Noise? You Call this Noise?


I had more than just stair-climbing to do, I learned: the others, for the most-part, had stacked bags along the outer width of the staircase when they could not carry them forward fast enough. Sepp was still ahead of me, passing bags to someone else, who was most-likely Katje if I went by the occasional plainly-audible sneezes. I wondered just how much work she'd be good for, at least until I came to the bottom boundary of Sepp's 'stashed' bags and began handing them up to Sepp, this now with no running on his part.

“The top person, he or she runs,” explained Sepp. “Most of us can manage about three or four steps before setting the bag or thing down, 'cause they're heavy.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “That, and you start getting dizzy.”

“Three steps, no,” said Sepp. “This is going upwards, so most of us don't get bothered by it.” A pause, then, “talk has it you do, but you tend to keep going if you're on your feet still.”

“I know,” I said. “I do tend to do that, which means I g-got no common sense.” I spat somehow, then screeched, “what?”

“I don't think that's lacking common sense,” said Sepp. “I think anyone who says that kind of rubbish needs some hot lead in them, that or their head removed, 'cause that's witch-talk if ever I heard it – and I heard my share since we came back from that trip.” A pause to drink something, then, “we got enough o' these bottles, and they're about right for drinking beer.”

“Yes, for you,” I said, as I again handed up the last bag on that step. There were many more steps left to go, and now I saw their width for the liability it was. Another step, another three, four, or sometimes eight or ten bags, all of them a distinctly 'common-looking' dark green color. I'd seen this particular shade of green, or something much like it, on a lot of clothing in this general area.

“Waterproof, too,” I murmured. “Where did they find all of these? These sizes, also?”

“Katje found more of 'em,” said Sepp. “I'm glad Tam found some of those books they use at the higher schools, as I been reading 'em when I get the chance, and I've learned a lot about people around here and the colors they seem to like, and then why they like 'em.”

“Don't tell me,” I muttered. “He's putting those in what used to be the armory, and has got one bookshelf done and another cooking in the boatwright's shop, and some more student's ledgers on order.”

“All of that, writing dowels and rubbing blocks, and then more drying racks for soap,” said Sepp. “I think that one woman's going to come live at the house proper, as that's the only safe place for her...”

“And Sarah and I must fetch her when we go see her cousin,” I murmured. “The next two days are going to be as long for us as the last two, and then maybe a day off, and...”

“No, no days off until you get down to the third kingdom port,” said the soft voice. “Two long days, much of it riding in either a buggy or on Jaak, and then the wedding on the morning of the third, and you sail that very day.”

“What?” spat Sepp. “No one told me!”

“That's because Hendrik himself is wondering what day it's going to happen,” said the soft voice. “He knows it won't be tomorrow, as none of the guests have arrived yet, nor the day after, as he's just gotten one messenger so far, but he thinks it might happen as early as the third day – and currently, he is figuring the fourth or the fifth day as being the likeliest, as he's thinking that most of the people coming are not used to hard traveling.” A pause, then, “that's the chief area where he's wrong – that, and he's not privy to the need of 'the most haste possible', unlike the boathouse, and now both Hans and Anna.”

She'll get on to him, then,” said Sepp. “I'll bet she'll do it the first thing tomorrow, 'specially if she ate her fill of grass in hell.”

“Assuming Katje's over the crae, also,” I murmured as I moved up two bags from the bottom step, one in each hand. “Two small cups of cough medicine, this drank as quickly as she can get the stuff down...”

“That's easy enough,” said Sepp, taking the bags from me. I could hear scrambling happening above us. “It's a real good way to find out about head-masher headaches if you do that, as I thought I was catching the crae just before we did the hall and I did the cure thinking I had started it. I was seeing three of everything inside of two minutes once I got started with that stuff, and I barely got a small cup of it down before I fell asleep as if someone had drilled my head with a tight-gaged roer shooting patched balls of hard-lead.”

“Yes, and I was hearing you talking as if someone had put a roer's bullet through your head all of the next day,” said Karl. He was above Sepp, and he'd been doing some of the running I had just heard. “That stuff may taste a lot better than Geneva, but it has its headache, too, and some tell me it is stronger than is the usual for Geneva.”

“Uh, that first batch I made got a lot of aquavit, and if Hans makes it up to the same formula, it's...” I paused, then asked, “did anyone try setting fire to a spoonful of cough medicine?”

“I did,” said Sepp, “but I waited until the headache was gone to do that. It may not taste like Geneva, but it burns at least as good as that stuff does.”

“No,” said Karl. “Either someone sold you some strong Geneva, or that was a weak batch of cough medicine for burning, as Geneva barely can carry a flame for a quick count of three and cough medicine burns for at least twice that, and strongly for most of that time.”

“Then it is stronger,” said Sepp with a sigh. “What's the recipe for that stuff?”

I had trouble recalling the exact mixture – I was glad the recipe was written down in one or more of my ledgers – even if I did mention a number of spices as well as what commonly went in Geneva, and then I mentioned the steeped well-toasted malted barley, that one 'smelly root', and the sugar-tree sap. I then said, “maybe that's why it works so well for sicknesses – it has sugar-tree sap in it, and Hans said his grandfather did his stuff that way specially for the crae.”

“Your adding the barley-steep-liquid increased its efficacy regarding the crae to no small degree,” said the soft voice. “But one trouble.”

“Which is?” I asked, as I advanced another step to deal with its accumulated bags. I could no longer see the bottom landing.

“It makes the headaches due to overconsumption somewhat worse,” said the soft voice. “The real culprit regarding headaches with cough medicine is a higher alcohol content than nearly all drinkable Geneva.”

“Higher?” I asked. “All that aquavit I used to rinse out the mortar that first time?”

“Hans' current recipe uses slightly more aquavit than you did those first times, as he's double-extracting everything that goes in the extractor, then boiling down that barley-steep liquor after double-extracting that liquid, so it's stronger and adds less liquid.”

“So it's nearly forty-chain for strength?” I asked.

“Not quite,” said the soft voice. “Hans cuts it with rain-water just like he would do for Geneva, but since it tastes so much better and your added spices more-or-less prevent throat-burn, his currently-imprecise methods generally result in an alcohol content that's about a fifth higher than what he makes up for common Geneva.”

“Paul's Geneva...?”

“Has become stronger, also,” said the soft voice. “Having truly pure aquavit coupled with his long 'soak-time' makes for a stronger tasting material as well. He thinks it is actually better, as one needs less of it for indigestion and wind – and that on the basis of both personal testing and asking everyone he can who tries it.”

“And Esther..?” I asked. I wondered how she was doing.

“Is not 'sick', so she's currently quite busy,” said the soft voice. “You're very likely to see her, in fact, as she's busy at home.

“I know why, then,” said Sepp. “She's probably getting ready for those pigs that are coming.”

“She is, so she's either in their basement, out in the barn looking over the mash and checking the still, or over at Willem's helping with getting his guns freshened up and running that powder-mill,” said the soft voice. “You'll want to speak to him about your ammunition ideas, as Esther will make certain he does all of them.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Willem has gunner's head,” said the soft voice, “or so talk has it. The reality is he's kept 'hopping' by all that he has going, so he tends to forget a fair amount.”

“He can't write...” This was a semi-educated guess, as I had a much-better idea of the near-illiteracy of most men in the area compared to when I had arrived, and calling most people of both genders 'functionally illiterate' was calling a dire situation wonderful.

“No, he can, and surprisingly well for someone of his limited education,” said the soft voice. “He's much better than he lets on in many areas.” A pause, then, “it tends to take him a while to get much down, however, and while Esther can write rapidly, he cannot read her handwriting.” A pause, then, “usually she has to read it back to him, or Sarah comes along and 'translates' it. He can read Sarah's handwriting, though she must be especially careful when doing so, much as she learned to do at the west school – as otherwise, her handwriting isn't that much better than Esther's.”

“Just like with m-me, or...”

“Mathias, also,” said the soft voice. “Mathias helped him learn how to read this last winter, so between him, Sarah, and Esther, Willem has learned to both read and write well since you first saw him – and his 'sums' are better as well, which has helped him greatly.”

“How was he then?” asked Sepp.

“About as good as Hans was for reading,” said the soft voice. “His writing was slightly better – and I do mean 'slightly'. Sums – no contest, as being a gunner requires one do 'mathematics' regularly, and 'gunner's math' is close to what is taught at the higher schools.” A pause, then, “still, he's better at math in general compared to when you first met him.”

More bags, these to Sepp; another step cleared, upward and to the right. Each wide step had its own multiplied burdens, and stooping to lift heavy bags but added to them. Scrambling noises, these coming from above, spoke of labor hauling bag after bag upward and onward; and when I finished a step's bags, I was surprised to see Karl exchange places with Sepp. The latter began coughing as he passed slowly up the spiral.

“All of us have been coughing when we do that top run to put the bags closer to the carts,” said Karl. “That place down there has air that is as bad as that of a fifth kingdom smelter.”

“Near the smelter, or inside it, Karl?” I asked, as I handed up a bag. This area had them mounded to the outer side of each step such that moving through the narrow passage that remained needed care in navigation.

“I am not sure if this is as bad as the inside of a smelter, as it is too hot to live inside one of those things unless you are protected,” said Karl. “We went close enough to a lot of those things in the fifth kingdom house, and I remember that good, and I remember how I was spitting up these messes that would catch fire.”

“No messes?” I asked.

“There are those things, but one must be up near the top for them to come out, and they do that there,” said Karl. “They might not burn, nor do they smoke, but they are messes, and a lot of them, and I spat up three myself before I made two trips at the run carrying these bags.” A pause, then, “what gives with that one bag that's big enough for Sarah to crawl inside were she of a mind to do so?”

“That has a special rifle,” I said. “It's as long as what I have, it weighs about twice as much, and it uses the biggest ammunition I have ever seen – live ammunition, anyway – for something fired from the shoulder.” I then had a question.

“Do you think we will see marmots on the way back?”

Karl grinned, then said, “fresh ones mostly, but we might find one or two of last year's crop of them.” A pause, then, “Why, you want marmot stew with wine in it? Anna has a bottle or two, and she has been wanting to try it.”

“Some marmot-meat, or wine?”

“She got some wine from the house proper,” said Karl, “as with a lot of those stinkers that liked it gone, there is little call for that stuff, and I know no one where you lives drinks the stuff, and I know she heard from Lukas about what we did with it some times, so I think she's inclined to try adding some to a stew-pot if we can fetch a marmot that looks to need it.”

“That, dried meat – especially flint-dried meat, 'cause that stuff needs it bad, and then some of the worst parts of fresh meat, like from the back legs down lower...”

Karl turned around and yelled up the passage to Sepp about the bad parts of meat, and a second later heard not merely one person yelling, but several.

“I think you are right, even if it is a bad idea to yell in this thing,” said Karl. “I think we will all sleep where you live tonight and go on in the morning, as we'll need to fetch some...”

“No, Karl,” said Sarah's faint voice. “Maarten and Katje, yes, they'll need to stay, but the three of you will need to go home once things are unloaded enough – and I would leave Gabriel trussed and bagged until you're actually there, then toss him out and onto the manure-pile so as to get some sense into him before you untie him.”

“The manure-pile?” I gasped. Sarah hadn't meant 'just toss him onto the pile'. She had meant 'bury him in the stuff, so he's nearly smothered before you haul him out by his ropes.' “His ripped-up back?”

“Serve him right, then,” said Karl – who in saying so, told me he understood what Sarah had asked for. It was mentioned in a number of old tales, as was the next portion Karl mentioned. “Manure is bad for infection, specially if one speaks of that of horses, and...”

“Not if one bathes promptly and thoroughly afterward,” I murmured. “Dumping him in a manure-pile will force him to bathe himself well, as the stink is most-clinging otherwise – and Hendrik will not have him stinking the place up.” A pause, then in lower voice, “Hendrik may well air out his smelly hide if he dares to show himself in his office without such a bath now, and Gabriel no longer has fit clothing to hide any filth he might be harboring.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

“He got it dirty again, remember?” I asked. “He got dung on – no, in it, and this time he didn't get it washed out quickly, hence that's stuff is going to stain badly and it will need a lengthy soaking to get rid of the stain.”

“No,” said Sarah faintly. “If manure has set upon clothing for much over an hour's time, it will only come out entirely when the stuff is made into paper, and the stink remains until then also.”

“Hence he will need to get himself some older clothing,” I said, “and given what the house proper currently has for older clothing, he will need to bathe both it and himself thoroughly and regularly – and more, he will need to earn his keep for a change, not depend upon Ceremony doing the bulk of his work for him.”

“How can what you said do most of his work?” asked Karl, as I cleared off the last bags from the step I was standing on and moved upward toward the next one. It only had five bags, which indicated the person or persons working that step had been quick and agile in their bag-handling.

“Kind of like how witch-writing works,” I said. “If you write that way, it gets you inside of the right places and in front of the right people where you can talk in private, and more, if you do it right, it gives you plenty of introduction as to your main subject without actually referring to it.” A pause, then, “that black book has at least one chapter about how to speak one's mind by dressing, and that's a load of rubbish everyone who has gone to a higher school – other than the west school, possibly – gets pounded into their head while they're there.”

Chapters, actually, and even the west school teaches some aspects of 'appropriate' dressing as part of 'proper deportment',” said the soft voice. I'd heard that last term before, and the concept was as minted in hell's depths as anything a witch might do. “Granted, they don't slant their material nearly as much toward the black book's teachings, nor do they spend nearly as much time on it, but they do spend some time.”

“And those stinkers where Gabriel went spent plenty of time on the matter,” I murmured. “Only Boermaas as it now is much worse.”

“That gap is larger than you think, even if 'those stinkers' did spend plenty of time instilling the concepts involved in 'how to manipulate others by dressing for success',” said the soft voice. “More importantly, 'dressing for success' does much more among witches than you thought it did – and that applies greatly to ceremonial matters, both in witchdom and in those realms it but recently owned.

“They don't have nothing to do with witches in the third kingdom,” said Karl, “so how can witches...”

“Remember those three big drink-houses that were spoken of, and all those bomb-tossing thugs we encountered on the way out of that place?” I asked softly. “Those were far from the only witches in that place, and while obvious brigands rarely show themselves in real numbers like they did for us, there are – or were, now – a lot of plain-dressed witches hiding in plain sight in that place, which is why they did so much ceremony in such an open fashion and kept the short hours they did.”

“They did more hours than witches like,” said Karl. “Those things only like to do five or six hours a day, and the third kingdom does more than that.”

“Not much more, and the place goes dead once the sun goes down, and it doesn't do anything until at least an hour after dawn,” I said, “which is pretty close to how the bad parts of the second kingdom are.”

“That is true of the house proper and that area right around it,” said Karl. “Lukas told me how it is elsewhere in that place, as that port is almost like that market in the fourth kingdom for its hours, and then the back-country has to do so much with so little that they don't waste a minute's daylight.”

“Very true,” said the soft voice. “The only reason those in the third kingdom's back-country don't work the hours of Eisernije is their lack of lighting, not laziness, as the escaping Veldters set the tone in most parts of that place.”

“And those people make anyone else on the continent seem a sluggard for labor,” I murmured. “I'm not sure they work fewer hours than I do, in fact.”

With that, I cleared the last two bags, and advanced another step. This one had many bags, a mound nearly waist-high and taking up all save a narrow pathway to their left that left one brushing the inner stone wall of the staircase, and when someone else came down to replace Karl – Maarten – I learned why that had happened.

“I was too tired to run,” he said, “and so I just piled mine up when I could not pass them to whoever came and got them from me.”

“Whoever?” I asked.

“Katje and Sarah,” said Maarten. “I could hand them about one bag in three, so I just put the others where I could on this step and the next one, and...” Here, he paused to look, “someone got most of the ones I put on the next step down, so I guess you're handing up the bags I could not carry.”

“Is it your knees?” I asked. Mine were giving me trouble, so I guessed his were also. He'd not lost half his chronological age being 'transported' to a place a long way from home.

“Yes, now it is,” he said. “I'm surprised you asked, actually, as I thought yours were worse than mine.”

“They are, Maarten,” yelled someone female, “and I thought you could take a hint from him about how to carry on.”

“I didn't, though,” said Maarten morosely, “and now, I will not live it down for ages.”

“No, I would not blame yourself much,” I said. “Were you doing your best?”

“I was doing that,” he said. “It might not be as much as most were doing, but I was giving it my all.”

“Then don't fret,” I said. “You'll have your hands full enough shortly.”

Shortly, however, proved surprisingly long in coming, as I was noticing my own growing fatigue, this including achingly-sore arms and legs over and above aching knees, and while I cleared off that one step readily enough, I was finding I needed a rest. Accordingly, I grabbed a bag and began to walk upstairs with it, with the others doing likewise as I passed them, and left them following in my 'wake'.

“Just like Finuegen,” I thought with the barest trace of a grin. “A lot of this stuff goes 'boom', and overseas, they're going to have lots of such noise really soon.” I wondered if I would acquire a nickname over there beyond 'that tall dark-haired fiend'.

Two full turns past stacked and mounded bags hugging the inside of the staircase, then part of a third turn, and I found myself just on the other side of the door with the carts lined up in their satchels and a long row of bags on the other side, this going well-past the threshold. Someone – or several someones – had been running like a lunatic so as to array the bags in some semblance of neatness – and my head was still slowly circling. Dizzy wasn't half of how I felt, and I wanted an elevator in the worst way imaginable. I wondered how those were implemented where we would be soon going, and if we could 'fix' those in this building. That 'upper region' sounded like 'fowling piece' territory, given the presence of larger rats with old-time diseases and well-organized troops of 'Aapken' that were troublesome indeed.

“Do we do what you did with the rest?” asked Sarah as she came up behind me.

“I-I'm not sure, dear,” I said. My words had a peculiar sound, almost as if they were being spoken while I was standing still and spinning in place: “I needed to take a break, and I think it a good idea for all of us.”

My break, however, was taken up in cart-assembly between sucking down what yellow-fruit spiked beer I could manage, and once the five carts were together – Sepp was circulating, as was Karl – and while I could figure out my cart quickly enough, Maarten and Katje needed no small amount of help with theirs. A quick piling of bags upon all five, then we moved them further up the passage, such that they were clear by at least twenty feet from the end of the row of bags.

I hoped someone passable with ropes would use up a portion of a spool of 'the thin stuff' to tie the bags down somewhat. This trouble was making me long for some strap-type 'tie-down' things, and I wondered if I could make things like them here in the future. I wondered more if they had them across the sea in bins somewhere.

“Now we have more room,” said Sarah – who was hunting up a jug. Once she found it, she resumed speaking. “First plenty of beer, then we can get the rest of them quickly.”

'Quickly' proved an understatement, as with three cups of beer down, I found my strength to be returning rapidly, and the others seemed similarly affected. I kept doing my labor of 'cleanup', this handing up the last bags from the lowest step to those working above me, and while someone at the top was running still, they weren't traveling nearly as far now as they had been beforehand. I could tell by the short bursts of their running steps, in fact, and with each minute and another step cleared of bags, I learned more about the arrangement that had been used earlier.

“They're the slow person,” I thought, about the person at the bottom next to me doing cleanup.

“That's why it's usually been Katje, Sarah, Karl, or Sepp up at the top on a frequent rotation, with Maarten kept out of that business as much as possible, and Katje used only because she's doing a lot better than she would otherwise with a fast-blooming case of the crae.”

“Oxygen helps with that ailment?” I asked.

“Yes, especially with the fatigue caused by the mucus secretions that otherwise make it hard to breathe,” said the soft voice. “More, that bug doesn't particularly like high oxygen concentrations, so breathing pure oxygen is preventing it from doing its worst.”

“Hence sip the cough medicine quickly and then put the mask back on, with a lot of blankets under and on top of her so as to sweat it out better,” I thought.

“Tell that to Anna, and she'll be all ears,” said the soft voice. “That mask will also prevent others from getting that ailment, so she'll need to hide Katje in the basement – unless another location occurs to her as being a better one – until she's better the next morning.”

“Her and Maarten will need to stay where we live for a day or two anyway, at least until Tam fetches a buggy and pair of horses,” I murmured, as I handed up a bag to Katje. She was now the cleanup person, and thankfully, there weren't many bags on this or the other two steps that I could see. I could hear her coughing now.

“Be glad you'll be bundled into bed the moment we get home,” I murmured softly. “Anna's going to have a dose prepared for you right quick once she learns you are that sick.”

“I'll want to stay in what I'm wearing, also,” said Katje. “It helps with the chills.”

“No, I meant the special knit blankets she has that get boiled for hours after each instance of use,” I murmured. “Two to go on the cot under you, you breathing into the mask with some dark shades for the goggles, a dose of the bull formula before you down as much cough medicine as you can stand, and then a fresh cylinder and absorbent canister...” I then asked, “those things that read out what's happening? Where are they?”

“There is a place on one one's rump where the box can be carried, in case one is moving rapidly out in the field,” said Katje, “and Sarah put mine on that place for me, and the two of us made certain yours was attached.”

“Then that's a good reason to stay in the suite,” I said. “That box tells a lot about the person, and how they're doing, so just put... Can these things be sterilized? Anna will wish to wear that one when she next cleans with lye, and that sickness will be inside it now unless they can be cleaned out good.”

“Those people who come will know how to do that,” said Katje. “They most likely had to do similar things long ago, as I imagine they had suits take leaks now and then.”

“Especially on the battlefield,” I murmured. “Perhaps another twelve steps in total, dear.”

“There aren't that many,” said Katje. “Maarten's just ahead of me, and he's passing them on for the most part, rather than stacking them next to the wall.”

“Probably he has people grabbing them out of his hands,” I murmured. I could hear the movements of both Sarah and a small number of other individuals, and when I had passed three more steps up – these three had had a fair number of bags for cleanup – Katje went up the line, and was replaced by Sarah. She looked much better, and was no longer coughing. I was glad for that.

“I did that during my first stint of running,” she said when I asked about her cough, “and Maarten was holding us up some, what with his knees acting as if they belonged to Tam and not him.”

“He's not used to doing this much work, dear,” I said, “and especially not the lifting and carrying part, not when done as we've been doing.” A pause, then, “now in my case, do I continue to wear what I'm wearing for a while, or do I take it off once I start towing a cart?”

“You have not had the crae,” said Sarah. “I have, and if Katje's got it, you do not wish to share her small creatures, as every time was trouble for me – and I have had it many times.”

“Geneva...” I was becoming a 'believer' in the stuff, so much so that I'd be willing to 'conjure Hyde' with cough medicine if I had to. For some reason, however, 'conjuring Hyde' would be supplanted by a more-effectual remedy shortly – one both more palatable and more effectual in nature.

“I was not permitted it,” said Sarah, “so I was sick in bed for weeks each time that I can remember having it, and we cannot afford you to be sick for weeks, so I would think it wise to put your cloak on over that thing and wear it until we are home and Katje is in bed wherever Anna puts her.”

“P-puts her?” I asked.

“She'll most likely put her where she had me, and on that bed so she can be watched closely,” said Sarah, “and if Katje stays in what she is wearing, no one else will get it.”

“Does the crae cause spewing?”

“Not unless it is very bad indeed,” said Sarah, “or unless those who are looking after you do a bad job of it, which is what I recall them doing during most of the times I had it as a child.”

“You didn't get it a handful of times, but many?” I asked.

“More times than I can count,” said Sarah. “I must have been poisoned by all of those witches my cousin and I caused trouble for, it was so bad then.”

“Given that they're carriers of that and other ailments, that does sound likely,” I muttered. “No Geneva for children?”

“N-not that I know of,” said Sarah – though as I asked, I knew small children had been dosed with cough medicine but a few doors down where we lived. It made me wonder – were small children to be neither seen nor heard? “I know I didn't get any, and there wasn't any cough medicine to be had then.”

“Did your cousin?”

“I don't think she got the crae,” said Sarah. “At least, she did not get it while she was at home, and I would have known about it if she got it at...” Sarah paused, then said, “she did get it at Boermaas, and not once or twice, either, but every single year she went there!”

“And Boermaas was working on becoming a witch-hole then, if it was not already one and trying hard to become worse,” I murmured. “Now, she took Geneva then, or did she?”

“She could not stand the taste,” said Sarah, “so I had to slip some to her in beer. It helped a fair amount that way, so much so that she got over it a lot quicker than I did when I was younger.”

“Were you in the fields a lot as a child?” I asked.

“Going to and from where I lived to their place had me in the fields on trails a great deal,” said Sarah. “Between being out in the woods so much, and then causing trouble for witches with her as much as I did – that might be enough to account for it.”

Might?” I asked.

“It might have been more than just those witches my cousin and I caused trouble for,” said Sarah. “I suspect that there was at least one large witch-hole near where my foster parents lived, and then I spent much time in the second kingdom house...”

“The house proper, right – or is that both there and the kingdom house?”

“Both,” said Sarah. “I...”

“That place has had its share of witches in it, also,” I muttered regarding the house proper. I knew more about that location than the kingdom house itself. “Probably enough in that stone pile to give anyone who's susceptible...” I then squeaked, “why didn't I get it?”

“Because you were being protected from that ailment,” said the soft voice, “and while Sarah told you all of what she currently knows, there's more to the matter of her getting the crae so much than just giving witches trouble in the potato country and being in a pair of places where witches were far more common than either of you realized – her then and later, and you much more recently.”

Were?” I asked. Both places still had a lot of witches, both obvious and well-hid, even with so many headed north and so many more plotting to do so and waiting for the others to get 'done' with their travels. Then, of course, there were the troubles they'd had with all of those fetishes I had sent to them.

After all, witches did want fetishes, and I didn't; so if they wished them, it made sense to send them fetishes and make those things their troubles – and trouble wasn't half of what some of those people had endured.

“There are fewer witches in both places now,” said the soft voice.

“About four weeks they'll be just as many...”

“No, not quite,” said the soft voice. “Given that witchdom abhors a vacuum worse than nature ever did, they will try to fill those vacancies as fast as possible. But one trouble, however.”

“Those slots will be filled with relative newcomers?” I asked.

“Those that get filled quickly, yes,” said the soft voice. “The only area in the five kingdoms that hasn't lost some witches recently is the mining country.”

“That place loses some witches every time a town gets taken or goes to hell,” said Sarah. “Otherwise, though, I think that to be right, as if a witch is a Power, he has a large household at the very least, and at least two people beyond the current occupant are wanting every position.”

“Which means a big war for succession among those vying for such spots...” I muttered. I then realized what Sarah had said and squeaked, “What?”

“I would like to know much the same,” she said, “because until I just said that, I had no idea just how big a 'household' those witches named Powers actually had, and I also had no idea that there were numbers of witches wishing to take over every single spot.”

“Household?” I asked. “As in 'family', or those under them, or...”

“All of those things, and much more besides,” said Sarah. “Those people are almost like kings in some ways, at least as to how many people they have under them, and when one of them dies, then his successor usually has his people...”

“Hence huge wars...” I had to upgrade the quantity and quality of resulting strife that was likely. The fourth kingdom's market was in quite an uproar now, and it would become a much bigger uproar shortly – with a lot of witches either shooting at each other or being shot down by looper-stuffed roers in the hands of the citizenry. It almost made for a song about 'the merchant and his gun', much like one in a language similar to this one. That song was titled 'the farmer and his gun' – and that song specifically mentioned that farmer using a roer.

“Which is but one reason why a lot more people from the fourth kingdom are going to sell out and come up here before they had planned,” said the soft voice. “The first-trekkers didn't care if they received good or bad prices for their things as long as they received sufficient funds to get themselves up here, while these people needed to get decent amounts of money for one reason or another.”

“Creditors?” I asked.

“That's the most-common cause,” said the soft voice. “Having a full-pitch witch-war will cause those creditors – who are mostly witches – to be very busy fighting among themselves and dying from both their own gunfire and that of non-witches 'sniping' at them.” Pause. “That war – it is starting now, and that entire town is ringing with gunfire and every city battery is firing its guns whenever witches show in numbers – will cause the majority of those who needed to receive somewhere close to 'the going rate' for their properties and chattels so as to 'pay up' and then leave to do other than what they had planned.”

Another pause, then, “they will sell out 'as fast as can be managed' while eating any losses that might result, much as did the first-trekkers, and then hie themselves up here in a series of great 'buggy-trains' – and with numbers of such large groups going north on a daily basis, those other people who wished to come but were too poor will find it vastly easier to 'come along' as buggy drivers and stock herders, so they'll sell out what they have and come north also – and the witches in their path will find dealing with that many gun-toting people nothing but trouble.”

“And those who aren't in those two camps aren't that interested in coming,” I murmured.

“Oh, they are – or rather, they were,” said the soft voice, “but the reason they're not coming is that they think they've got much better opportunities at home, now that there's a Power vacuum.”

“Those people sound like witches,” said Sarah. “If they are, then we don't want them up here anyway.” Pause. “There will be enough of them as it is.”

“Most of the survivors of that week-long witch-war will end up coming up this way anyway,” said the soft voice, “as there are only so many open spots in a new Power's retinue and 'household', and if they try for those spots and fail, then those that succeeded to those positions will wish to hunt them down and kill them for 'causing their betters trouble' and 'because they have the power now' and have named the vanquished 'Disgraced'.”

That line is what many witches once said before that war,” said Sarah as I finished up the bags on the step I was on and moved up to the next one. She turned, then said, “it looks to be just us, now.”

“It l-looks?” I asked.

Sarah turned, handed off a package, then grabbed for the one I had just picked up. There were but two more on the step I stood upon, and two more on Sarah's, and...

Now there was but one more on Sarah's step. Someone had grabbed it as she took the next bag from me, and when I picked up the third bag on my step, she picked up the remaining one on hers and kept walking upward – and onward.

Two steps, three, yet another step with no bags upon it, then suddenly, we were the last of a 'column' of six burdened-with-bags people, and I followed Sarah as she wove her way through the ready-to-go carts to the front of the line. There, I was surprised to see an obvious string, this knotted and tied to a stick, and as Sarah picked up the stick and I the handle of the first cart, she said, whispering to someone behind me, “Katje, did you get the bird?”

While Katje did not answer, I heard somewhere ahead a sleepy-sounding chirp, then another – and then, starting from what seemed an impossibly low pitch, the bird began singing its theremin-like 'song'. This example had the most pitch-bends yet, and Sarah hurried, mutterings dire from ahead speaking of 'that thing has eaten all of its food', and 'no one has bothered to feed it or check it'.

“I did,” said Sepp. “Granted, I could not feed it properly, but those things will eat rye bread if it's a little stale.”

“You do not wish to give them such bread often,” said Sarah. She was still in something of a hurry, and if I went by what she was doing while walking, she was looking for the bag of grain in her satchel. “There, I found it. That bird is probably starving if I go by how it sounds now.”

The bird had been placed in that one region now pocked with the debris of mines with a turned-down tent-lantern on top of its cage, and while our carts jolted slightly among the pits and the loose grit and debris from the mines, they managed passably just the same. The bags, these now piled higher than I first recalled and then roped securely by someone who had obviously been taught by Gilbertus or someone who had been a freighter for ages, stayed put as the carts jerked and bounced slightly as they bounced over the pits; and when Sarah found the bird cage, she stopped and fed the bird before going any further.

“I thought so,” she said. “Look how it is eating.”

“Yes, so it will be stuffed with grain,” said Karl as he came close to watch the bird devour its food. “It will not sing much, nor chirp, nor do much other than eat for a while.”

“That is like most birds,” said Katje. She was yet behind me, if her voice gave any indication. Sarah put the bird-cage in my hands; then, as I grasped its handle in one hand and that of the cart in the other, she then led the rest of us along, following the line of the rope with her tent-lantern hidden and the candle-lantern once more lit and adjusted to full brightness – this with only the front shutter open and held out nearly at arm's length and pointed ahead. Sarah wasn't inclined to become 'dim-eyed' on account of a 'too-simple' lantern that poured out UV like a small arc-welder.

“We do not wish to show those others here,” she said meaning the tent-lanterns, “so before we come to where we might find people, we should turn them off and bag them up.”

“Best to do it now, then,” said Katje. “I suspect some people are looking around in parts of this place, and I hope we encounter them soon, as there are a lot of bags to be moved and we need to get to that one place quickly.”

“No, Katje, they won't go inside here beyond that portion that we have cleared,” said Sarah. “That one long room and the room coming off of the entrance, yes, because we've cleared it, and it's safe for them. The rest – I think not, not until Maarten tells them the place has been dedicated.” A pause, then, “they'll think it safe enough then, at least for many portions. We'll need to warn them about that bad wolfram shot and how it can cause trouble if people have bad shoes.”

“And that means we need to move all of this stuff first,” I said. “It needs to come out... Now, are those people eating dinner? I hope so, as we need that time to shift this stuff without them noticing overmuch.”

“They are, because I can smell food,” said Sarah. “At least someone is cooking food, and this food is decent, not that stuff that was fit for witches and nothing but.”

“Then we had best hurry,” I said.

Sarah seemed to take the matter to heart by hastening her steps, and when we came to the Upper Alley, the aspect of desertion was such that we began piling our bags in a long low mound next to where the machine gun yet lay 'hidden'. The silence within, and the modest noise without – it sounded like a lot of people were getting into 'entire pies' – as well as the light yet coming from outside, spoke of there being perhaps two hours of 'decent' daylight left. I was so engaged in trying to figure out how best to get our bagged-up gear out here and ready to load into the buggies and possibly a wagon or two when Hans suddenly showed to my right. He seemed to be looking – looking at first myself, and then Katje.

“Help us get this stuff unloaded,” said Sarah brusquely. “We found a lot of it, and...”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “Now I have Gabriel done up fit for a witch, as he is acting too much like one again for me to like it, not after eating grass like I did. He is bagged up and in the bed of the buggy outside.”

“Gagged..?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans, “and he will need to go to the house proper done up like that, as Anna will air out his smelly hide if she catches sight of him, and no questions on the matter.” A pause, then, “he needs to go to that third kingdom port, or so talk has it, so we cannot hang him out to dry just yet.”

“How is it you know?” asked Sarah. Hans was working a lot harder than I had ever seen him work, and the bags all but 'flew' off of each cart as first he and then I walked down the line of five.

“This man I have seen before in that market town down there,” said Hans, “and he grabbed my pistol by the barrel when I was angry and wanted to put some lead in that wretch. He tells me he spoke with the king down there, and with Hendrik, and he tells me that those people across the sea are expecting five, and they know what you-all look like, so it will do us all no good for me to shoot him.” Hans paused, then said, “besides, a lot of people have been having dreams of these blue-dressed thugs that are really tricky, and they show as if they are smoke and use these big clubs as if they were Georg when he is after pigs.”

Hans then looked at me again, and asked, “now it is not Festival Week for some months yet, so why are you two dressed up that way?”

“Because I have a case of the crae,” said Katje, “and he has not had that, and I do not wish him to get sick.”

“I think...” Hans paused, then said, “that is a good idea, then. I am not sure if he would get it or not, but that trip will not wait, so he cannot afford to chance it – and I know all the rest of you have had that trouble some, so it is not likely for you to get sick that way.” A pause, then, “now, does that clothing keep that stuff in with you?”

“Yes, it does,” said Katje. “More, it helps a lot with breathing, and...”

Sarah had taken Hans to first Katje's backside, then mine, and I could hear him muttering as if he'd seen something he could not believe after taking extensive lessons from Anna in the art of muttering. He felt my arm, then my chest, and said, “it is so. Anna will want something like this, even if it means being done up fit for circling chairs while wearing pots and pans for hats and sipping Geneva the whole time.”

“Especially when she must clean with bad lye, Hans,” said Sarah. “Now, come back here with us. We've cleaned the place up, save for one area yet, and so if you go with us so as to show you where it's trouble, it's safe enough.”

Sarah hurried back, Hans now holding another of the candle-lanterns that had been put back into use, and as we wound our way through the place, he said, “I never went back in this part. Were there a lot of dead witches?”

“Yes, some, but mostly a lot of traps and things,” said Sarah. “They had a lot of traps upstairs, and then there were some strange things in this one long room where you found Gabriel working, and finally, many weapons, some of which are like that one we found yesterday, some larger, some smaller, and several others that are so strange that you probably will need to read some to learn of them.”

“That I can do, leastways until those witches start coming up here,” said Hans. “Now, did you-all find more muskets like that one?”

“Yes,” said Sepp. “There are a lot of those. Then, there are some that are smaller and shorter, and you may wish to try one of them, as they fold up for easy carrying, and then there are rockets...”

“Are they like those people shoot off Harvest Day, or are they things out of an old tale?” asked Hans. We were coming up into the mine-pocked region, and the carts rattled slightly. “What gives with this place?”

“This one witch set many tricky traps,” said Sarah, “and he put his traps all over. They all went off, and now there is this bad wolfram shot all over the place. It's trouble...”

Hans was shaking, then said, “I think I might have heard something about that stuff, and trouble is no word for what it is.”

“What did you hear?” asked Karl.

“There was talk that this bad witch down in the second kingdom house had some, and she was doing it up fit for fowling pieces so that it would kill if it drew blood,” said Hans.

“I'm not sure if she had some of that stuff, but there was a witch here long ago who did that very thing,” said Sarah. “That area downstairs is safe enough for shot, even if it is not good to stay down there for long unless you are dressed fit for fumigation.” A pause, then, “and that clothing is the best type for it, as it will stop any gaseous fumigant you might think to come up with.”

“Yes, if I try to make it now,” said Hans. “Anna said there would be some things like that would need special handling, as they make arsenic, even bad arsenic, look to be vlai made at the Public House for trouble.”

I could just hear Sarah thinking about the nature of vlai, and how for her it was nothing but trouble. I assumed Hans meant, even in her case, “vlai may put some people in the privy for a while, but it does not kill them dead; and arsenic, especially if it is done right, kills people if they taste it – and it does not waste time in killing them.”

“I wonder how those witches did when they got into that one pig?” I thought.

Why do you think Hans spoke about arsenic and vlai?” asked the soft voice. “Vlai may make you deathly ill, and do much the same to Sarah, but it is not arsenic – especially that stuff that he's done up.” A pause, then, “those witches did not last long once they got into that pork, by the way.”

“Hours?” I asked.

“More like fifteen minutes, and that was the case with those who realized the stuff was poisoned and spewed up all they could once they'd gotten some down.” A pause, then, “those that did not spew died faster yet, but compared to some of the materials to be made in the next few months, arsenic – even arsenic compounds worse than Hans can figure out now – will seem harmless.

“And it is not harmless,” I thought. “It's about as hazardous a material that can be handled without being done up like this, actually.”

“True, even if Hans thinks otherwise,” said the soft voice. “His grandfather did manage to teach him a lot, even if he'd supplemented what he learned before that man died with whatever other information that he could find.”

“Some of which was witch-spewed rubbish...”

We were back at that one hole-in-the-wall with its long-vanished bricks, bricks gone to a better and more-useful end as grease-mingled grinding compound in the ceremonial underwear of witches, and as Sarah led Hans into the passage, he looked about him and began muttering about bricks.

“These may be good for bricks, Hans, but still, bricks are not for building houses,” said Sarah. “Not after what they did in the first book after that drowning spoken of there.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “If there are houses in hell, and I think there are as I have seen a lot of things that looked as if brought straight from the fifth kingdom house in that place, then bricks are best if one has them underfoot, or...”

“Or what?” I asked. “They do make passable sand-houses and furnace-linings, even if no one wants to live in a brick house due to the spirits that inhabit such places.” A pause, then, “I guess they just live with those things in the valley.”

“That is why they have these traveling people called priests or some such,” said Sarah. “There's at least one in each settlement, and all that person does, almost, is keep the spirits out of the place.” A pause, then, “the way that place is, though, it's either use bricks, or use nothing, as they don't have stone, and those dust-storms would eat it up in a hurry anyway.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Hans. “Those masons told me that, and they told me they were glad they had been taught how to lay stone, as they did not like those things bothering them much and they want to live in regular houses made of stone and not bricks.”

“Perhaps for their tool-sheds,” I said. “There's something about the size and use of a brick dwelling that can make it unattractive to such beings.”

“Yes, and they were speaking of some of their old tales about sand-houses, and how the one they built for Georg is as big of one as can be made and not have trouble that way,” said Sarah. “He'll either need more of them, or they'll need to be made of stone.”

“They'll be able to lay stone in short order,” I said, “but many of them will be tasked to the Abbey, as they'll need everyone able to use a 'hod' or a trowel there very soon.”

“Yes, once they are done with their digging that place's hole,” said Hans. “Now I hope someone has a good set of ideas for that, as no one in that camp has anything that is worth the trouble.”

“He did not an hour ago,” said Sarah, as we came up upon the first of the bags. “Everyone, turn about, then back in your carts so as to load easier,” said Sarah. “At least now we can load them a bit faster.”

'A bit faster' proved an understatement, as now we could circulate in something resembling a circle about each of the carts. Sepp remained behind each just-piled cart, and with Hans, he had them roped down in a trice, then by the time he was finished, another cart was nearly done, while Karl, Katje, and Maarten had gone onto the next and I and Sarah remained behind to 'tidy up' the load slightly. Hans glanced over in our direction, and for once, I saw an expression play across his face, this one I had never seen before: he approved, and that heartily.

“I am glad I am seeing this done decent, as I can learn from you people,” he said. “If I do this much, it will not take two days to load our buggy for the trip south.”

“Best let him do up your list, and follow it close,” said Sarah, as we finished 'tidying' and began to help the other three load the next cart. It was taking perhaps two minutes by the clock to load and tie down a single example, and that when Hans did not grab and then toss a bag over our way. Someone said, “be careful. Some of this stuff does not wish dropping.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hans. “That was why I made sure I could toss and have you grab it good, as you have work yet to do before the sun hides itself, and there is a lot of stuff here.”

“How will we get it home?” asked Maarten.

“That is easy,” said Hans. “I have my mirror, and I sent word to Paul, so he is bringing down his buggy, and then Willem will bring his wagon, and then there there are the three you brought, and then someone with a bigger buggy, one like is used in the fourth kingdom market town for size, needs to go into town, so that is six.” A pause, then, “why, is it you have more?”

“N-no, at least I think not,” said Sarah. “It will all need to go to our house first, then the two buggies need to go to the kingdom house after dinner, and...”

“We can unload them first, then,” said Hans. “Tam can help with that, and then we can all turn in as early as we may, as we have a lot of work ahead of us, and you two more than anyone I know of that isn't in that fourth kingdom market.”

Our trip back to the Upper Alley was much the same, only our pile of bags had garnered a visitor, he being the one gunsmith by the name of Gustav; and on the way back, Hans was speaking of wanting help for first loading the wagons, and then unloading them in town.

“Good, there's about four people in camp fit for it,” he said. “Willem needs to stay here, 'cause he can tell there's witches about, and...” He then looked at me, and almost laughed. “We'll get our share of those things going there, won't we?”

This last was said with a certain grinning aspect, almost as if he knew that all the burn-piles in this area had finally started the absolute die-hards out of the area, these being those witches or witch-sympathizers that had been so well-hid that until recently, they had – with justification – thought themselves safe.

No longer: so many of them had been routed out with the passing of the deep-hole that now... There truly was nowhere to hide, and but few places within easy travel to run to; and due to their well-hid nature, these people were almost entirely ignorant of 'the secret way'. Hence, they had to leave suddenly; and while they knew enough to leave quietly, their equipment – it was so like that of their neighbors that it could go neither far nor fast without ruination – was not up to rapid traveling, and neither were their teams.

And, I just knew this: we would not start merely marmots on our homeward trek. We would encounter witches – in numbers, no less – which was why every member of the party needed to be armed with effectual weapons, and more...

“Yes, Sepp needs a rocket, with the launcher,” I thought. I then recalled a certain most-critical matter, that being one needed to see the target: “that thing won't work, not when it's dark.”

“In his hands, no,” said the soft voice. “It will work in your hands.”

Me shoot a rocket?” I thought this impossible, especially as I had never done so. I hadn't even read the documentation in any real detail, and... It was no use. These things were simple, and I had been told I would have help. I then had further speech on the matter given to me.

“How else are you going to get onto one of the last groups of coaches to leave the area ahead of the coming swarm?” said the soft voice. “These people had them hidden in various out-of-the-way barns under mounds of hay, they're running their 'tired nags' ragged towing them, and they're heading north and west by compass heading, as they've bought that now witch-nourished lie that people don't go outside after dark.”

“They still don't, at least most of them,” I thought. There were a lot of people that had been 'sold', and few had yet realized the matter about the hours after sundown.

“Most is right,” said the soft voice. “There is a lot of work in most farmsteads right now, and every minute available that can be used needs using, hence a lot of farmers are working 'later' hours than they once did, and a lot of Public Houses are doing added business on account of it.”

“A lot of work?” I asked.

“That deep-hole, coupled with the common and regular chanting of the hiding curse, caused a lot of people to not notice things they should have – which is why 'no maintenance' and 'poor maintenance' was the rule rather than the exception for almost everything. A lot of things are now showing up a lot more than they did a few days ago, and Georg is glad for his buggy 'showing' soon, as he's going to be getting orders almost every single day while you're gone.”

“B-buried for work,” I murmured, as we suddenly showed at the location with our bags, these piled deep and waiting still for us.

“Now this place is about fit for a fourth kingdom lantern,” said our latest arrival, “though it will wish much less than a full knob, and the same for a lot of this place.” A pause, then, “one with the lantern on a short pole, and two others with brooms to sweep that mess out of the way, and then some o' those people from the Valley to fix the floor once that stuff is cleaned up proper.”

“Do you know what that stuff is?” asked Sarah pointedly. She was not wasting time with cart-loading, and neither was our latest arrival.

“No, but I suspect it isn't something you want to touch,” said Gustav, “which is why we'll wish brooms that are decent but not prime, gloves that are the same, and being wrapped as if done up for bad burns, if not done up as if for fumigation.” A pause, then, “two of you look as if you expected to fume up a place, and that good.”

“They are,” said Hans, “and one of them has the crae, and the other has never had that trouble, and he cannot afford to get it, so he needs protection from the one who has it.” A pause, then, “and then, that clothing keeps those little creatures inside, so they cannot get to us and make us sick.”

“I've had that sickness a lot more than most I know,” said Gustav, who then looked around. “Seems those marked have more trouble with it compared to others, and then witches... They never get it.”

“That's because they all have it and they keep themselves pickled in drink,” said Sarah. “Were they to not drink like fish, they would become very sick...”

“They'd probably die, you mean,” said Gustav. “Now any of this stuff 'specially touchy, like it don't want dropping?”

“None of it wants dropping,” said Hans. “They said that, and I doubt much they would lie.”

“Any of it 'specially that way, though?” said Gustav. “Like it's dynamite gone brown and smoky?”

“No, nothing is that touchy,” said Sarah. “The caps are by themselves, and they are not common caps with liquid death, but something entirely different, and then these things have wires put to them...”

“I'd like to get some o' those things,” said Gustav. “You find a witch-run sender's place and put a charge of dynamite to the wall just underground outside of it, and then run that cap's wires to the knobs on the outside, and the first time that witch touches the key, his whole place goes up.”

“Now where did you learn that?” asked Sarah. “An old tale?”

“It was mentioned there, but there weren't any caps like that,” said Gustav craftily. “So, I gets some fine-drawn glass-blower's wire, solder on some wires to it with jeweler's solder, put that thin stuff in a stiff cap 'cause they're bigger, fill it near-full with priming powder, and cork it with a small cork with some knife-slits for the wires to keep 'em clear o' each other and the cap's shell.” A pause, then, “those will go 'most all the time if you hook them up to a sender's house, but you got to test the wires first to make sure they're dead.”

“With what, sir?” asked Sarah. “I doubt the west school would let you borrow a battery-tester.”

“No, but I know of two jewelers who got things like 'em, and I could borrow one 'o theirs,” he said. “Those wires got to be stone dead afore you put the cap to 'em, and then you hurry and put that cap in the dynamite, and then bury the whole thing.”

“And a jug of distillate beside your dynamite, so as to make sure the witch rides the smoke,” said Hans softly. “Best to put two such jugs, one to each side of your dynamite, and use plenty of that stuff.”

Gustav looked at Hans, then nodded. “We'd best be putting them bags on these carts here.”

They had been doing that, but compared to their time of speech, this brief period of no speech put the lie to their previous word of 'labor', as now they did indeed do that, and within perhaps two minutes, we were on our third return trip. I guessed three or perhaps four would be needed, given five carts.

“No, I can go down with Katje, and we can bring up more,” I thought. “Best not let anyone else go down in that place until the ventilating apparatus is repaired...”

“You'd best go down by yourself, as she's not up for another trip down,” said the soft voice. “You can get one of those carts up here assembled, and that way you'd cut one trip off of your runs back and forth.”

“One trip?” I asked silently.

“There's more there than you think, and these aren't the larger carts, but smaller ones,” said the soft voice. “More, after you do that, I would advise you and Sarah to go check that one room, then have the others come with you once you verify the absence of further traps.”

“And I'm dressed for fumigation,” I murmured. “I'm the best one for it, in fact.” A pause, then, “can I get more than one cart?”

“Yes, but you'll endure more dizziness,” said the soft voice. “The cart-trips can happen 'after dark', as will your loading, but that room has more in it than you might believe, and there's loot from inside it that you want, also.” A pause, then, “two of the smaller waterproof bags and one cart should do it.”

On our return trip, we had Willem himself come with us, as Gustav was out in the camp rounding up 'helpers worth the trouble', and once at the site with our treasure, I went further, down the twisting stairs. The others labored without me, even as I brought up first one cart, then another; then when I brought up the third cart, I found myself alone once more with Sarah.

“I heard what you did,” she said, “and I'm glad it's just the two of us, as there may be more traps.”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “We can put the bird-cage on this cart. Did you get the bags?”

Sarah held up one of the bag-pouches, then nodded. “There are several of the smaller ones in here, and I think there are some smaller sample pouches.” A pause, then, “I know I have some in my satchel.”

“Sample pouches?” I asked. “Smaller ones?”

“In case you find something small that you need and wish to keep it separate, like those two tools,” she said. “I've seen pictures of those like that one thing, and several lesser ones at the Heinrich works.”

“Lesser?” I asked.

“As far as I know, they made them there, but after what I've learned in the last two days, I suspect they got them from elsewhere.”

“Yes, in that scrap-market,” said the soft voice. “They found several over the years of that firm's opperation, and then cleaned and matched the various wax-coated parts until they had those ancient units from Vrijlaand working 'passably'.” A pause, then, “there are some few real Vrijlaand tools of that nature in that room, of which you've found a copy.”

“Copy?” I asked.

“Vrijlaand didn't decipher that particular intercept, but they did help figure out how to make the parts,” said the soft voice, “and both places worked on making that type of unit work well – and while Vrijlaand held back their latest work as a rule, they did not do so with those and a number of other tools they developed jointly.” A pause, then, “it may be a 'copy' of that Vrijlaand tool, but it's a very close copy, and fully as workable.”

“Meaning about the only difference is where it's made, most likely,” I murmured. “They had enough people present at both locations to hand-fit that grade of tool, didn't they?”

“Yes, as those needed it,” said the soft voice. “They're a bit more precise than what you had, by the way.”

“A bit-more precise?” I asked.

“There aren't ten graduations on the vernier scale, but twenty,” said the soft voice, “and that standard is needed to take and then hold that level of accuracy. You'll wish to test those frequently at first, as they're slightly gummy from non-use and using that oil on them will free them up.”

“Motor-oil, or that blue stuff?” I asked pointedly.

“With those, you can use either, as there are no plastic parts, and the same for those calipers – which again, are somewhat more precise than those you had where you came from,” said the soft voice. “More, I'd take a set of those micrometers home with you, as you will need them in the weeks and months to come.”

“Sextant parts,” I murmured. “The tools in there...”

“You will need those also,” said the soft voice. “There are some real surprises in there, but wait until those people from overseas get onto them.” A pause, then, “those tools will really surprise you then, and you'll need that kind of surprise to make that sextant.”

Sarah and I then traced our way back to that one location, me holding the bird's cage in one hand and the battery 'torch' turned up in the other. The first sign of destruction were the destroyed doors of the place, these in wide-scattered going-to-rust pieces, with most of them moved to either side of the hallway. We'd missed some the day before, it now was obvious to me; and more obvious yet, the doors were made of shoddy metal – or so I thought until Sarah squeaked, “that stinky witch must have supplied these doors!”

“He did not,” said the soft voice. “They were brought here after he'd supplied a copy of the current generator and it let go 'on test' – which made the Mistress of the North source both generator and doors using her sources, which got a real generator and not a badly-made copy.” A pause, then, “the doors, like everything else in there, was chanted over at some length by that woman when she was sealing it unto herself, and hence these doors are going to rust faster than they would otherwise.”

Yet even so, as I walked, step by careful step, the rusting metal went to dust with faint sighs and palpable groans, and the small rusting shot from the three mines she had used did the same. The dust seemed to move itself aside as I came closer to it, much as if it wished no part of me; and I thought, this with a smirk, “why not flavor the wine of those escaping witches? Besides, Hans said rust was a bad spice for foods.”

The dust began to slowly fade, this as fast as it gathered itself in my wake; and when I came to the precise and doorless threshold of the place, I heard – this faintly – a sea of groaning, this of a huge multitude.

“Where is that groaning coming from?” I thought. I still 'lurked' upon the threshold, this with the bird in one hand and my 'torch' in the other. I needed to set the bird's cage down to adjust the light for a wider beam and 'more power' – or so I thought until I realized I had turned that all the way up.

“Those witches you just gave 'the runs',” said the soft voice. “Now they will not merely need to stop frequently to visit the bushes, but they are also deathly ill – as that was rust from 'made in L'amerika' metal, and not the common stuff found today – which is fully as bad as Hans made it out to be.”

“Don't tell me – that was impure metal...” I was standing, 'looking' in that strange way that had gotten easier with so much recent practice, this to try to learn of further trapping. Had I been that woman once known as the Mistress of the North, I would have put multiple layers of traps, not merely the two or three she had done.

“It was, as was common for materials processed entirely in the green areas,” said the soft voice. “It may have not been cursed, and it may have had decent strength and machined passably given time and good tools, but it also had a lot of impurities – including metals, that while not arsenic, are not ones you wish to consume.”

“Did you put rust to those witches?” asked Sarah. “I can hear a lot of people, and they sound as if they all have bad cases of the crae.”

“Mostly because they're spewing from both ends,” said the soft voice. “More, while they will not die from such sicknesses, they now know they're unlikely to escape the area.”

“Didn't have much of a chance to start with, did they?” I took my first step inside the 'shop', this with the bird's cage out in front of me at arm's length, and my light sweeping the area in a wide arc so as to see trouble if I could.

“They thought they did, which is why they are fleeing their communities and joining up into long straggling lines of coaches and 'ornate' buggies, thinking that there will be safety in the combination of numbers and firepower.”

“Not much safety in the latter, not if their weapons are those of the people around here,” I murmured. “If you have something around here that takes thimbles, you're rare enough to stand out.”

“Which is why but a few of these people have fowling pieces, and none of their weapons are rifled,” said the soft voice. “More, due to their deliberately poor care of their weapons, their guns are not only quite unreliable, but also very inaccurate and lacking in range.”

“Bad powder, also,” I murmured. “Can't get decent stuff, as you almost have to be a bomber or cannon-master to get that – or do you?”

“It helps to know where to find it, first,” said the soft voice, “and it does help if you're a bomber, or a cannon-master, or if you wear greens, or if you're someone who travels a lot, like Albrecht – or if you know such people.” A pause, then, “otherwise, it's pretty much whatever you can get your hands on within an hour's easy ride in a badly-worn buggy – and that for powder, lead, flints, and weapons.”

“Meaning they might get off a few shots, none of which will range past three hundred paces,” said Sarah. “You need a good musket to manage further than that if it fires a number-one-sized ball, and to do much better, you either need cut grooves in your barrel, or enough powder to chance bursting your weapon.”

“These people will burst some tonight, in fact,” said the soft voice. “Now, the two of you: in slowly, the bird out in front, and look the entire place over before you touch anything or begin to really explore it. You've got about half an hour before you must begin starting that generator, and I would use that time as well as you can.”

Accordingly, I led off, my steps slow, halting, and wary. The light of the 'electric torch' kept the bird awake, and its steady chirping – the grain may have silenced it for a while, but it was neither especially hungry nor sleepy now – made for a calming notion on my mind. We would not find gas bombs in here, as now I could feel the matter out better: the Mistress of the North had been relatively early on in her career with traps, and she felt...

“No, not just that,” I murmured. “She did not think hundreds of years ahead, because she believed that we as a planet did not have that much time, and hence she set her traps accordingly – and they did do what she intended them to do for the timeframe she had envisioned.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice. “She was told by a reliable source that someone not yet born would conjure a curse of such magnitude that it would indeed make the place fit for Brimstone, and that that event would happen within fifty years of her death.”

“It did, didn't it?”

“On the very day it was predicted, in fact,” said the soft voice, “and that one dark-haired witch was alive yet to see her little enclave 'die off' as the flood-waters gushed in and drowned almost all of her people before they could escape from their hiding places. She knew she was finished then, and within a year, she was the last of her kind.”

“Hunted, on the run constantly...”

“Her, no,” said the soft voice – who implied she was more or less the sole witch among the survivors of the curse among the inhabitants of her once-thriving enclave who was not 'hunted down like a rat and then burned like a pig'. “She just changed her clothing on the way out, gathered up her old things which she had cached some distance away from her exit-path, put them in a crude-looking pack that she had used to hide her escape clothing, and began walking, same as the rest of the non-witch survivors of the area – and she blended in perfectly until the day of her death.” A pause, then, “only when she died did they learn who and what she truly was.”

“Did that witch take her ledgers with her?” asked Sarah from behind me. She'd come up closer, now that I was in what seemed a vestibule or open space, with the generator some twenty feet away in its chain-link cage and the darkness so total that only where my 'torch' spat its light could we see well. I then looked upward, as far as I could, and again, I saw those thermos-bottle bulbs, each of them in an old and obviously decaying reflector, and then some intimation of their numbers.

“No, she didn't, as she hid those prior to the Curse,” said the soft voice. Only then did I speak about what I was still looking at.

“One of those things about every three feet,” I muttered. “Where did they get all of them?”

“They robbed them from other locations in the building,” said the soft voice, “which meant some areas were relatively well-lit, like this one and a few other locations, and most places in 'witch-territory' were nearly as dark as it is in this room right now.” A pause, then, “it will be somewhat better lit once you fire up that generator.”

“Why, the lighting?” I asked.

“No, not merely the lighting,” said the soft voice. “Most of the ventilating fans for this room will function well enough to blow their stacks clean of accumulated debris, and then there will be enough light in here to see to some degree when it's daylight outside.”

“When the generator is running, or...”

“If you wish to see well, then it or its replacement power source or sources will need to run,” said the soft voice. “However, with those vent-stacks blown clear, you can use fuel-lanterns in here without worrying about being fumed up, and I would recommend strongly that you do so.”

“More power for the machinery,” I murmured, as I moved to the right. There, I saw what looked like a long and rusting 'time-card carrier', one of a type so familiar that I wondered if it had been copied from those present where I came from. I had seen its like many times before long years in the past.

Beyond it, I saw what looked like a wall, and as I drew closer, I wondered if this place was playing games with distances. Accordingly, as I moved left to clear the wall, I saw that I needed to move roughly a foot further than I had thought, and again, I wondered – was this place playing games with distances?

“Not now it is,” said the soft voice. “It was doing so to a fair degree yesterday, and with each step you take in this room, that residuum of cursing which remains is fleeing fast.”

“Then that is why the others are not here,” said Sarah, as she came to my left. I wished I had a third hand, so as to gently rub her shoulder. It looked very sore, and I so wished to touch her.

“More than that, even,” said the soft voice. “There's a lot of witch-nourished rubbish about complex things being 'the things of witches, and nothing but', and it takes most people years to get that out of their minds, and years more to quit behaving as their parents and grandparents did.”

“And we do not have years,” said Sarah. “At least the west school teaches...”

“It teaches those most able to lead to be able to think,” said the soft voice, “and it teaches those less-apt toward leading to listen to those who can lead.” A pause, then, “and no other school currently comes even remotely close to doing as they do.”

“Not on the continent, anyway, and certainly not now,” I thought. “The other five schools follow the lead of Boermaas more and more with each passing day, much as they have done so for years, and they wish they could become fully as evil.” I then thought, “no!”

“Unfortunately, that is the truth, though that particular path isn't very old,” said the soft voice.

“It is old enough to make Gabriel wish to be a witch, though,” spat Sarah. “Now were you thinking every school other than where I went was intended to turn people into witches and the slaves of witches?”

“He was, and more than that,” said the soft voice. “Now, to your right is the generator's control-box, and that's an area where you will wish to be by yourself when you run that thing.”

“Because it's, uh, weird,” I said. I almost said 'cursed'.

“It is cursed, but in a very non-obvious way,” said the soft voice. “Its chief area of cursing is currently in its tendency to hide what is actually happening with that generator.” A pause, then, “the other reason for being here alone in this room will become apparent when that generator actually runs.”

“The noise,” I muttered, as I looked though the chain link and again saw the massive machinery. The scale of things in here was so different from the day before that I could almost speak of being fooled in multiple senses by the sheer power of multiple curse-enabled traps.

“And, here” – here, I turned, this to come closer to the generator's 'cage' – “we have what is left of that stinker that turned loose the gas.”

“It was cursed, all right,” said Sarah. “It's gone entirely to rust.”

I paused for a moment to look at the remains of the gas projector, then turned away; and in the corner of my eye, even as I turned, the rusted remains of a once powerfully-cursed gas generator began to slowly vanish. I then looked down at the floor after taking a few steps along the chain-link cage of the generator.

“Now why is it I see three black spots on the floor where we are standing, and none elsewhere?” asked Sarah.

“Those mines, dear,” I said. I could see another wall ahead, this easily some twenty feet away. I then knew another matter: the combination of goggles and the environment-pane of my suit was distorting what I was seeing to no small degree, such that every angle, line, and distance was distinctly 'off'.

“While that witch put those mines on those spots, those spots were thought to have specific activity while in this room, and hence the three 'chanters' stood there to chant at the generator to 'make it behave' while the 'engine-master' stood in front of the control-panel you just saw.”

“Engine-master?” I asked.

“That is the usual for damp-motors, at least those I personally have seen other than yours,” said Sarah, “and those things need close watching.”

“His do not,” said the soft voice. “That practice, though, is spoken of in the black book and in the instrument-maker's manuals, and it comes from this time.”

“Second volume, correct – or is it the third?” I asked.

“It is first spoken of in the second, though that has to do with why one must do it from the standpoint of 'grooming' a fetish,” said the soft voice. “The third volume, however, goes into detail as to what to look for when one is watching – and the whole area regarding such 'engines', in both volumes, is more or less lifted straight out of that black book for tone and concepts, if not the actual words.”

“More-complex yet for its expression, as befitting the witch-nourished and curse-inspired 'image' of instrument-makers,” I murmured. I was pacing off the distance, and with each foot, the area in front of me first came closer – and then receded. I asked Sarah, “is this room playing games with distances, or...”

I instantly heard a rustle, then softly, “this is some beer I had ready for you. Drink it, and you should feel better shortly.”

While the beer was welcome, it tasted strangely, and when I handed back the plastic container, I asked, “what was in that beer?”

“Honey and a well-squeezed yellow-fruit,” said Sarah. “Anna has spoken of some being on hand at the house proper in case you are having trouble, and this is their recipe.” A pause, then, “I've tried it, and while it does taste strange for beer, it does help with fatigue and faintness.”

Even when I actually reached the wall, however, I noted that I was still having trouble estimating distances well, and when I counted my paces, I noted no less than eight of them, or about twenty-five feet. I thought to ask Sarah when I heard from another source.

“Add about another ten feet and you'll get much closer,” said the soft voice. “Between what you're wearing, the darkness, and the general layout of this suite of rooms, this place is very confusing without decent lighting – and I would ask your lantern to have more charge, as that will help some.”

“Flat already?” I asked.

“That type of battery takes several charge-discharge cycles to come to its full capacity,” said the soft voice, “but once it does become fully active, it will be a most-capable battery indeed.” I then asked the battery to have more charge, and the light became markedly brighter nearly instantly.

“Most-capable?” I asked, as I turned left again. I was going against the clock, but we needed to hurry, and the generator was the worst trouble remaining in the room, hence checking it first seemed important.

“That, and 'counter-clockwise' will have you find a lot more than going otherwise,” said the soft voice. “Remember, this place was laid out by witches for witches, and they set things up to run that way for 'best efficiency'.”

“Then will we become as they were by doing as they did?” asked Sarah

“This once, no,” said the soft voice. “Think. You went down a spiral staircase in this precise pattern of travel, all six and some turns of it, and none of you became cursed with anything beyond dizziness.” A pause, then, “the shape of this suite of rooms, if gone about in darkness as the clock proceeds, will both take longer than is good and cause you to miss a great deal of important matters that you need to not miss during your initial travels here – hence this route is the way to travel this time.” A pause, then, “once you get some light in here, it will not matter nearly as much, and then you can go straight to the place of interest without 'hugging the walls' and 'dodging the machinery'.”

“That sounds very familiar,” I thought, as I came across an 'obvious' vertical milling machine. A reach toward the gray-painted machine, this covered with stenciled numbers and other figures, and I froze.

“Torment grease, and every metal surface has layers of the thick stuff painted on!” I spat.

“Good that they did so,” said the soft voice. “This was one of the last tasks that woman had those imported witches do before she marched them all downstairs, as they needed to feel the nature of slavery before they became her slaves 'in truth, and for all time'.”

“And so they labored as slaves,” I muttered, as I went along, dodging another milling machine to my left and nearly colliding with a small cart. This last, while in good enough condition itself, was brimming full of a mixture of rust and dirt.

“That's cursed metal, all right,” said Sarah. “I recognize that stuff from a tapestry.” A pause, then as I moved the cart between the milling machine to my left and another lathe to then look at the second lathe to my left, “what is happening to that dirt and rust?”

“It is going in some jugs of strong drink,” said the soft voice. “This may not be the drink of the witches you are likely to run into on the way home, but it will have a similar effect upon those it is going to.”

“Running for bushes and spewing?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “I meant what happens when you-all open fire upon those witches you might see on the way home.”

“It will kill them dead, then,” said Sarah. “Good. No witches is good witches, and that is the truth.”

I wanted to reply, but as I passed the third lathe on my left and another such machine on my right, I came upon a device that caused me to wonder, for here was a pedestal grinder using narrow grinding wheels nearly a foot in diameter. More, it had places for coolant spray, a trio of lamps on strange arrangements that permitted close adjustment for best lighting of one's work, and then some other equipment, including a foot-pedal of some kind. I looked down to see embossed upon the pedal a circling arrow.

“That machine is from Vrijlaand,” squeaked Sarah. “That is one of their markings.”

“Not quite, even if the people who made it got the plans for it from there and copied them closely,” said the soft voice, “and that symbol is very common overseas on machines in general.”

“A foot-switch?” I asked.

“Both hands on the tool-bit, for better control,” said the soft voice. “Ahead are some machines you might not recognize, even if you've seen much-cruder versions of ones like them where you came from.”

'Ahead' proved two more lathes to the left, these of a smaller species, and three mills or 'heavy-duty' drill-presses to the left. One of the machines mentioned, it being the first of what seemed a clutch of its brethren, was almost totally enclosed, with a darkened plastic 'lid' framed in green-painted metal that was nearly opaque with either age or congealed lubricant. I recalled some odd-looking grungy machines I had once seen for a period of years, and made the strangest connection.

“Is this an 'automatic'?” I asked.

“If you mean 'a true automatic', then yes,” said the soft voice. “The ones Andreas has are older machines than this one, which was an early version of a machine that is very common overseas.”

“No cams to synchronize, no...”

“His equipment has all of what you were just thinking about,” said the soft voice. “This one – just enter the program, and it will run the parts right the first time, assuming you input a good program.”

“R-run the program?” I asked.

“Go to the back side of that machine – yes, on the other end,” said the soft voice, “and fold down the keyboard.”

I had to set the bird's cage on the cart Sarah was towing, and went to where I was told. It was something of a tight squeeze, but when I did as instructed, I found not merely a keyboard, but also an obvious flat-plane monitor. It made me wonder: did those thugs overseas use CRT-type monitors, or did they just use that type of a box?

“Depends on the end-use and the user's 'rating',” said the soft voice. “The lesser 'watchers' use old monitors, ones that were 'scrapped out' long ago, while those functionaries you need to worry about use ones done much like what you see there in boxes sized to fit the old 'glow-jugs'.” A pause, then, “those boxes might be new, but the container portion has seen just enough updating to be usable with the newer circuitry, hence it has a lot of empty space inside, and a trio of cooling fans that now serve principally to make irritating noises.”

“Ugh,” I spat. “I do not like noisy computers...” I then had a question: “these?”

“Are noisy enough to make you cringe,” said the soft voice, “but you will not notice them if that generator is running.” A pause, then as I continued on through a veritable village of these machines, I asked “was that grinder there for a reason?”

“Yes, as it has a great many wheels, and there is some high-speed tool steel here,” said the soft voice. “More, while this stuff isn't very good high-speed steel, there are some pieces that you can use on your lathe at home.”

“Can't grind it, though,” I murmured.

“These bits will not need grinding, at least not for a while,” said the soft voice. “They're in sets of ten shapes, two or three of each shape in the set, and they do respond to stoning, much as you commonly did at home when you needed to 'sharpen your bits'.”

“The stones I have at home are soft, though,” I murmured.

“There are some stones here, also,” said the soft voice. “Next drawer over from where those sets of bits are, and one drawer down.” A pause, then, “when you circle around to the other side, I'll point them out to you, as you need to get moving.”

“I do?” I asked.

“You're walking as if there were tripwires everywhere,” said Sarah. “So far, there have been none.”

“Correct,” said the soft voice, “and your take on the Mistress of the North being 'new' to trapping is giving that woman credit she does not deserve.” A pause, then, “just stay three to four feet out from the wall, and you can walk more or less normally.”

Still, I moved slower than 'a normal walk' for me, as while I no longer needed to worry about traps, I did need to worry about running into carts and machines. With a free hand, however, I found that I could concentrate upon my light, and now I adjusted it for a narrower beam, which gave me at least twice the range of before.

“I can actually see further than three feet, now,” I murmured, as I moved a bit faster. “Now what is that ahead?”

“To your right, one of two rapid-acting forging presses, while some feet to your left is a furnace,” said the soft voice. “Pause a bit to look at that furnace carefully, as this particular furnace is one of the crucial matters in here.”

“But we need to hurry, or don't we?”

“You do, but there are things of greater importance that need you looking at them now, and then there are other things, things you can look at later,” said the soft voice. “There are perhaps half a dozen things that need more than a glance at them today, and you've seen three of them already.” A pause, then, “that furnace is another of those that need you seeing them today.”

I came obediently to just in front of this huge and hungry gray metal square, and the sudden – and chilling – realization struck me like the blow of a hammer:

“I've s-seen this before,” I squeaked, upon seeing a cast-bronze placard. For an instant, I recalled those thirteen hungry furnaces I had seen in that small fourth kingdom chapel, and I made an instant connection: I was seeing furnaces then which were like this one here.

“I would like to know where you saw those things, as you didn't bathe for those people,” said Sarah. “I am not going to speak that name, as that furnace...” Sarah paused, then asked, “didn't those people make the furnaces at Berky?”

“They did, and much more besides,” said the soft voice. “More, as a government supplier, they were under substantial scrutiny on a routine basis, and because they were involved in dealing with those named Disgraced, they could not use anything of a cursed nature, not even notionally – and hence, they had high priorities for materials, the best workmen instead of the strongest witches, and they had to do things correctly – which means that device will actually work as it currently is.” A pause, then, “expect those people from across the sea to go through that thing thoroughly, though, as they have their own records regarding such machinery, and they associate that placard there with evil worse than that of Berky.”

Another pause, then, “and while he did not bathe where you did, dear, I really doubt you would enjoy enduring what he did to see furnaces like that one.”

“Was this in the fourth kingdom?” asked Sarah pointedly.

“Y-yes,” I squeaked. “There were thirteen of them, and I was b-bathing in b-bl-blood, and I was b-being s-strangled by a wire rope, and...”

“N-no,” squeaked Sarah. “Th-they did not tell me much at all, not if that happened to you.” Sarah then looked around, then, “I am very glad I did not endure that, then, as that sounds worse than anything found in an old tale.”

“You” – I understood this instance to be plural – “will write your share of those,” said the soft voice, “and his experiences during the days after being given to the pendant will be among them.” A pause, then to me, “now, you have a question. Ask.”

Triple?” I asked. “What does that mean in the context of this device?”

“That's merely the label, which came from a stolen intercept,” said the soft voice. “In other ways, though, this furnace is quite unusual.” A pause, then, “look to its left, and you'll see the fuel tank.”

I moved to the left, and around the square-edged sharp corner of the thing, I found an obvious fuel drum. This had a pair of bungs, a sight-glass on its side, and then stains on the floor, these malodorous and vile-seeming. It made me wonder what had been used for fuel, so much so that I backed away with a gorge churning like a maelstrom and a desire to spew intense enough to make me gag.

“I think those witches used the usual for fueling such things,” said Sarah. “The ones on that tapestry were said to use the bodies of those the witches had killed, and they stained the ground around them with what looked like blood and the sky was made black with soot.”

“Not quite,” said the soft voice, “even if that furnace could – and on occasion did – run the rendered and processed fat of sacrifices.”

“Those at Berky?” asked Sarah. “That tapestry said little, and it meant much, and I could never figure the difference, not even to this day.”

“To keep the home fires burning,” I murmured, “which means they not merely had a substantial armaments and manufacturing concern on the premises, one where they worked those wretches to death under things that make fowling pieces and whips look tame, but also a tremendous need for electricity – and the heat of those burning corpses was used to generate power. Correct?”

“True,” said the soft voice. “Go on. You've given her more answers in a few seconds than she has heard in a ten-year's worth of looking and asking.”

“Then, the reason these people could not use cursed parts was when they attempted to burn those marked using cursed furnaces, one of two things happened – they either escaped from the furnace completely unharmed and caused trouble until they were finally killed, or the furnace itself was destroyed utterly and large portions of the camp surrounding that huge stinky thing was burnt to the ground.” A pause, then, “a non-cursed furnace, however, burned their bodies fine.”

“They liked to toss people alive into those things,” said Sarah. “I understood that part.”

“They could not do that with those marked,” I said with finality. “This is something of a quote, and it came from the leader of that camp him... No, herself. The original leader was replaced, and the Mistress of the North took over that place in its entirety to use as her munitions depot.”

“She did that?” asked Sarah. “That tapestry...”

“Went much upon rumor in that area, and had but little evidence to support its conclusions,” said the soft voice. “It had none whatsoever to deny them, so that part went unchallenged, at least until now.”

“She insisted that... “ Here, I paused, for this was a literal quotation, one that would answer Sarah's questions entirely. “Begin quote: 'whenever you find a marked person, and you wish to burn them, then you must cut them into pieces, just like they would do to you if they caught you while in a mood fit for acting like Sieve, and then feed the flames with their portions, each piece separated by a count of ten, and that with the furnace burning at a white heat with but little smoke. Then, and only then, will they give their all for my sake'. Finish quote.”

I could plainly hear a shocked intake of breath, then, “exactly as she said, and with the precise same emphasis.” Pause. “You just answered some very critical questions, ones that will have much bearing on what happens overseas.”

“And the witches here burning people's, uh, liquefied and specially processed tallow in this thing?” I asked.

“They did that when they had to,” said the soft voice. “They usually liquefied the omnipresent vermin for fuel, but more than once a worker, one specially chosen by the original arch-witch set over this place, gave his last remaining possession to 'keep the home fires burning' in that furnace.” A pause, then, “it will, however, burn almost anything of a liquid nature, so keeping it fueled will be relatively easy.”

“No distillate, though,” I murmured.

“Not because boiled distillate is too hazardous,” said the soft voice. “It's a bit much to use it as a fuel right now due to the still-severe scarcity of distillate in this area.” A pause, then, “they have plenty of a suitable material available across the sea, however, and that furnace can digest the untreated material if it's filtered reasonably well.”

“And once they go through it?” I asked.

“First, that placard will go elsewhere, once it's recorded carefully for their evidence-files,” said the soft voice, “and then they will dismantle, clean, inspect, and replace every part that is damaged before putting it back together with new-production insulation – which will cut the heat in the shop drastically, and reduce its fuel consumption by nearly half.” A pause, then, “the improved controls will help even more, especially as they will need to bring its fuel from overseas until domestic production of the needed material becomes common enough to keep it running regularly.”

The sense I now had was 'it was time to move along', and when I returned once more to the aisle, there were three machines, each one similarly arranged with large head-high cabinets to each side. The machines themselves weren't particularly small, each one coming to my chin for height and nearly as wide as they were tall, and when I looked to both sides of the first one, it took me a moment to figure out what they were.

“That thing's a shaper?” I squeaked.

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “Now, look it over carefully, and then you can more or less go as you can until you get to the other side of the room, as there are only a handful of other machines and things you need to see in detail today.”

I did as instructed, and to my surprise, Sarah screeched from the other side of the machine, “this thing is from Vrijlaand, as I can see their mark!”

I hurried over to where Sarah was, and when she pointed at the thing – she had brought out her tent-lantern, and had it turned up all the way while kneeling – I gasped, “this thing cuts gears – both external and internal gears.”

“Which are needed for a three-ring sextant,” said the soft voice. “Note that these particular machines were 'critical exports' and getting them here took a lot of maneuvering, as machines of this grade generally never left the country.”

“How did they get them, then?” asked Sarah.

“There is documentation present on the premises that will give you a great deal of insight into how they did almost everything,” said the soft voice. “You have a portion of it now, a most-critical portion – but the main course waits for your return, and more, the arrival of some of those people.” A pause, then, “now, look in that cabinet to your right. It has the tools in there.”

As I walked to where the cabinet was – three short steps; this machine was long and sturdy, with a great deal of well-hid complexity one did not normally find in a device called crude and outdated where I came from – I could almost see what the thing was hiding, and when I opened the door, Sarah screeched again.

“That's a sextant-tool!” she squeaked. “See, there's the marking, and it shows a sextant...” Here, Sarah looked closer, then muttered, “I wish I could see better, as that thing's got a picture of a three-ringed one, and I could use all of what I can find so as to clear my head.”

“Just wait until you deal with matters overseas,” said the soft voice. “There will be time and quiet for drawing then, and then you shall receive what you need to do the drawings.” A pause, then, “that, and he'll be able to clarify those portions that confuse you – and remember: these drawings cannot be over-detailed, so you will want a large-form ledger for them, plenty of writing tools, and a small bag of rubbing blocks.”

“Oh, as to what those things were that looked like telescopes?” I asked. “The new ones, that's what those actually are, but the ones they had then were lens-activated image-sensors, and...” I paused, then asked, “round lenses?”

“Those machines did not get out of the country, even if their plans eventually did,” said the soft voice. “The plans are overseas, and you'll find them quickly, even if actually making those machines will take resources you currently don't have.”