Loading Up, Part three.


“I think that to be our answer, then,” said Sarah. “I did not do that while I was escaping from the second kingdom, at least until I was up in this area, as the second kingdom and the southern third of the first seldom leaves a field its corners for wayfarers, and the only thievery allowed in most areas is that of witches.”

“Here, also,” I muttered. “It may look otherwise, but...”

“That was true, but it is not that way now,” said Katje as she returned. “I am not sure how long it will remain that way, as when a gang of full-blackened witches with fowling pieces kick your door in and take what they want while two of them stand guard over you and your people, you almost want something like that broom there to settle them down.” A pause as Katje looked at the broom itself, then, “I might not have looked in those bags, but I did feel them, and I sorted them to a degree that way.”

“Maarten?” I asked, as I bent over to retrieve what looked like a greased-up bundle of rags tied with string.

“He's moving the packed bags toward the door as we fill them,” said Katje. “They're mostly in a line next to the wall, with a pace's distance between any of them and those nasty pieces of wolfram.” A pause, then, “they're still warm, and more than one of them is still glowing a little blue around the edges.”

“Still?” I asked. “I wonder why?”

“Perhaps...” Sarah came closer, then peered into the now-empty cavity using the still-standing portions to support her right arm. I was reaching for the last bags that I could reach from outside the mound, these that remained in the nearer corners – and I could feel something hiding, either in one of the bags themselves or rag-wrapped underneath the rapidly-shrinking mounds.

I now stepped inside the 'cache', then after kneeling down and retrieving those bags I had somehow missed due to my learning of the hiding object – I began passing out bags, these to both women, and on my knees, I moved across the 'waffle-pattern' surface of the pallet as I went toward the nearer corners. A glance downward, this as brief as a thought, showed the pallet itself to have its own strangely-attractive 'camouflage pattern', almost as if the maker was attempting to experiment with such patterns under a government 'ponderance', and anything and everything of a military nature was thought 'fair game'. It did make a certain sense.

The corners themselves had the last smallish mounds of bags, and the fetish-feeling object was in or under one of those few remaining bags.

As I removed the bags from the right corner and handed them to both women, one per individual as I saw them 'present themselves' at the opening, I felt the thing again. It was trying to hide from me, as that was the sole portion of cursing that remained unto the thing. I finished the right corner, then closed in on the last few bags – and the still-hiding fetish. Each bag, I handled slowly, feeling it carefully, even up unto the last bag – and as I lifted it to hand it to Katje, I saw a cheap-looking 'canvas' pouch of some size, this patched crudely with strips and odd-shaped pieces of bad black-brown leather – and upon touching it, I not only learned something of its contents – it contained the fetish – but also, the condition of the bag.

“Be careful of this thing,” I muttered. “It may be a fetish, but the bag holding it is as greasy as one of those sting-tied and rag-swathed grease-packed weapons we found upstairs!”

“Good that I have my gloves yet,” said Sarah – who then slipped on a pair of gloves I had not seen before. They went an easy four inches past the wrist, and looked unusually neat and supple. I wondered what they felt like, in fact. “I made these from one of my kills after I had the leather tanned, and scraping that leather down took me weeks with the knives I had then.”

“You made those?” I asked, as I handed her the 'package'. I was wanting something like them right now, as I began looking for a rag. While I was wearing gloves – warm, surprisingly supple, rubber-infused insulated fabric gloves that felt almost as good as those light blue things of my 'dreams' – my hands still felt slimy, and that particular species of 'slimy' was easily as bad as that of the usual for torment-grease.

“What was that last thing?” she asked, as she found me a rag. She was all-but wringing her still-gloved hands, and I knew she'd need to clean her 'driving gloves' with light distillate on account of the grease that was now on them. “It feels like a fetish.”

“It most likely is one,” said Katje, “which is why he'll need to go through these bags to at least some degree before we do much else with them.”

“Mostly dump them out and find the bad stuff,” I murmured, “and I think that last thing was the worst of that whole rotten bunch.”

“You gave what's in the bags more credit than is warranted,” said the soft voice. “They'll either go to rust and dust when you see them, or they're already in that state, unlike what you just pulled out.”

“Which is?” I asked. “Don't tell me – those are parts to a witch-rifle.”

“A heavily-modified specimen,” said the soft voice, “which was a chief portion of that expert witch's last batch of projects.”

“Why did he have one of those things?” asked Sarah, as she began rolling up my 'string' ahead of me.

“He was finding a pressing need for greater short-range stopping power in a compact package,” said the soft voice, “as while he could stop witches readily with his more-usual weapons and techniques, some of the other things that were becoming common inside here were not only cursed but also very hard to kill.”

“Hence a witch-rifle?” I asked. I was utterly incredulous.

“The full-sized examples worked better if these creatures could be spotted in time to permit their use,” said the soft voice, “but when they were encountered, they tended to come out of nowhere – and I literally mean nowhere.”

“Especially good at hiding, or..?” I asked. I was thinking about how those blue-suited functionaries I and others had seen in our dreams tended to 'come out of nowhere' – when in reality, these people had their own 'secret ways' and 'very-well-camouflaged' means of egress into the 'outer world' of their chosen prey.

“No, just what I said,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn exactly what that statement means in the weeks and months to come.” A pause, then, “and while those creatures and a number of others 'came out of nowhere' then, they're still very much around and causing trouble – some at Norden, as those 'Cows' are nowhere near as good as hiding as some of the other creatures that showed then, and then some of them 'in the dark places' on the continent for the most part.

“For the most part?” asked Sarah. “Are these things spoken of on the tapestries?”

“No, because no one who actually saw one during the time of the original writers and compilers survived the encounter,” said the soft voice. “Katje is one of the very few exceptions since their 'escape into the nighttime world'.”

“I've heard about those things, then,” said Sarah as the echoes of the last phrase seemed to slowly die out in my mind, “as I've read that last line in at least three places that I can recall right now without my notes handy.” Brief pause. “Those people that wrote of them didn't know what they were.”

“Mostly as all they usually found were the thoroughly-chewed remains of ambushed witches and anyone else who looked suitable as food,” said the soft voice, “and as for the rest whose writings were compiled into what you've read, they'd heard rumors – at least those people did.” A pause, then, “the person” – marked, obviously; they'd probably had one of those strange 'dreams' – “who attempted to describe what they were like on that one tapestry didn't get that good of a look at them due to their stealth, cunning, and sheer speed of travel when they were of a mind to move rapidly.”

“Like a white rat that way, if not faster yet,” I muttered. The lights ahead seemed to be uncommonly stable, for some reason, and I was seriously in the market for beer once my 'string' was entirely rolled up. I could tell I needed some beer – and more, eating solid food right now, save if it was one of those items that yet 'roosted' on the ever-shortening list which did not 'gripe me', wasn't a good idea.

Sepp's 'mess' might have tasted good enough for me to like its flavor, but it was becoming obvious to me at some level that it did not like me very much – and I'd have the runs again within a matter of hours. The thought made for an unusual connection.

“Drowned Kuchen, peppered dried meat – perhaps some of it pounded in a stone mortar to compact it after flint-drying the stuff – and dark beer, perhaps to Anna's recipe,” I murmured. “We're really going to want those things, and lots of them, as they're easy to eat on the move and...”

“You're right,” said Sarah with a tone of 'shock' to her voice. “I think Sepp might want to toss that recipe card, as I'm going to need to visit the privy before the usual time today on account of what he cooked up, and I suspect you're worse off yet.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. It was hard to sound soothing right now, even if I put an uncommon amount of effort into doing so. “Now, are drowned Kuchen famous for causing one to feel as if one ate a small sack of nails?”

“No,” said Sarah, “even if what he cooked feels closer to that than I like.”

“Perhaps that recipe needs to be saved for people with better digestion, then,” said Katje. “Now what was it that I survived and so few others did?”

“Recall those odd-colored 'rodents' that you drove off at Boermaas by beating them with your clubs?” asked the soft voice pointedly. “Those were some of the animals in question, and they first 'manifested' in the Abbey during a most-peculiar time.”

Time?” I asked. I could hear vague-recalled scraps of a song somewhere in the echoes ringing within my mind upon asking that question – something about it 'coming due', and that 'Today'. “There are clues, aren't there? Clues I've seen, and clues mentioned, and...”

The clangorous thunder of that one clock which liked to roost in my ear when 'the cloud came down' interrupted me for a second, so much so that when we came out of the maze and into the realm of brighter lighting and cart assembly – Sepp was putting together the last unassembled example I'd found – that I startled briefly. Had time indeed come... Had it come 'today', in fact?

“I got some beer ready for you, as I know you can't eat easy in that thing,” said Sepp, who interrupted this train of consequential thought. It vanished into thin air. “It has yellow-fruit in it...”

“I”ll need to go to the privy anyway,” I murmured, as I accepted my cup with thanks and made ready to drink, “so I'll need help in partly disrobing enough to do so.”

“I'll need to go with you then, as I'll be due also,” said Sarah. “We'd best be careful with that stuff you cooked up last, as not all of us can eat it in real amounts without becoming sick.”

“What was the difference?” I asked. “Did you boil that water for a while before you put any food in it?”

“No longer than than I do usually since that trip we made,” said Sepp. “Why? Should I boil it more?”

“Because those stinkers put mule-stuff into that water you got,” spat Sarah, “and that means it needs distillation as if it came from a well down in Badwater!”

“Urgh, mules,” I muttered. “The boiling he did may have killed the little creatures found in mule-dung, but it didn't get rid of what else mules put in their leavings – and...” I paused, then, “I hope someone brought a water-distillery to produce drinkable water, as I doubt I'm the only sick person in the camp.”

“No, but one of those people who've gone to fetch Hans has spoken with him about the likelihood of poisoned water, and Hans has confirmed the presence of mule-traces near the place where their wells are dug.”

“Did he look inside the wells themselves?” I asked. I strongly suspected he hadn't done that, as he didn't know much about wells beyond their common uses and he had a long way to go before he became as 'paranoid' as I was. Besides, I'd heard of 'poisoned wells' years before coming here, and that trick sounded very likely, for some reason.

“No, because these wells were very recently done, and mule-traces don't get down into the water table that quickly – and he thinks he knows who dug those wells,” said the soft voice. “Those people are now where they belong, even if their packing those fresh-dug wells with bagged-up oven-dried mule-dung isn't something he or anyone else other than a marked person could determine without actually going down in the well itself.”

“So now those wells must be abandoned,” said Sarah with a weary voice, “and we must distill water from the rivers about here so as to have water that is fit for drinking.”

“While that is nothing but the entire truth,” said the soft voice – who implied the witches' acts were far from done with us – “it isn't just because those few particular wells, like most other recently-dug wells in this area, were dug by witches.” A pause, then, “just how much water do you think is possible to get from a single well in this area, assuming the usual size of shaft and means of construction for such a well?”

“Enough for a common-sized household and its beasts of burden, assuming the well is a decent one and it goes deep enough to hit damp-stone and there forms a pool of water in the water-reservoir,” said Sarah. “There is much more than a household in the camp now, and there will be a great many more of both people and animals in the days to come.”

“Be glad some distilleries are coming up from the fourth kingdom soon, then,” said the soft voice, “as the king down there had foreseen this eventuality.” I had the impression that he'd underestimated the probable situation regarding drinking water – and more, he hadn't seen the possibilities implicit in wells dug with the paired goals of stopping what we were doing and killing everyone who worked here. After a brief pause, I knew that to be so: “they're still going to want water-stills in sizable numbers here, at least for a while.”

An instant later, I then realized what 'sizable numbers' of such stills actually meant for me.

“Meaning a lot more orders for the shop,” I muttered, as I realized what I'd need to do then. “At least those things won't need those hard-to-make fractionating columns, and I can omit some of the fittings as well.”

“No, water-stills won't be as tough to make,” said the soft voice, “and it's better to have a large number of smaller ones rather than a few huge ones.”

“No one in the five kingdoms can make truly huge distilleries,” said Sarah. “The largest one I ever saw could take a mash-tub at a time, and the one at home needs three full runs to empty one of those smelly things Hans has in the basement near where I usually sleep.”

“It processes as much as a large common distillery, then,” said the soft voice, “as it not only can be run quite a bit 'faster' without clogging, it also makes 'strong' aquavit in one run – which has increased Paul's income to such an extent that he's having new copper-rimmed mash-tubs with close-cut covers being made. He's gotten three since he got that still, and three more like them are currently 'on the slates'.”

“To replace his old and half-rotten ones, no doubt,” I muttered, as I headed back off into the maze. I'd gotten my cup twice-filled, but my bladder was now really 'getting to me' – or so the local vernacular would have it – and I was glad I could 'go' with just unzipping partly.

The use of the privy proved easier than expected, as was its relative lack of odor, and as I stood guard fully-zipped once more outside while Sarah used it, I could 'feel' more of the supplies out in the maze. I was writing down notes on the back of one of the map-sheets with Sarah's latest 'pencil' when she suddenly emerged from the door. Someone had dosed the hinges with oil – and it had not been me.

“It isn't coming yet,” she said, “but food cooked with the leavings of mules gripes one from mouth to one's rear, and only uncorking medicine is worse that way.”

“Much as if one sipped a little with one's meal, almost,” I said, as I began to follow Sarah back. She'd somehow figured out how to get my 'reel' in back working properly, either that or its old bearings were learning a measure of manners.

“Mostly the latter, as those suites were early versions of a Vrijlaand-licensed design,” said the soft voice. “Some portions were still being made in Vrijlaand among the samples they received of that 'old' clothing, and your 'wire-reel' is a Vrijlaand-made device.”

“Hence its grease is still good,” said Sarah.

“More like 'it's not totally gone',” said the soft voice, “and modest use freed that reel up enough to work as intended for the time being.” A pause, then, “that device and those like it will still need thorough cleaning and lubrication – and that done sooner rather than later.”

“With red-paste, or a thicker species of a, uh, liquid lubricant,” I murmured. There were some very tenacious liquid lubricants to be had overseas, so much so that they could almost be called a slightly runny species of 'grease'. I could almost see the 'oil' in question, and while it didn't like to escape, it tended to stay put better than anything short of epoxy glue, so much so that it seemed 'perfect' for open bearings. “That stuff almost reminds me of this one soft grease I had where I came from, save for its smell and color.”

“What was it?” asked Sarah. We were in the middle of the maze, and I'd continued to 'locate' supplies, noting them on the back of the map as I found them. We'd make 'short work' of the remaining items once I'd cleared the bags coming from the witch-cache.

“There were two types of grease like that, now that I think about it,” I murmured, “but the type that first came to mind was this, uh, sickly yellow-white color – and for the life of me, I cannot remember its name, even if I recall the colors and size of the can it came in, and indeed, what the can itself looked like, just as if I were looking at a detailed picture...”

I could. The picture I saw of the shiny tinned can and its black-painted portions was detailed enough, for the most part, to actually read it – save for the place where the name itself was. That was so horribly blurred...

Or perhaps smudged was the better word, just like with a certain document that had somehow followed me here.

“It had this part-number listed on the can, that being one-oh-five, and its' trademark statement was 'it's the film',” I said. “I can see the can of the stuff I had as clear as if I were holding it in my hand, just like people's faces I recall and a lot else. It's remembered as a picture of some kind, and...”

“And what?” asked Sarah. “Do you now recall all things that way, now that you are clear of that place that was a witch-hole of such evil that it lied to both you and itself every second it lived?”

“Y-yes,” I said with a shudder. It had become an utter truth; almost everything I remembered now came to me in pictures. Mere verbal recall was a rarity now, almost as if I had left what I had had of that particular capacity behind me in the place whence I had come. “Why?”

“Because I recall much as pictures, also,” said Sarah, “and my cousin did that even more than I.” A pause, then, “if one must have concourse with wolves and many other animals, it helps greatly to think that way.”

“Wolves?” I asked. “When they found you wandering and freezing to death..?”

“Yes,” said Sarah. “That was not the first time I encountered them, nor was it the last.” Brief pause, then, “and we had best put a cork in it, as I can see the lanterns themselves now, and not merely their light.”

The last of the carts I had 'piled' with the cache's contents were being unloaded, this into a neat pile of bags and boxes. The boxes with the caps had been set aside well clear of the group in a line of six next to the wall in a small huddle by themselves, and as I resumed sipping beer, jug and cup to my right and my usual gear near to hand on my left, I began to go through the 'looted' bags one at a time. In most cases, this meant first feeling the bag's contents with careful hands, then carefully unzipping their brass-teethed closures; the next portion, gently dumping the contents out onto the floor – and then sorting through what had piled out quickly, setting aside those things we could use into 'three' piles at the most, this in the seeming order of their importance – and in nearly every case, the mound of multicolored dust and the various browns and blacks of rust that remained after my 'sorting' was of substantial size. I suspected bagging with cheap worn-out bags and then transportation to Frankie was the best use of such 'dirt'. Frankie would make short work of it, and there was stuff in that rust and dust that would help our castings and alloy steels.

This was so much the case for the fetishes that it quickly became boring, save in a few instances where an item persisted long enough for me to actually look at it and then discern what it was. The first instance was a small and fast-crumbling bag of that 'cheap' loose-woven cloth I had seen in this room before. Touching the cloth bag caused it to turn to dust as if my fingers were flame and the bag feebly nitrated, and within its slow-settling halo of dust and fragments, I saw – for the space of perhaps two seconds, before they went to black-toned brown-red rust in the blink of an eye – three pristine-looking 'witch-nails', these being precisely as I had pictured them to be, and more, exactly as I had 'seen' them, complete to their markings and mottled coloration.

“Those things were cursed, all right,” said Sarah. “I could see them trying to stay here, and they went to hell just the same after you touched them enough to know them.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“Those nails showed some rust in places,” said Sarah, “though they were glowing red a little near their heads. That red glowing was worst just before they went where they belonged.”

The next such item showed several bags later. I'd found no less than five more of those 'common' grenades in the bags so far, all of them covered in grease-suffused cloth and tied clumsily with masses of dark string, and when I reached for this one elongated item in the rapidly-diminishing pile, I knew it wasn't a greasy grenade.

I did not bother with anything beyond my knife for removing the rags, and as I slit them, I noted not merely a glossy blue-black sheen, but also a shape too-familiar to ignore. The rags smoldered, then flashed like a dim-witted fetish – and before me lay a dagger, this one similar in plan to that one 'evidence' dagger, so much so that it seemed to be its close relative in all aspects save one.

This example had a blade a bit less than a foot long, rather than 'the foot and a hands'-span' length of the 'evidence' dagger. I could see the runes faintly 'shimmering' on the thing's brass hilt as I noted all of the details of the deep blue-black coloring of the blade, saw the faint shadowy lines along its length that spoke of an unusual quenching process – and as I reached so as to touch the pommel, this in the vague and shadowy shape that might have been a skull, the entire thing – its varnished light-colored wood, its 'baser metals', its well-forged and carefully-ground steel – went to dust, rust, and the other sundry evidences of rapid-acting corrosion with a faint sighing sound and a puff of slow-billowing gray-hazed smoke.

“Now who made that thing?” I asked. My voice showed consternation, more so than any time in recent days.

“The Mistress of the North had a sizable combine by the time she formally received her title, and that particular dagger was one of a great many that her shops made.” A pause, then, “those blades were highly prized, and not merely because they didn't need constant curse-chanting to control.”

“What?” I asked.

“Its chief 'fetish' aspect was imparted by the witches who made those things, and then those witches who handled it once it came here,” said the soft voice. “Its listed cursing, like much of what she did for commonplace equipment intended to be used in warfare, was strictly notional. More, recall talk of that one marked person ruining a sword due to sheer use during his escape from this area?”

I nodded mentally.

“That weapon wasn't quite up to the standards of workmanship of what you just saw,” said the soft voice. “That particular shop never made swords, even if their daggers and knives were most-coveted and were readily converted into effectual fetishes.” A pause, then, “the reason those daggers were most-coveted by those who had them was because they were genuinely effective weapons.”

“Not as good as Vrijlaand's,” muttered Sarah. “I saw that thing, and any witch alive today would kill to have one half as good.”

“Yes, because he'd have what he thought was a very potent fetish,” said the soft voice. “He'd be really surprised if he'd actually used it, as everything made by the Mistress of the North, with few exceptions, put effectiveness over fetish-value – and nowhere was that more true than with those weapons and things like them that she had made.”

More bags, these all but filled with rust, and those few things that remained untouched after I saw them tended to be tools. Touching these made for a shudder, even if I recalled the relative ease of making them 'decent' if I used the equipment present here. I then recalled another matter, something Karl had said involving the use of that accursed wolfram – something about making my files such that no chisel would touch them; and with this recollection, I wondered for a moment if there were ways to 'improve' such tools as those I had just found in a similar fashion.

“There are,” said the soft voice, “which, in substantially modified form, is how they treated many of the more wear-prone parts in prewar weapons – with those mottled gray-black rifles you've found so far being some of the best-done commonplace instances of those processes being used.”

“Substantially-modified form?” I asked.

“It's a good bit more involved than just weighing out the needed materials, mixing them thoroughly in a mortar with charcoal and potash, and then packing the well-plastered parts in a clay-luted cooking can with a good dose of boiled distillate mingled with some powdered 'back-up charcoal' to ensure matters don't go oxidizing during a lengthy 'cooking' session.” A pause, then, “the results are a good deal better, also – even if Karl is right and the benefit that accrues to your 'softer' tools will astonish you.”

“Uh, Tosser pistols that take a good deal longer to go bad?” I asked.

“You may wish to perform that process on the parts of some of those weapons, should it take longer than is likely to replace enough of them with better pieces,” said the soft voice. “That expert witch realized that to do much better with those pistols, he needed to perform a 'from the ground-up' redesign, and he didn't have near the resources to do that, so he improved them to the extent he could.”

Bag after bag, these filled with more rust, dust, and 'junk' – this last tended to be not merely incomprehensible as to its possible function, but then go to dust and rust within seconds after I saw it – and the remainder being mostly tools, nearly a dozen more of those greasy grenades tied up with string, a number of empty shell-casings of a most-unusual size – those remained for some minutes, as a rule, save for a mere handful, two or three each of the three sizes I had seen – that I had managed to bag for 'evidence'. The last 'bad' bag came before me; I cleared it of its witch-junk, this being mostly dust, rust, 'dirt' of various colors; and once that was gone, three wrenches and a strange all-metal 'screwdriver-handled wrench' that took some few seconds to recognize as my having heard of before.

“That's one of those Veldter lamp-tools,” I squeaked.

“Not quite, even if they copied those like it they found and improved them steadily over a period of many years,” said the soft voice. “That one, given some modest cleanup work and any modifications that occur to you, followed by a shorter stint in a cooking can and then blacking, will work well for keeping that one lantern operational.”

“Thing hasn't needed nearly the work to keep it running that they do in the Valley,” I said.

“True, but the first kingdom has much less dust, also,” said the soft voice. “Then, there's the type of fuel you're using.”

“How does..?” I asked. “Do they use..?”

“No, because they have more important uses for high-strength alcohol of that type,” said the soft voice, “hence what they do use tends to cause more trouble in general.” Pause, then, “near-exclusive use of charcoal-filtered high-strength aquavit renders such lanterns vastly more reliable, as Andreas is now learning given the ready supply of it now to be had in the house proper.”

“What of that liquid cooking fuel?” asked Sarah.

“The stuff that's to be had in the fourth kingdom's market causes a lot less trouble than what the Veldters use, even if the Veldter-made product gives a trifle more heat and light in their lanterns,” said the soft voice. “The reverse situation tends to cause a lot of trouble for those other lanterns, as they were never meant to cope with a 'half-baked copy' of their intended fuel.”

“And now, these other bags,” I murmured. I suspected them to contain the most-prized portions of the field telephones.

Those had but little 'junk' in them, with over a dozen carefully-wrapped plastic-pouch-encased earphone elements per bag. I had the impression that these were the most-prized portions of the phones in question, and their sheer number was astonishing.

“What was intended with these things?” I muttered, as I began 'condensing down' the contents of the last three bags into the last example opened of its group. “Did they intend to assemble more phones from a vast store of spare parts? Or did that woman think she'd pay a high price in ruined equipment as well as lives?”

“Both of those things, with the latter predominating,” said the soft voice. “That was another reason she had laid claim to that expert witch, as he was quite good at doing such work.” A pause, then, “now you can unwrap those pieces of that witch-rifle, and you'll get a much better idea of just what that 'trashed wretch' was capable of.”

I began to do so, this by cutting the 'bad' string and the cheap greasy rags with my knife, and when I began to see the first of the grease-suffused parts, I gasped.

“He wasn't just modifying this thing,” I squeaked. “It almost looks as if he were attempting to make an entirely new class of weapon!”

“That's closer to the truth than he realized at the time,” said the soft voice, “as he'd managed to improve the original design to no small degree.” A pause, then, “the Veldters took quite some time to get those rusted guns and parts of guns they found into something close to what they use today, and another generation's further labor to get weapons that were entirely reliable and 'safe' to handle.” Another pause, then, “had they been able to get their hands on those parts there, they would have saved themselves roughly a generation's time in total, as he'd gotten rid of almost all of the 'bugs' in the process of reworking that weapon.”

“Did this one take wood for its stocking?” asked Sarah. I then pointed to what looked like a darkly 'painted' laminated wood fore-end – it had faint brown-red stripes, and dark wood under that 'paint' – and nodded, at least until I was abruptly corrected.

“That was another significant improvement he'd managed,” said the soft voice. “Not only did he succeed in turning that 'cheap wood substitute' into something far stronger and vastly more permanent than the original material, he also made it possible to mold it to precise-dimensioned size with almost no waste, much like that fore-piece was done.” A pause, then, “not only is that material particularly difficult to ignite, it resists heat well, provides a good gripping surface, and can be molded precisely to size using 'simple' equipment like what you'll find in the shop you have yet to see.”

“The rear stock?” I asked. It made me wonder more than a little if I could 'duplicate' his recipe, as plastic parts I could readily make sounded distinctly useful.

“He was working on that mold when he was killed,” said the soft voice. “He was about two weeks from completing a fully-functioning prototype weapon, and the Mistress of the North spent a great deal of time trying to find that bundle of parts once she'd sealed that deep-hole.”

“Why is this?” asked Karl. “Is this so she could have more work for her combine-slaves?”

“That, and she'd make the carrying of such a weapon a mandatory practice for witch-soldiers when engaging in 'close' work,” said the soft voice. “They would have been a good deal more effective in combat then, as having a weapon that small with that much power was most-useful during clearing enemy fortifications and captured towns, and it would have helped them more than a little when ambushed.” A pause, then, “and only their disdain regarding weapons that would not 'keep' curses kept them from finding machine-pistols like you've found in here and using those instead of witch-rifles, as they gave up little in terms of close-range lethality and yet were clearly better in every other aspect.”

“House-clearing,” I muttered, as I touched first the barrel, then the part-machined receiver – it needed final fitting, obviously, as there were scribe-markings showing on the red-violet-dyed metal indicating such matters – and finally, the 'obvious' operating rod. The recoil spring went around this rod, which mandated both good ventilation and regular replacement in a weapon that was used much. I wondered if this type of weapon would be capable of full-auto fire, just like a regular witch-rifle supposedly was.

“No, as that would have caused casualties among one's group,” said the soft voice. “Remember, the main reason 'fire and storm' was so commonly used was the shooters usually had trouble hitting the side of a barn when they were inside of the building – and that witch, even on his bad days, usually shot better than that.”

“Meaning he really only had time for one shot at a time, and that shot needed to have enough punch to stop whatever was coming after him when it suddenly 'showed' – correct?” My questioning was based upon a fast-blooming suspicion.

“Exactly,” said the soft voice. “The muzzle blast may have been worse than 'horrible', and the flash from the still-burning propellant tended to set those creatures alight for a short time, but he knew from experimentation with crudely-altered weapons of that size that the loss of velocity with a shortened barrel wasn't nearly the issue that bringing the weapon to bear quickly was – and he'd shot enough of those rodents with shortened witch-rifles to know a special design was needed so as to fight them effectively.”

“Jams?” I asked. “Especially prone to jamming? F-failures to, uh, extract and f-feed?”

“Look at the magazine and you'll not only see what is meant, but also see three of his 'dummy' rounds – which I would take for evidence and put in a leather pouch.”

I picked up the magazine, this a long curved thing with its stamped exterior and thick 'machined' lips, and noted that not merely was it not a 'double-feed' example, but that it did an unusually good job of corralling the stubby-looking bottlenecked semi-rimmed cartridges. I slid out first one, then two, and finally the third one – and when I laid the magazine down, the thing went to a blackened 'magazine-shaped' mound of glittering gray-black-red rust in the blink of an eye.

“Now why did that happen?” asked Katje. “That thing didn't look cursed.”

“I know,” I said. “It was handled by a witch of especial capacity, so it thinks it needs to join him where he currently is residing.”

“He chanted curses upon it and every other part to that weapon, also,” said the soft voice, “and with that deep-hole's going, those curses that stopped its rust no longer work effectively. Hence their nine hundred and more years of corrosion takes place posthaste as soon as you've 'gotten the picture' – and those turned-brass 'evidence' rounds will be all that is left when you're done examining that weapon.”

“Uh, why do I need to keep those?” I asked. “Do I need to show them to someone over there..?”

“Yes, and then you'll not only get a lot of information on those weapons, but also a lot of ideas about other weapons you'll need to design in the months to come.” Pause, then, “and also, you'll get the full set of drawings for that weapon you're currently looking at.”

“The f-full set?” I asked.

“She might not have found what he was actually working on regarding the weapon itself,” said the soft voice, “but she did find many of his notes and drawings, and those were captured when her main body of troops received a surprise flank attack about two hundred miles south of here within smelling distance of the coast.” Pause, then, “even her by-then-battle-hardened troops had difficulty with well-executed surprise attacks, and that one not merely nearly captured her, but it also routed most of the survivors and killed over half of her people on the field of engagement.” The unstated portion was obvious to me: 'more of them died later on the altars of sacrifice' due to their choosing to become 'Disgraces' by becoming wounded.

Those altars had smoked steadily for over a week after that instance of 'poor generalship'. There had been many times before where such altars billowed flame and black smoke, and some times afterward as well.

“How?” asked Sarah. “I had never heard of that, as not even that one tapestry I bathed for mentioned it.”

“Mostly as she had a lot of well-stocked munition depots prepositioned along her proposed line of march,” said the soft voice as it eroded my thinking about 'poor generalship' and replaced it with another likely reason, “and she could – and routinely did – press-gang hordes of people so as to maintain the size of her 'armies'.” A pause, then, “that was no small trick, and while she did have multiple well-hidden copies of everything that was lost during that 'debacle', those on the other side then knew what her precise goals actually were – and knowing what those were then 'put the screws' to those people.”

“Yes, and they did not like that much,” said Karl. “I have sat on bad screws more than once while riding in people's buggies, and those things made for a sore backside.”

“N-no, Karl,” said Sarah shakily. “They went to desperation measures then, unless my guess is very wrong.”

“You mean 'much more so than they had been doing previously',” said the soft voice. “Knowing what she had planned for the planet put their entire country on a total-war footing then, and some significant portions of that 'total war' mindset remain more-or-less intact to this day.”

“Those thugs?” asked Sepp. “Is that why they're so common – they're being trained to be guards?”

“While some numbers of blue-suited thugs get promoted to what passes for 'guard' status over there, that isn't the cause of remaining on a total-war footing in certain crucial areas,” said the soft voice. “The chief region – that part which has more or less seen steady refinement of materials and methods while remaining in that posture – is in the medical realm, because more than once during that war, that place overseas took multiple direct hits from 'deep-penetrating' weapons that caused huge numbers of casualties, including many of the then-current leadership in each such instance.”

“That would mean a great need for medicine and people to do it,” said Sarah.

“Exactly, which is the main reason why there are so many medical people there,” said the soft voice, “and also the main reason why every single one of them has 'full-doctor' training at the very least.” A pause, then, “most of them have that training, at least one other 'medical' region of specialization, a fair amount of chemistry training, and in many cases, additional training beyond that as machinists, computer programmers, electrical engineers, and other types of learning needed to keep the country alive if another wave of 'big ones' hits a population center.”

“And none of them are equipped with weapons,” I muttered.

“More than just that,” said the soft voice. “They only accept women for medical work there – and the comprehensive entrance examinations systematically weed out anyone who's 'thought' to be capable of leading or equipping a rebellion.”

“That should mean nothing, though,” said Sarah. “I know...”

“You, your cousin, a fair number of your relatives, and perhaps some women you know are capable fighters,” said the soft voice – who then reiterated the matter twice over. “Those people can fight, and fight well – and more importantly, most of them can lead others while doing so.” A pause, then, “the questions they ask prospective medical personnel over there weed out people with such attitudes as you have.”

The pause, though, seemed to signal something. While such questioning was thorough enough, there were other matters those in charge had once insisted upon with especial vehemence, and I knew...

No, it was much more than that. I wasn't overly inclined to violence, even when it came to witches, but I did protect those I knew and loved – and more, I'd do anything to keep them safe. Anything – up to and including walking a blood-stained icy battlefield littered with bodies in my blood-saturated bed-clothing, all the while making absolutely certain none of those I had fought there survived to hurt others.

“That is the one matter those who wrote up that mass of criteria long ago didn't count on,” said the soft voice, “as they insisted that all medical personnel put their assigned duties before everything, including their own safety and well-being – and then, they've more or less been relentlessly conditioned to 'go for broke' in order to save lives.” A pause, then, “if they see someone who's acting like an enemy – just like a deadly plague – and they have that kind of attitude, just what do you think they will do?”

“I know what I would do,” said Sarah. “I'd air out that thug's hide, and not think twice about it, same as if that wretch was one of those tinned thugs from Norden or a black-dressed witch – and I know Anna would do the same, as I've seen her do that very thing.” Sarah then looked at me – and shuddered. Anna didn't come close to how I was then.

“And that to save lives,” said the soft voice. “You'll learn a great deal about 'life in general' over there once you get a chance to talk to some of those people.” Pause, then, “now, check over the rest of that weapon, commit what you can to memory, and then resume working. You'll need to visit the privy at some length within an hour or two, so do all you can before then.”

As I examined first the receiver, then the barrel and trigger group, I tried to make notes in my current ledger, but the tendency of what I was looking at to disintegrate was such that I could barely set them down after looking closely and then pick up a pencil before they'd go to dust and rust in a flash of smoke and a scattering of dust. The same for the bolt, this obviously unfinished, and the bolt-carrier – which had enough machining performed upon it for me to know that this weapon used a tipping bolt that was cammed down into a machined 'notch' in the receiver. I'd seen and heard of this type of locking mechanism before, and knew of its limitations regarding high-pressure ammunition unless all of the parts involved were made of extremely high-grade steel.

As I touched piece after piece – both magazines that yet remained went to dust but seconds after I'd removed the rounds from them and set them aside – I was still getting impressions. I then glanced at these stubby cartridges as I paused to get a drink.

One suddenly began 'smoking', and I tossed it some distance to the right. It went up like a magnesium flare trailing small bright-burning fragments but a few feet from my hand, and the whole fiery eruption was overshadowed by a short and billowing cloud of spark-suffused smoke – and as I tossed round after round as fast as I could – I could not just grab them at once and scatter them; they'd get into something that didn't want fire, which meant tossing them singly and with as much precision as I could muster – they all did that same precise thing.

I didn't even move my hand toward my ledger during that last portion, as the whole mess 'went to hell' so quickly and with such virulence that there wasn't time for writing anything.

“Best put all of that stuff there in Frankij,” said Sepp upon seeing the progressive dissolution of each part to the weapon once I had 'looked at it'. He was pointing at one of the few remaining pieces, this being a long black bolt, glistening with 'varnish' and showing obvious signs of being turned on a lathe. “Now this part here I recognize, as the bolts to fowling pieces are just like this.”

“The good ones have such bolts,” said Sarah – who sounded as if she knew from experience. “The cheaper ones just have top and bottom straps to hold their wood, and unless their wood is very good, they break their wood quickly should they receive much use.” A pause, then, “that was one portion Gustav needed to do to that one weapon, as its wood was not much better than that which belongs in a stove, and the hind portion was attached with a pair of short screws only by a pair of such straps.”

“And those rounds I tossed?”

“Were dangerous to fire,” said the soft voice. “Their chemistry – especially that of the propellant – had deteriorated to such an extent that they were 'burning' the instant you tossed them, and the only thing that stopped them from doing so sooner was your immediate presence.”

“I thought that meant they were cursed,” said Sarah.

“The curses they had wore off long ago,” said the soft voice. “That country's powder didn't keep nearly as well as that present in this room, and that material's tendencies toward 'rapid' deterioration was held in abeyance by that deep-hole's presence.” A pause, then, “those dummy rounds were made of non-cursed green-area materials, and hence will remain present for much longer.”

“Leather pouch?” I asked. I wondered why 'leather' had been specified, beyond the tendencies I had toward labeling such pouches with my letter-stamps when and if I could.

“The tallow in such pouches will 'keep those things good' much longer,” said the soft voice. “Anna has long made certain each such pouch she buys is well-rubbed with tallow, and she doesn't just touch them carefully and turn themselves inside out any more.” A pause, then, “any more, she smells them also, as 'smelly' pouches either have poor leather or bad tallow.”

“And after today, she'll put distillate to them and 'cook in' that odorless stuff,” I said.

“When she cannot find better things still,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, it is as you said, and I'd do that with the pouch you put those in.”

“Use this one,” said Sarah as she handed me a small leather pouch with punched holes for its cord. It was very well done, far better than the usual for pouches I had not done myself. “I might not have put distillate to it, but I both sewed it myself with strong-thread and then put that tallow that does not smell to it myself, as I know about Anna's ways regarding leather pouches.”

“More credit than is warranted?” I asked.

“She's never made them, as far as I know – and if she has done that, she's only made a few,” said Sarah. “I not only have made many such pouches, but I've heard about many of the tricks that those making them use when and if they can, and that's for the people making them.” A pause, then, “I suspect a fair number of such pouches are made by either witches or their slaves, and those smell.”

With my 'finishing' of the 'looted' bags, I had created a huge windrow of 'dust' mingled with various darker colors of 'rust', this nearly thirty feet in length and varying in width from one to three feet, and the bags I had 'looted' were now mostly empty. With a pair of carts, I led Sarah, Sepp, and Katje back over to where the other field-telephones were 'hiding', and we gathered up five entire sets of them, this mostly for 'practice' matters – and setting up one of these phones in the house, with one such 'set' in the basement and another in the kitchen, sounded like a capital 'joke'. In the process of looking over the first pallet, however, my attention wandered – as did my eyes – and the next pallet to my right showed a real find. It made for a distorted screeching noise as I involuntarily attempted to make a noise like a mouse being mashed with a large wooden mallet.

“Dry-charged batteries,” I squeaked. I nearly got feedback. “A whole stinking pallet of them!”

“I hope not,” said Sarah. “Battery-stink is bad enough when one uses good acid, but that bad stuff Hans' has... I am most glad you have not yet made batteries, as then the stink would be enough to cause one's latest meal to escape, and that if one were near the house.”

“N-no,” I murmured. “These do not use Grussmaan's acid, dear, but something otherwise...”

“They do not use acid, but a mixture of basic electrolytes, 'engineered' buffers, and special long-chain polymers that give about five times the capacity per unit of volume and weight compared to crock-batteries, even those made by Andreas.”

“Crock-batteries?” I asked. “Oh, lead-acid wet cells...”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “You've never seen his cells, and while they do use the acid you were thinking of, manufacturers of such batteries where you came from would kill to get his secrets.”

“Secrets?” I asked innocently, as I began to put some of these oddly-shaped new-found batteries on the cart. I was wondering just what their voltage was, in fact, and wondering more about that one little 'music box' – especially as to how much voltage it liked. It made for wishing I had one of the measuring tools from where I came from so as to check these batteries' nominal output. I doubted such tools were present here, for some reason – though I yet held out hope, for some reason.

With batteries present, a voltmeter would be desired so as to know their condition.

“Those are labeled clearly as to their pertinent data,” said the soft voice, “and while that radio will work adequately with a jury-rig setup like I spoke of earlier today, the good setup involves not merely a trio of 'pot-style' batteries connected in series for the filaments, but also five of those rectangular ones you just found on that pallet connected likewise for 'Bee-Plus'.”

“Pot-batteries?” I asked. I knew about 'Bee-Plus', or so I suspected – though spelling matters out in that fashion made for a bevy of questions to be asked sometime in the future.

“I think these are them,” said Katje, as she pointed to something on the edge of the pallet. “Now I shall be back in a moment, as I do not trust Maarten with a paintbrush and that dust much, even if Karl is speaking to him about cleaning that mess up.”

The 'Pot-Battery' – it gave two volts as its nominal voltage, and was commonly used in 'tent-lanterns', among other things spoken of on a laminated card found in a yet-unopened box of the things – seemed a common-enough device if I went by the sheer number of them that yet remained upon that pallet; and while there were but two large boxes of them on the pallet in question, I had the impression 'pot-batteries' were at one time most-desirable among witches, both at the Abbey and in other places – and not merely because they worked well as easily-hid filament-batteries. They were about the size of a measuring cup – though for the life of me, I could not say as to whether that measuring cup was a 'medium-sized' replacement I had made or the biggest 'old' example Anna currently had. These pot-batteries were perhaps three inches across and a bit more than four inches tall, with a cylindrical shape topped by a red-rubber 'plug' fitting for electrolyte and two conical projections with knurled connectors – and I suspected they varied some, depending upon the whims or needs of their consumers and the capacities of those making them.

“Those were among the most-common rechargeable batteries found in this area,” said the soft voice, “as while the witches in this area publicly disdained their use, they used them most-commonly in private, and they were found everywhere in the green areas.”

“Hidden radios?” I asked.

“And portable lights similar to those spoken of on that sheet,” said the soft voice, “and smaller portable appliances. And electric clocks, ones similar to those which had once been omnipresent here. And a vast number of other commonplace things, so much so that even with the green-area-shops running 'full out' making them, that one witch had to import pot-batteries from wherever he could get 'decent' ones at a workable price – and these were the best to be had if one excluded those cells made in Vrijlaand.”

“Decent ones?” I asked.

“Attempting to sell less-good ones caused massive scandals and larger-yet riots on a number of occasions,” said the soft voice. “While they didn't have circuses here when witchdom ran the place, and bread was a 'make it yourself' proposition outside of some of the more-distant green-area towns, easily-had pot-batteries were a more-than-satisfactory substitute for 'bread and circuses' as far as the masses were concerned, provided they lasted reasonably well and didn't cost too much.”

“Didn't they charge those things up?” I asked. The placard implied these batteries were not merely rechargeable, but also readily 'rebuilt'. I suspected that even during the time prior to the war, that place across the sea was not known for wasting much.

“Yes, which is one reason marked people were generally well-tolerated in the green-area districts up until the very eve of that war,” said the soft voice. “Those things which used pot-batteries, as well as the batteries themselves, needed repairs on a regular basis – and given that marked-rebuilt pot-batteries worked better than anything that wasn't imported from the place that built these or Vrijlaand, they were in most-high demand.” A pause, then, “and while charging engines were common-enough things, the only people who had consistently-running examples were marked – and hence such tinkers held most green-area communities together and kept them functioning as communities.”

Further looking on the battery-pallet showed not merely obvious signs of looting – the several near-empty boxes told an obvious story – but also, the witches had missed some of the real prizes, these being not merely a number of full and yet-unopened boxes of three different types of dry-charged cells, but a pair of hand-cranked chargers, each in its own camouflaged – and padded – pouch. These pouches had not merely the parts to the generator, but also manuals, tools, and a fair number of spare parts. The intent seemed to be 'long patrols well away from possibility of resupply or repair', and hence one had to keep one's gear working in the field.

“Which is exactly what those generators were intended for,” said the soft voice. “They're switch-selectable, which means they can charge up any battery you'll find in here and most batteries you'll find overseas, they're light enough to easily carry in partly-dismantled form, they set up and dismantle quickly, and they're intended for ready repair and maintenance.” A pause, then, “I'd look at that grease-squirter if I were you.”

I found the tool in question – it looked remarkably like some 'metal syringes' I had once made for oiling things, save this one was made of a tough and clear species of chill-seeming 'plastic' with a long red 'cone' covering the tapered portion where the grease came out – and inside of the 'syringe', I could see a hardened black friable mass that had once been obvious 'grease'.

“That was the best grease they had back then,” said the soft voice, “and you can see how it became a hardened mass of 'gunk'.”

The word 'gunk', while applicable to what I was seeing, had a veritable host of context-variant meanings, some of which I was in no hurry to learn about experientially. Sarah – and marriage – most likely meant I would need to 'learn better' some of those meanings in short order. It made for a shudder, one that my clothing hid for the most portion. I turned to see Sarah – and her face looked to have gone green around the edges.

She then reached for a rag, and began making coughing and gagging noises.

“Good that you are both of a mind that way,” said Karl. “I am not looking forward to that business much myself.”

“You what?” screeched Sarah. “We've got t-trouble ahead, and you can only think about that?”

“No,” said Karl. “I think we should have our trouble first and finish it, and then I can worry about who will jump on me.” A pause, then much quieter, “if I am still here to be jumped on.”

The chill of that thought seemed to put a damper upon the other meanings of 'gunk' and such similar words I had but heard scraps of since coming here. People seemed close-mouthed about the matter, for which I was more than a little glad, and I hoped they were equally closed-mouthed about it across the sea. As a respite from this nauseating issue, I thought to briefly peruse the documentation that came with one of the generators, and learned just what the thing looked like when set up.

“So one sits on the seat these have, and pulls through these crank-arms at a steady pace,” I thought, “and then...” I paused, then asked silently, “how good are these generators?”

“Good enough that I'd take one with you on the trip,” said the soft voice, “and I'd take at least one pot-battery per member and several spares, and the same for the smaller 'ledger-shaped' cells.”

“For that radio?” I asked.

“For command-detonation of bombs, among other things,” said the soft voice. “Pot-batteries were most-prized by soldiers of both sides, and not merely because they made surprisingly good power-sources for tent-lights.” A pause, then, “a few of those electric caps, some of that communications wire, some of that white 'dough', and you're set for trapping things.”

“I think I have found something you might want, then,” said Sepp, “as this pallet here has more screws, and different screws, and what might be some bad nails, and then these other things that look like badly-made bolts, and sacks of shiny-looking nuts of the kind you're supposedly fond of making, and other things you might want – and more of them than I have heard of or seen in my whole life.”

“Screws?” I squeaked. “Did you say 'screws'?”

“He did,” said Sarah flatly. “Now I hope these are good screws, as soft ones are only fit for frustration and bad work, and I've tossed turnscrews more than once on account of having trouble with bad screws.”

“Tossed..?”

“First I tossed the turnscrew, as it was of soft metal,” said Sarah dryly, “and then I tossed that rusted piece of scrap metal that looked like an old flint-pistol.” Pause, then, “I think both of those things belonged in Frankij had he been around then and I knew of him, if I think about it overmuch.”

Sepp then brought over a bag, which Sarah looked inside. She then looked at me with an expression I had never seen on her face before, and after a moment's feeling of the bag's contents and perhaps looking at some of them, she said, “I think Andreas would have trouble doing these things, and were you to try them, they would take you longer than you'd be inclined to spend unless you needed them badly for something.”

“Are these pointed screws, or blunt-tipped ones?” I'd made both types since coming here, and that for wood screws. The smaller metal screws tended toward a somewhat rounded tip for the end possessing the threads, as it made for both easier starting and a smaller likelihood of cross-threading.

“Pointed, almost as if they were short stubby nails,” said Sarah, “with a bulging head like the bottom of an old fryer and a crossed slot for the tool's purchase.” A pause, then, “before now, I'd but read of this type of screw once, and that on a tapestry in the second kingdom.”

“Cross-points?” I gasped. I wasn't certain I had tools for driving such screws, even if I most likely could make some 'bits' that would work. “May I examine one or two of them?”

Sarah wordlessly reached in the sack, then with exaggerated care, drew one out. She then handed the stout-looking thing to me.

“This is a sheet-metal screw,” I squeaked, “and I think it's a plated one, if I go by its color.”

“What does that mean?” asked Sarah, as I took out my test-file and some locking pincers, then ran the file across the head. While the file did bite, it did not bite deeply; and when I looked closer at the screw, I recalled something I'd read about years prior.

“Command-detonation, eh?” I asked. “Pot-batteries, electric caps, communications wire, that 'moldy dough' that barely smells, and now a lot of screws.”

You never did tell me of those tales of gore,” said Sarah. “Remember when we dealt with the hall, and how you spoke of screws then?”

“He might not have spoken such tales, but I think he told them good just the same,” said Sepp. “Now I take it you have something smaller and trickier in mind for...” Sepp paused, then suddenly he spat, “are you going to make those thugs eat screws?”

Sepp had obviously been around smith's shops enough to learn some of their more-common oaths – and that one had been commonplace enough during my first few months where I worked. I still heard it fairly often, in fact.

“Why yes,” I said softly. “Tales of gore are best writ in blood, and while there was plenty of that at the hall, I think some little things I shall make up will cause those blue-suited people trouble.” A pause, then in a strange-sounding voice made stranger-yet by a narrow-passband speaker, “I wonder how well those silver-collared thugs will do if they are all screwed up.”

“They do not use corpse-boxes there, as wood is very scarce,” said Sarah – who then looked at me strangely. I wondered if she understood the 'joke'. “They used to use screws here to keep bodies inside those things until they found it hard to make screws and had to settle for glue-dipped nails.”

“No matter,” said Sepp. “I think he means a type of squib, one that we can set off easy from cover when we see those thugs show themselves.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now you mentioned nails. These are not the usual nails for around here, are they, but another type entirely...”

Sepp put the screws back, then fetched me the nails in question. These short stubby things with their faint serrations on their thick shanks looked disgustingly familiar, and when my test-file barely bit them at all, I nearly laughed out loud.

“No, save those screws for putting things together,” I muttered. “I'm going to nail those thugs!”

“They will not like that much,” said Sarah – as in this instance, she most likely understood the joke. I learned a second later of my error. “Will you club them first before putting nails to them?”

“No, I think he means that he will put the nails to them with explosives,” said Sepp. “Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

“No, even if about half the tapestries speak of people being nailed up,” said Sarah. “Now what will happen when you nail those blue-dressed thugs?”

“You know what those round squibs do, don't you?” I asked. “Now imagine something much worse...”

“It will fetch them, then,” said Sarah. “You may wish to show Hans such things, but I would be careful around him just yet, as he may still retain some dung in his head and such nail-filled bombs may nail him.” Sarah then asked me how I proposed to use these nails.

“I need string and a rag to hold the whole thing together,” I said. “One cuts a small piece of that dough, rolls it a bit so that it's a cylinder about as big as a stick of farmer's dynamite and as long as one's hand is wide, then puts nails on it so their heads are at each end and their points are touching on another...”

Sepp had vanished, and as I began to look over the current pallet with its treasure-trove of fasteners – the witches had been here, but they liked curses rather than these things when it came to holding parts together, so they didn't bother them much – I could hear him collecting up something of an 'urgent' nature. Katje was still busy with both Maarten and Karl, for I could hear her 'urging them on' to fill the store of 'dirty cloth bags' someone had dredged up. I was inclined to do my own dredging among the fasteners binned and bagged on this pallet, but there wasn't time for it today, or so I suspected.

“Where did she get those bags she's speaking of?” I asked, as I located another box of 'heavy construction nails' instead of the rivets I was hunting. These stout things were just like those Sepp had showed me, and I wondered just what 'heavy construction' actually meant in their context.

“They will have uses here beyond 'nailing' those thugs,” said the soft voice. “You won't have very many opportunities for such use, by the way, even if when you do use such bombs the results will be most-spectacular.”

“I suspected that much,” said Sarah, who then anticipated my next question. “Katje went through that just-arrived camp while we were busy in that long room, and asked them for those bags that had shown themselves to be less-good during their journey from the fourth kingdom.”

“Fit for the rag-merchants?” I asked.

“Down there they might be thought thus, as cloth is much cheaper there and paper is much-wanted,” said Sarah. “Here, they'd get a good deal more use as bags, then they'd see use as rags – and in some towns, especially where most farm, they'd see use as diapers also – even if Anna speaks loudly as that being the height of folly.”

“Because babies don't need dirt on their bottoms?” I asked innocently. I knew they most likely needed clean dry posteriors, if I went by what I recalled.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “I may know little enough of infants, but I knew that much before I went to the west school – and Liza told me enough about it that Anna was flogging a dead mule when she spoke of the matter.”

“Dead mule? Flogging?” This idiom was an utterly new one – one not native to the region, in fact – and I suspected it was a 'translation' of a common Veldter saying.

“They speak that way in the Valley,” said Sarah. “Some of those people are said to get mules which have gone hooves-up from too much hard riding to go another ten miles further, but I think that is one of their old tales.”

“It may be an old tale now, but long ago, the Valley had visitors who could do that with mules,” said the soft voice. “Sometimes the witches from this area visited the camps located down there, and they did things to bodies beyond anything you've read of on tapestry or in tale – even if you speak of tales like 'The Black Fiend'.

I was about the say the word 'Zombie' when I realized this language had no such word. It almost needed making up such a word specially for the occasion, as if ever I was hearing about such 'tales', I was hearing it now.

“They have words across the sea to describe those 'witch-puppets',” said the soft voice, “both the small 'dolls' the witches used for controlling such 'slaves' and the controlled body of the person or animal.” Pause, then, “and until the soldiers coming from that place learned about the liberal use of 'firebombs', they had trouble with those things.”

“What kind of trouble?” asked Sarah – who then turned to see Sepp carrying a lantern low in his left hand and something carefully cradled in the crook of his right arm.

“I think this might be it,” he said when he came closer. I was getting closer to those rivets; I could feel them, and now I knew, I wanted them for use in the days ahead. “Katje was watching me while I did this thing up instead of Karl and Maarten, as they'd gotten almost all of that dust and rust bagged up by then and were getting it ready to take out of here.”

“I doubt that thing there would do much to witch-puppets, Sepp,” said Sarah. “Now did you make up one of those bombs with the nails?”

“Yes, just like I heard,” said Sepp. “That dough is as tough as that for Kuchen, it's so hard to mold, and I had to use some of those gloves like he's wearing to handle the thing until it was bagged up and tied good with string.”

“Did you twist the wires together?” I asked.

Sepp then showed me the 'wire' ends of the cap. Each one had not merely a very small winged 'wire-nut', but there was a short piece of tinned wire shorting the two. “They come that way, and Katje told me to not take it loose until I was ready to actually place the thing.”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “Now, one layer of nails only, or two layers arranged so there's nails overlapping each other?”

“I did think about one layer of nails at first, but there are enough nails in that bag to not spare them much, so I put two layers of them to that bomb,” said Sepp. I could hear a grin in his voice; more, I had found some rivets, even if these tinned brass things weren't the ones I was after. “After some of the dreams I've had in the last few days, I want to see those thugs get nailed good.” He then handed the device to Sarah.

“We'd best not tell Hans about this thing,” said Sarah with alarm, “as I think it would nail him rather than some witches or those northern people.”

“He will need some instruction, yes,” said the soft voice, “and he'll need it at some length, as those have some tricks that needed Sepp's intelligence and Katje's watchfulness to stay out of trouble with.”

“Are they that tricky?” I squeaked in alarm. We'd loaded up 'enough' batteries, or so I hoped. I wanted some for the 'music box' and a few small lights, and that in addition to those spoken of as being needed for the trip. Most importantly, I had a suspicion I could find the 'light-globes' in here somewhere, and my room was up high enough that use of a small 'low-powered' light would help with the wax situation in the days to come.

Most importantly, I'd found the rivets I had been 'feeling', and a touch against one of the chilled things told me it was exactly what I wanted, as it felt just like copper, and more, dead-soft copper.

What usually passed for 'leather rivets' in this area needed first hand-selecting; then annealing, pickling in dilute acid – and then last-and-finally, careful tinning if one wished them to truly endure.

“You'll wish more than one or two of those if you're planning on using pot-batteries for lighting,” said the soft voice. “They might not be candles, but they aren't that much brighter.”

“They aren't?” I asked.

“They're intended to have low current drain and long-lived rugged bulbs,” said the soft voice. “Remember, if you've got a group of any size trying to make distance on foot and each person with his own 'lantern' – and only one generator – then charging those things up will only happen every so often.” A pause, then, “and during that time, any light of that nature, unless it was either very dim or very well shielded, drew gunfire from any and all witches who happened to be in the area.”

“Duh,” I thought. “That most likely would happen in this area once those stinkers get here.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “They will be looking for unfamiliar lights. More, because many of these witches have come from places where multiple story 'dwellings' were commonplace, they will look up at second floor windows far more often than the late unlamented tended to.”

“And hence cloth shields to diffuse the light will...”

“Will get your windows shot out in a great hurry, as these people know well of such tricks and practice them commonly,” said the soft voice. “You could probably manage a pot-battery light if you put the thing on the floor in your room, as then it looks like a candle-lantern from the street.” Pause, then, “you'll need to keep things like titanium lanterns or that one brass one in the basement or where Sarah currently sews, at least while there are lots of witches in the area.” Brief pause, then, “I'd be careful with any light source that's much brighter than a commonplace tallow candle, in fact – which means you'll need care and caution to use those catalytic lanterns, at least for a while.”

“And the shop...”

“Georg has new doors on order at the carpenters',” said the soft voice, “and he sent word to the house proper regarding plans for their construction and 'setting'.”

“Word?” I asked. I was looking at the map and wondering where next to go. At this rate of 'looting', we would need three wagons the size of the one I'd fixed the night of my arrival so as to get it all home readily.

“To Hendrik, who then spoke to Andreas – who then spoke to some of his neighbors in Ploetzee,” said the soft voice. “Georg had gotten wind of coming trouble, and while he thinks it to be confined to him alone, he's very much mistaken.”

“What kind of trouble?” asked Sarah. “Does he think the witches have blown Weidmansheil upon him?”

“No, but he does suspect trouble is brewing, which is why he not merely asked about 'secure' doors, but also doors able to block light entirely,” said the soft voice. “He received word from his furthest-south family members about seeing 'strange witches' with 'enough money to buy the whole of the first kingdom house', and he thinks they may be after him.”

“The outriders,” I muttered. “Stinkers are getting ready, all right, and those people are trying to take over that town.”

“They have taken over that town, which is why Georg got notice so quickly,” said the soft voice. “That particular branch of his wide-flung extended family is but twenty miles north of what's currently thought to be the border between the first and second kingdom in that region.”

“Near the potato country?” asked Sarah. She was now looking at my notes, one hand holding a lantern so I could see better and the other with a finger pointing at one of my less-legible scrawls. It had me longing for a computer, as I could tell she wasn't having much luck reading what I had tried to write.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Between the High Way and the upper reaches of the Main, in a small town that used to do a deal of business with tinkers and other 'migrants' running north and south, and now that particular 'message-route' is broken.”

“The tinkers may figure out a way about that mess, but I doubt those coming from the Valley will do so quite as easily,” said Sarah.

“Those people now avoid that entire region,” said the soft voice, “and most of the tinkers are wondering just how much trouble it would be to get a team of 'long-hairs' up there.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “A chief route of wood and other supplies into the Valley is now cut?”

“The witches' exact goal, which they think themselves to have achieved,” said the soft voice, “and once those northern settlements in the Valley feel that pinch...”

A pause, this of three quick breaths.

“That town is going to get 'taken'.”