received a lot more hand-work during final-fitting and assembly, hence theirs tended to have slightly better performance.” The unsaid portion was 'they didn't have that many of them' – and I wondered if they needed to, unlike the place that made these. They'd made some thousands by the time the war was in its infancy, and they made more than that every year thereafter until the war was officially 'over'.

There were some thousands of these things overseas, these in sealed cans and ready for use – and there were a lot of parts to make more. I could feel it.

“What?” asked Sarah. “Is this like a marked doorknob?”

“It is in principle, but responds even stronger to the right kind of touch,” said the soft voice,” and these devices tended to disintegrate like bombs if witches tried to use them.” A pause, then, “that usually meant at least one dead witch, and often several if they were close to the one handling it.”

“What did it use?” I asked. “Some kind of peculiar electronics?”

No,” said the soft voice emphatically. “The designer was a strongly-marked individual, and hence each such device 'has a mind of its own'.”

“Shall we find out what those are first, or do we look out in the main area and gather up those, uh, carts we saw?” My question seemed to echo faintly, at least in my mind. I wasn't sure otherwise.

There was silence, at least for a few seconds. Sarah then pointed at where I was in regard to what I was reading, and handed me a somewhat chewed 'writing dowel'. It was sharp enough at the other end, thankfully.

“You might want to mark out what you think we need on that thing, while I can look over what's in what Katje is reading,” she said. “I doubt I will recognize much, seeing as how those tapestries didn't tell everything.”

“You mean closer to 'there's an awful lot they didn't tell, like, uh, what those witches were actually like then?” I suspected strongly that I was speaking well of a bad situation; the tapestries had, like tapestries where I came from, a most definite 'slant', and they told what their makers thought needed preservation for posterity. Otherwise, what had happened beforehand wasn't documented – and to all and sundry involved at the time, that was no loss.

At least then it seemed to be no loss. That information was critical now, and it would remain critical for a very long time.

“They did speak of that to some degree, but I think those who wrote of them had never dealt with witches save in certain ways,” said Sarah. “Otherwise...” Sarah paused, then looked at me, and in a low voice, said, “I think you're right, now that I think about it – they didn't see much of those wretches.”

“More than that, dear,” said the soft voice. “There's little present on those tapestries regarding how this region actually was, as those who wrote about it were, with very few exceptions, on the very periphery of the witch-world – and therefore, they were either denied all knowledge, or they were fed just enough truth to do their jobs and a pack of lies otherwise.” A pause, then, “the numbers of 'serious' witches that gave up on the matter and survived for any real length of time afterward could be numbered on the fingers of one hand – and only one of those people was willing to speak of much regarding what they'd given up on.”

“And those people weren't much more than 'first term' rank,” I muttered. “To get into the reality of witchcraft then, you had to demonstrate your complete and total commitment to the cause, just like you have to today – and that's a lot further than just making your bones, both then and now.” A pause, then, “and none of those people broke ranks this side of the dinner plate of Brimstone. It was just like it was at the hall – those people were still fighting and trying to kill us until the place went to hell and the sky rained bricks.”

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The person who actually wrote some of those tales, including the one speaking of that deep-hole, was not only marked, but also had access to the transcriptions of those few witches who had heard rumors of it – and just like you did a short time ago, she 'went for a trip' to learn what it was really like.”

As I began to rapidly go through the region of the thick 'folder' that I had already read – that being all save the last few pages – I began marking those things we either wished to look at, or those things I knew we would need. I had the idea that it was 'better to have and not need, rather than the reverse', and hence I was liberal in my marking, with an 'L' for looking and a 'S' for 'sampling'; and a note, this to myself mostly, that anything of an interesting nature that we saw in the process of examination would need at least a cursory glance to ascertain its usefulness to our immediate future.

In the long run, we would need – and use – nearly everything in here.

“Including one of those smaller 'swine-guns',” I thought. “Those big ones we need to save until we need that kind of power.”

And you are prepared to endure their behavior, also,” said the soft voice. “They're like Iggy was in at least one critical fashion, and while you managed to deal with his flames when he tried to 'launch', few others will endure such behavior.”

“Unless we break them into it,” I thought – which made me wonder about my thinking.

“True,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to keep that thought in mind, especially for a smaller and more-portable version of that gun.”

“Why?” asked Sarah. “How much would it weigh?”

“Enough that it and a number of shells would readily pack on several horses,” said the soft voice, “or, partly dismantled, it would fit in the buggy you drive.”

“Hence a good 'swine-gun',” I said. “If the shell was decent-sized, it might work very well for pigs and the people that come with them, or even their ships.” A pause, then, “I know those smaller ones will kill pigs readily at, uh, reasonable ranges for artillery.”

I was thinking of what Willem had spoken of when he'd told his tale of terror and bloodshed regarding a full-sized blood-maddened Iron Pig when I said that, and 'a half mile' in open country was a rare shot for swine. The usual was closer to half that distance, and one commonly had perhaps two chances at that range – with the second such strung-out volley usually scorching the pig with the muzzle-flames of the hot-loaded guns. I thought to ask about the last part.

“When a common gun fires, how long is the flame?” I asked.

“Thrice the length of the gun-barrel, unless one uses unusually good powder,” said Sarah. “Then it is longer yet – and Willem told me about that pig that took two round-shots hitting it at fifty paces.” A pause, then, “that isn't particularly rare, by the way – and he told me about the front of that swine, also.”

“Did it get sooted up?” asked Sepp. He was 'looking around and feeling bored', if I went by his silence and seeming restlessness. Maarten was managing waiting better, at least until I saw Katje periodically glancing at him and Karl – who, she now realized, was worse for 'getting into trouble' than Maarten was.

Only Gabriel was worse yet that way, and I was truly glad he was elsewhere at this time, even if he was laboring like a deep-slave wearing a trusty-cap.

“He is now,” said the soft voice. “They were being gentle with him before you suggested that he was slacking and needed to work harder.”

“They count the numbers slowly, and on 'three' apply the lash,” I muttered. “One, two, three, Stroke! One, two, three, Stroke!”

While there was no comment from anyone, I could feel somehow an air of grim satisfaction. I thought to add to it.

“Change off the beaters as needed so as to drive that witch headlong into the grave,” I muttered. “One, two, three, Stroke! Both hands on that whip! One two three, Stroke!”

“You've not read enough old tales to know of such things,” said Sarah quietly, “so how is it you speak of beaters and how witches ran slaves in the deeper places?” A pause, then, “did they do that to you?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “There were lead-loaded clubs, brandished knives, blows and kicks, threats of starvation, confinement to a cell, one truly evil witch watching over him – and him alone – night and day, sundry other torments, and finally, that place's equivalent of a death-camp shotgun, ready-loaded with shot and that witch wishing night and day he could kill as per his inclination of the moment.” A pause, then, “and over all of that, there was labor that was fully as strenuous as what Gabriel is now performing.”

“Th-that sounds like the worst period of B-Berky,” squeaked Sarah.

“You mean the life of a trusty at Berky,” said the soft voice. “He may not have been penned up by guard-walking walls like Berky had, but he was penned up fully as securely; and unlike that place you've read of, for him there was no possibility of escape until he was brought here, and he lived the life of a trusty at Berky for the space of a generation's time as spoken of in the book.”

“Which is less than it currently is here,” I said. “Only when this place was an above-ground witch-hole was life that short for the majority of people.”

“On average, yes,” said the soft voice. “The green areas' people might have had almost no money and nothing to their names otherwise, but they did tend to live longer than that.”

“As slaves,” I muttered. “Freedom, and you die young – or Slavery, and you live somewhat longer.” I then changed the subject as I resumed my work upon the list, “that pig?”

“Its front-plate was black in places with soot,” said Sarah, “or so Willem told me, and I think he loads his guns similarly.”

“No, dear,” said the soft voice. “While that man may have taught him much, Willem has gone some distance beyond his teacher – and he's been known to process 'inferior' powder into a 'hotter' species in his workshop during the winter.”

“He has a powder-roller?” I gasped. I could almost see the screw-press-driven bronze rollers, the array of small bronze 'spikes' that stirred the crumbled 'cake' produced by the rollers grinding the stuff, and the small bronze platter, this well-hid and needing much attention with a sprinkler filled with diluted aquavit when the equipment was being used. The volumes made in each day-long run were surprisingly small, so much so that the machine ran frequently from some weeks after the end of harvest until just before plowing started in the early spring. “Compresses the stuff down so it's burning almost the whole length of the barrel?”

Sarah looked at me, then said in the most curious voice, “Esther helps him run that thing.”

“So he doesn't blow up half the village,” I muttered, as I checked off another page and began working on the next-to-the last of the twenty or so single-sided pages. “That's why you get such long muzzle flames with 'good' powder, dear – the ingredients are not only ground finer to start with, but then it's mixed better during its incorporation, and finally it's compressed especially good into these, uh, odd little pellets about as big around as the core of a writing dowel.” A pause, then, “and he uses especially cheap cloth soaked in niter to bag up his ready-charges and uses thin brass wire to tie the wooden 'shoes' onto those round-shots, with the formed leather pieces glued to the other side of those wooden blocks – or does he?” I knew that kind of setup, while uncommon, was done to at least some of the cast-iron 'pills' shot against pigs. If the shoe and 'cup' was formed right, it gained them no small degree of range and accuracy, as the cup acted much like that of the feathers on a shuttlecock and kept the 'pill' more-or-less point-on.

Sarah looked at me with her mouth open wide, and gasped, “no, but I will tell him what you just told me.” Then, softer, “what will that do?”

“Tighten up his 'groupings' a good deal, for one thing,” said the soft voice, “then in his more-worn guns, it will give them more punch than his newest and tightest ones have now – and then, no longer will he need to close-gage his shot or patch them, as such 'wads' will take up the windage nicely.”

“Not a little more punch, either,” I murmured. “Now does he make pelleted powder?”

“No, because there's no way to make it here, not now there isn't,” said Sarah – who surprised me, as I recalled her speaking of that type of propellant. Perhaps what she had spoken of then had been writ upon a tapestry. “I've seen what he uses, and it usually comes from the man who supplies yours.”

“Oh, I think I can make up some for him when we get back,” I said slyly. “We'll just need some chemicals from across the sea and some, uh, special tools, and then I can make some cannon powder that he'll love.”

“Yes, and how is it he will like this stuff?” asked Karl.

“First, it will leave almost no soot in the gun,” said Katje, “and then it gives him more than three miles' range out of a loose gun where he used to get two with a tight gun, and then his round-shots gain enough speed to stop swine reliably out to five hundred paces if he hits them solid – which will be a good deal easier into the bargain.” Katje then looked at me and asked, “now what did I say?”

“You forgot one matter,” said the soft voice, “even though Willem will call such a price a cheap one given his new-found ability to hit and stop swine.” A pause, then, “his guns will wear out significantly faster, and you cannot get more bronze tubes cast at this time.”

While the resulting speech seemed to 'freeze the marrow' of all who heard it save myself, I blithely said, “that's all right. Willem's going to get himself some new guns before those things are shot out, and he'll toss all of those heavy bronze headaches right off when he gets the first one of these things.”

“What?” gasped Sarah. “How, if there is no place to cast them?”

“No, not cast,” I said calmly. “Forged, and not just for the barrels. Rifled and, uh, lined barrels, so they can, uh, stand up to truly hot loadings. Breech-loading, with semi-automatic breeches and fixed ammunition. Nearly two thousand feet per second at the muzzle with the usual charge – oh, and about a hundred pounds less weight than a bronze three-incher.”

“He'll also wonder about the length of such a gun,” said the soft voice, “even if he'll otherwise toss those 'miserable pieces of scrap' readily enough when he sees what you speak of.” A pause, then, “you left out one thing, though.”

“What would that be?” asked Katje. I was now on the last page, and scanning it carefully in the light of the lanterns both women were holding. This page was almost all 'late additions', and it had important matters on it, as I knew some of these things would be needed for the trip.

“Willem is not used to a gun that can easily hit a common bucket at the range of a mile,” said the soft voice, “and he really isn't used to a gun that can do that consistently.”

“How big is a common bucket?” I asked idly.

“About the size of what is in the horse-barn,” said Sarah – who didn't realize what she'd just heard, as she said the word 'why' before screeching, “that's just like off of a tapestry!”

“And one shell kills everything within ten to fifteen paces,” I murmured. “El Porko will not like those guns much, as they can shoot as fast as you can toss shells in the breech, almost – and every shell will hit what it's aimed at if the gunners do their parts.”

“This isn't a rotten cannon, is it?” asked Sarah.

“No,” I said emphatically. “This is what rotten cannons wish they could be and do not come close to.”

And a second later, I knew even what I said was wrong. This wasn't a conventional gun, even if I used the standards of the latest versions I had seen where I came from. This weapon, while its shell was surprisingly 'small' and 'light – about eight to ten pounds – was a 'giant-killer' for both range and destruction; its shells, these of a species of high-tensile medium alloy steel hardened to near file-hardness yet astonishingly tough, were filled with an explosive of sufficient power that it made what we'd loaded the 'pills' with seem weak and 'dull'.

Only that infuriated sunshine-yellow 'pure-evil' gelatin made by the combination of 'pure' nitroglycerin and 'pure' nitrocellulose – both processes involving me intimately – was clearly worse for explosive power compared what these shells would be loaded with; and the gun itself, while loaded conservatively in regards to its capacity, was supremely accurate.

It also had far more range than one might think, as the barrel could be cranked up to nearly forty degrees; and the combination of an unusually efficient propellant, a long barrel for its caliber – the barrel was nearly sixteen feet long, not including the chamber, breech and muzzle-brake – an unusually 'slippery' shell, and a carefully-calculated species of gain-twist rifling, gave range that bordered on 'unbelievable' if I compared it to that of the 'common' artillery pieces I'd seen and read about.

Silently, I asked the question as I read the last few lines of the last page and made the appropriate markings.

“How far will this thing shoot?”

The figure I 'received' was of such an outlandish nature that I instantly 'dismissed' it, until I recalled the lower air density and gravitational acceleration present here. I then asked the question again – and got the same incomprehensible answer.

“How far is eighteen thousand meters?” asked Sarah.

“Over t-ten miles,” I squeaked. “It's about the distance from here to home, unless I'm far off.”

“And how large of a bore does this gun have?” asked Sarah.

“Smaller than that of those guns which are most-commonly used on swine,” said the soft voice, “and while it's still just something of an idea, that idea will have people working on it and some other things before a month is past – and you'll test some of these guns before harvest is in full swing in this area.” A pause, then, “by the way, that's the gun's effective range. It can shoot quite a bit further yet if some loss of accuracy can be tolerated, and your take on it being a 'giant-killer' is, if anything, understating the case.”

“How is that?” asked Karl. I could tell he wondered just what a 'giant' was.

“It reminds me of guns spoken of on tapestries,” said Sarah, “except I think these guns were bigger.”

“They were, dear,” said the soft voice. “They were also old when the war started, and there's been a lot of research done since it ended.” A pause, then, “and now, you're ready to receive your treasures, as he's made most of the needed markings on that map.”

I did?” I gasped.

Sarah took the 'list' from me, looked at me, then nodded. “We'd best do this in threes, not twos, as some of this stuff is heavy and one person needs to pull a cart.”

“Think 'two people' pulling those carts you've found thus far and one person finding that stuff',” said the soft voice. “You're going to get some help getting it home, by the way, as not only will Hans be here dropping off the last of the distillate he's found in the immediate area – he's learned where more is 'hiding' in nearby towns – but someone will also need to drive a larger buggy out that way to pick up something in a shop in the shoemaker's town, so he can carry some of that 'loot' also.” A pause, then, “and that person who is off after those supplies is one of those marked people in camp, so he's trustworthy.”

“First fetch some of those broken-down smaller carts, then up the shaft with the pieces...”

My voice trailed off, knowing then that we'd want every cart we could round up to pile stuff on, even those smaller ones once they were found and assembled; and only when we'd gotten most of what we were after and piled it near the entrance could we take one or more of those smaller carts to pieces and then put it together again topside. I hoped and prayed we had enough carts to do so, and also, that we might find sacks and bags enough to hide the things we would need to ferry, these 'unseen, hidden from them who would speak ill of us should we show things they do not know, as they would think them evil and us witches'.

Katje said this last as she took Maarten and Karl in tow as we left the alcove, and I suspected her speech to be a quotation. I kept my mouth silent on the matter, however, and as we moved as quickly to the location of the carts as our fresh-adjusted lanterns permitted, I thought to take a 'short cut' through the stacks so as to perhaps avoid stepping on dust-mounds laced with Wulfræmë 'shot'.

“I think that is a good idea,” said Sarah. “We'll get in line behind you, and I'll watch your back.”

Accordingly, I led through the seeming maze at a surefooted pace that astonished me, and while I made right-then-left jogs with some frequency, we did not encounter dust-mounds underfoot. I could often see them close by in the hazy pall my lantern cast, however.

We did encounter some odd-looking 'pallets' that seemed shorter in height compared to their fellows, and a brief sideways glance showed them to be unusually large 'containers' of some kind, these hinged vertically and latched closed with closely-machined latches on their sides. They looked like larger versions of ammunition containers stood on their ends.

“We'll want to look inside those things,” I muttered. “They probably have something interesting in them.”

“I think you marked those,” said Sarah. “You didn't know what they were talking about, but I have some small idea, if what I recall reading is right.”

“Yes?” I asked – as I recalled something from a source otherwise different yet likely to be similar as to the knowledge imparted. I wondered for a moment...

“G-goggles, a respirator, and a full-body chemically-resistant suit,” I thought. “Is that what they meant..?”

I wasn't certain. I did need to go to where the assembled carts were, however, and I continued on a northwest heading as 'openings' presented themselves. More than once I dodged a dust mound by the space of a matter of feet, and when I came out of the maze but feet from the mouth of that one tunnel, I held my lantern up so as to guide those coming after me. Only when all had come out of the 'maze' did I continue on, this leading straight to the carts just north of those smaller guns.

I picked one up, setting it on its side with the tongue holding it upright, then 'pulled' the linchpin from the castellated nut and then spun the nut off by hand. The obvious aspect of what I was doing seemed lost on the others until Sarah and Katje took them in hand, and as I began dripping gun-oil in the two wheel-bearings I had 'uncovered' – they were 'open', with dried crumbled 'grease' showing black and cracking; – I heard soft speech, then suddenly a 'hup-hup-heave' spoken by Sarah – followed by a crash that seemed to echo for seconds in this vast and darkened realm. I turned to see a cart laying on its back with its slow-turning wheels in the air, and four sheepish-looking people, two women and two men – and none of them further than ten feet distant from where I stood. Maarten had 'gone off somewhere', but I suspected he was fetching the third cart of this batch.

“Yes?” I asked. “Gently?”

“I think so,” said Sarah. “I thought these things were a lot heavier, and they did too.”

I went back to my dosing the bearings with gun-oil, then as I went back to the first hub, I realized I could not get to its back side – and I also knew these needed more than merely dosing with gun-oil.

“Hence I actually need to dismantle them, and I hope I do not lose any of the balls,” I thought – until I saw the grease-cracked 'gap' on the back side of the wheels that were laying down.

“I don't have hours, either,” I thought, as I recalled my struggles with bicycle wheels using this type of bearing. “It could easily take me hours to do this right.”

I then knew that while I did not have 'hours', we would use these and the other carts more than a handful of minutes; more, we would put substantial loads upon them; yet still more, I needed to wipe out the old 'grease', that being the shipping preservative spoken of; and finally, I needed to put a thin and even film of red-paste on the cups and cones, and then actually adjust the bearings 'passably', such that they rotated with little if any 'noise' while not 'shaking'.

“They'd trash themselves before they'd gone any distance if I did otherwise,” I thought.

“Not 'any distance',” said the soft voice, “and your take on the matter is nothing but the truth. You'll need to dismantle the bearings on all those carts you use, you'll need to wipe out the shipping preservative – your dosing them like that will work well to dissolve it and make it easy to clean out – and I would not spin those bearings until you have them right.”

“Maarten...”

“Is just now finding the last cart of that first batch of three,” said the soft voice, “and once the others right that first one you did, they'll carry it over so you can do your part quicker.” A pause, then “Sarah realizes what she and the others can do, and is seeking to do that rather than make more work for you.”

“Uh..?” I was tongue-tied.

“She's heard about this type of bearing, and that at some length,” said the soft voice – who implied Sarah knew more about them than that knowledge imparted by watching and asking questions. “They're not that rare in the central part of the fourth kingdom, in fact, and more than a few Heinrich and Machalaat machines use them.”

“Usually running in what passes for an oil bath,” I muttered as I set my lantern on the upturned cart's frame, such that its light shed a dim glow over what I was about to do.

“True,” said the soft voice, “and where that oil comes from is a deep dark secret, at least until those vials Hans loaded up got down there recently. Now they know where one type of oil that can be used in those things comes from, even if the 'good' stuff is still much a mystery to most users, at least as to its original source.”

“Not much longer,” I muttered, as I put a rag 'about' the axle and spun off the nut with my fingers. Its 'cotter' wasn't the type that bent, for some odd reason, and I suspected these bearings could be and often were high-maintenance items.

“They were,” said the soft voice, “at least when out in the field among dust and dirt, especially at first. In a typical factory at the time of their manufacture, they needed greasing every few days, and in many environments where they were – and are – used, especially when dosed with good lubricants and fitted with some odd 'washers' that were added later as an 'afterthought' – perhaps as often as the wheels of that type on that last bicycle you had.”

“Meaning every few months if I rode it a lot – and did the job right with plenty of good grease,” I thought, as I carefully lifted the wheel off and the 'vast' number of small bright bearings fell out to be caught by the cloth. I looked carefully, then gasped, “just wipe it out? That nasty stuff's more or less dissolved completely!”

“Precisely, which is why wiping those surfaces with a clean rag with that oil on it, followed by a quick wipe with a dry rag and then 'dotting' the cones with an awl and red-paste will 'work',” said the soft voice. “It's relatively dust-free in most places in the Abbey now, and in here especially.”

The thought occurred to me, however, that what I really wanted for grease-application was a small brass 'wax-molding' tool that came close to matching the inner curvature of the cups; and when I found one in my 'drift-collection', I learned why: I could 'repack' the bearings far quicker with my tweezers once I'd gotten a 'thin even coat' of red-paste on the cup and another such coat upon the cone; and by the time I'd gotten the second example of wheel-bearing back together, I noted that not merely were the other two carts on their sides with their wheels 'off' and the hubs showing, but that faint distant-seeming speech spoke of the others working on the other four carts we had thus far found down here.

Those smaller ones were yet a mystery beyond 'they were shown on that map to be somewhere near the main entrance to this place, thank God'.

“We'll want every one of these things down here done like this, won't we?” I murmured, as I slipped the second wheel back onto its three 'drive-pegs' and spun the castellated nut home such that its 'linchpin slot' lined up. The pin went on a small 'leash' that served as a thin bronze-colored washer of sorts between nut and wheel, and the resulting 'ball-pin-chain' attachment prevented the linchpin's loss as well as kept the nut passably tight due to the slight waviness in the washer itself.

There was no answer to my question beyond what we'd found thus far. I knew we'd find more out in the maze, most likely enough to make a lot of trips up and down those infernal dizziness-inducing stairs.

“Also provides a type of shield,” I thought as I carefully tested the outer axle for 'shake'. It needed but a slight tightening. “I suspect I could make some proper washers for these things out of brass.”

“The washers made overseas are machined aluminum pieces,” said the soft voice, “but don't be surprised if those 'old' cup-and-cone bearings also get replaced when those people learn about them.” A pause, then, “they put up with their ilk now due to a near-total lack of alternatives, not because they cannot do better – unlike when these carts and bearings were originally made.”

I went to the next cart in line, and here, I once more heard the others coming. I was astonished to look up and see Sarah leading the way, a lantern in each hand; while the other four, one to each corner of a cart, brought one of the things closer by carrying it; then, when it was 'in line' with the other three, it was set down, then put on its side with the 'wagon-tongue' put so as to keep the thing from tipping over onto its back. With silence – other than Sarah's near-whispered words – they left; and I resumed my labors.

I had a suspicion that once they'd brought every cart that could be found to where I could work on them, they'd start 'flipping' those I had completed onto their other sides.

A short time later – I'd gone two more carts down the line by then, and was working on number five out of a total of what proved to be nine carts; where the other two carts had come from was a mystery – they began to do exactly that, and faint voices, Sarah's preeminent among them, followed by that of Sepp, spoke of 'pulling the wheels'.

“No, don't remove that one,” said Sarah softly. “I've talked to people about those things in the fourth kingdom's market, and if you don't know what you are doing down to the very smallest details, you can scatter their balls everywhere all over the floor – and you will never find more than half of them if you spend a ten-day on your knees, even if you look for them with a Heinrich magnifier.” A pause, then, “I did not believe that, so I pulled one of those things to bits and the people who told me about them were absolutely right – and I used the strongest glass I could find just the same, even if I could not use one of the school's magnifiers then.”

“Can't we just put oil to them?” This was by Katje. “He's doing that.”

“That might loosen up that bad grease they have,” said Sarah, “but unless you want to dose these things all the time, then the most we can do is dose them now and save him some time. He's got to put red-paste to them, and had I not known otherwise, I'd almost think he'd gotten some greasing tools from the Heinrich works, as that's the way I've seen them do that business when they're assembling what they do if it uses this type of bearing.”

“Tweezers?” I asked. I didn't speak of the wax-molding tool, as I suspected Sarah had seen the 'drift collection' I carried in my possible bag. I knew she'd seen me use brass drifts similar to what I was using while working at home, as more than a few pins I'd replaced in revolvers turned out to be both undersized and somewhat corroded. They varied enough for size that I needed a decent number of both steel and brass drifts to get them clear of the frames of the weapons after getting them unscrewed.

My reworking corrected that deficiency nicely; the pins were hard, round, and lapped to the same size, and the same for the reamed holes they went into; and my taps and dies made tight round threads that held.

“They have special ones with small claws on the ends,” said Sarah, “and once we get done doing this, I'm after a lamp-stand, as that one drink-house had one hid in that corner behind that plank.”

“It's a heavy thing,” said Katje. “You'll want help with it.”

“It'll probably go to rust and dust by the time you get back here,” I muttered. “It was built like a fetish for a pack of witches, remember?” I paused, my hands inserting the tiny bearings into the red-paste-filmed cup where they seemed to stick as if glued, then said, “row 42, column eighteen, stacked chest-high in these long 'wooden' boxes. There's something in there that can pass for what's needed – I think.”

By the time they'd flipped the first four of the carts I had worked on and then left me to my business, I was finishing up the second wheel of cart number five; and by the time I had started on number the first wheel of cart number eight, I could hear them returning. I could hear their speech further away than their steps, for this place seemed to act like a natural amphitheater; and more, it added odd tones to speech, and indeed all sounds both audible and otherwise.

“It's going to pieces just like he said it would,” screeched an eerie woman's banshee-wail, “and it's making a big mess!”

“I told you it would,” rumbled a booming bass-toned organ-pipe-collection. “At least I remember where he said to go. Now can we go there, and not waste time with your...”

The noises faded out once more, as I began wiping both cup and cone with a freshly oiled rag. Dosing them with 'motor oil' beforehand made this job much easier, and then wiping them with the rag which had red-paste kneaded into a corner of its soft cloth made for a thin yet tacky film that 'grabbed' the bearings solidly. I added a bit more of the latter, and wiped the 'cup' in question again.

The drift, while effective and stingy with the lubricant, was slow compared to the rag. I needed to count my seconds in this work, I now understood – and I could most likely get more red-paste within a very short time.

“Good, they'll stay put now,” I murmured, as I began to 'set' the bearings. For some reason, I could plainly see which ones needed to go where so as to work the best in this particular bearing, and I grabbed them with astonishing quickness to set them on the inner cup where they nestled into the 'grease'. “There. Now for the other side.”

Again, the rapid 'dotting' of the bearings, each of these tiny things glistening and mirror-bright, and as I put them into the red-paste, I noted that somehow they seemed changed, much as if they had somehow acquired a vast number of tiny rounded pits which the 'grease' keyed into.

“And the grooves left by the machining on the cups and cones have subsided markedly,” said the soft voice. “You know what's happening when you work on those things, don't you?”

“N-no, other than what I'm doing,” I murmured. I was deeply focused, and it showed by how fast I was working. I wondered for a moment about my tweezers, in fact, but was too busy to look at them just then. Had they grown small 'claws' of some kind?

“Most of the manufacturing irregularities are being removed,” said the soft voice, “and when you use those carts for a short time, that use will remove the rest of them.”

“Then why will they replace these things?” I asked.

“Because their 'cheap' bearings, once they get their hands on them, will be marginally better,” said the soft voice, “and the ones of that type they use are made of such poor materials that they're barely usable – unlike those were and will be.”

“I thought these things weren't very good,” I said.

“So far as manufacturing tolerances, yes,” said the soft voice. “They're not that way for their materials, which is the diametrical opposite of what is commonplace where you're going.”

“Close-tolerance slag-riven wrought-iron?” I gasped.

“Better than that, but nowhere near as good as what you're working on,” said the soft voice. “Their trouble was with poorly-designed machines, not materials,” said the soft voice. “They weren't able to get any ideas on those, unlike with a lot of other things – and when they had to come up with the ideas on their own in the past, there usually was a lot of trial and error involved.”

“Still is that way, though that's mostly due to how they're forced to live and are educated now,” I murmured. “Just like around here...”

And the minute I said that, I knew that it wasn't just like 'around here', even if the end result was sometimes quite similar for the outcome unless one or two 'informed' people were involved somewhere in the design and implementation processes.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “One or two 'informed' people currently go a long way in that place, by the way – as until very recently, those people were willing and well-beyond eager to learn.”

“What made them change, then?” I asked.

“No, not change,” said the soft voice. “Their attitudes haven't changed that way, save for the better.” A pause, then, “the chief reason why you and those with you need to go there is what will save them and yourselves as a people.”

“And as a planet,” I muttered, as I adjusted the outer cone and then locked it down with its smaller nut. I'd just about figured out the amount of 'loose' needed to compensate for that last nut's tightening tendencies on the whole assembly, and I briefly wondered if dust-caps were available for these bearings.

“They once were common, but they tended to leak so badly that those using such carts soon learned that the best recourse available to them was 'use plenty of grease and renew it frequently',” said the soft voice. “The poor greases available then had much to do with that thinking, as did the hone marks commonly left on all of the bearing surfaces, the balls included.”

“H-hone marks?” I asked.

“They spared neither effort nor expense in trying to get these things right, at least before the war,” said the soft voice. “They simply did not know what they were doing all that well, especially at first – and while most of the research done since then is both 'encrypted' and 'classified'...”

“Meaning I cannot get at it,” I muttered.

As I said this, however, I knew what I had said was utterly and completely wrong. The encryption used was of a kind that, given the right kind of computer hardware, could be read easily; and there was something waiting for me, much like that original 'evidence' key had been waiting – it was there, waiting for me to use, and that because I would need its assistance to defeat this particular enemy with its many 'wiles and stratagems'. These people did not think like black-dressed witches of the current day, but at least some of them thought and acted as their predecessors had done during the time of that black book's writing – and that determined their thinking and behavior to the current day.

“You'll be able to read it readily once you find it,” continued the soft voice. “More, you can make it so others can read it readily also – and they already know where most of that stuff is hid.”

“So all I need do is open the 'door'?” I asked, as I moved on to another cart.

“More like 'open the floodgates', said the soft voice. “Now they're bringing back those things you spoke of, as it took them a bit of time to find out just where that location was.”

“The map isn't clear?” I asked.

“That, and things aren't exactly where they're supposed to be in places,” said the soft voice. “Those witch-guards moved more than a few things around so they'd have places where they could hide their finds among the supplies here, and they got 'drinking money' by smuggling those things out and then selling them 'topside'.”

“Then why did they have a drink-house down here?” I asked.

“To get a supply of 'motivated' guards,” said the soft voice, “or so the Mistress of the North thought. In reality, having that place down here was an utter necessity to get 'guards' of any kind to show up more than once, as it was regarded by the witches as the most unpleasant duty in the entire place.”

“Why?” I asked, as I moved to another wheel. I'd gotten the process down to five minutes or less per wheel by now, and the whole matter was becoming 'routine'.

“Cold and darkness, with only themselves for company,” said the soft voice, “and that 'tender' was not merely a drink-mixer. He was 'over' them hierarchically as well – and he tortured and killed his share of 'slacking' witches until he himself was killed by poisoned drugs but a few days before that expert witch was killed.”

The 'things' came back in the arms of the others before I'd completed another bearing; and while I needed to give some help so far as directing their assembly – the 'stands' were in long green 'rubberized' fabric bags closed with fabric-flapped zippers, and their materials and much else were a mystery to the others, Sarah not excepted – once I'd 'figured them', it took but a few minutes to erect first one, then the second – and with two hanging lanterns but a foot or two above my head, one to each side of where I was working, I found my speed slightly increased over just having one lantern setting on the frame of the cart I was working on.

“Good,” said Sarah. “I wished I had brought down something to drink, as...”

“There is no privy in this place,” said Karl darkly, “and you do not want to do your business in here, as the stink would never leave.”

“There is a privy, but I would be most chary of using the thing,” I muttered. “You cannot have people swilling strong drink for lengthy periods and not have a privy close to hand, not unless those witches could hold their water...”

“They could,” said Sarah with finality. “I've seen mining town thugs drink for hours and not visit one of those things, and the same for witches in general. They're corked solid, and that in all particulars.” A brief pause, then, “still, where is this privy? I am thirsty.”

“Over along this one wall where it comes out to the right on the way to that drink-house,” I said. “You'll want to have your lanterns clustered closely and step right next to that wall, as it has a very thin seam and no door-handle on the outside, and its hinges are not merely especially well-hid, but they're older than time.”

“The Mistress of the North used some of her personal stock in having that place made, and it's well-hid for a reason,” said the soft voice. “Still, if you look closely and take your time, you-all can find it.” A pause, then, “be glad for that privy, as it's the only one currently in the entire place that still 'functions'.”

“It's not like one of those doors where those blue-suited thugs like to come out of,” I muttered as an afterthought. “I'd have trouble finding one of those things.”

“You, no,” said Katje. “You'll find them readily.” A pause, then, “the people living there know where some of those doors are, but it's taken them a long time to learn about those that they know of – and they compare their notes carefully, or at least they did until quite recently.”

“What, they burned their notes?” I asked. “For fuel to cook with?”

There was no answer, for Sarah's bladder was not the only one urging her on; I could tell several of the group wished to use the privy, and only my rapt attention on a critical task kept me from answering my own anatomy's call.

“At least for the moment,” I thought, as I began working on another wheel. “If that thing works...”

A sudden paroxysm clenched my gut, and without a single word or wasted motion, I laid my tools where they'd not fall off the turned-up cart, and fled from light and sanity into the darkened maze to my rear. Here, I ran, heedless of all else, leaping ash-mounds and tumbled containers where dying witches had knocked them to the floor hundreds of years ago, then as I passed a gaggle of slow-moving shadows to my left, I heard echoing shouts that only subsided when I shot out of the 'maze' and did a screeching left-turn to run down the aisle. I could clearly see the outline of the door in the darkness, and banged it open without a single thought...

And in the darkness, I found a familiar-looking 'stool' with a box-shaped tank behind it, and opened its lid to show a too-familiar-looking oval-shaped hole. To my complete and utter surprise, the stink, while muted, was still all-too-present.

“Where did you go?” asked Sarah's insistent voice.

“Not now, dear,” I said, as I began urinating. “I'll be done in a minute. There's only one stool in here that still works, so you'll have to take... No, I take that back. There's two of them in here, which means two people can do their business at once.”

“You mean two men,” said Katje. “I'll prefer to use the privy alone, and I know Sarah won't use one unless she's the only person in there.” Katje's unspoken words rang clearly in my mind, though: “you're worse yet that way, if talk be true – and I thought you were able to go longer than that without visiting the privy, also!”

“Going to be tough in that place,” I thought, as I finished my business and 'felt' for a handle on the oblong 'tank' to 'flush' the thing. It looked so much like what I had left behind me in the darkness – that darkness I had once called home – that I could almost find the handle by feel alone...

“What?” I squeaked. “There is no handle?”

“This privy used to be cursed,” said the soft voice. “It is cursed no longer, so it operates much like those where you currently live.”

“No handle?” I asked again. I could almost see one still as I made ready to leave.

“No,” said the soft voice, “even if they called such 'marbled thrones' prime fetishes and shaped them in that precise way based on received information.” A pause, then, “there is no shortage of privies where you are going if you know where to find them – and those have little in common beyond their basic function with those where you are now or those where you came from.”

Flash?” I asked. “Not flush?”

And in the darkness which segued to soft lantern-light as I opened the door for Sarah to rush in, I received no answer save that of the line that waited and Sarah's soft sounds of 'relief' at finally being able to 'go'.

“Does she have a tendency toward constipation?” I thought.

“No, but Anna has wondered more than a little if she is otherwise since she showed,” said the soft voice. “She does not wonder that way about you, which is why she's most glad you'll shortly receive help.”

“I wonder what it will be?” I thought, as I made my way back through the seeming maze. It was a maze no longer, for some reason, as with each step, I now knew where much of what we needed was 'lurking', but also knew where many of the witches who had been caught out robbing the place the last time had fallen – and what we had found for witch-dust in our circuiting of the place was the very tip of that particular iceberg.

Most importantly, I knew where the map was wrong, at least in some crucial areas. I had but barely resumed working on the bearing I had left when soft steps came closer, and I looked up to see Sarah to my right.

“These lanterns need adjusting, and I think that other stand should have them on it once they all get back,” she said. “I've found at least two piles we want to see, and I think Katje will find more of them as she comes back.”

“Over those I listed?” I asked. “What I wrote down isn't everything in here, you know.”

“I figured as much,” said Sarah. “Now when you're done dotting those little things there, I want to see those pincers. They look different to me somehow from what I recall seeing of them.”

I gave Sarah the pincers in question a minute later, then as I adjusted the bearing for proper 'shake' and 'freedom' – no perceptible shake, while the hub needed to turn noiselessly while not feeling 'loose' or making grinding noises – she spluttered, “Anna must have given you some shot-tweezers, as these are just like the tools they use at the Heinrich works for such work.”

“They do?” I asked regarding the tweezers, as I was handed back the tools in question. “Do they have little claws of some kind on the end?”

“Yes, small ones, such as one wishes for the smallest shot if one is packing it into a peculiarly nasty species of bomb that involves dynamite, an old tin canister, and shot,” said Sarah. “The best type of shot then is that which sells poorly in that market town because of it being thought too small for game, and I had my share of that stuff in my bags at school because I could get it cheaply and still fetch dinner more often than not.”

“It spreads more?” I asked.

“It does, and if you're a good sneak, you can get close to a quoll-tree and dump those things!” said Sarah. “My best bag ever was eight birds, but that needed both barrels and then thumping several of those things, as they weren't in the thickest areas of my pellet-swarms.”

“And if we use a machine-pistol upon a quoll, it will be turned into something fit for the manure pile,” I muttered.

“I think we should try those to see if they are like that first,” said Sarah. “Their bullets remind me of pistol balls for size, and if they come out faster than is usual for a musket, then they might just drill holes through the birds and otherwise do little.”

“Hence they fly off when shot and then drop dead somewhere out in the middle of a cornfield a good half-hour's time away on foot – or do they?”

“If you shoot them badly, they might,” said Sarah. “If you shoot their heads off, then no, they will go no real distance before they're ready for the pot.” Sarah looked around, then said, “I expect to start seeing fresh quolls any day now, so we might be able to supplement our meals during that trip with such birds.”

“Yes, while going downstream in the river,” I said. “They start becoming rare once you get within twenty miles of the north-tip, then they avoid the areas near the sea – and once we get past the worst of those islands and deal with what's on them, then we're going to need to go farther out from land, about one and a half or two miles or so.” I paused, then said, “until I get these things ready for traveling, then either those not working on them need to get some food down, or they need to take naps – as they worry me more than a little.”

“You are not the only one who is worried,” said Sarah. “I can lead Sepp, and Katje can manage Karl and Maarten, only none of us knows what to go after.”

“Mark out the places where there are dust-mounds,” I said. “Take that map with you, go in two groups with no more than an easy toss of a stone between the two parties, and then go in ten rows and hook over enough to go down another two rows.” I stopped what I was doing, and took the map from Sarah along with a stubby and well-gnawed writing dowel. I marked the directions I meant as 'in' and 'down' on it, then where I recalled seeing the remains of witches. “The ones I saw that were bad were here, here, and here, so try to clean up what they were attempting to steal if you can and otherwise write briefly about what you see.”

The four others came back from their visits to the privy in a shambling group not two minutes later, and save for myself, there seemed a general trend toward scanty meals of a sketchy species. I tossed over my bread-bag, this having scraps and 'ends' of 'stale' bread and sundry strips of dried meat – and not two minutes later, Sepp had one of those 'pocket-sized' stoves going under what looked like a bathing dipper. To my astonishment, I could barely see any indication of a flame – and for a moment, I wondered where he'd gotten the stove, and more, how he'd gotten it in working order so readily.

“That's the old cooking fuel, all right,” said Sarah as she knelt down close to where he was tending the stove. “Now that pot there strikes me as a good one. Where did you get it?”

“Him,” said Sepp, as he pointed toward me with his knife. “Lukas told me about how to make this stuff that goes good with bits of bread like some of us saved, and it don't need much of a pot to cook it.”

“Cut fine a goat-sausage, some grated hard-cheese, some crumbs of day-old bread, boiled water, and a bit of pepper,” I muttered. “You dip the bread in it like cheese sauce, and it has a lot of calories for its volume, that being both packed as ingredients and when cooked.”

“You left out something,” said Karl. “I cannot eat regular goat-sausages, as they gripe me a lot, but I can eat that stuff he's making there two times in a row and not feel sick.”

“Are these full-dried goat-sausages you speak of,” I asked, “which are meant for hard going in a hot climate, or those things that have been coming up recently in small sacks by donkey-train?”

Karl looked confused for a minute, then said, “I think they are the more dried-out and wrinkled ones that do that worst.”

“Those you want to chop a lot finer,” said Sepp, “and then boil them by themselves for a turn of a glass before you put the other things to what you're cooking.” Sepp paused, then said, “now I hope those people we find there are not all going to be starving, as we will have trouble feeding more than us if we must do it longer than a ten-day.” A pause, then, “they don't have game there, so we can't shoot something to eat.”

“The ones that are not starving, save for a small handful of people, are those thugs you must worry about,” said Katje. “Everyone else is forced to find what food they can when and where they can find it, and I suspect more than a few of them try to cook rats and whatever they call burrowing rodents.”

“They do not call them that,” I said flatly. “I don't know what they call those animals, but they don't call them burrowing rodents – and both rats and those things get decent-sized over there, for some reason.”

“How large is that?” asked Karl, as I moved to the last of the carts and began setting up for its cleaning and 'repacking' of bearings. The other carts were being flipped, this one at a time after having their wheels reattached, and once that was done – it just took Sepp to cook the food, given his small pot, and Sarah watching both him and the actions of the other three – they went on to either eat small pieces of 'toasted' bread cooked over some small shavings of cooking fuel and then smeared with the savory-smelling concoction Sepp was making, or they worked on making the other side of the carts ready. I was about to begin to start on that portion, this at the other end of the line of carts, when Sarah took my by the hand and sat me down next to a surprisingly small tinned copper plate. This battered thing made me wonder where she had found it, at least until she spoke of 'finding' it in the area some time ago and recognizing it as one of a handful made either at or close by the west school years ago. I suspected re-tinning this plate was in order before our trip, as this one's tin had seen much better days.

“This one may have been the one I myself used years ago,” said Sarah, “as for many of my latter trips, I was by myself much, and I had to travel light and fast – and I wished I had had a mess-kit then, even if one of those is a bit much for one person.”

“Sometimes you had company, didn't you?” I asked.

“That was not rare, especially where I found goat-herders in the fifth kingdom and certain portions of the third and fourth kingdoms, and then of course, there was Eisernije – where any pot of tinned copper that's well made and not fit for a witch is treasured more than witches desire fetishes – and that being so if it's bigger than a smaller measuring cup!”

“Not fit for a witch?” I asked. “Bad seams, big cracked nasty brass rivets...”

“Those they use for other things,” said Sarah. “They make their soap in those, and while Eisernije soap is bad as soap goes, especially for its smell, it does clean clothing and people passably.”

“Given what they have to work with, it's a miracle they manage to make soap that works,” I said.

“They get dead animal carcases and boil the fat out of them,” said Sarah, “and that part smells horribly.”

“What do they do with what is left?” asked Katje.

“Put the chopped-up bones and the pieces of bad meat in their dung-mounds,” said Sarah. “They waste less than almost anyone I have heard of, and I include the valley's people when I say that.” A pause, then, “those across the sea make them look to be witches for that business, though, and no mistake.”

My appetite now had my undivided attention, and between a few bits of dried meat and the second batch of that 'spread' Sepp was now cooking up – he'd had it 'soaking' over a few slow-burning shavings of cooking fuel in that one iron tray I'd seen earlier, complete with that one cooking stand – I managed to eat between three instances of repacking wheel bearings. I was glad 'the end' was in sight of both food and wheel bearings, and as I finished my third instance of bread piled with Sepp's savory 'mess' and resumed once more working on wheels, I asked, “since I'll be done soon, do any of you have an idea as to where we wish to start?”

Silence beyond the soft sounds of hungry eaters greeted me, at least until Sarah suddenly showed by my side.

“I think they wait for you to tell them what to do, as I myself have but little clue as to what and how much we want for that trip.”

“Even with the marked-up list?” I asked.

“Even with that thing and your markings on it,” said Sarah. “This is not a long-trip, where I had made trips beforehand into nearly every area that my route passed by and into and where there were people who had gone before me that I could ask as to what I would need, but a trip of a nature that is far beyond me, much less those others who will be going.”

“Which is the main reason why we need to see Rachel,” I said. “Or is it?”

“She might tell us something regarding our needs, and then again, she might not,” said Sarah. “I do know she will tell us something of sufficient importance that we will need to go see her prior to our going.” A pause, then, “I need to visit my cousin, then, and I'll ask her what she might think to take...”

“She will be of little help,” said Katje. “Were you going into the realms of witches, she might be one you'd want to take with you, but this place...” Katje paused, then looked at me as if I were the main and chief oracle of God for the whole of the planet. “You, and you alone, have had any experience with such a place; and hence you – and you alone – can really plan for going there and then doing what you must do, and that in all of that task's many particulars.” A pause, then, “and I told Hendrik that my-own-self not five days ago.”

“I have?” I asked. I didn't half believe what Katje had just said, given that everyone going save Gabriel had had dreams of the place. In that way, I knew I was not alone; and as for what lay ahead, I was as ignorant as anyone. What Katje next said but reinforced my feelings on the matter.

“It resembles where you came from in some small ways,” said Katje, “save where that place hid much and this location hides nothing in comparison.” A pause, then, “both locations swarmed with thugs, only those in that witch-hole didn't need to have hiding places that were hard to find, as they wore secrecy about them like a winter-cloak on a dark night in the middle of a driving snowstorm.”

“Y-you cannot see your own hands then, and that if you put them in front of your nose!” screeched Sarah.

“I know,” said Katje. “I've gone out in those storms briefly, at least in the past, and every time I did so, I needed that string I had tied to my waist so as to find the rear of the house once I'd gotten some wood for the stove.” A pause, then, “and these dreams you all have had are not string.”

“Then what are they?” asked Sarah.

“String you are familiar with,” said Katje, “and you know what it is good for.” A pause. “Did any of you understand what you saw?”

I could just hear the yes-chorus, as it was obvious to me. Instead, Sarah said softly, “I thought I did at first, but now I realize that I overestimated my understanding.”

“No, dear,” said Katje. “You saw some strange-looking blue-dressed people who like to kill shabbily-dressed individuals not like themselves with these long and limber greenish-black clubs, and that in a place that looked like it might have been written about on a tapestry.”

“N-not that place,” said Sarah. “No tapestry spoke of a place like that.”

“That is why I said might,” said Katje, “and why I meant what I said. It isn't 'real' to you, because you've never been to the places you've read about – and you never read about this place.” Here Katje turned to me. “You have not just been to places like where you are going, but you've lived nearly your entire life in one that's worse for its better parts, and incomprehensible for its worse parts – and you're glad you never endured the ones you've read about, as you think they were worse.” A pause, then, “they weren't, as those places may have been more violent outwardly because they hid none of their evil – and evil hidden is worse by far than evil that roosts itself full in your face.”

“How is that?” asked Karl. He seemed to be thinking, 'if I cannot see it, then it isn't real', or something similar.

“Because then it lies in wait for you like a Death Adder, and it will bite you when you aren't wearing brass-fronted Veldter's boots and your musket isn't loaded with stiff shot and a double-dose of powder,” spat Katje. “If you know about it, then you can prepare for it, at least to some degree; and if you understand its nature, then you know what to do when it tries for you – or rather, you have far less ignorance to get you and those with you killed instead of doing what needs doing.”

“Then why those d-dreams?” I asked. I was about to remove a hub, and I dared not have my mind on something else when I did that, rags present to catch the bearings or not.

“So you can have that information,” said Katje – who meant me. She continued speaking, much as if I were the sole person of note in the room – or indeed, the sole person present other than herself. “They won't have much of a clue about what it all means until some time after you-all have gotten back here and had further chances to talk to those people from over there – and even then, you-all won't really understand until those blue-dressed people are scarce in that place and those people have begun catching up in earnest upon that part of the whole which has been entrusted to them.

“That isn't very much, is it?” I asked.

“No, because that's your job,” said Katje. “You might not need to lead them kicking and screaming like a small child that thinks an old tale roosts in the privy, but you are going to have to lead them at least some of the time.” A pause, then, “here..? Who knows? You might well have to lead people in this area like such small children.”

“An old tale that roosts in the privy?” I asked. I'd heard about such tales scaring children into such places, not scaring them out of them.

“I have seen that happen,” said Katje, “and more often than not, such children either vanish mysteriously between one day and the next, or they turn witch at a very young age, much as do the arch-witches of the current day show themselves early.” A brief pause, then, “most children do as you were informed. I know I did.”

“Why..?”

I ceased with my speaking, for not merely was time wasting – I could ill afford to waste time, I now realized once more – but I had a strong intimation of an answer. The witches had spent a very long time 'indoctrinating' both the people living in the area and those over them, such that they were, in truth, 'fully-owned witch-slaves' for the most part, at least for thinking if not actual behavior; and such thinking was hid yet further and deeper than it seemed to be, such that it appeared to be very much otherwise most of the time.

I had only begun to learn of its true nature since shortly after the bridge, if I guessed right – and then, Katje's quip about how hidden evil was indeed worse than overt evil made utter and complete sense, even if the overt evil seemed on the surface to be vastly worse.

“It sets you up and then kills you, and therefore can neither be avoided nor fought effectually,” I thought, as I 'pulled' the hub and began picking out the bearings that remained inside it. “At least I can do this.”

As the minutes ticked by, my hands now seemed blurred, for all about me, I could see and feel gloating shadows, these ever-watching and hungry. They hid themselves among the many stacks to my rear and sides as I labored in near-silence; and while the meals 'ceased' shortly thereafter and the others' intermittent labors resumed, I labored without cease. Again, I was hearing the multitude of commands and accusations, these being but a sample of them:

“All count on you now...”

“Both possess and implement those answers...”

“Ruling with drawn sword...”

And with this last hideous phrase, the last bearing-nut went home with a final twist, and I stepped away, the last wheel tight, the last wheel-nut in place, and the last wheel on with its keeper in place. The cart only needed to be put down upon its four wheels so as to use it. It was the last cart of the nine.

“What?” I gasped. “What happened?”

“No time for it,” said Sarah as she helped Katje flip the last cart over. “We've got things to put on these things, and we need you finding them, as I barely know what's in that place out there any more and I made notes while I was out in that mess.”