Loading Up, Part five.


“And I'm wanting some tactile labels so I don't get confused with this thing,” I muttered – though I could tell those were just up ahead in one of the pallets. “Shouldn't that be, uh, tactical?”

“No, as those would show up on infrared and get the person wearing them shot or cut up by shell-splinters,” said the soft voice. “These labels were designed to be both 'invisible' to infrared, but also easily discerned by touch when it was dark or smoky.”

“Smoky?” I asked. “Oh, the witches turned loose their smudge-pots...”

“They thought those smoke-generators were effectual weapons,” said the soft voice, “and until the Mistress of the North got onto their supplier, their use resulted in massive numbers of their soldiers being killed.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Every gun within range shot at the quick-billowing clouds of black smoke?”

“Yes, if you speak of artillery,” said the soft voice. “The usual was to have several smaller shells landing on or near the smoke-generating apparatus within seconds after it started running, and the bigger shells impacting a short while later to 'finish matters' – and all of that overlaid by rifle fire, if there were soldiers within range.”

“S-smaller?” I asked. I was referring to the artillery in question.

“There were some guns but slightly larger than those smaller 'cannons' that fired high-explosive shells,” said the soft voice. “Granted, they didn't fire full-auto, but they did fire as fast as the gun-layer could press the triggers, and they used quick-detachable magazines that held enough rounds to blanket a charging party of witches.” A pause, then, “the usual for such a gun-siting was to have no less than eight to ten such dug-in guns, with each gun of that battery connected to the central observation point by field-telephones.”

“Hence en-masse fire,” I said.

“And vast numbers of dead witch-soldiers,” said the soft voice. “The common soldiers commonly did a bit better as they tended to neither charge in vast 'masses' nor did they stand out so much when they did move.”

“If these guns are what I am thinking about,” said Sarah, “then they still killed them in droves.”

“True, they did,” said the soft voice. “More, that general type of gun has seen a lot of improvements since then, as it's still thought to be an especially capable weapon overseas.”

“For putting down, uh, uprisings?” I asked. “Leaves massive numbers of bodies everywhere, and only needs three functionaries to crew the thing – or do they do that any more?”

“Not recently,” said the soft voice. “They've gotten really rusty with those things, and those functionaries currently tend to use less-capable weapons when they go out for 'sport'.”

“So if one shows, put a rocket into it,” said Sepp.

“No,” I said deadpan. “Shoot the functionaries on it and give the other functionaries hell with it.”

I could almost hear the chortling, so much so that I nearly did a header over a tipped-into-the aisle bin next to a cloth-covered pair of pallets. While I examined the bin in question – it was another fiberglass one, which meant it did not have things inside it that went 'boom'; I was catching onto the logic of these long-dead people now – someone yanked the cloth covering off of one of the pallets, and Sarah's screech nearly had me dive for the floor behind another pallet.

“I'm not sure I want to be in one of those things,” she said, “as it would rub me raw the way it is now.”

“Uh, why, dear?,” I said, as I levered up the lid of the bin. “Oh, these things here must be some of those tactile labels.”

“No, Sarah, you want those at this end,” said Katje. “Now this looks to be just right for when I must clean house, as it has enough pockets on it to suit Esther.”

“Best get one for her, then,” said Sarah – who then said, “no, best not. I might need to take one that's close for sizing, fit it to her, and then sew one that looks less like something that looks to be made specially so as to get the witches onto her.”

“Aren't they onto that woman enough as it is?” I asked. “If these things you found are a type of camouflage-clothing, then she might hide better than she does now.”

“Yes, but not in a town she won't,” retorted Sarah. “She tends to be in those most of the time when she's cleaning or getting food.” Pause, then, “she does tend to travel cross-country when moving so as to save time, as rides aren't at all common for her.”

If she is traveling in the daytime,” said the soft voice in response to Sarah's talk about custom-fitting Esther with a locally-produced equivalent garment “and if she's in a witch-run town – which, while those are currently scarce in the first kingdom, will attempt to become numerous once more.” Pause. “That is why she'll want one done like those and a similar copy using commonplace-color cloth for when she must move about openly in the daytime where she can be readily observed.”

“A nice medium green color, perhaps using, uh, 'scraps' of cloth so it's 'sort-of' camouflage – maybe with some paint splatters, small ones of sundry-colored paint, and some ground-in, uh, 'dirt smudges'? Perhaps a little soot here and there, so it looks, uh, natural for someone who cleans?”

“She usually looks like that,” said Sarah. “She may wash what she has frequently, but she'll still need common cloth...” Sarah then looked at me, and thought, “no. Not what I can get here for cloth, but what I can get overseas, and their tools, also. That will work much better.”

“And make her much harder to see, also,” said the soft voice. “Get onto the right people about 'camouflage cloth', and draw for them what she normally looks like, and you'll have things suitable for her cleaning suits.”

“Including the special cloth that goes inside of these things for, uh, padding,” I said. “Not normal padding, isn't it?”

“No, it isn't, not even in what you're currently wearing, which is another reason why you want to wear that stuff when overseas,” said the soft voice. “Were you to wear such gear outside here, you'd collect a lot less lead.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Don't tell me – this stuff has some layers of soft-body-armor cloth, doesn't it?”

“It does, and it's quite effective, even given its time of manufacture and how 'little' there is of it,” said the soft voice. “It's almost as effective as what some soldiers wear where you came from.”

“With almost no weight to it, and it's not a wearable oven...” There had to be a catch somewhere, and I knew it. It either didn't do much to high-velocity fragments or bullets, or there was something else that I wasn't sure of, even if the stuff was easy to move around in.

It did work well that way, unlike what many soldiers supposedly wore where I came from – and I suspected they'd toss whatever they used now and use this stuff instead given a choice, even if it didn't work half as well for protection and they had to pay a high price for it for it out of their own pockets.

“No, it actually did help with such missiles,” said the soft voice. “It made such wounds readily survivable, even if a hit ruined that part of the garment and repairing such damage was not easy.” A pause, then, “what it did do was give those trying to make and repair garments using it absolute fits, at least until the specially-modified motorized cutters became common things during the waning years of that war.”

“Scissors?” I asked.

Try poking that stuff with an awl,” said the soft voice. “Your latest ones will barely make a hole in it, even if you put some real force into the blow.”

“That would break one of those things,” said Sepp. “You do not do that with awls, and that no matter who makes them – and that Lukas told me.”

“Then why does he use his to clean ears like he does?” asked Sarah.

“That does not take much work, unless the awl is a bad one,” said Karl. “His are not those things, and they are nearly as sharp as sewing needles, so they just take a bit of poking to go all the way in to the handle.”

“That, however, is not the case with that latest tool steel,” said the soft voice. “You could abuse such an awl and not have it break, and it would penetrate this version of cloth – if you worked at it.” A pause, then, “the updated versions of that cloth need those newer special tools to cut it, unlike this type – which can be cut with powered shears fitted with quick-change blades.” The unspoken portion was 'you'll change a lot of blades if you cut much of it, though, and these blades aren't easy to sharpen'.

“Th-those..?”

“The new devices do not use slicing edges or electric motors,” said the soft voice. “They actually emit a very narrow beam that unravels the molecules and curls them back onto themselves, so firstly, the cloth isn't weakened by cutting the fibers, and then they 'cut' that cloth as fast as one can move them – unlike the motorized cutters, which are slow enough working with that older material to make for fuming in the impatient, presuming one uses good blades and changes them frequently.” Pause, then, “but one trouble, though.”

“Yes, and what is that?” asked Karl.

“Those newer tools produce a very high-pitched screeching noise that causes witches to have fits and pigs to go deaf at a distance of three miles,” said the soft voice, “and what they do to people who are not witches... That, you do not want to know about, unless you want to be tortured worse than being inside of Frankij with Dennis when he was driving rivets his fastest.”

“Why?” I asked. “Earplugs?”

“More like a sound-absorbing suite,” said the soft voice, “and the work itself done in a thick-walled and well-padded room specially set up for cutting the material in question – and both of those things done on top of clothing similar to what is used to do difficult surgery in over there.”

“Then we'd best get some of those things,” said Sepp. I wondered just what he was talking about, at least at first. “Everyone I've talked to could hear you for miles when you were riveting that furnace, and that man Georg is still taking tinctures on account of it.”

“He wakes up hearing cannons?”

“No, he wakes up hearing you riveting, which I think he finds to be worse,” said Sarah. “There. Now this one seems to fit passably.” A pause, then, “Katje, be careful. I might be as small as a girl there, but I do have such things, even if I look to be otherwise for them.”

“That was another reason why I thought it might be unwise for you two to have children,” said Katje. “Now I can use one of these garments, but I had best put labels on it before I get into it, as I cannot see well enough in here to know I'm putting them right otherwise.”

“As small as a girl?” I thought.

“It's rather more and less than you surmised,” said the soft voice. “Rachel, to put it mildly, is about as 'bulgy' as women get here who are not about to give birth, assuming they aren't witches – and both male and female attire is intended for both warmth and concealment, especially in the first kingdom.” A pause, then, “the chiefest issue, though, are the differences in size and much else.”

“What?” I thought.

“The differences in size and build – and muscle mass – are far less between the sexes here compared to where you come from, assuming you are not dealing with witches,” said the soft voice. The term 'sexual dimorphism' took an entire – and somewhat lengthy and clumsy-sounding – sentence to say in this language, hence the usage I was hearing. “Custom, and not capability, restrict women's duties here – as that country had large numbers of women soldiers then, and they were fully as capable as the men were, save in situations where the duties were especially arduous.”

“Especially arduous?” I asked.

“Commonplace front-line duty wasn't nearly that arduous,” said the soft voice. “Only in a bare handful of instances were there enough differences to warrant anything remotely close to what would be thought of as 'sexism' overseas then, and that was the case for those not marked.” A pause, then, “with those marked, such differences in capacity vanished.”

“Then why are women the only ones chosen over there for medical work?” I thought.

“That is a deep and dark secret,” said the soft voice, “and the reasons for doing that have to do with belief, not reality – so you can guess as to what's likely to be involved at some level.”

“Then I can speak of it, possibly,” said Sarah. She looked 'dismally formidable' in her new 'clothing'. I could think of no better language, even if I had 'stolen' the phrase from recollection – at least until I saw where she'd put both of those pistols. Their current locations did not help with the 'formidable' portion of the description. “They have pockets for these things, and they seem to work.”

“Keep looking,” said the soft voice. “There are special 'enclosures' to put those weapons in, though I would look carefully at those before thinking to use them, either here or overseas.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“One of the areas where they really needed to work on such things,” said the soft voice. “To put it mildly, your pistol holsters work better than anything of that nature they came up with during that war, and better than almost anything that is currently available on the continent – and that no matter where it is made or who makes it.”

“They do?” I gasped. My voice was well beyond anything remotely resembling incredulity and into frank disbelief.

“Yes, they do,” said the soft voice – who in reiterating the first comment seemed to remind me of Hans' speech regarding the first one. “They're fully as durable as what they made then, they protect the weapon in question nearly as well, they retain them better – and, they permit quick access should it be needed.” Pause. “The ones they made did the first two well, the third 'passably', and those people had trouble getting the fourth part even close to being right.” A pause, then, “the only area where yours have anything close to a real weakness is their need to be rubbed with 'deodorized tallow' or similar materials once in a while to protect their leather.”

“And that part about getting one's pistol out quick can keep you alive when you've got witches trying for you,” said Sepp. “I think we'd best pass on those things, unless you don't have time to make ones to fit what we're going to use.”

“Or you can carry them like Sarah is doing, which is how most people carried pistols once the 'rumor-mill' got to working hard about how badly the available holsters actually worked in combat,” said the soft voice. “The soldiers on the front lines thought it far better to have a less-secure weapon that could be accessed readily than a weapon that would not get lost if they had to run for it.” Pause, then, “still, though – I would try to make some riveted examples of your holsters if you have the chance before going overseas, as you will want to use pistols a fair amount – and some small bags of suitable rivets arrived recently by donkey-train, so those are not a problem.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “I'll try one of those Tossers to see if it tries to escape my hands, even if I know I'll use these things I have here at least once on the trip.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “You may wish to use one of the smaller pistols, as they, uh, seem fit your hands well.”

Sarah did have small hands. Anna's were an easy half-inch wider – and most women's hands, at least locally, were a bit larger than Anna's, if my eyes didn't tell lies. Rachel, I wasn't sure, even if her fingers were longer than most people's I had seen, and that irrespective of gender.

I knew I had hands that were a little smaller than average for men, even if I suspected I had more grip strength than almost anyone I was likely to meet. My fingers, though – those were the subject of more than one joke, as their short and stubby aspect had needed Georg's 'gossip' to silence the talk regarding them.

Sarah looked at me in the strangest fashion, then reached in another pocket and pulled out one of the pistols in question. It was one of those we had found earlier that had been 'gone over' by Rachel's people. She then looked, and spat, “I knew there had to be cloth here, as there's a lot of big spools of thread right there in these racks, and over here are the rolls of cloth!”

“Not just cloth, either,” said Katje, as she went to the other side of the pallet in question. “This is enough cloth to stock a place up this way that sells it, and then there are...” A screech, then, “this is where I found that rope! There's more of it here, and a lot of it!”

“And thread,” I murmured. “And sewing needles, and some, uh, shears, and...”

“You'll need to hunt for the shears, as between the witches and the theft-leaders for the workers, the shears received about as much looting as anything in here, those knives included, and the shears the witches cached went to dust when that deep-hole went – as all witch-shears were fetishes then and the witches chanted a lot at those they stole.”

“Except the two pair that that expert witch hid in his things,” I murmured. “He didn't chant at his...” I walked to where Katje was, reached down into a region of darkness between two taller-than-common fiberglass bins, and pulled out no less than three pairs of shears, one after another. I handed one of them to Katje. “Now you have a pair of shears you can actually use.”

Katje was stunned, and Sarah was equally stunned when I gave her the second pair. The third pair, I pocketed in what I was wearing. I surmised one of the strange-looking pockets was intended for such tools.

“Those other pairs we can get later,” I murmured. “They'll keep, as I think we have...” I then took out my pair once more, and in the light of a lantern – someone else's lantern; I had put mine out – I looked carefully at them.

“No, I could not make these, not with that stuff on the edges,” I muttered upon seeing what looked a lot like a species of marbled gray-black carbide – carbide that seemed to be 'grown into' the metal, as I could see nothing like silver or copper, nor even a perceptible joint. “Ground all over, almost polished in fact for the handles, and...”

“You'll wish to oil those before using them, as their bearings are dry,” said the soft voice. “A drop of 'motor-oil' each time you pick them up, followed by a careful wiping, and they'll work fine.”

“Why so much oil?” asked Sarah.

“Because their bearings aren't sealed, and the lint from some of that cloth you just found is fairly abrasive, which is why they have special 'hard' edges of a refined species of a material commonly used in metal-cutting inserts then and now,” said the soft voice. The implications were obvious to me: regular cleaning of these shears was a good idea, even more than frequently flushing the 'grit' out of the bearings with motor-oil. “Those will not cut that armor cloth, by the way, even if they will cut anything else of a cloth nature found on the continent, even close-woven double-thick tapestry-cloth.”

“And leather, even if it's from an elk,” I said.

Especially that,” said the soft voice. “Those, as well as one of those tool-kits they have near where you found those scissors, will speed up your leatherworking efforts so much that making things out of leather will take a lot less of your time and effort.”

“Meaning several holsters for new pistols,” I said.

“You may wish to take one of the kits and some rough-cut pieces of hide with you on the trip,” said the soft voice, “and do them during the day or two you'll have to 'rest' for when you get bored.” A pause, then, “you'll wish to look at the tents, but I would not bother taking one of them with you.”

“Why is that?” said Sepp as I began to look for the kit in question. I could tell it was neither small nor particularly easy to find, as while the witches ignored them, the theft-leaders among the workers gave them as much attention as they possibly could. “We won't use a tent?”

“I think not,” squeaked Sarah. “We're going to be going without stopping if we possibly can while at sea, and if that boat goes half as fast as I suspect it will, we will not be days traveling that distance.” She then shown her lantern over where I was looking, and within seconds, I found the bin in question. I was now levering up its handles, as I could tell this bin had seen no one inside it since its original packing, even if the other four like it that had come here had been more or less cleaned out.

“How long, then?” asked Katje. “I know enough about those navigating texts to know they're almost entire lies when it comes to distances.”

The lid came up, and I removed a sizable and somewhat bulky camouflage-colored 'satchel' from among the three that lay within, and saw a button-closed portion on the outside. Sarah looked on with obvious interest as I fumbled earnestly with the button, and I could hear her muttering about people not knowing about buttons and buttonholes.

“Between here and Norden, that's nothing but the truth,” said the soft voice. “Between here and the other kingdom ports – that depends.”

“Depends on..?” I'd gotten the button loose and was now removing a small softbound 'book'. I had a hunch it would be especially useful.

“If you sail a ship that's better used as barn-wood for its better portions and firewood for the balance, do a poor job of sailing it, and only sail 'from the third unto the ninth hour', then the figures given are actually pretty close for how long it can take to travel the distances spoken of,” said the soft voice. “If you've got a 'decent' ship, pay fairly close attention to what you're doing, stick to familiar waters – those where the winds blow strongest, as a rule – and sail from first-dawn to just after dusk, it's readily possible to cut those figures nearly in half.” A pause, then, “if you sail in one of a handful of boats other than the one which deals with those people across the sea, though, then you can cut an added day or more off those figures, as those people don't stop at night.” A pause, then, “they slacken sail just enough to stay out of trouble, which isn't all that much as a rule.”

“And what we shall use?” asked Sarah. She was looking at the book intently, or so I suspected. I knew I was, as seeing 'how to sew and repair clothing and equipment' for a title sounded likely indeed.

“Makes all of those ships seem as if double-anchored at each end, if sailed correctly,” said the soft voice. “If it's not sailed correctly, though – it's best to keep it on dry land and take ship on a common boat, and let someone else who knows what they're doing do the driving.”

“That is true of most ships, though,” said Sarah. “How is this one different, other than it's much smaller and faster?”

“Reaction time,” I said. “This thing might be tame enough if it doesn't have much of a wind going, but if there is a wind, it's going to move.”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “I've seen good sailors work, and those people are neither sluggish nor slow for thinking, not if they wish to cover water quickly – and there's two ships that I know of that demand sailors have a ten-year's time on the water before their masters will speak to them, and I've ridden in one of those ships.”

Those people might manage, given a day's training,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – for most people who sail, that boat's a treacherous deathtrap in any real wind at all.”

“Then why are we taking it?” asked Karl.

“Because you are not sailors,” said the soft voice, “and then, you have need of its speed, and there are no suitable ports for taking common ships closer than your destination – and then finally, while Gabriel is best suited for helping with the slower portions of the voyage, all of the rest of you either are quick enough to avoid trouble with it, or are able to help those who are.”

“That means three of us,” said Sarah.

“No, Karl can do his share of both driving and navigating, provided he's well-rested, pays close attention to what he's doing, and doesn't try to go 'as fast as possible',” said the soft voice. “Only if it really starts to blow will that boat become truly 'dangerous' to handle.”

“Which means me doing the business then, most likely,” I said. “Now am I being presumptuous?”

“No,” said the soft voice. “Remember what you used to drive, and just how tricky it could be when pressed to its limits?”

“What was this?” asked Sarah.

“Something that some few tapestries have only hinted at, and that obliquely,” said the soft voice. “Recall mention of those cursed vehicles you found parts to? Those 'advertisements' you-all have seen?”

Sarah – and I suspect everyone other than me – nodded.

“He could drive one of those,” said the soft voice, “and more, press the vehicle to its absolute limits.”

“N-no,” squeaked Sarah in disbelief. “One of th-those things?”

“It might take him some time to get used to it,” said the soft voice – “or at least, it would have taken him some time to learn its handling traits and other matters important to achieving the vehicle's maximum performance before he came here.” Pause, brief as a breath. “Now it would be different, and not a little different.”

“Cursed fetish would probably blow me up,” I spat. “Stinker would spit rods like a bad snake!”

“Not with you driving it, it wouldn't,” said the soft voice. “More than one marked person stole one of those things and then drove it out of the city and nearly to the southwestern border regions of that country – and while they were driving it, no one – and I mean no one – could catch them. Only if they were being followed by aircraft could they be kept up with, and that if they kept to the 'main' highways.” A pause, then, “they usually didn't, which meant they would drive at or near the vehicle's top speed until they could 'ditch' the thing close enough to the border so as to not alert the border guards due to the engine noise.” Another pause, then, “they'd cross during the earliest hours of darkness, and usually be 'long gone' by first morning light.”

“Just like firing one of those accursed fetish-grade machine-guns,” I muttered. “Now where are those things in here?”

“Not in this area,” said the soft voice. “You've got about ten minutes until you'll need to spend some time in that privy, so I would get things organized as much as you can in this area so the others can do what they can do while you're in there.”

“And you will wish to keep breathing what you are using,” said Sarah. “If I must spend time in that stinky place, I will wish the use of one also.”

While Sarah and I 'made ready' – me getting the vest off, mostly – I gave instructions to Katje as to what to look over, and more, what to watch out for as being especially needful. While I thought I had been thorough enough in what I had said, I could feel – this plainly, even as I squirted repeatedly while sitting on the stool and all but moaned in the darkness – that I might as well have been speaking a totally foreign language, one needing a different mind and different thought-processes so as to comprehend my speech; and that nothing of note would be done while I was gone. I soon learned the truth of the matter when I heard Sarah faintly yelling.

“I thought so,” I muttered. “I need to be out there every single minute so as to keep them out of trouble...”

“Katje could not read your notes,” said the soft voice, “and while she did hear you, and that clearly, she's almost totally lost as to what's needed for the trip.”

“Which was just what I was afraid of,” I muttered.

“Sepp has a much better idea, and Sarah's yelling because she's having trouble getting out of that harness,” said the soft voice. “Both of those two men are learning very fast about important matters that will be crucial during the trip and after, and both Maarten and Katje are getting some swift lessons about 'fighting thugs' from what they're seeing being gathered.” A pause, then, “still, you will have to straighten matters out to some degree, so your time in here isn't 'wasted utterly'.”

“I needed to go badly anyway,” I squeaked, as another gout of 'hot-smelling' dung came out. “Why is it I can smell this stuff so readily?”

“That is something unique to those who have 'strong markings',” said the soft voice, “though when Sarah tries this privy, she'll get an idea of what you speak of when you mention still being able to smell matters.”

I finished my 'spewing' and resumed my clothing; and the minute I went out of that 'black hole', Sarah went inside. I had not gone three steps from the door when I heard muttering, this being, “I am glad he's getting help soon, as this stink is worse than that time I rode a smelly mule!”

“Me?” I thought, as I moved toward 'the gathering mess'.

“Not just you, even if your 'stench' is much of what she's smelling,” said the soft voice. “She is right about needing help, though.”

The 'mess', however, was mostly a matter of a quick checking-over of what had been haphazardly put aside and then a quick loading of a cart, this full enough to make Maarten grunt when he got it moving. Katje yelled after him to dose its bearings with oil as he vanished into the darkness with that one turned-down tent-lantern to light his way and the rope someone had paid out for a guide, and as I continued to 'gather' small and medium-sized thread-spools and stuff them into one of the larger pouches I had emptied of rust, I could hear quick steps coming from the direction of the privy.

“Best let her do this part,” I thought, as I put the thread-pouch aside for Sarah. “She knows this stuff better than I do.” I then found a sizable 'tin' of needles, and stuffed it in the pouch. I knew something about those.

“Were it thread made here, that would indeed be the case,” said the soft voice. “Your selection, while quite useful both here and overseas, will cause her no end of confusion between what is in that sewing kit and how that thread behaves.” A pause, then, “at least, it will do that for a short time.”

“The colors?” I asked. I did not ask about the needles, even if I wondered if bright-needles were really that much better than the several sizes and types of the 'common' ones I had some small store of in my workbench. I thought to borrow one of Sarah's 'bright-needles' and try sewing some cloth with it, in fact – as Sarah had understated the cost-difference, if I went by what I had learned by asking those people I had seen. Lukas had been especially outspoken, and said he didn't bother hunting up 'them things what cost like they're made out o' glass-blower's wire'.

Then again, he didn't sew for a living, and Sarah did. In her case, the slight lessening of drag when sewing a mass of common fabric into a garment might well cut hours off of a long and tedious job – hours that most likely added up when one sewed for a living and had to walk long distances between paying jobs as Sarah had needed to.

“You probably did better than I could,” said Sarah as she came up. “I left that mask outside the door for whoever must use that thing next, as while you made it smell terribly, I did not help it much.”

Mr. and Mrs. Stinker,” I thought. “We could pass for stinkers, at least in one way.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Neither of you smell that bad – and 'wind' is a common trouble overseas, so much so that jokes are endemic about it.”

“What?” I asked. “Poor diet?”

“Their diet makes what Sepp dished up seem an utter delicacy,” said the soft voice, “and that for both its flavor and its tendency toward 'griping' – and 'griping' due to bad food is a major problem over there among the 'commons', one for which there's little treatment currently available and less-yet excuse permitted.”

“That...”

“I found the tents,” said Katje, “and while they do look likely, I am not sure I think it wise to use them much.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“You'd need to hide these things in a haystack to not get witches onto you,” said Katje, “either that, or hide them good in a woodlot.”

“They usually did,” said the soft voice, “and that for the reasons that occurred to you.”

“Because the witches would see them especially?” I asked. “Especially those shiny metal poles?”

“Those went inside the tent, so they didn't show, and that fabric is camouflage-print,” said the soft voice. “Now, think. What attracts witches?”

“Anything that looks different from which they themselves think they wish to see,” I said, “which means to show a tent anywhere in the first kingdom means 'you're going to have a mob chain you up and soak you with distillate before putting the torches to you'.”

“While that would not happen now, due to the scarcity of witches and supplicants,” said the soft voice, “the results of using those tents during that war were such that they were taken home quickly and their fabric used to make smaller items.” A pause, then, “they used common gray-green cloth afterward for what tents they made, as it showed up a lot less; and within a short time after that, they usually 'mud-washed' the tents after assembling them unless they could hide them especially well – and mounds of brush smeared liberally with mud, especially in 'torn up' terrain, worked well for disguising them.”

“Infrared emissions,” I muttered.

“No, not just that,” said the soft voice. “Think again. How many things do you commonly see in or around woodlots that look like small houses? Even if they're a dappled green-brown color?”

“N-none,” I muttered. That one witch-hut had been the sole exception I had actually seen thus far, as Hans' talk of those things being used by 'tramps' had been corrected by Sarah's speech on the matter – and more, she never went close to such 'witch-sheds', as she had called them.

“The witches then had ways of seeing anything that looked 'man-made',” said the soft voice, “and the ones today, while they don't have that capacity, until recently did have both a substantial degree of familiarity with their immediate territories and the 'free time' and numbers to spend a lot of time looking their environment over on a regular and frequent basis.”

A pause, then, “and while witches like to use woodlots for camouflage, and are commonly fairly careless about what they do in those places they have located inside them, that black book does have a sizable chapter-group in it about 'how to be invisible in plain sight' – and between that and the 'gossip' handed down from arch-witch to arch-witch over many years, they tend to blend in fairly well unless they're either especially brazen or unusually careless.”

“Or drunk as stinkers,” I muttered.

“No, those sober witches are the ones that have historically located and planned out such sites, which is one reason why witches have remained so well-hidden for so long in the five kingdoms.” A pause, then, “only demonstrating uncommonly brazen behavior or unusual carelessness caught them out in most places on the continent, at least until very recently.”

“How recent is that?” asked Sarah.

“Since about a month after he came here,” said the soft voice. “The gossip that's currently going around in witch-circles nowadays is driving a lot of witches headlong into those newly-available drugs, not just those coach-drivers that are 'getting used to' being 'higher'.”

Higher?” I asked.

“One of those words that became common to describe witches once the battle started in earnest here,” said the soft voice. “The word 'High' as used to describe part-rotten meat is a distant descendant of what they said of witches then, as are a number of other names and terms you'll learn in the days to come.”

“And hence they will be...” I gasped. “No wonder they'll be shooting at everything that moves! They'll be so stinking paranoid from taking that stuff that they'll see someone wanting to kill them behind every bush and tree, and twice that for every house-door!”

“Not quite that paranoid, but they will become much more so, compared to how they were before so indulging,” said the soft voice. “They aren't being dosed like blue-suited thugs overseas, so the effects won't be quite as profound, and then those drugs are both fairly costly and somewhat scarce still.”

“Somewhat scarce?” I asked.

“The witches wish them to be as readily available as the common flavor of forty-chain is in a fifth kingdom mining town,” said the soft voice, “and they're currently about as common where they are being sold as 'prime datramonium' is right now in the first kingdom.” A pause, then, “then again, their suppliers are just 'priming the pump' right now, so those drugs will become much more common very soon, and then 'competition' between suppliers – once other manufacturers join in – will drive down the price rapidly.”

“P-prime datramonium?” I asked. I wondered at that term, even if I had some ideas about what would happen to the 'massing witches' that would be coming up here. Those drugs might be costly now, but these witches had money to burn – and hence they bought them as fast as those selling made them available. Making them more available would only spread that particular net of idiocy and foolhardiness wider – and it sounded like it would become much wider fairly quickly.

“I can speak about that,” said Sarah. “If one wishes to have datramonium that is fit for conjuring, supposedly, one wishes the stuff to grow in either a hot and dry climate, or one that is much colder than here, and the first kingdom is neither of those things, hence the local stuff isn't thought to be much.” A pause, then, “at least, that was what I've read in those tales and on those tapestries that speak of it, and that does not count what I have heard when witches have spoken of the matter.”

“Then why is – no, was – that stuff so common in the area?” It needed skill and knowledge to find datramonium in much of the first kingdom now, as almost all of the 'usual' bushes had been doused liberally with lye – and lye didn't just kill the entire plant within a day or so.

It also made the dead plant's leaves worthless for witchdom's usage. Since datramonium seeds didn't easily germinate save in a near-perfect environment – even Norden had trouble sprouting them – that meant cuttings had to be first rooted and then hand-carried to their carefully-selected planting sites, which meant the first kingdom's supplies of 'domestic' datramonium would be 'far-down' for some years.

Or in more-realistic terms, datramonium would be a permanently scarce commodity in the first kingdom, as witchdom didn't have that much time remaining, and datramonium didn't grow 'rapidly' until it was well-established – which usually took at least a year in a good climate, which the first kingdom did not have.

“Firstly, Norden's people have brought rooted cuttings with them over the course of many years, so as to have ample supplies for their spy-groups,” said the soft voice. “Everyone over there who isn't a Thinker tends to chew the stuff regularly as well as drink datramonium tincture when they can, so those spy-groups needed to both plant a fair amount of it in their areas of operation as well as harvest the stuff – and they did both of those things as regularly as they stole food or killed game.” A pause, then, “and while it's poor stuff compared to what grows at Norden, it does keep them 'trashed' enough to stay 'well'.” Another pause, then, “finally, not all covens in the first kingdom had sufficient money to get 'fifth-kingdom datramonium', much less 'the good stuff', hence many of the small-timers grew and cured their 'own', with Norden-planted bushes being preferred for harvesting when and where they could be located.”

“And now all of those people have trouble,” said Sepp. “I put lye to three datramonium bushes myself since the Hall went where it belongs, and I know of lots of other people who've done as much.”

“Norden's people are having trouble that way,” said the soft voice. “Most of their plants have died, and hence only those plants that are especially well-hid still live.” A pause, then, “those immigrating witches each have bags of the stuff in their satchels and more such bags in the coach-boots, as they think to sell 'the good stuff' – as grown and sold in the fifth kingdom – to those witches that still live up here.”

“Few takers for it, though,” I said.

“Yes, now,” said the soft voice. “There's a very good reason that one big group and most of the other witches coming here believe they can easily get three or more supplicants for every witch, and that's because there still remains a fair number of people who can be readily swayed toward witchdom's ways given sufficient inducement of the right kind.”

“Where we live?” asked Sarah.

“There, no,” said the soft voice. “The only thing those coming witches want to do with Roos is turn it into a huge smoking hole in the ground, and the same for a number of other towns as well in the central portion of the first kingdom, as they know they'll receive nothing but hot lead in those locations.”

“They'll have trouble doing that, won't they?” I asked. “They don't know about doctored Benzina – or do they?”

“No, but they do know about mining dynamite, and they're bringing plenty of that with them, hence they think to drop off boxes of the dripping-with-oil stuff along the main street of those towns they wish to destroy, top each such box with two or more jugs of distillate, and then put a long fuse to the last such placement in the row – and then leave in a hurry once that fuse is lit.”

“They'll get blown up if they try that,” said Sepp. “Someone will put a bullet into one of those things...”

“Then they'll all go up one after another, and the exact same thing results,” said the soft voice, “which is why those particular witches will be 'dosed heavily' with both drink and those drugs, so they'll do exactly what they're told with no thoughts whatsoever in their minds beyond following such orders exactly.”

“Expendables, namely,” I muttered. “Now our next thing...” I paused, then picked up the moved-aside lid of a chest-high fiberglass bin, it being the fourth one on the stack in question. “What are these doing here?”

“They misplaced the smaller and larger sample pouches,” said the soft voice. “The ones most commonly used for 'toxic materials' are the size you found originally, and those are the only ones currently inventoried overseas.” A pause, then, “they still make all three sizes, however, even if the medium size is the only one made still in real numbers.”

While some of each size of pouch were being collected up – the larger size looked about right for putting firebombs inside so as to 'coddle them', and the smaller variety good for 'coddling' a trio of grenades, with both pouches easily carried by their 'carrying straps', I was after the next thing in this area. A step to the right, a tall – this untouched by witch or theft-group – stack, and I pulled down one after another of the uppermost bins, these all of fiberglass and having definite 'doubled-six' markings prefaced by 'MILNO' molded into their lids and sides.

“Must have just got out of the laboratory,” I muttered, as I began popping the latches. “What is that smell?”

“Cloth-preservative, which is in a purple-lettered packet similar to the ones you've found for metal. It may off-gas a lot less than the metal stuff does, but given the time it's been confined in here, it's had a chance to do that enough to make for a strange smell.”

“Smells like, uh, some of Anna's spices, the ones that came home from that latest trip,” I said.

“She has enough of most of them now that she will not need to spend another entire day getting spices anytime soon,” said Sarah, “and somehow, I rather doubt she will ever do so again.”

“How is it you know that?” said Katje.

“Because something will happen to all of us,” said Sarah. “I recall something about one dream I had recently, and I did not much care for it.”

“What, dear?” I asked.

“There is much that I cannot recall of my childhood, especially the earlier portions,” she said, “but this showed me what it actually was like, and a great deal more than that as well, almost as if I had to give an account before God where nothing whatsoever was hidden from either him or me.”

“They discerned much of that information when you bathed, dear, and it was not held against you in the slightest,” said the soft voice. “In fact, it redounded to your benefit, as nearly anyone else would have become unfit for what you're about to do.”

“Including me,” I muttered. I was getting an idea as to what this might have been. Evil stepparents could be great trouble, and that was if they were merely 'evil' and not frankly murderous like my 'first' stepfather or younger brother. I'd read about being 'pursued with drawn sword' in the book some years before he actually did what I had merely read of earlier, and that shotgun and lead-loaded club of my stepfather's were just waiting for an excuse to be used.

“Not like what you had,” said the soft voice. “Had she endured what you did, she would have died by the time she was ready to leave the lower schools, and more, she could – and did with great frequency – escape to the safety of her relatives. You had no such option, and had you attempted leaving, you would have been killed by slow torture by that man, as he would have forgotten all of his trickery and his sadism would have then become the foremost thing in his mind.”

“I thought so,” said Katje. “I hope those witches don't mind going to Brimstone's dinner plate in vast swarms, as anyone who endured forty years at a place fully as bad as Berky during its worst time isn't going to be one...” Katje looked at me, and then seemed to faint. “That's why you're so sick. You spent forty years in the closest thing to hell that exists outside of the place itself!”

“And Berky, while it thought itself to be hell upon this planet, did not deign to live up to that place's evil,” said Sarah, “for that place would have devoured both those witches and their slaves, and that quickly.”

Sarah then bent down to look at what I was 'pawing through', and removed one of the packets. The thing was, as seemed usual, 'camouflaged', and when she opened the slim pouch, the amount of 'clothing' she pulled out of it seemed a complete marvel. It folded down to almost nothing, much like a 'smock' Mrs. Ulyanov had sewn for me to wear over my clothing for when it rained and I needed to ride my bicycle, this during periods of unemployment when saving money took precedence over saving time. Rain, at least during the lengthy winters in that place, was not at all rare; and a quickly-donned garment of compact-folding nature was a real plus. The thing's color helped some also, as she'd picked that color especially so as to help when I strayed from the roads and traveled along the narrow 'bush' tracks between paved routes to save time and avoid harassment.

“This is a larger size,” she said. “Look in there for a female's small, if there is one to be found.”

I began looking once more, but within moments, I had help, this by everyone who could fit themselves into the small space where the original three bins and several more were on the floor. It took Katje to find one fit for Sarah, who by the time I'd found the ones for 'male large', had me turn to see Sarah 'completely kitted out' in 'sleeves', a green-brown-gray face-covering that showed nothing save her eyes, and another garment covering all else that went nearly to her feet, this being a special 'cloak' of an oddly conformal nature. I thought to touch the fabric – and then hugged her unabashedly, rubbing my face against her head.

“You feel lovely in that, dear,” I said. The cloth was delightful to feel, even in my gloves. It was not 'hard' like ripstop nylon, but much 'softer' – which I imagined helped its camouflage capacity to no small degree.

“How?” asked Sarah, as I unclenched her.

“It's very, uh, 'slippery', just like that one fabric that I was asking those witches to receive,” I asked. “That has an even better feel to it than this.” I then had a question. “Those female witches?”

“Have either shot themselves or have taken poison, with almost no exceptions,” said the soft voice, “and the sole exception cut the clothing off of herself with a knife.” Pause, then, “she won't last long, not with how much she sliced herself with that thing, and her 'keeper' tied her hand and foot before wrapping her in a thick and muffling laced-up up fabric 'sleeve'.”

“And that wretch is now en-route to the nearest witch-hole so as to sacrifice that 'traitor to the cause',” I muttered. “That sort of behavior is not acceptable in witchdom, man or woman, and the others did the appropriate things for those chosen as 'Brimstone's special meat'.” A pause, then, “witches do not tolerate failure of any kind, especially when you're that high up.”

“That can be said for nearly all witches today, regardless of ranking or income-status,” said the soft voice. “All sizes of that black book speak at length of how failure to perform in any aspect, no matter how slight, demonstrates conclusively that any person not measuring up to the will of his or her superior has 'become evil, and is therefore Disgraced, and that by their knowing and willful choice'.”

“Witches think that of everyone not them,” said Sarah, as she began to remove her camouflage clothing. “Karl, you want this stuff to fit you especially well, and we will wish its use until we are most of the way south.”

“Until you're well within an hour's easy sailing of the port, in fact,” said the soft voice, “as that boat, when traveling at a decent speed, makes for damp traveling.”

“Unless it's 'flying',” I said. “It isn't damp then.”

“Yes, but then it will be very cold due to the wind, and that clothing blocks wind as well as rain,” said the soft voice.

“How will it be cold that far south?” asked Sarah.

“Because then you will be traveling as fast as a wood-pigeon,” said the soft voice. “You'd best dose Gabriel good before you try that, as he will not enjoy such a ride.” The unspoken portion, I could surmise readily: Gabriel needed something to happen to him of a truly serious nature before he'd accept traveling much faster than the 'commonplace' speeds on land or water, and forget imitating a low-flying aircraft – as only witches were permitted such things, and he knew that better than almost anyone who yet remained in the house proper – or indeed, in most of the first kingdom's central region.

I then knew the area in question was bigger than what I had thought it to be, and Gabriel's attitude, for one supposedly not inclined toward becoming a witch, was most likely worse than I thought. It made for my next question.

“Dose him with what?” I asked. “A lead-loaded club, or an entire tube of Sarah's latest batch?”

“When you make up some more of that stuff, make two more vials of her mixture, and let those vials be large ones well-padded with rags and placed in leather pouches plainly labeled as to their contents,” said the soft voice, “and then make up a much smaller vial, one containing much more of the bull-formula and three times as much of the tincture for pain.”

“And I shall dose him with that stuff, so that he does not cause us trouble when matters become overly frightening,” said Sarah. “He will sleep as if Anna were to do surgery on him, almost.”

“No, not quite, even if he will be deeply asleep and remain so 'for the duration',” said the soft voice. “Anna's dosing of people that way takes no small amount of skill, and more than once during her early years in medicine, she had to douse a person's body with aquavit and set them alight so they didn't die.” A pause, then, “read the manual for that clothing which is found in the center container of the first three containers he took down – it's near the bottom. It's another 'early escape' written by people who were then dealing with those people from Norden.”

I found the article in question, even as Sarah helped Katje and then Maarten get themselves into such camouflage clothing. Unlike the others in the group, they'd be able to use such clothing almost daily while we were gone, as it would help them get around without being observed during their trips to and from the nearest towns; and more, they could now travel armed without it being obvious to any watch-witches in the area provided they were so clothed.

The clothing would go in their packs as soon as they came close to a town, and their weapons, these then in plain sight, would most likely be taken as 'short muskets' of a strange species. It was well-known in the area that I had done some of those weapons for the house proper, and I did experiment with guns and other weapons – hence they had inbuilt 'plausible deniability', at least in the short term.

The manual in question – again, nonprofessional-looking, the cover done with 'felt-tip pen and crayon' in ragged-looking bleeding-into-one-another stripes, with a slick and shiny plastic-feel surface – was thicker than the last one. This example was mostly pictures, save for about three pages of text. The text spoke of the light-trapping nature of what was named 'semi-active' camouflage, with one of the smaller pictures showing how the weave of the cloth, as well as the paint-like nature of the dyes, actually 'caught' certain discrete colors of light to a varying degree, depending upon the intensity of that light. It made sense, even if the explanation seemed convoluted, with a distinct aura of 'we barely have an idea as to how this works, so this is the current theory'.

The second and third pages dealt with how and where to use such camouflage clothing, this being in low-light conditions and preferentially in forested regions, where it not merely helped the wearer to blend into the background, but seemingly affected the vision of the observer such that the wearer seemed to be harder to locate precisely. That portion segued into an addendum upon the last page, this faintly overstamped with a series of dot-separated pinkish-red letters on a green-flecked background that I could barely make out.

That was not the case for Sarah: “that meant they were trying to keep it a secret, supposedly.”

“Tapestries?” I asked.

“The one I had to bathe for,” said Sarah. “Now... They were trying to make this stuff work better, or so it seems, though how to make it change like that of some strange fourth-kingdom lizard I've seen three or four times is beyond me.”

“Lizard?” I asked. “I've never seen one – here or there.”

“There, I am not surprised, as they hide so well you need to not merely be in an area where they are very common, but also know when, where, and what to look for,” said Sarah. “Lizards only show themselves up here during periods when it's relatively warm, so I'm not surprised you haven't seen one.”

“Those things hide good,” said Karl. “I have only seen one of them.”

“You've not looked very hard, then,” said Sarah. “If you look at the walls in back of houses on the sunny sides during the morning hours of the beginning parts of summer, they aren't hard to find if you move quietly and slowly.”

“And the rest of the year?” I asked.

“They tend to stay in those walls a lot more,” said Sarah, “and when it is cool enough to be want warm clothing again, they're more or less not to be found, save in a very few places.” A pause, then, “I've found two such places in this part of the first kingdom, both of them near well-hidden springs that are warm year-round.” Pause, then, “I have bathed in them many times, though I was careful to not foul such springs with soap.”

“Do they winter there?” asked Katje.

“I think some do, but most of them either eat themselves fit to burst upon insects and then sleep the cold season in the ground, or I suspect they crawl inside of homes,” said Sarah. “I've not seen one in a home, but I have found signs of them being present many times.”

My reading of the very last paragraph upon page three, though, hinted obliquely of some 'better' and more capable camouflage clothing under development. For some reason, however, I suspected strongly that the writers of this document were privy to some of that secret research involving the increased capacity of those who had been 'repaired' by medical technology, and that provided much of the increased capacity for hiding.

“Absolutely true,” said the soft voice. “The writers were told no more than what you are reading there, and that was before 'the wall of secrecy' came down in earnest.” Pause, then, “once that happened, no one knew anything more than absolutely necessary to do their assigned tasks, with the ostensible reason being denying the enemy information if and when people were captured.” I clearly heard the emphasis upon that word 'ostensible', and knew that there was more to the matter than what those hearing such words were actually told – something about ignorant subjects being easier to rule.

“Those people didn't capture their enemies,” said Sarah. “If they did, they killed them by eating them while still alive.”

“And asking them questions between sawing off portions of fresh meat,” said the soft voice. “Between effectual curses, various 'seasonings' – drugs, to be precise, these to increase the pain and suffering of the person being both sacrificed and devoured – and some very sophisticated data-collection facilities, those soldiers the witches captured while still in a position to speak tended to yield up what information they happened to possess – hence it soon became a command necessity to keep them as much in the dark about all matters as was possible.”

“And they tended to kill themselves if they had the chance,” I muttered. At least that seemed the case if what I had been told about saving one's last bullet for oneself regarding Tosser pistols.

“True, many did,” said the soft voice, “but not all of them had the opportunity or the courage to do so – and those people died slowly while under torture.”

“Probably put the screws to those hearing their screams,” I muttered.

“Yes, when they could be heard,” said the soft voice. “The witches usually did their business of that nature during their specified mealtimes, and their meals were usually well out of earshot of the enemy.”

“Mealtimes?” I asked.

“Those were at night, if one speaks of the witches of that time,” said Sarah. “Those that were not full witch-soldiers ate but once a day, as they thought fighting on an empty stomach gave them strength.” Sarah thought this utter foolishness, and I was inclined to agree. We then heard the truth.

“Among those yet weak among them, yes,” said the soft voice. “There weren't many of those people in the beginning, and they usually became meals for the stronger witches within a matter of days of their arrival, at least until the Mistress of the North began running matters entirely.”

A pause, this to emphasize those changes enacted by that enigmatically-strange and hideously-cruel woman so as to win her battles at any and all costs.

“Then, meals only happened during the hours of darkness, they were all ceremonial in nature, and those witches did fight better on an empty stomach, due to their being sustained to a far greater degree by their steadily-enlarging droves of indwelling spirits.” A further pause, then, “that basic idea, while it is present in the larger black books, is conveniently ignored in most locations upon the continent.”

Another pause, then: “it is not ignored overseas, and the long-standing rule for blue-suited thugs is but one meal a day, at least during their training period and their initial assignments.”

“Those thugs that go beyond that level learn to eat more often,” I said.

“True, they do,” said the soft voice. “Most of those thugs that no longer dress that way eat as is the usual for those they mingle among so as to blend in better.”

“And next, we have those pistol holsters we were told about as to their tendencies to cause trouble,” I murmured, “and while that is true enough, there are other things of a worthwhile nature in those pallets' bins.”

“What would these be?” asked Sepp. Karl had gone back to fetch another cart, and in the process learn what was keeping Maarten from a speedy return.

“Belt-pouches, for one thing,” I said softly, “and then these strange quick-buckling belts of some kind that can pass for elk-leather but aren't that stuff, and...”

“I hope they are not rotten-leather,” said Sarah. I wondered what she meant, at least until I recalled hearing of 'bad' leather at home regarding belts. That stuff sounded like what Sarah was speaking of.

“We have not seen anything of leather down here,” said Sepp, “unless we brought it our-own-selves, and none of that stuff is rotten. I rub mine every ten days by the count with that tallow doesn't stink, and I use a peg-board and carved pins to tell me when it is ten days past – and Karl rubs his whenever he sees me doing so, and with the same stuff I use.”

“Peg-board and p-pins?” I asked. I had wondered, this on a number of occasions, just how people who were most-busy with non-farming matters kept track of time from one day to the next.

I could not do so to save my life, and I usually needed either Anna or Hans telling me ahead of time when a rest-day happened so as to get my clothing laid out and ready for 'church-day' the evening of that rest-day.

“That's the only way I know of that you can tell when you're not a farmer and out in the fields a lot,” said Sepp. “They may have better ways elsewhere, but getting those things done is no trouble.”

“That may be true, but up here it needs you knowing of a good carpenter's shop,” retorted Sarah.

“Those people who do boats have some people who've made lots of them,” said Sepp, “and that's the best carpentry-shop up this way, if what I have heard is the truth.” He turned, then yelled into the darkness, “Karl! Get onto Maarten and tell him to move his rump back here as if he was hot-dancing on falling bricks!”

“What?” I gasped. This time, I could not keep the surprise out of my voice, try as I might.

“What happened at the hall,” said Sepp. “Now that will be in our old tales, and they will be a right match for those tales what most everyone knows good. Give them a year, if that, and then everyone will know about that mess and how bad it was.”

“The witches already do,” said Katje, “and...”

Katje had stopped speaking, for I had found what I had been after: the trio of pallets, these replete with the 'gear of war', and as I began to pull down fiberglass bins with an assurance that seemed overwrought with presumption, I heard faint murmurings that steadily increased in volume. After the tenth such bin – it was a lot heavier than any fiberglass bin I'd hefted yet, so much so that I wondered just what it had inside it – I turned around to hear speech of such peculiarity that it made me wonder if we all needed to wear oxygen masks while down here.

I did not wonder about the two quick-coming carts. Maarten had been 'affected' by intense hunger, as well as thirsty once he'd gotten his stint of cart-hauling done, and he'd been dosing himself with beer and a slice of bread when Karl found him.

“No, that thing wasn't a slice of bread, but closer to half a loaf, and that with cheese put on with a big spoon,” said Karl. “Now I heard talk of belts over this way when I was going after him, and I have had enough of rotten-leather to last me a ten-year, so I hope these are better.”

“The stuff that is – no, was done – where you live, correct?” I asked. This one was a stretch for me. “The place smells like he stabled stinky mules in it...”

Karl looked at me in horror, then nodded slowly.

“And if you'd looked closer... No, that's not an easy trick, either. He had these tall walls of part-dressed wooden poles, each of them as big as the upper part of my arm for the thinner ends, and behind them thick rock walls done up with lots of mortar...”

“Karl, that wretch was no tanner,” spat Sarah. “You were getting your leather from a well-hid witch, as I've been by that place enough to know about it.” Then, in lower voice, “I've a mind to put some soot on that wretch in town, as he must be using recipes out of the black book for what he does.”

“Close in concept, even if that man wants nothing to do with witchdom,” said the soft voice. “To put it mildly, enough tanners have had witches for masters while being apprenticed that good leather tends to either need unusual care in its selection...”

“Or no mule-dung in the vats that take the hair off,” I spluttered. “Only pig-slime is worse for ruining that stuff, and then cleaning leather with bad lye makes it grab and hold onto dirt worse than anything.”

“And rouge-paste, and the other materials used for buffing,” said the soft voice. “Tan-bark is scarce enough up here that you'll be glad when those people come with their materials.”

“Tan-bark?” I asked. “Needs to be, uh, pulverized in a big mortar and pestle, cooked over a slow fire in an oven to a crumbly dryness before it gets boiled, then a slow fire under the vats with the bark being thick enough in those things to make them look as if they'd eat spoons.”

“Which is how leather is done in the better fourth kingdom shops,” said Sarah. “Should he do worse than he's done recently, I've a mind to fetch my own tan-bark and cook my own hides.” A pause, then, “I know where some of those trees are up here, and while they aren't that common, I can find more of them easily enough.”

“And Hans scrapes hides well,” I said. “Now, a little potash in that 'stew' – you want it nearly as thick as Anna's stew when she's run short of marmot or dried meat and is using potatoes to substitute for the meat – then, perhaps a dilute solution of slow-boiling lye for a half-turn of a glass afterward...”

“I think I had best set with you for an hour after this mess with my ledger in hand and three close-sharpened writing dowels, as you're speaking of matters that I've but suspected and could never prove.”

“About what?” asked Maarten. He was out of breath, and was next to Katje as Sepp showed her how to first feel around a bin for 'trapping' and then open it easily.

“About how leather suitable for sealing joints is done,” said Sarah. “It works for much more than just seals in machinery – it works well in general, and the only reason they don't go to that much trouble for all leather things down there is...”

“Ignorance, cost, and speed,” I muttered. “Ignorance, as even the central portion of the fourth kingdom has a lot of ignorant tanners...”

“Those tanners who are not witches, yes,” said the soft voice. “Ignorance, however, is most-common for those running tan-works on the continent.”

“Cost, because time is money and some of those supplies aren't cheap,” I said, as I continued pulling boxes. It was making me wish for a small 'evidence camera', one like the one that I had used for keeping track of what I did to those things I worked on before coming here. It was a discontinued model, one of those rare chances that came my way perhaps once a year during the better years, and while it was small, it was passable for capability. “Then, doing leather right, especially if it's thick stuff like what larger elk have, takes a while to do, so it's commonly stinted as to time and the stuff goes rotten in a hurry.”

“Your information will take the time portion of the matter and trim it markedly,” said the soft voice. “However, if you can find 'tanning salts' over there, it will produce leather unlike any seen here since the war.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“The common means of tanning produces a stiffer leather, unless one works warmed tallow or a mixture of beeswax and tallow into it with an oven-warmed 'shoemaker's copper',” said the soft voice, “and the only alternatives at this time are to do what you did to your gloves, if you wish gloves that work well.” A pause, then, “imagine hide the thickness of a winter-deer's that's soft, supple, tough, and nearly any color you might wish – including patterned colors that neither move nor fade readily.”

“We might want that,” I muttered, as I came to a bin. This one wasn't all that heavy, and when I dropped it to the floor, I levered its lid up right away. The sight that greeted me was stunning.

“No, I think not,” I said solemnly. “These things look good enough for 'ceremonies', and are worthless for fighting.” I then squeaked, “what did I say?”

“Some of the witches hid their 'gun-holders' in here,” said the soft voice, “as it seemed a good place to prevent their theft – and your take on how those actually worked is giving them credit they do not deserve.”

“What are they, fetishes?” asked Sarah. She was moving rapidly, or as rapidly as could be managed given the preponderance of floor-blocking bins that lay in the aisles around the three pallets. “I can tell these belts are not those, even if they are the strangest things I have ever seen, and they look and feel too much like leather for me to tell the difference.”

“They are not leather,” intoned Katje. “This card names them woven, and they don't go rotten, they stand water well, and...”

Katje's voice was drowned out by Sarah reaching my side, and when she took one look at what I had found, she turned aside and spat as if she'd had lessons from Lukas. “I-I've s-seen p-p-pictures of that stuff there, and only a witch would wish such things.”

“Then why is this stuff not glowing red?” I asked. “Was it merely 'nominally' cursed – copies of 'the bad stuff' made in the green area by people who needed 'hard' currency and knew that making this stuff was one of the few reliable ways they had of getting it?”

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and the witches handling it died hundreds of years ago, so it's good for note-taking on what not to do, and that for leather or any other materials that might come to mind.” A pause, then, “I'd look at them briefly, then toss a cloth-preservative pouch in that bin with them and close the lid, afterward marking it with chalk as being 'evidence'.”

“Why, other than what we might learn from them?” asked Sarah – who then showed me what looked to be a plastic-and-cloth pistol holster, one that looked at once alien-looking and yet familiar in its slightly mottled gray-green 'splattered' with brighter and darker green flecks. It made me hope to find an airbrush, or failing that, make one. I recalled to some degree how they worked, having had a pair of them at one time.

That scheme of camouflage would work well today,” I said. “I think we could do that one easily.”

Sarah looked at me, then nodded – until she attempted to remove a recently-inserted Tosser pistol from the thing. The pistol had been setting a while in a can, if I went by its seeming film of faint 'varnish', while the holster seemed 'just-made'. The pistol did not wish to come out, and only with a faint muttered oath and about thirty seconds of pulling, shifting, tugging, and then a final jerk did the weapon come free.

“You'd be dead ten times over with a hungry holster like that one,” said Sepp laconically. “I'll stick to his, at least for the holsters. These belts are strange enough for a headache, even if they feel so much like good elk-leather that I can't tell them apart 'cept for the colors they have.”

“Uh, not that usual nice brown color that comes with rubbed-in tallow-and-beeswax?” I asked.

Sepp nodded, then said, “no, it's green – and not a solid green, but that black-edged three-shades-of-green that can't make up it's mind as to what color it wishes to be.”

“Do they work, though?” I asked.

“They do,” said Katje. “There are three sizes of them, and I'll wish two for me and three for Maarten, as he tends to lose belts unless they are tied to his trousers.”

“Given that most trousers don't have belt-loops here, I'm not surprised,” I thought. “Mine do, at least the cloth ones, but that's because they're either greens or Sarah's made them to the same or similar patterns.” I then screeched, this audibly: “what?”

“Trousers, at least in the fourth kingdom, use belt-loops to hold one's belt where it belongs,” said the soft voice, “and if she knew how to drive leather-rivets passably, she'd do them of leather, same as they're commonly done down there.” A pause, then, “she did copy down the dimensions the house proper used and changed them slightly for a better fit, which is why your more-recent greens are better than your earlier ones.”

“Did those rivets spoken of come up here in a tinned condition?” I asked.

“They were made at Machalaat Brothers,” said the soft voice, “and those are not 'common' rivets, but 'best-plus' grade, which is about as good as you can find on the continent – and yes, they were indeed tinned.” A pause, then, “though if you can get those you found in here tinned before you go, they'd actually work slightly better.”

“Uh, why?” I said. This time I managed to keep my mouth shut.

“Those are 'electro-copper' rivets, not 'thrice-refined' fire-copper,” said the soft voice, “and if you want copper, silver, gold, and a number of other materials to be truly well-behaved, then you want them processed by electrolysis as a final step.” A pause, then, “Georg wants that kind of copper, but his suppliers cannot get it in quantities beyond the most-trivial, so he gets 'best-grade' stuff from the fourth kingdom when he cannot select it himself locally.” Another pause, then, “he usually does select the stuff himself when he can find the time, because he's long known about the better outcomes when using 'good' copper.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Electrolysis mills aren't common there?” I meant down in the central portion of the fourth kingdom.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Outside of a handful of jewelers, no one does electrolysis-refining work on the continent, due to a lack of effectual electrical gear capable of generating the needed current.” A pause, then, “the Valley does a fair amount of such work, which is one of their chief articles of trade, both between the various settlements and the outside 'world'.” Another pause, then, “they aren't the only ones who do electrolysis processing.”

“Ploetzee?” I asked.

“Could tin those rivets readily in a day's time,” said the soft voice, “and they do a deal of electrolysis work there.”

“Copper?” I asked.

“Several pounds a week,” said the soft voice. “It tends to need careful shipment, as that stuff looks different enough from best-grade thrice-refined fire-copper to make it stand out like a sooted-up gun.”

“Th-that little?” I gasped. This time it was audible.

“That isn't a trivial amount for those locations that electrolyze metals other than silver,” said the soft voice. “The only place that does much more copper that way is the Heinrich works, and their electro-copper isn't sold as such, but is directly processed into those parts that need its various 'qualities'.”

“And we shall need to set up a lot of such tanks,” I muttered, as I returned to what I was doing, that being pulling bins. “Big ones, too.”

As I spoke, however, I knew that I was barely smelling that particular mule, as all of our coinage metals would need not merely electrolysis-based refining, but also careful analysis-driven alloying to get truly 'durable' coins that gave consistent behavior under the carefully-made 'forging' dies – and the banging of steam-hammers blanking and then 'pressing' coins would be a continual clattering rattle in the bowels of certain of the Abbey's workshops-to-be.

I fervently hoped Hendrik would learn quickly about the need to redo all of our coins, and I more-fervently hoped I – or someone else – could get a good indication of what they were supposed to look like.

“Rest assured, he will,” said the soft voice. “He knows something about witch-money, and when he starts seeing all of those polished 'slugs', that will get onto him.”

“And now, we need belt-pouches,” I thought. “Two each for those going, plus two more in the pack and any further spares we can manage, and all of them with either grenades or other things in them.”

“Look at one of those things before you decide you only need four pouches per person,” said the soft voice. “They're very useful in general – and having spares, if you can carry them, is a wise idea.”

That proved an understatement of the greatest magnitude possible, for there proved to be no less than three sizes of the things – and while none were especially small, the medium size proved to be especially likely: it had sufficient room for several loaded rifle magazines in its 'floor', and eight padded loops, four to a side, that accommodated either 'metal pears' – everyone except me was naming those evil 'little' grenades thusly – or 'firebombs'; and on top of that load, one could stuff in a pair of added pistol magazines at each end through the smaller loops there.

“No, best use a small belt-pouch for those,” I thought. “Keep those things separate, such that one has about ten or twelve pistol magazines and one's cleaning kit in a smaller belt-pouch, and two pistols, both loaded and ready to hand – and a third one somewhere reachable in case one or the other of the 'main' ones decides to quit.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “You are learning.”

“Oh, and one of those little ones in a pocket in case one encounters a close-up functionary and one wishes relative discretion,” I thought. This last was sounding more than a little snide, as I knew pistols of any type tended to be loud enough to attract attention unless they had 'special equipment' attached to them or were constructed specially so as to be 'silent'. I wondered if they had suppressors overseas; if they didn't, I did recall some of the salient features of such 'mufflers', based on some long-recalled reading.

“Relative discretion is right,” said the soft voice. “That type, compared to the others you've found, isn't particularly loud.”

“Probably echoes for miles,” I muttered. “That place will carry sound worse than anywhere.”

“While those halls will do that, the reports of those smaller pistols resemble the sound of an equipment failure, at least if you're a blue-suited functionary,” said the soft voice, “and since equipment failures of that type are both commonplace and not their responsibilities – they memorize what those are – then unless said thugs are near enough to see you actually pot someone, you effectively have a suppressed weapon for all the alarm it will cause.” A pause, then, “and while suppressors are rare over there, they do exist in some few out-of-the-way locations.”

“I hope I find one, then,” I thought.

“Why would you wish one?” asked Sarah, as she 'tried out' another size of pistol holster, this for those larger pistols.

“N-no, dear!” I squeaked. “Those like that are the worst ones!”

“How?” asked Sarah. She'd stopped trying to insert the pistol just the same.

“They practically have to be cut off with a saw of some kind if you put them in those things,” I squeaked. “I'll make some for those first chance I can – but those things are best, uh...”

“There are tales of those over there, and they'll desire them,” said the soft voice.

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because firstly, the troops burned all of them when they found out how tenaciously they held onto weapons that were among the most-effectual close-range 'witch-stoppers' to be had,” said the soft voice, “and then, some people over there have wanted a museum for a while – and then the medical people want to dismantle them and find out just what made them so much trouble, even if they're not inclined toward either of those larger types of pistols.”

“Why is that, other than they may attempt to escape?” asked Sarah.

“Perhaps those tests include hand-size – as in delicate surgery wants a smaller hand...”

“Yes, it does,” said the soft voice, “and while those tests currently don't specify hand-size explicitly, once Sarah becomes known of, they will wish to give her as much training as she can accommodate – as they know good hands when they see them.”

“Mine are about...” I was thinking my hands to be utterly unsuited to such work, even if my fine motor control had improved vastly since coming here. I knew my attitude wasn't appropriate, as I'd feel worse than horrible if someone died while under my care.

Such deaths might as well be deliberate murder as far as I was concerned, if not outright sacrifices to Brimstone as a witch. That portion of my thinking had become far worse than it had been since coming here, and it showed no sign of decreasing in either strength or rate of increase.

“No, your hands also,” said the soft voice. “They have some fairly extensive records regarding people like you, and learning about your presence will get a fire lit under those people.”

“What will that do?” asked Karl. “Those blue-suited thugs could stand burn-piles, but what of those they like to beat into mush?”

“I doubt that was meant, Karl,” said Sarah dryly. “Now we must hurry, as we do not have much time. That signal spoken of earlier wants it to yet be light, as it needs to be both seen and heard, and darkness will hide it.”